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© South West Megagames 2016

Aliens, A.I. and Share Prices: 'Watch The Skies: a Corporate Conspiracy' - Crisis Games (27/05/17)

May 30, 2017

 

 

Recently, I returned to the now fairly well-known game of 'Watch The Skies!'. Specifically, 'Watch The Skies: a Corporate Conspiracy' run by Crisis Games in Cambridge. This was the version of the game re-designed by The Megagame Society [1], only now with a twist – the inclusion of the eponymous Corporations. Whilst I've been to a handful of 'Watch The Skies!' games that included corporations as played teams before, this was the first time I'd had the opportunity to play as one of them, and I leapt at the chance to try out the unfamiliar role of a corporate entity in this now very familiar game of politics and extra-terrestrials.

 

I was given the option by the organisers to come up with a name, logo and slogan for our fictional corporation, and so it was that Weathers Technologies was born.

 

Guess the alien movie reference.

 

 

Weathers Technologies: 'Products That Weather All Storms'

 

The mechanics for the Corporation teams primarily revolved around two things. Firstly, the Corporations map, where coloured meeples (representing your Corp creating supply/demand for consumer products there) could be placed for a cost (less developed regions were cheaper, first world countries were more expensive, and the price varied on a scale for everything in-between). Corps would get one credit in income each turn for each region in which they had at least one meeple. However, you wouldn't get any income if another corporation had more meeples than you, but you both/all got one if you were tied.

 

Supply and demand in action.

 

 

The second mechanic was projects – a series of benefits that you could sell to country teams once you had unlocked them. Each project, ranging from Level 1 to Level 6, required three cards of its level to unlock, then they could each be manufactured for one credit each. This was limited to selling one per country (with the exception of military tech, which could have multiple units sold).

 

Weathers Technologies, R&D Department.

 

 

The Corp teams were split into three roles – the Chief Operating Officer (COO), who was responsible for managing the Corporate map and placing meeples, the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) who was responsible for managing projects and tech cards, and finally my role, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), who was responsible for leading the company and negotiating with the country teams.

 

 

Cartels? Cartels.

 

I arrived at the game and started mingling with some of the players who had already arrived. I told the USA President about a few of the products we had, such as our Retroviral Engineering project that got a country an extra “Popular Support” card [2] each turn, and our “REX” mech combat unit. I also had a discussion with the China team, who were more than happy to hear that, as my Corporation's HQ building was in Shanghai, I was willing to offer them discounts on our REX units, and anything else that might offer them internal stability. I also took the Chinese President aside and told her about “Project X” – our level 6 Xenogenic Virus technology. If all of man's weapons and devices failed against the alien foe, Weathers Technologies had the blueprints for a tiny superweapon (as long as we could get three Level 6 cards).

 

Team China, our gracious hosts and best friends.

 

 

I also got to meet my two fellow corporations for the game. 'JCG Global' and 'Acherontia Systems' were more than happy to have a quick talk about strategy, and we were all in agreement that there was no benefit to directly competing. We all agreed that trying to outnumber someone's meeples in any single region on the Corporate map (thus cutting them off from that income) was an 'actively hostile' move, but sharing regions (so we all got one credit) was ok. There was also no need to sabotage or badmouth each other, and we went into the game with friendly relations.

 

 

Solar Power Plays

 

Our Solar Furnace technology allowed a country to get one credit each turn, which meant that the earlier we could put it out, the more valuable it was. It required three Level 3 cards in order to research, but the good news is that Level 3 cards could be produced at a rate of one per turn by countries if they were willing to invest money in it. Over the course of the first two turns, I managed to coordinate with the USA in order to get a joint operation of the USA, UK and France all producing a Level 3 card, in return for a discount. To ensure that everyone remembered how important it was to get it done this turn, I hastily scrawled the agreement into a contract onto my notepad and got all the leaders to sign. At the start of turn 3, we had our Solar Furnace unlocked, and I sold it at a discount to the USA, UK and France in return for the tech cards. I managed to make even more profit by selling it at a high price to China and India. The only country who wouldn't buy one was Russia, who seemed a bit too cash-strapped at the time.

 

Turns out, selling things is highly profitable - who knew?

 

 

Our Retroviral Engineering technology also gave countries a resource (Popular Support cards) each turn, but we gave up on trying to develop it early on as no-one seemed to want it that much (it seemed the cards were relatively easy to get).

 

 

The Truth is Out There

 

We'd heard early on from our friends in the China team that the aliens had been “attacking” them, but they'd been incredibly stingy with any details. The aliens definitely seemed to be up to something, but we didn't know what. We didn't have the intelligence forces or Interceptor units to know any of what was going on, so we were relying on second hand information.

 

On turn 4, the President of the USA declared to the world that aliens exist. We were concerned about the effect this might have on the global economy, but aside from the odd riot here and there, it seemed that the economy survived pretty much unscathed.

 

POTUS tells the world that We Are Not Alone.

 

 

In fact, our consumer/meeple expansion had actually been going exceptionally well, with my COO taking full advantage of the low cost to invest in developing countries. However, one of those countries (voiced by Control) told us they would shut down our operations unless I handed them a bribe (though they didn't quite word it like that). I gave them a single credit (I would have refused any more if they had asked, but one credit was worth giving up for the continued return), and that seemed to be satisfactory. But it was clear that this strategy had its own risks. As we could now afford it, we decided to switch tactics and begin investing in the wealthier and more stable parts of the world.

 

It wasn't long after that that the USA (and shortly after that, China and Acherontia) showed me intelligence they'd received that the aliens were anti-capitalist in nature. It was obvious that they were a threat. If they were capable of bringing humanity into some kind of new utopia, I wasn't totally opposed to giving up our old way of life, but we still didn't have any reason to trust the aliens – they'd already “attacked” some of the played countries earlier, and we had no idea what they'd want to do to humanity if we gave them control of the planet.

 

Boo, aliens.

 

 

A Big Bang

 

Iran (an NPC nation) declared it had developed nuclear weapons, and the world was wondering what the reaction would be. India had recently invaded Pakistan (another NPC), and had troops stationed very near the Iran/Pakistan border. India decided Iran was threatening them directly, and declared war on them. Iran fired a nuclear missile at India, but it was shot down by anti-missile systems. The economy took a big hit from the nuke scare, and all the Corporation share prices plummeted. I quickly spent some money on bringing it back up just to prevent any chance of our company going under if there were any future negative developments.

 

The Military Map. I don't know what any of this means.

 

This was happening simultaneously with two other major developments. The aliens had built an embassy in India. This only added to my suspicions – India were clearly being aggressive and dangerous – why would the aliens choose to make them a focal point of their diplomatic efforts? And why only with one country, rather than building embassies everywhere – what did this favouritism mean?

 

Meanwhile in Venezuela (an NPC), the government had replaced their police with robots sold by a company called “Justice Shield Inc”. Having never heard of this company, the CEO of Acherontia went to investigate and told me in private that they were actually a secret shell corporation of JCG. We weren't sure what this meant, but assumed it was probably some simple money-making scheme [3] and shifted our focus to more important matters.

 

 

Good Robot, Bad Robot

 

We managed to develop our 'REX' battle robots, and sold a couple to India. We told everybody about this new military product, but couldn't sell any more, though I did get some genuine interest from the USA and China.

 

For all your giant battle robot needs.

 

 

The aliens made a global speech from their embassy, claiming that they were entirely peaceful, and that we should stop our aggressive, petty disputes. Their society spread across so many worlds, and all of our concerns were so small to them. They wanted diplomatic relations, and for us to join their collective. The international community called them to a summit and condemned their interference in Earth politics and abduction of humans.

 

The aliens ask everyone to calm down.

 

 

Everyone's attention was drawn away from the aliens situation when suddenly all of the JCG factories shut down from an unknown cyber attack. What was even weirder however, was when they started up again: Their factories were no longer producing their regular products – and instead appeared to have abandoned all normal business models and were pumping out robotic drones.

 

I talked to the CEO of JCG, and he told me that his COO and CTO had been taken over by some kind of AI, and were now creating robots for some unknown purpose (he was also wearing a tin foil hat – better safe than sorry, I guess?) [4]. I talked to their CTO and he denied all knowledge that anything unusual was going on or that he was being controlled by anyone (or anything). Something was definitely off though – I couldn't trust anyone at JCG any more.

 

I was deeply concerned as to what was happening. There was too much at stake to not know what was going on. A fellow Corp had been decimated and controlled by... something. I lacked the resources to figure out what was happening though, so I gave some of our money (we had lots of it, thanks to our massive consumer base on the Corporation Map by this point) to China and the USA and told them to use their respective intelligence forces (and whatever else could help) to find out exactly what was going on, tell the world, and if possible, shut it down. It was at this point that I learned from the USA's President that apparently the JCG robots had been killing thousands of people in Australia.

 

It was also this turn that a global message came in from the aliens: “JCG is a good company.”

 

 

East vs West

 

The situation was obvious. The aliens were using the robots as some kind of attack force, whilst claiming entirely peaceful intentions. I needed to protect myself, my company, and humanity by doing what I could to fight back against the aliens. I felt particularly vulnerable, both because we knew the aliens were anti-capitalist, and because they had shown their ability to control and take down an entire corporation to suit their ends.

 

I learned at this stage that China and Russia were both being very pro-alien, whereas India had strengthened its relationship with the NATO countries – USA, UK and France. It seemed that the world was split, and we were going to be relying on this 'Alliance' (as they came to be known) of these four countries to protect us. I moved our Corporate HQ from Shanghai to Houston as a precaution, and began the fightback.

 

Team USA, our new gracious hosts and best friends.

 

 

I knew that I could trust Acherontia and the USA, as our objectives were pretty well aligned, and I'd spent plenty of time talking to both. The USA told me we could rely on the other three Alliance countries, and so we had a reasonably trustworthy bloc to work with.

 

I told my team that we wouldn't be selling products to China or Russia any more, but that we should offer large discounts on REX units to the Alliance countries. We also wanted to get our Level 4 project off the ground, which would allow us to upgrade anti-UFO Interceptor planes that the countries had. In order to do that though, we needed a lot more high-level tech cards.

 

So began over a turn and half of calculating and negotiating with the CTO of Acherontia [5], to figure out the best way to pool our resources. Acherontia also had a Level 4 Interceptor upgrade, but it was different, and we couldn't afford to unlock them both. We also needed to find three Level 6 cards from somewhere so that we could produce the anti-alien bioweapon project. We decided we would just about be able to do both with a little negotiating, but only if they gave up on their lucrative Level 5 factory building technology – so I agreed that as part of my contribution, I would compensate them for the losing their opportunity to develop factory technology.

 

We got the heads of state of the Alliance together to meet with with representatives of Acherontia and Weathers, and discussed which of the two Interceptor upgrades would be the most effective. Eventually they settled on our design (an improvement to range and speed). We also asked for any more Level 6 cards for the bioweapon, and France managed to trade us one for a couple more REX units [6] [7].

 

 

Rise of The Machines

 

Predictably, the aliens moved their embassy out of India, and into China. It was shortly after this that Russia and China announced they were forming one country, 'Eurasia', and that this was part of the aliens bringing their more advanced civilisation to humanity.

 

Eurasia, in all its dual-table glory.

 

 

At about the same time, the JCG robots somehow managed to sneak a weapon of mass destruction into London, detonating it and causing incalculable damage to the country. After I heard about the threat of a second bomb, I had a chat with the UK Chief of Intelligence and a Control, and handed over a large number credits in order to pay for high-end security consultants to assist the UK in their internal security.

 

Burma, Mongolia, Venezuela, and Cuba (NPC countries) all held votes (that some believed were rigged) to join the newly formed country of Eurasia. I gave some more money to the US President to assist him in combating this political menace, as it would only weaken humanity further if allowed to spread.

 

We managed to finally complete all our Interceptor upgrades and were happy to sell them to all the Alliance countries at cost. All in all, we managed to upgrade 9 Interceptors into an elite anti-UFO squad.

 

[Theme from Top Gun plays in background]

 

 

But that wasn't the only card up our sleeve.

 

 

Endgame

 

With three Level 6 cards finally in our possession, we developed our Xenogenic Virus. I asked the USA President one last time who we could trust to distribute it to, and he said we could trust everyone in the Alliance. I produced all six available copies of the virus, and handed one out to each of the four Alliance countries (for free). I told them that they should all confer with each other about how to use it, but beyond this stage, my job was done and I took a step back. I produced the potential copies for China and Russia so I could hold on to them securely, just in case there was some way someone else could have tried to steal them if I left them in R&D.

 

The alien bioweapon cards - photographed with unintentional, yet appropriate, threatening lighting.

 

 

There was quiet as Interceptors were launched and elsewhere robots were fought back a little across the globe, but I had no idea exactly what was happening out there, with practically no access to military or Intelligence information.

 

Suddenly, news broke out almost simultaneously that Paris had been destroyed in a nuclear explosion, with a missile launched from Chad, of all places – and that the French had deployed the anti-alien bioweapon in retaliation, and successfully infected the aliens.

 

The aliens announced they were leaving. They said we weren't worthy of whatever society they claimed they were trying to bring us, and they would leave us alone. But if we ever tried to get into space, they would destroy us.

 

Goodbye and thanks for all the fish.

 

 

In a last ditch effort to deal a blow to the JCG robotic forces, the Alliance temporarily shut down power stations across the world. However, the JCG forces had retreated, and had accepted an offer from the aliens that they would be taken to live on the Moon.

 

I checked my share price, and how many shares I had in Weathers Technologies. Our share price was twice as high as when we started the game, and I personally was worth 8 billion dollars.

 

Take that, aliens!

 

The share price tracker at the end of the game (G = Weathers, R = Acherontia, B = JCG). Can you spot the moment when there was a nuclear launch closely followed by JCG turning into a murderous AI?

 

 

Epilogue

 

I learned a massive amount after the game about some of the major narrative points.

 

Firstly, the aliens were actually pacifists, and were not attacking us (at least not in the traditional sense). They had abduction and infiltration teams that they were using to learn about us, however they didn't seem to realise those units were causing unrest and destabilisation, even after being warned about it.

 

JCG's takeover by the AI was unrelated to the aliens. They had rolled out an incredibly large high-tech factory system very early on, which eventually led to the computer system running the factories taking over. Shortly before this happened however, JCG had seen the intelligence about the aliens being anti-capitalist and anti-fossil fuels, and had been communicating to the aliens about their newest attempts to focus on humanitarian efforts and renewable energy. The aliens sent back a message about JCG because they wanted the other Corps to follow their example, but by the time it reached Earth, things had changed dramatically...

 

Also the French Chief of Defence may or may not have been controlled by the JCG AI – I still don't know.

 

 

Some Analysis

 

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.

 

The Corporations actually had very little for me to analyse, mechanically speaking. As I mentioned previously, the only two real mechanics we had were placing meeples on the Corporation Map, and obtaining tech cards in order to unlock products to sell. But the key thing is that even with only two tangible options we still had plenty to do. In particular, negotiating obtaining tech cards and figuring out demand and appropriate pricing for our six different products provided plenty of options for interaction, competition, cooperation and negotiation. It's a testament to simple, minimalist design, and I would recommend to anyone designing a megagame to remember just how much a handful of very simple mechanics can occupy players, when you append them to the exponentially complex web of players and factions that make up a megagame.

 

My main criticism of the game was how little was explained to us. We were given a copy of the Corporation rules, and were told what our 6 projects were in the pre-game briefing email, but I had no idea what our projects did, or even what the basic rules were for the country teams. We had upgrades to units and the ability to give cards, and we didn't know what those upgrades or cards did, which was a massive problem for our early negotiation. I appreciate that some things, such as the anti-alien virus, would have unknown effects, but if one of our products gives players a “Popular Support” card, then it's worth us knowing what that card actually is. Not knowing core rules about how other parts of the game worked, such as the military and intelligence games, also made it harder to be on the same playing field and led to some misunderstandings and issues. I think that most megagames, whatever the context, should ensure that any teams playing as factions from the same 'world' as other teams, all receive briefings that include the core mechanics of the teams in that world, even if they don't directly relate to that team – this puts everyone on the same level and means everyone has a better idea of the world being simulated.

 

 

In Summary

 

'Watch The Skies: A Corporate Conspiracy' was a uniquely fun game. Playing as a Corporation gave me some original-feeling objectives, and also made all of our progress towards them negotiation based, as most of our significant resources and gains were made through determining demand and price with other players.

 

I had a lot of fun keeping an eye on our finances and making deals all around the room. If you get the opportunity to play as a Corporation at a megagame near you, I suggest you try it! (If you haven't already).

 

Thanks to Darren (Game Control) and all the Control team for your hard work designing, organising and running the game. And thanks to my teammates for doing a fantastic job.

 

The Weathers Technologies team.

 

 

Footnotes

 

[1] The original game was designed by Jim Wallman, and it's the version I've encountered most. The Megagame Society's version keeps the same concept and has a lot of similarities, but has many mechanical and aesthetic differences. Crisis Games had actually made their own changes to the rules for this one, since running the game without Corporations last year, though I don't know the details.

 

[2] Popular Support cards were useful for increasing a country's economic standing, and for maintaining leadership in the election that occurred in the middle of the game, in which heads of state could be replaced by their deputies if they didn't have enough cards.

 

[3] I learned after the game that we were correct – even though it looked like foreshadowing, this actually had nothing to do with the later robot-centric developments within JCG.

 

[4] The CEO of JCG was in fact working with the COO and CTO for the AI. They had pretended to have a schism so that the CEO could appeal to the other teams and try to obtain more tech cards.

 

[5] Seriously, the guy was amazing. He figured most of it out, I just provided whatever assistance and negotiation was needed on my end.

 

[6] Actually we only had one REX left so we bought one of Acherontia's mechs and traded France one of each for the card!

 

[7] It was also around this time that we just so happened to have a convenient opportunity to develop our Level 1 project. We sold a few of them but it was mainly handled by my CTO so I don't know the details.

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