Thursday, February 2, 2017

Harebrained Initiative (86 pages later)

[TL;DR? Weighing pros and cons, it's mostly pros, and the cons are arguable. I want to tweak how the "weight classes" are defined, though, which is why I'm really posting.]

It took a few weeks, but I finally finished reading this eighty-six page discussion of Harebrained Schemes' initiative system.

Regular BattleTech tosses a coin at the top of each round and then alternates between players, waiting to resolve weapons fire for all units en masse.HBS BattleTech resolves each unit's weapons fire individually after it moves, and gives lighter weight classes the option to activate before heavier weight classes.

There's a lot to like about the HBS system:
  • It mitigates the effects of always winning or losing the coin toss by making faster-activating units less powerful than slower-activating ones. 
  • You can break up enemy activations (or bunch up your own) by reserving your early-acting units to later phases.  
  • Your influence over activation order is intrinsic to force composition. 
  • Bonus: It adds value to light and medium 'Mechs, which tabletop players often criticize as too weak relative to heavy and assault 'Mechs. 
  • Meh: It matches the fiction better (events are rarely depicted as simultaneous - characters tend to take a hit from their enemy, then maneuver cleverly and fire a return volley). 
Other effects are less clear-cut, and I did see two substantive objections. 

No More Uncertain Positioning

In regular BattleTech, the first 'Mech to move in a turn doesn't know where any other 'Mechs will be - you have to anticipate multiple contingencies - while the last 'Mech can choose its range and terrain perfectly. Disadvantaging your opponent via range and terrain is a key element of regular BattleTech play, and is much harder to do in the more chess-like HBS system where every attacker knows exactly where its targets are.

On the other hand, always having the advantage when moving to attack seems like it would encourage aggressive maneuvering, which would help counter the complaint that regular BattleTech favors turtling; and fog of war should restore an element of uncertainty to your maneuvers, again in a way which shouldn't favor turtling.

Someone suggested that resolving weapon attacks before the movement phase would restore uncertainty to every target's position; it's an intriguing idea. Might make each round slower and less decisive though. (Were I to playtest it, my main concern would be whether it buffs assaults at the expense of lights.)

It was also suggested that HBS switch to the tabletop's regular initiative system. I suppose it's theoretically possible for a GUI to present the whole lance's potential weapon damages and chances to hit (potentially over fifty bits of data, double that if you include enemy fire) in a legible and intuitive way to a player trying to distribute them between potential targets, but perhaps that is not an optimal use of the developers' energy.

Lighter Isn't Always Weaker

A frequently discussed tactic consists of delaying a light 'Mech to the last phase so it can attack and then attack again immediately in the first phase the following turn; this isn't a huge deal because it still has to endure fire as normal in both turns, from either the target or its mates (and if the target is really worried, it can delay to the final phase too).

The real concern is when the "weak" 'Mech is about as strong as the "strong" one (e.g., Griffins vs Dragons). Personal spitballing now:
  • If you have fixed categories there will always be edge cases at the edges of the categories, so, get rid of the edges. Replace the discrete phases with a "sliding" phase.
  • Weight is just a proxy for combat effectiveness, so actually use Battle Value (or comparable rating) instead. (There was some clamor to base initiative on speed instead, but, in my opinion, putting a Ryoken and a Stinger in the same phase would ruin everything good about the initiative system.)
      • The developers felt speed was already valuable, and that lighter 'Mechs accelerate (and can therefore react) more quickly than heavier ones. 
      • If you were to omit mobility from the BV calculation, then given two 'Mechs of equal mass, the one with more engines and jump jets would have less armor and firepower, and therefore better initiative.
  • The jump from 20 to 40 tons is, proportionately, a lot bigger than the jump from 60 to 80 tons, so when you "delay" a 'Mech, multiply its initiative by 1.5x instead of adding 20 tons.
The developers weren't too concerned about this. In campaign play, long term attrition is more important than "fair" set-piece fights; and in p-v-p play it's impossible to strictly police the meta anyways.

Some people expressed concerns about things like kiting or lucky hits knocking 'Mechs out in the first round of contact, but these are issues in regular play too, so I don't expect the initiative system to address them. More interesting is a scenario where a wolfpack of heavies take out an assault 'Mech before it has a chance to act. At first it seems unfair, but to pull this off the heavies have either outmaneuvered the opponent's lance or are taking fire before or after their attack, so maybe it's not a bug but a feature.

Tertiary and Trivial

Related to the two substantive objections above is the fact that, since you resolve weapon attacks one 'Mech at a time, if your primary target dies earlier than expected, you can shift your next 'Mech's attacks to a new target. It reduces the incentive for a single 'Mech to split fire between multiple targets. Of course, HBS got rid of rear-firing weapons, too, so they obviously weren't going to prioritize that kind of thing anyways.

I would like a game in which an optimal strategy involves a few rear-firing weapons; ironically, it wouldn't be any closer to regular BattleTech than HBS' game is, because regular BattleTech doesn't exactly incentivize that either.


  1. Well, what have we here?

    I prefer using cards drawn from a deck that is scuffled after each turn. The order the mechs move is therefore random, for definitions of random, and in the system I took from TFL games you also have random end of turn that may well mean not all the mech get to move before firing.

    Of all the systems I've played this is the one that has allowed me and my friends to run a full game with large formations. A link to what has become a stalled project~:

    1. I remember that! I liked how using cards lets you insert extra events into the initiative track, or manipulate the game in other ways.

  2. Not understanding 100% of this and not being willing to read eighty-three pages (the HBS blog post is good enough, I hope), I intuitively prefer the speed-basis initiative, but get the weight-basis. Should a Panther be able to draw down on a Stormcrow? Bah!

    Still, it seems like a solid way to adapt the board game to a computer game.

    1. The HBS blog should be enough; I think my post managed to extract everything of value from the thread. (Except for a tangent about ammo explosions around page 46, where people started linking videos of warships exploding.)

      I definitely sacrificed clarity for brevity. Anyone who really cares about the topic already hashed it out months ago, though, soooo not really regretting it here.

      Hopefully HBS' animators make heavy units look noticeably slower to react and accelerate than lighter units of equal speed. Gotta manipulate player intuitions.

    2. PS: like most giant threads, it only got to 80+ pages because people just replied to points as they came across them, instead of reading on to see if the points had already been addressed. It's one of the *very* few times I've seen someone call a discussion circular where it really is circular, and not just the complaining party failing to understand the argument.

      Also points up a critical advantage 4chan's forum architecture has over everyone else. But I'm not writing my own forums software anytime soon, so that's neither here nor there.