Saturday, 22 June 2013

Heavy Gear: Blitz - Starter Set and Rulebook Review

Heavy Gear and GW's Imperialis Aeronautica are two games I have eyed off for a long time, but never "got into" solely because they seemed so vastly overpriced.  With the inevitable demise of the latter (GW always lets its interesting games die - cue Epic, Bloodbowl, Mordhiem, Necromunda, Man O War, Space Hulk...) I decided to try Heavy Gear, "dipping my toes in" with a starter set ($65).

 The starter contained 2 small A5 rulebooks (Heavy Gear Blitz: Reloaded and the Field Manual) and 3 mecha each for the "Northern" and "Southern" factions, some dice and a nifty little measuring tape.

Starter Set & Pricing (The Elephant in the Room)
The starter set seems quite reasonable - the two little B&W rulebooks are similar to the ones you find in FoW or 40K box sets and are have considerably more packed into them.  However getting three minis for each side isn't even enough for a normal sized 4 or 5 mecha squad.  A cynic might suspect this was done on purpose.

DP9 seems to have copied its pricing policies direct from GW.  $50 for a 5-mecha squad ($10 a mini) is quite steep considering you need multiple squads, and the sculpts themselves are nothing special.

I also pay $10 for a single 28mm sculpt in Infinity - but there are two big differences:
(a) Infinity sculpts are dynamically posed, unique works of art; DP9 mechs are static, chunky copies
(b) Infinity you need 5-10 models ($50-$100) for an army; DP9 needs 15-20 models ($160-310); a single Infinity model can radically alter your gameplay options; a new mini IS a complete new unit

In addition, the DP9 vehicles are outrageously expensive.  Here's a comparison:

GZG 15mm metal tank $13ea

Dropzone Commander 10mm Resin tank $7.50ea

DP9 10mm Resin tank $43ea
Maybe it is made out of the same stuff as GW's "Finecr@p" that makes it worth 6x more than the Dropzone Commander stuff. It's even 4x more than a metal 15mm tank... Why?  Probably because it is worth a lot of "points" in game. 

The sculpts themselves are sound but unspectacular. They often include a range of weapon fits and with a bit of talent and steady hands you could magnetize and swap weapon loadouts. I do like the design aesthetic, but if there were any viable alternatives, I'd be on them like a flash.

Sadly, there isn't many mecha alternatives in smaller scales either (GZG has a small range of not-VOTOMs in 6mm; otherwise Battletech battlesuits/battlearmour are your best bet for 6mm). Unsurprisingly, DP9's own "fleetscale" mecha (about the size of a 15mm infantrymen) are also very expensive - at $2ea they are 3x more expensive than identically sized 6mm GZG mecha.

A mech-only 1000TV game that includes 3-4 Gear squads may be cheaper (~$160+) but add a single walker and a tank you can add another $100 or so... I calculated it would cost me $310 for a decently varied force. That's Games Workshop territory.

 I bought my starter from Wayland games as postage was less onerous than from DP9 direct.

Rulebook Review
The Shiny
Well, being a small A5 B&W softcover set (colour cover) the rulebooks in the starter kit are not very shiny. In fact, they are so cramped (size 6 font?) as to be all but unreadable unless you have 20/20 vision. <---If you can't read that you will struggle with the rules, especially the vehicle data sheets at the back.  That said, the rules are very complete and include army lists and data for three of the main factions, with the CEF being the notable exception.  The table of contents is thorough and there is a quick reference section at the back. The tiny photocopyable marker templates are of limited value - you'd have to put a lot of effort into making them usable. The rules themselves are a handy 35 pages - the remaining 170 are devoted to other things - there is a modelling and painting guide, a photo gallery (which presumably would be more impressive in a fullsize colour version), a timeline and plenty of historical fluff, scenarios, and army data.   The Heavy Gear universe has been the subject of wargames, RPGs and videogames for a few decades now so its backstory and fluff is very well fleshed out. 

Plenty of good content packed into a compact, portable A5 book but very hard on the eyes.

Initiative & Activation
Opponents alternate moving units by combat group (usually 4-5 mechs or 1-2 larger vehicles, or up to 12 bases of infantry). There is no forced coherency (though sometimes it is a good idea to keep your mechs concentrated) and in fact you can split your combat groups into sub-groups of 2-3 mechs or single vehicles, which makes it almost an alternate move game.   Each unit has a series of actions (used for moving at high speeds, attacking or using special abilities) it can use when it is activated.  Simple and sensible. I also like the inclusion of "overwatch" - you can hold fire in your move in order to fire in your opponent's turn.

Heavy Gear was also a PC game back in the Mechwarrior heyday...
Units can use stationary, combat or top speeds with corresponding hit/to hit penalties, which add tactical choices at the expense of having to track speed (usually with a d6 beside the miniature -which may bother people who dislike markers and dice cluttering the tabletop.) Moving at high speed uses an action.

A typical Gear moves around 6-12" in wheeled mode and 4-7" when walking.  Standard weapons range to 48" and support weapons can go to 72"+ - this means a sensible amount of cover for your battlefield is important to avoid things becoming a long-range slugfest. 

Spotting & Target Locks
Units need to "lock" their targets before they can fire.  Units in line of sight are automatically locked, but they need to fulfil certain conditions to detect models in cover; or spend an action to attempt an "Active Lock".  This is mostly done in conjunction with indirect fire, and is often done by forward observers/scout gears. 

Actually, Heavy Gear as a PC game looks like it's making a return via Kickstarter

Ranged attacks are quite clever, albeit sporting an annoying number of modifiers.  The attacker rolls several dice and chooses the best one. Each additional "6" adds +1 to the total.
Both attacker and defender make rolls. The amount the attacker succeeds by is the "margin of success."  The weapon attack rating is multiplied by this to find the total damage.  The better the shot, the more damage is done. This is rather logical and works better than the usual "roll to hit, then roll seperately (and randomly) for any critical hits"

Ammunition is sensibly abstracted. Any time all the dice rolled are less than the "Ammo Check" number, the weapon is out of ammo after that attack.  Flanking is encouraged by the "crossfire" rule - bonuses to attack when a different attacker fires at the same target from further than 90d from the original firer. Melee combat includes handheld weapons and also ramming foes at top speed

Damage is very practical - there are still damage levels to maintain that "mecha" feel but it is abstracted sensibly into "light"  "heavy" and "critical" instead of rolling special criticals or hits to individual limbs. Mechs can also be stunned or knocked down by the effects of fire.

Units can use their actions for other things besides combat - they may reserve their fire ("reaction fire" or "overwatch") - to fire on models that activate and move later. Missile or artillery equipped units may also elect to wait for friendly locks.  Units can hide or go "hull down" to increase survivability or negate defensive penalties. Squad leaders can declare "co ordinated fire" bonuses against targets which make grouping units together advantageous at times, without any artificial forced "stay in 3" coherency" rules.

Apart from the multitude of modifiers, there is a lot to like about the combat mechanics. 

A 5-gear squad will set you back around $50

Command Points & ECM
You also get an abstract resource called "Command Points" which can be spent by army commanders and (to a more limited extent) squad leaders.  These can be used to re-roll any dice rolls, activate models out of sequence, grant an extra attack, and allow dead models to take a "parting shot."

Units with ECM may attempt to block the use of command points (and other comm events such as forward observation attempts) which can be countered by ECCM.  Like Command Points, this adds another layer of "metagame" which I find interesting.
Scenarios, Missions & Campaigns
There should never be long lines of sight, and lots of terrain is recommended. Open areas greater than 4-5"can become "kill zones" which are difficult to cross safely, and can hinder movement more than buildings and forests. Think "Infinity" rather than "40K" when it comes to terrain density.

Combat groups have a morale level which can be tested by friendlies being destroyed, crossfire, incendiary attacks and similar events.  Units who "break" have -1 to rolls and must seek cover. They can be "rallied" through the use of command points.

Missions are defensive, offensive or standard. They come with their own list of objectives, which must be achieved to gain VPs. These include escaping a table edge, recon on enemy units, scouting objectives, blockading areas, protecting specific friendly units, holding a specific terrain area, assassinating enemy leaders, and seizing enemy terrain or deployment zones.  Airstrikes and artillery can be bought and "called in" and move and attack in an abstract manner.   Simple campaign guidelines are given which include replacing, re-arming and repairing units. 

Striders (large mecha) offer serious fire support, but at $35 to $50ea, they'd want to....

Vehicle Data
This is a bit complicated looking, and to make it worse I had to read them in almost incomprehensibly small print.
For anyone who is used to the heavy use of data cards (Warmachine, etc) I'm sure they will be no great burden.  Personally, I tend to prefer rules where you can remember key data in your head after a few play throughs - like GW's underrated LOTR series.

There were also sample 1000 TV army lists.  I priced them out and a typical army of 14 mechs (with no supporting vehicles or infantry) would come in at around $185 not including P&P.

Fluff & Stuff
There are detailed army lists and fluff  which personally didn't interest me, but is well fleshed out as you would expect of a universe with decades of RPG background.  There are short histories, timelines, army doctrine, vehicle profiles, unit organisation, awards, factional special rules, etc.  There is a modelling and painting guide, and comprehensive weapon tables

Important information included the way squads or "combat groups" can be constructed.  Squads are pretty "standard" but can be customized quite drastically with specialist mechs and weapon loadouts depending on their purpose (recon, strike, fire support etc).

There are about 30 cannons and guns, 11 rockets and missiles, and 13 support weapons like mortars, flamers and grenade launchers, 10 railguns & lasers, and 11 infantry weapons.  This is a rather huge assortment, but it is mitigated by the fact most weapons are available to everyone, and most are simply heavy. medium and light variants of the same weapon type - you won't be destroyed unexpectedly by a mysterious superweapon or special ability you've never heard of.

There is also a list of perks and special abilities for mechs.  There are about 50, but again, they are shared between all factions and do not tend to be gamebreaking superpowers a la Warmachine or Malifaux, but usually minor upgrades like anti-missile systems which add a defensive bonus against missiles, or minor defects like exposed sensors (which are disabled at a lower damage level than usual.)
The Heavy gear games draw from a rich Jovian Chronicles RPG heritage
 If you have less than perfect eyesight the rules in the starter kit aren't for you; and getting less than a complete squad for each side in a starter was also a bit of a dubious deal. And $43 for a Flames-of-War size tank - that's just crazy money.  I'd definitely buy vehicles elsewhere... where they are a fraction of the price.

It's a little sad, as Heavy Gear has some very good mechanics.  Firing is quite lethal - you'll need a good amount of terrain; and the game has a pleasant level of complication and tactics (EW, indirect fire, stealth, different move modes) without bogging down. Whilst it has an annoying number of modifiers, I like the opposed roll and "margin of success" which means more precise shots do greater damage, rather than rolling to hit, then rolling later for random "criticals."

The damage levels of mechs (light damage, heavy and critical) are sensible and satisfying, as opposed to the tedium of marking off hundreds of armour and structure boxes on a myriad of body parts  *cough* Battletech *cough* and it is a combined arms game where air, armour and infantry can join in with the mechs.  I can see how a campaign where you buy and repair mechs, and "level up" pilots would be quite fun, akin to the old Mech Commander videogame.

Command points, ECM and movement modes add layers of tactics and decision-making, and I am impressed with the general mechanics and gameplay.  

Overall - a rather good game, which occupies the combined-arms mecha niche alongside Reaper's somewhat obscure CAV series.

Recommended?  I like the models, I like the rule mechanics, I like the game as a whole - but I cannot recommend it at the current prices (buy-in is around $200+).  It's might be OK if you have a thriving local Heavy Gear scene but I suspect this is unlikely for most people.  In addition, the relative obscurity of the game means picking up a cheap secondhand army on eBay would be akin to winning the lottery. You're better off getting involved in kiddie crack Warhammer 40K - and I don't say that too often!

If you like the mech action but don't want sell a kidney in order to play Heavy Gear, the gladiatorial version (Heavy Gear: Arena) might be a cheaper alternative with its smaller "skirmish" scale and lower miniature requirements. 

Other options: Reaper's CAV has free rules and models that cost a third of the price; Battletech is more popular, and needs only 4-5 mechs (and thus a much cheaper $50-60 buy-in), and has a decent secondhand market (and the potential to re-base and re-purpose cheap plastic clix mechs).


  1. Interesting review. Heavy Gear expensive, however I think the buy-in price is actually closer to $100 rather than $200. Most of the starter armies are around $100 and give you quite powerful squads that could be used to make an 800pt army. I've also found lots of stuff on eBay. It doesn't come up as often as more widely played games but if you have eBay notifications 'on' you can usually find second had stuff every few months.

  2. I'd love to find a cheap army. The best deal I can see is 4 squads + infantry for $185 in their online-only deal direct from DP9 which is about $100 off the usual price and would give you a strong core to your army.

    A $135 starter army gets you 2 squads. Which is like buying two 40K squads and saying you have an "army."

    I'd love to find a cheap eBay army. I think this is a good game - it's only the Games Workshop prices that holds me back....

    1. EvilleMonkeigh - It's more than a 'strong core'! Most Heavy Gear games don't use anywhere near as many figures as a 40K game. You're unlikely to be playing a lot of games where you're fielding more than 4 units of gears unless you're fielding some sort of horde army or you like playing really big games. Check out the Heavy Gear battle reports on YouTube.

    2. I have seen some factions where you need (slight exaggeration) a few uber-mechs with advanced weapons to make up 750TV, but I'm interested in combined arms. If I wanted a 4 v 4 mech-only game, I could do it just as cheaply with Battletech.

      That said, I'm continuing to dip my toes in - I'm buying 2 x $20 blisters to make my starter set forces into a "usable" squad; and I'm looking at some CAV and Dropzone Commander tanks (which are $8-10 each rather than $40+)....

    3. I presume you play - do you mind sharing what your current army consists of?

  3. This is a "always on my radar" game. But expense and higher level of modelling skill ha kept me away.

    Great review btw.

    1. Judging from the mecha I have assembled, modelling skill isn't an issue. The only "skill" is if you were to magnetize weapons for easy swap out. I plan on simply using a dab of black modelling clay to hold weapons in place as a "cheap and nasty" solution.

  4. Nice review, this is definately one of those games I've been wanting to try for a long time but just could never justify buying into at those prices. I'll probably be going the 6mm GZG not-Votoms route when I finally to try it.
    Meanwhile if your looking to flesh out your starter here's an interesting thread over at the DP9 forums
    It has 800TV starter army's for each faction and lists what you need to buy and how much it will cost.

    1. Thanks for the link.

      It's been on my "to try" list for ages - I really liked Lightning Strike (a Gundam-space style game using similar mechanics). I've started a Heavy Gear 6mm project which I used to test the rules, but the 6mm mecha are just... uninspiring.

      For 6mm I'm likely going to use a set of fluid 6mm modern rules which have a build-your-own-unit system

  5. Both of the rulebooks included in the starter are available as free pdf downloads from RPGNow/DriveThru RPG. You need to register.

    1. Thanks for the heads up! I'll amend the blog.