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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Troubles of Machine Sheet Games, Battletech in Specific

Over at the Classicbattletech.com forums a fellow was lamenting why he was leaving Battletech.  Many of us were discussing it, and one of my comments: "I played more games of Megamek in 6 months than I have in my 22 YEARS of owning Battletech.  One thing playing a lot lets you see is the actual flaws in the BT game system that can only really be fixed with a total incompatible new rules edition.  By this point and the size of the BT community I don't think it will happen.", came up as a topic for a thread discussing what is wrong or could be improved for Battletech.

Well for those of you who don't know, Battletech was once a MAJOR name in hobby gaming.  Its a "Machine Sheet" game involving giant stompy war robots smashing into each other with guns and missiles and their feet in a hard scifi setting.

But being a hardcore "Machine Sheet" game has relegated it to a small but vocal fanbase.   It for good AND ill has also effectively been unchanged as a ruleset since at least 1986 thereabouts.  (True there have been tweaks and clarifications, but some guy with pre 1990 books could use them and play with guys who just bought the current starter set yesterday.  There would be a few minor changes, but not too many.  The last 3 COMPLETELY COMPATIBLE editions of Warhammer 40K have more serious changes than Battletech has.  In half the time.)

I took it upon myself to comment on what issues I felt Battletech has to deal with, both in getting new players due to its design, and how people might want a simpler game, using an example of play.

Let's see what I wrote eh?  (Good forums content is always a candidate for a blog post.)

(As always I tweak things a bit for you fine readers, many of whom may not be familliar with the game in question.)

Well.  Here is the thing.  At CBT.com most people are generally gonna be positive about Battletech as it is, and thus are pretty much happy overall with the game and don't want it to change.   If they weren't, they would stop playing as so many have.  (Obviously things like work/family schedules, availability and quality of local players and such count too, but this is mostly about the GAME ITSELF.)

I look at CBT this way:  On one hand its TOTALLY AWESOME that I can effectively use every BT product I have bought since my 14th birthday in June 1988 when I went into a mall hobby shop and bought Battletech (thanks to a review in Dragon Magazine, my love of Robotech, and the Robotech RPGs not being stocked there...) and Runequest 3rd edition.

On the other.  Game design has evolved and BT is still an insanely slow, detailed, and clunky game.

For 1 on 1 duels, or lance action sized games?

It does its job well, though player skill and a handy box of tokens (see my review of custom Litko tokens that REALLY are all but essential to proper BT play unless you have an excellent memory: 
http://wargamedork.blogspot.com/2009/12/review-corner-litko-aerosystems-custom.html ) helps speed things up.

Last full lance game I played at Connecticon 09 took FIVE HOURS.  Myself and another half awake semi lapsed player at a con game using L2 lances.  (Event organizer selected the battle type and units involved.  I probably ticked him off by saying for a demo/intro game he should have gone 3025 only and probably 2 on 2 fights, not lance actions.)

(A Lance in Battletech is generally a 4 mech/tank squad.)

Battletech is a design for detail game, not design for EFFECT.   Its like most "Machine Sheet" games.  Renegade Legion, Starfleet Battles, Car Wars, and Silent Death are the other big names in the genre.  (Honestly IMHO Silent Death is THE best Machine Sheet game.  Battletech comes in second.)

Machine sheet games tend to cover things into minutia.  Many people don't need that level of detail.  Add in that because its such a long lived system so many more rules BT really wasn't intended to cover have really filled it up.  It went from small mech duels in light terrain to trying to cover the entire SCOPE of a Battletech universe battle with all the evolving and devolving technologies in 6 CENTURIES of armored warfare.

Battletech if we count Clan weaponry, Solaris 7 duelling tech, and experimental gear has close to what?  100 different weapons and combat systems?

While many people like this level of detail, for the majority (as evident by 40K basically supplanting BT and SFB as THE scifi minis wargame) its too much.

Let's just take one on one 3025 play.

Each player needs a sheet of paper per mech they play, plus at least a double sided reference sheet with ELEVEN charts on it.  And this is assuming your mech sheets have their weapons listed on them, plus the heat effects chart.

So to START, for a 1 on 1 introductory 3025 duel, you have 13 effective charts.  This isn't counting advanced rules, urban combats, vehicles, infantry, aerospace, non mapsheet miniatures play, or RPG elements.

That's a TON of information players need to know.

Now on to a mech sheet.  Now each sheet is a single full page (though tanks, infantry, VTOLS, and some other units don't need a full page, the stars of the game DO.)

Your mech has a heat status bar, a movement information section, weaponry (which all have differing ammunition, heat, damage types, and range which must be kept track of), pilot information, and weight.  11 exterior armor locations which can have dozens and dozens of damage points to cross off, plus 8 internal locations once the exterior armor has been taken off.  Our heat chart has SEVENTEEN different levels of effects, and a player also has to keep track of everything used heatwise, plus how many heat sinks are left operational.

Then there is the potential for up to 54 pieces of internal equipment which can be damaged and destroyed, with 4 REALLY essential bits to each unit to be kept track of.  (Engine, Gyro, Sensors, Life Support.)  

Bur that's just the essential ones.  You need to also pay attention to limb actuators, jump jets, and other such devices.

There is more information to be kept track of on a SINGLE mech sheet than what an entire Battlemech COMPANY should have for a modern miniatures wargame.

(A Battletech Company is 12 mechs or tanks.  Or 3 Lances.  A Battalion is 3 Companies, a Regiment is 3 Battalions, a Division is 3 Regiments.  The Battleforce 1st edition wargame is designed to simulate a Regiment fighting, but has campaign rules to cover a Divisional fight.  If I ever can get my Tuesday group TO ACTUALLY ALL MEET ON TIME ON SCHEDULE AND PLAY SOME GAMES, I will show yall how great it is as a "Design for Effect" game sometime soon.)

Again, for duels this is pretty good having tons of stuff.  But it REALLY breaks down when trying to play with non or casual gamers, or adding more units and more advanced levels of play.

Now let's see what we could potentially have for dice rolls for one medium mech firing at another.

Let's say a Trebuchet (2 LRM 15s, 3 Medium Lasers) is shooting at a Phoenix Hawk (2 Machineguns, 2 Medium Lasers, 1 Large Laser.)

First we need to check shooting modifiers at the target.  Has the Trebuchet Walked, Ran, or Jumped?  Does it have any penalties for arm damage and weapons within said arms?  Is it on the ground or firing at a prone target?  Does it have any sensor or heat penalties?  What terrain elements is it firing through?  How many hexes of actual movement (since turning and difficult terrain don't count as movement for target difficulty) did the P Hawk use?  Is the mech firing at a secondary or tertiary target as well?

We aren't done yet.  We also need to know the distance for each weapon system.  And there are also penalties for some weapons if you are within minimum range.  And line of sight/torso twisting matters, especially since arm mounted guns have a wider firing arc!

Ok great, we have now added what could be NINE different modifiers to the base Gunnery roll.  If we were playing Star League/3050 tech we could also need to take even more modifiers into account.  (Weaponry mods, computer systems, ect.)

Now we roll to hit.  Obviously in practice most of those mods won't matter, but let's say the Trebuchet walked, has no heat or systems damage, and the P Hawk has a +2 to be hit for speed, and a +1 for being in a Light Woods.  (For sanity's sake its not prone, has a L1 hill in the way, intervening terrain in front of it, and we are gonna ignore Fire and Smoke rules which could add even more modifiers and dice rolls.)

We will say the P Hawk is... oh 6 hexes away and in the Treb's front arc.  (Non Battletech players out there?  I bet you want NOTHING to do with this game already, right?  It probably sounds as scary as Advanced Squad Leader.)

So our "average" modifiers are: +1 for walking.  +2 for target speed.  +1 for terrain.  A +4 to his Gunnery. Now we have our 4th and in this case final modifier.  Range.  The Trebuchet player makes notes for heat, and decides to fire everything.  20 heat, and he has 10 heat sinks so he is at the 10 mark on the Heat chart.  4 more points and he would have a roll to make to avoid shutting down.  If he does this next turn he has 2 rolls to make.  One for shutdown one for ammo explosions.  As is he now has movement and targeting penalties next turn.

Oh wait.  I forgot about range.  At 6 hexes he is in medium range with the mediums so his Gunnery for the mediums is +6.    Now the LRMs are in short for no modifier.  BUT.. he is in the minimum range category which adds a +1 to the modifer for a +5.  Now his Gunnery is 4 so the Mediums need 10s to hit and the LRMs need 9s.

We are gonna say the dice are with the Treb player.  He rolls his 5 attacks (some mechs have over a DOZEN weapon systems to fire) and we will say the 2 LRM 15s and 1 Medium Laser hit.

The Medium Laser is simple enough.  Since the Phawk is totally visible it is on the normal chart, front facing.  Now we need to roll a second time for the simple attack to see where it hits.  I am gonna say it rolls a 7 and hits the Center Torso for 5 points of damage.  The Phawk now has 18 points left.  Now for EACH LRM 15 we have to see how many missiles hit before we can assign damage.  So we roll for each LRM and I shall use our friend 7 and that means each spread has 9 out of 15 hitting.  So that's 2 locations to roll for each spread.

(Query to the experienced: Would I just divvy up all the hits together, or go for each salvo as their own thing?  I am assuming its the way I am doing it.  If its the other way, we STILL have 4 attacks anyhow so its not even saving time!)

Now for LRMs we break it up into splots of 5 so 2 locations for each spread.  (For SRMs each of the 1-6 missiles hits somewhere new.  Oh, in L2 play there are missile systems with 40 LRM type missiles.  And shotgun type weapons.)  A 5 and a 4.  (Or if its the other way, 3 5s and a 3.)  For our purposes we roll a 2 which is a Center Torso hit with a potential for an internal hit before damage actually reaches the internals. and a 10 which is the Left Arm which we will say only had 3 armor points left.  The next 2 have a 12 which is a Head hit, and we will say the next roll hits a location with plenty of armor.

Now for the CT crit location requires ANOTHER roll to see if we cause a critical hit and how many.  Now if we do, that roll can cause 1-3 critical effects which require at least 2 dice rolls to discover what happened which can then cause MORE rolls to be made.  We will just say it was one critical.  We roll upper or lower CT section and get upper.  Now we roll for what we hit and its the Gyro.  This will cause a piloting check with modifiers at the end of this phase.  (So another roll for someone.)  

The Head hit causes damage to armor but as it is a pilot location the pilot takes a point of damage and will have to roll to stay awake.

Now the arm hit was into the internal so we roll to see if there are any criticals.  For my sanity and the sake of brevity I shall say no.

Now the Phawk has THREE rolls to make.  He took a Gyro hit, and he took more than 20 damage in a phase. And his roll to stay awake. (This is just the shooting phase.  From 1 unit on 1 unit.)  He will pass his wakey wakey roll, and the Gyro hit, but making 2 high rolls for Piloting is rough and he fails the second.  Now he has to roll for falling, location of fall, divvy up falling damage ala missile hits, make any additional critical hit checks, and another piloting check for pilot damage from falling and possibly ANOTHER check if he does fail since it means another pilot wakey check.

Now.. firing is simultaneous so the Phawk's firing goes back.  Then its on to the close combat phase if they happen to be nearby.

Had enough die rolls yet?

One ROUND of combat between 2 mechs can potentially involve over a hundred die rolls.

Is it any wonder why many people don't play this sort of game, and many more may have issue with the sheer level of detail involved?

And I just covered a COMMON round of shooting.  Nothing too advanced.  Something you will see in almost every game of Battletech ever played.

Now I LIKE Battletech.  I like it a lot.  But only at the Lance level, and usually 3025-3055 level with Mechs and Tanks only.  No infantry, aerospace, urban, naval, or advanced rules.  For someone who hasn't made this one game their lifestyle its an all session event to play out one game.  Even online Megamek games where the program keeps track of everything for you tends to take 2 hours or so to play out a normal 3025 lance on lance game!

I can completely see why most people would be intimidated if not outright HOSTILE to this sort of game.

Now Silent Death is nowhere near as complicated as the Machine Sheet genre goes, but Starfleet Battles, Car Wars, and Renegade Legion go to even MORE absurd levels.  Starfleet Battles has a bleeding TAX FORM to fill out each turn!

Some games have tried to streamline it, and really only Federation Commander (Starfleet Battles' better kid brother) managed to succeed.  (Car Wars totally missed the point and all but killed the franchise.  And as any gamer knows SJGames mostly only cares about Munchkin these days so CW is pretty much gone for good.)

Obviously lots of folks including me like Battletech, but there NEEDS to be a complete stand alone Battletech game for the casuals, the fans who just want big mass battles like they see in the Gundams and Robotechs and such, the guys whose schedules MAYBE give them 2-3 hours a month to play a game.

Battletech is like a car engine.  Some folks love tinkering with them and can go on about how this engine is better than that engine especially with this kind of shock and tires.

Other folks just want their car to go faster when they put the gas pedal down, slower when they hit the brake, and to turn the direction they turn the wheel.

Gaming, like driving, has more people who just want the latter.

I can get casual gamers to play a game like Wings of War which simplifies World War 1 or 2 air combat into something you can teach all but the optional rules to a half dozen people in 5 minutes or so.

Sitting them down with a game like Battletech is foolish at best, and potentially KILLING any interest in gaming said casuals might have at worst.

Yet Wings of War is as exciting and epic as any "Machine Sheet" game without the 90% of detail Battletech and the MS genre has.  The same thing with Uncharted Seas.   They UNDERSTAND most people don't need or want that level of detail.  When you do an attack in Wings of War you just take a card from the appropriate damage deck if you are in one of 2 range bands and have line of sight to the target.  Icons on the cards tell you if anything special or crazy happened to either player, and then there are damage points that eventually take the plane out if one of the icon effects doesnt.

It effectively does the same thing that massive wall of "TL;DR" text I wrote about the Battletech Trebuchet firing at a Phoenix Hawk did and does it with one or two card draws instead of dozens of dice rolls and chart checks.

Did our Wings of War card tell us exactly what bit of mechanics got hit or missed by the guns on our Sopwith Camel?  


It gets down to the essentials we DO care about.  Did the Fokker DR1 get fragged?  Did it's pilot get taken out of action, possibly stunned or blacked out?

That we learned.   We had the EFFECT, not the massive piles of detail getting us there.

Like the car example.  We don't care how the gasoline is turned into gasses that move the cylinders that make the pistons move which make the car move forward based on the pressure we put to the gas pedal, or what gear the car was in per revolution and how G forces, tire and wheel type, shocks and the steering affect the turn.

Just that cars go faster if the gas pedal is pressed down further, a Porsche is faster than a Yugo, and its hard to keep on the road if you go really fast down that hairpin turn.

Its the effect we care about, not the detail.

Though to be sure, sometimes the "devil in the details" is all part of the fun.

And that's why I do play and enjoy Battletech.

But Cthulhu knows its not the only way to do things or that its for everyone!


Chgowiz said...

You know, you may have convinced me to use (modified) Quick Start rules for my Battletech game versus the Intro (I guess you call them L1) rules for my con game at WinterWar. I want to do a combined Mechwarrior/Battletech game, but damn, I sure do not want to soak up my entire game with a 4 on 4 (possibly mixed vehicles) battle.

I think I would keep heat (resource management), jumping and easy modifiers (terrain, range) but toss out a lot of the rest.

Paint it Pink said...

Brilliant post, and I was the one that quoted you to start that thread, so thank you for the time and effort it took you to write out your piece.

Captain Rufus said...

Thank you both very much for the kind comments!

Too bad the CBT forums' commentary is mostly the Kool Aid drinker kind. (Kind of feels like what kind of hard sells one would get at a party hosted by Tom Cruise...)

And the rules you use all depend on what you want out of the game.

Are you into the tons of details and lots of crazy bits that can happen or are you more interested in the bigger picture?

What about your players?

That Chgowiz will let you know what you should run.

There is also the Battleforce scale rules the CBTers keep espousing with glee. Catalyst does have the essential rules up online in a trio of PDF files. It might be more what you want.

(But given your nice blog's content seems heavily OSR White Box inspired, I am thinking something like Battleforce 2/3 rules would be more to your liking.)

Chgowiz said...

@CptR: I've really hesitated to mention my microMechwarrior, since Herb seems to rule the roost with an iron fist - and since he's so proud of ToW, I didn't want to go there.

But damn... that's not an RPG, that's a pen & paper Sims-in-3050 simulator. No thanks.

WRT to Battleforce, I don't have the book, so I can't comment on it. So far, my tinkering seems to lend itself to adding heat to the Quick Start rules for a lite Battletech. You get stompy goodness, you lose a bit on the falling, internal damage and some modifiers, but on the whole, I think it can flow well. We'll see.

Paint it Pink said...

Okay, TLA breakdown here, which of the many appropriate OSRs do you mean? Sorry, but I Googled OSR and could see at least three possible meanings.

White box, thank you a very flattering comparison for my humble fumblings.

Chgowiz said...

OSR = "Old School Renaissance" or "Old School Revival". What it "is" depends on who you ask, but at a core, it's a resurgent interest and activity towards versions of games (such as D&D, Gamma World, 1978 Traveller, etc) that are the original versions, or games that "clone" or "simulate" those older games.

If you're really interested and want to spend way too much time reading stuff, it's explained on the TARGA FAQ:


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