Rock, Paper, Scissors Design in Strategy Games

In this blog post, we cover rock, paper, scissors design in strategy games! What it is, and why it has been adapted as the main system in which we balance units and other things in our strategy games. We look at games like Total War Warhammer.


Video link for those that prefer a visual learning style

Rock, Paper, Scissors.

The classic zero-sum game that only has two possible outcomes with every game played, a draw or a win, or a loss in the loser’s case.

Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper covers rock.

The premise of rock paper scissors is a simple system of balance, for every choice you make it will be extremely effective against one thing, and extremely ineffective against another.

This is made possible by the fact that any mirroring of choice will result in a tie

It's for that reason that the game of rock, paper, scissors has been borrowed and established as a system in which we balance many of our strategy games.

For every character, unit, or weapon a designer introduces in their game it will like the options in rock paper scissors, be very effective against some things and be ineffective against others.  

This is very common among the turn-based strategy genre, games like Civilization, Warhammer 40k Gladius use it to great effect to regulate their combat systems.

And is also fairly common in the Real-Time strategy Genre, games like Total War Warhammer and Age of Empires use this methodology almost exclusively when designing their units.

I think it's really important to go over why this system of game design has really been pushed to the forefront of these genres in its usage and why designers value it so much.

The first comes in the form of accessibility, This system is extremely easy to understand for new players and veterans alike. If we have a unit of pikemen and we have a cavalry based enemy, we know that the pikemen unit will perform well against it.

Total War Warhammer 2 is an example I'm going to use a lot in this video as it uses the system brilliantly and I think it's a very good representation of a large-scale project using the system properly.

Warhammer Total war 2 has hundreds upon hundreds of different unit types in the game from units of hundreds of swordsmen to large monstrous individuals.

Which as a designer when you think about the true scope and scalability of all of those units and the factors that follow you may be taken aback by that number.

But the power of the Rock Paper Scissors method in strategy games is that it truly does not matter the number of units you have as long as they are categorized into very sleek and precise groups as it will ensure it is very easy for the player to learn and understand.

It's easy to organize hundreds of units into categories infantry, cavalry, artillery, are among common ones. 

Each has strengths and weaknesses usually defined by their class for instance. If bunched, slow-moving infantry is paper, then the long-range stationary bombardments of utility are scissors. Introduce cavalry into the mix and suddenly you have something that does not like to get tied up in masses of infantry but will excel at closing the gap and dealing with those stationary artillery pieces.

Suddenly we have ourselves a regular rock, paper, scissors in our strategy game.

But the true power of the rock paper scissors design system is the ability we have as designers to modify it and introduce interesting or dynamic changes to the system for our players.

While normally a land creature for instance might struggle against or be countered by a flying unit, we can introduce elements that actually make them more effective against those units.

In total war Warhammer, we can have a unit of cavalry in the form of Demigryph Knights that are mounted cavalry that like I said earlier would usually perform poorly against a halberd or pike infantry.

But this cavalry actually has an anti-infantry trait that allows them to perform against something that would usually be the paper to their rock.

While normally our archers would perform poorly against heavily armoured units we can introduce a trait of armour piercing, that allows them to tear through some of that armour that would usually make them ineffective. 

In essence, we take a unit that would usually be paper to another unit's scissors, and we turn it into a rock or at least another scissors. 

Now you might be saying to yourself that having units like that in essence probably would destroy the entire rock paper scissors system, but that actually isn't the case.

Due to the dynamics of a game and system like this, there is so much variety as a player you can field everything from tiny little dwarves to massive towering giants, there are extra dimensions at play in the form of hero units, magic powers,  and tactical ability.

These other dimensions of gameplay allow you as the player to turn losing situations into winning ones but still require thought or strategy from you. 

In essence, we will reward our players for creative thinking or tactical approaches in situations where they would lose if a computer was to take the helm.

Now keeping that in mind, that does not mean it's necessarily easy to balance.

You see having these outside factors in the form of magic, upgrades, tactics, environment even they begin to change our scales and our balance.

For instance, if I introduce cover how much more effective is my group of space marines against a tank.

In Age Of Empires 2 if I am fighting with the uphill advantage can my scout unit actually beat a spearman unit.

How does the scale of a unit that would usually be a rock to another unit's paper change as more and more dynamic things are introduced to our system?

When I research a technology that improves the stats of one of my units, how capable is the unit compared to its counter without any upgrades?

It is critical to the success of this system to understand scales, as they will be the determining factor for how influential building a counter unit is.

If my opponent in Age of Empires 2 comprises their army of entirely archers, How many of the counter units should I be building?

How many skirmishers do I need in order to counter an army of 50 archers, 30 skirmishers, 40, how much does that number go up as they start upgrading their units, how does it change if they’re attacking me with the uphill advantage. 

It all lies in what I mentioned earlier.

The scale or advantage calculator is the estimate in which the victor is determined.

 Let's say for instance I have a single unit of pikemen in total war and I am facing off against a single unit of cavalry, what is the percentage in which I will achieve victory with the counter.

And furthermore

As I begin introducing new units, tech, and abilities on either side of the scale, how does the scale weight change, the goal is to have the scale weigh enough to promote diversity of units but not so much weight as to crack it entirely, making counters too powerful or too weak.

What this means Is we need the counters to be meaningful counters that are worth investing in, but not so powerful as to be uncounterable themselves.

For instance, if we have a very powerful monster unit that is considered a rock, we need to ensure that with all the influencing factors that that unit never becomes so powerful that even the highest calibre counter of paper could never stop it.

We see this sometimes in tiers of units sometimes a tier-one counter unit like pikemen will be strong enough to hold off or win against a tier two cavalry unit, whereas a stronger let's say tier 3 cavalry unit would wipe the floor with a tier-one counter unit.

This involves us basically taking the rock paper scissors formula and making it so that each is further divided into tiers.

This is done in total war with unit tiers, the difference between Saurus warriors and Temple Guard, it's done in civilization through the technology tree, the difference between a horseman and a knight unit, most strategy games go for this tier-based system.


We need various units with various counters, and ensure that there are ways of dealing with outside factors to ensure that we have players in our strategy games thinking critically and fielding diverse rosters or armies.

We don't want players just building an entire roster of giants or an entire roster of archers.

We need our rock, paper, scissors system even with its dynamic elements to remain just that a rock paper scissors system. 

Not a Rock smash All system.

If you guys have followed this channel for a while you know that i favour a design philosophy that is not only simple for players to understand or get the hang of initially, but that can also be dynamically updated, changed or understood at higher levels of play.

And I think that this system really allows for this kind of dynamic game design approach on a system that can be as basic or as complicated as you need it to be.

And that's the reason I thought it would be an interesting topic to cover on the channel, I’ve been playing Total war, Civilization, Age of Empires for years now and this system was always super interesting to me as I have advanced in skill through some of the competitive ladders.

I'm really eager to hear your thoughts on this system, what you think about the rock paper scissors approach as a whole.

What are your thoughts on dynamic variables that influence such a basic system?

Or even if you think the strategy genre as a whole should be trying to replace this system, what do you think they should be trying to replace it with. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time this is CantResistTriss, keep designing, never lose your passion, and I will see you guys in the next game design talk. Bye guys.

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