Despite taking its graphic design cues from software used to operate industrial lathes, Rule the Waves is certifiably the year's biggest indie grognard game sensation. Just about every gaming forum where war nerds congregate has a highly-trafficked thread about the game, and for good reason. Underneath that lo-fi look is a wickedly original grand strategy game set in the early 20th century, casting the player as a Grand Admiral for one of the great powers.
In that narrow window of time after the perfection of the ironclad warship and before the ascendancy of the airplane, the ocean-going warship was the most powerful weapon on Earth. Fear of great navies was almost the equal of the Cold War tensions over nuclear warheads, and every bit as closely regulated. In Rule the Waves, you're in charge of directing your fleets in tactical combat -- but you're also tasked with directing research, designing ships, and ordering their construction. You're constantly playing on the brink here: you might have your newly-laid class of dreadnaughts suddenly forbidden by a new treaty, or you might be pushed into a war you don't want to fight by an over-eager head of state.
Rule the Waves is such a unique lens for viewing a little-explored period of history that I just had to reach out and talk to designer Fredrik Wallin. Wallin is by his own admission "a private kind of guy" -- no Twitter account, no blog -- but he kindly took time out of his day to talk to us about Rule the Waves.
What's your background as a game designer? What other games have you shipped?
I have been playing games for a long time, and once upon a time I designed several boardgames that were unpublished but heavily used in my various gaming groups. I then started to tinker with my own computer games, building on programming skills acquired when I was working as a software developer. The first game I published was an addon to Fighting Steel
that provided a strategic layer and context to that game. That was about 10 years ago. Then I did Steam and Iron
(SAI), which was my first complete standalone game, which portrayed WW1 naval combat. That developed into SAI Campaign which was a campaign development of that, and then lastly there was the Russo Japanese War version of SAI. All of them covered naval combat in the 20th century as you see.
I might add that developing games is not my full time job, it is more of a hobby.
Tell me about your interest in the period -- it's clearly a singular focus for you. It's a cousin to to the Cold War nuclear stockpile race, but it's different insofar as these weapons actually were used.
I have always been interested in military history, particularly naval history focussing on WW1 and WW2. My interest in gaming the period really started when I bought my first wargame, which was Avalon Hill's "Jutland"
. I played that over and over again, and made my own expansions to it with other navies than the German and British fleets provided in the game. That was my inspiration when I made Steam and Iron, 30 years later! Another game that inspired me for Rule the Waves was my all-time favourite computer game, Master of Orion
. MOO let you design and develop your own spaceships and explore and conquer the galaxy. I think by now you see where this is leading. It became my dream to marry WW1 naval games and the functionality for researching and developing naval technology and building your own ships. The early 20the century actually lends itself well to this, as the technical development was very fast. Ships were sometimes obsolete by the time they were launched.
To this I had to add the political environment of the time, to add a background to the fleet race. And, as you observed, it has many similarities to the cold war or other arms races, so there are some lessons that you can draw from the period that are more or less universal.
When I did Steam and Iron, I made some design decisions that would make it possible to develop the tactical game into a design and build your ships simulation. For example, I never specified the exact calibres like 13.5 in guns or 8.2 in guns. Instead I settled for even calibres in inches and added a quality value to represent the relative quality differences between gun models. This made it easy to add a research model where your gun designs turned out to be more or less good.
What is it about RTW that you think captures the period well? What game mechanics are you most proud of?
I am not sure really, what captures the period best. The game both gives the atmosphere of the period and captures the technical development, as well as has a decent tactical resolution system. It even includes revolutions if you ignore the plight of the common people and push your naval ambitions too far. One measure of succes in capturing the period might be that I learned one thing while developing and testing the game. To have a decent arms race worth its name, you need good economic growth! I had to add a 3-5% yearly growth in the economies to make it possible to sustain the growth in both size and numbers of warships that occured at the ebginning of the 20th century.
One mechanism I am proud of is the command system, that realistically captures the way fleets were organised and how they deployed and fought, with light cruiser screens, supporting destroyer flotills etc. It also makes it possible for the player to delegate to subordinate AI commanders and to handle a Jutland size fleet without getting swamped by the details. That was already in SAI, but I think that is the feature that I am most proud of in the series.
I am also fairly satisfied with the tactical AI. I never liked games where the AI was apparently "cheating". I wanted the AI to have the same information as the player, and to think in the same way. And the AI is exactly the same for a AI controlled subordinate division in the player fleet as for a AI controlled division on the AI side.
Another thing I an satisfied with in RTW is that it emphasises the role and usage of every type of ship in the navy. Battleships are of course the queen of the seas and the centrepiece of the fleet in fleet battles, but you need cruisers for colonial stations or trade warfare and protection, destroyers have their place supporting heavier units, and even lowly minesweepers are needed to patrol the coasts. This evolved to a large extent as a result of suggestions and comments from the play-testers.
What are the future plans for the game? Any expansions in mind? Any chance of a port to tablets?
I was actually a bit surprised by the interest shown so far. Theses games are niche products, published by the small company NWS
. They have never been immense sellers, but catered to a small group of enthusiasts and grognards. Especially considering the rather basic graphics, the strength of the games is their attention to realism. I assumed that only a fraction of the SAI players would want to play an even more complicated game which added ship design, but doing a game about developing your own early 20th century fleet was my dream, and I wanted to do it. Somewhat to my surprise, it seems that RTW is well on it's way to become more popular than SAI.
A port to tablets is unfortunately not on the cards as far as I can see. Many of the screens are rather fiddly with a lot of information on them, and I don't think it would lend itself well to an adaption to tablets. With the proviso that I never designed a phone or tablet game. A friend of mine who does sometimes complains that while screen resolution gets better and better, the limitation of the size of a human finger remains the same.
A logical development of RTW would be going forward in time, and doing a sequel covering the development of naval aviation and carrier warfare up until 1950 or so. But there has also been suggestions of extending it backwards to the ironclads period, which also offers an environment with plenty of technical development. Nothing is decided yet.
You can pick up Rule the Waves as a PC digital download from NWS' website. There's a very good (and unofficial) YouTube Let's Play series for the game being produced by Baloogan right now -- I've embedded the first installment above.