RTS Basics

Micromanagement Tools

Many RTS games give you a number of features that automate much of the messy micro management and allow you to focus on the overall strategy. You should spend a little time to learn these, even if it means (gasp!) going back to the game manual.

Keyboard and Mousing Shortcuts

Shooter fans instinctively know the virtue of remembering their keyboard shortcuts. The right configuration can mean the difference between a high frag count or a rout. Its just as important in RTS - and absolutely critical to responding to urgent situations on multiple fronts. Anything that frees you from slogging that mouse to and from the menu bar should be memorised - because nothing is worse than watching an invincible army (that should have ruled the map, damn it!) get completely destroyed because you stuffed up your mousing. All your major commands: Move, Attack, Stop, etc should be like your movement and fire keys on your 3D shooter.

Most RTS games have elaborate methods of selecting units and every one uses the click and drag box select of some kind to grab clumps of units at a stroke. If you hold down SHIFT, you can click to select or deselect individual units from a group. Double clicking on a unit generally selects every unit of that type visible on the main display. The mouse pointer is context specific; that is, it changes to the appropriate command as you wave it around the screen. Position it over a patch of ground, and a click becomes a Move command; hover over an enemy structure and it becomes an Attack; select a support unit and click on an injured unit, it becomes Repair, and so on.

Numbered Selections

Pick a number

All those mouse short cuts are all very well, but when there's a big fight on screen you'll rarely grab the right units at the right time. Box selections are pretty indiscriminate and half the time those big battles seem completely out of your control. Just the tiniest bit of lag and you'll misclick, grab the wrong units, send the wrong orders, accidentally target your own troops and then fuck things up further as you desperately try to fix things and make everything worse. Many players have been defeated by this problem. Sometimes it seems the best way to win a fight is to just Hold Position, defend, and hope the enemy trips up on their own feet!

Completely lost all your units in the crowd? Can't sort out who's who in a confusing melee? A simple key press can instantly select the right units in a fight an save the day. But you have to  set up your numbered selections first.
Every RTS game worth its salt lets you get around this issue with Numbered Selections. By allocating a number to a group of units, you can quickly select them by pressing that number on the keyboard, regardless of how scattered they are or if they're on the other side of the map. In fact, provided you know your keyboard commands, you can order multiple orders to multiple groups in seconds, even in the midst of a huge, confusing melee. How you decide to sort your numbered groups is entirely up to you, but usually its by type or function. (e.g. infantry is divided into groups 1 & 2; armour 3 & 4; artillery 5; ground support 6; base build/repair team 7; air fighters 8; air bombers 9; and perhaps 0 (if its available in the game) is for your favourite big gun on the field). If you're lucky, your numbered selections can overlap and you can double the usefulness of your units. E.g. from the previous example, armour 3 might include half the infantry of group 2, so when you move those tanks they have an infantry escort at all times, but if you need an infantry attack in strength, group 2 can be fully deployed.

There's an infinite number of ways you can organise your numbers. You might sort your units by function, have mixed taskforce groups or even number your factories so you can instantly queue up reinforcements or upgrades without taking your eye off the main fight for an instant. Really, it all boils do to doing a little preparation, and working out how you like to organise things.

The usual RTS convention is to assign a numbered selection by pressing CTRL and n together, where n is a number between 0 and 9. To instantly select your numbered selection, just press that number again. In many games, pressing that number twice will select the group and whip the camera back to them. You can issue multiple orders to multiple selections in mere seconds, mobilising hundreds of units simultaneously to do completely separate tasks.

The advantages of numbered selections cannot be overstated. One of my favourites comes from Total Annihilation. If one of your lone scouts flies over an enemy base you can quickly select your long range artillery and then an attack order in the same amount of time it takes to press two keys and click a target on the screen. Your foes, driving thousands of resources worth of armour and infantry, will very quickly learn to fear a cheap, unarmed scout! Conversely, your reaction times can seem almost instantaneous to your startled foes with a little practice and some careful prep work. However, maintaining that careful organisation can prove tricky after the first big engagement... above all, keeping your wits about you and managing your units and builds are essential for this to work effectively. Again, its practice. And finding out what suits you.

There are usually other key board shortcuts available in a game. In StarCraft for example, alt-clicking a unit immediately selects the entire group that unit was selected with it earlier; ctrl-clicking picks all the units of one type visible on the screen. There's a few others, but you should definitely take the time to check up on all those shortcuts!

The Minimap

The Minimap is your friend!
This is an indispensable management tool! I can't think of a single real time strategy game that doesn't have one. The Minimap is a live overview of the entire game map and is constantly updated by whatever your units see. Positions of known enemies, allies and any other notable items are shown as colour coded dots. Anything outside that range is inside the Fog of War. The Fog of War represents the uncertainty and limit of your forces' collective vision and knowledge, presented as a visual effect. Everything within the darkness of the Fog is not updated and only shows what was last seen there. That means the empty space you saw earlier may not be empty at all - for all you know it may now contain the enemy's new base. You won't know until another unit gets into the area and updates the view. Areas of the map that are unexplored are usually shown as black. It goes without saying that you should try and keep as much of that minimap lit as possible with your scouts, and keep the Fog of War at bay as best you can.

Conversely, part of your strategy should always blind your opponent as much as you can, and wherever possible, use the "cover of darkness" within the Fog to move around and conceal your real intentions. Its an essential tool for any feints, tricks or ambushes you may want to lay. There's always a psychological angle to using the Fog: you can never quite be certain exactly how big the enemy force might be within it. We have a tendency to overestimate our opponents and underestimate our own forces when we can't see them.

The minimap also lets you quickly navigate around the map, pick out enemy targets and lay down movement or attack orders in short order. It will also alert you to any attacks and ping any other urgent messages. Your view on the main display is represented as a rectangle so you know at all times what part of the map your main display is focused on. You could scroll slowly and painfully across the main display by pushing your mouse into the edges of your screen, but only if you like losing games all the time. Smart players will quickly click from one place to another directly off the Minimap.


The mantra for all RTS units is "The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is A Straight Line." They will (attempt to) navigate from point A (their current position) to point B (your move command) at all times. If that means gambolling happily into the heart of the enemy base and certain death, then so be it! No unit will ever drown or march off a cliff - these dangers are inaccessible and merely obstacles to drive around. Units will work out a route through difficult or obstructed terrain, but most game engines in RTS are miserly. CPU cycles are doled out grudgingly and thinly distributed amongst many travelers. Even the newest game engines running on the most power new generation PC's still suffer pathing issues. When the population in the game starts in to increase, delays become noticeable and the responsiveness of your force starts to drop. They will eventually arrive at their destination, but rarely in the safest or efficient way.

What you may need to do is give your long suffering dudes a little more direction. With Waypoints, you're merely adding extra points to your move command, and units will travel from each point you mark of the map, dot to dot style. Waypointing is ideal for marking out involved patrol routes for scouts, moving units out of the way of others, or taking a route you want rather than trusting the game engine to do it for you. You can pick waypoints off your minimap, which is fantastic for early scouting.

Multiple commands, like multiple selections, are nearly always given by holding down the SHIFT key and issuing your orders in a queue.

They're also extremely useful in some games for queuing special commands for a unit along a route. For example, in Total Annihilation you can give an almost endless string of commands to a single builder by shift-clicking building and command requests at a single go. Each order and build request becomes a waypoint for a long build queue. A builder can make some buildings, repair some damaged turrets, reclaim some wreckage, build a few more buildings and then, once finished, patrol everything it built to automatically repair anything that gets damaged later on.

Patrols & Guarding

Closely associated with paths and waypoints are patrols. A Patrol is a looped Move command, usually marked out with waypoints. You mark out a route on the map and the selected units will walk it forever until otherwise commanded or when death does them part. Patrols are great for scouts, base perimeter defenders and roving repair crews. Once on patrol, a unit will automatically perform its duties without having to be told first. Support units will automatically stop and repair others before moving on; armed units will challenge anything hostile that crosses that path. It will react automatically to any new situation faster than manually commanding it.

The only problem with patrolling is that you surrender your units' control to that of the game engine - and its decision making process, like path finding, can be dodgy at best. However in some games you might actually find that patrolling units actually perform better than directly ordered ones, if for no other reason than their response times will be a bit snappier than those having to process a batch of fresh orders. As ever, you should be keeping a close eye on proceedings and use your own experience as your best guide.

Build Queues

Build queues are excellent ways of organising your economy without having to wipe its nose every step of the way. A build queue is nothing more than a shopping list for a builder or factory to churn out. Most builders can only make on thing at a time. They'll patiently work through an entire list before stopping. Most factories can only build one item at a time as well (unless you discount Homeworld's Mothership, which can churn out multiple unit classes simultaneously). Build queues are set up by clicking through all the items you want to build and then sitting back and watching your factories spit them out in the order you picked them. You can usually cancel individual items, but its rare that you can shuffle them around. Some games ask you to put up the resources needed for each item up front, making queuing harder and forcing the player to constantly "micro" everything by hand. Usually this applies to the action RTS. StarCraft definitely fits this mould, and demands its player to push around every aspect of the game by hand. Other games, like Total Annihilation or Homeworld, will let you build a queue and simply stall production when you run out of available resources. Thankfully, most newer RTS games seem conscious of the need to keep that messy micromanagement to a minimum. Total Annihilation's build queues are still by far and away the best around - you can queue up literally hundreds of items for a builder to work through and then leave them to their own devices. What's more, with a few support units guarding it, and others patrolling the general vicinity - you can build entire zones without having to ever be there, limited only by the rate at which you burn resources.

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Last modified Sun, Oct 8 2006 by Lindsay Fleay