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The Pen Beckons Me: Tactics for Everyone!


Good day all. Whatever day it is. Most of you read this column on the day it arrives on the web - Tuesday- or so my lovely stats tell me. In any case, good day.

Those of you more astute will likely notice the widening length of time between lovely Small Talk episodes. This is thanks in small part (no pun intended) to the ever increasing demand for my pen-time. Yes, the usual complaints - and you'll rarely hear it from Ken Hite, who manages to do two WEEKLY columns versus my lowly semi-monthly one, but hey - he is better paid than I am. That's my story, I am sticking to it dear readers.

Now, on to the war.


Some time ago, an unfortunate subscriber on a mailing list asked for recommendations for tactics for a particular army in a certain game. (Vague enough for you? Good!) In my normal smart-ass mode, I offered him the best advice I could muster for that particular force in that game:

  1. Practice.
  2. See #1.

Now, this perhaps wasn't the nicest thing to say to the probable newbie; and I did explain the point (and probably apologized somewhat - after all, we can't afford to drive anyone away from this shrinking hobby of ours) to him. Tactics articles, in my mind, aren't all that valuable.

Hold on a second. Am I saying that Tacticus and Rommel and Sun-Tzu wasted their time and energies and even their lives writing? No! Even I am not that arrogant. But reading Tacticus and Rommel and Sun-Tzu have rather limited impact on the games that we play. After all, each and every one of them dealt with war, the real thing, and our games don't generally represent that on the same level.

Bear with me here.

Let's take a nice game like Battletech. In Battletech, for those who don't know, you command large hulking machines of war - called Battlemechs - and generally try to pound your enemy into slag. That's the general gist of the game. The TACTICS of the game involve exploiting the weaknesses of certain 'Mechs in the game - they are slow, have poor armor, generate too much heat - etc.

Not much of this can you find in Sun-Tzu. And it really isn't his fault. Battletech isn't exactly an accurate representation of warfare. (Nor does it have to be - it's a game, people!)

The naysayers will tell me that the general principles of Sun-Tzu can be applied to Battletech. Get behind the enemy. Okay, good point. Strike fast where he is unprepared. Hmm-- okay, good point too. Strike at his supply lines. Rapidly losing focus here.

Maybe it isn't fair to try and use the classic texts of war in this context. Fair enough. Let's go hunting for some tactics on the web, shall we? The first thing in any discussion about Battletech is-- "Which 'Mech is the best?"

If you aren't slapping yourself in the forehead right now, allow me. >WHAP!!<

Battletech, if you will allow me, is like most games. There is an odd rock-paper-scissors formula when you boil things down. Speed beats heavy armor, because speed lets you get to the weaker back sides of slow but heavily armored 'Mechs. However, heavily armored 'Mechs generally have lots of firepower, which fast 'Mechs can't handle because they sacrifice armor to be speedy. The compromise, moderate armor and moderate firepower, is the classic jack-of-trades master of none. They MIGHT beat a speedier 'Mech, because they have much firepower, but they get out maneuvered. They MIGHT beat a more heavily armored 'Mech, because they can out maneuver them, but they might not, because they have less firepower.

Actually, that's the most confusing rock-paper-scissors I've ever seen.

What makes Battletech unlike rock-paper-scissors is that it doesn't matter where you place your pieces in rock-paper-scissors. It doesn't matter how cautious you are, or how impetuous. It doesn't even matter if you keep a few fast 'Mechs in reserve to exploit an opening in the enemy line.

But these aren't really things that you should expect to learn from someone else. These are the sort of lessons that you should be learning by playing the game.

And, when it comes to learning tactics, the best learning experience is losing. Really. In winning a game, you can look back over what you have done, and think: "Yep, not bad. Things may not have gone my way completely, but I pulled it off in the end." Patting yourself on the back, you tend to miss out on things. Like the fact that you might not have won the game - rather, your opponent might just have lost it.

Losing causes more examination. "Where the hell did I go wrong? I thought I had it in the bag. My center was strong, my flanks were holding, and I was all ready for the counterattack when my plan fell apart." Then, you dissect. You probably shouldn't have committed all of your forces in the center; they just got bogged down in the fighting and really never got a chance to complete their part of the plan. And perhaps it would have been a better idea to refuse the left flank, and then slam the enemy on the right.

Or whatever. The point is, you look and see what you did wrong. You figure out what MIGHT have happened, had you planned things a little different. This isn't about blaming the loss on anything - it's about getting more prepared for the next game.

More than likely, the other guy was too busy celebrating his win to figure out what to do better. And now it's your turn.

THAT's the sort of tactics article that I would like to see. The type that you can learn from: hard-fought experience. Lose enough games, and you are going to learn how to win. Hey, that's what George Washington did, right? (I can hear the historical guys riling up already-- )

On another note, to all of my daring readers making the trip to Origins, stop in and say hello. I'll be manning one of the tables for Reaper Miniatures, running a demo that I wrote for them. Come by and I'll happily impact some snappy witticism with you. Or, more likely, I'll plead for mercy after being assaulted by hundreds of eager demo players. Either way, it's bound to be amusing.

Until next time, whenever that is, keep your dice on the table and your figures upright. Or something like that.

Robert E. Allen III
Feedback, complaints, etc. to Warmaster@rpg.net

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