Tactics vs Strategy in RTS video games

As a gamer, I often get into discussion with other, more rabid gamers about the correct balance between tactics and strategy in RTS games, such as warcraft 3, the homeworld series, and others. Since I am sure there are avid gamer here, too, I thought I’d broach the subject and see if you agree with me or not.

To put it simply, I think tactics should ideally not be a part of what you do in a game.

I define tactics as any commands you give units during the course of a battle pertaining to that battle, and strategy as everything else. I despise tactics, as they are invariably monotonous, simpleminded tasks that could be easily handled by the computer, freeing up your attention for more intricate strategic maneuvers.

I also feel that the focus on tactics in recent games like warcraft 3 has had a detrimental effect on the way the game is played in that you have to fight a very talented opponent for strategy to even require thought; everything else is “build army->attack base.” While eliminating tactics would not eliminate the latter style of play, it would greatly decrease its effectiveness, forcing the player to have to think to be better, and not just mindlessly click faster than the opponent. If that was all I wanted to do, I’d play counter strike.

In general, the most sensible objection is that the AI is not up to it. That may be true, for the most part, but I feel that you can make an AI “commander” good enough to out-micro you in most situations. Expert humans might still beat it; that’s all fine and good. The point is that it takes some of the needless burden off of the player.

One of my favorite games, Dungeon Keeper 2, is based largely on this principle. In that game, you can plop down an army, and it’ll do reasonably well in a battle. Healers will heal, flankers will flank, and in general everyone works out pretty good. There are still major deficiencies in unit AI, yes, but keeping in mind that the game was made in 1998 I’d say large improvements could be made.

Anyway, I’m interested in knowing what you think.

Well, different games are designed with different focuses. Warcraft III was designed to be heavily tactical, and if you don’t like it, don’t play it. On the other hand, WIII did a lot of things to make the tactical level a lot smoother, like autocast spells and subgroups. So while you have to micromanage more, it’s not as much of a nuissance.

And I’m not sure about tactics being simpleminded. When you’re attacking the enemy base, for instance, do you want a suicide attack that does as much damage as possible? Or do you want a nuissance attack where most of your units live to fight another day? Or (most likely) something in between? Is it more important to destroy the enemy buildings, or the units defending them? Sure, the computer can make decisions like these, but it wouldn’t necessarily make the same decisions you would.

So to you, the English should never have had a chance on St. Crispin’s Day, nor Villanova be able to beat Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA finals, nor Ohio State defeat Miami University in OT earlier this year, because the commander cannot use tactics.

I agree with what you are saying. I liked that about the DK series as well. With regards to Warcraft 3, that is why I play either the Night Elves or the Humans most of the time. There is little tactical, or micromanaging, stuff to do for them.

There is an amount of strategic planning that can be used. When it works, it is amazing. When it fails, it fails horrifically.


  1. 3 vs 3 player Warcraft 3 online game. One teammate does all grunt melee troops. I do all ranged troops. The third does troops that can possess and take over enemy units. We meet the oppossing army. The third ally runs his very weak possessing units (banshees) out front and they die quickly. We lost.
  2. In several games I take a small group of units to attack a base while in a pitched battle with the enemy. Most non-veteran players will freak out and do stupid mistakes.
  3. One of my favorite moments of Warcraft 3 online games is when in a 4 vs 4 online game, the sum of all player’s armies are fighting in a huge circle. I held the front line, but died quickly. My hero (a special unit with special powers) got her ultimate power (starfall, which can destroy entire enemy armies). She was near death. She had an item that allowed to revive after being slain at full health. I told my allies to keep the enemy in the circle at all costs. They were dying quickly and we were going to lose badly. They wanted to retreat. I screamed at them not to do so. My hero revived. She let loose starfall. The enemy couldn’t get out and were steamrolled by my allies.

Strategic play does have its place in RTS games. When I use flying troops, I use them to get behind and around and over to kill stuff. I don’t just send them into the fray. But tactics is where battles are usually won or lost.

Also, as I think of another Warcraft point, troop selection is a strategic choice. If all allies get a bad collection of troops, we lose. If we get troops that cannot hurt air troops, and the enemy does air, we lose.

Heh, now you are making me want to play DK2 again. Evil is GOOD.

So you never pull the trick where you hide and unhide a group of archers/Priestess one at a time? It’s a lot of micro, but I’ve found it pretty much guarantees you’ll beat any non-micro force (especially melee opponents).

Of course, the decision to fight at night so you can use that trick is a strategic one, but from there, it’s all tactical.

As Night Elves, you also have to make sure to focus-fire (all of your units targeting the same enemy at once), rather than just the general “attack over there” command you use with melee troops. Again, more micro than with, say, Orcs. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that Orcs have the least micromanagement of anyone: About the only thing that takes special attention is Healing Wards, and you’re probably using those between battles, anyway.

What I hate is nt using good tactics - I do that. I just hate micromanaging special powers. Its fine if I’m just using one Hero or two, but I HATE witha veangence having to go through 16 units and manually tell them which abilities to use. Without a pause feature its murder. I do not like rabid clickfests.
I really enjoyed the auto-cast feature, and I hope they expand that in the future. However, I’d like to see the units use some brains now and then when using it. For example, it does me no good for my Unholy Necromancers of Doom to raise skeletons after the enemy have all died. Skellies are great defensive units to stop those pesky rushes, but they have to be alive when the next wave gets there or be made on the spot during the battle.

Basically, I am objecting to the idea that so many RTS's have that the general commanding the army has to also be telling each tank crew where to fire. I want to give them a target, map them a route, and let them take out the enemy with my superior planning. ALternatively, I can be a forward tyactical controller, but I d not want to have to order them to shoot particular enemies.

Would simple sliders of aggressive<->passive, target units<->target base, and kamikaze<->hit-and-run be too complicated? You could even have the ability to define certain “roles” for your troops such as “healer,” “disabler,” “blocker,” and “flanker.” It would allow you to narrow the spectrum of possible actions without forcing you to move everything yourself.

Do the commanders say “Okay, Bryan! Pick up the ball. Throw it to Luke. Nick, get in front of the that guy over there. A little to the left. Now the right. Okay Luke, throw it in. Johnson! Run get the ball. Bounce it. Again.” Or do they just map out a plan of action and trust their team to follow it?

I’m not refuting anything you said, just making a comment with your example. Why can the archers not hide themselves? It seems to be a very logical thing: if attacked, hide. If not, come out shooting. There is no reason you should have to do this manually.

And they cannot do it themselves… why? Seems logical to me - every unit fires on the enemy that poses the greatest threat to the army and can be killed in the quickest time. That’s taking into account which enemies are being attacked by other friendly units, so units will have a tendency to all focus on one unit until it’s dead.

That’s precisely what I would like. I would also like to add “dancing” and focus firing to the list of stuff you shouldn’t have to do.

ahem That was University of Miami, not Miami University. MU was beating OSU at halftime but OSU recovered.

/MU student

That’s why Natural Selection is so fun: your troops are not only people who are supposed to be at least moderately intelligent, but you can also yell at them in English to do what you want and they’ll hear you and hopefully respond. It would be sort of neat to combine the RTS world with the FPS world so that both get the best of both world without having to play a game type they didn’t really enjoy.

Problem is that trying to combine both types of games would likely result in a game that sucks at both.
I think Age of Empires II was one of the best strategy games I’ve played. it let you command a diverse variety of units. The army size was manageable enough to allow both small unit tactics as well as massive battles. A single unit at the right place at the right time could turn the tide of the game (especially if that unit was a trebechet or heavy cannon galleon).

I agree with InquisitiveIdiot. If I am playing a RTS game, I don’t want to worry about each and every soldier on the battlefield. I don’t care if my generic soldier upgrades to “veteran” or if I can assign a customized name to him. He’s probably going to get killed anyway when I send his platoon to take that bunker - Normandy style. Best not to make personal attachments.

I love tactical games (including, for example, Myth). I like worrying about individual soldiers. I also like grand strategy games, where you command vast armies and the fate of nations is in your hands.

On the other hand, RTSs do absolutely nothing for me. I have zero interest in them. So there you go.

No point, except that it takes all kinds of players, and all kinds of games.

Rise of Nations takes care a lot of the micro, and if you want to micro it’s a lot easier. You can click a button to select all your troops, and they will put themselves into formation, and in combat they will try to attack the enemies they are most effective against.

I’m with InquisitiveIdiot and smilingbandit here. The reason why Total Annihilation is my favorite RTS of all time is that it emphasizes strategy over tactics. Sure, there’s an element of the latter, but winning in TA requires a good grasp of long-term goals and canny resource management over the clickfests that Blizzard’s games tend to become. Micromanagement is the bane of strategy game design, as far as I’m concerned (do note that I am making a distinction between real-time strategy games and real-time “tactical” games like Ground Control), because it forces the player to focus his/her attention on manually controlling each of his units when his time could be much better spent planning feints, 2-pronged assaults, defensive options, resource expansion, et cetera, if only the unit A.I. were halfway decent.

Come to think of it, it sounds like what you want is Dark Reign. It doesn’t give you quite the freedom you’re asking for, but then again, it’s several years old now. But in Dark Reign, you can tell your units to automatically go get healed/repaired when damaged enough, where to go after they’re healed, how independent they should be in choosing targets, how far to pursue enemies, etc. With your units set on maximum independence, you can almost let the game play itself for minutes at a time, so long as you gave the right standing orders. Of course, you still have to be there to deal with emergencies: There’s always some situation you don’t have standing orders for.

I scrolled through this thread saying to myself
I agree with InquisitiveIdiot
I agree with InquisitiveIdiot
I need to make a point about Dark Reign and Total Annihilation and Total War

Only to find that the DR & TA points had been made already :frowning:

I had looked forward to WC3 everyday since I stopped playing WC2 and when I finally played it, I hated it instantly for exactly the reasons you describe. It made me feel like a corporal when I wanted to be a general.

In Total War (Medieval and Shogun), I am a general. My view of the battle is strategic. There is no clickfest. In fact, unless you have total screwed up at the strategic level, you have a click rate of about 10 per minute compared to the 10 per second in WC3.

… and no more talon/energy/lumber/gold/mana gathering either.

I did enjoy AOE2 and Dungeon Keeper too, but if a strategic RTS is what you are after, TW-M is your game.

I don’t agree. I mean, Natural Selection is just a user-made mod, and it’s pretty darn fun. Basically, it achieves exactly what the OP was suggesting: the soldiers can practice their battle tactics to get better at engagements, movement, use of tech and so forth, while the RTS commanders can practice their strategy skills.

Actually, that works, too. But remember, in Myth you didn’t have to worry about a huge army, economy, building base defenses, and so forth. The game WAS built solely for tactical combat. That sort of specialization worked very well. However, its not something I want to do on a larger scale.

Yup, that game had some very goods points. The only problem was the graphics - I play a very defensive game, and I kept putting my turrets in the exact wrong place. Stupid 3D map.