Hello all! Welcome back to Watch The Meeple, the blog where I shove my thinky-words into your eye-readers. I've brought the 2nd part of my Watch The Skies diary. In this part, I try to explore what makes macrogaming so compelling by presenting a series of vignettes from my WTS experience.
Part 2: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Space Laser
With the start of turn 2, things started to go downhill fast. Alien artifacts were scarce, holding up my research, while the UN seemed endlessly deadlocked over one initiative or another. The only people doing any real work were the generals; alien craft had been shot down over Japan and China the turn before. Unfortunately, the UK wasn’t friendly with those nations and I couldn’t make it all the way from Australia, so I had to settle on investigating the clue about strange metallic objects in S.E. Asia. After another fruitless turn digging around Australia and S.E. Asia, things started to pick up. The CEO player of Applied Ventures (one of the three corporations) announced he knew the aliens’ plan and would be willing to share it - for a price, of course. We should have been immediately suspicious; after all, how would he know any of this information? We made the decision to go all in and outbid the other nations. He leaned in close and told us the aliens were trying to gather all the world’s communications - television, radio, internet, cellular, everything. For what purpose, he didn’t know, but he assured us we would find out more if we kept digging. Then something amazing happened: another announcement was called, this time for something called The Hermes Project; turns out, the Russians, the Americans, the Japanese, and the Brazilians had teamed up on a global initiative to bring free wi-fi to everyone, no strings attached.
You know that scene, that one that’s always in crime thrillers, where you meet the crazy conspiracy guy and he has the corkboard with the red string and pushpins connecting a bunch of blurry photos and scrawled post-its? As the heads of state shake hands over their success, the red string in my head was drawn between what we knew about the aliens and what had just happened, and I came to the obvious conclusion - they were on the side of the enemy. Whether the aliens got to them, or they were working with them all along, it didn’t matter - they must be working with the aliens. In addition to that news, we were told that they had offered the tech to the 3 main news outlets, who had accepted their offer, effectively gaining ownership over the media.
Armed with this new information, we redoubled our efforts at preparing for the apocalypse while keeping a strong side-eye on the Russians and Americans. My science game was going spectacularly well - I was grabbing artifacts and finding clues left and right. Our Deputy Head of State managed to get an in with the staffing company, who provided me with free consultants (extra dice for my game, in basic terms) in exchange for artifacts. We came up with a plan to drop our digital lines and go back to physical communication - spycraft stuff, like dead drops, one-time pads, cyphers, that sort of thing. Graciously, Control allowed us to move forward and create the shadow network for a measly ten credits. This gave us secured communication that the Russians & Americans couldn’t listen to. Even with all our preparation, we still had a big problem looming - the public. Terrorism was rampant, protests were being organized, and tensions were rising.
Big trouble was brewing in Central America - the cartels had performed a coup in Mexico and they were demanding that the world recognize the authority of their government. A UN session was convened and while the idea of legalizing drugs was floated, it was decided instead that they would send UN peacekeepers into Mexico to fight the cartels - a great idea at the time, but a massive failure in execution. With the situation bubbling over into anarchy, the US and China teamed up to take back Mexico, but considering there wasn’t a government to put back into place, they assumed joint ownership of the country after the invasion. A bizarre move, for sure, but desperate times and all that.
Throughout the game, we had to watch out for the Terror Track. This track, which went up to 250, told us how panicked and chaotic the world was. All these events were pushing the track up further and further. Thanks to the cartels, the alien ships, and our incompetence, the world was in anarchy. The UN looked back into world history, and realized that every time we came across a worldwide threat, there was only one solution - a celebrity-filled benefit concert. We are the world, indeed. A concert was thrown with an appearance from the hologram Beatles - Ringo and Paul were available, but they replaced them with holograms anyway - and hologram Tupac. In a stunning turn of events, real Tupac came out of hiding to perform with his doppelganger. The benefit concert worked; the terror track was dropping and we were back on the path to victory.
Somewhere around turn 5, we received troubling news - one of our operatives in Australia had been blown to bits by a “crazy man with shoulder-mounted laser cannons”, as Control described it. I immediately sent my research teams down to Australia to investigate, but turned up nothing but vague rumours. This was a strange development, but it seemed we would have to wait to find out what was really going on.
Around the same time, the CEO of Zenocorp Aerospace - an ally from turn one, who provided us with fighter jets and tech - made an announcement: they were building a space laser, codenamed Hephaestus, and they wanted the world’s help constructing it. The room erupted into a furor - who controlled the space laser? How did it work? Was it safe? Despite the hubbub, the UK jumped at the chance to help and invested credits into the project. This put us on very friendly terms with Zenocorp. Their chief technology officer offered to share some files with me, but as we sat down to exchange them, he was grabbed by Control and led away into a different room. I was told that a black van had pulled up outside the coffee shop where we met, men jumped out, nabbed the CTO, and sped off. Troubling, for sure, but I didn’t know how to help, so I moved on. As the turn rolled to a close, he returned, explaining that both himself and the CEO of Zenocorp were abducted by aliens, but were able to steal a UFO and crash land it back on Earth. Despite my doubts - aliens are driving black vans now? - I accepted his offer to examine the alien ship, sure it would help our progress. I also received a troubling clue - something was heading towards our solar system from a far off galaxy - something large and metallic. Was this an alien mothership, or an asteroid, or something far worse?
After another turn, we spotted an interesting bulletin on the news blotter - the Global News Network had an anonymous source who went on record saying that the UK was hiding evidence of the existence of aliens. We were outraged. This was obviously a plant from the Russians or Americans, trying to discredit us on the world stage. We decided their control of the news was too much and formed our own news company - Mediastan, who set about publishing counter articles to the fabricated claims. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late - the existence of aliens had gone public, causing a massive gain on the Terror Track and a huge drop in PR for us. This was a crippling blow to our economy, which was already in the toilet.
Things all came to a head near turn 8 with some shocking revelations: one, the guys with the shoulder mounted lasers were an experiment by the Chinese, who had sort of let them loose on the world. Two, terror was so high that global communications had broken down - luckily, our Shadow Network was still up and running, giving us a way around the handicap.
Third, and last, we learned that the “aliens” we were fighting were not aliens at all. They were a shadow government composed of the most powerful politicians, scientists, and businesspeople in the world, who had learned of the existence of a real alien threat approaching Earth. They decided the best way to help bring the world together was to fake an alien incursion and hope we would be prepared when the real threat showed. The messages I had been receiving about the thing coming towards Earth? It was the real alien mothership, and it was huge. Control claimed it was half the size of Africa. Not a country, a whole continent.
The final bulletin screen. Morale was not high.
For the last two turns, we abandoned our normal games and focused on preparation. The space laser, Hephaestus, was finally finished and ready to go; the shoulder-laser tech was being shared with the rest of the world; and the investigation of the stolen UFO gave us the tech we needed to launch Project Minerva - the creation of super-pilots that could bring our newly space-proofed interceptor jets into Earth orbit.
It was funny - all the tension, all the bitterness, all the infighting - all of it fell away as soon as a real threat arrived. We weren’t British or Russian or American anymore; we were united against a threat that could wipe our little blue dot off the space charts. Ronald Reagan said something at the height of the Cold War - “ I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” - and in in our small simulation, our microcosm of world politics, we proved that right. All the conspiracies and treaties gave way to one mission: kick some alien ass.
Outside our windows, it was getting dark. Lake Michigan looked turbulent despite the pleasant weather. We gathered around the military map for the final battle. The alien mothership had arrived over Africa and we scrambled everything we had. Every country contributed their all - shoulder-laser men attacked from the ground, interceptors with cyborg pilots blasted the ship in strafing runs, and the space laser was activated not once, but three times; We needed credits to activate it, and as soon as Control mentioned we could fire it multiple times, everyone emptied their pockets for every last credit they had and threw it into the pot. We even had our own Independence Day moment - the stolen UFO was loaded with nuclear weapons and heroically flown directly into the heart of the mothership, striking the critical blow. The mothership imploded, sending country sized debris hurtling across Africa. To finalize it, Alex, the Game Control, broke the mothership miniature into pieces and declared victory for Earth. The room erupted with cheers and laughter. High-fives were exchanged, people hugged, and I swear I saw a guy tear up.
In the eight hours we occupied the Film Conference center, we had become leaders, heroes, and friends. I looked over at Orland, the Russian scientist, who had repeatedly shared tech with me despite the rivalry between our countries; over at Bob, the CEO of Zenocorp, who had stolen an alien ship and helped us return it to the sender with a special gift inside (hint: it wasn't Randy Quaid); over at my team, the UK, who had shown true British resolve and turned our country from a small player to a worldwide powerhouse. It was a special moment, one I’m sure I’ll never forget.
We were debriefed at the end and learned the fate of the world. Some surprising facts came to light - France was funding terrorism the whole time, Japan had secretly been trying to create a giant robot, the UK was awarded “Most Belligerent” for our churlishness, and the corporations ended up filthy rich - who would have guessed. Africa was pretty much gone - half of it was underwater and the other half was covered by country-sized debris, but the rest of the world was OK, so we hurried past the point. We learned the Shadow Government had double agents in some of the countries and corps, who promptly revealed themselves, to the complete and utter shock of their teammates.
By chance, a lot of us ended up at the same bar after the game had ended. This was probably my favorite part - hearing the story from different perspectives was a wild ride. The Russian team had the same suspicions as us; they thought we were the ones working with the aliens the whole time. The CEO of Applied Ventures admitted that he straight-up lied to us; he never knew the aliens’ goals and just wanted to make some money - something that sent us into stomach-clutching laughter considering it affected our foreign relations strategy for the whole game. I guess we figured we had paid so much money, the information had to be true. We never considered he might lie, forgetting the human factor that’s so essential to these games. Never trust a CEO, folks.
Ultimately, even though we only spent eight hours in the game, it had felt like a lifetime. We were battle hardened Megagame vets. Do you ever get that “vacation high” when you come back from a trip? It makes everything feel sorta odd, like you’re seeing the world in a different way. I had that after the game. It might have been the adrenaline or the exhaustion or a mix of both, but I felt elated. I really felt like we had accomplished something, and to be honest, we did. While it might have been just a game and the results ultimately don’t matter, in that room, at that moment in time, they did. I think it’s part of what makes these Megagames so special - a victory at Dominion or Catan feels good, but it eventually fades; a Megagame win sticks with you forever. The fact that people won’t really get it doesn’t matter, because there are 54 others who do.
Here’s what a Megagame is: it’s fun. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for. Whether you find it in playing or winning, we’re here because we want to have fun. Among the fun things I’ve done, playing Watch the Skies was one of the best. Why was it so fun? For eight hours, I played a game where I was important. I wasn’t Charlie Graham, Chicago board game store employee. I was Charlie Graham, Chief Scientist to the UK. I had an important role in the progression of the game. My actions had visible ripple effects throughout. My thoughts and my decisions mattered. Isn’t that the kind of escapism we want? I know I do. Things are going to get candy-sweet here, but keep with me; I think games are a great tool for inspiration. For hope, for relief. We play games to change skin, to play characters; whether that’s a farmer, a merchant, a warrior, a star captain, or whatever else. Sometimes I want power, status, and pomp; I want to be the shot caller and the boss. I want to play Lords of Waterdeep and expand my empire; be a settler in Catan building the best community; play the master spy in Spyfall and outwit my friends. Games have always been about escapism, from the dungeon crawl of Adventure to the crime drama of GTA. It’s part of the charm. We want to be the things we aren’t and that is OK. Indulge. Roleplay. Go to eight hour games in a strange building in downtown Chicago. Stay in on a Saturday night and play D&D. Go to a convention and cosplay. Try on someone else's shoes. You just might learn something about yourself along the way.
- Charlie & Hologram Charlie