Battletech - 35th Anniversary Beginner's Box and Intro Set Review

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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.

BT Beginner

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.

BT

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.


battletech review
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

battletech review
Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

Editor review

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It's never been easier - or cheaper - to get into Battletech with these outstanding introductory products.
MB
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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #292863 21 Feb 2019 18:21
With you on loving the price point.

Haven't played it for a while but this system is clunky as hell and janky. It's one of those games I don't think is worth revisiting so I guess I agree with 2009 Barnes.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #292872 21 Feb 2019 20:23
I remember ordering this by asking my mom to mail a check to FASA — after seeing an ad in Dragon for it. The 6 weeks that it took to arrive was torture and I felt like I was opening a box of adventure when it did. So many hours spent filling in bubbles on photocopied record sheets with number 2 pencils.

This hit its highlight for me with Citytech and then I discovered Star Fleet Battles, trading mecha for starships.
SaMoKo's Avatar
SaMoKo replied the topic: #292874 21 Feb 2019 21:16
A gem from the days where throwing nukes at your opponent was an event celebrated with a tub full of dice to hurl at your enemy. Now it’s a tragedy to be mourned with black meeples and a thoutful sidebar note from the designer.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #292877 21 Feb 2019 22:10
I played Battletech once, in 1989. My gaming group was playing a lot of Car Wars at the time, and Battletech seemed like Car Wars for Dummies. Never played it again. One of my friends loved Battletech so much that he would go to GenCon and spend all four days just playing Battletech, so we called him The Battledork. If any of you ever went to GenCon in the '90s and played some Battletech, you probably met my friend Dave, aka "Ferd."
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #292878 21 Feb 2019 22:34
Aesthetically, I didn’t like it because it ripped off Macross.

Game wise, it was only tolerable when I played a computerized version on a friend’s Amiga. That took care of all the math, but it had the consequence of lowering the stakes dramatically. If you overheat and blow up, the next game starts in 10 minutes, so there’s not as much incentive to play smart.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #292879 21 Feb 2019 22:41
I played a 'learn how to play Battletech' event at Origins once. It was fun, and I'd definitely play again. I may pick up the starter set if given the opportunity.

I have really been enjoying the turn based strategy Battletech game on PC. I wish there was a way to lay hexagons on top of the terrain, but there isn't.
Mr. White's Avatar
Mr. White replied the topic: #292890 22 Feb 2019 08:13
Very interested in this.

I grew up in Europe in the 80s, so my formative years were filled exploring GW's flavour of gaming universes. WFRP, AHQ, BB, SH. When we moved back to the US in the early 90s, attention was given to the FASA covers, to my mind a set of 'American' gaming universes. I owned several books from FASA games because the covers looked cool. Played...practically none except a few Shadowrun one-shots.

I'm not too interested in buying boardgames these days, but these two BattleTech sets look like a great opportunity to finally get into one of these FASA (or Catalyst) titles and have a little fun. They certainly look dead simple to paint. I love games with tick boxes for damage (Dark Future, Silent Death, BattleCars) so that's another plus here. Also...my son and a buddy are all in on Gunpla so giant robots are a big deal at home.

Is there a lot of redundancy between to the two products? Do the dry-erase damage boards that come with the $20 set cover the 8 robots in the $50 set?

Damn...I can't believe it's been 10 years since the last BT Anniversary box...

EDIT: Anyone know if the SNES Battletech/Mechwarrior games are any good?
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #292897 22 Feb 2019 08:35
Always loved the look and idea of Battletech, but the one or two times I actually tried to play it I just floundered. My disinterest in minis games got its start there.
Mr. White's Avatar
Mr. White replied the topic: #292898 22 Feb 2019 08:39
What the...

Both of these boxes look to be going for twice MSRP. Didn't they just come out? The IP still that popular?
BaronDonut's Avatar
BaronDonut replied the topic: #292900 22 Feb 2019 08:48
During summer in my middle school years, I would spend all day every day in my neighbor's basement playing the FASA big three: Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and Battletech. I dunno why this particular company's products became embedded so deeply in our brains, but that's what stuck: every other system bounced off us, these were Our Games.

We used to play Battletech more like a roleplaying game, working cooperatively against enemy forces, taking turns controlling their actions. What I remember best is the feeling of heft and consequence--lumbering beasts that had to swivel their torsos and smash through forests, the feeling of impact as a Gauss Cannon shredded a limb and ignited the ammo stored there.

It's hard to know how I'll feel about this game divorced from the memory of these long summers--my gaming tastes have changed so wildly that it's tough to imagine a slow slog of mechanized attrition being appealing to my current sensibilities. But you can be damn well sure I'll pay twenty bucks to find out.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #292901 22 Feb 2019 09:03

Mr. White wrote: What the...

Both of these boxes look to be going for twice MSRP. Didn't they just come out? The IP still that popular?


Amazon is full of scalpers. Hopefully a reprint puts them to death.
jpat's Avatar
jpat replied the topic: #292906 22 Feb 2019 09:33
It hasn't *quite* been 10 years since the 25th anniversary edition. Because it's Catalyst, and because Catalyst is always surprised by production issues, it came out around 2011. And it was a great box, with (as Barnes notes) 26 minis (including two "premium" ones) and hard-mounted maps and most everything up to decent 2011 board game style. I haven't seen the current box, but I'm sure the somewhat slimmed down contents are a better match for what CGL can reasonably keep fairly consistently in print. Maybe.

It clearly is a 35-year-old design, but (and this was pretty clear from the 25th anniversary box set and the slightly less luxe one before it) it's really a pretty simple game at heart. If you play 1v1 or 2v2 'Mech only and minimal terrain, it's still not streamlined, but you can wring out a rich experience with fairly minimal fuss. I don't know whether this pair of boxes does this like the old ones did, but you can even add in some basic vehicles and infantry without really cluttering things up. I'm not sure the game ever really gets hard, but it gets slow the more units you try to push through it and the more chrome you add on. As I recall, there are even some simplified aerospace rules in one of the books (because if anything *is* hard, it's probably the full aerospace stuff).

So you can get out of it what you want. You can have a fairly svelte 'Mech-on-'Mech thing or you can go lance- or company-level, add city streets and buildings, throw in some aerial or space units, whatever. The game's amenable to whatever level of stuff you want to put into it, and there are whole thick books devoted to advanced options on various scales, not to mention the RPG stuff.

Maybe the best way to describe the lore is as good to sometimes very good setting lore. It's usually not great literature, but, especially earlier on in the game's history (not when I was playing), it had an important role in helping to shape the overall storyline and specific settings/modules within it, and playing those reinforced interest in the fiction. They kinda got a little messed up when things went to the "Dark Age" in tandem with the clix game, and then the whole book publishing thing kinda collapsed on them, and there wasn't (like there had been in the Mechwarrior period and maybe before, too) something like a paperback novel every couple of months. I think they're going more to POD books on that front, but I haven't followed for a while.

So there's a lot here in this game, and it won't be for everyone, and I can't say nostalgia doesn't play some part in continued interest in it because it's still basically the 1980s game. But CGL, whatever their shortcomings as a publisher, really does care about the game, and their boxes have been very good to great if you set aside the difficulty of getting one.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #292917 22 Feb 2019 13:00
Oh yes, you are right- it is 2011. I really wish I had not sold that set off now...that thing is $250+ on eBay, I was thinking about getting one for the mechs and maps but...nope!

Jeff, the only crossover between the sets is one mech, and even it is a variant. Everything else is different, maps and all.

These versions of the game are straight up mechs- no Battletroops, Cityfight, or any of that other stuff. Which simplifies things GREATLY.

I think my favorite early Battletech story was when I first tried to buy the game. I was with my dad at the mall and I presented it as what I wanted to get. He was all like “no, kids play those kinds of games and lose their minds, it makes them think they can jump off buildings, etc.” I was kind of like “do what now” and then imagined that I might become so deluded and brainwashed that I might think I am a Jenner running across the yard.

He bought it for me anyway. It was October 27, 1989. There was a massive earthquake during the World Series. My dad was watching it as I was flipping through the books.
jpat's Avatar
jpat replied the topic: #292920 22 Feb 2019 13:35
At one time I had Battletech as a 10 on BGG, and I guess the fact that it's not now says I was wrong to give it a 10, but it really can be an incredibly immersive experience both in terms of gameplay and in the world around it. Or you can just pull out a couple of 'Mechs and use quick-start rules and be done in an hour or less. You can read the fiction or not. You can paint minis or use standees.

$250, though? Maybe I should sell my 25th. I bought all that stuff back when I had someone to play with. We had an hourlong work lunch, so we'd set up, play a bit, and break down and do it again the next day. But no more.
Mr. White's Avatar
Mr. White replied the topic: #292922 22 Feb 2019 13:43
It _appears_ as if both of these are still available through the Catalyst store. Has anyone ordered through them before?

I would like to have some mounted maps at least. Didn't they sell some packs of 'em separately at one point?
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #292928 22 Feb 2019 16:29

Mr. White wrote: I would like to have some mounted maps at least. Didn't they sell some packs of 'em separately at one point?


There are piles of hex maps you can use for Battletech. They're a standard size. You can even print your own.

I was a down-deep Star Fleet Battles guy, so this game just clicked the first time we played it back then. Almost seemed easy in comparison. I enjoyed it back then and had a brief renaissance with the 25th edition back maybe four or five years back. One particular session was particularly memorable, where my son beat me only because he won initiative turn after turn after turn, as he only had weapons with range 1. He could stand beside me every time because he got last move. Had I won initiative even once, I could have taken two steps away from him and unloaded with all my weapons that had a minimum range of 2. Really odd turn of events. Took his six or seven turns to finish me off.

Naturally that would be declared a tragic flaw in a modern game, but hey -- them's the breaks. This kind of game has stuff happen in it that makes you roll with the punches. That's the game I remember, the rest are just a mash of positive impression.
Mr. White's Avatar
Mr. White replied the topic: #292930 22 Feb 2019 16:36
Not a tragic flaw at all in my book.

I read a little on the GATOR system for combat resolution. Seems pretty straight forward to me.
Brewmiester's Avatar
Brewmiester replied the topic: #292933 22 Feb 2019 17:24
If anyone lives in the Cincinnati area you can buy Mechs by the pound from Ral Partha/Iron Wind Metals. One of my buddies who has been to the shop says it works out to about 3.50 a mech. I think they also sell the Crimson Skies planes.

And if you don't have the maps you can always use Heroscape terrain.
Colorcrayons's Avatar
Colorcrayons replied the topic: #292943 23 Feb 2019 12:42
MechWarrior prepainted CMG by Wizkids was really good. I spent hundreds on it.

Battletech on the other hand, not so much. Or at all.

Buy the old clix stuff if you want a decent MechWarrior experience. Most are pretty cheap nowadays and through secondary market you have the advantage of alacarte instead of blind buy.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #292949 23 Feb 2019 18:20
Mr. White!
I just wrote this on BGG too.
I received my Introductory box from Catalyst this week. $27 shipped.
I bought the larger box via CSI a month ago.

I'll be painting 10 mechs over the next three weeks in preparation for an old high school reunion throw-down. Thankfully, we'll be rolling dice in Brooklyn instead of the backwater shit hole we grew up in.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #292962 24 Feb 2019 10:24
I've always wanted to give Battletech a try and ended up trying it out this morning at a local convention.

I expected a very complex, heavily dated game but I think the actual structure of the game is very simple. The movement system is great, for example, and the way in which you add modifiers is old-fashioned but well-made. I expected the game to slow down on calculation but turns were actually swift. You can tell this was made in 1985 but it doesn't feel wrong, just different.

I do think some things could be simplified with a touch of design or modern components, though.

What makes the game unique is that there's a heavy efficiency factor to it. You can get small +1 bonuses to your rolls if you move well but you might want to sacrifice that bonus to get where you want. We didn't play with heat, but I can see having to balance your position, your little bonuses and heat leading to very interesting games. I also like that unit density is very low.

I think it would be fun to play this game casually. I wouldn't mind having a copy of either of these boxes to play from time to time at the club.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #292973 24 Feb 2019 21:21
I have 2 of the 25th ann boxes. The first run and the second with the "improved" minis. My problem with the modern era is the mech design is dogshit. Sure, the classic "hidden" mechs were all stolen from other sources but at least they looked distinct and you could usually infer what the mech did from the way it looked. The FASA/Catalyst designs later on were just atrocious aside from a few Clan standouts.

The current PC game (MWO) did it a great service by "militarizing" the designs. Lasers have a consistent look across mechs and a uniform size. Same with ACs, LRMs and SRMs, etc. Granted, there is "canon" about different design firms, ancient tech being retro-fit, etc that could explain the hodgepodge nature of mech designs but I definitely prefer a more utilitarian industrial aesthetic.

Alpha Strike was an attempt to streamline BT but it really took a lot of the flavor out of it. But full rules BT is a damned nightmare. Full history BT is a nightmare as well of dense history, era specific tech lists, etc. I'm not really sure how to deconflict what the long time fans want and what a new player needs. Catalyst can't really dump everything (nor would I want them to) but how to reboot this clunky franchise?
Mr. White's Avatar
Mr. White replied the topic: #292992 25 Feb 2019 10:52

drewcula wrote: Mr. White!
I just wrote this on BGG too.
I received my Introductory box from Catalyst this week. $27 shipped.
I bought the larger box via CSI a month ago.

I'll be painting 10 mechs over the next three weeks in preparation for an old high school reunion throw-down. Thankfully, we'll be rolling dice in Brooklyn instead of the backwater shit hole we grew up in.


Be sure to let us know your thoughts afterward. Are you an old school Battletecher or is this a new endeavor for you as well?
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #295553 16 Apr 2019 08:21
Resurrecting thread like they resurrected this entire franchise.

Got a beginner box to give this a spin for less than $20. I've never Battletech'd because I'm too young. Scanned over the rulebook and it seems functional, if not particularly well laid out. Anything I should know?
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #295554 16 Apr 2019 08:39

Vysetron wrote: Resurrecting thread like they resurrected this entire franchise.

Got a beginner box to give this a spin for less than $20. I've never Battletech'd because I'm too young. Scanned over the rulebook and it seems functional, if not particularly well laid out. Anything I should know?


Stay cool.