Understanding Starcraft Game Theory Through Chess.
Over my 36 years of life I have enjoyed countless quality games, and I do not solely mean video-games. Gaming has been something I have always had an innate ability for. Although I have enjoyed some amazing games there can be no doubt my two most beloved games are Starcraft II and Chess. I have spent many years studying the games of Chess and Starcraft. Chess is simply one of the greatest games man has ever invented. Being as such, there are reams of books and references on how to play Chess better. Yet, there is a decidedly lack of information on the theory behind Starcraft. Today, using Chess as a guideline I hope to ignite a conversation on Starcraft II theory.
Qualifications- I do not want to pretend to be something I am not, so I decided to lay it out here. I am no Starcraft II pro. Let me put that straight. However, at the height of my strength I was ranked #198 in the world in ladder-ranking points. Of course, my points were earned on the U.S. server and this was in 2012, so take that with a grain of salt. I achieved Masters (as Terran) and was looking to turn into a pro-gamer before my computer broke and I had to leave the game. Yet, I recently bought a new computer and have been back for roughly 2 months now. While my schedule doesn’t allow me to play 8 hours straight as I once use to; I have managed to play my way back into Diamond 3, looking to be in Diamond 2 shortly. My macro is above-average and my micro is average, but I have always had a keen understanding of game-theory which I believe gave me a strong advantage over those who simply had better mechanics than I.
Why am I doing this? – Simply put, I love Starcraft II and want to contribute to the scene in my own special way. I hope some people will find my work here either interesting or helpful.
Disclaimers – 1. If you truly want to be a better player your time is best spent practicing your builds, macro, and micro. The information gained here is best used supplementary. 2. While there are some strong similarities between Chess and Starcraft they are (obviously) very different games. I do not mean to make the claim that a Starcraft II pro would be good at Chess or vice versa. 3. There is very little framework for what I am trying to accomplish. You may disagree with my claims, if you choose to do so I just ask that you try to back up your argument with well thought out replies that will contribute to a greater conversation. 4. I do no pretend to be a great writer, I will do my best to be as clear and concise as possible.
Ok, now that we have gotten through the boring stuff, let us begin.
UNDERSTANDING IMBALANCE- The term imbalance often carries a negative connotation in the Starcraft universe. It traditionally is used to describe the innate advantages and disadvantages based on the game-design of each race. Currently, you may be familiar with the on-going narrative of the “imbalance” between Protoss and Terran (I am not saying there is an unfair advantage just that there is at least a perception of one). This is NOT what I mean when I speak of imbalance.
The imbalance I am trying to convey to you is the difference between you and your opponent at any point in a live game. Or as Jerry Silman (a chess writer) states in his amazing book How to Reassess your Chess “an imbalance is any significant difference in the two respective positions” (pg. 3). Confused? Well I am a shitty writer, so let me back up and start at the beginning.
Imagine you had Maru and a Maru-Clone. Both were equally rested, and both were playing without lag. Both these players would possess an identical amount of skill. However, if Maru and Maru-Clone were to play there would almost certainly be a winner. How can that be? How can a player gain an edge over another when their levels of micro, macro, and decision making are identical? In such a case, an advantage could only be gained through choices the players made. For example, Maru might decide to do a proxy-rax build (I know, I know, so unlike him) and Maru-clone might decide to quick expand. Maru is playing for an army advantage and Maru-Clone is playing for an economic advantage. (We will cover advantages in a bit) Their choices have created an imbalance in the game. This resulting imbalance is what (most likely) will decide the fate of the game.
As such, this imbalance will dictate how they play the game. Maru-clone knows that if he can hold on through the early aggression then he will be in a much stronger position. Maru himself knows that he must achieve some sort of victory to compensate for his weaker economy.
Even without much thought behind it, Starcraft II pros have a very strong understanding of this imbalance concept. This is because at their level of play it is impossible to gain every type of advantage. The best players must choose to sacrifice something in order to gain something. Pros literally create advantages for themselves by striving for imbalance in the position.
Yes, it’s possible, at the lower levels of Starcraft II, that one will be able to out-macro, out expand and out-tech an opponent. This is purely a skill and speed thing. However, as one rises through the ranks, one will encounter better players more suited to their respective skill level and will quickly realize that playing for every advantage is foolhardy. There are simply not enough minerals (and or gas) for it. Therefore, one should begin to choose (through their build order) which specifics advantages they will play for.
Well what are these advantages I keep mentioning? I am glad you asked.
STARCRAFT II ADVANTAGES
In Chess there are 7 distinct advantages that one can obtain over an opponent (e.g. Material advantage, king safety, or control over a vital square or file) Alas, Starcraft II is vastly more dynamic and thus there are a plethora of advantages to be named. However, in Starcraft II most every advantage falls under the umbrella of 4 major categories. (Not counting things like APM and micro which are skill related advantages and consequently are not suited for game theory discussion). These 4 advantages are such-
Economy – This is easily understood but examples of this are more workers, more bases, having a gold base, or having a bigger bank of minerals and gas.
Army – Examples of this advantage include army size, army composition, army location, army positioning, support buildings (think bunkers or shield batteries or creep) and production (which could be argued as a type of economic advantage)
Tech – Examples of this include attack and defensive upgrades, specific unit upgrades, and developing the tech tree which allow you to build stronger units.
Map Control and Information – Map Control is self-explanatory. Information, however, is the hardest to convey but such examples include spotting buildings (most commonly seen is spotting pylons), creep spread, xel’naga tower control, and scouting units. (e.g. oracles, overlords, reapers and observers or even marines and Zerglings placed in attack paths). The best pros work hard to gain (and deny) as much information as possible.
- *Note that there are certain game mechanics like creep that could fall under multiple categories.
- *Advantages are often used in conjunction. You can play for multiple advantages, but it is unwise to play for every advantage.
- There are also advantages inherent to each race, this should not be forgotten.
The benefits of understanding these concepts is it allows a player to make better decisions in game. The advantages you garner through your opening build order dictates the way in which you should play. Not only in what you should strive to accomplish based on the strengths of your position but also what weaknesses your advantage entails. In other words, your play should flow naturally from your advantages.
With this in mind, let’s look at the most recent GSL finals between Maru(Terran) and Classic(Protoss) (Season 1, 2019). The first 4 games highlight the concept of imbalances perfectly.
GAME 1 – Maru over Classic (New Repugnancy) The first game of the match saw both players quick expand. However, Classic chooses to open with a proxy-gateway that delays his expansion. Classic’s plan is to use early pressure into blink play to compensate for his later expansion. Classic must justify his choice by finding damage. For example, in many games you will see the Protoss use their blink tech to either cause economic damage, pick off key units, or even a key upgrade (e.g. a tech lab upgrading stim). Classic is playing for an army advantage and a slight tech advantage (in the form of blink). Alas, Maru is on top of his scouting and realizes the incoming threat. Maru knows that if he can survive the early pressure, he will have an economic advantage which eventually will lead to a tech and army advantage, The battles lines have been drawn. If Classic is to win, he must find damage and for Maru to win he must limit that damage. Thus, Maru drops a bunker to help negate his major weakness (his lack of army strength) and begins his defense. Classic commits to his blink stalkers at the expense of army composition, splash damage, and upgrades. Maru commits to his defense sacrificing early army strength and map control. Unfortunately for Classic, the blink stalkers did not cause nearly enough damage. Maru turned his economic advantage into a strong army (not just in supply but in composition) with better upgrades. Classic, unable to win with his early pressure, attempts to go into a macro game. Yet, Maru waits for his upgrades and launches a counter-attack that crushes Classic rather easily. As you can see, the imbalances brought on by the chosen build orders dictates how each players act. In other words, “Imbalances act as a road map that shows each side what to do” (Silman pg. 28).
Before we move on to game two, let us take a moment to consider the fluidity of advantages. After Maru defended the blink-stalker play he had a lead in the game. However, if Maru waited too long and allowed Classic to go into a macro game his advantages might have dissipated. In Chess, there are static advantages and dynamic advantages. Static advantages are ones that persist no matter how much time has passed (think of having an extra knight or superior pawn structure). Dynamic advantages are short-term and can change in a few moves. In Starcraft II there are no static advantages. There is a cap on upgrades, there is cap on a tech tree, there is a cap on army supply, no advantage will persist forever.
GAME 2 Classic over Maru (Port Alexander) Game 2 opens much in the same way Game 1. Classic once again opens with a proxy-gate and a delayed Nexus. Maru fast expands. However, Maru fails to scout the gate and does not drop a defensive bunker. Without the bunker Classic’s army advantage is that much stronger. Classic manages to delay Maru’s command center from completing and Maru is forced to sacrifice SCVs to hold off the early pressure and save his command center. While Maru struggled to establish his expansion, Classic himself expanded. Classic managed to turn his early army advantage into a major economic advantage. This is a common theme in Starcraft II (and chess); trading one advantage for another. Tastosis (To those unfamiliar this is the nickname for the casting duo of Tasteless + Artosis; the best Starcraft II announcing team IMHO) often states “When you are ahead, get more ahead”. This game highlights this concept perfectly. With his economic advantage in hand, Classic sits back and heads towards a macro game. Classic manages to out-expand his opponent while staying on top in tech and army. Maru might be the best player on the planet but even he could not overcome such solid play from the Protoss pro. The game would end with a superior Protoss force crushing a very sound defensive position from Maru.
GAME 3 Maru over Classic (Kairos Junction) The series was tied 1-1 with Classic opening the series with two early pressure builds. Yet, in game 3 we would see both players open with fast expands. Classic puts on some light pressure with his superior early army but Maru handles it perfectly by utilizing a bunker and micro. The game at this point is roughly even. The game diverges (and thus imbalance is created) when Classic decides to expand a second time (his third nexus) while Maru forgoes this option. Maru is playing for an army/tech advantage. By avoiding the third expansion Maru chooses to pour his minerals into a superior force. His plan is to do a two-base timing attack. The roadmap to victory is obvious for each player. Maru hopes to find compensation by causing enough damage to justify his lack of a second expansion. Classic hopes to defend which in turn would grant him a large economic advantage. The game is rather straight-forward as Maru launches his attack. Maru’s choice to avoid expanding means his force is superior. Yet, Classic will have the defender advantage and things are not quite clear. However, Classic’s maneuvers his army poorly and allows Maru to gain a perfect position. With the advantage of a superior force and superior positioning Maru’s victory is rather clean-cut. Game three goes to Maru rather decisively.
GAME 4 Classic over Maru (Cyber Forest) Classic was down 2-1 and was hoping to even the score. At this point in the series, Classic decides to pull out a specific build order designed to play for a major tech advantage. Maru for the 4th time in a row decided to fast expand. Classic feigned fast expanding but in truth rushed towards tempests. The beauty of Classic’s play is two-fold. One, he blocked off his expansion with a wall that denied scouting. Maru was not quite sure what was happening. Two, Classic used 3 Adepts to gain map control and pin Maru back in his base. This allowed Classic to build some shield batteries right outside Maru’s base which he used to strengthen his tempest rush. By the time Maru dropped a scan on Classic’s base to spot the fleet beacon, it was too late. Classic’s brilliant play caught Maru entirely off-guard. Classic’s superior tech gave him an army that allowed him to wear down Maru’s defenses. Eventually, Classic managed to wear down Maru to a point that allowed him to overrun Maru. This is one of the best examples in pro-play that highlights how to play for a tech advantage. It is important to note how Classic actively worked to deny information and gain map control. Indeed, both of Maru’s losses in the series were the result of a lack of information. If you are not taking the time to actively scout or deny scouting, then you need to rethink your play.
• an imbalance is any significant difference in the two respective positions
• imbalances are created by build order choices
• imbalances are used to create an advantage
• the 4 main advantages are army, economy, tech, and map control/information
• To gain an advantage, you must sacrifice something
• Imbalances are the guides for your plans and choices
Please, leave your feedback below. There is a ton more Starcraft II theory to be talked about. If you all like my work, I will be happy to write more.
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