'Watch The Skies: (Reloaded!)' - Telford Megagame (09/07/16)
Last Saturday I attended a game of 'Watch The Skies!', hosted by Telford Boardgamers, as one of the umpire roles for the human teams. This was their second game of WTS (dubbed “Watch The Skies – Reloaded!”).
Their first run of the game last year was an unmodified version of the original WTS designed by Jim Wallman ; for their second run, the fine people at Telford Boardgamers, many of whom were game designers and experienced boardgamers & roleplayers, had decided to make some changes based on feedback from the previous game.
The game in its early stages (i.e. not feeling like a sauna yet).
The main differences I observed were a heavily-changed Science game and the inclusion of Corporations.
Some rather excellently produced Corp materials.
The Science game had been changed significantly. It was still based on researching technologies, but the tech tree development and reward system were overhauled. From the little I saw of it, it seemed like an important part of the game that rewarded those who didn't ignore it .
The Corporations looked very interesting. The game had 3 Corps, and each one had a different focus (PMCs, Pharmaceuticals, and Entertainment, respectively). It seemed like the meat and potatoes of their gameplay was based on brokering science and research deals. Based on how often I heard them referenced in conversations, I got the impression that the Corporations had an important effect on the game without feeling like they were dominating it and pushing the countries (or aliens) out of the spotlight.
Corporate marketing boldly extended to the toilets.
With these changes in mind, I was really interested to see what the game would be like. The organisers were an independent group, who, unlike the vast majority of megagames I go to, weren't really aware of the general community centred around Megagame Makers. I wanted to see what the game was like without outside influence, without being able to bounce questions off veteran megagamers, and without drawing inspiration from previous game designs.
I was assigned to be a “Floor G.M.”, essentially the same as a 'Human Control' in most games of WTS. My responsibility was to wander around the human teams, manage PO rolls and income, and help GM anything the players wanted to do outside the normal rules. I was assigned to focus on South Africa and the USA; an exciting selection considering the USA's significance on the world stage, and South Africa's terrifying, unimaginable secret that even they themselves had not yet discovered. More on that later.
The South Africa team had come prepared. And I mean prepared. The Head of State had bought himself a stab vest for the occasion, the team each had custom South Africa ID badges, they had a framed photo of Nelson Mandela, a roll up banner showing off some fake and not-so-fake South African industries, and what appeared to be a customised briefcase full of South African investment information – including an iPad, a “prototype weapon”, mineral export samples, and a South African investment handbook for the year .
And if you look at the bottom of the case, you'll see some printed paper money with the team members' faces on it.
As the game started, the USA was stuck in a quagmire in the South China Sea. They had a Naval vessel that had collided with a Chinese counterpart, sinking the latter. The US boat had some Chinese sailors on board that had been saved from drowning, but tensions were high, and the Chinese were blockading the US fleet and preventing it from leaving . This cost the US dearly as they had to keep paying for the fleet's expensive upkeep in foreign waters. This set the tone for the USA-China relations for the rest of the game.
Some delicious America Team props.
On the second turn, all the teams got a generic message about aliens delivered in an envelope. That is, all the teams except South Africa, whose envelope instead contained a message (from the Head of State's grandfather) that they were secretly an alien race who were hiding as humans on Earth. The entire country of South Africa were all that was left after a space war with the Reticulans (the alien team in the game) 700 Earth years prior. The SA team now had to figure out how to survive – do they keep hiding? Try to escape the planet? Or reveal all to the people of Earth and throw themselves on the mercy of Humanity? 
The USA had been receiving messages from aliens early on, and had finally managed to get a meeting with one of the alien groups. It wasn't easy though, as other secret meeting attempts had been shot down by the USA's oblivious allies, and on one occasion, a rather brash Corporation. When the 2-minute discussion with the E.T. was over, I asked the US President if he felt like he had learned much from the experience. He didn't say anything, instead going for a facial expression that said fairly clearly 'I know less now than I did before'.
The aliens, wearing more wigs than you would likely expect.
South Africa meanwhile was playing it fairly quietly. They'd been defending their ally Brazil's airspace from intermittent alien incursions, but were otherwise focused on playing a subtle PR game – quietly spreading the message “Hey guys, maybe aliens are actually good sometimes?”
By about turn 6, the USA had spent a lot of time talking with an alien faction called House Draconis. The President and his team had decided that the best course of action was to obtain good relations with this faction, and when they received a Draconis message telling them to “demonstrate their strength”, there seemed like an obvious next step. And that's how the USA invaded China.
The Russian commander observes the conflict in a totally non-threatening way.
This is a good time to mention that in the very early stages of the game, the USA, the UK, India and Japan had made a very public alliance with each other. This is relevant because China managed to defend its soil pretty well against the US, and India felt like it had to help. India, like the US, had been told to show its strength by one of the alien groups, and was at this stage the only country to have detonated a nuke – as part of a (totally illegal) “test” on a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. So they felt like they should continue that theme, and decided the best support they could give the US army was of the fission-assisted variety. And that's how India started World War 3.
What happened next was a mix of so many nuclear explosions that it's hard to remember them all:
India nukes China. The US nukes China. Russia nukes UK. UK nukes Russia. India nukes China again. aliens nuke US. India tries to take apart an alien reactor and accidentally nukes itself.
... Five... Six... Seven! Seven nuclear explosions! Hah-ah-ah!
What I'm trying to say is, the world pretty much ended.
The Terror Track had more than maxed out, and the surviving humans were in a state of total anarchy. Of course, there were always the few people on the Moon bases and Mars bases. Oh, and some of the humans got into big alien spaceships, but they were only going to be alive until alien lunchtime. (Fun fact: it's always alien lunchtime).
It's quiet up here.
With the world ending, the South Africans confessed to their true nature, and asked for a few million of their people to get on one of the big alien spaceships, with one of the Reticulan teams that had changed their ways since 700-years ago. (Fun fact: they lied and had not changed their ways at all.)
Disclaimer: The following is some analytical observation of what I think did or didn’t work well. It's all my uneducated opinion, my only qualification being that I overthink things. If you disagree with anything I've said, please comment - I'd be interested to know.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the main gameplay changes were in the Corps and the Sciences, and they seemed to work well, all things considered.
Some Corp players, making it really easy to crack "Hostile Takeover" jokes.
The Main Map and Turn Order
The main issue with the game was a noticeable slowdown on the main map. The map was taking longer to resolve than intended from the beginning, but by turn 7 or 8, the turns were regularly having to be elongated just to allow all the map actions to resolve. Personally, I think this is mainly down to the fact that this game introduced a turn order mechanic. The previous WTS game in Telford had used a “first to the table gets to move first” system, which didn’t get great feedback. So for this game they created a schedule of turns, where each country would go in order, with the order being shifted along one each turn, so it was fairly rotated. (If you're wondering, at most WTS games that I have attended, the turns are resolved effectively simultaneously, unless there's a significant reason why one team wants to get there first, in which case it's decided by Control based on context .)
As far as I could observe, the turn order was problematic for a number of reasons:
Firstly, every country had to complete its entire turn before anyone else could do anything. This meant that 7 players would be waiting around, especially if the turn-haver was thinking a lot, had to ask questions of the Controls or their teammates (as one often does in a megagame), or had to resolve something complicated like a war. This also meant that multiple Controls couldn't resolve different actions simultaneously, as they could only do things that were relevant to the current team's turn.
Secondly, it affected teams' abilities to react. If someone did something to you, but you've already had your turn, you can't do anything about it. For longer term things, you can always react next turn, but some things need an instant response. I think this also meant that map players were thinking very hard about their actions if they knew they couldn't react later on, which took longer.
Thirdly, it made multi-country actions hard to resolve. At one stage, Indian, Chinese, US, Japanese and Russian fleets were all in the same area of sea. The different fleets had different targets, and separating who was fighting and assisting who, based on who was acting in their own turn, and delaying some fights based on who was involved seemed needlessly difficult. The alternative could have been just declaring which fights were separate, and which weren't, and then resolving individual fights instead, at about the same time, if there was no need to separate it by turns.
Alien moon base. At this angle, the wig storage area is just about visible.
The only other significant issue was the aliens. The aliens, for want of a better explanation, were the 'Predator' type of aliens, using the Earth as a sport-hunting ground for their young broodlings. They were all trying to impress and gain honour before The Mighty Spl'argg (no relation to Jeremy Spl'argg, the renaissance painter). It was a fine premise for the aliens, but I think that the aliens' indifference to the planet Earth may have led to a couple of issues.
The aliens didn't care if they were causing massive amounts of terror and damage, and as a result their efforts to entertain Spl'argg caused large Terror Track increases that maxed out the track two turns before the original end of the game. This wasn't a problem though, as it did happen quite late in the game . However if the aliens had been more aggressive, they could have easily maxed it out even earlier – so I would advise caution to anyone devising aliens like this for a future game.
The other issue with the aliens’ disaffection was that it hurt human/alien interaction on the human side. There didn't seem to be any reason for the aliens to want to do anything beneficial for humans. From what I saw of the USA and the Aliens' communications, it seems like the USA tried their best to work with the aliens, who didn't have any motivation to engage with them in any non-manipulative way. While this could be realistic or reasonable behaviour for the aliens, I think it results in a slightly less enjoyable Human player experience in the game.
In defence of the great people at Telford Boardgamers - I've said many times (to people who I can force to listen to me) that writing a WTS alien briefing that works really well and results in a great megagame for all the players is incredibly difficult, and you can never account for the unpredictability of all players. All you can do is try to give the aliens some kind of disadvantage (such as some particular weakness compared to humans, or serious difficulties understanding the humans) so that the humans don't feel that their choices won't matter when it comes to alien interaction. In the end, you have to rely on a bit of luck and also good feedback from your controllers to keep the asymmetrical play in an enjoyable balance for everyone.
I thoroughly enjoyed 'WTS Telford 2: Reloaded!', as did everyone else I spoke to . The new Corps worked great, the players were all really engaged with the game, and a few instances of confusion were definitely not enough to prevent a fantastic experience. This was definitely not the first game where there's been confusion around the Main Map, it's just one of those things that is always difficult. I also thought the South African twist was great and made for a very interesting game for the SA team.
If the Telford Boardgamers are putting on another megagame any time soon, count me in.
Final costume note: The Russian team may have been aesthetically a bit out of date, but somehow the UK's United Nations rep was significantly more so.
 Which you can buy here if you're interested.
 The USA team were frustrated that despite initial heavy research investment, none of their many techs seemed to actually do anything but acquire more techs. I assume that the tech tree was deliberately designed to be hard to predict which techs would go where. It seemed that they started to get some good progress after a few turns, so I don't think bad luck could hold anyone back that much, as long as they put effort & resources in.
 The year in question being the fake year (2020/21), when the game is set. The book never left the briefcase, so I don't know if it was blank inside or not, but considering how much time and effort were spent by the team in preparation, them writing an entire book's worth of fake investment advice for a near-future South Africa doesn't seem far-fetched any more.
 This scenario was a UN crisis that was pre-established before the game started, and was not related to any player decisions. This could have been an interesting scenario for people who were really into the roleplay, but the USA team just seemed irritated by how much they had to spend on it. The players could have gone anywhere with it, of course, but it just ended up sticking around for several turns as the Chinese refused to lift the blockade, and the USA didn't want to do anything too risky in order to break through.
 In the end, they went with a combination of the first two options. The third option probably wouldn't have ended very well. Probably.
 For example: if two Interceptor planes both want to take the first shot at a UFO, then whoever is closer wins. If neither is notably closer, then it's just a dice roll. Another example: if a country moves its army elsewhere, and is then invaded, it's reasonable to assume that the army will be quickly recalled to defend the homeland, but perhaps some damage is done to the invaded country in the meantime.
 The game ended early on Turn 10 (instead of the intended Turn 12) anyway, partially because of the Terror Track maximum and partially because of the main map delays.
 Including the USA team, who despite their hard time and having a few complaints, did tell me that they really enjoyed the game! :)