25 Oct 2013

MERCS - Part Three: The Rules

So I've been reading the rule book for MERCS. My play experience is pretty limited so I'm going to focus on the Rulebook and the rules as they are presented. I hope the next post will focus less on the rules and more on play.

Ahh the Simpsons so many good quotes.

Back to the MERCS issue at hand. The Game Rules book.

Published in 2010, by Brian Shotton and Keith Lowe the MERCS rules are a body of work that took close to four years to develop and publish. The book is a solid hard cover with thick glossy pages that scream money well spent. Keith's heavy lines and muted colours really work his animated style of art. The tone of the setting is immediate due to Lowe's art as it shows up here and there through the book. The clean fonts and graphics make navigating through the book so simple you go back to make sure you didn't skip anything.

It's only a 175 pages but the book looks like it's sporting a higher count. Pages 91-143 are dedicated to the four original release factions: CCC, KemVar, USCR and FCC. Each model gets a huge two page spread that gives a brief sidebar on the character and it's weapon of choice. A section is put aside for hints on play that matches well with a half page section on how the miniature plays on the table. The hints are not the be all and end all from what I understand. Lots of players who've I've spoken still are able to enjoy mixing things up or finding success in non obvious ways outside of the designers' expectations.

These pages are nice and in another book the space would have felt wasted. Yet the book is almost 50/50 at first glance for rules and setting. The folks at MERCS are doing this game their way and you can feel that through the whole layout and design of the book. The last set of pages include a sketch book of the developing art and a few pages of common FAQs.

After some time with the rulebook, I've got a wish list for the main book layout and info.

1. Add in a one or even better a few 2D poster maps that come with the book. It's under 200 pages some pre-printed maps would rock.

2. Update the book, 1.2 or MERCS Revised and add in the other factions to the book. Also add in the current FAQ's to the back section.

3. Fan of the scenarios in the book but the current campaign rules should have been able to fit. If the game is scenario centric then they should be the first game of this scale to include a full on campaign ala Infiniti's Paradiso and Mordenheim's Town Criers. It would have really made MERCS stand above the rest of the pack outside of a fancy card mechanic.

4. Add in a photocopy sheet for blood tokens, armour break tokens, and printable measuring cards. These are things we use all the time in the game and I can see plenty of players doing what they do with Warmachine and Infinity.

Now the rules.

Based on simply reading the rules alone, I cannot recommend MERCS enough for a new group of gamers who are looking to get into the hobby. I'd love to see MERCS replace GW as the gateway game for tabletop miniature wargaming. They use very simple english and break down the things that have become norm for the experienced player. Plenty of diagrams and photos of gameplay litter the pages with sidebars that have hints, tips and detailed explanations on fuzzy terms or issues.

Five pages on simply setting up the area and gathering the items you need is well displayed and simply explained. It really takes the expectation bull by the horns and lays out what to expect to the player from the start. Once again this is brilliant and for a first time gamer who is picking this up as their first game it's perfect. Once I started looking at the items I'd need for the game, I looked up the current token situation with MERCS. Seems their deal with another company ended poorly and the roll out game mat and token sets are limited in production and becoming harder to find.

They suggest glass beads and 2D maps. The site has a pair of printable maps and some terrain tiles for free on the site. Just download the PDF and print in colour at home. I hope they come out with an official token set in the future and continue to make more 2D maps for on the go gaming. Once again this looks great for a brand new player, for us old folks we might have to adjust the way we use our terrain but I don't expect it to be by much.

Back to the nuts and bolts. You pick your 3, 4, or 5 figures and your opponent does the same. No points to count and calculate is a huge lit from a new players shoulders who from experience have trouble with other point systems like Infinity. Individual initiative would only work in a small model count game like MERCS. I'm worried about the Simultaneous Actions, where both players have the same initiative so folks should keep a note pad and pen close in case they come up. I can see this being a weakness in the engine that can cause arguments. Respectful players and fair tournament judges should be able to avoid any issues with this one weak mechanic. Page 80 sports a Chain of Occurrence that lists the priority of all the advanced and special actions that can happen when a unit activates.

Movement is a really unique aspect of the game and the folks who put together the rules did a bang up job here. Eight pages of in game diagrams and examples help players new and old get their minds around the unique card measuring mechanics. They show some obvious (more so if you've played in the hobby for a while) mistakes in movement. MERCS is direct and specific in how they want you to measure. I found the focus on movement pretty neat and two rules jumped out at me.

First of the unique rules is Bounding. Similar to Linked Teams in Infinity. Units can hold their action to bound with a unit of a lower initiative. Doing so means they have forfeited their individual action to move on the new initiative. Doing so means they get a +1 to their movement and that at first looks pretty simple but in MERCS, as far as I can tell, simple is key. Suddenly my CCC heavy who only has a Move of 1 card can suddenly find himself twice as far up or be able to move into that key position much faster. Fast movers suddenly can jet up the pitch and really get into the other players grill... it's odd at first but powerful once you try out the rules here and there.

Movement is a key part of MERCS and this is also pushed through the last two unique rules that have stood out in the game, Snap to Cover and the Backpedal. Snap to cover allows a MERC to before or after their action snap to cover that is less than 1 base length away. It has this 3rd person shooter feel to the movement and I like the extra umph that will help players avoid the issues that sometimes bog down the other games.

Backpedal is nothing new or unique but it's a reminder that the miniatures are people and humans are not never good at running backwards. I see this issue forcing players to continue to move up or around as the battles get played out.

The combat action is a simple single dice roll against a number that sports close to an average amount of modifiers when you look at some of the other games in the hobby. I don't mind the few more pluses and minuses in the combat mechanic as they seem graded and there are plenty of aids to make sure you never forget a bonus or penalty.

Armour plays a big part in MERCS and that becomes obvious when you look at the rules regarding armour. The damaged armour can cripple some models and it really kicks your teeth in when you're powered suit of protection goes tits up. I expect players to at first feel frustrated with the importance with armour and start debating on weather to bring a repair trooper to keep your faction at full force or bring a more offensive figure ignore the possibility of repair and damage.

Last but not least all of the common special abilities gets their own space for players to fully understand how the game players. They break down growing questions and make sure to clarify the information on the cards for some of the advanced actions like move and shoot, suppression, and overwatch.

I'm not sold on the clunky one action per turn and I can see that making games go longer but with the close quarters and small number of units it may avoid first or second turn opponents full army kills. So far from playing myself I see the Personal Abilities of Fire and Move keep up the pace with some of the minis. I'll find out once I get to the table with another wanker but I have a premonition that it could get clunky in pace especially with rolling initiative for each mini, each turn.

It's a good book, a bit large for the amount of content within but if you're looking for a new game to play try MERCS. So far so good, few hiccups, and slow growth are making this a game that I see playing a bit more than I expected.

Next Time - Play Time... I hope.