Super units are a controversial topic in RTS; some people love super units while others hate them. Some RTS games handle super units well, while in others they’re obnoxious. RTS vary a lot in their focus, and by extension, so does the implementation of super units. There’s no singular right way to handle super units, but there are some universal ways on how to bugger it up and have them end up annoying, cheesy or feeling unfair. First let’s start with some definitions so we’re on the same page. I define an RTS super unit to be a singular end-game unit with massive power or impact compared to regular units. There’s a distinction to make between super units and heroes, heroes are generally available and weak in the early game but scale up in strength over time. A super unit is something like the Redeemer in Command & Conquer 3, the Baneblade in Dawn of War and Tiger Tank in Company of Heroes. I’d also consider experimentals in Supreme Commander to be super units despite the lack of a unit cap because of their huge cost and power relative to standard units, unlike a Battlecruiser in StarCraft.
First of all, why should an RTS even bother with super units if they may come off as frustrating? Simply, players love controlling cool big flashy toys. We enjoy the power fantasy of unleashing massive carnage and destruction and that’s why super weapons like Nukes are also a common part of the genre. According to Brandon Casteel: “I like super units in RTS more than superweapons because it forces you to work within constraints like unit caps, and because it’s often something you have to risk to use well.” Superweapons are fun for the player using them, but never for the player suffering from it. Fun in RTS games should never come at the direct expense of the other player, (unless that other player is the AI then go nuts!) it should be a mutual collaboration of interaction and counter-play. Super units, if done properly, are a way of enabling the destructive power fantasy but while also leaving room for other players to respond. “Damn I almost destroyed that Baneblade” feels much fairer and generates tension compared to “My entire base just got deleted by a Nuke.”
So how do we ensure super units are fun and not frustrating? Most importantly, they should play by the same rules as other units in the game. Super units can have unique qualities and quirks, but they feel unfair and “cheap” if they have odd exceptions to things that define the game or even the genre. Breaking game rules happens when super units are free, don’t take up population cap or have no counters in a game of hard counters. This frustrating design can be seen in Dawn of War 3 where Super units (and all other elite call-ins) do not cost the main resources of Requisition and Power. Whenever something is free in cost or population it removes the entire decision making process of whether or not you should deploy them at the expense of regular units. Free units, especially super units, also delivers sudden and massive power spikes.
Company of Heroes has also been guilty of some free or low-cost super units. In Company of Heroes 1 heavy tanks only cost Requisition and not Fuel. The lack of fuel cost is frustrating for the opponent because despite deliberating starving the enemy of fuel and keeping them pinned in their base, a King Tiger can still show up out of nowhere and push you back. Super units “not playing by the same rules” can also be done in gameplay mechanics, such as if Tiger Tanks were immune to mines or had free repairs without needing Engineers. It’s about meeting expectations and ensuring skillful play is rewarded; the Hexapod in C&C3 can be cheesy and frustrating because it may get caught out of position, only for it to instantly teleport out. It’s a delicate dichotomy to manage but you want super units to be unique while playing by the same rules as everything else, some judgement is needed to do it properly. Think of it this way, you can give super units new abilities and quirks but not take away vulnerabilities, or instead give them a new vulnerability. Heavy tanks in Company of Heroes can crush through forests and tank traps, Juggernauts in Ashes of the Singularity have infinite veterancy levels and some experimental units in Supreme Commander are mobile unit factories.
C&C3 is my favorite example of super units (aside from some of the Hexapod cheese) as they still fit into the rock/paper/scissors(RPS) interaction by being weak against masses of Rocket Infantry. However, the super units can be garrisoned to give them powerful turrets to shut down infantry, or grant other attack types and bonuses depending on the type of unit garrisoned. The customization is a cool mechanic for a few reasons, but its potential to break RPS of super units means they’re primarily countered by another means, EMP abilities. Every faction has access to some kind of EMP unit such as Raider Buggies and Grenadiers, and I love the mechanic because utilizing EMP makes engagements tactical and climactic. EMP unit upgrades was introduced into the Kane’s Wrath expansion pack alongside the super units, so instead of having super units with no counters or a regular counter, they made them more interesting by widening the counter system to include a new mechanic. I love EMP because it’s not just a pure RPS counter, EMP works against any vehicle but the massive size of super units makes EMP’s easy to land on them. Another great example is the Colossus in StarCraft 2, it’s more of a tier 3 unit rather than “super” but I love how it’s countered by anti-air weapons. One caveat is that no matter how well designed you think super units are, some players are probably just going to hate them regardless. Give players the option to disable super units in their skirmish & multiplayer games!
If super units have counters then it’s crucial that they can be scouted like anything else. The most common method of scouting super units is a specific production structure required to produce them, this also creates a vulnerability that can be destroyed to prevent the unit from spawning. Giving players some warning also makes their arrival feel fairer and less frustrating. C&C3 has a map-wide announcement when one is built: “The Redeemer has risen!” Or gracefully from the Scrin’s Hexapod: “BLERRRRRGHH!” I personally find the global announcement over the top as it means players generally don’t have to scout since build/upgrade times are fast in C&C3. (Unlike StarCraft 2 where scouting is critical because of long tech transition times). A better approach is in Company of Heroes where every vehicle has an engine noise that can be heard approaching through the fog of war. Heavy tanks like the Tigers are especially loud and distinct, which gives attentive players several seconds to retreat or reposition, rather than a global notification give a minutes notice to build a counter. The engine noises are fun because it’s immersive and intimidating, this could also be done with loud THUDS or shaking as a giant walker is approaching.
A personal frustration of mine is all-or-nothing situations that can occur. If a super unit barely survives with 2% health it shouldn’t just then immediately kill you and end the game. As cool as the experimentals are in Supreme Commander are, they have very annoying qualities. Not only do they have very fast regeneration, but they get massive flat health spikes with veterancy where suddenly ~10,000 health is gained. Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation does juggernaut veterancy better where the 5% health gain is affected by missing health, so there’s very small combat heals. Even more radical approaches can be taken, I love the design of the Bloodthirster in Dawn of War 1. Once the Bloodthirster is built it takes damage when it’s not in combat, your only choice is to throw it into the meat grinder until it’s destroyed! The Hexapod in C&C3 gains resources from nearby destroyed units which encourages the player to use it aggressively. Adding elements of risk/reward can be a lot more interesting than playing ultra-safe with super units. Why not only have temporary super units? There’s a lot that can be done with super units to make them more interesting than just a very big tough unit. Though it’s fine to have simple anti-everything super units so long as that’s normal for the game. Aside from air/anti-air/artillery, Supreme Commander and its experimentals have no counter system because it’s a game about economic and production management
Super units don’t have to just be about raw power. C&C Generals have Commandos which are very fragile but have devastating utility with stealth. The Black Lotus has no attacks but can capture structures and disable vehicles, while Jarmen can snipe infantry and decrew enemy vehicles, allowing for capture with friendly infantry. The non-lethal vulnerability states of these Commando abilities is a lot more tactical, and the micro emphasis is consistent with the focus of the game. Super units have so much more potential than simply tough attack-move units, but they shouldn’t make regular units obsolete which Jarmen is guilty of. Avoiding overlap is crucial, the more viable choices you have at all times the more exciting a game is to play. Immediately rebuilding a super unit every time it dies is not interesting, which Generals is also guilty of since Commandos are not very expensive.
In summary, super units provide a fun power fantasy through which players unleash massive destruction. Unlike super weapons such as nukes, super units, if designed properly, are interactive, risky, generate tension and are still fun for the opponent to deal with. Super units should not be a no-brainer, they should be a strategic decision and investment as much as anything else. If one exists, super units should fit into a counter system allowing players to properly deal with them. Super units can have additional quirks and features to make them unique, but they should play by the same game rules as regular units and not have less vulnerabilities. They should be priced to reflect their power so the opportunity cost is fair, unless they’re overly cost-efficient to compensate for some other weaknesses. Avoid all-or-nothing situations when super units have fast regeneration/heals and make sure super units aren’t just being used in boring ultra safe ways. Super units can be about utility rather than just raw power, especially if the game focuses on micro and utility. Ultimately, fun in multiplayer RTS games should never come at the expense of the other player. Always think about how will this super unit be fun and fair for all players, not just the player wielding it.