Tag: StarCraft2 (page 1 of 2)

The Speed of Strategy

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
First contact with the Protoss. Better think fast.

Yesterday’s Extra Credits discussed depth & complexity in games. When discussing complexity, James asks the question “How many mental calculations per second are you asking of your player?” He then goes on to posit that turn-based strategy games are no more complex than first-person shooters, based on the number and types of decisions a player must make based on the pace of play. But turn-based isn’t the only kind of strategy game out there. When considering the degree of challenge presented by a game based on strategic, overarching decision-making, the speed at which the game progresses is very important.

When I think turn-based strategy, I think Civilization. It’s the 4X game I grew up with and, while I miss Master of Orion, the latest iteration is very polished and well-presented. As all of your decisions are done on your turn, and no time limit is imposed on those turns, the pace of play is very leisurely. While you are making complicated choices, especially as you develop more technologies and expand your empire, you are under no temporal pressure to come to a conclusion. You have all the time in the world, and that makes a game of Civ truly relaxing, if incredibly time-consuming.

Some games present the choices of the player in relative real time but mitigate the pace with the use of a pause function. So it is with FTL. Weapons fire and teleporters activate just as soon as their cooldowns make them available, which can lead to some intensity, especially when you have multiple hull breaches and you have Mantis invaders chewing on your crew. But you can hit the Pause button at any time, catch your breath, and consider the situation from a broad perspective. This reduces the immediate burden on your brain and mitigates the pressure, thus making decision-making a bit easier and reducing what appears to be a daunting amount of complexity.

Online games do not afford the luxury of a pause function. Time manipulation in the real world would be a titanic advantage, but chronomancy is unfortunately restricted to speculative fiction. However, team-based play like that in League of Legends tends to take the burden off of the individual player. Ideally, five brains are better than one, and being able to at least discuss the situation at hand if not develop a plan of attack based on that information lessens the cognitive burden on the individual. The pace is still fast and some decisions will need to be made immediately without help from the team, but that ‘safety net’ is still there.

And then you have solo real-time strategy experiences like StarCraft 2. While a team mode does exist for the game, the play that earns the most attention, accolades, and money is the one-on-one experience. You can strategize and theorycraft until the exploding sheep come home, but when the game begins, all of your decisions need to be made immediately. You must process information on the fly, while carrying out your own plans. You must both out-smart and out-play your opponent, even if you’re going for a held-back strategy that works from the angle of base expansion, defense, area control, and technological upgrades as opposed to, say, a cannon rush.

Yet the decisions you have to make in a game of StarCraft – unit composition, the approach to the objective, examination of opponent’s weaknesses to exploit – are not that different from those in Civilization. They simply need to happen more quickly, and while this may make the game seem more complex, I dare say it really isn’t. The complexity of the decisions is magnified by the pace of play, but taken on their own the decisions themselves are not that difficult. It is, however, difficult to make a solid decision in a very limited span of time, and still have the confidence to know it was the right one to make (see also The Walking Dead).

This is both the challenge and the appeal of strategy. No matter what the pace of play might be, the brain is fully engaged in making decisions and carrying out strategies. Playing well is definitely more a case of mind over matter, and I for one am a huge fan of thinking your way out of a difficult position.

The Art of Thor: Talking Terrain

Courtesy Blizzard
Siege tanks love some high ground.

With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.* Should the army forestall you in occupying a pass, do not go after him if the pass is fully garrisoned, but only if it is weakly garrisoned.

It can be difficult to learn the ins and outs of every map without quite a bit of time spent out of game or ranked matches looking up every nuance of each one. I’m certainly not going to suggest you do that. Instead, I’d like to touch on some general suggestions and observations when it comes to terrain.

A lot of build orders call for you to send a worker to scout. You may see the pros doing it too. The truth is, other than giving you the initial position of the enemy, this potential loss of an early gatherer does not provide more vital intelligence, as to what your opponent is currently building or when their attack is coming. Likewise, unless they invest in some other means of observing you, they won’t have that intelligence either. Most of these terrain suggestions will provide you with some means to gather that intelligence, and possibly exploit the advantages some of your units provide.

The Higher Ground

StarCraft 2 maps are not flat surfaces. Plateaus, cliffs and ridges run throughout the battlefield. Many historical military engagements have proven that significant advantage exists in positions upon higher ground. In the case of StarCraft 2, if nothing else, you have the capability to look down into a trench or pathway and see where the enemy is going and in what numbers – at least until you’re spotted and they turn your brave scout into a bloody smear.

The high ground provides opportunities beyond mere observation. Certain units – seige tanks and colossi for example – lay down their fire in an indirect fashion, spreading destruction over a wide area. Doing so from a higher position limits the amount of retribution that can be brought against that position. Such planning can stall or possibly even stop an incoming attack, buying you more time to mount your counter-offensive.

The Path Less Traveled

In most cases, a player with some skill will quickly outgrow their initial placement and need to expand. There are some builds that can take you entirely to success on one base, but sooner or later you’re going to run out of minerals. Expansions solve the potential problem of economic shortfall, but these positions are more exposed to entry, especially from unexpected angles.

Destructible rocks, reeds, smoke and other aspects of the environment will make these approaches less obvious. However, opening these approaches provide some interesting opportunities. Most of them lead almost directly into the mineral line of the expansion. Fast units, such as hellions, speedlings/banelines and blink stalkers, can exploit this placement, bring some damage into the workers behind the expansion, and bug out before your opponent can retaliate. It doesn’t work for every map or every strategy, but with the right timing and units it can be devastating.

Choke Points

Most maps put the players in a position with a ramp that can be walled off and provides some natural defense. Other terrain features can limit the approaches of an opposing force into your bases. As many historical battles can teach us, with the right positioning and preparation, a small force can hold off a much larger one while taking minimal casualties.

Other than the immediate benefit of deterring your opponent, preparing and keeping choke points also allows one the opportunity to build in relative peace. Many players, faced with a daunting defensive position, will throw ever-growing waves of similar forces against it. While they will break through eventually, a canny player will exploit this to build a rapid response and sortie out when the next wave hits.

Of course, if either player goes for air superiority and the other is unprepared, terrain becomes something of a moot point. But that’s a consideration for another time.

* Because then, as Tu Yu observes, “the initiative will lie with us, and by making sudden and unexpected attacks we shall have the enemy at our mercy.”

The Art of Thor: The Tortoise and the Hare

Courtesy Blizzard
The Viking: Fast, smashing anti-air missiles, wide vision area. Great for both offense & defense.

The Art of War teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of our enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to recieve our enemy; not on the chance of our enemy’s not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.

I’ve mentioned in the past that attacks on your base are inevitable. It’s only a matter of time before some measure of nastiness is going to roll up on all your expensive buildings and high-tech units. Sooner or later you do need to look to your defenses. Some would say that defenses must take the form of static buildings and choke point formations, while others maintain that the best defense is a good offense. For the sake of argument, we’ll call these two standpoints those of the Tortoise and the Hare.

The Tortoise is appropriate for more static defensive tactics. It’s appropriate that this method is called “turtling”. Like the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones or the ancient Emperors of China, imposing and immobile defenses can deter or slow down enemy aggression with their mere presence. It also is worth noting that maintaining a strong defensive line can provide a measure of breathing room for you to build esoteric, air-based strategies centered around drops, mineral line harassment or top-tier airborne sieges.

The drawbacks to this defensive methodology is that it’s entirely reactionary. You have to scramble if your opponent comes up with a way around your defenses or attacks a weaker side of your position. It also allows ample time for your opponent to build tactics & counters of their own. Finally, even turtle tactics require resources to maintain their lines and expand, and since defenses are so static and getting caught out of position can be lethal for said defenses, you will be susceptible to strangulation if you aren’t careful.

The Hare takes the fight to the enemy. Rather than waiting behind walls and automated defenses, this methodology pushes out as quickly as possible. It’s a fast and aggressive style of play that relies upon repeated thrusts against the enemy position to throw off their timing. The reason why I would consider this a method of defense is that as long as you’re throwing dudes at the enemy, you’re less likely to get dudes thrown at you. This means you can keep building behind each push, and if you aren’t, you should be.

That’s one of the major problems with relying upon offense. If you become focused on the battles and explosions, you might miss a chance to expand or build. If you look at a replay and see your buildings are idle and you’re flush with minerals or gas, you’re doing something wrong. Attacking quickly and repeatedly can also be fragile in the early game, and if an enemy’s defenses continuously repel your pushes and you don’t adapt quickly enough, your next push might be the opening they’ll exploit to ruin you. Constant attacks can deprive mineral line of defenders, which is just another way of saying counter-attacks can be deadly if your macro is not maintained.

Which way do you tend to lean? How do you make your position unassailable?

The Art of Thor: Build to Attack

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
You don’t build stuff like this just because it looks cool.

There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.

It’s tempting to get ahead of ourselves. It’s why folks rack up debt.

In the context of StarCraft 2, though, you may begin to think that what you’re doing in the process of learning macro skills is boring. You see live casts and replays of pro gamers, seeing the builds they use very effectively. You want to do the same, because they win and because it’s more interesting than what you need to do to build fundamental skills.

Stop that.

I humbly refer you back to these two entries in which I talk about what you should be building and how often you should be spending your resources. If you do this, over and over again until at least a couple promotions have gone by, you’ll be laying a stronger foundation for pulling off those daring gambits you see the pros execute. If you focus instead on some other strategy, you may get past Bronze or even Silver, but the higher ranks are going to be more of a frustration. Experienced players are already well-prepared for your cheese.

So you’re building basic units, builders and the means to keep building both. What do you do with them, though? Should they stand around your base protecting your pretty buildings? It can be an effective defense, sure, and if you want to play that way, go for it.

In my humble opinion, however, the quickest way to end the fight is through direct, uncompromised aggression.

As long as your production buildings are humming along and churning out more units, there’s no reason not to send the bulk of the units you’ve already built up your opponent’s ramp. Especially in, say, the first six minutes of the game. Before they can reasonably get any sort of high-tech response mounted, you should make them spend their resources on replacing whatever you manage to destroy. You can’t do that staying at home.

Now, I’m not saying you should follow every move your units make. At low levels, micro-management isn’t nearly as important as macro skills. But if your forces manage to past their defenses, there’s no reason not to direct them to the mineral line. Be it in their starting base or an expansion, blasting workers slows down their economy and is annoying as hell. While they recover their lost time and units, you’re building away for an even bigger assault.

Worried they’ll do the same? You should be. But if you’re building as much as you should, constantly producing units and ensuring you have enough food for everybody, the assaults your opponent mount in response should not do a great deal of damage. You might lose a few units but you have more on the way.

If your opponent gets behind you with air units or some sort of stealth attack, chances are you haven’t been attacking enough. It takes time to get air units, time you could be spending sending ever-growing waves of basic infantry against them to distract, harass, inhibit and destroy.

Sure, you’ll play the occasional hour-long macro game, with top-tier units slugging it out while you trade bases. But you learn little from such experiences. Quick wins, and quick losses as well, teach us a lot more about the strengths and weaknesses in our styles of play. Learn these lessons well, refine your style as much as possible, and just keep building and attacking.

It’s the advice I’ve gotten and am trying to follow. I’m sure it’ll get me out of Bronze league.

Someday. Hopefully before Heart of the Swarm gets here.

The Art of Thor: Don’t Panic!

Courtesy Blizzard & the StarCraft wiki
Choose your moves carefully.

To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

It’s difficult not to panic when you’re being shot at.

It may seem an obvious statement, and I don’t wish to downplay the severity of real-world situations in which soldiers, police officers and the occasional innocent bystander find themselves involving supersonic hunks of metal flying at them. But as StarCraft 2 is a wargame, and wars involve combat, it’s important to remember that combat is going to happen at times inconvenient for you. When our operations get interrupted in real life, we get annoyed. When it happens in a competitive situation, we can get nervous. And when it happens in ways that involve fire and blood, we can panic.

It takes practice, but you can work to downplay this natural reaction, to channel that nervous energy into productive activities. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on this, but there are steps I’ve taken to minimize the impact of the enemy’s plans upon mine, anticipating his moves and doing useful things as much as possible.

Know It’ll Happen

You’re going to get attacked. Things you build will blow up. Your troops are going to die.

It happens all the time. As Terran playing Protoss or Zerg, it’s common to wall off your ramp with a couple Depots and a Barracks. If the alien player’s on the ball, some basic units are going to run up the ramp and start taking shots at your buildings. Depending on your rate of production, you may only have a couple of Marines to defend. It’s a situation that’s bound to happen, so anticipate it if you can.

Likewise, when you gather up enough forces to send against your opponent, they might be ready for it. You might be able to scout them, using scans or spies, and build an appropriate response, but you might get attacked yourself in the meantime. Either way, if you anticipate potentially negative outcomes to your actions, their impact will be less shocking.

So if these things are going to happen, how can we prepare and respond?

Gather Intelligence

From the basic builder scout at the start of the game to the cloaked unit just outside the opponent’s front door keeping an eye on his massive forces, intelligence is essential to anticipating what’s coming next. A Drone, Probe or SCV zipping around the opposing opening base can give you an inkling as to what they’re thinking, and if you tech your way to a cloaked spy or use another, less costly means of observation (a Supply Depot on high ground for example), you can see attacks coming a mile away.

As your play improves you can also use this to your advantage. If your opponent zips into your base and sees you going for a particular build, don’t be afraid to change gears on him. And if you attack with a specific unit or group of units and he musters a defense in response, shift to a different type of unit or attack to render his intelligence moot.

Maintain Production

This goes back into the basics I’ve addressed previously. Always be building something. New means of maintaining your army’s supply, tech for your units and new supplements to your existing forces are all good things to invest in. As your macro skills grow, you will find it easier to do this even in the middle of battle.

An exercise I recommend that helped my macro skills greatly isn’t necessarily a winning one, but it might surprise you. Practice hotkeying your buildings and switching between them to check your status, and when you attack, use the minimap without watching the fight. I know, it’ll be more difficult to see and anticipate what your opponent is doing which directly contradicts what I said in the previous section, but bear with me. Hotkey your main base and production buildings (I put my Command Centers on 4 and Barracks on 5), switch between them and keep pumping out your basic units. When you feel you have an adequate number, for example with your first 4 Marines, use your minimap to A-move your forces to the enemy base.

As they move out, stay focused on your base. Keep producing units even when your expeditionary force comes under attack. Chances are, by the time the last one has expired, you’ve built twice as many troops. Send those. Keep building and expanding, again, without watching the battles. Attack, lather, rinse, repeat.

I did this after I ended up in Bronze, for a few matches. I was surprised how often my opponents would GG after my fourth or fifth push. Watching replays, it was clear they were trying to tech into a clever solution or were focused on what my Marines were doing, instead of maintaining their production. They panicked, and it was their downfall.

Now, since then, I’ve panicked a few times. Its a natural reaction, and you can’t always prevent it. All I can say is the more you practice, the more you can minimize this reaction. If you know an attack is going to come, get a notion as to where it’ll come from and build constantly to respond in kind, even if you feel a jolt of panic when they start chewing your brave soldiers faces off you can probably fight your way through it. The more you do this, the more success you’ll have and the faster you’ll rise through the leagues in StarCraft 2.

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