Monday, 25 April 2016

A bit of Nostalgia #2


Monday, and it seems to me a good time to look back at an old game once again.  This time I'm going to look at Battletech.

Oh boy, where to start with a game like this.  It is fair to say that Battletech is a beast of a game, one of those grand old monoliths where seeing the beginning is like an archaeological dig, and seeing the end involves some sort of time machine,  If you are as old as I am, then you already know that Battletech really is an ancient artifact, something which is now whispered in dark alcoves as, possibly, being the start of many peoples love of wargaming, may be even the beginning of skirmish gaming.  It was innovative and at the same time tactically complex.  It has, unfortunately in my opinion, been bashed around and in some cases altered beyond reproach by companies that bought up the IP when Fasa fell down, but it does deserve a lot of credit for what it once was (and you can play the Battletech:Classic system now which does maintain the old version of the game).

Battletech, at its heart, was a combat game pitting giant walking tanks against each other.  It's scope was expanded over time to include power armoured soldiers, tanks, aircraft and orbital dropships, but the Battlemechs were always the bread and butter of the game.  Using Hexagonal maps to allow players to work out movement and firing arcs, there was also no need for masses of scenary, and games could easily be played on a small table space.  More map sheets allowed for bigger games, but in general most of the time players would have 3-4 mechs (and may be a few other things on the map).

One of the best things about the game was that it introduced the idea of having separate record sheets for each of the Mechs you were using.  This included locational hit boxes, a variety of different states, and the weapon load out of each Mech.  Before the days of Apps, Battletech had a wide range of open source PC software that allowed you to print out the record sheets and then away you could go.  Bring in the Clan's (see below) and you could even customise the Mech's with different loadouts.  This was heavily written into the background why these guys had better Mech's, and the customisation was a big factor for them.  Now it is all explained lower down, but having never been a competitive game (Battletech was solely a social/scenario type game), this meant the person playing against the Clans was never really sure what they were fighting against.

As mentioned above, damage was location based, so you could blow bits of the Mech off, and to make that even better, the loadouts where recorded as being in certain locations, so weapons or heat sinks could fall off.  In addition firing some of the better weapons would generate heat, and if you let that get to high the Mech could overload and even explode.  There was so much to balance and think of, can you cool down fast enough?  Should you just Alpha Strike and then try and ditch heat over time, or take things easy, chip away at the enemy with weapon fire you can cope with in terms of heat.

Even though it was a good game, the thing that dragged most people into Battletech was the story line.  I don't think the concept of War game based literature would have held for so long if Battletech hadn't done so much.  There is an immense back catalogue of books written within the universe.  It all came from the initial story arch made by Fasa, and part of the problem with some of the more recent versions of the game is it took the story in a direction most fans of the original game just couldn't stomach.  Fasa's background starts quite simple.  The Galaxy is split into grand empires ruled by Noble families.  Since the fall of the last grand alliance of all the families (called the Star League), the Inner Sphere has been in a near continual state of war.  Battlemechs are archaic weapons, barely understood, and certainly nearly impossible to build, simply due to the erosion of manufacturing facilitates from warfare.  With just the core game, you can either play as a member of one of the Inner Sphere empire defence forces, or as wily Mercs trying to make a living.  As the game expanded, a sudden strike, from beyond the bounds of the Inner Spehere, by the Clan's throws everything in to turmoil.  The Inner Sphere has to band together or be swept aside by the near Alien levels of technology that the Clans possess.  A new Star League must be formed or all will be lost.

That was just the back drop, to what became a massively rich world.  Hundreds of books, mostly very well written, came out from a wide range of authors.  The origins of the Clans was revealed, new hidden powers emerged, and everything just kept moving at such a pace that you never knew everything that was going on, yet didn't ever feel lost.  Roleplay games were released allowing you to play as the individual Mech pilots (to varying degrees of success), there were so many computer games that appeared all of which just felt right and played so well.  It even got its own cartoon, which I watched religiously as a kid during the mid 90s.

I don't know how I would feel approaching this game now, if I didn't have the background of growing up with it.  Sure I could get hooked on the newer computer games, and I would probably be quite interested in the record sheet system, but it has become difficult to get the models (Ironwind now make them, but you could find them in most gaming shops at one point), the Heroclix version would probably put me off (though I might cope with the extended timeline story they have for it then), and the fact that its an old hex map "boardgame" might well not quite be as exciting as things like Malifaux and GuildBall.. but for me, if Man O'War got me to realise that large open scale war games could have much more tactical content, it was Battletech that made me realise just how good a War Game could be.  It forms a major bench mark that all other games I play now have to surpass for me to want to play it long term, a bench mark that Warhammer 40k has never even got close to.

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