Glossary of RTS Terms

What's a choke? Am I really a bottom feeder? Why does my Magic User look like a robot? And how does a strategy stink of cheese for heaven's sake? No need to spend months trying to decipher all this silly nonsense - just look up the right answer and not only will you walk the walk, you'll talk the gobbledygook, too! Some of these terms don't just apply to RTS, I've included a few universal terms, since you'll find all kinds at a LAN party - seasoned vets alongside curious tourists. So, this is all pretty subjective and some of the terms, (like Harvester or Peon) have been arbitrarily elected by this slavering scrivener to represent some fairly broad terms, based purely on how I've seen the words used in my limited forays onto the Net.

4X to Deathmatch

Not the Queensland beer - 4X is actually an acronym that has become part of the space turn based strategy lexicon: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. Its an offshoot of the Empire model of strategy, except instead of conquering the world you set out to conquer a map full of star systems.

4X games hark back to the earliest days of computer gaming, and they really haven't changed that much except to become fiendishly more complicated. This is old skool computing, where gameplay comes first and everything else second, including good looks and special effects. And by gameplay, we don't mean high speed interaction or immersion in a 3D environment. The fact that your typical 4X game - even the new ones - has dreadful graphics and look as riveting as a spreadsheet is beside the point. Take note you console kiddies! Patience, foresight and a bit of scheming cleverness are mandatory requirements, plus an imagination to make it all work. Epic turn based games frequently glue people to their computers, as anyone who has played Civilization into the middle of the next day can tell you. 4X takes the Civilization concept and extrapolates it to an entire galaxy. You don't just have the history of one planet, you have the tale of entire star spanning empires colliding.

eXplore All these games give you a small galaxy or cloud of stars and/or planets to explore. You get to see wondrous sights, and meet new and fascinating cultures along the way. When you start, distances seem vast and your ships' operational ranges are limited/ You slowly start surveying worlds and establishing diplomatic relations with your equally small neighbours.

The player represents the collective identity of a space faring galactic civilization with considerable ambition. You get to build some funky space ships, establish new colonies, grow them into massive planetary powers, terraform lifeless rocks into paradises, research and develop new and wondrous technologies. Most of the 4X strategy games have tech trees with hundreds of different tech's, and many of them offer players the capacity to design their own shipping with their freshly researched trinkets. But the ultimate aim is to conquer the universe.

eXploit Your burgeoning empire needs ever increasing resources to sustain itself and grow. Your people learn the not so subtle art of stripping planets and beefing up their planetary economies. Technologies start producing more and more planet bonuses and increasing production. You can set global policy options and empire wide taxes, with the proceeds usually plowed back into R&D, military, spending, economic developing and keeping the population in check.
eXterminate Did we mention this before? In these games there's only one winner. Big space battles, planetary bombardments, mass extinctions, planet-wide invasions and even the occasional vaporised planet are the required norm. On top of that, players - both AI and human - circle each other constantly in the diplomatic menus, establishing treaties, pacts, relationships and other exchanges of gifts, threats and bribes, but deep down everyone knows, there is only one winner. Treachery and devious schemes lurk at the heart of 4X, and frankly, if the diplomacy or AI cleverness isn't that good, then the 4X game your playing is usually a waste of time. Your tech's are what keep you alive; but if your space fleet is lacking then your diplomacy is going to make or break you.

This is usually a single player game genre requiring considerable patience, long term planning and lots of effort building your space empire. Its tricky to play as a netgame, since the game runs at the speed of the slowest turn: and a group of finicky micro managers can take forever to do things. Unless - you're into long term games that may last anything from a few sessions to a few years. 4X is the domain of the obsessed micro manager with too much spare time on their hands.

As a strategy genre, 4X is well established with some iron clad conventions. Woe betide any developer that tries to buck them! Oddly enough, while developers in most other genres are constantly trying to come up with new angles and twists and features to keep their concepts fresh, the basic elements in 4X strategy are remarkably unchanged from its earliest beginnings. Many of the fans get pretty uptight if the basic recipe changes too much.

For some definitive examples of the turn based 4X space empire game, see Masters of Orion, Spaceward Ho!, Stars!, Space Empires, Galactic Civilizations, Reach for the Stars or Starships United.Back


Acronym: Artificial Intelligence. Generic game term, and a misnomer if ever there was one since no computer game uses real artificial intelligence. You should know by now that computers can't think - any apparent signs of life are nothing more than wishful (or fearful!) anthropomorphism. Nonetheless, the term "AI" has come to refer to the algorithm or scripting used by the program to move its pieces and direct its forces with. Its strategy is ultimately determined by the programmer. You can download custom AI files for some games in the same way you can download custom maps and units. AI's change the behaviour of the computer players in the game, especially for human players who have become jaded with the default AI's shipped with the game. Some AI's may only play a semi-scripted role in a single player scenario, stepping through their lines like actors, but many of the fan built AI's are usually aggressive versions of successful multiplayer game strategies that the game designers probably never thought of. Or approved!Back


Ages are found in historical RTS games. An Age is a specialised tech that when researched, bumps you up a historical epoch in a single jump. All the graphics and units then change to that of the new Age and a whole new smorgasbord of upgrades, tech's buildings and units become available. For example, you might go from the Medieval Age to the Renaissance. Its a complete kludge of course, since historians often reconstruct and extrapolate on past events using whatever records they can find, and are informed by that great thing known as hindsight and often, these reconstructions are coloured by the historian's attitudes, prejudices and the current world view at the time. In any case, many historical transitions have taken hundreds years to take place and only become recognised as "transitions" long after the fact.

But as a bit of game mechanics, an Age works quite nicely for a historically themed RTS game that has to play for a few hours. Just don't fool yourself into thinking its an accurate representation of history. Ages were pioneered by the Age of Empires series, but they're sort of almost standard these days and quite common now, featuring in many similarly minded games such as Empire Earth and Rise of Nations. Back

Alpha (Strike)

An Alpha Strike is a massive broadside fired by a unit, with the intention overwhelming a target with a big dollop of damage. Its the opposite Back


Acronym: Actions Per Minute. APM measures the rate at which a player executes hot keys and mouse clicks during a game, usually in a competitive multiplayer context. This is a big thing in South Korean RTS circles and amongst a lot of StarCraft players, where APM is a measure of a player's micromanagement prowess. The more furious the micro, the larger the APM. Its associated with elite status amongst game ladders and high scores in professional gaming leagues. You'll find it occasionally used in all kinds of "twitch gaming" from first person shooters like Counter-Strike, old arcade games and console fighting games.

Well, amongst some players, at least - its all completely spurious. APM tends to be younger players' measure of quality, especially amongst those who consider speed, mindless repetition and learning a small circle of maps by rote is more important than discovering the joys of carpal tunnel syndrome.Back

Area Effect Any weapon, spell or special ability that can change the conditions in a zone on the map or everything in it at once is said to have an area effect. This is distinct from a weapon that only affects a single target with a bullet, arrow or laser. On old board games with grids and hex's, an area effect was one that affected the surrounding squares of the target square. In RTS, the same rules apply, except in 3D games it has a circular effect with an effect radius. Magic shields, cloaking fields, fire or poison gases (among others) all change unit behaviour and stats within the spell's area effect. Not all area effect spells are destructive; anyone who has playing an RPG will be familiar with them. Area effect weapons inflict Splash Damage to everything surrounding the target within the weapon's effect range, e.g. artillery and minefields.Back
Armour Protection that minimises the effects of enemy fire on a unit. See Stats. Back

An area effect that surrounds a particular unit or structure within a (usually) circular radius. Generally speaking, auras are usually active effects, directly altering unit stats and bonuses when in range, but reverting back to their old values when out of range.

For example, any units close enough to a healer unit will receive ongoing health replenishment; the healer unit is said to having a healing aura. Conversely, a powerful Hero unit might weaken any surrounding enemies when they get close to them in combat: he might have a "fear" aura. While its often referred to in a fantasy context, you can include force fields, targeting systems that improve unit accuracy, or other effects as "auras" that change units when they're close enough.Back

Booming An economic RTS building strategy, often seen in Age of Empires style games or Rise of Nation circles. It's also known as Powering in Blizzard game communities. Booming emphasises economic expansion and research (a.k.a. "teching up") in preference to a large early force in the game. The objective is to a win by out-producing and out-teching your opponents with bigger and better equipped forces by building up a powerful economy first. They weaken short term defence for a superior long term economy which translates into a more advanced and powerful military in the mid to late game. Booming players can find themselves vulnerable to early raids and rushes (depending on the game), but the payoff can be huge.Back
Bot Short for robot. A bot is a single computer player. Bots are directed by the AI in the game, and like any player, you can play with or against them in teams or single combat. These are distinct from NPC's (Non-Player Characters) or the pre-scripted, trigger driven characters in a Scenario. A bot is expressly designed to play as a substitute human in a multiplayer game or single player game.Back
Bottom Feeder Derisive term used on Battle.Net to describe an experienced player who racks up an impressive amount of wins by massacring newbies. Back
brb Chat acronym: Be Right Back. Generic gaming message. Usually it means the poster/chatter has to temporarily disconnect and then return again in a few minutes. Polite gamers will await their return with baited breath.Back
Build Queue Refers to a string of construction jobs a factory or worker has to perform. Traditionally (if I may be so bold to use that term), each factory structure or builder will work through its build queue one item at a time until the list is finished. Usually, build queues are executed in the order the items were selected in; most games don't allow reshuffling of the queue once its set, although they will permit individual items to be cancelled and additional build items to be added to the end of the queue. Some games allow build multiple units to be built simultaneously by the one unit (e.g. the Homeworld Mothership). Back
Build Time The time it takes for a factory to generate a single unit, or a single worker to construct something. Build times in many games can be sharply decreased by employing gangs of peons to assist in the construction. Back
Campaign A logical sequence of scenarios or missions that often tells a story, starring Heroes and the game player as the main movers and shakers. The single player missions shipped with a game usually tell the tale behind all the units to give them meaning and purpose. Fans frequently make their own campaigns. Back
Cheese(y) An adjective describing clever (but grossly unfair) strategies that deliver easy wins or decisive blows to the unwary opposition - usually at the expense of a satisfying game. Basically, any smart arse manoeuvre that will would cause your bug eyed, red faced victim to garrotte you with your own mouse cord can be considered cheesy. e.g. In Total Annihilation, one of the cheesiest things you can do is build an Aircraft Factory and then a Transport Plane. Fly the transport over to the enemy base and, before they've had a chance build any defences, kidnap the enemy Commander with it. Then leave the transport hovering over your enemy's defences so they end up shooting their own Commander down to destruction. Ouch! Game over. Back
Choke Point Or just Choke. A location on the game map where the topography restricts access to an attacking force in favour of a defending force. This is an area that is easily defended at relatively little cost, but expensive for the enemy to capture once fortified. e.g.: a mountain pass, or a shallow point that is accessible through a river. Any attackers are forced into a bottleneck and thus vulnerable to any entrenched and protected defensive fire. Chokes can make or break invasions, letting a small force stop or destroy one that  is considerably bigger and nastier than itself. Any mug who thinks that all there is to winning RTS is building the biggest army fastest and then rushing the enemy obviously hasn't blundered into a well defended choke, or only plays maps that permit unrestricted movement. If the game allows the creation of walls or other obstacles, you can build your own chokes as effective defences around your base. Back
Civilian Unit A unit that is not armed or directly involved with fighting. In other words, your workers, miners, repairers and most of your support units that are used to build and manage your economy, research and all the buildings that go with them. Back
Cloak A special ability that allows a unit to become invisible on the field. Its similar to Stealth. You might be lucky to have some visual cue that lets you know an enemy cloaked unit is around, like a shimmering shadow, but more than likely its surreptitiously spying on you without your knowledge. Worse of all, if it can fight cloaked, it will be merrily killing your helpless units: the usual RTS convention is that units can only target things that they can see or know of. Anything that's cloaked can't be shot at and acts with impunity. Cloaked units are usually countered by Spotters, who can detect invisible units. Some specialised units can cloak any friendly units near them within an area-effect cloaking field.Back
Comp Stomp

Slang originally coined on Battle.Net used to describe a game where a number of human players team up against outnumbered computer players to rack up easy wins. Comp stomps are played out of sheer laziness or to artificially inflate a player's official online score.Back

Custom Mod

Or Mod. Short for Custom Modification. A custom mod is a set of changes made to an original game that alter graphics, sound effects, unit stats, mapping or script to produce some new custom variation on the original piece of software. In the PC gaming world, most custom mods are made by the fans of the game, on their own time, often with their own homemade tools and for no other reason that they love the game to bits or, more simply, they just want to see how things tick or use the game engine to try out a few things. Mods are, in essence, labours of love. Money or financial gain simply don't enter the picture - if anything, the idea of money changing hands over a mod is almost a taboo subject. Many modders might enthusiastic gamers tinkering in the back shed, or moonlighting game designers having fun, or a freshman trying to build a portfolio with the intention of getting into the games industry.

Mods generally fiddle with the elements of the game, adding or subtracting a few extra features but the "game engine" is still essentially the same. Modding usually changes data files, not reverse engineering the game executable itself. If you want to get pedantic, you could argue that using a map editor to produce a custom map for a game could be seen as a modification, although custom maps are so common these days as to be considered a normal part of any PC game.

Some custom mods act as corrective patches to perceived problems in gameplay or game balance as perceived by the fans (or a specific group of fans) that may not see eye to eye with the developers' original intent. Custom mods are not to be confused with hacks, cheats, trainers, or pirated copies of the original game.

A custom mod that completely transforms the original game into something completely different is called a Total Conversion.Back

Deathmatch In a First Person Shooter, Deathmatch is a multiplayer mode where players simply run around blowing each other up for points, collecting powerups and weapons placed strategically around the map. Deathmatch is PC gaming at its most primitive. You jump in, run around killing other players and leave when you get bored or someone scores a certain number of frags and the game cycles to the next map. Deathmatch is "white noise" gaming: no start, no end, just one ceaseless roar of combat and running around. Players can come and go at any time.

Some RTS games offer a Deathmatch mode, but its rare. RTS Deathmatch is an endless multiplayer game where defeated players are respawned randomly on the map to restart their empires again from scratch. As you might imagine, not many play this mode since anyone who respawns fresh on a map with several well established armies prowling around on it isn't going to last very long. Only games that are tactically based (i.e. with no economic model) where everyone must start with a predefined force that they must preserve offer Deathmatch, such as Ground Control.

Some RTS games offer Deathmatch (like Homeworld2), but this is usually just a Skirmish by another name.Back

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Last modified Sat, Apr 30 2011 by Lindsay Fleay