First Impressions of NWS’s Rule the Waves
Developed and published by NWS
Reviewed by Boggit, 26 September 2015
“They [the Sea Lords] must cease to say ‘This is the ideal plan; How can we get enough money to carry it out?’ They must say instead ‘Here is a sovereign; How much can we squeeze out of it that will really count for victory in a naval war?’” Lord Selborne, First Lord of the Admiralty. (Selborne to the Admiralty Permanent Secretary (16th February 1903) in “Distribution of Business 1904”, Adm. 1/7737 P.R.O.). (The quote refers to Selborne’s concern of impending financial crisis arising from the continued construction of modern warships in the numbers and varieties required to protect all of Britain’s maritime interests.)
Rule the Waves is the latest game presentation from NWS covering the naval arms race period of 1900-1925. The campaign map covers the entire world, portrayed as areas representing the spheres of influence of the Great Powers of the time. The scale of the game is in monthly turns, and your units range from little minesweepers to massive dreadnoughts. Working with a limited budget you face Lord Selborne’s dilemma of creating and maintaining a navy that will win a naval war.
The game has its tactical side where you can fight out naval engagements from an admiral’s perspective using the game engine from Steam and Iron, but the meat is in the strategic layer. The strategic layer covers everything from where to station your ships, ship design, national budgets, to national and international politics. It is on the strategic level that you create the conditions for your nation to dominate naval affairs, and thus “rule the waves.”
You can play most of the leading Great Powers of the day, but optionally can play as Spain or a resurgent Confederate States of America (CSA). In fact two versions of the CSA, and Spain are provided each giving a different mix of opponents. For some reason Turkey (Ottoman Empire) is not included at all. This just seemed bizarre to me as they were a Great War participant, had a pre-dreadnought navy at the start of the period, and bought ships from the UK to modernise their own fleet, which is a feature of the game. Russia’s Black Sea fleet (at the start of the period) was in large part there to offset the Ottoman navy.
NWS’s response to this criticism is that it was a question of priorities, and they were aware that other gamers felt that the Ottomans should have been included. NWS reminded me that they do listen to their gamers, and they plan to add additional custom nations, although nothing is yet decided on which ones so far. They are also thinking about publishing a nation editor that lets users add their own favourite nations. NWS are very pleased with the success of Rule the Waves and are even thinking of expansions in other eras. This includes going back in time to ironclads, and/or going forward to the 40’s with carriers and aviation. While these potential developments are under consideration, NWS is keen to emphasise that no decision yet been made, although it does shed some light on their thinking. From a player’s perspective this is all very positive news, and shows commitment by NWS towards continued development and enhancement of Rule the Waves.
The game starts with a player picking a side, of which all have several particular national attributes, which can vary considerably. France, for example, has an inconsistent naval policy, Russia an uneducated population, either of which can affect various aspects of the game. You also start with a legacy fleet in being, which research developments soon make obsolete. Part of the trick to being successful in the game is staying ahead in technology of your likely opponents, and laying down your fleet to reflect this. Sadly, by the time your cutting edge ships get to make their shakedown cruise, you’ll often find that your technological marvel has been eclipsed by new developments by your rivals, who are developing something even better. I loved this aspect of the game, as it just mirrors history so well, even if it is frustrating as a player.
A turn is fairly unstructured, and you can do a variety of things, in any particular order. Essentially everything is addressed from the main screen, and there are tabs to provide screen information on various topics, such as map or fleet information, or to access “action” screens, which allow you to allocate your naval budget on everything from building ships, to research, ship class design, and espionage.
Ship class design is worthy of a mention in its own right. After setting a maximum displacement for a ship class you can set armour values, guns (including multi barrel turrets – research permitting), speed and engines of varying quality to name just a few features. You can even set out how much space will be available for crew quarters, or additional space to cope with being on colonial stations for extended periods. If ship design isn’t your thing, then there is an auto design feature to get things done quickly.
In peacetime, your job is to assess threats, and naval power requirements through the information screens, and then allocate your budget against building (ships, subs, shore defences, naval infrastructure), research, training, espionage. You can also move your individual ships to foreign stations, or change their status to reserve or mothballed to be recalled when war strikes.
War adds a whole new dimension to the game, with battles being resolved using the Steam and Iron game system, which has been developed and published separately by NWS. Battles may, or may not, occur depending on the number of ships a player and their opponent have in the same theatre. From the strategic point of view a battle can result in sinkings, light, medium, and heavy damage to ships. Damage is displayed in the status column for ships in the “In Service” screen as a number representing how many months it will take to repair a ship, although as NWS pointed out to me – some damage will be repaired within one month, so will not be noticeable with monthly turns. I did wonder about the effect of heavy damage affecting crew numbers, and indeed upon the quality of the crew when the dead and injured were replaced. This isn’t really as much of a problem as I initially thought. As Fredrik Wallin (the lead designer of Rule the Waves) pointed out to me; “It does add to maintenance costs to repair damaged ships, but crew quality is not affected by damage. In most battles of the period, crew losses in surviving ships were not very severe. The Seydlitz for example, probably the most severely battered ship at Jutland, had 98 killed which is less than 10% of her crew. So damage will not affect crew quality in the game. At least that is my interpretation as a game designer.”
Opportunities for combat occur almost every month, and a player is given an opportunity to decline or accept combat based on what assets they have in that theatre of operations. This can range from full on fleet actions, bombardment missions, coastal shipping raids, cruiser actions, and destroyer actions to name but a few scenarios. At the end of each month the game engine also tests for the effects of strategic submarine warfare, and commerce raiders (ships in a fleet can be given this role). Sometimes, the commerce war gets out of hand and a neutral ship gets sunk, which can impact on international relations – sometimes disastrously.
Usually combat will pan out as I previously described. I did have one strange experience though. In my French campaign, I had a war lasting a couple of years with Italy with nary a shot fired in anger. Neither fleet was markedly superior to the other, neither in strength nor in quality. It resulted in a Mexican standoff with both parties glaring at each other over a two game year period. I must add that NWS were surprised at this, and frankly I have never since seen such a bizarre standoff over many subsequent games, as action in some form is common in each game month. Shortly after my Italian war, my hawkish policies also brought me into conflict with Great Britain and before long I had action in the Atlantic as the Grand Fleet tried in vain to catch my commerce raiders. My conclusion, despite the Italian War aberration is that the combat part of the strategy game layer is sound.It is deep, but with a little practice it won’t leave you floundering (pun intended!) One very useful start point are the manuals included for both Rule the Waves and for Steam and Iron (which deals with the combat part of the game), which I recommend to any new player, as they’re both well written – being clear, relevant, concise, and explain what is going on with the game. Currently, there is no way to access the manuals in-game, although NWS have said they may add this functionality to the main screen in the future.
I will mention here that since the game release there have been a couple of patches released, which I strongly recommend. Not only because of some corrections to the system, but also because each patch has added some innovation such as improving the user interface. For example, since v1.1 NWS implemented a more user friendly way of moving ships between areas using a drag and drop method. They are also considering adding a filter by area on the “In Service” screen to make fleet management easier only include those ships actually in an area. I give NWS a big tick in the “support” box for their ongoing commitment to the game.
My first impression of Rule the Waves is that it is very detailed, yet it still manages to be very elegant and playable. Rule the Waves is a refreshingly different game concept. It has an interesting tactical layer based on the Steam and Iron games (also published by NWS) combined with an intelligently thought out, and varied strategic campaign model. For me, it captured the feel of the naval arms race, not just the worry about costs, and the numbers of ships, but also just in keeping up with the latest technology. I thought the designers had addressed all the issues that I’d expect for this sort of game, and although I came upon the odd glitch, it was not enough to spoil the game for me. I like it very much and would recommend it to anyone with more than a casual interest in naval warfare, and the strategic considerations in operating a fleet.
The Grumpy Grog says “Rule the Waves will test your strategic ability more impressively than a Grand Fleet King’s Review.”