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.
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
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.
There 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.
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.