Theory On Strategy

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Disclamer: This page is almost entirely the opinion of Lindir The Green. It is not meant to be considered fact; it is merely my analysis of Strategy, particularly how it relates to the genre of the RTS. Take it or leave it.

I appreciate merciless editing, but please don't change the meaning of anything.


Basics of Strategy

In real life, strategy is trying to figure out the "rules" of the universe and then using them to accomplish something. But in a game, the rules are (usually) already known. So strategy in a game is using those rules to accomplish an objective without a prior learning phase.

In reality, strategy mostly requires observation.

In a game, strategy mostly requires logic and creativity.

In a multiplayer game, the new element of trying to outguess your opponent is added. The simplest multiplayer game is Rock/Paper/Scissors, which requires no logic or creativity. It is pure multiplayer strategy. The only differences between the rock, the paper, and the scissors are that they come in different orders in your mind. So if you are playing an opponent that you have a low oppinion of, you usually use paper. But if you are playing an opponent that you have a slightly higher opinion of, you usually use scissors. And so on.

The only way to predict what your opponent is going to use is to try to guess what your opponent thinks you are going to use, based on how smart you think that your opponent thinks that you are.

Almost every multiplayer strategy game involves figuring out what your opponent is going to do, and then reacting accordingly.

The multiplayer game that requires no multiplayer strategy is Tic-Tac-Toe. If you logically think about the game for 10 minutes, you will become unbeatable. The game will turn into a stalemate as no creativity or effort is required with so few effective choices.

Most multiplayer card and board games are a cross between "normal" strategy and "multiplayer" strategy. But if you completely understand the game (like some chess masters, and me at Euchre) the game for you becomes only "multiplayer" strategic.

But some multiplayer board games also require diplomacy, which is just using social skills to your advantage.

Magic the Gathering requires insane amounts of "normal" strategy, moderate amounts of diplomacy, and significant "multiplayer" strategy, though this value seems to increase with an increase in the number of participants.

Roleplaying games are very different from other games. They require creativity above all, with some "normal" strategy if the players are competitive. Multiplayer strategy enters in at the most impossible moments, and the rules theoretically can change at any time. But, since there are many different games and many different DMs, there are many exceptions to these tentative rules.

Strategy in Video Gmes

In video games, the rules are much much more complicated, and in non-turned based games, the elements of reflexes and hand-eye coordination are added to the brew. This complexity of rules is, of course, secondary only to the complexity in some roleplaying games.

I think that even the most hard c0r3 action games have more strategic depth than any board game, because of their extreme complexity. I would estimate Jazz Jackrabbit (my first computer game) to be at least 20x more complex than the nerdiest military combat board game.

Conter Strike is probably around 500x more complex.

The reason most people don't think that action games are strategic is because the strategy is "diluted" by action, a common myth. Action simply places strategy in a time-limited frame.

Most video games, even if all the rules are known, require lots of observation to figure out how they all interact.

But once you figure out (or are told by a walkthrough), the game stop requiring any "normal" strategy, and become pure hand eye coordination and reflxes. But that level of understanding would only be possible by a computer program.

Multiplayer video games are often really just extremely complex games of r/p/s, but with significant differences between the different choices. The realism of the games makes it easier to figure out how the r/p/s arrangements work; it is easier to remember that early anti-air defense beats an early air raid thant it is to remember that if a construction unit builds a certain type of building, that building will make the fast units from a certain type of building less effective.

The RTS

The Real Time Strategy game is IMHO the greatest video game genre ever, because a (good) RTS is so intellectually stimulating. Someone playing a good RTS is trying to come up with good unit combos, trying to figure out what the enemy is doing, trying to figure out how to best counter what the enemy is doing, trying to keep track of all units and how the overall battle is going, and looking out for emergency situations that require immediate attention. The winner has the best combination of:

  • "Normal" Strategy
  • "Multiplayer" Strategy
  • Diplomacy
  • H/E coordination
  • Reflexes
  • Multitasking skillz

But, like all games with static rules, once the rules are theoretically perfectly analysed, all "Normal" strategy disapears.

However, since the rules are so complex, and there are almost infinite combinations of units, maps, and starting resources, it is impossible for a human to perfectly analyse an RTS. But, fortunately, Humans are very good at abstractly coming up with generalizations, that often carry over from the real world. For example, for a human, it is common sense that tanks are good against standard infantry, buildings, and on plains. We shouldn't even have to analyse the game to figure that out.

Micro in an RTS

Micromanagement is probably the single most fought over subject in an RTS. Starcraft players like a lot of it, TA players like less of it. But in the end, it all boils down a few simple concepts.

The more things you can pay attention to, the more skill you have at multitasking. And so the more micromanagement in a game, the higher the gap between the skillful multitaskers and the non-skillful multitaskers

There are two different types of micromanagement in real-time strategy games, which I call "tactical" and "pointless".

"Tactical" micromanagement is comprised of small scale activities and maneuvers, sometimes of a r/p/s nature. Deciding which unit should attack which and where each unit should move, for optimal enemy destruction. It involves split second assesments of the situation, and out guessing your opponent. According to general opinion, some "tactical" micromanagement in a game is a good component of balanced play, with the perfect amount varying depending on the player.

"Pointless" micromanagement consists of the multitude of little tasks that require little to no intellect or forethought to pull off. Clicking 100 checkboxes requires manual skill to do quickly, but doesn't require any "strategy." Telling every unit to attack a single unit for increased efficiency requires valuble brain time, which skilled multitaskers have more of, but doesn't really add strategic depth to the game. Telling all of your hawks to go forwards and backwards and forward and backwards requires a lot of thinking, but it doesn't really provide options for strategy.

"Pointless" micromanagement isn't neccesarily bad though. Arcade games consist almost entirely of it, and, while there is little strategy in its execution, it requires strategy to decide how much of it to use.

Starcraft uses large amounts of both types of micro, TA uses much less "pointless micro", and it seems like Supreme Commander will use very little of either.

The interesting about the Spring engine is that it offers (as of now) unparalleled flexibility in exactly how much micro to use, because so much can be delegated to an AI, freeing up the player for large scale multiplayer strategy. It's always a tradeoff which level of control to do different things off, which adds yet another dimension to gameplay.

Gameplay and Balance in an RTS

A Real Time Strategy game, or Spring mod, is comprised mostly out of units that players build. What determines the balance and much of the gameplay is when exactly specific units should be build.

The only time that a mod definitely is not balanced is when there is never any reason to build a certain unit; if another unit or group of units would always be "better" for a player to build. The huge variety of maps and specific conditions that occur make achieving an unbalanced game difficult. It is also important to remember though the effects of player perception. Even a completely useless unit on paper could be the best thing to build if it is considered useful by players, or to decieve the oponent about the extent of a player's experience or abilities. Which makes the number of unbalanced mods approach 0.

However, even a balanced mod can be no fun to play, which is where the real act of balancing comes in. And it is generally a good idea to ensure that any unit could be the best thing to build in a significant proportion of situations.

While there may always be a "best" unit to build, since the information (and processing speed) of a player is restricted, there are usually several good units to build at any given time. How many depends on the mod.

A mod is usually less fun to play, and called imbalanced, if at any given time there are very few best units to build. This is why there is so much criticism of mods/games where a certain build order is neccesary to even have a chance. It requires much "Normal" strategy to figure out what that build order is... But very little "Multiplayer" strategy once the optimal build order is know.

While more options generally allow for a mod to have more opportunities for "Multiplayer" strategy, options also increase the learning curve, and too many options can decrease the importance of "Multiplayer" strategy, by "watering it down," and making individual choices less risky.