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.

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