This week, the On The Tabletop team take a look at Catalyst Game Labs’ (CGL) new BattleTech Starter Sets. BattleTech as a franchise is huge. There is a whole host of tabletop and video games to meet the needs of every gamer. Recently we reviewed the video game by Harebrained Schemes and also interviewed CGL about their plans for the future of tabletop BattleTech. If you’re interested in knowing more about the BattleTech universe, we also have an Introduction to BattleTech here on TechRaptor. Their brand new Beginner and Starter Sets sold out very quickly when they went on sale earlier this year and now that they’re back in stock, we took them to the tabletop with the On The Tabletop team.
Off The Shelf / On The Tabletop articles come in two halves. In Off The Shelf we will look at what’s in the product along with covering how the game plays. This is followed by On The Tabletop where we talk about our first playthrough games and finish with feedback from the On The Tabletop team.
The On The Tabletop playthrough articles catalog our initial experiences with a game; as a result, mistakes will be made. On The Tabletop should also not be taken as a full review. These articles are simply our first impressions of a game.
Off The Shelf
The BattleTech Beginner Set contains 2 Mech miniatures along with some card stand-up Mechs and enough rules to get you going. It is entirely aimed at the beginner market and, even if you are a veteran tabletop gamer, this is an ideal set for getting a feel of BattleTech. The full contents are unboxed in the gallery below.
The BattleTech Starter Set is the perfect follow up to the Beginner Set, or a great entry for those who already have some experience with BattleTech. It contains 8 Mechs across different weight categories, along with some stand-ups and the full rules for the complete BattleTech experience. The full contents are unboxed in the gallery below.
BattleTech is very much a numbers game. It’s all about positioning and tactical data. Every action you make with your Mech, from each movement point used, to its exact positioning and facing in relation to their targets, down to which weapons are fired and which aren’t, is a huge factor in the gameplay. The beginner set goes some way to allows easy access to the new player by taking out some of the detail of the full rules, but even then, this is a very deep technical game.
There is a free download of a ruleset called Alpha Strike, that streamlines the whole processes into what many would consider a typical wargame ruleset and it does simplify and speed up games. Alpha Strike can be used with the Starter Set with nothing more than the PDF download, so both systems are available out of the box. This article will focus on the BattleTech rules out of the Beginner and Starter Sets.
For those who’ve played BattleTech before, this is the system you know and love. It’s deep in terms of rules and technical choices. There’s maths and calculations throughout every stage of the turn and planning your attacks is almost entirely about working out the averages against the heat and ammo they will generate and use.
For those who haven’t played BattleTech before, you will probably be surprised about the level of involvement you have for every Mech in your force, or Lance. The easiest way to explain it is that it feels like playing a roleplaying game, where you control multiple characters simultaneously, without roleplaying, just combat, and you’ve min/maxed your characters to extreme proportions. If that still doesn’t make sense you to, then buckle in MechWarrior, you’re in for a ride.
Mechs come in a variety of tonnage, which generally suggests its battlefield role. Light Mechs tend to be very lightly armed and armored and rely on their speed, whereas heavy Mechs are slow plodding fortresses of firepower, with medium Mechs between the two. Each Mech has a sheet, similar to a roleplaying games’ character sheet, which details all the stats you need for your Mech, along with its weapons. Most of the sheet is taken up with hitboxes for each of the different parts of your Mech, along with very specific locations for each piece of equipment in case their armor is breached and damage is taken internally. We’ll come back to this later on.
The game plays through a series of turns, all divided into 3 phases. Each turn has an initiative phase, movement phase, and combat phase. During each turn, players alternate activating their Mechs, until all Mechs have been activated and a new turn begins. Games can either be scenario or mission-based, or just straight battles between the player’s forces.
The initiative phase is simple, with players rolling off to see who gets the advantage each turn. After that, things get tactical.
In the movement phase, players take turns assigning a movement speed to their Mechs and moving them. The movement speed you assign to your Mech, either stationary, walking, running or jumping, sets a modifier to all the shots you will take that turn. Walking being more difficult to align accurate fire than standing still and running more so than walking. The amount of distance your Mech then moves, dictates how hard your Mech will be to hit by other Mechs.
Each Mech has a value in each of the 3 movement types, running usually being higher than walking. These values translate into movement points, which are used for moving a hex space on the map or turning to face a new direction. Turning is important because it uses a movement point, but doesn’t generate movement in terms of defense. So you could run, making it difficult for you to hit other Mechs, and then use a lot of that movement to turn during the move, and only generate a minor modifier for your opponent to hit you.
Because of facing, and where your weapons are positioned on your Mech, it makes positioning important. Mechs can only move forward and backward along their facing, and the front arc or fire goes out in a cone from the 3 hexes in front of them. Being caught out of position, unable to fire, but being fired on is usually the beginning of the end for a Mech.
Weapon range is also incredibly important, more so beyond just being in range to fire the weapons. Most weapons have a short, medium and long-range, with modifiers to hit for each. But some weapons also have a minimum range, and others work better at specific ranges. You have to keep track of your opponent’s ranges as well, maneuvering to out-position them so that your weapons are best placed to fire, but theirs at not.
All this needs to be worked out and accounted for, while movement happens alternatively. Reading and planning your opponent’s positioning is as important as planning your own, and is how a pack of light Mechs can outmaneuver and destroy a heavily armed Mech.
During the combat phase, weapons either generate heat or expend ammo when fired. While Mechs can processes a lot of heat, letting it build up without cooling through breaks in firing or on-board systems, (or moving into water) can be catastrophic. This is what sets it apart, other than the huge amount of technical working out, from other wargames. Simply firing all of your weapons every turn is not always an effective tactic. Sure, there are times, when your back is to the wall, when unleashing everything and damn the consequences, is all you have left. But planning your shots, and their likelihood to hit against the heat or ammo used.
Shooting is as tactical and technical as movement, so much so that it has an initialism to remember all the factors. Tracking during BattleTech is also very important. Remembering if your Mech walked, ran or jumped for your own modifier, and how far for your opponent’s modifier is usually marked with different colored dice beside the Mechs. During the shooting phase, all shots are declared, by all players before any shots are fired. So remembering, and usually writing down for transparency, where your shots are intended is important.
This system of declaring first brings another hugely important element into BattleTech. If something absolutely has to be removed, do you fire everything you have at it? Wasting all further shots if the first shot destroys it? Or do you spread your fire for maximum effectiveness? Rogue shots can destroy Mechs if the stars align. Getting through the armor on locations can cause critical hits on the structure underneath if the same location is hit again, which is why the location of all your Mechs armament and equipment is important. But rolling a 2 on hit location after a successful hit can also result in a critical. You can’t plan for that, but it always has to be considered and no enemy should be ignored as a threat.
What we’ve discussed is just the top layer of detail to consider for BattleTech. The sheer amount of weapons, Mech and equipment variations, especially when you start designing your own Mechs, is huge. We haven’t even discussed close combat, which includes our favorite Death from Above attack where you jump and land on an opposing Mech, or terrain including line of sight, different levels of terrain and water. We’ve only skimmed over the rules themselves in this article. Reading the full rulebook at times makes you feel like you’re reading a technical manual, which for the level of technical detail it has, it is.
The sheer depth of detail of BattleTech is what makes it appealing to some gamers, but also what keeps pure BattleTech as a niche game. Alpha Strike refines the rules and details down to a much more straight-forward system in terms of how quickly actions can be worked and carried out. I would advise anyone looking to play BattleTech to try out the full rules first (after going through the Beginner Set’s basic rules) to see if it is their sort of game, before going for Alpha Strike, as it is an experience.
On The Tabletop
The game we played doesn’t make for an exciting write-up. We each had a lance of Mechs, with Kyla and I having 2 each, which included 1 each of the heaviest Mechs and Kit had 3 Mechs. We ran at each other, making sure to re-read and cover the rules properly at every stage so that we all got a good understanding of the detail. We ran out of time before a winner was declared, with all of our Mechs having taken a beating.
Adam – I’ve always loved the BattleTech setting. I played the original BattleTech with some high-level players when I was young and also played the MechWarrior video games, BattleTech card game and also the BattleTech Clix game. I realized that when playing with the On The Tabletop team, and being in-charge of knowing the rules, that when I first played, how heavily I relied on the other players for their knowledge. I wasn’t playing BattleTech. I was making action decisions and being told what to roll. The card and Clix game had nowhere near the involvement and the newly released turn-based video game, which I also loved and you can read my review of here, does all the working out for you.
I do prefer the lesser crunch BattleTech universe and will happily play anything in that setting. Full BattleTech, while I can see the appeal, is a serious game and as a result, needs to be taken seriously. I enjoyed the experience if only to show me how much I love the setting and to understand the types of players that enjoy BattleTech. But I think my future BattleTech games will be Alpha Strike, the RPG, or the video game, where all the hard work is condensed into a single hit percentage
If you want a truly immersive wargaming experience, BattleTech is probably for you. The focus of this article really has been on getting the depth of the rules across, but the miniatures shouldn’t be overlooked. If BattleTech doesn’t appeal to you in its pure form, the miniatures are still very worthwhile out of the boxed sets. CGL has done a great job with them.
Adam is the righteous leader of the On The Tabletop Team and is an experienced tabletop gamer. He has played physical and online CCGs to a very high competitive level. He also has a background in roleplaying, board and wargaming and has playtested and produced content for several companies. A veteran tabletop writer who’s favorite games includes Dark Souls the Card Game, The Legend of the Five Rings LCG, Shadespire and Bushido. You can read his work here on TechRaptor and follow his exploits on Twitter – @StealthBuda.
Kyla – Upon discussing the game before we played, it seemed that BattleTech was well known by most other players we encountered at our place of gaming, and the majority clearly had a strong opinion about the game. BattleTech had managed to escape my attention before now, or perhaps as I’m not much of a wargamer nor a fan of Mechs, I had subconsciously ignored it, but I went into things with an open mind and wouldn’t let anyone else’s opinion influence me.
We played an amalgamated version between the starter set and the main game as we were interested in some of the more advanced mechanics such as aimed attacks and critical hits. But boy is this game crunchy and numbers heavy, and I struggle with arithmetic on a good day. Some of the rules were a little convoluted and I struggled to pick up them up. The rulebook would have also benefitted from a good index page as we frequently had to reference it to be reminded of the modifiers we should be adding to our dice rolls. I was also distracted from the gameplay of my opponents as I was busy trying to do the addition to work out the attacks for my own mechs and the multiple weapons they had. Gameplay was also very repetitive and the need to destroy your opponent’s mech just to have something different happen was rife.
I definitely gained an insight into why the game seems to have a certain reputation. If you strip back the Mech-façade, it doesn’t leave much but strategy and numbers so it certainly isn’t for me who is more into story-driven games. It sort of reminds me of how most people can play chess, but only a small percentage are really hardcore into chess. I think BattleTech’s audience would share a lot of similarities with the latter.
That said, I wouldn’t mind playing or at least spectating another game of BattleTech with a more experienced group to witness what a game is like in the thick of it, it could be interesting to witness.
Kyla is a 3D Artist and VFX Compositor. She is also known around the UK convention scene for her costume and prop making work. She’s been a regular DM and player of Dungeons & Dragons for the last 3 years, and when she’s not busy writing her own homebrew campaigns she can be found playing Zombicide with friends. You can find her on Instagram at @HallowStudios, and on her website.
Kit – I’ve played BattleTech on and off since the 90s. Don’t look at it ever as a traditional Wargame. It’s more of a war-rpg-resource management game. Your mech has ammo count, reactor outputs, reactor heat. Then there’s the terrain itself, it has line of sight, elevation, lakes you can use to cool your reactor. All using a hex based map. I know a few hardcore BattleTech fans and with the way you record activities you can make games last days or even play by email. For me BattleTech has a little to much number grinding, I prefer a streamlined wargame. However the system has had years to tweak out the bugs and plays really well.
The biggest complaint I’d heard from BattleTech players is the sculpts hadn’t changed since the 90s. With this new set they’ve moved to plastic and they are stunning, exactly what you’d expect in this day and age.
All in all if your looking for a number crunching game where every action has to be planned for fuel, ammo and heat this is definitely a great new edition.
Kit is the owner of ABZ Games, Aberdeen’s gaming community hub. He has been playing board/card/war/role-playing games for near on 25 years. Currently, his favorite game is Wild West Exodus by Warcradle.
These copies of the BattleTech Starter Set and BattleTech Beginner Box used in this article were provided by Asmodee UK.
Are you a BattleTech fan? Do you prefer full or Alpha Strike? Have you played any other version of BattleTech tabletop games? Let us know in the comments below.More About This Game