Watch The Skies: Actual things that happened

2015, Jun 08    

This is the third in a set of three articles about a megagame I ran this weekend. I’ve split it into these parts:

Finally, a few notes about actually playing the game and the things that happened from the controller’s end. This is rather fragmented and quite possibly out of order, and assumes some knowledge of the game: if you don’t know what Watch The Skies is, you may find some of this rather difficult to follow. Sorry!

The first big event, for me, was that one of our scientists ran up to the stage before the game started to announce that the kitchen end of the hall reeked of gas. In a flurry of panic I ran to the kitchen to find that there was no gas in the building: everything was electric. That did nothing to calm me down: I thought I’d just have to turn the oven off, but now I don’t even have controls to work with. Would I have to evacuate the hall? Just then, from across the room, someone yelled “don’t panic! It’s just China!” and they were right: the Chinese team had brought an array of unusual imported sweets, some of which smelt strongly enough to gas out an entire building.

After that was all resolved, the game started and we got underway. The mess of rules confusion was hard to muddle through: everyone was feeling out the edges of the game all at once, and every controller had to work very hard for the first few turns. Earth presented a united front against the aliens and knocked them out of orbit fairly consistently: in fact, the humans as a whole were working together as a single team, more or less. Even the UN was in agreement on most things. As control, we worried about this: Earth working together turns the game into a team of 32 versus a team of 9. The rules are kind of set up that way, though: when the game starts, no team has any technology and no pressing commitments, so the only thing to do is send out units to beat up UFOs. Hitting them gives you tech cards, so why wouldn’t you? Only a year in did it start to sink in that they were, in fact, destroying living things, and, in fact, maybe they shouldn’t let the other Earth nations get their hands on all that juicy tech.

Towards the end of the first year, Brazil were due to hold the Olympics. This was something we messed about with as a roleplay idea and we weren’t quite sure how it’d play out: we granted Brazil the power to give out Olympic success (no questions asked about how that was actually achieved) and gave successful countries bonuses. Russia started discussions with control about paying to plant a bomb on the Olympic grounds and frame another country for it, and we had our first hint of some real in-fighting. At this point, I was feeling pretty nervous about Russia: this was a really bloodthirsty action and if it came off, the game would surely take a darker turn. Eventually they deemed it too costly and risky and canned the idea. This might actually be the first mention of it outside the control meetings.

The scientific community came together rather nicely and for the most part worked together to further Earth’s interests. Initially we didn’t let them share research without our consent, worrying that technology might enhance too quickly, but after a few turns very little had happened in the science world so we opened up the floodgates and even gave some bonuses to dice rolls. We also had to be quite generous on the black market because there just weren’t enough tech cards out in the field to go around. In general, I think we overestimated the pace science game, and I underestimated how much the scientists would have to do. I really enjoyed watching the scientists work and found them to be genuinely interesting players who advised their heads of state and opened up communications with the other teams on a completely different level to the UN. This is a total contrast to a lot of reports I’ve read from players of other Watch The Skies games - I have no idea if that’s down to our players or if I’m just perceiving things differently.

Control had a meeting every turn and, I think, operated extremely well. We communicated quickly and mostly efficiently, although we often tried to end the meeting before Mike got to speak - Sorry Mike! Overall, it seems that control is the one bit of perfect communication in this game of poor channels, which makes it a very odd role. Most of the time, I had a hard time keeping up with everything that was going on and found that my role was largely just gathering the other controllers together and getting them to say their parts to each other: I expected to be steering the story a lot more, but that seemed largely to be carried out by the players rather than us.

Lunchtime hit and we took a much needed break: the original rulebooks do not factor lunch into the timetable, but I’m glad that we added it. The controllers took the time to talk through some ideas and we decided on a few things: firstly to boost science a little, and secondly to work through a few plans with the aliens that they had thought up themselves. They had captured a spy and ended up genetically enhancing him and sending him back to Earth, which we thought was a brilliant idea. Brazil would soon receive this spy and open up a full communication channel with the aliens. Here the cracks really started to show on Earth’s side: the game naturally shifted from alien hunting to suspecting other nations and everything started to get a little bogged down in bureaucracy. I think this is a fairly natural path for the game to take.

The aliens sent messages to the humans constantly: some offering peace and trades, others attempting to confuse and disrupt Earth. Sometimes we delivered them to the right people, sometimes we altered them, sometimes we sent them elsewhere. Some were late, some were changed. On one inspired occasion, Charlie delivered a message from the aliens to the PR system of a science conference, offering no explanation. The alien game is very much a roleplaying experience, more about ideas than mechanics.

In the afternoon, things started to flow more smoothly as we got the hang of the rules, but also Earth broke down a little. The USA went public on the existence of aliens, which felt like a big deal but didn’t actually change much for our game at the time. Looking back, everyone injected money into PR at that point to cover for the hit, reducing the money available for operations, and perhaps that gave the aliens the foothold they needed to get back in the game. This moment was an exciting one for control: we knew about it 5 or 10 minutes in advance and there was a lot of whispering back and forth that turn.

At one point, I walked out from the control area to see the Brazilian president up on the alien balcony, with a media representative, meeting with the aliens. This was an incredible moment for me: I really wanted to see something like this take place and here it was. I was hoping, then, that an alien representative would get a seat on the UN, but I hear that was vetoed in the UN meetings. Meanwhile on Earth, the president of France and the foreign minister for Japan gathered the heads of state to attempt to open discussions with the aliens, but they had all they needed from Brazil and no interest in talking to people who wouldn’t stop shooting them down.

Sometime during the afternoon, tech started getting interesting as Russia got their hands on a bio-weapon. I informed them quietly that the aliens wouldn’t know anything about this kind of technology and that they should keep it secret as it would be a powerful weapon against them. They held onto it, in secret, for several turns, before planning a masterpiece final turn: they infected an alien corpse with it and returned it to the aliens, as a “gesture of goodwill”. The aliens took the bait. We discussed the options here and Charlie decided to run the results as a roleplaying exercise, in which 3 of the aliens selflessly sacrificed themselves to save the rest of the colony.

“Could the heads of state for China and the USA head to the war room, please?” Mike’s voice boomed over the PA. Rikki and Mark walked to the stage, pushing through the generals who cried out that heads of state should not be allowed into the war room. “Do you authorise the use of nuclear weapons against Brazil?” Mike asked each of them in turn. They both agreed. The missiles flew. China and the USA had decided to end this alliance with the aliens once and for all. We took word to the UN, and the foreign minister for Japan resigned on the spot. The game was over. The world lay in tatters, and the aliens had lost one whole conclave.

I’ve written over 1500 words about the events of the day here, and I’m sure that I haven’t covered a quarter of what I saw. Each player has their own version of events, their own narrative. The plot arcs that moved across the entire day feel unimportant compared to the individual factors weighing on each person in the game. Overall, the experience was incredible: I love organising events and this one is the best I’ve ever put together. I’m proud of myself and proud of everyone who came for getting into the spirit of things and making it an incredible day. I’ve learned tons from it, and I can’t wait to get on to the next one - after a few months off for recovery.