GTM #249 - BattleTech: Clan Invasion
by Catalyst Game Labs




It all began when the real world impinged upon our favorite game universe.

Back in the ’90s, a lawsuit mandated the removal of a dozen “classic” BattleMech designs that could no longer be shown. Starting in 1996, FASA Corporation began that removal and it stayed in force for decades.

The problem, of course, is that these were the ’Mechs that launched BattleTech into the minds and hearts of millions of fans around the world. And yet we couldn’t use those illustrations (they became known as the Unseen). When the record sheets were redesigned as part of the publication of the Total Warfare series of rulebooks, and ’Mech illustrations were included on each sheet, those had to be blank or a silhouette.

In 2003, FanPro published Technical Readout: Project Phoenix, which created an in-universe reason for why these centuries-old designs would get a face-lift. And we did just that, often pushing the look well beyond the original to side-step any possible legal complications. But within the BattleTech universe context, these designs only existed in later Eras. The conceit being that the original illustrations—the ones we could still no longer use—still were those BattleMechs in previous eras; hence the silhouettes of these Project Phoenix designs used on record sheets that corresponded to those early Eras.

Ultimately, that solution didn’t really feel right; in fact, it was a huge disconnect, especially considering how powerful BattleTech imagery is. We did the best we could at the time, but the team in place (including myself) were not up to the task of taking it all to a completely different level. What’s more, the fans were still left without images (and hence miniatures, except for the old ones they’d had knocking around since the ’80s or early ’90s) representing those beloved classics.

We debated the challenge for literally years; How can we mess with these designs? How will the fans react if we tell them that the memory in their heads or the illustration in all of those old books is not what it looks like?

Decades of discussion across numerous companies. And always, the concerns surrounding legal issues potentially impacting our beloved universe again.

In 2013, however, we decided “Enough was enough” - those ’Mechs represented the heart and soul of BattleTech- had remained in limbo for nearly twenty years, and the game was still suffering for it. What’s more, we felt that we finally had a team in place with the skill set and passion to go to a whole new place. Anthony Scroggins and his artistic team for the creation of the redesigned ’Mechs, and then Brent Evans, Ray Arrastia, and myself as the control team for review and commentary.

This would not be some in-universe explication of a new design. Instead, we would simply make the coolest, best new designs possible, release new miniatures, and tell players, “Here ya go. This is the design that’s always been there. Enjoy!”

At Gen Con 2015, we unveiled the newly redesigned Warhammer (and several other Unseen BattleMechs) with 3D-printed miniatures as well as a new Black Widow full-color banner illustration to celebrate their return. And of course, the news swept like wildfire across the Internet.

The first comments were almost universally “But it looks exactly like the original?!” And every time we would tell them, “Go compare them side-by-side, and you’ll see that literally every panel and bolt has been tweaked.” They’d then come back and say something along the lines of, “Wow, I can’t believe it’s that changed, because now it looks as cool as its always been in my head.”

And that was the goal all along! After all, we’re the biggest fans of BattleTech. I picked up the 2nd Edition box set in December of 1986 and fell in love with these designs. However, almost no universe can survive that many decades and not try and re-invent its imagery. So, this was our chance to retain the best of the elements of those classic designs, while folding in modern aesthetics so they can sit well on a shelf against any other universe and hold their own in the “Dang, that’s cool!” category.

As a cool aside, that initial process was so successful that Piranha Games began their own redesigns of those ’Mechs for MechWarrior Online - they also appeared in MechWarrior: Mercenaries, which was then also used in Harebrained Schemes’ BATTLETECH game.

Based upon that initial success, we continued to develop these new redesigns with an eye toward new core box sets. The process is exceptionally time-consuming; I remember afternoons when our entire team would be reviewing every single previous iteration of a ’Mech (in some cases, there might be ten illustrations up side-by-side on my two-screen set-up), highlighting and commenting on every nuance -  “This bit here is quintessential. This thing here is not.” And so on. Then Anthony and his team would work on a combination of sketches and renders (see December’s GTM’s for the Art Creation article that more fully expands upon this amazing development), and we’d have the discussions all over again. Then revisions to that work would be made, and that conversation would occur again. Once a sketch was locked down, the render could be finalized, and we might have two or three of those same discussions again.

Some designs flowed more easily, while others seemed to drag on endlessly as we didn’t agree, had heated discussions, and verbally punched and kicked at it until everything finally fell into place. The illustrations accompanying this article show the transition of the Warhammer through parts of that process (as it was on the cover of the first three editions of the core box set, most long-time players were introduced to the game via this iconic BattleMech).

That breadth of work, along with other production factors implemented to increase the quality of the miniatures, meant we did not have prototypes of our new box sets (A Game of Armored Combat and Beginner Box) to show off until Gen Con 2017, and they did not officially go on sale in retail until January 2019. However, preorders had us starting a reprint before the first ones even got out the door, and we’ve ultimately sold more than fifty thousand copies of those two box sets in 18 months. A phenomenal accomplishment for a thirty-five-year-old game.

The response to the redesigns as well as plastic miniatures boasting a higher quality than any BattleTech piece has had before, have unlocked the possibility of not only redesigning and producing those plastic miniatures en-masse, but bringing in Clan ’Mechs like the beloved Mad Cat (Timber Wolf). Hence the launch of the Clan Invasion box set and the unlocking of nearly one hundred additional redesigns.

Every time I hold a new prototype in my hand from the factory, I still have the same giddy sensation: “This is now as cool-looking as it always was in my head.” It’s a fabulous time to be a BattleTech fan.

Interested in more details?  Check out bg.battletech.com.


 Randall N. Bills has led the development and publication of hundreds of novels, sourcebooks, rulebooks, box sets, game aides and more. He’s currently the Managing Developer for Catalyst Game Labs, overseeing the strategic development of the perennial BattleTech and Shadowrun properties, while managing the rollout of Catalyst Game Labs’ new line of tabletop games, including core development of Dragonfire.