Turtling: the fearful, the arrogant, and the lucky

Within RTS games there is a strategy known as turtling; in which the player builds a formidable base and waits for their opponent’s assault.  The idea is that when the player has survived the onslaught of their opponent’s aggression the player can then easily counter attack while their enemy is busy rebuilding their army.  However, in practice this strategy comes apart as a match progresses.  As base focused players, protecting their precious bases, never venture far enough to see that their opponent, free from this fear, has conquered the entire map, making their counter attack victory a delusion of grandeur.


(A Terran expansion base, fortified with defenses prepares to hold off a major assault in Starcraft II)

The fearful

Some players adopt the strategy of turtling in out of fear of making a tactical mistake on the battlefield.  They limit the amount of space they must protect and in doing so fortify their positions with strong defensive units and structures. Yet, the fear to venture out always puts the player at the whims of their opponent; who, after spending the majority of the match roaming the map uncontested will be at a major advantage when it comes time to take to the battlefield.


(An unsuspecting player who has turtled into their base gets flanked from an attack at their weakest point in Starcraft II)

The arrogant

Other players choose to use turtling as a means to express their belief in their incredible defensive prowess. I have fallen prey to even the easiest Starcraft II AI enemies for taking too much time within my base and being unprepared for a fighting force at my door. The main problem with turtling out of being overconfident is that the player begins to misuse their resources to showcase their ability to build mega-bases out of vanity; forgetting that all bases will eventually fall, and that armies and conquering the map are the true keys to success.


(An unprepared Terran player attempts to frantically build anti-air defenses as a wave approaches)

The lucky

In the end turtling can be an effective strategy if used as a way of mitigating loss when the player recognizes an inherent weakness in their strategy or unit composition.  For example, all players will need to consider the possibility of rush strategy in Starcraft II when playing against a Zerg opponent. In this case, fortifying their entrance choke point, to deny their enemy an easy victory, is an effective implementation of turtling.  Likewise, if the player wants to protect their main production buildings, developing defenses can be an excellent way of ensuring that their war machine survives from fight to fight.


(A player builds a choke point out of structures, starting off the match turtled in)

Turtle in turtle out

If a player commits to turtling out of their fear for venturing out into the map they will eventually be surrounded and lose.  If a player commits to turtling out of their arrogance they will survive only long enough to watch their base collapse in front of their eyes.

Turtling combined with expansion building, and probing attacks, produces a playstyle where the player can build the base of their dreams and establish an ongoing economy, all while putting pressure on their opponent.  The lucky few for whom turtling works for, are those who see it as a tactic and not a strategy unto itself.


Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on Facebook, and Instagram.


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