Blog: Analyzing the RTS design choices of Company of Heroes

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Reposted with permission from the Blendo Games blog.
I often describe Company of Heroes as the RTS that has made it difficult for me to play any other RTS.

There are a lot of things that make Company of Heroes special to me. Here are some of them.

Something memorable in Bungie’s Myth is in how bloodstains and scorchmarks are permanent:

The marks exist as a chronicle of sorts. Every moment stains the battlefield, ensuring you don’t forget a thing.
Company of Heroes takes that ideal and runs with it.
Buildings are chipped away until they’re ultimately destroyed, denying infantry a place to garrison:
Barricades can be smashed through, creating new paths for others:
Craters from artillery and explosions deform the ground, and become cover pieces for infantry:
Bridges can be destroyed (and repaired), opening and closing routes:
Your choices alter the battlefield, both intentionally and inadvertently. Sheltered bays are a flip-flop away from becoming deathtraps.
The terrain constantly shifts. Sometimes to your advantage, sometimes against you, but always in a way that makes the world alive, reactive, and consistent.

Like Relic’s previous RTS outing, Company of Heroes focuses on territory control. This is done through their resource model.
Here’s how it works:
Each map is split into a series of territories:
Each territory bears one control point:
Control points are captured with infantry units:
And owning more territory results in faster resource accural:
Simple, right?
But! There’s a gag. The gag is: a territory only produces resources if it has a contiguous connection to your headquarters. Think of it as electrical lines — if the chain has a missing link, the flow gets truncated:
It’s an elegant system. It is rules-light and possibilities-heavy.
It opens the door to cutting off large swathes of an enemy’s supply line. Dramatic moments of everyone fighting over one tiny hill are consistently produced.
But most crucially, it builds the game on a foundation of one thing: pushing players out of their bases and onto the battlefield. Company of Heroes is aggressively anti-chuffa and cuts straight to the chase.
The game starts, and the very first thing you do is the thing you’ll be doing for the entire match: push, expand, and capture.

Positioning
Infantry units can take cover behind any chest-high object — sandbag wall, a farm tractor, a haystack, a crater, you name it.
Cover grants a substantial defensive bonus, putting any unit out in the open at a disadvantage.
Emplaced weapons provide enough firepower to lock down an area, but have a limited firing arc:
Tanks are heavily armored in the front but are unprotected in the rear:
A basic fundamental part of an RTS is moving units around. With Company of Heroes’ design decisions, every move order is compounded with a pile of circumstances to consider.
It becomes geometry and angles, guessing and second-guessing.
Where do you think the enemy most likely is, and how do you orient yourself in a position advantageous to that?
How do you best use that rickety barn to block enemy sightlines to your weapon emplacement?
You’re going to have some blind spots, so which blind spots are the most acceptable risks?
And because all of these factors are represented by physical in-world objects, everything is instantly readable and intuitive.
Flanking
Which leads directly to where Company of Heroes shines particularly bright. If positions and cover are directional, it opens the door to flanking.
When the enemy’s forces are arranged to expect you coming from one direction, it becomes a veritable wall. A wall that shoots bullets.

And what better way to deal with a wall than to simply go around it.
Circling around and attacking from the side or the rear is something that Company of Heroes’ design revolves around. And that design choice pays off in an incredibly satisfying way.
Not only does it just feel good to break an enemy’s iron defense with a small clever move, but it gives a sense of flow to the battlefield. Like the shifting terrain and like the resource model, units are always on the move and in a state of flux.
This is a game where a basic move order is consistently a brutal way to destroy a fortified defense.
Retreating
With the tap of a button, you can order units to retreat to headquarters:
During a retreat, you have no control of the unit. They automatically decide the fastest route back to headquarters, and run. A retreating unit sometimes gets killed, but they are overwhelmingly successful in making it home in one piece.
It’s a design decision that, had I worked on this game, I would’ve raised a stink about. It opens up a can of worms. How could this possibly be balanced. The amount of design implications and edge cases is staggering.
With that said: retreating is one of Company of Heroes’ best design choices. It’s one of the mechanics I most admire in the game. As a developer, it’s an incredible feeling to see a potentially problematic design choice be executed with such skill.
There’s a lot of things to like about it. The thing I most appreciate is how it bolsters the storytelling aspect.
When a character dies, that is the end of their story. They were born. Then they died. The end. As a net whole, I feel dead characters just remove potential story possibilities. (It’s one of the reasons I subscribe to Tom Francis’ Failure Spectrum ideal)
On the other hand, giving the player the ability to easily and frictionlessly keep characters alive — not forever, but at least longer? This results in a storytelling machine.
You end up with a grizzled rifleman squad who took out two bunkers and a halftrack. You end up with heroic last stands with that machinegun crew you’ve had since forever. You end up with strong character attachment.
When your battle-scarred weapons crew gets taken out — oof! — you feel it in your bones.

Company of Heroes proposes what a RTS can be. It breaks down what an RTS is, trims off cruft that has glommed onto the genre over the years, and rebuilds it in a way that is fresh, new, and unusual in an exhilarating way. When I first played it, it had that feeling of playing a game decades ahead of its time, and arguably, it still does.
It feels dynamic, it feels alive. It’s one of those games that has blood pumping through its veins.
All of its components — the terrain deformability/destruction, the resource model, and its combat model — touch and play with one another. I can’t overstate how systemic it all is, and how all of its system overlap. The same map will produce dramatically different outcomes, every single time.
This highly systemic approach is the reason why after every match, my officemates and I at my old job would convene and talk about all the wild things that happened during the battle. These post-game chats are some of my fondest memories of working at Pandemic, and also some of my fondest memories in playing games.
There are many ways to tell a story. Company of Heroes is one of the most impressive examples I know of.

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Blog: Analyzing the RTS design choices of Company of Heroes