I like BattleTech. I like it a lot. I was never much of a tabletop wargame guy—I never got into 40k or the original BattleTech games or what have you—but I played Mechwarrior 3 at a friend’s place in 1999 or 2000 and the game hooked me.

Here’s the good stuff:

The Milsim Feel

BattleTech has a mixed heritage and expresses different aspects of that heritage in its spinoffs. MicroProse, the company that developed Mechwarrior 3, had a ton of experience in military simulation style games (including Falcon 4.0 and Formula One Grand Prix) and brought Mechwarrior 3 to life as a future-style military simulation.

The main story places the player as a squad leader taking part in an orbital-insertion commando raid carried out against an enemy’s production and military infrastructure. Most of the story is conveyed by the intel officer’s briefings, and the squad struggles to overcome spotty, outdated intelligence and improvises to overcome devastating early setbacks. The fog of war and the struggle of passion, chance, and reason are front and center. The execution is outstanding—go watch that linked video!

Anyway, this stuff appeals to me. Military professionals with deep training and cool heads defying the chaos of a war make for just my kind of fiction.

Heavy Metal

This is an interesting complement to the above: milsim focuses on a hard-eyed look at the realities of war (it’s chaotic, largely uncontrollable, and combat operations hinge on intel, logistics, and petty circumstances). But there’s a romance to the machines. Drive your 70-ton beast to her limit because your life and your struggle depend on it! Push the heat gauge to the limit! Throttle open! Shoulder the barrage with your strong-side armor! The thrill of raw power and the exhilaration of struggle have always been seeded deeply in my heart’s fantasies. It’s especially great when married to the mastery and knowledge required to know the machine, to invent novel solutions with the huge array of tools and options created by the complexity of those machines and the dynamics of the unfolding battle.


But! It’s someone else’s setting. I can’t do creative stuff in it with a potential commercial audience.

And there are a few things that drive me a little bit crazy about BattleTech. Remember how I enjoy the high-verisimilitude military aspects of the setting? Well, BattleTech isn’t always about that. And that’s not a flaw in BattleTech. BattleTech is great and worthy of its long tenure as a creative font! It’s just that the setting, often, does not cater to my fixations. Here’s how:


BattleTech makes some compromises in the name of having a nice, balanced tabletop game, and as a result some of the stuff is a bit nonsensical. This is, of course, okay! In principle, anyway. But it can undermine the milsim feel.

One of the bigger head-scratchers is the nature of mech weaponry. The ballistic weapons in the game have pathetically short ranges compared to real-life 21st century counterparts. In the Battletech video game from 2018 an AC/2 autocannon has an effective range of 720m. Meanwhile, the main armament on US-manufactured battle tanks right now has an effective firing range out to four kilometers, and past that with specialty ammunition. Military science is difficult to research on the internet, but some rooting around indicates to me that Gulf War tank engagements between the U.S. Army and the Iraqi Republican Guard tended to unfold at ranges around 2 and 3 kilometers.

Worse, larger caliber weapons (such as the AC/10 and AC/20, which do considerably more damage than the AC/2) have even shorter ranges! This is obviously in the service of providing a certain tradeoff topology to the mech configuration and deployment game systems. But it’s more or less the opposite of how guns work in reality.

This is the root problem that cascades into a bunch of other problems. In a more faithful rendering of military tactics and technology, most combat mechs would mount large caliber tank-style guns as their primary armament for effective mech-defeating power at basically all ranges, from 10 meters out to several kilometers. The AC/20 carried by heavy chassis would be the uncontested kings of the battlefield.

But mech armament design in the setting is a bit out of wack, partially owing to this short-range autocannon premise and partially apart from it. As any Battletech (2018) player can tell you, the stock chassis configurations are mostly garbage. The majority are intended as general purpose designs that at least have something to do at most ranges and in most engagement scenarios. This design ethos results in mechs carrying several secondary armaments, all intended for use against hardened targets (other mechs) in slightly different situations, which isn’t something you see on most military hardware (air superiority fighters, I guess?). And it’s not something that works well in game, either. What works well are single-purpose units: your “missile boat” indirect fire support mechs to soften and destroy from great range and behind cover, close range AC/20 platforms that find a way to get into their effective range and then overpower their enemies, and laser snipers that can find favorable engagements against dangerous targets from long distances and endure some return fire while doing it. If ballistic weaponry were more faithful, the classifications would probably be reduced further down to indirect fire platforms (for long ranges and across terrain) and direct fire platforms (for direct engagement)†.

As an aside, the missile configurations in this game feel somewhat odd. They have longer ranges than the autocannons (which is appropriate) but not nearly as long as real guided weapons. They’re meant for use against armor, but are fired in large banks (up to 20 at a time), which seems like it would be inefficient compared to the equivalent poundage of explosive all in a single warhead. When you’re dealing with armored targets, you want a nailgun, not twenty handheld staplers.

Many mechs also place an emphasis on “hand-to-hand” machine combat. Which is cool, but decidedly un-milsim (the history of armored warfare is not exactly bursting with examples of axe-wielding tanks).

And, even in the games that emphasize the milsim aspect of the setting, they embrace the conflicting focus on the primacy of the mechs (which is tied more closely to the setting role of mechwarriors as knights and heroes) to the exclusion of other forces. I bring this up because it means most games do not heavily feature combined arms operations, which means mechs only need to consider fighting other mechs, which removes a huge list of potential considerations from the mech configuration/design game systems. A missed opportunity, in my opinion!


Space is cool, no doubt. But one thing about war-in-space settings is that they struggle with the sheer scale of a spacefaring, planet-colonizing humanity. BattleTech’s sources apparently put the human population of the Inner Sphere (i.e. most of settled space) at about 6 trillion, which seems roughly appropriate. But with control of the population concentrated into a handful of warrior aristocracies, there ought to be an astronomical pool of resources for each to draw from to wage war. This should be a leap like the leap in scale and ferocity from early modern warfare to modern warfare, enabled by fully mobilized industrial capacities, a leap so big as to truly shock the generation that endured it. An advancement from our current understanding of warfare to the 31st century warfare of 6 trillion humans ought to be stunning.

This isn’t really borne out in the fiction. Of course it’s a limitation of the genre (it’s a tabletop game at heart), but the setting also attempts to impose some old medieval fantasy-esque associations that might be partly intended to modulate the scale of the warfare (it’s largely conducted by mercenaries, who sort of fill a chivalric role of “knight-errant”, at the behest of the monarchs). But this, then, becomes the point of incongruity: how is it possible that the universe has not become completely dominated by the first faction to even try to assemble an army? A real, actual army, befitting its size and industrial might, and not a tiny gaggle of irregulars paid with pocket change?

I mean, get a load of this:

Operation SERPENT was one of the largest military operations conducted by the Inner Sphere since the fall of the original Star League. In total, the task force consisted of 55,000 personnel; over a thousand BattleMechs, Aerospace Fighters and Combat Vehicles; ninety-eight DropShips; and twenty-seven JumpShips and WarShips.

55,000 personnel? Seriously? Three times as many soldiers were engaged in just by the allies in Operation Neptune. To say nothing of the wider invasion, Operation Overlord, which was ten times bigger. To say nothing of the Western Front itself, which was ten times larger than that. Tens of millions of people fought in that theatre! AND THAT WAS THE SMALLER OF THE EUROPEAN THEATRES. WHEN THE WORLD POPULATION WAS 2 BILLION PEOPLE.

If the United States Army could just contract with General Dynamics to produce some mechs and dropships they could probably rout the combined Star League Defense Force in about a month.

Okay, so I kind of went in there, and this seems like a pretty severe complaint about the setting, but I don’t think of it as a show-stopper or anything. I have a similar impression of many space operas and other soft sci-fi settings: they fail to grasp or even gesture toward the destructive scale of wars within our living memory, let alone wars that ought to be a thousand times larger. And more to the point, this sort of thing is probably well beyond our imagining, and it isn’t the dang point. Tableop wargames are for having fun, not for managing a hundred-million-soldier war machine or for or feeling miserable about some elaborately imagined human suffering elsewhere in the setting. Warhammer 40k, to my understanding, is the one setting that engages with the maddening scale of total war, and its brand of grimdark and midnight-black humor is unique and celebrated, and not every game should be a 40k clone. The others might prefer to focus on other things, gloss over the numbers, and have fun in space—and that’s great! And besides: smaller scales tend to allow players to take more of the spotlight (in video games and roleplaying games and so on) in the setting, so it’s generally a good thing.

But! As I noted before, I really enjoy the high-verisimilitude expressions of the BattleTech setting. The implications of the spacefaring scale interact poorly with them and tend to need to be glossed over.


So if I were going to make something I wanted to be able to sell, and I wanted it to have the attitude of a military sim with the adrenaline of giant robots with giant guns, I’d have to write my own, and I’m not a “copy-your-homework-but-change-it-enough-so-they-can’t-tell” kind of guy. And as you can probably guess, I have some ideas for what I would build!

I’ll get them down in a later post.

† I know this obsession with faithful simulation seems highly anti-fun, collapsing all of this dynamic multi-range combat into modern battle tank engagements at long range. But I’ll bet it can be made fun and cool! I’m going to give it a shot at some point, anyway!