Far from the typical beer swilling, black out, junk flashing party days of our nation’s leaders, my college glory days involved a decidedly different all-nighter – gaming.
When I downed a tankard of mead, there was usually a constitution check involved. If anyone passed out it was from either self-induced sugar comas or lack of sleep. Seduction? Please. Aside from the one solo game where I introduced my wife to DnD, we kept our campaigns murderously platonic.
I’d long been a collector of RPGs and played sporadically throughout my life, but it wasn’t until college that I met my crew. That gaming group and I would go on to play for a decade or more and create some amazing stories.
Before then, I’d collected, read, imagined, but didn’t ever make the time to play a proper campaign. And aside from DnD manuals, I’d also collected the basic rules for Battletech and Mechwarrior.
Our university hosted an annual geek con and it was there I first got to experience that clunky tactical game of too many dice and an environmentally destructive amount of paper.
A local gaming shop had brought in a monster Battletech setup. Several tables worth of painstakingly crafted terrain set out the field of battle – a rocky waste separated from a full-on city by a treacherous mountain range.
Several lances of mechs (four to a lance) faced off in a battle for the city. Pinned down by the sniper fire of an autocannon wielding Rifleman, and suffering from some pretty poor teamwork, my friend and I would never take that city.
When he led a suicidal charge into a killbox of a valley, I fell back to make a last stand atop a ridge with my ultraviolet, laser-laden heavy mech boiling in a pool of water at the base while the rest fired from cover.
Over the years, I kept trying to relive that experience. But I had neither the inclination or time to create such amazingly detailed terrain and miniatures. Nor did I have enough friends with the patience to organize all the necessary mech sheets, cycle through the seemingly endless turns while measuring ranges, ticking off armor loss, tracking heat for each weapon fired and every space moved.
And over the years, my collection of rulebooks and paper miniatures with the foldable cardboard maps just sat in my gaming closet, unused. Then my son came along.
He spent hours playing with those paper robots. And we’d both get down on the floor and make up our own rules, imagine glorious battles. When he was older, I introduced him to some of the simulators, both PC and live pods, and while they were fun, they didn’t quite capture that epic experience one time in the student union.
Finally though, I feel like somebody has gotten close.
Battletech has managed to find the spirit of that glorious tactical game and then some. A mercenary in a universe at war, you wander the galaxy in search of paying jobs and the scrap with which to build your fledgling company.
Play has been streamlined from the dice rolling days – and that’s a relief. With the computer to track heat, what locations were struck, and all the minutiae, you get to focus solely on the strategy of each encounter. Choosing the right pilots and the right mechs is crucial to the success of each mission. And winning those battles while managing your finances is crucial to the survival of your outfit.
The game has it’s flaws. There are some arbitrary limitations on weapon load outs which, admittedly, balance a broken system (but do not satisfy my inner urge to load a mech down with nothing but machineguns and shred enemies at close quarters…) The random missions could use a touch more variety as well. But the content feels untapped as I huddle close to the starting systems and look out at the dozens of planets beyond.
The strengths though aren’t just in a solid tactical engine, they’re in the stories too. Sure, the main quest is engaging, but what’s most impressive are the little details which happen off the main script. Each mechwarrior you hire has enough of a personality and there’s enough variation in the voice acting that they slowly work therr way under your skin as an actual member of your crew.
My mouth fell open in shock when Goliath, my tough as nails tank took an AC20 round to the cockpit and died screaming mid-battle. I gladly forked over the funds to patch up my wily scout, Decker, when his recovery in the medical bay after a major fight took a turn for the worse.
Decker survived that day. I even considered retiring him as he’d encountered a string of bad missions. A jockey in the light mechs, he’d had trouble finding his groove when the battles became more about heavier tonnage mechs wrecking the opposition. Trying out his luck in a medium mech, he’d used a tactic that had worked so often for the light ones – run like hell and draw fire. And draw fire he did.
We buried him in space and scrapped the ShadowHawk he’d been piloting. An offering to the armored gods of steel, ballistics, and destructive light.
Overall, this game has eaten up more of my time than I care to admit. And best of all, my son and I got to play a game. Far from the living room floor where we’d once strewn the paper miniatures, but close enough, I’m eager to play again.