Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Retrospective: Battledroids

If you were a fan of GDW's Traveller in the early 1980s, as I was, chances are good that you were familiar with the publications of a small Chicago-based licensee, FASA (which originally stood for "Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration"). Starting in 1980, FASA published more than two dozen products to support Traveller, many of them being or including starship deckplans. Much of their output was the work of the tireless Keith Brothers, whose "Sky Raiders" trilogy of adventures remains one of the high points of FASA's time as a GDW licensee. Lots of old Traveller hands thus have very fond memories of FASA and its contributions to their favorite science fiction RPG.

The combination of my affection for its Traveller products and its publication of Star Trek in 1982 ensured that I kept my eye on FASA, despite my loyalty to TSR Hobbies. Sometime in 1984, I took notice of an announcement that the company was producing a miniatures-based "game of armored combat" set a millennium in the future called Battledroids. I distinctly recall being intrigued by the cover art, which featured a giant robotic war machine striding into battle. You have to remember that this was a year or so before Robotech aired on TV screens in North America, so I wasn't all that familiar with the idea of a walking tank outside of the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back. Consequently, I was quite taken with the premise of Battledroids and hoped to check it out once it was released.

Unfortunately for me, I never saw the game at any of my local hobby shops and soon forgot about it. It wasn't until several years later, when I started college that I again encountered Battledroids, though by this time FASA had changed its name to Battletech, the name by which it is known nowadays. What grabbed my attention at this time wasn't the game itself. Rather, it was a huge map I saw hanging on the wall of a game store that depicted the Inner Sphere, the interstellar setting of Battletech. I'm a sucker for maps, as many gamers are, and this one, filled as it was with literally hundreds of named star systems, was immensely attractive to me. Equally appealing were the illustrations (by David Dietrick) of soldiers and mercenaries from the Battletech setting. The variety of their uniforms impressed me greatly; those illustrations suggested that the Inner Sphere had a history and a culture (or cultures) and I wanted to learn more about it.

I did eventually get to see the original Battledroids game, which was very simple. The rules were contained in a 32-page booklet that covered basic, advanced, and expert play. I remember thinking this was an interesting way to present the game, since it allowed a newcomer to play a simple version of it almost immediately upon opening the box. The later sections added to that simple version by introducing layers of complexity. The other thing I recall liking about the rules were the record sheets for the battledroids. They had a diagram of each droid that included little checkboxes to keep track of damage. I won't claim this was an inspired design or that no one had ever done it before, but I thought it simultaneously both elegant and immersive. 

The game also included map sheets, cardboard markers and tokens, and two plastic battledroid figurines, along with dice. Those little plastic models, as terrible as they were, demonstrated to me the possibilities of this game. The thought of an entire tabletop battlefield filled with these little war machines captured my imagination and I looked forward to the inevitable release of metal versions from Ral Partha. Though I owned a few science fiction miniatures, they never evoked much from my imagination, I'm sorry to say. I saw great potential in the battledroids, though.

The rulebook provided an overview of the setting of Battledroids, talking about the collapse of the United Star League and the Dark Age of the Succession Wars that followed. The term "Dark Age" is no hyperbole; the five successor states of the League have lost the ability to make new battledroids, making them immensely valuable – and their pilots (or droidwarriors, as they were called) celebrated. Battles are fought over resources to maintain and repair the existing battledroids and the rulebook provides information on the nature of this warfare in the 30th century. I don't know that any of this holds up to much scrutiny but there's no question that I found it all quite compelling at the time.

Even now, I find the idea of the Battletech setting very attractive, even if I'm not sure I fully embrace it enough to enjoy it uncritically. The fact that Battletech today still exists is proof, though, that FASA succeeded in creating something imaginatively enduring. And to think it all began with a couple of little plastic figures and some cardboard cut-outs. Not bad!


  1. I was just thinking about Battletech last week... most of my exposure was through the video games. I find the idea very compelling but never really had the opportunity to play. Great trip down memory lane!

  2. I met this game only after ot jad become Battletech.
    Oh my did we love it!
    My group went crazy on Battletech, we played big battles with loys of mecha at first, using multiple sets.
    After citytech, aerotech and finally the Rules of Warfare hardback got published, me and my brother designed big complex scenarios using as many special rules as we could.
    Our masterpiece required a week-end to play through: it included multiple lances, tanks, infantry and artillery support.
    We also played some Succession Wars and tried once or twice Mechwarrior (not a very good job, I think though 1e had some nice touches).
    I liked the setting quite a lot, up to (and including) the arrival of the Clans and the Steiner-Davion unification, after that it gets too convoluted for my taste, going the same way of many other popular IPs.

  3. I'm immensely nostalgic about Battledroids, in part because I bought it freshman year at Penn State in the little game store that was right across the main street from my dorm. It wasn't, to be sure, really all that good, and I'm still a bit ambivalent about BTech's rules to this day, but the setting is almost Tekumel/Glorantha levels of deep and detailed at this point and the active-player fan base is huge for a wargame of its age.

    The fact that it also evokes rose-colored memories of my first girlfriend doesn't hurt either. :)

  4. Oh, how much I have played that game. I bought the second edition, the first with the name it still carries. When we started to play it, it felt extremely complex and time consuming, and looking back at those 2nd ed rules today they look so slim, concise and simple. I think both the rules and the setting are excellent designs.

    I've kept at it, and now have a shelf filled with books and stuff, and it was actually this game that made me start painting miniatures again earlier this year. Also, the present RPG campaign I run is, surprise, MechWarrior:Destiny.

    Great fun. I love this game.

  5. Battletech is a great game. The current stuff from Catalyst Labs is quite nice.

  6. Battletech tournaments funded the college gaming club that I was president of.

  7. I remember the comic book ads in 86, A pal on the bus shared his copy of Mechwarrior and my DM offered to trade me minis to paint his lances, which all firmly glued me to it, I spent all my babysitting and lawnmowing money buying Everything Battletech branded. It's really just a Dougram Traveller campaign...

  8. Battletech was the second rpg-like game that I played after D&D and just before I played MERP/RM. BT remains my second favourite game after D&D and I've always been a sucker for large robots ever since (though never transformers - they just seemed silly).

    What undoubtedly attracted me to it was the draughtsmanship of the Technical Readout 3025 book and the consistency of the images of the various 'mechs. I loved the idea of variants and tinkering with 'mechs within a framework of weight and resource costs. I found the idea that various late 20th century corporations (GMC, Mitsubishi) would still be going a thousand years from now fun. It gave me a signal that the game didn't take itself too seriously.

    Once the clan stuff appeared and FASA ran into IP-related issues around some of the designs (my favourite was and remains the Marauder MAD-3R) my interest waned. If I was offered a game of the original 3025 series 'mechs I'd bite that person's arm off.

  9. I don't know what to make of this, but this is the second time today someone I didn't expect has made a Robotech reference. Earlier today, I was listening to Clay and Buck on the radio and Clay Travis mentioned he was a fan of Starblazers and Robotech.

    James, do you want to bring up any Robotech memories?

    1. My Robotech memories are very limited. I remember watching and enjoying it, especially the third part (the one with the Invid) when I was in grade 11. It definitely made an impression on me at the time, but it wasn't something to which I was particularly dedicated.

    2. I'm a nut about it. I made up an RPG based on using Paranoia for the rules. (Yes, that Paranoia with the insane computer.) More recently, I did a D20 version.

  10. >The term "Dark Age" is no hyperbole; the five successor states of the League have lost the ability to make new battledroids, making them immensely valuable

    "Interstellar civilization fallen into a Dark Age" is a well-worn trope in science fiction (see Dune or Foundation) but the specific combination of that trope with piloted giant robots reminds me of the anime Heavy Metal L-Gaim, one of Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino's lesser-known works. In L-Gaim the titular Heavy Metals were divided into "grades" based on how much pre-Dark-Age technology they retained; the rarest and most desirable machines were the "Originals" which were actual surviving antiques.

    L-Gaim aired in 1984 (and didn't become officially available outside Japan until much, much later) which is probably too close to Battledroids for either to have directly influenced the other.

  11. The release of the Catalyst computer simulation wrought forth a nostalgic return (at least on the monitor) to this gem of my youth.

    Best I can tell, the computer game faithfully mimics the tabletop rules, so I don't have to pursue a WH40K monastic existence to bring a lance of 'mechs to combat.

    Similar to what someone mentioned above, BT was a quick hop from D&D, an outlet for something between a wargame and sci-fi.

    I didn't appreciate the lore then, but now I have begun read the novels and lorebooks, and I am somewhat blown away by the depth and readability.

    One thing I really admire about how Catalyst is treating this IP is there are "eras" that encompass slices of time in the world, and ALL of them are supported to one degree or another.

    I think this really allows adaptability of the OSR grognards to dip back in to the period they best remember or appreciate. Would that other (ahem, looking at you Faerun) game worlds curated their offerings similarly.

    One last odd note, apparently the IP is owned by Topps, the company that owns baseball cards... at least until their contract is up.

    I hope that doesn't impact how they've licensed the IP to Catalyst, who I cannot say enough good things about. My FB feed is full of tabletop enthusiasts raving about their newly purchased mechs... even if they're arriving a tad behind schedule.

    Blame ComStar.

  12. I remember my long-term Shadowrun GM had a big stack of Battletech stuff -- he was obviously a FASA fan -- but we never played it for some reason.

    I do like big stompy robot wargames -- the Epic games are my favourite wargames from Games Workshop -- so maybe I should give BT a try.

  13. So often here I hear tales of not having shops and resources and peoples to play with - and i’m deeply ashamed for how close to the various sources I managed to luck into and take for granted.

    My main shop was The Dungeon in Lake Geneva WI but a close second for me was (and still is!) Games Plus in Mt. Prospect IL.

    Back in 85 I joined a Dr. Who fan club that met in the basement of Games Plus after hours. The guy who ran the club reached out to greater geek community to put together a convention that took place at my high school one fine Saturday.

    There was quite the amount of convention dealer room swag merchants along with a solid selection of gaming stuff. Fasa sent out a fine entertaining fellow to run Battledroids tourneys. I was the only one who had gotten into it prior that showed up that day - but a dozen more were absolutely on board after.

    As I was familiar, the terribly personable beret’d fellow let me run the game under his watchful eye. Extra awesome.

    Talking to a Fasa nerd DM friend 20 years later, i’m told he was a very important person in the making of the game.

    Any idea on who this mystery game master was?

  14. By the way, I learned long ago from industry insiders that the change of name from -droids to -tech occurred after a cease & desist letter from Lucasfilm. In this case though I think the legal pressure made for a more accurate and attractive title.