Watch The Skies 3: Tales From Angola (Benevolent Warlords of Africa)

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Back in the mists of March I went along to Watch The Skies 2: Global Conspiracy, a 300 person board and roleplaying game of global politics, with aliens. It was fascinating, but didn’t go well . Back then, I said that even though my personal experience was fairly shonky, if the chance came to play again, I’d give it a go. Along comes the 25th of July, with Watch The Skies 3: Global Conspiracy. Due to some drop-outs, I got the chance to gear up, and dive in.

This time I was going in as Foreign Minister for Angola, the second poorest country in the game. We began the game with almost no military and no money, in the continent that was most likely to be bombarded with disasters, and least likely to be able to cope with them. As a tiny country, we also had no scientist, which meant that the only way for us to improve our technology was by liaising with other countries. Clearly, I was going to be playing a very different game.

Around a week before the game began, some emails were shared between the Angola team, and some initial idea strategies were batted around. I suspect this is fairly common practice among Megagamers. It was also highly entertaining to see just how fast it all went out the window as soon as the game began. High-concept planning translates into game about as well as Portugese into Cetacean. That said, I feel an enormous amount of my day, and the enjoyment of it, is due to my team. None of us knew each other, and only some of us had managed to exchange some messages. We were very much strangers to each other. I spent most of my pre-game contact in a serious panic because our Chief Of Defence was insisting that he was a PMC warlord, and I was terrified that I was going to have to spend the whole game trying to peacefully control him. This fear was not in any way mollified when, on the day, not only was he dressed in a bandolier of bullets, but our other military man was dressed like a full on militia rebel. He was both impressive, and genuinely intimidating. I spent half an hour trying to push the ‘let’s be super peaceful’ angle, before the Chief gave me a spare hat. As soon as my Che Guevara beret was on, I felt a good deal more inclined to warlord it up. Such is the power of a good hat.

As the game began, it soon emerged that not only was our entire team extremely lovely, but we were all also (roughly) pulling in the same direction. It emerged very quickly that everyone was on board (mostly), so every member of our government was given enough agency to do what they thought best, taking ideas and orders from every other member. It wasn’t long before we were running what I can only call a Communist governmental ring. There were points in the day where I took unquestioning orders from our Warlords, even against my own personal judgement, because I trusted that they had a good plan. Frankly I feel they deserve some real mention here, because had any of them been different, so would our entire team’s day. We, the leaders of Angola were:

Paul McDermott – President (El Presidente) – Lending a real gravitas to our team, El Presidente was calm and targeted. He ran the budget and accounts, and all information was relayed through him. Paul provided our team with over-arcing aims and agendas, but was always moderated by the other government members. Whenever it was needed he diplomatted (it’s a verb now) with the best of them, and all in all just generally kept our team glued together and running on target. Glory to El Presidente.

Ciaran O’Sullivan – Chief of the Defence Staff (Chief Warlord) – Despite my pre-game terror, Ciaran ran a smart army. He consistently pushed for military upgrades and expansions, but was also stunningly good at dealing with Corporations. As a result, our military force grew at a slow but steady rate throughout the whole game, but never stopped our country improving in other areas. On the board, our military existed, but were (almost) never needlessly deployed. The name Chief Warlord is absolutely fitting, but being a Warlord apparently doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy.

Brad Jayakody – Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Rebel Warlord) – I feel calling Brad ‘deputy’ anything is a huge disservice, as he did at least as much as Ciaran for our country. I don’t know what Brad was doing for much of the day, but every time we gained some new information or potential tech, Brad would disappear for a while – usually returning with money, or even (I think?) units. Clearly corruption was present, but it wasn’t doing Angola any harm so no one minded. It’s a sign of how much we grew to trust our team that we all knew that Brad was stealing money for his slush fund, and everyone was fine with it. After all, he was consistently making us extra money, units and information out of no-where, so we didn’t really have any complaints that he was keeping some for himself.

Paul Donovan – Senior Ambassador (Special Space Ambassador) – Paul very quickly managed to integrate himself with the Federation. I’m still not sure how. On turn two, he’d been to space. On turn three, he brokered an official alliance. Paul quickly became our Angola-Alien conduit, through which deals and money would magically happen and Make Angola Better. He was clearly doing it better than many other countries, because over the course of the game other ambassadors, vice-presidents, and even presidents came over to see if Paul could set them up a meeting. He filled in the time liaising with other countries, sorting out bumps, and generally being much more of a smooth talker than me.

Molly Amson Knight – Senior Ambassador (…Senior Ambassador) – Molly was probably the closest thing our team had to a conventional Ambassador. She liaised with countries, companies and aliens. She smoothed over problems and secured potential deals. She relayed press info and informed us of what other countries were up to, as well as telling other countries of Angola’s position – often at the African Union. Molly was, in fact, what a senior ambassador should be.

Me – Foreign Minister (Chief Diplomatic Warlord) – I…did everything else. I spent much of my early game trying to pull Africa together, ensuring that Africa knew what we were doing (and why), facilitating face-time and generally nosing about in everyone’s business. I ran a less diplomatic game than my ambassadors, and stuck with the policy of blunt-brutal honesty. In one case, this meant that a miscommunication between nations led to me shouting down the US Ambassador to Africa, which in turn led to a face-to-face meeting with the vice-president of America. In another, I went to personally apologize to the President of South Africa, because I’d accidentally tried to steal a country’s alliance. As the game went on, I was elected Africa’s representative to the UN. Probably a bad idea.

But back to the game. At start, things were pretty damn hard. We had an income of 8 mega-bucks, which wasn’t enough to do half of what we were aiming to. As a country, we were determined to be peaceful, and we were aiming to align ourselves with Nigeria – who had that most magical thing, a real scientist. Aside from this, we wanted to contact the aliens and the Cetaceans to work with both. And to create a unified Africa. We didn’t really pause to think that these were relatively lofty goals for any country in the game, let alone a poverty stricken minor power.

In retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t. Our lack of wider-world awareness and our puny place within that meant that we focused purely on what we could do. It turns out that in a continent of very poor, technologically inferior countries, no one had a problem with not killing each other. We didn’t have the money to waste on mobilising forces, and frankly we didn’t gain anything even if we did – it’s not like anyone else had valuable things to steal. While we didn’t trust anyone absolutely (especially Egypt), we were willing enough to get along.

In turn one, I managed to broker a joint Kenya-Egypt plan to let all of Africa’s leaders be present at first (coherent) contact. Kenya had the tech. Egypt had a coming visitor. Angola’s strong distrust of Egypt began in turn 2 when as I was walking past, I saw that Egypt were speaking to the alien and in total opposition to what we had, as a continent, agreed not 3 months ago, hadn’t invited anyone else to come. Opportunity struck as, just then, one of our diplomats returned with an alien. I promptly gathered up a representative from every nation in Africa (except Egypt), and we made contact.

This, combined with a very badly worded press release from Egypt is what sowed the seeds of distrust in all three Angolan ambassadors. While the issues themselves were solved with apologies and handshakes, these two events and the fact that Egypt kept trying to muscle in on the Angola-Federation alliance, kept us just a little cold towards them. It probably hadn’t helped that as a consequence of that press release confusion, I had threatened the US ambassador (and through him, the entire US). Oh well.

Okay, time to vote for the African representative for the UN. Egypt, SA and Angola are all in the running (no one knows where Algeria is). I don’t really want to be in the UN – I suspect it will be annoying and fruitless for me – but I don’t quite want either of the others to get it either. Angola wants to have a slight edge over SA, so I don’t want them to gain something we don’t have, and Egypt? Well I just don’t trust them to speak for us. I end up getting the position – I suspect it’s the hat.

Twenty minutes later, I want to give it back. I was right, not only is the UN crushingly dry and slow, but if you’re a minor power then you are very much the younger sibling; grudgingly accepted, but not really wanted – and you don’t get to play. When I see that crises are being sorted by countries flinging ten, twenty mega-bucks at it, it’s fairly clear I’m a loose wheel. Perhaps combined with this is the fact that while I’m there, I’m not elsewhere, where I could be doing a lot more. I don’t feel it benefits Angola, or Africa, to have me sitting there. For the four or five turns I’m an elected minister of the UN, I spend about a turn and a half present.

That may turn out to be a mistake – Africa is getting threatened with sanctions for breaking pollution treaties. It’s news to me, because Angola and Nigeria have just finished working together to clear the waters around Africa (we’re still hoping for Cetacean contact and alliance). Africa quickly becomes very, very unhappy. Apparently having a PR of 7 or more means you are an over-polluting country. Nigeria, SA and Angola are all in violation. This causes anger on multiple levels. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort to get our economies to a point where we can achieve something. Now, not only did we not know about this treaty, but we’re having our economies dictated by countries who earn three or four times more than us. We need our industries to be at that level, or we are unable to do anything to pull ourselves up. Instead of forging the new Africa as we have been, we’re being shoved back into the cycle of poverty. A smoldering resentment begins in Angola, towards the UN and the larger nations as a whole. We’re creating pollution, but we’re also cleaning it up – and were doing so before teacher came along and slapped us on the wrist. Tensions start to rise as each of us debates what to do. For Angola, this is my issue. I decide to take it to the UN.

Multiple delays and issues in the UN pushes back the chance for me to even raise the issue, and when I finally do several turns later, I am summarily put down. There is no discussion. The big boys at the far end of the table tell me in a sentence that we either play ball, get sanctioned, or leave the treaty and face potential non UN-sanctions. I know when I’m being strongarmed, and I know there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m given no chance to make a rebuttal, and the conversation moves on. I take my leave, smouldering quietly.

It also gave me a profound moment of real-life shift, because I suddenly realized that this may well be one of the first times I have ever, really, been made to feel like a second-class citizen. It was utterly overwhelming as a sensation.

Events start to overlap as Nigeria backs down, taking the hit to PR. I’ve no idea what SA are up to, but I am unwilling to back down. I am terrified about what the UN will do, and if my actions will damage Angola or even all of Africa, but my pride and my anger will not let me back down. I just can’t, Angola needs this too much. A surprise development as France arrive, eager to help us out. I should probably be questioning their motives more, but the idea that a larger European power is putting themselves out on our behalf is pretty flattering.

A short while after, and I’m trying to speed up a very unexpected twist. It’s almost poetic. Through out alien contacts we find out that if we can get a scientist on board then, through secret jiggery pokery, we can solve pollution. Forever. But the only scientist on hand is Nigeria – their president signs off on the loan of a scientist, no problem, but we can’t physically find him. There are two scientists in all of Africa, and they spend a good 80% of their time away from the African region. It’s not ideal.

I get told in no uncertain terms by my SA diplomatic colleague that I have to go to the UN. France, and all of Africa, are presenting a united front and it’s my task to request a formal draft and revision of the pollution laws. I go the UN and quietly sit, waiting and waiting for the chance to raise it. The chance never comes. Another interruption happens and half of the UN takes leave to speak to consult with their countries. None of the smaller countries leave, but the UN can’t continue until everyone important gets back. We run out of time again.

Back at the team table and there is an Angolan moment of victory as our technological deal comes through. Our pollution is solved. It’s a mixed blessing because it seems to have caused one of our power plants to blow up. Another ambassador is already buying some sustainable energy from elsewhere. I make my way back to the UN, half wanting to just shove our achievement in their big rich faces, and half wanting to make a real point; if we actually focus, we can sort the problems out. The UN runs smoothly this time, and I raise the point that Angola (and soon, all Africa) has solved pollution. The only response is a small round of applause and the secretary pointing out that we must have alien tech. I feel so, so patronized. It’s clear that that unwanted pat on the head is all I’m going to get. Real discussion apparently doesn’t happen for little old Angola.

I’ve become good friends with the US ambassador to Africa. Aside from the newspapers, he’s my main source of news. For his part, he seems to particularly enjoy coming to Africa and repeatedly tells me that we’re the only continent where things seem to really happening. I’m glad to hear it, and it’s a little odd to realize that I not only have no idea what is happening elsewhere in the world, but I also don’t care – I can’t do anything about it anyway.

The Holy See approach me en masse. They are deeply worried about the Federation, and have heard from other sources that the Federation is splintering away from the other alien races. I tell them the truth – that the Federation has been nothing but helpful to Angola. I take a moment to mentally fact check, and I do note that we have only ever dealt with one alien, in one race. All of our information comes through him. I think maybe I should follow it up, when I suddenly find that Egypt is livid because Angola flew into their airspace without warning, and shot up some aliens.

It’s go time. Our military leaders, who have been improving our armies with horrifying efficiency, are growing restless. They have restrained from needless violence for their entire term, but now we’ve heard (through the Federation – which should have been a warning sign) that the intergalactic treaty has broken down. Any and all aliens in our airspace were fair game. Angola is hungry for technology, and this is by far our best way of getting it. A bomb-shell drops as I get told that the space-cruiser that Egypt is building (with help from their alien friends) is not, as we were told, a tourist ship, but is in fact an intergalactic warship. It’s the last straw. I give the go ahead to mobilize all forces. The military is on board. My ambassadors are on board. The president remains the voice of caution.

We have no proof. It is all hear-say and pent up emotion. I’m trying to convince other countries that we are going to invade Egypt for justifiable reasons, and we want them to come too – we want to blow up that ship because it is just too damn dangerous to have over Africa. And yeah, that tech would be nice too. And, well, Egypt right? They’ve been shifty from the start. Maybe they deserve it. They probably do.

A last ditch meeting is held for Angola. My finger is on the button and I know that if I want to, I can start this whole war or call it off. Our president makes the one brutal point that we’ve kind of been avoiding: we’re metagaming. The real reason we want to invade? Because we know the game will end soon. It’s an ugly truth, and one that convinces us to back down. Yes we want to invade – partially for legitimate in-game reasons, but we also want to invade because we have a big army and it’ll be funny. And that’s not playing WTS any more, that’s just mucking about.

We keep our troops on guard, and spend our time more contained – we share information about the globe (Israel is at Defcon 1, or was. Pakistan had developed an AI, but destroyed it when the aliens threatened to blow up the world) and concentrate on making Angola the best it can be.

As the final horn goes off, someone tells us that the Federation, special space buddies and official allies, had strip-mined all of Angola’s natural resources without us noticing. But it’s game over.

I have no idea what would have happened on the next turn. I think it’s entirely probable that our two Warlords would have been let off the leash, and given the remit to capture and kill every damn alien they could. Cleanse Angola. Which would’ve catapulted us up the alien tech market. It’s just as possible that the Federation might’ve convinced us to stay working with them, and Angola would transcend humanity. I just don’t know. And in in a megagame, especially one on this scale, that is absolutely the point; there is no hard win condition. It can make the game seem blurry in some ways, but leaves it open in others. You go, you live your role for six hours, and then you leave knowing that you were a tiny vibrant dot in a Jackson Pollock canvas 300 people wide.

It was pretty damn awesome.

*

Whew! Take a deep breath. Now that the narrative is out of the way, I think it’s only fair to review the actual experience as a game as well.

My first and most immediate thought is that this was much better than WTS2. I’m aware that my experience of WTS2 was particularly flawed, but I feel the game was more enjoyable for more people all round, not just for me (although it was that too). Having played two very different roles, it becomes apparent just how large this megagame is, and that context is an excellent thing to have. When you’ve spent three hours trying to raise your GDP from ten mega-bucks to twelve, it’s a real jolt to find that some countries had a starting income of 27 mega-bucks. That sense of scale, it’s important. So my main advice to anyone who plays a WTS megagame is that next time, they should play someone very different.

Let’s start with Media! I, obviously, had a vested interest in seeing how it worked this time. As far as I can tell (as a media customer), it worked very very well. I do not doubt it was stressful as all hell, but the newspapers were regular and feature-full, and the twitter account (with board) was a constant drip-feed of information. In short, the media did what they were meant to. I don’t doubt there were rumours and false headlines, damaging spin and bribery. But hey, it’s the news, what did you think was going to happen? I’d be interested to hear some media-player accounts, because my relationship with the press this time round was only as a consumer (and occasional scoop-hunt).

The weakest part of the game was the UN. It’s an interesting one, and I am in no way saying the UN was run badly – quite the opposite. From what I could tell the Secretary General of the UN (Chris White) did a stunningly efficient job. But that’s the thing – it was so efficient in technical turns (basically money farming) that anyone who wasn’t rich, was just wallpaper. While every country could technically raise issues for the agenda, they could equally get entirely belittled or shot down by the Secretary and his cronies (the other major powers who were seated near him. Cronies might be unfair, but it’s how it felt).

I’m aware some of this may have been intentional – after all, that is very probably how the real UN works as well. But it wasn’t fun, or for that matter, interesting. It was boring. And from what I gather, most of the other minor powers felt the same way. I fairly quickly stopped going to the UN, because the time I spent there was tangibly less helpful than time elsewhere. I will concede that it’s possible that the UN game is meant to be a very different one from the rest of events, but every time I went to the UN it was like plunging my head into ice cold water.

It’s also possible that in actuality, the UN can function entirely differently – with arguing and fist-waving aplenty. But I don’t know, I came into the UN on turn five, when everything was very clearly in a pattern. I think to get a better idea, I’d have to know more – I’d be very interested to hear from other UN members/observers to get their views. It’s entirely possible that the UN game was fine, and just not for me, but I’d like to know what others thought.

The other mechanic I’m a little unsure about is the science. Now, Angola didn’t have a scientist and Africa as a whole only had two, and that has to be taken into account. But from what I gather, even Nigeria only saw their scientist for around five minutes a turn. If I had to guess, I would say that in WTS2 there were too many scientists, which led to a lot of loose-ending. In WTS3, it feels like there were too few. Or, more accurately, there was too little contact between the scientists and their team. Scientists were a strange and removed creature, who only occasionally touched base with their team. As with the other points – viewpoints other than mine are really needed for me to see how much or how little this was an issue.

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3 thoughts on “Watch The Skies 3: Tales From Angola (Benevolent Warlords of Africa)

  1. “Yes we want to invade – partially for legitimate in-game reasons, but we also want to invade because we have a big army and it’ll be funny. And that’s not playing WTS any more, that’s just mucking about.”

    Bravo on this one – I feel like I’ve read way too many WTS reports that just had really, really outlandish and ridiculous things happen because one or more people thought it’d be funny to do.

    Between media reporters defeating alien leaders in hand-to-hand combat and corporations joining up and taking over half the world I was starting to wonder if anyone was still interested in actually playing the game, rather than just trying to break it!

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    1. It’s an interesting one. On the one hand, you are right – it’s a fundamental issue (that Jim and co are well aware of) that when people know the end game is coming, they tend to act out a little. I think it generally gets called ‘end game madness’. Players know the end of the game is coming, and so they (often unconsciously) find ways to ‘make the most’ of their time. Basically, people are opportunists.

      But that said, in a game with fantasy elements (i.e. aliens) and so, so many people, outlandish things are going to happen. Sometimes it’s for legitimate (if insane) reasons, sometimes it’s because people think it will be funny, and often for a hundred other little reasons. There’s nothing inherently wrong with people doing that either. People want to have fun, and they have the tools to do so. I think the dividing factor is when something like that then impacts negatively on someone else’s experience that it becomes a distortion in the game.

      So I wouldn’t be too hard on people, because the game is supposed to be a little crazy, and people will think of countless creative ways to do things – and some of them end up being bonkers. That said, in our case it very much was something we were doing because of end game madness – and it would’ve mis-matched with our behavior throughout the rest of the game.

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