RTS Basics

Paper Scissor Rock

One of the major philosophies of RTS unit design is paper - scissor - rock. Unit A counters Unit B, B counters C, but C counters A. Each unit has its own strengths and weaknesses, so there will always be some Achilles Heel to any unit or strategy you care to use. Players are encouraged to use combinations of units, rather than just one type. Each unit will have its own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing where and when to take advantage of them pretty much forms the heart of most of your military tactics on the field.

For example...

Swordsmen are melee units, or units that fight hand to hand. They're generally pretty tough, can dish out a lot of hurt and usually do most of the hard work in a big fight. They need to get up close and personal, so they're the guys that do the main bulk of outright attacking.

Archers are ranged units, guys that shoot arrows over a distance. They die like flies going hand to hand against Swordsmen, but they can turn most infantry into human pincushions long before they have a chance to get close. Range becomes the winning factor.

Cavalry can fly like the wind: Archers might be lucky to get a shot off before horseman have swept through their ranks and put many to the sword. Against opponents fast on their feet, range rapidly loses effectiveness. They'll scatter Swordsman too: cavalry trumps all infantry and cav has the best hand, but...

Pikemen are chaps who brandish a very long pole with a sharp metal tip. They're not very fast, don't have any range, get pincushioned by Archers, and their clumsy poles can't keep Swordsmen at bay. But against Cavalry, suddenly those long pikes are skewering fast moving knights left, right and centre. Well, well.

Put another away, Swordsman are countered by Archers; Archers are countered by Cavalry, Cavalry is countered by Pikemen, and Pikemen are countered by Swordsmen and Archers. A takes B, B takes C, but C can take A. Otherwise known as Paper - Scissor - Rock.

Each unit has a special skill or attribute that sets it apart from its fellows. It may be as simple as a light, cheap, all-purpose grunt, or a specialised counter measure that is only useful in certain situations. Whatever its capabilities, a unit's functionality determines the way you use them.

Probably the best way to manage units is to think of them as ensembles instead of individuals. That is, they work better in different combinations than just an army made up of the one type. Each type performs a role and fills a vacancy in your force's requirements. No one unit will be the ultimate enemy killer - different combinations used on different occasions will be. In other words, there's no one way to win a RTS game, and playing the same map under the same conditions with the same foes can result in lots of different victories (or defeats!). Mixed forces that combine different theatres (i.e. air, ground, sea) are going to be far more effective than just the one type alone. Big rushes with only one type of unit are usually inadequate unless you're exploiting a known weakness somewhere. The only drawback with a large mixed force is the difficulties in coordinating everything. Different units travel at different speeds and your guys will become scattered across the map when they travel. But most games have many features that can help you there. (See Being in Three Places at Once.)


Unit trumping can also occur if units occupy different theatres. By theatre I mean the domain a unit travels and fights in, e.g. land, sea or air. A plane can attack anything on land or sea, but may not see or affect submarines; a ship may bombard coasts, hunt subs or shoot down aircraft but can't reach deep inland; a submarine can torpedo anything in the sea but obviously can't torpedo land units. Fairly obvious, really. Planes, tanks and submarines all occupy different theatres of operation. In their "native" realm they're at their strongest, but outside they can become completely vulnerable to attack.

Paper - Scissor - Rock goes beyond unit to unit struggles. Once you start getting groups of units together, or start working with different combinations of them, then the possibilities start to increase rapidly. A pathetically weak unit may suddenly become devastating if it turns up in numbers, or has companions who can protect it and allow its special abilities to be unleashed.

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Last modified Sat, 30 Apr 2011 by Lindsay Fleay