City of Shadows: A henchman’s tale

My megagame experience continue last weekend with the City of Shadows. Set in the “Big City” 1920s America this was a game about gang crime, police corruption, masked vigilantes and mad scientists. I had been cast as Indro “Romeo” Rodriguez the second in command of the El Hombre gang, a group of mobster of Puerto Rican descent looking to become the biggest and baddest gang in the city.

Community Relations

At the start of the game I found myself at a bit of a loose end. Jason, our boss, was busy showing off as a big man around time making its clear to everyone in our part of time that he rang thing (Boss gained “Respect” for his/her gang be being seen out in town, with the drawback that this left them vulnerable to attack). Alex, our money man, was out building our criminal enterprises to ensure we had enough cash to finance our gang. While Pete our strong man” was deploying troops on the map to spread our control across our starting district.

With everything under control I decide to talk to our local police officers to see if we could come to an understanding about the legitimate businesses we were establishing to provide much needed services to local residents (largely speakeasies and gambling dens). The local lieutenant was a very accommodating individual and we soon agreed that so long as our activities were too obvious, we gave off duty officers a discount at all our establishments and made occasional contributions to the police benevolence fund the majority of officers would spend their shift guarding important looking buildings at the other end of the district. I also starting building an alliance with a large Lithuanian gang that was based two  precincts away i.e. far enough away that we wouldn’t clash for control of crime zones but close enough that if we co-ordinated attacks we could put the screws on another gang caught between us.

Supervillain Origin Story

A few turns in we faced our real interaction with the other players. Our boss was hanging out in a local barbers, mind his own business, when a masked vigilante called the “City Redeemer” burst into the establishment and start burning the place down with their flamethrower. The combat went horribly for our team and our boss ended up teetering on the edge of death have had his face badly burnt. This was a disaster for our gang, with our boss taken out of action we plummeted down the respect rankings and were soon languishing down the bottom. Thankfully there is only one thing that you can do when you’re a criminal who has been horribly disfigured by a superhero, come back as a supervillain. After a turn recovering our boss came back as the villain “the Red Skull” who had vowed to take his revenge on the City Redeemer. And then rest of us, well we were basically his minions.

An opportunity for revenge soon presented itself when we managed to kidnap the City Redeemer’s sidekick. Clearly this was the perfect opportunity to set an ambush so went sent the City Redeemer to message to meet at us an abandoned warehouse if she ever wanted to see her sidekick again. Its turned out she really wanted her sidekick (who I think was also her nephew) back, so she turned up with a lot of support in the form of every police officer in our precinct, the Feds and another masked vigilante. Even with all of our mobsters, trap bonus for the ambush we set and our bosses new superpowers it looked like it was going to be an uphill battle.

Deciding that we needed to change the odds I went to find my tame police officer to get him to stand his troops down. Unfortunately I discovered that he’d been transferred to another police authority after his superiors had decided he was become too close to the local gangs. His colleagues has no interest in doing a deal, have decided that they were going to be “paladins” and not give into corruption. They were also eager to achieve a decisive victory over a gang to help get local unrest uncontrol (which had largely been caused by all the unopposed crime their predecessor had let us get away with). My appeals to logical and reason we are unsuccessful as my attempt to bribe them and they rejected my argument that helping concerned local citizens capture the pyromaniac who burnt down a city block and killed two civilians might be more effective way to address residents concerns about disorder.

Thankfully Alex was quicker to react to this setback than I was and walked over to the second vigilante in the fight, gave him all the money we had in reserve and told him he was on our side now. This was just what we needed to help swing the combat in our favour – after all the ploys and special abilities had been resolved our side was the stronger of the two. The only way we  could lose now was if the we rolled a 1 and the other side scored a 6…which is exactly what happened. So in the end the City Redeemer escaped with her sidekick and both sides too some causalities. Not ideally but we’d shown we could hold our own against the police, the Fed and these superhero and our reputation started to recover. Also been led by a supervillain is never bad for your reputation – something we decided to  capitalised on by buying our boss Red Skull themed car with our next turn’s profits.

However we were still in the bottom half of the gang respect rating and needed to do something impressive to get back in contention. Thankfully while all these superhero shenanigans had been going on I’d been plotting with a mad scientist…

An accessory to madness

Earlier on in the day I’d been chatting to Professor Emily Gargunza who’d be circulating through the gambling dens trying to get her research  budget to stretch to cover all of her mad schemes. Turns out our scientists were just as poor as real life academics and she needed a laughably small amount of money to fund the creation of her “wonders of science” which I agreed to provide so long as I got to decide where the “field tests” of these devices would take place.  

The first project I helped fund was meant to be the creation of a “fear ray” that once, deployed should send rival mobster fleeing from this rackets, leaving our lot clear to move in and take over. We agreed to deploy it again the Shamrocks, who were doing far too well, and I’d spoken to my Lithuanian allies to coordinate an attack on two fronts once our new weapon was deployed. Imagine my surprise then when Professor Gargunza took to stage to announce that she’d planted some kind of virus bomb somewhere in the city. Not quite what we’d agreed, but we decided to ride this one out and, when all the gangs were summoned to city hall and offered an amnesty if we helped find the device I decided to feed the authorities a stream of misinformation rather than ‘fes up to the location and claim the reward. One turn later the search had failed and the device went off in the park right at the centre of the Shamrocks home area, turning all the inhabitants into zombie. Led by the Red Skull our boys moved in to establish a “quarantine zone” which, coincidently involved us grabbing a lot of new territory. Unfortunately after some initial victories we were beaten back. Still we gained a lot of Respect for our ploy, helped by the fact a whole edition of the new paper was devoted to the story, in which Professor Gargunza credited us for her success and said one of her demands to stop her  wave of experiment was for me to be made Mayor. All in all it could have been worse.

Who framed Indro Rodriguez?

High from our successful virus bomb I got back to base to find out that the Red Skull has decided to fully commit to his new existence as a supervillain and would be leaving the El Hombres to fend for themselves (Control promised Jason a whole truck full of superpowers if he left our team to become a full time villain to combat the vigilantes). So I stopped being the Red Skulls chief henchman and took over the gang. However I didn’t  really get much chance to go lead my team as at this point I was arrested as it turned out that three other gangs, led by the Sicilian mafia, were trying to frame me for murder.

I was brought before the Honourable Judge Jeffries were a member of the Shamrocks testified that he’d seen me shooting a gun at someone during El Hombres efforts to muscle in on their territory.  Unfortunately for the witness he seemed unable to keep his story straight, as it quickly collapsed under the judge’s testimony. The judge became even less impressed when he realised that it was gangster giving evidence and not, as he’d first thought a police officer. So the case was dismissed without even having to trouble the jury. It probably also helped that at the time I was alleging killing innocent civilians I’d in fact been at a charity benefit run by my Lithuanian allies for victims of the virus bomb which was also doubling as a fund raising for the judge’s mayoral election campaign. I might all have helped that I made a donate to his reelection campaign on my way to the dock.

Whatever the true reason for my acquittal the Sicilian boss was really unimpressed. I just smiled at him and asked him how we was enjoying the giant mechanical spider I’d unleashed on his district. I’ve got to be honest, watching him run back to his table to survey the damage I’d arranged was pretty satisfying.

Spider-tank, spider-tank, does whatever a spider-tank does….

So about that giant mechanical spider I mentioned. This was the second wonder of science the Rodrigeuz-Gorgunza partnership was unleashing on the world the world. Emblazed with out gang logo on its shiny metallic hide, we’d set this contraption on the Sicilians home district and clear the way for our mobsters to move in a set-up shop. Professor Emily had also attached some kind of confusion ray to it, just to make it extra effective. The results were impressive and for once it was no half realised victory and for three solid turns it continued to smash Sicilian operations. Our respect was climbing skyhigh, and we were now in second place just behind our Sicilian nemesis. However we knew this in itself wouldn’t be enough to win us the game – it was time to turn our attention to City Hall.

Playing politics

As I mentioned earlier the Lithuanian-Puerto Rican axis had decide to throw its weight behind Judge Jeffries campaign for mayor (more accurately the Lithuanians had and I was jumping on their coattails – all my scientific philanthropy meant I’d largely ignore the machinations in City Hall for most of the game.) The result of the election would be announced on the penultimate turn and would be decided in the traditional manner for Americans elections – by money. We hosted a fabulous fundraiser in a luxury restaurant next to the rebuilt barber the City Redeemer had burnt down earlier attended by all our allies – the judge, the Lithuanian, Professor Gargunza (her only trip out of the lab for the whole game, apparently she was a wanted women after the virus bomb incident) as well as some other gang leaders I’d talked into supporting us. We raised a pile of cash and Judge Jeffries looked set to beat the incumbent (helped by the fact he was in hospital after his car was rigged to explode – I still have no idea who did this). One turn out the papers were announcing our candidate had an unassailable lead.

However this wasn’t a two horse race, the vigilantes had put up their own candidate, no less than the City Redeemer herself. In the end the City Redeemer just pipped us to the post. Maybe we got complacent, maybe it was due to the fact the other vigilantes bankrolled her by literally robbing banks. Either way we had failed to get our man into power. The City Redeemer has been a thorn in our side the entire game, there was only one thing for it – she had to die.

So as our final play in the game we set not one, but two, hitmen on the mayor-elect. Our hitman performed magnificently, replacing the tobacco in the newspaper editions cigarettes with C4 explosives, just before his interview with the new mayor. The results were explosive, and while the City Redeemer just pulled through the explosion, the secondary devices set by the second hitman finished the job. Then that was it – game over. While we might not have won the gang game (I’m not sure if the scores were updated after the last turn) it didn’t matter I’d had an amazing time and the El Hombres had shown they were not a gang to be taken lightly

Final thoughts

This was my third megagame so far, and I think my favourite. I was much smaller than watch the skies (only 100 people) and it felt much more dynamic as a result. It was possible to roughly know what was going on everywhere and it felt like everyone had the chance to be involved in many more major story moments (either of their own creation or someone else’s). If I had one criticism it would be that it felt like the police players (especially the local police forces) had a less interesting game than everyone else. That’s probably at least in part a function of the fact that the police are fighting a losing battle and playing a very reactive but if this is run again (and I really hope it is) I think it’d be worth revisiting that part of the game to see how it could be made more engaging for those players (or if our police players just missed the more interesting options open to them, how those choices could be more clearly signposted).
Finally a massive thankyou to everyone who took part, with special mention to Control (especially John the Control for our map), and the other player in the El Hombre Gang especially Alex and Peter who kept our criminal empire running smoothly when the other members went off doing silly thing.

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City of Shadows: A henchman’s tale

Watch the Skies 3: Official Account of the Association Expedition to Solaris C

Having massively enjoyed my last outing to invade Earth as an alien, last Saturday I once again headed down to the Camden Centre to take part in the Megagame Watch the Skies 3 and abduct humans in the name of science/diplomacy/cheap labour/intergalactic cuisine.

Whereas last time I had visited Earth as the Commander of the Federation (who are essentially a race of peaceful and hedonistic space-hippies) this time I would be an Agent on the Association mission to Solaris. In contrast the Association are an aggressive and militaristic civilisation so I was looking forward to a more straight forward approach to dealing with the Earthlings involving less talking and more shooting.

Our team went into the game with a few objectives. The first was to get as much native art and technology and as much exotic flora and fauna off the planet as we could. The second was to develop productive and peaceful relations with the cetaceans (dolphins and whales), who would in this game be represented by two full teams of players. The third was to make sure the humans didn’t leave the planet or get their hands on any alien technology. Finally (although not officially in our briefing) we decided we wanted to get a proper interstellar warship deployed to the sector as soon as possible. We felt the Association would feel more comfortable (and be more used to) negotiating from a position where we had enough fire power behind us to wipe a city the size of Tokyo off the map.

This brings me to the final point I should cover before I start my account of the day – which is that the events in this game were taking place a few years after the events of Watch the Skies 2. This meant that a few of the main events from the last game had been written into the canon for this world.  For example:

1) Tokyo was starting the game as a smoking pile of rubble,

2) The cetaceans were a playable race, and

3) The humans already knew that aliens existed and each alien faction had a list of a few nations that they’d already made some contact with.

First Contact

When the game kicked off we quickly realised most of the plans we’d made were not going to survive contact with faux-reality. As part of our efforts to ally with the cetaceans we’d been planning to build a base not on the moon, as is traditional for any self-respecting alien race, but underwater. We’d also planned to lend the cetaceans our terraforming technology to help them flood the planet and make it more habitable for them and less suitable for those nasty warlike humans.

Unfortunately we were quickly informed by our High Command (Control) that while we could deploy small pieces of terraforming technology to help clean up pollution there was no way they were going to authorise a full scale terraforming operation to change the fundamental nature of the planet (fair enough, flooding the planet wouldn’t have been much fun for the human players). Meanwhile the scientific team attached to our expedition (again Control) advised that while an underwater base was possible it would be much more expensive, take longer to build and require help from them cetaceans. As waiting for several turns before having a secondary base would greatly limit how many shuttles we could send down on missions we decided to settle for a standard moon base like all the other factions.

Our first few turns were relatively uneventful. Chris, our other agent, established diplomatic relations with Mexico, Brazil (and later Canada) and quickly came to an understanding where they would not interfere with our missions in neighbouring Latin American countries where we were hoping to gather a large amounts of flora and fauna. They also seemed very understanding about our need to acquire humans subjects for important scientific purposes.

Jyoti, our Fleet Liaison and deputy Commander, was scouting out Europe for cultural artefact and fighting off a very aggressive European military, who seemed intent on shooting every alien ship out of the sky like some kind of tech pinata.

James, our Commander, had joined our alien neighbours in a Galactic Council to ensure all the civilised nations spoke to each other and didn’t start fighting due to a simple lack of communication. He also established a strong bilateral relationship with the Imperium that would serve us well for the rest of the game.

Meanwhile I made contact with the cetaceans. They were not having a good time; the humans were pumping pollution into the oceans and they were having difficulty understanding concepts like “trade’, ‘ownership’ and ‘territory’ that their whale philosophers seemed to think were cornerstones of the human world view. They were also keen for any intelligence we could provide about events above sea level. This seemed like something we could easily source so we ‘converted’ some of the humans we’d borrowed from Latin America into a level of ‘Native Knowledge and Technology’ in exchange for samples of exotic marine wildlife and some crustal minerals and red mercury that they’d found under the waves.

The European Problem

It turned out that we weren’t the only faction having problems with Europe. Some nefarious European powers had been inviting down diplomats from the civilised powers and then shooting at them. This was clearly unacceptable behaviour and I felt we needed to send Europe a strong message that such actions would not go unpunished. Also the Republic had had a ship shot down over Russia and were worried about them exploiting it to develop space travel technology.

While I was in favour of making a few terror raids, a consensus was reached at the Council to shoot down all the satellites above Europe and to raid Moscow to get back as much technology as possible. Results were mixed. We shot down half the satellites against strong resistance (it would have been more if I’d managed to roll something other than a one) and the Conglomerate abducted all the astronauts from the International Space Station. While the Republic’s salvage mission got passed the Russian interceptors the research facility was too well guarded for them to retrieve the technology so they left without achieving much. Meanwhile as the Reticulans (a largely peaceful scientific race) has sent down a message explaining why we were shooting down the satellites they ended up getting all the blame for the operation in the press.

Astro-aquatic engineering and the world’s dodgiest charity

Meanwhile negotiations with the cetacean were going well, every turn I was popping down in  a shuttle to a  remote corner of the south Pacific to make nice and pickup the latest collection of items the dolphins didn’t know what to do with. This couldn’t last forever and soon the dolphins came forward with a request – they wanted to go into space.  This seemed like too excellent a request not to help with, also I figured if things went well we could relocate them to another water-based planet we were looking to exploit. I then spent quite a lot of time, and an almost immoral amount of resources (including using the Reticulan Great Minds (massively powerful AI computers) as design consultants) to build a dolphin module to attach to our flying saucers which would allow them to make short trips into space to socialise with the other civilised nations.

During one of my trips down to Earth to update the cetaceans on the construction process I was introduced to an individual from Greenpeace who was able to speak cetacean, claimed to be able to provide information on which human nations were building spaceflight tech and wanted to come up to meet some aliens. This was, frankly, an odd combination of skills, knowledge and desires to find in one individual but I got agreement to bring them up to speak to the Council. However as I was leaving one of the dolphins took me to one side to say that the man from Greenpeace was making them feel “nervous”, not the reaction I think that organisation would like to illicit from the beings it was established to help.

Still our Greenpeace representative spoke to the Council, everyone agreed afterward that something very dodgy was going on, especially when they announced they’d happily see humanity extinct in favour of the cetaceans. In the end we agreed it probably wasn’t worth engaging with them any further. A feeling that was confirmed next time I met our Greenpeace rep and they said that they’d found the journey to space “painful” and would like the Council to come down to visit them. This was filed under “extremely dodgy”. We were all worried about walking into a hostage situation and so  this request was promptly ignored, meaning that for the rest of the game I was faced with increasingly irritated Greenpeace lobbying every time I went down to speak to our aquatic allies.

The faults in our stars

It was around this time that the general atmosphere of peace and co-operation at the Galactic Council began to break down. We received reports from High Command that the Conglomerate had started encroaching on our territory and there had been a few border skirmishes (turns out Control were inventing conflict between all the civilised races as we were getting on to well).

On top of that a genuine disagreement had broken out on how to best deal with the humans. Despite our best efforts (or perhaps because some people were secretly giving the humans tech) it looked like sooner or later the humans were going to gain spaceflight technology (which was being made easier by the fact the Conglomerate had built some kind of spaceport above Egypt). We suggested bringing in a Cruiser (medium-sized ship, capable of destroying cities) to established a blockade of Solarius to stop any native build ships leaving the sector. We agreed to provide this ship ourselves, paid for by contribution from all the other races and hand it over to Galactic Council control. Unfortunately the Federation were not happy with this (being much more pro-human than most of the other factions) and declared that they were going to bring their own ship in. Because of this, and the fact that other faction contributions to the cost of the ship were marginal, when our Cruiser turned up we decided not to hand it over to the Council. Soon all the civilised races were racing to bring their own heavy artillery into the skies above earth.

So long and thanks for all the fish

While this was going on I was still hard at work with my dolphin diplomacy. Our initial plan to adapt alien communication tech to allow the dolphins to “sing” about their plight to the rest of the planet failed when we couldn’t get the tech to work (Control made it very clear that no-one was going to be allowed to use the megaphone to address all players). So instead my dolphin pal and I strong armed our way into a meeting between the Galactic Council and the UN to try to get the humans to take some meaningful action. This didn’t go well; despite some warm words about how much they were already doing to fix global pollution the UN didn’t really seem committed to addressing the cetaceans concerns and at one point admitted they were powerless to force human nations to actually do anything. Thoroughly depressed by the tone of the meeting the cetaceans asked if I could arrange for them all to leave the planet and find a new home amongst the stars.

I went back to High Command to see what could be done. After some initial uncertainty I was sent to make my case to the highest possible authority (Jim Wallman – the game’s designer). I half expected this to go the same way as my plan to terraform Earth or broadcast whalesong to all the native players. Thankfully Jim was in a generous mood and decided that yes, if we spent enough resources we could convert a transport ship into a flying aquarium that could carry about 1000 of each of the main cetacean species. This process would take a year (4 in game turns) so this wasn’t going to happen before we ran out of time but I didn’t care – I paid the required resources, told the dolphins and whales we were taking them to a new home and announced our plan to the press. Now all we had to do was survive until the end of the game (and a bit longer) to allow our ship to turn up, and I’d have met my self-created win-condition. How hard could that be…

Apocalypse delayed

Turns out quite hard, as things were not going well with the Galactic Council. The Federation had now been kicked out of the Council by the Reticulans, who had then left the Council themselves as they were unable to maintain order between the remaining 5 civilisations. We had formed a full blown alliance with the Imperium based around the need to contain the humans on Earth, and were pooling our resources to get as much of our combined space armada above Solaris as soon as possible.

The Federation seemed to have joined up with the Republic who were doing the same thing in the name of protection the humans. The Commonwealth were nowhere to be seen. The Conglomerate had now blown up their own spaceport, but looked like they were going to side with the pro-human Federation. Meanwhile the Reticulans were threatening to Mind Control the Federation Fleet if it tried to open fire on the Imperium-Association Alliance (turns out the only thing they liked less than the prospect of interstellar war was the humans leaving Earth).

In an attempt to take out the Republic before the bulk of their fleet arrived the Imperium sent their fighter craft to blow up the Republic moon base, however due to a breakdown in communication (walking away from the map before Control turned up) the final command to open fire was never given. Next turn no such mistakes would be made and it looked like that a giant space battle would soon break out. Then the final whistle went. Honestly I was a bit relieved as things were clearly going to get messy, although hopefully Reticulan mind control would have turned things our way!

Final things

As is probably obvious from this account I had an amazing time again, and am definitely going to try branching out into other megagames. I want to say a massive thankyou to all the Control players for making the day work (especially Alien Control) and to all the Alien, Cetacean and “Other” players who I interacted with over the course of the day for being so much fun.

I’m going to end with 4 more snippets of things the aliens got up to which I couldn’t work into the main narrative.

  • Our Fleet Liaison Officer going down to Earth to make a public safety announcement to the press about the dangers of unsupervised use of alien technology. “Unsupervised use of alien artefact may lead to sleepiness, dizziness, irritable bowels or the plasmatic bombardment of nearby populated settlements. Please do not approach and call an alien extraction team who will safely dispose of the materials”
  • Our allies, the Imperium, attempting to infiltrate Israel to start a nuclear war with Iran on the bases it would then be easier to grab all the resources in the area.
  • When this failed the Imperium arranged to relocate the entire population of Israel to the “promised land” in the stars, when in reality they were just going to use them as cheap slave labour in mining colonies.
  • Our Commander going down to France to kidnap all the mimes on the basis that they counted as both Exotic Fauna and Native Art and therefore fulfilled two of our objectives.
Watch the Skies 3: Official Account of the Association Expedition to Solaris C

Watch the Skies 2: Official Account of the Federation Expedition to Solaris C

Last week I took part in my first megagame called Watch the Skies. What’s a megagame? Rather than try to explain it just watch this video by internet sensations that are Shut Up and Sit Down. http://www.shutupandsitdown.com/videos/v/susd-play-megagame/

We were playing Watch the Skies 2, which is based around the invasion of Earth by aliens. This is my account of my own experience playing as a member of  one of the alien teams. There were six alien teams in total, each of which was divided into two halves. One half was our home planet team who would be dealing with important intergalactic issues as the six alien polities recovered from the War (details were vague but we were all clear it hadn’t been fun for anyone), while the other half were leading an expedition to Solaris C or, as it maybe better know, Earth. I’d be leading the Federation’s trip to Earth as its Expedition Commander.  

Pre-game

When we arrived all the alien teams were collected and quickly escorted through the main room by Control (the wonderful people organising and running this event), having been given clear instruction not to make eye contact or any other way communication with human players (who had been referred to as “natives” in all of our briefing). We were shown, through the interstellar conference room, upstairs to our base camp. We’d been told in our briefing that our race was “frivolous and hedonistic” so we were delighted to see that we’d been given the area with  giant leopard print beanbag.

All the alien players were then all herded on to the balcony that linked the alien home worlds to expedition command. When we were all seated the curtain on the balcony was drawn back to reveal us to the huddled masses of native players gathered below us. Having (hopefully) suitable intimidating the natives I popped back to our home world to collect our flying saucers, abduction teams and the rest of the expedition resources before heading over to expedition command with the rest of the Federation’s expedition team.  

Turn One

Our expedition team consisted of three people and I was joined as expedition commander by Shakila, our scientist and Priya our chief agent. The skies were completely quiet on the first turn, as we were told that, as we’d only just arrived, we weren’t ready to send ships on missions down to the surface. After a bit of faffing around with components we decide to use the turn to talk to the other expedition teams and trying to figure out what they were after – essentially we’ve all here to grab as many resource from Earth as we can and I figured if I found something I couldn’t use I wanted to know who I could trade it with. So armed with my box of Federation Friendship Fudge (marked as being strictly for diplomatic use) I head out to great my fellow sentient beings.

Things start well with the Commonwealth (one of the two minor powers that our briefing says we are on good terms) we have a friendly chat we’re both interested in learning more about human language and culture. In addition they’re interest in mining earth for rare crystal minerals. We didn’t care about these so I offer to trade any we find in exchange for ay exotic flora and fauna they find. According to our briefing we want to sample Earths biodiversity’s for scientific purposes but in my own mind I’d decided we were creating a space menagerie to keep the people of the Federation entertained.

Next I went to speak to the Republic of Free Love; this went less well. They were very cagey and unwilling to give anything away. I probably wasn’t helped by the fact that my truth “we’re here on a scientific research mission” was the lie that pretty much all the expedition teams were telling each other – so I probably sounded just as evasive to them. \

We regrouped. The rest of the team had had friendly chats with the other polities, and started planning for the next turn. Our briefing had said that the stuff we were after (plants, animals, information on human culture) would be easiest to find in Africa and East Asia so we decide to send down some scouts down to those areas. We also decided to contact Kenya to ask them if we could borrow some humans to help us learn human language – we’d been told that we thought of ourselves as a civilising force in the galaxy determined to show the natives the best of galactic culture, so it only seemed polite to ask before we starting abducting people. Unfortunately as we hadn’t learnt their language yet our message was limited to 8 short words so we went with “Come visit, take guests, learn to talk.” Hopefully that would do the trick.  

Turn Two T

urn 2 started with Priya and I heading down to deploy our saucers – putting on our black masks which both marked us as aliens and  acted as a physical reminder that we couldn’t speak to the natives. Our plan was to go scouting to find some wildlife which we could harvest on future turns. I wasn’t that lucky; Madagascar had minerals and my scout in Ethiopia we got chased off by an Egyptian plane. However overall Africa didn’t look like it was putting up much a fight as it relatively weak military was being overwhelmed by the sheer number of saucer that three different polities were deploying.

I went back to expedition command to see how our other troops had done. According to Priya East Asia was a mess of alien but the natives were responding to our presence much more aggressively that the African countries were. Nevertheless one of our scouts had got through the locate a group of human mercenaries in Nepal – not what we were looking for but still worth knowing. We spent the rest of the turn chatting to other expeditions but not really learning anything new. Much more promisingly we heard back from Kenya who’d replied with “We treat guest good, you bring back?”. I asked Shakila to reply assuring them we’d return their guests once we were done with them. It was only later I checked with Control that this would actually be possible but I was reassured that  our scientific procedures were “only mildly invasive” so returning our subjects shouldn’t be a problem.  

Turn Three

I went down with some more scouting units and a transport saucer carrying an abduction team (A-team) hoping that this wasn’t a trap. I deployed my abduction unit in Kenya and watched as the humans responded, silently pleading with the Kenyan military player not a try to intercept my units. Thankful our messages seemed to have got through and we were unopposed, so I left the proud owner of a human subject for study. Back at alien command I entrusted out guests to Shakila who was already looking after another set of humans that Priya had retrieved from East Asia. I was only a bit disheartened to learn that we’d need another eight before we’d learnt enough for face-to-face communication with the natives; we were clearly going to have to pick up the pace. However we were helped by the fact that our political team had just sent us an NPC scientist to help out research efforts.  

Turn Four

With this in mind I took all three abduction teams down with me to collect more subject for study while I sent Priya to Panama to collect some exotic fauna that the Imperium had found there (I’d traded this information in exchange for telling them they could find red mercury in Tanzania). Having place two A-teams in Kenya and one in Somalia I was a little surprised to see that the Commonwealth – who I thought were my friends – were also deploying A-teams in Kenya trying to get in on the abduction action. On reflection this might have been slightly my fault as I may have sounded a bit smug the previous turn when I told them about our successes in Kenya while commiserating them on their awful luck so far.

Understandably the Kenyan general, who’d looked the other way last turn, deployed her own interceptors and also invited other countries in to help her clear her skies. I tried to explain that this hadn’t been my plan but as I was unable to talk, and my mask limited my normally wider range of facial expressions, I settled for silently glaring at the Commonwealth agent and hoping this is picked up on by the natives.  Luckily for me my saucers evade the native’s ships while the Commonwealth were less fortunate with both their units being damaged/destroyed. I felt this served them right for disrupting the fragile peace I’d negotiated so when I got back to expedition command I,  diplomatically, expressed my disappointment with their actions to their commander.

With three more batches of test subjects to hand over to my scientist and seeing that our botanical mission in the Americas was successful I was feeling pretty good about our achievements so far. Shakila told me that we now had enough humans to upgrade our knowledge their languages next turn – which means that we can send notes of any length down to Earth, but still could not arrange face to face meetings. Even better, with the support of our NPC scientist we only needed two more subject to finished our language research and enable us to speak directly to the humans, rather than the five I’d been expecting. I was feeling a bit bad about the trouble I’ve caused Kenya so I spoke to Control about sending them a gift of alien technology. This was a bit risky as all the alien’s political teams had agreed not to given the humans any tech,  and threatened to impose sanction on any polity that broke ranks. Still I couldn’t see what harm an entertainment system could do, and wasn’t planning on telling anyone, so I arranged for it to be sent to Kenya.  

Turn Five

I make another trip down to Africa to collect the last two batches of test subjects that we needed to crack their primitive language. I also send a unit to infiltrate Madagascar with the intention of returning next turn to extract the mineral I saw back on turn two so I can start trading with other polities (infiltrated countries yield more resources when you harvest from them). While my missions are successful  things are really heating up on the ground in South Africa and Nigeria with other polities throwing so many units down that they simply outnumber the interceptors – guaranteeing that some of their mission would be successful.

When I get back to mission command we’ve finally cracked full written communication and we start getting inundated with messages from human players. Shakila starts writing messages encouraging everyone to stay calm while I try to sell our language knowledge other other alien factions. With our laser-like focus on developing our language skills we were not doing well getting the other things we came for and I want to make up for lost time.

The Imperium offers to give us the profits is makes from shipping human workers (read slaves) back to their home world if we share our knowledge with them. However given the Federation’s strong stance on sentient right (and by know I think the natives look like they might be almost sentient) I turn down the offer and let my political team know the Imperium is trafficking quasi-sentient beings. The political team promptly does nothing with this information as they’re making good progress building an interstellar coalition to combat the Greenspoors (an all consuming tide of biological creature that are making swathes of worlds uninhabitable) and don’t want to rock the boat.

I also hear a rumour about a meteorite heading towards earth, but it turns out I’m a few turns behind the news on this one and that the Commonwealth have already dealt with the problem. Good for them, I’m glad to see we are not the only ones trying to be nice to the humans and decide to let our earlier clash over Kenya go.  

Turn Six

I’m still not having any luck finding flora and fauna in Africa, despite our guide saying we’d find tonnes there, so I decide to go back to Madagascar to grab those minerals instead. I know the Conglomerate (a minor power with an obsessively capitalist ethos) are interested in those and would buy it off us in exchange for all the cats they’ve kidnapped from South Africa. My mission does not go well; it looks like Africa’s panic level is so high – something which my abductions probability contributed to – that all the major global powers have decided to intervene. My mining team is mugged by three interceptors which easily shoot down my transport ship – thankful I don’t give anyway any tech because I’ve previously infiltrated the government so they humans can’t land to salvage the wreckage without causing an international incident.

I go back upstairs with nothing to show for my missions but am soon distract by a number of developments. The first we’ve cracked human language. This is great news because it looks like the aliens have some explaining to do – according to the Rectilians (a scientific and super advanced pacifist race run by Control) the Republic of New Love have fired a warning shot at Antarctica, melting some of the ice caps.

There are a number of problems with this approach it seems to me, the main one being that no one else seems clear what they are warning the humans about. When I asked them they deny the incident occurred at all, instead claiming it was a mining accident – which resembles the truth only to the extent that their attack had destroyed a Commonwealth mining operation. Secondly most humans don’t know we have multiple factions (our briefing discouraged us from sharing astro-political information with them) so they don’t really know who they’ve annoyed. Finally at their current level of language development I didn’t the Republic  could communicate their demands to the humans. However, the Rectilians asked us to try talk to China to try to broker some kind of peace so I tell our Secretary of State (from our political team) that we’ll be needing him I start making arrangements to collect the Chinese premier.

At the same time Angola gets in touch to say they’ve got an alien they want to return to us in exchange for us  – this it can’t be ours as I’ve never flown operations near there, but I completely forgot to follow this thought up.  Kenya’s expecting us for talks as well as I sent a message down last turn. On top of this, Priya’s made first contact with a sentient underwater races (whales, I’ll soon learn) and I want to send our scientist down to make first contact. Unfortunately I also need our scientist to stay at base as our Secretary of State needs our scientist to be present for the negotiations (I’m not sure why but Control is insistent). There’s just too much to do and I don’t want to ignore any of our leads. In the end I decide to send Priya to China who’ll drop Shakila off to speak to the Whales then collect the Chinese PM. I’ll head to Africa and I give our Secretary of State our NPC scientist to help his negotiations, as I figure now he’s cracked human language we can spare him.

I tell Control what our plan is  who seems content but then decides to make things even more interesting.  “Right, you are all personally in the ships this turn. If the ship you are in is destroyed you’ll go down with it. If that happens I will touch you on the shoulder and then you must silently leave the room.” That certainly raises the stakes. I decide to give the PACs (our defensive fighter ships) to the rest of my team as East Asia’s traditionally been more aggressive towards alien activity that African,  but as I head down for the start of turn seven I get a bit nervous, remembering the fate of my last mission, and wonder if I’ll be coming back at all.  

Turn Seven

I return to Africa table and wait to see if I’ll survive the trip to collect the native dignitaries. First I I deploy in Kenya. The general I’ve spent most of the game silent pleading with smiles, deploys no troops and, politely but firmly, declines the support offered by the American ambassador. This leads to some raised eyebrows but no more. So far, so good.

Next Angola. This is much more risky as we’ve exchanged one message but nothing more, no trust building missions, nothing.  On reflection I’m not even sure that we replied to their message.  Still I’ve committed to doing this so I deploy my ship. Immediately I’m met by an interceptor. What have I done? I decide that if I get out of here in one piece I’m going to make them pay.  Then the Angolan general declares that their plane is simply escorting my ship into land. I breath a sigh of relief, head back to expedition command with our guests and put thoughts of raining plasma based death down on West Africa out of my mind.

I lead the talks with the African nations while our Secretary of State talks to China and someone from a group called Humanity First. We explained our peaceful intent, hand back the test subjects we took from Kenya, agreed to establish a scientific base in Angola, take possession of Angola’s alien prisoner (I never find out which polity she’s from) make some promises about sharing tech (nothing they could weaponize or would help them with space flight) and agree that we could harvest samples of plants and wildlife in their nations. It was all very amicable; I think that was down to the fudge.

I pop back to the base to check in with the rest of my team – we’ve made contact with the whales who want us to get the humans to stop whaling, I promise to raise this when I’m down on Earth next turn as I’ve decide to hang around after I return our guests.  I also hear about another meteorite which was on a collision course with Earth that’s again been deflect by the Commonwealth. I start to wonder whether this is deliberate (our briefing mentioned that mass driving – deliberately crashing asteroids into planets – was banned by inter-galactic treaty, so clearly civilised races  have that ability); this is another thought I completely fail to follow up. I leave Priya in charge of our expedition as my trip to Earth means I won’t get back until after we deploy troops the turn after next.  

Turn Eight

I’m less concerned this time when Angola deploy an interceptor next to the saucer I’m piloting – surely they won’t risk shooting down their President. I’m right and we touch down with no problems (although the ships returning the Chinese PM was shot at by its own side, but thankfully our ace pilots evaded their shots).

I set up our research establishment in Angola and spend an enjoyable turn on earth talking to as many human governments as I can, as well as giving an interview to the press. The conversations are all brokered by a my handlers from Humanity First but other than having to explain away the abduction of the UN security council by the Imperium (I’m sure its peaceful – I tell the press) it all seems to go well. Japan have already agreed to stop whaling (the Imperium apparently beat us to negotiating this) and China delivers on their deal to give us samples of all their plant life and even throw in a panda to sweeten the deal (represented by a small knitted teddy bear!). Venezuela ask my to secure the return of their citizens that some other polity abducted – I promise to do my best but I’m privately sure they’ve already been sold into slavery by the Imperium and will have succumbed to red mercury poisoning on some distant world. I don’t feel this information would help the situation so just nod, smile and say nothing.  

Turn Nine

I’m feeling quietly pleased about how well everything is going as I return to expedition command. Itlooks like the humans are relatively reasonable and we’ll be able to come to some kind of agreement about us taking samples of all their wildlife in return for an offer of peace and some relatively low grade technology. Actually I’m at a bit of a lost as to what to do this turn and figure I’ll just check in with political command and tell them about the agreements I’ve brokered.

Then I walk in to discover an epic space battle between the Imperium and the Republic taking place in low orbit over Earth.

As we’ve got no battle fleets in the areas (naively we didn’t want to be the first to militarise the area) so I can only look on as the Imperium destroys the Republic fleets over Brazil, both fleets blow up over Italy and an unopposed plasma bombardment from a Republican ship hits Tokyo.

The Commonwealth Commander and I spend a good chunk of this turn getting all  the other alien  teams to sign up to a joint denunciation of the Republics actions. I then run down to deliver this to the press, hoping it will advert whatever retaliatory action the humans are now, undoubtedly planning. The press, however,  seems more concerned by the fact the Grand Mufti is annoyed that the aliens are talking to the Pope but not him. I plan to take no action whatsoever in response to the request that we arrange a meeting with him – have they not noticed that we have other priorities.

Back at command I received a message from Humanity First, basically requesting an emergency evacuation from Earth. I also get another from Angola wanting to discuss the base they let us set up in their country, as they’ve heard rumours that we’ve been using it to develop a sentient AI  (sentient AIs are widely agreed to be a “bad thing”, and intergalactic law allows planets hosting them to be destroyed without warning).

I’m debating whether to go down and help the allies I’ve made or to play chicken and take us into stellar orbit and out of range of Earth’s weaponry. The expedition area is buzzing with rumours that Russia is going to try to blow us all out of the sky next turn and we’re all busy planning our next move when Control tell us that that’s it, the game’s over. Everyone was disappointed that things had to end there – which I think just shows how much fun we were all having.  

Thoughts

First, as I hope is obvious from the fact I’ve written 4000 words about this experience, the whole day was amazing and one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time.  I’m hugely grateful to everyone who made it possible, especially all the Control players who must have been unbelievably busy.

That said there are a few things that I think it might be worth the designers revisiting ahead of the next time they run this game. First I think the aliens directly involved in the expedition had a lot more fun than those on the political team – in particular our military players didn’t seem to have much to do. I think it might be worth making the alien focus just on earth and having political roles recast so they join the expedition players and conduct interstellar diplomacy from the same location.

I also heard some of the other alien players express some frustration about how difficult it was to succeed in missions. This led to them pulling out of the more militarised areas of Earth, which in turn meant that players running those countries didn’t have much engagement with the aliens. I think the aliens themselves are partly to blame for not thinking more creatively (there were satellites in orbit above all the continents that no-one thought to shot down), but perhaps the balance of the interceptor deck could be changed so that earlier on in the game the aliens had more chances to get though, trailing off as the human got more tech. This might already be built into the game (as we started negotiating early the Federation’s missions I ran were rarely opposed and so we didn’t see that much of the interceptor deck) but the generally feeling in the expedition area was that it didn’t feel like we were super advanced races with superior technology visiting some backwater – the humans seemed able to do significant damage to us from turn one.

A smaller point but, as alien players we also had no really understanding of what technology we had that we could give the humans. I think this could be easily fix just by providing the alien player with a one page overview of the tech trees so we knew roughly what we had to trade.

Finally I think I could have been a “better” alien from the perspective of a human player. The Federation didn’t really make any big plays (nothing comparable to abducting the Security Council or obliterating Tokyo) and I think this was due partly to the fact that everyone on our team was a new player and the fact our briefing described our race as being largely peaceful people who wanted to get on with everyone. If I get to be an alien again I’d definitely want to be more ambitious and create some more game defining moment

Finally, finally (and if you made it this far congratulations) I wanted to say a massive thank you to all the players for creating such an enthralling experience – with a special thanks to the Commonwealth Expedition Commander, the PM of China, the Deputy Chief of Staff of Kenya and James from Humanity First, all of whom were brilliant people  and made my own game much more fun.

Watch the Skies 2: Official Account of the Federation Expedition to Solaris C