Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Team Tabletop - Battletech Mission #3

Saturday evening our usual gang of suspects gathered together to play and evaluate Battletech, as it is a relative new game to most of us despite it being a classic tabletop combat game.

The Best and Worst of Us
I should preface that the most dangerous thing in a game is a game designer. This does not mean we are masters of every game we touch (usually that is QA Testers).

How the world appears to QA; perhaps we shouldn't let them outside.

Designers tend to pick up a game, kick its tires, and then once we have a rough understanding of intent and balance we put it down.We will analyze different aspects in the game and explore our options, whether or not they seem like a good idea or not. We know that no game is constructed from a perfect ruleset, so there are always holes and exploits. Sometimes they are from obscure combinations. Other times it is from doing the exact thing that the designer assumed that no one would ever do. Because of this, we sometimes do really insane things in a game.

Think of in terms of a game most people in the world are familiar: chess. The object of chess is to capture the opponent's king. Natural strategy would mean you put every possible obstacle in the way so that is the last thing your opponent can do. A game designer looks at this game and says, "you can attack with the king, so what happens if I lead an offensive charge?" Games allow for experimentation and divergent strategies, so the game allows you to take this route (though not for very long).

This tabletop group has a notorious reputation of doing exactly that. Actually one member in particular is notorious for doing exactly that. But since he does have a name in the games industry and frequently gives presentations at GDC and other events, I will avoid posting his name or image here. But he is the one that decided it was best to create a warrior in D&D 3.5 edition that carried heavy armor and 2 shields. No weapons. That character survived countless monster attacks, killed no one, and died trying to swim.

Impervious to arrows, deadly to no one, should stay in the kiddie side of the pool.

Tabletop is NOT Your XBox

Another major note of tabletop games is that they do not play like a console or PC game. There are no extra lives. You get one shot to do something or else perma-death. Also there is one player sitting across the table from you who is trying to kill you every step of the way. That player is the GM. And they are vengeful.

These games do fall into a set routine that usually shapes itself to whatever your GM usually throws at you. But in the first few playthroughs, you have no idea how you as the player will be screwed. So it makes for a high-risk, high rewards game. It also means rolling a natural 20 means more than a headshot any day.

Also, unless you have excessive disposable income and tons of free time, you tend not to have realistic model renderings of what you are fighting. Instead you use whatever is on hand to allow you to figure out the intricacies of combat. I have faced soda cans that represented dragons and my avatar was a Yuengling cap.

Roar! I'm a dragon!

Battletech Campaign So Far...

Whether or not you are familiar with the narrative and premise of Battletech or its expanded universe, I will sum it all up right here. It's the future. You are a mercenary/pilot. Wars are fought with giant, walking tanks, which can trip and fall over (but still more powerful than regular tanks for some reason).

Nothing says "screw your puny tanks" more than knee cap rocket launchers

Mission 1: Destroy a communications tower and any enemy mechs nearby
Team Strategy: Go in with a mixture of long-range mechs and heavy short-range mechs and destroy everything.

This strategy worked out rather well for a while. Unfortunately Battletech works in rounds of winning initiative with a dice roll and advantage of the last move goes to the victor. It also helps if the entire team moves all mechs in such a way that follows the same basic strategy. When your sniper runs forward but your heavy retreats, hilarity ensues. In one round, our sniper was torn a new A-hole cog. It also does not help if the only player that can help the sniper in time is the other sniper, who in turn was split asunder. The two heavies still have that new car smell. 

Battletech also allows for melee combat (if you have a tank with fists, why not). One of our heavies ended up in a violent fist fight not too dissimilar from Rocky vs. Ivan Drago, if Adrian happened to be firing a RPG at Drago's back.

Our team won the battle, destroyed the tower, and captured their biggest mech with a knockout punch. Huge high-fives all around (except for the two snipers who no longer had arms).

Mission 2: Escort a demolitions team to destroy a bridge
Strategy: Bring in fast runners and capture the bridge; provide cover fire

I believe Mike Tyson once said, "everyone has a plan until they are punched in the face". That sums up our team's attempt at this escort mission.

At the game start, we have four fast mechs on one side of a bridge. At the other, there are four enemy mechs. One of these enemies is carrying an ax. An ax that we quickly find out is devastating to other mechs.

So just a tally, this is a future where wars are won by tanks that can trip and punch, and the deadliest weapon is an ax. Yep. Tomahawk missile? 50% chance of hitting. Tomahawk ax? It will end you.

As a group, we react by unleashing every weapon we have on this ax carrying mech. In a few short rounds, this mech is on the ground, twitching. In those same short rounds, the other enemy mechs leaned over the side of the bridge and blew up our demo crew. Ooops. We completely forgot our strategy.

Mechs can facepalm, but you have to roll for it.

So mission failed, we turn all guns at the next nearest enemy mech. Keep in mind that in this game, all weapons-fire resolves in game at the same time. So if a mech is destroyed, all missiles and weapons it fired and was fired at it still go through their processes. We effectively teabagged this enemy mech with rockets. The other two mechs ran away, but by then it was too late.

Mission #2 failed. Expecting results that our enemy forces would be able to resupply with more forces in future missions due to this bridge. Go team.

Here We Go

Mission #3: Destroy Tank facility, and as many tanks as you can.
Team Strategy: Bring in our heaviest guns and destroy everything

Map layout: We had to use some basic materials from around the house. My daughter's toys come into play. It seems large toddler building blocks are perfectly one-hex wide, an perfect for building walls. String becomes terrain height markers. Large gun towers are represented by animal toys, in this case 2 giraffes and a whale.

Focus all firepower on the left giraffe!

On the game start, we focus on attention on the closest gun tower (giraffe on the bottom-left). This worked amazingly well as gun towers are not meant to take a concentrated barrage like that for too long. The giraffe goes down and out come the tanks.

At this point our attention is split. There is a beehive of tanks coming our way, and a giant center gun tower blowing the crap out of our location (whale). Our strategic conversation at this point breaks down quickly into "when in doubt, LRM (long-range missile) the whale!!!"

We are able to sneak one fast mech in across the side of the facility so he can download a virus. It was an amazing bit of stealth done by a 35-ton machine. Just as it was ready to enter the facility, one of the team decides to fire blindly into the door and clear out a path. Instead of clearing out a path, it makes an impossible shot and levels the entire facility. Ummm, mission accomplished. Now what?  Oh yeah, tanks.

Now these tanks are fast. Real fast. And they stick around just long enough for us to knock off nearly all armor, but not enough to make the kill. And there are enough of them that their little beestings are catching up with us. Instead of sticking around and take more damage, we decide to run for it. Unfortunately by doing so, it allowed them to concentrate all of their firepower on the big Drago mech we won two missions ago. That mech is now vaporized. The rest of the team were able to evac without too much damage.

What We Learned
Though most tabletop games do plod along at a fairly slow pace (one round of combat in mission #2 took 40 minutes to discuss and resolve) usually you get a round or two to make up for a mistake. Battletech does not allow for these mistakes. You need to make every round count, which can lead to a more defensive posture.

However, the game also rewards fast action over defensive play, so as a player you really need to find that sweet spot between bezerker rush and turtle that will allow for victory.

There is a significant portion of the game spent determining repairs and upgrade between missions. We found it best to put all of this information up on Google docs and handle it like a bunch of project managers (some of us are a bunch of project managers in real life).

Game designers + board game + Google docs = overcompensation

There was an extensive learning curve to Battletech, and I wouldn't recommend it for folks just looking to try it out once. You also should have at least one person present that is familiar with how the game is played. Preferably two people, since one would be the GM, and they will probably use that advantage to kill you.

And they will kill you.

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