Summer of 2015 was an unexpectedly busy one for BattleTech. After many many years of waiting we got a look at the upcoming Interstellar Operations core rule book. The open beta period featured a sequence of smaller online releases followed by a limited edition softcover print run of the full book at GenCon 2015.
Fortuitously, I was able to make it to Indy and snagged my very own copy. It was something to behold. This, among all the other books in the series was the one I’ve waited the most for. In it, the Grand Strategic game rules were waiting to be poked and prodded.
Catalyst gave us a month for play-testing and feedback, and what a month it was. Below is a recap of my experiences and the work I did to explore the deepest crevasses of Interstellar Operations.
Kicking the Tires in Style
I can’t say enough about the value of the print copy of the Beta rules. I know they sold out at GenCon and for good reason. Not only does it provide a unique collectors item but also provides a way to get the best playtesting out to the fans. I know I can’t be the only one that stares at a computer screen most of the day. I prefer my BattleTech and other leisure reading to be of the dead tree variety. That reduced eye strain and the ability to quickly flip between sections of the book was vital to getting any testing done on these rule systems.
Pick and Choose
Interestingly enough I only had any use for about half of the rule book. I don’t have a lot of use for the alternate eras sections. My focus is the game rules, including Strategic BattleForce (SBF), the Abstract Combat System (ACS), and the Inner Sphere at War (ISW) rules. You can keep your LAMs if you like. Makes no difference to me. I’m here for the grand level strategic gaming and always have been.
The Inner Sphere at War
The Inner Sphere at War is the latest incarnation of a Grand Strategy game for the BattleTech universe. It allows dedicated players to take the reigns of entire factions to wage war across the Inner Sphere.
That is quite a lot to try to cram into even 1/2 of the 367 page rule book we have today. Interstellar Operations takes its lead from the old (and much derided) Inner Sphere in Flames rules found in the poorly edited Combat Operations rule book from the FanPro days.
The Inner Sphere in Flames rules had several issues. First and foremost, it was an incomplete set of guidelines around which players could build a complete set of game rules from. My heart sank a little bit when I then read this line at the start of the ISW rules in Interstellar Operations;
While these rules attempt to capture the basics needed to run a campaign, the scale of ISW is too great to cover all possible variations in game play. These rules are a framework around which players can construct a campaign spanning just a few worlds, or all 2,000-plus worlds in the BattleTech universe.
Despite this potential cop-out, I was pleasantly surprised by the rules and their level of polish. There are areas to improve and I hope that Catalyst takes the communities’ ideas to heart. You can read all about the beta and the community feedback below.
So what is in the ISW rules? Let’s take a quick tour of what’s included and major differences from previous Grand Strategic Games.
At first blush ISW begins like most other Grand Strategic Game iterations we have seen in the past. Game turns are divided into familiar phases; Order Writing, Economics and Logistics, Military Development, Commerce and Diplomacy, Military, and End phases.
In a new twist, player controlled factions are given faction abilities that provide special abilities involving different phases of the game. They are meant to be advantages and hindrances that combine to give a more nuanced picture of a particular faction. For example, the Lyrans are Merchant Kings with Superior Black Ops, but suffer from Flawed Doctrine owing to their social general based military hierarchy.
The bulk of the game will have players plotting invasions, forming alliances, and developing Combat Commands to wage war. Once war does inevitably break out we turn to a brand new way to play BattleTech; the Abstract Combat System.
The ACS is a battalion to regiment level combat system that covers planetary scale battles. We are talking 700km hexes using turns of 2.5 days in length. Individual Combat Units hold entire battalions inside formations of one or more regiments. And all of this scaled up complexity is the distilled product of the Alpha Strike stats of the individual units. This is quite the departure from combat systems of the past which abstracted commands into a tiny handful of strength numbers. Instead of combat being resolved by a single die roll (where invariably the bigger stack shall win) we have a much more detailed system of positioning, recon, and die throwing.
Unfortunately and perhaps not surprisingly, there are more than a few things missing in ISW at the current moment. Rules for War Ships, Espionage, and alternate eras are suspiciously absent. The book had unfortunately outgrown the confines of its simple binding. We have been promised additional product releases which will expand the game system to include these rules. I have it on good authority that these rule developments are underway. Hopefully we will not have to wait too long for them to materialize.
Playtests and Automation
I wanted to get as much play testing in as possible within the short month we were allotted. Not a lot of time. There was no chance for me to meet fellow BattleTech players in person. I was limited to time available in my evenings. So naturally I started to think about ways to automate the system to be easier to test and be accessible online so I could receive help from willing guinea pigs online.
For those of you who follow the blog, you know I run a companion site where players from around the world can play games of the the old FASA era board game Succession Wars. My goal was to build a similar site minus a good bit of the automation capabilities. What I ended up with was a website that would help to track and generate units, move combat commands, and most importantly facilitate ACS combat between players who move tokens on a common play surface while rolling dice by themselves in real life.
One day I hope to be able to create something fully automated that will live up to my grand ambitions. For now though, the web code served its purpose and allowed us to play a test game involving a single planetary battle, namely, Altais in 3039.
These test games would later be the inspiration for my entry into the IO scenario contest which I was able to win after there were no other entries besides my own. Look for The Battle for Altais in a future ISW based product.
For those of you wanting to take a peak at the code, it is available online on Github.
Thoughts and Questions
While the bulk of ISW and ACS seem perfectly serviceable there are a few rough edges that myself and more than a few forum dwellers have focused on as potential problems.
For instance there does not seem to be an incentive to invest in the advancement of planets beyond a certain point. After upgrading to minor industrial there is little to push you to upgrade any further as the investment would simply produce more money for you by sitting around and collecting interest.
One of the more confusing rules is that newly minted Combat Commands (regiment level forces) may be placed anywhere when purchased and there is no limit to how many forces may be bought so long as you have the funds to pay for them (production capacity is divorced from factory quantity/quality). This presents a few problems. Number one, there is no need to build forces for an invasion or defense because you could easily conjure required forces at will with sufficient funds. There is no weak spot to invade an enemy when they can instantly counter your attacks with perfect placement under this system.
So there are still a few things I would expect will see house rules to make the system as a whole palpable. As many know, I’ve never been shy to change a rule or two to fit my particular needs. I think the BattleTech community is well know for innovating when called upon.
After a long long road, we are almost home. Interstellar Operations finally has it’s street date; April 27th, 2016. I will be first in line to grab a copy to add to my gaming shelf. With final rules in hand, there is only one last thing to do… We need to grab our dice and start conquering the Inner Sphere.Posted under Articles