December 01, 2021

Review - Ultimate Admiral - Dreadnoughts

Now that I've settled into the new rate, I'm going to start posting some shorter stuff on Wednesdays when I have things written up that don't justify taking the Sunday slot.

I recently figured out how to buy the still early-access Ultimate Admiral - Dreadnoughts, a game that seems to be an attempt to compete with Rule the Waves in the early 20th century warship builder genre, but with better graphics.

Let me start by saying that Lord Nelson likes it much more than Rule The Waves, because it lacks the essential addictive element that means I disappear for days or weeks at a time. The main issue is simply lack of a campaign mode, which is supposed to be coming soon. Instead, your options are either the Naval Academy, a series of missions with specific goals that you have to build ships for, or the custom battle, where you can set up almost any combat you want and have at it. But in both cases, you're building a ship before every battle, and using it for that battle only, which removes the higher strategic element that makes both RTW2 and Aurora so compelling for me. And even in the custom battle, you build only one type of ship, with the AI generating the rest. The game I've played that's most reminiscent of UA-D is Children of a Dead Earth, which is a very hard sci-fi space combat and shipbuilding game. Both are nice enough, but rely on single battles instead of a campaign.

But what if you just want to build ships and don't care much about the larger strategy? Unfortunately, the only place where UA-D's shipbuilder is clearly superior to RTW2s is in graphics, which are quite nice by the standards of this genre. My main criticism here is that it mistakes complexity for depth instead of letting depth emerge naturally. There are a huge number of options covering everything from boiler type to shaft details, but they all feel like the sort of thing you get in a video game, with specific percentages given for the benefits and drawbacks of each option, all of which look suspiciously neat and rounded in percentage terms. (This isn't helped by its tendency to default to the lowest option, which is sometimes "none" in cases where it really shouldn't be, like rangefinders.) The graphics make this worse, as you have to spend a fair bit of time fiddling with where to put your guns and such, and there's a fundamental constraint of it having to look reasonable with the base that they give you. RTW2 (and Aurora) avoid this problem by going light on graphics, and give you a few meaningful options instead of a bunch of mostly meaningless choices. Having all the options would be fine if it felt like they were trying to build Warship Engineering Simulator (a game that Lord Nelson fervently hopes is never done well because I would disappear forever), but I get the strong impression that this is an attempt to attract fans of World of Warships.

The other main pillar of the game is the combat, which is a mixed bag relative to RTW2. It does a better job of letting you know what's going on, and it's more responsive, at least in the relatively small amount I've played. I haven't had the frustration, common in RTW2, of having ships decide to ignore me and go do their own thing, but I also haven't played large battles. It's also much prettier, although how much you care about that depends on personal taste. The big downside is that you're playing from a third-person perspective instead of the map view of RTW2, which makes it harder to be sure where everyone is and make your choices strategically. There's no air component, which is slightly weird in a game that goes through the end of the dreadnought era.

On the whole, I would say that Ultimate Admiral - Dreadnoughts isn't really ready yet. There's definite promise here, but I don't think it's worth $50 today. It might be when they get the campaign finished, depending on how that's handled, although I think that unless there's a major overhaul to the shipbuilder, it's always going to play second fiddle to RTW2 in my eyes.

2022 update: The above was written shortly before the first playable campaign released. Work continued on UAD throughout 2022, with something like the full campaign available by November. I played a bit as both the US and Britain, and came away both dissatisfied and baffled. Dissatisfied because there were a lot of things which didn't work as well as it seemed they should have, and baffled because RTW2, which has been out for 3.5 years, did these things better.

The biggest issue is still the shipbuilder, which has some new issues in Campaign mode. The big one is that it's not really set up to let you iterate on previous designs. If you copy a design, you're stuck with the tech available when you built that one, and while you can sort of get around this by making a refit and then copying that, I'm not sure that doesn't leave vestiges of the previous design. So to be safe, I built every design from scratch. This was a major annoyance because the lack of sensible defaults for the various options means that you have to spend a while resetting things like the balance between HE and AP ammo and the type of armor you're using.

Campaign play continues the theme of this being a subpar RTW2 knockoff with better graphics. The research screen is set up in such a way that I was constantly checking it, but couldn't advance turns from it like I wanted to in peacetime. Similar problems came up when I wanted to do things like refit ships, which would involve going through three screens when I should have been able to do it from one. The movement model is much more granular than RTW2s, which does sort of solve one of my issues with that game, but it compensates by being unreasonably difficult to actually get your ships to encounter the enemy on the open sea, and far more time-consuming to use because of its granularity. When you do fight, battles far too often degenerate into lots of waiting while your ships charge around after enemy smoke, particularly as it tends to disable 30x time compression (which is far too low a maximum for a battle with a 5-hour time limit anyway) for no apparent reason even if the enemy is nowhere to be found.

On the whole, I stand by my original verdict. This isn't a terrible game, but RTW2 is better on every metric except for graphics, and I would recommend buying that instead.


  1. December 01, 2021Directrix Gazer said...

    Both are nice enough, but rely on single battles instead of a campaign.

    CoaDE has a campaign, though. Was your meaning that it's replayability is mostly down to custom battles? That I could buy; I think 90% of the time I have in CoaDE is designing stuff and then testing it out, and I imagine that's the case for most players.

  2. December 01, 2021Directrix Gazer said...

    Sorry, this probably should have been a part of the last comment, but with regards to UAD, I lost a lot of interest in it when I went on the forums and found out just how game-y (versus simulationist) the mechanics actually were. I'm definitely not a fan of all the meaningless (except for massaging nonsensical stats) little decisions on the design screen.

  3. December 01, 2021bean said...

    "Campaign" is a term that gets used in a couple of rather contradictory ways. CoaDE has a "campaign" in the form of a series of missions you play one after another, but the only interaction is the plot and the fact that you need to beat one to unlock the next one. This is essentially the same as the "Naval Academy" in UA:D, except that doesn't have the strict linearity. It's nothing like the RTW2/Aurora cycle of design ships>build fleet>deploy fleet>fight battles, and the latter is what I find so addictive.

  4. December 01, 2021echo said...

    I'm just saying, if they find your PC murdered and dumped in a river, at least it's going to be pretty easy to narrow down the suspect. But she'll probably get off on justified homicide.

  5. December 01, 2021Anonymous said...

    At least we know the market for Warship Engineering Simulator is at least 1.

  6. December 01, 2021Evil4Zerggin said...

    My quick take:

    • The first playable version of the campaign is out now, but it's really rough at time of writing. On the plus side, the devs seem to have a higher activity level recently.
    • While the lack of aircraft hurts historical accuracy, I think leaving them out was the right choice just as it was for RtW1; their game development capacity is stretched quite thin as it is. Maybe for UAD2 if such a thing ever happens.
    • I don't think they are at a level of sophistication where they can even make a meaningful tradeoff between gamism and simulationism. In many places their choice of formula is bizarre and fulfills neither purpose well. It feels like they are hoping that they can iteratively tweak a bunch of constants into something presentable without having much understanding of the effects of their formulas.

    "RtW, but 3D" is a solid concept and I don't regret buying in, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to others as-is.

  7. December 01, 2021bean said...

    The first playable version of the campaign is out now, but it’s really rough at time of writing. On the plus side, the devs seem to have a higher activity level recently.

    That came out a day or two after I checked in preparation for putting this review out. Oops. Will play and report back.

    I can't say I don't understand the lack of aircraft, it just feels really weird given the time period. As for formulas, I'm coming very much from the naval geek side, so I'm not actually all that interested in the effects on gameplay. I just know that it very much doesn't feel right as an engineering simulator, in a way that both RTW2 and Aurora do.

  8. December 03, 2021bean said...

    I've played some of the campaign so far, and it's extremely basic, to the point that I definitely can't endorse buying the game right now. The big one is that only Britain-Germany is available, which isn't a terrible thing, and you're always at war, which destroys a lot of the loop that I like. Actually fighting is usually less fun than building stuff, and particularly in the 1890 start (which is the only one unlocked at the beginning) it's just kind of a pain. The limitations of the shipbuilder continue to shine through, too, with that being less fun than RTW2 and Aurora because of the way it's set up. At least there's a decent auto-resolve so you don't have to fight every battle yourself.

  9. December 03, 2021woah77 said...

    I bought it last year about this time and it was certainly enjoyable (if, as you say, simple). I'll have to update and check out the improvements/additions that were released more recently. I haven't ever gotten into RTW, so I can't make a comparison.

  10. December 03, 2021Anonymous said...


    Actually fighting is usually less fun than building stuff,

    That applies to me enough that I sometimes get annoyed that there's even fighting in a game.

    But some people only like the battles.

  11. December 03, 2021Doctorpat said...

    Are any of these games realistic enough that it would actually be a useful tool? I mean that if you went back to 1935 and gave the USN or RN a copy of RTW, would they be able to use it to actually make better choices? Does the answer become yes if you go back to 1900? Or would an equivalent game be useful in the Napoleonic era, or the Elizabethan era? Or would a respective expert of the time always be able to outguess such "simulators"?

  12. December 04, 2021Alexander said...

    There would probably be some benefit from just reading the names of various inventions from the tech tree in RTW. I don't know anything about ultimate admiral, but from the looks of it, you would get fairly realistic 3d models of ships of the future which would be nice. Not sure how the USN would react to a model of Yamato in '35, but I expect they'd be glad to have it. If it has enough detail, seeing the increase in AA guns from '39 to '45 would give planners a measure of the increasing threat from aircraft.

  13. December 04, 2021Doctorpat said...

    I was thinking of the contemporary stuff. A ship designer of 1900 looking only at the ship design simulator for 1900.

    Yes, I can see that sneaking a look at the gameplay from the future would be useful.

    Sky of Spaceships 2100 game would be VERY interesting to get a copy of...

  14. December 05, 2021bean said...


    I don't think they'd be particularly useful from an analytical perspective. UA:D's shipbuilder just isn't up to the task and RTW2s is good enough for fun gameplay at the preliminary design level, but not enough for actual use. If a copy of Excel is on the machine, then that's what's going to come in really handy. Just seeing the tech list and the general development through the eyes of the game is likely to be a lot more useful.

  15. December 10, 2021Alsadius said...

    Wouldn't the main use be the ability to fight hundreds of battles and learn what works in "live fire" combat? The ship engineering benefits wouldn't be huge, but the tactical/doctrinal benefits probably would be, I'd think.

  16. December 11, 2021bean said...

    Probably not. That makes the assumption that the game is an accurate model of what would happen in combat, which I don't think is really true of either RTW2 or UA:D. They're not totally disconnected, but UA:D in particular has a lot of realism sacrificed for gameplay. (The way the game handles flooding continues to baffle me.)

  17. December 11, 2021John Schilling said...

    Even if the game were an accurate model of live-fire combat, it is unlikely that it would be trusted as such. There'd be no good way to verify or even understand its internal model, and any observed discrepancy in one area would be taken as an excuse to disregard its results in others.

    I do agree that being able to play with the tech tree and see that certain things are possible, that they were deemed desirable by others, and what a ship might look like with those features enabled, would be of some value. And that's an area where success in one area would give credibility in others, because at that point you're mostly just nudging people to focus a bit harder on projects that are already marginally possible and interesting.

  18. December 11, 2021AlexT said...

    A ship designer of 1900 looking only at the ship design simulator for 1900.

    Isn't that what ship designers do in order to, you know, design ships? Except they use the best technology available, built and optimized for serious work, using the best data (some secret), tried, tested and iterated over time etc. I really doubt a simulation built for entertainment can match that, any more than a Rambo movie can teach you how to fight as Special Forces. It can't, because it's not supposed to.

  19. December 12, 2021Anonymous said...

    A hundred years later not much would still be secret.

    Of course missing documentation could easily substitute for secrecy.

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