Critical Play: Is this game balanced?

This week I played the game Red Alert 2, A PC RTS (real-time strategy) game released by Westwood on October 25 2000.

Being an old yet popular game, there are many game modes and player-added maps and MODs, and balance of each has to be discussed separately. To keep it tractable, this post will focus on two of the most popular online player-vs-player modes: 1-vs-1 and tangled-warfare (where multiple players engage in free warfare against each other and the goal is to eliminate all other players).

The balance between players in 1-vs-1 mode relies mostly in symmetry. As an RTS game, there is no first-turn asymmetry, and most maps designed for 1-vs-1 mode are very symmetric with respect to the starting position of each player. After all, the community viewed 1-vs-1 games as competitive matches  to show their pure skills and techniques, and the pro players will definitely refuse to play 1-vs-1 on maps that give any side an unfair advantage. On the other hand, tangled-warfare games are usually more casual, and the gameplay tend have much more variety — the players love to goof around on funny maps with complex and unpredictable game dynamics. As a consequence, the balance relies more on intransitive relations. Typically, each starting positions are given different sets of advantages and encourages different kind of strategies. Any position can potentially be very advantageous by some clever strategy, but there’s always another position that can invalidate such strategy if that player knows how to do it and want to do it.

The balance between strategies in 1-vs-1 mode is relatively poor. Because the game dynamics is relatively deterministic and plays out near identically in every game at pro level, the one true optimal strategy has long been figured out by the community and the play is more about testing APMs, reaction times and strategical corrections to small deviations from the optimal game plan. Any other strategies, when played against a skilled player in a 1-vs-1 game, will fail miserably. On the other hand, strategies in tangled-warfare mode are very well balanced. First, the optimal 1-vs-1 strategy is no longer effective as there are multiple opponents, and taking out opponents 1-by-1 is not a good strategy in tangled-warfare as other player will not just sit and watch. Moreover, as described in the previous section, the asymmetric and intransitive advantages encourage different strategies under different circumstances.

Finally, there are two general category of game objects: infrastructures and military units, and the balance between game objects make use of both fruity and transitive relations.The infrastructures typically each have completely orthogonal functionalities and cannot be substituted for each other. Some special military units also fall under this category. Other military units that have similar basic functionalities but different numeric values are assigned a price that follows the general principle of a cost curve.

In summary, the discussed online player-vs-player modes of Red Alert 2 are both well-balanced, except for the relatively poor balance of strategy in 1-vs-1 modes.

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