Strategy and Stalemates

At some point in the late ’90s, my family got a computer. I remember that computer fondly because it was what encouraged me to learn to touch-type, and that in turn encouraged me to start writing stories, but to be honest I probably spent a lot more time on that computer playing Total Annihilation.

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For anyone who hasn’t come across it before Total Annihilation is a 1997 real time strategy game in which you control an army of self-replicating machines with the objective of totally annihilating a different army of self-replicating machines. Basic construction robots build advanced factories, which build advanced robots, which build missile silos and heavy artillery. The enemy AI does little more than build units at random, but against a human player the game involves carefully building up a layered network of defences while throwing swarms of robots at your opponent, trying to find a weak spot. Ground units can be repelled with laser turrets, air units with rocket turrets, and missiles with anti-missiles: failing to build up one defence tends to leave holes in the others, so poor planning can be truly disastrous.

The main problem with playing Total Annihilation against a computer opponent is that their random choice of units–combined with a cap of 200 per side–means that after a while a kind of natural selection kicks in. A tank or robot that gets destroyed by your static laser towers might be replaced by another tank or robot, but it might also be replaced by a metal storage silo or a solar powerplant well out of harm’s way. Since storage silos don’t march into laser fire, your computer opponent’s 200 units will eventually include rather a lot of them, and not a whole lot else.

The main problem playing Total Annihilation against a human player is pretty much the opposite. If neither player Zerg rushes the other early in the game, it’s easy to end up with a total stalemate, where both players are so well entrenched that neither can possibly hope to launch an attack on the other. I played a few matches against my university friends in 2009, and on one occasion my neighbour knocked on my door asking if I wanted to call it a draw. Apparently he’d just launched two dozen nukes at my base, and my missile defences had stopped every single one. Essentially, Total Annihilation has three possible outcomes: you win quickly, you lose quickly, or you play for an hour then give up and go to the pub.

This actually isn’t too bad a situation, overall. I think a large part of the reason why Total Annihilation is still popular–nearly twenty years after it was released–is that it tends towards stalemates rather than sudden, unsatisfying wins or losses. You might get a run of games that never really end, but that tends to be down to players failing to play aggressively rather than a game design that makes “turtling” too easy an option.

Even games that end up heading towards a stalemate aren’t guaranteed to be uneventful, either. Knowing that simply throwing units at your heavily dug-in opponent is unlikely to get you anywhere, there’s an opportunity to think outside the box a bit and to try new things. When I was playing against the computer in nineteen ninety-something, I never really saw the point of radar jammers, for example. When I was playing against my housemate in 2009–trying to set up my artillery within range of theirs–it became obvious, and I ended up using them all the time. The game became less about playing well minute to minute, and more about coming up with a bigger plan, which when you think about it is really what strategy should be all about.

If you fancy having a go for yourself, Total Annihilation is available on Steam, though it’s not exactly a rare game so disc versions may be cheaper. In any case, you’ll need a 100MHz processor and 16MB of RAM to run it. Which is to say it’ll basically work on anything at this point.

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