One of my favorite things about BattleTech is the number of options available for how to play it. There are about seven playable centuries of the setting’s history that support different available units, technologies, and factions. The game system scales well to any size of battle as long as you have time to play thanks to its alternating, phase-based turn structure. Then, there are a bunch of official optional rules that help you customize everything from minor weapon tweaks to big systems like design quirks and formation building rules to match the sort of game you want to play.
The set of official optional rules are spread out over a few books. Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules includes most of them as well as rules to cover all sorts of environments and situations not covered in Total Warfare. Campaign Operations has a selection of optional rules and systems for building a force and linking together battles. The BattleMech Manual includes some of most popular options from both of those books. And then rules for playing without hexes are available as a free Miniature Rules pdf. Across those, we have access to a ton of options, and then you can find even more house rules shared by BattleTech fans across the internet.
I think if you talked to a group of BattleTech players, you’d get almost as many preferred ways to play as people. Some people prefer casual ’Mech brawls set in 3025, others want to play narrative campaigns tracking the desperate, technologically lopsided fights of the initial Clan Invasion, and others want to earn glory as mercenaries in the abandoned Jade Falcon Occupation Zone. Everyone has different optional rules that they like to use and some that they don’t like at all.
Personally, I think BattleTech shines as a narrative game, but I’m happy to just play casual games too. I prefer playing with hexes in part because it saves me from needing to build up a collection of terrain. I like to play with all sorts of ground forces, but rarely use aerospace units. I enjoy playing in any era. For optional rules, I currently prefer playing with the several rules down below. In the past, I’ve used a lot more options like pilot abilities, extreme ranges, more movement modes, and a homebrew experience point system when running a narrative campaign where each player only controlled a single MechWarrior, but I don’t feel like most games need that many extras added on. If you’re new to BattleTech, I’d recommend trying out some of the options that sound interesting and seeing what you end up enjoying the most.
Active Probe Targeting
Active Probes are normally only meaningful when playing a scenario that allows for hidden units. That means that in most games they end up being useless. The Active Probe Targeting option allows an active probe to slightly reduce the penalty of shooting through woods so that they provide a benefit in more games. (Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules p.97, BattleMech Manual p.110)
Backward Level Changes
Under normal rules, a unit cannot move into a different level hex while walking backwards. That can result in a unit getting stuck when trying to back away from enemies and forced to turn around and expose its back in order to move up or down a hill. This optional rule gives a ’Mech the option of walking backward up or down one level at the risk of falling over. I think this is a fair tradeoff, and the situation comes up often enough in games that I like having the choice between turning around or risking a failure on the Piloting roll. (Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules p.20, BattleMech Manual p.15)
Sometimes ’Mechs have a hard time getting back on their feet. Normally, rolling to stand back up is pretty easy, but penalties from leg or gyro damage can quickly make it unlikely a ’Mech can get back on its feet. With this optional rule, a MechWarrior can spend all of their MP to stand carefully and reduce the target number needed to stand by 2. This ends up being particularly useful in cases where you don’t want to continue moving after standing up anyways. (Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules p.22, BattleMech Manual p.19)
Design quirks are a bunch of special rules that apply to certain designs. They can be either positive or negative, and many designs have multiple quirks. Personally, I love the extra variety this brings to different ’Mechs. (Campaign Operations p.225-235, BattleMech Manual p.82-89)
When playing with more advanced tech levels, enemy ECM suites can be particularly disruptive. This is especially true if you’re trying to make use of a C3 network. The ECCM option allows for a unit with an ECM suite to use it to counter enemy ECM rather than its normal usage. I really only use this option when I’m playing with a C3 network, but I think it’s an important option to consider if you’re playing in an era like the Jihad where C3 and ECMs are both more common. (Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules p.98-99)
ECM Ghost Targets
While ECMs are less conditional than active probes, they still can end up useless if your opponent doesn’t bring certain types of equipment to the battle. The ghost targets optional rule gives a unit with an ECM suite the option to interfere with targeting rather than acting normally. I use this optional rule mostly to make sure ECM units have something to do with their electronics suite no matter what the opposing force brings to the fight. (Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules p.100)
The floating criticals rule allows through-armor critical hits to affect any location rather than only the torso. I think this is the first optional rule I used for BattleTech, and I love the extra randomness that it can bring to battles. (Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules p.75, BattleMech Manual p.45)
The forced withdrawal rule is a useful rule to reduce the length of games and add a bit of realism. Rather than fighting until destroyed, with this option units need to start retreating once they take sufficient damage. This is a rule that I view as more a by-scenario option than the others, but my default is to use it unless I’m trying to play a particularly desperate battle. (Total Warfare p.258, BattleMech Manual p.81)
This optional rule allows some exemptions to the normal stacking rules. Where normally, a unit needs to be destroyed in order for enemy units to move through the hex, this option allows that when the unit is immobilized or prone. This is most likely to come up when a unit is trying to block a route through terrain such as a city street between buildings. I feel like in that case, being able to move past a knocked over ’Mech makes for more fun than needing to fully destroy it before being able to move past it. (Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules p.20-21, BattleMech Manual p.16)
Retractable Blade Piercing
This optional rule allows a ’Mech with a retractable blade to extend it after delivering a punch in order to get a bonus chance to cause a critical hit. The drawback is that this has a chance of breaking the blade. The only ’Mechs with retractable blades that I’ve ever used are the Word of Blake Celestial OmniMechs, and this rule just feels like something a Blakist would do. (Tactical Operations: Advanced Rules p.102, BattleMech Manual p.109)