Faster My Stompy Robots: an introduction to BattleTech

by Rob Sawyers (2,329 words)

Faster My Stompy Robots: an introduction to BattleTech
March 14, 2020 Rob Sawyers

With December’s release of MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, a reader and longtime fan of the franchise introduces us to the glorious universe of BattleTech.

The last few years have been good for those of us who like our robots big and stompy. One of gaming’s most beloved (albeit niche) franchises, BattleTech, has been going through a resurgence, and it’s magnificent to behold. Whether it’s Harebrained Schemes’ eponymous turn-based PC strategy game, the new tabletop rules from Catalyst Games Labs, or the newly released first-person mech sim MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries (MW5), there’s something for everyone.

There’s never been a better time to delve into the lore of one of gaming’s most interesting worlds, and the history of how it came to be.


No Guts, No Galaxy

Japan has been the source of many adapted American cartoon and toy franchises. Some receive a simple dubbing and reboxing translation; others get a complete reimagining so end up as a weird cousin to their original inspiration.

For BattleTech, it began in 1984 when two friends, whilst browsing the floor at the Hobby Industry Association trade show in California, came across a stand selling surplus plastic models from the Japanese TV show Super Dimension Fortress Macross. They were unlabeled, unboxed, and, when assembled, stood about 10cm high.

“Giant walking robots!” exclaimed K. Ross Babcock, noticing that the models were the perfect size for a tabletop-miniatures game. He and his friend Jordan Weisman struck a deal with the importer to purchase a dozen variations of them, and later that year the board game BattleDroids was released.

The game was a huge success, selling through the original run of 5,000 units in just a few months. However, the name BattleDroids drew the attention of another franchise: Star Wars. In late 1984 Babcock and Weisman received a letter from LucasFilm, politely explaining that they were unhappy with the use of ‘droids’ in the title. Weisman explained that the word ‘android’ had been used by Issac Asimov since the mid 1950s. LucasFilm explained that they had more lawyers.

Babcock and Wesiman decided that this was not a fight worth having, not least because they would certainly lose it. In 1985 they placed a run for a further 10,000 units and changed the name to BattleTech. One of gaming’s most enduring franchises had been born — one that would spawn dozens of games across various formats and platforms in the coming decades.

The universe of BattleTech

A significant part of what makes the BattleTech franchise such rich ground for experimentation in different formats is the depth and consistency of the world created by its lore. The setting is a classic example of what is sometimes called ‘feudal futurism’ — science fiction peppered with the social structures and norms of the medieval period. The society created by the fall of the Star League (more on that shortly) has its narrative roots in medieval Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s more than just a vehicle for giant walking robots; it’s an epic tale of a future in which inter-planetary empires, ruled by aristocratic houses, wage war against one another for territory. Where human life is cheap compared to the value of ancient and forgotten technology, the famous ‘LosTech’.

Humanity has colonised the stars and now inhabits a vast region of space around our home planet. For hundreds of years this region was protected and ruled by a central body called the Star League, a coalition of the most powerful ruling bodies in the Inner Sphere of planets known as the Great Houses.

When the Star League collapsed, through internal political struggling and outright treachery, the Great Houses each claimed the right to succeed it as the rulers of the Inner Sphere. War was inevitable. 

By the beginning of the third millennium, the setting of the first games in the series, the Third Succession War has been rolling for nearly 150 years. Humanity is in a technological dark age and the governments of the various Successor States have nearly all descended to a neo-feudal system of government. The Great Houses scheme and fight border skirmishes against their neighbours but none have the resources for massive all-out assaults any more. Mercenary companies have become the defacto fighting forces; deniable and expendable, they allow the Successor States to conserve their dwindling resources while still harassing their hereditary foes.

It’s a fantastic setting for a gaming franchise which owes its defining features, at least in part, to the practicalities of creating a tabletop game. Weisman wanted to create a world in which any of the factions could conceivably be the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys’ depending on your point of view. This would let players battle each other without obliging them to take predefined moral roles. They also had a limited number of models, so needed the setting to support the idea of many factions using the same technology. The concept of a once-united government falling apart in civil war fit these requirements perfectly. Here was why everyone had the same equipment — they’re all using leftover Star League technology. What’s more, when all of your factions are fighting over the same prize, there isn’t really a ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just varied and interesting shades of grey. 

The lore of the BattleTech universe is massive and complex; in the summary above I’ve skipped over a lot of key events for the sake of brevity (and haven’t even touched upon the Clan Invasion). Each new edition of the rules brings new advancements to the timeline, adds new details to the lore and, in some cases, redraws the map. Each new advancement has also brought with it a raft of novels which add yet more detail and flavour to the universe.

Sometimes these changes are driven, or at least influenced, by the players themselves. At Gen Con 1988, attendees were treated to a dramatisation of the wedding between franchise characters Hanse Davion and Mellisa Stiener, which took place in 3028 in the official timeline. When the time came to exchange gifts, Davion announced that he was giving his bride the entirety of the Capellan Confederation’s space, and that the invasion was already underway. The attendees had been served cake as part of the ‘ceremony’, and when they looked under their plates they found the names of the planets that were currently being invaded. Audience members were pulled from their seats to fight the ensuing battles on the tabletop, providing the basis for the next round of lore.

A year later, in 1989, the first MechWarrior video game launched on PC. This gave players their first chance to sit in the cockpit of a mech.

Kill the meat, save the metal

If the idea of giant war machines stomping across a futuristic battlefield firing shells the size of a small family car at each other, whilst in the background mighty space empires plot and scheme, is an appealing one, then good news! There are a multitude of ways you can scratch that itch. 

After Weisman and Babcock’s original company, FASA (Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration, a nod to the Marx Brothers) closed up shop in 2001 the rights to various parts of the franchise have changed hands several times. Both the tabletop and various incarnations of the digital franchise have continued to be produced under licence by a variety of companies. Today the board game, BattleTech: A Game of Armoured Combat, is produced by Catalyst Games, while Weisman’s Harebrained Schemes makes the turn-based BattleTech for PC. Weisman, along with other former FASA contributors, also consulted on the recently released MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries from Piranha Games (PGI). The two brands, MechWarrior and BattleTech, have operated under different licences at different times but have always been set in the same fictional universe.

Let’s start with the tabletop version, since that’s where the franchise began. The current iteration of the game owes much to its 1984 roots and, while there are supplements that provide rules for roleplay and grand strategy, we’ll focus here on the core game.

In contrast to many other tabletop games, which can have dozens or even hundreds of models on each side, the focus in BattleTech is on a small number of mechs, typically four — known as a ‘lance’ (the feudal/heraldic imagery is a strong and persistent thread through all iterations of the franchise). Players can use stock mechs from a long list of standard designs, or create their own by changing the internal components on standard chassis. There are none of the balance issues you have with other tabletop games either, where different factions each have their own distinct troops: here every player has access to the same options. Shared, ancient technology, remember?

Players take it in turns to move their mechs, alternating until all of the units have moved. They then repeat the procedure, this time declaring which weapons each mech will fire, and at which target. Finally they roll dice to determine hits and damage taken. Rinse and repeat until only one player has any mechs left in the fight.

Each mech has multiple weapon systems and hit locations, each with their own damage and armour values respectively. Some weapons have a limited amount of ammunition and the distance travelled in a given turn affects how likely you are to hit. There is a lot to keep track of, so each unit has a card on which the player records the relevant information — although when they first demonstrated the game in 1984 the creators would burn off bits of the miniatures with a soldering iron to represent damage!

Unfortunately, this all means that unless you are very familiar with the intricacies of the various systems, games can become a protracted affair with newer players having to frequently refer back to their respective sheets and the rulebook to work out what to do next. In many ways it’s a system which is better suited to a PC game, where the computer can track all of the numbers and take care of all of the dice rolling, leaving the player free to focus on strategy.

This is exactly what BattleTech (2018), by Harebrained Schemes, offers. Also developed with Jordan Weisman, this turn-based PC game takes its DNA from the tabletop version, but takes advantage of the conveniences offered by a video game. Battles play out in much the same way as described above, although each mech moves and shoots in the same turn, meaning that the pace compared to the tabletop game is greatly accelerated.

Beyond that, there is also a management metagame which puts you in charge of your own mercenary company. You choose which contracts to take, hire mechwarriors, upgrade your dropship, and salvage damaged mechs and components from the battlefield — all while managing your monthly finances. As you travel between systems you’ll be given a nice variety of narrative choices based around your mechwarriors, which helps to flesh them out as characters and provide background to the universe at large. There’s also a story-driven campaign that sees you helping a noble lady from a minor House trying to retake her kingdom from her despotic uncle, but you can ignore that and forge your own career if you so choose.

While BattleTech focuses more on strategy, MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is planted firmly in the simulation category, as is traditional for the two franchises in terms of perspective. The aim here is to sell you on the illusion that you are piloting a towering, walking war machine, and in this it succeeds superbly. There are hundreds of models of mechs for you and your lance of AI pilots to choose from, each distinct and interesting in their feel and aesthetic. Salvos of missiles obliterate smaller vehicles and autocannon rounds land with thunderous explosions. Lasers score ruby lines of molten metal across enemy mechs and set trees in their path ablaze. And there’s nothing quite like casually strolling through a three-storey building.

This isn’t Call of Duty: But Now You’re Fifteen Metres High though. It’s a simulation which requires careful management of your mech’s various heat and weapons systems. Movement is ponderous and weighty, and the cooldown between shots on your weapons lengthy, so you are encouraged to make each one count. And while you are an armoured machine of death, poor planning and overconfidence will see you surrounded and punished.

This is definitely a simulation first and foremost, though — while there is a strategic layer, it’s not as personal as that in Harebrained Schemes’ game, and the story is forgettable. In MW5, the wider universe and lore serve as backdrop, glimpsed from your seat in the cockpit; and although the wider events of the 50 years of BattleTech history in which it’s set are reflected in the galaxy map, little effort is made to engage you with these events if you aren’t already aware of them.

All systems nominal

BattleTech is a magnificent and rich sci-fi universe. While it’s an undeniably 1980s vision of the future (in the official timeline the USSR falls in 2014) it nevertheless feels grounded in plausibility. The technology used is futuristic but has its basis in scientific principles understood today (faster-than-light travel aside). The enemy isn’t space elves, or inter-dimensional horrors; it’s humanity itself, doing what we’ve always done: fighting wars for power, territory, and resources.

Because of this, the universe encourages a very personal level of storytelling, rather than the traditional ‘good versus evil’ or the rather staid ‘ defenders of the galaxy’ formats. The stories told in the games from the BattleTech universe feel refreshingly down-to-Earth. A war for a small corner of a vast universe isn’t going to change the power balance of interstellar empires, and the hunt to find a particularly rare piece of lost technology isn’t going to change the course of a centuries-old conflict. In BattleTech, you fight for three things: honour, money, and glory — maybe with a dash of revenge on the side.