A couple of weeks ago I attended and played in a Sydney game of Watch the Skies. Part boardgame, part live-action roleplay; this ‘megagame’ was organised by Zedtown and developed by some unhinged/genius fellows at Megagame Makers. In this strategy game we would play as a nation of Earth during an alien invasion. The game’s organiser, David Harmon, described it as a cross between “The West Wing and X-files”. A more topical reference for all you young‘uns would be to imagine XCOM as a board game crossed with Risk. Read on to find out just geeky/interesting/awesome the whole event was.
The Setup & Rules
My friends and I had opted to play as France, hence the matching berets, as our original choice of playing Russia was already taken by the time we got our act together (Our dreams of a Neo-USSR were promptly crushed). There are four basic roles in each team with each country having a leader, a general, a diplomat, and a head scientist. Some of the larger powers had a double of one of these roles, but France was not one of them.
The general’s role was to command our forces in our defence against the alien incursion and be our eyes on the global stage (as he was the only allowed to approach the world map and tell us troop movements, interceptor deployments, etc). This was the most traditionally wargamey role in the game.
The diplomat’s role was to represent the nation at the UN and continue the war by other means on the world stage. The responsibilities they had was to form alliances with NPC nations (which we could then deploy troops and interceptors to) and smooth over the inevitable diplomatic s%*#storm which an alien invasion would cause. The diplomat also had command of the spy unit each nation got at the start of the game (ours was code named ‘Le Chevalier’).
The head scientist’s role was to research any and all alien tech which was recovered by our forces, and buy tech from the grey market if given sufficient resources. They were also able to attend scientific conferences, share theories with other scientists, and win Nobel prizes.
The national leader’s (president, premier, or prime minister depending on the nation) role was to manage us all and coordinate our efforts. They allotted the required resources to whom needed them and managed our public opinion through PR.
The game had two other resources which needed to be kept in check: the global terror track and the individual public opinion rating of each nation. The former would spell our doom if it got too high and the latter determined how much resources we would get each turn as our nation rallied behind our leadership or actively undermined it…
There were also players who were playing the aliens and their goal was unknown to us. They also played in an area which was curtained off so we couldn’t see what they were up to as they planned and plotted amongst themselves…
Finally, there were players who were playing as GNN (The Global News Network). Their role was to report on what the global powers (the players) were doing and depending on what slant they gave the story; they could positively or negatively affect the country they were writing about. After an early mistake in which they reported that France had invaded Kazakhstan, the players collectively stopped paying attention to them…
The rules would all be enforced/made up by ‘controls’ who functioned partly as referees and game masters. They would work out interactions with non-player countries and characters as well as resolving conflicts between players.
Following team discussion, negotiation, and a mini-election; I drew the role of diplomat. Thus, the stage was set with the pieces and players in their places. I now present a cautionary tale for why I should never again get involved in global politics…
As the foreign minister of France it was my job to ensure that the Republic’s interests were represented on the UN Security Council. With cigarette (musk stick) in hand, I would work to diplomatically ensure that France had its interests looked after. This basically entailed making sure that the France was not shouldering too much of the burden of solving the world’s crises (alien or otherwise). Each turn of the game began with the diplomats all meeting together at the UN and discussing whatever crisis demanded the UN’s attention.
My first taste of this system involved dealing with the aftermath of an Earthquake in Chile. Thousands were homeless, food supplies were disrupted, and there were reports of looters in the region. Most of the delegates had no problem in reaching a consensus in deploying aid and peacekeepers to the region except for the Russian delegate who had reservations which he kept to himself.
Those reservations were quashed however, when the US Secretary of State received intelligence from the American spy network indicating the Russian Federation had invaded the Ukraine. He promptly revealed this information to the Council, to which the Russian delegate of course denied any knowledge but was sufficiently cowed into not vetoing the resolution. We found out after the game that the Russian general had gone rogue in turn one and decided to spontaneously annex the Ukraine (for the lulz), but at the time we assumed that the Russians were making a land grab during the Xenos crisis.
With that, our first crisis was resolved. Hands were shaken, backs were patted and the diplomats returned to the main map room. Our new headache was trying to figure out a way to resolve the mess that was the Ukraine and lessen the insanity that was the Russian team. The Russians refused to answer why they had invaded the Ukraine so suddenly and without reason but after threats of international retaliation they explained that they had deployed troops to combat alien forces in the region.
All this occurred in the space of 30 minutes. Negotiations were fast, agreements were loose, and information was worth its weight in gold.
That was my first taste of how the game worked mechanically and the pace was nothing short of breakneck. Every act was done with a frantic energy behind it as time was of the essence. We had to figure out what the hell the aliens were doing on Earth and how we could keep everything under control.
In the following turns, further crises occurred and were resolved with UN Security Council acting swiftly and decisively to ensure that global stability was maintained. By about turn 4 however, the Russians had decided to pull the pin and publicly acknowledge the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. The general public was finally given the truth about the fact that the Earth was being invaded by aliens. We knew the truth was going to come out eventually so we weren’t completely surprised.
The problem with coming out with the truth was that the governments of the world officially denied the existence of aliens. Admitting the truth would have been a complete 180 on the official story which would hurt our public approval. It was outlined in the game mechanically that on the turn that this finally occurred, every nation would suffer a significant penalty to public opinion and global terror would increase dramatically. To make matters worse, the Russian president specifically named France as being complicit in this conspiracy to keep the truth hidden… as well as coordinating with Japan in some sort of alliance with the visitors. Merde.
With that, things started rolling downhill and once it started getting momentum it just did not stop. Here is a severely condensed version of how things unfolded in our game:
-The aliens made a press announcement and declared themselves to be of two separate clans divided along martial and scientific prowess (the warrior and scientist clans). Their excuse that they are here to exact justice for the ‘Roswell’ incident is swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the world.
-The Japanese formed an alliance with the ‘science’ aliens. They gave them one of the home islands to build their base… as well as plenty of human subjects to perform experiments on.
-America bankrolls and arms anti-Russian partisans in the Ukraine in an attempt to make the annexation as costly as it can be for the Russian forces.
-A French agent (Code name: ‘Le Chevalier’) wipes out most of Egypt’s body politic after we found evidence that they were collaborating with the warrior aliens. The press call this event the ‘Night of Reckoning’ but are unaware of France’s involvement.
-The Russians engage in dangerous game of Nuclear brinkmanship halfway through the game with every other country (including Japan, who doesn’t even have nukes)… Why? For the lulz apparently.
-The head scientists of each nation decided to band together and form their own country named ‘Science Nation’. Their attempts to gain UN recognition are torpedoed by the Russian delegate vetoing the motion. They later built a rocket ship to travel to the alien base on the moon… and were never heard from again.
-American generals develop and deploy a nerve gas against an alien base in South America… when the aliens came to visit the UN, only a stern word from the American president convinces them not to deploy the gas again during the diplomatic talks…
-The Russian general ousts the Russian president from power in a successful coup. The Russian Foreign Minister defects to China in the same turn.
-France’s general goes rogue, sabotages a prisoner transfer by booby-trapping the alien captive and then starts quoting Warhammer 40 000 to the press (“There can be no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of bloodshed and the laughing of thirsting gods”). A cunning/underhanded French diplomat arranges for Chinese agents to apprehend the mad general and end his Xenocidal madness.
-The final turn of the game saw Russia finally pull through on its nuclear threat and wipe out the UK who, of course, retaliated with their own arsenal. The French threw their own bombs at Brazil since the ‘science’ aliens claimed that the ‘warrior’ aliens were stationing most of their forces there. How laughably naïve we were…
The amazing thing about all this is that all these events occurred naturally with the players interacting mainly with each other. The game’s basic rules were in force with most of us having to spend resources or make a roll here and there but largely we made things up with the blessing of the various relevant controls. This resulted in some unusual scenarios such as the Russian team going from 5 to 3 players as their President and Foreign Minister went in to Exile in other countries/teams. My own unorthodox actions included orchestrating the aforementioned arrest of France’s military commander when he sabotaged my diplomatic actions with the aliens. Truth be told; I was more than a little miffed at his actions but I also believed he had become completely irrational after fighting the alien visitors for 18 months of in-game time. This game has elements which are extremely flexible and responsive (much like a pen and paper RPG), which suck you in to the whole experience and help you create your own player-driven narrative.
In the end, the aliens were proven to be hostile towards humans. Their goal was to ensure galactic stability by ensuring that humans would not become a spacefaring power. Defeat was bitter, especially since I was so easily duped by their lies and my own rationalisations of their irrational behaviour on the world map (claiming that they come in peace while they simultaneously lay waste to the cities of North America really should have tipped me off). I still had a tonne of fun, even though I may have lent a hand to the downfall of humanity, and would highly the game to anyone who enjoys board games or more socially-focused strategy games… which isn’t to say that you can’t play the game like a complete psychopath (vis-a-vis the Russian general in my game). The increasing popularity of the game has also encouraged other groups to organise more sessions of the game in various parts of the world. Harmon has indicated that he plans to run another instance of this game later in the year, so Australian readers near Sydney who are interested in a game should keep their ears to the ground but also make sure to… WATCH THE SKIES (Da dum tsch).
Now excuse me, but I shall go and pour myself a tall glass of red wine, light up a cigarette, and have a nap before ze end of ze world.