What are the basic elements of a RTS?

I.E.: What are the features without which it is not an RTS?

I have played games like Age of Empires and Warcraft, but I'm still not sure which are the defining elements of the genre.

  • 3
    Should this question be moved to gamedev.stackexchange.com ? Commented Jul 31, 2010 at 16:26
  • I just gathered some key points in my head but have no time to flesh them out, hopefully I can manage it tomorrow :)
    – fschl
    Commented Jan 20, 2012 at 21:52
  • @F.S. You wanna give it a go? Very tempted to give that bounty away.... Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 12:21

6 Answers 6


A strategy game needs:

  • a map/board
  • units
  • those need to have strengths and weaknesses

To add some diversity:

  • economy/resources
  • upgrades (like +armor/+attack)
  • technology tree to unlock stronger units/skills/upgrades
  • restrict knowledge about the opponent (Fog of War)

And to be real-time:

  • simultaneous actions from the opponents
  • need for time-management

Why we need all this?

Without a map, how would you make contact with your opponent? Obvious! We need a battlefield. Since you need some way to beat your opponent you need forces (named units). And with them come the first strategic components: some units "counter" other units, and to be successful you need an effective army which is in some way better than the one of your enemy.
But if the players had their army from start, the outcome would only be determined by control and execution and the whole thing is a tactic-game. This is where economy and resources kick in: these are gathered by special units, often simply named workers, which could be woodcutters, stonemasons and food-gatherer or SCVs and drones - totally depending of the games setting. In most games there is more than only one kind of resource available. For example, in Starcraft there are Minerals and Vespine Gas: Minerals are basis for simple structures and units, whereas vespene gas is needed for more advanced technologies and units and upgrades. This concept can also be seen in WarCraft with gold and wood. With gathered resources the player gains the ability to create more structures, e.g.

  • unit production facilities like barracks or factories
  • technology buildings like academies or technology-labs
  • upgrade buildings like forges or workshops
  • defensive structures

These resources are needed to produce units and buy upgrades for them. Resources are also limited in some way limited, which adds one strategic goal: starve out your opponent in some way where he has no more income and cannot produce more stuff. Maybe there sometimes comes a moment when all resources are used up or only some are left and the both factions fight for them.

not done yet, but I wanted to show that I'm working on it ;)

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    I don't know if it NEEDS to have strengths, weaknesses. A SC clone where both sides are given only marines can still be considered a RTS game.
    – l I
    Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 14:21
  • But imo then it comes down to control, like in an FPS - less strategic and more tactical: positioning,movement,focus-fire...
    – fschl
    Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 14:35
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    @pureferret who's to say a FPS and RTS has to be totally discrete? If you control units in first person view, does that make it no longer a real time strategy game?
    – l I
    Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 15:15
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    @yx. I think the main difference has to be that in an FPS you control one character and in RTS you control many homogeneous units. Though you're right, do you call IWD an RTS? Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 15:17
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    one could argue that TBS games require time-management, and that you really mean "asynchronous" when you say "simultaneous" Commented Jan 22, 2012 at 14:33

Lazyweb answer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real-time_strategy

Excerpt copy/pasted here:

Real-time strategy (RTS) is a sub-genre of strategy video game which does not progress incrementally in turns. Brett Sperry is credited with coining the term to market Dune II.

In a RTS, as in other wargames, the participants position and maneuver units and structures under their control to secure areas of the map and/or destroy their opponents' assets. In a typical RTS, it is possible to create additional units and structures during the course of a game. This is generally limited by a requirement to expend accumulated resources. These resources are in turn garnered by controlling special points on the map and/or possessing certain types of units and structures devoted to this purpose. More specifically, the typical game of the RTS genre features resource gathering, base building, in-game technological development and indirect control of units.


The "real-time" element of the title is the obvious bit, so long as you know that "TBS" or turn-based strategy games exist. RTS differs in that (in its purest form) it doesn't involve taking turns.

The "strategy" part is a little harder to define, because one could argue that most FPS games feature at least an element of strategy (even more boldly, one could argue that all games feature some element of strategy).

What we generally mean when we talk about RTS or TBS games, or other genres with "strategy" in the title, is a game involving the simultaneous (or near-simultaneous) control of multiple units.

In general, the reason why games earn themselves a "strategy" badge depends whether you're in control of the overall situation. In management terms, it's the difference between macro-management (strategy games) and micro-management (non-strategy games). Some classify this difference under the terms "strategy" (macro) and "tactics" (micro) although I would personally argue that "strategy" is an umbrella term that includes "tactics" as part of its definition. In gamer terms, it's the difference between being told what your mission is and telling people what their mission is; although most RTS games feature a chain of command that extends above the player, making that an oversimplification.

  • Well said but i think you are confusing tactics with strategy. Then, most RTS don't involve strategy, but tactics or none of them. For example some games commonly referred as rts have a management or action oriented gameplay, without involving a real strategy or tactics, following predefined patterns.
    – Chobeat
    Commented Jan 20, 2012 at 19:27
  • As far as I'm aware, "tactics" and "strategy" are synonymous - I'm not sure where your distinction comes in? I don't mean to start anything, I'm just trying to clarify what you mean so I can alter my answer if necessary. Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 1:56
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    The difference between tactics and strategy is mostly one of scale. To put it simply, tactics is how you win a single battle while strategy is how you win a war. To put it in RTS terms, strategy would be macro-management wile tactics would be closer to micro-management (even tough, technically, most RTSs only put you in charge of a single battle, and so only involve tactics)
    – Jupotter
    Commented Jan 21, 2012 at 8:50
  • I see. I shall update my answer - thanks for your input :) Commented Jan 22, 2012 at 14:26

Just to state the obvious, the game has to involve devising strategies, usually to defeat the opposing teams. It also must be played in real time, and not in alternating turns. Thus the name; real time strategy games.


As for strategy vs tactics, I would say thats really about the scale of what you are controlling. For instance, does the game generally involve the player controlling individual, team, squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment, brigade, division, etc. etc. level formations?

Anyways, to the main question here.....

Construction -you need something to either produce units or produce the things that produce units upon starting. Generally this is done by providing the player with an initial builder unit and a primary(or base development if you want to get technical) structure.

Resource Procurement and Refinement -sometimes it is generated at a steady pace, sometimes you need to build a resource structure and a gatherer unit to collect and provide resources for it.
And not all resources are the primary resource, and not all are other resources that work in the same general way. For instance, in C&C the secondary resource is power, but its not a collect and apply to construction of units type resource. Instead its building power buildings to keep other buildings functional.
In the same way pop caps(especially if they can be adjusted), supply, and other more vague 'resources' from the mechanics of the game can be thought of as a type of resource, if unconventional ones.

Unit Production -obviously if you dont start with any/many combat units, you need to be able to develop some way to produce them. -generally, a form of strategic depth is involved that requires specific structures to be build to cover specific unit categories. Common examples of such categories include: --Infantry --Vehicles --Aircraft --Seacraft sometimes commanders/heroes, defenses, and support powers/superweapons require specific buildings to allow them to be built. also, sometimes a structure is required in addition to the production structure for sometime to be built/produced. generally, this is because of a tech/tier level requirement, but not necessarily.

Matching Capabilities -in other words, each faction needs to have some way to perform any essential roles. for instance: --acquire resources --defeat various types of enemies and structures --detect stealthed units --move units to various terrain type areas of the map(for instance of a water area blocks a land area, you may need seacraft or aircraft to get units there). --counters to exotic capabilities. for instance, if one side has a unit that can take control of enemy units in some way, then each faction needs to have some way of countering that(whether it be a unit that cant be controlled, a unit that can attack from beyond the control range, a unit that will attack the enemy regardless of being controlled or not, a unit that can avoid the ability due to an exotic feature of its own, etc.).


I'm just going to give you what I think is right.

RTS games have no turns, and rely on building farms, barracks, archery ranges, etc. to get troops and money.

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