What Is an RTS game? A Guide To Real-Time Strategy | History Hit

What Is an RTS game? A Guide To Real-Time Strategy

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition screenshot
Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios

A real-time strategy (RTS) game is a type of game where players progress simultaneously with each other in “real-time” as opposed to taking turns. The RTS genre typically describes a game where players construct buildings and wield armies in order to dominate a field of play.

In Age of Empires and games like it, players assume the role of an all-seeing commander, architect and logistician. While RTS games can be sedate experiences, the layering of organisational challenge with reactive battlefield strategy sets the stage for fast-paced, intense gameplay. Here we’ll explain what an RTS game is.

The first real-time strategy

Dune II screenshot

Image Credit: Westwood Studios / Virgin Games

Dune II, released by Westwood Studios in 1992, wasn’t the first game to fit the framework of an RTS. This accolade might be attributed to various games from the 1980s. But it may have been the first game to be described as “real-time strategy”. It set a lasting model for the genre. 

What makes a game an RTS?

Company of Heroes 3 screenshot

Image Credit: SEGA

RTS games typically generate drama by positioning players against another foe in a combative encounter. RTS games generally have four main elements. These are units, buildings, technologies and resources. 

Units are the moveable actors that can be assigned tasks, such as gathering resources or attacking enemies, and buildings research technologies and train units. Meanwhile technologies improve economic or military stats to give one player an advantage over another. All of these elements are dependent on there being sufficient resources, which are deliberately harvested or generated during the game.

Is chess an RTS?

Bobby Fischer plays a chess match with Larry Evans in a indoor pool at the Grossinger Hotel in the Catskills, New York. ca. 1971

Image Credit: Alamy

Chess is a useful comparison which can help us to understand what an RTS is, but it is not itself an RTS. In a game of chess, play proceeds through the course of turns. In each turn, a player can move one piece. In RTS games, the game rules do not limit moves by turns. Instead it takes place all at once.

A chess board is comparable with the level or “map” in which the RTS game is played, while the white and black pieces similarly represent two opposing sides. Chess can be played with RTS rules. Simply get rid of the turn-based requirement and play. Would we recommend it? Probably not. 

Are RTS games hard?

Rise of Nations: Extended Edition screenshot

Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios

RTS games are usually fairly approachable. Because of the way they often mimic a desktop environment and incorporate elements such as dragging the mouse to select multiple objects, they can be intuitive for people familiar with computers. RTS games often scale in difficulty, which makes their single player modes accessible for a range of players.

They can be hard to get good at, though. The most enduring RTS games often have a high skill ceiling. This means that there is a large gap between the abilities of an infrequent player and somebody who regularly plays competitive matches. Age of Empires is one such game. It’s often what introduces people to the genre, while it’s also our game of choice for the History Hit Open.

Are RTS games dead?

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition screenshot

For a while in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it might have seemed like the RTS was at risk of vanishing. But RTS games aren’t dead. A consistent appetite for RTS games is evident in the multiple re-releases of the Age of Empires series. Technologically and aesthetically enhanced “Definitive Editions” of all games, apart from Age of Mythology, were released over 2019 and 2020. 

Do they still make RTS games?

Age of Empires IV screenshot

Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios

It’s still an unlikely proposition for many publishers, but in the last few years we’ve had novel RTS games like Northgard and Iron Harvest, alongside bigger and more advanced entries in the Total War series.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited Age of Empires IV was released in October, 2021. Company of Heroes 3 is the next instalment in one of the best RTS series of all time, and it’s coming out in 2023.

What is a good RTS?


Image Credit: Shiro Games

If you’re looking for a good RTS, you’ll find a solid recommendation in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. It’s accessible for newcomers, with skirmishes to occupy your lunch breaks and campaigns to fill in your weekends.

While franchises like Age of Empires and Company of Heroes are dependably good RTS games, you can also take a look at our list of similar games. They include interesting games like Age of Mythology and Northgard.

Kyle Hoekstra