Sometimes your death is big and dramatic. You take the bullet that was meant for your true love. You save the child, at dreadful cost. Those less fortunate are cursed to less filmworthy ends; Bad shrimp. Bad debts. Bad luck. Badger News Corp got the elite blend; a combination of unpreparedness, poor design and bad, bad luck. Still, it’s a tale worth telling. A cautionary tale perhaps, though I’m not entirely sure what of. This is Laurence Kirkby for Badger News Corp, reporting.
On Saturday, 21st March 2015 we delved into our first megagame. What is that? Well, let me explain. Take a normal board game, say Risk. Teach it. Train it. Feed it, take it for walks and watch it blossom from fragile youth into a beautiful creature. Then, take it out to the beautiful pastures one last time and force feed it steroids. Now you’ve got a megagame. This one, Watch The Skies: Global Conspiracy 2 is Jim Wallman’s dream cranked up until the knob falls off. You want big? You want immersion? You want chaos, plots, panic and the constant threat of apocalypse? Jim Wallman has you covered and then some. Our game had five game boards, each over six foot square. It had over twenty five teams. It had three hundred people.
Into this ocean drop myself and co-reporter Caroline Haines. Teamed up for Badger News Corp – hottest global newspaper coming out of Europe in 2020 – and starring us as the War and Political Correspondents respectively. We were pumped. We were excited. We were woefully unprepared.
At 10 o’clock the settling in begins. We have half an hour to sort a game plan, set things up, and get ready to rock. We’re not even off the starting line when our problems begin; the third member of our tiny team is missing. Presumed dead or simply not attending, 33% of your news team being lost before the get go is not something you want. When that person is your editor-in-chief it’s something you really don’t want. Still, we’re rared up and ready to report. I spring into pre-emptive action, seeking out the PR or CEO of the five global corporations – useful connections to have, and people I want the inside track on. Resources I can utilize later on, I think.
Twenty minutes later it’s starting to emerge that we have a fresh problem – our laptop, and sole means of producing news, is not working. Press Control (our own private referees-slash-masterminds) don’t have a solution, and nor does the in-house technician. A little stressed, ten minutes into round 1 it’s decided to cut the laptop and claim one from GNN, rival news company, who have fortunately brought an extra.
Twenty minutes later, well into the swing of round 1 and we’re getting into the flow. I am dashing out to interview whoever I can about the current world crises, as long as those interviews can be kept to under a minute long. Caroline meanwhile has claimed the title of editor-in-chief in exchange for giving me both war and political reporting duties. I get the news. Caroline types it. I chase leads. Enquiring countries/corporations/misc talk to HQ. It seems to work – headquarters (held down by the lone Caroline) has a word processor successfully running and is furiously typing – admittedly the layout is only ‘newspaper’ because we put it into two columns, but no time for anything more, we’ve got 5 minutes until the end of round one. We’re behind our competitors (GNN and China News) and need to get in the game. The world doesn’t care about technical issues – it needs our news and it needs it now.
Blam. First edition out. It’s not a looker, but there’s news there – news I gathered, using nothing but my own wit, charm and intimidating size. High five. We get a kick to the ego when we catch a glimpse of GNN’s news. It has a fancy header, smart layout and even a comedy picture. Someone made their layout before showing up. Bugger. I’d love to read it, to see what we missed but I just don’t have the time, new crises are dropping. Wait, did they just say they have a GNN twitter account too? Bollocks. No time to copy that idea, we’ve got one reporter in the field. I’m trying to gather meaningful news about two new world crises – shattering earthquakes in Niger and the governmental overthrow of Greece, each of which requires me to speak to around four or five countries to get what I need. I whip up what scraps I can insinuate, bully or eavesdrop from the surrounding nations and speed back to HQ. Caroline’s been getting visits, and is trying to spin out a paragraph on what she’s getting, while simultaneously listening to what I report in. I can’t wait for her to finish because I’ve not got half of what I need. I need to check on our Ace Reporters. As a news team we have two reporters as physical game pieces. Not many to manage, which is good given how many plates we’re spinning as is. But unlike most nations who can only deploy to their own continent (those 6-foot-boards I mentioned earlier), we can deploy them anywhere. It’s amazing, because we have that level of freedom. It’s less amazing because that freedom needs time to think, to assess – which neither of us has. Press Control tells us that we’ve earned two megabucks (the game’s currency) in profit for our circulation. Great! Except I never knew we were getting money. What can we use it for? Well, anything really – high tech equipment, bribing people. Cool, something to bear in mind when we have a second. Any minute now, I’m sure.
The next turn passes, the crank on our internal pressure gauges ramping steadily up all the way – players now turn up to HQ so regularly that it frequently needs both of us there to take interviews and press releases. New crises (plural!) are turning up, needing attention and old crises haven’t all been resolved, so they need attention too. We still can’t type fast enough if we’re uninterrupted, and we frequently are. I take what I can get from who I can get it from, but I’m still trying to visit seven or eight countries on multiple different continents.
I have a brief moment of power when I speak to the Foreign Secretary of Japan (Brendan Caldwell) to ask about his findings of the joint expedition he’s sent in with France to investigate the potential nuclear leak in Bolivia – having already found out from my Ace Reporters. Mr Caldwell is unable to answer because his teams haven’t returned yet, and I experience the full joyous might of The Press as I tell him that there is a confirmed leak. Hell, it gains us nothing and I leave without answers but it’s worth it for the power trip.
A minute later and I don’t care about the leak – it’s round 3 (it was a new turn 10 minutes ago?!) and we’re only just passing out our second edition. Badger News is starting to wobble. For a change of pace (hah) Caroline heads out into the field and I man the defences at HQ. Time starts to skip and blur; people are dropping statements, giving ‘hot scoops’ and wanting favours, often all at the same time. GNN, rival newspaper, is having technical issues and their printer is broken, so we let them use ours. It’s unreasonable not to let them do so – it would eliminate them from actually playing – though it does cause a problem. They are running off 40 copies. That takes about 10-15 minutes to do, which is 25% of a round. We half-joke about joining forces and merging papers as we each discover the other only has two people on their team too. Meanwhile I’m frantically typing, taking interviews, trying to actually listen to those interviews, getting news drops from Caroline, deploying Ace Reporters, getting Press Control updates, UN updates, and repeatedly getting asked by countries wondering where the news is. I tell them it’s been printed 5 minutes ago – I could be lying, I have no idea if it was 5 minutes or 20, but I don’t have the time to check. A disturbing number of people start to ask where the news is, and it occurs to me that we haven’t been printing enough copies to distribute it globally – and with so many tables it’s difficult to know who’s been given what, let alone knowing when. Of course I can’t print any more copies to compensate because GNN are using our printer. And even if they weren’t – who would distribute them?
Someone mentions the time and it’s apparently ten past one. My brain is so busy overloading I’ve barely noticed. I notice someone eating a sandwich and I suspect I should be doing the same, but surely breakfast was only an hour ago, and in any case I don’t have time. Press Control comes over to ask if we’ve put out a second paper, I tell him we did that half an hour ago. He didn’t get a copy. We can’t show him a copy either, because I’m trying to shove 3rd edition out the door and we haven’t been saving old papers. We get one megabuck for circulation. I get the distinct impression that that’s bad, but I simply don’t care – I have no idea how much money other papers are getting, or what they’re putting out, and I have no idea when I’ll ever get to use that money or what I’d use it on. Anything I could use it for takes too much time. I’m starting to melt down.
A brief respite. The ambassador from Japan comes over with the list of Olympic winners. I half-recall that the Olympics were held in Tokyo, and people like to know this stuff in the papers right? In truth I barely care, it’s a chance to stare at a piece of paper and copy it – which is the press equivalent of a holiday. As an added bonus, the ambassador sits down in the interview chair to copy the list herself, to take to other papers, meaning passers-by don’t interrupt as it looks like I’m already with someone. They go to a rival newspaper instead but I truly, truly don’t care. I revel in the minute of peace. With perfect timing someone comes by to take a photo and I smile like a demon.
Round 4, possibly. We are drowning. Press Control comes over and tactfully tells us we’re doing badly, that GNN has just put out another paper, where’s ours? Ours is being printed as he speaks, but his tone is the last straw. What I’ve suspected for (probably) the last hour is now too large to ignore. Badger News is a dying beast. I glance over and Caroline hasn’t moved for over a minute. She’s starting to get the thousand yard stare. I think it’s just info-overload, and empathise. Between us a decision is made, we decide to cut our losses and change the game. I approach GNN and ask if we can merge. Editor-in-chief of GNN jumps on the idea. Their printer is still out of ink as far as I know, so it’s a winning idea even if we keel over dead. Oh. Our printer has just run out of ink. Good timing. I tell Press Control what’s happening and am told they have to check if the idea is legal according to the game. It’s a surprisingly bitter moment for me, because if they come back and say no, then what? This is us desperately trying to stay afloat, if it’s disallowed then…what?
The idea is allowed – a second wind. We start physically shifting our equipment over. Becky, our new editor-in-chief has GNN’s printer up and running (someone got some ink cartridges). It’s an icky ten minutes of trying to set up a new HQ and assign new roles – all while not letting up on any normal flood of tasks of two news stations. Becky suggests making an announcement about the merger and I jump at the chance – something simple, something I can do. I holler for attention and am pleasantly surprised when it works, the whole room looks up. Short and sharp I announce that Badger News has amalgamated with GNN, to the betterment of all I’m sure. We get a surprisingly large cheer – huh. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.
We’re up and running – Becky and Caroline are going to work HQ, and Tom and myself will hit the field where needed. Someone, someone not-me will do twitter. I get an out-of-character dressing down from Jim Wallman himself, telling me we’re not allowed to make global-announcements without asking first. It makes perfect sense as soon as he tells me – we did effectively stop 300 people doing their jobs for about a minute, time which adds up if people could do it whenever they felt like it. I say sorry. I am sorry. But no time ponder that, time’s a-wasting and we snap back into action.
I get a whiff of excitement with a potential hot lead as Argentina approach me with a bribe. It’s got nothing to do with current crises (I don’t even know what they are at this point). I’m interested. They have a live alien. Even moreso, they’re willing to let me speak to it in exchange for favourable reports about the Faulklands. I run the idea by our editor, who’s a bit more cutthroat. She says they need to deliver hard goods, or we threaten to go public with their secret. A fairly jumbled twenty minutes follow as we wrestle this back and forth – I say we can’t speak to the alien because we literally don’t understand them, and Argentina has literally one minute to sort it. They liase with France – who have the technology to translate. A joint Argentinan-Franco-GNN operation is planned. The jumble descends into a farce as, like contestants in a drunk three-man four-legged race, we dash back and forth between various Control members, getting told to go to Jim, then Jim saying (to me and Argentina) we need the translator tech physically there. But France don’t have it, they gave it to their scientist who’s away. Off they dash. We get the proof-of-tech but Argentina has gone, so off I run again. I return, all three of us now in one place and tasting success. …Oops, no, Jim thought we meant a free alien – a captive alien will never talk. Well. There goes the last 15 minutes. It would be hysterically funny if it wasn’t so damn pressured.
I’m annoyed (at no one in particular) and more than deeply fried. With the captive alien being useless to me I dump Argentina. I promise not to reveal his secret live alien, but as soon as I’m back at HQ I pick up my editor’s vibe, decide I don’t give a toss and tell Becky to put it in the paper. Sod you, I think, it’s news and without this I have nothing. It’s suggested that maybe we just don’t give a copy of the paper to Argentina this turn. My relationship with France’s Prime Minister is still good and it’s agreed that when contact is made, I’m to be present with what we think is first diplomatic contact. In a bleak moment, as I’m running back to HQ, I realize that I’m near four hours in and the closest and only real relationship of any kind that I have with any player is the French Prime Minister, who I did a puff-piece on in turn two (or three?), and have had a whole two brief conversations with. Those corporations I contacted at the start? I barely remember they exist.
Shot throughout this story chase, it emerges that Caroline is not simply overloaded as I thought, she’s actually quite ill. I take five oh-so-precious minutes out of game to sit and see what’s going on. It’s quickly apparent that it would be a really bad idea for Caroline to try and keep playing. It’s resolved that she’ll leave and just try to take it easy for the next couple of hours, staying in contact by phone if needed. So she’s out for the count, and the remnants of Badger News Corp is down to one. I let our editor know the situation; that our glorious merger of ten minutes (or an hour) ago has resulted in us, in the end, having three members left – the size of a normal news team we should have started with. I update Press Control to keep them apprised and with real-world worry bearing down about my partner, I smash headlong back into the game. I’m getting desperate now. The Franco/GNN story is still live – France has sent a message to Alien Control and are waiting for a response. I can still contribute.
Here an unfortunate crack appears in the game, and it’s no player’s real fault; no humans can go upstairs to the alien zone, so the only way to communicate is by Alien Control. But most of them are upstairs too, and we don’t know what they look like because, well, we’re not aliens. I’m increasingly desperate to chase this story, as the press have just been told by Control that we have basic understanding of alien language, but that everyone in the world will have it next turn. Shit. Now the pressure is really on – this story I’ve been chasing for an entire turn has so far been aggravatingly slow, but undisputed. Now there’s a real chance China News might do the same thing, and I have no time or way to check. Not only that, but next turn the story will become useless, going from mega-news to ‘so what’ as every other country finds they can do the same thing. The crack widens as, for over twenty minutes, I grab every Control, black-masked alien or innocent bystander I can and ask them to send the message upstairs that myself and France are separately waiting for responses. I soon stop asking and start begging. I check back with France several times, but they’ve had no word. This is my only job this turn – my editor wants this story, and it’s scheduled to be the main piece, so if nothing happens GNN is screwed. I practically have tears in my eyes because there is nothing I can do – not without just breaking game rules and running up those forbidden stairs. Eventually, eventually an alien appears and I’m so damn relieved, and so scared he’ll disappear that I don’t go and get France, or their perfect translator. I can’t risk it, I just can’t.
A strange conversation ensues – with only rudimentary knowledge of their language I understand about one word in three. Still it’s an amicable, if cryptic, dialogue. I don’t want to hold up the interview by asking the alien to repeat himself, so my notes are somewhat scrambled. They’re peaceful, possibly. Although it’s implied some aliens think of earth as a giant nature reserve. Whales are mentioned, apparently humans should try diplomacy with them. It’s possible I could’ve stretched the interview out, but without knowing the time available I don’t think I can risk it. I rush away with a strange feeling in my chest. I bloody did it – I interviewed a bloody alien. But…it wasn’t really fun to do. Not elation then, just relief. Still, it’ll be a huge bump for GNN/Badger News if it works out.
Here our story stops. Freeze frame this moment – the gaining of a story, a bloodily clawed fraction of victory. Victory, eked out from over an hour of heart-pounding pressure and skull-bruising frustration. I race back to HQ. I have no idea what round it is, if I’m too late, if my news is even worth anything now. But I get to HQ –
– and am jerked out of game-mode by Becky, who tells me Caroline is seriously ill and has been trying to get hold of me. Out of duty and pride I dash off my news, fairly incoherently, and then I’m out the door. Game over.
I never found out if my information was news-worthy. Or if France ever got their interview. I spent the next three or four hours with Caroline, calling NHS 111 and generally feeling a bit useless. Occasionally, a distant airhorn would sound, proof that the game was alive and kicking. As it happened, Caroline improved considerably throughout the afternoon, and we made it to the main room just in time for the end-game debriefing. I’m glad we heard it, though it did little to explain much to us. We’d only been in half of the game, and occupying a uniquely disconnected role for the time were played.
The day ends, and I help to clear up our news desk – partially because it’s only fair to help out, and partially because I hope I can get some info on what I missed. No joy was had, as it seemed all that kind of thing got saved for the real debrief, in the nearest local pub. Much as we’d like to, we need to get Caroline home. We say our brief goodbye, and we limp away.
There you have it. A unique blend of circumstances that, like any strong cocktail, led to Badger News Corp stumbling, crashing, and eventually passing out on the floor.
Extremely special thanks have to be given to Jo Savage, in-house manager of Camden House, who was consistently friendly, helpful and kind – and her staff, and all passing players who stopped to help. Equally deserving of huge thanks is Jaap Boender who, despite being lead alien control, took a good hour and a half or so away from the game to assist Caroline as a Red Cross volunteer. Thankyou so, so much.
(Caroline is fine by the way, don’t worry.)
In part 2 of this article, I’ll focus more about the impressions and design of the game (at least as far as we were in it), as well as more of a review angle.
By Laurence Kirkby