Monday, May 14, 2018

The Technology of War

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was introduced to Battletech through the first Mechwarrior video game.  Soon after, I picked up the starter box set and a copy of the 3025 Technical Readout.  To me the setting was very evocative and I often found myself pouring over the capabilities and battle history of various mechs during long car trips.  In my mind, I always saw the setting as being practically post-apocalyptic with most inhabited worlds severely devastated (both ecologically and infrastructurally) by centuries of unrestricted interstellar warfare.  Built to last, battlemechs were artifacts of a long gone golden age that had managed to persist into the current timeline by virtue of their relatively simple, robust and yet still malleable design philosophy.  I pictured these warmachine being used to fight over basic necessities like hydroponics gardens on a barren moon, or the last working geothermal power plant on an entire continent.  As I recall even the base game came with a default map that gave the impression that the battlefield was centered around an oasis in the middle of a desert.  I also imagined the Successor States as extremely diffused political entities.  House Kurita and the Draconis Combine might model themselves after feudal Japan, but it must have been like the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, I thought.  The Free Worlds League was like the United States after the Declaration of  Independence, but before the war of 1812.  The Lyran Commonwealth could be like Prussia before Frederick the Great...and so on.  When I got around to actually reading some of the novels, I was a bit disappointed to find this wasn't the case.  Most of the characters feel very modern-day paramilitary with a surprising lack of emphasis on the fact that mechwarriors were basically space knights/samurai.  As I've said in the past, space feudalism might seem implausible at first glance, but when you're the guy that controls the jumpships and dropships then you control the connections between planets.  Maybe in the battletech universe people don't bother with obstificating titles like "first citizen" or "great leader" and instead cut to the case by calling the rich and powerful "lords" because they lord over everything of value.  It's true there's no divine right of kings going on here, but ComStar has a monopoly on the Hyperpulse Generator Network (essentially an FTL telegraph) and as such their prices don't come cheap.  So a privileged few control the flow of information, but their grip isn't perfect.  It's still possible to pass the word via interstellar courier (albeit slowly).  This situation with a social elite trying to control the message, but unable to become a true police state, is something the new Battletech video game nails perfectly.  Governments are decentralized enough that it's impossible to impose direct control, but communication is fast enough that it's possible to disseminate policy from a central authority (or in the case of the Inner Sphere, five major ones and a bunch of smaller ones).

Another area in which the new Battletech game excels is in the department of system mechanics.  Not only is it the first official game to fully utilize the ruleset from original tabletop wargame, but it manages to smooth out a lot of the rough edges as well.  Throughout my teenage years I tried numerous times to play a standard lance against lance engagement, but I was never able reach the conclusion do to the shear amount of dice rolling and result table consulting it required.  Say, for example, a player controlling one mech wants to launch a rack of six SRMs (Short Range Missiles) at an opposing mech.  First they have to check the range of SRMs to determine whether it's a short, medium or long range shot (or simply out of range).  Next, they have to check how far the target mech moved on its last turn.  They then have to apply additional modifiers such as the competence of the pilot and if they were walking, running or jumping while shooting, not to mention heat and sensor issues in addition to LoS (Line of Sight) complications such as smoke, trees, buildings or simply the lay of the land.  Once all this has been taken care of there's a roll-to-hit.  Assuming it's a success, there's another roll that needs to made to determine how many missiles in the rack strike home.  It was actually very easy to miss with an entire volly which makes me think they should really be called rockets and not missiles, but I digress...for the purposes of this example let's assume it's an average result of four hits.  Now, each of those hits needs a location roll, which are checked against one of four different tables depending on the target's facing in relation to the attacker.  Only now is the damage applied.  There can be even more rolls after this if any missiles do internal damage there's a crit chance followed by another roll to see which component is affected.  Then there's heat buildup to keep track of, plus possible piloting rolls to see if a mech ends up standing or lying prone on the ground.  As you can probably see all this dice rolling and table consulting takes time.  Factor in the reality that every mech has multiple weapon systems, compounded by there being multiple mechs in any given combat, and it's easy for the amount of time consumed to increase exponentially with each new warmachine added to the board.  Thankfully, the computer game handles all this number crunching for the player expeditiously enough that tasks normally taking minutes are reduced to seconds.  Skirmishes that would typically take an entire day to resolve can now be handled in under an hour.

These quality-of-life improvements aren't all though, the humble machine gun has received some basic rules tweaks to make it actually useful.  The same goes for autocannons, which are a lot more enticing now that energy weapons have had their heat and damage values balance adjusted a bit.  Missiles also behave like they actually have some kind of guidance system built into them which is nice.  However, I find myself wishing for an updated version of the anti-missile system to counterbalance players who lean too heavily on the mechs-as-walking-missile-platforms strategy.

Harebrained Schemes' Battletech has a robust selection of mech types as well as variants and customization options.  Still, there are a few more designs I find myself hoping they'll add eventually such as the Raven, Javelin, and Cyclops.  Then there is the Annihilator, the only other type of 100 ton mech to canonically exist in the Inner Sphere.  Although, if you ask me, its design is more battleship than battlemech.  Other than that, some more combined arms stuff like VTOLs and river gunboats might be cool.  Aerospace fighters, while probably too complex to implement in their entirety, could still be used to vary mission dynamics by making the occasional battlefield strafing/bombing run.

One last thing, I want to mention is all the little nods this game has to older Battletech properties.  I got a kick out of seeing the training simulators on-board the Argo (they look just like the machines used at Virtual World Entertainment Centers).  The "power business suits" worn by independent merc contractors (complete with padded shoulders and brightly colored fabrics) are a nice reference to the 1980s influences on the visual style of Battletech.  My favorite call back though, has to be the display readouts on in-game monitors.  Whenever the player goes to check on their battlemechs or mechwarriors, direct copies of the record sheets used in the tabletop wargame and RPG can clearly be seen in the background.  Great stuff!

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