A Sea of Troubles : Rule the Waves


Rule The Waves
2015 Grand Strategy, developed by NWS Wargaming
Other pictures courtesy of the internet.


The history of warfare is the history of mistakes.

This is not only because wars represent the failed efforts of politics and diplomacy, but also because institutions have a bias towards ineptitude, rather than excellence. It is an old chestnut that generals are always preparing to fight the last war over again. Military institutions in particular are resistant to change, but Wargames rarely simulate a force that is un-prepared for war, or has prepared for the wrong war. In Civilisation, no generals complain when one starts building tanks instead of cavalry, one’s commanders need no extra time to adjust to new tactics and strategies and there is no outcry against the disbanding of old or obsolete units.

In more “serious” strategy games like the Hearts of Iron series, there is some attempt to model military backwardness. For instance one’s country might have a somewhat silly order of battle to start off with, being made up useless or outdated units. However, it only takes the player’s insight to set the mess straight. There is no resistance from below, the player is free to organize however they like and to build whatever they choose. There is nothing wrong with this as an armchair general’s fantasy, and it is always interesting to see how events would have played out in France in 1940 had the British and the French been properly equipped and organized. However we must be aware that in Hearts of Iron we play with military intuitions that are perfect, or perfectible, war fighting machines. They lack the indeterminacy and weirdness that characterises real institutions, they lack anyone who will push back against the changes. Further, technology in Hearts of Iron is easily understandable, laid out in trees of ordered improvement—it is easy to see, for the player, that the tank and mechanised infantry will eventually be the kings of the battlefield.

What is missing from this picture is the possibility of catastrophic political interference (both in the sense of meddling politicians and recalcitrant commanders), or the difficulties of understanding of the technological realities of the time inherent in the building and preparing of one’s forces. Rule the Waves, on the other hand, is all about the human mess that is preparation for the next war, and that makes it almost unique as a wargame.


Rule the Waves places the player in the middle of the turn of the century naval arms race. One is put in the shoes not merely of an admiral, but as the director of a whole navy. This requires taking control not only of the disposition of one’s country’s fleet, but also the design of ships and the doctrine by which those ships are to be used. The goal, as Rule the Waves rather cynically has it, is to accumulate prestige. Win a war and one’s prestige goes up, fail to live up to the expectations of one’s superiors and  one’s prestige will fall. Fall too far from grace —send the navy too deep into the red, or simply fail to fight enough wars— and one will be unceremoniously sacked.

One is fighting to be the admiral with the shiniest brass buttons and the biggest toys. Politicians will urge one to build more battleships in order to keep up with the Joneses, while the budget will tighten every year under the strain of all the ships one is building and crews one is training. There is constant pressure to play “keeping up with the Joneses” with one’s possible enemies, the number of ships that one’s enemies possess is easily seen. Every turn a list of announcements fill the screen “France is laying down 3 light cruisers!”, “British 12 inch guns are superior to our own!”, and these bring one constantly back to the ship design screen to see how one can out-do the neighbours. Getting information about one’s neighbours is achieved by spies, who are often wrong in their reports. The number of enemy ships is always accurately displayed, but getting accurate information about their design is difficult. Thus one must design one’s own ships on a series of best guesses.

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The ship design screen is a thing of beauty in and of itself. There is almost complete freedom to design one’s ships however one chooses—and therefore to totally fuck up one’s fleet however one chooses. The design screen lays out a series of tantalising choices, tempting one always to build bigger and better ships. The bigger the ship, the more expensive it is to build, the more it will cost to maintain and critically, the longer it will take to be complete. However the bigger the ship, the more toys, bells and whistles, one will be able to stick to it. If only, one will find oneself thinking, I could increase the displacement by another 200 tonnes I could fit another half an inch of belt armour! The genius of this, is that while one is designing these ships it is easy to forget that they will take up to three years in order to actually get deployed—in which time the whole strategic situation may have changed.

Technology moves fast in Rule the Waves, but it does not move predictably. The only control one has over one’s scientists is their budget and their priorities. Their discoveries are randomised, which prevents one from simply deciding on an approach and going for it. One has to be adaptable and try to keep up to date on what one’s fleet is actually capable of. This is more difficult than it sounds, better engines guns and fire-control systems will all probably become available in the time it takes to build a dreadnought—which of course means that by the time they set out to sea, they are already out of date. That means one is going to need to scrounge up the money to build a new dreadnought.

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Finding that money means either halting construction on other valuable ships, or cranking tensions with other nations higher. The greater the risk of war, the higher one’s naval budget will be. Keeping tension high is achieved by being rude to other nations in random choices that pop up every few turns (such as slandering them in a newspaper, or exposing one of their spies to the world), Crusader Kings 2 style. The threat of war must loom large on the horizon, or otherwise one’s country will start to forget why it was they actually need a navy in the first place and cut one’s funding. Thus one is beholden to political pressures in two ways, one’s personal prestige demands that one should be aggressive and accede to all the politician’s mad demands to build ships that one does not want, and further one must keep the money flowing by making sure that the country is always skimming the brink of war. All of the incentives that lead to one of the most destructive and pointless wars in human history are entirely in place.

With tensions running high, eventually war will occur. When the rubber hits the road one must take command of whatever monstrosities one has built. Rule the Waves is built upon the engine of a complex and intricate tactical naval war game, and when the battleship fleets come out to play, one directs the action on that map. The tactical map is ugly as sin. I t is also difficult to use, counter intuitive on almost every level and requires a manual to properly make sense of. This is not really a criticism, looking and playing like an engineering program from the 80s is basically par for the course for very serious wargames.

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Depending upon the scenario, one takes control of anything from a squadron to a full battle fleet. Generally speaking the aim of the game is to get one’s big ships into a position where they can fire at enemy ships with clear vision (i.e a position where the wind is blowing the smoke from their funnels in the opposite direction to the opponent or a position where they are not firing at an enemy with the sun directly behind them—which blinds the gunners with glare) and with fire superiority—i.e so that there are more of your dudes getting clear shots at less of their dudes. The principles of early 20th century naval tactics are, however, deceptively simple. The central issues are range and firepower. One wants to keep the enemy at the correct distance, within the killing zone of one’s own guns, but outside of the range of the enemy’s. This results in a game of chase and counter chase, manoeuvring either to follow or evade depending on how things are going with one’s own ships. To the un-initiated the whole process can look very strange indeed. Fleets sail for a while in a straight line, then there is a spasm of action. The fleet breaks right, back to a straight line, then just as suddenly turns left and charges towards the foe. There is a method in all this madness, but it is not an obvious method. Naval warfare is not an obvious form of war. The problem with this, as a wargame, is both that it is extra-ordinarily finicky to control and even in the smallest of engagements is massively time consuming. For all this time one will feel like one is trying to pick up a wet noodle with a couple of meter-long chop-sticks, trying to navigate the unintuitive interface while trying also to work out why the hell one’s ships are shooting at the wrong target.

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For all that, however, there is a kind of magic that seals over me when I play. I cannot quite pull myself away. Somehow the interface falls away. The short, colourless, readouts of shots and hits coalescing into a desperate battle playing out on the screen. In the minds’ eye I see the smoke on the horizon, ships in the distance, surrounded by small white spikes thrown up by falling fire. Occasionally among those spikes in the distance, one of the thin grey lines on the horizon—the enemy—will light orange. They have been hit, but how badly one cannot know, one can only hope. I contemplate the strange clam of a naval battle, as ships at thousands of yards distance attempt to smash each other to bits. From far away one sees a flash, the enemy has fired their main guns. In thirty seconds one might be dead, or surrounded by a cacophony; the effective connection of a shell upon the deck results in the unfolding of a small slice of hell on a war ship. The concussion of the blast, the heat of the resulting fire—all the smells that broken and burning metal, and flesh, produce. For now, however, aside from the thunder and vibration of one’s own guns replying, there is little to tell you that this ship is at war—in danger. Men fought like this, and they died like this, in the strange calm of a naval battle. So I sit, and I plot the course of a fleet, engaging, turning away, making sure I am keeping the right range.

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Before the battle is even joined, one will have made mistakes. It is almost impossible not to. One’s spies rarely ever get accurate information about the designs of the enemy fleet, and so the ships that one has designed specifically to counter the enemy are often just not suited to the task. Further, actually building the right stuff to go into a fight with is incredibly hard. Do you have enough light cruisers to act as scouts for the battleships? Do you have enough long range commerce raiders in order to make sure that the enemy is bleeding victory points every turn—have you bothered with submarines or anti-submarine warfare at all? Do you have minesweepers in order to make sure that one’s ships are not sunk before they even get to battle? The answer to at least some of these questions is, probably not—but one goes to war with what one has not what one wishes to have. As such the wars that one fights in Rule the Waves are almost always incredibly interesting engagements. Generally speaking the enemy will have a huge advantage in some or other area—they will have more, better, destroyers, or much larger battleship guns. The question then, is how to roll with one’s deficiencies and make sure that one’s fleet comes out victorious anyway.

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There have been many games that model asymmetrical warfare, but this is generally done by assigning fixed ways of doing certain things to different factions. Starcraft is a legend of game design in part because it manages to balance such fixed asymmetry. However, the asymmetry that Rule the Waves produces is procedural and believable in a way which Starcraft’s is not. The asymmetry of Rule the Waves is produced by three factors. First, one cannot have everything—there is simply not enough money. Second, technology is discovered indeterminately in Rule the Waves, every time one plays one will be drip fed a different selection of technologies at different times, and one’s enemies will also have an unpredictable tech level. Third, the geo-politics and particular rivalries possessed by countries in Rule the Waves, influence their fleet composition. This third aspect is by far the most interesting of the three, as it is the aspect that leads one most often to fight wars which one is simply not prepared for. For instance, if one is playing as the Germans, it is natural to be preparing for war with the British. This might lead one, as was historical, to build a fleet of short ranged battleships with heavy armour (they need the armour because losing one would be so much more painful for the small German fleet than losing an equivalent ship would be for Britain’s absurdly large navy). However, weird shit happens in politics, and one might find oneself fighting with Japan—which is bad, because short ranged ships cannot move from their home-base in a time of war. Meaning that one will go to war with whatever long ranged cruisers one possesses.

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The war that one prepares for is often not the war one ends up fighting in Rule the Waves—and thus it manages to keeps one guessing. Consider, for a moment, the Total War series. There are many different starting locations and different factions in every Total War game. However once the ways in which those factions work have been learned, once one knows how to effectively combine their arms, the single player game tends to completely lose its interest. There are no challenges left, because one knows what one is getting into in every battle. However, in Rule the Waves one never really knows what is going to meet one on the battle screen; all one’s information might be wrong and the enemy might have much longer range guns than one was expecting, or have superb torpedoes, or be much faster. Therefore one will make believable mistakes. It will hurt as one sees one’s brand spanking new dreadnought slip beneath the waves after being torpedoed by a light cruiser, which one did not even know had torpedo tubes. That is the nature of war. Mistakes which cost lives, miscalculations which cost battles and a lack of information turns the tide of history.

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When I sit down to play a serious wargame, what I want to do is play a slice of authentic history. That does not mean that the history which I play must have happened, but I would like playing the game to feel like reading history. That is, I want to play through something which one could imagine happening, with all the human weirdness that is attendant on the practice of warfare. All the “friction” all of the failure. Without the kind of indeterminacy that Rule the Waves possesses, wargames can feel like just another kind of puzzle game. A kind of matching game where one weaves together a pattern that the game calls an army, and makes sure all of the right bits connect to all of the right bits of the other pattern. Rule the Waves avoids this pattern matching by being messy in a very believable way. It inspires hubris, miscalculation and pushes one in un-expected directions.

A Sea of Troubles : Rule the Waves

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