Basic Battletech

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While it’s not my intent to rant here at flechs, it’s been a long (and wonderful) Thanksgiving week and I’m a little low on more…useful…content…

The direction of the Battletech line is currently being dedicated towards (among other things) providing players with ways of simulating conflict in the Inner sphere through scale tactical to interstellar. In this vein, there’s currently three books planned, three o which have been published, one of which I actually own. In a previous entry I mentioned how the current developer motto of “Yea, we’ve got a rule for that” has led to an expansive case of featuritus, and also a codification of house rules that allow for customizing sessions while still providing some common umbrella for players to gather under.

Those long term players of us have a certain curse of knowledge when it comes to the language of war gaming. In a previous post I mentioned how people unfamiliar with the basics of the genera inevitably roll their die when setting out to make their first move. While Battletech mechanics are stock for wargames, those with no wargaming experience have a lot to assimilate. If the current rule writing is aimed at consolidating the player community (see my past post), it seems focuses primarily on serious players, while abandoning any kind of ramp building for those new to Battletech.

There’s definitely a product path for new players, and even the inclusion of a prebuilt figure in the new plastic sets caters to the casual or new player, but these products, I feel, for those outside of wargaming, are intermediate at best, and follow the same ‘(dis)include rules as you feel like it’ mentality that exists in the more advanced products. There exists no continuity from your basic quick start rules to what is the definitive tournament set. For players interested in moving into different contexts it’s a question of translating stats from their current game to a new ruleset.

Furthermore, however organized the latest series of books are, the rules they contain have been subject to moderate to major changes in every revision. Each revision attempting to balance integration, reflection, and stand alone quality of the the core Battlemech combat which is treated almost as an atomic unit, a structure which can not be dissected (though I have seen some thinking about it in line developer discussion of Tac ops rules [citation needed]). If Battletech is going to function successfully as a multi-context system, it’ll need to address the core system as an expression of, opposed to a building block of, said multi-context system. Among other things, this will give structure and accessibility to entry level play….

I know this is all really abstract. It’s also intended to be food for though not so much a call for some kind of overhaul. As I’m most interested in the path from monopoly players to battletech there’s far more practical things to look into. For example, what if the equipment proliferation avalanche could be ridden to a place where items negated rules (opposed to generating new ones) in exchange for reduced battlefield efficacy. How much tonnage would you give up for a mech that never fell over? How much damage potential would you sacrifice for a weapon that was always at short range? Would having to remember only four locations be worth the vulnerabilities of a fixed-forward and unsegmented torso with no arms?

Battletech Basics.
The direction of the Battletech line is currently being dedicated towards (among other things) providing players with ways of simulating conflict in the Inner sphere through scale tactical to interstellar. In this vein, there’s currently three books planned, three o which have been published, one of which I actually own. In a previous entry I mentioned how the current developer motto of “Yea, we’ve got a rule for that” has led to an expansive case of featuritus, and also a codification of house rules that allow for customizing sessions while still providing some common umbrella for players to gather under.
Those long term players of us have a certain curse of knowledge when it comes to the language of war gaming. In a previous post I mentioned how people unfamiliar with the basics of the genera inevitably roll their die when setting out to make their first move. While Battletech mechanics are stock for wargames, those with no wargaming experience have a lot to assimilate. If the current rule writing is aimed at consolidating the player community (see my past post), it seems focuses primarily on serious players, while abandoning any kind of ramp building for those new to Battletech.
There’s definitely a product path for new players, and even the inclusion of a prebuilt figure in the new plastic sets caters to the casual or new player, but these products, I feel, for those outside of wargaming, are intermediate at best, and follow the same ‘(dis)include rules as you feel like it’ mentality that exists in the more advanced products. There exists no continuity from your basic quick start rules to what is the definitive tournament set. For players interested in moving into different contexts it’s a question of translating stats from their current game to a new ruleset.

Furthermore, however organized the latest series of books are, the rules they contain have been subject to moderate to major changes in every revision. Each revision attempting to balance integration, reflection, and stand alone quality of the the core Battlemech combat which is treated almost as an atomic unit, a structure which can not be dissected (though I have seen some thinking about it in line developer discussion of Tac ops rules [citation needed]). If Battletech is going to function successfully as a multi-context system, it’ll need to address the core system as an expression of, opposed to a building block of, said multi-context system. Among other things, this will give structure and accessibility to entry level play..

Battletech
Game Design
Teaching

Hit Location Game

4 comments

Screen shot 2009-11-24 at 5.17.49 PMLast week was finals, this week: A small game to challenge your knowledge of the front/rear hit location charts. That is all for now.

Battletech
Game Design
News
Software
Teaching

It Has… Many Features.

one comment
I’ve spent more than a little breath and brain cells discussing and researching overlaps between interactive design and game design. Generally I try and find how game design’s penchant for exploratory interaction and procedural rhetoric might be applicable for more utilitarian interactions. Today I’m going to turn the tables and take a cursory look at Battletech as a piece of utilitarian interaction design. Specifically, how its expanding tomes resemble one of the oldest of software design pitfalls, featuritus, and how this cornucopian structure might contain some good.
“Yea, we’ve got a rule for that.” Has been the stated mantra of Battletech line developers since the the inception of Total Warfare and its series of companion books. The amount of additions to the core game is so expansive that there was a running joke about offering a reward for any group who could prove playing through a game using all of the hundreds of additional rules from Tactical Operations. For an example of this profusion look at buildings. Rules coering their use occupy 14 pages in Total Warfare and 12 more in Tac Ops (27 pages if you include construction). On the other hand, the Quickstart Rules – which contain the rules at the heart of play, rules covering infantry and vehicles, and two simple scenarios – come in at ten pages.
These additional rule books are better used as reference bibles for those writing fiction than usable rule books.  Funny thing is, that’s almost exactly how they function. The interesting thing about games (and much software for that matter) is that they exist as a sort of artificial or meta media that allows for the creation of (very specific) artifacts. In the case of Battletech, and many other games, these artifacts take the form of stories.
Publishing ‘level three’, ‘non-tournament’, or ‘optional’ rules provides codified access to the gears of the Battletech story engine. Picking and choosing from those available allows Battletech players to craft particular experiences that emphasize different aspects of the universe. This is more or less what Herb Beas describes in his ‘Battletech as steak dinner analogy’.
Even though their inclusion may be up to the play group, the fact that they’re in some way ‘cannon’ is important. Having them codified allows for a certain amount of portability when sharing stories between groups, and provides a common set of formal qualities for the community to reflect on (we’re all looking at the same thing). The alternative, an ever spanning collection of house rules, also generates particular stories, but runs the risk of isolating player groups from one another. Even if your group and my group are playing with a different set of extra rules, at least we’re pulling from the same shared pool. We’re all generating Battletech games opposed to interpretations of Battletech.
The question remains in my mind, however, as to whether this situation was created out of that primal urge to add infinite manipulability to a system (featuritus), or the interest in providing players with a communal set of procedural narrative building blocks. Either way it makes for difficult assessment. When a designer grants users the ability to customize a system, it can be either a sign of insight or an abdication of responsibility.
Giving game players the potential to make slow, boring, and generally crappy games of Battletech isn’t exactly an achievement, (however well intended it may be). Furthermore, the value of any rule can only be ascertained by its effects on the system at large. As these additional rules are expressly stated as each being optional, it’s difficult – to say the least – to evaluate their infinite combinations and make a judgement on them. Broken combinations can be swept under the critical rug with a shrug of ‘well you’re not suppose to use all the rules’ just as a bloated and unintuitive feature set can be excused with ‘well someone might want to do that’..

I’ve spent more than a little breath and brain cells discussing and researching overlaps between interactive design and game design. Generally I try and find how game design’s penchant for exploratory interaction and procedural rhetoric might be applicable for more utilitarian interactions. Today I’m going to turn the tables and take a cursory look at Battletech as a piece of utilitarian interaction design. Specifically, how its expanding tomes resemble one of the oldest of software design pitfalls, featuritus, and how this cornucopian structure might contain some good.

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Battletech
Game Design

Four States of Interactivity

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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.

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Battletech
Game Design

‘Mechs driving pilots.

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By Costiyan’s definition, a game token is what you directly manipulate, and by my more elaborate one, the game elements whose behavior is directly dependent on the player’s input. Either way, the relationship between the player and their units in Battletech is interesting.

The piloted unit (for now we’ll just stick to ‘mechs) is obviously a player’s game token. Its physical elements (figure and record sheet) are literally and freely manipulable by the player. In Costikyan terms, the pilot of the unit is a resource – a game element manipulated by use of the token. This is fitting considering the game’s original fiction, where “Life is cheap, Battlemechs are expensive.”

Though the unit-as-token does not have a complete behavioral relationship to the player. Their placement on the field is directly controllable, unless damage or terrain wrests control away from the player. In these instances the unit exhibits independent behavior, the token exhibiting its machine-piloted-by-a-fallible-human character. This character is also exhibited during firing. A player positions the unit in order to make best use of their pilot-as-resource, who, after the weapons and targets are selected, is responsible for the outcome. Luckily for the player there’s a chance for some positive characteristics to shine through (maybe by hitting difficult shots or grouping very tightly).

I’m kinda thinking out loud here, but here are some reflective thoughts on this. Battletech procedurally argues that machines are rather reliable compared to their erratic human counterparts. Pilot performance varies only in its average performance, and all pilots are equally consistent. You’d think that in a combat situation consistency would be just as prized a trait as potential performance (so long as it didn’t make you completely predictable).

It seems a tactical game of Battletech fosters a paternal rather than identity relationship between a player and their pilot-character (even with a detailed character from a rpg based campaign ) ie. The player feels like they are protecting an external persona, rather than acting as a persona.

So what?

Well. Procedurally speaking, the game places the player more in the role of a navigator or co-pilot, or perhaps as a commander, kinda. It seems the game could utilize this more by allowing for more variation in how movement behavior is affected by pilots. Maybe the player picks three potential moves, rates them, and rolls to see which is ‘selected by the pilot’. Perhaps the character-player relation could be improved by allowing the player to make decisions related to pilot focus and concentration.

I’m not really advocating rule changes, or new house rules, just thinking.

Battletech
Game Design