Sunday 9 April 2023

Battletech Alpha Strike Box Set (Rules Review)

The Package: "One of the best and most complete box sets I've seen - it has it all, for a good price."

The Rules: "If you have to add lots of house rules to make it good - it's not good."


The Shiny

I'll start with the contents of the box, so the true Battletech nerds can then skip the rest where I nitpick the rules and possibly hurt their feels. 

The miniatures are that dodgy 3D-printer-y plastic not the good stuff, but the 13 models you get are all pretty decent and paint up pretty easily. I've only done a very fast job on mine and they look good on the table. You get plenty of dice, nice thick card markers and trees and plenty of rather nice houses for terrain. You can get playing right out of the box. 

The rulebook is unfortunately but unsurprisingly a 'starter' rulebook - you have to shell out for the full rules - but it's easy to use and nice to look at. You also get quick-reference cards and stuff as well as stats cards for all the mechs in the box. I laminated my mech cards so I can use whiteboard pens on them but you can also make them online.

It's a very nice box of toys for $120AUD ($80 freedumbucks) but I'm not really enthusiastic to play it because of.... 

The Rules

An unsuccessful attempt to simplify a bloated 1980s quasi-RPG makes questionable choices. I was constantly thinking not "this is cool" but "this x could be changed to y". As the quick-play game this was a lost opportunity to update the clunkiness. The Battletech rules could have been kept the same to appeal the hardcore BT nerds and their rose-tinted glasses, but Alpha Strike could and should have been modernised to increase its accessibility.

What you need

Each mech comes with a unit card which tracks damage to armour/structure, heat and critical hits along with stats like speed, firepower in each range band, special abilities and points cost.  It gives 5 'missions' and explains how to fairly set out terrain (a welcome addition too few rules do). It then goes into a fair bit of detail of how each piece of terrain works - I'm not sure this is the place in the book for the terrain rules though - and how to set up and start. 

Initiative & Order of Play

Players roll off for initiative and the players then alternate moving. Each side then shoots ALL their mechs, then the other side shoots ALL their mechs. Damage is applied immediately doesn't take effect til both have fired so you get to shoot back before you are destroyed. While nice in theory, the combat sequence seems a bit clunky to track. It'd make more sense to allow sequential firing and just implement damage instantly (perhaps in order of pilot skill - perhaps you could then tie movement order to mech size/agility (aka TMN) making lights even more useful?


While firing arcs and flanking matters (good), it's still a very detailed and involved process for a fast-play entry game (19 modifiers!). You need to track attacker and defender movement, as well as the usual range/cover. Making things more Battletech-y, you can spend heat (which you need to track) to boost damage. 

I dislike the 2D6 bell curve as it can be 'gamed' - not all modifiers are worth the same. A switch to d10 or d12 would improve the game. If you go 'past the curve' or fall short of the curve it can make a big difference i.e. d10 = 10%, 20%, 30% etc is a flat 10%; 2d6 = 3%, 8%, 17%, 27%, 42%, 58%, 72% etc - the gaps vary in size making modifiers more or less valuable at certain points; a +2 modifier on d10 would be a reliable 20% but could fluctuate between 30% or 11% on 2d6 depending on where it is on the curve. There's a place in gaming for 2D6 - but this isn't it.

The flat damage i.e. weapons deliver an all-or-nothing set damage chunk at certain range bands (i.e. firepower 5 mechs do 5, firepower 7 mechs do exactly 7HP damage) which is weird; they even have their own modified rules in the book - but this modified rule means you roll individually for each point of damage (slow/clunky using 2d6 each time) and this has further effects such as disadvantaging lights; which are more vulnerable to smaller but more frequent 'chip' damage. As expected the 2d6 complicates the odds as well and makes the knock-on effect of house rules less obvious.

The move/shoot ranges also seem a bit off but that may just be my experimenting on a 4x4' table.

Despite my dislike of hitpoints they are pretty reasonable in Alpha Strike and fit the feel of the game, as does the critical hits. A sensible level of abstraction to speed things up while retaining a Battletech feel.

Lights are harder to hit (higher base 'to hit' aka TMN) - which is good and gives them some survivability - but you'd need to wisely sprint/jump/have plenty of table cover to 'manage' the 2d6 curve to make them worthwhile.

Overall, the whole combat section feels like a dodgy homebrew adaption of the original 80s rules and would benefit from being ripped up and redone completely fresh. I know there are a plethora of house rules about trying to 'fix' this (heck even these starter rules even have 'house rules' in them) but if your rules need house rules to be good - they aren't good. To compound this, Alpha Strike seems to be lacking the character of OG Battlemathtech. It's too generic and bland. It's probably fun when you add in all the extras like aircraft, tanks and infantry but when you get to a bigger battles (12-16 or so, with all the 'extras') it wouldn't actually be that fast.

Heat & Other Stuff

I do like heat rules (it makes mechs play/feel different than just big infantry). Heat is used to boost damage. The rules are simple and easy to remember - reduce -2" and and 1 penalty to hit each heat level etc.  A shutdown mech is -4 to be hit; which seems a bit extreme a penalty. 

There is some special mech traits and rules for force building. Formations may be designated by role (assault, fire support, recon, command etc) which can give bonuses and also determines the type of mech that can be included. Mechs have point values which seem reasonable from my limited knowledge but I strongly suspect how much cover is on the table would impact the value of many mechs.

There is rules for climbing, destroying and collapsing buildings and calling in artillery and airstrikes off-table. This section is obviously missing a lot from the full rules, and it is a little disappointing infantry and vehicles are not included. 

Given how much work the Alpha Strike rules seem to need to be decent, I think shelling out another $80AUD for the 'proper' rulebook (2/3rd the cost of the entire box set!) feels like a sunk cost fallacy.

The models scale well with 6mm sci fi...

TL:DR - "Yes to the mechs, meh to the rules"

For the price the box set is a very complete package at a reasonable price - 13 mechs, terrain, dice, rules and I'd recommend it as decent value if even you only have a cursory interest in mech combat. It's one of the best box sets I've seen in a while, actually.

However the rules themselves feel like a hasty band-aid adaption to speed up the ancient 1980s Battletech rules and seem to invite a fair bit of house-rules which is not what you want when introducing newcomers. It feels like it's lost a lot of BT flavour and still feels pretty awkward. With its rich history and lore BT seems well positioned to hoover up discontented 40K refugees, but as a starter/entry to Battletech, Alpha Strike seems like a missed opportunity to modernize and streamline - you always have the OG Battletech rules for those with well-tinted nostalgia goggles. 


  1. I admit, I have never understood the love affair with battletech. I suspect that much like D&D and GW games, people enjoy talking about the game more than actually playing the game.

    1. You're probably right. In all 3 cases, there is a rich lore and background. 10-story high robots with lasers are appealing. 40K stole from pretty much every sci fi trope.

      In all 3 cases, the rules are meh. All were OK back in the 80s when they were pretty much 'it'.

      None have evolved much since then. The recent revival of D&D is surprising - I'm not a RPGer but own a few systems and it seems one of the clunkiest, if the aim is to play/tell a story vs roll lots of dice in random ways. Is it nostalgia?

      I'm a bit sad as I love Battletech, but I know I'm unlikely to ever plan the OG version where it takes hours to play 4v4, and Alpha Strike is a bit of a fizzer too... Well at least I have cool mech toys... back to Mechwarrior 5...

    2. WotC got a big break with D&D being ideal for small groups during COVID. Then the suits thought it was more and decided to try and milk it, to massive fan outrage.

      Mechanically, D&D has done a good job of building a game around the 1d20 resolution mechanic, with a really clean & well thought character creation & development system. It's impressively good at what it does.

  2. Interesting write up. I recommend taking a look at the tournament rules put out by Wolf Net.

    200pv, 8 random scenarios, and an 80 minute timer. It delivers a very similar feel and fun to tournament X Wing (RIP).

    I believe the Alpha Strike rules are downloadable from Catalyst for $15 USD. It sounds like most everything is covered by the intro, tho.

    The speed and accessibility of AS are its selling points, I think. Also, light mechs are very potent in this rule system.

  3. It's surprisingly hard to find people out there who are willing to admit that "the Emperor has no clothes" when it comes to AS. I have tried and bounced off the game 3 or 4 times at this point. As someone who grew up playing Battletech in the 90s, I really wanted to love it, but it fails for me for the reasons you describe: simultaneously too dumbed down and at the same time weirdly rules-dense compared to what it actually accomplishes on the table - and in spite of how overwritten many of the rules are, a lot of stuff falls apart under any scrutiny, as if the game was not play-tested at all. It feels like less of a game and more of a sandbox in which to engage with home-brewed content. Furthermore, in spite of the seemingly large player base, no one can seem to agree on how to play the game, broadly substituting their own house rules in nearly every phase of play and arguing about how many of the bedrock rules of the game should be changed. It's incredibly confusing to me why this game has such legs in spite of the awful ruleset and stale gameplay.

    1. I've also tried it a few times, but like you say - everyone has their own house rules for almost every aspect of play - some quite fundamental. Which is not a good sign.

      "Weirdly rules dense yet dumbed down" - I once did a diagram tactical depth vs complexity of rules....
      ....I didn't put B:AS on it but it would have been a good example of fairly complex rules yet only basic decisions.

      I think the rose tinted goggles are strong here. AS really needs the rules ripped up and completely started fresh; without reference to the original rules (the aim should be to capture the 'feel' of BT with slick modern mechanics; not 'copy as many of the OG 1980s rules as you can')