RTS Basics

Boring Theory

eal Time Strategy, or RTS, is a genre of computer game that crosses old style strategy with nonstop action gaming. Strategy games are usually about military conquests, where intelligence prevails over random chance, brute force and reflex. Action gaming is about being the motivating agent that causes a lot of sound and fury as big, exciting things happen in a very short space of time around you. In RTS, outcomes are determined by both your logic and planning skills and your capacity for skill and action.

Once upon atime in the real world, you used to have a board, a lot of counters, a book of rules and maybe some dice. But with digital entertainment being so all prevailing these days, old tabletop strategy games have either disappeared or migrated acoss to the computer realm. The early computer strategy titles used to be straight lifts from the old board games, but as PC's became more powerful and graphically adept, they mutated into a more sophisticated form unique to the digital realm.

One of those forms is Real Time Strategy. Imagine an old board game where the actual board is as big as the floor plan of your house, and all players can have several hundred pieces each. The room is in complete darkness, but each playing piece emits a small pool of light that illuminates their position on the map and represents what they can see from their limited perspectives. This is the "Fog of War". Both you and they are completely blind to the darkness beyond, even though by standing over the map you have a commanding view of it. There aren't any dice rolls nor any turns. This is a game where everything is constantly in motion and a dozen things can and will happen at once. Your army of units are a mob of animated characters that you control like a little kid poking an ant's nest with a stick. Pieces know what to do when they meet an enemy and how to get around; its simply up to you to get them organised and in the right positions for them to do their jobs. You bark orders at them like a coach from the sidelines. It could all very easily turn into complete chaos, but the winning players are those who can organize their armies into coherent forces and use superior strategy to conquer the map.

RTS follows the old "Empire" game model: you're a commander waging war against your opponents in an effort to either defeat them or rule the world. But its also a hybrid game form that combines the wargaming strategy game with those of character based roleplaying. Its origins can be traced back to tabletop gaming, which it applies to a real-time, simulated environment.

Some background

Back in the primitive, art-free days of 486's and MS-DOS, strategy games were straight conversions of old board games. You had turns, a map that looked and behaved like a board game (only much bigger) and lots of different pieces. The big gimmick at the time was that computers were beginning to play complex games outside of the arcades: they could calculate entire phone books of data in the time it took to spill your coffee. They'd express all these calculations cleanly and concisely to the player as a simulation, sometimes in real time, or sometimes as turns involving the computation of thousands of game elements that'd take a human hours to process.

This was the late Seventies and Eighties, when hardware and software were still beyond most people. Most gaming was done in the arcades - coin-op's were the ultimate expression of electronic fun: fast, furious, responsive, colourful and addictive. "Computer games" were only really known amongst people who were "into computers"; and computers were niche, relatively exotic, or simply just plain magical and confusing to most outsiders. Most computer gamers were serious hobbyists, studying Computer Science at a tertiary level, students with access to mainframe computing or people lucky enough to have some close relatives who had been serious boffins and engineers doing the same. Early games, like the systems they lived on, required a lot of commitment and patience to work. Nevertheless, things were starting to change: a new generation of players and bedroom developers were starting to mess around with 8 bit home computers like the Spectrum ZX80 and the Commodore 64, and with their 16 bit offspring with the formidable Amiga and the Atari ST.

There was no such thing as a casual gamer at the time. Actually, there was no such thing as a "gamer" full stop, at least in the computer sense. Certainly no "game culture" or even a hint of a sense of history. It was all too new. Discovering someone who had actually played the same game as you was often a surprise and a revelation. There was no multiplayer either. Networking was a painful process of connecting a 300 baud modem to an ancient copper telephone, or worse, messing around with serial cables to wire two computers together in the same room. Unless the game came with dual screens, or offered hot seating (where players shared the one chair to take turns) networked multiplayer didn't exist. Unless you were playing in a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) on a mainframe computer network somewhere, there was nothing. Even the mighty mainframes themselves used ASCII graphics and text for an interface. Most pixel art was worked out on graph paper!

Running parallel with this was tabletop gaming. Modern roleplaying as we understand it was only invented in the early 1970's with Gary Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in the US. Back then it was largely a hobbyist's cottage industry, and very much on the more obscure fringes of popular culture. Wargaming was even fringier, even by roleplayer standards. By the 1980's, about the time of the 8 bit personal computer revolution, Gygax's TSR Inc. was just one business in a rapidly growing industry that was producing tabletop RPG's, books, novels and spinoffs. There was the usual moral panicking from the far right in the US bordering on the outright farcical, and the usual anxiety over games (that finally started taking the heat off TV and VHS "video nasties") but for the most part gaming was well on its way to becoming one of the main hubs of mainstream popular culture. D&D was the defining model for RPG's, but there was also the generic GURPS, and a plethora of other pop-culture themed games, ranging from The Call of Chthulu to James Bond.

Across the Atlantic in Thatcher's Britain, post-Punk popular culture was seeing the heyday of the boys' comic 2000AD and its signature character, Judge Dredd, along with the arrival of Games Workshop (GW). GW incorporated a lot of roleplaying imported from the States, but was busily generating its own, most famously in the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 tabletop games that crossed fantasy roleplaying with old tin soldier war gaming. At the same time, roleplaying had penetrated a lot of European countries, such as France and Germany. After the implosion of the Cold War in 1989, many Eastern European countries were picking it up as well.

By the 1990's the industry's first bloom was starting to fade as it tried filling one niche too many; the ponderous D&D gaming tableau was rapidly being supplanted by newer and more convenient playing card systems, like Magic: The Gathering. TSR split up, got bought by a firm called Wizards of the West Coast which in turn was bought as a subsidary by giant game multinational Hasbro in the new Century.

As processor power and graphics evolved, strategy games started incorporating more sound and graphics. In the 1990's, games like DOOM revolutionized PC gameplay by reintroducing speed and responsiveness, effectively putting the PC not only back on the map, but setting it up as a leading platform for pushing hardware and games development. These days they run more like full 3D simulations: complete virtual worlds with their own special rules and physics - and use playing pieces that are practically characters themselves, imbued with surprising amounts of complex behaviour. They're sold more like summer blockbusters and media these days. A large chunk of processing power is spent on just marshaling all these art elements whilst still conducting a lag free game in real time. RTS is one of those genres that can only be executed by a computer.

Thinkin' versus Twitchin'

A big (staged) StarCraft battle. Fights between units aren't just looking at the numbers to determine the winner; once units start bumping into each other and deciding who to shoot next, things can get "random" pretty damn fast. This is where player skill can tip the balance and decide the outcome. Positioning your units to give them the best chance at striking the enemy or surviving longer will make all the difference as much as sheer numbers.

If you want to get pedantic, RTS is more like Real Time Tactics than Real Time Strategy: Speed Chess instead of regular Chess. RTS is about becoming familiar with the characters in your army and playing them "by feel" instead of the abstract, stately turns of an old tabletop game. "Pure" Turn Based Strategy, or TBS games are entirely cerebral since there's unlimited amount of time for decision making and actual battles are little more than complicated formulas. Turns are wonderfully ultra-rational, with no messy bits. Some hard-core turn based strategists call RTS "Twitch" Real Time - dismissing it as barely above the button mashing of a First Person Shooter or a Fighting Game. This is only half true, and it misses the point. RTS might lack the calm depths and armchair grandeur of turn based epics like Civilization or Masters of Orion, but most real warfare is very much decided by bad weather and poor decisions made under fire on the day.

Blizzard's StarCraft (pictured left) epitomises this. StarCraft in particular deliberately structured its interface and game design to force players into pushing stuff around by hand, whilst at the same time its tech tree and paper-scissor-rock style of balancing also forces them to think strategically. Turn based strategy tends to hover around the big picture, dismissing a lot of detail; while in RTS those little details annihilate the unwary. You could have the best battle plan in the game, but if you fumbled moving your forces it'd all come to nothing. StarCraft's been classified both as a strategy game and a game of skill. Its not for nothing that there's a StarCraft professional competition circuit in South Korea that even has its own e-sports coverage on Korean TV.

Games like Civilization tend to play on a global stage, but a lot of RTS games revolve around a single player campaign, which is invariably little more than a linear sequence of small battle, like a string of beads. Once you strip away the veneer of art and design, most RTS "stories" are just endless rehashes of the same sequence of events: build a base and destroy the enemies colour coded differently to you. Often the cut scenes are at odds with what goes on on the field, and even on very early successful titles like StarCraft itself, designers were racking their brains trying to come up with ways to stop the single player maps from becoming monotonously repetitive. Not to put down single player missions (StarCraft and Homeworld's single player missions are really very cool) but they're usually woeful training for any multiplayer gaming. Campaigns only build up a context to validate all the weird and wonderful design decisions and flesh out a fantasy world to make the game more appealing and believable to the players.

Its quite different to most turn based strategy games. While RTS single player trundles on carefully scripted rails and relies a lot on trigger based events and goals, Turn Based Strategy often drops story and simply gives you a basic premise that's worked out each time you play through a typical game. (e.g. "I played Civ once and the Ancient Egyptians destroyed the British Empire and Ghengis Khan had the Bomb.") Each single TBS game is the equivalent of an entire RTS campaign, and then some. Because things are so remote and generic, its very easy for the player to "block out" a big picture sequence of events just without the need to fill in the details. Its like reading a history book: lots of names and dates, but no personal details. Nevertheless, while Civilization and its ilk can try out all kinds of weird and strange takes on history, they still only have one winner. Like Monopoly, once that someone starts winning it can be very hard stopping them!


Stuff, glorious stuff! A quick screen grab from a wandering party's Inventory Screen from Gas Powered Games' Dungeon Siege. Dungeon Siege is little more than a glorified hack'n'slash monster bash compared to RPG's of old, but it sure knows the virtues lots of loot! And stats. And magical items. And lots of ways of beefing up your much loved characters. Once you factor in its customisable game structure (it was designed so that the fan's could get inside and build their own adventures and custom mods from it) and the amount of downloads for it... the sheer amount of stuff to discover and hoard can keep full time gamers going for months - if not years!

Its the details that make RTS interesting. RTS owes its big picture to tabletop war games, but a lot of its fine granularity is influenced by war gaming's close sibling, the Role-Playing Game or RPG. Roleplaying's archetypal example must surely be the original TSR and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. AD&D translated Tolkien style fantasy characters and settings into titanic tabletop campaigns populated with character sheets, spells, monsters and quests that took months to complete.

An RPG character is defined by dozens of separate attributes, usually expressed as simple integers. Points are alloctaed to describe Health, Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc.; characters carry an inventory of objects (each with their own descriptions and vital statistics) such as armour, clothing, weapons, magic spells, potions and other trinkets (to name but a few); they pick up special skills and abilities during the course of the game; and they are all described in bulging volumes of rules and books that go into considerable detail on everything from the life cycle of a monsters right through to the ancient histories of fictional civilisations and back again to something as trivial as the significance of the detailing on a sword pommel.

Basic RPG game playing requires endless dice throwing, some basic arithmetic and a stack of "source books" just to keep tabs on how your character behaves, reacts, fights, casts magic, gets injured, recovers, or performs any task. It inherited a lot of Ye Olde Worlde Tolkienian racism - in that function and abilities are entirely racially determined. Dainty Elves are magical and artistic, short squat Dwarves are lumpen proles, Humans are heroic - if not corruptible - and Orcs are aggressive, ugly, and summarily executed on sight. Picking a species usually picks your character Class, which loosely translates into a profession: Paladin, Wizard, Warrior, Thief, etc. AD&D went as far to include something called Alignment, which involves the moral compass of the character, and which affects many of the decisions and outcomes for that character. You could be Lawful Good, Neutral, or just Chaotically Evil.

AD&D games are driven by a Dungeon Master, or DM. The DM is someone who plays the part of the Dungeon, organizing and refereeing the game. They manage the quest, conjure up obstacles and monsters for the other players to defeat, and arbitrate all decisions in the game. Its a full time occupation that often needs a lot of prep work. The whole point of role-playing is to toddle off on some big quest in order to achieve some Ultimate Goal, with the DM throwing in monsters, plot points and situations for the Company to negotiate along the way. In fact, the more trinkets, levels, equipment and monsters, the merrier. The RPG with the most stuff wins!

Typically, its proved very difficult to translate the role of a DM to that of an adequate computer player. That combination of storytelling, creativity and human interaction is not an easy thing to duplicate. Its no surprise to find that many role-playing computer games tend to degenerate into mindless, RSI inducing hack'n'slash fests (like Diablo) that treat monsters more like pinatas filled with sweets rather than actual threats, or go for the massive online network (called a Massive Multiplayer Online game, or MMO) like EVE-Online where ten thousand gamers are the storyline in a persistent virtual fantasy realm. All the computers do is drive all the boring mechanical bits while the humans handle the all the messy creative and social stuff. Even then, a lot of the daily gameplay in these things are called grind as players feel obliged to repeat dull, repetitive tasks and missions in order to push their character's progression.

In the past, playing old tabletop games were practically full time occupations rather than hobbies. Its still the same today in online MMO's like World of WarCraft. The social aspect and the idea of a gang of merry fellows setting off on a six month jaunt into a fantastic realm was where the RPG kicked off - provided you could find somebody who could keep everything on course and be a good DM. The sense of exploration and adventure that a good RPG can evoke is unparalleled. Its about visiting your favourite fantasy world and wanting to live there.


In stark contrast, War Gaming is obsessed with the outcome. Its all about being triumphant over the other players. War Gaming's classic example would have to be GR/D's war game Europa. Europa models World War II practically down to the last soldier, and its campaigns are serious affairs that can take a month of weekends. There are no wandering hobbits here, thank you very much! The military campaign is the end in itself; the whys and wherefores of Good vs Evil are irrelevant. Wargamers get into their strategies and military paraphernalia with the same fervour that train spotters get stalking old locomotives or role-players fondling their Preciouses. Its not as personal either: entire battalions are condensed into single counters with their movement, strengths, mobility and supplies described at a collective group level. Individual character, suffering and carnage are completely non-existent, except as dry statistics or as a stylised figurine.

The closest you get to anything resembling a character would be the heroic general or the big name historical figure. Even then, its a largely mythic sort of representation, not an actual characterisation. You're playing the part of a remote, conquering warlord poring over a world map piled high with battle reports rather than slogging through a virtual world knee deep in the dead. Everything smaller than a county is usually considered a minor detail unless you're playing a war game that expressly recreates a famous battle blow by blow.

Some war games go a bit deeper and delve into the political intrigues and imperial economics behind the military machines. Many of them place their campaigns in a historical context, with a strong emphasis on simulating the period in time. You're not just a commander, but also a governor and perhaps an emperor too, setting imperial policy as much as ordering troop movements. This is the Empire game model again. Some old strategy games would carve up their turns into "phases". You'd get Movement Phases, Combat Phases, Production Phases, all kinds of Phases; some games could have anything up to a dozen different procedures just to take a single turn! Everything is sorted neatly and cleanly into logical little steps. Thankfully, a lot of this has been streamlined in the modern strategy game.

With more than two players on the field, Diplomacy suddenly comes into its own. Diplomacy in this sense is the in-game relationship between the forces playing in the field. Single players or teams are pitted against each other, making and breaking alliances, jostling for position as fronts and power blocs ebb and flow across the game map. Diplomacy has the same sort of significance in war gaming as bidding does in Poker - and you won't find it written up in the game rules either! This is especially true for "pure" strategy board games like Diplomacy or Risk. That's where all the spark lies in strategy gaming - everything else, even the military details, pales by comparison. Roleplaying, by contrast, is all about living the details rather than the final outcome where you vanquish your opponents.

Putting it all together

A more recent RTS: Earth 2150's 3D environment simulates bad weather, the passage of days into night and even has strategies concerning lights and blackouts. But wait! It all seems to be sitting on an old fashioned game board divided neatly into squares. Even the tanks and airborne helicopters are neatly parked in rows! Hmm... guess things haven't really changed that much after all!
All of this lurks under the bonnet in most Real Time Strategy games. Its just that its all automated by the RTS game engine and thus concealed from view - or rather, all those reams of numbers and rules are translating into animated characters, effects, and sound. Your basic gaming PC these days has more than sufficient power to "role play" hundreds of characters and simultaneously move them as armies, staging giant clashes where every individual is fighting to their fullest. The trend seems to be heading towards the full 3D simulation that bears little or no resemblance to the old tabletops or even the early computer games.

But still, behind all that noise and colour lurks the same basic formula found in Chess, Checkers, or Risk or any other board game of old. And, unlike an action game, RTS doesn't rely on dumb luck, reflex or only thinking about what's in front of your cross hairs. Its a thinking and planning exercise with a time restraint. Its that restraint that gives Real Time Strategy it its edge - everything happens at once and you're managing your game under fire.

Real Time Strategy is deterministic and blind chance is largely absent. Any apparent "randomness" comes from those crowds of units clashing with each other, thousands of tiny interactions snowballing into titanic outcomes, Butterfly Effect style. And don't forget, the biggest randomisers in the universe - the human players themselves - are constantly in play, shaking everything up.

RTS models diagrammatic, cartoon wars. Units engage in combat, explosions detonate with flaming debris, supply lines stretch exposed across the map and behind it all is a crude caricature of the military/industrial complex keeping it all going. Its grossly simplistic, but there's only so much a human brain can cope with in real time. Frankly, its been stylised to be entertaining, not to express any profound insights. Most games that claim to be "realistic" usually fall flat on their face. But they do illustrate the dodgier aspects of the Western male mind set of the last few centuries quite well. Imperialism and the idea of colonialism; Might is Right; and all of civilization's great works stripped back and relegated to being nothing more than a pit stop for some historical figure's monomaniacal campaigning. It rarely models morale, disease, refugees, religions, Peace Movements, or the socio-political situations that triggered or shaped the conflicts and cultures to begin with - things that in themselves are infinitely more interesting and extraordinary than any game. But then, neither did Chess - games are abstractions after all. RTS follows the same logic and sensibilities of that dusty old game. It operates inside a vacuum. Real life conflicts can be grossly unfair, horribly unsporting and horrifically random - anything but logical. Computer games only offer the illusion of action and chaos: underneath they are all completely in control.

No wonder they're so much fun to play! RTS is a lot more effort than a shooter or a console game, but what you get out of them depends on how much you put into them. A good RTS is like a cross between a fantastic ripping yarn, history and a demolition derby. Yee haw!

Related Links

Role Playing Games: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) is probably best expressed in computer form these days as the Baldur's Gate series, and the latest successor in the (no doubt never to end) series: Neverwinter Nights.

A good general starting point is GameSpy's RPG Planet.

RPG "Lites" For the Pavlovian hack'n'slashers that play more like Space Invaders than Tolkien: Diablo series and Dungeon Siege.

Massively Multiplayer Online RPG's (or Many Males Online, Role-Playing Girls) - or just simply, MMO - has been the flavour of the month for over a decade now. Ever since its early MUD (or Multi-User Dungeon) roots in pre-Internet university days, MMO's are dominated by the fantasy genre: two old notable examples are Everquest and Ultima Online. Both were "hardcore" in that the environments were largely unrestrained, and players were often in more danger from other players than they were from wandering monsters or dangerous quests. Ultima is an ancient computer game series that started in the Eighties on old 8 bit computers like the Commodore 64. See also Microsoft's Elder Scrolls and The Dark Age of Camelot. Science fiction tends to be the other major species, where players crash around in an online galaxy, as found in EVE-Online, Anarchy Online or Star Wars Galaxies. Cyberpunks can check out Neocron.

Probably the MMORPG of the last few years would be World of WarCraft (or WoW): Blizzard struck again with a massive hit with its MMORPG based on the WarCraft franchise. In Anglo circles, its huge - so big that it threatens the viability of other PC games.

MMORPG genre starting points: Ten Ton Hammer, MMORPG Cafe and MMORPG.com.

Wargames This venerable game genre is best explored by browsing the product lines of Strategic Studies Group (SSG), Paradox and TalonSoft. Think of it as the computer version of all those old tabletop games with lead figurines. Of course, its all moved into the realm of the fully simulated environment these days. However, fantasy wargaming is very much alive and well: the monster franchise Warhammer 40,000 sets its huge figurine battles in a universe alive with never ending war.
Turn Based Strategy Old fashioned strategy gaming, tried and true. Without a doubt, the two series that spring to mind (for me at least) is Civilization and Masters of Orion. The Apolyton Civilization site is a good start for looking up "civ" style games. Fantasy minded gamers might be thinking more of Heroes of Might & Magic.
"4X" The turn based conquer-the-galaxy strategy genre. 4X is short for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate, which sums up the idea of building your own galactic empire and conquering the Universe. Notable examples are Masters of Orion, Spaceward Ho!, Stars!, Space Empires, Galactic Civilizations, Reach for the Stars or Starships United. More Details.

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Last modified Wed, 4 May 2011 by Lindsay Fleay