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Subject: It was the best of games, it was the worst of games rss

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This review covers Battletech as a series, with reviews of individual products to follow. It is a very long review, due to the nature of the material.

Battletech: The Setting
Starting in the 23rd-century-or-so and running centuries thereafter, humanity has spread out across the stars. The human empire spans many worlds, starships abound, and a new technology called a BattleMech (sort of a vaguely humanoid giant robot tank) revolutionizes warfare. The setting for Battletech is truly epic, from a published scenario detailing the very first combat test of a Mech, to many centuries and universe-shaping events onward. Most players new to the game will start off in a universe where humanity is sort of divided up into a few interstellar nation-states, and different factions making up the "Inner Sphere" of humanity vie for control. Much of modern technology has been "lost" due to a sort of interstellar dark age brought about by constant warring, so armies sometimes pilot machines they can't even properly maintain with parts at hand.

But Battletech is a very modular system, so it's possible to play entirely without any knowledge of the story and just clash Mech against Mech. Or, you can have the detailed roleplaying of setting up your own interstellar alliances and in-univese scenarios of the different factions at war. How much story you want is entirely up to you, and it's where Battletech truly shines, from in-game flavor to various novels and worlds of fan-created work. (plus, giant robots. seriously.)

What you really get
Because the game is so modular, and because of the large and very dedicated fanbase, there are tons of ways to play this game. In different forms, Battletech has been featured in the Mechwarrior titles for PC, the Mechassault series for Xbox, and there are free- and pay-to-play internet servers and simulators of all sorts for both the original board game and its electronic counterparts. The form of Battletech most fans are familiar with involves wargaming with miniatures. As with many miniature games, you can start out as simply as laying out a sheet with a hex grid overlaid with paper markers, up to constructing your own buildings and trees and rolling greens and pulling out the tape measure to find lines of sight. It is the wargame with miniatures that is under consideration here.

Getting Started
Battletech has for a long time sported a good introductory boxed set, in some form or another. The new one comes with some miniatures, maps, and rulebooks- the quick introduction and a set of more advanced rules to take you up into some fairly advanced play. The series gets full marks on this account, being very accessible to the newcomer with generally clear rules. The beginner rules are also generally just a reduction of the larger ruleset, so beginners get an authentic experience that doesn't have to be re-learned to move to more advanced play. All a beginner really needs is some representation of the mechs involved in a scenario, a map to put them on, the stat sheets for those mechs, some pencils, and two six-sided dice. All but the pencils are in any good starter box.

The Real Meat: Mechanics
Battletech can be a lot of work. A beginning scenario can involve merely picking a few miniatures and having at it on a premade board, but then comes the tediousness of the very complete wargaming rules. Each weapon has its own attack and sometimes damage rolls, and especially on larger mechs, this can easily mean a dozen rolls per turn of combat. Movement can face rolls if you're damaged or trying to push your Mech too hard, and special weapon or environmental effects can add many more rolls to the equation.A starting scenario, with the beginner rules, with even just two of the larger Mechs can thus easily take a half-hour between looking up rules and rolling the mountains of dice necessary to resolve combat. Although this can be tedious, it also means the combat runs toward simulation, and has more depth than even most advanced players are comfortable with unless they have a big rulebook on hand.

You can also design your own Mechs- and to be fair, there's a world of infantry and conventional tanks and VTOL fighterjets and space warships and so forth as well but there's only so much review space here- and the mechanics for designing Mechs are very thorough and very flexible. Within reason, you can create a Mech to fulfill any combat role you desire. Again, you can participate in Battletech from the very immediate to the very deep, and it caters to all.

The Real Meat: Setting
When you really get down to the meat and potatoes of the setting, things kind of fall apart. Normally, gamers would be elated to find out that the mechanics are placed ahead of the flavor, but here it's created a great deal of awkwardness. Gigantic building-sized mechs weigh only up to 100 tons, while modern tanks can mass significantly more and stand under one story tall. The rules ask you to imagine that larger-caliber and more damage capable ballistic guns somehow have shorter range than their lower damage counterparts, which runs counter to basic physics. Ballistics are further complicated because massive Mech-sized guns barely clear a few hundred yards maximum range, while today's tanks could lob a shell miles away. Simple targeting computers run the same size and weight as a ton of missiles. This all works out really well in terms of play balance, but it's very shoddy in terms of realism.

For a series so heavily steep in the realism and grittiness of war in its flavor, these concessions can be pretty glaring. You can explain away the technological problems because of the "lost technology", and plenty of people have spent a lot of effort trying to do exactly that, but it's really something you're either willing to choke down or not.

The Big Picture
Ah, Battletech. Too rules-heavy for the masses, too deeply flawed for a swath of the hardcore. There's something beautiful between the extremes, and that's really where Battletech is best. You can pick a certain faction and build your custom Mechs if you're inclined, but the real fun is just slugging it out with giant robots and lasers and missiles oh my. If you haven't played it yet, pick up the Classic Battletech Introductory boxed set (the newest newbie box), which is really great and well-priced for what you get, find a grizzled veteran to help you through the finer aspects, and see if it's for you. If you like it, dig up the Total Warfare handbook that covers the vast bulk of the rules and options out there, and you're set. For all its flaws, Battletech is too good of a core experience not to recommend.

The Future and The Past
Battletech is neverending, in a lot of ways. Old parent company FASA has been in and out of bankruptcy and existance perhaps a few times now. New parent companies have largely continued the old vision, without much advance for good or for ill. The story is always advancing, although in recent years it has taken a turn for the cyclical with a sort of death and rebirth cycle. And I haven't even mentioned the Clan invasion that completely rocked and reshaped the story! It's clear this series will be alive and well for a long time coming, and you'll spend as much time getting your head wrapped around what's come before as you will trying to keep up with what's new.
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ronaldinho @boardspace.net
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Love the reference. I didn't like that novel as much as his other ones though. I liked Great Expectations better.
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Lance McMillan
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Curious that while you mentioned the PC and X-Box versions of the game, you didn't mention "Mechwarrior: Dark Ages," the clicky-base miniatures game of Battletech marketed by the now defunct Wizkids. It's certainly as true to the Battletech storyline (and considerably more fun to play) than that awful X-Box Mechwarrior game. Also odd that you didn't discuss the two versions of the higher level "Battleforce" game based in the Battletech universe which, frankly, were very innovative and much faster-playing mecha games.

My biggest problem with Battletech has always been how paperwork intensive it is. Weisman's basic system for Battletech was an obvious derivative of the ancient (1930's vintage) "Fletcher Pratt's Naval Battles" game: players rolling dice to determine the location and extent of damage inflicted by each individual weapon, and then checking off little boxes on status charts to keep track of the totals. It's unfortunate that nobody in the long history of the game ever thought to find a different (i.e. easier and less bureaucratic) method of resolving combat when there are so many excellent alternatives out there. It's kind of sorry, actually, as it's clear there's plenty of interest in the "big fighty robots" genre out there, but I suspect that the unwillingness of the rabidly loyal Battletech fan base out there to accept any amount of change to their game would inevitably doom any effort to reform the system.

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Brant Benoit
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Also, don't forget about the two Microsoft titles; MechCommander, and MechCommander 2.
I've only played MechCommander 2, but it seemed to capture the feel and flavor of the miniatures game better than any other title. Too bad the game wasn't very popular.
I'm glad I still have my copy, and if I get the inkling, I can still sit down and play without all the paperwork.
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Wulf Corbett
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Personally, my favourite Battletech version was the CCG - BattleTech CCG. It seemed to capture the flavour of Battletech better than any other CCG met it's theme.

But after many years of playing the minis game, membership in Mechforce UK, even a couple of competitions, the munchkin-like acceleration of forces (anything after the introduction of the Clans, basically), and the inherent implausibility of the technology drove me away.

I remember a paragraph on the back cover of the early edition of Heavy Gear Tactical - Not your fathers giant robot game! I'll take Heavy Gear any day now.
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Jim Patterson
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Nice overview.

About the weapons, regarding which you make good points: Sure, the weapons ranges and the like could be more realistic, but they wouldn't fit the scale desired and they wouldn't be as playable. In the end, one simply accepts the fiction of BT weapons or plays something else.
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John "Omega" Williams
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Battletechs combat system was a good balance between the minimalist approaches of other games and the hyper realism of yet others. The system gave a great feel of robot combat with parts flying, ammot blowing out and those truely lethal head shots you occasinally score.

Mekton though in the end beat out Battletech for sheer versatility and a more streamlined battle system. Two excellent giant robot miniatures games.
 
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A Morris
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First off, good review! I usually don't look on the Geek for BattleTech stuff, but tonight I was bored and decided to look...

Now on to the nit picky part...
cheapasgamer wrote:

The Real Meat: Setting
When you really get down to the meat and potatoes of the setting, things kind of fall apart. Normally, gamers would be elated to find out that the mechanics are placed ahead of the flavor, but here it's created a great deal of awkwardness. Gigantic building-sized mechs weigh only up to 100 tons, while modern tanks can mass significantly more and stand under one story tall. The rules ask you to imagine that larger-caliber and more damage capable ballistic guns somehow have shorter range than their lower damage counterparts, which runs counter to basic physics. Ballistics are further complicated because massive Mech-sized guns barely clear a few hundred yards maximum range, while today's tanks could lob a shell miles away. Simple targeting computers run the same size and weight as a ton of missiles. This all works out really well in terms of play balance, but it's very shoddy in terms of realism.

For a series so heavily steep in the realism and grittiness of war in its flavor, these concessions can be pretty glaring. You can explain away the technological problems because of the "lost technology", and plenty of people have spent a lot of effort trying to do exactly that, but it's really something you're either willing to choke down or not.


Now this is documented (somewhere) in one of the many books I've read on BattleTech, but I couldn't tell you where at the moment. One of the key things to remember with the BattleTech universe is that you can't compare current technology to BattleMech technology. First off, the ranges as listed are effective ranges. BattleMechs don't just show up and duke it out. There's a pile of ECM, chaff, and other countermeasures floating around the battlefield which make targeting ugly. I think it's clear the weapons could fire farther, but it would never hit anything as targeting is ineffective. Current technology would only be able to hit a BattleMech on a lucky shot, and I'm guessing the ranges would be at least half what BattleTech ranges are. Since there's no time travel in the BattleTech universe (thank you!) it's not a real issue.

A BattleMech vs. non-BattleMech technology is just nasty and rarely even comes to blows. (Note, most vehicles in the BattleTech universe are fitted with BattleMech technology to make them somewhat effective.)

BattleMechs also move FAST compared to current armor and due to Neuro-Helmets, their reaction and mobility are second to none. Imagine traveling 100+km/h over rough terrain in a humanoid striding tank. Now imagine trying to hit something moving that fast over the terrain without a computer assisted targeting. Targeting systems in the BattleTech universe are anything but simple. Do they weigh a ton? Maybe not, but maybe they take the same amount of space as a ton of ammo would take...

The larger caliber weapons you are talking about I'm guessing are Auto Cannons. One thing to note, the difference in size between AC ratings is not just minor. An AC/5 uses 20mm rounds and a high rate of fire. An AC/20 uses ~200mm rounds and fires ~60 rounds per minute. Depending on the load of the propellant (I'm guessing powder isn't used here) that distance could be quite a bit shorter to ensure the rounds are still manageable. The way I've always described it like this: think of a 22 rifle vs. a 12 guage shotgun with slugs. You're not going to get the same range out of the slug, but at closer range the damage from the shotgun slug will far exceed the 22.

Oh, and there are rules for handling ranges longer than listed (higher modifiers to the to-hit rolls).

The tonnage limits are mostly done for game balance I agree, but in the scope of the game the limitation is due to the technology that allows BattleMechs to move as they do. 100 tons is the limitation of that technology. Why are tanks limited to 100tons? Game balance.

Now the bottom line is any game is dependent on a player being able to accept the technology and the explanation given as to why things are they way they are. Most space games depend on the player accepting faster than light speeds. Fusion reactors are common place in most Sci-Fi gaming. Horror games depend on the belief of the supernatural and/or occult.

Should these things be given more time in the light in BattleTech? Maybe, but only if it keeps you up late at night...

Well, now that the dead horse has well beaten, I'm going to go and read some Geeklists...
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Chester Hendrix
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100 + Tonners
Quote:
The tonnage limits are mostly done for game balance I agree, but in the scope of the game the limitation is due to the technology that allows BattleMechs to move as they do. 100 tons is the limitation of that technology. Why are tanks limited to 100 tons? Game balance.
I may take exception to that. Back in the heyday I created a little module that used a matrix to give you your 'Design Tonnage' based on your total tonnage, cross-referenced with your speed [Walk / Run factors]. Once you get the unchanging basics - your engine size, internal structure, etc - you are left with a certain tonnage that goes to weapons, armor, etc.

As I was crunching the numbers, I inadvertently went too far and discovered that you can have Mechs that are over 100 tons. In fact you can go all the way up to 130 tons! Of course, the Walk / Run factors suck, but the armor you can carry is inhibiting. And the physical attacks were freaking amazing! I had a 130 ton Marauder [I called it the SPANISH DANCER] that did something like 40 points of damage if it connected with a kick attack - don't get close.

The basic inhibitor is the size vs speed. We referred to these as SEIGE MECHS and treated them as unique vehicles or one-of-a-kind jobs. They could never keep up with anything, but they were very hard to kill. We mainly used them as bunker busters. They were devastating in city fights. Think of WWII German BRUMMBARS.

They were certainly cool! We used the old, original BT miniatures which were larger than all the other minis in scale. As 100+ tonners, though, they seemed just fine on the field.

Probably sold about 200 of these kits back in the day... ahhhh.... memories...cool
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