Regardless of how the game is built, most unit ensembles strive for a nice mix
of everything: basic grunts, heavy slow powerhouses, fast, light scouts, a few
specialists, workers and maybe a few spicy extras - covert spies, saboteurs
or spellcasters that go beyond the normal move'n'shoot. Whatever they turn out
to be, you'll find your RTS game is using units very similar to other RTS games.
You know: tanks, infantry, cavalry, spies and boats, to name but a few. There's
a set of conventions most regular RTS titles follow. For example, if a unit
is small, its likely to be light and nimble; if its big, then its slow, ponderous,
expensive but powerful; a physically powerful unit will be susceptible to magic;
a magic unit will fall prey to the weakest physical unit in the field; scouts
are light and fast; defender units tend to have better armour but weaker weapons;
and so on. Much of this is due to the same formula being applied across the
genre, but many of these conventions make sense when it comes to building
a balanced game.
Many of these categories I'm describing are really quite
arbitrary. Many of these classifications clearly overlap, and I'm sure you could
rearrange them differently and come up with your own types that you could use
to make sense of all these different units and the different roles they play.
refers to the lone soldier unit, be it a marine, a robot, a rabid wolf
or any other lone creature that fits the game's storyline and is used
as the humble footpad for your forces. Infantry forms your most basic
fighting unit you can churn out without the need for upgrades or tech's.
They're usually very easy and cheap to produce and offer some initial
protection as the game gets underway. Individually though, they aren't
much chop: they're armed with a basic gun and a few health points and
not much else. As units that get right into the heart of the action they
die at the drop of a hat. They will be quickly outgunned by most other
unit types once things get underway and you'll find that infantry bears
the brunt of most enemy fire and has the highest attrition rate in the
However, in numbers their combined firepower becomes
formidable and you should always think of using groups of them. Infantry
is light, cheap and highly mobile. Its like your force's Spak-Filla,
quickly filling in breaches, scouting the map, escorting valuable units
and forming buffer zones around your precious hardware. They can be used
defensively or offensively, and they can challenge any unit, except for
anything underwater or underground. You really can't do without your troops!
Infantry come in lots of shapes but only one size: small.
Some games make a point of equipping infantry with different weapons:
maybe rockets, grenades or anti-air missiles, and as a result they start
to perform more specialised roles. Even so, each of these different infantryman
will represent the cheapest and weakest version of that type of unit,
and you'll probably find a bigger version in the form of a vehicle, ship
or plane in your force.
Infantry can also be roughly grouped in several classes.
Melee Units fight hand to hand.
They tend to be very strong and heavily armoured simply because they have
to walk right up to the enemy to engage them - and by the time they've
reached their opponent they're sporting a lot of arrows, bullet holes
or acid burns. Examples would be Swordsman, StarCraft's Zerglings and Zealots, or any kind of one shot Kamikaze unit that charges
the enemy and detonates on impact. They're often found as medieval soldiers,
rabid monsters and giant bugs or some other non-industrial form.
Ranged Units probably form the
majority of infantry types, especially in games set in modern or future
times. Any dude with a gun, quiver or throwing weapon is a ranged unit.
They have the advantage of opening fire at a distance. Often they'll be
weaker both in armament and armour since they can harm targets at range.
Defensive Units specialise in
repelling regular infantry types: classic examples abound in historical
games. Phalanxes, Skirmishers, Pikemen or Spearmen have better repelling
abilities than outright attacking skills. These guys form a defensive
huddle, with their long weapons skewering any melee units that stray too
close. Modern infantry tends to be all alike once shootin' irons hold
Scouts are lightly armed and
lightly armoured troops that rely on stealth and/or speed to avoid trouble.
Their primary role is simply to explore the map and to keep tabs on any
changes out there. Scouts are often expendable and very cheap, but will
have better visual range than their comrades. You can use them to immediately
get your bearings on the map when a game starts. You may not build many
of them since their fighting ability is probably even less of your regular
infantry, but a small investment in their spotting skills can help prevent
defeat later on. Forewarned is forearmed, but directing scouts can involve
a little bit of micromanagement; as lookouts they're often deployed singly.
For skirmishes however, parties of scouts can be sent out on small raids
on remote enemy outposts to pick off lone resourcers or unfinished expansions.
Their speed in a battle is often used to distract enemy fire.
Spies are like Scouts, except
they can disappear from view or remain hidden from the enemy in some way.
This advantage tends to make them a little pricey and more valuable. Spies
can penetrate enemy lines where regular scouts would be quickly discovered
and killed. Another variation is the Sniper who
is a stealthy unit that assassinates other infantry at long range. Hidden
units with long killing reaches tend to shoot very slowly and appear at
the expensive end of your economy. Snipers are used to harass and slow
your foe down, not stop them. Once discovered they lose their importance
and are quickly dealt with - and require a fair bit of micromanagement
to manage in the first place. While you can quickly explore the map by
directing Scouts with the minimap, Snipers and Spies need your direct
attention on the main view to hide them in the battlefield.
||The first major advancement for your force's tech tree
is often the use of vehicles - usually expressed in the form of a Tank or some fast scouting Bike or Buggy of some kind. Basically, these
are heavier, stronger, and more expensive versions of infantry - and in
terms of function, come in more shapes and sizes than you can shake a
stick at. They're generally the dominant life form on the ground, and
the heavy versions often pack the most firepower and armour in this theatre
(outside of specialised artillery) while light versions make for scouting
or skirmishing. They come in several phyla:
Tanks come in every size and shape, but generally they form the
striking arms of your ground force, either as mobile artillery, heavy
support or just a bigger form of an soldier. They're the staple of any
strategy game set in modern times. Variations on the tank include armoured
cars, half-tracks, and the armoured personnel carrier (APC), which can
also double as a Transport.
Bikes and Buggies are light fast scouts
or high speed skirmishers. Often in games they're some kind of hoverbike,
trike, all terrain Jeep or exotic hover speeder. Like most scouts, they're
lightly armed and often expendable, and probably the first kind of vehicle
you can build.
Mechs are giant robot shaped vehicles that were popularised in BattleTech but have become a generic unit type in themselves. Heavily armed with
high-tech weapons, armoured like a battleship and the size of a small
block of flats, Mechs stride across battlefields like robotic Goliaths.
They're the staple of Japanese anime and manga; inside each mighty mech
is a small human pilot. While completely impractical in terms of modern
warfare (I mean, really! Astronomical maintenance; pit traps; or a Muhdjahadeem
with a rocket launcher aimed at an ankle joint) they nevertheless embody
a romanticised high-tech ideal of what future warfare might be. Its a
peculiar cross between the honour and valour of knights of old with the
ugly sterility of a cluster bomb filled with rusty nails and petrol jelly:
a terrifying weapon of mass destruction in heroic and anthropomorphic
form. Still, for all that Mechs make excellent RTS units. They fit the
bill for a exotic, highly destructive but expendable drone very well,
and look pretty spectacular in action.
Hovercraft are not that often seen in RTS, although in Total
Annihilation's Core Contingency add-on they made a huge impact and
added a whole new line of strategy to the game. Hovers are completely
at home on water or on land, and ideal for island or swampy river maps
where both ground forces and shipping are disadvantaged. However, Hovers
flobbling about on their inflatable skirts are rarely as heavily armed
as a full naval force, or quite as nimble on dry land as infantry.
Cavalry are the tanks of non-industrial games like Age
of Empires or WarCraft. Cavalry is exclusively
any unit that looks like a rider on a horse (or similar creature). Cavalry
is generally a harder hitter and a faster mover than infantry - representing
a historical fact that ancient armies with horses had a habit of completely
routing any poor sods on foot. Mobility is its best attribute, and for
many games horseman make the best early scouts. Apart from scouting, cavalry
is limited in the number of forms it can take (unless you enter the realm
of the fantastic and stick dwarves on wolves or Heavy Metal babes on giant
pteradactyles...but that's another story.); heavy cavalry usually turns
up in the form of a Knight - the Medieval equivalent of the Panzer Tank.
Age of Empires II has easily the best range, including scouts, mounted
archers, Knights, Camels (anti-cavalry cavalry) and those power housing
|| Artillery is an exclusively ground based (unless you count big naval units) that
can shell your opponents beyond visual range. That is, you can
flatten targets at long range well into the Fog
of War, provided you can actually find them first. Some games may
allow you to shoot at empty patches of ground, so you can take a punt
where the enemy might be and fire off a few pot shots to find out.
advantage for you is that your enemy won't quite know where those shells
are coming from, since there's a good chance those shells are appearing
out of the Fog of War on their display. Unless they have radar or some
way of quickly finding out, they either have to retreat their position
and send units blindly into the field to locate them. And of course,
those units are blundering around under your guns.
Artillery fire is immune from most obstacles by being able to shoot
over hills. Its basically the ultimate way to blast an entrenched enemy
out of their hidey-hole, demolish a base at a safe distance, or function
defensively to break the back of an incoming horde long before it comes
into your defenders' fighting range. Its vital for breaking deadlocks
and in strategy terms, its an effective way of forcing your opponent
to move when you want them to and a method for reclaiming the initative
if you've lost it.
Artillery units are generally extremely powerful against anything on
the ground or sea, but in compensation will be expensive, have little
or no mobility, a very slow rate of fire and be helpless to aircraft
and attacks at close quarters.
essentially a support unit that sits at the back, relying on range to
shoot over the heads of your troops to hit enemy forces from afar. As
a high value unit, artillery requires constant escorting and maintenance,
since it can never get out of the way of trouble. That is, never consider
using artillery on its own - or as a be all and end all in itself. But
for all its shortcomings it provides the main muscle of your offensive
and seriously debilitates your enemy, both militarily and psychologically!
Not all artillery is a big gun or a catapult. Some games offer nuclear
silos and rocketry which fulfil the same role. You can also include
any special magic users or heavy weapons that can shoot from afar. Easily
the best examples can be found in Total Annihilation - the long range
Big Bertha and Intimidator cannons can smash targets halfway across
a medium sized map. Artillery counters walls, fortifications and choke
points and of course, your enemies' morale!
||Aircraft are units that fly through the air: in flat 2D RTS maps this means they
fly at the same altitude above land and sea as if skating on an invisible
glass sheet raised above the map. While ground and sea units can easily
get grid locked, aircraft seem quite able to stack up in the sky in great
clouds. This is fantastic for focusing stupid amounts of firepower on
a terrified target - but it leaves them dangerously exposed to anything
that can shoot back with splash
Air power has the inherent advantage of unrestricted mobility and speed,
freed from earthbound obstacles and traps on the map. Since this single
attribute pretty much gives it an insane advantage against just about
everything else you'll often find aircraft have been tweaked to be lightly
armoured or lightly armed against ground units, or that powerful anti-air
weapons will be available to your ground forces. In terms of bang for
buck, aircraft are fairly pricey. They'll sit a fair way into a game's
tech tree or require their own special lines of research and upgrades,
needing a specialised aircraft factory or an airfield to build them.
As scouts with unrestricted vision, aircraft are unequalled: they're usually
the fastest units in the game with the widest field of view, able to fly
as the crow flies in any direction. This can have drawbacks though - aircraft
can be drawn into a trap to be destroyed in seconds before you twig to
what's happening, and sending orders to units that can cross the map so
quickly can make them tricky to select with the mouse and awkward to coordinate
with sluggish ground units.
Aircraft come in four major species, determined by function. Fighters, Bombers, Scouts and Transports. Fighters hunt
other air units, but have little effect against the ground; Bombers pummel the ground, but are susceptible to other aircraft; Scouts are disposable high speed, lightly armed units that can rapidly survey
the map, and Transports can pluck units off the field and get them
in and out of hard to reach trouble spots. Naturally, there are more permutations
than you can poke an AA gun at: fighter-bombers, ground attack
fighters, stealth bombers, attack helicopters, spy
eyes, etc. Air transports tend to carry less than their ground based
counterparts and appear as hovering dropships (inspired by the movie Aliens)
or a Helicopter Gunship that can carry troops. Aircraft can be versatile
platforms for just about everything except artillery. Its rare you get
a large, heavy monster air unit unless its representing a spaceship, Zeppelin
or some fanciful flying base.
Naval Units only appear on water and nowhere else.
Funnily enough. Like aircraft, they'll have their own specialised factories
- a dock or shipyard - and their own line of researchable tech's. and
upgrades separate from other units. They have the perk of never having
to negotiate obstacles: RTS water is generally quite flat and never seems
to suffer bad weather or nasty reefs. Unless the game deals with undersea
terrain or arbitrarily puts some ornamental rocks in it, the only thing
that stops shipping is their own awkwardness or being sunk. As a rule
of thumb ships tend to be bigger and meaner than their mobile land counterparts,
combining artillery with heavy armour (e.g. battleships, carriers, etc)
and tend to be more expensive. However, since most games favour land
bases, you'll find that while a navy can break your foe's back, it won't
necessarily win you the game.
Naval units can cover two domains: sailing above the water and lurking
beneath it. Submersibles are often invisible from the surface to all
except spotters or specialised sub-killers, and can be immune to ground
and air units fire by virtue of being underwater.
Surface shipping's functions is usually determined by size and speed.
Small boats are often patrol boats: small, lightly armed scouts or
gunboats. Mid range sees the escorting destroyer (a ship killing ship)
designed to protect your bigger and more expensive ships; missile frigates,
anti-air ships, mine layers, support ships, submarines, etc., anti-air
ships, mine layers, troop transports, support ships, etc. Mid range
boats seem to present the most roles, while the heavy end of your navy
usually boils down to either a whopper of a battleship or an aircraft
carrier. Battleships are usually just giant bombardment machines, and
carriers will perform a air service role. Frequently these bigger units
will have little means of defending themselves.
far the most important units in your arsenal are the ones with no weapons:
your workers and support units. These guys make everything else possible
and without them there is no economy, no building and thus, no army. Protect
them at all costs. They form the heart of your force and also pose its
greatest weakness. In most RTS games this support is reduced down to a
single unit, a Worker or Villager of some kind. It has at least three
basic functions: resource gathering, construction of buildings and defences
Workers work best in large gangs. They're invariably the first unit unit
you can build without any prerequisites.
other form of worker is the Harvester unit, as seen in Command
& Conquer or Homeworld.
Harvesters are large vehicles that trundle off on long expeditions looking
for resources to scavenge, only returning to home base when full or the
map has been picked clean. While gangs of workers generally work around
the one spot and form the heart of a base, Harvesters are loners that
roam the hinterlands of the map all on their own. This makes them magnets
for trouble. Harvesters generally carry large hauls, are unarmed, and
often weighed down with tons of armour. They require constant vigilance
and looking after. This is a unit that runs almost entirely on a computer
driven AI; and rarely does it pick the best or safest route, it might
wander right across the map to collect a teaspoon of ore or mindlessly
work its way into the waiting guns of your enemy's base. Harvesters are
highly prized both as an economic asset and a juicy target - and taking
out a couple can seriously hamstring an opponent.
The close cousin of the Worker is the Support
Unit. Support units provide an indirect source of strength, rather
than a direct one. Support units are helper units who work best when they
have someone they can offer their services to. They enhance your existing
units, but are largely useless on their own. They come in two rough forms
- Civilian and Military.
Civilian support usually means an assistant,
medic or repairer of some kind. While not actually armed or directly involved
in the fighting, and sometimes incapable of starting any building projects
or attacks, they can still be the decisive unit that can turn the tide
of a fight by simply keeping other units alive for that little bit longer,
or assisting in construction. Support can come in the form of a supply
ship, a refueling depot, a roving repairer or medic or a shield battery
that recharges failing force fields.
Military support units often have some non-hostile
spell that enhances the strengths of the armed units around it or some
kind of weapon that may not in itself be that useful in a one on one fight,
but if used with your regular forces can quickly swing the battle in your
favour. It might be a wizard generating a magic shield that wards off
bullets temporarily, or cast invisibility, or double the attack strength
of certain units for a short while. Sometimes a support unit may be just
another guy with a gun - but used to their best if they are actually kept
away from the action. For example: artillery could be classified as "support".
Your units on the front line can be supported by some long distance shelling
to soften up the opposition before your fighting units directly attack
it. While the rest of the team actually gets down to some hand to hand,
there might be a support machine gunner simply firing in the the general
direction, weakening the opposition to make the attackers more effective.
transport is a large mobile unit that can carry one or more other units.
These are another sometimes under utilised unit that can perform absolute
wonders for your force and your economy. They get around problems of accessibility
on the map by carrying many units across impassable terrain (like an ocean
or a mountain range), or cart large numbers of units quickly and easily
to surprise the enemy. Classic examples are the Transport ship, the armoured
personnel carrier and the Dropship. Sea going transports usually carry
a lot of units, and are excellent for moving huge numbers of units and
workers to new islands; air and land transports are often smaller, and
designed to move units across a map quickly.
The benefits of massed or high speed transports are offset by two things:
firstly, most transports in strategy games are unarmed - and the units
within them can't be used to defend them either; and secondly, if a transport
gets shot down or sunk, everyone inside is killed, too. On top
of that, there is usually a high degree of fiddling loading and unloading
large numbers of units at a time. The fuck up factor figures highly in
transporting especially under combat conditions! If you're staging a big
transport invasion, you must have escorts to soak up a bit of damage,
enough space to offload your troop, and enough coordination getting it
right. You'll probably need to practice.
are specialised units that do little more than spy on the enemy or keep
an eagle eye out for spies and enemy attacks. They provide an essential
service much like a Support Unit, but the strategic element of reconnaissance
and intelligence gathering on the map puts them in a class of their own.
Scouting is a vitally important but frequently under-utilised line of
strategy by beginners: scouting the map and maintaining a constant eye
on things at all times is essential. If you don't know what's going
on, you can't prepare for it properly, and in grave danger of all your
forces being trumped and wiped out on the field. This might involved nothing
more than positioning a few single units around the countryside, since
anything that has eyes can scout, but in some games you have to deal with
units that can cloak so specialised spotters must be deployed to counter
invisible or stealthy units.
Spotters can simply be any unit that "spots" on behalf of another unit. Artillery
can destroy targets far beyond their visual range, but you'll need a second
unit to sneak ahead and locate targets, unless you like firing blind into
the Fog of War. In some games you
can build radar, which picks out enemy units on the minimap that lurk outside your units' collective visual range - another indispensable
tool for directing long range artillery with. This radar coverage can
be countered with special anti-radar units. There's nothing worse than
going in blind: you'll miss valuable targets, flanking manoeuvres or ambushes;
and there's nothing more terrifying than trying to defend against units
you cannot see - most games won't let you target invisible units - unless
you're able to target the ground under them and hit them with lucky shots
and splash damage.
|| Magic Units and Spellcasters
magical I don't just mean hocus pocus but any special ability that goes
beyond the normal point'n'shoot of your standard working grunt. It might
be the obvious tinkerbell zap that peels the skin off Orcs and messily
turns them inside out, or it might be simply a spell that heals another
unit, or induce an adrenalin rush (like a Bezerker mode for a barbarian),
or a one shot EMP (ElectroMagnetic Pulse) blast that freezes robotic enemies
temporarily or a cybernetic upgrade to an atheistic cyborg. In a sense
a spaceship, a robot or a Airforce Ranger "painting" a target with a laser
sight could be seen to have "magical" abilities - abilities that perform
the same strategic role as magic outside the obvious fantasy context.
Magical abilities are there to basically extend your units' capabilities
beyond the usual move'n'shoot and add an extra, strategic element to a
game. Sometimes its a "live" effect, like a force field you
can turn on or off, or a medic automatically healing units or maybe a
cloud of poison gas or a magical storm of hailstones. What usually differentiates
these types of units from the normal ones is that their special abilities
are usually enabled by hand: that is, more often than not, its you the
player who has to order the use of a special attack or power. Regular
units will engage anything and everything that strays into range, but
spellcasters and special abilities will stand around doing nothing until
specially ordered to do their thing. Spell casting is basically a micromanagement
thing; so you'll see tonnes of it in Blizzard games like StarCraft or WarCraft.
you made it to the end game and your economy is booming but your foe is
still a major headache, then its time to wheel out the big guns and go
for the grand finale! These are the really advanced units found at the
end of a tech tree, often the most devastating and the most spectacular
to use, and the payoff after all that work. They might be nuclear silos,
whopping great battle cruisers, a Godzilla class battle mech or some other
monster that specialises in Armageddon. Either way, the game's about to
go out with a bang!
But even here, these giant trump cards at the end of a build will still
have caveats to balance them. If you do have a titan that seems invincible,
then you'll invariably find the sheer effort and time it takes to build
it is where the balance lies. By the time you've finally ground one out,
the enemy might be all over you like a rash with hordes of cheaper units.
Consider that Homeworld battle cruiser in Distributed
Force. As is often the case with mega units, it will be slow and ponderous.
For all their power, they can usually only hit a couple of targets at
once - so a titan facing off twenty smaller pissy units may actually be
in real trouble...by the time it finally works its way slowly through
all those annoying gnats, it might have lost a significant amount of health
to a bunch of quickly built, quickly deployed fast firing units.
Most titans will need escorts of some kind to get the full value out of
them. However, if you do find yourself with a game that gives you ridiculously
powerful units for little cost, then you've probably found a RTS title
that's going to get very boring very quickly. (Or you're playing a custom
mod!) Either that or your foe is a complete dill for letting you get to
the endgame with such a lopsided advantage.
Last modified Sat, Apr 2011 by Lindsay