The lair of tabletop gaming can be a hard sell to convince people to enter, if you don’t have a key already. Often large, army-style games have huge buy-ins; expensive metal models, environmental elements, paints and so on. Even though the games look beautiful and overly complex compared to your run-of-the-mill board game, they are just out of reach to routinely play on a normal basis. The Warhammer series in any flavor is a prime example of a great game out of reach for most folks. Finding thousands of dollars to build the perfect army is almost going to be as hard as convincing your friends to do the same with their spare cash. However, I think I may have found a good solution to the problem. Not to the generating funds or begging your friends part, but to another avenue to scratch your miniature wargaming itch.
Paint a picture in your mind: it is now almost 200 years into the future. Politics have finally withered to dust to make way for the new ruling classes – corporations. As we’ve suspected all along, they finally made their push for full control of countries making way for mega conglomerates. The world was now divided under the banners of 16 different “MegaCons.” Through bitter battles, economic strategy and corporate sabotage these numbers would eventually ebb, leaving four major players to stand out in the world. The CCC (Eastern North America), KemVar (Central South America), FCC (Southwest Eurasia), and the USCR (Northern Eurasia) floated to the top of the global pool. With these new MegaCons came a new necessity for militarized forces to defend the corporation’s holdings and fight for greater stakes. Enter the Military Economic Reconnaissance Counter Security or MERCS for short.
These dystopian corporate states combined their police and military forces to create a superior legion in which to fight with in the name of their benefactors. These city-state armies break down into squads. You are the commander of one of these squads. You place your team of five on the field to exert dominance over the opposition. Enhanced by your corporate abilities and armed to the teeth, each side battles it out to the death until one side is left standing over the bodies of their prey. In the name of workplace efficiency about 90 minutes of game time is allowed unless the crushed bodies of your foes litter the ground before then. The key to success is tactics. MERCS invites you to play at a level of which requires thought and planning to come out the other side of your conflict alive.
Even if you’re a seasoned veteran of various tabletop battlefields, MERCS doesn’t brow beat you with a rule book. The rulebook is equal opportunity for the veteran and rookie alike. As you would expect, each unit has unique sets of stats such as movement points, blood (hit points), and armor values among other stats and skills. All of these values are given to you on a non-collectible card for each figure. Each turn breaks into two phases- initiative and action. If you are familiar with D20 ruleset games, initiative shouldn’t be foreign. Both players roll a D10 (the only die used) for a initiative value for each member of their squad. After each solider has their assigned number, you then proceed to the action phase for each MERC in order from highest to lowest. As you move through each soldier you have the option to move, attack or hold. These actions should be pretty self explanatory. During your turn you call your action and proceed through the steps.
If you planning to move your MERC, you have to consider the movement points listed on the card. The nice thing about movement is there are cut outs in the cards that you use to measure your movements. No more grabbing the tape measure to see how far you get to go. Do you need to turn a little to accomplish that? You can do that without having to spend a movement point, unless you are turning more than 90 degrees. Does your designated movement spot leave you just shy of the wall you were hoping to get to? You might be in luck if you are within a miniature base from it. The rules specify a nifty ability called “snap to cover” that you can use anytime this occurs. If you choose to do nothing, just declare a hold. How’s that for making things simple?
As with most games, attacking is a little more complex. Thankfully, MERCS doesn’t make it near to impossible and force you to wade through paragraphs of rules to try and get things accomplished. There are numerous things that play into your potential for damage such as range to target, cover and weapon strength play into each chance at a hit. The great thing about it that you aren’t completely depending on the random roll of the dice to see if your strike connects. Instead a predetermined firing number for the weapon you’re using, plus the aforementioned modifiers, gives you a number to aim for with your roll. In essence, you are rolling against yourself. Even if you succeed, just because you hit the opposing forces doesn’t guarantee damage. Choose the wrong damage method and end up never piercing armor. Coordinate and pick correctly to deal the real damage. Some abilities have multiple hits that balance out weak weapon damage. However, you can only dole out the pain once per attack that connects.
For the review, the MERCS Minis folks provided us the CCC and KemVar factions. The faction choice provided showed a good contrast between the MegaCon factions. The Yellow Jackets (CCC) have superior armor capabilities and a medic, while the KemVar have a unique stealth system that always allows them to be at half cover. It makes both sides somewhat difficult to actually hit, especially from a distance. Each MegaCon is designed with specific pros and cons between them. This makes tactics and smart player choices a huge part in winning a battle. In the case of the sets provided, you could tell that the CCC were meant to stand the test of time, taking punishing damage only to let their armor and medic to the work. As for the KemVar, their cloaking/cover ability made them difficult to hit from a distance. For someone to do damage, they’d have to work their way in. The problem with that is that the KemVar soldiers want you to do the work of moving in. With classes like the assassin, their melee abilities reign supreme. Figuring out which corporation suits your play style is a matter of personal opinion, but many options are there. Recently MERCS Minis added a fifth MegaCon, the Sefadu. A sixth, the Keizai Waza, are also in production slated for an mid-October release giving the prospective MERCS player two more choices than presented in the “basic” set.
After getting a few games in, I noticed that there were a few things that made MERCS different from other games. First, it has a very “no nonsense” approach to playing. The rules are succinct and to the point. In fact, less than one third of the rulebook actually pertains to rules. In an attempt to keep people from bickering over rules the book flat out tells you to err on the side of action. Another supporting point is how you are meant to interpret line of sight. If your solider can spot any part of the target he is aiming for (even a sliver of their head or base) they can be hit. Sure, that makes you kind of tilt your head and look at the playing surface a little funny, but if you can see it, you can shoot it. It just gets to the point of how straight forward everything is.
Fortunately, the rulebook isn’t flooded with tables to reference for each roll or complicated formulas that need to be figured out each time you decide to do something. The cards that go with each set of MegaCon soldiers state everything that is really needed to know. They aren’t used the way cards typically have been in a tabletop wargame setting. On top of being used for measuring movement and providing stats, they are also the end all solution for rule disputes. It is stated clearly in the rule set that whatever the cards say takes precedent over what was put in the book. This is a smart way to do it to avoid costly book reprints for the creators. It also means you don’t have to memorize every little thing inside the tome. Quick reference cards with information and formulas are included in every deck. The only thing they don’t provide for you right away are counters for hits or armor breaks and maps to play on. However, both of those have recently been created and put up for sale.
A dose of realism was added with the bonuses and penalties against attacks, as well as weapon restrictions. It seems to be a little silly to use a high powered sniper rifle from inches away from your target, doesn’t it? MERCS seems to think so too. Placing weapon use restrictions prevents one shot kills from more powerful weapons that otherwise would break the balance of the game if allowed to get close. Likewise, trying to shoot someone over a long distance isn’t the most effective thing to try and do with a pistol. Shooting up close with it should be, and is more effective. The game has bonuses or penalties across the three range: close, normal and long. With these modifiers and other ones for hitting targets from cover behind objects, you are also always given a number to aim for. Perhaps the biggest perk of the game was in having a number to roll for rather than have your entire turn flame out because of terrible dice rolls.
As fun as the game is, it wasn’t without flaws. Between the cards and the rule book there were a few things missing. Notably, there are only 4 or 5 class descriptions for each MegaCon. During the test, it was discovered that both the KemVar and CCC did not have a page in the rule book for the demolitionist class. At the time of this article, they are even missing from their website. Thankfully, the card for the class is included in the decks. Speaking of the cards, there were some notable differences between what the book stated and what the card stated about certain abilities. As stated earlier, the card takes priority, but when you are trying to get a straight answer on things like the KemVar worm grenade, it gets a little dicey. I found this particularly annoying battling against the KemVar faction as the grenade card has it as a lesser effect than what the books states it does. This was probably done for balancing issues, but lead to some discord in our play tests nonetheless.
Firing arcs and turning based movements caused some confusion as well. While a lot of the special weapon types have a certain arc or radius that you construct with cards when firing, the placement of them is a tad troublesome. You aren’t allowed to pre-measure what you will hit in the area of the cards, so once you call your action you are tied to it. This can cause issues with attacks falling short and even hitting your own team. That isn’t the main complaint though. Since these figures face all sorts of directions, you are supposed to assign which direction is forward. Seems like a silly thing to complain about, but some of the models like the CCC Assault Leader or KemVar Heavy can be a tad awkward. Putting some indicators on the bases at 45 degree intervals corrects this, but I didn’t think of this and only found out about those after reading the community forums. Otherwise, it’s the honor system if you don’t put the markers on. On that note, the turning at sub-right angles before having to call it a move is a little weird. I guess it is momentum based, like it would take extra effort to change direction. This is ripe for abuse though unless you want to pull out a protractor for every radial turn.
All-in-all, MERCS was a fantastic game to play. The atmosphere surrounding the game presents a scenario that really isn’t too far from what could really happen in the future. The book presented huge chunks of back story and information to give you a fully fleshed out world to play in. That book, I must mention, was beautifully put together with fantastic art on just about every page. Better yet, the game is incredibly easy to learn and play. Once you do, it is just a matter of using what you have in the best way to achieve victory. Even the minor problems presented could be easily overcome within the rules. When you boil everything about the game down to its purest form, you have a high quality, intuitive squad combat game that doesn’t screw around. MERCS Minis have put out a product they have a true passion for and has powerful momentum behind it.
At around $150 to get started it seems a little steep. When compared to at least double or triple the price for other games in the same arena, the whole idea seems a little bit better if you buy into some bundles with a friend. It would be a wise investment for you to find a friend and jump into this wonderful arena of corporate combat.
*Game provided for review by creator. Posted with permission from 20 Sides of Nerd.