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What Is An RTS Game? Find Out With Our Comprehensive Guide

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

You've played your fair share of real-time strategy (RTS) games, right? But what exactly is an RTS game?

In short, an RTS game is a strategy game in which players control units and structures in real time. Unlike turn-based strategy games (like Civilization), there is no waiting – the action keeps going. Be ready to make lightning-fast decisions because every second matters in an RTS game.

So, what is an RTS game? Let's find out! In this comprehensive guide, I will go over the basics of an RTS game and share some examples of popular examples.

A Halo Wars 2 enemy with the writing what is an rts game to the right
What Is An RTS Game

History of Real-Time Strategy

Real-time Strategy (RTS) is a genre of video games where game events happen in real-time. The term was coined by Brett Sperry in 1992. Strategy video games have been around since 1983, with games like Stonkers by John Gibson for the ZX Spectrum. RTS games, however, go beyond just strategy games and offer more than that.

Turn-based games have been around for thousands of years. Think of cards, board games, and Chess as games where players take turns to advance to the end. RTS games are much newer, having been around since the 1980s. Maybe we could go back further and call "Hide and Seek" an old-fashioned real-time strategy game, but let's not bother.

Somebody perfected the formula in the '90s and early 2000s with games like Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis and StarCraft, two of the most iconic games in the real-time strategy genre. Space RTS games like Stellaris and Dune 2 are some of the most popular games of this genre.

Similar to how publishers shifted away from specialized genres, licensed games followed suit. Rather than developing a real-time strategy Star Wars game, they preferred to repackage it as an FPS or MMORPG, as these genres have a larger market. Consequently, this posed two challenges for the genre: it became challenging for RTS games to establish and maintain communities, and it also became difficult for new games to enter the market and achieve success.

The increasing popularity of competitive gaming has driven players back to real-time strategy games. For gamers, real-time strategy has a distinct advantage over turn-based strategy games because it provides more dynamic gameplay and more opportunities to influence the game's outcome.

Gameplay written on abstract background


Real-time strategy games are a genre of video games that revolves around the gameplay of making strategic decisions and managing resources and units in real-time.

Real-time strategy games demand skilled and strategic players who decide quickly. Gamers who like precision prefer them. These games are popular, fast-paced, and need quick reflexes and sharp thinking.

Real-time strategy games are played in real-time. Players act together and must react fast, manage well, and use resources wisely. It's crucial to manage your resources to create more units and buildings. You can also research various technologies to gain an advantage over your opponents.

These games are challenging, requiring skill and strategic thinking, which can be difficult for casual players who enjoy esports.

Managing at the micro and macro levels

To succeed in real-time strategy (RTS) games, players must have good micromanagement and macro-management skills regarding resources and units. It's important to balance individual unit management with game-wide economy management.

Micromanagement involves carefully managing individual units and resources, while macro management involves overseeing economic expansion and large-scale maneuvering. Players must use tactics like flanking, ambushes, and guerrilla warfare to win. RTS games can be challenging because they require high levels of strategy and skill.

Turn-based vs. real-time strategy

Real-time strategy games require players to make strategic decisions and manage resources and units in real-time. RTS games typically involve:

  • Building and managing a base.

  • Gathering resources.

  • Training units.

  • Engaging in battles against other players or AI opponents.

The gameplay of real-time strategy games has surpassed the popularity of turn-based strategy computer games due to their fast-paced nature and smaller learning curve.

Turn-based strategy games require a player to make a series of turn-by-turn decisions. In contrast, real-time strategy games allow players to make simultaneous decisions. Due to the fast-paced gameplay of real-time strategy games, they are often more engaging than turn-based strategy games.

Strategy and tactics

Real-time strategy games involve making real-time decisions and managing resources in real-time instead of turn-based strategy games, where gameplay consists of making decisions at intervals. In real-time strategy games, players must decide how to deploy their military units on a battlefield.

An RTS game involves various units that can be controlled by humans or machines. These units include tanks, aircraft, and submarines. In such games, tactics usually involve micromanagement of units during battles. To win these games, players require high-level strategies and long-term planning for resource management.

RTS games have either more strategy or tactics, depending on the genre and style of play. For example, "Starcraft" needs fast reactions, while "Civilization" requires strategic thinking.

To rush or not to rush

In real-time strategy games, players often use "rushes," where they try to gain an advantage over the opponent as quickly as possible. One of the common strategies for doing so is to produce a large amount of a relatively powerful but inexpensive unit and throw it at the opposition before they have had time to establish defenses or production.

While rushing can be a helpful strategy in real-time strategy games, criticism has been that it encourages overwhelming force over strategy and tactics.

Some games have been designed with supply and resource management as an integral part of gameplay to combat this issue. For example, the Hegemony series made supply and resource management an essential part of its gameplay to deter rushing strategies.

Management written on an abstract background

RTS Gameplay Management

Real-time strategy games require players to manage resources, units, and structures in real-time. The gameplay of RTS games comprises a series of gameplay phases, such as resource gathering, unit production, unit movement, structure building, and game-ending attacks.

In real-time strategy games, players must balance the economic output of resource gathering with the military build-up of unit production. Players must also balance the time spent on non-gameplay-related activities like building structures and researching technologies. Players must use flanking, ambushing, and guerrilla warfare tactics to win a real-time strategy game.

The game's objective varies from game to game. Still, the general goal of real-time strategy games is to build a robust base and army while disrupting the enemy's resources and army. Players must micromanage their resources, military units, building construction, new technology investigation, and diplomacy to accomplish this.

Resource Management

RTS games often require players to manage many units simultaneously in real-time, requiring a focus on reaction time and micromanagement. To effectively manage these units, players must ensure they use the suitable unit for the right job and efficiently use their resources.

Resources in RTS games can often be found in the game world or produced by buildings, and they are used as currency to train units and purchase upgrades.

Resource management is vital in RTS games. It involves finding and using resources to support gameplay. Players must balance between spending resources on new units or upgrades. You need to monitor available resources and production to avoid running out.

Building Management

Real-time strategy games have a vital gameplay element known as building management. This involves creating and updating military and civilian facilities. Various buildings, including unit production and defense structures, are used for different purposes.

Units-producing buildings are typically assigned to a specific unit type for ease of control by the player. Thanks to automation, player attention is then focused on commanding and controlling one unit type rather than managing many building types.

Resource management is also crucial in RTS games. Resources can be distributed around the game world or produced by certain buildings. The amount of resources a player has at a given time is critical, as it determines how many units and structures they can command and build.

Real-time strategy games require macroscopic management of large groups of units, and players must make split-second decisions to outmaneuver opponents.

Unit Management

RTS games are games where players control units in real time. They have four main elements: units, buildings, technologies, and resources. Units can be assigned tasks such as gathering resources or attacking enemies. Buildings research technologies and train units while technologies improve stats.

The aim is to outmaneuver opponents to achieve victory by considering unit types, building placement, and gameplay strategy. Building management is central to RTS games since new buildings give you economic and defensive advantages and access to new and better units.

Military buildings usually include military unit production and defensive structures. In contrast, civilian buildings can consist of government, resource gathering, housing, and tech-research facilities.

Technology Research

In an RTS game, there are four key elements, units, buildings, technologies, and resources, that somebody must carefully balance to succeed.

RTS games have a range of gameplay mechanics and strategies, with different players seeking out different play styles. The most popular RTS game series include StarCraft, Company of Heroes, and World of Tanks. The best performers in these games have earned millions of dollars through tournaments and professional competitions.

Top RTS Games

RTS games, or real-time strategy games, are all about strategy and planning. They involve classic elements like managing resources, building bases, commanding units, and progressing in real-time alongside other players.

Playing an RTS game can make you feel powerful and in charge. Unlike turn-based games, all players go at the same time, making gameplay fast-paced and engaging. These games are typically played online with other players through connected servers.

Age of Empires IV

The game Age of Empires IV was developed by Relic Entertainment in collaboration with World's Edge and published by Xbox Game Studios. This is the fourth installment of the Age of Empires series. There are eight civilizations players can choose from in AoE 4, each with its bonuses.

While Age of Empires III moved into colonial times, Age of Empires IV goes back to medieval Europe. Age of Empires 4 builds on the series' reputation as one of the best RTS games with its upgraded engine and new graphics.

If you're a fan of world history or enjoy playing RTS games, this is a title you'll want to check out. Age of Empires IV offers a great entry point for new players interested in the genre with its user-friendly interface and accessible gameplay. In October 2021, the long-awaited Age of Empires IV was released, adding another exciting installment to the franchise.

A city built in Age of Empires 4
Age of Empires IV

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

In the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series, the original game is known for bringing the dark universe to life. It has a unique take on the RTS genre, with powerful heroes and special abilities in battles. The game also has cover-based gameplay that lets players hide during battle and ambush enemies.

The sequel to Dawn of War, Dawn of War II, improved upon many of the game's gameplay mechanics while introducing new elements to explore the dark and gritty setting of Warhammer 40,000. It further capitalized on the game's well-loved cast of heroes and villains from the Warhammer 40K universe.

It added a multiplayer mode that allows gamers to play against each other online. The game is famous for gamers looking for a gritty strategy set in a compelling science-fiction universe.

A mech being attack in Warhammer 40,000
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is a classic real-time strategy game developed by Blizzard Entertainment. An RTS game is a video game where players must make quick decisions to win. StarCraft II was released in 2010 and has three races, Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty offers a challenging gaming experience renowned for using the 'Zerg Rush' tactic, which involves a simultaneous attack by numerous Zerg units. To excel in these games, quick reflexes and strategic thinking are essential.

AN epic battle unfolds in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty


Dota 2 is a real-time strategy game that mixes elements from other popular genres. Players destroy the enemy's base by making quick decisions on resource use and timing attacks.

Similar RTS games like Starcraft, Warcraft, Command & Conquer, Warhammer, and the popular game Warcraft III from the Total War series and Supreme Commander from the usage example have been thriving since the 1990s. The genre continues to develop and improve with a promising future – captivating gamers for years.

A player seeks justice in DOTA 2

Dune II

In 1992, Westwood Studios released Dune II, known as one of the first real-time strategy games. It became a template for future RTS games. It set a standard for this genre of games with the release of Dune II from Westwood Studios (1992).

The gameplay was similar to turn-based strategy games but with real-time battling and focused on strategy and resource management. Players had three factions: Atreides, Harkonnen, or Ordos. They could explore Arrakis and decide which villages to conquer or allies to make.

The game introduced a new level of complexity and depth to the genre, with players having to carefully plan their moves and manage their resources to succeed in the nether earth of Arrakis.

Building a structure in Dune 2
Dune 2

Halo Wars 2

Halo Wars 2 is a game where you command an army to defeat enemies in the Halo universe. It was released for Xbox One and PC on Feb 21, 2017. Halo Wars 2 is a friendly real-time strategy (RTS) game with easy gameplay and all downloadable content in its Definitive Edition. The game received critical acclaim and has a dedicated fan base. Halo Wars 2 has become a popular choice among gamers with its immersive gameplay and stunning graphics.

Playing with a mouse and keyboard is recommended, but it's still good on consoles. The game has improved since its predecessor, offering a better gameplay experience with detailed features. Players conquer enemy bases, create buildings, and explore the world from a top-down camera view.

Halo Wars 2 features modernized visuals and all of the DLC in its Definitive Edition, making it a must-play for strategy gamers.

Moving the troops in Halo Wars 2
Halo Wars 2

Discover other amazing RTS games

Popular RTS games for esports require players to make quick decisions and utilize resources efficiently. The genre has attracted a large following of gamers, especially in the esports and gaming communities. Popular eSports games include StarCraft II, League of Legends (LoL), Dota 2, and World of WarCraft (WoW).

Titles like Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (2004), Star Wars: Empire at War (2006), and Company of Heroes (2006) replace the traditional resource-gathering model with a strategic control-point system, in which control over strategic points yields construction/reinforcement points.

Sins of a Solar Empire, a popular sci-fi game, also falls under the RTS genre and offers a well-balanced and easy-to-grasp progression system. It is an excellent option for beginners looking to dive into RTS games.

Real-time strategy games are enjoyable for all kinds of gamers. They need careful planning and resource management. The genre has a long history of multiplayer gameplay with games like Command & Conquer and StarCraft II.

Are there any RTS games on Xbox?

RTS games have long been a staple of PC gaming, but several real-time strategy (RTS) games are now available for Xbox gamers. Popular real-time strategy games on Xbox include Age of Empires II Definitive Edition and Halo Wars 2.

What's the difference between turn-based and real-time strategy?

Turn-based strategy (TBS) games involve a turn-based gameplay style in which players take turns to make decisions. This method of gameplay gives players time to consider their strategy and plan their next move. However, real-time strategy (RTS) games differ from turn-based strategy games, requiring players to react quickly to events.

RTS is here to stay

Real-time strategy games are undoubtedly here to stay. They have evolved, and they will continue growing with time. From the multiplayer gameplay format of Dune II to the story-driven gameplay of Age of Empires IV, real-time strategy games have become a craze among gamers of all age groups. As you can see in this article, many games deserve your attention. Be sure to take advantage of them!


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