Sunday, 22 March 2015

Confessions of a Civilized Umpire

I had an interesting and challenging role as one of the Control Umpires for the Alien teams in the megagame Watch the Skies 2.

I had enjoyable game, though one now served with a cold slice of guilt.

Half of the Alien Control Umpire Team, in their
balcony backwater. (L-R Jaap, Nick and Jon.)
After the game I had a post-game chat with Simon and Jerry, control umpires for the science game, and Paul, one of the African regional map control umpires. They had grinding games, with little respite, and little chance to get involved with the players other than driving the game at busy tables.

Also Paul asked me where the Alien Control team were, because we did not get down to the Regional Map Tables to liaise with them and collect and deliver messages.

So, I feel a little guilty that I had such a good game. And also I need to apologize to all the other Regional Map Control Umpires for our lack of liaising. Sorry guys.

So why was my game so different? In a nutshell I had a variety of thing things to do; some were even rules related, but most involved me using my judgement and what social skills I have.


The first duty of Megagame Control Umpires is to ensure that the players get a good game experience. Period! OK, we try to make consistent adjudications based on written rules, but we are really there to make sure that the players get a win from the experience.

And in WTS2 all the Umpires were very aware that we had many first time players. I think all the Alien players were first time players. That is a very high ratio. Most Megagames over the last few years have a cadre of returning veterans. These players are often cast as team leaders etc. and help initiate newbies through the rites of playing in a Megagame.

So during the setup and during the first turn I went from team to team and asked them if they had everything they required, if they had any questions, and could I help.

One team admitted they were very confused. So I told them that the start of megagames are usually like this though some of their problem were down to the fact that they were actually strangers in a strange land. I advised them to concentrate on scouting, intelligence gathering and even liaising with their "rival" teams. I also reminded them that all their actions had to be paid for in Activation Points (APs) and that they had a limited supply and a limited launch capacity. This started them off and after that they quickly learnt the ropes.

I was pleased to note that at the end of the game one of the players I had attempted to mentor did come up to me to thank me for helping him and his team out, and that he had had a great experience. Ahh... that pleases the twisted soul of an old grognard: enthusiastic young padawans.

Rules problems

After the first few turns the players settled in their roles, and had learnt the routine of each turn, and we left the to run their own internal games. This might be surprising to some people, but as Control we do not really see our role to check on the players. We just ask if they have any problems, we sort out problems and the game generally starts to run itself.

But there are problems. Most of the problems you have are those little pieces of grit that get swept up into the wheels of the game machine. For example during WTS2 players asked me the following questions:
  • The East Asian Regional Table Umpires did not give the alien players any "Human Specimen" cards after they had successfully played an abduction card? Was this correct?
  • I have just got a telepathy helmet. How can I use it to talk to Aliens?
  • How can I return this Cardinal to the planet in a shuttle and not get shot down?
  • How can we divert an asteroid's trajectory? One is about to hit Solaris C.

And this is why I like being an umpire. To resolve the above questions the Control Umpire has to role-play being a senior member of a player's staff, a civil servant, diplomat, scientist or military officer. The guidance for Control Umpires are explicit in this. The trick is not to give the solution, but to answer the questions put to you with a range of options, and to explain the risks, the advantages and disadvantages.

Lack of gaming materials

Some problems are more systemic. For example we had to guide the players through the rules for researching language and humanity. The rules were easily explained, but there was no game board to track the progress of such research. Now I think about it we should have drawn a track for them and plotted this. As it was on the day we asked the science players to come to the Umpires with their APs, and the requisite cards and keep their own track.

Another problem we had was that we ran out of models for PACs, and Shuttles and had to issue chits!

And then you have to make exciting decisions under pressure

The most challenging decision I had to make during the day was the proposed planetary bombardment by The New Republic (NR) team.

My main consideration was that I had to get this right as it was going to be a game changing action. Uptil then the aliens had abducted a few humans, but had not really done much damage. A planetary bombardment could destroy a large city and kill many millions of people.

The first thing I had to do was to remind them how this mission was done. A large capital spaceship enters into a low orbit and strafes the target. This might expose their ship to any space capable interceptors that humanity might have. It would definitely expose them to interception from other spaceships as the trajectory used to line up the strafe would be obvious to any nearby spaceships.

The problem I had as an umpire was that the tracking of fleets had been left to the High Politics game in the other room, which was on the opposite side of a large hall. I checked with Martin, the Control Umpire for the strategic space sub-game, what fleets were in the Solaris C solar system. I then made subtle inquiries with the High Politics teams about where their fleets were. I did not tell them why I was asking, and I asked about all of their fleets. I also asked them to give me the orders for each fleet. This took some time. Looking back on it it would have been great if there was a map with counters to track these things, but there wasn't and Martin and John were working hard to keep the game flowing for 15 players so they had not had the time to make one. Martin had tracked things with arrows on a map. But I wanted to hear from the High Command players what their orders were.

I was then able to tell the NR commander what ships might intervene if he carried on with his attack. This is information that would have easily been available to his staff, but the game system had caused the intelligence hard to find. The NR Commander had orders from his High Command to attack three locations: Rome, Rio de Janiero and Tokyo. I gave the NR player "on the ground" the information about the Imperial Fleet that could intervene. He made his deployment and was going to carry out his orders. I did give him an option to abort.

I then found the Imperial player "on the ground" and asked him some questions about his interstellar capability, what ships he had in the solar system, what bases he had and what was his posture. Again, general questions, but designed to get relevant information and not alert him to why I wanted to know.

I then warned both commanders that at the start of the next action phase I wanted them to report to me before they left for Solaris. Just winding them up really!

At the start of the next phase I gathered all the players round and brought the New Republican and Imperial Commanders to the front. I told all the players that there would be a delay in going down to the planet as we had an incident. I asked the Republican to repeat his orders. This was a nice bit of theatre. His orders were received with gasps, questions and cat calls from the assembled players. I clarified the dispositions of the Republican troops, writing them down on a piece of paper and gave a little explanation to the rest of the players about how the attack would be carried out. I then asked the Imperial player for his reaction and to be quick about it. He was quick and gave his deployment. I gave both players a last chance to avoid combat - this is almost always a possibility in space battles. Both would not stop.

The combat was quite simple, and I was ably assisted by Jon, another Umpire who had turned to right section of the rules and read out the results to each round of combat.

The outcome was that of the three straffing runs, the run on Rome was a draw, all craft on both sides were destroyed or seriously damaged, the attack on Rio ended in defeat of the Republican ship and the Tokyo run was unopposed. Tokyo was destroyed, killing about 10 million people.

This little battle was watched by all alien players (in the Solaris C solar system).

I then told Jim about the outcome of this action and went with him to the East Asia map and watched him implement the outcome. I had previously alerted Jim to the fact that one of the Alien teams were considering this attack, enabling me to get advice from him about the action and warning him of what was in the offing. I then went to the relevant maps - Americas and Europe - to tell the umpires that astronomers and some military installations would have noticed strange bursts of energy and explosions. And then some fragments would fall from space to the planet.

Player feedback

As usual with megagames we do not have a last turn, we merely announce towards the end of a one turn that this is the last turn. Game over. In a good game, the players are disappointed and want to enact their next turns plans, or to make that last rejoinder to the previous speech etc.

I was privileged enough in this game to be the umpire who announced the end of the game to two groups of players. All were disappointed and wanted to continue. One group, which consisted of the Senior Aliens and the UN Council (abducted earlier!) wanted their "last word" and kept on for a couple of minutes making their final points even though they knew the game was over.

That, I think, is a definition of an immersive and enjoyable game.

This makes Control Umpires around the world happy.

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