Battletech – A debate (part one)

I follow a pretty decent Battletech group online. They have their squabbles, and there is plenty of old vs. new debate… But by and large it is a quality group that helps spread the lore, provide good updates, and occasionally engage in an interesting debate.

There have been two debates that I’ve seen recently that really caught my eye. I thought I’d take a couple of posts to address those debates with my own thoughts because Battletech is one of the formative games of the hobby for me as well as one of the best games (in my opinion) ever created in our hobby.

The first debate centers around why Classic Battletech never managed to achieve the geek cache that Warhammer 40K has. This spawns the corollary arguments about the more recent Alpha Strike game and whether it should be the “showpiece” game of Battletech to draw in new fans as well as discussions of the history, lore, etc. I’ll touch on both of those questions in this piece but my focus is on the larger question of “achieving popularity.”

Stability
For me – just eye-balling this as a fan and someone who has been watching the gaming industry for many years – the number one culprit that has sabotaged Battletech’s success is stability. Stability in management, stability in product line, and stability in messaging. Check out Sarna and Wikipedia for histories of the game’s troubled production lifespan and you’ll see a tale of lawsuits, mismanagement, and a lack of unified vision (not necessarily of the creators but of the “owners”).

In that same span, since the mid-eighties, GW has remained a solid company producing roughly the same product, with the same design-philosophy (despite some hiccups of their own) but it has remained “in-house” and under their control. Just having stability of ownership and the ability to keep the ship pointed in one direction allows Warhammer a considerable competitive edge in any market endeavor.

Vision and Marketing
This is a tough one for me to talk about because I love Battletech with all my heart, but Warhammer kicks BT’s ass when it comes to how they crafted their game to sell to players (and still continue to do so). Warhammer (both Fantasy and 40K) have a competitive edge in this category for two reasons. First, the GW games were envisioned as both a war-game and a creative hobby. Part of the joy of the GW games – and something that has really been a big part of their market is the idea that you can take their models, scenery, etc. and kitbash to your heart’s desire. It’s as much a modelist and painter hobby as it is a game. BT has some of that; but it’s been more limited. As BT is played on a hex-map, there is less need to create terrain and honestly – though I’m sure I’ll get some flack for this – the models have never been of the same detail and quality as GW models. This isn’t just a knock on BT that they put out an inferior product. It’s more a recognition that a 10 meter tall war-machine scaled down to 1.5 inches is going to be less “interesting” as a model than a human, ogre, griffon, elf, etc… scaled down to a similar size. Also, GW’s insistence of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) meant that there was a thriving modeling community of people who had to make sure that their space marines with plasma guns actually were all carrying plasma guns.

This ability to make the game so much more than a game and really turn it into a thriving modeling community served GW well in ways that BT never seemed to capture.

Terrain and Models
I mentioned the terrain and models issue above… and this is an area where I can bring up the two more modern points that make me crazy as a fan of BT. The first is Alpha Strike. Alpha Strike gets a good/bad wrap in the BT community because it is a very different game than Classic Battletech. I prefer to play classic BT and believe that it should remain the flagship game of the BT product line but I am in no way opposed to Alpha Strike either. I won’t go down the rabbit-hole of all the comments about it being “dumbed-down” or “simplified.” It’s just a different game altogether and should be viewed on those merits, not compared to the original. Catalyst Game Labs can support both lines (seeing as how they use the same models and universe information) without neglecting either and thus they can grow the fan base by having two successful games instead of one. This seems to me like a net-positive for the community.

But Alpha Strike does attempt to capture the 3d terrain and board modeling dynamic that has been so valuable to GW over the years (another good thing) and should have created a demand for Catalyst to provide them with useful terrain pieces suitable for playing BT with. This still remains an under-served market.

More to the point – go spend any time at all looking at the various ways that Classic BT players have addressed getting hex-based terrain over the years and you’ll see that there is a cottage industry for terrain for BT game terrain that ranges from wood to foam board to Heroscape hexes (what I currently use). Poke around any Battletech community and you’ll find constant discussions (34 years into the games’ lifespan) of exactly “what scale are Battlemechs?” and “what do you use for buildings?” because players want three-dimensional terrain but the various producers of BT have never made such a thing a priority (or even an option, really). I feel like this struggle find anything for the typical player to allow them to quickly throw together a nice looking 3d board that supports hex-based play has been a huge downside for inviting new players into the hobby. If CGL would produce a line of 1.5″ hex terrain that easily supported modular building and the addition of trees/buildings; I’d throw so much money at them my wife would probably leave me… and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

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This section is long – but let’s touch on the models for a moment – as they are a source of some consternation. I’m really looking forward to the two new boxed sets that are going to be introduced at some point in the future (I’m still hoping they’ll be at GenCon). It is probably worth pointing out that overall, the quality of any of the plastic minis released by Battletech have been… sub-par to downright awful. The Alpha Strike Lance Packs have been decent but considering the lines of beautiful pre-primed, highly detailed minis being produced for games like D&D and Pathfinder… and selling at low prices… this is a golden-age for miniatures; Catalyst should take full advantage and produce a similar line allowing players to fully customize their forces. Do you know how much I would give for the ability to just pop onto a CGL website and order a nice looking, plastic Duan Gung to fill out a Capellan Confederation unit? That kind of sales-plan would lower the barrier to entry in ways that no introductory boxed set ever can.

Speaking of Battletech websites… err… they are a disaster. CGL needs to make a plan for the future of Battletech (and Shadowrun) that involves getting their web-presence pulled together into one easily accessible set of sites that allows a new player to pop in and find a user-friendly environment that lets them find information in a clean, clear, fun way.

In Conclusion
This is long enough… I guess the “lore” discussion will have to be moved into another post. So maybe I’ll write three times about Battletech. At the end of the day, I love BT – especially Classic BT – and still believe that it is one of the finest rules-sets ever created for miniatures skirmish play. In all my years and playing many other games, BT is always my gold-standard from the point of view of rules and fun. But BT has consistently been behind-the-times in its actual marketing and production of the game.

That’s largely why I think BT has struggled to find the kind of broader audience that some other games have achieved, despite all its great qualities as a game. Here’s hoping the next era of BT allows it to grow again and find more market-share.

As always, comments are welcome and thanks for reading.

One thought on “Battletech – A debate (part one)

  1. Pingback: Battletech – A debate (part two) – The Rhetorical Gamer

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