RTS Basics
RTS Basics: Strategy

Oh. That!

Many strategy sites on the Web are game specific. You want to read up on, say, StarCraft strategies, you go to a StarCraft site. That might sound stupidly obvious, but the problem is that most sites are either crude introductions for absolute beginners or they all assume you already know the game inside out. The least useful strategy guides I've come across have all come from the serious hardcore crowd, especially those playing competitively to the point of almost being pathological. They rattle off build orders, speak in code and acronyms; declare their strategies the best in all the world; tear strips off those they consider worthless. Most of the time its only useful to people who have already devoted hundreds of serious hours playing the game to death.

There's some genuine gold in hard core sites and often some impressive skill, but unfortunately you have to negotiate the small, toxic subculture clinging tenaciously to the game's flanks to get there. Gaming cultures vary considerably from game to game of course, and a good rule of thumb is that a large gaming community tends to include more than a small one.

In serious game circles, you'll find a lot of gatekeeping. Ladder and pro players love to think they have magic knowledge that even the developers don't have, and thus, wield a (self granted) license to impose on the rest of the playerbase their narrow idea of what the entire game is all about: how it should be played, and why they're responsible for its success, and why do the developers keep changing things to suit the whiners and scrubs that make up the other 95% of the playerbase. In my experience, the death of any game is close by when the hard core do finally get things their way; by that stage all the normal humans have moved on to greener pastures and you're left with a odious cadre that repel anyone foolish to come in late.

There's a tendency for the younger and less mature to gravitate to simpler and more competitive games. And the more visceral the experience, the more heated the shallow end of the gaming pool gets. Counter-Strike's the obvious example, but even games with huge amounts of detail, like Dawn of War or StarCraft, there's a very large audience of young, immature (sometimes painfully so) players who are very, very precious about their game; or rather, their place in its social pecking order. The more difficult and and involving the game, the less likely its community is going to have dickheads with short attention spans and cheats prowling it. It gets worse if the game offers a persistent progression up a ladder, character levels or a system of unlocking better toys via some in-game currency. In games like World of Tanks, it can often feel that the players who dominate the top of the ladders are those who foolishly empty their wallets the fastest to get the more powerful (and almost untouchable) units than the "losers" down below. Nothing deforms a game faster than hacks or in-game gold, nothing distorts a game faster than the ability to "win" via your wallet.

This is especially true when you playing something that has a definite win/lose ending - like your standard RTS or 3D shooter. Racking up kills is more important to many than actually playing the game and having fun; whether the game lasts six hours or five minutes, if it all ends up with a strictly boolean (yes/no) result then the jokers with the best hacks and cheats will dominate. Games that take hours or weeks and present graded summaries (like say, Civilization) are far less likely to have vindictive kiddies with cheats, with the possible exception of roleplaying games, where the opportunities of hiding super-powerful hacked items amongst the thousands of trinkets and weapons is much easier to do.

A lot of sites list strategy also list "recipes" of winning combinations of units and manoeuvres to settle a game. These are like simple shopping lists: build this, then that, two of those, ten of these and whe - hey! Instant victory! However, when you try them, certain disaster seems somehow inevitable. Lists alone don't make an okay player. The people who wrote those lists already know the game backwards, and you can be pretty sure they'll be the ones fanatical enough to play it round the clock for months on end. They've got the feel of the thing; they know just how the game behaves and reacts, when to do things, and where all the loopholes are. A lot of basic assumptions aren't likely to be mentioned either because the writers know it all so well they don't even think about it anymore - not until they come across some newbie trying to work it all out from scratch. In other words, their experience and skills make it all work. When you encounter really good players, either through game recordings or online - you'll find they can take just about any useless item in the game and blast you off the face of the earth with it.

Of course, this is assuming that all there is to playing a strategy game is just win all the time. Straight kills might be all very well, but it can get pretty damn DULL pretty damn fast especially for anyone on the receiving end. As far as I'm concerned, knowing a few strategems just gets things interesting. There's playing to be sociable too, you know.

When I started getting into Real Time Strategy I never ever found strategies on how to pull yourself out of a rut or realising that many strategies have to be adapted or just discarded under different circumstances. A beginner that tries to reproduce an ultimate trumping strategy is more than likely going to be massacred even by a good player playing badly. Ultimately, just playing the thing is your best bet. Strategies are just references and tips that help improve your game. Also, there's more to marshalling units than just knowing numbers and where all the commands are. Units can behave in funny ways; while there isn't too much random dice throwing on the field, the way they interact with each other and respond to different commands provides all the randomness you need to upset even the most idiot proof winning strat. There didn't seem to be any online strategy guides that covered the other stuff in RTS, like losing heart or remembering to be in three places at once, so I wrote them down myself based on my own experiences. Strategy can be a little like a language; units, rules and manoeuvres are like words and sentences in an argument. After a while you may be interested enough to making up your own ways and methods and develop your own style.

Many of these guides can be found via the Info & Strategy sections of the game sections found in the Games List.

Regardless of how the units or strategies in a strategy game are organised, one thing is generally universal amongst successful titles: you won't find find too many "victory grooves" in the modern RTS where one strategy always wins. Game balance is at the heart of every game title. If its not there, there's a good chance a patch (or two) will appear from the developers to close any bugs, loopholes or outright flaws that can ruin the game. If you just got flattened and your worthy opponent seemed to be everywhere and commanding an impossibly huge army, then you've most likely missed something. (Or else they're cheating; or have a few more years of practice, but there's not much anyone can do about that.) Something, somewhere in the game will somehow balance things up. Or should.

Have fun!

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Last modified Mon, Mar 22 2004 by Lindsay Fleay