As Battletech is actuality a ʻgame-systemʼ, the specifics of playing a game can vary from one to the next, however some aspects remain constant: Players move small figures place to place on a table top adorned with physical or graphical representations of terrain; A quantity of dice rolling is involved; And a profusion of mark making on paper record sheets is required. At minimum the required materials for a small game can fit inside a manilla envelope, but can easily grow to fill a large suitcase or more. Playing the game requires at least a coffee table, but more frequently something dining room sized. While gridded maps can be used and are easily transportable, those who opt for actual terrain will find relocating it to be oftentimes a hassle.
Itʼs easiest to understand the physical aspects of the game by removing them. An online java-based version, Mega-Mek, in its straight forward and utilitarian adaptation maintains the rules and designed game play, but looses the mark making, dice rolling, and figure placement of the original. Each one of these activities, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, are reflective of the original mediumʼs limitations, their removal allowing players to focus on the playing of the game. While their removal may speed up game play, they provide a certain cognitive understanding of the game at hand. As the individual acts of die rolling, mark making, and moving objects is not a designed aspect of Battletech, but pressed into service for the playing of the game, these qualities can be evaluated in terms of how they enhance or detract from the designed interaction. I find it hard to believe that they could do nothing but detract, and that their removal, as in Mega-Mek, enhances the ʻfeelingʼ of playing Battletech.
From a literal standpoint, the evaluation of physical components of a game is a question of how well these interactions let the user manipulate the elements that have game relevance. In this way the rolling of a pair of die to determine an outcome creates a very literal and direct relationship between the player and the effects on the game, whereas, by using the black box of a computer the player has become spectator, their distance between initiating the event and observing its results has increased. The act of rolling the die though requires more time and effort – even if minimal – in the form of execution and interpretation.
If the physical aspect of the die roll is to be a valuable aspect of the physical interaction, which I believe it is, these aspects need to be value positive, opposed to negative. For these qualities to be valuable, they need to carry meaning beyond being speed bumps in the road between player choice and the feedback. This meaning comes in a number of dramatic, social, and cognitive forms.
The act of rolling is in itself a valuable part of any age old game of chance, where a player attempts to overcome fate or probability though hope and will. The time between the release of the dice and their climactic settling is minor in comparison to everyday life, but an eternity compared to the instant results of a computer. Removing this removes an element of tension inherit in ʻrolling the bonesʼ and removes a small slice of drama from the game. Furthermore, the playerʼs ability to control the pace and order of rolling (individual roles can cary anywhere between game changing and negligible importance) allows them to manipulate this inherit drama.
Battletech is rather fussy and requires pages of tables and look-up charts, against which the results of many die rolls must be compared. The speed at which this is accomplished by a player is an indication of the experience and more or less the skill of the player. While these are stumbling blocks for early players, veteran ones have a great number of them memorized if only through shear repetitive use. Competitively, the control of this ʻcognitive high groundʼ can be used for psychological effects, if not for early assessments your opponents ability.
Furthermore, requiring a user to perform these table look ups as part of game play makes table top Battletech an engine for its own learning. Knowledge of these charts is anything but un-helpful for tactical decision making. With Mega- Mek or any other port that subsumes interpretation, players who are interested in learning these game valuable details are left memorizing by wrote in a context with no game meaning.
The intelectual/cognitive effects of Battletechʼs physical/functional qualities are likely the most important. While a digital version allows for more decision making (by speeding gameplay up), it makes for less informed decision making. Even the act of marking the various forms of damage on a unit is an act of imprinting what happened on a turn. While many of the results may not be game changing, and the act seemingly tedious, knowledge of these details creates a certain closeness with the units if only intellectually. Having this knowledge in the head makes it easier to really fine tune decisions.
Thereʼs also subtle emotional aspects to mark making. The robots in Battletech are decaying machines failing over time in a crunchy, mad max like slugfest where armor is slowly pealed away, stripping internal systems naked, snapping them one at a time. Keeping track of the integrity of each section, crossing armor and systems off by hand after each weapon impact, gives players an almost first hand sense of their machines being torn apart.
While I think the ʻby handʼ note taking is effective for a turn based strategy game, its hardly the epitome of the kind of mechanized violence inherit in Battletech. The dynamic visuals and sound effects of the Mechwarrior and Mechassult series manage to highlight this best, and replace the somewhat detached strategic emphasis of the original with more visceral tactical experience. However, as a turn based game, these basic, by hand, aspects are as appropriate as the come.
Another cognitive aspect about Battletechʼs physical characteristics is one of simple usability and resolution. Paper record sheets offer a high level of information density beyond any computer display, and their physicalness allows for easy intuitive access and quick changes in focus of attention. The board itself, as a physical entity, offers, by definition, the most natural way of viewing the macro/strategic and micro/tactical situation of a game with an immediate level of detail.
Emotionally, the physical field of play – particularly when using miniature terrain over gridded maps – offers a certain aesthetic experience, one of both touch and site. The figures, which are assembled and painted by those playing as part of the meta-game, bring a crafted quality to the table. Each turn a recreation of a small battle diorama; a series of small documentations of imaginary but real-time events.
This meta-game crafting is one small part of the Battletechʼs beyond the object interaction. As mentioned, people have the opportunity to exercise craft, collect, and even customize units in game terms, producing record sheets that are legal for play. As a game system, thereʼs an expanse of customizability, whether in paint jobs, scenarios, or the shape of the playing field itself. All of which can happen independently of other players, or as a collaborative activity outside of strict game play.
On top of the gameʼs customizability, all of it can be done against an expansive science fiction background. From important political figures to small manufactures on backwater planets, players can contextualize their game structuring with endless fluff; This material provided by over 100 novels and scores of additional game books, some of which provide little to no mechanically important game material, but are simply full of fine grain world details. The novels, some of which written by New York Times best selling authors, follow several generations of ruling families from a dozen different states each containing hundreds of planets, on which smaller less grand stories play out, not only add richness to the games, but exist as a standalone cultural artifact, consumable without any knowledge or experience with the game.

Finally and unsurprisingly, the online communities are nothing but expansive. Members of the community always have a showing at conventions where introductory, story- related, and various competition games and events are being run continuously.

This week I present an except from the recent archives. Based on the definitions of interactivity in Rules of Play this paper looked at some of the various forms of interaction, from physical to social, that Battletech provides. I felt that touching on the “drama of the dice roll” seemed a nice foil to some nice scientific perspectives elsewhere.


As Battletech is actuality a ʻgame-systemʼ, the specifics of playing a game can vary from one to the next, however some aspects remain constant: Players move small figures place to place on a table top adorned with physical or graphical representations of terrain; A quantity of dice rolling is involved; And a profusion of mark making on paper record sheets is required. At minimum the required materials for a small game can fit inside a manilla envelope, but can easily grow to fill a large suitcase or more. Playing the game requires at least a coffee table, but more frequently something dining room sized. While gridded maps can be used and are easily transportable, those who opt for actual terrain will find relocating it to be oftentimes a hassle.

Itʼs easiest to understand the physical aspects of the game by removing them. An online java-based version, Mega-Mek, in its straight forward and utilitarian adaptation maintains the rules and designed game play, but looses the mark making, dice rolling, and figure placement of the original. Each one of these activities, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, are reflective of the original mediumʼs limitations, their removal allowing players to focus on the playing of the game. While their removal may speed up game play, they provide a certain cognitive understanding of the game at hand. As the individual acts of die rolling, mark making, and moving objects is not a designed aspect of Battletech, but pressed into service for the playing of the game, these qualities can be evaluated in terms of how they enhance or detract from the designed interaction. I find it hard to believe that they could do nothing but detract, and that their removal, as in Mega-Mek, enhances the ʻfeelingʼ of playing Battletech.

From a literal standpoint, the evaluation of physical components of a game is a question of how well these interactions let the user manipulate the elements that have game relevance. In this way the rolling of a pair of die to determine an outcome creates a very literal and direct relationship between the player and the effects on the game, whereas, by using the black box of a computer the player has become spectator, their distance between initiating the event and observing its results has increased. The act of rolling the die though requires more time and effort – even if minimal – in the form of execution and interpretation.

If the physical aspect of the die roll is to be a valuable aspect of the physical interaction, which I believe it is, these aspects need to be value positive, opposed to negative. For these qualities to be valuable, they need to carry meaning beyond being speed bumps in the road between player choice and the feedback. This meaning comes in a number of dramatic, social, and cognitive forms.

The act of rolling is in itself a valuable part of any age old game of chance, where a player attempts to overcome fate or probability though hope and will. The time between the release of the dice and their climactic settling is minor in comparison to everyday life, but an eternity compared to the instant results of a computer. Removing this removes an element of tension inherit in ʻrolling the bonesʼ and removes a small slice of drama from the game. Furthermore, the playerʼs ability to control the pace and order of rolling (individual roles can cary anywhere between game changing and negligible importance) allows them to manipulate this inherit drama.

Battletech is rather fussy and requires pages of tables and look-up charts, against which the results of many die rolls must be compared. The speed at which this is accomplished by a player is an indication of the experience and more or less the skill of the player. While these are stumbling blocks for early players, veteran ones have a great number of them memorized if only through shear repetitive use. Competitively, the control of this ʻcognitive high groundʼ can be used for psychological effects, if not for early assessments your opponents ability.

Furthermore, requiring a user to perform these table look ups as part of game play makes table top Battletech an engine for its own learning. Knowledge of these charts is anything but un-helpful for tactical decision making. With Mega- Mek or any other port that subsumes interpretation, players who are interested in learning these game valuable details are left memorizing by wrote in a context with no game meaning.

The intelectual/cognitive effects of Battletechʼs physical/functional qualities are likely the most important. While a digital version allows for more decision making (by speeding gameplay up), it makes for less informed decision making. Even the act of marking the various forms of damage on a unit is an act of imprinting what happened on a turn. While many of the results may not be game changing, and the act seemingly tedious, knowledge of these details creates a certain closeness with the units if only intellectually. Having this knowledge in the head makes it easier to really fine tune decisions.

Thereʼs also subtle emotional aspects to mark making. The robots in Battletech are decaying machines failing over time in a crunchy, mad max like slugfest where armor is slowly pealed away, stripping internal systems naked, snapping them one at a time. Keeping track of the integrity of each section, crossing armor and systems off by hand after each weapon impact, gives players an almost first hand sense of their machines being torn apart.

While I think the ʻby handʼ note taking is effective for a turn based strategy game, its hardly the epitome of the kind of mechanized violence inherit in Battletech. The dynamic visuals and sound effects of the Mechwarrior and Mechassult series manage to highlight this best, and replace the somewhat detached strategic emphasis of the original with more visceral tactical experience. However, as a turn based game, these basic, by hand, aspects are as appropriate as the come.

Another cognitive aspect about Battletechʼs physical characteristics is one of simple usability and resolution. Paper record sheets offer a high level of information density beyond any computer display, and their physicalness allows for easy intuitive access and quick changes in focus of attention. The board itself, as a physical entity, offers, by definition, the most natural way of viewing the macro/strategic and micro/tactical situation of a game with an immediate level of detail.

Emotionally, the physical field of play – particularly when using miniature terrain over gridded maps – offers a certain aesthetic experience, one of both touch and site. The figures, which are assembled and painted by those playing as part of the meta-game, bring a crafted quality to the table. Each turn a recreation of a small battle diorama; a series of small documentations of imaginary but real-time events.

This meta-game crafting is one small part of the Battletechʼs beyond the object interaction. As mentioned, people have the opportunity to exercise craft, collect, and even customize units in game terms, producing record sheets that are legal for play. As a game system, thereʼs an expanse of customizability, whether in paint jobs, scenarios, or the shape of the playing field itself. All of which can happen independently of other players, or as a collaborative activity outside of strict game play.

On top of the gameʼs customizability, all of it can be done against an expansive science fiction background. From important political figures to small manufactures on backwater planets, players can contextualize their game structuring with endless fluff; This material provided by over 100 novels and scores of additional game books, some of which provide little to no mechanically important game material, but are simply full of fine grain world details. The novels, some of which written by New York Times best selling authors, follow several generations of ruling families from a dozen different states each containing hundreds of planets, on which smaller less grand stories play out, not only add richness to the games, but exist as a standalone cultural artifact, consumable without any knowledge or experience with the game.

Finally and unsurprisingly, the online communities are nothing but expansive. Members of the community always have a showing at conventions where introductory, story- related, and various competition games and events are being run continuously.

6 Responses to “Four States of Interactivity”

  1. EastwoodDC says:

    A great essay!

    If I might expand a bit on the craft of miniatures, this is a complete hobby in itself. There is a lot of social status involved in providing miniatures for the game, and much reward in having your work recognized and appreciated.
    Of these four aspects of Battletech, it was the miniatures that brought me to the game in the first place. I tend to be critical of the story or “fluff” aspects of Battletech because much of it is poorly written and inconsistent with my own imagined concept of what this universe might be. On the other hand, Battletech’s background story is a huge strength that allows the game to flourish where many other games have faded into obscurity. The core background story is fascinating in that it helps to create an endless sandbox of new experiences for the player.

  2. Kevin S says:

    In a note to the disparate experiences of playing the turn-based game and playing the real-time game, I must say that I’ve always enjoyed the tabletop version much more. However, the visceral action of the computer games has also been a very big draw, and I have often pondered about how to bring one into the other without harming the experience of either. One thing that’s always run in my mind was the possibility of having an extrapolated video from the turn-based game. If the data from the game (terrain, unit type, unit fire, movement, damage, even unit faction and other fluff details) was recorded at every step of the game, could not this information be used to render a real-time “game replay” vignette?

    That approach does impinge upon individual imagination though, as I’m sure each player has their own real-time visualization and interpretation of the game afterwords. But that begins to get into the old “movie remake of classic/childrens/etc literature ruins or limits the free-imagination of the readers of said literature” argument.

  3. Ian says:

    How poignant, in the past right after this I talk about how Battletech, like many games, functions as a medium for generating story artifacts. A method for sharing them would be great, and this would be a ‘simple’ question of data visualization.

    The thing about emphasizing visceral action is that it’d be bestaccomplished by a physical activity. My idea last I thought about this was to 1) Have a hat/helmet you could wear with a ‘guy’ balanced on it, this would metaphorically represent the pilot and by forcing the players to keep it balanced would place restrictions on how they moved. 2) Nerf guns.

    A play space with big cardboard buildings would be nice too…

  4. Kevin S says:

    HAH!, so LARPing a battletech game with nerf guns?? Awesome. Velcro arm/leg/torso straps to denote damage. OOH! and soft foam hats/helmets carved in the shapes of various different mech torsos! (like the “cheese-head” hats of various sporting events…picture the center portion of a locust as a hat!!) Hmn, this would of course be more appropriate for Solaris rules…

  5. pacrae says:

    Other than Ian’s indirect high praise for all the time in my life I have wasted marking off LRM5 and machine gun damage, pretty spot on. I will save my complaints on the marking, but I did want to expand upon you thoughts on dice.

    The rolling of dice is the only truly physical action a person playing b-tech takes. Yes, pieces are picked up and moved, but unlike in chess or checkers, moving your mech does not accomplish anything, other than moving. The diorama analogy I think was apt. In fact, I think b-tech’s turn structure reinforces the effect by separating movement from combat. Moving is extremely important but, it builds up to that end of phase snapshot that makes it seem somehow passive.

    However, when you pick up a pair of dice in b-tech, you are physically doing something that is going to immediately alter the course of the game. Ian’s point about the die rolls being for positing effects was a good one, that had honestly not occurred to me before. If the miniature is your avatar, the dice are your sword (or PPC or Nerf gun as the above case may be). While a video game designer can create a pleasing 3D digital avatar with high end graphics, the buttons on a keyboard or game controller come no where near as close an equivalent to dice. Maybe its that they are more of a device you interact with as opposed to a tool that you wield? I’m not sure that makes sense, but I think there is an argument there somewhere. I think Nintendo thinks so too, otherwise they wouldn’t have launched the Wii.

    (Now there is a concept: Wii Dice!)

    Anyways, I think by dint of being the primary “action”, the rolling of dice becomes psychologically important to the game, and in this case makes the game one of skill but keeps a strong egalitarian element. As Ian already pointed out, the results of the die must be tabulated and calculated, which favors the experienced player, but at the same time, anyone can roll a pair of dice. The novice that Ian has spent 10 minutes teaching, can then pick up those dice and immediately start doing something positive (however futile) in a pickup game, as opposed to say the novice chess player who is most likely just going to start giving away his pieces one by one.

    I am curious whether the number of dice is also significant. The mathematics aside, I wonder about the psychological aspects of rolling two dice. I have absolutely no hard evidence, but b-tech feels different (better) than say D&D where I am rolling my one D20. Dunno. Maybe there is something buried in the brain crossing a more pleasant tactile feel with the rush of satisfied accomplishment for proving one is capable of simple addition!

    Lastly, people get emotionally attached to their dice. It wouldn’t surprise me if Chessex were the single most profitable company in the gaming industry behind Wizards and Games Workshop. I have seen computer and video gamers go out and buy a special gaming mouse or a high end controller. However, consider the power xbox gamer’s drawer of toys to the coffee cans of dice we have seen table top players lug around. I am sure all of us at one time or another have run into that opponent at a convention playing a Blackhawk Prime with 12 pairs D6s laid out carefully in a row.

    People don’t just use their dice, they love them. I may really, really like my laptop, but I don’t love my space bar.

  6. Ian says:

    Other than Ian’s indirect high praise for all the time in my life I have wasted marking off LRM5 and machine gun damage…

    Coming from the person who exceedingly enjoys the Madcat A. ;)

    However, when you pick up a pair of dice in b-tech, you are physically doing something that is going to immediately alter the course of the game. Ian’s point about the die rolls being for positing effects was a good one, that had honestly not occurred to me before. If the miniature is your avatar, the dice are your sword (or PPC or Nerf gun as the above case may be). While a video game designer can create a pleasing 3D digital avatar with high end graphics, the buttons on a keyboard or game controller come no where near as close an equivalent to dice. Maybe its that they are more of a device you interact with as opposed to a tool that you wield? I’m not sure that makes sense, but I think there is an argument there somewhere. I think Nintendo thinks so too, otherwise they wouldn’t have launched the Wii.

    There’s a couple complex things going on with these relationships. Manipulation and Agency, while related, cover some different areas. Looking at just manipulation though, I’d argue that moving a piece and rolling die booth totally alter the course of a game, though, in computational terms, its a question of bandwidth and latency. Movement offers high bandwidth (a lot of information at once [think of the minimum amount of data required to model a move]) but high latency (the effects of it play out slowly), where as die rolling is the reverse; more immediate, but much more sampled.

    The interesting thing is, that while the relationships between an ‘avatar’ and their ‘sword’ is one of extension or dependency (the manipulation of one is an extension of, or dependent on, the manipulation of the prior), the manipulation of the die and of the figure on the field are unrelated. They’re two hooks into a singular game element.

    Any kind of manipulation can be made up of nested manipulations, a button pushing a stick to poke a bear, you can modify it by designing any piece of the chain. Typically game controllers (and most interfaces for that matter) are designed to be transparent which leads to many aspects of these chains being based on convention. Nintendo does a good job at looking at these chains a little more holistically. Modifying the input part of the chain is one thing though, using a different—yet familiar—mental model to base it on (a remote) cinches it.

    I am curious whether the number of dice is also significant. The mathematics aside, I wonder about the psychological aspects of rolling two dice. I have absolutely no hard evidence, but b-tech feels different (better) than say D&D where I am rolling my one D20. Dunno. Maybe there is something buried in the brain crossing a more pleasant tactile feel with the rush of satisfied accomplishment for proving one is capable of simple addition!

    That’s an interesting point. I imagine that the two die produces a more complex, and enjoyable, aural feedback for rolling. Not to mention the ‘pair’ of cubes in the hand is highly dynamic tactically interesting form when perceiving them as a singular entity.

    I am sure all of us at one time or another have run into that opponent at a convention playing a Blackhawk Prime with 12 pairs D6s laid out carefully in a row.

    My favorite unincluded example in all of this is probably that of a certain someone using a pair of thunder die, and deciding to fire 10 instead of the customary 7.

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