20 actionable tips for how to get better at RTS games

Check these tips if you love RTS but you keep getting destroyed online or can’t beat the AI on hard mode. Implement them and you’ll improve in no time. 

How to get better at RTS games

Mixing up strategies and factions, learning hotkeys, and identifying key areas for map control are some of the best ways to get better at RTS games. Make sure to mine YouTube for free tutorials and don’t be afraid to lose if you learn from it!

Below is a list of 20 actionable tips for improving your real-time strategy chops:

1. Pick a casual strategy game to start

Do strategy games make you smarter? No one can say for sure. What we can say, though, is that they’ll make you mighty frustrated if you jump in at the deep end.

You’re going to lose interest pretty quickly if you try to learn the RTS ropes on a title that’s considered to be complicated or not beginner-friendly. 

Instead, pick a more casual strategy game that eases you in, has a more gentle learning curve, or which includes comprehensive tutorials.  

2. Play the single-player campaign

For those who have a bit of experience playing RTS games, you could probably skip this tip and head straight for the Skirmish mode instead.

However, for newcomers to the RTS genre, it’s a good idea to play through the campaign so you can get used to a game’s user interfaces and have your hand held through some baby steps

Screenshot showing Yuri in command and conquer red alert 2 soviet single player campaign cutscene
Playing single-player campaigns also means you’ll catch some of RTS gaming’s golden moments, like Udo Kier’s portrayal of Yuri in the Red Alert 2 campaign (praying for a Red Alert 2 remaster, by the way).

Examples of single-player campaigns that I think shouldn’t be missed regardless of your experience level are Age of Empires II and Starcraft 2. Even if you’re not totally drawn in by the narratives, there’s a gold mine of content to explore there. 

3. Learn some hotkeys

Once you’ve picked up on the basic mechanics of your chosen RTS, you should commit some hotkeys to memory

Of all the tips on this list, I think learning some useful hotkeys will bring the quickest and most significant improvement in your standard of play. 

That’s because, in most RTS games, speed ends up becoming just as (if not more) important than your grasp of the wider strategies once you get up to a certain standard.

Hotkeys massively increase your efficiency. 

Using them will allow you to rush earlier than your opponent, unlock skill trees quicker, gather resources faster, and all manner of other time-critical things depending on the game you’re playing. 

4. Use different factions

Don’t just stick with the tried and tested. 

The best way to learn about the weaknesses of your favorite faction, team, or unit is to play against them.

Just like in fighting games where each fighter suits a particular play style, each faction in an RTS has specific advantages, bonuses, and traits that lend themselves especially well to one play style or another.

5. Try different strategies

If you follow tip number four above, you’ll practically be forced to employ different strategies as (for example) your unbeatable turtle strategy will be trash when using a faction with lower defense capabilities. 

This is absolutely a good thing. You have to be willing to adapt.

Some RTS games feature relatively slow gameplay, while others are intense from the first second – find the best strategy for each situation.

In addition, when you start playing PvP online, every one of your opponents will have different preferences and strategies. If you’ve practiced a few of these strategies yourself, you’ll be far better able to counter them. 

6. Be nosey and irritating

Even if you feel like you’re better suited to more conservative strategies overall, you should still keep your opponent guessing by scouting and generally harassing them from the get-go

Screenshot of strategy game Homeworld build manager screen with many scout ships being built
I’m not saying you need to go ahead and build 78 scouts like this Homeworld player… Just one or two will do.

Send scout units to discover the opponent’s base and test their defenses. If you can, pick off a couple of their resource-collecting units. 

Just generally distract them and force your opponent to divert attention away from their own goals.  

The longer you let your opponent sit there happily executing their own game plan, the lower your chances of winning become. 

One particularly underrated RTS game – R.U.S.T. – even makes being nosey and sneaky the core mechanic – you win by bluffing your opponent rather than defeating them using pure force.

7. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice units

Fortunately, RTS games are not like real wars. If your unit falls in battle, you won’t need to pen a letter to the family.

Something that I was definitely guilty of when I first started playing RTS games was trying desperately to preserve every single unit. You don’t need to do this. 

Some are easier to replace than others, but pretty much every unit or building in an RTS game is disposable

If you’re getting hammered on one side of the map, don’t be afraid to take the L, cut losses, and pool resources somewhere where you have a better chance of winning

You can build a statue in memory of the cannon fodder after you win if you like. 

8. Memorize build orders

Whichever strategy you chose, your build order will be important. 

Traditional RTS games incorporate relatively few random events (for example, using random number generators to determine whether or not a certain unit’s attack hits). 

That means there’s always an optimal build order based on the relative costs and payoffs of each structure or unit you create.

If you want to play a game that does implement random number generators to introduce elements of unpredictability in each game, check out something like Company of Heroes.

9. Adapt to the map/control the map

RTS games are not played on flat, featureless maps. That would be boring. Instead, maps include all sorts of opportunities and obstacles which can give you tremendous advantages if you use them correctly

Perhaps you’ll opt to control some high ground so that your ranged units stationed there get an attack bonus, or you’ll go heavy on naval units to control the seas on a map with plenty of water.

Whatever the map throws at you, if you’ve followed tips four and five above you should be able to adapt your strategy accordingly. 

10. Double up

Another thing I didn’t understand in my early RTS days is that it’s perfectly fine – and, actually, quite critical – to build more than one of a certain structure. 

Can’t get enough soldiers out quickly enough to counter your opponent’s attack? Well, you can avoid that bottleneck in the future by building more than one barracks!

You also leave yourself less vulnerable to the loss of any single building this way.

11. Spend, spend, spend

As a general rule, you should never hoard resources in an RTS unless you are saving for a specific unit or building as part of your strategy.

Forget any real-life financial advice you’ve ever received and make it an overarching goal to exhaust your funds as much as possible.

Your resources have infinitely better utility when actively spent on units, buildings, or upgrades than they do sitting in your bank, silo, or wherever they sit on your chosen game.

12. Crack the whip

On a similar theme to the tip above, you should make sure that no resource collecting unit is ever idle. The faster you can collect resources, the better chance you have of winning. It’s that simple. 

The best way to keep track of this when you have a high number of these units is to use a hotkey that jumps to select an idle worker

Get that lazy good-for-nothing back to work!

13. Be aggressive

Being aggressive pays dividends, even if you’re following a more defensive strategy.

This tip is sort of an expansion of tip number six, where I suggested that you should be nosey and irritating. 

One good way to ensure you remain aggressive and keep your opponent on the back foot throughout is to force yourself to attack in some capacity after a set time, for example, every five minutes. 

Regardless of what you attack with and where you attack, you’ll stand a good chance of creating opportunities for yourself later in the game by throwing your opponent off with this sort of strategy.

14. Target your enemy’s economy

I know I said in the last tip that it doesn’t really matter when or where you attack when being aggressive, but that’s not strictly true. 

The best units and structures to attack, if possible, are the ones that collect resources.

Screenshot of zerg drones harvesting minerals in classic rts game Starcraft II
Get after those horrible little mineral-hungry Zerg drones (Starcraft 2)

Think workers, miners, refineries, and silos. To replace these, your opponent will need to use resources. They’ll find that quite difficult, though, as you’ve just eliminated a chunk of their resource-gathering power. Simple!

15. Study youtube tutorials

YouTube is an absolutely incredible educational resource and best of all: It’s free!

That means you’ve got no excuse for sitting down with a pen and paper (if that’s your style) to watch experienced players dish out knowledge left and right

RTS games may not be as popular as they once were, but there are still passionate communities for all of the best titles. That means there are also plenty of content creators regularly posting golden nuggets of advice or sharing creative approaches. 

I would recommend Neuro‘s YouTube channel if you’re keen to get better at Starcraft, for example. 

16. Get smashed online

Once you’ve got comfortable with outsmarting the AI in the single-player modes, buckle up and get stuck into some online multiplayer.

Chances are that you’ll get made a fool off in your first few games, but that’s kind of the point. 

Human opponents play in a totally different way than AI-controlled opponents. Instead of getting salty about the loss, think about what your opponent did that helped them win. 

Did they manage to build units faster than you? Why? Did they counter effectively? If so, what units did they use? 

Most good RTS games have a post-game stats screen (showing things like resource collection and unit creation over time) which can help you pinpoint where you did well and where (and when) you made mistakes.

17. Find casual matchmaking lobbies

While it’s fine to lose and learn from your mistakes, sometimes you lose so damn hard that it’s literally impossible to take any positives from the experience. 

If that’s the case, it might be worth trying to find some matchmaking lobbies that are specifically for less confident or less experienced players.

Some of them might be tagged with something like ‘no rush’ or ‘no superweapons’. Playing in these games can help you practice things like build orders or map control strategies without the fear of being decimated early on.  

18. Watch the pros

Watching the pro players might seem like an odd tip to give. They’re so much better than you that it feels as though they’re playing a different game. 

However, there is a lot to be learned from watching people who are at a much higher standard than you are. 

For example, you can pick up ideas from the way they use a certain unit or their timing for making a certain key move.

T90’s channel has some excellent commentaries of pro Age of Empires II matches.

There is a near-endless list of streamers that either play at a high level, or better still, provide commentary on professional matches. 

Just head to Twitch or similar, search for your specific game, and get settled in a comfy seat. RTS games can be pretty addictive, so bring some snacks. Don’t backseat anyone on Twitch, though, unless they specifically ask for help.

19. Think about Actions Per Minute

Remember what we said above in tip number three about the importance of speed in RTS games?

That’s true at any standard of play, but at higher levels, a higher APM (actions per minute) can potentially win you games even against players who are much better strategists than you are. 

Some professional players are on a different planet when it comes to APM. 

It’s not something that you should obsess over (unless you have realistic ambitions of becoming a pro yourself), but it does emphasize the importance of speed in RTS games – after all, they are played in real-time. 

20. Practice!

You’re in luck as I’ve saved the most boring tip until last! Yay!

You can read tips and tutorials until the cows come home and watch as many videos and streams as you like but, when it comes down to it, the only way that you’re going to get better is by doing. 

Whether you want to start out with some confidence-building single-player action or prefer to jump in at the deep end in online PvP, you’ll be making progress simply by playing, playing, playing. 

The tips above are just simple ways for beginners (or intermediates players who feel like they’re in a rut) to speed up that progress.

How to get better at RTS games – conclusion

Learn hotkeys, be aggressive, be adaptable, don’t be afraid to lose as long as you learn from it, soak up knowledge about teams/factions in any way you can, and PRACTICE. That pretty much sums it up.

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