Saturday, 9 March 2013

Reflections on Battletech

[Administrative note: I'm on a plane to Seattle this lunchtime. With a bit of luck I may get to meet up with Pat and Dean from the Historical Wargames podcast, but mostly I'm there for a work conference (and to catch up with a few other friends). I've been doing my damnedest to get enough posts scheduled to keep my posting streak going: I should have access while I'm out there, but this is insurance against a combination of potential jetlag and a busy calendar.]

My attention was drawn to a post by Ashley - actually on the subject of the last ever issue of Battlegames, in which (go her!) she has an article on the subject of one of my favourite boardgame/RPG/wargames, BattleTech.

If you've followed my first podcast, the one thing BattleTech had going for it that set it head and shoulders (on a frodding big stepladder) above most of the competition at the time, was that it had context. Oh, boy, did it have context! The basic game was, pretty much, about moving 'Mechs about on a hex map, and as such it wasn't that different to any of a number of other games. But it had the might of FASA behind it, who weren't just a games company. They also published RPGs (Shadowrun, Traveller supplements, EarthDawn etc), and as a result, had a bunch of experience in world, or in this case, universe, design. Of course, it didn't hurt that they quickly managed to get a bunch of halfway-decent authors (say what you like about Michael Stackpole, he was a dab hand at tie-in novels) to create fiction in the universe, as well as a RPG (MechWarrior).

And it was, at least to start out, a quite brilliant setting. The core Houses were all shades of grey, with different things that would appeal to different players, and there was massive scope for all manner of interesting political interactions. Equally, you could (and the setting basically made it canon and fun to do so) just play a bunch of mercenaries. The whole concept of lostech, that the Star League of three centuries ago had the cool tech, and that what was left was nowhere near as good, was cool, and in general it was a fantastic setting to play in, if you wanted to extend your game beyond just 'Mechs on a hex grid. Several online games sprang up around it - I was a faction co-leader on BTech3056 MUSE, which tried to handle the whole Inner Sphere on a MUD-type text-based game, complete with ASCII-rendered 'Mech combat using the game rules, and there were many other similar games.

On top of that it was a nicely balanced and intriguing board game. Those who've played it will remember the interesting challenges of heat management - something like a BattleMaster had more guns than it could actually fire at once continuously, without cooking the pilot.

And then they had to go and spoil it.

You can, I guess, understand it. FASA had to produce new stuff to keep the range of minis and books selling, so they introduced the Clans. It's not a spoiler after 25 years of the game to say that the Clans are the descendants of the Star League, but unfortunately, to my mind, they came with munchkin-grade tech. See, the original game had balance - there was pretty much nothing that could blow your 'Mech's head off outside short range, and the things that were a risk to life and limb at long range generated enough heat you had to be careful when using them. The 3050 additions, to my mind, just blew this out of the water, and completely ruined the careful game balance. Ok, to be fair, they made for some interesting stories, but there's a part of me that so thinks FASA weren't in any way done with the pre-Clans setting...

I loved... I still do... the setting. I and a couple of friends on BT3056 wrote and submitted a novel outline to FASA, set on one of the lesser known worlds, a tale of one of the lesser mercenary units... It wasn't that bad, but let's face it, by the the time we were playing in 3056, the FASA campaign clock was already moving on inexorably, and moreover the FASA planning clock was probably several years ahead of that.

I sold my Battletech stuff not over long after I got married - it was taking up space, and I had no-one to play it with. Kind of wish I hadn't now, and I'm definitely looking forward to Ashley's article.


  1. Yes, I pretty much have to agree with you there; a few years ago I wrote up a similar sentiment at .

    The AC/20 was the only weapon that could kill any 'Mech in one shot (if you got lucky), and staying out of range of an AC/20 is generally not a major challenge; if you're taking fire from it, it's because you reckon it's worth the trade-off. But when the Gauss Rifles come in, suddenly anyone can be head-capped from across the board. That's not tactics any more, that's luck.

    But the ERPPC is probably my biggest bugbear of the enhanced Inner Sphere tech base: bigger, heavier and more heat, in return for longer range, I can cope with all that. But no minimum range! The PPC was perilously close to being the best available weapon already...

    (Similarly, no minimum range on Clan LRMs, but I still don't know anyone who actually likes playing Clans, so...)

  2. I've come to this late, and don't know how I missed this. Thank you for the shout out, and I glad you enjoyed the piece. You may have also seen my Steve Jackson Games Ogre article too, which I also hope you enjoyed.

    Anyway enough of the self promotion.

    BTW: I've added you blog to my blogs list. It's not that I haven't been following you, but that list is separate to the one's I promote on the front page. I, as always, look forward to future posts of yours.


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