Tuesday, October 27, 2015

BattleTech Alpha Strike Review

Alpha Strike is a game of armored combat in the war torn future of the BattleTech universe. It is a miniatures combat system that is parallel to but not exactly supplementary to the rules found in Total Warfare which is the current incarnation of the Classic BattleTech miniatures game. BattleTech, (originally called BattleDroids but had to change due to copyright issues with Lucasfilm), was published by the now defunct FASA games in 1984 and is now published by Catalyst Game Labs. Alpha Strike streamlines and modernizes the classic game resulting in a faster pace allowing for more units on the table and a slew of options for scenarios, campaigns and a variety of different unit types including air support, infantry, cavalry (tanks) and artillery.

This review will hit on four major points. First, we will look at the book itself checking layout, presentation, art and content. Second, we will go into what is needed to play the game outside of just the rulebook. Third, I will go into the basic game play concepts and mechanics. Lastly, I will provide my general impressions of the game after having played it for a practical point of view.

How does the book look?

The 170 page full color rulebook is available as a hard cover and as a PDF from various retailers including Amazon and at BattleCorps and DriveThruRPG. <Rant> As a side note, if you play games at a local independent game retailer, please purchase your game materials there. Help keep those who provide you with play space in business </Rant>. It’s around $30, but you can find used copies cheaper and you can sometimes score a deal for the PDF. I got it for $15 off DriveThruRPG when it came on sale.

The layout is fairly standard for any Catalyst game with a good index/glossary, tabbed side bar for easy reference when flipping through the book, full color images for charts and examples of play and a nice reference area in the back with all the tables and charts. The book is organized into “tiers” of complexity by giving the reader a good introduction to the basic game terms and mechanics at the beginning, followed up with chapters that introduce new and more complex rules as you read on, ending with a sample campaign and a nice overview of the BattleTech universe and history.

The chapter breakdown is as follows:
1) Introductory Alpha Strike
2) Standard Alpha Strike
3) Abstract Aerospace System
4) Advanced Alpha Strike Options (advanced terrain, artillery, buildings, exotic environmental conditions, smoke, fire and conversion from terrain play to the more familiar hex.
5) Campaign play
6) Campaign Setting: Clan Invasion
7) The BattleTech Universe

Flow is fairly fluid with few obvious editing errors (mind you when you get the PDF it gets updated with errata and editing corrections. For the most up to date version of the game, I recommend going with the PDF.) Most complex rules are immediately followed up with “examples” of practical application. The color plates do a decent job of showing off the Iron Wind Metals miniatures and the new plastic line with plenty of images of the model range. Overall, the layout is very clean, but is somewhat disrupted by the fact that at times the text will refer to tables or charts that are on the previous or next page of the book. It’s a nitpick but when I am reading about a rule I like to be able to easily glance at the chart without having to flip around.

What do you need?

Actual game play requires the Alpha Strike rule book, a play table, some terrain, miniatures, two to four six sided dice and a retractable tape measure reading in inches. It may also require some templates, but samples of those are in the back of the book to photocopy and cut out. The templates are fairly standard and you will find that the two and six inch templates can be easily found in other game lines like Warhammer.

The game uses real line of sight rules for tabletop terrain. Weapon range bands work out all the way to 42” and beyond. It can be played on just about any table top, but anything smaller than a 4’ x 6’ table will make maneuver and long range snipers and missile boats less effective. Alpha Strike, like Classic BattleTech uses 6mm or “z-scale” terrain for buildings, structures and wooded areas. Most hills and other terrain features work universally. Much like just about any other miniatures game a good amount of terrain really adds to game play. The BattleTech Wiki has a bunch of PDFs that can be printed out, cut and folded into some pretty neat terrain for free. If you have a few extra ducats you might want to try GameCraft Miniatures. They have a great line of 6mm sci-fi buildings for very cheap which look absolutely wonderful.

Once the table is set, you will need some models or markers for your units. Of course, the best option is to have painted miniatures out on the table. If you have the BattleTech Introductory Boxed Set, you already have a slew of models. If not, there are some great Alpha Strike Lance Packs out there that get you four ‘Mechs for less than $15 and come with full color laminated stat cards for each ‘Mech. These Lance Packs are sold in a variety of units that are separated by battlefield role. For example Battle Lance, Support Lance, Fire Lance, Recon Lance, Pursuit Lance and Striker Lance. These battlefield roles take on more significance with the Alpha Strike Companion which I will review separately. Of course, individual models are available from Iron Wind Metals including many “archive” models regularly unavailable to retailers that you can order for a small extra fee. I highly recommend getting the intro boxed set listed above. It runs about $50 and comes with 24 unpainted plastic minis, game boards, background info, painting guide, dice and a poster of the Inner Sphere. The costs break down to a little more than $2 a model plus a bunch of bonus stuff. The Lance Packs are also a great deal and are a cheap and easy way to expand your model collection. Compare that to $10 - $15 a model for the metals, it’s a great way to go. Alpha Strike uses all the same figures for the BattleTech classic game, so if you have some old minis lying around you are good to go.

Once you have some models and terrain, the Master Unit List tool gives you access to stats for pretty much all the infantry, vehicle aerospace and ‘Mech units along with all their variant load-outs. You can build a force randomly based on what you have or you can go further and separate searches by Era or Faction making it easy to build campaign forces. Master Unit List or MUL allows you to play with point values and print out stat cards for the units you choose. This army building tool is completely free and is updated with just about everything you could ever imagine.

All in all, the game can cost as little as $60 to get started with the rule book and two lance packs; terrain and table notwithstanding.

How does it play?

Basic game play is very similar to classic BattleTech. The game function is as follows. Note this is a rundown of the most basic game play. More detailed rules that cover Battlefield Intelligence, artillery plotting, aerospace integration, and more are detailed in the rule book.

1) Roll for initiative. For the base game an unmodified roll of 2d6 added together. Winner chooses who will move first. Many of the more advanced rules modify this roll due to several factors like Battlefield Intelligence scores and special abilities like “Command ‘Mech.” The winner of this roll decides who moves first.

2) The player that moves first moves a unit. Then their opponent moves a unit, back and forth until all units have moved. Units have a “Move” stat listed in inches and can be modified by a sub-designation like “j” for Jump which allows the unit to move over obstacles by flying into the air. Terrain factors heavily into movement and can affect the number of inches of movement it takes to overcome things like woods, rough terrain and elevation changes. All movement is listed in inches. Facing changes do not affect movement, unlike the classic game.

3) Once all the units have moved the player that won the initiative can shoot. All combat is simultaneous so initiative for firing is not extremely useful. If a unit is removed from play during this combat turn, but has not yet fired it remains in play until it returns fire and is then removed.

Each machine has a Skill rating which represents the expertise of the pilot for both piloting and gunnery. This score represents the base number one has to meet or exceed on a total of two six sided dice to succeed at any given task, like shooting. Of course there are several modifiers for target agility, range, movement and cover that can change the target number. The math for to-hit modifiers works almost exactly like they do in the classic game with the exception of the target movement modifier. I will go into that in a bit.

When attacking, players must determine if the model has line of sight to the target and has the target within its viable firing arc. Line of sight is determined visually from model to model and the percentage of that model that is visible through terrain.

Units will have damage values for each range band (Short, Medium and Long). Sometimes these can be 0 for vehicles that may not have weapons that extend to that range or the value can drop as the vehicle takes damage. If a successful roll to hit is made, the appropriate damage value is applied to the targets armor and then structure once the armor is breached. Every attack that reaches the internal structure has a chance for a “critical hit” which is rolled off a table that determines if any of the machines vital equipment is damaged or destroyed. Things like head shots and ammunition explosions can kill a ‘Mech outright. The vehicle record card has spots to track the various critical effects.

Firing weapons can sometimes generate heat buildup. This is represented by the OV or Overheat Value. This value can be added to any weapon attack as long as it can do at least one point of damage at that range band. The player must declare before rolling that it is using the units OV and marks off a point of overheat. Each point of overheat slows the vehicle and disrupts firing. A vehicle can have a total of 3 overheat points before it shuts down. The only way to bleed off heat is to refrain from firing for an entire turn. At the end of that turn the vehicle can bleed off one point of heat if it has not fired. If the machine generates several points of overheat it will take several turns to bleed off the heat and cumulative negative effects apply for each point of overheat.

4) Once all damage is resolved and destroyed units are taken off the board, both sides re-roll initiative and start the new turn.

For those of you who have played Classic BattleTech, these concepts are very familiar and in many cases identical. In many ways these games are extremely similar. Alpha Strike is based on the BattleForce 2 system which was designed to bring a strategic level of play to BattleTech by abstracting most of the minutia of BattleTech allowing you to play several detachments of vehicles and infantry up to the Battalion level and beyond. The main difference comes in the form of granularity vs. abstraction.

All games are simulations and therefore abstractions, but some games have a higher level of detail and use several layers of abstraction to define actions. Classic BattleTech is very detailed. Most vehicles have several weapon systems ranging in capabilities. Vehicles also have several hit locations with their own pools of armor and structure. This results in several rolls per unit and sometimes weapon with varying levels of damage spread out over the units hit locations that have to be rolled out individually. Imagine doing that for 4-12 units a side in Heavy or Assault ‘mechs that could take multiple hits to whittle down and has more guns than a your average Army Reserve base. I have played in Classic BattleTech games that have literally taken several days to completely work out. This level of detail is great for small games, especially if you are using it concurrently with the A Time of War RPG since each detail of the combat is worked out down to the individual armor points adding to the clarity of the narrative. For large engagements, it can be problematic. What Alpha Strike does is to consolidate those abstractions and cut down the levels of granularity to maintain the same “feel” but cut down on the steps needed to resolve combat. Let’s look at the top level differences between Classic and Alpha Strike BattleTech.

Blank Alpha Strike Stat Card
Scale – Although the models and terrain are the same scale (1:285), the way that the range bands work makes the game feel like it is slightly larger. For example, a sort range weapon like the Machine Gun or Small Laser has a three one inch hex range in BattleTech. In Alpha Strike all short range weapons work within six inches. Medium range which is the sweet spot for most ‘Mechs extends to 24 inches which is just shy of the 27 hex range of the longest ranged weapons in BattleTech. The 42 inch max range in Alpha Strike is nearly twice the distance we are used to in the classic game. Engagements get hot quickly since even the slow machines move 6 inches a turn while speed daemons like the Dasher can move up to 26 inches. Although the models and table are the same size, the variance in ranges and movement alter the fundamental feel of the scale by making the threat radius of every unit larger.

Skill – The original game has two pilot skills, Gunnery and Piloting. The effectiveness of the pilot is tracked as one number in Alpha Strike. This Skill value applies to both piloting and gunnery.

Size – Machine size is not measured in tonnage but by the Size stat. Generally size 1 units are Light ‘Mechs, 2 are Medium, 3 are Heavy and 4 are Assault. Instead of having multiple calculations factoring the unit’s tonnage for melee damage, the Size stat is used to simplify the math.

TMM Target Movement Modifier – Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the game is TMM. Fast units are generally more agile and harder to hit than their slower counterparts. Instead of individually tracking the movement distance of each unit on the field, each unit has an intrinsic TMM value. If the unit moves at all the TMM functions as the to-hit modifier for its movement, even if it hasn’t used its full move.

Movement (mode) – Movement is listed as a value in inches. This may be followed by a mode in parenthesis after that value to modify the kind of movement that the vehicle can use. Jump or hover movement has different rules regarding terrain so keep an eye on the code. There is no walk and run move, just a single movement value rated in inches.

Role – One of the coolest things about Alpha Strike is that it assigns tactical roles to units depending on their capabilities. For example, a Marauder with 2 PPC’s and an AC5 is categorized as a “Sniper” while a 100 ton Atlas is categorized as a “Juggernaut”. These roles can be used later on with the Companion rules to create a meta game that grants free bonuses for lances, stars or level 1’s that are filled with units that have a specific battlefield role. Mixing and matching units within your detachments can greatly affect their effectiveness on the field.

Overheat OV & Heat Scale – Some units can overheat. If a machine has enough heat dissipation to fire all its weapons and move without overheating it will have an OV of zero. Machines that have more guns than sense have an OV value. Instead of tracking each individual weapons heat, the player can simply decide to push the envelope and add the OV value to the damage of an attack at any range where they have a point or more of damage value. For example a ‘Mech with a Medium Range Damage Value of 4 and an OV value of 2 can do six points of damage at medium range if it decides to overheat. It will mark down a point of overheat and apply a -2’ movement and -1 to hit since it has overheated. The only way to bleed off heat is to not fire at all for a turn. Each point of heat represents a -2” move and a -1 to hit which is cumulative. A pilot can build up to three points of overheat before it reaches Shutdown. So a ‘Mech with 3 points of overheat will be at -6” move and -3 to hit.

Damage – Instead of tracking each individual weapons damage rating, Alpha Strike abstracts the damage of the vehicle as a whole within three range bands, Short, Medium and Long). An LRM missile boat will have a strong Long Range damage value while a machine loaded out with small lasers will have a good Short Range damage value. All hits are determined in one roll. This is where we lose all the granularity of the classic game and things start to work out less like the board game and more like the fiction. I have seen light and medium ‘Mechs disappear in one shot after getting on the wrong end of a Juggernaut. Medium ‘Mechs have a moderate amount of survivability in armor and some in agility and in the right numbers and combinations can be more effective than their heavier counterparts but can easily be outmaneuvered by lights. This system also makes it more important to maneuver within the range bands that best suit the unit you are commanding.

Special Abilities – The problem with too much abstraction vs. granularity is that units can fall flat and seem too uniform. This lack of individuality can give players fewer tactical options and the game ends up lacking dimension. BattleTech is FULL of options. In fact there is a whole book dedicated just to the tech options. Since Alpha Strike doesn’t really account for individual weapon systems and support systems, and abstracts damage, armor and structure to a uniform instead of per location many of the special tech options for these individual systems appear to be lost. Alpha Strike compensates for this by using Special Abilities that are listed with a code at the bottom of the stat card. For example IF 0/2/2 can be listed as a special ability. IF stands for “Indirect Fire” and the list of numbers indicate damage done per range band. A ‘Mech with this Special Ability can fire weapons indirectly by using a spotter and apply the listed damage values to the Indirect Fire. A ‘Mech with the ECM special ability is equipped with powerful Electronic Countermeasures which can be used to disrupt communications and certain other special abilities that require electronic transmissions like Active Probe sensors. Much of the granularity of the classic game is represented with a special rule list that grant an extra layer of options to many units.

PV – For those of you who have played Classic BattleTech, you may remember the Build Value system which was complex and sometimes inaccurate. In Alpha Strike, the Point Value or PV of a unit is calculated far more simply. From the playtests I have run and played, the PV value system works fairly well as a foundation for setting up a scenario. Of course, factors like objectives, terrain and detachment composition apply to game balance, but overall the PV system tends to work fairly well in balancing out forces. The details for calculating these values are presented in the Companion, but all the units from the Master Unit List will all have the calculated PV on their stat card.

Looking at the Appendix of the base book, there are a lot of charts and tables. This is the way of BattleTech, but generally speaking you will only need three main tables:

1) The Target Modifiers table to determine to-hit values.
2) The Movement Modifiers table to determine how terrain will affect the distance a unit can move.
3) The Critical Hits table to determine special damage effects.

The rest of the tables will rarely be used unless you like using tons of special stuff like Aerospace fighters and artillery, but as you master the game, adding new components can be relatively easy and can add a lot of dimension. You can easily determine the level of complexity and additional granularity you want to add to any given scenario by using or omitting these rules.

What did you think Jim?

To be completely honest, for the most part Alpha Strike is simply a dumbed down version of classic BattleTech and AeroTech. It’s a great way to play a larger game, both in perceived scale and in number of models on the field with little to no real headache or overwhelming crunch. It’s fun enough to play but lacks some of the elements that I personally look for in a well put together miniatures game. This is mostly due to the fact that the classic game was originally written in 1984 which was far before other games which eventually defined the hobby changed the way we look at miniatures wargaming. The basic Alpha Strike game has the fluidity and intuitive rules of a far more modern game and a more streamlined and useful point value system for game balance, but it lacks a detachment construction meta-game.

Games like Warhammer and Warmachine have a deep and complex meta-game that create another layer of play that takes place during army construction. Building an army with units that complement each other or create combos or synergies is as much a part of the game as anything you do on the table. BattleTech offers little in the way of that meta and Alpha Strike offers some more, but not significantly.

That being said, the Alpha Strike Companion adds considerably to the meta and more options to add greater levels of granularity to the game as optional rules. With the core book being under 200 pages, it seems to me like Alpha Strike on its own is an incomplete game. I would have much rather seen a larger core book with the contents of both AS and the Companion thus bringing it more in line with the rest of the BT line whose books average around 400 pages.

I had picked up Alpha Strike years ago when it came out, played around with it and put it away. Once the Companion came out, it changed the whole game and the game was GOOD.

In the final analysis, Alpha Strike on its own is a great way to play BattleTech in a larger scale at a faster pace. If you like seeing a score of ‘Mechs out on the table and don’t want to sacrifice an entire weekend to a scenario, this is the game for you. If you already play classic BattleTech, this is a great way to use much of what you have in a new and exciting way for a very small investment. The online tools offered by the Master Unit List (MUL) give you the option to build formations easily and without the added expense of the volumes of record sheets you would otherwise have to buy for classic BattleTech. If you are looking for a game with several tactical layers and a robust meta, Alpha Strike falls a bit short, unless you get the Companion which I will review later on.