Watch the Skies 3: some solutions

In this post I will give a few solutions for my perceived problems with the game. Standard disclaimers apply: my perception might be incorrect in numerous places, hence these solutions might be rubbish.

1. The addition of a plot

As I’ve made clear in a previous post, I think a big failing of WTS3 was the lack of any meaningful plot, compared to what I observed in the SUASD recording of WTS1. I think it is absolutely vital that a game such as this should have a sequence of pre-ordained events, or mysteries to uncover, and depending on how the players react to these events the outcome of the plot should change, i.e. there are ‘decision points’. I did not perceive any of this to exist in WTS3. Perhaps the plot was dispensed with due to the increased number of players and groups in this version of the game. If that is true, then in my opinion the price for having this number of players is too high. However, I don’t believe it is impossible for a large number of players and a plot to coexist. It’s harder when different teams have very opposing goals: such as when the humans are cast in the role of protagonists and the aliens are antagonists. One solution is to have the antagonist driving the plot being an NPC faction, with all humans and aliens being on essentially the same side, albeit with different goals.

I started out writing an example plot, but it was getting a bit lengthy so I will save that for a future post. However, the key points are as follows.

  1. There should be a number of possible endings for the plot. The more there are the more complicated the plot, but it should be >1. In the end-of-game briefing, the ending arrived upon should be given to the players, along with an indication of the decisions made which led to that ending.
  2. There should be a series of pre-planned events through the game. These could happen at a specific time (event starts on turn 2 and will be resolved one way or the other by the end of turn 3) or be triggered by something else (research goal triggers event, or players discover something like a hidden base). These events can be resolved in different ways, and the resolution affects the ending.
  3. The simplest way to do that is to have a counter. The events along the way can increment the counter by -1 or +1, depending on the resolution. If at the end of the game the counter is positive, you get the happy ending. If it’s negative, you get the sad ending
  4. Event should require teamwork (a UFO too big for one nation to shoot down) but should also create conflict (successful resolution of the event causes serious short term pain to one or more player groups, so they actually resist the successful resolution).
  5. I think to make this work with a large player group you really need to lampshade the events a bit, so people know that This Is Critical. You don’t want any of the players to miss the plot entirely, simply because they are a small and isolated nation. I would deal with this by having a mini-briefing at the beginning of each turn where someone gets on the mic and gives the players a few sentences on the major world events. I know one of the big things about these games is that no-one has a firm handle on what is going on and you have to read the newspapers (and gossip with other players!) to get your news, but just a few sentences to ground things and keep everyone in the loop would be fine I think. Maybe one bit of plot, one red herring and one of the minor ‘orange paper’ events: “Major world events this month: huge UFO spotted over China, reports of mass abductions. Famine in Uganda. Mysterious seagull migrations observed in Western Europe. Let’s start the turn.”. Something like that.

2. Making the UN worthwhile: more rules and more events

I didn’t spend a lot of the game in the UN security council, but talking with the other diplomats in my group I think we found it a bit underdeveloped. It was the main clearing house to resolve the ‘orange paper’ events, however from what I saw there wasn’t much conflict and gameplay involved in doing this: people would be at worst ambivalent about sorting these out, and there generally tended to be enough nations interested in resolving any issue to make the financial and resource hurdles irrelevant. Of course, the UN was also the place to deal with more players-generated issues (such as the debate about allocating a seat to the Cetaceans). These seemed to be generally more interesting and contentious. The main difficulty was that the fixed time constraint on UN sessions meant that topics could fall off the agenda.

Here are my ideas to improve both the ‘orange paper’ events and the UN in general.

  1. A lot more orange paper events. The rate at which they are fed to the players should be adjusted such that there are at least two active on any given turn.
  2. The orange events should really hurt some subset of the player teams. For example, a crisis in Paraguay means the bordering player nations (Brazil and Argentina) are suffering an influx of refugees and losing a ton of income: maybe 25% of their income per turn. So some teams are strongly motivated to resolve a given event.
  3. The UN is only allowed to have two items on its agenda per turn. One of these is an ‘orange paper’ issue. The other is a player-generated issue. In the final phases of each turn, a diplomat from each security council nation is allowed to go to UN Control and (a) suggest agenda items for the next session, and/or (b) vote on which of the items on the list will make the agenda. At the end of the turn, the agenda for the the next UN session will depend on the majority vote.
  4. A nation can elect to ‘take the law into its own hands’ and use its military to mitigate the effects of an orange event. Operating outside of the UN like this results in severe diplomatic penalties, but if a nation is getting no joy going the diplomacy route it might be short term pain for long term gain.

That’s it. So the net effect will be that every turn some nations will be taking a good kicking from an orange paper event and so will be highly motivated to resolve the issue. Different nations will be affected by different issues, unfortunately only one can be resolved per turn. The result will be a lot of diplomacy and horse trading outside of the UN in order to convince other UN representatives to vote for your pet issue. Lots of opportunities for conflict: each representative can only vote for one issue to be added to the agenda, so there will be plenty of proper diplomatic ‘we are very sympathetic, and will do all we can short of actually helping’ type discussions. Or even some outright lying: I’m undecided as to whether the agenda voting should be anonymous or not. Faced with the turgid and ineffective (albeit realistic) UN routes, many nations will opt to take matters into their own hands, which again will generate lots of spicy conflict.

Keeping the user-generated agenda items to one per session again leads to a lot of work for the diplomats to get your nation’s pet issue up the agenda. It should also help with the time pressure thing a bit: if everyone knows that the current issue on the table is the only thing that will be discussed, no-one will be trying to shoehorn in additional topics that don’t have enough time to be properly covered.

3. Competition for NPC allies

The diplomatic tool where you could ally with NPCs was pretty pointless in our game, in the Americas at least. All the American nations put their little flags all over the map, but as I understand it the only actual benefits of an alliance is that we could move ground military units through the NPC nation. Which I don’t think anyone did: our military at least stayed in the hutch the entire game.

In WTS3, there was no real conflict within the American continent. It never felt to me like we were in competition with the other American nations, because in general, our goals were more or less the same. This rather took the edge of diplomatic interactions: there was no friction, nothing to bargain or obfuscate/lie about.

To try and address this I would make NPC alliances all about the economy. I propose the following changes.

  1. Every alliance with an NPC on your continent brings a fixed cash benefit per turn. This is due to trade or cultural/scientific exchange or whatever. The size of the benefit differs greatly from NPC to NPC: there are one or two per continent which are really juicy compared to the rest.
  2. Every NPC can have precisely one continental ally. If Paraguay is allied with Brazil then only Brazil gets the benefit: Argentina or Mexico can’t ally with Paraguay at the same time.
  3. As well as using the diplomacy cards to form an alliance with an unaligned NPC, you can also use them to forcibly displace an NPCs existing alliance and replace it with one of your own.

Simple changes, but now it’s not so happy on the continent. If Mexico have a couple of juicy alliances they are raking in the cash and I as Brazil are looking at their alliances with covertous eyes. At best this will put a strain on our relationship. At worst, it will lead to outright conflict.

One way to improve this further, albeit at the cost of increased complication, is to make the undermining of an existing alliance an anonymous act. Here’s an example way this could work:

  1. If I undermine an alliance it doesn’t get automatically replaced with my new alliance, but is left empty for new alliance attempts the next turn. Undermining is card based and can work the way existing actions do (Control draws cards, I have to beat that score)
  2. Undermining and new alliance attempts all happen in secret.
  3. Any nation can try for an alliance with the newly unaligned NPC in the next turn, except for the nation which has just been undermined: they can’t try to go straight back in0. The way an alliance attempt works is you bid a card (or cards) anonymously. After everyone who wants to has had a go, the scores are secretly compared and the winner gets the alliance.
  4. If I successfully undermined then I get a +5 (say) to my card bid in the alliance attempt in the next round. This is also resolved secretly, of course.

So the net effect is that if Mexico loses one of their alliances they can’t be sure who did the undermining. If I did the undermining, while I’m not guaranteed to claim the NPC for Brazil next turn, I am in pole position to do so. However, if I do so that doesn’t prove I was the guy who did the undermining. I could just claim I made a heavy card bid. Mexico will be suspicious, but with a silver tongue and skillful diplomacy maybe I can turn suspicion onto one of the other nations. Conflict and intrigue.

4. Harsh punishments for Playing It Wrong

As I have discussed in previous posts, we were Playing It Wrong, which may well have coloured my impression of the game. There are two problems with the whole Playing It Wrong thing: firstly, I don’t think the game was clear enough in showing us the right way. Secondly, there was no real penalty for our actions. These are two sides of the same coin: we could have been pushed back onto the rails with sufficient in-game penalties or guidance. As it stands, it’s not clear to me if our Playing It Wrong was actually a genuine problem or not, or whether it was just a player decision that was equally valid, and our Control misspoke. However, I will assume that Playing It Right is to be encouraged by the game makers, and so these are the changes I propose.

  1. If the terror track drops below a certain point, in WTS3 every nation lost a point of PR. In the game, both times this happened to us we could immediately perform an action to regain the point. I would change this so that the terror track event causes consequences that are both tangible and irreversible. The PR level sets your turnly income, so in the chaos of a megagame it is easy to be a bit blasé about this dropping a point. So do something that really hurts instead. Maybe some of our army deserts, so we lose a military unit (these are essentially irreplaceable on the timescale of the game). Maybe an angry mob storms the base and destroy one of our interceptors. These are the things that would have made us sit up and take notice. If it has to be a financial penalty, do this: give us our turnly income (say $15M) and then immediately take $7M back. Make it clear that this is the terror track penalty. A bit theatrical to be sure, but doing something physical with real money tokens changing hands is more impactful than a PR number changing. Note that the PR number is listed on the continent map, which most of the team are prohibited from visiting! Difficult for us to care about a number that we never see changing…
  2. When this impactful action happens, be completely explicit about what we can do to stop it happening in the future. ‘This badness is because you have passed a threshold on the terror track. The only way to stop this happening again is to be more pro-active in shooting down UFOs’.

Another additional suggestion: if it is the case that the only way to affect the terror track is by shooting down UFOs (is that true? I’m still not sure) then the game designer knows that if the terror track is increasing then the players are not shooting down enough UFOs. Player behaviour could therefore be modified with the following action: when the terror track passes a certain point in the Americas (say), give every American nation a pre-prepared card. The card says some variation on the following:

Due to the increased level of terror in the Americas, riots and unrest in your country has forced you to call snap elections. You were deposed, and are now playing the new government of your country. Your national objectives remain the same, except that your new party’s manifesto contains the following pledges, which should be added to your objective list.
1. Your party has pledged to aggressively defend the airspace of your continent from alien invaders at any cost. All UFOs should be engaged and shot down.
2. Diplomatic engagement between citizens of your nation and alien powers is now considered a criminal act by your government.

Any nation which is honestly roleplaying would be forced back on to the Playing It Right rails by something like this. I think our player group would have loved this, it would have been a proper twist: we would have gone with it, had to rethink our strategy and it would have been a highlight of the game.

5. Changes to science

I wasn’t a scientist in the game, so I have no personal experience of what happened in their game. From speaking to our team’s scientist though, I have to say it sounded great. Proper game mechanics, proper opportunities for roleplaying. What I like in particular is that every scientist had a nemesis in the room, and apparently it was patently obvious who your nemesis was. Great stuff: conflict!

The one change I would suggest is this. One of our national objectives was to stay ahead of China in technological terms. I imagine most human teams had some variation on this theme. However, after the game our scientist wasn’t clear if we had achieved it or not. He said that we were ahead in some ways, but they were better in biologics… not really sure. Now, this game isn’t about winning or losing, but its nice to be able to discuss with your team afterwards how well you think you did. This objective is one that could be tied to a number, so it is clear whether you succeeded or failed at this particular objective. All I’m proposing is a numerical record of every country’s tech level, or number of advances, or whatever, that is updated on a turn by turn basis and is viewable by all players at the end.

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Watch the Skies 3: my perception of the major problems (2)

Criticism number 2: “you’ve been playing the game wrong”

Our strategy going into the game was that, given that Brazil was a peaceful nation that attempts to solve its problems peacefully (as laid out in our briefing) that we would extend a hand of friendship not just to the human players, but also the alien nations. As such we didn’t meet their flying saucers with guns blazing but with messages of peace. Some turns into the game, Control informed all American nations that the terror track was going up, and we all dropped a point on the PR track. They told us this was due to citizens in the Americas being freaked out by the alien threat, saucers flying unopposed overhead, rumors of abductions and terror in Peru etc. We doubled our efforts to try and resolve the situation peacefully. Later on in the game, the terror track passed a critical point again and we all dropped another point in PR. Again, Control told us all that mass terror was sweeping the Americas. We should have been shooting down UFOs: almost all American nations (with the notable exception of Argentina) were exploring peaceful routes towards alien engagement. I wasn’t there, but apparently Control explicitly said to one of our team “you’ve been playing the game wrong”. However, it was a bit late in the day to do anything about it really: we could bring the terror track down a bit with cards but not by much. Besides, we had a peace conference to attend.

So why did we play the game wrong? There’s a few things here. Most noteable is the disconnect between our face-to-face engagement with the alien players, and the action on the map. One of the core aspects of this game is that each team member only sees certain aspects of the overall picture. The only guy who was allowed at the map during the military aspects was our defence minister, and so he was the only one who saw the UFOs and the human craft in the air. Meanwhile, we were in contact with the humans who were playing the aliens, and they were sending us notes telling us they were peaceful, and later telling us the same, face-to-face. So we of course were telling our DM not to shoot down any saucers, in case he shot down the one containing our bestie Splrk from Alpha Centauri, who we’d invited down for afternoon tea (was that a thing? That for the aliens to visit Earth a physical spacecraft model had to land on the map? We thought that was a thing. It might not have been a thing).  These friendly aliens were landing and agreeing to give us certain tech in return for soil samples and stuff, and so we were happy: we were solving our problems peacefully (one of our objectives in the briefing: tick) and we were gaining alien technology (another objective: tick). Keeping all UFOs out of our airspace and defending all our NPC neighbours was, noteably not a specific objective laid out in our briefing. Remember of course that at this point we also thought there was a plot and doing the wrong (agressive) thing might have Serious Consequences For Earth. Ironically most American nations were a bit peeved at the Argentinians for aggressively defending their airspace: turns out they were Playing The Game Right!

Now when Control came over to talk to us about the terror track the first time they were clearly trying to prod us in the right direction. However, because of the disconnect between the military map and our experiences with the alien players, we didn’t actually ‘get it’. Rather than immediately turn to a more militaristic footing, our president released reassuring statements to the press intended to calm American terror, and, working in concert with our defense minister, we tackled the Peru problem by allying with them, driving out the alien infiltrators in their government and then hardening their defense against further alien attack. As far as I know this did little to nothing to affect the terror track: it seems we needed to shoot down UFOs to affect the track, and not much else. The main result of our efforts was a news report in which our president was portrayed as a combination of Neville Chamberlain and Marshall Petain. By the time Control made their second vain attempt to push us in the right direction, it was too little too late.

Here’s the thing, we never really felt any consequences from Playing It Wrong, and so we were never actually motivated to Play It Right. Indeed, Playing It Right might have been good for the people of Peru, but helping the people of Peru was not one of the objectives we were given. Championing peace and gaining alien tech was, and the path we chose achieved those aims. The terror track going up never really affected us and so was never a huge worry. Sure, we lost PR (=turnly income) but both times it happened we had a card to play to return it back to the level it was at previously (in one case a literal card, in the second case stopping deforestation). If it wasn’t for the military mobilisation in the last turn, we would have finished with our PR where it started, despite the continent being in abject terror due to us Playing It Wrong. And as well as no ‘gamey’ consequences, there were no plot consequences. Because there was no plot. So what was our motivation to Play It Right? This was never clear.

Criticism number 3: not enough conflict

Early in the game we formed a peaceful alliance with Canada and Mexico. This was an extremely successful alliance, and would have lasted a thousand years. Why? We had nothing to disagree on. At all. Every time a Mexican came up to me and asked me to do something, we were going to do it anyway and so it cost me nothing to agree. They wanted a seat at the UN? Yeah sure, sounds good to me. They are worried about the Honduras situation? So am I, lets chuck in a few quid each and sort it. There was never any tension in our alliance at all from where I was sitting. This was the same with all the American nations, whether we were allied with them or not. We were never competing for anything, and so there was no reason to be anything other than friendly. We had a minor disagreement with Argentina (because they were Playing It Right and we were Playing It Wrong), the USA pretty much ignored us and the Venezuelans threatened a war just for larks, but there was no major things to fight over. In the real world, even the closest allies argue about things all the time, and compete for resources of one form or another. The mechanisms were not in place to force this sort of conflict, and a simulation of diplomacy is not interesting without some degree of conflict. What about external conflict? Most of the rest of the world was too far away to affect us. I’m not going to get into an argument or a rivalry with Germany when I haven’t got a clue what they’re doing all game. The Cetaceans are a different species, but due to the game mechanics it was impossible to speak to them without investing major resources into learning their language. They just did their thing, which was mainly trying to get a seat at the UN. Groups like the ordinary people were complete red herrings.

What about the aliens? Perhaps if we had Played It Right then they would have been a major source of conflict, but as I discussed above we were not shepherded into Playing It Right, so they weren’t. We spent most of the game assuming at least some of the aliens were antagonists, but all the ones we met were friendly and peaceful and just wanted soil samples. No conflict there. Again, they didn’t ask for anything that we weren’t delighted to provide.

Criticism number 4: too much money

Other members of my team might vehemently disagree with this, particularly the president, but it felt to me like we always had ample money in hand and could do most of what we wanted to do. This exacerbated the above problems: I never had to argue with the other American nations about who exactly was going to clean up Nicaragua, because every time I went to make a withdrawal at the Bank of President the cashpoint was open. We wasted a lot of money on unnecessary things like NPC alliances and upgrading our conventional military forces: if we hadn’t done this we would have been quids in to an even greater degree.

Summary

So, these four points summarize my major issues in the game. There was no plot to drive the overall narrative, give events meaning and allow things to reach a satisfactory conclusion. We apparently handled the military aspect of the game wrongly, but the setup made this easy to do on the day, and in any case there was no real consequences. There was no real conflict between ourselves and other teams, which sucked the life out of the diplomatic interactions. And we always seemed well resourced and never really were forced to make hard choices.

Choices. Conflict. Consequences. These are I think key aspects to an experience of this nature and I found them lacking. In my next post, I will give some ideas for game mechanics which may help to rectify these issues to some degree. Disclaimer: they might be crap.

Watch the Skies 3: my perception of the major problems (1)

Following my previous post in which I gave an account of my experience playing in WTS3 as one of Brazil’s two ambassadors, in this post I would like to detail some of my criticisms of the game itself. As I said, I found the game to be an enjoyable though flawed experience. Creating and organising something on this scale is beyond me, so much respect to the organisers and the control team. If one of the organisers was to read this post, I hope they would take this criticism in the constructive manner it is intended. Also, some of what I say here may be flat out wrong: there may be aspects I misunderstood or just missed in the days events. Right, that’s enough arse covering.

Criticism number 1. The lack of any plot.

The main point of games such as this one is that they are shared storytelling experiences. Players are encouraged to roleplay and be inventive, and as such individual stories rise organically throughout the game. For example, stories I remember  from the debriefing include the Canadians managed to persuade an alien to star in one of their reality TV series. Elsewhere, the Egyptians built a spaceport with help from a Corporation, which was subsequently destroyed. The Chinese assasinated the Japanese prime minister. This is all great stuff, and very memorable for the people involved, but the problem is that these are disjointed events. As well as stories, I believe that a collective experience such as this one needs a plot: a cohesive narrative throughout the day with a setup, a series of events and a payoff at the end, which is hopefully satisfying to the players. I believe this very strongly. I draw a key distinction here between what I am calling story and plot. Stories are things which happened entirely organically on the day. Plot on the other hand is somewhat pre-ordained, in that a framework has been drawn up beforehand. This framework can be fairly lose, in fact ideally it should be, such that there are a variety of different conclusions which could be reached depending on the actions of the players. It is the responsibility of the dungeon master to guide the players through the plot, getting them to one of the conclusions while still leaving them enough flexibility such that they don’t feel they are on rails.

As an aside, one of the key problems with an event such as WTS is that it is a time limited game. This means that developing narratives can be cut off in their prime: armies poised on the brink of war and then… the game ends. Something like that happened to us in our game: we mobilised for a potential war with Venezuela on the very last turn of the game. Note however that this problem is more of an issue for stories rather than plot. A skilled organiser should be able to guide the plot, accelerating events when need be, in order to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion.

I think plot is vital to events such as this. Most people’s introduction to WTS is through the famous SUASD video, and the reason I think this video is compelling and has sold so many on the concept of megagames is because of the plot elements in this video. I realise that this video has been edited to some extent to highlight the narrative, but it is very clear there are pre-ordained elements. There is the setup: aliens are visiting the Earth and apparently hostile. There is a hidden mystery to discover: the aliens are actually entirely peaceful, and their apparent hostility is all a result of misinformation and confusion. There are milestones in the plot as the game progresses: an alien base on the Earth is discovered, then a moon base, then a Mars base. The players develop the capability to strike the bases. Then the players face a critical decision: to launch a nuclear strike or not. They choose not, and in the denouement the true nature of the aliens is revealed, and it is noted that by not striking the players saved the Earth. If they had chosen the nuclear option, the aliens would have wiped humanity out completely.

Now, this is actually a very simple plot, and fairly ‘light touch’ from Control’s point of view. It’s just a case of guiding the players to the milestones and putting them in a position where they can make the key decision. Not everyone will have had a casting vote in that decision but everyone will have been part of the experience and will leaving knowing what happened, and what could have happened if the chips had fallen a different way. That’s a satisfying narrative.

In comparison, in WTS3 I fumbled around blindly looking for the plot. We tried to determine what the alien’s motivations were. We avoided shooting them down until we knew more about them in case it had Serious Consequences For Earth. We held a peace conference with alien representatives in which I specifically asked what they wanted from us. I worried about the fact that there were mysteries we didn’t know the answers to, like who the people wearing ‘Ordinary People’ badges were. Towards the end I became convinced that the fact that the Cetaceans were leaving meant that the planet might be destroyed. When the game ended, I knew that I hadn’t really been involved in the plot at all. Never mind though I thought: I’m sure some of the other teams were. I eagerly awaited the debriefing, and was hugely disappointed to find that there was no discussion of the plot at all, just a Control representative from each group giving a brief overview of the stories. I found this a pretty deflating end to the day, to be honest. No conclusion to the narrative meant I left unsatisfied, like when a television serial is cancelled part way through. It really threw into sharp relief the ‘time limited’ problem with collective storytelling experiences, as described above. A notable additional problem was that, in the last couple of turns, the lack of a plot meant that things did really feel like they were petering out rather than coming to a climax. A number of diplomats from other teams mentioned to be that they were at a loss to find something to do and I felt the same. From our point of view, the Venezuelan situation was becoming interesting but that’s about it. A whimper rather than a bang.

Thinking about it on the train home, I assumed that some of the things that happened towards the end of the game were the plot, chiefly the visit of alien representatives to the UN, and the arrival of battleships in orbit to provide a kind of Earth quarantine. That didn’t feel right though, since I’m not sure what the human teams could have done to affect these events. Were there paths we could have followed which would have led to Earth being welcomed in the Galactic community, or others which would have led to the Earth’s destruction? Without being told the key decision points, it’s difficult to understand the plot. Another oddity was the behavior of the alien players. We never divined any of their true purposes: all they wanted from us was vague assurances of peace and resource cards. In many ways, they seems just like human players but with artificial communication barriers in place. Also worrying was the fact that the alien Control noted that all the alien teams began the game in peaceful cooperation, and they had to artificially introduce some conflict. This does not suggest a heterogeneity of alien objectives, and does suggest that our attempts to determine the motivations of the various groups, and not shoot down saucers because Shooting Down The Wrong Aliens Could Have Dire Consequences For Earth, was in fact a fools errand.

Something also notable to me is that some of the most compelling parts of the day were not when we were left entirely to our own devices to tell stories, but when a spanner was thrown into the works by Control imposing some new situation on us. Examples include the Papal quarantine and the Venezuelan revolution. Interventions like these are key to driving the narrative.

This week, after reading other people’s experiences, an even worse picture emerges. It seems that there was no plot at all! No bases to discover, no decision points, no alternative fates for the Earth. The UN visit and the battleships were just story. While this explains why there was no plot explanation in the debriefing, it seems a huge backward step from WTS1. I don’t know why this decision was made. Is it because of the complexity of this new form of the game, with many more human teams and different alien factions? If the plot was lost to make the game bigger in scale, it seems to me that price is too high. Some teams had an air of mystery about them, such as Humanity First and the Ordinary People, but with no plot pay-off they were a complete red herring and might as well have not been there. Indeed, I’ve read that there was some potential for these factions to affect the plot: the Ordinary People for example were apparently the Deep Ones, and had the ability to trigger the melting of the ice caps and the flooding of the world. But with no debriefing discussing this there is no satisfaction. Did they just choose not to do this or did the human nations stop it happening by doing something? If so, what? I’ve heard these teams have been urged to keep their nature secret for future games. Again, if having these mysterious factions in a future game means they must be neutered in the current game, the price is too high. Why not just introduce them at the point where they make a difference?

To be fair, there were some bits of plot in the game, if you take plot to mean an ingame event which was pre-ordained. Every turn we received an orange sheet of paper detailing a world crisis: the usual solution of which was to debate in the UN whether to send in observers or peacekeepers or whatever, which often cost money or resources or whatever. To my mind, this was also a bit of a failure. For one thing, these were discrete events, one not solving the other. Secondly, they tended to be solved trivially. This is mainly because there was no real reason not to solve them, and the resources of the world were more than adequate. For example, our Foreign Minister was in the UN in turn 1 when there was a crisis in Uganda. Apparently the people around the table collective chucked in enough cash to solve the issue 8 times over. Later in the game there was an issue affecting us in the Americas, between Nicaruagua and the Honduras I believe. We were out of the UN at the time, but Canada amd Mexico were both in. We all agreed we wanted to solve the issue and were willing to chuck in a few quid. I asked someone how it was going a turn or so later, and apparently it was all resolved. Um, great? The worst part of this is, I’m not sure what would have happened if we had completely ignored it and just let the crisis happen. Maybe the terror track would go up a few points, but that was going crazy anyway from all the UFOs buzzing around. Maybe the slip of paper had some Serious Consequences on it for American nations which I overlooked, but it was easy to overlook, since solving the situation was so trivial. We did it for role-playing reasons, not because we felt we had to. And these minor, disjointed speedbumps do not make for a plot.

Watch the Skies 3: perspectives from a Brazilian ambassador

The fact that our group constituted a complete team meant that we had ample opportunity to discuss strategy long before the day itself. Our briefing stated that Brazil was a peaceful nation which wanted to emphasise cooperation and discussion over military action, and was willing to contribute it’s fair share to UN initiatives. It also noted that we wanted to be taken seriously as a power, that we believed Brazilians were better at leading South American affairs than Argentina, and a major goal was to exploit alien technology, ideally not allowing China to obtain a major tech advantage. We agreed that we would embody these principles in game and extend our stance of peaceful cooperation and dialogue to alien teams as well as humans. Brazil does have a dormant nuclear programme and we could have brought that into the game at great cost. We vigorously debated whether to do this (in order to meet our ‘Brazil is taken seriously’ objective, and also in case the alien presence required a strategic response) but ultimately we did not reach consensus and a nuclear armed Brazil was never a serious possibility.

The game kicked off, and our diplomatic team consisting of myself, our Foreign Minister (FM) and the other Senior Ambassador (SA) split up to achieve our main initial objectives. FM went to the UN: there was a crisis bubbling away in Uganda we were keen to do our bit to support. SA had the most important job of making contact with the aliens, and I was off to chat up the Pope: Brazil is the largest Catholic nation in the world and so the Vatican was potentially a key ally, and also it seemed the big man already had lines of communication in place with the aliens. However, on the way I was side-tracked: Brazil is an observer state for the Arab League, and they were having their first meeting, so I went along to that instead. The Arabs were all a pretty friendly bunch, and were mainly concerned with their local affairs: Egypt wanted African issues like Uganda to be handled by African nations without outside interference. Everyone was a bit worried about Iran. No-one seemed that bothered by the alien presence: I brought up the issue and felt a bit like Lembit Opik going on one of his asteroid impact rants in the House of Commons. In what time I had left, I scooted over to the Vatican and made the appropriate overtures to a friendly Cardinal. They appreciated our support, but had their own plans for alien engagement. Hmmm. Some mild panic towards the end of turn 1 when our chief scientist (CS) went missing. Each turn features periods of ‘team time’ when everyone must return to their team table. Our man was missing for a good ten minutes and we genuinely convinced ourselves he had been abducted. Turned out in fact that he didn’t know he had to come back and was just sitting in a different room.

Diplomatic efforts proceeded, and our team made contact with the other American nations around the table, and various other key players. The US didn’t seem that bothered about dealing with small-fry such as us, but Mexico and Canada were much more friendly and we agreed on a formalised alliance of mutual defence and sharing of tech. All of us were interested in peaceful overtures to the aliens, and so we agreed to work together towards that goal. We made some initial contact with some of the alien factions, and tried to arrange a meeting. All going well. Towards the end of the second turn I realised that there was a whole phase of the game when diplomatic players could go to the map and either ally with NPC nations or protect them from alien attack. I had read about this in the rulebook then completely forgotten it. I arrived at the map to find it festooned with flags from other nations. Oops. Peru had been largely left alone (mainly I think because it was a hard nut to crack: +2 on the resistance roll) but there was evidence of alien activity so I went in there.

Things were going well on the alien front. We had a vist from one of the factions and they assured us they were peaceful: all they wanted were soil samples and the like. We were down with that, helped collect what they needed, and our president along with the Mexican (and Canadian?) presidents were taken up into space to deliver them, and were appropriately rewarded. All very cordial. Our president also negotiated with the Reticulans, who were also friendly but wanted human samples, which was slightly more sinister. El presidente went with the deal, which was basically to supply two ‘volunteers’ to help with the Reticulan’s ‘slightly invasive’ research. In return we got some juicy tech: we were chiefly interested in learning alien languages so we could help further the cause of intergalactic diplomacy. Later on it seemed there might have been a bit of a communications breakdown, and ‘two’ was more like ‘two units of 10,000 people each’ and volunteers was more like ‘economic migrants who are also orphans’. Whoops. I didn’t realise this until after the game, so when the Reticulans came back later and asked for three more people, my response was along the lines of ‘no worries mate, just let us lube them up and then we’ll help load them onto your flying saucer’. Huge apologies to the peoples of South America. Unsuprisingly the people were getting scared and the terror track advanced, bringing PR (and income) levels down for nations all across the Americas. One of the main issues was Peru, in which the government had been completely infiltrated by aliens. Working with our Defence Minister (DM) I completed our Peruvian alliance, reinforced their national defence and he sent in an agent to clear out the bad apples in the government. In an attempt to reduce continental terror our president made a reasurring statement to the press, the result of which was an absolute drubbing, in which a front page news story about alien concentration camps in South America was printed alongside our president saying everything was fine and the aliens were our friends, in best Comical Ali fashion.

Meanwhile, diplomacy with the other Earth nations was not going as well. Canada, Mexico and ourselves had been talking about inviting Argentina into our little club, but they were antagonising our new alien friends by shooting lots of them down, so we decided to hold off. Relations with Argentina was never unfriendly, but had perhaps cooled a little. My fellow SA had attended the second meeting of the Arab League, but from that point on we completely forgot they existed. Sorry arab dudes – nothing personal. However, we were getting on great with the Vatican, thanks to the sterling efforts of our other SA and our FM. Work was proceeding on inviting the aliens to a peace conference on Earth in Brasilia, then disaster! The pope caught an alien virus and was quarantined, putting peace plans on hold. Our FM was in dialogue with him at the time, and narrowly avoided catching it himself. Fortunately he’s an atheist so he probably didn’t do any unhygienic ring kissing or anything like that while he was over there. It was my turn to sit in at the UN (we were rotating it between our three diplomats) and so I got my own taste of how pointless the whole body was. Work was proceeding slowly on getting the Cetaceans representation at the council. The working plan was to gift them Antarctica but there was a lot of resistance to that idea: I wasn’t keen myself as I knew our DM had agents running all over chasing after Red Mercury. We dropped another point on the PR track: the people of the Americas were cowering in their beds as vast fleets of UFOs passed unopposed overhead. To get a bit of positivity going and push us back up the track the Brazil government agreed to stop all deforestation in the rainforest. This was our contribution to solving global warming and according to Control it was Big News, but we tried and failed to get anyone outside of Brazil to give even the tiniest shit.

Fortunately, a better opportunity presented itself: the Pope was out of quarantine and so our peace conference was back on. By this point we spoke all alien languages fluently in Brazil and so we sent party invites to every alien faction. We circulated the room trying to pass the word to as many human nations as possible. The Vatican were on board and the Pope agreed to chair. Much tension when the big event rolled around but it came off without a hitch. Lots of human nations represented. Disappointingly only one alien faction was represented, but he was joined by two more later on: apparently being fashionably late is a thing in space as well. More disappointing we didn’t really get any closer to knowing what the aliens wanted: they just spoke in vague platitudes about wanting peace. Ho hum. At a similar time in the game, word broke out that aliens had visited the UN and had told the assembled nations that peace was going to be essentially enforced on the planet from on high. Good news all round then.

For the first time in the game, things were looking unstable in the Americas. The US had neglected their citizens to the point where they were on the brink of civil war. We had the card in hand to push them over the edge and debated doing just that (for the lulz) but resisted as it was contrary to our ethos. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan president had been mismanaging affairs to such a huge extent (to the point of donating his entire army to the aliens and then inviting the Argentinians in to occupy his country) that the funsters in his government organised a military coup. The new president, the former Venezuelan defence minister, circulated the Americas to press the flesh, and cheerily announced his intention to invade Mexico. The Canada-Mexico-Brazil alliance immediately started moving towards a war footing, pushing for UN approval for military mobilization. Things were looking dodgy for the world in general: reports were circulating regarding various alien battleships arriving in orbit. Even more worrying was the news that the Cetaceans were off: one of the alien factions has offered them asylum off of the planet. It was looking like things were going to go a bit Hitchhiker’s Guide: one of the last actions of the Brazil government was to broadcast a message to all alien factions which basically said ‘we’ve always supported peace, we’ve done the environmentalism stuff, we sent you those orphans you wanted. Can we come too?’. And around that point the game ended! Humanity faced an uncertain future…

End of game awards

  • Our biggest success was undoubtedly the First Intergalactic Peace Conference. I think we can say we did more to further the cause of human-alien relations than any other nation on the planet. In my professional life I’ve been involved in organising a few academic meetings and conferences, and I’ve often fretted beforehand about no-one turning up, invited speakers pulling out etc. The relief when it comes off is palpable, and I felt the same relief when our peace conference was attended by humans and aliens alike! Slightly disappointing that the conference was just a talking shop for mindless platitudes and didn’t actually achieve anything at all, but that’s pretty realistic as well, to be honest.
  • Our biggest cock-ups were many. From a personal point of view, I think I made a big error burning lots of cards to force an alliance with the Peru NPC. I was late coming to this aspect of the game and was short on time to act, and thought that allying with a nation gave us various benefits: letting our agents act there, letting us view the alien activity cards and so on. I now realise that in fact the only benefit is letting us move military forces through the country, which we never did. I don’t think I was the only one who made this mistake as the Americas were festooned with alliance flags. What we should have done was harden the NPCs against alien infiltration, which was half the cost and would have helped us with the terror track. I did this for a few NPC nations: not sure if any other Americans did it at all. We should have banded together and done it early. An honourable mention to our stragey of giving loads of money to corporations to upgrade our armed forces. Our forces never left the hutch over the entire game. In fact they only mobilised on the last turn!
  • Our closest allies would have to be the Vatican, who we worked with throughout the game to further the cause of peace, and helped us bring off the peace conference. A great bunch of lads. Honourable mentions to our Mexican and Canadian brothers and sisters. They were straight shooters, and we pretty much agreed on every issue that came before us. Our alliance will likely outlast the planet itself.
  • Our biggest enemies were probably the press! During the game we were convinced they were set against us: we aimed to do nothing but good works throughout the game: pushing cooperation between all nations and species, committing to global warming solutions, organising peaceful conferences, and the only time we made a splash in the news we were portrayed as human-betraying collaborators! In hindsight, we know of course that the press didn’t have any particular axe to grind (the bad press was because We Were Playing It Wrong, as I will discuss in my next post, and Control were telling the press we were), and our enmity towards the press was in fact a real highlight of the day. I have a new-found sympathy for fresh faced politicians who go into the public eye full of idealism, and then get absolutely torn apart because they can’t solve all the world’s problems. We should also have known of course that bad news always makes the best stories.
  • Best roleplaying award has to go to the Venezuelan Defense Minister who took over his government in a military coup. After the game he told us he had no intention of going to war with Mexico really, but he played the role of charismatic, genocidal maniac so well that we completely bought into it, went into a bit of a flap and had our forces mobilised to face him by the game end. Good effort that man!

So that’s my summary of the day. In general we were happy with the way things went for Brazil: I think we made the best progress we could towards achieving our objectives. We showed leadership and were committed to peace throughout, and were true to our values, with perhaps a slight black mark being when we sent all those orphans up to be probed by slimy aliens.

In my next post I will discuss the game itself, and my perception of the major problems in this version of WTS.

Watch the Skies 3: introduction

On Saturday 25 July, a few friends and I converged on the Camden Centre to play in the ‘Watch the Skies 3‘ megagame. If you are unclear what a megagame is, a good starting point is this video of ‘Watch the Skies 1’ produced by the team at Shut Up and Sit Down. Indeed, I think this video was the starting point for many, and is the main reason why WTS2 and WTS3 were on a much larger scale and featured many more participants. We were playing a megagame for the first time and were allocated control of the great nation of Brazil.

In my next post I ill give a short account of the game from my perspective as one of Brazil’s two Senior Ambassadors. It is a hallmark of these games that it is impossible to keep track of all events, and one’s appreciation of events is incredibly subjective. Coupled with the fact that many of the other players are likely actively trying to deceive you, the result is that this account is likely wildly inaccurate.

After the game our team had a few quiet pints and tried to sift through what had happened. I think we all really enjoyed the day and found it to be a great experience, albeit somewhat flawed. For me personally, I think the flaws were sufficiently great that I wouldn’t be rushing to play in WTS4 (although I certainly wouldn’t rule it out). I would be keen to try more megagames, but I would be more interested in trying one that is on a smaller scale in terms of number of players.  Following my account I will attempt to describe the key flaws I found in WTS3, and will suggested possible ways they could be overcome in future iterations of the game. Again, this is entirely subjective and much of what I say here might be flat-out wrong. I also have no experience of designing games, although I think I’ve played enough to know good design when I see it. I should emphasise that my criticisms are designed to be constructive, and I have the utmost respect and gratitude for both the designers, who pulled off something special, despite my perceived flaws, and the control team, who made their vital and generous contribution to the success of the event.

Anyway, that’s enough caveats, let’s crack on!

Blog-me-do

I am not a social media person, I find the whole thing completely baffling. I’m on Facebook, but ever since I found the button which lets me mute my ‘friends’ posts I basically just use it as a device to remind me of people’s birthdays. I signed up to Twitter for the sole purpose of getting more Dropbox space. From a distance Twitter looks like a seething cesspit of complete bollocks. When I signed up I got a closer look, and things didn’t improve much. As for anything else: your Instagrams, your Tinder’s, your Tumblrs, your Grindrs? No idea. I’m dimly aware that these things exist, in the same way that I’m aware they are still releasing pop music and my car radio can pick up other stations than Radio 4, but no more than that.

So I’m naturally inclined against the whole blog thing. What’s more, I can’t for a minute imagine that anyone would be interested in reading my inane ramblings on a routine basis. I have one reason for starting this blog: at the weekend I participated in a ‘Megagame‘ called Watch The Skies 3. I found it an interesting and enjoyable experience, but not without it’s flaws. Normally I’d leave it there, but I’ve been pondering the experience since and think that (a) the day was worth documenting and (b) I have some constructive criticism I’d like to share. My hope is that this criticism might get back to the game makers if I make it available in this public way and perhaps contribute to their future success.

As for the future of this blog beyond that, who knows. If I find the experience sufficiently cathartic, perhaps I’ll post some more. You lucky people, you!