Every naval game enthusiast believes they can build ships and fleets better than the historic designers and administrators, Of course they can; they have perfect hindsight! Naval Warship Simulations’ team of Fredrik Wallin and William Miller put this conceit to the test with Rule the Waves.
From the time of Themistocles down to the present, the biggest obstacles to building a fleet has not been the foe but the bureaucracy. The government fools with the budget and the diplomats hand out contradictory policies, pushing patrol priorities back and forth.
Being Jackie Fisher
Rule the Waves drops players into this mess headfirst as Grand Admiral of one of the world’s major naval powers in 1900 with hopes of not being sacked before 1920. Each country has unique strengths and weaknesses, e.g. good research or corruption. The main screen provides a one-stop control point for these many facets. The spreadsheet-like section allows players to see their starting prestige of twenty points, current dry dock capacity, level of the country’s naval coverage overseas and revenues versus expenditures culminating in monthly balances against that year’s budget. A series of bar graphs shows the diplomatic tension with each of the other countries through height and color; tall and red means war. Each foreign country can be assigned a level of intelligence gathering. The top section has a number of tabs the most importance of which are ships in service, ships under construction and a world map showing twelve zones of interest.
Squeezed between these elements are buttons that truly affect play. Over a dozen research topics from hull construction to fleet tactics can be assigned priorities. Sailors can be trained in gunnery, night action and torpedo warfare. Separate buttons allow for building coastal fortifications, subs or types of ships ranging from mighty battleships to lowly minesweeper torpedo boats. All of these affect the fiscal bottom line with no real observable results until war breaks out.
The jewel in this game’s crown is the “design ship” button. Pressing this option opens a truly impressive screen. More than eighty components can be managed to create ship classes for all types of vessels. Within the displacement parameter, players deal with speed, armor, armament, fire control, engine quality, fuel type and crew quarters. A 2D graphic allows placements of turrets, funnels and superstructure. Old salts can go wild here designing the killer ship of their dreams. However, the game has built-in mechanisms to keep matters historical so building the Iowa-class battle ships in 1901 is a non-starter. Beginners to ship design will be overwhelmed at first but the developers added an auto-design function where players merely select vessel types and the computer does the heavy lifting. Ironically, the automatic checks sometimes catch the computer cheating so players must tinker with the errors that were reported. Although the first ship of the new class costs more, building more ships introduces cost efficiency. The PDF manual has excellent explanations of ship components.
When a starting position is set to players’ satisfaction, the one-month turns can begin. Each turn will bring intelligence reports of other powers ’activities as well as updating the fiscal spreadsheet. Occasionally, a spy in the form of Mata Hari will appear with details and diagrams of another country’s newest ship. Players should be cautious about playing catch-up. A good budget balance may be a temptation to build more ships but premature action leads to deficits and loss of prestige.
Four or five months into the game, things begin to pop. Ships are finished, worked up and commissioned. These events are accompanied by contemporary photographs and, if the ship’s name is clicked, a detailed description and 2D top-down graphic appear. (Players can generate their own profile-style picture of the ship easily.) A few months later, results on research projects come with photos of scientists and sketches of the projects. Improvements in things like shells improve fighting ability gradually with no need for player action. Other discoveries dealing with ship structure allow players to go into existing ships and rebuild them, incorporating new technology. Other advances introduce new ship classes like coastal submarines and dreadnoughts. Implementation of improvements as well as routine maintenance drains the budgets. When the red ink appears, players can cut costs by halting construction of ships to be resumed later or moving older ships into reserve, mothballing them or even scrapping them.
Interspersed between these information messages are events, diplomatic and domestic, that call for player decisions. Usually with three choices, players can be belligerent, moderate or craven. The decision depends on the countries involved. A request of France to Germany to mutually halt naval construction can be met with indignation, raising tensions between the two arch-enemies. The same request from Great Britain should be received with moderation until the German fleet is stronger. A new liberal German government’s attempt to curb naval expenditures can be rebuffed but a request from the Kaiser to build a new yacht at the navy’s expense should be embraced for prestige’s sake. Most decisions affect prestige, budget and tension. Tension should be increased only if it increases the budget and the fleet is ready for war. These decisions, even the silly ones, are very historical for the period and give a nice feel for the period.
Some players may find this administrative work boring. They should simply pick an enemy, send a squadron into their home waters, increase spying on them and insult them in decisions every chance possible. The tension graph will rise and redden soon enough.
The Proof in the Pudding
Sooner or later, war breaks out but, before going tactical, players have some decisions to make. Mobilization of reserves cost money but the old ships free up active units. A set number of craft needs to be assigned to anti-submarine and coastal patrols or the enemy will pick up easy victory points. The biggest decision is whether to play as Admiral and control only the lead division, as Rear Admiral controlling all divisions or as Captain controlling all ships; players can micromanage to taste but the friendly AI is competent. When war seems certain, raiders and squadrons can be sent to likely sea zones.
The continuous tactical engine is based on NWS’ World War I game Steam and Iron, explained in depth in my review; Rule the Waves includes an up-dated manual for the older game. Unlike the World War I game, tactical battles are random and include blockades, fleet or cruiser battles, convoy attacks and coastal raids. These clashes appear randomly during turns and last only for a day or so. Players get points for sinking enemies, achieving objectives and not losing their own ships. Victories and defeats are ranked minor or major. Blockades and a few major victories can win a war, giving the victor country money, resources and territory while the player receives prestige points.
Rule the Waves’ major weakness is graphics. The contemporary photos and line sketches are enjoyable but vessels are diagrams and silhouettes. Battles are marked with puffs of smoke and shell splashes are mere white rings. These effects are good enough for naval connoisseurs but the general public is used to more eye candy. Sadly, this very good game will stay with niche players while being ignored by gamers who would be interested if it looked better. The developers continue to update their product and hopefully improve the graphics.