May 21, 2023

Review - Rule the Waves 3

Rule the Waves 3 just came out on Thursday, and it's been a long time since I looked forward to a game this much. It's entirely possible that the answer there is Rule the Waves 2, and while long-time readers are undoubtedly familiar with the series, I should probably start by explaining the concept behind it.

The Rule the Waves series has you playing as the Grand Admiral of your chosen country, making decisions about ship design, construction and deployment, and then commanding your fleet in battle. In practice, it's a very strong shipbuilder coupled with a decent system for strategic operations and combat, and it's almost perfectly tailored to my tastes. Along with Aurora, it's what I play when I want to feel like I'm in a Norman Friedman Illustrated Design History book.

For those who have played RTW2, RTW3 is more of the same, with an expanded time period (1890-1970) and a lot of minor improvements. For those who haven't, it's a very specific taste. If you read my posts on the design of a specific ship and think "that sounds really interesting", then this is probably for you. If you've read one of Norman Friedman's books on ship design and really enjoyed it, it's definitely for you. If that sort of stuff bores you, or you're really into graphics, then it's probably not for you.

The ship-builder is at the core of the game, and it's a pretty decent simulation of high-level ship design. It's definitely more conceptual than simulationist, but I find myself making the same sort of thoughts that are described in various books about people doing the same work in real life. Familiarity with ship design in this period probably isn't necessary to enjoy the game, but it does help a lot. This aspect of the game is really solid. You're given control over the important decisions (size, speed, range, armor, weapons, etc) without being bogged down in minutia. There's also a nice set of tools for the overhead view of your ship, although you can completely ignore it if you like.

The next layer out is the strategic map, which covers building, deployment, diplomacy and research. Your budget rises and falls with tension in the world, but if the tension gets too high, then you have a war on your hands. And if there's a war, then you have to fight, which you do from an overhead view, usually controlling only your flagship and maybe a few other divisions nearby. Combat is serviceable enough, if not amazing. It's definitely more strategy than watching pretty explosions, and it does an interesting job of simulating the information blinders you'd have as a commander, although with the rather odd result that things get less clear as time goes on, rather than more clear as they did in reality thanks to developments like plotting.

For people who have played RTW2, this is a better game. Not just in the topline selling points, the expansion of the time period to cover 1890-1970, but in the little tweaks made to the gameplay. There are now 8 AIs on the map at once, Spain and China have been added, and AIs can go to war with each other. You have an officer corps, and can split your fleet into divisions that give you some control over how ships are used in combat. And there's subtle stuff, like ships losing speed as they age, an increase in the cost of docking facilities and a cap on how much tonnage you can build at once, all of which adds to the feeling of realism, of having to make the sort of choices faced by a real naval staff. Ship design has some subtle tweaks, with control over visual secondary battery placement and a better mechanism for managing topside space and weight. The result is a substantial step up, even if you never venture outside of the time period covered by RTW2.

RTW3 is a long game, and I've only played one full campaign (as the US, because I like designing ships, which means I want a big budget), but I can offer some insights into the new time period. The 1890-1900 period didn't impress me that much. It plays pretty much like the pre-dreadnought period, but at shorter range and slower. There are also some options from the 1900 start that are disabled, like manually building your starting fleet, and the strategic fallout from the Spanish-American War was significant. It also seemed to have permanently screwed up my gun tech, as I only got to +1 models on less than half the calibers, a far cry from RTW2.

The new stuff on the far end is where most of the new content is. It's not as much fun as combat earlier in the game, but I think that's an inescapable result of the greater complexity of warfare in the missile age. It's not an entirely natural fit for the engine, but overall, they did quite a good job here, with nice touches like missile readiness not being 100% and missile availability being limited unless you pay extra in peacetime. We obviously have no real-world information, but what I've seen feels about right for what I would have expected in a world without nuclear weapons. (Excluded so there would be a reason to have naval battles instead of Armageddon. Nuclear reactors are also excluded, presumably to keep submarines from taking over.) It also raises some interesting what-ifs about a world where the battleship didn't essentially disappear in 1945.

This isn't to say RTW3 is completely perfect. My biggest complaint is probably that the battle generator has a tendency to create silly scenarios, like the time I found myself completely surrounding the French fleet, or just putting your carriers way too close to the enemy. Fortunately, you can close out the game and load the autosave, and it will generate a new scenario from the same basic starting parameters. The combat still isn't great, and it can get really busy if you're flinging airplanes around. And the addition of AI diplomacy means that strategic turns take significantly longer than they did in RTW2, and towards the end of the game, that was starting to become annoying.

But none of that detracts from the fact that this is a really, really good game. I am not exaggerating when I say that I get from it the same sort of feeling that I get from reading Norman Friedman, and the changes since RTW2 have done nothing but make what was already an excellent game even better. If what I describe sounds appealing, then don't hesitate to buy it, particularly as you can now get it on Steam. If you're on the fence, there's a demo available for RTW2, and it will give a lot of the flavor of this game. It's definitely not for everyone, but if it's for you, there's almost nothing else that can deliver it.


  1. May 21, 2023ike said...

    I am glad you are enjoying yourself bean. Please remember to visit your wife some time next week. : )

  2. May 21, 2023bean said...

    It's fine. She's playing the new Zelda game.

    (In seriousness, I probably played this harder than I otherwise would to get this out today.)

  3. May 23, 2023Anonymous said...

    Nuclear reactors are also excluded, presumably to keep submarines from taking over.

    So limitations on submarine communication realistically enough to require fleet battles will have to wait for RTW4 then?

  4. May 23, 2023bean said...

    You don't communicate with submarines at all. They might appear on the battle map, but they're entirely passive and mostly torpedo ships after the battle is over.

  5. May 24, 2023Anonymous said...

    In which case how could they become dominant?

  6. May 24, 2023bean said...

    SSNs don't really fit within the model as it exists in the game now. It assumes submarines are static during fleet battles, which is a good assumption for pre-1950 subs, and not completely terrible for non-nuke boats after that. SSNs can move at ship speed, and frequently do. As a result, they were a much bigger player in naval warfare broadly than previous submarines had been. There really wasn't a way to incorporate SSNs without redoing the entire submarine model, and beside the extra work that would involve, it would also really challenge the core mechanics of the game.

Comments from SlateStarCodex:

Leave a comment

All comments are reviewed before being displayed.

Name (required):

E-mail (required, will not be published):


You can use Markdown in comments!

Enter value: Captcha