Covering another book for a game I have a deep abiding love for, we look at the newly released Combat Manual: Mercenaries book. This is my first blush of the book, (I've read it once, front to back) and won't cover technical issues or typos. There are many fine people who love the Battletech Universe who will look through the book with a fine toothed comb, and to be honest, I don't edit well, (shocker, I know). This book honestly answers a bunch of questions that I had about what this product line was going to look like, and I must admit, I like that look.
First, a brief explanation of what this book is. For those familiar with other tabletop war games, this is an army book that covers the mercenary faction for Battletech's Alpha Strike Rules set. For those new to war gaming, this book contains a brief history of Mercenaries in the Battletech universe along with four key areas that enable a new player to pick up the book and be able to put together a unit for that game.
The book opens with a piece of short fiction, which is a tried and true component of the Battletech line. The rest of the book is focused on the mercenary faction and details prominent historical facts and units that appear in the late succession wars and early clan invasion era. This answered one of my questions about this book, but opens up a couple of others.
I was concerned about how a book of this type would take the Battletech timeline and how far it would go in covering prominent units and important facts about those units. This book basically covers the period of the last two succession wars (3025ish forward) to the early clan invasion (which ends right around 3052). I am happy with the spread of units covered during this time period and I appreciate that this ties in very nicely with the availability of units presented in the Battletech intro box and the alpha strike lance packs. That answer however leads to a couple of more questions
First, is there going to be a Mercenaries supplemental that covers later eras? Because the Battletech universe is dynamic and changes over time, several of the mercenary units featured in this box are either completely destroyed or changed in such a way that changes the way they should play on the tabletop. It also doesn't address mercenary commands created after the early clan invasion era moving forward.
Second, if this is the case with all of the factions, are there going to be separate era books for all of the factions moving through time? I can see the pro and con of that and it opens up an interesting dynamic for gaming. If there are era specific updates for each faction, will that make the earlier book irrelevant, (in which case you only need to buy the era book for the faction you care about) or is it an accessory that requires the base book to play with (meaning that it serves as an update and details changes, which refer to the original book). I am curious about the potentials for the way this works, and I am curious to see how later eras are addressed.
Moving on to a better description of the book, I have to admit I was impressed by the Combat Commands section of the book. I've been a fan for a very long time and I had units I had to go look up to see who they were. Many fan favorites are included (I'm looking at you Grey Death Legion, and you Crescent Hawks) and the Combat Commands section of the book gives the player an idea of the unit's personality, its rough force profile (how heavy it is, how big it is, other details that help inform a player constructing their version of the unit), its special rules and in some cases special warriors (in custom 'mechs).
Shadow Hawk in Grey Death Legion colors
Of all the sections of the book, I think this one might be the one that the fans gripe about most. The unit descriptions are perfect for a new player getting into the game, but long term players may be irritated that they can't field special characters appropriate to their units. Case in point, the only special character listed for the entire wolf's dragoons unit is Natasha Kerensky (Who albeit is amazing). This excludes Jamie Wolf, Morgan Kell, Grayson Carlyle and a host of other mercenary commanders that aren't represented with custom profiles.
Now that may seem like a very tiny bone of contention, but I have a feeling that at some point, a conversation will take place in which one Battletech Gamer will become enraged because he can't field the Grey Death Legion Command unit with Carlyle, McCall and the rest of the characters that they read about in books when they were kids.
The other fan issue that may occur with this section is that not every mercenary unit that exists in this era is given a full brief. I understand that the limitations of space mean that not everyone gets into the book the first time, but I can see it causing irritations among some of the fan base.
From that section we move into the Rules Addendum. I personally think that the rules addendum is one of the most interesting sections of the book as it details the nuts and bolts of actually building a mercenary command for Alpha Strike. It gives you as a player a couple of new formations that you can play with, and includes options for purchasing units not on your Mercenary Availability table and a bunch of options that I think are critical. Among these is the option to go your own way and generate your own mercenary command without using any of the Force Briefs. That has always been one of the things I’ve found most exciting about Battletech, and the rules are simple enough for the new player while being complicated enough that I can appreciate the options available.
Guns for Hire lists a group of mercenary mechwarriors you can hire to fill out your combat command. I think this section is a little understaffed, but I realize that space limitations factor into what you can pack into a book of this size (and the section that follows it is perfect). I am unsure if I like or don't like the fact that you can only hire a single Gun for Hire for your force, but I haven't played with the rules set enough to come to a final conclusion on that topic.
The final section of the book is something that I was hoping would be included, but I wasn't sure. Mercenary Faction Lists includes all of the available units for the mercenary faction in Battlemechs for both eras (Late Succession Wars and Early Clan Invasion) and includes armored vehicles, Infantry, and aerospace unit for the Late Succession Wars Era. These charts include point cost, unit special abilities and battlefield role, which helps a player assign individual units to appropriate lance groupings.
My overall impression of this book is that it’s a very good start on helping to grow Alpha Strike. I am curious to see what changes from this beta release to the final production version, but I like the direction that this book takes in creating a coherent force construction system for Alpha Strike. It's a first step, but it’s a very nice first step. I had most of my questions answered and in most cases I liked the answers I received.
I would also like to point out that this is the first book i've seen with the new artwork for the traditionally unseen battlemechs. The shadow Hawk shown above in Grey Death Colors, and the Warhammer and the Locust below are all new interpretations of old models, and they look good. My artistic ability is limited, but i like that these models have strong enough similarities to the versions that they are replacing that they feel right. I see the original influences, and i like the modern perspectives for them. All in all, wonderful work.
So those are my thoughts on the new combat manual, and i for one can't want to see what they've got planned for us next
All images used with the permission of Catalyst Game Labs and at their courtesy
(Thanks for letting me share your pictures)