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.