Sometimes at megagames, you play characters with whom you identify completely. They are you, but in another life.
And sometimes you’re heading up the secret police for the Soviets during the Russian Civil War, and historically committed acts so horrific that there’s a section on your Wikipedia page titled “Atrocities”.
Which do you think this is?
The Megagame of the Russian Revolution
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, when first the Czar and his family was overthrown (think Anastacia), then the political leader Kerensky and his provisional government. This led to a Civil War between many sides.
Chief among them was the Bolsheviks – my team, the Reds, the socialists, the revolutionaries. Our key players included tons of historical people even I’d heard of, despite knowing nothing about the era – Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin. We believed wholeheartedly in our goal of bringing power to the masses, and derided the rest of the world as “bourgeois”.
Opposing them were the Whites – people who wanted the old Russia back (though not necessarily with the Czar). Chiefly officers from the old Russian military, they massively distrusted any sort of politics. Their main goals were to defeat the Reds and to keep Russia together as one country “One and Indivisible”… although they weren’t certain exactly how governance would work after that.
Then there were the Greens. This team was made up of many different disparate points of view, from the Muslim League to the Finns, from the Anarchists to the Cossacks. They wanted independence, or democracy, or just self governance. Either way, they didn’t completely trust or side with either the Whites or the Reds.
The final team were the Blues, although really this was two completely opposing sides. The Russian Civil War took place in 1917… while the First World War was still going on. The Blues were comprised of the Allies – France, Britain, USA, Japan – and the Central Powers of Germany. The Allies were pissed that Russia had dropped out of the war, German was somewhat pleased about this. But neither wanted socialism to spread across Europe…
Myself, Chrissy and Maria were cast as the Cheka. Forerunners of the KGB, this organisation was set up to ensure everyone in the party followed the party line to the core. Any deviation was to be eradicated.
This goal didn’t exactly lend itself to good behaviour. The Cheka were… I don’t think there’s a word for how dreadful they were. Reports differ, but the Cheka killed anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 people… and not quickly. I won’t repeat many of the things they did here, but feel free to go check out the aforementioned Atrocities section on their Wikipedia page. It’s shocking.
And I had a real life counterpart – Felix Dzerzhinsky, or “Iron Feliks”. His wiki page reads like an extreme revolutionary’s dream: imprisoned multiple times for stirring revolution, setting up illegal press, and leading strikes. He escaped from prison multiple times. By 1917, he was a confidant of Lenin and trusted to head up Russia’s first secret police.
So our main job on the day was to keep a close eye on our own team, and try to figure out if any of them didn’t hold as closely to our ideals as they should. And if they didn’t… we brought them in.
Our game day started slowly. At first we did a load of mechanical stuff, like obtain food by extorting the kulaks (rich peasants), although we quickly passed these tasks off to operational players.
One of my first duties of the day, unbeknownst to my fellow Chekists, was to “dispose of the baggage”. Or, in layman’s terms, kill the previous Czar. This was honestly one of the most tense things I did all day. In a team based around rooting out secrets, keeping one of my own seemed dangerous, and I didn’t want to get on the bad side of my own team mates this early on.
My first attempt failed, but we managed to get the Czar under Cheka control. The problem? This actually made it harder to kill him secretly. My guards are damn good guards. My second attempt succeeded, but any hopes I had that it would look at all accidental were crushed when I rolled a one.
It didn’t seem to matter. The Bolsheviks loudly cheered when his death was announced, and I, at least, received no negativity from other teams for it.
Bad Attitude or Bad Luck
The hardest part about playing a secret police role is that you’re picking up on everything your team does bad, whether it’s on purpose or accidental. In fact, you’re far more likely to pick up on the accidental stuff. People actually betraying you are often pretty good at hiding their tracks.
I think our first interrogatee fell into the bad luck type. Over the first few turns, we had reports of dreadful battle results from the Central Asia map. Clearly, we reasoned, this meant at least one of them was working against the Bolshevik cause. Chrissy volunteered to go in and root out the cause.
Meanwhile, a Soviet front-liner volunteered himself for our cause. Everyone knew we were the secret police, he pointed out. Luckily Chrissy’s verdict was that the Ops player on the Asia map seemed to be the weakest link. We held him back for interrogation, but sent new Secret Agent Elton into that map to keep an eye on the other two.
Our interrogation of Ops Officer Thomas was productive. We had evidence that the team had been talking about an Armistice with the Whites, and although he insisted it wasn’t serious, this was no laughing matter. The investigation turned up more damning evidence. One of my favourite interview tactics was to take innocuous statements and say them very seriously, like they were a massive deal. For example, one of the crimes Thomas was convicted for was “joking with a member of the Muslim League”.
The sentence was passed swiftly – GUILTY. We turned to Control to find out what our options were.
The only real option was death – and a slow painful one at that. But this was a megagame. Player death was impractical, and even if we recast him as a new character, he was unlikely to play in a significantly different way. Our solution was to move him to a new map and place him under a more reliable commander.
Meanwhile, Elton reported back on the actions at the Asia map. While his reports were worrying, we had a bigger problem on our hands.
Union for the Something of the Something Motherhood
I swear, I didn’t get this team’s name right all day. The Union for the Defence of the Motherland was another far left group in Russia’s political landscape. Unfortunately, not far left enough for us! Although we may have been similarly aligned, practically they were one of our biggest threats and so I took care of them personally. Or tried…
The biggest problem was that they were releasing anti-Red literature throughout the game. It took me a while to trace it back to them, and interrogations of several players including discovering the illegal propaganda in their pockets and demanding to know where they got it from. When the trail did lead back to the UDM, it seemed only too obvious.
I think I made about four assassination attempts on the life of their leader, Julian. Unfortunately, killing people that weren’t under your direct control was pretty tough. He dodged most of them, hired a protection squad, and proceeded to have a go at me for even trying to kill him. While continuing to spew his heresy!
Eventually I saved the Assassination Card I’d just managed to procure, in the hopes that I would get a second and could hit him with a one-two punch. I never saw another assassination card all game…
If You Can’t Get The Man, Get What You Can
Julian may have been out of my reach, but when rumours reached my ears about someone on the Reds team working with him… I knew I had my next victim. Darren was probably the most interrogated man all day. His crimes included “laughing during interrogation” and “knowing the surname of an Anarchist”… and those were the ones he confessed to before we even tortured him!
Shying away from some of the horrific things I’d seen on Wikipedia, we instead went for the simpler options of pulling off his fingernails and breaking his fingers. Now in severe pain, he confessed to working with the Anarchists and the UDM, and confirmed that he knew that Julian had published the propaganda without reporting it to the proper authorities. He even happily signed a document detailing these crimes… but not very neatly, considering we’d broken six of his fingers (signified by red pen markings).
We exiled him to the Siberian front and warned his commander to keep an eye on him.
All Property is Theft
Our next discovery fell into our lap. I’m talking about Foreign Minister Chicherin, who had already received a strike against his name for a) not being a proper Bolshevik and b) not showing the Cheka the proper respect. Our day was made when Control came up to him, in the middle of a conversation with us, and handed him a “receipt for his bank account”. I would call it divine providence, but the Bolsheviks didn’t believe in god!
While Chrissy took him over to immediately liquidate his assets, I joked about liquidating him. Instead, we tarnished his name and went on a hunt for any other bank accounts our team may have. Chrissy led up the investigation, and we found that there were a total of three bank accounts opened by the Reds.
From now on, all interrogations contained questions like “Do you own a bank account? Have you ever owned a bank account? Do you agree that all property is theft?”. At one point I asked a player “do you know what a bank account is?”. He was so thrown off by the question (and scared of the Cheka’s reputation) that he didn’t know whether to lie or tell the truth!
More Trouble in Central Asia
Meanwhile, so I hear, the Bolsheviks were losing the war. I hardly know what went on outside our room, to be honest. If I ever went into the main map room, it was only to drag someone out to our interrogation chair. And they always came willingly.
Meanwhile, all was not well on the Asia map. We’d left Elton to keep an eye on things, but his commander had been called away and he had been left in charge. The power must have gone to his head.
He stood up in a SovNarKom meeting and critically denounced his higher ups in a reckless display of arrogance. According to him, the Central Asia front was about to fall, and it could have been saved if we’d listened to his ideas.
Announcing that the party wasn’t acting in the best interests of the greater good was clearly anti-Red, so we called him in for questioning, along with his fellow Asia player. We grilled them, but neither seemed willing to give up the other. Elton in particular got very aggressive, but we got the sense some of it might be player anger not character anger.
This brings us to the second difficulty of playing the secret police. If a character gets angry, or defensive, or upset, that should have been a signal to press harder, punish further. But if it’s a player, as reasonable people we wanted to back off.
But rather than dropping the case completely, we shifted focus. We could use this situation to pin the problem on a much larger target…
Trotsky or Stalin
From early in the game, we got the sense that something wasn’t right with at least one of Trotsky or Stalin. Early on we heard rumours about Stalin acting against party interests, and we managed to trace these back to Trotsky himself. But were these rumours baseless and merely a political play, or were they grounded in fact?
The Asia front reported that they’d arranged a treaty with the Muslim League, allowing them to regroup their troops safely and stand a chance of holding their position, but that Lenin has denied them the treaty. But it seemed that somewhere between them and Lenin, the message had gone astray.
However, we didn’t want to use up our political capital bringing in such important men for questioning, with little to go on. We needed more information.
We questioned a still angry Elton again. He calmed slightly when he realised that our enquiries weren’t focused on him. He seemed to lay the blame more at Stalin’s feet.
But then, disaster. Both Trotsky and Stalin backed up each other’ stories, that it had been the decision of the SovNarKom to refuse parlay. Clearly someone was lying, but we had no idea who.
You Don’t Need Two Hands
Returning to the map room, we found the Asia map under the control of the last man we expected: Darren. It seemed he had ducked his superior officer’s supervision, and made it over from Siberia. I don’t know what he thought we were going to do: we frogmarched him back to our interrogation chair.
Last time, we had warned him that if we had to bring him in again, we would cut out his tongue. Unfortunately, halfway through my call for pliers, I realised this wouldn’t make a very fun megagame.
Instead we cut off his left hand then sent him to be Stalin’s personal secretary. Yes, a one-handed secretary with all the fingers in the other hand broken. I’m sure he would be very useful.
Missed All The Signs
Unfortunately, our first and only defection of the day came as a complete surprise. The Central Asia territory, recently brought back from the brink of devastation by Commander Kolesov, was handed over to our enemies by the very same man.
As soon as we got word, we sent a message to him reminding him that we had his lovely wife and his young son and two daughters. Along with a lock of hair from one of his daughters. His reply was along the lines of “well, I’m a traitor, they’re going to be killed anyway.” True, Kolesov, but the Cheka know how to make them suffer.
Willing to give him a second chance… sorry, I mean, trying to trick him to come back to his own execution, I made an announcement over the tannoy… that apparently freaked everyone out quite a bit.
“Kolesov. We have your wife. We have your children. They used to be beautiful. They’re not any more. Come back now, or we will kill them. In 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… BANG.” He didn’t come back. I wasn’t surprised.
Instead, we started on a mission to identify any other potential turncoats who should have reported suspect behaviour from Kolesov. We brought in Elton again, and then went to the map to ask to see the Operations Player who’d worked with Kolesov in Ukraine: Joe.
Joe was one of the Bolshevik’s all stars. He’d done a great job, almost single-handedly managing the operations in Ukraine, and doing a damn good job of it, by all accounts. We were concerned, however, that his two teammates for a lot of the game were Kolesov and Darren. Concerning… definitely concerning.
We asked him to come with us for questioning just before the map phase started. He looked concerned. I asked if he needed a moment to relay the operational plans to his team. I gave him roughly 15 seconds before dragging him off.
Once at the interrogation chair, I confiscated his notebook. Surely there would be something in here… nothing. Literally nothing, really. I asked him to clarify a few of the more illegibly scrawled words, but there was nothing of any concern in there. I asked him a couple more questions about his work with Kolesov and Darren, and about bank accounts of course, but his answers were definitely satisfactory. I sent him back to the map, hoping he could catch up with the operations for this turn.
Trust No One
The bank account investigation really hotted up towards the end of the game. During team time I announced that we had our suspicions about who had a bank account, and if they owned up the punishment would be lessened.
It occurred to me that the most obvious next step for any player seeking to cover their tracks was to empty their bank account and make a hefty donation to the Soviet cause. I asked Lenin if anyone had done that, and he laughed in a stunned sort of way. “Yes, Trotsky has!”
Finally, the smoking gun we’d been waiting for. We dragged him in for questioning about the massive 8 coins he’d given in this turn. Unfortunately, it seemed he’d planned for this eventuality, and had arranged for the Russian map commander to tell us he was the source of the money, rather than a hasty bank withdrawal. Regretfully, we let him go.
Trust No One
The trail was dying out. Chrissy asked her spies for their reports, and they told us they’d already fed back to us. I hadn’t been told anything. Chrissy hadn’t been told anything. There was only one possible recipient of this information, and for some reason she didn’t come and tell us.
We found Maria deep in conversation with the French, which only increased our suspicion. While Chrissy grilled her for information, I went back to the spies to find out what they had told her. When I returned, I told her point blank, “well, it seems your story checks out”. She seemed shocked that I would ever suspect her, but you can never be too careful.
The information was that the French were also paying into one of the bank accounts held by a Bolshevik player. This… this is what we’d been waiting for. We hadn’t caught the first traitor, but sure as hell we would catch the second.
The French team pointed us in the direction of their operational player on the Russian map, which led us on to a stash of money that had allegedly been left in Archangel that turn. The quantity… 12 coins. This would explain Trotsky’s windfall, although obviously some of the money was still missing. In a bank account, perhaps?
We pushed our informants for more information, but the same story came back again. They’d given more information to Maria. And again, she hadn’t informed us. Forgetting once… well, it could be carelessness, but honestly we should probably have still arrested her anyway. Twice was beyond unforgivable.
While we made preparations to have both Trotsky and Maria forcibly taken into custody the next team time… the game ended.
Cheka: Da or Nyet?
George Seldes, American journalist, wrote: “The Cheka is … a great success. The terror is in the mind and marrow of the present generation and nothing but generations of freedom and liberty will ever root it out.”
Our Cheka didn’t kill (much). We weren’t as inventive or as cruel as our historical counterparts. We didn’t find any of the genuine traitors that were a real threat to the cause.
But we absolutely freaked out a large portion of our team. We made people scared to know what bank accounts were. Scared of joking around with opposing players in case we were watching. And really scared of red pens.
By that measure, I judge us a success.
My next megagame is Undeniable Victory, the megagame of the Iran-Iraq war, down in London on 18th November, where I’ll be sitting on Saddam Hussain’s council as Interior Minister.