The following review was originally posted at Roleplayers Chronicle and can be read in its entirety at http://roleplayerschronicle.com/?p=26539.
Player: Eject! Eject!
GM: Eject? What are you talking about?
Player: My Mech is about to blow up and my pilot doesn’t want to die.
GM: This is Battletech. Who cares about the pilot? Besides, there are no rules for what happens outside of the cockpit.
Wrong! Bad GM! A Time of War provides extensive rules to allow players to enjoy the Battletech universe away from their Mechs. A Time of War follows the grand tradition of the MechWarrior sourcebooks from previous editions of the game.
I love the Battletech universe! It is rich with back-story and canon. People have been playing in it for decades and I have always wondered what happens between the tactical battles. MechWarrior, and now A Time of War, answer those questions. This wonderful concept is thoroughly covered by this extensive rule book.
Publication Quality: 8 out of 10
The cover of this book is mechwarriortastic! The people (who are the focus of this game) are front and center with a Mech behind them and drop ships in the sky. The color scheme is great and the Battletech logo still looks great. The pages are in color and high gloss. I was a bit surprised by the use of orange hues on some of the pages and the charts, but this book feels all Battletech. Catalyst knows how to produce a sexy product whose art will cause gamergasams. The page borders are great, and the faux tabs that adorn the right edges to show the reader what section they are in are a good touch. It would have been better if the tabs were even more visible from the outside, but that is a small matter.
There is fiction at the beginning of each section and as you can imagine, some of it is better than others. The faction cards were a nice touch though. They give a quick overview of the world of the factions in an efficient, visually pleasing way. I am normally not a big fan of some of the colors that Catalyst used but for whatever reason, they worked. There were several old school black and white pictures included, and the mixture worked well enough; however, the color is where the real power of this book came from.
There were two major things that bothered me: One was Neil Roberts’ fear of drawing eyes and the other was the use of miniatures pictures later in the book. The pictures of the minis ended up looking low rent and cheesy. I know the use of those pictures was a nod to the old school products, but they were not that great then and time has only diminished their appeal. There was a lot of art in this book, but that is no excuse for using pictures of minis combined with color as well as black and white. It was just too much. A few of the sections of the book should have been rearranged, but this was by no means a show stopper.
Mechanics: 7 out of 10
I understand the need for complex rules, especially in tabletop tactical games, but there comes a point with RPGs that too many rules kill the role-playing portions of an RPG. I wonder if this is a case of “Tactical Tabletop” gamers trying to develop an RPG or way too much cut and paste from previous editions. Up front, the system seems simple: roll 2D6, add your modifiers, and bounce them off a Target number. Where things start to get dodgy is that each target number is modified by the skill you are using, and then the skills are tiered and change as you get better at them, and the list goes on and on. I can see the logic behind some of these rules but when it was all said and done, any game that you need to keep a “supplement’s” worth of charts on hand can get bogged down quickly.
This aspect of the game alone enforces my belief that this role-playing concept was fleshed out by people who know tactical games and do not feel fettered by reams of charts and complex calculations to make one or two moves. The character creation mechanics have some merit until you get to the numbers crunching. I like the idea of the life paths and some of the backgrounds are interesting but in the end, A Time of War takes a cool concept and turns it back into a numbers game. I fully understand the need for crunchy numbers to add to realism but this system is burdened by them.
In the text, the creators explain this system is mostly compatible with the regular Battletech game. When I saw this I thought “Hey, that’s cool,” until I realized that for me, this is the cause of the role-playing-killing numbers crunch that is A Time of War. I don’t see a point where this role-playing game should be compatible with the Battletech game, especially if the tactics are your focus. Here is what I’m talking about: Let’s say you have a group that plays regular Battletech. They decide to incorporate the A Time of War sourcebook into their game to fill that time between hard core Mech combat. Do you really think they will not make a tabletop move because their Mech pilot role-playing character doesn’t have the skill to do it? Do you think they will switch out their tabletop Mech because their character didn’t have enough build points to purchase that same model of Mech? Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.
Value Add: 8 out of 10
Having an interesting and well-made rulebook that covers the time between battles is outstanding. The Battletech universe is too rich to not have a product like this. If you are looking to double your opportunities to play Battletech, this is the product for you. If you are looking for a great industrial strength setting, this book is for you. If you are looking for a game that encourages role-playing and has the mechanics to support that, stay away… far away. Over 400 pages of information is always valuable and for the Battletech junkie or even the curious gamer, this book is worth its cost.
Overall: 8 out of 10
This book looks great and is crammed with tons of great information; however, the fault lies with the mechanics. I know that mechanics can be modified, but it shouldn’t have to be that way. I really believe that Catalyst should take a second look at the mechanics of this game and revamp them in a way that does not try to to be compatible with the tactics part of the game. This sourcebook names quite a few pieces of equipment that no stats are given for. In fact, it has an entire section devoted to showing past Battletech products and where they fit in on the Battletech timeline. At its core, Battletech is about mechs.
I wonder if A Time of War would be better if it was separated into two books. The first book could be compatible with the traditional Battletech system. There is enough crunch in A Time of War’s current configuration to support that and with minor rules tweaks, I think it could work. The second book would be set in the Battletech universe and would not give the characters Mechs to drive at all. The characters could operate other ancillary vehicles, but the game mechanics would focus on people operating behind the scenes rather than the Mechs and the MechWarriors.
This is a great setting and a well-done rulebook, but unless the mechanics are streamlined, it won’t appeal to gamers who like to focus on role-playing. This book has some real high points but those high points only come in one flavor and that’s extra crunchy.