Celebrating 35 years of overheating Mad Cats.
For those of us who grew up gaming in the 1980s and 1990s, Battletech will always be emblematic and iconic of that particular era in hobby history - just like Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, Magic, and Settlers of Catan are. I'm sure anyone my age (43) fondly remembers getting the original box set decades ago, probably from a B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, and spending many happy hours with this wonderful game of mech warfare. To this day - 35 years after its initial publication as Battledroids - it remains a seminal design, even if its cachet with younger gamers has more to do with PC games than with tabletops covered with hexmaps.
Catalyst Game Labs is the current custodian of the Battletech universe (RIP, FASA) and to celebrate its three-and-a-half decade milestone they've just put out a couple of outstanding introductory products that have reignited my interest in the game. Over the past few years, I've found that many of the most rewarding hours I've put into gaming have been revisiting and reinvesting in the classic titles and settings that made me a game player to begin with. It's refreshing to get back "home", so to speak, to the foundations. And Battletech is no exception. It's interesting, when I reviewed the 25th anniversary Battletech Introductory set ten years ago, I wasn't in this same reflective gaming mood and in fact I stated in that review that it was a missed opportunity that the edition didn't do anything to modernize or update the game. Here in 2019, I'm happy that it is more or less the same game I was playing in 1989.
Even with two new starter sets fresh on the market, Battletech today remains ferociously old school so if you are coming into expecting a box full of Kickstarter tchotchkes, clever mechanisms, and a 15 minute playtime with one page of rules you better check yourself. It is more of traditional wargame than you might expect, playing very much like an expanded and elaborated upon take on principles established by Steve Jackson's foundational Ogre. It is also not as complex as you might think and in fact I'm finding its clarity and directness as "elegant" as anything that has come out since.
Systematically, it's quite simple. Each player fields one or more Battlemechs, which vary in capacities, speed, maneuverability, loadouts, and other factors. On your turn, you move one of your 'Mechs, spending movement points to traverse the hex-based terrain while accounting for terrain costs and facing. Then, your 'Mechs do what they do best, which is shooting at each other with a system of stacking modifiers to arrive at to-hit numbers that partners up with hit location-specific armor diagrams when damage is dealt. If you are playing with the full rules, there are more details such as heat buildup, Mechwarrior piloting skill, melee fighting, and critical hit effects.
Like a lot of old time wargames, there are lots of charts and numbers, but where Battletech really comes to life is in the narratives that the game creates. 'Mechs get vital components destroyed and are crippled. That last dot of armor on your status sheet holds out until the end of the game. Somebody explodes and takes someone else with them. You pick up an enemy 'Mech's blown-off leg and brandish it like a club, until another 'Mech rains down the classic "Death From Above" from a nearby hill. The game has detail where it counts the most, with deep strategy and coordination imparting a nice cerebral crunch to the visceral metal-on-metal action.
The genius of the original game was that it was sort of a nexus between character-based roleplaying games and vehicle-based wargames. Taking a cue from the noted Ogre, it made each 'Mech a unique participant in the battle with its own effective character sheet. To support all of this, a fully developed fictional setting was created with a sort of Dune-like feudal concept and it allowed (and still allows) folks to play this game as a straight up hardware versus hardware wargame, as a more character-driven campaign game, or as a full on RPG if you have the books for it. And you can also play it as a miniatures game. I've always liked the first option the most and I think that is how most gamers today will likely enjoy Battletech- as a tabletop board game.
The first of the two new boxes is the Beginner's Box, and it retails for a scant $20- and, from what I am hearing, it's a sell-out printing as it should be. It is 100 percent a complete Battletech experience out of the box. In this day and age where a $50 starter set from other companies is little more than a tease, I'm shocked at how much value there is in a box you can buy for about $17 street. Truth be told, I think a lot of folks curious about Battletech might check out this set and it could very well provide them with all they want or need from the game. I especially appreciate that Catalyst went the extra mile to make sure that this set wasn't just a throwaway. It comes with two miniatures (a Wolverine and a Griffin), a double-sided map sheet, full color (and dry erase) 'Mech record sheets, a Quick Start rulebook, and a punchboard that has some high-quality standee 'Mechs - just like in the old days. There is also a small stack of Mechwarrior cards, that let you give a couple of board gamey special abilities to your 'Mechs. I especially liked these as they gave a little more of the flavor of the full game's setting.
The Quick Start rules are great- they get to the heart of Battletech while steering clear of the more complex concepts. Using the pre-filled 'Mech record sheets and the handful of components included, you can play a game with four 'Mechs per side. There's only one scenario, but there is ample guidance to inspire you to mix it up with different objectives, terrain, victory conditions, and 'Mechs. My kids (age 9 and 7) and I have really enjoyed playing with the basic rules, and I think modern board gamers will be surprised at how much fun there is in this package. It's also extremely portable, and really doesn't require any components beyond the few 'Mech pieces on the map other than a dry erase marker and a few D6s.
A new printing is in the works, and I can not possibly recommend a game more than this - not only is the Beginner's Box the most accessible this important and influential game has ever been, it's also still tremendously fun.
Stepping up to the $50 "proper" starter box, you are getting 8 miniatures (which are all nice but hardly the quality of today's top miniature companies), the full 56 page rulebook, two maps, a booklet of reproducible 'Mech record sheets, some player aids, and a few other bits of fluff. Here again, the value of the package is outstanding. The full rules add detail and more choices, deepening the strategic potential as well as opening up the possibility to design your own 'Mechs, develop your own Mechwarrior rosters, and play through a broader range of larger scenarios. It's not quite the blowout deal with 24 miniatures and hard-mounted maps from 2009, but at today's rates there is still plenty of bang for the buck. This set is also a complete game if you do not choose to move forward into a wider variety of 'Mechs, additional rulebooks, campaigns, and other aspects of the bigger Battletech product line. There's nothing stopping you from spending many hours playing with just what is in this box.
I especially like that these boxes are complementary- picking up the Beginner's Box even if you are a long-fighting Battletech veteran gives you an extra map, extra models, and more MechWarrior cards that are all worth the $20 alone. The bigger set also acts as a logical, measured stepping up point for players coming into the game through the Beginner's Box, building on it without overwhelming the player with a massive rulebook, tons of arcane lore, or too many options. From there, it's really up to the player as to where to go. For my part, I'm finding that these two products together almost completely satisfy my Battletech needs, but others may dig deep into the vast range of miniatures, sourcebooks, and fiction that is available.
The question with older games like this, even in new editions, is if they are still relevant and worthwhile compared to similar games on the market today that might have more current mechanisms or components. The answer with Battletech is yes. This is a landmark game that may have some concepts that are considered by some to be dated, but it still delivers the metal.