Tuesday, November 3, 2015

31st Century Combat

Let me guess...from left to right:
Griffon, Atlas, Locust and a Catapult?
The video game Kickstarter for Battletech has ended with the developers getting about eleven times their minimum funding goal.  It's not hard to see why considering the universe of Battletech is (in 2015 terms) an interactive version of "Game of Thrones" meets "Pacific Rim."  To boot the chosen in-game era, 3025, has a lot of "Mad Max" style post-apocalyptic trappings.  At first glance space feudalism might seem silly, but the concept isn't really all that far fetched.  In the context of a series of long and devastating interstellar wars, that have left pretty much all infrastructure (including production, transportation and even communication) in utter ruin, it stands to reason that individual planets would regress back to local rulers that control what vital resources remain.  As far as I'm concerned the original setting of Battletech is fine, it's the mechanics of the game it's attached to that have me worried.

If you're not familiar with the history of the Battletech franchise, it's basically a collection of board games and paperback novels, as well as video games running the gambit from RPG and RTS to more recently mech piloting sims.  At the core of all of it though is a three decade old hex grid war game designed for mech on mech combat.  The system is quite detailed and requires a lot of bookkeeping for each mech in addition to a hefty amount of dice rolling.  Just to give you an example, firing off a rack of missiles at a target necessitates a to-hit roll, and assuming that is successful, another roll to determine the number of missiles that actually do damage.  After that individual hit location rolls for each missile have to be calculated by comparing roll results to the proper table depending on the target's facing (front, back, left side, etc.).  In total you're looking at anywhere from one to twenty-four dice rolls (on top of multiple charts and stat sheets for consultation) just to determine the effect of one weapon system.  Keep in mind a large mech might have a half-dozen of these or more.  Obviously, all this gets increasingly unwieldy the more and bigger the mechs are up to the point that the entire thing collapses under it's own weight when the numbers of units reach into the double digits.  Of course a video could streamline all this, moving most of the number crunching under the hood, so to speak.  However, there are some fundamental issues with the Battletech ruleset that really need to be addressed in order to make the game enjoyable in the 21st century.

The Whiff Factor is bound 
to lead to a lot of player
To illustrate what I mean, let's take a look at your average mechwarrior, who has a gunnery skill of 4.  He's not a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, but he isn't a war-hardened veteran either.  Assume he's in a mech and he's up against someone else who's also in one.  Now suppose he charges at this onrushing opponent on flat open terrain and opens fire at close range (90 meters) with some medium lasers (a common weapon for mechs).  Short range adds four to the gunnery skill making the target number 8.  He also has to apply another +2 for running and another +2 because his target moved between five and six hexes toward him.  So, the actual to-hit number is 12.  Since all roles are made using two six-sided dice, there's only one chance in thirty-six of hitting (less than 3 percent!).  This is worse than World War 1 naval gunnery.  I'm not engaging in hyperbole here; notoriously inaccurate dreadnought fire control scored hits roughly 5 percent of the time at distances a hundred times greater.  Even under more ideal circumstances the majority of a mech's attacks still miss.  The problem is aggravated by the fact that battlemechs don't have much in the way of ammo reserves.  A real life M1A2 abrams tank can keep its main gun in continuous action for 7 minutes.  Most battlemechs armed with a similar weapon are lucky if they have enough to last 2.  Logistical concerns aside, autocannons have always been too heavy (averaging twice the weight of their energy equivalents) and too dangerous (ammunition explosions will ruin your day) to be worthwhile.

For better or worse, Battletech has kept
backward compatibility with all
 earlier versions of the game despite
 its long history
The setting of Battletech has always been about using what you got rather than what you want.  Understandable, but this leads me to wonder how salvage will be implemented.  Will it be the some kind of generic point system or will there actually be long inventory lists of spare parts taken from fallen mechs?  I've always though of mechs as being fairly universal in terms of components.  Otherwise how would anyone keep them working after centuries of use (and abuse)?  What about aerospace fighters and dropships though?  Will infantry or vehicles play an important role?  There are so many things that need to be rewritten, overhauled or scraped altogether.  I think ditching the tech-bloat of other eras along with the Clans (seriously, the setting already had a huge variety of factions to begin with) is step in the right direction, but there's a lot more that needs work.  The development team has already gone on record saying that their crowdfunded turn-based video game will have a system true to the spirit of Battletech, but not necessarily the same in terms of mechanics.  That sound vaguely encouraging although I wonder how the old guard will react.  The devil is in the details, as they say.    Still, I wish the developers all the best, and should their game turn out great I'll definitely pick up a copy sooner rather than later.  If not then I guess it's just more mecha blues.

No comments:

Post a Comment