Thinking about Battletech

Ah Battletech. What a classic. I got the 4th edition starter box when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, then a few minis, and played a bunch with friends. I took a long, long hiatus on the game (long enough that I even FORGOT I had the starter box if you can believe that), and ended up picking up a duplicate second copy maybe 5-6 years later, played for another ~3-5 years, then moved onto other things. During that time we tried campaigns, we used an old program called “Design Depot” to make piles and piles of custom Mechs (step 1: max armor, step 2: put in XL engine, step 3: load up on weapons), and had a pretty darn fun time with the game. Later on I played Mech Attack, which uses a damage template system similar to the old old Renegade Legion (another FASA product). And even later after that me and my semi-original Battletech gaming group considered what our own custom version of the game would look like.

Because here’s the thing with Battletech…the rules are solid and simple to pick up. Roll 2D6 to hit, 2D6 for location, damage is flat (unless a missile system), you manage your heat, and you whittle down the enemy. BUT I have two big problems with the system though, that emerged over time and with repeated plays of all different types. The first is a 1vs1 type Mech vs Mech match up, especially with Assault tonnage, is really boring and not very tactical or interesting. Basically comes down to a roll off of shooting, damaging, crossing out boxes, and hoping for some good internal criticals. A huge part of this is a basic Assault mech has 3 movement, on a paper map that is traditionally about 18 hexes by 15 hexes. And changing 1 facing costs 1 movement. So you can imagine the glacial snail battle that emerges. We literally ended battles by standing beside each other and just rolling to hit until someone exploded.
So then you think “oh I’ll play Lance vs Lance (4 mechs per side) instead!” Except the game scales terribly as you’re shuffling sheets and micromanaging a lot of (kind of) dull information.
There just isn’t a happy middle ground. Which makes me sad because I have a lot of Battletech minis and fond memories of the game, and would love to be excited to play it again, but I kind of know what awaits. In hindsight, or maybe for future plays (if ever), I think having a scenario and different deployment/setup would help, as would using comparable designs from an early, non-crazy year like 3025 or 3050. But I’ve been singing the second part of that sentence for a long time now, as I ended up really disliking our super optimized, kinda samey custom designs, whereas I like the official designs that had flaws and failings you had to work around (like a real war machine).

Reworking Battletech

So what does all this mean? Well, I took a quick brainstorm this weekend and rough pass at some reworked rules. I tried simplifying each Mech sheet so that it could fit 4 to a page, and designing rules around a Lance vs Lance. Which meant a simplified to-hit system (instead of counting up a bunch of modifiers each time), and simplifying the internal slot structure of the Mechs. Then I tried a super duper rough playtest. And after some notes and messing around I decided Battletech done that way just feels like Dinosaur Cowboys but with hit locations and heat. Maybe it’s my own shortcomings, but I was already imagining porting over the different deployment types from Dinosaur Cowboys, after I basically setup my 4 Mechs half a dozen hexes from the edge of the paper map. Sure I could inject more interesting tactical decisions compared to actual Battletech, like having a simple reaction system (where you the defender can move, return fire, or hunker down), and I could get the location tracking to a single roll as part of the to-hit, but really it would just be a skirmish game but with Mechs instead of soldiers (or cowboys 🙂 ). And then I kind of lost steam at the idea of making that, because it felt like retread ground.

I was thinking that the fun part of Battletech, besides the pile of existing designs, is how there are parts where you feel like you’re managing a big stompy robot. So THEN I was thinking what about if I went the complete opposite direction, and instead of trimming the rules to work for 4vs4, I made them MUCH more interesting for 1vs1. Think of a game like FTL: Faster Than Light (a truly amazing, well designed, genre defining game). In that the developers considered having ship movement in space, but it didn’t add much. What if the movement in Battletech doesn’t actually add much? Especially in a 1vs1 situation. What about if the real game could be managing the power, heat, routing of damaged subsystems, targetting and firing, stabilizing, etc. of the Mech? Pushing the Mech to it’s limits, squeezing every ounce of performance from it like a true veteran pilot would. Almost like how Fickle RPG turned the actual act of dice resolution into a (for lack of a better term) minigame. All of which could have the interesting, meaningful decisions I so crave from a game.

Instead of trying to make a simple paper map with basic terrain and slow movement into some kind of super cool tactical simulator, maybe the focus should be on the Mech itself. How to do all that AND make it fun is the question, of course. But one I want to spend some time trying to answer.

My gut instinct would be a dice placement game like One Deck Dungeon or the computer game Dicey Dungeons (or Sagrada to a certain extent). Lots of space on a big record sheet for that kind of thing, and starting your turn by rolling a slew of D6s then messing around with them would be cool. Or a bag builder like Dice Masters or even a Yahtzee style roll-and-do-stuff like Dice Throne.

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