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Real-time Strategy (RTS) vs Turn-based Strategy (TBS). Who wins?

By on August 16th, 2010 10:18 pm

In what respects to space strategy games there is one gameplay element that mostly decides the style of the game, its pace mechanic: Real-time or Turn-based. These are two paradigms, normally you prefer one style or the other and judging from the latest poll hosted at SpaceSector.com that seems to be the case.

The last poll dictated 67 votes favoring TBS games, 19 votes for RTS where only 11 don’t prefer one style to the other.

The tendency on the market these days however seems to favor the real-time mechanic, if you consider Sins of a Solar Empire, Distant Worlds, Sword of the Stars (the space battles) and Armada 2526 (the space battles), these are some of the latest titles to come out.

So this means that the Real-Time mechanic is the way to go, or judging from the poll will be the Turn-Based mechanic instead? Let’s take a closer look at these types of gameplay and see what comes up.

Turn-Based Strategy

In turn-based strategy you go at your own rhythm, you have more time to think your strategy. Nothing can be left out until you finally press the end turn button and watch the opponents turn unfold. Most of the excitement comes not from the actual player turn but from the return outcome of the actions performed. This type of gameplay is for the hard-thinkers, people that like to take their time and like to control and be perfectionist.

Examples of pure TBS games are the Master of Orion series, Space Empires series and the Galactic Civilizations series. All the three series absolute classics.

Real-Time Strategy

Real-time strategy is a very different kind of mechanic. In here the player wants (hopes) to be on top of the situation at all times. This is of course .. impossible and so the player experiences strong feelings of anguish, nervousness and also frequent adrenaline rushes. After all at any time a fleet of Korzog Battle Cruisers may come out of hyperspace from nowhere and crush your undefended colony (if only I had the time to think this more carefully… haaahhh …)

RTS is for the adrenaline junkies and for people that favor action and instant pleasure and don’t have the patience  to micro-manage too much.

Examples of pure RTS games are the Homeworld series, Imperium Galactica Series and the Sins of a Solar Empire series.

Then there are games that combine both TBS and RTS

Then there is Armada 2526 and Sword of the Stars. Both of these latest titles combine both mechanics in their games. Both offer a turn-based core mechanic for their star map, economy, research etc but they offer real-time space battles.

So what is the future?

It’s too soon to speak for Armada 2526 but Sword of the Stars has been a success judging from the community, the expansion packs and the fact that there is already a sequel under development.

So the hybrid RTS / TBS formula seems to be a winner. You make your TBS players happy with the turn-based mechanic for the star map. When in battles you make your RTS players happy with the real-time mechanic.

I particularly favor this approach. What about you, what is your favorite gameplay mechanic and why ?

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15 Comments


  1. margav says:

    Then there are games that combine both TBS and RTS

    You forgot to mention the good old X-Com and UFO, they had the best combination imho. They had both and did it successfully.

  2. Adam Solo says:

    You’re right, good old X-COM and UFO. But in that case the main map was real-time and the battles were turn-based.

  3. margav says:

    Yeah, basically the strategic aspect was rts and tactics was turn-based. It effectively dampens the combat from the mindless queue stacking into actual unit calibration and control while leaving the research, construction and unit positioning away from your focus to distract.

  4. margav says:

    Actually if you look at DoW 1/2, they have the opposite, turn based global while rts encounters and they also make it effective. I guess a separation of encounters in any way can be beneficial if done properly.

  5. Martok says:

    Also don’t forget about Master of Orion 3 (even if we’d like to….). While it was a disappointment overall, it was one of the first space 4x games to combine turn-based empire management with real-time combat.

    Having been a long-time fan of the Total War series, I will admit I like the “hybrid” format; I feel it provides a fairly ideal balance between the two game mechanics. If forced to choose, however, I’ll nearly always prefer turn-based over real-time play.

  6. Adam Solo says:

    @Martok
    I also like the Total War series Hybrid approach. TBS for strategy and RTS for tactical combat.
    In the overall I also prefer TBS to RTS.

  7. Tom Frame says:

    I like the RTS tactics and the TBS strategy. I was a bit disappointed in moo (1 and 2) that 1 ship could take out 12 and they never got the chance to fire once even though they had the same range, but still it introduced the ability to more strategy in tactical combat. You had the time to think and so had your opponent but the problem came when both thought the same thing and only one managed to pull it off in less than one turn!
    For the Strategy I think that Turn based has it, it gives you time to think and adds a strategic element instead of “shit, shit where am I going to be attacked again?” Also its very stressing. But for real time battles you only have one thing to worry about! You can actually focus on your fleet and stress where you have full controll!

  8. stankadank says:

    how could u leave out aoe series or the sc series. rts games like these have lots of macro/micro management

  9. Brian Gonsalves says:

    I my humble opinion the terms “real-time” and “strategy” should NEVER be used in the same sentence except to point this out. The real-time strategy game is a steaming pile and should not even be poked with a stick.

    Real time is for such genes as action and level progression shooters. Like WOW, Diablo, etc. (Some truly awesome titles in there.)
    Turn based is for strategy where you can lean back, take a pull on your beverage of choice and hatch a new plot to snatch victory from the very jaws of defeat. Games like Master of Orion 1 and 2 are the classics and remain active on my game machine even today.

    Hybrids can work but they are extremely difficult to do successfully.
    It requires a delicate touch to know how and when to go real-time and when the player needs to be able to pause the game and think. Players actually need to be able to take their hands off the keyboard, get up, pace like an expectant father, rant, rave, look something up in the manual, stare at the map, summary screens, check their ideas out on the design screens etc while they come up with a new strategy. The plotting and scheming are some of the best, most memorable and most enjoyable moments of any strategy game. The modern game designer does not allow for this because there are so relatively few in his customer base that would appreciate it.

    Massively multiplayer on-line games go really well with real-time but not at all well with turn-based. Real-time MMOLG generates massive amounts of revenue with a broad customer appeal while turn based MMOLG does not exist and hopefully never will.
    Money wins so unfortunately real-time and MMOLG real-time in particular is the future of the gaming industry while turn-based strategy is so small it is in danger of going extinct.

    A strategy game is a rare find. A good one is an absolute treasure.

  10. bertipa says:

    After years of strict TBS faith Distant World Return of the Shakaturi made me remember that one of my first preferred game was an RTS: Sim City (the first and the 2000 also).
    They have more in common than the usual modern RTS fare and now I have to this internal contradiction.
    While TBS is a more cerebral experience the charm of seeing your world live and evolve is difficult to negate.

    Both DWRotS and SimCity have a strong ‘independent friendly development’. You can give the guidelines but your citizens go by their own ways.

    Civilization try to do the same thing but just visually making the 3D world come alive in front of you while also waiting for your decisions. But, especially in the end-game, micromanage or mediummanage an entire nation (imagine an interstellar one) is not the most realistic way to go. It does not feel real.

    So between RTS and TBS my answer nowadays is: a strongly managed, quite automated, simply pausable and at the same time regularly automatically paused (Sitrep?) RTS.

    Not sure about my answer tomorrow.

  11. bertipa says:

    What about, in addition to the good old space bar pause and the even older end of year pause, a system where the player can decide, for each type of events, if they start a pause?

    More than that… an event can be just an ignored line in the running log, a pause generating situation or a RTS speed changing (slowing) situation?
    And a group of temporally close low priority events can be upgraded to the next step?

    Example: You don’t want a pause each time a Lizard People starship enter in your senser range but if this happen three time in the last few seconds it merit a check and a little pause for reflection.

    Add that if nothing is going on the program can, if so a priori instructed by the player, speed up the RTS pace.

    I don’t like Age of Empire or Warcraft type of RTS. I don’t like a videogame experience when I’m playing at the strategic level.
    On the other hand the sensation that the world is going on around you is a potent way to enforce the ‘Feeling of be there’, the suspension of disbelieve that I like so much.

    I also have to repeat that TBS at the late stage of the game feels strange: this is not chess, the number of pieces is enormous.

    Said that CIV +1 AoE -1.

  12. Larry says:

    I don’t have a preference. My first space 4x game was turn based, but I also appreciate Distant Worlds and Star Ruler.

    I have problems with the pace in both turn based strategy and real time strategy. While turn based strategy games let me play at my leisure, at times they can be too leisurely. While real time strategy games are stimulating, it can be difficult to keep up with everything.

    I do think that fast pace in real time strategy games needs to be addressed, but I don’t think that has to be addressed by eliminating what makes real time strategy games so stimulating in the first place.

    Regarding this, my motto is: “Help the player play smarter, not harder.”

    It seems to me like the real time strategy rewards several abilities instead of good thinking, and they fall under three categories: physical ability (to control peripheral devices), user interface exploitation, and memorization.

    I think there are methods that mitigate or neutralize any advantages those abilities have over good thinking, and I’d hold up the Distant Worlds series as an exemplar of a step in the right direction.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, I also think DW does very well with its pausable-real-time gameplay. It’s funny that you don’t even get annoyed by pausing the constantly. The advantage of DW rea-time mechanic (pausable, let’s not forget that VERY important aspect) is that you gain the good of both worlds. The leisure of TBS while paused (with the “un-pause” being like the end-turn) and the aliveness of the real-time that makes the universe feel alive (planets orbiting stars, ships moving around, etc). TBS games don’t allow that alive feeling to grow on you so easily.

      At the time I wrote this article I was skeptical about RTS games being a match for TBS w.r.t. to 4X games. DW changed my mind about that with its brilliant 5-speed-pausable-real-time mechanic.

  13. Jacob says:

    Turn based strategy games are for people who don’t get what strategy is.


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