Sitting in front of me, on a coffee table that has become incredibly familiar to me during this quarantine, is my copy of Lancer. It was one of those things I backed sight-unseen on Kickstarter, only based on a little buzz I heard on Twitter about the project. I’m super glad I did, though – despite not really being into the Mecha genre, the game makes them interesting in the context of a vast setting. But what drew me in the most was the system – namely, how the game exists as both a rules-light narrative game and a super-crunchy, maps-and-minis game depending on the context.
I’m going to focus on the latter, because I think it pulls off something really sneaky and clever.
In Lancer, your pilot is presumed to have relatively reliable access to massive 3D printers that can churn out a custom mech in a matter of hours. This mech of yours is custom to your specifications, factoring in systems and weapons that you’ve programmed the printer to install (indeed, your “mech stats” of Hull, Agility, Systems and Engineering are, in part, reflective of your skill at designing a mech that emphasizes these traits). The only limits are how many weapon and systems slots you have and, more importantly, what licenses you have access to. However, if you have the rights to do so, you can build whatever your heart desires.
And here’s where Lancer pulls off something pretty damn ingenious.
See, your character is a top-notch mech pilot. They know what they’re good at and how they vibe with the rest of the party’s composition. While everyone starts with a good all-rounder in the form of the GMS Everest, characters quickly accrue licenses to specialized parts and weaponry. As top-notch mech pilots, they’re going to seek out builds that are optimized for their role, seeking opportunistic synergies and clever loopholes to mitigate potential downsides to their choices.
That’s right, your character is performing CharOp. Not you. Them.
And that’s cool as shit!
CharOp and min-maxing have been... contentious for as long as I’ve been playing. Often, the accusations are that the perpetrator is not considering their character’s progression in an organic way that suits the story, but rather engaging with the metagame of trying to break the system. CharOp still exists as a facet of Lancer, but they made it diegetic. Of course the pilot you play is going to make the meanest, deadliest schematic they can – they wouldn’t be Lancers if they didn’t!
I’m not sure how applicable this would be for the designs of other games. This sense of in-game, modular optimization seems to only make sense to me if the thing your character is optimizing is a weapon or tool outside of themselves, but I’d love to see this idea flourish to games that I can’t even begin to think of now.