I’m not a big fan of real time strategies. It takes an interesting setting or strong plot to get me invested in an RTS, like Starcraft’s plot or Dawn of War’s wonderfully idiotic machoism. But recently I realized that I was playing an RTS and kind of enjoying the game itself. The game in question was Swords and Soldiers, a little 2d Steam game with 1d gameplay.
One of the things that puts me off is the skill set an RTS requires. One must simultaneously tell where units must stand in the battlefield and which unit to shoot, while requisitioning more units and researching technologies. The difference in the layers of abstraction is huge and incoherent. Why must I, the highest commanding officer, go and tell every Private Jackson who to shoot?
Swords and Soldiers has a very simple system. You can train units, research upgrades, use mana-based spells directly on the battleground and set guard towers. Everything else is automated. The units travel towards the enemy base on their own weight and fight the enemies when encountered. The player must truly strategize: The only way to influence the battle at hand are spells which take mana. Units cannot clump into larger armies, so one must time the new units to form effective fighting forces.
This is what one should do in a strategy game: Strategize. Swords and Soldiers is perhaps a bit too simple, but it has the right idea. Let the ground units make the fine decisions by themselves, and let the player concentrate on the large tactics.
Let’s imagine Dawn of War. The original, not the sequel. The command panel holds a mini-map of the game area, a requisition control panel and tactic panel. The game area is divided into sections which are surrounded by entry points. Every player is in control of one section, which is their home section.
The gameplay works thusly: The player can select an overall tactic to be used at a certain sector. Tactics like ‘blitz’, ‘artillery’, ‘secure’ and so on. Every singular unit reacts differently to a tactic. In blitz, close combat units charge the enemy lines with rapid-fire entities giving cover fire, while heavy artilleries hold steady. New units that arrive at the area immidiately adopt the local tactic. The player can also toggle which entry points are active. Units moving through an area go towards active entry points. This way one can setup supply paths. Most of the gameplay is identifying what tactics the opponent is using and countering them. If an opponent has managed to mass an army at a certain section, you can dig in at the adjacent ones and flank the enemy from another direction.
Every section holds a control point. Capturing this control point increases Requisition income, which the player can spend on requisitioning units. These units arrive usually at the home base or in the most outward landing zone which must be first built. There is a cooldown on each unit before it can be requisitioned again. Some powerful units may have limitations on how many there can be. Requisitioning is a precarious artform: You must divine what the enemy is planning and order units accordingly. Planning for the future is key.
Since we don’t want to touch the normal units, but do want some control over our more expensive and efficient ones, a system for that is needed. Instead of hunting down the damn things on the map, there is a line of portraits over the critical units (like command squads and psykers, since we’re imagining Dawn of War) at the top of the screen. Pushing that button unleashes the unit’s special power. The powers either take up resources or have cooldowns.
This is an idea of a real time strategy I would play. No boring real-time micromanagement and no losing to a caffeine-powered madman who can perform one hundred commands per minute. Just you, an opponent and a plan.