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BattleTech, a guide to getting started

As the old adage goes, “Kill the meat, save the metal”

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A MechWarrior sits atop a Catapult, an armored walking tank in BattleTech, and enjoys a cigarette. Concept art for BattleTech, from Harebrained Schemes. Harebrained Schemes
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

BattleTech, the turn-based strategy title from Harebrained Schemes, has a deceptively steep learning curve. You can spend an awful lot of time slamming missiles into the side even the lightest BattleMech and still not bring it down. But while the game is light on instruction in the finer points of 31st-century combined arms warfare, it draws from a massive, 30-year-old body of remarkably consistent existing lore.

Playing the new BattleTech well means knowing how to excel at older incarnations of the game. After dozens of hours in the cockpit, here are my top five tips.

Know your enemy

Once you make contact with enemy forces, you need to know what they’re capable of. That will help you to prioritize targets, focusing the fire of multiple ’Mechs in your squad to bring them down.

The silhouettes of each enemy unit can be hard to differentiate at a distance. That’s because Harebrained Schemes skewed heavily on the side of tradition. The shape of the ’Mechs in the game is pretty much the same shape of the ’Mechs in 1987, with little to no accommodation made for modern design. That’s especially true of some of the game’s smaller ground vehicles, which get entirely lost in the terrain at times.

This may sound weird, but the best reference materials I found actually come from the tabletop game.

For ground vehicles, I recommend using Sarna, the official community-run BattleTech wiki. It can help you tell the difference between a lightly armed nuisance and a heavily armored Bulldog packing a devastating laser cannon or long-range missiles.

For information on BattleMechs, the best place to start is the Master Unit List, which is maintained by the developer of the tabletop game, Catalyst Game Labs. It will help you determine the basic role of each unit at a glance. If you want even more details about potential strengths and weaknesses, go back and check out the information on Sarna.

Catalyst also sells a number of sourcebooks called “technical readouts.” They’re available as PDFs, and while they will likely contain a lot more information than you require, sometimes it’s nice to have a physical book on your desk. I recommend the BattleTech: Technical Readout: Succession Wars, which combines a number of other books into one handy volume. The PDF version is on sale right now for $9.99.

BattleTech - lance loadout
This has been my lineup for most of the early game. Left to right, my fire support, brawler, sniper and scout ’Mechs. Both Wanderer and Behemoth have perks that give them increased durability under fire, while Glitch can target two different units on the same turn with her dual PPCs. All the way on the right, Dekker has a perk that allows him to identify enemy units beyond visual range, which allows my other ’Mechs to hit them with long-range weapons at will.
Harebrained Schemes via Polygon

Know your role

There are many different classifications of BattleMech in the BattleTech universe, but in the early game, at least, they all boil down to four basic roles. Build out your squad, which is called a “lance,” with one of each type, and you should be able to make it through the first half-dozen missions relatively unscathed.

Scout: Lightly armed and armored units, like the Spider- and Locust-class ’Mechs, are useful for their maneuverability, but if you leave them exposed, they’ll be quickly taken down. BattleTech makes excellent use of the fog of war, meaning you have to see your targets before you can hit them. It’s best to give scouts lots of jump jets, which will let them move over obstacles quickly and take cover when needed. In a pinch, they can also hit larger ’Mechs solidly from behind, be used as a distraction to draw away enemy forces, or to range out ahead of the main lance to take out turret generators and other lightly armored objectives.

Brawler: Middleweight (45- to 65-ton) and heavier ’Mechs that can mount short-range missile (SRM) batteries are best applied in the role of brawler. SRMs are the shotguns of the BattleTech universe. They do tons of damage at short range, so that means you’ll need to pile on the armor to get those units into and out of harm’s way. Early on you’ll have access to a Shadow Hawk-class ’Mech. Later on, the Centurion does an even better job.

Fire support: These types of ’Mechs come in many different flavors, including the Blackjack-class ones, which you’ll have at the very start of the game. They mount a combination of projectile and laser weaponry and are best used to engage at medium distances. They can be a bit fragile, however; you might want to strap some jump jets on them so they can get out of harm’s way when the need arises. Keep them firing as you’re able, but also keep them moving and behind the front-line brawlers to maximize their effectiveness. Later on you’ll get access to the JagerMech, which will improve your damage output at medium and long distance as well.

Sniper: This isn’t a ’Mech, so much as it is the weapon that it wields — the mighty particle projection cannon, or PPC. It lobs a lethal ball of protons and ions at the target, often from super long range. You’ll start the game out with one strapped to the arm of a Vindicator-class BattleMech, but you’ll want to find a second as soon as you’re able. Once you do, load up on heat sinks to keep them both firing every round. The moment your sniper ’Mech starts to take damage, however, pull them back. Having an arm fall off and losing your PPC early on will slow you down, and they’re fairly hard to find in stores.

BattleMech - fire support ’Mech
Here’s a shot of my scout ’Mech firing up at an enemy. Note the red outline around the enemy ’Mech at the top of the frame. That outline shows what parts of the enemy I’m most likely to hit, given our orientation.
Harebrained Schemes via Polygon

Fire for effect

If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can wail away on a BattleMech all day and not bring it down. Dealing damage is an art, not a science, in the BattleTech universe. Here’s how it works.

To “kill” a mech, you have to destroy its center torso, also referred to as the CT. Damage is location-based, so if the enemy mech is standing with its right side facing you, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll damage the CT until you’ve knocked off their right arm (RA) and right torso (RT). Maneuver directly in front of or directly behind an enemy mech to have the greatest chance of damaging the CT.

However, once the CT blows, the explosion is likely to do a lot more damage to the ’Mech’s other parts. If you can, take out the head — that’s where the pilot sits — or the legs. That will bring the ’Mech down with the least amount of collateral damage, meaning you’ll have more salvage to bring home and repurpose for the next mission.

Precision strikes, which cost morale, are the best way to take ’Mechs apart piece by piece. They’re especially useful if a sniper has one of your units pinned down. Knock off their PPC to ruin their day.

BattleTech - calling a shot
Called shots cost morale, which accumulates most quickly when you down an enemy ’Mech. Chain your kills in such a way that finishing off a smaller ’Mech early in a round allows you to make a called shot against a more heavily armored enemy later on.
Harebrained Schemes via Polygon

Plan ahead

Unlike many other turn-based games, BattleTech gives players lot of options for how they execute a mission. Observe the terrain carefully before each mission begins. Plan out the route that you want to take toward the objective, and think about where you want to position your fire support and sniper units along the way.

Pay careful attention to trees and buildings. They can provide you with partial or complete cover, which is especially useful when you’re moving delicate scout units around along the edges of the map.

Most importantly, always have an escape route in mind. There’s plenty of room to run away on these maps, and sacrificing a ’Mech — at least in the early game — should never be the option of choice.

Specialize your team early and often

Finally, spend time between each mission spending your experience points. It’s an easy thing to overlook as you move from mission to mission, but the perks that you unlock are vital to your survival on the battlefield.

You’ll start the game with only a handful of pilots, called MechWarriors. Unlike units in XCOM, they don’t gather experience based on individual kills. Instead, they become more skilled by participating in successful missions. As a result, those first four or five MechWarriors will reach maximum level quickly.

Carefully select which perks you choose for each MechWarrior based on their role. Snipers will want to emphasize gunnery, while brawlers need to be good pilots to maximize melee hits. Scouts will want to pick up the sensor lock perk as soon as possible, which removes the evasion perk from enemy ’Mechs and makes them easier to target for fire support and snipers.