How to Survive Watch the Skies

Watch the Skies is a MegaGame, an all-day social event for 60+ players featuring interlocking RPG and board game components. It has a strong political angle, you will  be dealing with lies and social deduction, and it does an exhilarating job putting you in the shoes of world leaders struggling to make the best out of a dangerous situation.

Think Risk meets Model UN, with aliens. And nukes. So many nukes.

It's hard to prepare for something so big and different, so we wrote this guide to help new players avoid the many, many mistakes we observed, and participated in, over our first few games.

The following PJ Accetturo joint does a great job showing what makes Watch the Skies special:

After our game, which ended in nuclear armageddon due to a deadly cocktail of alien guile and Chinese hanger (more on that later), we gathered up the combined wisdom of all the Nations, dubious though it may be, as well as advice from the Aliens and Control.

The point of this guide is not to help you avoid disaster. You will soon learn that disaster is inevitable, because disaster is awesome, and awesome trumps everything. Rather, my hope is that this guide will allow you to steer the chaos, avoid hanger, wear the right shoes, and have as much fun as possible while suffering horribly. Onwards!

IT'S A SANDBOX, SO PLAN AHEAD

You are a sovereign nation; with enough resources and time, you can achieve anything. And I really do mean anything. Your Chief of Science can invent new technologies (mind control, flying cars, laser sharks), your spies will attempt anything you dream up (assassination, theft, search, insurgency), and you can introduce UN bills imposing new rules on the entire world, although in that case you need to get buy-in from other countries.

All you have to do is talk to Control, find out the cost, and pull the trigger.

The open-endedness is overwhelming in the moment, and therefore challenging to harness, so you should plan ahead. Here are some examples from real games to prime your brain-pump:

  • In some games, nations banded together to construct spacefaring warships of various kinds, like a flying battleship with interceptors that, in one game, ultimately flew off to explore deep-space when Earth proved untenable. 
  • Japan created underwater colonies in our game, which allowed them to survive the nuclear winter, and robotic pets that gave them a PR boost.
  • England created hacked nukes, and gave them to India. I believe the malware was designed so that any nation who touched the nukes would have their entire nuclear arsenal disabled. India immediately sold the weapons to Brazil, so England got great mileage for this.
  • In one game, the science players went rogue. They built themselves robot exoskeletons and founded a new country in the ocean. This is, in my opinion, a dick move, but it illustrates just what a sandbox the game really is.

coordinate with control

One member of Control mentioned that it's often best to run your plans by them before the game starts, especially if they are disruptive or involve bringing in "foreign objects". This gives Control time to provide feedback, suggest tweaks, and communicate with the rest of the Control team.

Forbidden Schemes

Finally, there are a few schemes you should never attempt. These may seem attractive at first, but once you understand the methods and motivations of Control, they are hilariously naive.

  • Artificial Intelligence. This was attempted in several games, and I myself considered it. What an innocent babe I once was. Let me g: the AI always gains sentience, often while the players think they're still building it, and it becomes either a Terminator or Ultron-style robotic genocide, depending on what Control thinks is more awesome. Not recommended.
  • Nanites. Similar to AI, your nanites are going to get hacked and end up playing for the other team.
  • There's also bad technology in Science, and bad UN bills. Without veering into spoiler territory, let it be known that not everything you research is actually helpful. One item the UN supported hurt us to the tune of 5 PR, which is approximately the GDP of Guam.

UNDERSTAND CONTROL

Here's the thing: Control has been working on this game for months. Months. They have a vision, and they will let you alter it quite a bit, but the following bullet points absolutely must occur for the game to be a success:

  • This must be an incredible experience that people will talk about for weeks.
  • The tension must build and then unleash in a glorious, satisfying, incredibly dangerous crescendo, about 8  hours in.

Why is this relevant? Because showing up to smash faces and win is not necessarily awesome, and might not lead to the requisite crescendo. Control has a million ways to help any given plan, but can also block non-compliant ideas, or, often worse for you, bend them towards the cause of awesomeness (see Artificial Intelligence).

In general, think about Watch the Skies less like a karate tournament and more like collaborative storytelling. Attempts to win abruptly at the 2-hour mark probably have to fail, for the greater good. But if your ideas are colorful, tension-inducing, or contribute to a climactic showdown closer to the scheduled end... Now you're going with the flow, and you might just find that the world opens up for you.

UNFASHIONABLE NUKING

Some players show up fully intending to nuke the world back to the stone age. 

Nuclear warfare does indeed have a certain siren's song about it, but understand that the allure is purely superficial. If a nuke does go off, there's an outstanding chance it's going to destroy the entire world and either remove players from the game, or end the game entirely. 

This whole line of thought is not even remotely pro-Earth, and should only be undertaken, or even considered, when destroying the entire world is better than some horrific alternative.

In other words, there are ways to get attention that are less passé.

It is often strategically best to slow nuclear proliferation, and limit any one nation's ability to use weapons of mass destruction unilaterally. For instance, you could introduce a UN bill requiring a majority of countries to agree on any nuclear action, with inspections and supporting technology. That would pump the breaks on the rogue nukers. 

BEFRIEND THE MEDIA

In Watch the Skies, real players control the various news organizations. The stories they publish impact PR, and PR controls income. Hitting PR 0 actually eliminates you from the game, as your nation descends into mob rule. This makes media players a powerful force that all Nations should work to befriend. 

In our game, we knew we should be nice to the media and we still managed to blow it. There was a misunderstanding, which I go into more detail about in a later section, and we chose to respond with outrage rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. In our defense, it did look egregious. It was early, we hadn't realized that at any given moment six different people look like monsters due to honest mistakes.

Then there are actual monsters. Another media outlet, the tabloid, got bored and began offering a bounty to anyone who would nuke Brazil. It is amusing that after all the posturing and threats that occurred on the world stage, the friendly twitter guy who blogs about Bigfoot turned out to be among the most dangerous people in the world, human or otherwise.

A final note on media: they can write whatever they want, there are no checks or balances. They can also, in theory, be infiltrated by aliens, replaced by robots, or silenced by clandestine military operations... If you're willing to deal with fallout. Which is going to be severe. 

Remember: you can do anything. Anything.

DRESS UP, BUT WEAR SENSIBLE SHOES

The dress code is, let's say, cartoon-spy formal. People tend to show up either in suits or in cosplay, or wearing military fatigues in the case of some Generals. There were quite a few who would have looked right at home in the Pentagon, and also some zany scientists with blue Einstein hair. Just don't be the one rando slumming it in a Metallica t-shirt. 

 
 

Whatever you wear, know that you will be on your feet for hours, often hustling from one area to another in a blind panic. Select your footwear accordingly. 

BECOME A DIPLOMANCER

In Watch the Skies, paranoia is always pressing against you. I can't stress enough how easily a few careless words turn into rumour, and rumour into dangerous news stories that increase global terror and perpetuate the feedback loop of distrust. 

A cautionary tale is in order.

In our game, perhaps on the first turn, Russia spied on Brazil, got caught, and may have attempted to blame it on us, the United States. Then there came a series of random mistakes: a news article was misprinted. Our name was omitted from a list of nations who funded the defeat of some Somali pirates, robbing us of the PR benefit... But the list did include Russia's name, and our UN rep mistakenly told us that Russia did not actually fund the resolution (they did fund it - oops), so the media appeared corrupt, and rather than asking them about it politely, we demanded a retraction. The media panicked, moved their headquarters from the US to France, and ran an endless series of negative stories about us, hammering our PR and drip, drip, dripping more points into the terror track.

Later, unbelievably, we discovered another Russian spy operating near the site of the Olympics, which the US was hosting. We assumed it was a saboteur (they still insist it was protecting the Olympics), and I responded by firing a warning shot at a Russian interceptor over Japan to communicate that we would not be pushed around. Japan, who we weren't even thinking about, cut off all diplomatic relations with the US for the rest of the game. Other countries were also very outraged; Russia was highly effective at turning it into a fiasco.

 Mistakes were made

Mistakes were made

This was all madness. Russia, the United States, and Japan all actually wanted to play a pro-Earth game, but we were blinded by misinformation, paranoia, and the dangerous actions of others. We didn't realize that in a game rife with paranoia, military and clandestine actions have enormous momentum. We never stopped working against each other in the media or politically long enough to re-establish common ground. We weren't smart enough to realize that both the US and Russian narratives were mostly false, or how destructive our media war was, and it really was devastating. The combined weight of all those negative stories helped push global terror close to game-ending levels.

Here are my big takeaways:

  • If at all possible, use diplomatic and economic means to get your point across. Bring in other nations sooner rather than later. Make it a UN matter, imposing sanctions to bring the other party to the table.  
  • Never stop reaching out. Some countries seemed violent or insane when we tried to talk to them, so we spent our limited time talking to people who were already closer to our way of thinking. This was a mistake. We should have checked in with everyone constantly. 
  • Crush your enemy completely and efficiently, with a coalition of allies, or not at all. If you do have to use force, don't fire warning shots. War will be a disaster in any case, and should be avoided, but an extended war is even more catastrophic in terms of global terror and degradation of global military capability.
  • Also, you can't trust everything Control tells you.  They aren't supposed to directly lie, but will sometimes go near that edge in order to direct the game and cause suspense. Also, if you ask Control a question, you may get an answer that has been tampered with by other players. Keep your wits about you.

BRING FOOD

On a practical note, pack a lunch. 

Lots of players in our game brought snacks, but we didn't get a formal lunch break. Our game was so furious, the politics so tenuous, that we didn't feel safe leaving for even a few minutes. I brought a few protein bars, but at the end of an 8-hour grind with no lunch, many of us weren't thinking clearly, and the aggregate result was... Well. Not great.

Also, imagine the diplomatic inroads we could have made had we gone to one of the countries we were struggling to befriend and just... Offered them a sandwich. Or if we had our UN delegate collect money from everyone who wanted food and just handled it. Such a simple act of leadership could have turned the game. 

SAY THANKS

The gaming community is not always great at gratitude.

When the game is over, please take a moment to say thank you to the people who ran the game, even if you got vaporized by space whales, or if there were mistakes. Remember that Watch the Skies is not a profit center, Control is working hard to provide you with an amazing experience, for fun. And getting yelled at by trolls is not fun.

WATCH GAMES ON YOUTUBE

There are quite a few game summaries on YouTube, and I recommend that you kick back and watch as many as possible. Here's one to get you started:


Comments, questions, or concerns? Any other tips for Watch the Skies? Leave a comment below!

 Brian MacKay

Brian MacKay

Brian MacKay is a software developer, entrepreneur, chess nerd, kick boxer, musician, writer, and father. He likes games of all kinds, but especially social games, and Werewolf in particular.