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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.