Brutus Rating: 7 out of 10 back-stabbings to the back.
Pairs Well With: Alien-enhanced protein shakes.
We here at the Misery Farm have once been told off by you our loyal readers for doing ‘play through’ style game reviews when it’s only the first time one of us have played a game. This is probably fair, since trying to gain an overall impression of a game while learning the rules and often losing horribly is not particularly easy. So you’ll be pleased to know that we, here, at the Misery Farm, are offering a super-experienced review of Watch the Skies! We have played it twice.
For those who don’t know, WtS is a ‘megagame’ designed to be played by around 50 people. If you think setting up Eldritch Horror or Twilight Imperium is a ball-ache, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Firstly, you need a great big space, preferably with some kind of upper-story balcony and some smaller adjoining rooms. Then you need big maps, and tables, and lots of bits and pieces of game. And lots and lots of tea.
You also need a dedicated team of rules-explainers and –enforcers, who will basically herd the rest of the players to do the right thing at the right time (the Controllers). Usually these are also the organisers, and their state of being during the entire game appears to be one of high anxiety and stress. The first game we played in Southampton was organised by experienced controllers, and even they seemed close to breakdown at all stages. Our poor mates Charlie and Mac who organised the event this weekend didn’t stand a chance.
Teams represent countries, and are usually made up of four players; a Head of State to organise the others and divvy up resources, a scientist to develop exciting tech, a Foreign Secretary to sit on the UN council and hopefully avoid international disaster, and a military guy to explode stuff. Bonus points for dressing appropriately for your nation and role.
Up in the gallery sit the primary antagonists, the Grey Menace/aliens. Sightings have been rumoured for a while, but the public doesn’t know for sure that they exist. These guys might be good, they might be evil, they might be somewhere in between. All you know is that they’re showing up on Earth with alarming frequency, and they have some kind of mission. One final team is the Global News Network (GNN). They basically document what’s going on in the style of an international newsgroup, publishing a ‘newsletter’ as often as possible.
Bright and (very) early on Saturday morning, friends and acquaintances from all over the south of England gathered in a tiny village somewhere in the Oxford countryside for a good old-fashioned game of XCOM meets Model UN. Like the enthusiastic group of nerds that we are, everyone showed up early and eagerly, to the mild annoyance of the organisers who had barely had a chance to lay the flag-decked tables out. The aliens settled down in their balcony hideout, ready to watch the actions of the pathetic humans below them. While the humans obviously hoped for a peaceful outcome, they were not particularly comforted by the aliens’ Sith-Lord-meets-Borg-Queen aesthetic.
Lizzy and Bob were there representing the Misery Farm and, appropriately, playing as the global news team along with their beautiful and masterful ex-Cthulhu-GM Emma. Early optimism and merriment was only slightly marred by the presence of China one table over, who had brought along Durian sweets and were now stinking the place out with their gassy, eggy odour.*
By late-morning the game was in full swing. France was already mildly inebriated from their grape drinks ** while Britain’s main bribery tactic appeared to be biscuit-based.
In the newsroom stress was high. It turns out that pumping out fancy-looking and moderately-highbrow front pages every 45 minutes is not easy. Finding the ‘big stories’ every turn is a particular challenge when heads of state constantly vie for your attention in the hope of increasing their public relations, while neglecting to mention juicier but less marketable stories. Everyone is still denying the existence of aliens, and no amount of coaxing will get the truth out of them.
The USA was particularly guilty of trying to distract us from the real stories (as it is in real life, so it is in Watch the Skies), as in the same turn that they invaded Angola, attacked Madagascar, and publically announced the existence of aliens, they begged for a front-page picture announcing a new Holly-Bollywood film release (Hot Runnings is to be released in 2022, and will feature rising starlet Hannah Hendrix as a functionally-dressed heroine who dreams of Olympic success).
The team were getting pretty excited with our shiny printing press. Bob, ever the organised-one when it comes to avoiding her PhD work, had brought her laptop, a printer and made an excellent (if awkward to fiddle with) template for news stories. Over the course of the day we trotted out eight different editions of the GNN Times, printing out ten copies of each issue and distributing them around the room. By the second issue we even had the genius realisation of how far technology has come when we realised we could actually take photos of things going on in the room and feature them on our papers!
By the afternoon it was more or less chaos around the room world. This is no jibe at the
organisers – it’s pretty much an inevitable result of gathering 50 people in one place and givingthem alien technology. China was selling their babies to aliens, Brazil was trading cows for better, beefier cows, and France sabotaged the British laboratory to stop them getting ahead. Trying to keep up with it all was nearly impossible, and our newsletters reflected this by getting sillier and sillier.
After USA officially and publically declared the existence of alien life even the weather report at the top of our paper went from “Global rain” and “Cloud cover” to “Who even cares anymore?”
Our news-reporting tactics varied from actually occasionally being told about what the hell was happening from a few kind people to sneaking around and trying to eavesdrop for some excellent quotes.
Occasionally we would saunter up to a head of state to ask them what the haps were, and they’d casually reply “Oh yeah, nothing much. Someone just destroyed an alien base in Angola, though.” Which would leave us running back to the desk excitedly to knock Emma off the table and quickly type it all up.
Eventually we were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for … something. We actually don’t know, and nor do the organisers, but it apparently felt like time that we got one. We even managed to snag an interview with the aliens, who convinced Senior Correspondent Emma of their peaceful aims a few minutes before launching a psy-ops mission which made half of Europe believe that entire cities (buildings and all) had been abducted. Probably not the best way to convince us of their sincerity. Brazil, the ‘nice guys’ of the day, were the only team to continue to believe that the aliens were actually peaceful. ‘“Everything probably fine!” –Brazilian President’, shouted the smaller headlines.
As the afternoon was coming to an end, China and the USA got bored and frustrated with the whole affair and not knowing what to do, so decided to nuke Brasilia. The whole room stopped and mouths were agape as the two defence ministers went rogue, and as even their heads of state froze and looked flabbergasted. Their reasons are still unclear, but Brazil was pretty upset considering they’d just built a theme park featuring alien-enhanced beef called ‘Brazil-Land’. When questioned, the USA claimed that it was because the aliens were communists, while China told us to go away as they’d created their own free and independent news media, which had already won 286 Pulitzer-equivalent prizes.
The game works on many levels. It’s role playing, it’s strategy, and it’s highly competitive. Alliances are made and broken as countries try to fulfil their secret objectives, and rumour, hearsay, and espionage tactics threaten to bring the whole thing down at any moment. Your ally from turn one might suddenly turn around and steal your research, or Russia might initiate a bioweapon attack on the aliens under the guise of returning the corpses shot down in air combat. Both of which happened, of course.
All the same, it’s a lot like hard work. The stress is very real and exhausting. Toiling and planning for turn after turn only to fail an important dice roll at a crucial moment is incredibly frustrating. Worst of all, an effective costume pretty much demands high heels, which hurt like Hades after five hours of rushing around looking stern at heads of state.
At the end of the final round small summaries were given, and praise was given out to people in certain positions who had done particularly well. Dr Hates-Dice, Emma’s husband, was lauded as the best president the planet had seen, despite regular gaffes in what he’d said to the press (“We’re all tired and one of us is drunk” being particularly memorable). He had his face in the papers shaking hands with other heads of state twice and had been an excellent negotiator of pacts and treaties.
Meanwhile the overall best country turned out to be… Brazil! Despite having their capital nuked, they’d remained peaceful, resilient and friendly. Particularly to the aliens who, as it turned out, were actually quite nice apart from their anti-human prejudice.
Everyone applauded and collapsed and the wonderful beautiful organisers presented us with some beer which we gratefully crawled to after a hard day’s sky-watching. The beauty of the game continued to unravel for hours afterwards, as people discussed goings-on in different parts of the room across the day. So much happened over so many hours that it was impossible to have any idea of the full extent of what was happening at any one point. You might set something in motion at one point and have no idea of the consequences until hours later.
The first time we’d played Watch The Skies was amazing, this time was even better. Hard work, but amazing. Stay vigilant, humans. The next time it could be you.
*Apparently they tasted like cheese. Good work China.
** Fizzy grape juice in wine glasses.
We apologise for the quality of the photographs in this edition of Misery Farming. Bob’s point-and-click camera had an unfortunate case of early death and so we were forced to rely on an iPhone camera and prayer. We blame Dr Photographer-Friend for forgetting to sign up.