Rock, Paper, Scissors versus Rock, Bigger Rock, Biggest Rock

It’s been some time since the last game design post, so here’s one. It’s about Rock, Paper, Scissors mechanism that can be used in games – especially when balancing different units.

Real-time strategy (RTS) games for example take the approach of Rock, Bigger Rock, Biggest Rock where units first use bare hand, then they get club and finally a magical sword, which eventually leads to upgrading units in the battlefield until all units have the biggest weapons. In RTS games this patter is used, and the one who wins has the largest number of troops with best weapons. The sides are usually identical, and your job is to concentrate on having the largest army with most upgraded weapons.

Then there’s the Rock, Paper, Scissors way of designing units: simply having different units than can beat one unit, but lose to another. Like perhaps developer could program dwarf to beat orc, orc to beat elf, and elf to beat dwarf. In this way even a dwarf with upgraded weapons would get beaten by the elf thus making it impossible for player to use tactic of “produce as many dwarves as possible and upgrade their weapons”. He would need to see what kind of units the other side has, and counter with different units.

And the best part would be to make sure both sides have different units: like maybe dwarf and elves are on the same side, and the one with orcs couldn’t get them – he might need to use ghouls or zombies, which would have different power ratings than elf and dwarf, thus making the sides different.

And this kind of design doesn’t work solely on RTS games (such as StarCraft or Battle for Middle Earth, you might want to use in in first-person shooters (like they do in Battlefield) or even in some kind of role playing games where you would need to pick several team members.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. I think the biggest issues with thr RPS formula in some RTS games is that they use similar units on each side (they just skin them differently… but when it comes to combat orcs and humen are equally good). Also there’s usually some sort of winning unit combination that is used, and the so called ‘RPS’ formula units become useless… and eventually the game is just about how fast you build certain kind of army.

    And you have to use certain kind of army – or you lose.

  2. I definately agree with you Fernando, in general RTS games have a very diverse market and has it’s own niches. the R-P-S formula is used a lot and very successfully. One of the ways Blizzard works is that they have highly complex system of R-P-S; like it was mentioned above. There are definately a lot of issues to address for how to make a game accessible. :)

  3. I disagree that taking the R-P-S approach is an easy way out. It’s amazingly effective, and intuitive. Often, the simpler designs are far more effective. I can’t say that this is always the case, but I myself have been intimidated by more complex strategy games(as I am with chess) and I stray away from them.

    I can see what Ken is saying in some ways. Having a simpler design makes it easier to understand the strategies. Having a more complex design certainly requires a lot more thought. I can’t say if this is a good thing or a bad thing. What I find in the more complex designs is that I’m usually confused about what strategies are available to me. Understanding a strategy and implementing that strategy are two different things. In a simple design, I understand the basic strategies, but I am challenged in their implementation.

    I prefer this style which is more accessible to a wider audience, in my opinion.

  4. I think that this type of game balance is an easy way out. although it is true that there is a circular theory of R-P-S in many games, it leads to some very easily manipulated gameplay by players who can break the system. Granted this will happen in any system, but if you really want to challenge yourself in design and your players I think that researching a more difficult game like Chess is warranted.

    Chess doesn’t lend itself to the concept of one piece beats another, each has it’s own balance issues and it leads to more strategic gameplay which can enrich a game.

  5. The Rock/Bigger Rock/Biggest Rock situation is only the surface level of many RTS games, especially those done by Blizzard. New and Intermediate players use these strategies, but if you’re at a higher level of play in Starcraft or Warcraft III you -MUST- know the R-P-S of the game, which it seems are often overlooked. Even Blizzard makes it difficult to notice and figure out, but there are Light, Medium, and Heavy armored units in both SC and WC3. Different units also have Light/Medium/Heavy attacks (typically called Seige, Piercing, etc).

    It’s all in there and it works beautifully. Small infantry units like Zerglings, Marines, and Zealots can be torn apart by units with heavy attacks like vultures, seige tanks, etc because their armor is all but negated. The system is very intricate and becomes key to surviving in the upper echelons of the ladder and tournament levels. Units have a certain armor value, which applies in full force against some attacks, but is negated by units with the opposite type of attack. If you’re trying to kill a seige tank with Firebats you’ll have a long wait ahead of you, but if the Firebats are fighting Zerglings or other light units they will be dealing full damage. It worked so well with Starcraft, and it’s one of the reasons the game is so freaking great, that Blizzard carried it through to Warcraft III (it may have been in WC2, but I’m not sure).

    Your statements are still very true, but they don’t pertain to Starcraft and Warcraft specifically, but rather many of the other RTS games that don’t have an added layer of balance with strategy/tactics.

  6. @randomnine: RTS games might have tens (or hundreds) of different weapons and combinations… but for some reason they tend to follow the rock, bigger rock, biggest rock theme: the rock simply becomes useless in some point. It’s like there’s hundreds of weapons/units to choose from, but in the end – everybody is using the ones that they always use.

    The best RTS (and even though I’m not a RTS freak, I enjoy playing them and have played them since Dune 2) rock, paper, scissors (tape, pencil stapler… ;) system I’ve seen is from Lotr: Battle for Middle Earth. It’s not perfect, but I like the way footmen get beaten by cavalry, unless you get pikes… which you can demolish with Gimli, that Lurz can beat… and so on. Or – instead of pikes you might use Nazgul to fly and demolish those cavalries with single strikes – but watch out for elves with their fire arrows…

    It’s true that even in BfME, you end up having some kind of upgraded army in the end, but depending on the game (and your opponent’s choices) you might have very different units in different matches.

    @Fernando: Haven’t played Fire Emblem, so I cannot tell.

  7. I’m not sure if you have ever played the Fire Emblem series, but that is a great example of what you are talking about. They have two systems:

    sword beats axe beats spear beats sword.
    light magic beats dark magic beats anima magic beats light magic.

    That’s what the gameplay is based on. And to make it a little more interesting, there are weapons that reverse the the triangle. For instance, there is an axe called “Sword Killer”. This weapon is weak against spears, but strong against swords.

    I find that a pure rock paper scissors game design works best in turn based strategy games. Although, just like randomnine said, the design is present in many if not most games in some form. However, they may not be as prevalent or as obvious.

    In bigger games like RTSs, I find that it’s not as simple or as clear cut as rock paper scissors. It’s usually a little more complex, like “rock, paper, scissors, tape, pencil, stapler” kind of deal. I think it would be interesting to scale that back a bit and go back to a more simpler, clear cut version along the lines of the Fire Emblem series.

  8. That’s a bit mean – RTS games have units with varying power, sure, but they all have their positions on an extended rock/paper/scissors-like circular hierarchy. Sure, Bigger Rock might do fine against Little Paper, but Bigger Rock cost five times as much. That’s a problem if they’re taking equivalent losses! Playing Starcraft or similar beyond an elementary level means paying attention to the enemy’s moves and countering accordingly, and intel-gathering and defeating the enemy’s scouts becomes a secondary game in itself.

    This kind of balancing in FPSs shows up mostly in weapons vs enemy defences. Metroid Prime makes it obvious by only letting certain weapons harm certain enemies, Half-Life 1 has varying enemy behaviour that makes certain weapons more effective (grunts run away from grenades, tentacles can’t; it’s wasteful to use any powerful weapon on a headcrab, and they’re hard to hit; vortigaunts only permit short bursts of return fire, so the shotgun works well), and Halo has the balance of energy and physical projectile weapons vs. energy shields and raw damage that will prove fundamental to an effective choice of weapons. Furthermore, the sniper rifle/pistol are more effective than others in certain situations, and the two energy weapons with limited homing have their uses.

    GalCiv 2 has an interesting system where there are three kinds of weapon (Beam, Missile, and Mass Drivers) and three kinds of defence (Shields, Point Defense, and Armor). Each kind of weapon can only be blocked effectively by a specific defence, so the design of your fleet is dictated on two fronts by those of your enemies.

    In all of these situations, combined arms – grouping units of different kinds in order that they might compensate for each other’s weaknesses – is a sensible tactic. In Starcraft, that’s literally grouping units with others that will defend them against their natural predators, as it were. In Half-Life, it’s maintaining ammo reserves for all weapons so that you can use the best for a given situation if necessary to survive. In Halo, this means carrying two weapons that complement each other – an energy and a projectile weapon, for a start. In GalCiv 2, it’s loading ships up with multiple kinds of weapon and armour so they can take on anything the universe throws at them. This kind of approach allows you to secure yourself against surprises or a better-informed enemy, but at the expense of general offense and defense. However: if you know exactly what you’re up against, you can devise a force perfectly suited to taking it out. Neutral combined-arms forces should be a little weaker than specially designed forces: in Starcraft or GalCiv because you’re having to research a wider area, in Halo because you might trade a slightly more powerful weapon for one that better complements your other gun and in standard FPSs because you’re trying to conserve a certain level of ammunition for all guns when it’s safe to do so.

    If your system leads to this kind of strategic planning, you’re probably on the right track.

    (erk… just realised how much I wrote! That’s a slow Sunday morning for you.)

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