Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors

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FireEmblem WeaponTriangle.jpg

A common way of balancing play in Video Games is to classify units, attacks, and skills into several distinct classes, with each class having a clear advantage and disadvantage over other classes; in other words, the classes interact with each other like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. This helps encourage different playstyles by making the effectiveness of a given class slightly context-specific, and encouraging the player to utilize a variety of classes, rather than relying on a single strongest one.

Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors is a common Sub-Trope if the relationship is specifically limited to special skills or magic (with regular skills/attacks classed as Non-Elemental), but the tactical use of Rock-Paper-Scissors relationships can in concept be extended to any aspect of any game.

For example, in Strategy games:

  • Ranged units defeat fast units
  • Fast units defeat siege units
  • Siege units defeat ranged units

Or in Fighting games:

  • Defend blocks enemy attacks
  • Attacks prevent grapple/throw
  • Grapple/throw ignores Defend

It is important to note that sometimes Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors can be applied separately to an individual units's offensive and defensive potential, which makes the Metagame more complicated because the relationships are twofold. For example, tanks may have an advantage against infantry in general, but equipping said infantry units with anti-tank rocketry can level the playing field by creating a Mutual Disadvantage, where both units get an attack boost against each other (especially if the infantry gets to shoot first). Likewise, tanks armed with anti-tank cannons or rocketry won't necessarily have an advantage against infantry compared to tanks armed with machineguns and flamethrowers, and machinegun-toting tanks will be at a disadvantage against other tanks wielding cannons or rockets.

In Strategy games specifically, Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors provides an easy discouragement to the Zerg Rush, as a player building a massive swarm of identical, low-cost and moderately-powerful units (hoping to wipe out enemy forces with sheer numbers alone) may suddenly find themselves annihilated by a small number of unit exploiting their army's common vulnerability.

To a limited extent this can be Truth in Television; there are plenty of examples of, say, medieval heavy cavalry getting skewered by pikemen, who would in turn be meat on the table for a bunch of men with crossbows—who would themselves be easily trampled by said cavalry. But the rock-paper-scissors relationship is often much more explicit, and much purer, in games.

Crippling Overspecialisation can sometimes be used to enforce this relation.

The most common varieties of Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors are:

Bladed Weapons Triangle

  • Sword beats Ax
  • Ax beats Spear
  • Spear Beats Sword

Ranged Weapons Triangle

  • Direct-attack weapon (such as sword) beats ranged-attack weapon (such as bow)
  • Magic beats direct-attack weapon
  • Ranged-attack weapon beats magic

Some games reverse the ranged weapons triangle. "Straight" and "reversed" were picked arbitrarily, please don't be offended.

Examples of Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors include:

Ranged Weapons Triangle

Reversed Ranged Weapons Triangle

Other Examples

  • Very played with in King Arthur the Role Playing Wargame. Terrain matters very much to the success of all units. Light infantry will beat nearly everything in the hard terrain (forests, shrubland, hills), especially forests, which will give them defensive bonuses while it hurts the effectiveness of everything else and makes them invisible until the enemy is near enough - and if no one goes into the forest, the light infantry still can charge from it while the enemy is near and get a large enough damage bonus which will likely have them win unless very outnumbered. Spearmen are less overtly good in hard terrain, but do well also and gains damage bonuses against enemy cavalry and ignores some armor. Heavy infantry are really slow and are good on soft terrain (plains, roads), but are very durable and has a good chance against anything they get into melee with. Cavalry are fast, will beat archers in melee, fight best on soft terrain, and can charge enemy down if they move past them with enough momentum... but as it damages them as well, making them much less effective against hardier and more armoured enemies or spearmen and it doesn't work against other horsemen. Knights are more damaging and hardier versions of Cavalry, with their higher defense and more damage, but are slower. Archers can attack from a far range, and are considered GameBreakers unless the "Weaken Archers" option is on, but do very poorly in melee and are vunerable to pretty much all damage, making the terrain between them and their enemies to be vital in ensuring their safety. They also can damage their allies if they are too close to their firing target. Crossbowmen are very similar, trading fire rates for anti-armour bonuses, damage, and making friendly fire even more likely with them firing in a line as opposed to an arc to their targets. And then... there's magic. Which can be later powerful enough to make up for any deficiencies in the structure of any of your armies.
  • Soul Nomad and The World Eaters makes use of a Melee > Ranged > Magic > Melee triangle. Other than that, there's also the Range > Flying variant with huge movement advantages given to Flying types by nature. There's also the Special type which is unaffected by normal rules.
  • In Fire Emblem, they call it the Weapon Triangle: Axe beats spear, spear beats sword, sword beats axe. Magic has its own triangle that varies by game; archers are outside of both. However Archers do trump flying units. A few units can actually use more than one weapon, so it's a matter of the right tool for the job. There are also 'reaver' weapons that reverse the triangle.
    • Radiant Dawn makes uses both the triangle of Fire>Wind>Thunder>Fire and the triangle of Light>Dark>Anima>Light. Fire, Wind and Thunder are all three are treated as Anima, so all 3 beat Light, but are equally beaten by Darkness. Meaning we have a triangle in a triangle. Included in this each Laguz tribe is weak to an Anima magic (Mammals weak to fire, Birds weak to wind, Dragons weak to Thunder). Its a wonder why the Laguz don't have their own triangle (but that would mean giving Dragons another weakness).
      • The Anima triangle is older than that by about 10 years. The Jugdral games started the trend, with Light and Dark beating Anima and being neutral to each other.
      • Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn are also the first games to have knives, which exist outside of the triangle. And Radiant Dawn removes Dracoknights weakness to bows and wind magic and gives them a weakness to thunder magic. Pegasus Knights are still weak to bows and wind.
        • Most games also have specialized weapons that deal effective damage against a class of enemies, such as anti-armor, anti-cavalry and anti-dragon.
    • Nevermind the fact that most casters have so much resistance to magic that it's usually more practical to just hit them with an axe.
  • Halo Wars did this plenty with units. Infantry are cheap Zerg Rushers who can fielded by the dozens, but are wiped out by vehicles who are rarer, more powerful, and durable. Said vehicles are then weak to aircraft, who tend to be weaker but faster with a healthy range of firepower, and then those aircraft are trumped by the infantry.
  • Langrisser (Warsong here in the US) mimicks Fire Emblem's triangle with unit types: soldiers beat archers, who beat horsemen, who beat soldiers. Langrisser 2 (Der Langrisser on the SNES) changed it to be even closer by replacing the archers with spearman (soldiers > spearmen > horsemen > soldiers). Archers now have a multiple-square range and dominate fliers, but lose quickly in close-quarters.
  • In the Suikoden series, archery beats magic, magic beats charging, charging beats archery. This also carries over to the one-on-one duels, where a normal attack smacks a defending character, a desperation attack cancels a normal attack, and defense counters a desperation attack. Pretty much regular rock-paper-scissors with different names since you get to choose your type of attack each round.
    • Starting with Suikoden II, the randomosity of tactical battles was turned Up to Eleven, resulting in even archer units being capable of defeating infantry in melee combat. Figuring out what works and what doesn't is less unit type and more luck.
  • EndWar has Transports > Gunships > Tanks > Transports, with Engineers beating vehicles while in cover or buildings, and Riflemen beating Engineers. However, Riflemen will last a respectable amount of time against lighter vehicles while in cover and do even better in a building. The Command Vehicle has a lot of hitpoints but is mostly unarmed and relies on Attack Drones (or New Meat for Russians) for protection. Said escorts only stand any chance against Gunships (and infantry, in Russia's case). Artillery beats everything on the ground - as long as they're too far to return fire, that is. Gunships are particularly good at hunting tanks (can't hit them) and artillery (can't fire back) but against anything that can shoot back, mobility doesn't mean much.
    • In a Reality Is Unrealistic situation, Gunships are actually vulnerable to small arms fire from the ground: garrisoned infantry (even Riflemen) can and will shoot down Gunships that stray in range. This might seem like this trope but is actually Truth in Television.
    • A partial subversion to this trope is that, aside from Command Vehicles, every unit has an ability that can penetrate shields and knock down health directly. This means that even if you bring the good counter to bear against an enemy, you need luck or inattention on the enemy's part to kill them without casualties. Especially noticeable against JSF Engineers who, despite being vulnerable to Riflemen, can cut down whole swaths of them with a well-timed use of the SAW.
  • While Warcraft III uses this basic premise, the actual mechanics suffered a series of complete overhauls from patch to patch, going as far as introducing the "unarmored" armor type and later making some units of this armor type actually have armor for balance purposes.
    • Seeing as Agility increases armor, it can be assumed that anyone "unarmored" with a good armor value is simply an excellent dodger.
    • It wasn't as obvious in Warcraft II, but that's not saying much. Ballistae and catapults were awesome against stationary units (e.g. guard and cannon towers) but useless if enemy melee units got within their dead zone. Melee units could easily dodge the projectiles of ballistae and catapults (and then close the distance and cut them into kindling), but didn't fare very well against cannon towers. Cannon towers were effective against melee units, but not against siege artillery. And that's not counting air and naval units...
  • Advance Wars has a few of these: for example, Anti-Air ➞ B-Copter ➞ Tank ➞ Anti-Air. Or Cruiser ➞ Submarine ➞ Battleship ➞ Cruiser. The introduction of the Anti-Tank artillery in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin has created another one: Anti-Tank ➞ Tank ➞ Infantry ➞ Anti-Tank.
    • Unfortunately, Mech. spam still beats everything.
      • Though Infantry spam, backed up with a few indirects, tends to beat Mech. spam.
    • Some of this shows up in the commanders themselves. For example, Lash, who does more damage based on terrain bonuses) is countered by Sonja, who reduces enemy terrain bonuses. Andy, who can repair all friendly units on the map for 5 HP, counters basically any enemy with a damage-all-the-units-on-the-map power. Of course, all of this is really a moot point since certain pairings like Hachi/Colin and Kanbei beat basically everyone else down so hard that they're pretty much the right choice in any situation no matter what.
    • Its Spiritual Successor, Battalion Wars, pulls the same thing, just...larger. Infantry is vulnerable to tanks, Assault, and Flame vets, but strong against Bazooka vets. Bazooka vets are strong against Tanks. Light Tanks are vulnerable to Heavy Tanks, which are vulnerable to Gunships, which are vulnerable to Fighters, etc. The series is remarkably good at introducing each leg of the triangle (It's more like an irregular polygon, really) in such a way as to not confuse the player.
      • It also takes the action-oriented gameplay base into account. Most anti-tank or anti-air weapons can kill infantry easily, except they tend to be slower-moving, and troops can easily jump out of the way. Anti-air weapons can hurt ground targets, but have accuracy issues against them. Also, the mighty Battle Fortress is strong against all ground units... except for a Light Tank controlled by the player, who can use it's speed to avoid the Fortress' powerful but slow cannon fire.
  • Warrior Kings has the following: Heavy Infantry (polearm) beats Heavy Cavalry, Light Infantry (ranged foot) beats Heavy Infantry and Light Cavalry, Heavy Cavalry (melee horse) beats Light Infantry, Light Cavalry (ranged horse) beats Heavy Infantry and Heavy Cavalry.
    • This may be an example of Truth in Television, as this is exactly the description of premodern weapon systems in Archer Jones' The Art of War in the Western World.
  • The Bleach DS videogame The 3rd Phantom has Power, which strikes once for major damage, Speed that attacks usually with 2 hits and Speed that attacks from 3 to 10 times (Flash Step masters, of course) Here, Power➞ Speed➞ Tech➞ Power. Non Com (healers, civilians, etc.) are weak to everything, and Bosses and other powerful enemies have ALL (Powerful) that beats everything. Having the type advantage guarantees a follow-up attack, so Bosses are quite a challenge if you are not careful and just play RPS with everything in your way...
  • World in Conflict also has several of these, such as Copters ➞ Tanks ➞ Anti-Air ➞ Copters, although there are several types of units available in each case to mix things up. For instance, Medium Copters are more suited to fight against other Copters than Tanks, and Medium Anti-Air can also fire at ground units, but they are both weaker at the above task than their heavy counterparts. This is used primarily to enforce very close teamwork between the players during multiplayer matches: to be successful, a player must learn to anticipate their teammates' moves and to always be within running distance of someone with a complementary role.
    • Medium Anti-Air is much better at firing at ground units than its heavy counterpart, as the latter is a surface-to-air missile vehicle with no weapon to use against ground units at all.
  • Impossible Creatures: Artillery > Range > Melee > Artillery.
  • The Final Fantasy XII Real Time Strategy Gaiden Game Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings uses the melee-ranged-flying triangle, plus Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors... but Rank 1 espers suck so much that the Rank 2 they're best against can still kill them.
    • However, enough of them ganging up on you can still be quite effective because they cost very little and can be summoned quickly. The problem is when you get to Rank 3 where the Game Breakers manifest. Certain summons like Bahamut can bring a world of pain upon any group. While the average group of ranged fighters still outdamage it, it has megaflare that inflicts disable. A group of ranged units that can't attack aren't very useful now...
  • Many Napoleonic and American Civil War wargames have an Infantry ➞ Cavalry ➞ Artillery setup. It works roughly like this: Infantry will beat Cavalry; during this era, Cavalry were armed for short range combat, and infantry had bayonets for their muskets/rifles that were effective Anti-Cavalry weapons. Infantry moved slowly and in large formations, making them vulnerable to Artillery fire, particularly canister rounds. Cavalry was faster and could overtake Artillery positions before they got too many shots off. Of course, this ignores factors like terrain and weather, but it's generally sound tactics in most strategy games.
    • Formations also plays a part - infantry at the time had 2 major battle formations - lines and squares. Lines for shooting other infantry, and squares to defend against cavalry.
      • THREE formations, you forgot columns. Say it with me children. "Lines and Columns and Squares". "Oh my!"
        • You also forgot the spread-out "skirmish" formation, used to harrass/delay the eneny advance.
  • The online MMORPG RuneScape has a 'combat triangle' of ranger (archer or other missile attacks) ➞ mages ➞ melee fighters who defeat rangers, etc.
    • This gets complicated when one considers the Protect prayers and that, more often than not, players versed well enough in at least two forms of combat have defensive strategies for just about any kind of attack. For example, a melee fighter could switch to dragon hide (but only with a ranged level of 40) or robes high in magic defense if he's being attacked by a mage.
    • Because of how pitifully broken it is, it's not so much as a "Combat Triangle" as it is a "Combat Squiggly Line". In fact, it goes more like this: Melee → Ranger → Mage ← Melee
  • The RTS War of the Ring has a simple system whereby Piercing > Crushing > Slashing > Piercing, then Hero > everything
  • Age of Mythology had the same Infantry > Cavalry > Archers > Infantry dynamic as its Age of Empires predecessor, but also added Mythological units which were effective against all of the regular units and Heroes which were effective against Myth units and vulnerable to regular units, thus adding a superdynamic of Heroes > Myth > Regular > Heroes.
    • Additionally, naval warfare follows a dynamic of Arrow Ships > Hammer/Ramming Ships > Siege Ships > Arrow Ships.
    • And the less-common, but still important, Towers > Infantry > Seige Weapons > Towers.
    • The game does shake things up in several ways, though. For instance, each civilization has certain "counter" units that are effective against their own unit type but (usually) weak to everything else. This is played completely straight with the Greeks (who are, overall, the most generally straightforward civ), and more nuanced in other civs.
      • Example of that nuance: the Norse, an infantry-focused civ, is very vulnerable to archers- except for one of their units, which is specifically resistant to archers. Lacking archers of their own, they make do with a more varied infantry (including throwing axemen, who are good against flyers and infantry), a rather unusual cavalry segment (raiders ruin buildings and are fast, Jarls beat myth units and are effective as normal cavalry), and some of the best seige units in the game. Oh, and, with the right God, their heroes can occasionally summon Myth units out of nowhere.
  • In Homeworld a big, lumbering Heavy Cruiser simply can't hit light, maneuverable fighters unless it gets lucky; however, it has no problem hitting much bigger and slower frigates, which melt under its heavy firepower. Strike Craft eat Capships eat Frigates eat Strike Craft. It may not be an artificial stratification, but the tactical balance still exists.
    • The classification isn't exactly size, though. For example, an Ion Cannon Frigate is also armed only with a powerful but unmaneuverable gun.
      • The Crippling Overspecialization may be justified, since Ion Cannon Frigates are very specifically designed as cheap artillery ships that can damage opponents above their weight class. Adding on extra tonnage in point defense or secondary weapons would undermine the basic mission of the unit, or at least make them more expensive way to fill the role.
    • On the flip side, certain units are designed to reverse the triangle; Missile Destroyers are capital ships that fare poorly against frigates, but absolutely annihilate strike craft.
    • Homeworld 2 brought up this trope in full force. The Bomber < Interceptor < Corvette < Frigate < Destroyer < Battlecruiser < Bomber mechanic is still intact but now the damage inflicted by a correct counter is so high that just a few shots are enough to kill the target, quite unlike the minutes-long slugging matches of the predecessor.
      • At the same time we have Vaygr Lance Fighters (anti-corvette), Vaygr Laser Corvettes (anti-frigate) and Hiigaran Ion Cannon Frigates (anti-capital), every one of which can punch above their weight class. And despite Bombers upgraded with anti-subsystem bombs being a major menace to bigger ships, Battlecruisers are no longer Point Defenseless and can fend off small Bomber attacks on their own.
  • Vandal Hearts has two such cycles; one explicitly stated in the game's help, and one which becomes apparent through play. The one the help tells you about is Fliers > Soldiers > Archers > Fliers. The one which is revealed through gameplay is Armored > Melee > Magic > Armored.
    • The manual explains both.
    • To quote the game: "Sword defeats bow, bow defeats air and air defeats sword. Armour is strong but slow, mages are weak but wise and monks use word and claw." Other than the face that armour and monk are completely useless, it basically explains the entire tactical foundation of the game in two sentences.
  • PVP in World of Warcraft is a lot like this. It's very difficult for a Warrior to beat a Mage of the same level, but he'll cut through a Rogue like butter. That same Rogue can easily take down a Mage in two or three hits, provided he gets the element of surprise (which he usually does).
  • There is a clear explanation of Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors in play in a Valkyria Chronicles trailer with Infantry ➞ Anti-Tank ➞ Tanks ➞ Snipers ➞ Infantry.
  • Some time around Soul Calibur 3, Namco started emphasizing Vertical Attack ➞ Horizontal Attack ➞ 8-Way Run ➞ Vertical Attack. It also seems to have an Attack ➞ Throw ➞ Guard Impact ➞ Attack system.
    • Similarly, Dead or Alive has an Attack ➞ Throw ➞ Reversal ➞ system.
  • Empire Earth features a complicated system as it covers warfare from the Stone Age to the ultra-tech Sci Fi age. For a large portion of the game it follows the Age of Empires model concerning infantry, calvary, and archers. The World War and Modern periods have a more complicated system which, despite the huge number of units, was at least somewhat intuitive - it was fairly obvious what the Helicopter Anti-Tank unit was designed to fight, for example. The future periods became an almost completely arbitrary and unintuitive mess with a model of This Mech > That Mech > This Other Mech, etc. The game came with a poster covered in intricate diagrams charting the complicated RPS-style relationships (each of which had about 8 different units) for all 15 epochs. It was quite literally unreadable.
      • On land, things start easy: archers > swords/blunt weapons > spears > archers. Things start to get complicated when rifle-armed infantry appear and only get worse with the various cannon types and special infantry. In the future epochs, there is generally one anti-infantry mech, one anti-tank mech, one anti-building mech... Generally, if an artillery piece or mech does splash damage, it's an anti-infantry unit; if it doesn't do splash damage but still explodes, it's an anti-tank and anti-mech unit. Also, AP tanks > HE tanks > infantry > AT cannons > AP tanks is a straightforward one... until the two tank types are merged into the Laser tanks of the future epochs.
      • In water, battleships > frigates > galleys > battleships is the name of the game early on. Later, galleys disappear but for all intents and purposes are supplanted by submarines (exact same strength and counter). A new equation is also introduced: cruisers > Sea Kings > submarines, with cruisers being vulnerable to everything not in the air and Sea Kings being vulnerable to everything not in the water. Aircraft carriers can wreak massive havoc if there aren't any cruisers nearby but die quickly if being shot at. Nuclear submarines are anti-ground artillery but they too die very quickly if shot at. Both of the latter are completely defenseless against submarines.
      • In the air, things remain straightforward: fighters beat everything else in the air (except a Zerg Rush of fighter bombers) but die against surface-based anti-air. Fighter bombers beat ground units, bombers beat everything on the ground (especially so for nuclear bombers); everyone else is situational (AT helicopter for tanks, gunship for infantry, Sea King for submarines).
    • Empire Earth II on the other hand, streamlined the counter system... by assigning each class of units completely arbitrary bonuses. You essentially just had to take the game's word for it that riflemen were effective against light tanks and that heavy artillery could somehow kill a soldier holding a mortar better than a soldier holding a machine gun.
  • A basic concept in Falcom's Vantage Master games. Earth spirits are strong against water spirits, water is strong against fire, fire is strong against heaven (air), and heaven is strong against earth. On the other hand, a particularly powerful spirit can hold its own against a lower-ranking spirit of a 'superior' element.
  • Some players of the flight combat MMORPG Air Rivals argue that the character classes were meant to follow this pattern. However, the advantage is very situational and can be overcome with sufficient player ability. Supposedly: Interceptor ➞ Bomber ➞ Artillery ➞ Interceptor.
  • PvP Works somewhat like this in Shin Megami Tensei IMAGINE Online, at least in straight DB v. DB Combat. Melee -> Magic -> Ranged. However, whichever demon you have out plays a big part of this. (Including with Mega Tens classic Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors theme)
    • From a strategic point of view, tightly clustered units beats rushing, Big Boom beats tight clusters, and rushing tends to allow people to escape the Big Boom.
  • Jade Empire had this in combat: a fast/normal attack beats a strong attack by interrupting it before it hits; a strong attack beats blocking by smacking through the block; a block stops fast attacks dead for as long as you hold the block.
    • However, it ends up being broken to the point fast attack beats everything. Fast attack beats strong attack. You are usually a bit faster than enemies, so your fast attack also beats their fast attack. Block does not allow you to do damage or move and there is no stamina bar limiting your attacks, so there is no repercussion for just punching an enemy with fast attacks until they drop their block.
  • Sega Saturn game Dragon Force (video game) (not to be confused with the band Dragon Force (video game)) had an entire chart showing which unit type beat the other. Soldier/Samurai > Beastman/Monk > Cavalry > Soldier/Samurai was the main one. Archers and Mages were weak to everything, but since they had ranged attacks, everything took casualties from them until they closed to melee. Zombies beat everything except Mages and Monks. Harpies were strong against everything but fell hard to ranged attacks and Dragonmen, and Dragonmen beat everything but Samurai. The fact that samurai were about the only thing strong against Dragonmen meant players would find the dragon generals and convert them in a hurry, while farming the few castles that generate dragon crest items to equip their most important generals with Dragonmen. Samurai generals were kept on hand to decimate enemy dragon forces.
  • The Touhou spinoff Patch Con ~ Defend the Library! had melee, danmaku, and flight units. Melee units were fast and trumped danmaku, which had range and trumped flight, which was slow but powerful and trumped melee.
  • Depending on the player's skill in build optimisation, Battle Stations mostly follows this. A missile ship will generally beat a ram ship, which will generally beat a tank ship, which will generally beat a cannon ship, which will generally beat a missile ship.
  • Civilization also uses this trope through the various eras in the game.
  • ~Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord~ uses the Melee -> Ranged -> Magic -> Melee triangle. There are also Generic-type units and traps, which, as one might expect, have no notable advantages or disadvantages against any type.
  • Command & Conquer, up to Red Alert 3, at least, has the balance so that Infantry counters Rocket Soldier counters Tank and Plane, which counter Anti-Air and Anti-Ground, respectively, and Anti-Ground counters Infantry. Ok, so that's a bit convoluted, but you get the idea.
    • More like: Guns beat infantry, explosives beat vehicles. Other weapons varied depending on the game. Flamethrowers were usually good against infantry and buildings, Tiberium hurt infantry but generally didn't affect vehicles too much, Lasers and Electricity usually fried everything, but were generally so slow-firing that they were better against vehicles than groups of infantry, and so on.
  • Cartoon Network had a Gundam Wing-themed flash game that used a system like this. sword -> gun -> laser -> sword, as I recall. Fun game too.
  • Battle Isle. Tanks beat air defence, air defence beats copter squads, copter squads beats tanks (because the tanks have no aerial attack).
  • Bungie's Myth games: dwarves (and other weak short range explosives) beat warriors (melee), warriors beat archers, archers beat dwarves. The gameplay encouraged close formations of dwarves in front, archers behind to shoot over their heads, and warriors behind them both to rush in when things get hairy.
  • Being a Microsoft real-time strategy title, Rise of Nations plays this trope absolutely straight. Light infantry beats archers, archers beat pikemen and mounted archers, pikemen beat light and heavy cavalry, light cavalry beats... are you writing this down?
  • Team Fortress 2, a First-Person Shooter, does this with character classes in two cycles. Demomen counter Engineers, Engineers counter Scouts and Scouts counter Demomen. Spies counter Snipers, Snipers counter Heavies, Heavies counter Pyros and Pyros counter Spies. The Medic and the Soldier are left out of these cycles. However, they are present in the much more complicated network of soft counters; for example, Medics are a soft counter to Pyros, who in turn are a soft counter to Soldiers.
    • Medics and Soldiers are out of the loop because the former is made to assist other classes, not deal damage, while the Soldier class is meant to be an all-rounder type class. Spies are also a Hard counter for Camping Engineers (but not the Revengineer variant).
      • All this aside, the game doesn't really have anything to do with the Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors mentality; the Spy is designed to take out "high value targets" but really, the hard counter to this is a properly paranoid team. Different classes have different skill floors and ceilings, and when played at varying levels each class can lay waste to all the others (at once!). Shoehorn, much?
  • Battle Realms really plays with this one. There are seven kinds of attack (slashing, blunt, piercing, crushing, fire, explosive and magic) and all units have their own degree of resistance (weak, normal or vulnerable) to each of the damage types. Thus, every unit in the game has some kind of counter through attacking it with the right unit—buildings and undead like the Necromancer fall quickly to Kill It with Fire, while heavily armoured dragon clan samurai and wolf clan berserkers are best dealt with with magic attacks.
  • The Fort Condor minigame in Final Fantasy VII features differing soldier types, whom except for the "Fighter" unit (who has modest effectiveness all around) have a rock-paper-scissors relationship to each other:
    • Fast units (Attacker, Wyvern) defeat heavy units.
    • Heavy units (Defender, Beast) defeat ranged-attack units.
    • Ranged-attack units (Shooter, Barbarian) defeat fast units.
    • Stationary defenses were the strongest, though.
  • Dawn of War instead based it on weapons more than general unit types. Missiles and Lascannons beat Vehicles, Heavy Bolters/Big Shootas/Death Spinners/Burst Cannons killed infantry, Plasma killed Heavy Infantry, and so on. How effective a given unit was against enemy types depended on what weapon(s) it (and it's target) was armed with. This allowed the game to at least partially subvert both this and Crippling Overspecialization, as while a squad of infantry armed with missile launchers could face a Lascannon-bearing tank in battle, the fact that the tank could be armed with secondary Heavy Bolters meant that victory was by no means certain.
    • The game also usually had a similar hierarchy when it came to close combat involving certain units: Hero Unit > Demon > Walker > Hero Unit. All of which tended to make short work of Infantry in close combat.
    • The sequel had certain units armed with certain weapons that were good against certain units' armour types with abilities to flavour things up. However, these were not always clear, requiring players to look into external information sources and the Metagame to better understand what's good against what. The general pattern is not entirely clear, though suppression can make infantry nearly useless, ranged damage is always better than melee damage when out of melee range, artillery units beat anything that's foolish enough to stay in their range, deployed anti-vehicle counters force vehicles to retreat or be destroyed swiftly, and melee beats ranged infantry when in melee and do more damage against retreating units. The abilities of units really make things mixed up, with their uses and effectiveness against units varying. And the upgrades.
    • The upgrades - especially the interchangeable wargear in campaign mode - is really just putting a more complex spin on the same basic principals. Realize the enemy you're facing: if it's swarms and swarms of weak Tyranids or Guardsmen, equip rapid-fire and area-of-effect weapons, and bring as many flamers as possible; if you're going against heavy armor/daemons/monsters, pack the lascannon/missiles/power weapons and bolster them with melee support; if it's Space/Chaos Marines, focus on weapons that are effective more against Heavy Infantry, etc. Also partially subverted: if a lascannon, plasma cannon, or similar tank-buster shoots an infantry unit, even some that have heavy armor, that unit will die... And then all his buddies will shoot/chop you to pieces while reloading.
  • In Sacrifice, melee units have more health and speed than ranged units but only deal 10% melee damage to flyers, which ranged units deal full damage to. Ranged units, meanwhile, can't shoot while they're being pummeled in melee. This intuitively seems like Melee > Ranged > Flying > Melee but in practice Sacrifice has so many and varied units, and variations in types of missile, that it becomes more a matter of specific army makeup than a hard-and-fast rule. For example, the warmonger is a Pyro ranged unit specifically tailored to counter melee by having a very short-ranged but powerful machine gun, but is very big and slow and will get shot to pieces by artillery and snipers.
  • Dokapon Kingdom has this as the basis of their Combat System. Too bad Field Magic rapes other players, and that the AI cheats (blatantly).
  • The Battlefield series places some emphasis on Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors, with varying degree of success.
    • In BF2, the concept is so sloppily implemented that helicopters and fighter jets lay waste to everything, including the stationary and mobile AA that was their designated counter. There's a reason infantry-only servers became so popular.
    • In general, the series' combat is based around tools' general effectiveness (some weapons are more effective at certain ranges) against infantry, and ground vehicles, at certain ranges. Other options may provide uselessness to other things aside from killing stuff and getting points. Air vehicles were generally able to beat their non-air adversaries easily (though there are occasionally some options against them), with strategically placed anti-air guns on the map allowed them to be chewed up if they strayed too close.
  • In the Koihime Musou Visual Novels, Calvary > Archers > Infantry > Calvary.
  • Infinite Space has this to a degree with the Normal, Barrage, and Dodge commands. A Barrage attack is three times stronger than a Normal attack, but will complete whiff if the opponent is dodging. However the Normal attack actually becomes more accurate if used on a dodging opponent.
  • A few rock-paper-scissors relationships exist between units in StarCraft II. For example, Zerg Mutalisks are a strong counter to roaches; roaches are a strong counter to hydralisks; and hydralisks are a strong counter to mutalisks. Starcraft II also has challenge missions designed to teach players which work best against others.
    • In general though, both Starcraft and its sequel go for a more subtle and complex type of advantage system. There is rarely a simple triangle, and many advantages can be overcome through use of micro, mobility, terrain, or sheer numbers. For example, while the Thor is supposed to counter mutalisks, the mutalisks are far faster and can fly so they can still be used to attack undefended areas and run away before the thors arrive. Siege tanks have powerful attacks and splash damage, so they are usually good against swarms of weaker units, but if just a few of those units make it inside some of the tanks' minimum range, those tanks will be unable to damage their attackers and also likely to take friendly fire damage from the surrounding tanks.
  • Stars! has Missile Ships > Beamer Ships > Beamer Ships + Chaff > Missile Ships + Chaff > Missile Ships circle. Missiles do less damage than beam weapons but have a far longer range, so missile ships can usually get several "free" shots first, destroying beamer ships before they get into range and bring superior firepower to bear. However, each individual missile can only hit one ship per round, so it is possible to build hordes of tiny, cheap "chaff" ships whose sole purpose is to suck up one missile each and die (though they double as minesweepers, like anything with beam weapon). It's in essence an AI Breaker, if well-grandfathered one, and as such depends on baiting target selection algorithm correctly as well as on economy. So you get capital ship killing missiles capable of hundreds of points of damage being used up to kill chaff with 20 hit points each while the beam weapon ship the chaff is protecting is able to close the gap. However, beam weapons can attack multiple targets in a round and can chew up chaff like nothing, so chaff is a waste of resources against them. The endgame can easily turn into a “Redesign War”.
    • It's also offset by Shield Sappers vs. shields choices and race traits, in that advantage in jammers (Inner Strength) helps vs. missiles, shield regeneration (Regenerating Shields) vs. beams, Energy Dampener (Space Demolition) gives makes missiles (and sometimes weaker, but longer-range beams) stronger vs. beams, Flux Capacitor (Hyper Expansion) makes beams stronger.
  • In Total War games (at least Rome Total War), some soldier types are more effective against others. For instance, archers are good against heavy infantry, because they'll shoot from afar and automatically run away when the enemy gets close, and they can outrun heavy infantry (being lightly armored). But cavalry are good against archers, because the archers get only a few shots in before they have to switch to melee weapons (which they do have, but usually only weak ones, and not much armor). And so on.
    • Justified to some extent in that they usually don't get any bonus stats by fighting specific units, it's just the way they interact. The only exception is the "effective against armour" trait that certain missile units and axe-wielding infantry have.
    • However, this trope completely dominates TW multiplayer. There are strict rules as to which factions you should use to defeat certain other factions, based on their selection of units and those units' particular strengths. The particulars of this go somewhat beyond a simple rock-paper-scissors scheme, but the effect is the same - only a certain army selection using a certain deployment and certain tactics will guarantee victory against an experienced player using a given faction.
  • To some extent in Company of Heroes: in general, it's Infantry > Anti-tank gun > Armored vehicles > infantry. But there are a dizzying variety of exceptions - Panzershreck-wielding Tank Busters, sticky bombs thrown by Riflemen, emplaced MGs that will shred infantry and can activate armor-piercing bullets - and that's not even including elements like artillery, cover, or flanking, all of which are implemented. In short, there's no single game-winning combination that won't cost an impractically high amount of resources; balance is maintained through the different costs and usages of the units rather than a strict rock-paper-scissors dynamic.
  • Star Wars Rebellion divides starships into starfighters and capital ships. Even starfighters with hyperdrive need a capital ship base when they go on the offense; they can retreat on their own, however. But more relevant is that some fighters specialize in dealing with fighters (A-wing, TIE Interceptor), some specialize in dealing with capital ships (B-wing, Y-wing, TIE Bomber), and some are the Jack of All Stats (X-wing, TIE Defender). One, the TIE Fighter, is completely useless. Capital ships also specialize in dealing with fighters, dealing with capital ships, or transporting fighters or troops. And this overspecialization ultimately results in the Death Star, which can wipe out capital ships easily but is defenseless against fighters (except the A-wing).
  • Dungeons & Dragons has this, to a degree.
    • AD&D has weapon type vs. armor type modifiers—e.g. chain mail has +2 for slashing and -2 for blunt weapons, splint mail has 0 for slashing, +1 for piercing and +2 for blunt weapons. Combat & Tactics has three basic armor types (leather, mail, plate) against which some weapons were better (e.g. mace vs. mail, maul vs. mail or plate), worse (chakram vs. anything heavier than leather) or inefficient at all (blowgun vs. any heavy armor).
    • Telepathy in AD&D has 5 attack and 5 defence modes with specific adjustments against each other, from -5 to +5. If 5x5 table wasn't enough, Dark Sun Sourcebook The Will and the Way adds 4 constructs/harbingers for each of 10 powers, expanding the table to 20x20 (plus the old 5x5 for opponents not using these) of the adjustments in range -8 to +8.
  • Gladius has three classes of gladiator, heavy, medium and light. Heavy gladiators crush medium gladiators who squash light gladiators who run rings around heavy gladiators. You do less damage and take more from the weight class you are weak against while doing more and taking less from the one you are strong against. A skilled player can sometimes overcome the disadvantage through careful use of skills, facing and height.
  • The battles in Nintendo DS' Mascot Fighter Jump Super Stars and its sequel run on this. The playable and supporting characters are all divided in three categories: 力 (chikara, strength - usually fighting manga protagonists), 知 (chi, knowledge - mostly reserved for mentors and/or Lancers) and 笑 (warai, laugh - which are characters from gag manga, or Idiot Heroes). By the system, strong beats smart, smart beats funny and funny beats strong. Doesn't mean you can't beat other characters with a "bad" combination, but following the Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors here will net you a quicker and easier win.
  • Yggdra Union has a complex, multilayered example. At it's base, you have the classic swords beat axes beat lances beat swords. Collectively, these three shock weapons beat bows, bows beat magic, and magic beats shock weapons. In addition, you have "lump" weapons (used by summoned creatures) that are weak against magic and neutral to everything else; Scythes (used by the Big Bad and his Elite Mooks) that trump shock weapons and are neutral to everything else; and the "book" weapon type which trumps other magic.
    • Blaze Union added a character that attacks with a koto, and Gloria Union replaced bows with guns, which have the same properties. The koto is neutral to everything.
  • In the Teen Titans episode "The End, pt. II", Starfire, Beast Boy and Cyborg have trouble defeating their respective clones. So, they switch enemies hoping to counter the clones. The resulting win implies that Cyborg is stronger than Beast Boy, Beast Boy is stronger than Starfire and Starfire is stronger than Cyborg.
    • Near-identical situation in a Justice League episode, as well, where the heroes switch up in order to defeat their robotic duplicates without being argued into despair.
    • And in the original Young Justice comic, when they're up against fake nemeses; Robin versus Joker, Superboy versus Metallo, Impulse versus Grodd. Robin works out that they need to switch. He beats Metallo, Superboy beats Grodd, and Impulse...is so annoying that he drives the Joker nuts with frustration.
  • In the PSP game Half-Minute Hero there is a mode called Evil Lord 30 which uses a monster summoning system based on this, Nimbles beat Shooters, Shooters beat Brawlers and Brawlers beat Nimbles. It is made kinda redundant by the end though when Brawlers destroy everything if you hide in a corner near a Goddess Shop.
  • Warhammer Online tried to do this; heavy tanks weather the storm of ranged DPS to crush their faces, ranged DPS obliterates lightly armored melee DPS, melee DPS have enough tricks to knock out the tanks or at least murder the support keeping the tank alive. Support units themselves work differently depending on race, but usually get yelled at to heal, heal and heal some more even if they're supposed to be a "balanced" or buff/debuff specialist. This can work out in some smaller scenarios, but the massive end-game PVP RVR battles the game was touted to be all about usually boil down to "Right, who can lay down the most AOE damage the fastest?"
  • Nontransitive dice do it for random number generation: if one die is rolled against another 1dA6 > 1dB6 > 1dC6 > 1dA6 in average (the specific probability varies in different sets).
  • xkcdb: Mormons < Police < neighbors < Mormons
  • Spellbound Kingdoms combat system is focused on responsive tactics. A combatant switches between different moves of the style, while styles themselves are built for specific advantages—Guardsman is good at shielding himself and another, while Swashbuckler has mobility and morale based tactics. As such,

"not all styles are meant to be balanced against each other individually. Rather, the game as a whole is balanced. Some styles should consistently kick certain other styles from here to the Kingdoms and back!"

  • Age of Wonders has several sets, in Shadow Magic the simplest for human troops is: Halberdiers < Swordsmen < Cavalry < Halberdiers. Because the former is the weakest by stats, but Polearm gives bonus vs. cavalry and fliers, First Strike means even near-dead units can't be mopped up with impunity and due to cost rate 1:1.5:3.5 for equal gold there's too many of them to answer all attacks. With low-level ranged units it's more complicated, since Swordsmen block their attacks and cavalry slaughters them, so alone and in the open they work well only vs. light infantry… but being ranged, they have advantage when fortifications or combined forces hinder attempts to engage them in melee.
  • Advanced Strategic Command has a lot of units good against specific other types, such as most units are fodder for aviation, except Anti-Air types, but those are weak against common sea- or land-based units. The simplest and cheapest rock-paper-scissors cycle is Assault Trooper < Sniper (hits infantry from afar hard and without retaliation) < Light Tank < Assault Trooper (anti-tank rocket).
    • An obvious operational effect of rock-paper-scissors is "only infantry would get here, so we only need to counter infantry". APCs and paratroopers partially (deployed infantry still catches Reaction Fire) counter this, and the entire purpose of walkers is to circumvent this: while otherwise generally inferior to common vehicles with similar payload, they can climb hills/mountains and conquer building like infantry, but count as "light tracked vehicle". Or you could spot those snipers and barb wire from air and flatten the place with bombs or artillery, but that's more expensive.
  • Knights of the Crystal's Arena features a 3-on-3, and this is implemented: Weapon-based jobs beat Magic-based jobs, Magic-based jobs beat Bare Hand-based jobs, and Bare Hand-based jobs beat Weapon-based jobs. Any subversion of this combat triangle may apply, though; if the job level is high enough, arena ability(ies) are activated, or both.
  • Nerf Now illustrates the necessity to have at least two of the three components.
  • In Red Alert 3 Paradox, surface units are primarily divided three ways; infantry, light vehicles, and heavy armour, countered by small arms, light ordinance, and anti-tank weapons respectively. Each is also soft-countered by the weapons a grade above and below it; so light armour gets the short end of the stick as guns and cannons still hurt it relatively well, and autocannons are very flexible, though their soft counter damage is reduced. Further complicating matters, however, is a second set of softer counters devoted to air units, and specialty counter cycles for structures, urban garrisons, defensive turrets, and units with unusual properties, plus weapons that cut across counter lines. Then, it gets really complicated, with units that mezz, buff, debuff, and otherwise play with the counter cycle.
    • Special note must be made of the Bhor Waveform Device, an allied unit that flips counters around, turning tank armour to infantry and vis versa, throwing off attempts to counter or making enemy units easy targets.
  • The tabletop game Dungeon Quest settles all fights with a fantasy rock paper scissors of three moves: slash > leap aside > mighty blow > slash. The only kink is that player mighty blows deliver two points of damage, while the other two player moves and all monster moves only do one point.
  • Fencing swords have this built into their mechanics, and it is understood by sport fencers today. In it's simplest formulation, it goes like this: The direct attack is a fast thrust at the opponent. It is defeated by a parry-riposte, where you block the attack and immediately counter. The parry-riposte is confounded by the compound attack, where you present a menacing false attack (a feint), evade your opponent's parry, then attack for real. The compound attack is defeated by the counter attack, where you hit your opponent as he unwinds his over-long compound attack. The counter attack is defeated by the direct attack. A more complex discussion can be found on pretty much any site about the sport, and needless to say when you have to actually land the attacks against a flesh-and-blood opponent, it's not as easy as selecting the counter to their movement.
  • Another big real-life example is boxing, where it's commonly believed that, all things equal, a boxer's style determines the outcome of a fight. An out-fighter, who keeps at a distance from his opponent and allows him to wear himself out, beats a brawler, who favors punching power over technique and footwork. A brawler beats an in-fighter, whose strategy is to crowd his opponent, and hit him over and over with hooks and uppercuts (which leaves him especially vulnerable to heavy punches). An in-fighter is great against an out-fighter, who can't maintain the distance he's comfortable with when his opponent is charging him all the time.
  • For an example of this sort of thing happening in nature (combined with Color Coded for Your Convenience, no less), look no further than the common side-blotched lizard. Specifically, the males of this species come in three varieties, easily distinguished by the color (orange, blue, or yellow) of the patch on their throat. Oranges are Boisterous Bruisers that can easily beat up on blues and take their partners; blues form strong bonds with their partners, making them far less likely to mate with yellows (the fact that blues are big enough to beat up on yellows and smart enough to recognize them also helps); yellows are very similar, size and appearance-wise, to females, and can thusly sneak past oranges with ease and mate with their partners unnoticed.
  • A literature example: in the fourth novel in Piers Anthony's Cluster series Thousandstar, three sapient species compete for control of precursor technology: the spherical HydrO, whose needle-like water jets can penetrate the flesh of an Erb, but are vulnerable to the claws of a Squam; the snake-like Squam, whose claws can cut the flesh of a HydrO, but are vulnerable to the drilling action of an Erb; and the plant-like Erb, whose drilling action can penetrate the carapace of a squam, but are vulnerable to the water jets of a HydrO.
  • Mentioned by name in Wearing the Cape when Astra is introduced to the concept during her training and in the sequel novel has to organize her teammates on the fly during the climactic battle. It's mentioned that superhero teams in general try to do this whenever possible.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe goes into detail about the seven different styles of lightsaber combat and how each has certain advantages and disadvantages compared to the others (speed, strength, endurance etc.). In order, they are: Shii-Cho, Makashi, Soresu, Ataru, Shien/Djem So, Niman and Juyo/Vaapad.
  • The Digimon franchise gives us an interesting variation. Almost every Digimon belongs to one of three attributes: Vaccine, Data, or Virus. Vaccine is vulnerable to Data, Data to Virus, and Virus to Vaccine.
  • Battlestar Galactica Online: Strikes, with their mobility, can nibble Lines to death. Escorts are intended to defend against them, but their size makes them prey for Lines. Carriers don't really fit.
  • Jade Cocoon 2 overlaps this with Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors. Fire monsters have strong attacks that can kill water monsters quickly, but struggle against earth types with good defence. Earth monsters have stat boosting abilities and a focus on defence, letting them stand up to fire types, but are vulnerable to special attacks. Wind monsters have enemy weakening attacks that counteract earth, but water minions typically have resistances to them. Water monsters can heal their allies and resist special attacks by wind monsters, but lack the defence needed to withstand fire.
  • The MMO action game SD Gundam Online: Capsule Fighter doesn't even hide this, outright labeling everything as Rock (melee), Paper (general purpose), and Scissors (ranged). A few units have special skills designed specifically to break the paradigm by increasing their defense against their respective weakness (Rocks vs. long-range weapons, Papers vs. mid-range weapons, Scissors vs. melee attacks).
  • Broderbund's The Ancient Art Of War employed this with the three unit types:
    • Archers defeat Knights because the Knights move slowly enough to get picked off
    • Barbarians defeat Archers because they move in quickly and take out the Archers
    • Knights defeat Barbarians because the Knights can chop off Barbarian heads before they can close