Last week Team Room Escape Artist played the role of the government of China at the Megagame Society’s Rookie game. We previously described the general concept in far more detail.
The game was enormously fun, and strangely haunting. You can think of this post as my therapy session on the subject.
It’s important to note that each game of Watch the Skies is different, so our experiences are not necessarily indicative of how future games will play out (even mechanics change).
The goals we were given by the game designers were:
- Ensure that any alien technology is fully researched and adapted and used to increase the productivity and profitability of our national economy.
- Ensure that neither Japan nor the United States gains a technological edge over us.
- Do whatever is necessary for the survival of humanity but Chinese interests must come first.
We had the opportunity to change these goals in-game, but we never did because it wasn’t clear how well we were doing against these goals, or what accomplishing them would mean.
We established a policy of aggressively pursuing peace, steering out of international conflict, building our economy, investing heavily in the stability of our allies, and preserving our population’s lives… Not their civil liberties (we dumped resources into espionage tech, and offered our prison population to the aliens for study)… We did our best to play China.
The Foreign Minister
The Foreign Minister is the country’s Ambassador to the United Nations. The role should probably just be called “UN Ambassador” because I spent half of the game sitting in UN meetings with the other seven Foreign Ministers, and the Secretary General (who acted as a sort of Dungeons and Dragons style dungeon master).
Each game turn lasts 30 minutes, half of that time was spent in session, and the other half was spent with my team; one turn represented a year in the game.
The UN sessions were introduced with the Secretary General telling us the state of the world. She would open with good news, and then give us the details on the crisis of the turn.
We collaboratively debated the problem, proposed solutions (either short term or long term fixes), determined how much each the solution would cost, voted on the fix(s) we were going to implement, and then collectively committed enough money to meet or exceed the cost associated with the solution.
It’s important to note that this was not structured like a Model UN. Actual facts and world knowledge didn’t necessarily factor in (but having some did help make your case). The Secretary General determined what a solution would cost on the fly. The debates were more about winning people over, than they were about being correct.
At the start of the next session each country had to bring the money they promised. If they failed to do so, their country would take a public relations hit (which would decrease their GDP/ how much money they received next turn). If we collectively failed to bring enough money to resolve a crisis, then something bad would happen to the planet and the game’s terror meter would rise.
If the terror meter hit 250 points, then the game was over due to apocalypse. The UN was the only group in the game that could take action to reduce the terror meter.
The science ministers and military commanders had their own games to play, and they were much more like table top games.
The UN was a straight up roleplay. If you were articulate, aware, and fast on your feet, the game rewarded you heavily. If you weren’t, then the game could be punishing.
Economics and the UN
I didn’t realize how deeply a Foreign Minister’s performance impacted their countries economy until the game ended.
If a Foreign Minister responded well to a crisis that was directed at their country, then they would receive positive PR and more money next turn. If the Foreign Minister fumbled their response, then the country took a PR hit and lost money next turn.
The net effect of this seemed to compound because Foreign Ministers have to commit money to a crisis without consulting their team, nor being fully aware of how much money their team will have next turn. So if a Foreign Minister blew a response, then they would take a PR hit losing money for their team, and then they ran the risk of not being able to bring money to the UN to pay their debts; which would force the team into an economic crisis from which they could not recover.
This seemed to happen to just about every country to some degree except for China.
I am not 100% sure what happened to the economies of the other countries, but I know that by the end of the game China was carrying the weight of more than half of the world at the UN, and that the Science Ministers for our allies Russia and India were essentially living off of a grant from the Lisa Radding (China’s Science Minister) Science Foundation, as they could not afford to successfully conduct their own research.
The game from my perspective
I did my best to play the role of China on the world stage. I admonished foreign governments for warmongering, backed our allies both politically and financially, fought hard to preserve our economy, and downplayed our total disrespect for individual freedom as “something that has to be done when you have over a billion people to care for.”
Right out of the gates, the Ambassador from Brazil came at me hard whenever he had the opportunity. This had initially caught me off guard because Brazil wasn’t on my radar. Our objectives didn’t mention them, and each team was given a table in the room that was approximately placed based on the nations relative geographic position to one another. As a result we almost never saw Brazil or the United States. It turned out that Brazil had an objective that stated something like, “Ensure that China doesn’t gain a technological edge over us.” So we were in their crosshairs, but we had no idea.
The first attack came in the UN when the Secretary General informed us that a food technology developed by the US, the UK, and China was making people sick, and resulted in a food shortage/ rioting in India. Brazil’s ambassador immediately suggested an “embargo on China’s food.” He didn’t mention the UK or US, which I picked up on immediately, and responded that “the affected food supply was narrow and there was no need to block all food trade from the US, UK, and China.” As soon as I did that, the US and UK ambassadors did all of the rest of the work killing the proposal… But I left having noticed that Brazil was gunning for us.
The next turn we received our newspaper (there were three players representing the media, who walked around and competed with one another for stories). It had a story saying that the contaminated food was “addictive rice from China,” and the source cited was Brazil. We knew we had an enemy, but had no idea why. Immediately afterwards, this image hit the press:
From the moment we saw it, we were certain that Brazil had issued it, but we had no proof. Our Head of State (a professional PR person), issued a strong denial pointing out that it was obviously photoshopped. I called Brazil out in the UN about their lies to the press, and things began to thaw after that. It seems that they backed off because we kept swatting away their volleys. We went back to largely ignoring Brazil, but never trusting them.
From our perspective, Brazil was on a short list of teams that really showed up to play, and we had a lot of respect for them.
Neither Brazil nor our team realized that somehow the fake autopsy photo made its way to the aliens… And this would end up haunting us.
The aliens were an enigma that we figured out, but were powerless to do anything about without global support (which we were nowhere near having).
There were two factions of aliens, the very strange and aggressively benevolent aliens (played by people), and the purely aggressive aliens (non-player characters). It turned out that these alien races were at war with one another, and Earth was more or less caught in the crossfire.
The good aliens were abducting people to “study biology and culture.” Being China, we didn’t really care that much about a few abductions, we were trying to play a long game and pursue peace and trade with the aliens.
In the middle of the game the aliens paid the UN a visit and demanded a sample of the human population for study so that they could use our biology to make a weapon to fight their nemesis. They were very demanding, yet standoffish.
Our team figured there were two possibilities here:
- They want to study us, to create a weapon and wipe us out
- They actually have good intentions and need people
Our official position to the world was that “the aliens have mastered space travel, and clearly have more advanced technology than we have. If they wanted to wipe us out, it would have happened already, or it was already inevitable.”
So we leaned towards playing their game, assuming good intentions. We sent the aliens a message offering a portion of our prison population for study… Because China.
Before we sent the message we told our allies in Russia and India about our plan. Our friends in Russia (who were playing a very kind game) looked at us like we were crazy. Our buddies in India broke character and burst out laughing. I couldn’t keep a straight face either (but I tried really hard).
The aliens never responded to our message.
After the game we learned that the photoshopped photo made the aliens distrust us.
Had the aliens accepted our offer, we may have been able to prove to the world that the aliens were on the up-and-up. Alas, we failed.
We had no idea what they were doing, or why they were doing it.
They ultimately announced the existence of aliens to the world, which made the terror meter take a gigantic leap towards doom.
We went from being luke warm towards them, to hating them both for the terror track jump, and because as China we would have liked to keep the world’s population in the dark about the aliens.
With the exception of the food contamination crisis, the US was completely irrelevant to our game. We don’t know what they did, how well they did it, or really anything else about them.
As a team we were pretty disappointed because we were expecting a showdown with them over something, and in the end, they basically didn’t exist in our game. It was strange.
These guys were clearly playing hard. In the UN, their ambassador was a presence who I was always mindful of. We never locked horns over anything, and he and I seemed to agree on most things… But we were never able to build a real alliance.
India was our most trusted ally. We backed them however they needed it, and they backed us in the UN and in the press. There were times when Brazil was trying to make us look like the bad guy, and India had our back in a major way.
They were our other ally, who we trusted implicitly, but their economy wasn’t strong to begin with and their situation spiraled out of control. As the game progressed they seemed pretty powerless and broken.
Oh France… These guys played aggressively. I’m not really sure what they did, but they did it with enthusiasm. In the end they tanked their economy, and nuked a large portion of the world.
We left feeling pretty bitter towards them.
With the notable exception of the guy from GNN (there were three news outlets), we weren’t overly fond of the press. They seemed to bash us every chance they had, even when it was clear that we weren’t acting with bad intentions.
As players, they had a very hard job to do, but one member of the press in particular would approach me with a smug grin. I knew he already knew what he was going to write, so I started to ignore him as the game went on.
We took a lot of shots from the press, but the PR boosts we picked up in the UN offset their hatchet job; our economy boomed throughout the entire game.
As the game neared its final turn, the terror meter was approaching 250. To lower the terror track and keep us from being the first group to ever play this and end the game early due to global terror, I championed hosting the Olympics in Beijing… Because China.
This was the cheapest way we could knock points off the terror meter, but no one seemed to have any money left except for us and Japan.
It cost 12 credits to host the Olympics, China offered up 6, Japan put up 3, France, the UK, and Brazil each offered 1. Before the next turn, France told me they were broke, so we covered them (it turned out that they needed the money to blow up the world). My math may be wrong, but I am reasonably sure that China is the sole reason the game didn’t come to an end at the start of the final turn.
The press gave us shit for hosting an Olympics during global disaster.
Things that could have been better
There was a point where our Head of State came to me and said, “I think the all of the heads of state are kind of useless.”
She made the final call on allocating resources, spoke to the press a fair amount, and then had lots of conversations with other heads of state. The game element is kind of missing for this role.
My observation was that each nation was boosted or suffered a great deal based on the way their UN representative handled things. This couldn’t be further from reality in a lot of ways.
I think there should be some kind of country management game for the heads of state to play. This could allow a head of state the opportunity to have a more game-y role, while also allowing a leader to have some control over the destiny of their country.
Espionage in this game is a really fun concept, but in practicality was borderline useless (Brazil’s Deputy Head of State addressed this in more detail).
This hurt us pretty badly because we invested a lot in espionage technology (because China), only to learn mid-game that the espionage yielded very weak results.
It wasn’t made clear to us whether it was better to have more technology in general, or more advanced technologies.
I’m still not sure how they scored technological advancement.
I have no idea what went on in that room.
My shining moment in the game was when I entered the UN, and the Secretary General informed us that the crisis of the turn was that the “Great Firewall” had exceeded the boundaries of China, and was censoring the world. This was the first and only time that I had to face-down a crisis completely on my own. I could sense a number of other players looking to seize the chance to beat me over the head with this.
I decided to do what I had been doing all game… Play as China. I said something along the lines of, “Given the global panic about our contact with aliens, China has sought to ensure domestic tranquility. Our friends in the West have no concept of what a billion people rioting would look like, as they do not have the populations to take care of that we do in China. Our intention was not to limit your Internet, and I assure you that is a bug. China will allocate funds to scale back the Firewall so that it is contained within our boarders. Our concern is rioting (there was a lot of rioting going on around the world because the UK had just announced the existence of aliens), so I move that we establish a UN Center For Riot Control, so that we can more effectively respond to rioting globally” (I stuttered and stammered a bit). The riot control idea also came from the Indian ambassador in a private conversation with me one turn prior; I was glad to use the idea as a shield.
The debate immediately shifted to setting up a coordinated riot response. We made an agreement on the subject, and in the next turn the UK, France, Russia, and Brazil all failed to do what was promised.
What was strange for me was that it wasn’t clear if there was a ramification for their failure. If there was, it was never made clear during the game.
Another oddity of the UN is that you can approach the Secretary General and ask her to play the role of ambassador for any non-player nation. When I did this, the results were pretty useless. She tried hard and did an otherwise amazing job of running the UN, but it felt like a mechanic that should be dropped or shored up.
Inconsistency & confusion
Watch the Skies is a game of imperfect information, but there were a number of times where it felt like it was a bug, not a feature.
We never knew if the aliens received our messages. One time we sent them three humans, and never got a response. After the game, the aliens told me they never received the people.
The state of the world economy was unclear. I never knew how much money any other country had, which really shouldn’t be that way. Economic indicators are a global thing in real life.
Nuclear winter and the game’s conclusion
It seemed to me that by the last turn, many teams had run their nations off of the rails, and switched to a Wile E. Coyote style of play. The nukes flew, and a game that started as a complex, delicate dance of politics, economics, and carefully undermining our enemies devolved into something that bore little resemblance to the game we had been playing for many hours.
After France blew up the world, the various people who were running the game gathered to throw together an epilogue. Some folks loved that epilogue; we felt pretty cheated by it. Each country got a little story, and ours was that we invaded Tibet… Which while likely, had absolutely nothing to do with the game that we played. I felt like we played a very strong game, our economy was incredibly strong, and we were very technologically advanced. We had started no wars, and while we couldn’t get the world to deal with the aliens, we were the only ones who sincerely tried to do so.
This game was a ton of fun. It’s one of the best things I’ve done in a long time.
My feelings on it are complex, because the game is complex.
It was a game of high highs, and low lows. It was a bizarre social experiment, and something that I loved, and simultaneously cannot fully explain to anyone who hasn’t already played it.
This is a game that requires a certain type of player. It requires intense, prolonged attention, quick thinking, and a commitment to seeing the game through, regardless of where the game takes you.
If you’re prepared for this level of gameplay, then I cannot recommend Watch the Skies enough.
If you’re not willing to commit to the game fully, then you should stay home, and let someone else play. There aren’t enough tickets available for everyone who wants to go; don’t take one if you aren’t willing to show up and play the shit out of the Watch the Skies.
I want to play again.
Learn more about Watch the Skies from the Megagame Society.
For some additional perspective you can checkout Lisa’s post reflecting on her time as China’s Science Minister.