(Written by Glerren Bangalan)
The year is 2021. As the leader of a global superpower, you find yourself in a dilemma: to either form an alliance with another superpower and share all your hard-earned scientific intel, or to refuse and be at the receiving end of half of the world’s military force. Either way, the aliens are definitely coming.
Welcome to the world of Watch the Skies!.
Presenting the brief
A game of superlative proportions, Watch the Skies! was created in 2014 by Jim Wallman, a member of Megagame Makers which is a group of good-natured individuals who have been designing and running large-scale multiplayer games for fun since the early 1980s in the UK.
But what is a megagame, anyway? A couple of clicks on Google Search would tell you that it is a growing genre of multiplayer games. According to the Watch the Skies! website — a slice of the internet that frankly looks like a preserved artifact from the early days of dial-up and simple HTML — a megagame features teams that are organized into a set hierarchy, and a “dynamic game narrative created entirely by emerging gameplay between players”.
In the case of Watch the Skies!, teams are assigned to represent various countries — namely the three superpowers USA, China, and Russia plus the UK, France, Japan, and other prominent countries depending on the number of participants — and they are tasked to navigate and resolve a number of issues with each other all while keeping tabs on the looming alien threat. Think of it as boardgaming meets LARP (live-action roleplay) with a dash of politics and the extra-terrestrial.
“It’s essentially a simulated UN Council... with sci-fi elements,” Jay Mata, Managing Director of Ludo Boardgame Bar & Cafe succinctly describes it.
But make no mistake about it, Watch the Skies! is not created for casual gamers; it is the type that requires you to jump in headfirst regardless if you know the parachute will work or not. To quote an early media coverage, it is where “players are free to do whatever as long as they accept the consequences of their actions.”.
More on the nitty-gritty
For each team, the individual members are called to play different government leadership roles such as Head of State, Head of Foreign Affairs, Chief of Defence, and Chief Scientist. Each is responsible for attending to their respective tasks and then cascading the information to the remaining contingent. This doesn’t even cover yet the teams that represent the aliens, plus the world media who both have their own guidelines to follow. And all in the middle of this is the control team, who act as umpires to bring at least a semblance of linearity to the game.
With a standard of 12 turns spread over nearly 8(!) hours of gameplay, each turn is meant to be balanced between planning, implementation, and coordination with everybody else. With so many things happening at once, it is almost impossible, like in real life, for everyone to know everything.
A review of the recon
This chaotically wonderful game first found itself on the streets of Manila last May courtesy of Ludo Boardgame Bar & Cafe. “I was intrigued by the whole concept,” Mata explains. “As far as we knew, it’s never been done before in the Philippines, and yet it has been running in the UK for years! It works out since we’re constantly looking for new gaming experiences to introduce to the community.”
Thanks to establishments like Ludo, there has been increased awareness and interest on tabletop games in the past couple of years. However, Watch the Skies! proves to be on a different level of tabletop altogether with its complexity. So how did Ludo get people to come?
“Whenever we market our events, we find that we get the most success by establishing a narrative rather than the specific mechanics, so we encouraged people to imagine: ‘Aliens exist and they are causing trouble.. how would you lead your nation through this crisis?’ People are more likely to accept complex rules when they are invested in a narrative.”
With the success of this run along with its sequel (there was a follow up event last June), Manila has definitely not seen the last of megagames. There are already other events in the works (Samurais! Ninjas! Zombies!) but if you are keen on practicing your diplomacy and alien comprehension skills, then you better keep your eyes peeled.