Monday, July 31, 2006

BattleTech & Star Fleet Battles

What makes BattleTech and SFB so dang popular? SFB might only be accurately called a cult hit, but BattleTech is a veritable phenom. Clearly these two games have their differences. BattleTech lacks a hit TV show propping up its popularity and SFB's massive rulebook is its own worst enemy, scaring away potential players. But setting those things aside for the moment, these two games have a lot in common. And these commonalities are things that should be lauded.

One Trick Pony Resource Management

Both BattleTech and SFB focus on a single important resource. Cleaving unto its source material, Star Fleet Battles makes allocating your energy points a Big Effin Deal. Do you power all your weapons, move fast, or reinforce your shields? Most SFB vessels can't do all three at the same time. BattleTech is kind of a weird one, as you actually manage a critical 'anti-resource', heat build-up. As the inside of your giant robot gets hotter, your machine's performance degrades. At high heat levels your ammo might cook off or your engine can shut down altogether. Many, many mechs (especially prior to the large-scale adoption of Clan technology) cannot prance around the field, indiscriminately firing all available weapons. You literally have to play it cool. In my mind the textbook example is the original Rifleman battlemech. It had dual large lasers, but can you afford to fire both in one turn?

But by sticking to only one big resource to manage, both games made it possible for non-geniuses like me to enjoy playing. Regular gamers could massage the system enough to get some fun results. Two ridiculously important resources would have been one too many for average Joe Gamer. I try to imagine a world where BattleTech has both a heat track and energy allocation. It's a hurty place.

Silhouette Damage Displays

SFB has the so-called SSD (What the hell does that stand for? Ship System Display, I think) and BattleTech has the Mech Sheet. Both of these devices combined good functionality with great (for their time, at least) presentation. The silhouette provides just enough of a visual cue to jumpstart the imagination, the way even a poorly painted miniature can say a lot to the inner eye. And marking off each individual point of damage can be fun. It's not quite as fun as whomping on the opposition, but one should not underestimate the tactile and visual pleasure of marking off boxes on a nice damage display. It's like a consolation prize that can keep the player in the "hey, we're having fun" feedback loop, even though they might be losing. And after the game it's fun to pass around the sheets, comparing how shot up everyone got. In my experience these sorts of post-mortems are an important part of a complete gaming experience, just like you can't have a real lodge gathering without refreshments after the formal meeting.

[Maybe I'll be able to post some examples showing what a mechsheet and SSD look like. Right now Blogger is not cooperating.]

Fields of Fire and Range Bands

Different weapons having different ranges is nothing new. What both games do well is combining multiple different weapons systems on nearly every unit. The end result is that different ships/mechs are ideal at different ranges. Similarly, lots of game have rules for fields of fire but BattleTech and especially SFB turn this concept into an art form. Which way you and your opponent are facing determines what weapons you can bear and where damage will go when you are hit.

These two factors combine to form a system in both games where you can put yourself in a position such that you can shoot the enemy but they can't shoot back. Real world navies of the wooden ship era had an ideal situation called 'crossing the T', where the line of attack is perpedicular to the line of defense. The result: one side can fire its cannons while the other cannot. Neither game makes it simple to achieve that stark of a contrast in temporary relative firepower, but opportunity abounds for creating conditions where your fire is better and the foe's is worse. In BattleTech the classic case is a duel between Particle Cannon equipped mechs and Lone Range Missile carriers. The particle cannon units want that throwdown to happen at a range of 4 to 6 hexes, while the missile robots achieve maximum efficiency at 7 hexes. In SFB, the Federation is notorious for its forward-firing ship-busting Photon Torpedoes. You're aces if you can close with the Feds facing away from you.

'My Guy' Wargaming

Although BattleTech and SFB aren't roleplaying games in most senses and under most definitions, they are in a hybrid category of wargames with rpg-like aspects. Other notable games in this group include the various Old West shoot-out skirmish games, Car Wars and Dawn Patrol. (Dawn Patrol was arguably the first actual RPG, but that's a different post for a different day.) Most wargames put you in command of 50 counters or miniatures each representing five or fifty or five hundred soldiers. BattleTech lets you pilot a one-man fighting robot. Star Fleet Battles puts you in Captain Kirk's chair. You can look at one chit or mini on the board and say "that's me". I simply cannot achieve that level of identification or immersion while pushing around 60 pieces of cardboard. Even if I'm not part of a larger campaign, right here right now I become the guy sweating in the cockpit of that BattleMaster or the Klingon shouting to his crew to fire all forward disruptors.

You can play any of these games with each player running multiple units. (I seem to fuzzily recall one caffeine-fueled highschool weekend wherein two friends and I attempted to each run a 12-mech company.) But I've never really seen a game radically improved by someone running more than one ship or robot. Indeed, that immersive quality is lost in the process.

Can anybody think of any other games that have similar qualities?


  1. Anonymous8:09 PM

    Wow. That was an impressive piece of work. I can think of one answer to your question. I've been playing a game called Attack Vector: Tactical. It's a true 3D, vector-based tactical starship game. It combines those two features you were talking about. Ships have to turn on their reactors to generate power but those reactors also generate heat when activated. That heat has to be stored internally becuase a ship can't extend its radiators in combat without exposing itself to massive damage. It's called the 'heat clock' and it forces a ship captain to make some tough choices.

    Its designer, Ken Burnside, used to write for SFB.

  2. Ken demo'ed his game a couple of times at the local con, back when it was still called Delta Vee. I had an opportunity to talk to him regarding the design goals and how he achieved them. I was really impressed with his work. Two things held me back from becoming a player. First, I don't have the time or energy these days for a game of SFB's level of complexity. (Unless you count D&D, in which case I have time for exactly one such game.) Second, his pitch to new people included too much dissin' on SFB. I consider that bad manners and just plain dumb, as the obvious place his game will find an audience is with SFBers looking for a new game. The attitude reminded me of all the fantasy heartbreakers that harp on D&D, never understanding that they are back-sassing their own momma. Ditto the various White Wolf inspired games that billed themselves as bigger and better than Vampire.

  3. Anonymous5:04 PM

    God, I forgot about SFB. We would play it forever-- and I mean it literally took two days to get through a single battle. I loved it, but it took forever. It's a Car Wars problem.

  4. Hey Jeff,
    have you ever played "Silent Death" from I.C.E or "knighthawks" from TSR?
    if so what are your thoughts on those?

  5. I've never tried Silent Death, but Star Frontiers Knight Hawks is great. If you want something fairly simple and with lots of explosions, Knight Hawks is pretty fun dang fun. It's good when you want to push around a whole squadron rather than one ship. I've always wanted to play the strategic-level game, the Second Sathar War, but that's one of those big projects that I'm likely never to have the focus to complete.