Starcraft: Artificial Military Intelligence

By Shamus
on Mar 27, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews
The United States military (Waterhouse has decided) is first and foremost and unfathomable network of typist and file clerks, secondarily a stupendous mechanism for moving stuff from one part of the world to another and last and least a fighting organization.

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon, p442.

As I said before, I love the logistical aspects of Starcraft, and I am more or less annoyed by the direct tactical aspects of the game. I realize this post isn’t really anything new. This is just a remix of the ideas I put down yesterday.

I think the strategy parts are unfulfilling because I never feel like I’m doing well. No matter how carefully I guide my units, I always leave the battlefield with the impression that I oversaw the wasting of potential. I spent so much effort carefully crafting this army of badasses, and half of them perish because they are too stupid to fight in a sensible manner and I’m too busy to tell them how to do it right.

The following is going to be very familiar to RTS players, but I’m going to set this down anyway for the curious: Consider a battle between two evenly matched forces. Perhaps I have a group of marines from the Blue Team who are working to bring peace to the galaxy by wiping out the filthy mongrels that comprise the Red Team. During this noble endeavor, we have a couple of lines of marines who encounter one another. Assuming both groups are arranged in an optimal manner (a line facing the enemy) and each unit fires at his closest foe (the one directly across from him, which is what the AI will do by default) then the battle will go to whoever happens to shoot first. If units employed one-shot kill weapons then all battles would be more or less a coin flip.

Red vs. Blue

But typically units have to take several hits to die. The two sides exchange fire for a few rounds, chipping away at each other’s health until someone dies. Again, the outcome is a coin flip – one side will perish and the other side will be left with eight guys, all of which are one hit away from death. But now there is room for some strategy. Let’s assume I’m willing to micro-manage a bit, and that I know that it takes eight shots to drop an enemy. Let’s also assume that because the Red Team is comprised of dishonorable cowards that they got the first shot. If I let nature take its course, my units will all die and Red will leave the field with each disgusting sub-human unit having a single hit point left. But I can direct all my righteous Blue warriors to gang up on one particular member of the vile and hated Red Team:

Red vs. Blue

At the end of the first volley one loathsome member of the Red Team is dead (hooray for justice!) and each of my guys has taken one hit, bringing them down to seven hit points.

Red vs. Blue

At the end of the second volley, two Red guys have died, one blue guy has seven hit points, and the rest have six.

Red vs. Blue

You can follow this all the way to the end, where I end up with this:

Red vs. Blue

Instead of Blue defeated and Red near death, Red is exterminated like the vermin they are, and Blue is in respectable fighting shape. It’s obvious that micro-managing doesn’t just give you an edge, it completely transforms the outcome of the battle. Things get more complicated if the number of hitpoints is not equal to the number of units on each side. If we have eight men to a side (assuming you’re willing to call the savages on the Red Team “men”, an undeserved compliment to be sure) with four hitpoints each then having all eight of my heroes attack a single Red guy will be overkill: Half of their attacks will be wasted and the outcome will once again be a disaster for me. If I want to optimize, I need to break my line into two groups:

Red vs. Blue

It gets more complex once you start talking about battles between different types of units with different upgrades on unpredictable terrain, but no matter what the situation, my units will always fare much better if I’m hovering over them, guiding their every move.

Red vs. Blue
My fleet of Battlecruisers will cleanse this world of the malignant infestation that is the Red Team, while I focus on running my base and making sure everything is just so.
But babysitting my virtuous yet sadly misguided Blue warriors takes me away from the part of the game I enjoy doing: Optimizing the performance of my war machine. I can stay home and tune the machine to bolster its output, thus leaving my soldiers think for themselves. Whatever gains I made by increasing production will be quickly squandered by their haphazard tactics. I’ll end up writing a bunch of letters to the Blue Wives of the Blue soldiers, letting them know that their husbands perished in a heroic but utterly stupid way while attempting to secure a better, safer future for Blue-clothed people everywhere. If I constantly guide them in battle, my base will languish and I’ll have less soldiers to work with.

This is not a problem I have with Starcraft, this is a problem I have with the genre. It’s not the fault of the game that I find the inefficiencies of combat displeasing. Combat is 60% of the game, and I’m just not rewarded by combat. Maybe the fun I’m looking for is better found in another genre. Maybe the game I want to play doesn’t even exist.

For the curious: My usual strategy is to turtle in during the early stages of the game, and eventually deploy low-maintenance units like capital ships. Battlecruisers and Protoss Carriers do an excellent job of taking care of themselves. This works really well against the AI and allows me to maintain a phenomenal kill ratio. But I have no illusions about how I would perform if I dared to take this act online against real human beings. It would be like a kid becoming an “expert” in playing Madden Football and then being sent into a real, actual football game against professional linebackers. He wouldn’t live long enough to see his own effeminate shrieks of pain being replayed on the jumbotron.

How I managed to get ten years of entertainment from such a one-dimensional strategy remains a mystery. My base-building probably is probably a balm for an obsessive-compulsive disorder I’m not even aware of.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!


2020209Sixty-nine comments, dude! Excellent!

From the Archives:

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  1. Teague Webb says:

    Perhaps you would enjoy the Total War series? It cleanly separates the logistics of building forces and infrastructure, which are handled in a turn-based mode, from the battles, which are done in real-time.

    In battle, there are no resources to gather, units to produce or upgrade, etc. There is only the combat, wherein you can micromange the strengths and weaknesses of your units, the terrain, your units’ health, fatigue and morale levels, and the amount of time left (an optional feature).

    At the turn-based, strategic level, you do all the building and upgrading, and there’s even a sort of RPG-like feature wherein you manage the development of family/faction memebers into generals or provincial governors. The RPG-like aspect is very limited in Shogun, and evolves through Medieval, Rome, and Medieval II into a pretty robust system.

    The newest one, Medieval II, is probably too demanding on the system and wallet yet, but Shogun, Medieval, and Rome would all be fairly cheap.

  2. Micah says:

    I’m with you Shamus. I can spank the AI night and day, but whenever I go online (Starcraft, Warcraft, Warhammer, you-name-it) the other players pwn me like it’s nobody’s business.

  3. Deoxy says:

    “Maybe the game I want to play doesn’t even exist.”

    Um, tower defense? :-)

    Actually, there’s a flash game I’ve played that is almost exactly what you describe, except that, being a flash game, it’s just too simple. I’ve seen at least 2 or 3 flavors/versions of it, and you build your base on pre-existing squares, different buildings to different things (some affect income, some produce soldiers, some tanks, etc), and you manage your base and income, and your forces just cross the field by themselves, into the oncoming horde of the other team’s units. Eventually, one outproduces the other (either by producing the right counter-units and thus having a higher kill ratio, producing the right sequence of units to have a higher kill ratio, manging their money better, or some combination of the above) and the units start suiciding themselves against the enemy base (which damages it).

    Can’t remember the name of those games, but there are a few around. A full PC game of that might be what you’re after.

    Edit: Oh, and I’ve with you and Micah, pretty much – single-player if fun, and multi-player against other single-player game types is fun, but MP against serious MP players is a waste of my time (though not very MUCH of my time…).

    Edit 2: almost forgot about Desktop Armada (from the Casual Collective – GREAT PLACE!!!) – you can’t control your units at all, so everyone’s guys are equally stupid. Of course, “base management” is fairly minimal as well – you just control when to build, which path to put your ships on, and when to spend money on upgrades.

  4. Christian Groff says:

    That’s why I hate RTS games. I’m thinking of trading in Disgaea and La Pucelle Tactics to buy Pokemon games. RPGs are more fun for me because I don’t have so many people to micromanage and it’s all kept simple. Maybe RPG games are more to your speed, Seamus. Just a suggestion.

    I’ll never get into those nightmarish RTS like Warcraft because they do not excite me as much as kicking a Neo Hippie in Earthbound with four characters. ^_^

  5. folo4 says:

    All the more reason to play DWARF FORTRESS, Shamus.

    unless, of course, you don’t like optimizing a colony.

    what’s your take on squad-based combat like Dawn of War?

  6. Knight says:

    I have the same issue. It’s why I tend to gravitate away from RTS games and towards Turn-based tactics. There, you’re individually managing each unit anyway. Unfortunately, it’s rare (nonexistant? Can’t think of any offhand) to see a decent turn-based game that lets you base-build like you’re wanting to.

  7. Gabriel says:

    As the squad-based AI improves (Dawn of War, or Company of Heroes make steps towards it, but there is still improvement to be made), I think actually that you’re going to be happier.

    I think you should ALSO try out the Heroes of Might and Magic series. If you have not played it yet, track down the older version (Heroes of Might and Magic III is probably my favorite, despite the pretty graphics from HOMM V). This will appeal somewhat to your love both of older games, games with addictive gameplay, and games that don’t require drinking because of your inefficiency. It’s joyfully turn-based building and combat at its best, with the fantasy creatures we all know and love.

  8. Lonestar says:

    The genre is called grand strategic wargames.

    In grand strategic wargames,usually set in World War 2, You manage your countries productions, defenses, research, armies and sometimes diplomacy. How this is done varies from game to game (for example some make research random). But there is one definite, the armies you simply tell them where to go and they fight it out without player intervention(except maybe telling them when to retreat).

    Some titles: http://www.wargamer.com/articles/search.asp?search=&atype=2&orderby=0&Author=&from=&to=&results=50&theme=39

    Also there is the “Empire Building” genre. The Civilation series are a good example of this. These games tend toward medievel and ancient wars. I have no experiance with these games but I hear that they get better than Civilation.http://www.wargamer.com/articles/article-results.asp?articletypes=Empire Building

    So, yeah there are two whole genres out there for you to enjoy largley untouched by Gamestop and the mainstream gaming mags.

  9. Nihil says:

    About the Total War series which T. Webb mentioned: In that series, you can even totally forgo either part of the game. You can spend your time playing battles (historical or not) an become an insanely skilled general, without once taking a look at the continental map; or you can just run your empire and click “auto-resolve battle” every time two armies clash.

    Granted, the AI is not nearly as efficient as winning a battle as you (I’m particularly annoyed by how every unit tends to suffer some casualties, even the artillery who’s supposed to never face combat at all), but it’s not difficult to manage your logistics so that you can always afford to deploy superior forces. My brother, who dislikes tactical gaming, played through multiple campaigns without personally leading a single battle.

    Also, for your OCD tendencies (which I partially share), a fairly effective tactic in Total War is what I call the “Overlord” approach: fortify your borders, ramp up your economy, build a massive full-stack army with top-notch tech, hand it to your best general and sweep the target country in a single, devastating invasion where every battle is ridiculously one-sided. If I understood your tastes correctly, you should love this style of gaming.

  10. Nihil says:

    That was one of the most typo-riddled comments I’ve written in months. Sorry for that.

  11. John Ross says:

    I also find that the turtle and then swarm and click approach is often all that is needed to beat the computers in these games. The early part of the game, when I’m trying to build up a strong enough defence force to hold my base safe while still increasing the size of my army is where my excitement lies.

    Once I have a base that is able to defeat the computer patrols without any help from the units built, I then swarm them together and rush a computer base. Usually I don’t even follow up on the units that are rushing to their deaths, I just make sure that the replacement souls in boots are getting ready to go out to the next base. And I’m watching a youtube video or other downloaded entertainment at the same time.

    That being said I do play Dawn of war more then that would suggest, but playing real humans often ends in my horrorible defeat by those who are bunch better at logisitics.

    — Remember that classic game Star Wars Rebellion? The one with 20 sectors of 10 planets and you were the rebels vs the empire? I could to excellent tactically, beating off the waves of the empire ships that found me. Only to have my six squads of x-wings having to face two star destoriers each as my usual foe just out produced me.

  12. Greg says:

    I agree with the medievil total war comment – you can even autoresolve the battles if you don’t want to have to bother with anything other than the strategy element.

    I agree that it’s frustrating to watch RTS forces act in unimaginably dumb ways. Supreme commander annoyed me for a while since selecting a large group and telling them to attack would inevitably lead to them pondourously forming into “one at a time” formation and columbing it into the enemy base.

    I guess we can only hope that unit AI improves and micromanaging becoemes less important than strategy (and we’ll have gone full circle)

  13. Greg says:

    Ooh, I forgot, it’s an old game but try Majesty if you’ve not already. You can’t control your units directly, instead you play the king of a realm which you build up and only have direct control over things the king would (building important buildings, bounties on the heads of monsters, tax rates etc) and other things (individual hero actions, building of peasants houses etc) are handeled automatically by the game. So it’s more about having a strategy to deal with each situation than trying to mircomanage everything.

  14. Captain Kail says:

    I remember playing a game called Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds (think Warcraft 3 painted battleship gray) and online, there were several games that people ran where you could ONLY build your base. No combat. They were called “city-build” matches. I did a couple, and basically the map will come with an insane amount of resources and everyone just quietly and politely builds an epic base. Sometimes they even throw in RPG aspects like a mock senate, trade routes, politics, etc.

    Usually I could tolerate it for 30 minutes (which with epic resources was all the time I needed to build a Fortress of Doom and an Army of Chaos) before I steamrolled my nearest neighbor and was decried as a n00b.

  15. Henry says:

    Hmm. Big fan of the Total War series here, and able to comment a bit:
    – Mediaeval 1 doesn’t like XP very much, if at all. Not dared try on Vista.
    – Mediaeval 2 is resource-hungry, but it’s only really the graphics card where you’ll notice a vast difference and even then only for the battles.

    I prefer the tactical battles myself: the way you can nurture a few elite cavalry units, carefully replenishing their strength between battles, and use them to devastating effect as flankers. The way you can set your artillery in front of your line, fire a few volleys then abandon the guns as your precious gunners run away at high speed. The way you can tie down the enemy general with a unit of heavy infantry, then slaughter his bodyguard with your pikes.

    Of course, these are all fairly micro-managed tactics; simply telling your units “go and wreck this enemy” leads to a big meat-grinder sort of brawl in the centre of the map, and you suffer much heavier losses than I like to endure. On the other hand, you have the option of just clicking “autoresolve” for all the battles; I tend to use this on my laptop except when I’m outnumbered (as I’m sufficiently good at spanking the AI that I can swing a battle or two). The base-building is non-real-time, so you can think about it, but also it’s not an overhead when you’re trying to fight a war.

  16. Cthulhu says:

    I would just like to point out (and this may have been mentioned elsewhere): Age of Empires II lets you command units while the game is paused, which enables the player to micromanage a group of units without leaving everything else to the wolves.
    Note to RTS developers: this was a good idea. Please bring it back. I miss it.

  17. Vegedus says:

    Having to manage your base and your units is always annoying, but as far as I understand, it’s part of what makes the game challenging.

    Strategy games aren’t just about making a good strategy, but also being all over the map, at all times, clicking away. On the elite level, how much you’re clicking basically determines who wins.

    So yeah, it’s an intentional part of the genre. It’s a main reason I generally prefer turn-based strategy, but it’s not like it’s a shame to hate or love RTS games.

  18. GAZZA says:

    There’s a few games out there that do the micromanagement for you. Master of Orion 1 and 2 (stay away from 3, is my advice) have an option to let the computer play out all the battles for you, if you like.

    But I do take your point. Somewhere in the depths of my computer is some rough notes I had for a multiplayer turn based space empire game, where I had big plans for making the computer fight the battles in a near-optimal fashion, though that was neither one of the key ideas of my game nor does it really fit what you’re after – it’s a similar idea rather than an implementation of your idea.

    Unfortunately your suspicions are correct regarding that strategy against human players. I’ve played just enough StarCraft on Battle.Net to know that some of the guys playing it are unbelievably skilled at micromanagement. My wife and I used to play each other on the LAN, and if we were playing Terrans then a fleet of (say) 12 or so battlecruisers was more or less an “I win” button against Zerg (though I often won with the Zerg by killing her before she got to that point). But this strategy fails against one of these l33+ d00dz; they use packs of Hydralisks in a Defiler Dark Cloud to take out entire fleets of Battlecruisers without loss. Very tricky micromanagement making sure that comes off, but there are guys and gals out there that are capable of it.

    Me, I generally merge my Templar into Archons because I can’t be bothered with the (much more effective but tricky to control) Psi Storms.

  19. SolkaTruesilver says:

    I think Shamus would have liked Conquest : Frontier War. It had a gameplay feature that created AI (Admirals) who you could assign to a fleet with a general purpose (Attack or Defend, mainly).

    They were quite efficient at managing what you gave them, and they micro-managed your ship’s superweapons. I simply loved to leave a leash on 3 Admiral’s neck, and let them wreak havoc on my ennemies while I did not had to lift a finger (except building up my fleet and technology, and assigning them to the appropriate Admiral)

  20. Markus says:

    Another for the Total War series. Shamus, you’ve got to try it. I’d suggest Rome: TW as it’s a couple of years old but basically the same game as the Medieval II, only with different factions and older graphics.

    I recognize myself fairly well in your description. Turtling, feeling my elite troops squandered by idiot tactics, enjoying the base building more than anything else. I actually took couple of years to graduate from auto-resolving in TW series. Now I actually enjoy combat, especially if I fulfill my strategic objective of having superior number of superior troops :)

    Plus, there’s a huge modding and MP community at twcenter.net and totalwar.org

  21. SolkaTruesilver says:

    Oh, I totally forgot. Conquest also introduced something I loved in Strategy game: supply. Every ships had an amount of X supplies, and could not fire after having spent it. You had to bring along supply ships, who could keep your fleet replenished up to a certain amount. Then, it’s back to your base so your fleet re-fuel. The only main problem was, if I remember, the AI did not managed re-fuelling efficiently (it sent back empty ships alone, a perfect target)

  22. Deoxy says:

    Oh, yes, I had forgotten Majesty. You should try it, Shamus.

    Also, as I might have mentioned a few times, MoO 2 is my favorite game of all time. Yay! (And yes, MoO 3 just totally killed the series – stay far away.)

    I think HoMM, whil vry enjoyabl, would really not appeal to your “base-building” tndency, as th base is basically preset – you build this, then this, then this…. yes, you can vary the order (a little), and you can choose the order of the upgrades, but there’s not much in the way of “economy” that really changes anything. Good series (well, except 4), and I recommend them, but not, I think, to scratch this particular itch.

    I haven’t played any of the Total War series. They sound good.

  23. Tacoman says:

    I suggest the game Pharaoh. My girlfriend has enjoyed playing it for years and I recently picked it up. After the initial learning stages you can choose a new city that will either conquer a nearby town, or to build monuments to the Pharaoh. This might be more up your alley and, being an older game, probably cheaper.

  24. John Lopez says:

    There has been a lot of praise for Total War and I’m going to chime in with my own love for the game. The separation of logistics from combat is golden.

    Another key to it pleasing the obsessive is that the combat engine won’t allow either side to focus fire on a single target (not directly anyway), avoiding the need for the ultra-micro management that some RTS games do need. Instead, you command units and they interact in a tactically realistic manner.

    Some examples:

    Overwhelm a unit with damage from multiple sources or hammer a flank and they will break and run. Swoop in with your mounted troops to mop up the fleeing group.

    Take the high ground with your archers so they can soften up the approaching infantry, who have to both suffer ranged fire and climb to engage (tiring themselves out to boot). Retreat your archers from behind your waiting infantry and see the effect of rested vs tired and wounded.

    Hide your units in a forest, bait the opponent into another group and then hammer from behind: guaranteed to cause a panic.

    Etc. Great game :)

  25. Michael says:

    SolkaTruesilver: Funny you bringing up Conquest. I was a developer on the (never released) sequal. The Admirals were going to get quite an AI boost in Conquest 2 giving you several different “modes” to set them to as well as formations that would give benefits to how you set them.

    For example, there was Planetary Defense formation which would circle a planet and defend it as optimally as possible with whatever ships were in your formation. Then there was, say, Convoy formation that was made for traveling from one point to another, giving speed boosts and circling your supply ships like warriors guarding a caravan through the Mobi desert. Quite cool.

    Too bad it never released. :(

  26. Joe says:

    I just remembered the Stronghold series. These games have an option which, quite literally, TURNS OFF COMBAT and the game becomes one of economics. The economics are tough, you have to manage morale of your citizens to increase immigration, feed everyone, manage over-logging etc. Very fun game with an awesome, optional combat system, but an even better economic system. Give it a looksee, I dare you.

  27. Nihil says:

    Since the Total War love is growing stronger in the thread, I also recommend pairing Rome: Total War (your best choice if you lack a top-notch computer) with the Europa Barbarorum mod. It’s a pretty extensive work, but Wikipedia has a good presentation.

    Normally I would recommend people play games unmodded first before screwing up with the alternate versions, but having tried both I have to say that EB appears to be pretty much a strict improvement over the original. Besides, you still get to run the unmodded game after installing EB.

  28. Dhauzimmer says:

    When I was in college I used to play a game called Allegiance. It was an attempt to cross an RTS game with a shooter game – imagine if your units had real, live people controlling them instead of an idiot AI! The game was played in teams, with one player on each team designated the ‘commander’ with a simple economic system and technology through a tactical overview. The other players were pilots who flew the various spacecraft purchased by the commander to assault the enemy’s bases and defend their own.

    The results were perhaps predicatable; winning a round depended on a combination of both commander and pilot skill, and like most team shooter games it was heavily weighted towards teamwork; a team that could coordinate effectively (a rarity in pickup games) had a huge tactical advantage. A poor commander could easily cripple a team, and watching team a fail to effectively use the tools provided by their commander was a terribly frustrating experience. The flip side, though, was that working with a competent team and commander was a multiplayer experience like none other.

    Ultimately the game was a commercial failure, but Microsoft opted to make the source code available, and there’s still an active community supporting it; I still stop by from time to time for a nostalgic pod ride or two. :)

  29. Micah says:

    +1 to Allegiance.

    It is one of the most fun game I’ve ever played. I got into it long after it was open sourced, and it’s great. Graphics are about a decade old, but the underlying game is just so awesomely fun.

  30. Gary says:

    I know that everyone else is throwing in their 2 cents about what game you should try out, but at this point it’s a moral imperative that I do the same.
    Have you ever tried Alpha Centauri? Completely, absolutely turn-based but you have so much control over everything including and especially the direction of your technology. And you don’t necessarily have to win militarily. If you create the perfect government, you win. If you get everyone to like you, you win. (Assuming you have allowed those options.)

    Also, it’s a relatively ancient game (I think it predates starcraft), so you can probably find it for cheap. Just don’t expect to find the expansion. My brother has searched in vain for it for years ever since he lost his old copy.

  31. Shamus says:

    Yes, Alpha Centauri is outstanding. I know its not really part of the Civ franchise, but I think of it as such, and I consider it to be the best of the bunch. (Have not played Civ4.)

  32. Felblood says:

    What I want is the ability to make the same decisions and give the same orders (or reasonably exact facsimilies of the same) with fewer mouse clicks.

    I want a “concentrate your fire” button.

    A formation system that actually works would also be nice, but they can’t even make that happen in squad level tactical combat games.

    Those would be better features than a demoting button, since the guy replacing him will be just as stupid. ..though, demotion and court martial would be cathartic.

    Oh, and I want a “don’t aim at ‘lings” option, for my heavy artilery. The Hydras and Ultras need seige shells, but the few ‘lings who aren’t killed by the splash can be mopped up by free standing marines or fire bunkers. No need to waste the good stuff on them.

  33. Roleplay says:

    Real players always play different than AI – it’s like playing Halo storyline, then jumping over to XBox live expecting to be good.

    Most of the time, it’s the human element that makes a game fun – no one likes or enjoys being demolished. The best approach is to find other players at or around your skill level, so you all innovate and grow with each other.

  34. James Pony says:

    Personally, I would rather gather the squads (and such) with a separate mechanism that would allow me to set the size and the layout of the squad and then assign a leader of appropriate rank to that squad, then attach the squad to a platoon with its own CO, the platoon to a company, etc, etc, and then leave the tactical aspect to the AI, while I personally act as the CO of the entirety of the force (you could have a high-ranking officer with his command squad in their nifty little command vehicle on the map, so you could get killed yourself if you fuck up, or look good winning), simply giving out orders just as in reality (well, as far as the mechanics allow it, while retaining entertaining playability) on the higher level, where then the AI could have an arbitrary skill level which could possibly determine its capacity for initiative, situational awareness, etc, and I could watch the little buggers walk into that too-obvious ambush which I didn’t notice because I was too busy trying to get a good view of the low-poly female model’s cleavage.

    But it’s okay, because it’s just a game. I can live with sacrificing a division of pixels just for the sake of some pixelated, low-poly cleavage.

    Very often in RTS games I find myself wanting to have units shot for decided cowardice or insubordination.
    I also hate the fact that by the time I have built the base I *WANT*, I’ve already beaten the mission because the only way I’ll get to build that base that way is to take over the resources the enemy initially has AND annihilate their army lest they rape, burn and pillage my base. And my builder units. FOR GOD’S SAKE, ALL HE EVER WANTED WAS SOME SHOES, AND YOU FILTHY BASTARD DROPPED A NUCLEAR LASER ANTHRAX GOO BOMB ON HIM. WHAT EVER DID HE DO TO DESERVE THIS?!

    I’d love to have the entire game be rendered on ONE single map, so that I could build an erotic base with many erotic defensive structures and where I could erotically have many erotic parades erotically held on the erotic parade grounds or something and then I could set AI units to maintain supply routes and I will cry my own self to sleep because I don’t have that game goddamn you Shamus.

    Where was I?

  35. Oleyo says:

    I am inline with your thinking Shamus, which is why I liked the original C&C so much. It allowed me to focus on building up my base and defenses, and still have a viable attack strategy that only required short bursts of attention/micro-management.

    You see, I would invariably attempt surgical strikes on my enemy’s construction yard using the commando unit as follows:

    First- knockout as many power stations as possible with the orbital ion cannon and a small hodgepodge of dumb disposable tanks. These I could send in on on or 2 buildings and forget. They only need to be able to knockout power for a short time so those pesky NOD obelisks are out of commission. (they are laser turrets that require mega power, but waste most units in one or 2 blasts)

    Second- Send in an APC or a helicopter with a commando unit and make a mad dash for the construction yard, if he takes it out, your opponent can’t make any more buildings, ever.

    Third- Repeat on other key building until the enemy cant make anything useful. You win!

    I have to admit that this strategy probably wasn’t as consistently effective as pumping out tanks, since it didn’t always work, but I enjoyed it more, since it only required short bursts of attention on the assault, which was fun to attempt. I would try this every time the ION cannon was charged (took about 15-20 minutes I think) and relied on a small amount of expensive/fragile units rather than a huge army.

  36. Stronghold says:

    Very nice :) btw very good tips i will use them. Some of them i did not knew.

  37. James says:

    I know someone mentioned the newest Medieval II series being expensive, but I saw the “Gold Edition” with the original and expansion pack for only $40.

  38. Shamus says:

    Correction to the above: I just realized that in the 8 marines vs 8 marines scenario I outline, the ending hitpoints will not be:

    7654321X

    Because the last volley will have only 7 blue guys, which will not kill the last red. Red will live long enough to get off one more shot, thus ending the battle:

    765432XX

    I’m not going to re-work the images. I’m just pointing this out because otherwise someone else will beat me to it. In fact, I can’t believe we’re 35 comments down and nobody noticed. Maybe everyone was just too polite to point it out.

  39. Chilango2 says:

    Yes, the game you want *does* exist, and it’s called Hearts of Iron 2. It’s a real time strategy game by Paradox, a Swedish developer, and it covers the WW2 era. But it’s *actual* strategy, not tactics. You control divisions, not individual tanks. And most of the effort is spent building the economic and logistic capacity for your war machine. When you invade, it’s in broad strokes. You focus three tank divisions in a province and send them through the Ardennes forest, and so on. Best of all, you can choose who to play. You can be the US and build the army to save Europe when you enter the war. You can be Germany and change history. Japan. China. France. Poland. (good luck with that one..) If they country existed, you can play as it, in all likelihood.

    There’s also Europa Universalis 3, which has a more modern graphics engine and improved interface, and covers the early renaissance period and ends just before Napoleon. (the Napoleonic wars are covered by an expansion).

    It’s a little less logistic heavy than HOI and more about diplomatic grand strategy and economic development, fueled either by conquest or colonization (or both).

    I really can’t recommend them highly enough if you want a strategy game that’s about actual *strategy*, rather than tactics.

  40. Kobyov says:

    Personally I’d join in the crowd recommending Rome Total War ( I didn’t like either Medieval much), but with the Rome Total Realism mod mod – it literally doubles the size of the game, as well as adding a few needed tweaks (eg. you cant invade a country one turn, and have them happily churning out your armies the next). Your smallest unit of interaction in the battles is a squad of ~=100 men, and the most focus you can do is tell a couple of them to fire on another ~=100 man squad, which isnt nearly as effective. The combat is set so that you will be most effective giving orders like “spearmen stand in front of the archers and guard them”, which always seemed more like what a real general should be doing, rather than pointing out each little man’s target for him. A well composed force will do well, or just a force thats massively teched up. Always fun to see fully armoured men smiting loincloth-wearing barbarians. Or as mentioned you can just skip the combat entirely. Either way you can spend just as much time as you like building your cities.

  41. JohnW says:

    You know what, though, if you do try the Total War series, give the combat a go. It is freakin outstanding, not anything like typical unit combat. You are really commanding an army, with formations, orders, waypoints, etc. It’s like playing Braveheart! You can even be Scottish! Watching an enemy siege tower full of troops spilling onto your walls catch on fire and collapse is incredibly gratifying.

    Watching one of your own siege towers? Not so much.

  42. Namfoodle says:

    I agree with Vegadus. I think the stupidity of the AI in Starcraft is an intentional feature.

    If you want an optimal outcome, you have to be able to both optimize your strategic base construction and unit building as well as do some micro-management in tactical combat.

    As others have mentioned, if you’re playing against the computer, it’s not that big a deal, but human players will squash you quick if you can’t keep all the balls in the air.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall that the AI for the computer players was a bit smarter than the AI that guides “unsupervised” human player units. Still no genius, but the difference was annoying.

    I would like to have a more sophisticated set of unit commands or targeting priorities so that you could at least attempt to minimize dumb moves by unsupervised units.

    Here are two things that would be really neat:

    1. A larger selection of available unit groupings so that you could nest squads of marines and artillery within a larger task force. I recall that you were limited to 9 or 10 unit groups, but it would be great to have a lot more.

    2. I would like to be able to write a “script” of orders for a group of units. (Transport go to point x, unload siege units and air defense, bombard base defenses, leapfrom advance, etc.) You could pre-plan a base assault and then kick it off when you had enough units to try it.

  43. Silfir says:

    Don’t invest in Medieval 2. It’s basically the same as Rome, only more annoying. You don’t need to install a mod on Rome if you don’t want to, the vanilla version is plenty fun already.

    Personally I feel you are less screwed over by the auto-resolved battles in Medieval 1, though.

    As for the issue of stupid units in Starcraft: What do you expect of the poor blue guys? Where should they get the time to check what their buddies are firing at?

  44. guy says:

    i’ve noticed that rome: total war’s auto resolve seems to have a “roman bonus” which makes roman armies do better when you auto-resolve.

  45. Cineris says:

    @Namfoodle:

    Of course the AI was “better” for the units controlled by computer players than for those not being controlled by human players. The AI in Starcraft is constantly in control of every unit in its army. This leads to some pretty cheat-like behavior. I remember one time playing on the final Terran singleplayer mission when a crew of AI Ghosts walked into my army and locked down every single mechanical unit I had simultaneously.

    This doesn’t even cover the ways in which the StarCraft AI definitely cheats. It knows where your cloaked units are at all times, regardless of whether it has a detector in the area. The computer also gets double the resources from each worker on easiest, and, assuming I remember correctly, even more on harder difficulties.

    Assuming you wanted to, I believe you could set up a game in Starcraft where you are on the same team as an AI. But you’d probably end up fighting the AI if all you wanted to do was build the base. Too bad they don’t have a “Attacker AI” or “Management AI” option to run whichever portion of the game you don’t like.

  46. Turgid Bolk says:

    Dhauzimmer (@28): A similiar concept is in Savage. Instead of being in space, each person controls a guy on the ground, or once the commander builds up the tech, a siege unit. It’s sort of an MMO RTS thing, as each person accrues wealth by damaging enemy units or buildings, and can spend it on better weapons/units as they become available. The interaction between the commander and the team is very cool. Savage 2 just came out but the original Savage is completely free, and has a nice fan-made patch that improves pretty much everything, and that community is still going strong. http://www.s2games.com/savage/

    *Anyway,* very clear post Shamus. I find I have much the same preferences. I tend to enjoy classic 4X games (like the Master of Orion series others have mentioned) because the tactical aspect is minimal. I recently got into Sins of a Solar Empire, which is a blend of 4X and RTS, and while the tactics are there, the units do an ok job on their own, particularly the capital ships. The most I do is order them to attack the big units (you don’t lose much by always focusing fire). For me the pacing is great, fast enough to keep you moving, but slow enough to think about each action. You might want to give it a try.

  47. guy says:

    “It knows where your cloaked units are at all times, regardless of whether it has a detector in the area.” you can do that too. if you’ve ever looked closely at the screen where an enemy unit is cloaked, you can see a unit shaped blur.

    ” and, assuming I remember correctly, even more on harder difficulties.” star craft has difficulty levels? i never noticed.

  48. Jeff says:

    I’m going to pipe up with Dawn of War again.
    The soldiers are in squads, so you can’t really have 8 vs 1 in a squad vs squad situation.

    What you CAN do is get your melee guys to melee their shooters, thus disrupting their fire, and shoot’em while doing so. Less micromanagement, and more about playing with your units as DoW uses the requisition point system (where you capture strategic points as opposed to harvesting resources.)

    Of course, the lack of wood cutting and ore mining and crystal harvesting (wait, was the 3rd resource in WC crystal?) may not be to Shamus’ taste, heh.

    I tend to make the strongest economies and roll out masses of units as well. I recall in Rise of… Nations? Empires? Whatever, there’s a few final Ultimate Researches, one of which prevented nukes from working on you, one of which was insta-research, and one of which was instant unit production.

    I tend to fortify, skirmishing to hold what I have, and then roll out an endless series of German tanks from various factories, more than enough to wipe out the map, churning out literally hundreds of tanks before running out of resources. I think the smallest bliztcreig I had was a hundred tanks or so. Instant build + auto-build = amusing sight.

  49. Shamus says:

    guy: Yes, there are “difficulty levels” in Starcraft, although they are set via script – a regular player can’t access them. You usually deal with them when building your own maps / scenarios. And yes, on harder levels the AI cheats its butt off.

    I’ve spent a lot of time screwing around with the AI via scripts, and I’ve built maps for the express purpose of watching the AI fight itself without a human on the board. It’s quite interesting.

    * The AI knows where you are, in general, through the fog of war. It never has to hunt around the map to see where foes are located. It will make a beeline for an enemy expansion base without ever scouting the area first. This cheat vision does not extend to its units, though: It still needs a real unit present to spot for siege tanks and such.

    * The various campaign AI’s seem to maintain a minimum balance of resources. On “insane” difficulty, I saw two Protoss duke it out for over an hour, flinging waves and waves of carriers at each other, even though all of the minerals on the map were long gone.

  50. Mistwraithe says:

    Very good points Shamus. Which is precisely the problem with most games that claim to be RTS. When it comes down to it the ability to micro manage the battles best generally trumps any small advantage in strategy the other player might have.

    Games like Total Annihilation partially get around this problem by giving you so many units that it is near impossible to micro manage every unit so the strategy begins to become more important again. However the fact remains that if you could perfectly micro every unit in TA then you would still completely own your opponent no matter how clever they are.

    I know I mentioned Kohan in a thread a couple of days ago, saying it is the best RTS ever made, so I’ll defend that statement in the context of this thread. In Kohan you only control companies. A company has 5-7 units in it. Each of the individual units in there is computer controlled and companies will automatically engage any enemy company that comes within range. All you can do is move your companies around.

    Sounds like the battles lack tactics then? Not at all. What it means is that they have REAL tactics, rather than micro managed number optimisation. So the tactics in KAG battles are things like using terrain properly, flank your enemy (support units like archers, mages, etc tend to dish out the damage but are fairly squishy), making sure you have a supply zone (companies slowly heal if not fighting in a supply zone, allowing you to cycle them in and out of combat), persuade the enemy to overextend then trap them between two forces, force the enemy to split their forces to respond to two threats, etc. And all these work as you expect they should too!

    There are some more micro intensive tactics such as manuevering your companies to target the enemies captains first but even this is much better than the constant unit by unit micro that most wannabe RTS games employ.

    So it can be done. And games that do remove the very low level micro are richer by doing it in my experience. Sure, I can understand making games for those who really do want to micro every last unit, but how about the game designers begin calling those games something different like RTT (real time tactics) or even more appropriately RTM (real time micro!). Then maybe we could have some people making TRUE RTS games!

    Cheers.

  51. Terrible says:

    I can totally relate to your issue, and yet I’ve never played Starcraft. I guess that means it is indeed a problem of the genre.

  52. Cineris says:

    @guy:

    I’ve played the game before. The thing is, as a human, if you hear, “Our base is under attack!” you won’t scroll back to your map and immediately and unconditionally be able to know where a cloaked unit is. And, unlike the computer, you won’t automatically have a couple of units following said cloaked unit, even if they can’t detect it.

  53. Namfoodle says:

    @Shamus and Cineris: yeah, the more I think about it, I can remember that the AI was clearly cheating in the single player campaigns or in versus computer multiplayer games. The higher you set the difficulty or the higher the campaign level, the more obvious and frustrating the cheating got.

    But I still managed to complete all the single player missions. But I was never very good at beating multiple AI opponents on multi-player maps. And if I ever played a human, it was over quick.

  54. The Defenestrator says:

    How about the Settlers series? I played the demo for The Settlers 3 and it struck me how small a part of gameplay the fighting was.

    I also second the suggestion of Hearts of Iron 2. I sometimes have more fun during peacetime than I do actually fighting. You can also play countries other than main combatants. You can play a whole game as Belgium or New Zealand.

  55. Ben says:

    I mostly agree about the need for micromanaging, but there are some exceptions. Specifically, in a battle with close combat units (protoss zealots, say) if you order all your units to attack a single unit, only a small number can get into contact with the unit, while the rest cluster uselessly. So zealots are actually better with a hands off approach, as they will spread out and have the maximum surface area of pain to inflict.

    The other exception would be games like Company of Heroes. A squad of infantry will seek cover and be reasonably self-reliant, so often I will only micromanage when I have a specific idea of how I want to engage (ie. i can see a good terrain advantage to be had). If I am doing a general advance, it is usually sufficient to tell my whole army to attack-move to the enemy base and saving micromanaging for particular moments or for tanks (which generally benefit from being heavily managed).

  56. The Defenestrator says:

    I just downloaded and played the Majesty demo. It’s pretty neat. The only thing I thought it was missing was a “help, there’s a monster in the city” button.

    http://www.majestyquest.com

  57. Silfir says:

    The Settlers series is an excellent suggestion. I’d try Settlers II, because in that one, you couldn’t control your military units at all beyond setting the building they’re meant to attack and other basic instructions, like how many of them should man your garrisons, whether they should leave their buildings to defend other buildings etc. Instead, it was pretty much ALL about economy and logistics, trying to design the best route system for your stuff. Settlers II was so good it was recently remade with modern graphics, and it’s more likely you’ll get that remade version, which I’ve addmittedly never played (I trust they remain true to the original in most respects). Should you get your hands on the DOS original somehow, and manage to run it unter Windows, it’s plenty fun as well.

  58. Smileyfax says:

    Thirding the Hearts of Iron II luv. It’s definitely a game of strategy and not rock-paper-scissors.

    Successfully leading a country in an ‘impossible’ situation isn’t that hard once you get the hang of the game. My first victory was actually as Poland, and my greatest triumph was the conquest of the United States as Mexico.

    Of course, it’s just as fun to take Germany out for a drive and stomp the world flat. Just be sure to keep an eye on your oil reserves.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve invested over 200 hours into it over the past few months. It can be had (via the Hearts of Iron Anthology) for $20 on Amazon, though they’ll occasionally drop the price down to an absolutely insane $10 — you’ll be hard-pressed to get a better value for your dollar.

  59. Daemian Lucifer says:

    You know,it is funny that the strategy games have improved base micromanagment to very high standards where only a few clicks can get you exactly what you want and where you want,yet we still have such a poor tactical AI.Its almost like the focus on graphics in FPSs.And this is why I prefer pausable RTS games where I dont have to wory about my troops being slaughtered because of the dumb AI.

    Oh,and Im astonished that no one saw that mistake in 37 comments.I thought that the people posting here were geeks!I feel so insecure now….

  60. Arkmagius says:

    @SolkaTruesilver(21):
    I’ve always wondered if there was a strategy game out there that added supply lines without making them a crippling gameplay addition. If you think Conquest did a good job, perhaps I’ll try it and find out.

    @Dhauzimmer(28):
    I believe one of my first comments here was begging for people to try Allegiance, but sadly it turned out more as a fanboy rant than a legible/credible explanation of why it was such an incredibly awesome game.

    @Joe(46):
    Economic ‘combat’ in Stronghold was deeply flawed, though. (I should mention that I only own the first game, so this might have been changed in the expansion or sequel) If I remember correctly, enemy bases couldn’t handle an economy. They couldn’t build, create, or do anything themselves (instead just having units pour out of ‘signposts’, lame). Even in the campaign, they usually have just a few structures (not enough to support their armies, which always angered me).
    And in combat missions of the game, you CAN NOT spend time building up your peacetime economy, because making units requires a large portion of your resources (since you have to make the armours, the weapons, use many of your villagers for craftsman and the actual recruits, etc). About two thirds of a barely successful defensive economy will be wasted just making enough troops to stave off one attack. And once combat starts, enemy troops will raze any outlying farms, crippling a non-combat economy anyway.

    However, Stronghold was great at the actual tactics part of the equation. The auto-formation feature was very nice. But I prefer (like Shamus, apparently) an early iron defense and then crushing opponents with a superior economy, and Stronghold just won’t allow this.

    One thing that has always bothered me, is that an economy-driven player should be a great addition to an allied army, but isn’t. Ideally, he could supply his friends with everything from raw materials right up to top-level units, but there are some problems with the current crop of games (those that I am aware of, at least) that make it not worth the effort.

    (1) Most games I’ve played don’t allow the transfer of units, and those that do usually do it through a ‘marketplace’, meaning only limited types of goods sold at a price (no gifts), and navigating the interface takes valuable time from both players.
    (2) The expert online player is already so good at playing the game solo that it’s not really required, and they don’t need the extra liability of defending a weak base. The only way to change this is to get enough players doing it that it becomes a liability NOT to have an ally, and even then, two warlords allied will still beat a warlord with a supplier, almost every time.

    As an aside, FreeCiv (my favorite turn-based RTS) fails at economy as well, since a combative AI opponent will almost always crush you if you don’t focus on expansion (and the militarization required to protect those borders) early on. However, it can/does work when playing alongside actual people, but they can just as easily turn on you (due to the flux nature of alliances in that game) and gain your resources with a minimum of effort once you let them into your country.

    Dungeon Keeper 2 was a great game, but it also required extensive micromanaging. Once an enemy dug a tunnel into your dungeon, it was permanent. So my mid-game is spent building doors and traps to shut off the current tunnels, meaning I lose the use of my powerful Bile Demons, Trolls, and Goblins for other (combative) purposes.

    So, what I want for an RTS:
    * Fully transferable units, resources, and buildings WITHOUT an intrusive, time-consuming interface.
    * Enemies that are held to the same rules/laws as I am.
    * An economy system where, when well run, is actually more powerful than a military.
    * Less micromanaging of units (I did spend money to TRAIN them, I think that should include BASIC TACTICS).
    * Longer games (persistent would be nice), to allow the economy to truly have time to blossom.

  61. Matt says:

    Another recommendation for Hearts of Iron 2…

    If, however, you want to see lower level action (at the squad level), then the Combat Mission series is a must. The first three in the series (Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord; CM: Barbarossa to Berlin; and CM: Afrika Korps) all focus on World War two. The units (and organisations) are represented at a high level of accuracy, the combat modelling is the best I’ve seen in a commercial wargame, and the AI is something else. Like Majesty (which someone recommended above), you can issue orders to your units – but if they see a pressing need to override them (you ordered them to shoot up a field kitchen, and then a unit of assault troops breaks cover and rushes them) they will. Even the feedback you get is limited by your troops – control a US force, made up of mostly green troops who have never seen combat, and almost every tank is reported as a Tiger until someone gets a good look at it.

  62. ArchU says:

    The building management in games like Command & Conquer (and other Dune 2 derivatives) was useful for this since concentration could be maintained on the battle whilst building something using the sidebar, instead of the interface solely detailing whatever the focus is on at the time and having to track back and forth between construction units/buildings and the battle at hand.

  63. Rats says:

    Shamus, i dont think its been said in the above, but if it has i appologise. Startcraft has a multiplayer option where you can have more than one player micromanageing one side. I used to enjoy this as i was better at earning minerals and creating upgrades etc, but also wanted to be able to go get food. My friend would do the attacking. Basically all the players on your team can use and command all units and buildings your team owns. This would perhaps allow you to play and ignore the aspects of the game you find pointless.

  64. Isegoria says:

    Shamus, much of your problem stems from the trouble with hit points. If each marine has a one-in-eight chance of being taken out by any one shot, rather than eight ablative hit points, the problem goes away.

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