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Category Archives: Battletech

BattleTech: Decision at Thunder Rift

For many years I have read the many classic BattleTech scenario books with a mixture of wonder and awe. Given that we could blow an afternoon with just a handful of mechs on the board, I just had to know: what kind of person played this stuff…?!

Well, having done one of these now, I can tell you: nobody played them.

“Decision at Thunder Rift” is a conflict so big, it got a whole novel devoted to it. But the scenario itself is a hot mess:

  • The defenders get three 20 ton mechs, which are supposed to have made a valiant stand on a ridge, using carefully aimed fire to pick off their attackers as they marched uphill. The reality on the game board is… they’re turkeys that spend all of their time getting as far away from the turkey shoot as possible. Not very dramatic!
  • The defenders also get a small army of hovercraft. The rules give you the option to use either quick and easy simplified rules or else design your own version of them with the CityTech rules. If you use the former, then the defense will simply die as the hovercraft will all be wiped out in a couple of turns due to the fact that it only takes a single hit to disable them and a second one to kill them. If you use actual CityTech rules, the units will not only be able to take a lot more hits, but they will also be wherever they need to be in order to have the perfect shot– CityTech hovercraft are going to be two or even three times as fast!
  • And just one note on the original BattleTech box sets. The vehicle counters in CityTech are not numbered or otherwise uniquely identified in any way. If you try to play this scenario with the original equipment available at the time, you have a bookkeeping nightmare on your hands.
  • There are mentions made of potentially using infantry rules with this one, but no details on just what to do with them.

We spent an eternity playing this one. The hovercraft wiped out a couple of attacking mechs early on. Then the attackers figured out that if they simply made a beeline for the “turkeys”, nothing much would happen. (This is due to the to-hit penalties for jumping combined with the extreme resilience of medium mechs– it can take forever to drop one!)

There was one dramatic moment, though. The attacking Locust got to the top of a hill and fired its medium laser at a fleeing Stinger. It rolled a 12 on the all-but-impossible to-hit roll, then rolled a 12 again for hit-location, then rolled a 10 for the check-for-criticals roll. This resulted in a life support and a cockpit critical. A target dropped in a single shot!

So yeah, the turns just cranked by taking a long time to resolve for generally not a whole lot to happen in return. It was exhausting. The way it turned out, I had to be able to drop all three of the light mechs by turn 13 in order to win. (There was basically a die roll that determines whether this scenario is trivial or impossible, but you don’t know what it will be until turn ten.) The CityTech hovercraft meant the attacker had to be lucky to pull this off, but the dice just weren’t there. The fleeing 20 ton mechs were just too hard to hit… and the hits that did land weren’t concentrated in the same hit locations well enough to get the job done.

We did make one critical mistake: the attackers were supposed to get reinforcements on turn 10 and we completely forgot about them. However, if the defense played at all sanely, they should not have made a significant impact on the outcome at all. The light mechs would have had to take a few more shots at slightly better odds due to needing to steer clear of the south map edge, but otherwise nothing would have changed.

We ended up debating some other issues when trying to determine if one side or the other should simply concede. Stuff like… what constitutes an actual kill in BattleTech? (Is two gyro criticals enough?) Also, can the attacker leave the map in order to deny the defense kills? (If so… then they have no chance at all to win, particularly if the dumbed down hovercraft rules are used.)

Anyway, there is a lot of stuff here. There is a very creative use of terrain and units to make a really colorful situation come alive, using everything that existed in the BattleTech game during the mid-eighties. But there’s just one problem with it: it’s objectively the worst wargame scenario I have ever played.

BattleTech: Alone on Trellwan

William H. Keith is one of the biggest names in old school tabletop games. He is responsible to fleshing out great swaths of the biggest gaming franchises of the eighties: Traveller, BattleTech, Twilight 2000. He would later graduate from tabletop gaming supplements and become a prolific author.

I really dig his stuff. There’s a sensibility to his gaming material that makes the game worlds come to life. But setting that aside for the moment, there’s one thing I really want to know: could he put together a decent wargame scenario with this sprawling morass of game system that is the original core box sets of the BattleTech line?

Judging from the his initial offering in the Gray Death Legion scenario set from 1986, the answer is no. (!!) In fact, “Alone on Trellwan” is a great example of how not to make a wargame scenario.

The defender has no real incentive to take any risks. If he puts all of his effort into moving across the board, he can exit the board and score a near automatic decisive victory. The attackers will only able to get a few shots off at him at significant penalties. Their only choice is to decide between moving close to the tank farm in order to risk getting blown up in exchange for another shot or two that is more than likely to miss.

BattleTech: The Game is not near as dramatic as BattleTech: The Novel. In fact… the latter really doesn’t translate back to the former at all. I’m trying to think of how this could be fixed, but really… it isn’t worth it.

The lone Shadow Hawk could, for instance, be a group of light mechs. The defenders need to be a threat… maybe a group of tanks with a lot of firepower but otherwise relatively easy to disable. It needs to be tempting for the attackers to risk losing a mech in exchange for pushing the victory level up. But maybe they also have to take some risks to take some of the attackers out or else they are going to take so many long ranged shots as they exit, they are liable to lose a unit that way as well.

Furthermore, the scenario is technically part of a campaign, though the only consequence here is how and where the damage to the Shadowhawk is for the followup. That’s just not all that compelling. There needs to be a wide range of interesting consequences for the choices that could be made here. But with no significant consequences, there are no significant decisions to be made, either.

Really, there’s no comparison here between this and Steve Jackson’s combination of “Breakthrough” and “Raid” for G.E.V. I mean… there really is no game here!

As is typical of mid-eighties and later game supplements: nobody involved with the publication of these scenarios bothered to playtest them. It was a safe bet on the part of the people that made them that the “player” base wouldn’t even try.

Capellan Confederation Reconnaissance in Force

This is the third game of a continuing campaign with the same “green” Capellan Confederation Lance. With a salvaged Archer replacing the old Javelin, they actually has some significant firepower now. They can actually handle a raid scenario– putting some “teeth” into their recon.

The situation I had in mind is that command needs to get to turn this unit into veterans quickly, they need them to accomplish an objective that is within their reach– but they can’t afford to risk losing their mechs. Strategically, this is part of an overload action– many feints and probes happening concurrently in order to push the defense to their limits.

Davion’s city defenders fields 4 foot/rifle infantry, 4 MG/mechanized, 4 Vedette tanks, and one Battlemaster. House Liao has a Vindicator, a Blackjack, a Clint, and an Archer. (I’ve got no Battletech counters, so I’m raiding Ogre again in order to make do.) Command wouldn’t know the exact strength of these forces when they send the lance out. The objective is to take out a couple of hardened reactors if possible. If they get both without losing any mechs, that is a phenominal victory. If they take out just one, that is a decisive victory. If they get none, draw out the enemy, and retain their mecha… even that is a marginal victory under the circumstances.

Now… this scenario was just made up out of thin air based on what the continuing characters had and what would fit in what what we’d done so far. I wanted to continue experimenting with what I consider to be the criminally underplayed conventional units of the BattleTech franchise. I have to say… when you combine these units with some reasonable morale/withdrawal rules based on the need for Mecha to not get arbitrarily expended, everything clicks. Infantry can be easily shot up, but they have to be dealt with before they can get close. Tanks can carry comparable firepower as a mech, but given the ease with which they can be disabled, people are going to tend to neutralize them before they target opposing mechs. Finally… if you irreplacable units are controlled by continuing characters… well, there’s all kinds of interesting situations you can throw at them and you won’t have to have half of them die in each game. The conventional forces produce decisive and dramatic action that is resolved quickly while the mecha jet around the board behaving like de facto chess queens. It’s orders of magnitudes more fun than the sort of straight up “company on company” battle royales that are the norm in the scenario booklets for the line.

In our game, the mecha crept to the forest edge and started unloading on a reactor at medium range. At the rate they were damaging it, the could expect to drop it within a few turns. The attackers didn’t bother targeting the defenders due to the extra protection they had from being able to take cover in buildings. On turn two the defenders opted to rush. The Capellan Clint got hit by two AC/5’s from the Vedettes and the PPC from the Battlemaster. It was enough to take out the Clint’s leg. He managed to stand up on turn two despite the need to roll 11+ to do it. (FASA BattleTech Master Rules has it as a +5 piloting roll that requires two MP’s; the guy got it on the third try.)

The Vedettes are not terribly fierce units. The lance commander panicked when they bore down on his newly acquired Archer. He pulled back with it instead of risking it, but regretted it when he realized just how well armored the thing was. The Clint started backing away one hex at a time. (He was limited to 1 MP a turn with the disabled leg, but I ruled he could still hobble along through the terrain.)

The Blackjack ended up doing quite a bit of damage to the encroaching motorized MG infantry. (Double damage in clear terrain is a nice, reasonable, and bloody rule.) A total of 35 points of damage was done to the one reactor. If the Archer had actually hit with his LRMs, it may well have been worth sticking around to burn it to the ground, but being only about 1/3rd of the way there, it was time to get out of Dodge.

The Clint had to jump in order to evade the Battlemaster and the infantry that were closing in on him. He fell a couple times making his way off the board, but was not in any real danger. The Vindicator and the Blackjack could easily jump through the woods, demonstrating the true utility of the light mechs. I believe the Davion defenders will be forced to reinforce this position if they want to keep these assets. If this light lance returns, it could easily finish the job they started here.

In Mechwarrior first edition, the characters get xp for each point of damage they do with more for criticals. The enemy forces also have an XP value equal to the tonnage of the mechs, half the tonnage of the vehicles, and ten tons for each infantry group. I split 25% of this between the continuing characters due to the marginal victory. (I would have given 100% if they had taken out the reactor and not lost any mechs… and 200% if they had managed to take out both reactors.)

The player characters all went up a level in gunnery. Finally! We can now play some more sensible scenarios where the they will have a much better chance of actually hitting stuff. (Although they could have spent XP to convert one the Archer’s attacks into a hit if they had spent some of his XP to do it now that I think of it… not that it would have made a difference)

Here’s the XP tallies:

Vindicator (6/4): 75 + 63 + 111 – 175 = 74

Clint (6/4): 92 + 93 – 175 = 10

Archer (6/4): 106 + 88 – 175 = 19

Blackjack (7/5): 61 + 112 – 125 = 48

Capellan Confederation Ambush With Conventional Forces

Okay, this was a game I waited decades to play: BattleTech with mecha versus a infantry and tanks. Seriously, the xerox copy I ran off of the CityTech infantry record form has been sitting in the box for over twenty-five years!

Here’s how I set up the game. First I calculated the repair times for the surviving mechs from the last scenario. Then, as I would with D&D, I improvised a chart to account for the most reasonable outcomes:

1-2: The Vindicator which would take an hour an a half to repair is immediately sent out on a mission by itself without the rest of the group.

3-5: The Vindicator, the Clint, and the Blackjack are repaired and sent out on a mission together, but the Blackjack’s arm could not be reattached in time.

6: The full group is sent out, the Blackjack’s arm is repaired or retrofitted, and… the mech pilot that was in the destroyed Javelin is reassigned to a Locust.

The die roll came up as a two, confirming my original instincts for how to play the next game… but adding a sense of fairness and rightness that maybe wouldn’t have been there before. I still had this problem of the destroyed Javelin. I didn’t really want to let a Green mechwarrior with any  amount of experience go to waste. But I didn’t want to hand out “free” mechs either. So I ruled that for this game… if an enemy mech got dropped in such a way that it could be repaired, the Javelin guy would pick it up as his replacement mech.

I decided that a Davion Archer and Rifleman would be ambushed by four motorized MG infantry, 2 Patton tanks, and the “green” House Liao Vindicator. The Archer and Rifleman would come onto the board… and the House Liao units get hidden placement with a surprise round. I also ruled that Davion would have a morale of 9… minus the number of criticals they received. A number higher than that rolled after any turn they received a crit and they would turn tail and run.

Basically… a totally made up scenario with the objective of introducing infantry and vehicles while giving every conceivable break to the new guy just getting the hang of the game. (I could have maybe added one light mech to this group if I wanted it to be more even.)

The game played very fast– lest than three hours, easily. The Davion guys did not care about the green mechwarrior at all. They wanted to take out the much easier-to-mission-kill tanks first! Besides, the green guy just doesn’t hit often enough to be worth bothering with.

The infantry were interesting, more fun than I expected… and way too effective. I was running the game wrong, of course!

  • Mechs get a +3 bonus to to-hit with melee attacks against them.
  • Infantry take double damage if they are hit in a clear hex.
  • Mechs also have the option to move into the same hex as them… which would have the Archer the chance to take some better cover than I allowed him.

Everything played out perfectly for House Liao when the Archer took first a medium laser shot to the head followed by an AC-10 shot that blew it entirely off. The Javelin pilot will be coming back next game with an ARCHER! (And hoo-boy, does this change the overall complexion of the lance…!)

Here’s the current XP values as calculated by Mechwarrior first edition:

  • Blackjack (7/6) — 61
  • Clint (6/5) — 92
  • Javelin/Archer (6/5) — 106
  • Vindicator (6/5) — 75 + 63 = 138

The big break for this group comes when the 6/5 guys reach 175 XP… which is not that far away. (The Vindicator and Archer are liable to both get there next session.) The Blackjack was nearly useless in the first game, but if he can just hold on until he can reach 125 XP, he will be able to at least do something.

Anyway, that’s how the second installment went. Can’t what to see what happens to these guys next!

A Capellan Confederation Light Lance versus Four Patton Tanks!

This game’s been a long time coming.

Ever since the release of CityTech, I have wanted to use the BattleTech vehicles rules. But Mecha are so danged fun in an of themselves, they dominate whenever anyone puts the game on the table. No one ever wants to play with the tanks! Sigh…. Ah, CityTech… another victim of the Pareto Principle!

I went all out for this one, too.

  • I used first edition Mechwarrior to create a lance. One of the more interesting rules here is that you can take a penalty on your ‘mech assignment roll in return for additional character points. This resulted in a set of Green mechwarriors with ‘mechs weighing in at 45, 45, 40, and 30 tons.
  • I used the awesome force faction tables from Combat Operations  to select ‘mechs that would have been available to the Capellan Confederation circa 3025: VND-1R Vindicator, BJ-1 Blackjack, CLNT-3T Clint, and JVN-10N Javelin. (I also used the Battle Value numbers in there to determine a fair situation that slightly favored my opponent.)
  • I used the old FASA Master Rules to create a scenario for these guys: a breakthrough situation where four Patton tanks are attempting to break through this recon lance across three map sheets. (There really is a nice selection of “stock” scenarios in there.)


The action was furious. Lots of hard decisions and tough lessons here!

  • The AC/20 looks fearsome, but the ‘mechs can really soak up a lot of punishment. So much so, they’re safer than you’d think.  The Clint lost a leg. The Blackjack lost an arm. The Javelin had an arm blown off and would have survived, but when its leg got blown off at the end, it fell down. As it clambered to its feet, it ended up taking one last AC/20 shot to the center torso.
  • The Javelin is an effective anti-tank unit due to the SRM-6’s. Every single hit against a tank has a chance of dropping its cruising speed, immobilizing it altogether, or eliminating it altogether via a critical hit. (The Javelin did just that with an impressive ten missile hit, scoring the first kill.)
  • The Pattons would have gotten more tanks off the board if they had focused entirely on running away. Those short ranged AC/20 shots were just too fun to pass up, though.
  • The Green 6/5 mechwarriors and tank gunners could not hit anything unless they were at short range. The 7/6 pilot in the Blackjack had a devil of a time hitting anything. (Can’t recommend handing such a character to anyone to play, though working him up to 4/5 would be quite an achievement.)

Game time ran into the four hour mark. The play was so immersive and the desire to know how the next turn would play out was so great, I didn’t notice that it was a bit long. And for a continuing role-playing game type situation like this, I have to say… going with ‘mechs versus tanks was perfect. There’s plenty of decisive action, but the players are relatively safe. Plus, you get to play with the “big boom” stuff.

The next scenario writes itself, of course. While the Clint and the Blackjack go back to the shop for repairs, the Vindicator will be tapped to lead a conventional force of tanks and infantry to raid a supply depot. The lance is shorthanded now, too…. The replacement ‘mech will be (rolls dice…) a 20 ton Locust, because shame on you for wasting such an awesome light ‘mech as the Javelin!