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Friday, 15 February 2019

A BattleTech Starter

BattleTech is thirty-five years old. Originally called BattleDroids, in the decades since, BattleTech, both as a game and a setting has been supported by numerous games and expansions, miniatures and rulesets, a collectible card game and a television series, computer games and novels. At its heart though is BattleTech the game, a game of combat fought between humanoid bipedal robots, each standing between seven and seventeen meters tall, massing between twenty and one-hundred tonnes, and armed with a mix of weaponry including lasers, particle projection cannons, autocannons, and missile launchers. In combat, pilots will manoeuvre around each other and through various types of terrain to get the best shot, to first destroy armour, and then weapons and other parts of the battlemech with internal damage. It is not just a matter of blazing with all weapons, for every action a battlemech takes in terms of movement and firing weapons, generates heat. Generate too much heat and a battlemech’s fusion engine will shut down or even explode. Fortunately, every battlemech is fitted with several heatsinks which bleed off the heat generated through battle, but a mechwarrior—and thus the player—will still need to manage his battlemech’s heat to fight efficiently on the battlefield.

BattleTech is a roughly 1/285 scale wargame played out on a hex-map, between two or more players, aged twelve and up. Each player can control just the one battlemech, but games are typically played with each side fielding one or more lances, each consisting of four battlemechs, at a skirmish level. Other games and expansions added armour and other vehicles, infantry, air and space assets, and increased the scale of the conflict, but the core of the game is still about battlemechs.

The setting for BattleTech is the Inner Sphere in the thirty-first century. Humanity has developed a means of Faster-Than-Light travel and settled some two thousand worlds within a radius of about five hundred light years of Terra. Although mankind established the Star League as a governing interstellar council, its collapse led to centuries of warfare between five great houses—the Free Worlds League, the Federated Suns, the Draconis Combine, the Lyran Commonwealth, and the Capellan Confederation--that continue to its day. The ongoing series of conflicts, known as the Succession Wars, has led to a loss of technology and limited advances in terms of science and technology, though there are rumours of caches of Star League technology and knowledge still to be found. Players typically field units serving one of these great houses, but they can also field mercenary units which sign contracts with the great houses. There is even scope for players to create and field their own mercenary units and whole campaigns can played around them. Essentially, BattleTech is a wargame set in a militarised Science Fiction universe involving futuristic weaponry and multiple factions, which despite having the feel of Space Opera in its storyline, is quite hard in terms of its Science Fiction.

Originally published and developed by FASA, it is currently published by Catalyst Game Labs who in order to celebrate its thirty-Fifth anniversary have released a new edition of the game, starting with the BattleTech Beginner Box. This is designed as an introduction to the game and the setting for two players aged twelve and up—though there is the capacity for as many as four to play. Skirmishes can be fought between single battlemechs and between lances of battlemechs if there are just two players, or with a player controlling one or two battlemechs each if there are four players.

The BattleTech Beginner Box is a light, but sturdy package illustrated with an eye-catching picture of a battlemech in action. Inside the contents are divided by a deep plastic insert. On top, the first things that catch your eye are the two grey plastic miniatures, assembled, but not painted, both ready to bring to the battlefield. These are of a Griffin and a Wolverine respectively, both medium battlemechs. Alongside them are the novela, ‘Golden Rule’, a set of eight record sheets, four pilot cards, and two six-sided dice. Below the tray is a small punchboard of additional BattleMechs and terrain, one double-sided map, a rulebook, and a Universe Primer.

‘Golden Rule’ is written by William H. Keith, the author of Decision at Thunder Rift, the first BattleTech novel published in 1986. Where the novel was set in the year 3024 and told the story of Grayson Carlyle’s attempts to resurrect his father’s mercenary regiment and following its destruction at the hands of pirates, ‘Golden Rule’ takes place in 2290 and concerns a mission undertaken by Grayson’s father when he was serving with Colby’s Commandos. It is an entertaining introduction to the setting and the type of situations that might be encountered in a BattleTech game. Although it comes to a natural pause, it is not complete. The reader will need to purchase BattleTech: A Game of Armored Combat boxed set, the full rules for the game and continue reading it there. Overall, it is nice to see Keith return to write a piece of introductory fiction just as he did over three decades ago.

The eight full-colour record sheets provide the full stats—’mech data, including Movement Points, weapon stats and location, and armour arrangement—along with an illustration. Full write-ups are given on the other side of many, whilst others have illustrations from the setting. The write-ups will be familiar from the game’s technical readouts. The battlemechs include a Locust LCT-1V, a Wolverine WVR-6R, a Locust LCT-1E, a Wolverine WVR-6M, a Griffin GRF-1N, a Thunderbolt TDR-5S, a Griffin GRF-1S, and a Thunderbolt TDR-5SE. This is a good mix of design types and the background on the reverse side adds plenty of flavour and detail to support the stats. The four pilot cards are also done in full colour and are double-sided. Each describes a pilot and his or her background as well as indicating which battlemech they pilot and a special ability or two. For example, Lance Sergeant Jia Yawen is the pilot of a Thunderbolt who has the ‘Sandblaster’ and ‘Weapon Specialist (Large Laser)’ special abilities. The first grants a bonus when determining the number of LRM (long range missiles) missiles that hit in clusters with a successful hit, the latter grant a ‘to-hit’ bonus when firing a large laser. The dice are a pair of plain white six-sided dice.

The punchboard contains eight battlemech standees which match the eight record sheets as well as seven pieces of terrain, both light and heavy and of varying size, which can be added to the maps provided in the BattleTech Beginner Box to modify the terrain. The map sheet itself measures 18” by 22” and is marked in 2¼” hexes. One side depicts arid terrain marked with the occasional stand of trees, whilst the other side shows grassland broken up with more forested areas.

Below this are the BattleTech Beginner Box Quick-Start Rules and An Instant Guide to the Inner Sphere, both of which are done in full colour. The BattleTech Beginner Box Quick-Start Rules provide the rules to play with plenty of examples and some simple scenarios as reference tables on the back page in just twelve pages. The ‘An Instant Guide to the Inner Sphere’ is just four pages in length and details the five great houses involved in the ongoing Succession Wars as well as Comstar, the quasi-religious organisation which provides Faster-Than-Light communication across the Inner Sphere. Description of both battlemechs and mechwarriors are also included. It is perhaps a bit basic and does not really provide much in the way of the setting’s flavour—the pilot cards, the battlemech descriptions, and the novella all do a better job of that.

The rules themselves cover initiative, movement, and attacking with everything rolled on the two dice as needed. Whichever side wins the initiative goes second, allowing them to react to the actions of the loser. Each side then takes it in turn to move their battlemechs, each having a different number of Movement Points depending upon whether a battlemech is walking, running, or jumping. Movement is done hex by hex, Movement Points being paid to enter a hex—the heavier and more difficult the terrain, the greater the cost—and to change facing. Once movement is done, attacks can take place. This is done by taking the attacking pilot’s Gunnery skill and adding modifiers for his movement, the target’s movement, any intervening terrain, and range. This generates a number between two and twelve. If the roll is equal to the number or over, then the attack is successful. Hit location is then determined randomly and damage applied.

Included in the Quick-Start Rules are a few simple scenarios. These go from from one-on-one battles to adding terrain and additional battlemechs and a pair of battlemechs attempting to break out from behind enemy lines. There is some variation here, especially in mixing and matching the battlemechs fielded against each other. An experienced wargamer will probably be able to add more, but players new to the game and the hobby may have greater difficulty.

Overall, the rules are clear and easy to understand, and ably supported by some good examples. That said there are a couple issues with both them and the BattleTech Beginner Box. One is the use of the dice. The rules suggest using black, red, and hite dice to indicate the type of movement each battlemech has made on a turn, but there are just a pair of white dice in the box. This is obviously not enough. Now of course, dice are expensive and would have added to the cost of the set, but some movement tokens could have been included by increasing the size of the punchboard. The issue is what the rules do not cover and this is quite a lot in terms of BattleTech as a game. This includes piloting skills, critical hits, additional terrain, firing arcs and attack direction, more weapons and equipment, and so on… Again, to be fair, the BattleTech Beginner Box introduces the game’s rules, but arguably, some of these are so integral to the game of BattleTech—the rules for heat in particular—it would have nice to have seen them included in some advanced rules. 

From the design of a starter set or a beginner box, the BattleTech Beginner Box does also miss a trick. There is no, ‘What’s in this box’ sheet, explaining the box’s content and pointing out where start. There is a description of the box’s content in the Quick-Start Rules, but that is probably the sixth or seventh thing someone opening the box is going to look at, and even then, really only when they sit down to read the rules.

Physically, the BattleTech Beginner Box is an attractive box, well presented, the rules clearly written, and nicely illustrated. It is though, too basic a game for anyone with any experience with wargames and definitely too basic for anyone who has played BattleTech before. They will probably want to go straight onto BattleTech: A Game of Armored Combat. Nevertheless, BattleTech Beginner Box is still a good introduction to both the rules and the setting, decently priced, and attractive.

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