August 5, 2021

Classic Reviews: Mechwarrior Dark Age by WizKids

Michael Eckenfels, 8 April 2021

Having been a huge BattleTech nut back in the 1980’s (and owning most of the boxed sets for the game to this day), I jumped at the chance to take a look at the new miniatures battles system. What’s interesting about this one is that it is not the one-to-two inch metal figures that were the staple of BattleTech miniatures gaming back in the day. Instead, the figures are quite large – a ‘Mech is about three to four inches tall – and not just ‘Mechs are used to fill out an army. Infantry (powered suits and otherwise) and vehicles (sleds and tanks, to name but a few) are also available. The ‘Mechs resemble action figures instead of true statuesque miniatures – they rotate at the waist, and arms move up and down.

On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue

Included in the Starter Set is one ‘Mech, two vehicles, and five infantry groups. For about twenty bucks, this is kind of a sparse collection, but also included are a rules book, a cloth tape measure, dice, and various data cards with a wealth of information on various mercenary companies, people, and empires. Booster packs cost about ten dollars each and add one ‘Mech, one vehicle, and two infantry groups to any burgeoning military force. The unfortunate side effect, to quote a Tom Hanks character, is “you never know what you’re going to get.” The outside of the box lends no hints to what is included, which brings the game pieces into the mythological realm of collector card trading. Some of the fun in collecting cards was, indeed, not knowing what was in the pack, but with the price of these pieces, I’d much prefer to know what I’m getting. Plus, it would be nice to think, “Hey, I want a Wolverine. Where can I get one?” instead of “Hey, not another Spider.”

CR-MWDA-Infantry
Cavalier Battle Armor. They may survive for a few more seconds than their regular Infantry cousins.

 

click images to enlarge

Games are very simple affairs, and can be played on any surface. A dedicated player could spend hundreds of dollars on a playing surface resplendent with elevations, buildings, trees, and the like, or can simply use household objects. Regardless of the playing surface, a group of two or more players can find space anywhere for a game at any time. 

The units are finely detailed, at least a lot more so than someone like me could paint them. The good looks of the pieces combined with their action figure-like posing (for the ‘Mechs, with some vehicles able to rotate turrets) makes for some exquisite work. 

CR-MWDA-Hatchetman
The Hatchetman – luckily, my personal favorite ‘Mech (this one is from a Dark Age Booster Pack).

 

To begin, players decide on a point limit and ‘buy’ units from their stashes to deploy into combat. A multiple of 100 points is recommended by the game manual, and starting with 100 is a good start (but players may set it however they wish); it will purchase a ‘Mech, a vehicle, and a group of infantry. Set up takes place at opposite ends of a defined area (or wherever the players wish to place them, but for fairness’ sake they should be some distance apart). Once set up, the players are ready for action.

The most innovative part of the game lay in its record keeping. Each unit has its own Combat Dial, which keeps track of various pieces of information that allows the game to be played without having to stop to consult notes or ‘Mech sheets. When a unit takes damage, the combat dial is clicked clockwise to reveal a new set of numbers, usually reflecting a slightly poorer performance (depending on the unit). The combat dial defines values such as primary damage, secondary damage, speed, attack and defense values, and so forth. ‘Mechs also have a Heat Dial, which reflects the ever-present heat buildup within the monstrous war machines. Going clockwise is called “taking a click of cooling,” while going counter-clockwise is called “taking a click of heat.” Regardless of what it’s called, it’s a nice feature.

CR-MWDA-BaseCloseup
A closer look at a ‘Mech’s base.

 

Further, some units have specialties that others do not. Some, for example, have colored squares on their combat dial that are associated with special abilities related to ballistic combat, melee attacks, or defense – just to name a few. Some of these abilities, when used, are recorded by taking a click of damage. Instead of representing physical damage to the unit, the click represents ammo expenditure, used fuel, and the like. Damage then becomes a nebulous rating that encompasses not only what a player’s forces can take on the battlefield, but to an extent what they can dish out, too.

Orders are easily carried out. For every 100 points’ worth of force the player built up with, they receive one Order. Once their order is played, their turn ends and moves to the next player. Order choices are Move, Ranged Combat, Close Combat, or Vent. Some units are limited to the actions they can take (for example, Infantry would never need to Vent). This makes decision-making a very important factor not to be taken lightly. As the battle rages on, the player will be faced with conundrums of all types – vent the overheating ‘Mech, or fire with the tank, or…well, choices are merely limited to the extent of force the player has command over.

CR-MWDA-StarterSet
From this particular Starter Set, I have a Spider ‘Mech, an M1 Marksman Tank, a JESII Missile Carrier, and five different infantry units.

 

Combat is simple and fast. When a ranged attack, for example, connects with a target it does damage equal to its Damage Value for a ranged attack. The number is how many clicks of damage the target takes. When a unit’s Combat Dial shows three bullet holes, it’s destroyed and is removed from the game (and creativity here adds some to the game, such as leaving a unit in place and adding cottonballs to represent smoke).

Rules regarding terrain, height advantages, speed, and even capturing enemy vehicles and ‘Mechs is included to round out an easy to learn game system. I enjoyed gaming with these pieces, although my pocketbook would require I take it in moderation. And, not knowing what’s in the boxes before paying takes me aback somewhat. However, with 116 different figures, it’s very doubtful that a casual gamer would get repeats. And to be fair, repeats aren’t necessarily bad – but like other MechWarrior players, I’m keen to certain types and loathe others. 

CR-MWDA-M1Marksman
M1 Marksman tank, again, with the quarter for scale

 

And, a game with anything more than a dozen units to each side can be a bit unwieldy, given the one-turn-per-100-points turn system. Such battles would last a long, long time that begs the question that this game was intended more to be fought as small-unit actions instead of representing huge campaigns – although with enough time and units, any battle from the MechWarrior universe should be playable.

This game is worthy of any MechWarrior fan’s collection, at the very least with a Starter Set and a Booster Pack. With like-minded and like-equipped friends, an evening of ‘Mech warfare is easy, manageable, and most of all, fun.

 


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