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The Flare Path: Rules The Waves

Spithead Review

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I am the very model of a contented desktop Admiral,

I’ve information financial, political, and tactical,

I grow my navy patiently to echo fights historical,

Not Tsushima or Jutland, but battles roughly comparable;

I mull over decisions with implications international,

And design my own ships using rules quite mathematical;

Exposed to a wargame this deep, fresh, and dreadnoughtical,

It would be profoundly criminal not to get a little evangelical.

 

The Flare Path’s weevil-short list of Essential Wargames of 2015 now has a second entry. Rule the Waves ($35) splices turnless* top-down naval skirmishing with turnbased ship design, fleet management and politicking. It’s the dreadnoughts game Creative Assembly would make if they ever lost their entire art staff in a ghastly charabanc accident, fell head-over-heels in love with early 20th Century naval history, and went a bit mad. Surprisingly friendly and fast-paced, and rammed with fascinating decision-making, rarely in computer wargaming has the tactical and the strategic been blended with greater success.

*for all intents and purposes

The tactical half third of RTW is basically the tried-and-tested Steam and Iron, an earlier Fredrik Wallin effort. Gazing down at monochrome brine, the player issues instructions to divisions of whirligigging warships. Head in this direction at such-and-such speed. Adopt this formation and take on this role (scout, screen, support etc.). Control simplicity, helpful AI, and minimal pyrotechnics dazzle-camouflage combat maths in which everything from sun position and smoke interference, to sea state and crew quality, helps determine where shells land. Should a projectile actually strike steel (and the majority don’t) then an equally elaborate penetration algorithm reports for duty. To properly appreciate the behind-the-scenes subtlety you really need to have individual ship’s logs open as you fight. In these mesmerising wound-windows every jammed turret, disabled rudder, and crew-mincing spray of shrapnel is diligently recorded.

Without long-winded preambles and far-reaching consequences SAI’s skirmishes were ‘merely’ plausible and diverting. Embedded within RTW’s colourful 1900-1925 campaigns, battles shine bright as star shells. Realising that the years of political manoeuvres and fleet purchasing and policy decisions that preceded engagements like Jutland, and Tsushima, were every bit as interesting as the engagements themselves, clever Wallin has built RTW around a Paradox-style shape-your-own-destiny core. At the start of every campaign player-Sea Lords are asked to choose one of seven nations (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, US and Japan) each of which comes with its own historically-based legacy fleet, navy budget, governmental style, research speciality and national trait. The 300 turns that come next follow no script. It’s up to you to expand and modernise your navy as you see fit, and – largely through multiple-choice events decisions – to help your governmental employers choose friends and enemies and trigger wars and avert them.

‘Prestige’, the primary player goal, is deliciously double-edged. The reward for military victories and hawkish political actions, it’s the resource that keeps you in your post so can’t be ignored for long. Spend too long schmoozing at peace summits and turning a blind eye to spying and provocative acts, and your critics will multiply. There comes a time when foreign faces must be slapped and friendly fleets dispatched. The trick, of course, is fighting the wars you want to fight at the times you want to fight them. RTW’s gloriously tangled events system and ever-present nautical arms race means that state of perfect preparedness is invariably a few months/years away when the balloon goes up. Blue blistering barnacles! In another six months, Furious, Livid, and Apoplectic, my new high-speed armoured cruisers, would have been ready. The submarines I lost in that unwise spat with the ASW-adept Americans would have been replaced…

Looking back on my first week with RTW, I realise I’ve enjoyed the intervals between conflicts just as much as the conflicts themselves. It’s rare a turn passes without something thought-provoking occurring. Often another nation will appear at your door hawking a blueprint. Frequently, news or intel arriving from foreign parts will leave you questioning a current build direction. And then there are those wonderfully varied political choices that surface multiple times a year. The one below has just changed the course of my latest Italian campaign. Faced with three options, all of which threatened to increase international tension levels to some extent (tooltips describe the precise effects) I ultimately decided that the risks of alienating friends via choice (b) were too great, and that my fragile reputation couldn’t take the small prestige hit of choice (a). In the end an ultimatum was sent to Vienna, and, a few months ahead of schedule, I was bustled into a conflict with one of my angriest but least intimidating rivals, the Austro-Hungarians.

Like all the best designers, Wallin knows when to automate – when to abstract. In RTW there’s no need to waypoint vessels to new stamping grounds, or painstakingly plot patrol and raider routes. For campaign purposes the game’s globe is split into twelve operational area. Individual ships in your ‘in service’ list can be moved between these areas with a few quick mouse-clicks (they can also be mothballed or put in reserve fleets to save on running costs in a similar fashion). Give ships general ‘coastal patrol’ or ‘raider’ orders and the computer will consider them when working out a turn’s freighter and submarine losses. The important thing is not the exact location of a vessel within an area (that’s abstracted outside of engagements), it’s the relative force strengths within each area. Assign a vessel to a particular area and there’s a chance it will appear in any tactical clash spawned in that zone.

Those clashes take various randomly generated forms. Assuming you opt to engage (refuse and you’ll sacrifice Victory Points) you can find yourself protecting convoys or mauling them, bombarding coastal targets, hunting commerce raiders, or participating in full-on fleet fights. Scraps are always tinged with uncertainty. There’s no guarantee the AI vessels you glimpse in the first few moments of a battle are alone. Several times over the last few days, chasing fleeing destroyers through driving rain or crepuscular gloom, I’ve accidentally pushed my cruisers into the paths of bruising enemy battleship concentrations. The AI has plainly studied his Scheer.

The third of RTW’s three beautifully enmeshed components – ship design – shifts an already compelling campaign experience into true ‘classic’ territory. Watching your finest floating fortress take a fatal tinfish in the flank is infinitely more painful when you’ve carefully fashioned that fortress yourself and, in a last-minute bid to free-up weight for extra deck armour, decided to skimp on torpedo protection. Naval technology advanced at terrific pace during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century and the game captures the urgency of that headlong rush from reciprocating-engine pre-dreadnoughts clustered with vari-calibre armaments to less fussily armed steam turbine and oil-powered ‘modern’ battleships, quite brilliantly.

In the time it takes to manufacture a new model of destroyer, cruiser, or battleship, your boffins and spies are likely to have discovered or purloined technologies that render the new vessel passé. With news of foreign advances rolling in almost every turn, it’s hard to resist regular trips to the design office. Maybe I can squeeze a few more knots out of the old Kraken-class BBs I designed in 1915… Now I’ve got access to oil supplies and acquired those Asian colonies, perhaps I should create a new long-range cruiser for colonial work… Gosh, half of my DDs were afloat when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Time for a new blueprint I think.

The design process itself takes the form of slightly-fiddlier-than-it-need-be stat altering and vector drawing on a crowded design screen (The vector drawing is purely cosmetic). Annoyingly, it’s possible to add features to a design that a) you’ve yet to discover, and b) breach game rules or current treaties. It’s only when the ‘test design’ button is jabbed that any inadvertent gaffes come to light. A ship graphic that doesn’t automatically alter to reflect structural changes, add to the air of uncharacteristic clumsiness.

Overhauling RTW’s achingly spartan presentation would require far more effort and skill than fixing its handful of trivial GUI flaws. Though event pop-up photographs inject visual flavour from time to time, I can’t survey the game’s unembellished Windows panes, menus and fonts without picturing something a little more nautical. A chain motif border here, a decorative anchor there. The occasional gull cry or slap of seawater against quay to break the eery silence. It would be wonderful if the marvellous rule-breaking Rule the Waves stimulated the senses as consummately as it stimulated the cerebrum.

Rule the Waves is sold by the Naval Warfare Simulations gaming store at $35

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The Flare Path Foxer

Beneath last week’s washed-out Wimbledon colour scheme lurked a grim tale of terror and loss. Stugle, AFKAMC, foop, Llewyn, Matchstick, All is Well, phlebas, Rorschach617, mrpier, Electricfox, Janichsan, JB, and GT5Canuck all made Olympic inroads, but it was Syt who arrived in 1972 Munich first.

(Theme: The Munich Massacre)

a Spitzer space telescope
b Olympic fencing pictogram (one of the set designed by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Games)
c Bulgarian ‘Septemberists‘ badge
d UH-1 ‘Huey’ helicopter
e Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village
f Class 31 diesel (reference to Building 31)
g G-AFGN, the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra that carried Chamberlain back from Munich in 1938
h Romano R-83
i Heckler & Koch G3 rifle (used by security forces at the airport)
j Olympic Station, Hong Kong MTR

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The following foxer was made in Somerset, England, on July 12, 2015 by a man whose hobbies include…

*Trimming hedges into the shape of first generation British diesel locomotives
*Trimming hedges into the shape of WW2-era human torpedoes
*Trimming hedges into the shape of untrimmed hedges

All answers in one thread, please.

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Tim Stone

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