I've seen quite a lot of turn-based games in which melee attacks on another unit cause the attacked units to also damage the attacking unit, while ranged attacks do not suffer from this "retaliation" mechanic.

Examples include the Heroes of Might and Magic series, the Civilization series, the new King's Bounty series, and more.

Is there a specific design reason for this? What's the rationale behind giving the attacked unit an extra attack, which doesn't cost it its turn? And why are ranged attacks excluded from retaliation?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related question on RPG.se: What is the reason for introducing the rule for Attacks of Opportunity in D&D? and related articles by a D&D designer: Attacks of Opportunity (Part One) and Part Two \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 12:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that this is also realistic - when two groups of fighters clash, they are going to inflict damage on each other. Unlike reality, though, games often have the retaliation with unit strength already weakened - this is very important to encourage offensive tactics and prevent stalemates. \$\endgroup\$
    – Luaan
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please remember that comments are not for extended discussion, especially if that discussion is largely ancillary to the post to which the comment is applied. Game Development Chat is a great place to talk about those tangent subjects. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1430
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 22:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd like to offer a partial answer: counter-attacks are fun. If I made all my units attack, and need to wait for opposing team to do their attacks, watching each of them attack and harming my troops may be less pleasant than me doing damage. Letting me do some damage just feels a bit more rewarding than a long, uninterrupted string of me receiving pain. On the other hand, if I'm doing damage, it can make an otherwise-helpless foe feel a bit more intimidating when it gets a chance to do a bit of damage back to me. Essentially, counter-attacks introduce more flipping of turn to attack \$\endgroup\$
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 17:21

8 Answers 8


Melee counter-attack is an easy way to make ranged attacks valuable.

Do you build and use units that have strong melee attacks but die more easily because they're in melee or do you use units with weaker ranged attacks that live longer because they can stay out of melee?

Melee counter-attack reduces otherwise over-whelming attacker advantage.

In a game like HoMM, having a large stack of powerful attackers you'll be able to kill many other stacks in the game with a single attack. Melee counter-attack means that even defenders that you roll over still whittle away at your offensive stack, reducing its offensive power over time (unless you expend resources replenishing the stack).

Melee counter-attack reduces the benefit of taking the first turn.

Continued from above, melee-counterattack means that it matters less which player attacks first, as both players' units will get a chance to attack no matter the outcome. The first attacker will no longer be able to eliminate the opponent's strongest attacker in the first turn without consequences (well, except for ranged attackers, but that plays back into the first point). This reduces the first-turn advantage to mostly being about picking the battlefield positioning, which is more strategically interesting in a tactical game.

Melee counter-attack is "easy".

This is a two-parter that is predicated on accepting the prior three points. Basically, assuming you want the additional strategic impact provided by melee-counterattack in the first place, it's just easier to use melee-counterattack than to come up with a different solution.

Melee counter-attack is widely understood and easy to incorporate into a game's design. It's easy to teach to new players which makes the game more appealing to a wider playerbase. It requires little additional/special artwork or animations. It requires little additional code.

In short, if you accept the previous three points, using melee-counterattack to achieve them is just probably far easier overall than using something else.

Melee-counterattack is a composable design.

What I mean by "composable" is that since counter-attack is such a simple rule, there are many ways to combine it with other rules to get a combinatoric growth in strategic depth without requiring much extra work. For instance, make a defender unit that does 2x damage on a counter-attack, or make an offensive unit that does 1/2x damage on a counter-attack. You'll frequently find this element in simpler designs: you can combine simple rules far more effectively than you can combine complex rules, and the result is often equally simple and easy to understand.

Melee-counterattack provides some counter-balance to unit counts.

This one is specific to other game details. An example again would be HoMM: a single unit on the battlefield is actually a stack of creatures rather than a single creature. Bigger stacks have more power. Without counter-attack, it becomes much easier for multiple small stacks to overwhelm a single large stack, even though the large stack possibly represents more overall individual creatures. The counter-attack evens out the economy of attack actions with the smaller stacks; 5 small stacks ganging up on a larger stack do not get 5x as many attacks, possibly nulling out the supposed numeric superiority of the larger stack.

This is rather subjective as its quite arguable whether you'd want to encourage the player to have many smaller stacks or fewer larger stacks.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Some very good points there, thank you! The last point I found particularly insightful, and I don't think it only applies to games with stacks - without retaliation, two units of cost X inherently get an very big advantage over one of cost X*2 because they get to attack twice for each attack of the costlier unit. And while this can be mitigated in other ways (e.g. make the costlier unit's attack be at least x2 as dangerous), this can throw balance off and, as you wrote, retaliation is a simple way to solve this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oak
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 6:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the first point, the fact that the melee unit can't attack the ranged unit on its turn doesn't already do this? \$\endgroup\$
    – Random832
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 14:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Random832 In many games, the melee unit can attack ranged units. Many melee units in HoMaM (noted in both question and answer) are fast enough to hit your ranged units if they're well positioned and your ranged units aren't well protected (in a box of defenders, rather expensive and silly on its own). Sometimes you get off one "free" shot, maybe two. It's rare that ranged units wouldn't engage in melee afterwards, and in fact, it's an important tactic for dealing with ranged - when in melee range, they can only attack melee (lower damage, retaliation and loss of target selection). \$\endgroup\$
    – Luaan
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 15:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ranged attacks don't need to be made valuable compared to melee attacks, they are already inherently better, all else equal. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 0:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ A ranged attack is still better in your scenario. If it wasn't, you'd prefer melee, even if you had a ranged attack and your enemy didn't, and not having enough room to maneuver would be irrelevant, since you'd only want to be in melee range regardless of how much distance you could make use of. (con't) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 5:16

It's a basic question of a certain type of "realism". It's hard to imagine getting a melee hit in on an enemy and them not getting involved at all, because you have to very close to them to hit with with something like an axe. It makes sense that the unit getting attacked gets a swing in.

Ranged attackers can't get hit by the melee units they attack because it makes sense. Imagine you have a sword and someone shoots an arrow at you; they're too far away for you to hit them with the sword.

Some games, like Duelyst, let ranged attackers get a counter-attack in when being attacked by ranged attackers.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This sounds "right" for game-player, but not for a game-designer. Those kind of decisions are based on rationale. Same as hits from back being or not-being stronger. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kromster
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 17:13

I am currently developing a turn-based strategy game.

There are (overly simplified) two kinds of units in the game: sturdy melee damage sponges and fragile ranged damage dealers. The player is supposed to position the first in a way which prevents the opponent from attacking the second. However, that usually means that the melee units will receive the first hit from the enemy attackers and lose some health. That makes this tactic feel wrong, even though it is objectively right.

However, when I made the player's melee units retaliate against enemy melee attacks, this perception changed. Seeing the units strike back suddenly made it feel rewarding to allow the opponent to attack them.

Adding a retaliation to the opponents melee units also had an interesting effect on the players behavior. The player felt punished for attacking the enemies damage sponges in melee, so they learned to prefer to attack the non-retaliating damage dealers when having the option. This greatly helped to teach the players an important tactical concept they needed to understand to master the game: Attack the damage dealers first.


You add additional depth by mixing 2 existing systems.

System 1: Combat can be initiated from either side, winner is determined by stats and luck.

System 2: Only the one initiating combat deals damage.

Retaliations are just a variation of the first system. Both systems make sense on their own. "Attacker deals all the damage" has been used since chess, so it's more than a thousand years old. I don't know when "the winner determined by stats and luck" first appeared, but I'd be surprised if it isn't also at least several hundred years old.

The reason the both are combined is that it's sometimes a more interesting experience to work with both systems instead of just one of them. Both systems on their own have disadvantages*, and these disadvantages can be mitigated by mixing them.

The reason for the way of them being combined being by using the first system for melee and the second system for ranged is that this way the combined system is somewhat intuitive and therefore easy to explain to the player.

*The first system limits the effects good tactics can achieve, because damage is always an equal trade in numbers. The second system puts an emphasis on tactics-micromanagement, and a single piece being in a slightly different place can result in a massive difference to the outcome.


I think the rationale is pretty simple. A melee or a close quarters attack is a immediate threat to your survival fail to counter and your dead, or running for your life.

Going into a melee is a two way street, you might get the first blow, but the other will counter attack or die. Nobody in their sane minds would be standing in place when they get attacked. Same kind of rationale happens in modern games where small arms fire begets small arms fire. Simply you must retaliate or be overrun by the enemy. Your not a wall after all.

Ranged attacks while deadly do not cause the threat of being overrun. And you might not be equipped with weapons that can fire back. Second arranging for a massed arrow or artillery barrage takes time to organize. The line need to turn, guns need to be re-positioned and loaded etc. So doing an attack is much more deliberate than close quarters fighting.

Immediacy of modern hand guns and armor weapons to me seems also the reason close quarters shooting in modern era does counter because its much more immediate. Artillery has the same problem as arrows. However, some games do launch counter artillery strikes. So the more modern you are the more likely it is that artillery should counter attack.

TL;DR Its simply modeling the fact that you have time for many attacks in a turn but only time to prepare for one attack.

Alternatives to model turns like this. If you model turns so that movement comes first and than all attacks are pooled, then your stationary could sidestep this design for anything other than pure hand to hand combat. In hand to hand your inevitably locked to the enemy which would need some additional rules to be resolved.


It gives turn based games a component of "realtime"-realism. In real battle you seldom can attack an enemies army without him fighting back at all, especially at close range.

This is why everything in civ counterattacks everything in range in civ.

Bowmen will counterattack other bownman.

In some games the counterattack even happens before the damage is applied, so both armies deal damage at "the same time", this means if 2 equally powerful armies attack each other noone comes out ahead. (Ignoring possible attacker or terrain bonuses)

This gives the player a more realistic and intuitive sense of the battle. It's also more fair sometimes. If a player can loose his army without dealing any damage that can seem/be very unfair on occasions. Especially if the realistic intuition of the player tells him "common, how can they die without doing anything? those guys are attacking from right next to them"

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    \$\begingroup\$ There is atleast one game where counteratack does not happen, one good example is full metal planet where you can only do a certain amount of moves per turn and need to project your movement much further because of this. But then it has a concept of not being able to move into defence zones unless you can destroy the defender. This works very well in my oppinion. \$\endgroup\$
    – joojaa
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 14:47

The number one reason is to make the game fun and challenging.


  1. makes the attacker think twice about attacking if they're low on health (why would a low health unit be able to 'kill' a full health unit?)
  2. can represent a bit what happens in real life: in a fight, fighter A might want to hit fighter B, but this opens an opportunity to counter attack: e.g. fighter A kicks fighter B, fighter B knows fighter A is now slightly off-balance so they may want to grab the standing leg, or something like it.

Ranged attackers are typically used as big-damage/wimp: they stay far so that they don't get attacked. That's why they don't suffer that penalty.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Plus(to the high damage) reloading projectiles takes usually long time - imagine several instant retaliations with a crossbow. \$\endgroup\$
    – wondra
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 21:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ One low health unit can't kill a full health unit - it gets in one attack, which does not kill the enemy unit, and then the full (well, almost full now) health unit attacks on its turn and kills it. Why shouldn't eight low health units be able to kill a full health unit and only take one loss, though? This removes the tactical benefit of surrounding someone. \$\endgroup\$
    – Random832
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 15:00

Melee retaliation is both to simulate the danger of attacking an enemy at hand-to-hand range, as well as to compensate for the inevitable buffs that melee attacks receive related to ranged attacks.

Ranged attacks are significantly more tactically advantageous than melee attacks. They are also much easier to accomplish, depending on what ranges are valid, whereas melee attacks may require you to be right next to your opponent. And so very often ranged attacks will be given large accuracy penalties and do much less damage, whereas melee attacks will tend to do much more damage. (Other common ranged penalties include making ranged units generally weaker, or giving a defense penalty to a unit when it is in ranged mode, or even making a unit immobile in ranged mode.)

Because of this skewing of damage towards melee attacks, melee can become imbalanced, killing opponents too quickly. This is especially a problem in a turn based game, where multiple enemies could melee attack on their turn before the defender has gotten his, and the defender will be killed without having had a chance to do anything.

By giving melee retaliation attacks, you introduce a smaller scale version of turn-taking, allowing the inactive team a chance to do something.

Note that the retaliatory attacks may need to be limited, or else an entire army could fall to one sufficiently strong unit in a single turn. Or that may be desirable as well.

Retaliation attacks in general allow for more balanced turn taking than you would get without them. In a 20v20 battle, it's problematic if all 20 on one side get their turn before their 20 opponents. This gives an enormous advantage to the team that goes first. Retaliation reduces the significance of this problem. (Another way to avoid this problem is to use an initiative system where you interleave the members from both teams, and neither team has an entire "turn" to themselves.)


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