Wednesday 9 June 2010

Yesterdays Heroes of Tomorrow


While what I am about to write largely concerns BattleTech, I feel the arguments are apposite for a large number of wargaming eras.

Though reminiscing is sometimes seen as a sign of old age, when I was a teenager, I use to play tabletop wargames with a friend called Tim. He was very much into the Germans and the SS, and introduced me to the questionable delights of Sven Hassel. Tim use to pretty much beat me every game we played. I started off as Anglo-American, tried playing Germans and ended up fielding Russians. As Stalin said "quantity has a quality all of its own", and furthermore as I saw it then, the Russians has the Josef Stalin heavy tanks. Even so I still lost to Tim and his Tigers, Panthers and assorted special panzers etc.

Just to assuage everyone's sympathy for my string of losses, I did turn it around, and at the end I totally humiliated Tim by defeating him in detail in one long summer afternoon's game on the floor of his front living room. AFAICR we never played again after that. Then Tim got into being a skinhead, and I was a bit of a hippy chick (artistic & highly strung), so we had a natural parting of the ways, which brings me around to the concept of "powering-down" games.

I think it's only natural to want to play the elite units when you begin wargaming. After all, they represent the so called best-of-the-best, and who doesn't want to be associated with the best? After more than 25 years of playing games I also think we tend to move on from this place and start to see that playing the worst-of-the-worst and winning is actually rather rewarding, if a whole lot harder to achieve. So I have found myself intrigued by the challenges of WW1 and the first tanks, which lets face it were a nightmare to operate. I call this process "powering-down", which is the opposite of the tendency to want to have bigger and better, or "powering-up" games via the introduction of better stuff.

While tanks in WW1 were shiney new things that opened up tactical options, they could at the end of the day be rendered inoperative with fire from a battery of heavy machine guns. The same can also be said of the inter-war period tanks when the lessons of WW1 were reflected upon, and the operational doctrines for using tanks were formulated by people like Liddell Hart. What he proposed found itself being used in various theatres of operations around the world, and it became clear that not everyone had learnt the same lessons from WW1, or came to the same conclusions about the role of the tank in future wars as a result.

Like any transitional periods, things can happen that suggest one course, while the reality that was that WW2 really sorted out the sheep from the goats. While people will argue that giant battling robots is rather a silly idea, for a whole heap of sensible reasons, the fact is that conceptually they are no different to the tanks of WW1, except in that theirs is an imaginary role that only the mechs can overcome. If you accept this premise, then we can look at tank development in real wars affects how we game them, and by extension look at what happens when you develop games that try to represent the ultimate war machines in action against each other with tanks and mechs as interchangeable units.

What I have seen from this process is that rules to cover different periods of WW1 or WW2 are different. There are few rules that try to cover both wars, because the "powering-up" that occurred, which in real life means that WW1 tanks are completely outclassed by early WW2 tanks, let alone late war tanks like the Tiger, Panther and King Tiger etc.BattleTech is a set of rules that covers a period of more than 50 years of war, and justifies this through the initial premise that prior to main 3025 period there was technological stagnation. The game background then goes on to posit that in the post Helm data-core renaissance, the in universe realms rediscover the lost technological processes.

That as an assumption for a future universe background is a pretty reasonable place to start, but it then led to further conflict, which has meant that the mechs have become far more powerful by 3075. A bit like the difference between early WW2 and late WW2 tanks, while in the background of circa 3025 we have the WW1 and interwar style mechs. However great this may seem to those players who want to see the universe "powered up" with new weapons and technology, the result is that the nature of the game is fundamentally changed.

New BattleTech is not the same as old BattleTech, even though the core rules remain largely the same, and it's all down to stuff that has been added to the game to "power-up" the mechs. This is IMNSHO a very bad thing indeed, because it removes the charm of the initial background. The charm for me lay in the idea of mechs as knights. Once mechs just became commodities then you may have more powerful tanks/mechs, but the significance of the pilot is downplayed. This "cost" has affected how the game is played.

Now if you agree that the original background of the game is where the idea of mechs as a concept works best, then the question becomes how do you return the game to its roots?

You have to find some way to "power-down" the game background. This is why I think that moving the BattleTech timeline forward to 3130 and the Dark Age/Age of Destruction is a good thing. It will allow the game designers to remove the large amount of Tiger, King Tiger and Panther tank analogs, while giving a good reason for using simpler mechs for games. Much as in the same way players who have been playing WW2 for a long time gravitate towards early war period as it is tactically more challenging than fielding herds of Tiger tanks.

This direction is even supported by the original background of the game universe where battlemechs were rare and people converted civilian mechs, called "industrials" into military vehicles by adding weapons and armour to them. In much the same way as in the Interwar period trucks had weapons and armour added to them to make them into armoured cars, or for a more recent example in the Middle East etc, Toyota trucks are converted into so called 'technicals" by adding weapons to them.

So I welcome the new Dark Age and the chance to field "industrial"mechs to the game, and only having limited access to true battlemechs for the same reasons that I have found that I enjoy playing with WW1 tanks and the inter war period conflicts like the Spanish Civil War.


  1. I can certainly see the appeal. Heck we all have that wargaming "I wanna play with the big guns phase" but now?

    Other than my WWII and 6mm Moderns projects (which I am also building up to do Norway and Iran in the context of a NATO-WP conflict), I am taking the same approach. My favored period in Battletech? 3025-3049. My own sci-fi background for my 15mm stuff? A little third world-esque hellhole with elements from the wars in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and probably some from my fevered imagination.

    Not sure if the DA's my cup of tea to be honest, but I will say this, you've written more cogently in it's defense then some of the slobbering fanboys....

  2. When The MW clicky game went public, this was one of the thematic elements I adored: Mechs were back to being these scarce items of great power, even if the mech in question was just a glorified bulldozer with a cannon attached to it.

    Of course, the games never worked out like that: Everyone spent more money than me and always brought their super-rare ultrahypermegauber toys to the table....

  3. Panzerfaust 150: Thanks for the complement about the cogency of my piece, I think it is largely done to having been around the block more than once. Battletech is not MechWarrior, because it is a dueling game, whereas MechWarrior is more akin to BattleForce; a command & control combined arms game.

    Michael C: Your comment is absolutely spot on, and the thing is we all do it to some degree or other. The rules might benefit from some guidelines about number of units per points, as the main weakness is the ability to finesse the high value units into allowing one to do more, whereas the game plays better when you have to few command points to move all your units.

  4. Not entirely on-topic, but I often think about an alternate Battletech timeline where the technological development takes a more typical path. Here the battlesuit/battlearmor would come first, and the introduction of a 20-ton battle-Mech would be the seminal development, instead of jumping straight to the 100-ton monster (Mackie). Starting at this level the power curve is wide open for a slow progression of growth, and much of the Dark Age equipment would make sense, fit in, and even be competitive, at least for a while.

    Battletech has also experience something of a "rules curve", with already weak vehicles (tanks) being further strangled in the new edition rules. This was unnecessary and unfortunate, as it made Battlemechs relatively more powerful and largely took away tanks as being an interesting challenge to the Battlemech.