Friday, 16 August 2013

Who needs history? We got Mechs!

While normally my club (Army Group York) focuses on historical wargaming, every once and a while some sci-fi stuff works its way onto the table. This was one of those weeks.

Because I and another player, Al, were able to make it to the store early, we decided to partake in some ‘mech on ‘mech violence before the usual crew arrived. Now, I love the Battletech universe – the mechs, the lore, all of it – and lost many an hour in my youth playing the game (and I was playing it shortly after it came out, so there, I’ve dated myself). All of that being said, I have to say I now find it a long and (at times) unnecessarily complex game. I just don’t have the time anymore. In addition, I don’t just want to command one mech, I like the idea of playing games with multiple lances. Classic Battletech just makes that unworkable unless you have a whole weekend. Yes, I know about the ‘Quickstrike’ rules and gave them a whirl at Historicon. While the GM was great and the other players were a lot of fun, I found the rules as satisfying as eating cardboard – very little flavor. I think with ‘Quickstrike’ the rules authors took things too far in the oversimplified direction.

So what did we use for our game this week? A ruleset called “Meka Tac” by Lloyd Krassner that Al has refined into what he calls the “Giant Stompy Robot Edition.” (You can find them at Al's website, here.)I had played them once before in a “Gladiator Duel” scenario where each player was one mech pilot, but tonight wanted to see how they worked “in the field” with each player commanding a lance. Here’s how it went.

First I stat-ed out 10 mechs based on Battletech mech designs using the simple Meka Tac construction rules. While the weapons and extras available don’t match up exactly, and heat does not come into play in Meka Tac (though I wish it did) I was quite easily able to recreate the mechs I wanted with a fair amount of faith to the original Battletech designs. I ended up with a reinforced Steiner Lance of 2 light mechs, 1 medium and two assaults, taking on a Jade Falcon Clanner Star of 2 lights, 1 medium and 2 assaults. I then set up the table to have a Steiner military installation at one end and tasked the Clanners (who would be played by Al) with capturing it after coming on the board at the other end. In between was a fairly wide river flowing out of a steep ravine with rocky outcroppings on one side and a line of trees on the other.

Al immediately moved his lighter, faster mechs up to the top of the ravine overlooking my heavier forces and the installation, while I did the same with mine. He had the advantage of being able to hide in the trees, however. I held my assaults back, while he slowly moved his forward.

The light mechs face-off across the ravine while the Clan assault mechs move forward.

The light forces exchanging shots over the river led to zero hits, so eventually I threw caution to the wind and used my two jump-capable mechs (a Firefly and Trebuchet) to cross the ravine and engage in close-range combat. They did OK for a couple of turns, but when I seized the moment to drop my Trebuchet behind one of Al’s assaults and unleash an massive barrage in the hopes of being able to win initiative for him and get him back out fast, things started going downhill for them. While my Treb did carve off about a third of the assault’s damage points, I rolled really low for its initiative for the next turn, which let Al blast it with both his Assault mechs. (In Meka Tac you roll initiative for each mech and then perform all its actions when its turn comes up, so you can end up busy all turn long, and take chances like I did.) Bye-bye Trebuchet. The Firefly, now alone amongst the enemy, didn’t last much longer.

That white ball of smoke? That used to be my Trebuchet.

I was now outnumbered 5-3 and decided to pull my remaining forces back behind a low ridge to shield the lower half of my remaining mechs and yet be able to rain down fire on the approaching Clanners. The plan worked. As Al began his final attack, he was forced into open ground. Through concentrating my fire on one of his two assault mechs I was able to hurt it badly and ultimately score a reactor critical hit that caused an explosion. Turning my attention to his lights, I started carving them up, all while taking no damage to my big guys.  After a couple of turns, it became clear Al would not be able to dislodge me, so he conceded and pulled back his forces.

"Come 'n get it clanners!"

This is why charging to assault mechs rarely works out for a light.

The game flowed smoothly, took a little over two hours and saw plenty of action despite involving 10 mechs controlled by two players, so I think it went very well. Meka Tac provided enough detail to make the game tactically interesting with differing weapons, movement values and critical hit results, while not being overly complicated. Perfect for a game night where you’ve only got three or so hours to play (in other words, our typical game night) I do think the weapon ranges were a little short and so could be extended, and I could extend Clanner ranges even further to match the Battletech lore on the point, but that’s easy enough to do.

As I mentioned, this was the early game, and we followed it up by trying out another free set of rules Al found called “Tacship” – a space dogfighting game. By this time Zach joined us and it ended up being Zach and I as four “Battlestar Galactica” Viper pilots against an opposing force of four Cylon craft operating “By Al’s command.”

My two vipers. Since Al said this was 1978 era BSG, I did not get to be the 'hot' Boomer.

 The game was quick and dirty (as many dogfight games are) and not all that amenable to an AAR, so I’ll just tell you this – Zach and I got trounced.  The “Tacship” rules were fun and have potential, but do need some work.

On the plus side, the rules do a nice job of managing the inertia of motion through space. Your ships have two relevant ratings – thrust and velocity. Velocity carries over from the prior turn, and before you move you can use thrust points to speed up or slow down. After you do that, you must move your new velocity in hexes. You can use any remaining thrust to turn, but the faster you are moving the longer you have to go between turns, and the more thrust points each turn cost. As a result, you really have to plan your acceleration/deceleration and maneuvering carefully or you can end up in trouble. I liked it, and by assigning more or fewer thrust points to a craft at the beginning of a game, you can easily make it more nimble or ponderous.

I also liked the damage system, which was unlike anything I’d experienced before. When hit, you roll a d20 and add any “survivability bonus” your craft gets to the roll. You then go to a series of ten numbered (10 down to 1) boxes on your ship record. If you rolled higher than a modified ten you mark off your damage starting at ten, if you rolled lower than a modified ten, you start from where you rolled. As such, if you took two points of damage and rolled a modified ‘2’ – FAKOOM!  The interesting part is it works the same way each time you take damage, so in your second hit, you might end up marking off damage boxes farther away from zero than the first time.

For example, if I take 2 points of damage and roll a modified ‘4’ I would mark off the ‘4’ and ‘3’ box. If the next time I take two points of damage I roll a modified ‘9’ I would mark off the ‘9’ and ‘8’ box, not the ‘2’ and the ‘1’. The only time you must take your damage points away from the lowest available boxes is if you roll a modified number that you’ve already crossed off. In the above example then, if I take two more points of damage in a third attack, I would be fine if I rolled a modified 10+, 7, 6, or 5 but if I rolled a modified 9, 8, 4, 3, 2 or 1 – FAKOOM! This system certainly provides for scaling fragility and nerve-wracking damage rolls.

Now I did have some real problems with the game – including one big one. First it seemed too easy to hit at long range. More importantly though, despite this being space combat, there was no way to act as if you had the use of three dimensions. I really like the Check Your 6! WW2 dogfighting rules and the fact that they effectively allow you to use maneuvers like Immelmans and Split-S’s. There is nothing like that in Tacship. It is only two-dimensional. That’s a problem for me if it is an aerial or space game (though Tacship would be great as is for a game of dueling speedboats). After the game Zach, Al and I threw around ideas for adding that third dimension, and we’ll see where things go.  Still, lots of thanks to Al for running it.

'Not hot' Boomer goes out in a blaze of glory.

Now, lest you think it was all a-historical action this week, Chal and Greg were at a nearby table playing a small 28mm AWI game using Peter Pig’s Washington’s Army rules. I have yet to play those rules, but since I typically enjoy Peter Pig games, I can’t wait to do so. 

Photo included to maintain my historical wargaming street cred #1.

Photo included to maintain my historical wargaming street cred #2.

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