There has been a recent surge of interest in BattleTech, the venerable franchise about people piloting giant robots and trying to beat up or destroy other giant robots, all in a well-realised setting (think of Pacific Rim meets Game of Thrones and you're halfway there). The science fiction tabletop wargame is now one of the best-selling in its field, and more people are trying it out thanks to recent successful video games and Kickstarters for the wargame.
There’s more interest in the franchise than there has been in maybe a decade, but what to do if you’re intrigued but have no idea what it’s all about? Time for a Franchise Familiariser course!
(A previous version of this article was published in 2018.)
At heart of all iterations of BattleTech are the BattleMechs themselves. These towering bipedal war machines combined elements of main battle tanks, aircraft carriers and powered suits in a single military unit. BattleMechs tend to be slow-moving, but can unleash tremendous amounts of firepower. They can also capture and hold territory and are extraordinarily rugged: the Superheavy class of 'mech can withstand everything but a direct hit from a nuclear weapon, and due to the importance of territory and resources, the use of such weapons is extraordinarily rare.
BattleMechs are divided into the following classes:
Light 'mechs act as scouts, artillery spotters, fast-moving interceptors (especially when fitted with jump jets) and reconnaissance units. They can't take a lot of punishment, but their high speed makes them extremely difficult to hit. They can only fit one or two armaments but the stories of a lowly Locust firing the last blast to finish off a heavily-crippled Atlas are legion. The Locust, Commando, Spider, Jenner, Panther and Firestarter are all Light-class 'mechs.
The most commonly-encountered 'mechs, Mediums are versatile workhorses. They can fulfil many of the roles of the Light 'mech but their much greater weapons payload and armour means they can hang in a firefight even with heavier 'mechs for a while. The Cicada, Blackjack, Vindicator, Centurion, Griffin, Shadow Hawk and Wolverine are all Medium-class 'mechs.
The heavy tanks of the battlefield, Heavy 'mechs are missile platforms, heavy cannon machines or close-up brawlers. They can withstand tremendous amounts of damage whilst dishing it out themselves. They tend to be slow, but a few specially-adjusted models are capable of surprising turns of speed. The Dragon, Quickdraw, Catapult, Jaegarmech, Thunderbolt, Grasshopper, Black Knight and Orion are all Heavy-class 'mechs.
Assault 'mechs are relatively rarely seen, and spark terror into the hearts of their enemies. A single Assault can wipe out several lances of Lights without too much issue, and can hold off several Mediums at once. Assault 'mechs can unleash a terrifying amount of firepower, withstand ridiculous amounts of enemy fire and obliterate everything in their path. On the negative size, they are slow, ungainly, tend to attract the fire of absolutely everything on the battlefield, are mind-bogglingly expensive and very rare to find on the open market. The Awesome, Victor, Zeus, Battlemaster, Stalker Highlander, Banshee, Atlas and King Crab are all Assault-class 'mechs.
The Superheavy class of 'mech is an extremely rare class, with maybe only a few hundred ever built in total. 'Mechs of this type weigh in at over 100 tons and usually require specialist equipment to function correctly: some have two or three pilots instead of one and some are "tripods", with a third leg to help with stability. Their firepower and armour is staggering, but their speed is ponderous and the expense of building them ruinous; most commanders would prefer to have three Heavies or five Mediums instead. Still, they are a formidable sight on the battlefield. The Stone Rhino, Omega, Ares and Poseidon are Superheavy-class 'mechs.
Divided into Small, Medium and Large categories, lasers are useful as they do not use ammo (and thus don't require a separate, vulnerable ammo container), do additional heat damage to the enemy and can operate at a variety of ranges. Their weaknesses are that they are not the best at shooting through armour and generate immense amounts of heat whilst firing (to the detriment of the firing 'mech).
Plasma cannons do exceptional damage at both long and close ranges, and are a favourite of snipers. However, they generate far more heat than lasers and enemy 'mechs will usually focus fire on plasma-wielding units to wipe them out as fast as possible.
'Mechs have a variety of missiles which can be fired at both long and short ranges. "Missile boats" are a common 'mech variant, which strip out as much armour as possible and use Light 'mechs as spotters. Once the enemy are located, the missile boat fires a truly staggering amount of missiles (up to 50 in a single volley) to try and destroy enemy forces before they close to short-range combat. Their weakness is they require an ammo container, which can be vulnerable to fire and explosions.
Powerful weapons which chew up armour and internal systems with aplomb, Autocannons are a favoured weapon of many MechWarriors. A Type-20 AC can punch through the armour of even the strongest Assault 'mechs if wielded by a skilled pilot. Their weakness is they require an ammo container, which can be destroyed, leaving the weapon useless.
An electromagnetically-charged weapon, the secret of Gauss Gun mass production was lost some time ago, making this a very rare but utterly formidable weapon if encountered on the battlefield.
BattleMechs also rely on several key pieces of equipment to keep functioning. Their actuators allow them to keep walking, moving and deploying weapons: crippling these slows down the 'mech or blows off their limbs altogether. Their heat sinks manage heat disposal and waste. Having insufficient heat sinks causes the 'mech to shut down, fry the pilot or, in rare cases, explode if it tries to fire too many weapons. Armour is relatively self-explanatory, but some MechWarriors have a cavalier approach to personal safety and strip off armour plating to fit on more guns, which results in the occasional sight of a formidably weaponised Assault 'mech strolling onto the field only for the pilot to be one-shotted through the cockpit by a Jenner. Finally, jump jets are a handy and oft-overlooked bit of kits which allows the 'mech to make tactical jumps from one position on the battlefield to another, flying over obstacles. Some pilots throw out the jets to get more guns and armour, but jump jets are a versatile advantage, allowing a 'mech to take cover from enemy fire in a hurry or, under extreme circumstances, launching a kamikaze strike from above on an unsuspecting enemy unit.