October 8th, 2010
In Focus Review - Heavy Gear Blitz:
The Interpolar War Begins 2-Player Starter Set
It's hard not to want to compare the two games Heavy Gear and BattleTech, because both employ cool looking armored monstrosities to engage in lethal combat with. At a quick glance, the untrained eye might not realize that they're two completely different intellectual properties.
Both are set within sci-fi inspired universes, and both include ground vehicles, infantry and even aircraft. The biggest difference to a tabletop gamer is, that Heavy Gear is produced in 1/144th scale, which equals about 12mm scale. In comparison Classic BattleTech is roughly 1/285th scale, which breaks down to about 6mm scale, which is half the scale of Heavy Gear.
Now the earlier incarnation of Heavy Gear was produced in 1/87th scale, which is commonly known as HO Scale to a model railroad train enthusiast. That scale was dropped in favor of the current 1/144th scale produced models used today, so don't confuse the earlier game with the current game.
In BattleTech the BattleMechs can be as large as 100 tons, and multiple stories tall, where as the Gears in Heavy Gear are 12-18 ft tall and never usually more than 12 tons. The Gears are more like suits of armor, or exo-skeletons, where in BattleTech the Mechs are behemoth sized large robots in comparison. The confusing part is that many BattleMechs from BattleTech, and many Gears from Heavy Gear are close to the actual same size on a table, but the scales are completely different.
Off the top of my head the first thing I noticed that made the Gears unique is that they actually carry their own weapons, where as in BattleTech all of the weaponry seems to be built into those behemoths. The Gears can also bust out wheels, or tracks from their feet, very much like roller skates, and a Gear can walk, run, and even crawl, they're definitely A LOT more flexible than a BattleMech in BattleTech.
Heavy Gear has been around since 1994, although they earned some mainstream attention from the PC gaming industry in the late 90s. During the 90s I did a lot of work in the PC games industry, and during that period Activision lost the rights to produce BattleTech Mechwarrior games on the PC.
Not to be outdone so easily by Microprose's Mechwarrior 3 game, and to everyone's surprise, in 1997 not long after loosing the Mechwarrior license a new PC game that surprisingly looked a lot like a Mechwarrior game surfaced from Activision called Heavy Gear. It played out just as well as the previous Mechwarrior titles, only they changed the subject matter and universe to Dream Pod 9's Heavy Gear.
It did so well that in '99 they put out Heavy Gear II on the PC. These PC games were my first introduction to the Heavy Gear universe, and I was impressed. Both are actually quite good games, so I'm surprised there was never a 3rd sequel. Actually they gave away Heavy Gear II with a number of high-end 3D video cards at the time too in bundles, which got them even more exposure.
In the early 2000s there was a short lived Heavy Gear CGI animated TV series too, which I've found floating around the DVD bargain bins now. I saw a few of the episodes and I didn't think it was all that great, but it certainly looked nice. The problem was, the TV series wasn't as closely tied to the official Heavy Gear lore. It seemed like nothing more than a dumbed-down kiddie show, only featuring the Gears.
Dream Pod 9 is the company responsible for Heavy Gear and it's in-depth universe. Personally I'm really not the type of person to get all wrapped up in fluff and the background universe of games very often. If you are that type of gamer, you're in for a treat, because there's a lot to dig into from DP9 based on Heavy Gear. One thing I was aware of straight away from just skimming through he rulebook is, that DP9 isn't only a company making a game, but they're truly the architects of a rather in-depth and engrossing universe in which Heavy Gear exists. Each and every book is filled with bits and pieces of fictional information, which adds yet another layer of depth, to an already well defined universe.
In the box...
Once you open the Interpoloar War Begins 2-Player starter set you'll find the 200+ page full size rulebook in Black & White, a North General. Purpose. Squad box, a South G.P. Cadre box, and a nice Heavy Gear Blitz branded plastic retracting tape measure. Okay, but where's the dice? That's the only thing I don't understand. This is called a Starter set, but it doesn't even include the dice needed to play the game.
Thankfully all you need is a handful of commonly used D6 (six sided dice), which most gamers will likely have lying around. Even if you don't, you can pick some up at most any Dollar store. I still think it's odd to omit the dice, especially considering common D6 are so cheap. That issue aside, everything else that you need to get started is in the box.
Inside each of the North and South boxes you'll find inner plastic trays with compartments, and a lid. Each model is separated into the individual compartments too. Now that I thought was a nice touch, because some of the Flames of War stuff come in similar packaging, but they just toss all the bits into the trays, and you're supposed to figure out what goes where. DP9 keeps all the parts together in each section nicely, so you don't have to guess how to build the models.
In addition to the five models per box, there's 5 black & white printed datacards, plus a few extra bits to allow you to make one of the models a leader type, and to allow you to swap out the standard Light Auto Cannon (LAC) for a special weapon, like an Medium Auto Cannon (MAC) or bazooka, etc.
Each model is made up of multiple parts. Just about everything requires assembly including both arms, the head, engine/backpack, weapons, upper torso to the waist/legs, shoulder mounted missile launcher, and then the model to the plastic hex base, which they are nice enough to include.
The arms require cutting away from a single piece of metal binding them together, then cutting away and filling off the left over metal from the cut. I found it really hard to cut them away from the extra metal, and then being able to file or cut away the extra, without loosing the single tiny little rivet/bolt detailing on the arm where they were bound together. Thankfully that's a small detail usually on the underside of the arm where you can't see, so it's not a big deal, but it's an observation worth mentioning. The head, engine, rifle, vibro blade and head all come on a separate sprue too.
You'll also need to cut the handle off any of the weapons to fit them into the hand of each Gear. Two of the five sculpts in each set of models have arms like Games Workshop Space Marines, in that the right arm is designed to grip a weapon, but the left arm reaches forward with the hand cupped to hold the underside of the barrel of the weapon. This is identical to how one assembles a common GW Space Marine arms and weapon.
There's no rushing to build these models either. You're bound to knock parts off, as you try to glue others on, if you do try and rush the process. Technically these are 12mm scale, so the Gears in this Starter set are a wee bit shorter than a standard 28mm scale man-size model in power armor, because these models are supposed to be 12-18 ton Gears, with a little 12mm scale man inside of them. On the plus side, having to assemble every single part allows for some variation in poses too.
For the most part I don't see any huge differences in Gear design between the North and South models in this set. There's a reason for this. I'm not completely up on my Gear designs and the background info just yet (however I'm learning!), but what little I read mentioned something about the South stealing prototype technology from the North, which would explain why the Southern Jager and Northern Hunters look a lot a like. The Northern Hunters have a more boxy, or squared off look to the armor, but the Jager armor from the Allied Southern Territories (AST) is more rounded around the edges.
The North set comes with 4x Hunters and 1x Head Hunter model, which is created from a Hunter body, by using the provided extra commander head. The same is true of the South set, as it comes with 5x Jager models, and one model is upgraded to the combat group leader via the special unique head provided. I've done some research and online these boxes are roughly $35 each from various online retailers if purchased separately, and $39.99 direct from the DP9 online store.
Instead of covering the rules as I normally would, and giving you a step by step introduction to how the play the entire game, I'm going to cover the mechanics and features I think separate Heavy Gear Blitz from most of the other sci-fi skirmish games out there that I'm familiar with. This is the stuff that jumped out at me, and stood out the most...
Cover rules are very realistic. If out in the open there's a bonus of +1 granted. If a model is in cover, but less than half of the model is obscured, then no modifiers are granted. If more than half the model is in cover, then a it's considered Partial and -1 penalty is incurred. If the entire model is in cover, minus a weapon or limb, then it's considered Full cover and -2 penalty to the attack is incurred. If a model is covered by solid terrain, a wall, pillar, etc, then another -1 is incurred, making it a -3 penalty, and the target can only be hit by Indirect Fire at that point. They also use a “Models-Eye View” when determining Line of Sight (LOS), and how the Cover is determined, which is something I'm a fan of.
There's also Concealment too, which is different than Cover. Concealment can make it hard to get a Lock on a target in the first place. It's also quite realistic to model this, because effectively things like the terrain, other vehicles, and a combination of the two stand the chance of hindering a shot at a target. Granted those variables won't stop a 25mm shell from an AutoCannon, but they can certainly hinder Combat Lock.
How this works is a model has a Detect Rating. If the Detect Rating is higher than the Concealment number of the target, you have then achieved one of the prerequisites for Combat Lock. If you can't pull off Combat, then Active Lock is your only other option, and there's a whole another set of criteria to meet to gain Active Lock.
Now determining Arcs is a little trickier, and this is where the game micro-manages things to the level of realism, as a model doesn't have a specific firing arc, they have a firing arc based on the weapon being used. Some weapons have different firing arcs too. For me this took a lot of getting used to, because I'd forget more often than not what my arc was, with which model.
There's 180-degree arcs, and 90-degree arcs, and turrets have 360-degree arcs which is the easiest to remember. I might just make a house rule to keep things a bit simpler when it comes to the various arcs, because my little brain hurts when I have to think to much to shoot big guns in games! I will say this though, there is a lot of images and examples throughout the rulebook to help define the differences in cover, concealment and the firing arcs.
Another unique mechanic is that the Margin of Success (MOS) or Margin of Failure (MOF). These are the difference between the success or failure of a roll, by subtracting the threshold, or the defenders roll from the results of a roll. More on how this is used later.
The table size suggested is 36-inches x 36-inches. Everything is measured in inches, and as stated earlier on D6 are the dice of choice. Armies are setup based upon what they call Threat Value. Threat Value (TV) is essentially a points cost for the models and the upgrades. Very much like Warhammer 40k, based on the squad you choose, there are specific upgrade options listed that you can pursue. Examples include, but aren't limited too... swapping a model out for a better one, increasing specific skill values, and swapping weapons out for more powerful ones, all of which cost extra TV.
The scenarios you play out are setup based on a Priority Level (PL) value. The Priority Levels remind me a lot of the Force Organization charts in 40k and Flames of War. Priority Level and Threat Values are completely independent of each other too. For instance a PL 1 scenario allows for a minimum of one Core Combat Group (with a maximum of unlimited) to be taken, up to two Auxiliary Combat Groups, up to one Specialist Group, but no Elites at all, and any one Combat Group can be made Veterans. Bare minimum you need to take a Core Combat Group in a PL 1 scenario, so this is the level ideal for the Interplolar War Begins 2-Player Starter set.
However a PL 2 list calls for 2x Core Combat Groups to be taken minimum (unlimited max), up to three auxiliary combat groups, up to two Specialist Combat Groups, and one Elite Combat Group can be taken, but only if you have taken 3x Core Combat Groups first, and up to two combat groups total can be made Veterans. As you can see the higher the PL you go, the larger the force, and the more structured it becomes.
There's also four phases to a round, and they call them Steps. Step one is used to determine who goes first (rolling off 1x D6+ Leadership of your Army Commander+ any modifiers). Step two is the activation phase, which is the main phase of combat and movement. Step three involves what they call Support Events, which is broken down into three phases itself to bring in Reserves, and to conduct Air Strikes and Artillery, all in that order. Step four is called the Miscellaneous Events stage, which is where you resolve some weapon effects, and begin to tidy up everything to prepare for a new round (unused actions are lost, and tokens removed, etc). After that simply rinse and repeat the steps in that order.
In terms of movement, depending on the model there are different speed types available. One MP usually equals one inch of movement at Stationary Speed, but there's Stationary Speed, Combat Speed and Top Speed bands. For instance to change facing while moving fast can require dropping to a lower speed band, and incurring a Stun Token due to the rapid nature of speed reduction required to pull off such a maneuver. A Stun Token incurs a penalty of -1 to all skill rolls, and can be removed by spending an action.
In addition to the various speed bands, there's also range bands as well, which are used to conduct ranged combat based on the range of the weapon being used. There's Point Blank, Short, Medium, Long and Extreme range lengths provided, most of which have their own modifiers adding +x or –x to the attack. Point Blank is a +1 bonus, Short Range is a 0 modifier, Medium Range is -1, Long Range -2 and Extreme Range incurs a -3 penalty to the attack.
Melee has a few modifiers of its own. If the attacker is of greater size a +1 is earned, and if the attacker is moving at a higher speed band than the defender another +1 is granted. Fair is fair, so if the Defender is larger they gain a +1 to Def, but if they're taking a shot to the rear arc they'll eat a -1 penalty to their roll. There's also ramming in Heavy Gear, and there's the equivalent of a charge, because if a model is moving at high speed, and makes it into contact with a defending model, they can perform a single attack. However if a model fumbles the attempt to melee attack or ram you, then the defender earns a Free Strike.
Very much like Warmachine or Freebooter's Fate, Heavy Gear also uses stat cards to track the damage a model incurs during combat, by slipping them into plastic sleeves and using dry erase markers on them. On each card there are boxes labeled Sturdy (S), Light (L), Heavy (H), Critical (C ) and Dead (D). As you fill these boxes via being damaged, your abilities are penalized progressively. Filling the Sturdy box doesn't effect anything, think of it as the freebie box. Filling in the Light box incurs a -1 penalty to all Difficult or Dangerous terrain tests.
Heavy Damage is where you begin to feel the paint, because once it is filled in you can no longer travel at Top Speed, and you suffer -1 to all Skill rolls. Critical is even worse, as you also can't travel at Top Speed, but you also loose all Aux Perks, and now suffer a -2 penalty to all Skill rolls.
The Dead box is self explanatory, you're dead! Reach that box and the model is now considered Very Difficult Terrain and counts as blocking terrain and cover as any other mound of metal laying on the ground that's burnt up and beaten down.
Calculating damage is where the Margin of Success value is used too, as it's multiplied by the DM of the attack, and then compared to the Armor Value of a target to determine how much damage is taken. Meet or exceed the armor value and you're doing damage. Meet or exceed it by 2x and you're doing 2x boxes of damage, but meet or exceed it by 3x and the model is outright destroyed no matter how many boxes you have unchecked.
There are some cool Special Actions outlined in the rulebook too, as you can use an unspent Action to go into Reaction Fire mode, essentially allowing you to out of turn fire upon an enemy model meeting the requirements for Reaction Fire. There's rules for attempting to Hide even.
You can also spend an action to “Stand by for Coordinates”, effectively putting that model into Stand By mode if it can't shoot anyone else at the moment, as it awaits another model to find a target by Forward Observing, allowing the Stand By model to perform an indirect fire attack upon once one is found. You can even spend an action to counteract the negative modifiers from moving at Top Speed. There's other Special Actions too, but those are the ones I found the most interesting in the rulebook.
There's more to Heavy Gear than all of what I covered above too, but again, I wanted to cover the stuff that I felt stood out, or that was different than most others games I've played. So there's still many other things worth mentioning, which I didn't include. But the fact is if I covered it all, this would be a 10,000 word article, or more. I believe what I detailed above gives you an idea of what makes Heavy Gear unique, and separates if from other sci-fi skirmish games out there too.
By the way the images below are taken from the full color rulebook, not the B&W one that comes with this starter set.
The actual rules and vital info make up about the first 56 pages of the 202 pages offered in the Heavy Gear Blitz: Locked and Loaded rulebook. While is it in black and white, it still looks really sharp and nothing is blurred out due to the translation from color. There's also a wide variety of mission possibilities provided, and even rules for campaign play, so with this rulebook alone there's a lot to do in the Heavy Gear universe. You're really only limited by the number of models you have to play Heavy Gear with in the starter set.
From page 57 through 172 you'll find all of the information pertaining to most of the factions found in the Heavy Gear universe, via stats of the models, covering abilities and army building options, and fluff detailing them in great detail.
Essentially I see each of these individual army sections as the equivalent of a codex for Warhammer 40k armies. Each little section is really packed with that much information. I said most of the factions too, because some of the newest ones are detailed in latter supplements.
For instance the Black Talon have their own book, and it covers the Black Talon, Colonial Expeditionary Force and Caprician forces. The most recent expansions like Shattered Peace introduces Eden and adds combat groups to the existing lists, and lastly the Terra Nova Gambit introduces Utopia, and it too has something to add to the existing lists.
Heavy Gear Blitz: Locked and Loaded covers a variety of the Northern, Southern, Peace River, The Leagueless, and the Port Arthur Korps army lists/factions for the game. With what's provided new players have a lot of options to sink their teeth into.
Pages 172-177 has some modeling tips and painting guide content, but in black and white I must admit the painting guide images just aren't very useful. Dream Pod 9 gave me the .pdf version of the same rulebook in color, and the painting tips images are so much more useful in it. In black and white that section just doesn't help much, aside from the suggestions and tips offered via text. That's about the only area where being B&W really hurts the book.
The rest of the book from page 178 through the end of the book details a lot of stuff, and includes a reference section with Weapon Traits, Weapon Tables (ranges and stats for all the weapons), Model Perks and Flaws (defining the abilities and what not) and there's a fantastic Weapon Recognition Guide.
The Weapon Recognition Guide shows images of the actual model weapons, as they look in metal form, all unpainted right out the box. This Weapon Recognition Guide is a godsend, because being new to the game, I had no clue which weapon was an LAC (Light AutoCannon) or MAC (Medium AutoCannon). With the pictures of the actual model pieces to go by, it was so easy learning what each piece is visually.
After that there's quite a few pages defining the time-line of the Heavy Gear universe, which is more in-depth fluff. Lastly from page 191-202 the remaining pages offer stat-cards for all of the models included in the book, and a page worth of tokens, all of which you could photo copy for your own personal use. One could also photocopy those off and proxy up some of the other models not included in this set to play with, but I never was a fan of proxy-ing, it just kills the immersion effect for me personally.
By the way the images below are taken from the full color rulebook, not the B&W one that comes with this starter set.
I'm quite blown away by Heavy Gear. The Interpolar War Begins 2-Player Starter set really is a nice way to introduce new players to the game of Heavy Gear. I can't say it's as easy to pick up as say Warmachine, or Freebooter's Fate, because it will take quite a few games worth of playing it to fully understand how it all is supposed to come together in play.
I think a Quick Start guide, like what BattleFront includes with the Flames of War Starter Set would be an invaluable tool to help new players dive into Heavy Gear a little smoother too. That and some six sided dice are the only things missing, which I think would help make it an even better 2-player starter set than it
I'm still learning some things as I go myself, as I've stuck to playing the smaller encounters, without using all of the rules just yet, which is what they suggest in the rulebook for new players. Plus I only have 2 sets of opposing 5-model squads to play with, so I have yet to see how well the game integrates infantry and vehicles into the mix, or how the other units can effect the game.
I can't wait to try some of the other models like the Grizzly, Black Mamba and the huge Mammoth Strider pieces, along side some tanks and infantry. The CEF and Black Talon faction guys also look really enticing from the later supplements. As you can see, the starter set just wets your appetite, because while they give you really nice models to start with, once you see the others you'll be drooling with anticipation to dive in and pick up some of the other models available in the range to play with.
The different arcs for different weapons, and having to lock onto targets definitely slow things down at first compared to some other sci-fi skirmish games out there, but those mechanics also add a level of tactical complexity, and realism that many other games miss completely. It also just feels right as it comes together once you've played a game too.
Some might look at Heavy Gear and think it's a bit on the expensive side to jump into, but the buy in is certainly less than that of Warhammer 40k. I'd say that it's more on par and in line with Warmachine cost-wise. I've noticed that all of their rulebooks in-print are quite pricey too, and even the .pdf file books don't come cheap, as you're looking to pay $27.50 for the pdf version of Blitz: Locked and Loaded in full color. On the flip side, that's about 50% or more less than the cost of the printed version in color.
However, some of this has to do with the fact that Dream Pod 9 made a social choice to keep all of their production in North America, to better control quality and to keep jobs here. The models are made in Canada, which is where DP9 is based, and the rulebooks are printed in the US. It's hard to knock them for that, especially in these dark economic times.
I've found the B&W Heavy Gear Blitz: Locked and Loaded rulebook online for roughly $35, while the full color printed version carries a hefty price-tag of no less than $65 depending where you shop, with an MSRP of $70. Although I must admit, after having seen the full color .pdf version first-hand, and the B&W printed version too, it's crystal clear that none of their books are cheaply tossed together efforts what-so-ever.
Dream Pod 9 takes the high road with all of their rulebooks and supplements. Each and every one I've seen so far are very high production value efforts, matching or exceeding the books from Games Workshop and Privateer Press. Technically, you are getting what you're paying for, as the Locked and Loaded rulebook alone is 202 pages.
At a local Staples print-center it's roughly .50-cents per page for full color printing. At that rate it would cost me over $100 to print off the $27 .pdf version of the full color rulebook. That's $100 for printing, plus the cost of the $27 .pdf file. Therefore it's a lot cheaper to buy the full color printed version from Dream Pod 9, than it is to buy the .pdf and attempt to pay to have it printed it in color yourself.
Unless you have an iPad, Laptop or an eReader device that can read .pdfs in full color, I personally don't see much of a use for the .pdf version. I don't have any of those devices, and I don't have a PC in the room where I play games. Therefore others mileage will definitely vary.
I'd imagine even a PC inkjet would suck down a cartridge or two just to print off 202 pages in full color, which is still at least $30 a cartridge, if not more depending on what your printer requires. Only those gamers who have access to a printer at work, and can sponge up the companies' ink and paper will benefit from the .pdf version. No matter how you look at it, the printed options from DP9 are without a doubt the most cost effective.
As for the models. Considering how nice the sculpts are, they can definitely can get away with charging what they do for the models, because I think they're right up there with the best of the best models in the sci-fi genre available today. At roughly $35 for a box of 5 models, with the little extra options you're given, they're definitely worth it. Granted some of the other sets cost a little more, but those sets come with a few larger models too.
The model pieces do fit together well, my only gripe is that it is time consuming to build a box, because there are so many little pieces per model. I guess these sets are a catch 22, because so many pieces per model also allows you to mix and match what arms to use, what weapons, and at what angle they'll be attached, giving you a level of customization you just don't get with most models with less parts per model, and single piece castings. There's no denying that the good far outweighs the bad in this case.
I've also spotted the Interpolar War Begins 2-Player Starter set for Heavy Gear priced at $90 over at theWarstore.com. The MSRP is $100, and $80 is the lowest price I've found it selling for anywhere so far. Even at $100 you're getting what you paid for, only with a small break on the cost of buying the products separately.
It definitely won't be on the budget minded gaming enthusiast's radar anytime soon, but if you're even remotely interested in Heavy Gear, The Interpolar War Beings 2-player Starter set is a good place to start. Don't say that I didn't warn you tho! The models are very attractive, and if you're the type of gamer to adopt a system and then go overboard with it, Heavy Gear is one you could definitely do that with, and not feel bad at all about it once you've done it.
In response to the review above, here's a message I was sent by the El Presidente of Dream Pod 9, which is the company responsible for Heavy Gear...
Thank you for the in-depth review, we agree with your comment about it missing dice. We'll be adding in four D6 free with all the future Interpolar War and Starter Army Boxes we ship and the prices will remain the same.
President Dream Pod 9
I figured that was worth sharing, since it was an issue I brought up in the review, which they're now addressing lightning fast. It's nice to see that they're committed to the product like that. Everyone wins when a company steps up like that.