One of the games, and game universes, that I have always liked has been Battletech. The game is supported by background material that spans over 100 years of concurrent history and also stretches into the game’s “past” 300 years as well. These periods have their own technology, Mech designs, personalities, politics and events. The Battletech universe flows from the Fourth Succession War to the Clan Invasion, the Federation Commonwealth Civil War, the Word of Blake Jihad and the Republic of the Sphere. It is a vast development that makes the 40K universe look like fanfic in comparison.
The game has a problem though in that many players don’t explore this vast history and tend to focus on the 3029-39 period of the Fourth Succession War. This is the original historical period of the game when it was first released by FASA and it is the one that is supported in the Introductory Boxes Sets that have been released by Catalyst Game Labs in the last few years. Those sets contain 24 plastic Mechs from the 3029-39 period (of varying quality depending on the set) which can also be used for the Clan Invasion period.
There are several very interesting periods available for gamers to explore and yet there is a reticence (or at least a perceived reticence) on the part of many Battletech gamers to move out of the Fourth Succession War period and game in them. While I don’t think that there is any single reason for it, I do think that there are several complicating factors that make gamers less likely to branch out from the 3029-39 period.
The first major issue is the Introductory Boxed Sets. They not only focus gamers on the Fourth Succession War era but they also provide players with 24 Mechs from that period. Moving out of this period then requires players to expand their miniature collection at a much higher cost per figure. Complicating this is that many of the additional eras have forces like the Clans or Word of Blake that use five or six Mechs in a unit instead of the four that the Inner Sphere forces of the Boxed Set do. So not only are you buying metal miniatures at a higher cost but you need more of them for a basic unit of Mechs. So instead of a plastic lance of four models at a per model cost of approximately $1.25 each you have lances that require five or six models at a cost of $10 each (on average). Even if you purchase the new plastic Lance Packs, which come out to $5 a model, you are able to get far more Fourth Succession War era figure for your gaming dollar. Given the price of the Introductory Boxed Sets its often a cheaper proposition to buy another Boxed Set and get another 24 plastic figures than to get a single Clan Lance or Word of Blake lance.
Learning the new game rules if you do want to try out a new era isn’t as simple as it could be. Catalyst Game Labs has a product, Starter Book Sword and Dragon, that tries to provide a way for players to add some of the new technology and rules for the Clan era with the Introductory Boxed Set as a basis. While this is a good product, it has several issues. The book requires the purchase of several new metal Mechs (and/or some of the plastic Lance Packs) in order to play the campaigns included. At the very least, players will have to pick up metal versions of three figures. The book also seems, to me at least, to be rather unfocused. It covers a period of twenty years from the Fourth Succession Wars to just prior to the Clan Invasion but seems to lack any programmed instruction to take players through the new technologies.
Battletech suffers from a similar fate that Advanced Squad Leader does in that it is a very rich system but that depth can scare players from exploring much past the basic rules. ASL has approached this but coming out with several starter sets that slowly add new rules and layers of complexity while often removing some of the more challenging rules entirely. While it isn’t a perfect solution it is certainly better than the situation In Battletech where there isn’t really any set of concrete scenarios that a player or group can use to slowly work their way through the contents of the 312 page Total Warfare rulebook.
Not that one needs to use the entire Total Warfare rulebook. It is more of a set of options than a hard fixed set of rules that one is required to read and know. But as the timelines move forward, the amount of the book (and the Tech Manual and Strategic Operations) that you need to know expands as well. Quad Mechs. Photo Mechs. Battle Armour. Submarines. Advanced targeting systems. Stealth. ECM. C3 systems mating command Mechs to subordinates. That doesn’t even take into account the unique technology that the Word of Blake brought during the Jihad. It is bewildering, dense and for new players can ben enough of an impediment to keep them from using those new game features.
Battletech has also been developed for and by fans for quite some time. Catalyst Game Labs was founded by a series of ex-FASA employees and developers who have made the most of the skills and abilities of the Battletech fanbase to bring in writers, line developers and testers. These people know the game, the background and the rules but developing to meet the expectations of a core audience is always problematic. One only has to look at the game style specialization that came about as video game developers produced fighting games and shooters to meet the demands of their biggest fans. Games quickly developed that had concepts like air juggling, air blocks, linked combos and the entire “bullet hell” genre that made these types of games often unplayable for new players. Building products for new gamers and building bridging products to lead from game to game or, in the case of Battletech, from era to era is a special skill and needs a deliberate focus and often it is difficult for established players or people familiar with the material to grasp exactly what new players need.
Battletech has this problem aptly demonstrated in the rules for the game. The core rules for Battletech aren’t just in the 312 page Total Warfare book but also contained in the 352 page TechManual and the similarly thick Strategic Operations and Tactical Operations books. They are soon to be joined by the Interstellar Operations book which will then form a core set of rules that will allow you to wage warfare from an Interstellar level all the way through planetary assaults and then individual Mech on Mech battles. It is breathtaking in its scope but the audience for this is the core of the Battletech player base and those players don’t need the same sort of programmed instruction or guided introduction to the rules that a new player or group would. Handing the Total Warfare rulebook to players who have just experienced the Introductory Boxed Set rules will probably scare off more people than it attracts.
Finally there is the extent of Mechs, vehicles and infantry sized models that are part of the universe. Iron Wind Metals, the official manufacturer of metal mechs for the game, lists 352 Mechs (including variants of some designs), 58 vehicles, 16 fighters and 57 types of Battle Armour. And that is in their current catalogue. IWM also has an archive of older designs and mechs that they cast up from time to time or offer for a surcharge. IWM doesn’t even offer figures for all of the available designs. The Introductory Boxed Set offers a simple way to get into the game at the most basic technological point, there isn’t any similar way to move into any of the newer eras. There isn’t a Clan, Jihad or Republic of the Sphere box that has figures (plastic or metal) to start a player out in the period. Oddly Iron Wind Metals has expanded Clan and Comstar packs but they are in the smaller Battleforce scale and not the same scale of their other figures.
So what is the solution? And is it even possible given the size of Catalyst Game Labs? While the two Starter Book products that Catalyst offers (Sword & Dragon and Wolf & Blake) do provide concise summaries of the rules needed for a new period (or at least some of them) they are married to a campaign system that doesn’t necessarily ease players into the new rules or really offer a quick way to start gaming. The scenario books that were previously produced by FASA and Fanpro would seem to be a much better alternative and would be more suited to a format that slowly introduces players to new rules and even unit types.
Catalyst also doesn’t seem to offer any products to transition players from the Succession Wars era to the Clan Invasion. That era offers a wide array of new weapon types, the battle armour unit and new mechs. It also offers a multitude (too many one might say) of new factions. It is already supported by a series of novels but if a player or group has the Introductory Boxed Set there isn’t a product to take them into the Clan Invasion. No plastic mechs, no scenario book, no programmed instruction. Nothing. Starter Book Sword & Dragon is meant to be a product to get players ready for the Clan Invasion but it literally stops short of that era and the campaign itself covers a short period of two years prior to the arrival of the Clans. Getting miniatures for the period is difficult as well. Catalyst doesn’t offer any plastic Clan Mechs (aside from two that were in the 25th Anniversary Boxed Set and one in the current Introductory Boxed Set) or an affordable metal set. Plastic Clan Mechs are, I suspect, problematic to produce since very few (if any) can be created as single piece figures. Most would require multiple parts which would mean more complex moulds and even the use of injection moulds.
The simplest solution would be to work with Iron Wind Metals to produce a Clan Star Pack of miniatures and a set of scenarios that referenced specific sections in the Total Warfare rules. The miniatures are available individually now and a short book of scenarios and some background material wouldn’t be too difficult to create given the amount of existing material the company has to work with. This isn’t really even something that the company needs to do as the job itself could even be a community effort.
Given the options available to them and the products that are readily available it isn’t really all that surprising that there are many Battletech players that don’t want to explore the game past the basics in the Introductory Boxed Set. Companies like Games Workshop are focused on producing materials that help players move from their starter sets to the full game. Catalyst and the Battletech community could do the same as well and perhaps help some of those players who are still playing in the Succession Wars era explore more of the game and the the background.