We The Meeple: Gaming Bigger pt. 1

Full disclosure: I have been volunteering for the Megagame Society, the group that puts on Watch the Skies, for a couple months. I helped write their press kit and will be helping them with similar projects in the future. Besides free admission to the occasional event, I don’t profit from my association with them in any way. This article should not be construed as an official advertisement for the Society; the words here represent my opinions and mine alone.

Hello fellow meeple watchers! Welcome back to We The Meeple. This week, we’re walking away from the dining room table and stepping into a fringe world of theatrics, role-playing, and die-rolling: macrogaming. If that word doesn’t make much sense, don’t fret - I sorta made it up. But I promise if you stick with me, I’ll explain what it is and why it’s the next big thing in gaming. In the first couple parts, I'll introduce you to the concept of Megagames and give you an account of my experience with Watch the Skies, a megagame I played in Chicago last weekend. The last part of the series will be about macrogames in general, including Escape the Room games and others.

This one starts where a lot of great stories start: with the end of the world.

Part 1: The End of the World as We Know It (And Everything is Definitely Not Fine)

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I think that was kind of the point. We arrived at 10 am sharp at the Film Conference center of Columbia College, an odd circular room built around a movie theater, eight floors up in downtown Chicago. The view of the lake between the high-rises was stunning. Our table was designated to Britain, marked by a Union Jack that hung over us like the watchful spirit of the Queen. Naturally, we began brewing tea straight away. We sat down and opened our briefcase, which contained our briefings. Our national briefing told us what we already knew: aliens are real. The intelligence communities of the world have known about them since the 50s, but the general public remains blissfully unaware. Furthermore, their craft were being spotted more and more often, meaning they were gearing up for… something. Lacking communications with the invaders, we could only assume the worst. Our national goal was to ensure the survival of all player nations, which was sure to be a nightmare task - the US and Russian teams were already staring daggers at each other from their tables. The view from the top was looking more ominous with each passing minute.

The main meeting room. As you might be able to tell from the flag, Team UK is on the right.

 

As you may have gathered, I’m not actually British and the aliens weren’t real. We had gathered to this odd place to play a six to eight hour, fifty five player game called Watch the Skies. WTS was not like any game I had played before; it had the elements of other things, but it was still unrecognizable at first glance. The concept's creator, Jim Wallman, calls games like this megagames. By a loose definition, Megagames are massive games with a large number of players (usually 20+) that combine social elements, role-playing, and game mechanics into one package. Megagames are focused on freeform creativity, so that the structure of the game is often just a framework to keep things from going completely bananas. They are typically made up of a series of smaller minigames that affect the larger social game. The minigames tend to be crunchier - that is, more like board games, with dice, physical components, and stricter rulesets; the larger game, however, is more about negotiation, sociability, and decision making.

Watch the Skies is often considered the “flagship” Megagame, because it’s run the most often and has the highest public profile. Jim Wallman, Megagame creator and founder of the Megagame Makers, has run other games with varying themes, but he’s been running them since the 1980s in a very low-key fashion. Megagames recently reached the shores of America thanks to a small group of dedicated nerds from New York called the Megagame Society; their first game of WTS was played in NYC on July 26th 2014. Members of the Megagame Society are developing games with different themes, like Macbeth, Lovecraft, or zombies, but most are still in the early stages, so Watch the Skies is the main focus.

Back at the Film Conference center, we gathered around our table, suspiciously eyeing the other players that were trickling in. The eight player nations (USA, Russia, India, China, Japan, Brazil, France, and our team, the UK) in our game consisted of 5 players each. Each player had a certain role within their nation: either Head of State, Deputy Head of State, Chief Scientist, UN Ambassador, or Military Officer. My roommate Steve was head of state, or as he called himself, “King Prime Minister”, and was responsible for higher-level decision making, budgeting our “credits”, and negotiating with other leaders. Jon took the role of Deputy Head of State, who controlled the spies and was allowed to visit any room - science control, the war room, and the UN - which meant he was also our group communicator. Pat was our UN Ambassador, perhaps the most freeform role-playing role, which meant he was tasked with representing our interests in the United Nations. Jack was our Military Officer, who played something like a large game of Risk as he moved our strategic forces around a giant world map and attacked UFOs. I played the Chief Scientist, one of the more board game-esque roles. Joining the eight player nations were three corporations, made up of two-person teams each, and ten alien players, who were ominously masked and stalked around the game area like phantoms.

Team UK and the Brazilian UN Ambassador. Jack not pictured (off saving the world, I'm sure).

Eventually the players took their tables and the first briefing was read out by Alex, the Game Control. He explained the game structure - 30 minute “turns”, broken down into chunks of time for our individual games - and introduced the game control staff (who are wonderful, amazing people that put up with a lot of our hair-brained schemes). At this point, I was still in the dark about what was going to happen. He directed each player to their respective room and we split off. I went to science control, Pat went to the UN, and Jack went to the War Room. Steve and Jon stayed behind for further instruction. I took a single credit from Steve to use for tech research on our tree. The tech tree let me research new technology that could provide in-game benefits for our nation. We were given one from the start that gave our fighter jets (interceptors) a boost to their power, but many were left unresearched. Symbols to the side of each part of the tree gave us a clue about the nature of that row, but researching new tech was still somewhat of a guessing game. I decided to put points into researching the tree with a microphone symbol, figuring it would help us with our public relations, which could mean higher income and less damage from international incidents.

The science control was a centrally located spot with a large table bearing a map of the world. Tiny lines connected countries to each other and many countries were split into multiple regions, like East and West China. The scientists gathered around the table and we were each given four dice with multiple custom faces depicting airplanes, trucks, locks, tesseracts, and microscopes. As they explained to us, we would play a real-time game using a Yahtzee style dice rolling system (where unwanted results are rerolled til all dice are matching). With our dice, we would move our science team around the map, digging for artifacts and hunting down local rumours. Four trucks are a land move, four tesseracts let us dig, and four microscopes let us track down rumours, which gave us an idea of where to dig next. Science Control slipped me a folded piece of paper and I opened it up:

“Strange lights have been spotted in the northern hills of Tasmania”

My first clue! Like any good scientist, I was thrilled at the possibilities. I placed my science team in Australia (as explained in our national briefing, the UK and Australia are formal allies) and the clock started with a “GO!”. The game was far more furious than I imagined: we were throwing our dice, hoping to get the right roll to move on or dig. I hopped over the channel and hunted for artifacts a few times in Tasmania, but had to scurry back to Australia (if your science team ends up in a non-allied country when time is called, you lose half of everything you find) as time was growing short. With nothing better to do, I spent some time searching for rumours, hoping I would find the next breadcrumb that would lead me to some sweet alien tech.

The science game as seen over my shoulder. Not pictured: sweat, blood, tears.

We were sent back to our tables at the end of the round and we awaited the results of our scientific endeavors. In the meantime, I caught up with my team. Jack had spotted a UFO, but wasn’t able to make contact, Jon had been doing meet-and-greets with the CEOs of the corporations, Steve had been forming informal alliances with the other Heads of State and in the UN, Pat had been monitoring a Russian sponsored bill to provide free wi-fi to the world. Control brought me the results from my scientific endeavors: two level one alien artifacts, a clue about strange metallic objects found in S.E. Asia, and my new tech, which provided cheaper energy to our citizens, giving us more income every round.

Everything was going well. Worldwide, the general panic level was low, our PR was high, and the income was rolling in. The world was at peace, and despite the small skirmishes with the UFOs, no major alien activity had been spotted this turn.

Turns out, that would only last for about ten more minutes.

That's all I have for today. Keep your eyes peeled for part two of my account of the end of the world, coming very very soon!

Upcoming highlights include: 

  • We foolishly trust the word of the CEO of a major corporation
  • A concert with hologram Tupac and real Tupac
  • Chinese super-soldiers with shoulder-mounted lasers.
  • The joint US/Chinese invasion of Mexico
  • A frikkin' space laser.

PART TWO HERE