I love RTS games, I really do but I’m all too aware that my strategies are horribly formulaic and designed against stupid AI’s and even stupider players. So many people adopt the Turtle strategy (delightfully mocked by Premier Romanov in Red Alert 2 when he prods his turtle into “duck and cover”) which is great if you can organise defences whereby the enemy will bleed white on but that’s hardly conducive to a long-term strategy. Even in turn based strategy there is an element of Turtle playing – keep enough armed forces in place to make an attack punishing until you can gather enough forces to push out an attack.

Age of Empires 3 at least attempts to counter this – static defences do not substitute a good military, they supplement it at best. You’re therefore forced to build up a series of infantry, cavalry and artillery in order to ensure adequate defence and attack. Force the enemy to expend his resources so that he cannot stockpile and wear him down not through attrition but through a carefully considered and delivered strategy covering the economic and the military.

Mind you, I think back to Age of Mythology where each of the 3 (then 4) factions were designed for a specific strategy – the Egyptians were the builders and a Turtle strategy suited them best although their better units were cavalry. The Norse were the Attila faction, designed for a good aggressive policy whilst the Greeks offered more of a hybrid strategy. When the Atlanteans came along for the expansion pack, one could describe them as an economic, special forces type faction who didn’t really fit the genotype for RTS games. Naturally Ensemble Studios implemented a bit more of this for AoE 3 – the Spanish and to some extend the English are the closest to the Atlanteans if there were to be a direct comparison.

But why am I waxing poetic about Real Time Strategy game tactics? It’s another of those random thoughts that have been bouncing around my skull. Ever since I tapped out my “What if Harold had won at Hastings” post, the thoughts have left my brain – passing from the unconscious to the conscious as it were – and maybe these will do the same. I made the mistake of firing up AoE 3 a couple of weeks ago after an extended Wii binge and can’t put down the damn game. 14 factions, multiple maps and challenges are just too much. My “weakest” Home City is probably Lisbon and that’s at Level 73…

I’ve been thinking about the final show-down when one moves in troops to finish off a faction’s main base. My favourite is the one-two punch – lead with the left but strike with the right. Take your army, split it into two and use one as either a diversionary tactic to draw off fire whilst the secondary force carries out the intended objective. Usually when the second punch is landed, the AI (and weaker human players) will disintegrate when faced with the utter chaos of a co-ordinated strike as they are hit on multiple vectors and termination swiftly follows. The only way to effectively deal with a one-two punch is a massive decentralisation of units. Naturally the AI has better chance of success compared with a human for this as it can focus on multiple groups.

The Wall of Death is standard fare for the AI – take all troops and send them in a massed attack against the base. If their path comes across any rogue gatherer units, they are swept up. Sometimes though, the AI will chase the gatherers giving advance warning of an impending attack which can buy precious time. A Wall of Death is pretty unstoppable under normal circumstances, particularly if backed up with artillery. Let infantry duke it out with infantry. Cavalry should be used in their intended role – to outflank the enemy and smash into vulnerable areas.

Hit and Run is an economic strategy – swift moving units like Dragoon cavalry or even archers target smaller groups of gatherers, eliminate a few and then run like hell before a response can be organised. It prevents resources from being efficiently collected – at least until (in AoE3 for example) factory type buildings become available and resources can be automatically generated. Hell, the Dutch faction in AoE3 don’t need any settlers after Age 4 – 2 factories + up to 11 banks means food, wood and gold are gathered automatically. That saves up to 45 unit points for extra military forces.

Terrain is also good for strategy. Whilst units generally cannot “hide” in RTS games, they can put themselves out of range of enemy weapons, using the landscape to advantage. By blocking off choke points, armies can be directed and something approaching a “Highway of Death” can be established, the enemy feeding units into a meat grinder. This is where Fortresses can really come into their own. Water gives rise to naval support which can be extremely useful in bombarding coastal buildings.

Thing is, it’s hard to be innovative in terms of overall strategy as units are pre-designed and you have to work with what you have. The only game that offered real strategy was Alpha Centauri where you could design your own units based on chassis, weapons, armour and special functions. Although you were limited to 63 design slots (including civilian/economic units), you could design a fairly robust army which was capable of meeting and countering any sort of challenge be it military, physical or otherwise. To be a good swivel-chair General, the key trait one must possess is flexibility. Whilst a broad (a very, very broad) strategy is advisable based on your faction’s strengths and weaknesses, one must be prepared to meet the various methods an opponent may utilise in attempting to gain an advantage. Thwart their plans, blunt their opportunities and then move in for the kill.

Unless you’re a rush strategist and everyone hates rushers.