Sadly, I have failed you. Last week I claimed that Starcraft 2 was a really great thing to watch because it was flashy, exciting, fun, and easy to grasp. Apparently the action isn’t nearly as obvious as I thought it was. Some people gave it a look and found the whole thing impenetrable.
If you don’t enjoy watching the game because you don’t like it then you make me sad, but that’s how it goes with fandom. But I can’t bear the thought that you might be missing out on something you could like because I didn’t give you adequate preparation. So let me make it up to you. Let me explain this Starcraft 2 business in a way that’s comprehensible to someone who’s never touched an RTS game before.
There are tons of “newbie guides” out there, but most of them are aimed at people who want to play Starcraft. There aren’t many guides for people who just want to know what in the name of Tassadar’s metal codpiece is going on. The usual newbie guides are dense with stuff that viewers don’t need to know. You can enjoy football without knowing how to kick one, and you can enjoy Starcraft without reading ten paragraphs on the importance of using hotkeys and control groups.
The game of Starcraft is built around the idea of cartoony stylized sci-fi warfare. You acquire resources. You use those resources to build production facilities. You use the production facilities (and more resources) to make fighting units. Then you take that army and use it against your enemy by attacking their resources, production facilities, or army.
That’s it. That’s the big picture. You can intuit the rest by watching, but from the comments I’m seeing it might take a while for it all to soak in. So if you want the long version, then the following 2,000 words are for you…
In the old days, an RTS game was based on warfare between two identical but stylistically different sides. In Warcraft, you had Orcs and Humans. Their units and buildings looked different, but were mechanically identical. Their basic fighting unit was called grunts [Orcs] or Footmen [Humans] but they did the same damage, had the same hitpoints, and moved at the same speed. Late in the game there were a couple of specialist units that were very slightly different, but on the whole it was easy to balance the game because nearly everything was mirrored.
Starcraft does not have this. Starcraft has three sides that are radically different in how their units behave, how they construct their bases, and how they move around the map. This makes the game really interesting to watch, at the expense of making it harder to learn and creating a balancing nightmare for the devs.
Before the game begins, players choose which of the three available races they will play. Because the races are so drastically different, players usually specialize in playing a particular race. You’ll hear the casters refer to contestants as “Zerg player” or “Terran Player”.
Casters usually introduce a game by announcing the races using little abbreviations like, “This is a TvZ matchup” to tell you this will be a Terran vs. Zerg game or “PvT” for Protoss vs. Terran. The tricky one is “PvP”, which in this context means “Protoss vs. Protoss” instead of “Player vs. Player”.
Each pairing has its own feel and makes for a very different game. The three races are:
Terran are humans. In a stylistic sense, they’re kind of depicted as space-rednecks. They’re less “Star Trek” and more “Trailer Park Boys… in space!” Their units feel the most familiar to us: Space marines, dune buggies, tanks, jets, nuclear missiles, and that sort of thing. In keeping with their nomadic style, their buildings can lift off, slowly fly around the map, and land elsewhere.
Protoss are a mishmash of alien tropes. Think caste-based Klingon warriors with Jedi powers and “techno temple” styled buildings made of yellow plastic and blue crystals. (I really dislike the yellow buildings, because I think it’s visually confusing to newcomers trying to figure out what team various units are on.)
Zerg are organic space-bugs. Even their buildings are actually organic creatures that bleed. (Ew.) They build (grow?) their structures on the creep, which is this purple ooze that covers the ground. A lot of Zerg play is focused on spreading and maintaining this creep. Zerg move faster on the creep,
non-Zerg move slower. (Edit: Non-Zerg move the same.) The other two races have to dutifully clean up the creep as the game progresses or the Zerg will run circles around them.
The worker is your basic gathering and building unit. The caster might call them SCVs, probes, or drones depending on what race they belong to, but the units are all basically the same: Fragile manual labor units that are rubbish at fighting. If a player is fighting with workers, then things are going badly for them.
In a game, players start with a single base and six worker units. There will be a cluster of blue crystals (minerals) and two geysers of green gas (vespene geyser) beside the base, and players have their worker units gather these resources. Casters often refer to these resources colloquially as “money”. The early stages of a game are very much a guns or butter proposition. The player must decide how much they spend building more workers (which will further speed up their income) how much they spend on infrastructure (which will give them access to new units) how much they spend on combat units (which will defend the base and – if all goes according to plan – crush their enemies) and how much they spend on upgrades. They also need to decide how much time they want to spend sending their workers to poke around the enemy base to see what they’re doing. There’s often a little game of cat-and-mouse going on at the start of a match where players try to deny their opponent the chance to peek inside their base.
You’ll often hear casters obsess over how resources are being gathered in the early game. If a player is building lots of workers, then they’re “macro”-ing, meaning they are building a long-term economy. If they’re building lots of army units, then they going to begin fighting right away, hoping to crush their opponent before the game really starts. (Sometimes called a “rush”.) If they’re only gathering minerals, then the player is going to focus on cheap, early-game units. If they’re dedicating a lot of workers to acquiring gas, then they’re probably going after the more powerful and exotic units. (The most basic fighting units have no gas cost, while more sophisticated and powerful units cost progressively more gas. If you see a great big thing roaming around the map – whether its a giant flying fortress or a huge ground-smashing beast – then it’s safe to assume it represents a massive investment of gas.)
Sometimes called “food” by old-timey Warcraft types. Basically, each race has a thing they must build in order to build more units. A Terran has to build a supply depot for every X units on the field. If a player forgets (common newbie mistake) or their supply depots are destroyed, then they can’t produce more units. This is called being “supply blocked”. For Protoss, their supply comes from pylons and Zerg have overseers, but it’s the same idea.
Each supply depot provides +8 to your supply. So building a single supply depot lets you build 8 workers, marines, or other low-tier unit. Bigger units might require more supply, so a single supply depot can only support 4 tanks. There’s a hard cap of 200 supply. You can’t go above 200 supply no matter how many depots you build. Once your army hits 200 supply, you’re said to be “maxed out”, meaning you have the largest possible army. Battles between two maxed-out armies are usually pretty spectacular.
Casters often gauge relative army strength by looking at the supply numbers. If blue is using 75/200 supply and red is using 132/200 supply, then it’s a safe bet that red has the superior force. This isn’t always the case. One player might have a bunch of their supply given to worker units and the other player might have lots of really expensive and powerful units, so it’s not a guarantee that red would win that exchange. It might be difficult to say for sure who has the advantage until the shooting starts.
|In this match, player Scarlett is blanketing the map with bases and zerg creep.|
Casters will talk about players having “good macro” or “macro-ing up”. This refers to the process of expanding their base and establishing new ones. Once the fighting is started, it takes incredible discipline to hop away from the battle for split seconds to produce more workers, begin new buildings, get new upgrades, etc. The more total bases a player can keep running at once, the more income they will have and the more units they can build. Another measure of good macro is keeping your available minerals low – a good player will spend income as fast as it comes in until their army reaches maximum size.
Mineral clusters and gas geysers eventually run dry. When casters talk about base “saturation” they’re talking about how many workers are mining at a given base. There’s a limit to how much you can mine at one time from a given patch of minerals. Workers have to take turns chipping away at a given mineral cluster, and at some point there are so many units on the job that adding more will not speed up the yield. A player with good macro will have many fully saturated bases and production facilities working at maximum capacity. A newbie might have one or two bases, lots of idle workers, and a bunch of unspent money.
There’s a chain of structures you have to follow. You can’t build a fusion core until you build a starport, which requires a factory, which requires a barracks, which requires a supply depot. So you can’t just build some late-game item right away and crush your opponent. You have to “tech up” first, moving through the intermediate tiers of units. If you move up too fast, then you’ll spend too much on tech and you won’t have enough to make units. If you move too slowly, your opponent’s late-game units will be able to crush your lower-powered early game units.
To get a sense of where the macro game is at, check out the minimap in the lower left. You can see how much of the map is controlled by the two sides, which should give you a rough picture of who has the most bases.
Micro play is all about the control of individual units. This is where the master of hotkeys, blindingly fast response time, and precision mouse movements come in. Examples of micro play:
- The Terran is using some gun-toting marines to fight a cluster of “lightsaber” wielding Protoss zealots. The Terran can have the marines take a few steps away, take a single shot at one of the pursuing zealots, then step away, repeat. This keeps the Zealots at a distance, kiting them across the battlefield.
- The Zerg have this unit called the Infestor. It can’t fight directly and it’s incredibly expensive, but it can throw out a fungal ability that will trap a cluster of enemy units in place and deal damage over time. The infestor must then escape (the enemy is really, really going to want to kill it) and recharge its energy so it can do another fungal later on.
- Protoss has these units called “stalkers” that can do short-range teleports called blinks. Good use of these units means blasting enemy units and then blinking away to a safe distance before they can respond.
This kind of play is really fiddly. You kind of have to play the game yourself to appreciate just how magical the player’s speed and precision is. When you see a complex army of different units moving around, realize the the player is working furiously to keep the units in the right position: Durable units up front, ranged units in back, and specialist units (like the infestor) hidden until the crucial moment. If they’re using melee units then they want to do a surround to keep them from running away, and if they’re using ranged then they want to form a concave to maximize damage.
You’ll often hear casters say things like, “The Terran’s one-one is completed and they’re already working on the two-two”. This is talking about armor and weapon upgrades, respectively. So having your one-two means you’ve upgraded your armor once and your weapons twice. There are four total levels of upgrades: None, level 1, level 2, and level 3. These upgrades will greatly improve the combat effectiveness of fighting units. These upgrades are instantly applied to all units on the field and all future units forever, regardless of whatever else happens in the game. The instant the level one weapons upgrades are done, your fighting units begin dishing out more damage.
The thing about upgrades is that they take a long time. If you look in the screenshot above, you’ll see the upgrade for Infantry Armor Level 1 takes 160 seconds, which is forever in the scale of a Starcraft game. If you really want to get the upgrades done, then you need to build two instances of the upgrade building so you can work on both upgrades concurrently.
You’ll hear casters refer to a “timing attack”, which is the massing of forces to send them in just as a particular upgrade finishes.
Some Handy Lingo
Detection: Some units can’t be seen, either because they’re invisible or because they’re burrowed underground. To see these hidden dangers, a player needs to have something on the field that can see cloaked or burrowed units. This is called detection. It’s basically a mechanic that lets you punish your foe for being inattentive. If you see they’re lacking in detection units, you can make some cloaked units and tear them up until they correct. These hidden units are usually a waste if your foe is adequately prepared.
Expansion: Short for “Expansion Base”, and sometimes just ‘expo’. You begin the game with a single base, which is a single structure with some nearby minerals and gas. This is usually called the “main”, and is where you’ll typically have the most buildings concentrated. Taking additional bases is called expanding. There’s a bit of a tradeoff: Expanding early will increase your income later on, at the cost of hindering your army-building in the short term.
Natural: Short for “natural expansion”. There’s usually an obvious place to expand right outside of the main base. This is your natural. Casters usually refer to further bases by the order in which you acquire them: Your third, your fourth, etc.
GL HF and GG: Short for “Good luck, have fun” and “Good game”. The former is what you say to an opponent at the start of a match. The latter is what you say at the end, so saying “GG” before the other player is basically conceding the match. Casters talk about the GG like an event: “Shamus is down and I don’t see how he can win this one. We might be seeing the GG here soon.” Leaving a match without saying GG is considered rude and is basically a ragequit.
Foreigner: A non-Korean. South Korea popularized the Starcraft as e-sport, and their players are still objectively the best. The best western players often move to Korea to play on Korean teams. In any case, Korean casters call westerners foreigners, and this practice is strangely come back to the west, so that you’ll sometimes see (say) an American player, on an American team, playing in an American venue, and yet called a foreigner by the American caster.
Cheese: A goofy or unconventional tactic, usually employed at the start of a map to attempt a quick win. Works as both noun and verb. Running into an opponent’s base and building a barracks inside their base is a “cheesy” thing to do. It’s considered devious to very occasionally cheese an opponent. It’s considered cheap and obnoxious to do it over and over again. You can quickly get into really long, dense arguments of which tactics are cheese and which are just clever lateral thinking. On one hand, you goal is to win however you can. On the other hand, the audience is here to see a game of Starcraft with big battles and they’re not going to be happy if the match ends in three minutes and the only combat is when two marines slaughter all the enemy workers. Like strategic fouls in pro sports, it’s a part of the game but not really part of the intended game.
There’s a lot more lingo, but from here you should be able to intuit the rest. You can enjoy a game without understanding terms like Baneling bust, hive tech, skytoss, marine drop, feedback, and fungal. Most of these are related to specific units or unit abilities, and the full list would be massive overkill.
So that’s the game. Get out there and watch some matches. If you like the game half as much as I do then you’re going to have a lot of fun.
The Best of 2012
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2012.
Final Fantasy X
A game about the ghost of an underwater football player who travels through time to save the world from a tick that controls kaiju satan. Really.
The Truth About Piracy
What are publishers doing to fight piracy and why is it all wrong?
The Terrible New Thing
Fidget spinners are ruining education! We need to... oh, never mind the fad is over. This is not the first time we've had a dumb moral panic.
DM of the Rings
Both a celebration and an evisceration of tabletop roleplaying games, by twisting the Lord of the Rings films into a D&D game.