August 22, 2016 by crew
Good afternoon, Beasts of War. My name is James Johnson, better known on Beasts of War as @oriskany. Just in case you’ve heard the rumour that my next article series will in fact NOT deal with the fire-scorched, gunmetal majesty that is military historical wargaming … well, what can I say? I’m afraid those rumours are true.
Now before you build that bomb shelter and stock up on canned goods, let me assure everyone that the Apocalypse has not arrived. No zombies are coming, no missiles have been launched, and Donald Trump hasn’t been elected (yet). It’s just time for a change of pace, is all.
So here’s an idea. How about we take a hard left turn down Science Fiction Boulevard and kick the lid off one of the most influential, widely-published, and iconic classics of the genre. Before 40K, Warmachine, Dust, Hawken, Titanfall, or Pacific Rim, there was the monolithic classic that undeniably helped inspire them all: BattleTech.
BattleTech: A Primer
Defining what BattleTech is … actually isn’t easy. Simply put, it’s a far-future wargame universe where interstellar nations of humanity engage in a near-constant state of high-tech, neo-feudal warfare. Cities are razed, planets are taken, and kingdoms fall in an endless procession of colossal battles, shaky treaties, and dark, backstabbing politics.
The central feature of these wars is the “battlemech.” Essentially the “tank” of this universe, battlemechs are war machines with a vaguely humanoid, robot-like appearance, usually on two legs and standing about ten meters high. Thickly armoured and sometime very fast, they pack firepower to level city blocks in a single salvo.
Yet these aren’t actually “robots” at all. Battlemechs (often called a ‘mech for short) are controlled by elite pilots, housed in a cockpit usually located in the ‘mech’s head or torso. While I’m sure this sounds all very familiar to countless sci-fi gamers, what sets BattleTech apart is the fact that this game ALMOST invented the idea.
A Place In Wargaming History
BattleTech was originally developed and released by FASA in 1984, the same Chicago-based company that created other classic franchises like Renegade Legions, Star Trek Tactical Combat Simulator, a Doctor Who RPG, Earthdawn, Crimson Skies, and most of all, Shadowrun.
Founded in 1980 with just a few hundred dollars, by the end of the decade FASA had become an incredible force in the world wargaming market. Indeed, US-based wargaming giants like FASA are why I always chafe a little when people talk about GW as “the only real gaming company” of the 80s and 90s. Not even close, my friends.
This isn’t to say that BattleTech was without external inspiration. Giant piloted walkers can be traced to “The Empire Strikes Back” or even H.G. Wells’ 1897 “War of the Worlds.” “Mobile Suit Gundam” came out in Japan in 1979, while the “mech” idea seems to have first appeared in the manga / anime series “Mazinger Z” in 1972.
Whatever inspiration BattleTech took in, however, the franchise would pay back a thousand-fold. Japan’s famous “Robotech” franchise kicked off the same year. 40K wasn’t created until 1987 (with Titans appearing in 1988). Then there’s Warmachine and Dust, video games like Titanfall, Hawken, Steel Battalion, the list is practically endless.
The point is, countless games where pilots stomp around grim, gritty universes in immense walking war machines owe no small measure of inspiration to BattleTech. And this isn’t just about the idea of the ‘mech itself, other aspects of the BattleTech universe make it not only one of the originals, but still one of the best games in the genre.
What Kind Of Game Is BattleTech?
Originally, BattleTech was a tactical wargame, a hybrid of hex-based maps and 3D miniatures. Players would build a points-based force of ‘mechs (with the option to supplement their force with “aeromech” aerospace support craft, armoured vehicles, and infantry), square off, and battle it out in scenario or campaign-based play.
With piloting and gunnery skills individually tracked for ‘mech pilots, together with design and customization features added for the ‘mechs themselves, it was only a matter of time before BattleTech launched into a full-scale RPG known as MechWarrior.
Yet even this isn’t all. BattleTech also boasts a collectable card game, a twenty five year library of arcade and home video games, multiplayer online games. This truly is a “franchise universe,” with multiple highly-accessible start points for anyone interested in one of the most fully-developed settings in the history of sci-fi wargaming.
How Big Is BattleTech?
Let’s just say that when measured by the sheer breadth and scope of its science fiction backstory, BattleTech is huge. As in Star Wars, Star Trek, and 40K “huge.” How huge? Let’s start with at least seven separate tabletop games (NOT counting editions or expansions, that would push the number well over twenty).
BattleTech also has the aforementioned CCG and fully-developed RPG with almost hundred support books. Twenty-one video games have been produced, not counting the MMOs, arcade games, or fully-enclosed cockpit ‘mech simulators that were introduced in the 1990s, with updated models showcased again at this year’s GenCon.
We’re just getting started. The thousand years of BattleTech history has been chronicled in over 160 novels, fan movies, and a full TV show. There are sixty four “technical readout” books with information on the 3000+ models of ‘mechs players can choose, PLUS tanks, APCs, power armour, aeromechs, helicopter/VTOL craft, and dropships.
In all, the product list for BattleTech runs over 600 items, and this doesn’t even count miniatures and accessories made by associated companies like Ral Partha or Ironwind Miniatures. To truly get an idea for the staggering scope of this universe, I recommend checking out the BattleTech wiki site at www.sarna.net.
BattleTech: What Happened?
So if BattleTech came out thirty two years ago and gathered one of the biggest followings in wargaming history, what happened to it? Sadly, for all its success, FASA never enjoyed a “smooth ride” in the 1980s and 90s, and when FASA had to finally sell the franchise, ownership of BattleTech was scattered across many companies.
Microsoft purchased the video game rights, continuing to publish their successful Mechwarrior computer game series through the 1990s. WizKids bought the tabletop and RPG rights (in turn acquired by Topps), while Piranha Games eventually secured the rights from Microsoft to develop Mechwarrior Online, released in September 2013.
With the IP scattered across so many companies, each with its own ideas for BattleTech (and developmental priorities), the license suffered something of an identity crisis and soon began to stumble. Once the powerhouse of sci-fi wargaming, its place was subsequently taken by licenses like 40K and a Gundam Wing resurgence in 1995.
BattleTech Today: A New Day?
But for every “Dark Age,” there is a Renaissance … and after twenty plus years in the wilderness, BattleTech is back.
Things started to turn in June 2007, when Catalyst Game Labs launched a revival of the BattleTech franchise, under license from Topps. With streamlined rules and great new starter box sets that get players everything they need for a potential lifetime of play for about $50, the sleeping giant that is BattleTech … began to stir to life.
I own this Origins Award-winning starter box myself and can personally recommend it. The unpainted minis are admittedly soft plastic, but there is practically no assembly required and remember you’re paying about a dollar per ‘mech.
There’s also a new “Alpha Strike” edition of the game, eliminating the bookkeeping associated with BattleTech (more in dispelling that little myth in a later article). This is a fast, “quick draw” game that allows a BattleTech engagement to be played in one-two hours, much the way “Tanks” does for Flames of War system.
These reduced rules are an important course correction against the franchise’s former trend of ever-increasing complexity and paperwork in a cumbersome mechanics system. This is a reputation BattleTech has always struggled with (very unjustly, I might add), one which Catalyst Game Labs is striving to put to rest.
More is on the way. Harebrained Schemes has recently completed a Kickstarter for an upcoming BattleTech PC-based Wargame with Jordan Weisman, one of BattleTech’s original creators. The game seems to be getting back to BattleTech’s tactical roots, correcting many of the complaints that have plagued Mechwarrior Online.
So where do we go from here? Well, we’ll be rolling out three more articles in this BattleTech series.
In Part Two, we’ll take a deeper dive into the backstory and setting of this incredible series, examining what makes it such an icon of sci-fi wargaming. In Part Three we’ll review some of the core features and mechanics of the many choices available for BattleTech play, including tabletop, RPG, computer gaming, and even the CCG.
Finally, Part Four will include an epic battle report of an actual classic-edition BattleTech game, played in full miniature. Which of the great Star League Houses will rise or fall? Which Clans will conquer or be crushed?
Stay tuned as we wade deeper into the fusion-powered hurricane of epic sci-fi carnage … that is BattleTech.
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"A Place In Wargaming History"