Mechwarrior: Dark Age was the successor to FASA's Battletech, and was third game in Wiz Kids' series of miniature wargames using the unique stat-dial-in-the-base design originally introduced in Mage Knight (and later used in HeroClix). It's sold in starters and boosters, similar to a CCG; starters, which are only available from the first set, have the rules, dice, and measuring tape needed to play, as well as a one 'mech, two vehicles, and four infantry pieces, all randomly selected from the models in that set. The expansion sets, which introduce new models to the pool of available models, are cheaper and smaller and don't have the rules and such, and have one 'mech, one vehicle, and two infantry models, also randomly selected from the models in the set. Later, a "starter set" (not to be confused with a starter pack, natch) was released with a fixed assortment of models and the rules and accoutrements needed for two players to start playing MW:DA.
The game is set in the 32nd century AD, after the reunification of the Inner Sphere and the Clans against the cult of the Word of Blake. A generation has passed since the Blakists were finally defeated, an entire generation that has lived without war. However, the sudden and unexplained collapse of the part-religion, part-information network ComStar has shattered this tranquility, and, free to move unseen, leaders are rallying their forces and moving against historic foes or political enemies, looking for conquest or century-old revenge, often even pressing previously non-military 'mechs into combat service.
The rules for creating an army are roughly similar to Mage Knight. Before a game, the player chooses a number of units with a total point value (units have a point value proportionate to their abilities printed on the base) equal to or less than an agreed number. (Games were originally played with 300 points and three orders, but the tournament rules, and thus a great deal of casual play, would later shift to 450 points and three orders) All of a unit's statistics are printed on a dial in the base, or on the face of the base itself, removing the need for separate unit profiles or charts to use a unit. In addition, any special abilities of a model are represented by a different color background for one of the numbers, and a quick-reference card listing all of these abilities is included in the game. Some examples are pulse lasers, streak missiles, armor-piercing weapons, etc. The true innovation is the fact that damage is represented by turning this dial a number of clicks, lowering (usually) the stats of the damaged unit proportionally to the amount of damage taken.
The basics aside, there are three kinds of units to choose from: infantry, vehicles, and battlemechs.
Infantry are mounted on circular, small bases, and generally represent a squad of foot infantry or a star of Elementals/battlesuits. Infantry tend to be, well, a bit outmatched on an individual level. However, their low point cost and decent mobility (especially compared to vehicles) makes them ideal for use in support of heavier vehicles or in a swarm capacity, due to the ranged combat formation rules. Generally, they are useless outside of formations, however.
Vehicles are vehicles of all shapes and sizes on a rounded-rectangular base. The roles of vehicles in the game vary greatly depending on the actual abilities of the vehicle in question, whether it be the support vehicles for command or repair, the scout vehicles for capturing territory, or the heavily armed missile boats and main battle tanks (some of which can reasonably go toe-to-toe with a battlemech). The biggest disadvantage vehicles have, however, is their complete lack of melee ability. In addition, while many tanks can do truly prodigious amounts of damage, they lack the manueverability of true battlemechs, limiting their use on the battlefield.
Battlemechs, or just simply 'mechs, are the centerpiece of this game, and get the lion's share of the rules. How often do you get to play a game where you have giant humanoid robots weighing dozens of tons storm their way across the battlefield? While this isn't the place to be listing all of the rules for playing 'mechs, suffice it to say that mechs have a number of special rules giving them greater manueverability than infantry or vehicles with the same "speed" stat, due to their ability to run, charge, etc. ('Mechs also have two different attacks on the dial to choose from.) The big difference is that 'mechs have a separate minidial for representing heat buildup, called the "heat dial". Making special manuevers or taking consecutive actions ("pushing") builds up heat, which is represented by turning the heat dial. Increased heat only reduces movement and damage caused by attacks at first, but as it builds up, it can cause ammo explosions, weapons shutdowns, or even a full shutdown of the 'mech. (The heat dial is one of the big differences between this game and Wiz Kids' previous offerings.)
The rules for actual gameplay are superficially similar to Mage Knight as well. The player recieves a number of actions equal to the original point value of his or her army divided by 100. (Sometimes the scenario or tournament rules will modify this.) An action can be given to a unit to order it (or formation, but that's more complicated than neccessary in a summary) to move, to shoot (if it has a ranged attack and there is a valid target), or to do a melee attack with that unit (assuming the unit is in base-to-base contact with an enemy unit). This is a simplification, obviously, since 'mechs have a special order for venting heat, as well as a number of special manuevers, and there are rules for fatigue from multiple consecutive orders and such.
The game was, originally, a great deal more dynamic than Mage Knight. Rather than having occasional units with Charge or Running Shot, you have essentially a whole class of units ('mechs) which can dance circles, manueverwise, around the other two types of troops in the game. However, 'mechs are also quite expensive points-wise to balance this, of course. The game lacks the enhancement recursion that was killing Mage Knight for so long - the only way a unit can contribute to an attack is to fight as a formation, as there are no "enhancement"-style special abilities in MW:DA. In addition, the problem of formations that compse one's entire force is dealt with, with limitations on the size and composition of movement formations (3-5 units, no 'mechs).
To the possible disappointment of long-time Battletech fans, the gameplay has little in common with its predeccessor. 'Mech creation from scratch, or even alteration of existing 'mechs, isn't possible, due to the fact that the model and their bases are premade. (This is balanced, however, by the number and variety of 'mechs and configurations. Even two 'mechs with same name and different ranks won't play quite the same.) Turns often won't let a play more their entire force, due to a possible shortage of orders, and running and gunning isn't quite as feasible against stationary targets as it used to be. The big change, though, is that battlemechs fight melee. A lot. It's a rare game that a 'mech doesn't find itself in at least an opportunistic melee against a vulnerable vehicle, and most of the Industrial battlemechs are melee-only.
At least, that's how it was before the expansions. WizKids would release experimental models with edge-case abilities as "Limited Edition" or (LE), won by participating or winning in local tournaments. These models would become necessary to compete at high levels of tournament play (and could be dominating in casual play), so demand and price skyrocketed. Since the only way to get them was through WizKids' fan-participation program, there was quite a bit of bad feeling and corruption going on with the tournament organizer program. Organizers would claim have run tournaments that never happened to sell the prizes on eBay, players would go from casual tournament to casual tournament with a top-tier tournament army to walk off with the prizes meant to encourage a weekly game day.
That was a problem that soured tournament play, be it a bunch of enthusiasts playing in their semi-monthly game day or the national championships, but it could have had a silver lining; the LEs should have allowed WizKids to test out what edge cases would make the game different and interesting and what edge cases would simply break the game. Unfortunately, WK stubbornly refused to learn their lessons, and each expansion introduced new problems.
Fire For Effect was the first expansion after the original set (known simply as "Dark Age"), and it introduced artillery and transports. Artillery would initially be well-received; players were more annoyed by some extremely strong new infantry and a new tactic known as "tank drop," where players would load a heavy tank into a transport, move the transport forward, drop the tank out, and fire immediately with that tank. It wasn't game-breaking, but it did a lot to diminish the value of 'mechs, as a tank-dropping transport was almost as mobile as a mech, certainly more heavily-armed, and often cheaper. What was becoming game-breaking was an all-infiltration army, able to lock down a game on the first turn, but WK wouldn't nerf this tactic until well after artillery had taken over.
Death from Above introduced VTOLs (helicopters), as well as a largely-unimportant new faction and mercenaries. VTOLs were able to evade melee entirely, able move and shoot in a single turn, tended to be fast, and tended to be cheap, meaning that they did everything 'mechs could do, for a fraction of the cost. (They weren't very tough, but the lower point cost more than made up for this.) Anyone who had any hopes of 'mechs being the dominating unit in MW:DA was disappointed at this point, as artillery was slowly becoming the main means of dealing damage, and units with the infiltration ability and VTOLs were used to try and take out the opponent's all-important artillery.
Liao Incursion introduced a new faction, with what would later be called Faction Pride abilities, which encouraged players to play an army made mostly of units from a single faction. The Liao faction abilities would have basically zero effect on the tournament scene, as artillery continued to dominate. WK increased the point totals for standard tournament games to 450 to try and allow players to play more-expensive 'mechs, but this only encouraged huge swarms of cheap infantry to protect the increasingly-powerful artillery units. It didn't help that about this time WizKids made a series of unpopular but ultimately necessary changes to the way tournament games were run, including a rollback of the free LE prize system.
One would think, after two expansions and nearly nine months of artillery dominating even casual play, that WizKids would have realized that artillery is starting to become imbalanced. Nope. By the time Counterassult came along with even more super-powerful artillery units, MW:DA was well and totally broken. Armies would consist of between two and four super-powered artillery units, massive swarms of very cheap infantry to make sure they weren't engaged in melee or attacked by non-VTOL vehicles, and a couple VTOLs or a light, cheap 'mech to try and attack the enemy's artillery or prevent attacks on your own artillery. This situation only persisted, as WizKids would be bought by baseball card maker Topps, and MW:DA wouldn't see a new expansion for nearly a year. (This is the point at which I quit, so I don't really have a tournament or community perspective at this point. Any curent players are free to msg me with or node a later perspective.)
After the dust settled from the Topps takeover, WK released Falcon's Pride, which I'm given to understand did little to address the gameplay imbalances, but did have quite a few 'mechs that were closer to their points value.
Six months or so later, WK released Mechwarrior: Age of Destruction, which is intended to be a revamp of the rules, obsoleting many of the older pieces and rules. This just came out as of this noding, so the implications are hardly realized.
The old Battletech and Mechwarrior rules are still being printed and expanded upon by a German company named FanPro (at www.classicbattletech.com) under the name Classic Battletech, with new books being planned all the way up to the beginning of the Dark Age.
Note: This was written after the release of the first set, and is quite out of date. It's an interesting look at how WizKids adapted the old designs to the new style and rules, however, and is being kept for that purpose.
Battlemechs in MechWarrior: Dark Age
Of particular interest to fans of other games in the Classic Battletech (the events predating 3100 and the beginning of the Dark Age) is the return (as rarer "uniques", in most cases) of a number of the better-known older 'mechs. The iconic Mad Cat/Timber Wolf, Atlas, Hatchetman, Catapult, and others are all back, and, yes, are modeled well and are extremely frightening in combat (although with weaknesses and/or high point cost to match). Some older designs, however, like the Spider and the Ryoken, have been radically redesigned, although to the same level of quality set by the other models.
Longtime Battletech fans may be curious about the status of their favorite 'mechs. While the limitations of the collectable miniatures don't allow for all of their favorites to be in every set, Wiz Kids is slowly reintroducing many fan favorites, along with some new designs.
Not included in this list are Industral 'Mechs or battlesuits, almost all of which of which are new designs.
Without further ado, the battlemechs!
- Spider - The Spider has been restyled, and is the only 'mech that bears any resemblance to mecha. These tend toward melee special abilities.
- Koshi - A.k.a the Mist Lynx, this has been redesigned to have more functional, brutal, vaguely Russian styling. These tend towards short range ballistic attacks and high defense.
- Black Hawk - A.k.a. Nova. Unchanged other than missile pods where the lasers used to be, these are all over the place. It is, as always, one of the most versatile 'mech chassis.
- Centurion - Similar to older designs, but the arms are chunkier.
- Firestarter - No major changes, although the autocannon variant is also available as an LE (and also in the expansion, FFE).
- Panther - One of the worst new redesigns, this redesign is angular and awkwardly posed, as well as awful to actually play.
- Arbalest - One of the new designs, this is an overgunned, underspeed light 'mech with a curvaceous frame.
- Pack Hunter - Another radical redesign, this now has big chunky claws, a jet pack, and shoulder-mounted PPC.
- Legionnaire - A new design, it's a mailbox with rotary autocannon/5 on top. Fast and hard hitting, but terrible heat management.
- Mad Cat III - Yet another Mad Cat/Timber Wolf variant (and another new design), this one is a medium 'mech with an energy outlay, plus the traditional LRM/20 packs.
- Ryoken II - The successor to the Ryoken/Stormcrow, this new heavy 'mech is a massively armored ballistic firebase, nothing like its successor.
- Tundra Wolf - Another new heavy 'mech, this new design is curiously the most like the old Ral Partha designs, with gun arms and shoulder mounts.
- Atlas - A radical redesign, this 'mech has spikes and skulls as well as a more rounded carapace.
- Jupiter - The last of the new 'mechs, this assault mech looks like a Lego robot with guns glued on every which-way. It looks impressive, though, despite the fact that the model is a tad small.