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Real-Time Strategy

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Build a town, train an army, conquer the battlefield.note 
Real-Time strategy games, also known as RTS games, are a subgenre of strategy games which focuses on construction and control of a fighting force in battle that takes place in real-time. It has an army of tropes all its own.

Debate rages as to what the first originating RTS actually was, the results largely dependent on the age and nationality of the participants, and the definition of RTS (which can overlap with real-time tactics or Turn-Based Strategy). The ZX Spectrum had early claimaints many many moons ago (1984 saw Stonkers and 1987 — Nether Earth); the MSX saw Herzog in the late 80s — but only in Japan; and 1989 saw its sequel Herzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) which introduced many of the genre conventions. Herzog Zwei was the Trope Maker that spawned the genre, being the common ancestor of every modern RTS, as well as the Trope Namer ("RTS" was coined in this 1989 interview). It inspired 1992's Dune II by Westwood Studios (later of Command & Conquer fame), which established the form and the tropes of the RTS which are known to the masses today, making it the Trope Codifier.

Games in the genre have one or more factions where the players assume the role of a "god" or commander, controlling units and buildings, building a town, creating an army and eventually crushing their enemies into dust using said army. There are four basic elements of the genre: units, buildings, resources and technologies:

  • Units are individual actors that can be given orders, from resource collection to engaging another enemy unit, depending on their class.
  • Buildings are static, faction-owned structures. Most of them have two roles: train units and research technologies. Other buildings influence the faction's resources, either increasing the population limit or serving as a storage point for collected resources. Depending on the game, what order you construct these buildings in, and how quickly you do so, is an important factor in deciding the outcome of the match.
  • Technologies are used to give the faction an edge against the enemy factions. Techs are improvements for economy-oriented units/buildings or military-oriented ones, or even the faction as a whole.
  • Resources are used to achieve all of the above goals, and because of its integral importance to the genre, all armies fight for their control as much (if not more) as they fight each other.

Almost all games of this type are based on ground combat on a 2D map, with various terrain and obstacles adding interest to the battlefield. Airborne and seaborne units are sometimes incorporated, but they are seldom realistic in terms of speed and performancenote . As for the GUI itself, it always displays the available resources, enemy factions, the minimap with the revealed terrain and the units/buildings the player can see, and if an unit or building is selected, it also displays the commands/orders it can perform. Several games also have different minimap options allowing players to see resources, enemy units, allied/own units, Wild Card units, and many/all of the above at the same time.

Enhancing one's forces with better equipment and training makes perfect sense, but while a few titles do use plausible terminology for requisitioning new gear, training specialists, retooling factories and deploying the finished products to active forces, most use the peculiar choice of "research" for the process. This gives players the surreal image of scientists doing research on the front lines, making miraculous breakthroughs almost immediately, and then promptly forgetting whatever it was, every single level.

As its name implies, in comparison to its big brother Turn-Based Strategy, the Real Time Strategy genre has players taking action whenever they wish (within the constraints of how often any particular action can be taken). Playtime will continue for other players and entities in the game even if one player sits back and does nothing, rather than breaking up the sequence of play into discrete turns for each player, which brings multiplayer matches down from hours or days to minutes. While this leaves less time for strategizing and encourages fast-paced playstyles, it makes commanders less omniscient, allowing ambushes and distractions to be viable strategies, especially when the so-called "Fog of War" is involved. As for unit pathfinding, unlike other genres such as the First-Person Shooternote , in the RTS genrenote  the tendency of unit AI to unnecessarily bumble around the map in response to choke points and clump together when attacking becomes very obvious; therefore pathfinding is given a high amount of importance, as a game with a weak AI becomes frustrating to play in the "my units are dumb" sense.

The genre also possesses a number of aesthetic conceits, so typical to its presentation that they often confuse even the games' creatorsnote :

Refinements of the genre formula have appeared over the years, and in more modern times these include the addition of high ground bonuses for range and vision, bonus damage for flanking enemy troops, terrain bonuses such as cover and concealment, the organization of small units like infantry and fighter craft into squads or wings that act as one unit, aircraft units that act like aircraft (take off, perform mission, land again), elements from the Real Time Tactics genre where there's no base building or unit construction and scale is strictly squad-level (units are acquired at the start of each level), units with limited supplies who can expend all their supplies if left in the lurch, persistent troops that are retained throughout a campaign (introducing RPG Elements), Mobile Factories blurring the distinction between buildings and units, and eschewing gathering resources and destroying the enemy's base in favor of taking and holding positions on the map in order to achieve victory.

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    Basic archetypes of units 
In a typical RTS, units are classified in one (or more) of four categories: Economic Units, Military Units, Support Units and Specialized Units:

Economic Units

Units whose purpose is the upkeeping of the faction's resources and the construction and maintenance of the civilization.
  • The Worker Unit (a.k.a. Peon): A basic, cheap unit that can build any structure, gather resources, and/or repair structures (and often vehicles). It almost always has either a pathetic melee attack, often its repurposed Magic Tool, or has no combat ability at all. Units of these type can further be divided into:
    • The Builder: An unit which handles the construction of buildings.
    • The Harvester: An unit entirely dedicated to gathering resources. This is also used if one of those jobs is performed by a building instead, with the Peon handling the other. Particular subsets of the subclass are the Hunter (hunts wild animals), the Farmer (has one or many of the following roles: domesticate animals for food, work in specialized resource buildings and gather food from nearby bushes), the Miner (can harvest mineral resources from mines) and the Lumberjack (in games where wood is a resource, these guys do the lumberjacking).
    • The Fixer: An unit dedicated to the reparation of damaged buildings. Usually overlap with the Mechanic if they also have the ability to repair damaged vehicles and robotic units.

Military Units

Units whose purpose is to dish out damage in the battlefield.
  • The Militia: This is the Peon's supermode (if you can even call it that), with better attack power than a Peon but less than that of a normal basic ground unit. Useful en masse in resisting a rush. Alternatively, it's a separate unit that can be called from the Command/Construction Center rather than the Barracks.
  • The Basic Melee Unit: In medieval fantasy games this is the first and most basic combat unit available, and most often has a sword and light armor. In more futuristic scenarios, melee units are much rarer.
  • The Basic Ranged Unit: The first and most basic combat unit available in most modern, futuristic, and historical games set in the age of the gun, the second in medieval fantasy. Has a rifle or a bow or other basic ranged weapon, and pathetic armor.
  • The Scout: A fast unit with limited combat capabilities and a wide sight range. Used to reduce the Fog of War, though it may also double up as a stealth/cloak detector, light combat unit, or target designator for artillery/superweapons/etc. Can be a light tank, jeep, or motorcycle in modern and future games, or cavalry in fantasy settings.
  • The Elite Unit: A souped-up basic unit with a higher price tag, heavier armor, greater attack power, and/or higher speed (or the opposite) for units of its type. These have a danger of getting spammed late in the game.

Anti-Military Units

Military units whose entire purpose is to counter a specific unit or set of units (usually vehicles/buildings or air units), as opposed to the more generalized basic units.
  • The Anti-Infantry Unit: Usually used in modern/futuristic games. About the same stats as basic units, but usually armed with a flamethrower, rocket launcher or other specialized weapon. Their usefulness tends to wane after the early or middle game, usually right after the enemy's anti-infantry vehicles come into play.
  • The Anti-Cavalry Unit: Units intended to counter enemy mounted troops. The most common form is some variant of infantry provided with long pikes or halberds with which to break the impetus of a cavalry charge.
  • The Anti-Vehicle Unit: Like the infantry equivalent, only bigger, tougher, and can usually dish out more damage. These usually come in Anti-Land Vehicles or Anti-Air, occasionally both.
  • The Anti-Structure Unit: The building equivalent to the Anti-Infantry and Anti-Vehicular units. Comes in two variants:
    • The Siege Unit: A heavy, armored monster for taking down buildings and other siege units. Either vulnerable to masses of lighter enemy troops, specialized counters, or equivalent enemy siege units. Usually a tank or mech in modern and future settings, heavy cavalry or a massive Beast of Battle in Fantasy. Siege units are often slow-moving or expensive, but can form a solid core to your battle line or the big punch to break the enemy's.
    • The Artillery Unit: Long-range equivalent to the siege unit, the artillery unit can't hit anything too close to it, has splash damage, and is usually slow (if not static) and under-armored. Its disadvantages are often balanced out by its massive attack power and long range.

Vehicular Units

Another subset of the military units, they are expensive but fast units that can travel most territories where the regular foot units cannot tread. May overlap with Support Units if they can also transport or heal other troops.
  • The Naval Unit: Typically works like floating artillery, but is well-armored and has access to seas or other regions that standard ground units cannot go. Also available in Troop Transport, Submarine, Anti-Submarine, Anti-Air, and sometimes Aircraft Carrier. In space settings where spaceships take the place of ground units, this archetype does not apply.
  • The Air Unit: The air unit is often faster than ground units and mildly or not affected by terrain. In some cases it fights like an attack helicopter, hovering in one place to attack, even when it isn't one. In other cases, it has to return to a special building after every attack to rearm and/or repair. Good against anything that can't hit it back. Although, realistically, it shouldn't apply to spaceship-based games, this unit archetype is present anyway in the form of squadrons of small and maneuverable Space Fighters and similar strike craft.
    • The Air Scout: If a game uses multiple air units, this is usually the first one you get. Lightly-armed if at all, Air Scouts are very fast (usually the fastest unit in the game), have a wide sight radius, and may have the ability to see Stealth units.

Support Units

Non-military units whose role in the battlefield is to support the military units.
  • The Medic: An unit that can heal other units, usually organic race units. They're a priority to take down in a mixed firefight.
  • The Unit Stealer: An unit with the ability to steal other units from the enemy factions. Usually located in games where one race is split up in factions such as the Age of Empires series. Seldom seen in race-based games because being able to have more than one race Tech Tree, while difficult to pull offnote , usually leads to game-breaking results.
  • The Mechanic: Another healer unit, but this time oriented to vehicles and robotic units. Can overlap with the Fixer if they can also fix buildings.
  • The Transport: Picks up other units and carries them around, and is almost always an air or sea unit, although modern/futuristic games will often have land-bound APCs as well. Useful for transporting ground units over long distances, around defenses, or across inaccessible regions. Is often moderately fast and has little or no combat ability in itself, though passengers might be able to use their own weapons.

Specialized units

Units that have a role that fall outside of the other roles. Usually units with a Difficult, but Awesome requirement.
  • The Spellcaster: An unit with little armor and/or normal attack power, but can use player-commanded abilities that inflict heavy damage over an area, or bestow status effects on friendly and enemy units. Its abilities often have areas-of-effect and time limits, cost mana/energy points of some kind, and are micromanagement-heavy. Not limited to fantasy settings, despite the name.
  • The Mercenary: An unit that typically becomes available immediately and is purchased using the "gold" resource. May only be available for a limited time, or its cost be too high.
  • The Stealth Unit: As much a modifier as a unit type of it's own, the Stealth Unit is nominally like one of the above units, but also has the ability to hide itself from enemy detection. This can be a limited-time ability, or it may be always on. If the game doesn't make the unit de-cloak to attack, it may require specialized units or defenses to reveal them to the opposing player.
  • The Hero Unit: A really powerful unit that more or less represents the player on the battlefield or a major character in the game's story. It usually has spells or abilities that can affect big chunks of the battlefield at once, and at the same time hits and takes damage like a tank. If nothing else has RPG Elements, it often will, with XP gain from kills and experience levels, and more abilities becoming available at higher levels. May be the Keystone of a Keystone Army.
  • The Super/Epic Unit: A large superpowered unit almost capable of taking out an army or base all by itself. These are usually expensive as hell to build (and usually slow, too) and factions can only field a certain amount of them at a time, so if you allow your opponent to build several of these, you probably deserve what's about to happen. Usually Awesome, but Impractical, bringing one of these into a fight often gets a satisfying Oh, Crap! from your opponent. Losing one of these returns the favor.

    Basic archetypes of buildings 
A critical part of all RTS games is the base-building and Resource-Gathering element, which is also conducted very rapidly. Buildings are divided in Economic buildings, Military buildings and Research buildings.

Economic buildings

These buildings' primary purpose is to manage the resources of the faction. They have limited or non-existant combat abilities:
  • The Command/Construction Center: Either constructs buildings itself (especially if in the Command & Conquer series) or builds Peon units. Despite it's humbleness, this is usually the true Keystone of your force: if you lose it defeat may not be automatic, but unless you can replace it quickly, it may be inevitable.
  • The Resource Storage Building: A building that stores or generates resources, and/or creates/accepts Peons, Workers, or Harvesters. Versions that don't create worker units are usually placed close to the respective resource it gathers.
    • The Resource Controller: A Resource Building that is specifically built on top of (or nearby) a gatherable resource itself, allowing only your peon/harvester units to use it.
  • The Population Extending Building: A building that incrementally increases the Arbitrary Headcount Limit for units - often handwaved as providing housing or food for them. May also be necessary (as a source of electricity/mana/phlebotinum) for other buildings to function. Sometimes upgradeable to a Defense Turret or Transport.

Military Unit Buildings

These buildings' purpose is to train the military units that will compose the army that the player will use to crush the enemy factions. Some of them can also overlap with Research building, especially if the techs they contain are related to the units they train:
  • The Barracks: Builds the basic infantry units and sometimes handles unit-specific upgrades.
  • The Stable/Vehicle Factory: Builds scout, siege, and artillery units.
  • The Naval Building: Builds and repairs naval units.
  • The Aircraft Factory: Builds, upgrades, and potentially rearms air units. Often only supports a limited number of aircraft at a time, usually between one and four.
  • The Science Factory: Trains support units such as healers and transport units.
  • The Defense Turrets: A small building with a mounted weapon. Usually varies between anti-infanty, anti-armor, and anti-air.
  • The Superweapon: A building that generates an unlimited-range or near-unlimited-range attack that can blow large holes in an army or base, if not wipe it off the map completely. Typically, only one can be built at a time. If not, there's a chance the game can become a Turtle-fest as players hide behind their defenses, build a dozen or so Superweapons, and try to wipe out the enemy base in a cataclysmic orgy of Nuclear fire, Kill Sat Beam Spam, Negative Space Wedgies, or whatever is available to that side.
    • The Anti-Superweapon: A defensive building specifically designed to defeat the Superweapon and prevent it from being used against a specific area. Usually cheaper and faster to build than the Superweapon. Intended to discourage the above behaviour, forcing conventional conflict and encouraging faster battle resolution. Often still vulnerable to a Spam Attack.

Research Buildings

These buildings are used to research technologies in order to give the faction an edge against the enemy factions.
  • The Tech Building: A building whose main purpose is to advance the Tech Tree and upgrade units. Usually has to be built before you can build other Research Buildings or advanced unit buildings.
  • The Specialized Tech Building: A research building whose techs are monofocused: you have economic tech buildings (The University), military tech buildings (The Arsenal) and...
  • The Advanced Tech Building: Like the first one, but comes later in the game, or is expanded from the original. Needed for accessing even more advanced stuff like Elite Units or Superweapons.

Neutral Buildings

These buildings aren't faction-oriented, but anyone can claim them and train unique units and research unique techs.
  • The Saloon: A Bad Guy Bar. Hosts mercenary units that can be bought with a specific, valuable resource, usually gold. Cannot be damaged.
    • The Village: A subclass of the above. A settlement or tribe located in the middle of the map. Contains a building place for a specific building to be built so an alliance can be made with these natives. Unlike the Saloon, the faction building in this settlement can be destroyed.
  • The Shop: Like the Saloon, this building can't be damaged, and its contents can be bought with a specific resource. What differences the Shop from the Saloon is that instead of units, it sells technologies.
  • The Outpost: A watchtower which clears the FoV for the unit that controls it. Some can even function as defense points for the team thet controls it.
  • The Discovery Site: Often found in specific gametypes of specific games, these are the positions over which players fight. Controlling the highest amount of these for a certain period of time is the victory condition for these Domination-style gametypes.

    Basic archetypes of resources 
The third and most important element of the genre are the resources. Without them you just can't build a base, train an army and squash the opposition into fine pasta. Therefore, RTS matches have at least one battle for resources at some part of the map. It's also common to have a bunch of initial resources near the base. Some of the most recognizable resource sources are:
  • Population: Most RTS games have an Arbitrary Head Count Limit, which is represented by this resource. Can be extended with Population Extender Buildings (Pylons).
  • Tree: In games where wood is a collectible resource, wood is usually collected from trees.
  • Mine: In games with mineral collectible resources, gatherer units are sent to these mines. They usually are displayed with a stack of the aforementioned resource, if not with a mine entrance.
  • Gas: In games where gas can be collected, geyser holes act as the gas collection spot.
  • Animals: In games where food can be collected from hunting animals, across the map there will be plenty of creatures from where to harvest food. Animals can be found either in the wild (with all parties fighting for them), or can be domesticated. In games with support for water maps, fish colonies can also be harvested for food.
  • Other food sources: Food can also be collected from other sources such as forage bushes.
  • Resource box: Usually obtained via research, resource boxes are faction-specific and can contain any type of resources in a finite amount. Boxes can also be found in the wild and any faction can acquire them.
  • Mana: Spellcasting units, hero units, and units that use special abilities have their own resource to manage, in the form of a separate energy bar. Abilities draw power from this bar, which is usually rechargeable.

For common tropes, see Strategy Game Tropes. Compare Strategy RPG. See also Real-Time with Pause for a slightly different approach (may also have variable time scale). The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre came out of Real-Time Strategy genre and utilizes a similar camera but with much smaller scope that limits you to one character (and occasionally other units depending on the game's option for it but largely most players will be using one unit) supporting waves of weaker units trying to bring down the enemy's base. See its own page for more information.

Games in this genre:

Alternative Title(s): RTS