Saturday, 28 March 2015

Watch the Skies

About a year ago I watched the now (in)famous video  posted by those lovely people over at Shut Up & Sit Down.

Well after that I had to dive on in and give this Megagame lark a go. So when a good friend who I’d sent to video to, stated that he wanted to organise for us to go along, I jumped at the chance and successfully convinced my partner to join in too. We’re all big boardgames fans, and this just seemed perfect for us.

A few weeks before the event we found out we'd be joining with some other people to play as the United States of America. While most teams had five or six players, we fielded a staggering 15. This was not going to be easy.

I'd been cast as the US Secretary of State, so I'd be playing the diplomatic game, furthering the US’s goals by dealing, hoodwinking or darn right threatening the other countries of the world. Sounds fun. To help me I had a whole Diplomatic Corps with an Ambassador to every global region and an extra one dedicated entirely to the UN. My partner would be the Ambassador to Africa and another two of our group would be the Ambassadors to East Asia and the Americas respectively. One of us was playing the Secretary of the Navy and finally the last member of our circle of friends was the President.

So playing a serious nation clearly meant power dressing so we suited up (or uniformed up in the case of the Secretary of the Navy) and as a way of bonding all of us on Team America together I bought us each a US flag lapel pin.

So the scene is now set, what happened then? The answer: pretty much everything.

To tell the whole tale is impossible, so instead I shall tell you some of the stories that I was involved in or happened to witness. There are plenty of posts all over the Internet telling tales of the year's 2020 and 2021, this is my story:

Part One: A Two State Solution

The US Ambassador to the Central region approaches me saying that the Prime Minister of Israel wants to discuss something important. It's only turn two and it looks like I'm already going to cut my teeth on that perennial of US foreign policy, the Middle East, yay! So off I go.

In a quiet corner of the room the Israeli Prime Minister tells me in hushed tones that Israel is short of funds, the government 's PR is low (as the result of an ongoing crisis in Greece, more later). However despite all this, after years of bloodshed, he wants to do something amazing, he wants Israel to create and recognise an Independent Palestine. In the long run he believes it can break the cycle of violence and bring peace in the Middle East. (With talk of flying saucers and strange happenings the world over, it's clearly time for humanity to band together).

To do all this he desperately needs cash, mainly for the massive PR exercise to convince the Israeli people of the good this can bring, and maybe a few extra megabucks to keep the hardliners and the orthodox Rabbis from derailing the whole thing.

Well this certainly sits well with the aims of the US State Department, a chance to settle the Middle East question once and for all would be a chance worth taking, but the money asked for ($12M) was ...... a lot. We couldn’t give that kind of cash, the Senate would be demanding my head! But this was a chance to be seen to be helping in major world events (a goal for us in our team briefing).

Thus I went back to the President to talk it over (I like to imagine in the White House rose garden). I proposed that we give the Israeli’s some financial aid: in return we’d ask that the US aid be reported as the enabler of this peaceful initiative. In addition we would ask for the Israeli’s to gift us alien technology. At this time I didn’t know if they had any or not, but it was worth a punt.

The President made his decision, $5M in aid for the terms above. Back I went to the Middle East, with the cash secretly in my jacket pocket, to try and strike the deal. All of a sudden I got wary, were we (I) being played?

Was this money really for something else, not for peace, but to be ploughed into researching some esoteric technology, or worse was it to mobilise the IDF in a last ditch attempt to force a bloody conclusion to the Greek Crisis? Could I trust them, I didn’t know, worse still if they broke their word what could I do? We could go to the press, but we’d look like fools.

I weighed up the offer and the risks, I was pretty confident they wouldn’t mobilise against Greece, their forces could probably win, but not without serious losses, and a weakened IDF would leave Israel vulnerable to the machinations of Iran.

However I couldn’t see anyway to guarantee the money would be used as stated, I’d have to take the Israeli’s at their word, and hope that the idea of angering their main ally would be seen as political suicide. I could be even less certain that they would ever honour the tech transfer agreement. I was taking a gamble on this one.

So the deal was put on the table, hands shook in some back room in Tel Aviv, the money transferred and promises made. How would this end, how would Secretary Week’s first big international effort be remembered by the historians?

Thankfully Israel was true to its word, Palestine was born, there were parties in Ramallah, and tearful Palestinians embracing the withdrawing IDF troops. The US help was mentioned in the press release, which didn’t get much attention for the rest of the world, but hopefully helped the US PR rating. I glanced at our track a few turns later, and it certainly had moved up, maybe in part to this.

The tech part of the deal took a while to realise; I made a few reminders to the Israeli PM, who tried to bluff a bit, but having timed my arrival perfectly catching him with a handful of tech cards, disarmed him somewhat. Eventually I believe some basic artificial intelligence was gifted to the US scientists.

This felt good, I’d achieved something, and not been made to look stupid. I’d gained a good rapport with Israel, which would come in handy very soon.

Part Two: Mare Nostrum

So as mentioned above, early in the game, it was revealed that the Greek government has been ousted by a Military Junta, who in a populist move, had forcibly nationalised the Cypriot oilfields, and based troops in Cyprus. This in game was having the effect of costing Egypt, Israel and Turkey $2M a turn in lost revenue.

Early on I’d asked our UN ambassador to try to get a UN resolution on this, but either there hadn’t been agreement or sanctions were not working. I’d also asked our NATO allies in Europe if they need US assistance in the situation, and after a lot of mixed signals they told us that they had a plan, and that they’d call on us if needed.

This distrust was caused mainly by the US team deploying US forces in their respective real world deployments, such as the 6th fleet based in the Mediterranean. The European countries seemed to think we were attempting to muscle in on them, rather than provide a bulwark against a resurgent Russia getting any ideas of sending the 1st Guards Tank Army through the Fulda Gap, while southern Europe looked increasingly unstable.

Anyway I digress (but only because the little details of this game is what made the stories we all told together all the more fun).

After a few turns Europe had failed to make any headway, and the three affected countries were talking of launching a joint operation to at least take back Cyprus, if not solve the Greek question once and for all. The Israelis approached us and asked for support.

I told them that under no terms would be mobilise the 6th fleet to support them in their actions; it risked further damaging our relationship with Europe and the rest of NATO, as well as potentially angering the Red Bear to the east. However I promised that I would put pressure on the alliance to solve this problem swiftly.

The chief of the IDF did not look happy, telling me that the countries governments would collapse if something wasn’t done, and that they’d go it alone if they had to.

I suspected this was a bluff, but I told him to give me the chance to try to do something to reduce the pain for the 3 nations involved.

After a whistle stop tour of the continental United States, Europe and even Russia, I put together a $12M aid package ($4M for each country, effectively giving each country two turns where they’d be insulated from the Greek crisis), and telling Europe that it had to get this sorted, as it was in danger of collapsing governments in regions that had decidedly less than happy terror tracks. (The contributions were $5M US, $2M from Russia, $2M for the UK, $2 for France and $1M for Germany, credit where credit is due, and a positive press release was of course put out).

The money was welcomed, and maybe averted a war. The nations were looking pretty desperate and desperate men/women do rash things.

Either way it brought the Mediterranean down from boiling point so a slow simmer for a few turns.

Credit for this is also due to the US Ambassadors to the Central and the African regions, for respectively negotiating this deal and calming down Turkey and Egypt, while I spoke to the Israeli’s.

The Greek crisis it turns out would continue until the end of the game, with a civil war breaking out, UN peacekeepers going in, and a joint Italian/Turkish invasion of Cyprus. So much for Europe dealing with its problems alone!

Part Three: High Level Talks

I was hanging around the US table, talking with the President discussing the very few facts we’d managed to learn about the alien presence around the Earth. Russia had just gone public with regards to their existence; we were very worried that they knew a lot more than we did.

Suddenly a minor celebrity walked into our midst. Matt Lees, sorry the President of Japan, had come over for a chat. He spoke of his worry that although the aliens were seemingly trying to communicate in peaceful terms with the developed nations of the world, at the same time there ships were regularly violating the airspace of the world’s poorer nations, causing massive panic across Africa, and Asia.

He opined that this was some sort of tactic to keep us distracted until it was all too late. His suggestion was a closed meeting of the world’s major countries to discuss openly what they knew of the aliens and to start to present some kind of united front against them.

Well this all sounded very sensible, and maybe I was a little star struck, but I was keen to get behind this. Especially as we got the feeling we knew very little about the aliens, it could at that point be summed up as follows:

· France could translate their language

· The Germans had developed a way to communicate effectively with the aliens.

· France and Germany were in a joint process of arranging a meeting with the aliens and we’d been promised that our European Ambassador could attend.

· The aliens had stolen all the cats from South Africa.

· The aliens were clearly very interested in Africa for some reason.

· The Indonesian government was riddled with alien influence, we’d sent agents in and gotten that information and a fair bit of alien tech, but had no idea why they we’re interested in Indonesia.

· There was probably more than one alien faction, and they appeared to have different goals,

· We’d received a message that read, “Nice Orb”, but that as far as I knew we hadn’t responded or at least been successful in doing so.

No this meeting had to go ahead. The President agreed, and we shook Matt’s hand, telling him we’d be there and we’d get as many of the major nations to attend. Off I went to play ‘international diplomat’ again.

Before I left on Air Force 2 (or whatever the Secretary of State gets to ride on) I’d discussed with the President that we’d have to give the impression that we had information to share in order to at least get the meeting to happen. So I spun the Japanese PM’s story, only with a bit of a US centric twist and hinted that we were very worried about recent ‘developments’ that our ‘sources’ had ‘found out’*.

*read instead as we don’t know anything about these ET’s as we’d like you to fill in the blanks.

We did give the credit for the initiative to the Japanese’s PM (I think a star’s seal of approval helped sway people with this: “Hi I’m Matt Lees and I endorse this diplomatic initiative”!)

Anyway it seemed to work, and later that turn the world leaders (US, China, Russia, France, UK, Germany and Japan) met in a corridor and hashed out what they knew and a course of action.

Thankfully the US came off with some credibility as our spy’s had just learnt of an alien mining operation at the South Pole: this lead to the plan to get the UN to tear up the Antarctic treaty in order to send a multi-national task force to flatten the place. This went ahead with the security councils blessing, and turned out extra well when the US forces managed to arrive at the base first and loot the place before it ‘self-destructed’.

The meetings occurred for a few more turns, I was pleased with this effort: it had certainly helped our situation with regards to what we knew about the aliens.

I didn’t actually attend the meetings (I wasn’t a head of state) but I’m sure a few more interesting tit bits came out of it that I’d have love to have heard.

Part Four: Ayatollah Strangelove: or how I stopped worrying and learnt to love the fact that IRAN HAS NUCLEAR WEAPONS… wait?!!?!

Throughout the game I’d had a steady stream of messages from the CIA (control) that Iran had at first, restarted its Nuclear programme in secret, later that it had a nuclear bomb, and finally that the Australians had gotten the bomb and most likely bought it off the Iranians! I had passed this information on the president and I know that other people on the team were making efforts to deal with this. I’d even gone to give the Aussies a stern telling off from Uncle Sam for being naughty and getting Nukes (THEY’RE NOT TOYS!).

Apparently they’d bought on to strap to some homemade space missile to blow up some asteroid heading to earth; Bogans! If they really wanted a nuclear warhead you could have asked us for one! So I mouthed off about if it really was for ‘the good of all mankind’ that they wouldn’t mind me getting the UN to agree to send in observers to make sure they weren’t secretly going to use it to irradiate New Zealand (and 40 million sheep) if they beat them at the Rugby.

I don’t know if the UN did ever send in observers, I to be honest only half-heartily mentioned it to the Chinese foreign minister and my UN Ambassador, world apparently had bigger issues!

Anyway I wasn’t really dealing with Iran and the bomb (weirdly I’d come to accept them having it and selling it to whoever pays?), but late in the game my Central region ambassador Craig mentions that the Central regions are planning to form an alliance (including Israel!) but that the other powers wanted Iran to give up the bomb. Iran was in principle happy about this, but wanted money as compensation, and to give the weapon to a non-nuclear 3 rd party to dismantle.

So once again around the world I go, talking to the permanent members of the security council, trying to build up a fund to compensate them and accepting Brazil's offer as a 3 rd party to take the nuke (apparently they were Iran’s choice, I suspected that Pope and his new Brazilian friends might be behind this, but for what end?).

Money was not forthcoming, even with the US pledging $3 of the $9M that we were going to offer. However the UK came to the rescue offering to give the Iranians Ultra Efficient Solar Energy as compensation. Iran was; thankfully, open to this, and the permanent members seemed happy with the deal, provided UN observers ensured that Brazil dismantled the bomb.

So I tell Adie my UN Ambassador to draft the resolution and get it passed. Off to the UN he goes and then all hell breaks loose.

Part Five: Why the Whales came

The room comes to a halt as it is announced that the UN has been abducted by one of the alien factions mid-session. Oh well there goes a chance of lasting peace in the Middle East; seriously aliens DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW LONG HUMANITY HAS BEEN TRYING TO SORT THIS S**T OUT!

An emergency meeting of the heads of state/ foreign ministers is called. Reports from various countries representatives sending out final text messages on what’s occurred are read out. Europe claims that it had all been arranged, but that the offer was meant to be a voluntary trip to the aliens, not a forced abduction. One of my ambassadors taps me on the shoulder and whispers that the President has just learnt from the Japanese PM that whales are sentient creatures.

I pull the Japanese Defence Minister aside and ask him to elaborate. He (Quinns of Shut Up and Sit Down fame) levels with me (in front of their camera) that yes the whales are sentient creatures, and that one of the alien factions, called the Imperium, has demanded that the world stop it’s genocide against them. Also Japan suspects they might be behind the abduction of the UN. I exclaim back that “good, at least we know their agenda”. Clearly ever the diplomat, this is all I care about, leverage, the angle, what it is that they want!

So this leads the unforgettable moment of the world leaders lining solemnly behind the Prime Minister of Japan as he issues an apology on behalf of all humanity for the genocide of the Whales, and that no more will man hunt Cetacean.

So with the UN still not returned (apparently the aliens had tried to, but no one told the Germans, who promptly attacked the returning ship), a highly illegal temporary Security Council was formed from the permanent members (of which I attended on behalf of the US).

I’d received information that the UN Council were OK, and being treated fairly, this was confirmed by the UK who had an agent (007?) aboard the craft. Finally we managed to convince the French not to launch a rescue mission with their Space Marines (where had they got those from and also surely they should be called ‘Fusiliers Marins de Espace’ (Naval Fusiliers of Space), which just sounds so much better).

Anyway that sorted, there were other matters: Iran, lets vote on that, passed, aid for the Sudan, passed.

The next one is tricky: Ukrainian rebels have kicked off again and Russia is helping them. I call on NATO and Russia to demobilise all armies in Eastern Europe so we can talk it out. China backs us, and the European and Russian representatives get ready to go back home and to try to calm their Generals down.

It’s at that moment we’re informed that the Japanese ambassador demands to be let into the chamber. Apparently Tokyo has been obliterated by a bolt of energy descending from the Heavens (just as apparently the Whales were gathering in Tokyo Bay to celebrate peace with the human race). Apparently a race of aliens called the Republic is responsible for the attack (the whale loving Imperium alien faction has informed us). On top off all this I hear reports of massive energy discharges in orbit, the aliens appear to be firing on each other, and humanity is trapped in the middle of some galactic conflict powerless as terawatts of energy fly over our heads. I feel the adrenaline rush through my blood; I seize the chance to act.

I declare to the Security Council that we need to act as one, broadcast a message on all frequencies, and translated into the alien language. We shall ask all alien factions who share our revulsion at the senseless obliteration of Tokyo to meet us, a joint council of world leaders, here on Earth. The meeting must be public, and we demand they tell us what it is we are trapped in the middle of. The council appears to be listening to me, and seem to be encouraged.

We go back to our respective nations, the French appear particularly open to the idea. We decide to take a vote next turn to try to agree to make an address.

On my return to US soil I inform the President (who looks white with worry), he in agreement, but tells me that Russia is now at war with NATO. While we were in session Russian tanks rolled into the Ukraine, Poland mobilise and Germany feels it has no option but to go in. Russian and German forces grind each other to a bloody stalemate and the leaders of NATO try to get the Russians to back down as forces allied forces (including our own) pour into Germany ready to roll east. Europe is on the brink. The President informs me that the US has gone to DEFCON 2 in response to the destruction of Tokyo, but gives me permission to try to get the temporary UN Council to send a joint message of peace to the aliens.

The Russians look like they’re thinking of backing down, but news of the US move to DEFCON 2 worries them. I try to talk them down, saying it’s in response to the aliens attack on Tokyo, not their actions in Eastern Europe, but warn them that they must withdraw, or SACEUR has the President’s authority to launch an attack east: they look worried.

At that before turn 10 can start the game ends……….

Note: I will say at this point the US Defence Chiefs had learnt that the Russians had (allegedly) lost half their nuclear codes (and leaked it to the press!) due to their representative at the UN being abducted, and thus apparently couldn’t launch. There was talk going round of the US launching a full nuclear strike on Russia, as apparently a nuclear war was now ‘winnable’. Had the Russians not withdrawn from the Ukraine in turn ten then there was serious talk from the Hawks on our team of attempting to finish off what 1989 had started. Proof if any that all Generals are mad! Thankfully I think that had turn 10 happened the Russians would (I hope) have backed down.

I’d also have loved to try to attempt to broadcast the message to the aliens. (I’d have attempted to do so even without the backing of the Security Council), but I think the level headed diplomats were behind me on this one.

Anyway these are all what ifs.

At this point I think I began to slump in a chair, exhausted.

Part Six: Operation Goodwill

This bit is out of chronological order, as I wasn’t involved directly in this story, but two of my team (the Ambassador to Africa and the Secretary of the Navy) were. I think its pure brilliance so I’ll share it with you.

They’d both been helping the African nations for a few turns with US Interceptors to stop alien incursions. However the African terror track was high and all the player nation’s PR ratings were low (limiting their income each turn, as well as risking the collapse of the governments). No matter what we did to help them, all our successful interceptions just gave us a bonus to our PR that we really didn’t need.

So whilst helping the African nations fend off the aliens and crushing a super-insurgency by a faction that they jokingly named ‘ISIS-Boko-Harem’ (*shudders to think of that alliance in the real world*), they forged a plan with the control player at the table. (I paraphrase below)

“What if we paint our interceptors in the colours of the African countries? Would they then get the PR from the interceptions?”

“Errr, I’m not sure if you can do that”

“Sure we can, paint exists, and the African colour schemes aren’t exactly secret, look this one’s painted green” *Points at Nigerian Interceptor*

“Errr OK, for $1M a turn you can do it”

Thus Operation Goodwill is born, US interceptors are painted in Nigerian colours (but still crewed by brave US airmen and women), and started flying successful intercepts, gaining PR for Nigeria (the only country to take us up on this offer), this steadily helps there PR rating climb back up, increasing their income and stabilising there government . We’ll conveniently overlook the fact that the Nigerians crashed one of our Interceptors right into an alien craft, an effective, but somewhat unsustainable tactic.

I just wanted to share this as a brilliant little story (and bit of game play) from the day that helped maybe just a tiny bit.


There are so many stories from the day that I missed out on, and all the above is just my own recollections and they may or may not be reliable. Most of the day is a blur.

But it’s a happy, stressful, adrenaline fuelled blur with a cast of hundreds. It’s a shared story that I can never hope to fully understand, but one that will remain with me a long time.

At least until the tales I tell of Watch the Skies 3 blows it out the water.

Yes the game wasn’t perfect, yes I part of me wished I’d had more interaction with the aliens, but the scale was so vast that it was a testament to the organisers that it ran as well as it did, I’m sure having seen all the feedback and chatter on the Internet over the past few days that lesions are being learnt and put into practise as we speak.

However none of this really matters to me, because I if it isn’t clear I had a tremendous amount of fun with a bunch of strangers, and that is gaming (of any form) at its best.

Thank you everyone so much for an incredible, amazing day.


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