Watching Watch the Skies

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I’ve already talked about the storytelling. Now I’m going to look at the game from a mechanical perspective, and my thoughts on it as a participant. I’m not sure how interesting this post will be to anyone other than me, but you’re very welcome to read along.

Another fascinating aspect of megagames is that you can take a game kit and implement it anyway you like, giving each game a dash of flavour unique to its organisers and control team, before you even involve the players. As I’ve never played Watch the Skies before I don’t know how much was part of the standard game and how much was home spun (I know that this was the third time it had been delivered by the hosts, to they will have surely learnt some lessons by now), so my comments will straddle the game itself and this particular implementation.

 

Central to the game, but conversely and confusingly, hardly important at all, is the Control Panel. Each country has one to house its Resource Points (counters) and indicate what they’re being spent on, as well as a PR Track that indicates… something. I read the rules and I didn’t really understand it. I spoke to my team-mates and they didn’t really understand it. And for the first few turns of the game at least, our Human Control player didn’t really understand it. Counters were placed and submitted, dice were rolled, and then some number of counters were returned. That’s about as much as I got from it. I knew what the counters were for beyond that; they fuelled your commitment/capabilities to each of the ‘sub-games’ (science, UN, military map), and new counters kept appearing, so that was sufficient for me. And I got the feeling that everyone else had the same ‘understanding’. But somehow it was a little unsatisfying; I feel like either more focus should have been placed on this part of the game, to make sure each country was ‘doing it right’, or if it’s not that important (which it didn’t seem to be, especially as the game went on) it should be simplified so that everyone can follow what it’s doing in the midst of everything else that’s going on.

As I started off as Foreign Secretary/Diplomat, the main part of my game was the UN, and I thought this was excellent. The UN Control player was the Secretary General, keeping the meeting on track and advising us what we could do and how we would do it, whilst staying in character. I’d also like to give big props to my fellow members as everyone played their role perfectly, particularly the unpopular but persistent USA delegate, and our visitor from beyond the stars struggling to communicate in this new language. At the time it felt like we were spending so long at the UN we were missing a lot of the game, and in deed there was a lot going on constantly, but after later playing as someone outside the meetings I think the ‘involvement’ of being there more than makes up for anything you miss.

About halfway through the game the global terror track hit worldwide panic. The consequence was that every government was ‘over thrown’ and everyone had to change role (within their respective country). I have no idea what this was based on or if we could do anything about it, but it felt like a very forced way to give everyone chance to play a different role. I can of course see the benefit if someone had been doing a job that they weren’t enjoying while enviously looking at others having fun, but it was largely the opposite for me.

I was initially recast as General. My notional understanding was that you worked with other Generals to form military plans, sought resources from your government, then went to play out those plans on the world map and report back with the outcomes. What I actually experienced was being told to “use our two units (two?!) to target Godzilla, here are two RPs” (from a Control Panel that I’ve already commented on was largely out of control). I walked to the map, put them down, and was asked to leave (so the aliens could take their turn). I returned to learn that Godzilla wasn’t dead and neither were my units. Great. I returned to my table to report that nothing had changed. At that point our Scientist returned from his Moon base and asked to change roles, so I swapped again. I appreciate that this was just one turn, and that a turn fighting Godzilla isn’t exactly ‘normal’, but I felt like I’d done absolutely nothing other than carry some tokens across the room, so was glad of the chance to do something else.

Whereas I had a notion of what the General did, I had absolutely no idea how science worked, despite reading the rulebook and the additional briefing. And I still don’t! I arrived confused at the science table along with a lot of other new scientists. The Science Control player said “none of you know how to play the science game, and there isn’t a lot of science left to do really, so how about we just make it up?” This was received warmly by most of the group; I just went along with it. So any alliances between nations or anything else of structure was now ignored while we sat around the table speculating wildly on what we could do about the Godzilla problem. Creating Mecha-Godzilla was a tremendously fun idea but finding 25 Resources Points, from anywhere, to make it happen just seemed random and unsatisfying. What technology was this based on? What were its features? Who owned/controlled it? Who cares?! Seemingly everyone was caught up in the moment and was too busy collecting counters.

The story of Mecha-Godzilla successfully killing Godzilla but then going rogue, due to its rushed development, and rampaging across Africa was more inspired storytelling. But the ‘scientific community’ response was to return to our table and start speculating about what crazy idea we could arbitrarily collect counters for next. It was at this point I got bored and wandered off. I decided I would invent myself a new role as Vice-President and just get involved with the politicking. A while later I walked past the science table again and found they’d decided to research how PlaystationYOLOs worked, and discovered if they could set a high score they would be invited to the Moon to meet the aliens. I ignored the fact that this seemed to just be free-form role-playing now (which I actually like, just felt weird that we were ignoring ‘the game’) and reverted back to my scientist persona to get involved. We went to the moon, came back as clones with alien allegiances, and the rest is history. This was again brought about by some excellent storytelling, supported by the Alien Control player, which largely ‘saved’ my interest in the last hour or so of the game.

 

Having played in other megagames before, and having run my own, I know that relaxing the rules/letting people do what they want as the day goes on is a key part of ensuring a fun time. And I’m completely in favour of that. But I feel that probably went a little too far on this occasion. The sporadic ‘announcements’ became a constant flow of noise with very little meaning. What each country or allience was trying to achieve got lost in the melee. And, more worryingly, the involvement/significance of the different characters varied massively. The Diplomat, and even more so the President, seemed heavily involved in everything all day, whereas as Scientist I was essentially playing a separate RPG by the end to keep myself entertained (and I’d guess the General varies somewhere in between, depending on how important direct map knowledge is at any point in time (putting their role something closer to an Intelligence Officer rather than a General)).

Now, this all sounds very critical and you’re probably thinking I didn’t enjoy myself. This is definitely not the case. While there were times in the afternoon where I touched on boredom, overall I had an excellent day. I still got that lovely-weird feeling you get at the end of the day where you feel like you’ve been through something amazing with everyone and want to be friends forever (or is that just me?). Unfortunately the circumstances (being at the end of Expo weekend) didn’t lend themselves to everyone going to the pub to talk about it afterwards, but that’s just one of those things. Organising and running a megagame takes a lot of effort and most things went very well. I’d like to offer a big hand of thanks to the organisers and control players who made this possible. As I said right back at the start, this account is mainly for myself as a wannabe game designer to capture my thoughts. If anybody else learns anything, or this can create any further discussion, then it’s a bonus.

2 Comments:

  1. Since you have asked for more info, allow me to provide some history and links that will further your thoughts on this subject; This is not intended to be a complete history but a quick few thoughts.

    I see Megagames as a different style of what I would call Freeforms. Megagames are a mix of Wargaming/Boardgaming with roleplaying while Freeforms tend to focus just on the roleplaying.

    I started playing Freeforms in the early 90s, There were the big Gloranthan freeforms at the Convulsion conventions http://www.pensee.com/dunham/glorantha/freeforms.html which featured 50-70 players. Epic Experience ran many games set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Bassethwaite, http://www.epic-experience.org.uk/. featuring 10-20 players. Freeforms have been a mainstay of UK cons for many years, If you want to play in a Freeform please look at Continuum http://continuumconvention.co.uk/ or Consequences http://www.ishtari.co.uk/consequences/.

    There is a writers/designers event for people who want to talk about games and how they are constructed called Peaky http://uk-freeforms.wikidot.com/peaky.

    And as a reference to Watch the Skies I played the roles of the UK Deputy PM, PM, Chief Scientist.

  2. Thanks for the information, Chris! I too see megagames and freeforms as different things, which is why I’m a little thrown when the boardgaming elements aren’t taken as seriously. Maybe I’d be ‘happier’ as a freeformer? I’ve joined the facebook group from the peaky site so will look for events in the future.

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