Some Thoughts on My Experience with Battletech,

I got into Battletech when my aircraft carrier was stuck over in the Persian Gulf for ten months. This game made the time pass quickly and enjoyably (well, as enjoyable as an extended tour in the Gulf gets). I came home and immediately began teaching my son to play the game. He's eight.

We had a blast. The background and rules of Battletech have been hammered out and worked on for the past twenty years, not just by FASA, but by the Battletech players themeselves. This give-and-take teamwork results in a very 'real'-feeling universe, one where quirky people - just like you and me - exist. The details and characters have the odd, unexpected taste of reality, and that adds so much to the gaming experience. It becomes easier to suspend disbelief, and that's vitally important in this game.

Unreal Reality?

After all, we're talking about giant robots which are, somehow, inherently superior to conventional tanks and aircraft. Even though all these weapons of war have access to the same futuristic technology, somehow the giant robots are way, way more powerful than conventional arms. I have a friend of many years who refuses to touch the game because of this. He played tabletop wargames back in the old days of sand tables and 1/76th scale models, and he just can't get his head around the concept of battlemechs. He won't even discuss Cav, a game which attempts to make the mecha concept more palatable. A close look at the rules for Battletech reveals why.

A Method to Their Madness, or How They Did It - And Why
The designers wanted a game where the battlemech was the 'queen of battles', the top dog. Doing that in an anime production is not difficult - you just show the 'mech dodging cannon fire, then blowing a tank up with one shot. But playing a tabletop wargame is different. What they did was, they removed a layer of survivability from the conventional vehicles. It works like this:

Imagine a conventional vehicle of any type as a single box filled with fresh eggs. The outside of the box is covered in armor, in some cases very thick armor. The box walls themselves have a specific amount of punishment they can absorb before the box ruptures. Once a bullet or a punch or a laser breaks through the armor and the box wall - on any side, mind you - the eggs are ruined. And the unit is now salvage. Even if the box wall is only damaged, there is still a chance of critical damage which will partially or even completely ruin the vehicle

Now imagine a diagram of a man. Divide the torso into three parts - left, center and right - and add the arms, legs and head. Imagine each of these as its own, separate box, complete with armor. As with the vehicle 'box', you have to penetrate the armor to get at the internal structure (the box walls). If you go internal, there's a chance of scoring up to three critical hits (and destroying whatever was in the slot you hit). Damage to the arms results in poorer aiming skills with weapons in that arm. Damage to the legs reduces your movement, with often-disastrous results. Internal damage to the torso sections may result in ruined weapons, increased heat from a cracked fusion power plant shield, or even a spectacular ammunition explosion which destroys the battlemech! Finally, a head shot which goes internal may kill the pilot.

Notice the difference? No matter how big the tank, no matter how destructive its firepower, it's still just a single box. If you get through any side, and destroy the internal structure on that side, the entire tank is ruined. Worthless. A Battlemech, on the other hand, can lose both arms, a leg and both left and right torso - and can, conceivably, still stand upright and fire back (although not with much). It sounds silly, but as long as the vitals of the 'mech aren't destroyed (the engine shielding, the gyro, the cockpit), this anime-spawned monster can survive and even fight back.

And that's how the Battlemech got to be top dog in the Battletech universe.

Level 3 Rules were created (and we use them all the time) to increase the survivability of tanks, wheeled vehicles, hovercraft and VTOLs. The designers realized that the uneven playing field they'd created had pretty much guaranteed no one would ever play anything but battlemechs. Yet, most of the stories they told in the popular paperback books and in the supplements for the RPG, spoke of the frequent use of combined arms - that is, weapons of war other than 'mechs.

Of course, the question on every player's lips was "why would I field conventional weapons in the game, if these are so inferior to the battlemech?" The desired link between what a person read in the books and what he tried to play out on the table was weakened, and this was bad for business. A good quarter of the miniatures designed and sold for the game are non-Battlemech-related. I don't know exactly what each gamemaster did for their own group, but the sum result was Level 3 Rules. Essentially, these were all the 'house rules' ever submitted by players, vetted by the game designers themselves and designated for 'non-Tournament' play. They are all in a supplement called Maximum Tech. Some were so popular and effective, they actually made it into Level 2, or Standard, Rules!

History Repeats Itself: Will Big Egos Ruin the Game?

Unfortunately, it almost did for us. All of the miniatures purchased, all the wonderful paint jobs and custom decals and memorizing of the rules, is wasted effort if you have no one else with whom you can play the game. I'm not talking one-on-one - that is fun, but the best fun is to be had with loads of other players, even organizations of them. And that is where this game begins to fail.

The sad fact is, the only local CBT organization in our area is very, very clique-ish. Let me expand on this through a couple of personal anecdotes. We tried organizing a tournament, even offered prize money. No takers. We were ignored by most of the gamers at the shop, including the local Battletech League. We joined this Battletech League. We were still ignored. We even attended a couple of weekend scenario games. Every Friday, we'd show up with our miniatures and our sheets and our rulebooks, only to be told 'sorry, I'm playing someone else' or 'I don't have time'. Curiously, no one was forthcoming with their phone numbers so we could arrange a game weeks in advance. Nor did they respond to posts on their website forum. It seemed they considered playing with 'n00bs' a chore, someone else's job.

The Balance Tips

We put up with this for about six months, but the last straw was a scenario game set up with two of the more experienced players in the League. Just looking at the table, and at what they brought, and the rules for successfully completing the scenario, I could tell this was going to be a slaughter. But me n' the kid put our game faces on, and went in with a will.

It broke my heart to see my son go from an excited kid, running in and out of the room with his battle plans, to a sad little guy who had finally realized the deck was stacked against us. Our opponents were simply jerks.

All of this happened in a matter of hours. I watched my son wilt as the opponents badgered him to 'hurry up' with his movement and shooting, so they could get their licks in with their purpose-built Assault 'mech killers. It wasn't that we were going to lose, it wasn't that they were going to take whatever they wanted of our ruined 'mechs, it wasn't that they were going to walk away with all the victory points.

It was that they didn't need our stuff, they didn't need the victory points (they had hundreds already, in a game where an evening's play might net you eight points, if you were lucky). And they went to great lengths to remind us of this time and again. The game, for them, wasn't about winning any of this stuff - it was about denying it to us. In other words, my son and I were, quite simply, being used to feed this pair's egos. Apparently, with thirty years experience between them (as opposed to our two), they didn't see us as enough of a challenge. No 'honor' in it, no 'winning worship', as the Pagans used to call it.

We still lasted ten rounds, finally quitting after one of the players accused us of going deliberately slow (they fielded nothing but Assault 'Mechs, while we fielded Heavy and Medium units and tried to make the most of our speed). Of course, we forfeited our share of the victory points, as we had to go home for dinner.

Where Does the Game Go from Here?

Not very far, I'm afraid. Between FanPro and Wizkids, the interest in the game (not all that great, even at the best of times) is waning. Too much for the new gamer to take in, not enough promotion, not enough sociable players taking it to the people. In other words, not enough to enable Battletech to successfully compete with the rest of the card games, game consoles, online RPGs and whatnot which clutters today's gaming scene. See, the point is not that we lost. Frankly, I knew enough of these two jerks to expect a loss, going into the scenario.

No, what really got me steamed was that they very nearly killed my son's interest in the entire game. I have been very carefully blowing on the remaining embers of his interest, and being very generous with the tinder. You see, I want my kid to know something besides how to rule at Halo 2. He already knows how to dry-brush paint a miniature. I want him to have some kind of skill or interest in a non-video related hobby, one that he can pass on to HIS child, when the time comes for such things.

That's not going to happen with the current generation of CBT gamers. I am pretty confident of this. The game, as it stands, does not attract sociable players - that is, people who try to fulfill (or even acknowledge) the implied social contract of a public game. They simply don't care if anyone else in the world ever plays the game again. They cme to play, get their jollies, and leave. It's someone else's job to recruit and teach the newbies.

Of the twenty or so members of this League, I think maybe two of them are actually decent players who will put something under 90 tons on the table. The rest? Pfah! They are good for nothing but discouraging and driving off any new blood that might try to play the game. But it is much worse than this. This asocial mindset is quickly killing off even the supposed 'entry level' version of the game.

Where MechWarrior:Dark Age Fails the Gamer

It's not a question of complex rules vs. simple clicktech, either. The Mechwarrior: Dark Age crowd around here is almost all late twenties to early forties by now. Why? Because this 'entry level' game suffers from 'rich-kid syndrome', and without a product-linked cartoon to drive sales (eg; Yu-Gi-Oh), it is rapidly becoming something only the deep of pockets can play. You think a kid can walk in and pick up the game? Why should he?

This 'dumbed-down' version of the original game has become so complicated, you need to study the rulebook, and all the errata and extensions to the game they've made since early 2004 (the last update to the rules on WizKid's website). Worse, you're hosed if you don't have full color vision (something I lack) to keep track of what does what on the base. It's actually far worse now than CBT.

With CBT, your rules are right in the book, and the rest is on an easily-read 'mech or vehicle sheet. Each player takes turns moving, then takes turns shooting. Every vehicle or 'mech gets to shoot, because it's all considered simultaneous. In Mechwarrior:Dark Age, the game is turn-based, and I have seen armies designed to lock down or utterly annihilate the opponent on Turn One. With clicktech, you have the same problem the Warhammer folks do - rules lawyers poking loopholes in the existing rules and then jumping through them. Cheesemongers abound, but as the game gets more and more complicated, the interactions get beyond the playtester's ability to predict - or weed out - and so far, WizKids has not shown any tendency to revise the rules (they have the same problem with Pirates of the Spanish Main, IMHO). They just pile on more 'corrections' in the form of new abilities, in the next expansion. Feh. I predict even 'collectibility' will not save this version of the game from extinction within a few years. Why collect if none of your friends play? Why will your friends play if the only gamers at the table are you and a bunch of grumpy old guys?

On the other hand, the most common abuse you will find with CBT is in a tournament or league-style 'kill kill kill' environment, where the type of scenario most often played is 'my side against your side, with a set Battle Value, and our respective 'mechs min-maxed out the wazoo. Objective: Kill everything in sight.' Naturally, this setting, repeated for, oh, about five to eight years, yields some weird players and a league list consisting mostly of assault-type 'mechs. Nothing else survives. About the only saving graces for Classic Battletech are as follows: (a) the rules are pretty much finished, and conveniently packaged, and (b) the miniatures cost what they cost - there is no collectability factor to drive the price through the roof and no new, abusive 'abilities' to go with the higher-costed miniatures.

Did I mention you can paint them, they are made of pewter, and you can collect them if you like? Even make dioramas from them? Not to mention the roleplaying that enters even the most combat-oriented games? This game has attractions beyond the combat itself.

And In Conclusion...

So yeah, the game has problems. But it's not the designer's fault. Most of the CBT players we've met haven't got the time, the imagination or the talent to write scenarios which actually involve goals other than blowing everything up.

Right now, we are participating in a once-a-month game up in Everett, Washington State. It's a long drive from Bremerton, but I try to make the whole thing as much an adventure as possible. And as pleasant as it can be. The kid really is good at the game, especially in the cockpit of a Thunderbolt.

I just hope the game is still around for me to play with the grandkids.....