Transposing a board game into the digital realm is always a challenge. It requires animating game pieces and coding mechanics that were never meant to be animated or coded. It requires deciding which rules to retain and which to pare down for the sake of accessibility.
But it’s an even greater challenge when the property you’re porting has a long and storied pedigree, and complex systems that were conceived in an era when tabletop games rarely if ever made their way to PCs or consoles.
This was the task facing Jordan Weisman, the creator of legendary tabletop franchises like BattleTech and Shadowrun, when he and his team at Harebrained Schemes decided to bring BattleTech into the modern age in the form of a turn-based tactical PC game.
After successfully rebooting Shadowrun as a series of PC games, Harebrained successfully Kickstarted an update of their venerable sci fi mech wargame. The new BattleTech game will be published by Paradox Interactive later this year.
As a medium, video games allow for more latitude for storytelling and world building than traditional tabletop miniatures game. But the decision to return to turn-based strategy is surprising. Recent video game adaptations of the franchise have tended to be in the action or vehicle sim genre. MechWarrior, a first-person mech action take on the BattleTech brand, is the most popular digital version of the tabletop franchise.
2nd edition of BattleTech tabletop game [via boardgamegeek]
"In recent years, there’s been a renaissance of tactical turn-based games, and we were excited to think about how BattleTech could build upon what has gone before and even push the genre forward a little bit."
Weisman says the current gaming landscape provides a unique window for a return to BattleTech’s origin. “It’s been over 25 years since we have done turn based tactical game, but in recent years there’s been a renaissance of tactical turn-based games, and we were excited to think about how BattleTech could build upon what has gone before and even push the genre forward a little bit," says Weisman.
"BattleTech producer Mitch Gitelman and I have contributed to several of the MechWarriors,” he adds. “and led the creation of the MechCommander series, so we really have an appreciation of what the real-time versions of BattleTech are. But we also understand their limitations."
Weisman insists that going back to something that more closely approximates the play of the original 1980s tabletop wargames will allow for far more nuance in the game design.
"BattleTech has always been a squad (or as we call it, a Lance) based game," he says. "While we were able to reflect this in the MechCommander games, we could not model the mechs, their interactions, and their MechWarrior pilots in as great a depth as we can in this turn based game.”
Authentic tabletop mechanics and modern videogame nuance
"My original 35-year-old tabletop design is both our biggest asset and also one of our biggest challenges."
Weisman says that the new BattleTech models damage to individual components of a mech and the systems mounted there. (If a leg is blown off, the missile pod attached to it is no longer available, just as it was in the tabletop game.)
The game will also feature more sophisticated interactions than previous PC games. For instance, huge impacts to the mech can stun or wound pilots. It was those sorts of advanced mechanics that Weisman wanted to retain from the original tabletop BattleTech.
But the team quickly discovered that complete fidelity was impossible. “My original 35-year-old tabletop design is both our biggest asset and also one of our biggest challenges."
Harebrained discovered that they had to subtly change some of the original mechanics in order to offer players' more discreet risk/reward relationships, and attempt to overcome some of the original game's limitations, such as making the smaller mechs more valuable in combat.
A storyline focused on scrappy mercs, not noble houses
Weisman also found it was valuable, building a mech game that was driven by an overarching narrative in a way the tabletop game’s one-off skirmishes were never designed for. He blended in RPG elements from the Mechwarrior games, which were more reliant on storytelling.
“The campaign structure was inspired by MechWarrior II Mercenaries ," he says. "We chose to set the game in the 3025 era at the start of the franchise timeline because it was an era in which mercenaries played a particularly important role in the geopolitical landscape of BattleTech's Inner Sphere.”
MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries 
Giving players control of a small company of mercenaries rather than putting them at the head of a noble house gives the player more agency, Weisman says, and allows for more freedom of movement and less static engagements.
“Of course, that freedom comes at the cost of having to bear the costs of keeping your company afloat. As the player navigates the stars of the Periphery and takes contracts from the many pirate kings and petty dictators that reside there, their mercenary company builds reputation with each of them and eventually with the Noble Houses themselves.”
"BattleTech is a retelling of the story of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The initial game is set during our equivalent of the period of Roman Successor States, when the city states of Rome battled with each other to be the seat of the resurgent empire."
Incorporating this sort of narrative structure and building an open campaign gives each battle more meaning and, more importantly, allows Weisman and his team to incorporate more of the BattleTech universe’s history and lore, one of the most compelling dimensions of the franchise.
Weisman also considered historical parallels from outside of the BattleTech universe. Despite its far-flung science fiction setting, with giant mechs and vast space ships battling amongst the stars, Weisman insists that BattleTech is grounded in real history.
“I have always believed that stories based upon historical circumstances just feel more authentic to human nature,” Weisman says. “BattleTech is a retelling of the story of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire mixed with the concepts of nobility from the middle ages, and a WWII aesthetic. The initial game is set during our equivalent of the period of Roman Successor States, when the city states of Rome battled with each other to be the seat of the resurgent Roman Empire.”
This sense of fractured empire is the core of the BattleTech setting, one where a stagnant elite has divided along lines defined by ancient loyalties and wages a seemingly endless series of internecine wars.
“Of course, the result was not a resplendent Rome, but a technological and sociological decline into the dark ages, setting up the opportunity for the Mongols to invade," Weisman explains. He adds that people who know the history of Rome will see the parallels to BattleTech touchstones like the Noble Houses of the Inner Sphere and the Clan Invasion.
The narrative elements are a key differentiator between BattleTech and other mech-based science fiction, but there are other important differences that Weisman points to that make it stand out from a crowded market of turn-based properties.
“This is a modern turn based tactical game with 3D terrain, line-of-sight, cover, etc., but BattleTech brings some interesting new aspects to the genre. There are three axes of tactics that are unique to BattleTech: heat, stability, and melee.”
The concept of overheating may sound like a fairly simple consideration, but it adds an important layer of strategy and resource management. While a massive salvo of weapons fire from one of your big mechs might cripple or even destroy an enemy unit, it might also leave that mech incapacitated and wide open to retaliation.
“Every action a BattleMech takes generates heat, especially weapons fire," Weisman says. "As heat builds, the mech becomes less efficient and will eventually even do internal damage to itself. In order to stop the internal fusion engine from melting down it will shut itself down, making the mech a sitting duck on the battlefield. As the saying goes, ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall,’ and BattleMechs stand over 10 meters tall so they fall very hard.”
Then there’s stability, a concept that most mech sims don’t bother with despite the fact that their core units are rather ungainly bipedal robots. Unlike tanks, walking robots have the disadvantage of becoming extremely vulnerable if, for instance, one of their supporting limbs is destroyed, or if an explosion is powerful enough to throw them onto their backs.
“Stability is an interesting tactical axis because it is a persistent value for each mech value based upon the sum of your and your opponents actions. Movement, terrain, weapon hits, and most dramatically, melee hits all impact the stability of a mech which eventually can cause it to fall over.
While shut down from heat or knocked over by losing stability mechs are vulnerable to ‘Called Shots’ which allow opponents to target specific hit locations on the mech. BattleMechs are huge vehicles with 11 different hit locations, each with its own armor, internal structure, and components (including weapons), so combat facing is much more important than in most tactical games.”
Capturing those three critical axes, and retaining the sense of feudal strife and aristocratic bickering on a deadly, cosmic scale, are the keys to ensuring this newest iteration feels like a proper BattleTech experience. "Our primary goal is to make sure that our game remains true to the spirit of the original tabletop game, that it feels authentic, and that the mechs perform as expected," says Weisman.