Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Alpha Strike - The Modern Take on BattleTech



It is a great time to be a BattleTech fan. With Mechwarrior Online having its two year anniversary, the new turn based BattleTech video game being fully funded through Kickstarter by Harebrained Schemes (who brought us Shadowrun Returns) and a slew of new sculpts for many of the “unseen” models like the Warhammer, Locust and Marauder it is a true renaissance for the venerable wargame.



 NewWarhammer Sculpt
Marauder Concept Art
Our gaming group has been playing the BattleTech miniatures game and its RPG “A Time of War/MechWarrior” for nearly two decades. One of the reasons why this game has seen so much play is due to the fact that it covers a lot of gaming real-estate. First off, it is one of the longest running and most detailed game settings ever created. With volumes of source material ranging from RPG and Miniatures sourcebooks to comics, novelizations, video games, toys, an expansive Wiki and even a television series. It is one of the best developed game settings of all time. Along with the rich fiction and source material, BattleTech offers hundreds of models ranging from 2.5 million ton Warships to individual infantrymen. Playing out through nearly a thousand years of recorded cannon, BattleTech is one of the most expansive and diverse miniatures games out there. This allows for a nearly unlimited number of different scenarios and tactical challenges that add to the richness of the RP experience.

Of course, the game is far from perfect. At its core, BattleTech is a simple table top game developed in the 1980’s. This was a time period where complex book keeping, tons of charts and tables and overall clunky mechanics were the norm and it shows. Large games at the company level (12 models per side) can go on for several hours and sometimes days depending on the level of detail used. The system has grown over the years and has added so many expanded and optional rules that it span several large source books (Total Warfare, Strategic Operations, Tactical Operations, TechManual and Interstellar Operations). This may seem like a lot of overkill, but keep in mind that these sourcebooks handle more than just ‘Mech combat. The rules expand on infantry, vehicles, aerospace fighters, warships and battle armor which at some point in the game’s history represented individual standalone games like AeroTech and BattleTroops. 

Along with the outdated game play, the model quality offered by Ral Partha and now Iron Wind Metals is lacking compared to models from Citadel or Privateer Press for example. Years of poor design and lack of updated sculpts has left the BattleTech miniatures catalog substantially lacking.  Additionally, many of the iconic ‘Mechs that defined the original look of the game are no longer available due to various copyright issues. Many of these machines have been updated in Project Phoenix, but still lack the same level of dynamism and detail wargamers have become accustomed to in recent decades. As you can see above though, the model quality is improving drastically, especially with the new unseen models.

That is not to say that Classic BattleTech is a bad game. BattleTech has entertained gamers since 1984 and the current owners of the franchise, Catalyst Game Labs have done a great deal of work to maintain the game’s viability. The most important advance towards the goal of viability, in my opinion has been the advent of Alpha Strike in 2013.

Alpha Strike is based on the mechanics developed for Battleforce 2 published in 1997 which was intended to be an abstracted system that would allow you to run games up to the battalion level (36+ units). This far more modern and streamlined system allows for company level games (12 or so models per side) to be resolved in just a few hours while retaining the distinct “feel” of BattleTech.

Alpha Strike feels like a modern miniatures game. Its core mechanics are very simple and require a minimal amount of book keeping while retaining the basic factors that make BattleTech... BattleTech. Key concepts like ablative armor, internal structure, critical hits, heat management and movement modalities remain, but are cut down to bare basics. Instead of individual tonnages you have a Size value ranging from 1 to 4 representing the Light, Medium, Heavy and Assault classes. Instead of walk and run move you have a simple movement score listed in inches that can be modified with a “j” for jump if the machine is jump capable. Instead of individual hit locations with their own armor and internal structure scores, these concepts are abstracted and streamlined by one score for armor and another for internal structure which represents the overall survivability of any given unit. The various weapons on a vehicle are abstracted into simple damage values for Short, Medium and Long range that are applied after a single to hit roll. Critical Hits are applied any time damage is taken to the internal structure. Instead of rolling to see if a hit caused a critical, the critical chart has several “no effect” entries to represent the failure to score a critical, consolidating the process to one roll.

The game is also completely terrain based and does not require a hex board to work. Ranges and movement are done in inches with the hex base aiding in determining fire arcs. Since the non-uniform scale of the hundreds of models available in the line is an issue, size templates can be used to standardize the size values of vehicles and ‘mechs. Alpha Strike also uses blast templates and deviation for artillery and other area effects.

Instead of full page sheets with hundreds of little bubbles of armor, several different weapon systems and lists of critical spaces, Alpha Strike condenses all the pertinent vehicle information in a sheet the size of a business card, complete with spaces for tracking criticals, heat and damage. Additionally, Catalyst has put up a Master Unit List website that allows you to browse through almost every single unit ever created for the BattleTech universe. Not only can you use this free tool to build your detachments easily, but you can browse by era or affiliation, making it easy to create units for a particular campaign, faction or era.

Classic BattleTech Record Sheet
Alpha Strike Record Card

Along with streamlined and terrain based game play, the Alpha Strike Companion provides unit composition and scenario rules along with a simplified point value system adding a whole new level of meta game which we see in so many other miniatures game systems. Pilot abilities, unit special abilities and equipment “quirks” can also come into play for an added level of detail, but with little added crunch. With the use of battlefield roles, unit composition abilities and a more practical and logical rules set, games take on a completely new dimension that actually plays like the fiction reads in many cases.

Aerospace support is seamlessly integrated into Alpha Strike using an innovative system that abstracts the airspace over your tabletop battle. Air support in the form of bombs, strafing runs or swirling dogfights can be represented easily without taking any focus from what is happening on the table. The Companion further expands on that system by allowing you to play out the battle in space in a similar way.



Artillery, tanks, v-tols, transports, support vehicles, protomechs, power armor and regular infantry are also included to varying degrees of detail creating a comprehensive level of play options that not only match the level of detail in Total Warfare, but in some ways exceeds it since you can personalize units and formations to be designed for certain mission parameters.

Alpha Strike is a strange product. That is to say that this is a parallel product to Total Warfare, Strategic, Tactical and Interstellar Operations. Classic BattleTech is still the flagship game in the BattleTech line and is stull supported by Catalyst, giving players the choice to stay with the venerable wargame and/or play the more modern and fast paced version of the game for minimal investment. I am pretty heavily vested into Classic BattleTech. I own literally hundreds of dollars’ worth of books and own hundreds of models for the game that I have been collecting since the 1980’s. The fantastic thing about it is that for about a $30 investment in Alpha Strike and the Alpha Strike Companion on DriveThru RPG I can integrate Alpha Strike into my gaming lexicon. My miniatures and all the campaign source material still apply, but I have the option of running games either in Classic BattleTech or Alpha Strike depending on the size of game I have and the amount of time I have to play it out. Unlike other game companies that alienate so much of their fan base by creating new editions that basically nullify so much of the previous editions products, Catalyst simply decided to expand upon what already exists and simply provide more options.

In further posts I will be doing a detailed review of Alpha Strike, the Alpha Strike Companion and the A Time of War RPG. I will also be detailing the progress of our SLDF campaign, the process of collecting and painting the models, character creation and how it plays out in A Time of War and Alpha Strike.