The Kirov Metagame

Before poker, and before Counterstrike, it was Red Alert 2. I think my love of Command & Conquer is well-known by this point, but it reached its apex with RA2. Although not the most well-designed mechanically of the franchise and with some fairly severe balance issues, it was the first game in the franchise that brought with it extensive online matchmaking options and a competitive ladder. I dove into it. The 1v1 competitive ladder was “reset” each month (or each three months, I don’t recall perfectly) and I spent a lot of 2003 as the highest ranked player in the world, reaching the #1 spot at various months throughout the year. The game (including the expansion) consisted of three sides – the Allies, who were astoundingly strong, “Yuri” who was probably in abstract terms the most powerful side but difficult to micro correctly, and the Soviets, who were terrible. Both the Allies and Yuri had a range of extremely powerful special units and unique strategic options, whilst the Soviets had no strategic benefits specific to their side and were lumped with a range of powerful but extremely slow units, and no real long-range or support options. However, I played as the Soviets, and the epitome of this was a Soviet unit called the Kirov Airship.

In competitive play, these units were considered a joke. Although possessing the most powerful individual weapon in the game – bombs dropped directly beneath them, able to decimate any building in a few hits – and an impressive amount of health, they were painfully slow and had no way to defend themselves other than dropping bombs straight down to the ground directly below. However, I saw potential in them, and became (to the best of my knowledge) the first person to seriously use these units in high-level competitive play. This is the tale of the strategies I developed to actually get some value from this seemingly-useless unit, and an exploration of an interesting unit that could have significantly more value than its mediocre in-game stats would suggest.

Kirov1

The key to the strategies I developed is the fact that Kirovs have a feature unique to them among all vehicles. This unique feature is similar to how “superweapons” work. Each side has two superweapons which can only be constructed upon reaching the highest tech level. When you construct a superweapon, a timer appears in the bottom corner of the screen, and the fog of war around the superweapon is revealed to all players. This timer counts down from five minutes for the “lesser” superweapons, and ten minutes for the “greater” superweapons, and upon reaching zero – if the superweapon has not been destroyed by an enemy or sold by the player who built it – it can then be used. This immediate warning serves a number of purposes – it fractionally reduces the value of these extremely powerful weapons by warning the enemy about their existence, it gives the enemy a little bit of information about their opponent’s base, and it also serves to amplify and change up the pace of the game. For the player who constructs the superweapon, the overall strategy of their game shifts to defending that structure (unless it is intended as bait); for the player who is faced with an enemy superweapon, their strategy shifts to either destroying it, or constructing their base and placing their units in a manner that will minimize the eventual damage.

However, the game change when a Kirov is built is more subtle. It is not revealed on the map, and there is no timer noting when its attack will be ready (since it can attack as soon as it is built, like any unit). Instead, a sound plays – a voice clip that announces “Kirov Reporting!” to all players. All the enemy player knows is that a single Kirov has been built, and that – although desperately slow and somewhat unwieldy – this unit will single-handedly destroy their base if it is allowed to gain entry. Once the sound has played they know it is out there somewhere, moving to some location on the map, and needs to be dealt with. This voice clip was presumably implemented because the designers felt the Kirov was a sufficiently powerful unit to merit its own sound clip upon completion (something only unique infantry units also possess) and warn other players about what was coming their way. However, alerting players in this way allowed for a range of interesting tactical options and ways to exploit enemy play, all dependent upon the fact that one’s opponent is informed about the creation of the Kirov, but knows nothing of its movements.

Force the construction of AA

The construction of a Kirov necessitates the production of anti-air (AA) units or buildings for your opponent. Even if Kirov’s may be slow and obvious, their destructive power cannot be ignored. A Kirov costs $2000, and whilst technically even a single AA unit would be sufficient to bring one down given enough time, it would take far too long were the Kirov to make it to the enemy base; as such, most opponents I played would quickly spend significantly over $2000 on anti-air units to protect their base, giving me an immediate financial advantage (as well as the secret weapon of the Kirov). Even if I never did anything else with it, this forced investment on their part was often enough to make it a worthwhile purchase in almost any game I played simply due to a desire to immediately “counter” the Kirov threat.

A Kirov could therefore be used as a method to establish temporary financial superiority over an opponent who was forced into committing to significant amounts of otherwise-useless AA to counter the hypothetical threat. Additionally, this production of anti-air is likely to upset the production intentions of my opponent. There were many times when I found that an opponent was building up to a particular attack with a particular timing, but upon constructing a Kirov, it disrupted their original plan. This disruption seemed to be both in mechanic terms – they had to change what they were building – but also in mental/tactical terms, as it changed their expectations of the coming battle, made them rethink if they really wanted to attack immediately when there was an airship potentially bearing down on them, etc. Building a Kirov therefore forced them to commit both in-game money and real-world cognitive effort into the production of anti-aircraft weapons (and as we shall see the subsequent management of these weapons) and therefore, even if the Kirov was never used, its construction had significant positive effects by throwing a spanner into their plans, even if this was only to the extent of delaying them or encouraging a change in their build order. It was a small effort-investment in my part to force them to potentially rethink significant chunks of their strategy.

Destroy enemy AA

Kirov1

Once these AA units had been built, a strong secondary strategy was to set about destroying them. By destroying anti-air units in this way (units which are often weak to ground attack), I found I could force my enemy into building more anti-air units (which could then, once more, be destroyed!) simply to continue countering the potentially nonexistent threat of the looming Kirov that was somewhere on the map. It was a way to pressure my enemy into constantly spending money on anti-air units that might never see action and could easily be destroyed, rather on money to counter whatever other offensives I intended to launch. If they decided to stop spending on anti-air units and concentrate on the ground war – that, of course, was the moment to send in the Kirov. As part of the standard rock-paper-scissors game balance of many RTS games, AA units were generally highly vulnerable to ground attack and therefore open to attack, making this tactic all the more viable.

Force opponents to play differently

As well as forcing foes to “waste” money on the initial defence, and subsequently forcing them to continue wasting money on anti-air, the other significant impact of the Kirov was its use as an “abstract” weapon – something that may never be used, but scared my opponent for as long as the possibility existed. Some players would spend far more time scouting the map to prevent any easy paths of shroud for the Kirov to reach their base – although probably the optimal response, this still distracted them from other matters. Other players would also allow the threat of the Kirov to entirely change their gameplan. Many AA units in the game double as troop transports, and many players would commit to significant production of these units. If the Kirov appeared, they could defend, but if it didn’t, they had value as dual-use units. These units were however significantly weaker than “ground only” units, meaning that my opponents would reduce their offensive capability in order to account for the potential need for defence. A small number of players would consider the Kirov to be such a threat that they would overextend themselves and go out of their way to destroy it, potentially opening them up to easy counterattacks; an even smaller number would ignore the Kirov (considering it to be a joke unit), and they were naturally those who eventually got bombed by it.

In this way I would suggest that the production of a Kirov is akin to having a charged attack in a fighting game that is ready to be unleashed. The threat of the attack and the changes it forces into your opponent’s playstyle can be just as useful, if not more useful, than the attack itself. Although the Kirov was imagined by the developers as a purely offensive unit, it also had rare but surprising value in a defensive role due to the functioning of one of the game mechanics – how units automatically choose targets if no specific target is set. If attacked, a Kirov would easily soak up damage and distract enemy units from attacking your more important defensive units, and if not, the Kirov still survives to continue to attack. As with everything above, the balance for the Kirov remains between its threat and its use – getting this balance right and using this balance in a range of different ways unveiled the possibility for a surprisingly strong set of tactics with a seemingly worthless unit, and showed that units of this type can be used as much for their psychological as their mechanic value. If there was no use for the Kirov, keep it back as a threat; if the Kirov could safely attack, use it.

Concluding thoughts

SovThere were, however, limits to these ideas. Firstly, these tactics had limited applicability against an Allied player. The Allies possess a building which reveals the entire map to them, and thus any sly movements with the Kirov would be instantly revealed. However, a decent number of top players either played as the Soviets (mostly for their early-game rush abilities) or Yuri (for their seemingly-unstoppable mind control units and excellent late game options), and against such players the use of Kirovs in this way was supremely viable. Secondly, these tactics were better on some maps than others, and there were not many maps in the 1v1 ladder list (eight in total, if memory serves). Maps with oceans around them were ideal as few players took advantage of the naval game; and larger maps with no essential or strategically useful terrain at the edges were also useful for sneaking Kirovs past. Other maps, however, made it trickier to get them anywhere near my foe’s base before discovery. I therefore suspect that among the players who seriously competed for the highest ranks, some of those players who chose to play as the Allies may have never encountered any of the strategies I’ve described here, despite the many hundreds of games I played on the competitive ladder.

Official_Tournament_Map_A

A perfect map for Kirov use; plenty of ocean and an apparent emphasis on land combat.

Despite the strength of these strategies, I don’t think I ever built more than one Kirov. The returns from the strategies here diminished rapidly the more you built – the threat of a single Kirov was sufficient for almost everything described here, and whilst the rare actual base attack with the Kirov would surely be stronger with two, the presence of two created rapidly diminishing returns. Although in friendly games I experimented with multiple Kirovs, a single Kirov remained the best for competitive play – it allowed me to psych out my opponents, to push them towards non-optimal builds and spending, and if all else failed, gave me a pretty powerful unit that once or twice actually saw action, rather than just floating above the battlefield as an existential threat that may one day descend from the heavens to wreak havoc. This set of interrelated strategies for this mobile semi-superweapon were something that, to the best of my knowledge, I pioneered. I never saw Kirovs in competitive use at a high level before this, and whilst once or twice I did see them used towards the end of my time playing the competitive ladder, I think I hold a strong claim to being the developer of these metagame ideas. Without the sound effect the Kirov would be a more effective unit in traditional battles and more able to sneak up on your opponent, but with the sound effect, it became a strikingly effective form of psychological warfare and opened up a wealth of interesting tactical options.

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31 thoughts on “The Kirov Metagame

  1. This was super interesting. It kind of reminded me of how weapons of mass destruction work; they’re more political than anything else.

    • Very glad you thought so, and I agree, that’s a perfect comparison – it’s more about how it makes your “enemy” behave than the expectation that they’ll actually ever been used (whilst you do, of course, still have them as an absolute last resort)…

  2. Wow, very interesting, I have never thought about that Red Alert 2’s multiplayer had any meta, played only offline. It reminds me of Hearthstone, my first thought was that it’s a luck based children game, but now it’s my favourite game, it has such an immense depth, amazing metagame, many Magic the Gathering players love it too, no more land screw/flood games. Sorry for rambling. 😉

    • Ha, yeah, I didn’t appreciate this until I started playing it. Some maps had particularly strategies that were associated with them (like many other RTS games) whilst in general there were naturally certain units considered amazing and others considered garbage. Interesting re: Hearth/Magic, I’ve never played any TGC games but I have watched them once or twice, though I confess it’s hard to pick up on the depth of what’s happening even if you have a passable grasp of the rules. No problem! I always hope what I post will encourage some rambling : )

  3. Curiously enough, when I played Soviets I usually had my airships (I yes did always two) above my teammate’s base. This had another metagame of always-possible betrayal, which I indulged occasionally.

    The Kirov was a pressure and a constant fear I put on my allies’ shoulders, who know I could obliterate their base while they were dealing an attack rush and I felt he wasn’t supportive enough. They allowed the Kirov’s presence for the certain safety they felt, with them as a slow but effective defense measure they didn’t even built.

    • Heh, that’s very interesting – whenever I played 2v2 it was always with a real-life friend who was as determined to win as I, so that was never a pressure, but in other games I did myself occasionally witness a bit of ally betrayal on the enemy side, which was always highly amusing…

      • The Kirov was my without-words-way to be sure I got assistance from my partner when I was being attacked.

        If I complained too much about ‘doing all on my own’ and ‘not needing allies like this’, an itch started creeping his back. He remembered I could decide to level his whole base if I was too close to being wiped out and felt betrayed. In some way, I had his base as hostage.

      • Heh. In lots of C&C games with players in alliances the first thing those players did was stuff the ally’s base full of his own units. Both to help protect the ally’s base, and to make sure that player would have a significant force to deal with would he ever decide to break the alliance.

        Later games somewhat solved this issue by making all alliances and start positions predetermined, so they couldn’t be broken ingame, but in C&C1, all you needed to do to ally or declare war on a player was select one of their units and press “a”.

        • Ha – I’d *completely* forgotten this, but I now totally remember doing that in the early games! That has just brought back a lot of amusing memories actually. Yeah, the ‘a’ button! I remember being amazed when the possibility for a starting alliance was first introduced.

  4. What would be ways to connect single player games like URR to a menace like this? I suppose there might be a connection to RPG status effects where the player might have to maintain a few anti-poisons or a rainy day rock paper scissors weapon. There might be ways for a player to threaten NPCs and change their behavior.

    Combined arms multiplayer games like battlefield and planetside also have the distracting air threat where a few players can use vehicles (air or ground) to monopolize the attention of multiple players on the other team. Of course in this example the vehicles are often both very powerful and very maneuverable which make them a dangerous threat to ignore.

    • I think you’re exactly right – I’m a big fan of one-use items, for example, and I think a way for the player to influence/intimidate NPCs in 0.8 (early/middle next year!) would be very cool indeed. Ah, interesting, I haven’t played either of those games but that does sound like the same kind of mechanic. Since a lot of URR is not going to be about direct combat anyway, I think something of that sort is a very promising angle to pursue!

  5. Thanks for this article. Easily understandable to people like me who haven’t played RA2 (though, a buddy of mine disagrees about some details – namely, he thinks that Yuri and Allies were too OP for this strategy, which would only leave soviets vs soviets. But from my point of view, that’s besides the “educational” point of the article).

    Despite of me being a 30+ years game veteran, i can’t out of the blue come up with equivalents – though i’m probably forgetting some examples. In any case, it’s a nice analogy to what elsewhere is called M.A.D. (yes, i know it’s different, but the consequences or at least intentions aren’t too different).

    • Hmm, I don’t know if I’d agree – the tactic was borderline useless against the Allies due to the ridiculously overpowered Spy Sat, but it was significantly stronger against Yuri (though Sov v Yuri is probably better for Sov if you rush and keep the pressure on instead of allowing Yuri to build too much up). Agreed, I think there’s a definite overlap with MAD and other game-theory-inspired global politics ideas. That’s a reason I’ve always hugely enjoyed free-for-all games, especially in RTS – I really enjoy alliances changing and shifting, and having to strike a balance between attacking your foe and making sure you’re prepared when your allies turn on you, etc!

      • Did you play Defcon? Not because of the MAD analogy, but because alliance and inevitable defection played a major role in multiplayer games there. There also were plenty of interesting strategies, which seem to fit what you like about game theory. The only problem was the unit-AI, which required a lot of micromanagement, for the advanced mehods (the biggest problem was, that there weren’t really any provisions for group/formation orders, so one had to emulate everything with perfectly timed micromanagement).

        • I didn’t, it’s actually on The List of games that need playing, but I haven’t a clue when I might actually get around to it. Maybe next calendar year. That sounds interesting about the strategies though, but disappointing about group orders – from what I’ve seen in some of the videos/trailers for it I think I can see why, but it’s a shame it forces you towards perfectly timed micro (I wouldn’t normally say that something which needs “more skill” is bad, but I think this is more a question of just UI and easy interface than a skill ceiling question, from how you describe it)

          • Well, there are fundamental issues, and from this resulting UI issues. Fixing the later, would get rid of the most severe problems.

            Since the game uses no tiles, and consequences play out in realtime, the game-mechanics react pixel-accurate. This introduces effects that shouldn’t be there in a simple highlevel game. Frozen Synapse suffers from the same fundamental problem (and a few others – i was in the closed beta, and eventually jump ship, when it became clear that i wanted to address the fundamental issues, while the devs considered it too late for this, and pushed for release).

            But back to defcon: The pixelwise accuracy means that for example planes flying in certain formations enjoy benefits. There is however no command to tell planes to keep a certain formation – you can only designate a single waypoint, for either a single unit, or a selection of units. So, to for example get 4 bombers to fly in formation and reach a target simultaneusly, you first give individual launch commands, with the right delay – then you select all of them and give them a target. However, the rest of the world of course doesn’t stop in the meantime, so other events might call for your attention at the same time.

            TL/DR: Yes, it’s an interface problem mostly. The game allows pixelaccurate mechanics, but offers no UI-tools to use those mechanics comfortably.

          • Ahhh, I see. Very interesting explanation. I recall one or two much less famous RTS games in the past which suffered from the same issue; the lack of grid-based clarity, even if that grid is hidden, could lead to a lot of unusual situations, or as you say a lot of optimal strategies/decisions which aren’t actually very *interesting* to do or respond to. I think SC2 despite having a grid suffered similarly with the “Archon toilet” strategy in the past…

  6. I never got into RA2 multiplayer, but I love the original Command & Conquer and have used a somewhat similar tactic. Sometimes Nod players will employ the dreaded “Apache Rush” whereby quickly scouting the enemy, building 4 helipads and reducing the opponent’s Construction Yard to dust. I always found this to be a little bit cheap so what I would do is build 1 apache, harass some units or a harvester– sending the opposing player into an AA building panic expecting the inevitable heli-rush. This of course allowed me to manipulate the enemy into wasting time & resources on a threat that never materialized. I Don’t have much time these days for multiplayer, but you should check it out at cncnet.org or cnc-comm.com

    • Sadly, I never played the original’s multiplayer – I was very young, and it was in that era where one needed to actually understand what ports to type in to connect to your friends, etc, and it just never happened. I didn’t know how optimal a strategy that was thought, but I’d be interested to know: how “high” was the level of C&C multiplayer? As in, did it get close to what you think the skill ceiling was, or were there a few optimal strategies which everybody did so there was never much competition, or was there some serious and interesting balanced competition?

      • Well, I think that’s the beauty of c&c… 20 years later people still seem to be coming up with new stratedies/counters. I don’t play much these days, so I easily get pwnd by a bike rush, but there are lengthy discussions on the comm center regarding this subject. One of my favorite players, Lovehandles, crushes people as GDI without ever building a Weapons Factory. Infantry, Orcas and sometimes an Ion Cannon for good measure. Here’s a vid of him killing me (I tried to build a bunch of APCs to squish his men) with the aforementioned strategy: https://youtu.be/if57w5iR62g and here’s a video from his point of view (he has super human micro abilities): https://youtu.be/kCH5S1Fegak he does build a WF eventually in the latter video though. What’s annoying to me however, is that Red Alert is far more popular on cncnet and in my opinion, has definitely hit that ceiling of only 1 type of strategy you MUST use if you have any chance of winning. Tesla, tank and MCV spam. 🙁

        • Those are two very cool videos! Could you link me to some of the strategy discussion threads there? I’d be very interested to have a look. Back when I played (though as with my previous message, I never played multiplayer) I was never sure which side had the edge, though I would have probably gone with GDI (by a fraction) over Nod – is that the general consensus, or is there still a lot of debate? That is a shame re: RA1 (I never thought it was a fraction as good as 95) – do you have a link to an illustrative video of that strategy? Thanks! : )

  7. Kirovs used as psychological warfare? Very nice!

    I’m not sure about the later games, but the same thing applies to commandos in C&C1 and RA1. They have a specific yell they do when they are built, and randomly laugh and stuff, and those are not unit response sounds but map sounds, just like explosions on the battlefield. You can seriously stress opponents with just that “Time to rock and roll!” sound.

    They also made that sound when unloading from a transport, so if you heard the sound really fast multiple times in a row, you could be sure that someone, somewhere, was unloading commandos from a transport. Given the fact this is usually done close to the desired destination/target, this was a perfect moment to start freaking out… or just a player messing around with commandos and APCs at his own base.

    • That’s really cool about the transport commandos “clue”; I barely played the early games online so I don’t really have any memory of that at all. I love the possibilities that kind of clue/cue offers.

  8. My brother developed a very effective tactic in RA2 multiplayer and went on to win 2nd ladder spot with it. It was an unusual Soviet vs Allies rush.

    Most soviet rushes were simple – build several Rhino (Heavy) tanks and crush the enemy, or destroy several structures. Instead, my brother built just 2 (two) Rhino tanks and went for enemy harvester! The goal is to destroy one harvester and pull back. At this stage of the game, loss of one harvester is economically crippling and you can just outproduce your enemy if you’re one harvester ahead. The metagame for RA2 (unlike Tiberian Dawn where it’s VERY expensive) was to start with two refineries, otherwise you get a second harvester much too late to make a difference. Ore was usually plentiful on maps. So during that time even experienced players were focusing on building economy, confident that rushes come a few tanks later. Structures were too sturdy to destroy quickly with just 2 tanks, and eventually produced GI would overwhelm them. But allied miners (harvesters) were juicy targets, and just soft enough to destroy before the victim can muster enough defensive units.

    It was fascinating to watch as he beat countless players with this unusual but simple rush. Even the best could rarely resist it, usually with producing GI early and good micro.

    This was just the opening, naturally. He played Iraq because Desolators were a great counter to hordes of Mirage tanks (a micro nightmare to CTRL-attack in groups). A soviet player could deploy a desolator in the middle of his own tanks and watch the tables turned – Mirages automatically racing to shoot the Desolator(s) and being blown to pieces. He considered nations like Libya one trick ponies good for noobs, and had most respect for Great Britain (snipers counter desolators) and Germany. He used all sorts of units when the time was right, except maybe for Krazy Ivans and V3. Even War Miners are impressive when you put them at the spearhead of a late game attack. Target them and you give Soviet tanks an advantage, leave them alone and they become downright scary after gaining a few medals.

    I disagree Kirovs were just a joke. The point was to build them at the right moment, and not in every game. Not a regular army unit, but sometimes you could catch enemies off-guard if they overcommited to one area (such as tanks). Suddenly suplementing army with 2 kirovs (remember, they came from War Factory! They could come out of nowhere!) made many players panic and spread themselves thin. They had their place, just like tesla troopers who absolutely murdered tanks. Plus, many players tried to hard counter them with Rocketeers, which in turn would be shot down from very far away by a flak track hiding among tanks. But yes, diminishing returns.

    • Interesting! A lot of that makes sense, and I definitely recall seeing things like that. Iraq were indeed pretty incredible, all things considered, as Desolators were just such tremendously strong units. As much as I loved RA2, I do wish the teams were slightly more balanced; some of the special units were just so strong whilst others were basically useless :\

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