Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Battletech Alpha Strike Initial Review

Before I start this review, there’s a few things you should know:
  1. Catalyst Game Labs provided me with a PDF copy of the game for review. Like with the Shadowrun 5E review, they have placed no restrictions on me in any way.
  2. I’ve played Battletech off and on since 3rd edition some time in the 90’s. I still have my plastic Unseen. There’s some stuff I like and don’t like about Battletech, and this will undoubtedly colour my opinions of this product. Battletech has a very long history and a laundry list of things people like or dislike that varies according to person, time of year, phases of the moon, or what they ate. Just because I like or dislike it doesn’t mean you will have the same opinion.
  3. I am a giant robot fan. I have a full 4 shelves of giant robot shows in DVD/Blu-Ray, numerous tabletop and RPG games about giant robots and I was Line Developer for a game called Heavy Gear for about 6 years. Hopefully, this will let me give a better review, but I figure it may also bias me.

The Product:
Battletech Alpha Strike is a 176 page standalone rulebook, concentrating on larger engagements in the Battletech universe. The PDF is in full-colour, but I have noticed it is not as optimized for tablet viewing as Shadowrun 5e was. Adobe Reader on my Kobo Arc slows down more often than with the SR5e PDF. The rulebook has sections for introductory rules, standard rules, an abstract Aerospace system, advanced options, campaign rules, an era setting of the Clan Invasion, a bit of background on the Battletech Universe, and several pages of references and templates. Alpha Strike uses the same layout style as current Battletech books and is fairly easy to read.

The Rules:
Overall, things look very solid. Modifiers should be familiar to those who play the Battletech hex-based game, and everything fits together quite nicely. It’s simple, logical and reads well. I never used Aerospace rules when playing the classic Battletech, and likely won’t now, but they’re short and relatively to the point. The advanced options provide a wealth of choices for adding detail and special effects to the game. There’s also rules for using hexes if you should wish to.

Stats are greatly simplified from the normal game, and are very similar to the Quick Strike rules found in Strategic Operations, although some changes have been made from those rules, such as integrating missile stats into the damage values per range band. Mechs have Movement (Jump Jets are noted here), a size value, and overheat value, damage output per range band, and some special notes in addition to armor and structure.

Gameplay works very similar to Battletech proper. Alternate moving units, then shoot, all damage takes place at end of round, once you hit Structure, you start doing Criticals. The special notes add almost every option from the main rules and supplements as features, so your Mech with CASE gets to ignore ammo Criticals, and so on.

In my initial read through I have come across only two major sticking points: Line of Sight and the Army Lists.

Alpha Strike uses “True” LoS, which would be all fine and dandy, except for the following:
  1. Just a few pages previous to the LoS rules, it states that miniatures are of variable scale and should be thought of as “icons” rather than actual representations.
  2. We have many, many years of miniatures and multiple sculpts for many. Even the newest starter box has models that are noticeably different size. What constitutes cover for one sculpt of a mech will, in all likelihood, not for a larger sculpt. Case in Point:

Two Catapult miniatures. The one of the right is from the newest starter box.

With dice to show how LoS would be different. The model on the right would be able to count the dice as cover, but the one on the left would not.

This could easily have been avoided by using methodology similar to Warmachine. Each unit already has a size value, and it would be trivial to have used this to give a “volume” for the models and prevent issues in gameplay.

The Army lists are part of the Era Report, and as such have the major houses as well as Clan Wolf and Jade falcon. The downside is that the lances/stars presented are the only stats we have in the book, making it far from a standalone product. The Units presented also do not match well with the intro box miniatures, which is what many people will be starting with. Given that the Quick Strike Stats do not fully match up, new players are left hanging somewhat. With all of that said, it’s time to move onto the playtest.

The Playtest:
My friend Bryan and I got together over the weekend to play at Kapow, one of the local game stores. Setup took a bit, as we needed to find out which figs I had that we had stats for. This was a bit annoying, but entirely my fault. I should have done this before heading out. We ended up doing Clan vs Inner Sphere, 2 Stars versus 3 Lances of roughly even points, both sides using the base skill of 4, so everyone was as even as we could make them.

Unfortunately, once play started, things went a bit downhill. Movement surprised Bryan as he was expecting each of us to move a Squad before turning play over to the opponent, but the rules, like Battletech proper, state unit by unit. Even with a mostly flat table and us being rather simple in our movement, the unit by unit movement took a long time. I can see many people changing movement to squad by squad to speed up play..

Shooting worked out much better, with Long Range resulting in many misses, as expected. The only real thing that would have been nicer in the hit resolution would be listing each Unit’s’
starting movement modifier on the stats so we didn’t need to drop a die next to each one. The mods don’t seem to change until you take damage, so it seemed like a bit of an oversight. This should be an easy fix for Catalyst to make to future stat cards. .

Damage was slightly less fun than shooting. While I like that the cut-down armor and structure speeds things up, if someone hits, they do ALL their damage at that range band, unlike in the main game where it’s possible to hit with some all or none of the weapons fired. This leads to a rather binary effect, and felt a little off to me. It’s like you Alpha Striked, but slaved the entire FireCon system to your least accurate weapon. Additionally, since Criticals happen only when you hit the Structure on the Mechs, it’s less a critical and more an “insult to injury” as you’re near dead most times you get Critted. While it would be less “true” to the base game, I think either having an armor value that subtracts from incoming damage or an armor save would make things feel more dynamic and maybe let you make structure larger, which would mean Critical hits actually felt useful or special. You might need to allow Mechs to combine fire and add damage together for this idea to work, though.

We ended the game after around the third turn, as things were starting to repeat. It basically amounted to us moving closer to try and get better shots, and while that can be good, it felt like we would devolve into the “back shot Spirograph,” where everyone tries to get closer and run around behind each other, resulting in some sort of circular conga line combat. This might get better with the more advanced options added in, and I do really want to try the game again and give it another go, but we just couldn't get engaged.

The point of the simplified game is to let people play larger engagements while still feeling like the main game. I think that remaining overly faithful to the base game has actually made Alpha Strike move further away in feel, and that’s a bit of a problem. In the base game, everything can be enumerated, because you’re dealing with that much detail. Here, the flat numbers and straight values make things simple, but bland. I don’t get the feeling of giant robots duking it out with humungous weapons. I don’t get the feeling of worrying if I’m going to overheat or have my leg blown off before I can close. It felt very by the numbers and clinical.

Maybe it’s me being a grognard, or having wildly different expectations than the core audience of what a game like this should be, but I’m torn on this. It is a solid game. It plays cleanly, it hits so much of what Battletech is, mechanically, at least. But it doesn't seem to capture the parts of Battletech I love. There's no feel of uncertainty, or making that critical choice between shutting down or firing. I want to like it, but I’m not sure if I can. That said, I've had multiple games where my initial plays didn't work very well, but I grew to love. Warmachine, Epic, and even Heavy Gear were like that. I look forward to trying it again with some of advanced options to see if that changes my opinion.