Something that doesn't really get a lot of play on this blog is my deep and abiding affection for games. Card games, board games...sure, I've mentioned RPGs and "City of Heroes", but I don't think I've talked much about my love of "Grave Robbers From Outer Space" (a game that almost got us kicked out of a hotel room, once.) Some of this has to do with the aforementioned "City of Heroes", which has been the addiction of choice of our gaming group for quite some time now, but I'm hoping to rectify that a bit over the next year...and I think it starts in my attitude. So I think I'm going to add a new, intermittent feature where I discuss games--good games, bad games, games no longer being published and games I just haven't played in a while. Games Past.
Today, I'm going to talk about Battletech. Not the miniatures game, although I've taken a few spins around the hexfield...no, this was the trading card game by Wizards of the Coast that they launched in 1996. This was Richard Garfield's third game, after he'd struck gold with Magic and struck out with NetRunner (which was a good game, but got, um, lost in the shuffle as competitors to Magic flooded the market.) It had a great property as its inspiration, one of the classics, and a strong fanbase. How did it do?
Very good, at first. The mechanic of the game felt different to Magic, but not so different that you couldn't relate to it. Instead of an abstract "life meter" that you attacked, your mechs romped around the playing field attacking actual targets--other mechs, Command cards (like assembly lines that put out mechs, or important characters from the Battletech universe) or your opponent's deck, where every point of damage dealt was a card chucked into the Scrapheap. (No, literally, that was what they called the discard pile.) Defeat came when you had to draw a card and couldn't--which would happen in 27 turns, if you took no damage, or two, if your opponent got out a few Masakaris or Mad Cats and started going to town on you.
Game balance was solid--the different factions all got plenty of useful, playable cards, with the Clans getting big, nasty, stompy Mechs but the Inner Sphere getting cheaper, durable Mechs and some seasoned pilots. The mechanics of combat were understandable, but provided depth, and let's face it, giant robots have a lot of appeal. (It also had plenty of dice-rolling, a big draw for just about any game. You could have a whole lot of fun creating a "missile Mech deck" and rolling big handfuls of six-siders for damage.) It was hours of fun for myself and my friends (I still have my cards, up in the Big Closet of Games), and we really looked forward to each expansion.
But the expansions were the big problem. Because if you're a fan of the minis game, and a fan of trading card games in general, you're probably anticipating the tough part. Every expansion to the card game needed to feature a lot of new Mechs. Mechs were the bread and butter to the game, the all-purpose attacker and defender. Unlike Magic, where you had instants and sorceries to destroy permanents in play, Battletech was all about taking your Mechs over and stomping whatever you didn't like into a greasy spot on the ground. Mechs were the lifeblood of the game, and an expansion without lots of new Mechs would wreck the game balance and design. The miniatures game was the same way, of course. FASA needed to sell new figurines just as much as WotC needed to sell new cards. But the schedule for miniatures releases was maybe three or four a month. The schedule for new expansions was a full new set every three months, with perhaps 40-50 Mechs in it. Clearly, something had to give.
And that something was "Arsenal", the set that destroyed the Battletech TCG. It introduced "Vehicles", which were a fairly sizeable part of the minis game (Mechs were still kings of the battlefield, of course, but mixed-forces groups could be devastatingly effective) but which had not featured significantly into the TCG until then. Arsenal changed all that, introducing loads of new vehicles that fought like Mechs, but were significantly cheaper to build and came with a built-in downside. Whenever they took damage, there was a one-in-six chance they'd go kaboom.
The problems with this were twofold. One, they were all significantly undercosted. That "one-in-six chance" turned out to be a much smaller downside in actual play than in playtesting. Which was a problem, but it wasn't The Problem. The Problem was that they'd just introduced a whole new card type, four expansions into the game. So a card like "Temporary Cease-Fire", which "removed all Mechs from combat", now had a glaring weakness when someone with an all-vehicle deck used it against someone with a mixed-forces or Mech-heavy deck. In fact, vehicles turned out to have lots of rules loopholes, since they could attack like Mechs or block like Mechs but weren't Mechs.
No problem, WotC says. We'll issue a new ruling: All cards that say "Mechs" actually mean, "Mechs and Vehicles".
People then pointed out the logical inconsistencies of this, like hovertanks now being able to have their Hips Shattered, or jeeps being able to lash out with a Vicious Kick.
No problem, WotC says. We'll issue comprehensive errata for every card in print, so that all you'll have to do to figure out whether a card refers to "Mechs", "Vehicles" or "units" (Mechs and Vehicles) is to look it up on your handy print-out of changes to every single card in the game up until now, all five hundred or so! Or you can just buy the new edition of the game, coming out soon!
It's surprising how fast that can kill the enthusiasm of a fanbase.
The game limped along for another expansion or two, but eventually it had to be put to bed. You can probably still find a few packs floating around out there in online card stores, or perhaps by digging around in discount bins (or, of course, there's always eBay.) It's actually well worth doing, particularly if you abandon WotC's "official rulings" and just play the game as it was intended, with Mechs, missiles, and friends.
Of course, friends make every game better.