Naval Games: A Look at Card Driven Battles at Sea

Reviewed by Chris Kovac

Naval warfare has been a theme in war gaming since the earliest days of hobby gaming. One popular sub genre of this is the Naval Card Game. In this article, I am comparing three of the more interesting games in this genre namely Naval War by Avalon Hill (1979), the Modern Naval Battles series by 3W Games (1989-1990) and Dan Verssen Games (2008). Then Brawling Battleships Steel by Lost Battalion Games (2003). These games tend to fall into the light wargame or filler category for a large number of players (6-9 depending on which game you are playing). Play time is usually around an hour though Modern Naval Battles might take longer if all expansions are used. Finally they are all of a ‘take that” type of game where the object is to sink as many of your opponents ships as possible during the game. The person with the highest points in ships by the end of the game wins. Now, a closer look into each game.

Naval War – Avalon Hill (3 to 9 players, out of print)


navalwarThe earliest game in this genre and the grandfather of the naval war card game in general. Naval War took some of the ideas of traditional card games such as trick taking and the use of card suits and applied it to a World War II naval warfare theme. During a turn, a player picks up a card from the draw deck then plays a card. Using salvo cards (unique to specific ships based on gun size) and special damage cards such as torpedo boats, subs and mines, you try to exceed the damage value of your opponents’ individual ships to sink them and collect those sunken ships for points. The first person to sink 100 points of ships wins.

This is a fairly simple game with a fairly limited number of strategies. Generally good card management with a good balance between offensive and defensive cards (especially the use of smoke) will help you win this game. A bit dated by modern standards in terms of game component quality (cards a bit thin) but still the easiest to learn and the fastest to play if players know the game (45 minutes to an hour for experienced players). Overall a decent introductory wargame or a decent filler game for more experienced players.




Modern Naval Battles – 3W Games (2 to 6 players, reissued as Modern Naval Battles: Global Warfare by Dan Verssen Games, $49.99 – pre-order price of $39.99 for its second printing)


modernnavalbattlesA series of card games designed by Dan Verssen consisting of Modern Naval Battles and its two expansion games (Modern Naval Battles II and Modern Naval Battles III) released between 1979-1980 by 3W Games then the revised version called Modern Naval Battles – Global Warfare released by Dan Verssen in 2008.

As the title implies, the games involve Cold War and Modern naval warfare. The first three Modern Naval Battles games are by far the most complex and take the longest to play (up to two hours). In this game, you have a wide variety ships ranging from light patrol craft to battles ships, carriers and submarines. Each ship has a unique combination of weapon systems including guns, missiles, torpedoes and Air Strikes (for carriers). After player turn order is decided by a play order deck, a player rolls a six sided die to see how many actions he has for the turn (which can be modified by card play). He then uses these actions to attempt to sink the opponents’ ships while defending his ships from fellow players. As with Naval War, if you exceed the hit points of a ship, you sink it (though aircraft can sink it with a single hit if they roll the correct hit number on a die). The person with the most points after the draw deck is exhausted wins.

Modern Naval Battles II introduced the Campaign Game which allowed you to pair off up to six people with half playing the Warsaw and half the NATO forces. Each pair fights specific missions on a specific sea zone trying to win it and the victory points for the zone. The campaign game also allowed one to buy cards rather than having them dealt randomly as in the basic game. This is the more interesting version of the game to play; however the extra rules and details meant it was rarely played. Modern Naval Battles III added the air wings for carriers and stickers to add more ships if you managed to get a second set of the original two games. The rules for these games were spread over the three games which meant a fair amount of hunting for specific rules and, in most games, one or more players would be eliminated from the game which could be an issue for some players.

In 2008 Dan Verssen released a revised version of the game called Modern Naval Battles – Global Warfare. This simplified the game considerably by dropping the campaign game and giving players a fixed set of ships based on country. I prefer the older games since they seemed to offer a better range of game play and more strategy – especially with the Campaign game. This series of the game is best for the experienced player due to the complexity of the rules and the longer playing time.


Brawling Battleships Steel – Lost Battalion Games (2 to 6 players, $39.95)


brawlingbatThis game is more of a throw back to the earlier Naval War with the “pick up a card and play a card” mechanism but has a very innovative system for hits and damages using percentile dice. This has a World War One theme. The interesting thing about this game is that each card has an action on the main part of the card and a salvo along the edge of the cards. If you play the action part of the card (the color of the card determining when you can play it – the defense cards, for example, are green), you follow the text. If you use the salvo part of the card instead, the number of boxes tells how many salvos are possible, the shape of the box telling you which ships can fire and finally the number in the box telling you what percentage you need to roll to do special damage.

Each ship has a number of floatation points, special hits boxes for fire and bridge hits and salvo boxes showing how many hits occur based on your percentile dice roll (up to three for larger ships). The shape of the box surrounding these numbers must be the same as on the salvo card in order to be used. As in Naval War, exceeding the number of floatation hits will sink a ship. A bridge critical hit reduces your hand size while a fire critical hit causes extra floatation hits. Other cards can increase or decrease your hand size or your opponents’, redirect your salvoes onto other ships or repair your ship. This, coupled with some random events, makes for a fast and furious game which fits between the simplicity of Naval War and the complexity of Modern Naval Battles. The high gloss finish to the cards does make the cards hard to shuffle occasionally and some of the rules are a bit awkward (some more player examples would have been helpful) but this is still my personnel favorite of all three of these games. A good game for the more experienced novice wargamer and a good filler for gamers.


Each of these games has strengths and weaknesses but still hold up fairly well though I think Brawling Battleships Steel seems the best in terms of balancing game length and complexity. There are other games in this genre such as Avalon Hill’s Enemy in Sight, Lost Battalions Games’ Battlegroup or even GMT’s Kaiser Pirates but none of them seem to have found the audience or staying power of these games.


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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