As Dave and I roamed around the exhibition hall at GenCon 2008, we had some interview set up but we also took it upon ourselves to do a few interviews and talk to a few developers about games that we really like. For me, one of the first games / booths I gravitated towards was Catalyst Game Labs and all of the new Battletech material they’re releasing.
I was very lucky to sit down for a few minutes with Randall Bills from Catalyst and ask him a few questions about what they’ve been doing lately.
Critical Hits: Tell us a bit about who you are, and what you do!
Randall Bills: I was the Battletech line developer for more years than I’d like to admit. Last year I switched over to Managing Developer, but I’m still fairly heavy into Battletech as the new developer transitions over. We have a lot of new gamelines, obviously Shadowrun is one of our other staple lines. We have Eclipse Phase which is new, a post apocalyptic conspiracy and horror RPG that’s going to be coming out at the end of the year, and we just picked up CthulhuTech. So I’ve taken over the managing development side for the whole company.
CH: Were you involved in the redesign of Battletech for the new boxed set?
RB: Yea, pretty much that was all me. I started back at FASA, and I actually worked for a year at WizKids, worked for FanPro for most of the time that they had it, and then co-owner and operator with Catalyst. So the new boxed set and core line of rulebooks were all kind of my brainchild.
CH: How do you feel about the product now that it’s out, and it has won some awards?
RB: Really good! I fought for literally years mainly to get plastics back into it, to publish it at the level I wanted with the contents that I wanted. It was a pretty big gamble, we had to learn whole new ways of doing things and new companies to deal with to try and make it all happen. The whole thing was very positive.
CH: What are some of the changes between classic Battletech and the new boxed set?
RB: Actually, if you played Battletech back in the day, and we’ve had a lot of people coming back to the game because we’ve been getting noticed, they talk about it on the website or at conventions that they pick up the boxed set and it feels like an old friend. It’s come back and, oh my gosh, it feels just like it did and it’s so much fun! The core game mechanics in the boxed set really haven’t changed in 25+ years. All that we did is hone the rules, refined the product, represented it, and added in all the little bells and whistles that really make a game not just feel good but you really feel like you got your moneys worth and that you’re going to get many, many game nights out of this boxed set. So it’s instantly recognizable out of the box.
Now, once you move beyond the boxed set, into Total Warfare which is the standard rulebook, it introduces advanced technologies such as the clans. It also introduces vehicles, airships, space fighters, and infantry. Once you get to that level, you’ll then start recognizing some differences. One of the things we wanted to do, while mechs still remain as absolutely the kings of the battlefield, part of the universe is all of this “other” that creates this combined arms type of universe. Back in the day, a lot of those other units were real ‘popcorn’, it almost wasn’t fun to take infantry on the board because they just went away quickly. So while we tried to maintain the focus on the mechs, we’ve really boosted up in various areas a lot of the other units so that you can take a whole force and march it onto the field and have fun with it no matter what you do.
CH: What would you say you’re least happy about with the new boxed set?
RB: The maps, we got two of them in the boxed set which was the standard. For once we got double printed ones, so there are actually two different maps on either side of each one, as we tried to go for that usability angle. However, the paper that they were printed on there was an error with, it’s like a soft-glossy stock so they end up wrinkling a little bit and don’t lay out flat all of the time. That’s really the only disappointment, I think, with the product. In a reprint we’ll absolutely be fixing that part of the product.
CH: You mentioned Total Warfare, are there any other expansions coming out or released already for the game?
RB: Actually there are a lot of expansions, we do the traditional Technical Readouts but we took the old 3025 and 3026 Technical Readouts and merged them into the 3039 Technical Readout. For a longtime player, there’s new material in there too so we didn’t just take the books and splice them together, the authors went through and took the material that was there and crafted new parts while still remaining true to that cannon that’s been out there. For brand new players, it’s a lot easier to slide from the boxed set through TR 3039 because we crafted it to be a companion volume so that it’s easier to just pick it up and use it.
The Total Warfare products is a line of core rulebooks. Generally what would happen in the past, and I was a part of that past so that was partially my fault, is that you would plan out a series of books but you wouldn’t necessarily plan out how they all would plug in really well together. It was more of a scattershot then, so now what we wanted to do was craft a series of products that would all dovetail and support each other every step of the way. So whether you’re going forward or you’re going back, each of the products support each other and help you move on to the next one. Total Warfare is the standard rulebook which contains all of your rules for normal gameplay, for most of the ground units in Battletech. The Tech Manual is the construction rules for all those units, one of Battletech’s biggest selling points for a lot of fans is their ability to make their own units and to fight those against the cannon mechs and units.
New here at GenCon is the book Tactical Operations, which is going to be the first of three advanced rulebooks. Each one of these rulebooks is focused on a specific area that allows you to ‘stage up’, the first one is planetary conquest and it contains all the optional rules for being on a planet and how to put that into your scenario. The next book which should be out at the end of this year, called Strategic Ops, is for when you’ve just jumped into the system and now you’ve got to burn all the way to the surface and conquer the whole planet. So that’s a multi-campaign idea, it introduces the jumpships, warships, and some of the more advanced units that are in the universe. Then there will be Interstellar Operations goes to that final degree of the, “Hey I want to be the leader of my House, I want to build units from the ground up, I want to run those units, and I want to run multi-world campaigns.” The books are very focused so you can pick up the book, read the back paragraph, and know exactly what this book is going to do for you and your gaming group.
Thanks to Randall Bills for taking the time to talk about Battletech! It sounds like Catalyst has a bunch of great products coming out in the next couple of months, now I just need to pick up the basic boxed set and get some people together to try it out!