Attrition is defined as the gradual reduction of strength through repeated or sustained attack or pressure. Battles of attrition include both sides trying to wear out the enemy until they cannot support their troops much longer and are forced to surrender or be wiped out. Perhaps most famously defined during World War I, battles of attrition has become synonymous with trench warfare.
With the exception of a few (Company of Heroes, Dawn of War), most RTS games are technically battles of attrition. Both sides build up a stable economy first, then send units at each other in order to ultimately destroy the opponent’s capability to respond. Some games like Rise of Nations even go as far as simulating the effects attrition itself via a constant damage when attacking on an opponent’s territory.
Due to the sustained nature of the battle as well as the cost to manpower, resources, and infrastructure, even winners of attrition have lost a great deal. Luckily for RTS games, this is not really the case as victory is absolute and because, well frankly, it’s just a game.
Although attrition is the basis for most RTS design, it can be tactically employed as well. The gist of tactical attrition is that if you keep your opponent’s access to resources limited while simultaneously rapidly obtaining more resources of your own, you can seize victory through a slow and deliberate stranglehold of overwhelming unit count and higher tech. It will be drawn out and messy, but it’s an interesting tactic nonetheless.
The main element of tactical attrition is to starve out your opponent through limiting his economy and access to further resources. This means repeatedly denying expansions, workers, and production facilities. To take advantage of this, you in turn should be aggressive in expanding and improving your own production facilities.
Tactical attrition works best against heavily defensive opponents. A dug-in opponent will have trouble maneuvering to another resource location without sacrificing the integrity of his set-up defense. Defensive opponents will also allow you to take expansions at your leisure without worry of an attack.
The decision to go for tactical attrition is often made during the mid-game. Scouting a heavily defensive line should be the first telltale sign. You can also force your opponent to play defensive by utilizing quick moving units to counter-attack his base whenever he decides to move out. Unless absolutely outnumbering your opponent, never attack into a defensive line, especially on even economic footing. Instead, set up a containment.
Containment is parking the bulk of your troops on patrol along your opponent’s access routes. If your opponent decides to move out to attack or to expand, he will be forced to give up his defended position and meet your own dug-in line, giving you impressive advantage. This will be your trench line.
The goal of a contain is to keep your opponent in his base as you start to gain advantage economically. This means aggressively expanding and improving production resources in order to win, while simultaneously denying your opponent the resources he needs. Containments should look out for hidden expansions and hidden bases that your opponent managed to sneak out and create as this will drastically weaken the tactical attrition you are going for.
When doing a contain, the most dangerous thing to look out for are flanking patrols. In order for your opponent to break out of a contain, he will send out patrols to flank your position and attack your exposed bases. This risks forcing you to give up your line and return home to defend, allowing him to break out of your contain. To avoid this, having scouting vision of every possible flanking routes your opponent can take is a must. Having static defenses to meet flanking patrols becomes priority as well.
Falcon Paladin casted a game of mine where I starved out the opponent by a fluid contain.
As you start to gain advantage economically, start to slowly whittle your opponent down. Again, never directly attack a defended line. Instead, look for opportune targets. A building here, a squad of units there, a worker here are all that you need. Every unit you can trade off against your opponent will effectively cost more for him since he is operating on a limited resource income while you can easily replace your losses as long as it’s not too massive.
This part of the battle is going to be the most drawn-out. Keep in mind that while you have a lead in economy, your opponent will also have a bank of resources of his own. In order to win, it’s this bank that you have to deplete. Patience is going to be key here.
The key to victory is trades. Since you can afford to reproduce any losses without huge repercussions, never be afraid to trade off units. Once you start thinning his army through constant trades, it’s time to deal the decisive blow.
If you’re absolutely sure that you can finally take the fight through overwhelming numbers, I suggest having a higher tier unit to spearhead the attack. Things like heavy tanks in CoH or Ultralisks in SC2 should be included in your army. Because your opponent’s resources is being put into replenishing his army, his tech will suffer for it and would probably have weakened answers to your high-tech units.
Knowing whether you can finally take your opponent will be based on experience. Sometimes, even with overwhelming numbers, a defensive position will prove too strong. Do not be afraid to retreat and recuperate. Attrition is a test of patience.