How To Play An RTS Game: Advice For Beginners

Originally posted on 11-28-07 at wire.ggl.com.

Clockwise from upper left: StarCraft II, Battle for Middle Earth II, Company of Heroes, Command & Conquer Tiberium Wars

I love math, and I’m terrible at it. I love foreign languages – I’ve studied four different ones, and have absolutely no aptitude whatsoever at any of them.

I love real-time strategy games, and I suck at them.

So I decided to comb the web and talk to a couple of experts, and put together the ultimate list of advice for RTS n00bs. Just from compiling this advice, I’ve graduated from “Worst RTS Player Ever” to “Generally Confused n00b.” But I’m still working at it.

I’ve been training myself on Battle for Middle Earth II, as I’m an unrepentant Tolkien geek. But this advice applies to just about any RTS game since Dune II, including Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars, Age of Mythology, Company of Heroes, World in Conflict, Warcraft III and of course StarCraft.

This is advice for beginners, so I’ve included a list of terms at the end.

StarCraft shoutcaster extraordinaire Nick “Tasteless”Plott helped out with portions of the article. I also found good advice on gamereplays.org and teamliquid.net. But any errors or omissions in this article are the sole responsibility of me, Erik “Kunochan” Even.

Dune II screenshot
Dune II, the original classic RTS.

INTRODUCTION

RTS games aren’t like ordinary tabletop or computer wargames. In addition to moving around your units, you must constantly collect and spend resources during the battle, purchasing and replacing both military units and support structures & units. In other words, there are always at least two things going on at once. And the enemy is not just sitting around while you’re figuring it out.

MACRO & MICRO

In RTS jargon, “macro” means “strategy,” and “micro” means “tactics.” Strategy is the overall planning and conduct of warfare – the large scale plan, the big picture. Tactics is about how individual units complete the objectives handed down to them strategically – not what the units are trying to accomplish, but how.

Specifically to RTS games, “macro” is used to refer to your economy, aka your production. These are the units that harvest and spend resources, that produce and support your fighting units. “Micro” is how you manipulate those fighting units.

Micro gets a lot of attention in the RTS community for two reasons. First, many n00b players assume that giving specific instructions to individual units is unnecessary. Just aim those units in the right direction, and they’ll know exactly what to do. Right? Wrong.

Second, micro is not only necessary, it’s vital. You can not win without good micro skills. Sure, each of your units has a little AI that tells it what to do when you’re not looking at it. But that AI does not know how to maximize a unit’s capabilities. Even if you are behind your enemy in production, you can win if you know how to micro.

As an example of microing, let’s talk about Roshambo — yes, the paper-scissors-rock game. In many RTS games, particular units are specially designed to take out certain other types of units. And they will also be particularly vulnerable to certain units. Here’s a simplified chart for BFME2:

BFME2 units

Cavalry units tend to massacre Archer units, the same way paper covers rock. But Pikemen slaughter Cavalry, the way scissors cuts paper. And Archers can take out Pikemen – rock smashes scissors. The actual situation is more complicated – but the chart is still an excellent rule-of-thumb. (A unit specially designed to obliterate another unit type is called a hard counter.)

If you think a unit’s AI knows which kind of unit it works best against, and seeks out those units, you would be wrong. You have to pay attention to a battle, and instruct each unit where to go and what to attack. You can allow the battle to proceed on its own, especially if your attention is required elsewhere. But to win the game, you need to maximize the effectiveness of your units. And that means micro.

Just as importantly, it’s necessary to have a healthy unit mix in your army — sticking with just a few unit types might allow you to spam the map, but your enemy will fight back with the hard counter.

Can a good macro strategy save you from the hassle of micro? This guy thinks so. But from my experience playing RTS games, the answer is “no.” The individual unit AI is just too dumb. Of course, it matters what game you’re playing. Micro is more important in Warcraft III, but in StarCraft micro and macro are more balanced.

There are three things to concentrate on while microing. Work on flanking – attacking enemy units from the side, where you get an attack bonus. You can often use one of your units to draw an enemy unit into combat – and while the enemy is “locked” on your first unit, attack with one or more units from the side.

Also, watch your unit’s stances. In BFME2, units can be in Aggressive, Battle, or Defensive Mode. Aggressive units seek out enemies, and gain a bonus to damage but a minus to armor. Go Aggressive against undefended buildings. In Defensive Mode, your unit stays put, but gets an armor bonus. Use this if you’re using your unit to keep the enemy busy. Battle stance is the default, and has no buffs or disads.

Likewise, StarCraft units have three stances — Attack, Patrol and Hold Position. Learn what the choices of stances are in your game, and when they are appropriate to use.

Third, know when to retreat. There is a lot of faking in microing — move in like you’re going to attack, then pull out. And if you’re winning a battle, get in and demolish the enemy before he can retreat. If you’re losing, get the hell out of there — it’s cheaper to keep your units and not have to build new ones. Good players get out the second they know they won’t come out on top.

StarCraft screenshot
StarCraft, the greatest RTS game ever.

STRATEGIC & TACTICAL ADVANTAGE

According to Ilintar at teamliquid.net, the key to victory in StarCraft is balancing your tactical advantage against your strategic advantage. Think of your resource units and defenses as your strategic/macro advantage – keep these units safe and producing, and you’ll have a decided advantage over the enemy. But this will come at the cost of actual military units, your tactical advantage. To put it simply: if you’re building up your base, you’re losing out on creating an army. If you’re building up your army, you’re losing out on having a strong base.

The key to winning, in StarCraft or any other RTS, is to balance strategy and tactics, macro and micro. According to Ilintar:

You need to build up a decisive tactical advantage to break through your opponent’s defenses, but the game is won by building a decisive strategical[sic] advantage.

Learning exactly how to do this comes with experience. There is no simple rule of thumb.

CONTROL THE MAP

What can professional RTS players do that you can’t? They have a deep and detailed knowledge of the game mechanics – and they have blistering APM, “actions per minute.” While you’re fiddling around with the exact right spot to stick your Barracks, the pro player has accomplished 15 or 20 actions. Pro players get in hundreds of actions per minute – that’s faster than the game’s AI.

To improve your game, you have to be able to keep track of everything that’s going on over the entire map. And you must be able to give orders quickly and efficiently. Maybe you’ll never achieve 300 APM, but you can definitely do better than you’re doing now. I know I can.

One of the keys for beginners is to learn all the hotkeys, and to assign keys to units and structures. Don’t spend all your time mousing around the keyboard. Assign specific numbers to the same units in each game you play. Bookmark important locations. Learn which commands can be given by the press of a single button. It’s different for each game – but take the time to learn. You won’t be sorry.

Zerg build order chart from StarCraft.
Zerg build chart from StarCraft.

BUILD ORDER

This is another issue that depends specifically on the game you’re playing. There are plenty of web sites for your game, full of advice about what order in which to build units and structures. You can pick this up yourself through game play, or look online. But some build orders are going to be more efficient than others, and can make the difference between winning and remaining a newbie loser.

That said, do your best to learn the game mechanics. You can’t develop winning strategies and tactics unless you know what your units can do. I suggest that if you see a unit do poorly against another unit, or if some unit or structure isn’t performing the way you intended, after the game look it up and find out why.

Also, if you’re serious about improving your game, watch replays of good players. They’re easy to find on fan sites for your game. Watch how experienced players open their game and ask yourself why they’re doing what they’re doing. And of course, practice!

Mûmakil on fire.
Screenshot from The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II. Hey, my Mûmakil is on fire!

GENERAL ADVICE

Here are some general tips from sources around the Tubes:

Always assume the enemy is going to rush. We haven’t discussed rushing yet, but it’s a major concept in RTS games. A rush is an all-out attack by many low-level units early in the game. Your enemy is trying to cripple your economy from the beginning, by taking the risk of leaving his own economy undefended. Whoever rushes first, wins.

A rush will force you to go defensive — although I must say, in BFME2 I’ve had some success countering a rush with another rush.

The thing to remember here: if your opponent is on the attack, play defense. If your opponent is playing defensively then attack.

Send out scouts early — you want to know if the enemy is going to rush. If you’re defending against a rush, be economical — while you’re building unnecessary defenses, your enemy is expanding!

Likewise, if your enemy is playing too defensively, this gives you an excellent chance to upgrade your army and spread out, taking control of the map.

Attack expansions. Your enemy is trying to build up his economy by building structures further and further from his base. This can be especially useful to him if they are garrisoning units. But distant structures are very hard to defend – send your units to take them out.

When building your own economy, you may be tempted to build your resource generators/harvesters in secret, forlorn locations far from base. Beware — this can eat up a lot of time. But when playing against a human player, it might work if he or she is not scouting, and if you’re not known for using this strategy.

RTS players usually expo (expand) into their natural, the expansion area that is most logical for their starting location — usually right next to their base.

Some players spend the early part of the game building a beautiful, symmetrical, aesthetically-pleasing base. Don’t. You’re wasting time. Your base should be functional, nothing more. Do your units have space to escape from their generators, and make it to the battlefield? Are resource harvesters adjacent to the resources?

Build your economy early. You need resources. Stay close to home and get some resource harvesters going. You also need to raise your unit cap. If, while you do this, you can throw out a bunch of cheap units and rush your enemy’s base, so much the better.

Keep your unit generators busy. Never leave them idle. You can always be generating low-level peons to send against the enemy’s economy. You should be constantly producing — think of your army as a disease that wants to infect the whole map.

Keep your resources close to zero. Resources don’t earn interest sitting in the bank. Spend them as soon as they are available.

Don’t rely on static (immobile) defenses. Better to use military units that can not only defend, but can attack and move around if necessary. Keep your options open. The enemy will just batter their way through walls anyway. You may want to used static defenses to give yourself time to buy tech or cover your expo. It’s the difference between defending in a healthy, balanced way, versus over-defending while your enemy takes over the map.

Scout early and often. You can’t make plans if you don’t know what the enemy is doing.

Command & Conquer
Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars screenshot.

IN CONCLUSION

This is all general advice for RTS games. There are plenty of people on the Internet posting specific advice for your game – go online and check it out. Official Prima guides can be handy – but really, all the info you need is available online free of charge.

Maybe you don’t want to spend hours studying to play a game – that’s fair. But just isolating a few key pieces of advice can be the difference between losing to comparably-experienced players, or handing them their asses.

A WOEFULLY INCOMPLETE RTS GLOSSARY

These are common RTS terms, some of which I have bolded in the article. I have only listed terms that relate to concept discussed above. Here is a much more complete list.

APM: “actions per minute,” a measure of how many commands a player can give in one minute. In may seem unbelievable, but pro players like Spirit_Moon can give more than 300 commands in one minute.

Bot: a single computer player; the game’s AI.

Booming: building up your economy early in the game, at the expense of army building; the opposite of rushing. Referred to as “powering” in Blizzard games.

Economy: 1. the means of production for your forces; this includes workers, factories, and general resource management. The strength of an economy is decided by how many resources it can use at any moment. 2. your resource units.

Expo: RTS-speak for “expand” or “expanding” — building up your base.

Factory: general term for a resource unit that spends resources to produce military units.

Hard Counter: a unit designed to obliterate another variety of unit.

Harvester: general term for a resource unit that generates resource points from surrounding terrain.

House: general term for a unit which increases your pop cap.

Macro: 1. strategy, the science and art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of warfare. 2. equivalent to economy.

Massing: building up your army early in the game, at the expense of building your economy. Great for rushing; bad for your economy in the long term.

Melee: a unit that can only deal damage when adjacent to an enemy unit; short range combat; as opposed to Ranged.

Micro: 1. tactics, the military science that deals with achieving the objectives set by strategy. 2. Maneuvers used against an enemy; the employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other. 3. your military units.

Military: any mobile unit that can fight; as opposed to a worker.

Natural: the area around your base that is the most logical or “natural” place to build.

Pop Cap: the maximum number of units you can have in your army at any time; also called Unit Limit. Each unit you build has a point cost toward the pop cap; these points are usually generated by Houses. When a unit is destroyed, you gain the points back.

Powering: See Booming.

Raid: the tactic of send small teams of military units to attack the enemy economy; when the enemy retaliates, the units usually flee. A more conservative alternative to rushing.

Ranged: a unit that can deal damage from a distance; long range combat; as opposed to Melee.

Rush: an attack by many low-level units early in a game; designed to cripple the enemy’s economy.

Spam: the strategy of building only one kind of unit over and over, and rushing that unit against the enemy. Examples: Fire Prisms in Warhammer 40K Dawn of War; zerglings in StarCraft.

Stance: One of a limited set of behaviors that can be assigned to a unit. Usually, these are defensive, aggressive, or default postures.

Structure: an immobile unit. Can be resource production and collection (factory) or military (defensive tower). In StarCraft, some structures can change locations.

Unit Limit: see Pop Cap.

Workers: general term for any general-purpose mobile unit that collects resources or builds structures. In some games, the workers can be called on to fight, or transformed into military units.

17 Comments

  1. Another tip that I think is useful:

    If you’re playing an RTS that makes you build power generators (all C&C games are good examples), don’t build them all in one place. If you’re playing against a human player, and they know where your power generators are, you can be sure they’ll target them with a superweapon at the first chance they get. With no power, your static defenses don’t work.

    Also:

    Static defenses are much more important than you make them out to be. A few basic turrets built in the first few minutes of a game will usually fend off a rush, leaving your economy intact.

    Static defenses are essential as the game progresses, because if your army is out doing its thing, your base needs defense if it comes under direct attack. Static defenses usually have much higher firepower than military units, as well as much higher HP.

  2. It is also extremely important in all RTS games to build complimentary units; avoid being one-dimensional. Inexperienced players often resort to producing only one unit type that they believe to be the strongest or the best while more experienced players build and know how to use all of their unit types. Figuring out what your enemy is going to produce and building the proper counter is a fundamental way to gain and maintain a military advantage. If you know your enemy is always going to produce scissors, it’s becomes second nature that you should build rock.

    Also, attacking and defending together is crucial not only to RTS games but also to fighting games in general, especially in team games. Inexperienced players often waste their armies by not attacking with their allies or by leaving a large portion of their army behind. Do not do this… ever. Just like in real life, your units (and your army) are cogs in a machine designed to wipe out the enemy. It loses its effectiveness if it tries to operate alone.

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  4. I think its important to note that a failed rush is a MAJOR disaster. Losing all those resources is worse than bombing your own base. Failed rushes don’t even fail dramatically or elegantly. It usually ends with a single enemy unit killing the last of your rush unit. Do note it’s a good idea to keep some resources so you can quickly pop up a new army if your last one took heavy losses.

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  7. You kinda messed up there… your “original classic RTS.” screenshot is actually from a high-resolution Dune II remake, not from the original game.

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