“A good chunk of Washington has been destroyed, mister President”
We had been expecting that ever since the ‘crop circle’ that had been burned into the concrete of Washington. When, with Japanese help, we deciphered its meaning as ‘gather Earth’s warriors here’, we didn’t interpret it as a sign of peace. Also, a similar circle had presaged Tokyo’s recent obliteration.
“Did we get everyone out in time?”
“I don’t know yet, we’re still to get the reports on that. It looks like…”. The Vice President of the United States is tapped on the shoulder by the representative of another country. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the same time takes me aside to impart some information. The United States’ top military official impatiently gestures for me to finalise troop deployment, while our foreign secretary wants to know what we can budget for UN efforts to dissuade Angola from developing a weapons of mass destruction programme. All the while I’m politely, but firmly, informing the Japanese that the United States will strenuously defend the rights of our Vice President should they put forward a unilateral UN motion to forcibly quarantine those returning from alien abduction. Their science minister is telling me that a German research effort has discovered that the ‘returnees’ are coming back ‘changed’. I haven’t quite trusted the Japanese since I received reports they were secretly trading research with the ‘Asian Alliance’, an alliance bloc with which the USA and the UK have been engaged in a cold war. Or at least, that’s the best information I currently have to hand.
It’s a stressful five minutes, in a day that was made up of incrementally more stressful minutes. The ridiculously bad American accent I had been affecting from my arrival at the venue is gone. I just don’t have time, or mental capacity, to keep that shit up while all this other shit is going down. Watch the Skies packs several hours worth of work to do in each thirty minute turn. Every minute of Watch the Skies is dense with activity.
It’s hard to do a ‘review’ of something as singular an event as a mega-game session. I’m not going to pretend that this is at all a useful guide for those wondering whether they should attend one of their own. All I can do is offer a partial, confusing session report on Watch the Skies Dundee as it unfolded on October the 8th, 2016. So much of what makes this kind of thing exciting is the energy on the day. It is at core a roleplaying experience with (to a certain extent) mutable rules. If you put different people into the mix, you’ll get an entirely different result.
In the game we played, there were clearly some people that already knew what they were doing – they had the experience needed to really get the most out of the systems. The American Team… well. It was an instructive glimpse into how a Trump presidency would look. It looks like someone gave the Keystone Kops the nuclear launch codes. I went in, theorycrafting my role. I wasn’t sure if I could manage to be Barack Obama, the calm, assured statesman in command of all the facts. I would have settled for Bill Clinton – the affable Good Ol’ Boy wielding geniality as a political weapon. At worst I thought I might be George W. Bush – clueless but with the arrogant public confidence that comes from being in the arse-end of the Dunning Kruger curve.
At the end I think ‘Forrest Gump’ would have been a generous description of my presidential style. The USA had some remarkable successes, including a daring raid on an alien base in Mexico. That provided us with an embarrassment of riches in terms of exciting alien tech which we then gleefully used to build reciprocal research agreements with the UK and Japan.
We were absolutely rolling in research opportunities. We pretty much bumbled our way into that though, and spent a good chunk of the next few turns lying brazenly to the press about the horrendous invasion of a sovereign country. We never bothered to ask Mexico if it minded us engaging in acts of extra-terrestrial warfare within its borders.
I spent quite a lot of my time in meetings with other world leaders reminding them that America categorically reserves the right to act unilaterally in defense of its national interests. I pointed out that our first duty was to the American citizens that paid our salaries. I was gracious when I could be, ensuring that people understood we were acting in the best interests of our friends and allies, and that America was ‘A friend to the world’. It was all a façade to hide, as best I could, that I had absolutely no idea what was going on.
Do you see that picture there, of me shaking hands with the Chinese premier? I remember the hand-shake, I don’t remember anything about agreeing to an alliance. Was that an accurate report from the meeting? I don’t even know. The press in Watch the Skies is a faction all of its own, and journalistic ethics were not particularly in evidence. Rumours were printed as facts, facts were printed as rumours, and American stonewalling and disinformation had resulted in hostilities between our administration and the free press. Hostilities that were gleefully stoked by our friends and allies in the international community.
‘What did you have to do with the Mexico explosions’, I was asked at one point.
‘We have no involvement in any actions in Mexico’, I answered. ‘That had nothing to do with us’
‘To be clear, you are saying America was not involved in the invasion of Mexico?’. The reporter’s eyes drift over to the world map where US troops are all over Mexico.
‘We had no involvement. What explosion?’, I replied. ‘What’s a Mexico?’
At one point the foreign minister of… I don’t even remember where… comes over and demands to know why we have spies in Egypt. What did we find out? Why won’t we share information?
‘We have no spies in Egypt’, I say.
They know we do, because for some reason spying actions are conducted in public on the main map. Or at least, that’s what we assumed on the day. They saw our agents go in. We found a butt-load of aliens there. We smiled politely and backed out. ‘We’ll leave you to this’, we cheerfully announced to the extra-terrestrial presence. ‘Just playing through’
‘We have no spies in Egypt’, I re-iterate. ‘America does not engage in covert observation of its friends and neighbours’. To be fair, that was true for a time because I didn’t want anyone to see we were doing it. I’m still not 100% sure we were using spies properly. When towards the end of the game Japan and Brazil adopted a surprisingly strident ‘pro-genocide’ platform, we deployed spies freely and liberally just to show that we knew what they were up to.
I make that sound like we’d cleverly pieced together evidence. What actually happened was in a summit of world leaders Japan and Brazil had told us they were pro-genocide. They then tried to talk the rest of us into engaging in biological warfare with a vastly advanced and provably aggressive alien species. The USA was opposed in no uncertain terms. We couldn’t stop them acting unilaterally without engaging in war, but we’d have no part in using a bioweapon that Brazil cheerfully admitted had been developed with the use of human trials. We took the moral high-ground there, although my real worry was that it’s almost impossible to release a weapon like that and be sure of the results, especially when it was derived from alien technology. Technology that may have been put there to facilitate our own extinction.
By this point we knew we were facing two factions of aliens – one that was looking to tinker with our genetics, to ‘fix’ the mistakes that had been made with our evolutionary design. The other faction was an exceedingly creepy death cult that viewed noble death through combat as a pre-requisite for spiritual ascension. They had met with Brazil, Japan and the UK and told them that they would continue attacking the warriors of Earth while warriors existed. They had told me when I quizzed them that if we wished to hold off on ascension they would allow us the time to decide on our own whether we were ready to join galactic civilization. According to them, that could only happen through ascension. There was a long pause before that answer though, and the testimony of other world leaders was very much in contention.
‘The only other option would be to multilaterally disarm’, says Brazil, ‘so we have no warriors for them to face’. They’d been trying to get us to give up our nuclear weapons throughout the entire game. It’s amazing how pro-nuke I was once I had them. China and I shook our heads instantly. No way. I had been entirely unwilling to negotiate even a single nuke away during the alien crisis. If ever there was a wrong time to talk about disarmament, it was when we were facing alien forces of unknown intention, but proven aggression. ‘That would be a stunning dereliction of our duty to the American people’ is what I said to – someone. I don’t even remember who.
Our Vice President had met with the other aliens, but at one point during the ‘World-O-Vision song contest’, he and many other people had been abducted. He got sent back almost instantly. That’s why the world wanted him and the other returnees quarantined. For the rest of the game, I wasn’t at all sure he hadn’t been given secret new instructions, such as ‘You’re a Cylon. They look like us now’
That was a bit like being back in a school playground. The rest of the US cabinet debated whether or not to turn him over to UN quarantine. Poor James sat there like a kid in an Enid Blyton book sent to Coventry. We decided ‘no’ in the end. Spliced with alien DNA or not, he was still an American citizen and we would not surrender him to the UN. I went to tell Debbie, our foreign secretary, but she was already in session. Was that to be debated there? Was that going to be voted on? I wasn’t sure of the agenda.
‘Do you have Debbie’s number?’, I asked Carrie, our research scientist.
‘Yes, but she’s in the UN so I can’t call her’
‘Send her a text message. Just say ‘veto’’,
‘She’ll know what that means?’’
A brief pause. A poker face. ‘Sure’
I don’t know if she got the message, or if the quarantine motion was on the agenda. It’s entirely possible I asked her to veto UN support for hurricane relief. Would she have done it without more information? Maybe! After all, perhaps I knew something that she didn’t. Why wouldn’t she trust the president of the United States, other than having seen me in action?
See, here’s the thing about Watch the Skies. It is a game of intensely imperfect information. Absolutely everyone on your team is getting information all the time. That information all has variable reliability. Every country has their own agenda to follow, and nobody’s motives are pure. Events progress quickly. At one point, control is yelling at me about how angry the American people are that we’re letting Russian troops act without US consent in Northern Africa. ‘They think your administration is weak!’
‘We’ve got the situation under control’, I snap back. He storms off, to terrify some other world leader about some other world crisis.
I turn to Pauline. ‘What Russian troops in Africa?’
She shrugs helplessly.
Why were the Russians interested in North Africa? Probably because we were, because we had a spy there. Also, probably because of the reports of US fighter jets massacring Egyptian civilians.
Our spies had told us in no uncertain terms aliens were masquerading as US military forces. It wasn’t us. But public opinion was starting to turn against us, and the international community pressure was intense. We had to act.
As I left a meeting with the UK prime minister, James grabbed me by the arm.
‘I’ve arranged for you to make a statement’
‘Oh, right, fine…’
I’m hauled up to the front stage, and given a megaphone. I turn to James. ‘A statement about what?’, I ask.
‘You’re announcing aliens on Earth, and GNN will be doing an interview with you after it’
I feel sorry for whatever world leader has to do that in the real world, and I hope they have more than a fraction of a second to work out the wording. My recollection of the day is my speech was this:
‘People of the world. The United States is here today to announce that aliens walk among us. They are masquerading as United States military assets in an attempt to frame us for aggression in Egypt. That is categorically not the case. God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America’
What I probably said was:
‘UM. OH GOD ALIENS. BYE’
I honestly don’t remember. It’s all kind of a blur. The manual for WTS says ‘All countries take a public relations hit when the existence of aliens is announced. The first country to do it takes a much larger hit’. It also turns out it really pisses off the international community if you do it without telling them. I apologised to our allies for the unilateral release of the information, but in my defense it took me as much by surprise as anyone else.
This was perhaps four turns into a twelve turn game.
You don’t have the luxury of time. You can’t say ‘Woah, hold on – let’s get everyone on board with this and control the story’. Each turn is only thirty minutes, and there is so much to deal with and so much of it is absolute bullshit. The newspaper printed a correction to the Russian story.
Errata: Russian does not have military troops in North Africa. They are assisting with the UN relief effort. GNN apologises for the error.
You get a regular newspaper digest of stories from the day – in fact, you get about a dozen of them. Some of these stories are fed to them by control, some by other countries, some by aliens, and some I’m pretty sure they made up just for the fun of it. That’s one lens on the world, and you don’t even really have time to read the newspapers as they come out. That’s a shame, because they often contain useful information. As for the GNN_Dundee twitter feed? Haha, are you joking? It’s obvious why real world leaders have people to do their social media for them.
Another lens is through the shadowy ‘control’ players – they’re running the thing. Every so often they come up and ask you frighteningly detailed questions. ‘What did you get from that? How much? Where did you get the money? Who made the decision? Why did you make that decision?’
Every question is a nail into a coffin. HERE LIES: RAMIFICATIONS.
It makes you genuinely jittery. When we were quizzed on the spoils we robbed from the Mexico alien base, we decided we were going to pull all of our troops back into the US. I was convinced there would be an alien counter-attack, perhaps to rescue some of the live aliens we’d picked up. I warned our allies in the UK, because they had come in with us on the attack, and were also the only reason we went through with it. When I found out that what we had planned constituted an act of war against Mexico, I grabbed Pauline. ‘Haul back our troops, don’t do it, don’t send them in’
‘But the UK is already sending theirs in! We’ll be sending them off to die alone’
‘Commit all the troops to this! Send them all in! Oh god!’
The UK was the only ally we had throughout the entire game that I felt we could reasonably trust. They had our absolute support as they negotiated re-entry into the EU (turns out, a second EU referendum had 89% support for rejoining. France were not keen). We backed them up as best we could with research assets. We shared information freely. We even supported them when they blew up the Pyramids at Giza. We couldn’t pull out of the engagement and leave them to take the blame. Or get all that sweet alien tech to themselves. In the end, confused screw-up that it was, Mexico was a stunning US success.
The rest of our international partnerships were not quite so clear-cut. Every turn, a dozen people take you aside and ask ‘What do you know about this?’, and you have to Trump it out. You know nothing, but you can’t let them know you know nothing. ‘We’re still checking up on our information. I’ll let you know when we have something more concrete’. Then you turn to one of the cabinet and say ‘What the hell is happening there?’
And then worse – people don’t come and take you aside and suddenly cold-war levels of paranoia start to take over. Japan had been one of our main allies in the early game. And then they started to cosy up to India. I don’t think India ever came to speak to us, and they were part of the dangerously cosy ‘Asian Alliance’. They had been agitating for membership of the UN security council, which the US was absolutely committed to vetoing. At one point Brazil (I think) asked me to come sit down with the Indian foreign minister to come to an arrangement. Because of Other Things it just didn’t happen. The USA basically snubbed them, and so from that point on every Indian action had to be interpreted in the most hostile way.
Japan came over to us and said ‘We are putting together a research agreement with India, and they have told us the only way it will happen is if we absolutely do not share the results with you. But we’ll share this other research we’re doing, because that’s fine’.
‘Sure, sound good’, I say. Mentally, I think ‘Japan is dead to me’.
We smile, we make polite, but we start cutting them out of discussions. And they in turn do the same. Carrie and the Japanese scientist had been doing wonderful work together. They were the world’s new Watson and Crick. Even as Japan was being frozen out of the UK-US alliance, we had strong scientific links that would take time to chill.
But then you start to notice things. Japan talking to Brazil. Japan talking to Germany. Japan talking to Brazil again. Oh no you don’t Japan, we’re freezing you out. You better not be freezing us out. What’s going on?
There’s such a vast gulf between the information you have available and the information you have time to absorb. That’s nothing compared to the information you don’t have available, but that you know is out there. There is nothing to which you can reasonably anchor your understanding of world events. Everything is murky. Everything is questionable. TRUST NO ONE.
You also need to layer onto this that your team members all have a different subset of the information, obtained from different parties, and often via a complex chain of associations. ‘The Indian foreign minister told the German science advisor that the Russian president…’
If you just had time you could sit down with your team and unpick all this and come up with some kind of Bayesian analysis of truth and reliability. But you don’t. You get about five minutes to sit down with your team, but for the rest of the time people are busy doing stuff. Some are talking to other officials to add more recent unreliable information to the stack of historical unreliability you’re working with. Others are placing military assets with dubious utility to achieve foreign policy goals of unknown importance. Some are off delivering scientific papers and earning research prizes of uncertain benefit. Yet more are off making resolutions on emerging world crises with unknowable long term implications. You’re all acting as best you can, and you don’t have time to confer with each other much less with international allies.
That’s why the USA extended a warm, cordial invitation for one group of aliens to set up a fixing facility in the Rockies, and then shot each and every one of them down when they arrived. Relations… cooled at that point.
If this all sounds confusing and erratic and difficult to follow, it’s only because it is a reflection of my own appreciation of the day. My summing up address made special mention of that – by the end of the event, I was more confused about what was happening than I was at the start. The successes we had were accidental. In the end, I was a case study in what happens when a dangerously uninformed blowhard is put into a position of power in a complex, geopolitical context. Bear that in mind come the election, America.
It was, all in all, a fantastic day. I would very much recommend that anyone that gets the opportunity to attend one of these Watch the Skies Mega-games should absolutely do it. Sure, you run the risk of it falling flat but I think it’s worth taking the chance. So much of it is bound up in the decisions of the day, and the people playing, that satisfaction can’t be guaranteed. There is though a vast dollop of energy injected by the sheer pressure of constant decision making against unforgiving deadlines. It’s the kind of thing that forces you out of your comfort zone, and in the best possible way.
Carrie, our research scientist, was a little uneasy about how much of her role was public speaking and coming up with theories. In the end, she absolutely nailed it – she did America proud, earning two Nobel prizes (I think) and some kind of award for research excellence.
Debbie did phenomenal work as our foreign secretary, smoothing over our many diplomatic bungles and maintaining a hard-line stance on American exceptionalism.
James, our Vice President, was a veritable political Delboy. He was constantly wheeling and dealing, and coming back with pockets full of dirty money obtained by back-alley alien tech deals.
Pauline, our Chief of Defence, was the only one that had any idea as to what America’s military position was, and was constantly sending back an exciting stream of recovered tech for us to play with.
And me? Well, I took some photographs! And spent most of the day looking like I was terrified by what was going on:
I still don’t know if we genuinely did evacuate Washington, or if we just convinced ourselves, and the press, that we had. In the end, that’s all that matters. And oh god, there was the time the aliens told us they had left a cache of advanced technology for the USA. In China. And the mecha-robots. And the fact we got so close to the brink of nuclear war that the entire game was on a knife edge. And! And! And!
Attend Watch the Skies if you can! It is an amazing day.
Other links about the day:
- The Adventures of a Pacifist, Industrialist, Pro-Alien, Mars Explorer: A Slightly Embellished AAR From The Chancellor of Germany, WtS Dundee
- How I lead Russia to Win the World-o-vision Music Contest & Nearly Caused an International & Galactic Incident
- A timelapse from the China table.
- Carrie’s footage from the World-O-Vision Song Contest
- Some photos from a documentary (oh god) being shot on the day