Flash of Steel header image 2

Real Time Strategy as True Wargames

August 10th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 9 Comments · Blizzard, RTS

“Surrounded with trenches, Marius bided his time and paid no attention to the insults of the enemy. Publius Silo,who had the greatest authority and power among the Italians, once said to Marius, ‘If you are a great general, come down and fight us’; to which he answered, ‘No. If you are a great general, make me.’ ” – Plutarch’s “Life of Marius” (my own paraphrase, based on the Dryden translation.)

There’s this tension between wargamers and RTS players, especially where a mass hit like Starcraft 2 is involved. This has always been the case, though. Real time strategy has been dismissed as “click fest” gameplay that measured reflexes more than smarts, as if smarts was all there was to winning a battle.

But the more time I spend online with RTSes (and it has taken me years) the more I appreciate how many real war elements are a part of the RTS. Tom Chick tells a great story in recent game diary about outfoxing his opponent – the standard ruse of letting him think one thing but then doing another. Quite brilliant, actually.

Most wargames start with the battle site already determined. The forces are laid out, the field chosen and your strategy often determined by the order of battle you have in front of you.

But what if, like Marius in the Social War, you choose not to fight? The more you read about military history, the more you appreciate that a great part of military success is about forcing the enemy to fight when they are unprepared and denying them battle when you aren’t ready. Not that all the preparations in the world can make up for a mediocre army versus genius, but choosing the time and place of battle is what made, in the case of Pompey, Dyrrachium such a success and Pharsalus such a failure.

In the strategy world, only the RTS really captures this sense that terrain and time and tactics are all there so you can force your enemy to accept a disadvantage. Its not about replaying a historical battle and hoping for the best as much as it is about choosing your force disposition and moments.

RTSes aren’t “real” battles of course. When Patton or Rommel or Napoleon or Leonidas walked into battle they had little control over the forces they had. In an RTS you can recognize your enemy and get the feel of the map and build your army accordingly. A truly great general takes the forces he/she is given and makes the best of a limited resource. But Starcraft 2, with its emphasis on speed, seizing good ground and out guessing your enemy is not just a fair to good sport, but a fair reminder of what wargames should approximate – making the enemy fight when he/she’d rather not.


9 Comments so far ↓

  • Jon Shafer

    This has always been the kind of thing which drew me to Civ. You of course have the entire front when it comes to a battle, but even beyond that – do you actually go to war or not? Having complete strategic control over the situation is something I really enjoy, and wish we saw more of. One of my biggest misgivings about the Panzer General games was how precisely crafted they were. In many ways they were puzzle games more than wargames because the AI was never very good. The best the developers could do was dig in some infantry, AT guns and artillery in important locations and hope to give the human some trouble as they steamrolled through the front lines. The broader the scope (assuming the AI can keep up), the more I tend to enjoy a strategy game.


  • Troy


    One of the most exciting things about Civ 5, for me at least, is that by moving most of the battles outside the cities, the entire map comes into play, so you can sit and wait in a good position or move quickly out of a bad one. Or, alternately, find a route that takes you to an undefended city.

    Marius would love you. He would eventually kill you, of course.

  • Michael A.

    I have to say I disagree somewhat with your statement that only RTS’s capture the sense that terrain, time, and tactics are there so you can force your enemy to accept a disadvantage. IMO, all good strategy games have that element. That time in some games may be discrete as opposed to continuous has little bearing – it’s all just mechanics.

    RTS vs TBS – it’s all just a bunch of grognards shouting “get off my lawn” IMO. It’ll never stop, but then again – who cares? In 20 or 30 years, when some different type of consim model will no doubt be popular, it will be the RTS players who will be grouching about how the newfangled games are not “real wargames/strategy games/whatever”. That’s just how time turns. ;-)

  • Chris King

    I think it depends on the level of the game. If you take a high enough strategic level then all the things that you said about RTS’s come into play. The battle simulators, and I did love the old Talon Soft games, then the pre battle manoeuvring was already done by the time the game started. So I guess it depends on which Strategy game you are using as a comparison.

  • Nathan Hoobler

    In the wake of Starcraft 2, I’ve gone back to thinking about what I do/don’t like about the RTS versus the TBS. In my mind, the worst gameplay experiences come when the result is practically determined from the start — if one player has figured out a completely optimal starting build order that you have no chance to really defend against, or if one player has arbitrarily chosen to focus on econ or rushing, while the other choses the “scissor” to their “rock”. Of course, opening tactics and strategic stances are enshrined as part of every strategy game since Chess, so I don’t mean to try and reject such things completely. However, I think that the *best* strategy game experiences occur when such things are allowed to happen, but the other player is given a chance to detect the situation, and adapt to it before it’s too late.

    I found RUSE to be really enjoyable because there was a nice cadence of deciding an opening play (“Am I going to try to defend against an air rush? If so, how? Can I counter with some light tanks to take advantage? How best do I hide my maneuver?”), frantically trying to execute it and survive initial contact long enough that you can round out your defenses, and then settle into a round of probing your enemy lines, where it’s no longer so important what you’ve chosen to build as where you chose to put it. Meanwhile, I find many other RTS games (traditionally — I’m still reserving judgment on SC2) revert to picking a single strategy, and just trying to execute it as efficiently and as quickly as possible. To invoke Meier’s Maxim, “A game is a series of interesting choices”, and I think that often times RTS games have few choices which are interesting and many which are rote.

  • Jon Shafer

    Something I think that’s pretty cool about the new combat system in Civ 5 is that it really does bring you closer to the terrain. It’s easy to just say that as an attractive marketing one-liner, but the first time you have to place a newly-minted defender somewhere instead of just stacking him in the city, it really hits home. “Hmmm, that hill is a good spot, but that forest over there isn’t bad either…” It really demonstrates the strengths of having random maps.


  • Scott R. Krol

    Must disagree. Surprise, I know. :) Since you yourself used the phrase “true wargames” let me point out the difference between a “true wargame” and a Carpal tunnel inducing game such as Starcraft II or other clicky RTS games…

    A True Wargame features zones of control.

    A True Wargame features morale.

    A True Wargame features multiple terrain, all of which have an impact on both movement and combat, not just “blocking” terrain.

    A True Wargame features weather effects.

    A True Wargame features lines of supply and supply effects. No, mining crystals/Tiberium/Jesus Juice doesn’t count.

    A True Wargame features appropriate OOBs, plus scheduled reeinforcements.

    Clicky RTS games feature none of the above. The biggest factor in winning at a clicky RTS is not where you make your stand but how many hotkeys you have memorized and how adept you are at executing them and other macros. Plus your ability to combine multitasking with said hotkeys.

    Now I will agree with your assessment if you were talking about something like (shameless plug) a ProSIM title or the old Close Combat series. In those games hotkeys and knowing the game itself (as opposed to strategy and tactics) is not the key to winning.

  • Don

    Re your next podcast on RTS games that had good ideas but for some reason didn’t quite make it I’d like to put Warzone 2100 up for consideration. This had some great features:

    Design your own units by combining different weapons, chassis and so on.

    Commander units who you’d attach subordinate units to.

    The ability to set damage thresholds to your units so that, when they hit the limit they’d trundle back to a repair depot to get fixed up then back to the battle.

    Compared to the competition that was around at the time it was well ahead but although some of its innovations did appear later in other games it should really have set the standard by which the rest were judged but failed to do so.

  • Brian

    @Scott: Each of the features you have listed is available in various forms in one ‘clicky’ RTS game or another. Kohan, for example, features zones of control, morale, a notion of supply and ‘real’ terrain (combat/movement modifiers which differ for different units) while also emphasizing the importance of scouting, formations and flanking.

    Furthermore, your dismissal of RTS games as being contests of clicking betrays an utter lack of understanding of the genre. It is comparable to watching a professional tennis player demolish an amateur and concluding that tennis is a game whose outcome is determined purely by how hard you hit the ball. Multi-tasking, clicking and hot-key usage constitute the basic skill set of an RTS and are only significant to the outcome when one player has not mastered them. When both sides have mastered them the gains to be had diminish and the game becomes more like what Troy discussed: an interplay of strategy and tactics where choosing when and where to fight is what determines the outcome.