April 23, 2024

A First Look at Rule The Waves 3 from Matrix Games

David Pumphouse, 22 May 2023

Come about the 18th May 2023, will see the long-awaited Steam release of Rule the Waves 3 by developers Naval Warfare Simulation (NWS), in league with Matrix Games and publishers Slitherine LTD. Originally set to be an expansion of RTW2, the previous and much-loved iteration of the game, Rule The Waves 3 will be bringing greater depth to an already-tantalisingly complex yet approachable franchise. Fancy yourself a Horatio Nelson, Ernest King, or Sir John Jellicoe? Then this will be the game for you.

This new rendition brings designing, building, managing, and utilizing your naval assets to change world history. Go from building glorified tug-boats in the Victorian era to nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the 1970’s that project your nation’s military power (and in some cases political clout) in this much-loved game brought to a wider audience.

The price on Steam will set you back (at the time of writing) US$39.99. And if Rule the Waves 2 is anything to go by, then all players will no doubt feel they have gotten good value for money with a game that offers zounds of replayability with its endless options and challenging AI.

At the time I was living a stone’s throw away from the Old Royal Navy College in Greenwich, London, a UNESCO World Heritage site which from 1873 to 1998 was a focal point of activity and training for the Royal Navy.

I was first introduced to the Rule the Waves franchise back in 2016 through Youtube, watching content by The Historical Gamer, Tortugapower and XTRG (a great collaboration game played between them can be found here)  At the time I was living a stone’s throw away from the Old Royal Navy College in Greenwich, London, a UNESCO World Heritage site which from 1873 to 1998 was a focal point of activity and training for the Royal Navy. Throughout its history it was a site that no doubt experienced the rapid advancement of industrialisation and socio-economical change that defines the late 19th century through the 20th century. Its architectural style (by none other than Sir Christopher Wren) is the backdrop for many a big budget movie. As you walk around the picturesque grounds of the site you can instantly get the feel of what it might have been to be a young officer undertaking his training at such an establishment. The Rule The Waves franchise and the way it plays puts a player into a similar position to use their imagination in a way to what it may have been like to walk the halls of the admiralty, and to be in a position to wrestle with what it may have been like to manage a nation’s navy.

When the announcement date for Rule the Waves 3 swept onto my radar, I happily shared it amongst the Armchair Dragoons community Discord for how excited I was to revisit the franchise and see what new mechanics had been introduced and expanded upon, and what new-fangled events awaited me on the high seas. And when Brant said he might be able to get me a review copy in exchange for a cheeky pre-release review I promptly responded that I would “Write the hell out of it!”. Not soon after excitedly turning to my wife to tell her that I might be getting an early copy of a game that I really appreciate in exchange to exercise my writing skills, “You know the one game where I named an Aircraft carrier after you!” I said, to be met with the knowing look of how I once (or maybe twice) regaled her with the story of how I designed something so beautiful and amazing when streaming a playthrough of my own… only for the ship to be torpedoed and sunk somewhere off the coast of Cork, Ireland, don’t even ask about what happened to her sister ship! I jest of course…

And no sooner had I downloaded the copy so graciously provided to us by the communications team at Slitherine and started playing. And after 13 hours and a tinker at how a few nations play out and from a 1890 start reaching 1912 with Japan Its probably time to start writing this review. Alas I should have been taking notes right from the off but the game is just too good!


RTW3 first Pic 1
The Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London

click most images to enlarge

What’s The Game About?

For those unfamiliar with the concept of the game, the campaign offers either an 1890, 1900, 1920, or 1935 start which are typically described as key dates in the introduction of new doctrines of naval warfare due to the leaps in technological advancement with a campaign end as soon as the player reaches the 1970’s. Previous iterations of the game allowing players to play a campaign from 1900 – 1925 in RTW1 and 1900 to 1955 in RTW2. This game gives you the option of playing as either one of the following countries that were recognised as naval powers at the time: UK, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Austria, Japan, USA, and even Spain or China if you feel brave enough to change history.

At the start of each campaign the player being given the option to start with a random AI generated ‘legacy fleet’ or build one of their own with the randomly-generated funds available, stemming from a variety of options including fleet size ranging from small (for perhaps the casual gamer) to super large (for those who want a deeper experience in micro-managing fleet assets), technology speed, and resource randomness.

RTW3 first Pic 2
Nation Choices


RTW3 first Pic 3
Starting Options


The name of the game is, of course, to have your nation ruling the waves with the biggest or most efficient fleet by the end of the campaign. And a player does this by managing a fluctuating naval budget, technology, and foreign relations as best they can whilst also managing prestige (which acts as a personal score). All the while you are competing with AI nations that (depending on which way the wind is blowing) will either want to hurt you or feign friendship for a few years with you whilst you carefully share technology through research agreements and alliances.

The main strategic world map is one that some people might criticise as something built straight off a computer built in the previous millennium. Its choice of minimalist colour palette in its presentation might turn off some of the younger audience, yet it doesn’t take that much getting used to and soon becomes easy to understand and navigate. What the game lacks in modern graphics it more than makes up for in its simple set representations of sea-zones and regions ruled by one power or another, which keeps things simple for an otherwise intricate game. I admit that some may find it a little intimidating if on their first run.

Likewise, its choice of detail in ship design and management feels more like an excel spreadsheet at times if one were honest, but that only adds to its charm. Whilst some mechanics and options for the game (no less than the ship designer) may take a while to get used to for a newcomer, as someone already accustomed to the game there is a lot of hidden complexity, which offers zounds of possibilities and re-playability.

RTW3 first Pic 4
World Map


RTW3 first Pic 5
Fleet List


The game is a single player (despite everyone I know wishing it was multiplayer) turn-based game with each turn representing a month in game time. Each turn is conducted simultaneously, which slowly sees a tension metre rise and fall as world events play out, and indeed as you start laying down your ships.

As soon as one has chosen a nation of which to take charge, the campaign is set and everything thereafter is an ahistorical rollercoaster of events which puts the player at the forefront of Naval Policy making, dock building and designing their first ships.

One admiral building too many battleships and challenging a rival power for dominance in tonnage will be sure to find tensions go up.

A crisis in some far-off Caribbean paradise where the local government has lost control against a rabble? Best send a cruiser to project the nation’s influence in such things, and who knows – maybe make the island a colonial base for further expansion, which will surely annoy somebody.

Is your naval minister in 1950 coming to you with a policy to sell the idea to the public (and by extension the Navy) that battleships are the future of naval warfare? And he wants you to build 12 of them and you are faced with agreeing with him and blowing the budget or disagreeing and taking a hit to political prestige that acts as a campaign score?

It’s all waiting to happen and more in this gem of a game.

Those returning to the franchise after playing RTW1 & 2 will be met with a familiar user interface as much has stayed the same, in fact it hasn’t changed much, the options to start and the general feel is one that people will be instantly familiar with, with the exception of a few added and expanded systems and aesthetics. As I understand, most of the changes adopted are taken from the player base, designing mods for the game over the years. And with the game’s introduction to Steam, one does wonder what it might inspire when more people inevitably discover the game, and when full mod support is perhaps ushered into the workshop in the future.

The world tension bar has been expanded to include 8 rival nations, as opposed to RTW2 choice of only having 6.This not only increases the chance of potential war with other nations, but the mechanics and relationships display has been expanded upon to include how those nations feel about one another, rather than just having a bar chart that represents tensions with your own nation. This I feel is a great improvement to the game (though I understand that the idea may have been introduced by a mod that a player created for RTW2) in that it allows for better depiction of how the other AI nations are interacting, and a better notifier of which nations are allied so you don’t make that mistake of going to war with the Royal Navy only to realise after war is declared, that the UK is also allied with the USA and they have 50 battleships between them, and you are Austria Hungary with but a measly 3 battleships, a dozen cruisers, and a fishing boat that doubles up to be the coast guard on weekends.

On the note of international relations, and for someone who has currently played 22 years of the Japanese campaign, I feel it necessary to point out that RTW3 in comparison to its predecessorsdoes feel more realistic in the slow build up on tensions. I do feel more informed as a player as to how the world is working around me, and by extension can make better choices when it finally comes to the outbreak of war. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it feels realistic in that all out war seem to occur less often in RTW3 than RTW2, and thus gives a player more time and resources to build that ideal fleet.

RTW3 first Pic 6
Relations Tab



The ship designer has had a welcome – albeit minor – overhaul with a few added features to keep the min-maxer happy. These added features include an upper belt tab for when you want to squeeze out more protection for your capital ships, turret era design, greater list of propulsion types, secondary and tertiary ammunition counts, and accommodation upgrades where your seaman now not only have the option of cramped and normal bunks but the choice of spacious cabins should you wish to be kind to them.

The major improvement for me though has to be the ships graphics window. Whilst some players will tell you that in RTW2 you could design your own ship and its superstructure and add design features with the use of a makeshift CAD tool from the ship design menu, let me tell you that as one with a CAD qualification under his belt, it was no easy task to perfectly design the look of your own ship. So much so that the first time I tried it, I ended up giving a makeover to an armoured cruiser that looked like it had wings. Nonetheless the new and improved ship design window, with added ship’s details and an updated graphics tool, is far more friendlier. You can now better reposition turrets, funnels, and superstructure for when you want to recreate that perfect incarnation of HMS Warspite from a bird’s eye view. With the new advanced graphics tool you can even upload images for turrets and planes for a more personalised look to your designs and to better recognise them in combat.

RTW3 first Pic 7
Ship Designer


However, if you are like me and someone who is more or less content to design a ship without getting too heavy into the aesthetics and are more concerned with its functionality for combat regardless of how it looks, then this game still has you covered with easy-enough-to-understand mechanics of choosing the type of ship you want to build, where to build it, and how big you want it to be, then the auto designer will be your best friend. In fact the auto design feature is probably everyone’s best friend when it comes down to a new concept for a ship.

When designing the perfect ship, the game tries to replicate balancing four factors: Weight, Armament, Speed, and of course Armour. The trick of the game is finding that sweet spot that makes your ships more efficient, and therefore more deadly than your potential opponents. Veterans of the franchise will also attest that when designing and building your ships, it is imperative to futureproof them as much as possible; just like in the real world, technology moves quickly and you may find that the prized battleship you designed in 1936 and laid down in 1938 will find itself by 1939 completely useless, and in need of an overhaul which will sap your delicate naval budget.

Other new features also include a ship’s history tab for you track your favourite ships and note their illustrious histories. Moreover (and more intriguing) is the inclusion of the new commanding officer tab in which adds another layer of complexity to the game and how your ships might perform in combat. Officers come with a range of ability ranging from the incompetent to the absolute heroic, and for added flavour the game will tell you if they are a good administrator or even well-enough connected to make firing them (when things go bad, or when they have a few too many drinks with the admirals daughter) that little bit more difficult while managing your personal prestige.

RTW3 first Pic 8
Ship History


RTW3 first Pic 9
The Admiral’s Daughter


Great Happenings

This brings me neatly onto the “events” aspect of the game. Again, little has changed from RTW2 in that the same events everyone has come to know and love are still there! “Another murder in the Balkans? Who’d have thunk it?” But I’ve noticed there are also a few new ones that pop up, which do keep the game fresh and engaging at times. The classic Army and Navy sports event has been introduced, which I thought was very clever. And of course, this time around it won’t be easy to forget which ship has won the gold cup in the annual gunnery competition, as it’ll be noted on the ship’s history tab.

One major aspect that players are likely to enjoy is the new division creation system. One big criticism of previous iterations of the game was that ships of different maximum speeds finding themselves clumsily within the same flotilla, which meant that come a battle you could often find that brand new destroyer you built to outrun the enemy is lumped in with some older models that go a few knots less. Whilst this could be fixed by simply detaching the unit in previous games, the fact now that you can personalise your fleet is a welcome addition, thereby adding again new depth and variety for admirals out there to build task forces and flotillas to their certain style of play.

For the new players, the types of ships that can be built are quite possibly endless, with all manner of things to consider, including: the type of main, and secondary, and in some cases tertiary weapons systems of a ship; the ammunition loadout with those weapons; and where those weapons are placed. Players who reach the 1950’s in a campaign will be treated to the implementation of missile technology which will bring an added stage to the game. The types of ships that can be built in the game are as follows;

  • Pre-Dreadnaught Battleship (B’s) – Battleships built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and your main capital ships when the game starts.
  • Dreadnaught (BB’s) – The battleship built to revolutionise naval warfare and what will be your capital ships in 1910’s.
  • Battleships (BB’s) – The classic modern battleship built in the 1920’s – 1940’s.
  • Battlecruisers (BC’s) – Faster and more thinly armoured than your standard battleship.
  • Armoured Cruisers (CA’s) – Designed to take on any ship other than a battleship.
  • Light Cruisers (CL’s) – The likely workhorse of your fleet, built to take on other light cruisers and destroyers.
  • Destroyers (DD’s) – Small guns, but packs a punch with its use of torpedoes to take on those enemy capital ships.
  • Corvettes (KE’s)– Built to help protect your overseas realms and to disrupt foreign trade.
  • Armoured Merchant Cruiser (AMC’s) – Built to disrupt foreign trade and earn you victory points.
  • Seaplane Carriers (AV’s) – An early aircraft carrier designed mostly for scout/sea planes.
  • Aircraft Carrier (CV’s) – Think your standard USS Enterprise, only cooler because you designed it. Light Aircraft carriers (CVL’s) can also be built.
RTW3 first Pic 10


Of course once you have built that perfect fleet, at some point war will be upon you and the game unveils a new layer of complexity for combat. When in a war the game will on occasion (between turns) randomly generate a battle within a certain sea zone, depending on the types of ships that are within that particular region. Missions vary from:

  • Fleet Battle – Watch as your grand fleets take to the seas and hammer away at one another.
  • Carrier Battle – Fancy conducting your own Battle of Midway that will no doubt echo through the ages? Carrier battles will see the use of fighters and bombers stationed on your carriers to hunt down and sink the enemy fleet.
  • Coastal Raid – Usually conducted by your cruisers and will see a small task force tasked with sinking enemy shipping or destroying a coastal fortification.
  • Convoy Attack/ Defence – Valiantly attack or defend a vital sea convoy carrying supplies to a nation or a particular battlefront.
  • Invasion – I’ll see you on the beach! But not until you sink the enemy fleet that’s blocking our path.

I think returners to the franchise will see nothing new at first when it comes to combat operations. The same monochrome combat window pops up and we are met with our ships rendered on a 2D map that will see our destroyers buzz about like a bee trying to get out of a window, and the bellows of smoke rising atop our battleships. The interface remains the same, as does the average chance of a hit against an enemy (especially in some early battles) but it’s that comfortable, understandable style that even in the most chaotic battle will mean a player can for the most part comprehend what is going on, and where to strike hard in order to land that decisive blow.

When you do reach the aviation age you will be given the option of turning those old and now useless pre-dreadnaughts (should you still have them) into aircraft carriers. Using their hulls the game allows you to take what was once the jewel of the fleet and renew it for a new age and stick a flight desk on her. This was historically done of course done with the USS Langley whereby an old collier was repurposed in 1920.

You also get to have a hand in choosing the focus of how your aircraft perform. Like pretty much everything in this game, its all customisable where you can tell those aviation engineers to design you something with the range, toughness and firepower of your desires (Or to how much technology will allow). Or perhaps you would prefer to buy the specs for spitfires from Great Britain on licence instead to save on the R&D?

RTW3 first Pic 11
Dogfight (from the RTW3 Steam page)


I must also include some thoughts that occurred during the campaign, either through events or slight differences in gameplay from the previous versions. Whilst I am sure there are many more I shall pick out a few that I instantly noticed.

  • Firstly is corvettes – once the “build and forget” type of ship that acted as glorified coast guard patrol boats and sometimes (if you were lucky) convoy escorts, these ships seem to play more of a part in RTW3. In fact you can outfit them with a lot more armament.
  • The Economy – funds used to design, purchase, and maintain ships feels a lot more forgiving and it feels like I am getting a lot more bang for my buck than in previous RTW1 and RTW2 playthroughs.
  • Ship Weight – appears to be a lot more forgiving when adding those big guns that every battleship just has to have.
  • Ship Health – Maybe it’s me but this one does seem more unforgiving as those large calibre hits do more damage. Complacency beware!


Wrap It Up!

In conclusion, I would certainly recommend RTW3 to those both new and familiar with the franchise.

For a returning player the game offers a good few new twists and things to consider, whilst for a new player, naval enthusiast, or even someone looking for a strategy game that will offer that greater level of challenge than your average strategy game or even dare I say Ultimate Admiral: Dreadnaughts, they will definitely appreciate this game being different to anything else on the market. The ship design, whilst complex, is not overly difficult for even the most novice of naval gamers, even if one is stumped by the question of armour and belt coverage, and what might be an optimal size of guns for a particular ship lest it be as useful as a chocolate teapot. I can see myself, and many an enjoyer of the game, being lost in the details of designing that perfect battleship to rival the Bismarck itself. This is, of course, part of the fun – where developing your perfect navy is all trial and error and experiencing a taste of what politicians, naval engineers, and admirals all had to tackle in an age of change and rapid technological advancement.

The combat system is engaging, and for what it lacks in graphics, it more than makes up for in character and style. As mentioned before, this game for me has always offered the chance at re-playability with endless ways to approach any campaign that will no doubt satisfy the gamer.

And with that said, I hope I have done this review justice as a first attempt at writing for the Armchair Dragoons and would invite anyone to watch a play along (or even tune in to some of my RTW2 playthroughs) that I shall soon look to conduct. And hell, if the Dragoon Commander likes what I’ve done I might even write a few AAR’s, after all it’s the least I can do.


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One thought on “A First Look at Rule The Waves 3 from Matrix Games

  1. Hard sell for me: like naval wargames; dislike games with spreadsheet-ish looking interfaces. ‘Nuff said.

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