Exploring The World Of BattleTech Part Three: Technology & Mechanics

September 5, 2016 by crew

Welcome back to the Inner Sphere, Beasts of War. Oriskany here, inviting you to strap into your ‘mechs and fire up the reactors … it’s time ready to stomp, shoot, and jump-jet our way still deeper into the immense Sci-Fi wargaming universe that is BattleTech.

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If you’re just joining us, please take a moment to check out Part One and Part Two of our series, where we take an introductory look at BattleTech and then explore some of backstory and setting of this amazing franchise.

For now, however, let’s discuss some of the mechanics of these games, including the tabletop wargame, RPG, CCG, and “quick-fire” expansion sets. We’ll also be opening the access ports on some of the technology of this universe, and how it drives mechanics of Sci-Fi gameplay.

BattleTech: Classic

As mentioned in previous articles, BattleTech was originally created as a hex-based wargame. Since then, rules sets have been developed to handle BattleTech without hexes as a bull-blown miniatures game. But for now let’s start with the basics.

‘Mechs have at least two movement rates, one for walking and one for running. Many ‘mechs also have a “jump” movement rate, used for when massive jump-jets fire to launch the war machine skyward. Additional movement points are required for turning, difficult terrain, and moving up elevated terrain.

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Once all ‘mechs have moved, a fire phase begins. ‘Mechs can pivot at the waist to engage targets in expanded arcs, and difficulties to hit are based on the pilot’s gunnery skill, range, how fast your ‘mech moved, and how fast the target ‘mech was moving. Elevation, terrain, and buildings can naturally block line of sight.

One notable feature in BattleTech is heat. Powered by fusion reactors, “waste heat” can build up within a ‘mech’s systems until penalties to hit and movement start to accrue. Overall system shutdown is soon a possibility, as well as catastrophic ammo explosions. Managing excess heat is a classic dilemma faced by mechwarriors.

To combat this problem, ‘mechs are designed with “heat sinks” that dissipate a certain amount of heat per turn. Heat sinks can be hit, however, along with the engine’s heat-protective casing. Players can also chose to slow their movement or not fire certain weapons, giving their ‘mech a chance to cool down before again going flat-out.

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Another trick players can pull is moving into bodies of water like lakes or streams. Firing waist-deep in water may help your ‘mech stay cool, which can increase rates of fire. Interestingly, this can make “low ground” almost as tactically important in BattleTech as traditional “high ground” is in many other wargaming systems.

The weaponry in BattleTech is predictably awesome. ‘Mechs can be mounted with all kinds of lasers, PPCs (particle projector cannons), autocannons, gauss rifles (basically, rail guns), short and long range missiles, flamers, point-defence systems, and good old-fashioned machine guns for anti-infantry work.

Special sensors and comm arrays can be mounted so a ‘mech can “spot” targets for heavier weapons like artillery or massive missile-armed ‘mechs, sometimes support weapons that can be off-board or even in orbit. And of course, tanks and APCs can carry all these weapons and arrays as well.

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Once a weapon hits, a quick die roll is made to see where on the target ‘mech the shot landed. Damage is assessed very simply, simply find that section on the target ‘mech’s record sheet and fill in that many armour dots. Once the dots in that section are gone, damage penetrates to internal frame and systems, where critical hits can occur.

While ‘mechs are the alpha predators on these battlefields of the future, they aren’t the only ones. Heavier tanks can provide a startlingly powerful punch, especially for their lower point costs. APCs can also carry infantry, armed with rockets, lasers, target designators, or power armour that makes them almost small ‘mechs in their own right.

A complete “Aerotech” wargame is provided for aerospace craft that can operate either as ground attack assets or fighters against enemy craft. In crossover games, a separate board is usually set up for the aeromechs, representing a much wider area for them to fight in, with a small section representing the airspace over the ground battle board.

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VTOL craft and high-tech helicopters add still more options, often used at battle sites where massive dropships have established a bridgehead on the surface of a contested planet. Some dropships weigh up to 100,000 tons, carry a regiment of ‘mechs and support craft, and pack enough firepower to engage full-scale warships in space.

The Myth of Complexity

One issue that has persistently dogged BattleTech throughout its history is its reputation as an “overly-complex” game with too much paperwork. While complexity is certainly a subjective concept, with the “tipping point” in a different place for every player, the myth that BattleTech is a cumbersome system is long overdue to be put to rest.

Some players are put off by the battlemech record sheets, which may APPEAR a little formidable. Don’t be fooled. When an area of your mech is hit, you fill in bubbles or tick off components. All this data is on paper just so you don’t have to carry it in your head. Every number on the sheet is one less time you’re flipping through a rule book.

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The only thing even close to “bookkeeping” is tracking your heat. At the end of each turn, you add up the heat generated by your weapons and speed. You subtract the heat dissipated by your sinks (which can be damaged), and see if there’s a result for your net heat level. It’s all on the sheet so you’re not consulting charts, books, or cards.

Admittedly, as BattleTech grew in popularity, new books and rules were continually added to feed the fan base’s appetite. Plug in too many of these OPTIONAL rules (as many players undoubtedly do) and yes, BattleTech becomes ridiculously complex with freakish speed. Just remember the vast majority of these rules are optional.

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Other factors that can make BattleTech seem overly complex are the options for custom load-outs, tweaked designs, or building your own ‘mechs from the ground up. Okay, HERE (see above) is a fair amount of paperwork … but again, only for those players who choose to incorporate these strictly optional elements into their BattleTech.

Going Hexless

Although initially designed for play on hexes, BattleTech can also be played on a conventional miniatures table. One hex = 2 inches of movement, and the hex-shaped mini base serves as a “template” for arcs of fire. In fact, using scaled terrain dispenses with many of the rules in the hex version, such as determining LOS over or past obstacles.

As with any minis game, players will have to come to an understanding about certain terrain features. Are those heavy or light woods, because in BattleTech there’s a difference. What “level” are those hills, because while LOS is simple to determine with scaled terrain, different levels of elevation affect movement at different rates.

Mechwarrior RPG

One of the truly innovative features of BattleTech was a full wargame-RPG integration, probably the first major franchise to do this in a Sci-Fi setting. Players can make up pen-and-paper RPG characters and run them through a campaign, plugging their scores into actual BattleTech wargames when the larger engagements get started.

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There have been four basic variations of the Mechwarrior RPG series, with the last one renamed “A Time of War” to distinguish it from the Mechwarrior computer games. A complete re-write from previous editions, AToW uses a “life path” system of character generation, giving the players the control within a budget of experience.

The core rulebook is massive, with over 400 pages of content, but has been pinged in several reviews for being too complex in its attempt to be fully compatible with the tactical BattleTech wargame at all points. I doubt this is completely necessary, and I’m sure players can agree on where rules can be bypassed for smooth RPG-style play.

Battletech CCG

The BattleTech Collectible Card Game (CCG) was produced by Wizards of the Coast from 1996-2001. In broad terms, the game has strong similarities to other popular card games of the era, like Magic the Gathering (players can build decks of sixty cards, the object is to make your opponents run out of cards, etc.).

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The with fifteen years of publishing history behind it, the BattleTech CCG was able to draw from a vast library of tech, characters, and artwork. The game tries to maintain fidelity to the BattleTech universe allowing players to use only cards from a certain House or Clan, at least in the official FASA rules.

Alpha Strike

Alpha Strike, meanwhile, is the “Quick Fire” version of BattleTech, where much of the game’s “rivets and micro-processors” detail is abstracted into a fast, fluid, and simplified system. Game times are cut to about one-third (a lance-on-lance game that takes three hours in Classic BattleTech is done in an hour or even less).

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Alpha Strike really boils things down. Gone are the ‘mech record sheets, trimmed down to just a poker-sized reference card. ‘Mechs have no individual weapons, only an aggregate firepower value for short, medium, and long range. Heat management is abstracted to a simple “1, 2, 3, Shutdown” scale.

This isn’t to say that Alpha Strike is overly simplistic. Rather, it allows players to pile a large number of ‘mechs on the table, and run epic battles that might be unmanageable in classic BattleTech. In larger battles, the scales and geometries of larger formations come into play, along with a heavier emphasis on movement and combined arms.

Still, the lower level of detail means that Alpha Strike lacks some of the life-and-death decisions players must make in classic BattleTech. Should you fire BOTH your PPCs and take out that enemy mech, even at the risk of shutdown or ammo explosion through overheating? Can you get to that objective fast enough, and still make your piloting roll?

I hope you enjoyed this very brief overview of some of the mechanics available in the BattleTech universe. Clearly, this is only the start of the conversation, so please help keep it going with comments, questions, or suggestions in the comments below . . . and check back next week as we complete our series on this amazing franchise.

James Johnson

If you would like to write articles for Beasts Of War then get in contact with us at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"Some players are put off by the battlemech record sheets, which may APPEAR a little formidable. Don’t be fooled..."

"This isn’t to say that Alpha Strike is overly simplistic. Rather, it allows players to pile a large number of ‘mechs on the table, and run epic battles that might be unmanageable in classic BattleTech..."