The former Russian President pours me another glass of vodka. We may be in a bunker deep beneath the Kremlin but I can still hear the chaos occurring in the War room. Raised voices, hot tempers. One voice, louder than the others, is a voice I recognise... our warmongering Defence Chief.
“RUSSIA WILL LAUNCH THE NUKES NOW!”
Untold devastation wrought upon the world and it’s all our fault. The former Russian President looks on, shaking his head slowly.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Tovarisch. Not like this.”
It was a rainy, Sunday morning, as 60 of us gathered in the Giant Dwarf theatre. A Sydney venue set up by the team behind the Chaser that had already played host to many fantastic comedy shows starring comedians from all around Australia, today it was hosting a very different event.
As everyone milled about in the lobby, wearing suits, lab coats and nationalistic headwear, there was a genuine sense of excitement. We were like actors about to perform only we had no idea what to expect on stage. To some, that might seem daunting but that’s what ‘Watch The Skies!’ is all about.
‘Watch The Skies’ is what’s known as a ‘Megagame’, a giant role-playing board game experience with a vast number of people. The event organisers are no strangers to the concept, having held several large scale zombie apocalypse megagames over the last couple of years under the name Zedtown. It’s about taking a game with very specific rules and then combining that with a bunch of adults playing dress ups.
I know what you’re thinking. Role-Playing… Board games… Lots of ‘nerds’... And you’re right, it DOES sound awesome. This would be the first time that ‘Watch the Skies’, originally created by English game creator Jim Wallman, had been played in Australia and only the third time it had been done in the world. Dubbed as the model UN… but with aliens the game was about playing the role of a country dealing with the crisis. As Russia our team hoped to work with the rest of the world to make peace with the aliens if they were friendly and help push the off Earth if it turned out they weren’t. It’s safe to say, as far as diplomatic responses, go things probably could have gone smoother.
Despite how most people view Russia, our efforts so far are nothing short of noble. Our Foreign Minister is busy in the UN, arguing restraint. Our President, a figure of disheveled dignity, is wasting no time in bridging the gap between the other nations. The Prime Minister is boldly handling the press, although with a Soviet Union hat and Tsarist Faberge egg necklace, it’s hard to tell where her allegiance actually lies. Either way, we’re breaking new ground for Russia and nothing can slow us down.
“RUSSIA HAS JUST INVADED UKRAINE.”
Hunching over the war room map, the Russian Defence Chief looks every bit the military Tzar. Clad in full military attire, he surveys his domain with the stern gaze of an unforgiving despot, his eyes burning with wrath and destruction. I begin to sense he may be a problem. He doesn’t seem to think anything is wrong. “Land was already ours. Now world knows you not take from us.”
David Harmon, the evil genius behind this rendition of ‘Watch the Skies’ began proceedings with a mission briefing. Like any game, there are of course rules. The game lasts 8 hours, split into over a dozen different rounds and simulated events, like UN summits and science conferences.
Every country had a team and its own government and each player’s job was to play the members of government for their team fulfilling a specific role. After a short briefing led by the President at the countries private table everyone would scatter. The foreign minister would attend meetings with other delegates in a curtained off area of the venue representing the UN, the defence ministers would huddle around a huge map in the middle of the room moving armies around, the Prime Minister ran the economy and the President would lead. As Russia’s chief scientist I was tasked with heading the countries research and attending scientific conferences with the world’s other scientists, again, in a private space in the building. But doing your job was just a part of the overall ‘performance’.
We’d been preparing to play as Russia for a while. Each of us had our assigned characters and we’d spent weeks planning back stories and team objectives. I’m sure that seems absurd to some. I definitely had difficulty trying to explain to colleagues and family members that I was spending half the weekend pretending to be a Russian scientist.
Looking around the room, you can see the different ways people have chosen to get into character. Most of the French government are wearing berets, walking around with a plate of pastries (Which we politely refused, in case they were poisoned). The UK, like us, committed to full accents. Their Prime Minister expertly channelled Churchill; a tall, barrel chested man in a sharp, three piece blue suit, wielding a tobacco pipe like he was born to do it. His level of commitment to character was so intense; you could see the enthusiasm of other players rise just from being in his presence. He was like a role-playing Dalai Lama, spreading nerd karma wherever he went.
Of course, the nerd karma affected everyone in different ways. In the weeks leading up the event, my girlfriend agonised over the role-playing aspects of the game. She had years of experience with model UN’s but drastically less experience with a Russian accent. And yet halfway through the game, embezzling funds from our team and selling resources to China. The paper monopoly money lining her pockets didn’t even seem to serve a purpose in the game. I asked her why she’d done it.
“Well, in my character backstory I went bankrupt funding my election campaign. So… You know, I needed money.”
That sums up ‘Watch the Skies’ for me. It’s a game where you find yourself doing things simply because it seems to make sense. Once you’re immersed in that world, there’s no escape. You’re trapped within the walls of your own fiction.
I’m not sure if it’s our erratic actions or our insistence on talking with accents that made us sound like ‘Crazy Uncle Vlad’. There’s also a possibility it has something to do with the global press conference we just made, where we announced the existence of Aliens and blamed it on France and Japan.
Either way, for some reason the other nations are no longer trusting us. So we have to turn to the only potential allies we had left… The Aliens. Since they’re mostly hidden from public eye, we have to correspond with a series of notes.
“Russia wants to talk.”
10 minutes later, a message from the aliens.
Okay, so that’s a fairly ambiguous response. Either the aliens are screwing with us or the concept of intelligent life existing beyond the stars needs redefining. This process could take a while.
“Russia wants to prove their loyalty. Give us a target.”
Another 10 minutes pass, then a note.
“Roswell, New Mexico.”
As we enter DEFCON 5, I learn firsthand that when you announce you’re launching a nuke into the centre of America, people get kind of pissy about it. All hell breaks loose.
China is screaming the rules at our Prime Minister. “The global panic level will rise. YOU’LL RUIN THE GAME!”
The US Secretary of State grabs the Russian President by the shoulders, pushing him against the wall and shouting “Why are you doing this? WHY?”
The Russian Defence Chief is grinning hungrily, his hand poised over the launch button. All he needs is the President’s authority and he’ll have the nuclear war he’s clearly dreamt of.
A few scientists are looking at me, pleading for sanity. I just shrug, as if to say “Eh, we’re Russia. What did you expect?”
Every member of the team is so busy with their own duties and responsibilities that you barely get any time together as a nation. I think I spent more time standing in an awkward circle in the corner of the room with a bunch of pretend scientists than I did with the friends I arrived with. I’d shown up with the full intention on being a mad scientist. If I could somehow manage to crossbreed an army of alien-human hybrids over the course of the game, that was mission accomplished as far as I was concerned.
A key part of the game is loyalty and trust. You have allegiance to your own country but at the same time, you’re supposed to be working with other players to find a diplomatic solution for peace. The world’s scientist were sharing all their research and pooling their resources. I, on the other hand, was hiding all my research so I could try and build a sweet alien doomsday weapon.
But the longer I spent with the other scientists, who very politely tolerated my intermittent Russian accent, the more I just began to feel like a bit of a dick. Why was I plotting against these guys? They genuinely wanted to help humanity. In fact, my team was waging war and threatening nuclear action. Maybe I’d chosen the wrong side?
“The scientists are planning on leaving earth.”
I’m briefing the President. He looks considerably more dishevelled than he did a few hours ago.
"Can they do that?”
“They’ve been in contact with aliens, apparently they’ve been allowed to create a peaceful science colony on Mars.”
The President looks lost in thought, concerned. I was actually about to resign as Russia’s Top Scientist, to renounce my allegiance to Russia and join the scientific expedition. But now, looking into the face of the man I call my leader, I’m not so sure. He’s tried to do the right thing, all along. It’s not his fault our Defence Chief is a war hungry psychopath.
“What if… they didn’t leave?”
The President raises his eyebrows.
“What if we invited the scientists over to Russia… then held them hostage?”
A thin, sly grin from the President and a curt nod says all it needs to.
Jumping between the tables, notepads in hand were representatives of the GNN, or Global News Network. Volunteers who showed up today to represent the ‘world’s media’, going as far as to publish a newspaper between turns and even set up and run a news website all to make the game seem more real. They may seem friendly but we learnt pretty early on that they are pure evil. They represent a core mechanic of the game, that is, popularity. Everything you do in the game, the actions you can make, the resources you earn, is governed by how much people like you. And the GNN can make that very difficult.
There we were in the middle of an alien crisis, and they were still running with a front page on the Ukraine Invasion.
“You see this bullshit?” The player representing the Russian President exclaimed at one point, whacking the newspaper with the back of his hand. “The press is having a field day”. He then grinned, pleased at his own use of an appropriate cliche. Genre cliches are very important to role-playing.
While bad press was an annoying hindrance, it struck me as yet another way people naturally fell into their roles. After all, complaining about bad press is what being in Government is all about.
GNN worked both ways too. It was also the perfect way to spread lies about the other countries. The US are building a cyborg army? Go for it. Japan’s giving human babies to the Aliens as an offering of respect? Why not? Just be wary that creative answers can backfire. When asked about Russia’s controversial genetic experiments, my insistence that “Those people were already spliced when I got there” probably didn’t do us any favours.
I shamefully travel back to Russia, feeling the eyes of my former scientific peers judging me as I go. Turns out I drastically overestimated how much they trusted me. That and perhaps inviting them to Russia for a ‘Cool Science Party’ wasn’t the most compelling argument.
I don’t know how to break the bad news to the President. He looks up, expectantly.
“Is it happening?”
“Look, Mr President…”
Two large, suit wearing goons appear on either side of him. Grabbing his hands, they pull his arms behind his back.
“Mr President, you’re under arrest for committing war crimes. You’ve been removed from office and placed under house arrest.”
He’s dragged away, head down in shame. The Russian Defence Chief has taken the stage, standing alongside the Prime Minister.
“Russian President has been taken into our custody. Too long he has threatened the world with nuclear attack. Now, world’s problem is no longer problem.”
This isn’t good. I need to find the Foreign Minister, he’s now my only ally left in the entire government.
The Chinese Prime Minister is now speaking.
“The Chinese government would like to announce that the Russian Foreign Minister has defected and will now join our great nation.”
Fuck. I should have gone to Mars.
For a game that promises a lot of chaotic freedom, there’s actually a surprising amount of structure hidden in the background. Each area of the game, like the War Room, the UN or Science, is co-ordinated by a ‘Controller’. It fits well into the sci-fi premise, with these omnipotent figures prowling the room offering ‘help’. If you want to try anything provocative or controversial, you have to run it by them.
The arrest of the Russian President really happened, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister, deciding they wanted more power, got together and hatched a plan. Moving tanks and secret agents across the world map into Moscow they announced their plan to a ‘Controller’, secretly rolled some dice and then suddenly the game moderators were escorting a very surprised looking player away from his table announcing that he was being placed under house arrest. If the plan is something that can happen in real life the game will find a way to facilitate it, with almost no exceptions.
But it’s a double edged sword.
From the start of the day I’d been using a fake alien scanner iPhone app to scan delegates we talked to as a joke. Later the organiser, David Harmon approached us, smiling
“Hey, is it true you guys have a mobile app that can detect aliens?”
“Well, we’ve been pretending. We’ve just been using it to intimidate other players.”
David snatched my phone out of my hands, wearing a big shit eating grin.
“Yeah, your phone was just stolen by another country that thought it was real. You don’t have that technology anymore.”
“We do not want a war.”
The leader of the Aliens Science Clan is speaking to earth. Wearing a long black trenchcoat, eyeliner and looking suspiciously like a goth, he urges the world to attack the alien Warrior Clan, currently on the ground in the UK. As an added measure, he’s kidnapped all the worlds scientists and is holding them in the mothership, hovering over Japan. It’s to ensure that we do the right thing, he says.
The Russian Defence Chief has already aimed nuclear missiles at both locations.
I look at the worlds scientists, shuffling awkwardly behind the Alien leader, still holding their clipboards. It suddenly occurs to me that I am the only scientist left on earth. I’ve never felt more alone.
Using the alien technology I’d kept hidden from the other scientists, I break the former Russian President out of house arrest. He embraces me as an old friend. At least I’m not going to die alone. Unlike our Former Foreign Minister, assassinated by the Prime Minister for betraying the Motherland.
So we find ourselves hiding out in the Defence Chief’s hidden bunker, paid for with stolen money.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Tovarisch. Not like this.”
The nukes are fired, the screaming begins. Everyone surrounds the War Room map, arms in the air, pure pandemonium
And as the world began to end around us, the President turns to me and looks me in the eye.
“Next game, we kidnap the scientists first.”
Ben O’Brien is a writer and host of ‘Big Head Mode', a weekly gaming show on Sydney’s 2RRR. You can also follow Ben on twitter
More From SBS Comedy:
- More game talk with '5 of the weirdest 90s video games from Japan'
- Or see the '5 Marvel Superhero who won't be getting a movie'
- Still sad that Game of Thrones is over? Don't worry, our GoTs comedy videos will cheer you up
- Check out the 'Straight to video sequels you will hate to know exist'