Published by FASA & Wizards of the Coast
Designed by Richard Garfield
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
2 or more players
about an hour
I have always felt as if I should enjoy Battletech. I quite like the idea of the mechs themselves, the miniatures based games look impressive, FASA have done some good work elsewhere over the years, and there are oodles of supplements so the game background always promises rather more than a demolition derby. But whenever I have tried it, and that is three times now, the game has sidestepped the seemingly irrelevant setting, reducing quickly to a boring fight to the death. Exactly like Star Fleet Battles and any other 'cross off the boxes' design you care to name. Nothing wrong with that if it rings your bell, but for me this is a game system devoid of flavour, tactics or nuance. Just get out there and nail the enemy as quickly, and as with as much, as possible - like a Tom Clancy book, the joy is derived from squeezing off a few missiles rather than any great thought process.
It was therefore with some interest that I had been looking forward to this new CCG from Wizards of the Coast, and more so when it was decided that Richard Garfield would be at the helm. Could we finally expect a mech combat game with the subtlety of Netrunner, the intrigue of Jyhad or the open ended qualities of Magic? Umm, no. It's silk purse and sow's ear time, I'm afraid. It was perhaps wrong of me to expect a miraculous transformation, but having partly done it with Netrunner I vainly hoped Richard Garfield could work the same magic with Battletech. Wrong, though probably not for want of trying. But what we get is far from horrible, and I have played it four times with mixed success, culminating in a quite exciting battle in the latest two player match up. It isn't great, but it isn't bad either and will probably keep the mechies happy for a while.
So, how does the game shape up? The mechanisms follow other CCG systems quite closely. You draw two cards per turn and can make two deployments. These might be mechs, ready for construction, or command cards which produce resources to build the mechs and give you tactical advantages. Mechs are built secretly by playing them face down and feeding them tapped resources until they are built. The big ones take a while, the small ones can be built much more quickly - sometimes even immiediately. The more resources they take, the greater their armour and firepower, broadly speaking. And for this reason you can bluff by putting more resources than a card needs, to make your enemy think a killer mech is coming. Once built, they go on patrol and can later be assigned to attack or defend various parts of your complex - like Netrunner you can send your mechs in to attack the other players cards.
The game is won by depleting the opponent's draw pile to zero cards. You achieve this by attrition, in that steady losses will gradually whittle him down, or by actually attacking the pile directly. Obviously the other guy will make every effort to protect it, so you may have to do it another way. However, the most common scenario is for a couple of your mechs to go off on a raid. They can be blocked by opposing patrolling mechs, as long as they have a better speed attribute than yours, or you might come up against defenders on guard. There is a simple initiative system that means the loser must declare everything he is doing, and then it is down to combat. Let's say a Panther (attack 2, defence 1/4) comes up against Fenris (attack 1, defence 1/6). Panther looses off his shot for two damage. Fenris absorbs one of these thanks to his armour, but takes a permanent hit on his structure (6 reducing to 5). Fenris fires back, but because he only has one attack, the Panther's armour absorbs it. Some mechs have missiles, some can use overheats or Alpha strikes (a form of do or die attack). That's it really. No dice modifiers, no major excitement. The only variety is provided by Mission cards which although they sound good, in the main come down to event cards that affect combat. They add flavour, they make the game tolerable, but there aren't enough of them in the starters.
Deck construction is, for once, reasonably appealing. You set the balance of command (resource) cards and mechs, and you also get to choose the types that fit your faction - like Games Workshop designs, the land of Battletech is rife with chapters, houses and warring parties. You may choose only the mechs that can fight for your side, and within that mix you decide whether to go for fast lightly armoured mechs, great behemoths with Chobham armour, middleweights, or a mix of the three.
Our first game of Battletech, an abortive five player affair, actually degenerated into an hour long argument on semantics, grammar and the minimal efforts of the rules editor. Boy, were his ears burning. This was purely because the rulebook failed to clearly indicate how to build mechs (you can imagine how this might curb enjoyment of the game slightly....) and also failed to define what 'in play' means. If it meant laid but tapped you had one game (possibly rather different to the current one), if it meant just on the table, you had another. It actually means the latter, so once you have tactics or munitions, you have the talent, tapped or not. Common sense, but not actually pointed out anywhere. The irony is that Wizards provide a fast start sheet that is so generalised it fails to help at all - may I point them to Avalon Hill who have been doing this properly for years. Sure, they can read a little on the patronizing side, but they get you playing. So many CCGs need this badly (Legend of the Five Rings, to name but one) that it is a wonder they haven't just copied the model - "Open the box. Sort the cards into A&B. Deal five cards to each player. Each player lays x..." And so on. Of course this assumes that the publisher has been kind enough to give you the right cards to play - something Wizards cannot be accused of. So, with Battletech, the approach I recommend is to try and play with two, pack it away after half an hour, go away and read the rules (which are quite complete) and try again next week - it will work. Where the game really does not work too well as advertised is for multi-player. We have tried with five, which even with free interaction caused too much downtime, and with three which is okay.
In one of those advertorials that occasionally pop up in the hobby press, a FASA bigwig indicated that the graphics of Battletech would be among the best ever, trying to capture those in Judge Dredd. Richard Garfield was even moved to call them 'Inspirational'. Well, apparently, if you believe the press. With such shameless puffery, and Magic, Jyhad and NetRunner lighting the way, we looked set for a real treat. Again, though, like the game, this was not to be. If I were being generous, the artwork could be described as patchy. The general standard is average to low, and the better works (few of which could be described as outstanding, much less inspirational) are distinctly rare. More irony, already. This is compounded by the mechs themselves being much of a muchness - they fail to convey the variety of shapes and armaments, and importantly the different sizes. They also feature some of the very worst artwork, along with the command cards - some of these artists (Pat Morrissey in particular) can't even draw people, ferchrissakes. Perhaps my standards are too high - I am encountering similar problems over in the miniatures hobby where I refuse to give a good review to a figure that has legs four feet long, a bodybuilder's torso and a head like a pumpkin. This should be basic anatomy class, shouldn't it? Even I, stickman supremo, know about the proportion rules. Accordingly, some of the cards in Battletech look as if they have been painted by a failed O Level Art student - I know, because I lived next door to one. This is not good enough.
As for collectibilty, I fear that only the most diehard fan will want to buy too many of these cards. I am sure there are all sorts of interesting events and mechs out there, and the game sorely needs the former, but I for one will not be buying any more. We have played quite happily with a starter pack each, which will cost you £12 the pair, and that was enough to see how the game was going to pan out. It would have been nice to have had some more mission (event) cards to add spice to the almost indistinguishable combats and I am sure there are rare mechs with all sorts of interesting kit, but I was not moved enough by the game, and the artwork killed it off completely. Indeed, apart from the execrable Super Deck, I cannot think of a set I have been less tempted to acquire. Even Wyvern had decent artwork and generated a mild desire (manfully resisted) to have just a few more.
So to conclude, I would have to say that Richard Garfield has designed a working game which lacks excitement and much in the way of tactical play. In fairness, this is largely due to the subject matter. The game boils down to a straight slugfest: deploy mechs, decide whether to defend or rampage, and make sure you do it to him before he does it to you. That's it. I honestly couldn't see much in the way of strategy apart from deciding whether to go for lots of small mechs or a few big ones, and whether to try and take out the opponent's resources rather than his hardware. Otherwise it is the luck of the draw - do your resource cards (Magic's lands equivalents) come out or not, do you get the mechs you wanted. Sure, as ever you can carefully tune the pack to your aims, but the tactical game is one of considerable obviousness. Unlike Netrunner, or Magic, where you have not only a lot of different cards before you even think of combination effects, Battletech seems woefully short on card types and variety. If I have missed anything, I apologise, but I think that is the long and short of it.
If I were to speculate on the main reason behind the design's limitations, I would have to plump for the involvement of FASA, namely one Bryan Nystul - the Battletech Line Developer. Reading between the lines of the rulebook and subsequent interviews, it is possible that Richard Garfield was brought in late to bail out a flagging design. The Red Adair of game design, if you like. However, because the Battletech universe is rich and deep with 'millions of words in print', the hand of FASA and Mr Nystul lays heavy on this design. Whether RG's style was cramped, whether it was designed to order, or whether he just had to produce a workable game encompassing Battletech themes, perhaps to a deadline (X Files was imminent, and we have now entered the land of movie release strategy and not wishing to clash - apparently). We will probably never know, but the result is plain to see. A concoction of ideas drawn toolkit-fashion from other games, lacking that design-saving clever tweak, and without the extra attractiveness provided by a strong, or appealing, background. However many chapters and words there may be in the Battletech universe, it is still all very samey and shallow.
Battletech is a Barry Manilow of a game - one that would appear to be made up of parts of others. There are definable elements of Star Wars (the reduction of the pack to win), Netrunner (the construction system, draw pile and cards as locations which can be attacked), Magic (tapping, blocking, card enhancements) and even shades of Jyhad (an embryonic political system, factions and clans). I may be mistaken, but I get the impression that little creative sweat was shed in pursuit of the finished design. For the above reasons, this is not all that surprising, and even understandable. On the surface it looks as if Mr Garfield dipped into his bits box, pulled out a few ideas, cast around for some others and then stuck them all together. There is no doubt in my mind that they have been combined well, but this is really design by numbers - the antithesis of Netrunner where the designer had clearly gone to town on new and fitting ideas, capturing the theme perfectly while simultaneously giving us a very good game. Which is what I hoped for from Battletech.
But at the end of the day Battletech is a workable game. It is no more than that, and this has disappointed many, like me, who expected a game of Netrunner's quality, depth and innovation. Or perhaps even something better. But it was not to be, and I should certainly not be over critical simply because I had great expectations and had mistakenly predicted the Garfield trend to continue upwards. The game is fine as it stands, the artwork is lacklustre, the rule book could do with some work and it is, unlike many CCGs, 100% playable. So, returning to where I came in, I wonder if Battletech as a subject can ever produce anything above a largely obvious game of mindless violence - especially if the publisher keeps the system parameters reined in tight. As far as I can establish, Netrunner's design and success greatly enhanced the genre of cyberpunk and, by extension, R Talsorian's reputation and potential sales. I personally know two or three people who bought the RPG on the back of the CCG - whether they were disappointed, we do not yet know.
Would that Richard Garfield, or any other designer, be allowed a free hand with Battletech it could actually get better rather than stagnating. I fully acknowledge that FASA know their product and market best, and are sticking with a winning formula, but the phrase 'innovate or die' is as important in gaming as in any other field - check Games Workshop's successful strategy for a lead on this. This then would seem to have been an ideal opportunity to expand. Who knows, they may have widened their market instead of just keeping the captives happy. This looks like the classic computer game situation where a licence deal - Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Batman, whatever - is all but guaranteed to sell x thousand copies, but doesn't necessarily have to shine to so do.
I also suspect it raises points linked to those in the last issue - should we necessarily expect a designer with a good track record to consistently produce innovative games, is it therefore mistaken to look forward to games by established names, especially if they are tied-in (to some extent) with a major player, and should these designers put their names to games that perhaps fall beneath their high standards? The use of a nom de jeu may well have some merit in such situations. So, to conclude my ultimately academic speculation, I am reminded very much of Iain Bank's Whit - a book which is by no stretch of the imagination poor, but which is certainly not up to his earlier works and which carries the nagging suggestion that it was printed because the publisher needed a release at that time, not because it was particularly great or that the author necessarily approved.
Battletech will doubtless join the also-rans of the CCG pantheon. Not a patch on Magic success-wise, nor even close to METW or Netrunner design-wise, it will be grouped with Star Wars, Star Trek and the other playable but ultimately shortlived designs. Granted, it could have been worse. It could also have been a lot better. Nevertheless, if you are a fan of the big robots, or quick, deadly and largely mindless two or three player games, you'll find little to complain about here and for all I know you will be playing it well past next month. If you were, as a gamer, looking for the next Magic, Middle Earth or Netrunner, I respectfully suggest you will need to look elsewhere.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell