Category Archives: Wargames

Why Battletech and Star Fleet Battles rock

Jeff Rients has a great post about what makes Battletech and Star Fleet Battles so much fun to play. They’re two quite different games, but they share some traits that have kept them popular even 30+ years after they first hit the market. Jeff hits on a couple points I hadn’t considered, one of which is that the wonderfully complex record sheets can make even losing in these games an enjoyable activity.

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Drawing moral lines in wargaming

One of the first events I attended at Origins this summer was a small roundtable discussing the topic of ethics in gaming. How should one approach dark, evil, or morally ambiguous themes in a roleplaying game? Of the three forum participants, I recognized two as having written game material that would have, back in the Old Days of gaming, sent Jack Chick into an apoplectic frenzy; so naturally I was interested.

It was, indeed, an intriguing discussion that showed me a few new ways to think about the topic. While I’m not usually one to explore Dark and Mature Themes in my roleplaying games (no matter how hard I try, my Call of Cthulhu games usually end up as pulpy, tongue-in-cheek affairs), it is heartening to see that behind the surface-level shock value of, say, a game supplement about satanism, there is an author who is fully aware of the ethical territory into which he’s ventured, and who is determined to handle the topic responsibly. Of course, not all game authors approach gray moral issues with such care, but I have renewed respect for those who do.

One of the most interesting points brought up during the discussion, however, was that ethical issues can crop up even in types of games we don’t normally think of as dark or controversial. One of the presenters–Ken Hite, I believe–pointed out that players can run into moral quandaries even in a area of gaming like historical wargames–a genre I’d generally perceived as so clinical in its approach to its subject matter as to leave little room for shades of gray. Hite mentioned a wargaming friend who refused to play the side of the Confederacy in any wargame (presumably because of its support for slavery, although I don’t think Hite specified). For this player, no matter how historical, detached, or neutral the game’s approach, taking on the role of the Confederacy was a moral line he was unwilling to cross.

Normally I might not have given this point much consideration. I enjoy historical strategy and wargames, but I’ve rarely thought of them as having an ethical edge–I’ve never seen anyone object to playing the Germans in Axis and Alies, and wargames that deal more closely with ethically-blurry conflicts (such as wargames about the Arab-Israeli wars or the German-Russian front in World War II) are careful to focus purely on the clash of military forces, avoiding the atrocities and war crimes that sometimes accompanied them.

All that to say, I’m not accustomed to viewing the hobby of wargaming as an activity with serious ethical elements. But the very next day at Origins, I was surprised to find myself catching a glimpse of that moral line–in Advanced Squad Leader, of all things. The final game I played in the small Origins ASL tournament was a scenario called “Mila 18”–depicting a Jewish revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. One person controls the poorly-armed but determined Jewish fighters, while the other player controls the SS troops sent into the Ghetto to crush the revolt by killing and rebels and “mopping up” the Ghetto’s buildings.

Now, I suspect that the Mila 18 scenario is intended as a salute to the bravery of the Jewish fighters who rose up to fight the Nazis against overwhelming odds. (It certainly isn’t any sort of glorification of the SS.) But it felt vaguely uncomfortable to control the German troops–and not just generic “German troops,” but a specific historical SS unit–sweeping through the Ghetto carrying out a mission that was evil by any objective standard.

Why did it make me uncomfortable? Under ordinary circumstances, I have no moral qualms about simulating historical military actions on the board of a wargame, however brutal those battles were in real life; but the looming shadow of the Holocaust cast this scenario in an entirely different light. Although I played out the scenario to the end (the Germans lost), I didn’t like pushing those little SS markers around on the gameboard. Does a scenario like Mila 18 cheapen the memory of the real-life sacrifice and murder that took place there–and if so, why does it prompt moral discomfort when a scenario about, say, the Normandy invasion does not? Or is this scenario an important, maybe even critical, reminder that no matter how far we try to distance ourselves from the real horror of the wars we clinically simulate, there remains a serious ethical element to wargaming?

In the end, it’s a game and a hobby, and I probably won’t lose sleep over it. But I think it’s healthy to periodically stop and consider where our ethical boundaries lie, even for something like gaming. And I’m always up for a good game of Advanced Squad Leader, but next time I think I’ll stick to more uplifting parts of the war–like the Eastern Front, or the Pacific War, or… ah, never mind.

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Battletech blogging

I note that the Battletech developers have a blog in which they’re discussing the upcoming Battletech overhaul. Among the items that caught my eye is the mention of an upcoming revised version of the Mechwarrior RPG, renamed the Classic Battletech RPG. That’s great news–I was afraid the RPG side of the Battletech line was going to be lost amidst all the revisions and upgrades being applied to the rest of the franchise.

I’m really eager to see what the new Total Warfare main rulebook looks like. I think the Battletech revision is shaping up to be the game I’m most looking forward to seeing at Gencon, assuming I can find my way to Indianapolis this August.

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Sunday evening story hour: "Gimme back those frigates!"

A Sunday evening game story for you, if you will. Pull up a chair while I recount a harrowing tale of defeat and revenge… in the cold depths of space!

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been playing a Star Fleet Battles campaign with a friend. A campaign is a series of linked scenarios that you play through in sequence–in this case, six scenarios depicting the long and difficult journey of a Hydran dreadnought trying to escape Klingon territory after a particularly disastrous diplomatic fiasco.

I’ve been playing Star Fleet Battles with this friend for months now, and I’ll be honest: I’ve never won a single game. Not one. Not even when he handicaps himself by giving me access to better ships and technologies than he has. So you can imagine how I felt going into this campaign, in which I was going to have to try and stop his dreadnought’s escape.

The first battle in the campaign went even worse for me than I had anticipated, and made me start questioning why I play this self-esteem killer of a game in the first place. The opening scenario of the campaign featured an encounter between his dreadnought and two small, lightly-armed Klingon frigates. There was no question who was going to win; I just hoped to inflict a bit of damage before my frigates died.

Not only did I inflict very little damage, but within a few turns he had crippled and captured both frigates, meaning that he could bring them in as reinforcements for himself during future scenarios in the campaign.

My chances of success had been low enough just against his dreadnought; how was I possibly going to succeed against his dreadnought and two of my own captured ships? The shame was nearly too great to bear. I almost surrendered to despair.

And so we met up to play the second game in the campaign. This fight was a bit more evenly matched–his dreadnought was being faced not by two lowly frigates but by a Klingon strike carrier and its escorts. And of course, mocking me with their very presence, there were the two captured Klingon frigates, now serving as escorts for my opponent’s dreadnought.

The fight began, and my opponent decided not to engage my carrier force; if he could just get his dreadnought far enough away from me, he could disengage and successfully complete the scenario without having to bloody his hands in actual battle. When I saw the dreadnought turning about to make a run for the edge of the map, I knew what I had to do.

Forget the dreadnought. I was going to get those frigates back.

“Let the coward run,” barked the commander of my Klingon carrier group. “Leave no Klingon behind! All vessels, bring me those frigates–alive!” Ignoring the dreadnought, I turned the pride of the Klingon fleet against the two frigates, which (still badly damaged from the drubbing my opponent had inflicted on them in the last game) were trying to limp off of the board without being noticed.

The frigates put up quite a fight, considering that they were both nearly crippled. But although one of them was accidentally destroyed in the ensuing fracas (remember the scene in Star Trek III in which the Klingon captain executes his ship’s gunner for accidentally destroying the target ship instead of just crippling it?–well, it went like that), the final frigate had no chance. A careful disrupter salvo stripped its shields away without damaging the ship itself, and shortly thereafter Klingon boarding parties were flooding aboard, quickly overthrowing the despised Hydran captors and restoring the nearly-decimated frigate to its rightful place on the bottom rung of the Klingon navy.

Meanwhile, the dreadnought slipped away. I’m pretty sure I’ve not seen the last of it.

The craven Star Fleet Battles rulebook would have you believe that letting the dreadnought go constitutes a huge tactical defeat for the Klingons.

But by Kah’less–I have done as honor required. The next time I face down that damnable dreadnought… at least he won’t be stealing any more of my frigates.

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Battletech reborn?

Looks like the Battletech (er, that’s “Classic Battletech” these days) line is getting a pretty major reboot later this year. That’s very welcome news–they’ve been publishing some decent books for the game over the last few years, but I’ve gotten the feeling that the game has been in a limbo of sorts while its sister game Shadowrun got a fancy new edition.

I think a repackaged Battletech ruleset is a good idea, and I like the way they’ve chosen to divide up the many different rules–basic rules in one book, construction rules in another, setting information in separate books, and so forth. That should make it easier to pick and choose the aspects of the game you’d like to focus on.

That enthusiasm aside, a few things seem a bit unclear. First, I assume that the relaunched Battletech game will be set in the year 3025 of the Battletech universe timeline–at least, that’s my hope, as the game would benefit greatly from returning to the pseudo-medieval, warring-houses feel that characterizes that time period. (Over the years, many new events and technologies have been added to the universe as the timeline was extended, but while many of them were interesting, I never felt that they matched the fun factor of the game’s simpler original setting.)

Secondly, I see no mention of the Mechwarrior roleplaying game, which is curious–that game is in dire need of a revision, and this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to do so. So many years after the Third Edition’s publication, the Mechwarrior RPG has rules, equipment, and other information spread over many different sourcebooks, and it’s plagued by a few gameplay issues that have kept it from finding much in the way of mainstream acceptance. So I hope they take advantage of the Battletech relaunch to overhaul the RPG as well.

More details are promised as the summer release date approaches. Looking forward to it!

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