Part One: Models
Part Three: Playtest
I used to play Palladium games quite a bit. In the 90s and early 2000s it was all I played. I still have a four foot high stack of just Rifts books alone, then you got Heroes Unlimited, Beyond the Supernatural, TMNT, Nightbane, and my first love...the thing that got me hooked on Palladium, the Robotech RPG. Palladium was a juggernaut back in those days, its rules were a bit arcane and dated, showing its roots as a homebrew offshoot of AD&D, but the settings were wild and imaginative, and the universal in-house rule system made it so you could play just about anything you wanted in any given game, something that wasn't really rivaled until WOTC rolled out the d20 system and literally changed the game.
Now a days, Palladium is sort of a relic of its former glory. They still make new stuff, but using the same dated 80s style game engine that they've used for decades. I've still got am abiding fondness for the company and the games, but I haven't played in more than a decade, or bought a new book in longer than that. I'll pick one up and thumb through it in the same shop and see that nothing's changed and smile a bit at the good times, but I don't really miss it.
So why am I waxing nostalgic about RPGs in an article for a wargaming blog? Well, it's right there in the name: "Robotech RPG Tactics" so how much of the charming, if severely dated Palladium RPG made it into their wargame?
Just the right amount, it turns out.
|The layout and art is lovely and the rules are pretty simple and clear.|
People familiar with Palladium will see it right away. Damage is tracked as MD, and hit points as MDC, Mega-Damage and Mega-Damage Capacity respectively, from the RPG rules where normal humans and materials had Hit Points and SDC (Structural Damage Capacity), Mega-Damage was effectively 100 times the damage, used for giant mecha and supernatural creatures...the terms feel a bit weird and out of place in a game with only one damage scale, but they only refer to them by their abbreviations through most of the rules book, so it's easy to forget about.
It's a bit quaint, but damage by any other name is still damage and the similarity ends at the name. Relative damage and damage capacity of RPG mecha vs wargame mecha don't have much in common, and that's probably for the best. The RPG was designed around UEDF (United Earth Defense Forces, the human faction) player characters blowing away hordes of 50-foot kobolds, not about balancing forces against each other. Zentradi in RRT are still made of tissue paper but it's not as bad as it would have been in a direct conversion.
Other bits are more subtle. You roll to Strike rather than to hit, mecha have the option to Dodge or Roll With The Impact. In melee there's a Parry roll, all right out of the Palladium RPG lexicon. Enough familiarity there for Palladium fans to feel at home, but not so much of the clunky old beast that it bogs down the new game for everyone else.
All in all though, it feels like it's got more in common with Warhammer and other modern wargames than the Robotech RPG, and that's no bad thing. I'm going to go with a general overview before I break into the opinion section.
First impression of reading through the rulebook and thumbing through the cards shows me a game that looks light and fun to play. Models (mecha) have five basic stats, Speed (movement in inches), Piloting (mainly for dodging and melee combat), Gunnery (shooting stuff) and Defense (sort of like Armor Class in D&D, where it's a mix of how hard you are to hit and how likely it is for stuff to just bounce off), and MDC (hit points, essentially), weapons just have Range (in inches) and MD (damage), which is pretty much all you need.
Turns have two phases: Command and Action. You refil your command points (see below) and roll for initiative in the Command phase, and activate certain pre-action abilities, and you do everything else in the Action phase. Except the Action phase has four steps and the command phase has three, so really it's more like each turn has seven phases, but whatever.
You get a number of Command points equal to the number of mecha you have (not so fast, Zentradi, your throw-away troops don't count), and the total Leadership value of your various command mecha (of which humans don't get many and have lower scores, but don't need them because all their models count). Command points can be spent to give your models extra movement, extra attacks, activate special abilities and special melee attacks, and for defense, to dodge, shoot down missiles or roll with impacts to reduce damage.
Initiative is a 2d6 roll-off, tie goes to the guy with the highest Leadership mecha on the board (so, the Zentradi) Winner decides who goes first that turn.
After that you activate whatever pre-action abilities you have, beginning of the turn stuff like Zentradi reinforcements.
With the maintainence stuff out of the way you can move on to the Action Phase, where you Activate squads, move, attack, and resolve the outcome.
This is where things take a bit of a turn. You Activate a single squad, go through all of its movement and attacks, then pass off to your opponent who activates a squad, does all its stuff, then the action passes back to you, etc. So each turn you're trading off, effectively having a bunch of little sub-turns until everyone's activated and done their stuff, then you end the turn and start a new one. I'm not sure how this will go in practice, but in theory it looks kinda neat.
Movement is simple. Move inches equal to your speed, don't move through other mecha or impassable objects, etc. You can spend a command point to boost a model's speed, which works as follows: Spend as many command points as you want to boost one model's speed. That model rolls a number of d6 equal to the points spent and adds their Piloting to each roll. For each result that is equal to or greater than the unit's Speed (or 6 if the unit has a speed higher than 6), that model gets an extra move at its speed attribute. So theoretically you can crank someone's speed way up, or spend less points per model and boost more models, it's up to you.
Interestingly, squads are not required to move and act as a unit. Once they're activated you can split them up, move some and leave others stationary or move away from each other, have some engaged in melee while others make ranged attacks, etc. You get a bonus for models that are within 2" of each other, but it's kind of a skirmish game in the sense that you can have elements of a squad spread out all over the board acting on their own, they just activate and perform their actions at the same time.
Combat is a bit more complicated, but then isn't it always?
Each mecha can fire one weapon system for free. Additional weapon systems can be activated by spending command points, one per weapon (similarly, rapid fire weapons can be fired one additional time at the cost of a command point). Missiles with the Volley ability can be split up to make multiple attacks, which makes them pretty powerful, but it's balanced by ammo, individual strike rolls and anti-missile systems.
Rolling to Strike is a simple d6 roll plus your Gunnery, vs the opponent's Defense stat. Once you strike the enemy can spend a command point to try to dodge, rolling 1d6 plus Piloting vs your Strike total. If that fails you can spend a point to Roll with it. ironically no die roll is required to Roll with the impact. Spending a point simply halves the damage, and you can do it after you fail to Dodge, or instead of if you're not optimistic about your chances to Dodge.
After that, just mark off your damage. One point on that, despite the simple statlines, all the mecha are multi-wound models, so you're going to need to do a lot of bookkeeping to keep things straight. The cards have individual boxes for damage that you can tick off with a dry erase pen (not included) but you'll also need to somehow number your models within the squads. The bases have little placards on the back that might be useful for that, but God knows there's not enough variety in posing to single out your models without something like a numbering system.
The Resolution step is another book keeping step where certain abilities activate. nothing much to see here. That's pretty much it for the core rules. There's some bits about mission styles, army building and the like, as well as the usual minutiae of facing, line of sight and whatnot but in a nutshell those are the rules.
All in all, I think the rules are actually pretty good. I'm not sure how the back-and-forth activations will work out, but it definitely creates a dynamic flow of action as the battle constantly shifts around it. The basics are quite simple, and there are a few conditional modifiers and special abilities but not too many to keep track of. What Warhammer would cram into two hundred pages, Robotech manages to do in about twenty.
Presentation is nice, but I don't like the way things are split up, but I'll get to that. The rulebook is a hundred-odd pages of glossy full color art with nice readable largish print and no huge walls of text (outside of the brief 'history of the Macross saga' segment...just in case you picked the game up without any concept of what Robotech was). Nice simple illustrations break up and detail the otherwise dry rules presentation, and there's a dozen or so pages of lovely painting guides showing possible color patterns for different squads and factions. A decent index, but no glossary (not that it's particularly needed) finishes off a perfectly serviceable paperback rulebook.
But the bulk of your focus once the game gets rolling are the cards, of which there are three different types and sizes. They're all nicely made and glossy, but not 'upgraded to laminate' like we were promised, unless they consider regular glossy cardstock to be laminated. And here's where the rules presentation kind of falls apart for me...
The damned cards!
|From the Kickstarter page, which is why it looks better than the crap I post.|
Don't get me wrong, the idea of stat cards that double as reusable (in theory, I worry about this glossy cardstock's durability) record sheets is a good one, and one used by other games like Warmachine to great effect. And I don't mind having ready access to unit upgrades and stats and points cost in card form.
What I object to is having them ONLY in card form!
The book has basic stats for all of the models filling about a 40 of its 112 pages, but nowhere does it mention points cost, or even *describe* optional upgrades. Even the special rules for each faction are for some unfathomable reason left out of the rulebook! It's also lacking anything resembling a force organization chart, breaking down the types of squads and add-ons. No, instead all that info gets crammed onto tiny cards.
And there's three different sizes to contend with.
There are standard playing card sized cards that are double sided and include the baseline stats and abilities for each model just like the book entry. These are fine, but not strictly needed since they just replicate info from the book.
There are double-sized, one-sided landscape format cards that detail the base squads. These include points costs (finally!), and optional upgrades (with both point cost and description) and have a section that acts as record sheets, with each model given a cluster of 9sometimes tiny) tick-boxes for you to mark off the damage and a little box for those with ammo-reliant weapon to track their payload. This is perfectly fine, or would be if it wasn't the ONLY place to find point costs and upgrades, but it is. There's also a single card for each faction that details their special ability, also fine if it wasn't the ONLY place this info exists, but it is.
Then there's the half-sized cards, also single-sided landscape format (making them 1/4 the size of the big unit cards) that detail the add-on units for squads. for example, adding a pair of artillery pods to your Zentradi pod squad is done in the form of one of these mini-cards, featuring adjusted point costs and copies of any upgrade rules, as well as even smaller record sheets for ticking off the even smaller damage boxes for your add-on mecha. Also the only place this information exists.
This card-clutter brings up three major concerns. Firstly, the only cards that are used for record keeping are of a non-standard size, meaning you can't get protective sleeves for them. Even if you trust the glossy coating to resist constant and continual dry-erase marker use, the wear and tear of packing them up, laying them out, tossing them around, spilled soda and other gaming hazards are going to take a toll. I've been keeping mine in little ziplock bags and the act of taking the cards in and out of the bags is making the corners begin to fray. Again the info on these cards is not included in your rulebook so it's impossible to play without them, so do NOT lose or damage these cards...
Secondly, this reliance on the cards as the sole source of point value and upgrade options makes designing a list unnecessarily cumbersome. I'd rather pick up a book and a sheet of paper and sketch out a list than dig through three stacks of cards AND a book to lay out the information I'll need to even plan my list. Then once I write it down I'll still need to sort through and pull out the cards again once the game begins. It's just easier, especially for a new player, to have access to all the info in one easy place in book format. I've been poring over these cards for a while now and I'm still having a hard time plotting out a list without physically laying the cards out and grouping them together. It's frustrating and counter-intuitive.
And why do they do this? Well, that brings me to problem three: The fact that the cards are packaged with the models they represent, so you can NEVER know how much a new unit costs, what its upgrades are, or what all of its special rules are without BUYING THE DAMNED UNIT! How am I going to know if a unit is worth buying if I don't know its rules and points cost?! Moreover, what if I decide to kitbash a model or use some alternate model to represent a unit? Well, I'm fucked because you can't play the unit without the card and you can't get the card without buying the models. What if you want to add more add-ons to a squad than you have add-on cards? Even if you have the models, what if you just don't have enough cards?
They deliberately handicapped their otherwise really great game design simply to force you into buying more models. They could have just put the points costs and upgrade rules in the book. It wouldn't have added anything to the page count and would have made army design and purchase-planning a lot easier, but if they did then some upstart pirate would just go out and build their own models!
Alright, alright, I know I said this one would be more positive, but the more I thought about it the more I got pissed off. Honestly though, the rules DO look good, and the book is pretty and the cards are well constructed enough (though it seems like the 'laminate upgrade' from the kickstarter was a sham from the start), but the inexplicable and greedy-feeling decision to keep vital information only on the cards, and to only sell the cards with the models just further handicaps their game and makes it intimidating to new players. And just like the models, one simple change (like sprue labels or ebtter instructions), in this case including the full rules in the rulebook would result in a 100% better product that will better attract new players.
Some final thoughts: After glancing through the rulebook again, I don;t see anything in there that actually tells you that the cards have the points costs or that they double as record sheets. These things become obvious once you look at the cards, but as a new player who decides to read the rules first, they're going to be left scratching their heads for a bit. Also, it took me a while to figure out that the red (sometimes red yellow and green) boxes under some models were for tracking ammo use, and even that's just an educated guess. Again, nothing tells you how to actually use the all-important cards.
And, fittingly, I'll mention the third, 'Malcontent' faction as an afterthought, because that's exactly what they feel like. The malcontents were a thing in the lore (though only for a video game and some peripheral stuff, if I recall...they didn't really show up in the show, but then neither did half the models we see in the game), but in the game they pretty much exist only so players can have a 'mashup' option, mixing human and zentradi mecha into mongrel units. It's a cool idea and could lead to some fun kitbashing opportunities, but all you see of them in the rulebook is a SINGLE PAGE, and a thin stack of cards that came in the main box, but, ominously, not in my add-on package. My stack of malcontent cards is half the size of either my Zentradi or UEDF cards. My kickstarter bonus mecha came with bonus cards for their parent faction but not for the malcontents...and to make matters worse, malcontents have different squad composition and even points costs (for one inexplicable example, a Glaug command pod costs 5 points more for malcontents despite having the same stats, MINUS the awesome reinforcements ability that they give the zentradi faction, so it's more expensive but less useful), so you can't just use parent faction cards to boost your squads. Was this just a quick of the kickstarter, or are the retail boxes not going to include malcontent cards?
This severely handicaps malcontent players because now despite actually having all the models, they're not going to have enough damned CARDS to build their lists. Ugh.
Okay, sorry...let me bust out that picture of Blitzkrieg again, I guess we're going to need him...
|Breathe in peace, breathe out anger...in, peace...out, anger... Ahh, much better.|
Honestly, I WANT to like this game. I DO like it, in fact. I want it to take off and prosper and maybe spawn some expansions for the different eras and/or a Rifts spin-off (Imagine playing out the Siege of Tolkien), but these simple little decisions that only serve to hamstring it make me mad. Not as a consumer or a critic, but as an actual fan of the game.
Expect Part Three to be a Playtest review and maybe a battle report (depending on how much time I have to play with it) but don't expect it soon. I need to scrape up a willing guinea pig to play against, assemble enough models and get my head around making a couple lists. Balance issues will probably be discussed there as well, as I expect there will be some to discuss.
Next: Part Three: Playtest