Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

My Kobayashi Maru Moment

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 27, 2011

“I need all the power you can give me to the engines.”

“What about shields?”

“Shields are dead. If we don’t get power to the engines, so will we.”

That’s how that dialog plays out in my mind. I don’t think I was quite that clever most of the time when I was the captain of the UGS Valiant, a Magellan class cruiser on a “diplomatic” mission to the tyrant-dominated planet of New Earth. But when you’ve got twenty-five seconds until an incoming torpedo hits your defenseless ship, pretty much all I had time for was ordering maximum available power to the engines, demanding full speed as soon as possible, and telling the weapons officer to try and target the torpedo with guns as a last resort (he couldn’t).

Pictured to the upper right is me doing my best constipated William Shatner pose. I think I nailed it…  But I almost never sat in that chair.

My wife won an experience at iWorlds, a sci-fi simulation experience that opened up a couple months ago. It’s based on some older simulations that were part of a school district that had proven popular not only for school field trips and summer camps, but also for companies doing leadership training exercises and whatnot.  So they’ve put together newer, somewhat more advanced (but still not quite state-of-the-art) systems together with a trained cast and a bunch of different scenarios. Our “crew” included sixteen of us – mainly our Saturday night gaming crew plus some of our kids. Geeks all. And boy, did we geek out.

Our particular mission involved an espionage mission under cover of a diplomatic mission. The planet of New Earth had been mostly neutral during a war between the terran Union and the warlike Protectorate, but when the Union had begun to show signs of being the victor they switched to the winning side – but were seized by the Protectorate before the end of the war. The protectorate installed a puppet government ruled by the minority faction.

Now the government of the planet was extremely corrupt and tyrannical, putting dissenters to death and generally making the planet hellish. The ruling party hadn’t worked out so well for the Protectorate, either, as our spies had uncovered evidence that they’d been double-dealing behind the Protectorate’s back as well. New Earth had demanded that the Union leave the planet, vacating our embassy, so our cover mission was to pick up the evacuating embassy staff. Our extra bonus missions involved us arriving two hours early to pick up spies and their evidence, to pick up a thousand dissidents who were hidden at the embassy, and to deliver the evidence to the Protectorate, who by prior arrangement with the Union would arrest the governing body, and pave the way for an actual democratic election to take place.

Naturally, the whole mission started going to crap from the get-go, as the New Earth government had already discovered our plot before we’d even arrived, and apprehended our spies and our critical documents before we could get into transporter range…

Everybody except the captain and first officer (my wife – who didn’t want to be captain) had a station on board the simulator. Each station included, from what I could tell, some kind of mini-game to make the role challenging – and give the person at that station something to do even when their roll wasn’t critical to the current phase of the adventure.  Pretty much everybody but the captain had some “busy work.” My daughters, who played the two security officers, told us they had some kind of mystery they were trying to solve involving a stolen wedding ring among the crew until their part of the mission became critical.

The captain and first officer were focused on the whole adventure pretty much the entire time. There were still times when I didn’t have much to do, like when we let our ambassador do the talking. But she was such an entertaining role-player that there was no chance of me getting bored.

As a game designer, I couldn’t help but try and understand what was going on “behind the curtain.” Based on my own guesstimates, the mission was only one part simulation to three or four parts Adventure Game.  They designers had set up the mission so that it demanded all of the sixteen crew members to have their chance to shine. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to figure out the “right” next move, rather than being able to pursue alternatives. This prevented us from being overly reliant upon one strategy or subset of the crew, and it also meant that the scenario would play out in a more-or-less planned fashion so the supporting cast could keep to the script. However, even within that script, there was a lot of room for improvisation on their side, which was occasionally hilarious.

But there were times where I was trying to formulate a “Plan B” – like shooting incoming torpedoes, or targeting the communication systems of the repair ship in case we were unable to transport the repairman before he got back to his ship to warn of our approach to the planet. His ship didn’t even exist on the weapons officer’s console, even though he had the option (normally) of targeting a ship’s communications systems.  Sometimes, however, we could do something interesting. Our transporter officer lost count of how many people she was supposed to beam aboard our ship when we were evacuating the embassy (with fighters approaching). She ended up accidentally beaming up an extra hundred people – government soldiers who had been attacking the embassy. They immediately began attacking inside of our ship, overwhelming our security teams — but then our transport officer redeemed herself by beaming them back off again – out into space.  Now if only she’d been able to beam them into the path of the oncoming torpedoes from the enemy fighters…

We even had “auto-save. There were some points in the mission where things would have terminated prematurely – which happened twice, when we failed to navigate through what was effectively a minefield of cloaked, heavily armed satellites. When things ended badly, the cast reset the game to right before we entered the satellite area and we got to do it over again. It took some coordination between the navigator, engines officer, and me. With everyone else in the crew leaning in their seats like the scene in “Galaxy Quest” when they are leaving the station and drift a little too close to the edge…

While I felt somewhat prompted, my big ideas that helped the day was getting the computer to speak Protectorate to give the passcode to a sentry ship, and reminding a Protectorate captain that New Earth’s attack on the Union embassy was considered an invasion of Union territory and an act of war… securing his temporary cooperation in lieu of providing him the needed documentation of New Earth’s crimes against both our nations.

Anyway, it sounds like the odds were slanted in our favor, making it kind of an anti-Kobayashi Maru. I guess if I want a more simulation-esque experience, there’s a better option available with the Artemis Bridge Simulator. But this experience offered real people to talk to, some fun improvisation, and a nicely decorated bridge and tunics to wear. It was a much more social / improvisational / adventure-gamey kind of experience. Grown-ups and kids all had an equally fun experience.  I definitely recommend it – it costs about twice as much as going to the movies (and takes about the same length of time – two hours), but is very, very worth it. We’re ready to do it again any time.

My wife has a write-up of our adventure on her blog as well, if you’d like to learn more details about our experience.

And just for an added bonus – the Kobayashi Maru – both versions…



Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 14 Comments to Read

  • Calibrator said,

    Back in the days… when Kirstie Alley was incredibly hot.

    Man, I’m getting old…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, tell me about it. That, and the Apple II graphics looked futuristic…

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    Make. It. So.

    Sounds like you guys had a blast.

    I’ve often wondered if they had stuff like this floating around as I’ve always wanted to take a server and write something that simulated a star ship and have a bunch of thin clients play the part of crew stations and then have an OpenGL rendition of the space mission projected on a screen in the front.

    Be a cool way to whittle away an evening when board games aren’t sounding appealing.

  • Melissa said,

    Your ambassador had crap-all to do at her post when she wasn’t arguing, but I think a mini-game would have been far too distracting given the nature of the job.

    I’d like to know how many missions they have on tap and whether they’re open to new suggestions. I’d be interested in a scenario in which the mission was interrupted by one of the alien races in the neighborhood. They have a LOT of background material we never even touched.

  • Darius said,

    Sounds really interesting. I worked with iWorlds briefly about five years ago as a programmer. When I was there, I was advocating a more simulationist approach, I’ve been curious to see what direction they ended up taking.

    Sounds like it was fun though.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I guess the problem is that – with the simulationist approach – you can’t control the results as well, and you may end up with a disappointed bunch of customers. With a stand-alone game, players can deal with a loss and say, “let’s do that again!” But with location-based entertainment, you don’t want people saying, “I paid for two hours of THAT?!?!?”

  • Darius said,

    Hmmmm, that’s a really good point. A situation like would make a lot of sense to sacrifice some freedom in order to make sure everyone had a really exciting experience.

  • Greg Squire said,

    I’ve been thinking of taking my kids to iWorlds as well. My oldest three have been to the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center (http://www.spacecamputah.org/) on which iWorlds is based on, and they have all loved it. It’s built into part of an elementary school in Pleasant Grove. Glad to hear you guys had a good experience and would do it again. It certainly sounds fun!

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    That sounded awesome. And, don’t let them tell you otherwise: you look fairly heroic in that picture. 😉

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I was aiming for goofy when she took the picture, but it just looks like I’m saying, “Spock! My left… butt cheek has… fallen … asleep!”

  • skavenhorde said,

    Looks like a ton of fun and I’m glad these are actually a reality now. Back when I saw that first the Kobayashi Maru with Kirstie Alley, I thought how cool it would be if they actually had one of those in real life (the simulator :)).

    Of course I also thought how cool it would be to have that skateboard from Back to the Future 2. I actually thought it was real for awhile (I was a imaginative kid) and I’m still waiting for them to make it. You bet you’re behind I’m buying one if they ever invent one. I don’t care if I’m 90 years old and in a wheelchair, I want that skateboard 😛

    Too bad this is only in Utah right now.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The simulator is entirely in a mobile-home sized trailer, so they will probably not have a hard time expanding to new locations. They could literally take the show on the road.

  • Califer said,

    I went to something like this when I was in elementary school! I was the head science engineer, which didn’t give me a whole lot to do related to sci-fi as I was looking at bee stingers under a microscope and filling out a report. We were doing alright until someone left their workstation and the alien ambassador we had on board used it to screw up our systems.

  • xenovore said,

    Sounds very cool — might have to try that out some time. =)