Two quite unrelated events led to this article. The first was the announcement a while back of a sequel to Rule the Waves. Carrier warfare, and another twenty-five supported years, is the big news. As per usual, the game’s fanbase have proven the most effective at maintaining the hype. The sequel’s forum has already been populated by several threads that are veritable treasure troves of information for a naval enthusiast (as opposed to ‘expert’) such as me. With RTW2 coming over the horizon, it was time to return to the original.

Rule the Waves is one of our favourite naval warfare games. You should check out the others.

The second event was a flurry of discussion on sites where strategy fans gather, on the use and misuse of RNG in games. An altogether unwieldy term: ‘RNG’ (literally ‘Random Number Generator’) is the catch all acronym for any time a game rolls a dice. It has a variety of pseudonyms. These range from the prosaic: ‘luck’ all the way up to: ‘cheese’, ‘unfair plays’ ‘RNGesus’ and ‘imbalance’.

The prevailing opinion seems to be the RNG is something that must be removed from games as much as possible. It isn’t fair for pure skill not to decide the victor, nor is it fair for many hours of gameplay to go down the toilet just because RNG rolled a snake eyes for you. These are good points. Yet in playing Rule the Waves I cannot help but find the sheer randomness of it all one of its strongest features.

The scene: Italy in the first decade of the 20th Century. A victorious war with Russia left me confident of Italy’s strength in its home ground of the Mediterranean. But the Dreadnought age has arrived. No longer will the battleships I have at present suffice, especially with France becoming uncomfortably uppity.

Britain, for the moment, isn’t too annoyed with my in-game persona of an admiral who will threaten war with literally anyone if there’s a budget increase in it for him. General Buck Turgidson would look positively dovish in comparison. So I get this shiny new dreadnought, with lots of big guns, built overseas. I can take advantage of all the technology British industry offers as well as their far larger ship yards. For the always cash strapped Italian navy this is a dream come true.

Then the France thing blew up. One wrong word, one thoughtless denunciation too many and now we’re at war. As soon as it is declared, I find that my shiny new battleship, only a few months away from being ready for service, has been impounded by Britain. Bugger.

Well might it be said that RNG had given me the proverbial middle finger and ruined my game. I’d been behind for a long time already. The previous war had prevented me from building the biggest and bestest. Now the second war had ruined me before a shot had even been fired. But here’s the thing, at the time of writing I am now winning the war against France. And I can now savour a quite memorable (and rather amusing) moment that was unexpected and unplanned for. There was no timer ticking down to inform me how long it would be before it happened, no warning. It just happened, and I had to get on with it. And I think that’s what gives the crude, excel level graphics of Rule the Waves some of the charm it desperately needs to keep the player invested. Rule the Waves is unashamed of the randomness of its world and does not pull its punches.

It helps, of course, that the randomness works both ways. It seems that in every other game (looking at you Paradox) the numbers are against you. Everything that nine times out of ten will work – doesn’t. Not so in Rule the Waves. For every battleship you lose to conniving politicians in Westminster, you will, more than likely, receive a fat wad of cash from an adoring (and misguided) public for the construction of a shiny new battleship or a new technology (research being random as well) will become available. The early 1900s being a period of constant economic improvements, you can always be assured of more money coming in – although whether a dirty filthy socialist government, the terror of all militaries, will steal all that wealth away from you (to feed the poor no less!) is another matter.

Of course, Rule the Waves would be a pitiful excuse for a point and click adventure game without the battles. The magic of the game is here, where all the time (and trade-offs) you’ve put into building your fleet are put to the test against an enemy fleet. It should be a simple numbers game. Bigger guns, better fire control, more armour, all these should be what decides the outcome of the fighting. But stacking numbers onto your side isn’t fun – certainly not in my book.

And here RNG comes to the rescue. As it happens, real war isn’t fair, and the expectations of commanders are often quite divorced from reality. The fighting at Jutland is a classic example of this. Naval warfare in many games often devolves into a game of numbers – typically whomever has more ships or better counters wins in a flat empty battlespace. RTW sidesteps this by randomly generating every battle. You have no chance to decide upon what sort of fleet you will have, where the action will take place within that particular sea zone, and of course what your enemy will be, beyond some clues in the description.

So it was that, as the United States Navy, I found myself in a war with Britain. Playing the US is a very different challenge to Italy. You have vast and ever-increasing resources, yet at the same time have to cover both East and West coasts, along with scattered colonial possessions. With so much area to cross, I have been forced to lessen the strength of my ships in exchange for increasing their endurance. The first war against Germany (!) taught me that well – as I lost many ships from damage that resulted in their internment. Chastened by this lessen, and with the dreadnought age well and truly upon the world – I prepared for the coming fight. Early engagements were small affairs. With the majority of my forces concentrated along the East coast to ward of any adventures the British might undertake via Canada, I had to let Britannia run riot in the Caribbean.

Nonetheless Britain did not have it all their own way. Early encounters between light forces were nearly always in my favour. US fire control had over the past decade surged ahead of its competitors. As a result, whilst my ships may have been less numerous and sometimes less well armed, their ability to land shots on target meant that they could gain the upper hand if the old oppressor was unwary.

The highlight of this war however was the epic fleet battle fought off the coast of Maine. Being unable to read an order of battle, I fumed for a while, believing that only some of my new dreadnoughts (as yet unblooded) had turned up to fight. As it turned out, I’d simply been ordering the wrong formation. Hopefully the history books make no mention of how the admiral’s squadron sailed in completely the opposite direction to the rest of his fleet, until some low-ranking minion of no importance pointed it out to the old man.

With the formation eventually back in one piece, the ships headed toward where the enemy battlecruisers had been spotted. The US Navy lacked battlecruisers. Whilst it is tempting to blame 20-20 hindsight and say that in real life battlecruisers spent most of their time exploding, I must admit that I was simply busy getting a reasonable number of dreadnoughts into the battle line.

Now one would think that somewhere beyond these battlecruisers would lurk the enemy fleet. Obviously, the enemy was plotting to drag my plucky armoured cruisers (who had to take up the slack of having no battlecruisers available) into their fleet’s waiting guns. This was what I expected. And I was completely wrong.

Whilst I was pushing my main fleet south as fast as it would go to save my errant scouts, my screen to the north spotted a new ship. One ship became several, then many. It seemed like the entire Royal Navy had arrived. Most of it had.

All my expectations were wrong. The cruisers down south would have to fend for themselves, there were bigger fish to fry here. My big guns, ably sighted by advanced US fire control, set to work.

The above situation would never have been possible without the randomness that runs deep through the Rule the Waves. Sometimes it messes up. Battles too close to land result in ships sliding down coastlines in a wholly immersion breaking fashion. Sometimes the battles are uneven. But sometimes we have battles like the one just described, where the tension in facing a superior enemy is palpable, and the battle’s progress is always uncertain. RNG gets a bad rap, but Rule the Waves stands as an example how it can be done well, creating a living world where everything is uncertain and every session different. Whilst I eagerly await its sequel, I think the present offering will still be satisfying me for some time to come.

Rule the Waves II does not currently have a release window, but you can keep up-to-date on the official forum.