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Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack /// Interview with Joshua Newman

You’re a nerd right? That’s why you’re here? I’m going to go out on a limb here and name a few things and you’re going to agree that they are indeed, awesome.
Giant Robots
Strategic Tabletop Games

Did I at least nail two of those? Maybe you already build robots with your Legos. Maybe you play Warhammer 40K and play as the Tau and love giant robots. You should go take a look at Joshua AC Newman’s Kickstarter project Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack. Give him some money, then come back and read this. I’ll wait…

The Mobile Frame Equation

Ok now that’s over with, let’s talk about Mobile Frame Zero.

CL Varner: You mention on the Kickstarter that it’s the 10th anniversary edition of Mechaton. I had sadly never heard of that before now. Was it something you played when you were younger, and is Vincent Baker involved in this version at all?

Joshua Newman: Vincent remains the game designer. He had too much on his plate with Murderous Ghosts and Apocalypse World to worry about Mechaton at the time, and when R. Talsorian asked (?) us to stop using the name because of its similarity to their game, a complete restructuring looked overwhelming. I was pretty keen on giving the game the attention it deserves, though, so when he asked me to publish it, I told him that sounded like fun.

He called me a sucker.

To some extent, he’s right; it’s a lot of work. I’ve been working on it full-time for about six months now, and a lot before then. We’ve retooled a lot of the game, bringing the rules up-to-date with the way we actually play now, we’ve finally resolved a couple of issues that always bothered us, and we’re finally setting up advice on building settings (and the rules that support them).

Right now, his relationship to the game is, I send him questions and edits and he sends me stuff. But he loves playing, too, so he’s excited to get to play at PAX East with much less responsibility than usual!

CLV: The addition of the “doomsday clock” mechanic is really interesting to me as a former Warhammer 40K player. Where you usually play to 4 turns and then roll to see if you keep going. What is the average number of turns in a game?

Josh: You don’t actually roll. What happens is, the doomsday clock starts at 11. Every round (that is, when all mobile frames have taken their turn), it automaticaly goes down by one. Then you ask the player with initiative (that is, the player who’s winning right now) if they want to reduce it by one again. You then ask the person in second place, and so on through the players.

If you’re winning, you’re on defense, so you want to knock it down as fast as you can.

If you think you’re going to be winning during the next round, you knock it down.

If you’re losing, (unless you’ve lost, which happens rarely) you don’t want to mark it down.

What that means is that a game where no one ever felt like they’d capture the lead would take seven rounds. I’ve never seen that happen, though; someone usually marks it down when they’re about to take the lead position, which means it takes six rounds. Rarely, it’s four; when it’s a really close game, there’s a lot of desperate gambling with time, sorta playing chicken with each other.

What that means is that a game takes between 2.5 and 4 hours. Sometimes it’s a desperate scramble for the lead, and sometimes it’s a total quagmire. Well, the fun kind of quagmire.

CLV: Are there rules for making up your own weapons and upgrades, or do you think there are enough subsystems included in the book to cover all possible scenarios. Say something like the Hammer of Dawn from Gears of War?

Josh: Weapons and other systems are defined by their dice. The most complex single kind of system is a weapon, sure; there are 36 configurations of weapon, if I’ve done my math right, so there are lots of ways to equip for offense.

On the other hand, if by “like the Hammer of Dawn”, you mean, “Something that turns the battlefield to slag”, you’re really thinking of the doomsday clock.

CLV: I meant something like a unit has to hold focus and line of sight for a turn or more before another unit could launch a super powerful attack.

Josh Ah, yeah, we’ve done everything we can to eliminate any such breath-holding, actually. From a game design perspective, the return on the decision has to be substantially better than 200% for that to work out; there’s so much a frame does on a turn that passing it up is not only boring as a move, but has to fairly guarantee a level of success.

Now, that said, I can imagine a way to do such a thing that isn’t boring: when a frame has two red die systems, they have the option, before rolling, to roll their blue, green, and yellows ALL as red; that is, instead of defending yourself, moving, or communicating, you’re just blasting. Your odds of rolling a 6 are very good at that point.

And this brings up one of the design specifications: hackability. There’s a chapter in the game about designing settings and the rules that support them. It’s a game that, like a box of LEGO, shows you something fun to make, but promises a lot more once the model is torn back down to parts.

CLV: How tactical does this game get? Can you send 2 units of your squad to one objective, while sending others to hold off an enemy?

Josh: Oh, definitely. And, because of the way things shake out, you often find yourself having to send the wrong frames, which means having to push forward with other units further than you might want in order to keep the defense from going after your 2 units…

There are definitely benefits to having specialists on the field, but having a company that’s overly specialized means your opposition can see your weaknesses because they’re not where your strengths are. In one of the updates, you can see Estar’s Anvil, a company I really enjoy playing with, for instance. It’s divided into two fire teams who fight with a tactic I call Hammer and Anvil, an artillerist named Mokrani, Commander Foss, who’s on loan from the Terran Transit Marines and has a high-speed frame with a sensor, and Captain Estar, whose job it is to give orders from the front as best she can (though her frame is slow enough that she falls behind a lot).

Each of those units has a job to do, but the artillerist winds up in a fistfight pretty often, Estar winds up getting hit by snipers and becoming useless in a fight, and the hammer/anvil teams have to combine based on the damage they’ve received. You have to make a lot of decisions on the ground where you make up for where your plans have gone weird.

CLV: How does this version deviate from the past iterations of Mechaton?

Well, a bunch of ways. The first, most obvious one is that initiative is much sleeker. We took a good look at where the game was least fun and realized that we were literally spending an hour every game with the old initiative system just rolling dice. So we don’t roll dice for a collective hour any more. It was a good decision on Vincent’s part.

We also realized that the spread of company sizes was too wide; while a 4 vs. 7 fight is fair, you used to find yourself fighting 3 vs. 7 sometimes and the player with 3 frames just didn’t stand a chance. So it’s now between 4 and 8 or between 3 and 5.

We’ve also added some special effects for specialists: if you have two sensor/communication systems, for instance, it increases your range, and having two armor/defensive systems means you can provide cover for others in your company.

CLV: Spending an hour rolling dice for initiative seems like anti-fun. It’s hard for me to get people to roll dice for initiative in D&D.

Josh: Yeah, we didn’t even realize how crappy the rule was until we took a serious critical look at the game.
The new initiative rule’s great, though. I love it. Sometimes, it offers really fun choices. Sometimes it just tells you it’s time to do the thing you want to do!

CLV: What are the limitations when building your army. I come from a points based system background, do you have a certain number of points to spend on upgrades, or a number of dice? Or is it build what you want, with your opponent in mind trying to win initiative?

Josh: Yeah, for a skirmish-size game, you can play with 3-5 frames, while for a bigger game, it’s 4-8. You’re trying to guess the other’s player’s company size. The point system benefits those who have the fewest frames by one and the fewest systems by one. That means if player A shows up with an enormous company of 7 (the max for a three-player game) and their opposition both have 6 frames while company C has an underequipped frame (and so has the fewest systems), A has 21 points while C has 42. That means A has a LOT of catch-up to do. That guy in the middle, company B (with 36 points) is in the unenviable position of knowing that, if he doesn’t knock A out of first place (probably by capturing objectives), they’ll never win, but also knowing that company A is going to be a problem because of their numbers later in the game. That means that B needs to attack C to gain first place while taking opportunities to wear down A because those numbers will be a real problem.

CLV: I love that you’ve created an entire backstory with unique characters and squads. Will their stats and configurations, as well as instructions on how to build them be included in the core book?

Josh: Yeah, definitely. The core book has instructions for three frames and gives their specs. You can re-spec at will, of course, though.

CLV: Looking at Soren’s flickr stream gets me a little more excited than I care to admit. How did he come on board and what’s he doing for the project? Also, how does he do what he does so well?

Josh: Soren’s an amazing creator. He’s onboard for the project because it’s about just exactly the stuff he’s into: hard SF, giant robots, and international politics. He hadn’t really enjoyed gaming in the past, but we played a game over my floor a couple of years back and he got excited about both the gameplay and the scale of the models.

He does what he does well the same way anyone does: he’s spent a lot of time creating stuff! If you look at his history, you’ll see him start good and get amazing, but it always comes down to that. Find a medium that speaks to you and keep working with it.

CLV: What are some of the best LEGO sets to get if you’re really interested in playing, or building mecha in general?

Josh Well, the best thing to do is hit up a local LEGO store’s Pick-A-Brick. The book (and the Kickstarter conversations) talks a bunch about other ways to get the parts you want, like and parts drafts with friends. Buying lots of little $5 kits (like the Racers) will get you a lot more little, interesting parts than buying great big sets.

CLV: You’re not finished with this yet, but are there plans for expanding the universe and create say, faction books or adding new factions to the universe?

Josh: Yeah, actually. You’ll notice that this is labeled 001. When there’s an interesting new way to play — adding transformers or space battles, for instance — I’ll publish a pamphlet-sized supplement that explains the rules, has instructions for models that use them, and gives enough seed to set up a battle that highlights those new rules. I’m expecting to sell them for a few dollars apiece.

You’ll also note that at the top, it says “Micro Construct Tactics Nova”, which is the name of a broad line of game I expect to release over time that do different things but hold some basic design philosophy in common.

I’m doing a similar thing with my flagship, Shock:Social Science Fiction. It’s a game for making improvisational hard-core, literary science fiction with your friends. I’ve expanded it into the more roleplayer-friendly Shock:Human Contact and will be doing others that hold that particular design philosophy as time goes on. Human Contact is actually my proudest piece as a writer and game designer and I hope to be able to top it as time goes on.

CLV: I’m really excited about you releasing it under Creative Commons, allowing others to build upon what you’ve made, share it with friends without reprisal, etc. How do you think the Creative Commons licensing is going to affect the gaming culture in the future?

Josh: Well, one of my big hopes is that kids now get the benefit I had when I was a kid: I didn’t have much money, so cheap games gave me lots to play with. I was big on Car Wars and Battledroids, which were really ways of both creating things (designing cars and arenas on one hand, building little model robots on the other) and then showing off your creations to your friends.

My hope is that Creative Commons gives those powers to kids now. I design games professionally now because Car Wars cost $8 at the hobby shop in my town. I want to see who’s designing games in ten years because all their friends found this way to play with LEGO® together.

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