In-depth: Adapting vs. planning


Professor Dumbledore plays chess!

In my quest to become a better RTS gamer, I found myself asking what traits separated the best players from the good players. One thing I looked into was top players and their ability to plan. I originally thought that the best RTS gamers would be much better at planning things out than their competition. As I looked into it however, I found that the best players usually walked into tournament matches without an elaborate plan, rather they went in with a basic plan to cover the first few minutes of the game with the expectation that they would find the way to beat their opponents during the game.

The lesser players almost always had more complex plans, yet they usually ended up losing. What was going on here? I figured out that the best players were always good adapters, and the lesser players were usually better planners. Yet the better players generally won. Adaptability was triumphing over planning and strategizing. This on the surface, would appear paradoxical. After all, “Real Time Strategy” has the word “strategy” built right in.

When someone thinks of strategy, they probably think of a wizened old chessmaster (refer to image above),  hunched over a chess board deciding how to play his next move on the implications it will have in the future vs the implications of other potential moves.

Another image the word ‘strategy’ may conjure up is that of this guy crunching numbers on his computer during his lunch break.


Dweebster McNerdsalot.

The awesome part about RTS games is that to become skillful at them we don’t have to become like either of these guys if we accept one theory. Adaptability triumphs over  planning because RTS games are too complex to be reasonably planned out past a very basic set of moves at the start of the game. Why is this so? To understand this question we must look at the root traits behind good adaptability and good planning. The root trait of an adaptable player is his collected wisdom of the game and his ability to apply it. The root trait of a planner is his logic and analytical skill, his ability to analyze numbers and apply them.

Initially, it would appear the planner has the better deal. The planner probably looked at all the hard statistics in the game. He knows exactly how much damage, health, and speed each unit in his army and his opponents army has. The planner memorized all the unit matchups and calculated the cost effectiveness of each unit at its job. The planner watched all the replays of top players in this matchup and took notes. The adaptable player did absolutely none of this.

Let’s say both of these players meet in an automatch and begin fighting.  Pretty soon the adapter trains this dashing young American sniper. How will the planner respond?


He will probably build a sniper of his own, to countersnipe. This is generally what good Wehrmacht players do against American snipers. It is the “textbook” thing to do. However, building a sniper may not be the best move the Whermacht player could make. We can’t see the entire situation from one screenshot, so I’ll make one up. The American/adaptable player built a sniper to support his BAR riflemen against the planner’s tier 2 army. Unfortunately for the American player, he hasn’t been controlling the fuel well. The Wehrmacht/planner has a good deal of fuel. He could build a sniper to counter his opponent’s sniper, or he could use his fuel advantage, tech up to tier 3, and build a Flammenwerfer Halftrack.

This will counter the sniper, and the BAR rifles. The planner would never have considered this because the Flammenwerfer is an unusual counter to a sniper, but if both players were to switch computers and suddenly the Adaptable player is now the Wehrmacht player instead of the American, he would be much more likely to consider less ‘textbook’ options that were more effective in the situation at hand than the conventional wisdom.

The planner is not as effective as the adapter because he looks at any given situation and thinks about what hes “supposed” to do. He tries to recall how his plans were supposed to respond to what his opponent is doing. He tries to remember how other people react to this situation, what the “textbook” thing to do is.

The adapter looks at the same situation, evaluates his options as they apply to him, and acts from there. He never worries about how to end the game, he simply keeps repeating his process every time a decision needs to be made. The planner tries to make each of his moves a game-winner. He looks at a situation and tries to formulate a plan that will completely defeat his opponent.

The adapter looks at a situation and tries to just come up with his best moves. This may just keep him alive or it may give him a large advantage, it doesn’t matter because the adapter will just plan again when neccesary. The planner looks to the future, the adapter looks to the present. The planner goes for the checkmate while the adapter settles for a small advantage. On the surface, the planner appears to be superior, but the overwhelming complexity of modern RTS games is too much for him. This is why adaptability is superior to planning.


6 Responses to In-depth: Adapting vs. planning

  1. Rapba says:

    I believe adaptive players have to know all the game mechanics by heart (even more so than good planners!). Thus “The planner memorized all the unit matchups” also applies to the adapting player!
    At higher levels it of course is better to play adaptively. Makes you less predictable.
    At lower levels though I guess, the planning-part is much more important, it makes you that much quicker if you already know in advance what you want to do.

  2. Surprise says:

    I agree with you Rapba, I think putting a section about how planning helps give necessary structure to inexperienced players and helps them perform better would be a good addition. However, some people do become dependent on the plans or try to push it too far. It is an easy mistake to make, after all, if the plans bring success why not make up new and more elaborate plans that will surely bring more victory? The problem surfaces when the player gets to a level where it is almost impossible to break through to the next level with more planning. Players get stuck against this glass ceiling because they don’t realize that to become better you need to change. I wrote this article to try and help those players that are stuck on that glass ceiling, that need that little push to bring it to the next level.

  3. darthraider says:

    Very nice article and also very recognizable. Remembering being stuck @ lvl6-7, then made the switch; be adaptive instead of trying to execute your predefined strat.
    Planning however still takes quite a part of the game. You have to have at least some sort of plan, like focus on this part of the map/fuel/muni, but it should be a flexible plan, ready to change when it’s required. Because that change might seize the game in your favor more than a predefined strat could do. Once ppl realize that, like you said ‘they need to change to become better’, they will get better. I’m now at the end of lvl9, almost lvl10.

  4. Michael Schmidt says:

    I’ve been told the best chess players think more more than 4 moves ahead.

  5. Michael Schmidt says:

    I’ve been told the best chess players think no more than 4 moves ahead.

  6. 20ninjas says:

    at above poster, if you have watched grandmaster replays they think up to 9-10 moves ahead along multiple variations

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