Being part of the Mercenaries Kickstarter, I recently got to try out some of the playtest materials for BattleTech Aces, a single-player or cooperative version of Alpha Strike. It was also, coincidentally, my first time playing Alpha Strike, and let me say, I’m a big fan. But I’m especially a fan of the Aces playtest for what it means for tabletop BattleTech.
Despite some rumors to the contrary, I have actually played tabletop BattleTech before. More than once, in fact! I found it to be a fun enough experience and certainly helpful for discovering the origins of BattleTech’s many rules, but it was also… slow. Especially by modern tabletop standards. Rolling dice for each individual weapon (sometimes multiple dice, as is the case with missiles) just slows combat to a crawl, and tracking damage likewise proves time-consuming (even though it’s a far more accurate representation of battle damage).
Alpha Strike fixes all that. For those who haven’t played it, Alpha Strike simplifies combat to just a single dice roll. You move, you shoot, and then repeat. ‘Mech stats are simplified to a single card rather than an entire sheet of paper (or two), with armor and structure tracking that’s actually oddly reminiscent of the old BattleTech CCG. Best of all, you can get the Alpha Strike card for every single ‘Mech (including its variants) over on the Master Unit List website absolutely free.
They’ll be in black and white and they won’t look as nice as the real cards you can buy, but you can play Alpha Strike right now for zero money. All you need is a token to denote what ‘Mechs you wanna field and the stat cards on the Master Unit List site.
Alpha Strike also provides an easy onboarding game for Warhammer converts. The “standard” version of Alpha Strike forgoes BattleTech’s classic hex maps and instead has you measure distances for moving and shooting. It’s a bit slower, but it provides a familiar system for Warhammer folks.
Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of using hexes as they simplify measuring distances. Alpha Strike does contain rules to play on hex maps, so old-school BattleTech fans can still use all their beloved paper maps. You have the option of playing with more elaborate custom maps, or you can just play on your kitchen table using whatever household items you can imagine as mountains, forests, or other geological features.
You’re probably all thinking, “That’s great Sean, really didn’t need the recap for a game system that’s been around for a decade.” And to that, I’ll say hey now! We’ve got a lot of folks coming over to us from Warhammer 40K that might want to know where to get started, and I can heartily recommend Alpha Strike as the best place to get their newfound giant robot feet wet.
BattleTech Aces, however, will change the format of the game. Rather than two (or more) players facing off in simulated miniature combat, now you can play against the game itself either by yourself or with friends. Alpha Strike goes from competitive to cooperative, and that’s a paradigm shift I’m here for.
BattleTech Aces: From Competitive To Co-op
To get access to BattleTech Aces, you’ll need to have signed on to the Mercenaries Kickstarter at any pledge level. What’s available right now is still in beta, so there are some ‘Mech types that are missing and some AI-recommended actions might not always make the most sense. However, what we have is a good idea of what to expect in a final product.
BattleTech Aces is basically a deck of cards that you can assign to the enemy ‘Mechs in order for them to take actions not made by any player. It’s you against the board, as tabletop fans might say. Each of Alpha Strike‘s ‘Mech types is assigned a deck of cards and each turn that ‘Mech draws a card that will determine what actions it takes.
On the back of a card is a number that will determine what priority that ‘Mech has over its AI-controlled teammates. The lower the number, the earlier in the turn order that ‘Mech will move. Where that ‘Mech goes and what it does is then determined by what’s written on the front of the card.
On the front is basically a list of priorities for that ‘Mech. Top of the list is the thing it should definitely do above all else, like “move into woods/cover from most enemies” or “move to most enemies within line-of-sight.” Those priorities will depend on the card and the type of unit assigned to that deck. There are usually four to five instructions for movement, with that unit attempting to achieve as many as possible.
When it comes time to start shooting, there’s a list of instructions in the Combat Phase section at the bottom of the card. These instructions will determine where that unit aims its guns and pulls the trigger. Typically, those instructions will be to aim at whatever ‘Mech it can most easily destroy or is the easiest to hit (slow ‘Mechs out in the open, for example), but I can easily see a set of Clan-focused cards that require the unit to follow the rules of zellbrigen until the cowardly Spheroids start focusing fire.
After the instructions on each card have told every AI-controlled unit where to move and where to shoot, the old card is discarded and a new card is drawn at the beginning of the next turn. If the game goes long enough to run out of cards, then you just shuffle them up to draw from a fresh deck.
It takes a few turns to get into the flow of things, but once you get used to the symbols on the cards, you can generally have the enemy team’s turn sorted out in short order. This makes games go even faster because one of the sides doesn’t have to think about what to do; their turns are already decided by the cards.
When I played BattleTech Aces, I used the Meet & Greet scenario where the player-controlled side of green Inner Sphere forces (with some minor alterations to account for the ‘Mechs we had on hand, including a Crab, a Wraith, a Spider, and a Stinger) took on a pair of deck-controlled veteran Clan ‘MechWarriors (driving a Nova C and a Pouncer Prime). Even though the Clanners had a cardboard brain, they still put up a hell of a fight, leaving just the Wraith alive by the end.
What struck me most is how effective these instructions were for providing a challenging opponent. You could even increase the challenge yourself by simply giving the bad guys a greater point value.
The other thing that I really liked about BattleTech Aces was just the fact it was a cooperative game. You can play with as many folks as you have ‘Mechs on the friendly side. It’s truly a shared experience, and you can have just as many nail-biting dice rolls without any of the hurt feelings (you can tell I’m maybe a big fan of co-op games).
And–I can’t stress this enough–having one side’s decisions already made makes the game go even faster than before. Depending on the number of units you field, you could potentially have several BattleTech Aces games done in a single afternoon. That’s a big swing from old-school tabletop BattleTech where games could take an entire weekend or even longer.
I totally recommend BattleTech Aces to anyone who’s got access to the digital rewards from the Mercenaries Kickstarter. And if you don’t, there’s still time to be a late backer.
As a note of warning, don’t expect the final product to just be those PDF files. Catalyst has stated that the final product might be several smaller releases or a “larger, more comprehensive product,” depending on the feedback it received from the playtest in May. Product development takes time and all that, but I can totally see a boxed product similar to Alpha Strike itself with its nicely-printed cards.
Catalyst has also told us to be patient for a version of Aces that might work with standard Total Warfare BattleTech. When standard BattleTech gets granular enough for you to target individual components, creating a single deck of cards to drive those ‘Mechs is a herculean task.
That’s fine though. I’m a much bigger fan of Alpha Strike anyway. Here’s hoping the Mercenaries Kickstarter arrives soon so I’ll be able to field my merc company against an AI-controlled team of Clanners once again.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.