Summer Fling – A (half-remembered) debrief of Old World Order 1898
In the beginning, there was Watch the Skies 1898. This was a new variant of Jim Wallman’s tried-and-true Watch the Skies series of games, but set at the dawn of the 20th century and featuring aliens. By design, it was very high-level and strategic – counters representing entire fleets and armies, abstract economic abstractions and year-long turns. Usual WTS stuff.
I was able to participate in a test game early in 2020 during one of the early ‘online’ Chestnut Lodge sessions at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a good session – we got through a handful of turns though there were no aliens. Jim was just looking to test the basic gameplay loop. Other ancillary systems like Engineering (read: science) were also missing.
It was so much fun that a bunch of us wanted to keep playing, and not long after that session I was furloughed from my job and found myself with a lot more time on my hands. So, with Jim’s permission I borrowed his assets and his rules, and decided to run a ‘homebrew’ version of WTS 1898. In honour of Jim’s New World Order game (which is WTS without the aliens), I dubbed the game ‘Old World Order 1898(ish)’. Our Facebook chat was called ‘Colony Bros’.
Tools & Set-up
If memory serves, For Jim’s test he used a set-up where he had the physical game set up in his office, with cameras pointing at the map so the players could see where everything was. We were also provided with digital files of the map, and some of us made additional annotations. It wasn’t ideal, but there was also an Excel sheet that had information listed on it as well.
Around a similar time, someone else at CLWG had trialled a third-party web service called Mural. It’s an online, collaborative tool for uploading assets and making live annotations, and can be used for everything from creative projects to project admin. It has ‘rooms’, and you can set accesses and group ‘Rooms’ into folders etc… Was a bit like a doodle board in a lot of ways, but a key bit of functionality is that you could move image assets around.
When I volunteered to set-up and run Old World Order, I decided to borrow Jim’s control sheet, and then run the ‘board’ part of the game wholly on Mural. There was also a Facebook group for important game announcements and politicking as we were doing week-long turns to account for real-life commitments.
Mural proved to be a really interesting tool, and I would highly recommend it, but we can come back to that.
Jim’s map was uploaded (with a couple of tweaks), as were image files for all the counters. Some reference material and templates were created to the ‘side’ of the board area. The control sheet was retained for tracking income and logging what a player was spending their ‘bucks on. It was also the ultimate arbiter of where units were.
Finally, I ‘borrowed’ Jim’s original rules and modified them slightly to account for anything that had come up during Jim’s session, any additional things I wanted to try and anything else obvious that perhaps needed shoring up. These rules evolved over time as well as the situation demanded.
After that, it was a matter of casting and getting things under-way,
The initial Colony Bros crew consisted of:
- Tom Hayllar as Russia
- Richard Hands as Italy
- Nick Luft as Japan
- Andrew Hadley as France
- Tim Hall as Germany
These represented the ‘major’ nations in a way that would provide some balance and friction.
While initially played by me as NPCs, Jaap Boender joined on Turn 2 as the USA, and Rob Grayston took over control of the Ottomans around Turn 3 or 4.
I had decided from the beginning that the United Kingdom, historically the most powerful nation around this time (or at least the nation with the ability to project the most force) should remain an NPC. I was partly inspired again by Jim and his New World Order game, where America was an NPC (although I didn’t go as far as to create bespoke mechanics).
As an addendum, I also created a ‘resolution’ order – so the British did their moves and resolved them first. Then all the players actions would technically happen simultaneously, and the minor NPCS would act ‘last’.
Minor NPCs of note that I roleplayed as GM included Spain, Netherlands, Austria-Hungary, the various Spanish colonies, Brazil and other South American nations, Persia and China.
The Engineering Problem
Given the turn-around time and the fact that I was trying to just get a game going without reinventing Jim’s wheel, I also didn’t flesh out the engineering system. Jim’s only rule during the test was that every nation had to invest at least one ‘credit’ (which required 3 ‘bucks) to represent the rapid technological evolutions of the time.
The lack of a defined purpose though definitely altered how people interacted with it – some invested loads, some only the token one a turn. Some had specific projects that they were scripted to be working on – like the Panama Canal or the Trans Siberian Railway – others came up with their own loose purposes for the investment.
I knew I wanted investment to mean something at least, but I didn’t want to telegraph that to the players because then they’d all invest anway as a meta-play. From the research I’d done on the subject, I could tell that many nations invested in modernisation programs, but others invested more, and even those that invested sometimes found that their programs hadn’t paid off as well as they’d like.
The main impact I wanted to have on warfare, but I was saving it for when a major war would break out. More on this later.
Other than that, I was using it as a loose ‘gating’ mechanism. I introduced Dreadnoughts to the game when a certain credit threshold had been met, the scripted projects would only matter when a certain level of investment had been reached, and so on.
The Great Game: 1898 – ?
I’m not going to go into a turn-by-turn playback – the Facebook group is still active if people want access so they can read the messages and events. Generally speaking, the following would happen each turn:
- The UK would make their moves, and I would post a ‘News Bulletin’ to start the turn which summarized the British moves, and any important issues that had arisen or were still in play.
- I would give the player’s a week to chat, either amongst themselves or with NPC nations via email (to me), and then they would also submit their turn orders via email following the specific format.
- I would then process everything all at once, do any rolling needed myself (sometimes I got players to roll if they happened to be online and able to chat). The NPC nations would then act in response to player actions.
- To officially ‘End’ the turn, I would compile another news bulletin forming a narrative of everything that had happened during that turn. I really enjoyed doing this bit, but it was a lot of work.
The map was available to all players to look at on Mural at all times. For the sake of tracking, I preferred that players didn’t move the counters themselves but they were able to. The map was updated at the start of turns after British and new NPC events, and at the end of the turn after player and NPC moves.
At the start of the game, I did a lot of research into historical events to provide some background noise and talking points for the player’s to interact with (or not). The Spanish-American war was originally one such event, but when Jaap took over the US he ran with it anyway.
Other things included events in China, various British colonial events such as the Sudan expedition and the Boer War, the rise of a ‘powerful Brazilian state that wanted to dominate South American politics, The Thousand Days War, and a rogue colonial state ruled by ‘Mad’ King Leopold. (Belgium wasn’t on the map and I couldn’t be bothered to pretend, but as a Joke I kept the Congo as an independent colonial state ruled by Belgium’s King).
The players interacted with these to various degrees, but also had plenty of interpersonal politics to deal with as well. The Ottoman NPC was very active in trying to resolve the situation with Egypt and British involvement, which Rob also ran with when he came on board. Britain, France AND Germany were all involved in a ‘scramble’ for Africa and the latter two eventually invaded the Congo. Italy spent a lot of time antagonising the Ottomans in North Africa as well as conquering Ethiopia. Russia and Britain competed over control of Persia and Afghanistan, sparking a civil war. Japan slowly and quietly spread their control over Manchuria and the Philippines, emerging as the great Peacekeeper of the Far East.
The Spanish-American War probably dragged on a bit longer than it should have, but one-year turns didn’t really allow for a lot of tactical nuance and couldn’t model some of the shorter wars that dominated the period.
The end of the game was marked by a major war between the Ottomans and Italy over control of North Africa, as well as a major multiway confrontation in South America. The ‘Thousand Day’ War erupted within NPC Colombia, with NPC Venezuela also getting involved. Jaap, as the US, decided to mount a major military expedition, which prompted the involvement of the emergent NPC Brazil (which at this point was backed and essentially bound to Germany).
Thoughts & Limitations
There was one main Peace Conference during the game, which was to resolve the Spanish-American War. This was done via a Facebook thread which, in hindsight, was less than ideal. What also didn’t help was that the only major stake-holders were essentially Jaap as the US, and then Spain, and then Cuba and the Philippines. All these NPCs were played by me. Others acted as mediators but there wasn’t really much to say.
While I forget the specifics, Jaap pointed out a key flaw with this format in that, eventually, I had to draw the line as my various NPCs as there was nothing more for me to say, and there wasn’t any further interaction Jaap could do. If we were to hold another Peace Conference, I had planned to do it in real-time face-to-face.
Overall I was happy with the pace of the game and the pace of events. Bad rolls tied up certain areas a bit longer than would have otherwise, but it didn’t break the immersion, and there was a decent level of tension through-out.
The players were perhaps a bit more peaceful than their historical counterparts. Tom and Nick were reluctant to fight over northern China, so there was no Russo-Japanese War, France and Germany were oddly cooperative and everyone kept their nose out of Serbia, which kept Austria-Hungary quiet. Towards the end of the run, I was engineering for Austria to take over what few Spanish colonial regions remained on the map. Spain would retreat in on herself as she did historically, and Austria would enter the colonial stage as they almost did historically.
There were no additional wars or fighting that broke out around the Italian-Ottoman War, although there was plenty of mobilisation. I had Austria-Hungary mobilise, and it almost looked like the British and Russians would get into a full blown war at one point, but it never happened.
I think we had a good mix of players in key roles as well. At one point it seemed like we might get a further influx of new players but there honestly wouldn’t have been much for them to do without a serious overhaul.
Nations like Spain felt like they were only there to either get wailed on or, if they were incredibly lucky, win the Spanish-American War. Austria-Hungary, while integral to the political dynamics of mainland Europe, had little to contribute to a game that was actually about colonialism and imperialism. Brazil proved an interesting nation to ‘upgrade’ to a faux-major status, but still would have needed some work. China would have been another possibility but they would have lacked flavour and things to do.
I also ended up changing a lot about how the ‘Influence Markers’ worked. This was a mechanic from Jims game that represented a nation’s expanding influence in a neutral zone. In Africa, it was the main vessel for colonisation but I felt this mechanic didn’t quite fit other areas of the map.
It became a context-based mechanic where the rules and narrative interaction changed depending on what was happening, and where. Cuba, for example, was unlikely just to immediately cede its new-found independence to the US just because the US had spent 9 credits on 3 markers and got a good roll. So additional states such as ‘Sphere of Influence’ or ‘Puppet States’ or ‘Protectorates’ etc. arose on the fly, with subtly different rules depending on what ‘flavour’ made the most sense at the time.
The military mechanics, naturally, got the most scrutiny and revisions during the course of the game. I tried to remain consistent and open about my rulings, although It wasn’t always perfect. I didn’t want to fiddle too much, but I was also keen to avoid counters zipping around the place and accomplishing too much too quickly.
I was prone to just coming up with new rules or doing things on the fly, although I don’t think I ever treated anyone unfairly. There was a lot of talk of getting more ships, or more armies, which I had to try and navigate. I was quite blaise about NPCs getting access to new Cruiser fleets or slightly better armies, mainly because it’s easy for players to have their way with NPC factions and I wanted to offer some pushback.
I slightly altered the OOB just at the start of the Italian-Ottoman bust up. I lacked a lot of research into the period so I didn’t fully understand Jim’s original abstractions for WTS 1898, but I wanted to even up the physical counter balance so that each side was rolling a similar number of dice. This caused a lot of discussion.
Generally though, I didn’t allow for new fleets to be made or created. Land unit OOBs were also locked and you couldn’t make any more. For the Ottoman/Italian War specifically, I introduced a new rule where players could split off one smaller unit from the main army counters to add a little more mobility. This became a bit tricky to track as some units would have come from mobilised armies while others would have been from standing units, and there were the existing expeditionary units as well.
I also allowed army units that weren’t moving, for the cost of an engineering credit, to ‘fortify’ the region they were in. This proved useful for the Italians desperately trying to cling on to Tunisia when they were outnumbered (but not outgunned!).
It was during this war that I also introduced my overall plan for Engineering Credits (such as it was). At the time war broke out, the Ottomans had nearly double the amount of credits the Italians had, so I let Rob choose whether he wanted a +1 to naval battle die rolls or land battles. He chose naval, and Richard was then given the incentive to invest more in credits to try and close the gap and nullify the advantage Rob had over him.
I enjoyed running OWO 1898 – it helped that I was basing it off a Jim creation which are always wonderfully abstract, but in a way that allows you to add in chrome around the edges. The WTS design-ethos is in general really satisfying to play around in and tinker with, though I wished I knew about how/why Jim chooses to abstract things.
Mural is also a bit of revelation and I would heartily recommend it to anyone looking to run an online megagame-style session. The tools provide you with enough to recreate the board game element of megagames – it just requires additional tools to handle other elements such as game control, communication etc. It is a very ‘manual’ bit of software and doesn’t allow for any automation but once you’ve done the initially setting up it can make running an online game relatively easy, although I’ve yet to see it tested at scale.
Old World Order – 1898(ish) ultimately fizzled out due to increasingly demanding real-life commitments as the Covid pandemic got into full swing over the summer (and I ended up becoming a father again), but there were some great foundations there I would have liked to have built on had I the time. Maybe one day.
I probably haven’t remembered everything, but I do invite the players to share their own thoughts, analysis and POV in the comments.!