The forgotten joys of turtling in strategy games

Image via Youtuber SergiuHellDragoonHQ.

Just between you and me, I'm not a big fan of the base-building side of most real-time strategy games. What's the point of spending so much time and effort manicuring a mighty stronghold when racing over to the other guy's base and defeating them as soon as possible is the best tactic? In some real-time strategy games it feels like the actual game is supposed to take place on your opponent's territory, and when it isn't you're playing it wrong. But man, do I love it when a strategy game lets me play defensively.

Everything changes. Let me put three rows of Tesla coils next to my base and suddenly it’s my favorite place to be. Call it turtling if you like, but if it means I get to have little gates that open and close I am chelonian as fuck. When it's a viable tactic to create high walls and siege defences, to hunker in a bunker with all your biggest guns, suddenly base-building stops being the tedious thing you're obliged to repeat at the beginning of every map. If the buildings you lay down are places you'll have to defend later, it becomes worth caring about them.

Too many of today's strategy games have forgotten the joy of turtling—of methodically building layers of defenses and watching the enemy crash against them. Look on my maze of walls, ye mighty, and good luck navigating them with your '90s pathfinding.

Q: When do you have a big enough wall? A: When there is only wall.

The Age of Empires games were great for this. In skirmish mode the computer wasn't much of a challenge, but that just meant you could face off against a bunch of them at once. You'd work up from wooden palisades to stone walls, making mazes to slow the advance of cavalry on your gates in the way that Age of Empires encouraged in spite of it looking weird and not being exactly historical, and then you'd wait. Enemies would come at you like the tide and be rebuffed each time, crushed under catapulted boulders or turned against their comrades by priests chanting “Wololo” from behind thick stone walls. Only after you'd worked your way up through the ages and researched everything would you open the gates and roll across the map with an army of elephants to tidy up every last opponent.

The original Age of Empires came out in 1997, the year that also brought us Dungeon Keeper. It was a good time to be a turtle. In Dungeon Keeper you're the evil overlord constructing the Mines of Moria or the Temple of Elemental Evil, then waiting for chump heroes to come in so you can surprise them with spikes in the face and fireballs in the butt. Although some levels make you expand into a dungeon run by heroes, the rest of the time you're the one waiting to be attacked. You carve out your domain one room at a time, stockpile your treasure, train your greeblie monsters, and wait.

But apart from Dungeon Keeper most real-time strategy games didn't seem to understand that turtling is fun. Their singleplayer campaigns would be full of missions where you have to construct a base just to leave it behind once you've got an army ready. Maybe there would be one feeble attack on your huts, three orcs come to chase your farmers around and threaten a chicken, but that was it. It was in the skirmish and deathmatch modes that turtling came into its own, whether against the computer or at a LAN with friends who would make a handshake agreement not to rush.

Supreme Commander was a natural fit for turtling, especially if you downloaded one of the mods that made the AI more threatening. It spoiled you for choice with different kinds of turrets for air, land, and sea, as well as variations for each of the three tech tiers. For air defense you'd start with straight-up anti-air turrets, then go to anti-air flak artillery, before finally bringing out the big guns of anti-air SAM launchers. And if that wasn't enough there were also mobile anti-air guns that were, at the lowest tech level, better value for money. Though you had to turn off nukes in the sequel if you didn't want every game to end like Dr. Strangelove, Supreme Commander was a turtle's dream.

So were several of the Command & Conquer games (long live RA2's French Grand Cannon), and Age of Empires 2 had those great forest maps where well-placed walls could shut down half the land. In the early Total War games blocks of spears were the favorite for defensive players on battle maps, and in the campaign you could make a few early conquests to take all of, say, the British Isles, and then settle down to turtle from there.

Ignore the water. Build a sweet gate anyway. Image via Steam user alebarbar.

Those are all old games though, where the focus was on LAN play and skirmishes against braindead bots. There was a noticeable shift once strategy games moved online. On the internet a quick game's a good game, and real-time strategy evolved to encourage blitzkrieg tactics even more. Dawn of War and Company of Heroes force you to leave your base and capture points that are spread across the map to win, and everything about StarCraft 2 is balanced to push you into a rush. Turtling became a noob tactic, a no-fun way of dragging out a match that you'll lose in the end anyway.

It may seem like a boring playstyle, but I'd argue turtling is just differently fun. The pleasure comes from anticipation, careful planning of defenses and the escalation of repulsing smaller attacks before the final push comes. It may take hours but it results in a grand finale where every endgame troop and technology can come into play, the sky thick with artillery or dragons. The enemy comes and then they hit your walls and break like waves. Only then do you ride out like Theoden and Aragorn to take on what's left like conquering heroes.

While real-time strategy games seemed to leave turtling behind, it found a new home in a different genre—tower defense. In games like Defense Grid, Sanctum, and Orcs Must Die putting down turrets and walls—or Wall-nuts, in the case of Plants vs. Zombies—becomes the focus again. PvZ's endless mode is still where I go to get my defensive fix these days.

We're gonna need one more tall-nut in here, stat.

Turtling and tower defense games are both like gardening. You plant seeds, wait for them to grow, and then comes the harvest. Sometimes it's a bountiful harvest of aliens, sometimes it's orcs, and sometimes it's zombie heads, but whatever you reap there's always the satisfaction of having earned it—of hard work paying off. As everyone with an apocalypse plan knows, the whole point of having a home is protecting it.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.