My name's Khul, I have the day off work, & I'm here to tell you about Naval Warfare Simulations' Rule The Waves, 'cos I have no real life.
I'm basically a wannabe grognard, a neophyte rivet-counter, a hipster wargamer. I like the first two Total War games 'cos they feel tactically "right", but hate everything since MTW1. Incredibly detailed damage/armour/ballistics models get me kinda hard, but I've always been scared of hexes & simply don't have the patience for Panzer General & its ilk. I like the idea of manning the pumps (hur-hur-hur-hur) & agonising for hours about differing armour schemes, but I have absolutely no intention of enjoying tactical abstractions ("move yr stack of counters to here, press GO, receive notification about what happened") until I'm like 90 (not far off, TBH).
I also am what unenlightened members of the polis might term "ghey" for early-20th century naval combat.
So, if you enjoyed Fighting Steel (praise be its name!) or the Great Naval Battles series (nearly there but oh-so fatally flawed), I'm here to tell you about a one-man spreadsheet-style Indie game with Windows 3.1 graphics & like two sound effects which might've actually been recorded on a Gravis Ultrablaster, that will charm the casemates off you, tickle your Cockburn Safety Valve, & make you wish you'd put more than 1" of armour on the deck of your dreadnoughts.
Rule the Waves is basically "Sim Jackie Fisher" (or maybe, "Virtua First Sea Lord"). It puts YOU in charge of the entire fucking navy & naval development of a Great Power (or wannabe Great Power) at the dawn of the 20th Century, gives you a great big wodge of cash & a fleet of tumblehomed central-battery steampunk metal freaks good for little more than making artificial reefs out of & says "Go on then, see if you can build a Yamato".
It's a sandbox game in two parts: first, a quite frustrating but addictive spreadsheet exercise in making great big floaty lumps of steel, with a clever but abstracted ship design function that can, if you're of the "right" disposition, eat away hours of your time. In it, you attempt to navigate the ridiculous demands received from the bunch of morons running the country (hounded at all times by a jingoistic press) & manage your funds to design, build (even, in some cases, "take bribes for so they can be built by a bent shipyard who's flogging industrial secrets to your enemies"), spend sixteen months wrangling with the Finance Minister just to fund the fucking thing ("SOCIAL PROGRAMMES?!?! SOCIAL PROGRAMMES?!?!? GERMANY'S SAILING BATTLECRUISERS UP THE BLOODY THAMES & YOU WANT TO BUILD SCHOOLS?!?!?") & christen your ships with a bottle of fizzy white wine & a prideful tear... Only, two years of game time later to launch a giant floating dustbin at the mercy of your enemies & rendered completely obsolete by the time it comes off the slipway.
This is the main interface. You've got a map divided into various regions, each with ports, & a summary of international tensions at the right & your budget running along the bottom of the screen:
& is where you spend most of your time not in-battle. Things happen. Messages pop up. You open up tabs & fiddle with things. Things you do will affect your standing with your government, & with other nations. Sometimes, horrific shit outside of your control happens, & you just have to deal.
This is the design screen:
Yes. Yes. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeessssssssssssssssssss. This picture is either going to make your pants wet with excitement or you're just gonna stare blankly at it. That's okay, shake your head & close the thread & leave now, whilst us dreadnought fanboy wankers connoisseurs can touch ourselves whilst we debate the relative merits of the "speed is armour", "guns are armour" & "are you fucking insane, put some fucking armour on it" schools of warship design philosophy.
It gets better. Not only do you get to draw (yes, draw) the top-down view of your ship with a kind of hobbled-together 1990s paint application & a couple of pre-built bits (on-deck torp launchers, types of turret, funnels etc), but then you can generate a side-view picture for the almanac (see below) from a huge array of bitmapped ship parts in a sort of identikit build-a-ship-outline thingy, meaning whenever the game displays a picture of your mental Richelieu meets Rodney monstrosity, it will display exactly the ship you've designed & built, even if it has funnels at the the front & you insist on never, ever putting turrets on the centreline though it's 1923:
You can spy on your enemies, attempt to sabotage their ships (hilarious, except when it goes wrong & your sneaky saboteurs blow up a minesweeper instead of the capital ship they promised & you're plunged into a hellish war for which you are quite, quite unprepared), research new technology (but in a kinda organic piecemeal way instead of the "RESEARCH DREADNOUGHT NAO" buying techs idea we all know from Total War or Civilization), accept & break alliances & tech-sharing agreements & even sell & buy technology, all the while navigating the political minefield created by a bunch of paranoid loons with colonial ambitions, vast war machines & the aforementioned Murdoch-esque media baying for blood, anyone's blood, when you can barely afford to refit the fire control on your old battlewagons & the enemy has an entire fleet of superdreadnoughts. Occasionally, some politician reads a book on naval tactics & decides what you really need are a dozen new cruisers, despite just having spent £$Y400,000,000 on an entire fleet of battlecruisers & long-range super-destroyers that have rendered the very idea of a cruiser obsolete, & you will fume.
Or, ignore them, & get the sack.
(Just a note: this game really isn't for everyone. I mean, obviously. But if you're into min-maxing or rules lawyering you'll throw your PC out the window when you spend half the GDP of a European nation on a ship & a month later advances in technology render it obsolete & it won't even hit the water for another two years. You can also "beat" the game by being a know-all & playing a nation with unlimited funds enabled & data-mining the file. But this game wasn't created for your average stats-obsessed forum-dweller; it was created for the rest of us, the weirdos & freaks who'll stay up all night trying to stave off dreadnought races whilst playing Austria-Hungary or who try to recreate the Jeune Ecole in Tsarist-era Russia, & for us this game will last years.)
The tactical half of the game is what makes it, & lifts it above a "Papers, Please" kinda curio ("Oh that's a lovely idea" & bored six minutes later) to levels of "TAKE MY LIFE, NOW". Because those ships you argued about, spied over & bled the populace white to pay for? Now, you get to take them out & sink shit with them.
There's bombardment missions, convoy escort & attack, grand fleet battles & destroyer engagements. You can send your light forces on suicidal death rides against the enemy line to protect the retreat of your big ships & then realise you have to sail two hundred miles back through fog & torrential rain & you have no screen or submarine escort (or, you sail into a minefield). There's night battles where (unless you're the IJN, or mental, or both) you immediately send the capital ships heading for port or blithely sail them straight into the blundering enemy destroyer screen.
You can attempt to keep the range, better for your enormo-guns to rain death on the enemy, & your lead ship's boilers will over-pressurise & she will grind to a halt, or your rear-admiral's support squadron ignores flag signals & decides to charge the enemy & engage with only his secondary guns.
You laugh, you cry, you gnash your teeth. You deal with graphics like this, which seldom convey the raw brutality of the proceedings :
& this, which (if you are of a certain mindset) absolutely does convey the raw brutality of the proceedings:
Yes, the little turrets turn. & when they're damaged/KO'd, it shows on the graphic. Swoon.
Battles are fought according to a timer, with forces randomly generated as a percentage of whatever you have available in a geographic theatre & isn't undergoing repair at the time. Sometimes it's a fuck-huge fleet battle, sometimes you're chasing a converted merchant ship with a destroyer. The whole thing's... Ugh. I'm not gonna say Rogue-like, 'cos it's just not & I'm too much of a fucking pedant, but it's very difficult to save-scum efficiently, so you might as well bite down hard & accept that your glistening battleline really did sail into that minefield or find the one enemy submarine in the whole ocean or really did store the ammo outside the main barbette & now the pride of your battle-fleet is raining from the sky & has been converted into 40,000 tons of this:
So what do you do? You suck it the fuck up, & go raid the nation's pension fund to construct yet more.
You either take the part of an admiral (desperately waving flags at distant parts of your battle-line to attempt to get the useless fucks to do something resembling something effective, whilst they ignore you, the enemy & the enormous hole that torpedo just made in their side & blithely sail on at 20 knots into a squall), a "rear admiral" (desperately waving flags & also desperately going through drop down menus trying to see which ships need to be dragged out of line & told to start pumping (hur-hur-hur), & WHY ARE YOU STILL FIRING AT THEIR BATTLESHIPS THEIR DESTROYERS ARE CHARGING OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD TURN AWAY TURN AWAY NOW!!!) or even a captain (ignore flags & spend all your time trying to manually line up broadside mounted submerged torpedo tubes).
Battles play out in a sort of real-time with pauses & time compression, & do a fantastic job of conveying both the stately ponderousness & the complete bugfuck pandemonium that must've ensued when giant unwieldy fleets attempted to co-ordinate across vast distances using technology that hadn't changed for centuries.
You can pull up various things to tell you what the fuck just happened:
& can even browse Khul's All The World's Fighting Ships in the middle of a battle, to tell you whether you should run away from or run towards the ship that's just loomed out of a fog bank:
Half the time, your idiot lookouts will have misidentified the ship, & you go steaming straight into what you think is a wrinkly old armoured cruiser & get a face full of large-calibre naval rifles. It's incredibly satisfying & fun, if not for the kind of on-the-spectrum nerd who is terrified of RNG & things going bad in their adolescent power fantasies.
Things will go bad. You will mutter "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today" every fifteen or so minutes, as they take wrong turns, explode randomly or sail into each other.
So. It's not perfect, it's nicher than niche, it's fiddly to play & takes a loooooooooooooooooong time. It's quite expensive ($35 of your 'Murrican dollars, directly from here: Yes, it's a fucking Yahoo store page. & they MAIL YOU YOUR ACCESS CODE LIKE A DAY AFTER YOU ORDER. Because 1995 was the pinnacle of everything, not just gaming & you just have to accept that shit & get over it.
But it's funny, it's dramatic, it's engrossing, it's utterly addictive, it's complex & yet easy to play, there's sooooooooo much depth, so much historic grognard goodness I can barely speak. It's Master of Orion but with actual tactics & fucking great floating death machines. Sincere, utter & unconditional love (& a foolhardy or admirable contempt for gaming norms & any idea of "mass appeal") has gone into the making of this, & it shows.
It is, right now, my absolute favourite number one game of all time.
One day, someone will release something with the same level of strategic/tactical depth & level of grognardy dreadnought-love invested but with actual 3d graphics for the battles & a co-op/multiplayer battle mode (possibly with preset historical forces & tech development cordoned off into eras & the basic what-if free for all mode all done separately), & then it'll go mainstream & normal people won't be scared of it & will play it on their tablety-phone things whilst waiting for trains & it'll make someone a multi-millionaire.
Until then, get the fuck in now & become a pre-, semi- & super-dreadnought hipster. You know you want to.
PS: Oh, & it only covers the years 1900-1925, before those pesky flying things arrived to get in the way of your enormous steel penis substitutes. But you can, if you wish, keep playing the game until 1950, in a kinda wonky alternate history sorta way, but the research tech will run out & certain events will go kinda haywire. Totally possible, though.