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The Undertow                                             Home
A column dedicated to sucking you into the muck and mire of gaming.

The Oxymoron of Real-Time Strategy
Tuesday, August 4, 1998

For the more definition challenged in the crowd, I had better start off with clarifying exactly what "oxymoron" means.  Oxymoron: (šk-si-'mOr-šn)  a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (as cruel kindness or military intelligence).  See also:  real-time strategy.  See, that wasn't so hard now, was it?

The debate as to whether Real-Time Stategy (hereafter RTS) games in fact contain any strategic gameplay has been going on since the original Command & Conquer was released by Westwood Studios back in December of 1995. Perhaps it began before that, with the release of Dune II . . . the predecessor to Command & Conquer. Regardless, before we can delve into the debate we must first look at some of the history of strategy gaming.


Westwood Studios' original Command & Conquer,
one of the games that started the great debate.

Regardless of what people might think, computer games are not a new idea, they are merely a transformation of a medium. Adventure games are choose-your--own-path novels (interactive novels). Role-Playing Games (RPG) are solitaire versions of popular tabletop RPGs such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Flight simulators are basically commercial versions of simulators used by the military or the airline industry. Only until recently could gamers afford the hardware required to run such simulations. Finally, computerized RTS and Turn Based Strategy (TBS) games have their roots in modern day wargames such as Charles S. Roberts' Tactics or the classic World War II close tactical simulation, Squad Leader. In turn, modern tabletop wargames can trace their roots back to miniature games such as H.G. Wells' Little Wars game system.  For those REALLY interested in a little history on military tactics and strategy, read Sun Tzu's: The Art of War.

A little more background is required. Since computer RTS and TBS games are derivatives of their tabletop brethren, let's define the different levels of modern day wargaming. There are four:

  1. Operational:  Also known as Grand Strategic. Typically units are on the regiment, brigade, or larger size. Turns or periods can represent weeks to several months or seasons. Combat is extremely abstract. Resource management typical.
  1. Strategic:  Units are battalions to regiments. Turns represent days to weeks. Resource management common.
  1. Tactical:  Units are squads to battalions. Turns represent hours. Little resource management.
  1. Close Tactical:  Units are individual men to squads. Turns represent minutes. Combat is extremely detailed including line-of-sight, "to hit" procedures, armor penetration, etc... No resource management at all.

So, the question that remains to be answered: Do computer RTS games contain any strategic gameplay? My answer: No. My proof: Read on.

Don't get me wrong . . . I think RTS games are a great genre, though a genre bloated beyond belief. You see, I'm an old fashion gaming grognard that played boatloads of boardgames before today's RTS game designers were even out of grade school or day care. I've got a problem with their classification. I've had enough arguments with people claiming these games are chock full of "strategy".

RTS games are not strategic. If anything they are close tactical. Is terrain not important? Of course it is! Line of sight is important, and units represent individual beings. There is very little decision making. It all comes down to dueling mice. Who can crank out the best and deadliest unit from their "generator" first. Who can garner the most "resources" (and it's not even resource management) to feed these "generators".

I remember one individual claimed that RTS games are more like real combat. Yes and no. In real combat you don't have to micro-manage every unit and tell them what to do and what to attack. In the vast majority of RTS games your unit will just stand until attacked or attack until killed. If I am required to micro-manage units on a strategic or tactical level, I want the time to do it! RTS games do capture the frantic pace of combat, but at a price to strategic or tactical planning. In order to have thoughtful strategic or tactical planning in a game it must be turn based.

Many newer RTS games have features such as LOS and don't have resource management (MechCommander).  But for the most part, strategy grinds to a halt in nearly all traditional RTS games.

I'm sorry to enlighten you, but the only TRUE RTS are in fact turn based. And they are, in reality, tactical in nature, and there are only a handful out. Panzer General II (borderline tactical) and Civilization II come to mind.


Panzer General II - Turn Based Strategy Civilization II - Turn Based Strategy


The only true close tactical games are also turn based. The X-COM series and Jagged Alliance II top this list. And more recently Incubation.


The original classic X-COM - Turn Based Close Tactical


Jagged Alliance II - Turn Based Close Tactical Incubation - Turn Based Close Tactical


But there are numerous real time games that have no business being called "strategic" or "tactical". Blizzard's upcoming Starcraft is a good example.


Starcraft - Blizzard's Real Time Action darling

Well, in a way, yes I guess I am a little biased. My views have been shaped by years of tabletop wargaming. Honestly, it's even more fun than computer gaming. I recently was back into Advanced Squad Leader in a heavy way. I played almost no computer games during that time. What can be better than sitting across the table from another person, tension hanging in the air . . . loser buys pizza? No computer strategy game will ever replace that - at least for me.

Gamers have this strange affinity towards either turn based games or real time games. Very rarely do they like both equally. It's quite obvious that I love turn based games. Real time games are cool, they're just not my cup-o-tea. But, I don't think those are the dividing factors. In reality I think it comes down to whether the person likes true strategy (tactics) versus action. It just seems to work out that all turn based games are one, and real time games are the other. Yet another "subconscious" form of proof to bolster my argument.

So, in a nutshell, a game cannot be strategic or tactical if it is real time. If you want actual strategic or tactical gaming, play a Turn Based Strategy (TBS) game . . . or heaven forbid, a boardgame!! If you want frantic, fast paced, mouse action; play a Real Time Action (RTA) game. Either way you'll probably have a blast. Just don't compare apples to oranges.

Diablo. No . . . it's not an RPG, it's another Real Time Action game!

Now I remember the time I first heard Diablo called an RPG . . . but that's another story!  I also remember the first time someone told me that Quake and Quake II had stories . . . I laughed out loud and proceeded to check them for signs of drug addiction.

~ Neal Ulen

Drop me an e-mail and let me know what you like and/or dislike about gaming, a particular title, or the industry in general.  As always, all (non-belligerent) criticism welcome!

The Undertow Copyright (c) 1998-99 Neal E. Ulen and GamesFirst!