Real-time strategies are generally defined as strategy games that are distinctively not turn-based. That is, players make their moves simultaneously, time passes whether players are moving or not, and players are (theoretically) able to make infinitely more moves than their opponent(s) (and, by extension, an infinite number of moves during the course of the game). Generally, moves are only limited to a time limit, kill limit, score limit, or any combination of the three.

For most popular RTS games, the structure is thus:

  • Players have full access to three key parts of the game: buildings, units (people, animals, whatever) and resources. Often, types of building and unit are defined by the player's chosen race. These can range from few (such as the 3 in StarCraft) to many (like the 24 in Rise Of Nations: Thrones & Patriots). Each race has its strengths and weaknesses but the races are all fairly balanced for each game. (Archers may be stronger than swordsmen, but British swordsmen are about equal in strength with French swordsmen.)
  • Buildings produce units. They can also research new technologies and upgrade existing technologies, for example increasing the gather rate of resources or increasing attack strength of a particular unit. In some games, some buildings are "drop points", where resources must be taken in order to be able to use them.
  • Units can either gather resources, build buildings or attack the units and buildings of other players.
  • Resources, once gathered (and, in some cases, stored), are used up when a player builds a building or a unit. Common resources are food, wood, and gold, although these go under different names for different games.
  • Players generally start off with a building, some units that can gather resources, and a small stockpile of resources.
  • The aim is to wipe out any and all enemies through conquest or other tactics such as diplomacy and other such dealings.
Popular RTS games that follow this format are StarCraft, Rise Of Nations, Command & Conquer, WarCraft, Age Of Empires and Empire Earth.

There are some games that do not follow this format - a good example being 20,000 Light Years Into Space for Linux. However, for the games that do follow this structure, the following is usually the best strategy to follow:

  1. Set the units you have to gather resources and get an economy running. Keep adding to the economy, even near the end of the game when you are about to start an all-out war.
  2. With these resources, start building defensive buildings, in case your opponent tries Zerging. N00bs should always remember this step as they will be picked on.
  3. When your economy is stable and fairly large, begin to build buildings that create attacking units.
From here, you're on your own. Make up your own strategy. Generally players follow one of three types of gameplay: rushing, turtling and expanding.
  • Rushing means to build up a small but reasonably powerful army, and attacking. If done correctly, it can hinder or even destroy the opposition. If improperly used or correctly defended against, you've lost all your units and wasted your resources. Start again.
  • Turtling means to build up a large defense and keep your opponents at bay that way. The general idea is to tire out your opponent by weakening or even destroying sizeable armies, making the opposition easier to attack. However, it is all too easy to wall yourself in, and if your defense isn't good enough, you'll find that you'll lose quite quickly.
  • Expanding is simply that: expanding. Expansion tends to help your economy since you have access to more resource points. Generally, though, economies don't help if you don't have any attacking units, and as such expanding players are particularly susceptible to players who rush.

At the end of a game, there is usually some kind of large scale battle, unless you've merely been rushed or you are playing for score, rather than conquest. The winner will not be the player with the most powerful units, but the player who knows how to use them more, and who knows their strategies. It is possible to win a game of Rise Of Nations or Age Of Mythology without building any attacking units. It is possible to win any scoring game without building any attacking units, if there is a score limit set. (However, it does help.)

Note my overuse of the word "generally". I do that deliberately: RTS games are very diverse in terms of their style, playability, strategies that need to be employed, and even the look and feel. You'll find that the majority of popular games play by this kind of style, but a lot of others don't. Thank you for your time and your squinting.