Sunday, June 28, 2015

Review: Watch the Skies (MegaGame)

At 5:38 PM I received a text from my Military Chief asking me if he really should go through with my Deputy Head of State’s plan to send an agent into Japan to blow up one their nuclear reactors in order to try to damage the alien UFO that was hovering above it.

It was around this time that I realized that the entirety of my knowledge of running a South American country had come from the fact that I’ve listened to “Evita” a bunch of times and saw a couple stage productions of it.

Weighing the options, nuclear disasters are bad—but it seemed like the aliens weren’t being friendly anymore either. Who knows what damage we would do to the face of Japan if our plan succeeded?

But then again, in just the last turn, three out of the four of my cabinet members each told me separately that Japan were being “dicks”. 

At 5:39 PM, I sent out the message to carry out the plan to destroy Japan’s nuclear reactor in hopes of damaging the alien ship without any regard for the nation of dicks that we could destroy. Our agent ultimately failed his operation, but for someone whose governmental experience is limited to knowing the lyrics to “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”, that was a pretty impactful call to have to make.

The Brazilian National Cabinet.
Yesterday I spent the day playing the “Watch the Skies” MegaGame, made famous by Shut Up & Sit Down’s video coverage. If you want to see a larger glimpse into how the game is played, watch their video.

Around 75 players got together to play a simulation of the world in the crisis of aliens appearing in our skies and our not knowing what it is that they wanted. Well, except for the alien players. They knew what they wanted. But the rest of us played the roles of the Earthborn. Most of us were cabinet members of the eight most influential powers in the world, while a few played eager media outlets trying to find out as much information as they can and publishing a newspaper each turn reporting on their stories.

Each country is broken down into five roles, each of which has its own purpose and its own set of rules. Turns were half hour blocks. At the start of a turn, each player would go to the room that housed their role. For example, all of the country’s Foreign Ministers would gather together in a room designated at the United Nations. Everyone would play their own role’s “game” and then, fifteen minutes in, would return the rest of their nation’s team and relate what went on and plan for the next turn.

Very Presidential.
I was the Head of State of the country of Brazil. My role was ultimately to set the agenda for the country. Mechanically, the only role I had in the game was to distribute our never-enough income to the other players to try to have them try to be the most effective in their roles. That was a big responsibility and, at times, I was worried that my giving or withholding funds could mean my deciding if my teammates would have a fun turn or just not be able to do anything. That is a lot of responsibility. But I feel that we talked about our decisions fairly openly within our team and I hope that was never the case.  There were no mechanisms for the rest of my game. Everything else was role play and that meant brokering deals with other countries, manipulating the media and trying to get our team to present itself as a uniformed front in agenda—even when in two separate instances, different Cabinet members came up and confided in me that they thought that other members of my Cabinet may be mind-controlled by the aliens. The Head of State, however, cannot enter the areas set aside for the other players. I could not enter the United Nations (except with explicit invitation by the delegates), the War Room, or the Scientists labs.

John was my Deputy Head of State. Mechanically, he could take the funds I gave him and enter the Gray Market to buy alien artifacts or commit certain acts of espionage if we had a Spy. Functionally, however, he was so much more. John was my eyes and ears in the game. While I could not enter any of the other player’s rooms, John could enter the UN and then take that information immediately to our Chief Scientist in the Science labs, then stop in the War Room and come back and brief me on everything that happened before other countries heard about what had been happening. Most of his role was role play as well—he had was able to be my mouthpiece and set up deals with other nations that ultimately I would determine if we followed through on. He was also able to assist me in a number of our “dirty tricks” which allowed me to maintain a bit of credibility. John was aggressive in negotiation while I was friendly and played everything as if I were above the board. If he got caught stealing tech or planting a bug, it didn't damage my friendly, open demeanor that I was cultivating. He even found a number of ways outside of the simple rules structures to get money when we were desperate and struggling for it—from selling information to news media outlets to selling artifacts on the black market until it was oversaturated with Alien Artifacts.

Brazil's main HQ.
Casey was my Military Chief. Mechanically, he could enter the War Room—something I could not see—and he was in charge of our troops and our advanced interceptors, which could shoot down enemy ships. He could commit conventional troops to try to deal with uprising and rioters. If there are too many rioters in our country or around it, we lose PR, which means we get less money and move closer to our government being overthrown. Also, if there are too many rioters worldwide, every country loses PR. Casey was also in charge of our Agents. Agents are special forces that can be given virtually any kind of mission to undertake. This is where the role playing starts to take over the mechanisms once again. If you can come up with an idea or mission for an Agent to undertake, you run it by control (the game masters) and they will make up some rules for it on the spot and come up with some system to see if you succeed or not. The Military Chief also helps the Chief Scientist to try to recover alien artifacts from downed UFOs. For me, Casey was the most pragmatic of my Cabinet. I know he always wanted more money, but he was always capable of getting just enough done with the little I gave him each round. Our borders were relatively well-protected and we committed enough forces to big raids and events that I could legitimately boast to other world leaders how we did our part to help do things like take down the alien base discovered in Norway.

Deputy HoS and Foreign Minister.
Steve was my Foreign Minister. On the surface, it seemed like his role was to disappear for fifteen minutes and then return stating how he needed an exuberant amount of money or else the world was going to collapse. Thankfully, however, I know that there were more mechanisms than that. Each round he would join the Foreign Ministers of the other players in the United Nations and they would propose agendas to effect boosts and gains within the game. Most of these agendas required money—some required large sources of income. Again, the role playing of the game came in by what agendas were brought up. Players would simply come up with something to propose and the UN Control (the GMs for that part of the game) would assign a mechanism and cost to it. We hosted a Science Expose thanks to our Foreign Minister. While it was costly to hold, we gained a huge tech benefit for our Chief Scientist the next round. And, nearing the end of the game, when the world was in chaos and near collapse (If the world’s terror track ever reaches 250, the game ends—at one point we were around 235) the United Nations proposals were the best thing that we had to try to uniformly lower the terror track. However, getting all of the nations to commit money to the UN, effectively taking money out of Defense while fighting alien forces, is a difficult thing to accomplish. Sometimes it took the aid of the Heads of State to convince one another to follow through the plans of the Foreign Ministers. 

Chief Scientist.
Jess was my Chief Scientist. Mechanically, the Chief Scientist has the most fleshed out “rules” systems in their game with the Military Chief second behind them. Jess had a timed dice-rolling game that was sort of like the game Escape: Curse of the Temple to try to get to a location where there was an alien battle and recover artifacts from the site and then return back home or to an allied country. She also had to bid on consultants that gave her more dice to roll to try to match symbols with. But consultants had to be paid each turn, whether she had the extra money to try to recover artifacts or not, otherwise, she lost them. Chief Scientist probably had the least opportunity to come up with “off the books” ideas since they had the most structured game and a preplanned tech tree that they could advance along. However, that still suited Jess fine and she was very happy with the science game. Her recovery of artifacts was needed to advance on our tech tree. She had to spend an artifact of an equal or higher level of the tech we wanted. If she only had lower level artifacts, she had to spend twice the amount. So, to get a level three tech, she needed to spend a level three or higher artifact. If she only had level one or two artifacts, she had to spend six points of artifacts for the level three tech. However, working with our Deputy Head of State, they were able to sell a number of artifacts to the black market which was vital in funding our often floundering economy. Most of the role play of her game, however, came when Brazil and the US opened up our tech trees for free trade with one another. They negotiated which techs to trade with one another, but they could trade through insecure channels—which had a chance of going wrong and losing the tech in the trade, or through secured channels, which required coordination with the Military Chief to place an Agent (which, of course, cost money). Both countries could place an agent in a neutral country (but it would cost each country one credit for that Agent). Or, just one country could use an Agent, but it would have to be placed in the other country. This means, just Brazil could spend the credit and move an Agent to the United States and make the trade. It is cheaper, however, while there, the Military Chief could decide to give the Agent another mission of espionage or anything else he wanted. Most countries were VERY leery of letting anyone place an Agent in their country.

Since the game is at least half role playing game, the game organizers and designers had told us before the start of the game to be free to come up with as many ideas as we wanted—the game would be ultimately directed by the players. Our national briefing was short and didn't offer a lot of direction, which is good. This means that the next group that plays Brazil in a game shouldn't be anything like us. However, one of our national goals was simply to try to be beat China in the technology by the end of the game. 

In the weeks leading up to the game, we began to spitball ideas—some too ambitious and out there, but others more feasible and we walked into the game with a slew of “dirty tricks” and propaganda tools at the ready.

First, we were representing Brazil. So we had a Keurig coffee maker to set up at our table. This way, Brazil could continue to provide coffee to the world. And it worked. Brazil’s initial relationship with the United Kingdom was solely based off of the fact that the UK’s Deputy Head of State came over to our table to ask if he could have a cup of coffee.

Damning evidence against
India, if you ask me.
I took an “alien autopsy” photo from on line and Photoshopped in flags of the other nations in the game. The plan was to “leak” the photo matching the flag of whichever country we needed to hurt to the press. A little before lunchtime it became clear that China, Russia, and India were all working very closely together and it made the rest of us a little nervous. So, I had my Deputy Head of State call one of the media players over to him for an interview while I slipped over and left the doctored photo on the media player’s desk. Fortunately my Deputy Head of State is able to instantly turn on his ability to bullshit and pulled off a reasonable distraction. Knowing what was coming when the papers would release next round, I started to try to sow seeds of doubt against China. A couple other Heads of State and I were talking to India and I said that I had heard rumors that China had captured a live alien, but I didn't have many details. India stated that China did not and that they had been very open and friendly with them. The next turn, after the paper was released, we approached India and showed them the article in the paper that claimed that China had performed an alien autopsy. I pointed out that China obviously hadn't been very forthcoming and had lied to them and perhaps China wasn't as trustworthy or as good of a friend as he had thought. Throughout the game we tried to discredit China and I would like to think that this article revelation helped to turn the opinion of the other countries against them.

Admittedly, one of our more outlandish ideas.
The night before the game, I bought 30 fortune cookies and, using tweezers, I pulled out all of the fortunes and replaced them with incendiary messages such as “We will conquer you.” I called forth the other Heads of State to discuss the world situation while my Deputy Head of State went around and placed them on the tables of the other countries to try to imply that they were gifts from China with ominous, threatening messages.

The game events themselves are difficult to describe. I have such a small fraction of what happened. If the five members of Brazil each wrote a summary of what happened in the game, each story would be VASTLY different, and that isn't even accounting for each other nation’s five individual stories. And that is what I love about it. Even in debriefing and talking to other players afterward, I have such a small understanding of all of the nuances of their own experiences. This was more than a tabletop role playing game where you all sit around a single table and, even if your character isn't present, you still hear all of the narrative spoken. The only hidden information is what might be passed on a 3x5 card to the GM. I feel saddened that there is so much of that day that I will never know. But also, a part of me marvels at that fact. That is what made is so amazing. I role played in the largest Venn diagram that I've ever encountered and I feel like my overlaps were just tiny slivers. So as amazing as my experience was, there was so much more out there.

I will give a bit of a summary with the caveat of potential spoilers. There are a couple of events and reveals that I will not mention. But otherwise, the spoilers aren’t really that much of spoilers. Every game will be different. The motivations of the aliens in the next game might be completely different. And even if they are exactly the same, the collection of alien players may approach them in a completely different and unique manner. But, regardless, I will not spoil the alien motivations in our game.

Round time, the terror track, number of world wide riots and
current events were projected out in various places to keep
everyone up to date on the world status.
When the first round began and my Scientist, Foreign Minister, and Military Chief went to their individual rooms and my Deputy Head of State left to survey the lay out, I found myself sitting alone at my table. It is the equivalent of a DM starting a campaign with, “Okay, you are inside a town. Begin.” At this point, we had no threats. We had no world crises. We were just a bunch of Heads of State at their tables. The way the area was set up, Brazil’s table was near the United States’ table. We were cut off from most of the other world by a semi-partition. But it was fitting. In real life, we would be cut off from the rest of the world by a hemisphere. 

So I went over and started conversation with Madame President of the US. Since we were a bit isolated from the others, we bonded. We talked about mutual defense of the Western Hemisphere and those talks later turned into our joint decision to protect one another’s borders. The US was our strongest and most solid ally throughout the game. In fact, our joint protection of one another's borders meant that if there was a round where we couldn't afford to send out our interceptors, we could rely on the US to defend our borders for us that round. Now, I never explicitly stated this to the US President, but it gave me solace during the rounds where I was too strapped for cash to fund our military properly.

The press had bought our ploy about the China/alien
autopsy cover up. Things were going swimmingly.
That first round when everyone returned and I had my entire Cabinet to discuss what was going on was when I first discovered a vital point in the game: you never have anywhere near enough money to do what you want. As I stated, this is a heavy responsibility because I often felt like it was up to me to determine who could have “fun” the next round of the game. But we didn't have much in the way of money and we were always making cuts. We relied more on the US’s defense pact than I let on. It was the only thing that gave me any solace when I had to funnel money to our science and Foreign Minister.

As the game proceeded, we assumed that the UFOs were being hostile. There is a mechanism where you lay down a battle card face down on a unit to denote its attack and stance. The aliens always had to lay a battle card on their UFOs regardless of purpose. This gave the humans the impression that the aliens were always hostile. You don’t want to take chance that a UFO with a battle card on it over your nation is being friendly. So, humanity shot first. And often. The alien artifact spoils of war helped to smooth over any hesitation that we might not be doing the right thing.

I think it is because of their early miscommunication in motive, and because of human greed for tech, we limited our ability for peaceful outcomes. Later, when one of the most “alien peaceful” nations was attacked outright, we knew all hope of peaceful outcome was lost. But for all we knew, the aliens didn't differentiate us as different countries. They might have assumed we acted together as humanity and if Japan shot a UFO, it didn't matter to them that the UK did not. However, we were fortunate that most of the involvement of the UFOs were not in the Western Hemisphere. 

Turn about is fair play, I suppose. Especially
when everything they said was true.
China, Russia, and India were all working together and the rest of the nations were worried about the strong Asian block that was building. 

Lunchtime came and pizza was provided by the game masters, but it didn't stop the flow of the game at all. And, at what became known as the Pizza Summit, the Heads of State of Brazil, the US, the UK, and France all met and ate their lunch as we talked about what to do about the growing Asian threat. We had all agreed to work together to counter this juggernaut block that we saw rising, but no official pacts were made.

During this time, a failed tech implementation apparently poisoned some of India’s food supplies and I was doing my part to implicate China in the matter. We didn't want to imply them directly and simply started to rumor that it was the rice that was the contaminated food. When asked about it by the media, we never directly implicated China, but both the media and China’s players put together the pieces and called us out on it and turned the headlines against us for a round. However, just enough was going on to distract the world leaders where my Deputy and I were able to feign surprised ignorance and outrage at the slanderous headlines and our Pizza Summit leaders believed that we weren't being as devious as we really were. Or, at least, there was too much shit going on for them to really care about our petty actions against China.

As the game progressed, battles between humanity and the aliens grew. The aliens hadn't returned communications from me since the first turn, but they had been talking extensively with the UK who was in contact with an alien defector that warned us that war was imminent.  However, there were questions to the validity of this defector’s words. But, regardless, it was enough to focus us as the United Kingdom was forced to reveal the presence of aliens to the world press and the terror track of the world swiftly rose and rioting began in countries throughout the world. 

Mark this as "things you don't want to see in a game".
While this was going on, Brazil was still relatively unharmed. Most occurrences were happening in Asia and Europe. This freed us up to focus some of our funding on tech. We spend an inordinate amount of money on tech in those rounds, but unlocked a level 6 tech (the highest level). That would be our crowning achievement in technology, but it was along a track that boosted our PR which was necessary. At one point we had dropped to two steps away from violent revolution, but our tech gains pushed us up nearly to our starting levels by the game’s end.

As the terror track became a more ominous threat, we realized that we had to stop global panic or else governments would topple and none of us would be able to worry about the aliens. Fortunately, one of the benefits of our tech research was one tech that our Foreign Minister could use for a one-time reduction of the terror track. One of my favorite moments of the game was when my Chief Scientist handed my Foreign Minister the tech card and his eyes lit up and he said, “I've got to write a speech.” 

But that was a small bandage for a shotgun shot to the chest. We needed something else. Something bigger. Our Foreign Ministers had brought back a UN proposal that would significantly reduce the terror track, but it cost 4 credits initially and 1 credit each turn thereafter. That round, I only had 8 credits. Joining in on the proposal would be half of our GDP. And every country would have to agree to it. If any country did not commit, the others would lose the money they pledged and the proposal would fail. I would have pledged half of my GDP for nothing.

Shit, meet fan.
Everyone was nervous that someone would balk. France stated that they would not commit. But we needed the terror track to drop. So the Heads of State then entered what was known as the Behind The Chairs Conference where the eight Heads of State gathered together to pledge to commit their resources to this proposal. France still said no. We then committed that everyone would pledge their money and if any nation did not pledge, the other nations would then invade that country. And that is how the Behind The Chairs Conference forced France’s hand into committing to the UN proposal.

It was from that point on that the eight nations worked together. More or less. We all had national interests, of course, but we were unified in that we needed to defend ourselves against increasingly threatening aliens. The United Kingdom had been a staunch ally in our endeavors and we had talked very amicably throughout the game. However, when the Prime Minister of the UK left his briefcase unlocked and walked away from it, I popped it open and stole all of his tech cards from inside of it and put them in my brief case. I let Control know and for the next round I got all of their bonuses and the UK got none. That was the round where we were finally able to fund our level 6 Tech. 

The Deputy Prime Minister had heard that Russia was talking to the aliens and had an agreement of repairs with them. So my Deputy Prime Minister stole Russia’s note cards with their nation's stamps on them. We then started to write messages to the aliens with the Russian stamps saying, “Aliens, Brazil has artifacts. You should trade tech with them. Love, Russia.” Although we never got any message back from the aliens, we were told afterward that the conflicting messages that the aliens were receiving from Russia really confused them. 

Messages like these really make you wish that the Head of
State could enter the war room to see what is happening.
During all of this I was very proud of the fact that while Brazil was relatively untouched militarily, our Military Chief had sent forces to most of the major raids against the aliens. Brazil did its fair part and it gave me the honest credibility I needed in the Anyone Want Coffee Summit where we gathered around Brazil’s table and discussed what we needed to do militarily. 

As the game neared a close, the terror track was as much as a worry as the aliens that were decimating the earth. Japan looked lost as a huge alien ship hovered above one of their nuclear reactors and I made the call to go through with my Deputy Head of State's plan to blow it up. Perhaps fortunately, the Agent failed his mission. Though, it is wholly possible that my Military Chief lied to me and never tried it—he was hesitant about the idea of nuclear sabotage. We talked afterward and he told me he went through with it, but I love the fact that I will never be one hundred percent certain.

In the waning minutes of the game, and after a press conference held by the aliens threatening that we were out of time, nuclear war occurred. Five nuclear detonations went off over the UK, France and Japan, destroying the alien crafts. The game ended there and the Control got together to form an epilogue for the end game.

The only good news we got all game.
Most of the world was reduced to a Mad Max style wasteland, but the US and Brazil were away from the fallout and actually made it through relatively unscathed. Two-thirds of the earth was in ruin, but it wasn't our two-thirds, so we were ecstatic. We also came in second overall in tech, but we did beat China. Only Japan was ahead of us.

The epilogue was wonderful. It was the narrative punch that the day needed. We found out the alien motives and the pieces of what we gathered started to make sense. But it also summed up the aftermath of what happened and it ended the day with that bit of DM narrative that all of us got to sit and hear and experience together. I have no idea what happened to Japan throughout the game, but I know what happened to them afterward.

I talked to Jess afterward and asked her to rank this against the other events we've participated in—from tabletop RPGs, to Escape Rooms, to various LARPs, to one-shot events we've played in. She put it just under some of the excellent Cthulhu LARPs that we've been a part of. That’s a fair assessment, though I don’t know where this will ultimately settle for me.

We were willing to settle for anything we could
scrape together to call a victory.
I am used to most of these events being made up of moments that resonate. A clever puzzle or reveal in an Escape Room, a moment of intense role play in a LARP, that incredible laugh that you get from the way things click in a game of Fiasco. But this event wasn’t made up of moments for me. It is made up by the whole. There isn’t a single moment that I could say defined the experience for me and so much of the experience is made up of the fact that there is so much more that I will never know.

That makes it difficult to quantify and it is something that will be better assessed by me over time. There is not a single moment that I can point out that was quantifiably fun. However, yesterday I had more fun than any other time I can think of. I laughed only a couple of times during the day, but yesterday had some of the funniest things I've ever encountered. There were moments that were intense, but none of them properly quantify how intense the entire day was.

Maybe I look at things too much as a sum of their parts. But that isn't a fair way to view the Watch the Skies megagame. When I review a board game, ultimately it ends up picking apart the pieces and commenting on how they total. It is 5+3+2=10. But the megagame can’t be quantified like that. It isn't the sum of its parts, it is just a sum. And the sum is that I had more fun and it was more intense than anything I've ever done. Picking apart individual mechanisms or components doesn't do it justice. The megagame is just the megagame. And it is the best thing I've done in a long, long time.

The MegaGame society's website is here and you can also find them on Facebook here and Twitter here. I want to thank Noam and all of the Control for making this a wonderfully amazing experience for all of us. I have so many more stories that I could tell and I'm not even scratching the surface of the roughly 74 other people attending.

John Costello, who played as Brazil's Deputy Head of State, did a write up and summary as well. I am surprised to find out how much happened in my own country that I did not know about. His summary is here.


  1. That was an interesting read. I am really amused by your deceitful tactics, and taking advantage of each and every opportunity to help your country at the expense of the other countries.

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  3. Just discovered megagames. This is one of the best writeups of a megagame session I've discovered so far.