Watching You Watching You Watching You
When we talk about theme in games, we’re usually talking about the wallpaper. I’ve deadened plenty a pixel ranting on that point, which is perhaps why Daniel Newman’s Watch struck me with such force. Watch is a game about stealing office supplies. It’s almost irrelevant that these office supplies happen to be pocket watch parts and surplus WWII munitions. That it takes place on a literal clock face plunges it into the realm of fever dream. One doesn’t need to work in a Soviet factory to feel like a cog waiting to snap.
Now this is theme, adumbrated through a dozen minute details.
Consider the board.
As I mentioned, Watch is played on a clock face. That metaphor extends to everything you do. As a laborer in a Soviet watch factory that happened to be a munitions factory only a short while earlier, you’re an enthusiastic participant in the country’s second economy. Sorry, that’s a euphemism. The informal market. Apologies, another euphemism. The black market. There we go. In order to pad your income and your grocery sack, you intend to sell a portion of the factory’s gears and leftover munitions on the black market. Everybody’s doing it. You’re practically expected to.
It’s easy to imagine a game about smuggling supplies out of a warehouse as resembling a heist. Lots of careful movement, checking around corners, memorizing schedules, and playing Tetris with your inventory. Burgle Bros for Soviets. Instead, Newman takes Watch in another direction entirely. A heist would be exciting. The payoff to months of preparation. An acute moment. But working in a factory is not exciting. You aren’t here to undertake a heist. A heist implies a point of completion. Apart from a somewhat artificial endpoint, Watch doesn’t posit such a neat conclusion. You’re here to steal from your workplace, and steal, and steal some more. It is chronic drudgery. Drudgery jolted by intermittent paranoia, but drudgery all the same.
That probably doesn’t make Watch sound especially enjoyable. Rest assured that Newman doesn’t inject so much drudgery into Watch that it becomes unplayable. Only enough to give an impression of its protagonists’ particular approach to smuggling. This drudgery isn’t about repeating the same action over and over. It’s about pursuing an action, and by extension a sequence of actions, only to find that a fellow hero laborer has claimed the desired station in your place. It accomplishes this through that clock face. Every round follows the same sequence, as deterministic as clockwork. Everybody places their worker. Everybody activates their chosen station. At the end of the round, the hour hand shifts forward by three hours, altering the order of all subsequent resolutions. Despite being fixed, this order of operations is oddly difficult to suss out with any reliability. The game’s phases — the factory’s shifts, its rhythms, the comings and goings of the foreman — are never far from mind, but your coworkers have a way of throwing even the simplest procedures into disarray. You know the time the clock will show in an hour, but not what that hour will mean. It’s simulated drudgery, and all the thinkier and more interesting for it.
And that’s before we get to the game’s double meaning — that everybody is always watching one another.
The clock is broken into four quarters, one for each of the major floors of the factory. In game terms these are worker placement stations. There’s the workshop, where gears are shaped and tooled. Broken parts are scrounged in the warehouse. The loading dock is where you sell your goods, whether actual gears or munitions disguised as crates of gears.
And then there’s the foreman’s office. That’s where you spy on your coworkers.
It’s a straightforward system, elegant in its sparsity. Each quarter/floor has two possible stations. The workshop, for example, allows somebody to craft a few gears. The other allows them to commit the crime of working overtime, thereby stealing from the state. This yields additional gears; the tradeoff is that they might be caught. Every quarter features a similar duality, with one legal action and one illegal one. Nobody minds if you offload a few gears. Selling leftover ammunition is another matter. Snitching for the foreman is totally fine. Rifling through his filing cabinet for documents you can use to conceal your activities is somewhat more suspicious.
Again, though, Newman applies a clever touch. Getting caught breaking the rules — or catching a fellow laborer — is a matter of prediction. The snitch chooses which quarters they’ll observe the next turn. These guesses are carefully informed, of course, both by an upcoming card and through careful observation of your rivals’ plans. If somebody is sitting on a load of gears — and the upcoming card indicates that it’s not a good time to sell them without some extra gunpowder — then the snitch will likely put their eyes on the loading dock. Unless, that is, their quarry is careful enough to avoid moving merchandise when the foreman’s little helper is about.
As with everything else in Watch, these vagaries are rarely easy to gauge. It isn’t long before everyone at the table has transformed into an approximation of an office thief, cool and calculating on the outside but secretly squirming at every little development. Why did she move there? Is so-and-so going to steal that spot before I can reach it next turn? I forgot that next turn’s resolution will begin from the bottom of the hour, letting me choose my workstation first but locking me out of yesterday’s spots. If I surrender a majority in rubles, can I make my crates worth a few extra points?
That last part highlights the principal weakness of Newman’s approach. Watch excels at establishing a mood. Translating that mood into a forthright statement is more difficult. The best example is the majorities board. There are plenty of ways to earn points in Watch. It’s tempting to say too many. At any given time, you’re collecting matching sets of documents, accumulating upgrades on your work board, and achieving majorities. So many majorities. That’s a lot for a simple gears-slash-arms dealer to consider.
Here’s the short version. Whenever you take an action, you also upgrade your effectiveness at that action. Work in the office often enough and you’ll learn which documents to swipe. Manufacture lots of gears and you get better at squirreling them into your pockets. That sort of thing. The discs you remove from your personal board are then used to build majorities in six different contests, two apiece for gears, coins, and crates. Your placement on these tracks determines how many points those objects will be worth to you at the end of the game. This allows for some wiggle room. Maybe you want lots of cash on hand, or gears in your pocket, or crates on trucks headed for the border. There’s probably a Soviet proverb in there. But unlike everything else in Watch, it’s difficult to discern what exactly is happening here. What does a crate majority represent over a ruble majority? Why are gears worth anything at all? If you don’t sell the things, do you have a use in mind for them? What, come to think of it, are points?
To its credit, that vagueness diminishes with more time on the table. The final scoring never connects to the rest of the game the way the shopping lists of its communist-needling peer Kolejka did. Then again, Kolejka and Watch offer contrasting perspectives on the burdens of the material. Kolejka was steadfastly literal: its Polish shoppers stand in bread lines, elbow past fellow line-waiters, and try to stave off deprivation, because that’s exactly what Polish shoppers did in the twilight of communism. For designer Karol Madaj, the material was innately connected to survival.
Watch may be set in a Soviet factory, but its barbed materialism is less reserved for a specific time and place. Take, for example, its depiction of your shift at work. You show up at the beginning of the day but aren’t guaranteed a position, develop specialized skills through repetition but never secure a career that will reward those skills, and resort to secondary forms of income at every opportunity. That isn’t only a portrayal of drudgery on a factory line. It’s as much a portrayal of the drudgery of gig-work that has increasingly come to replace the career. This is the drudgery of not knowing whether your income will come from using your car as a rideshare or to deliver a late-night order of Wendy’s chicken nuggets. Drudgery plus the oppressive apprehension of wondering where your next dollar or ruble will come from.
The same goes for the game’s atmosphere of malignant superintendence. The Soviet Union employed snitches aplenty, but Watch doesn’t offer much bite when caught by one. There’s no distinction between having the foreman notice you working extra hours or smuggling bullets. The punishment is identical. A bribe. A few rubles. The amount increases along with your work level, and there’s a minor risk of falling into debt, but the threat ends there, absent the sterner disciplines of the state or the blackmail of your coworkers. Its humiliations hew closer to receiving a one-star review or having to placate an obnoxious customer for a tip. I don’t think Watch is saying anything as ragged as “Soviet Communism and American Capitalism are the same.” Rather, it’s pointing out that systems and workplaces that don’t provide for their workers inevitably produce incentives that run counter to that system’s stated purposes. In the case of Watch’s setting, that means smuggled munitions and a culture of bribery. For its American counterpart, that means half-assed gig work and the niggling temptation to knock over a credit union.
In that light, even Watch’s ambiguous scoring makes sense. A significant portion of the Soviet workforce engaged in a secondary economy to afford luxury items. A significant portion of the American workforce sells something over the holidays to afford gifts for their loved ones. There’s a difference of degrees there, but it’s a difference that grows slenderer every time a factory or office or hospital decides to save a buck by subcontracting its former employees to do the same work. Watch doesn’t offer a tangible scoring system for the same reason Newman doesn’t offer a solution to a society that prizes labor over laborers. In Watch, one is tasked with carving out their own valuation. What’s worth more to your factory worker: stolen ownership of the goods they produce, the capital that results from those goods, or something else entirely? Here that “something else” happens to be spare war munitions. Maybe for you it’s something else. For me, it’s probably free time. Speaking of being trapped inside a clock.
The result is a game that finally asks what all those workers in all those worker placement games think about being shuttled back and forth with no hope of reward or escape. It evokes the language and visuals of its distant factory to evoke a discomfort much closer to home. Sharp and paranoid in equal measure, it’s an eminently playable game about the wrench that’s inevitably thrown into the clockwork when living beings are treated as metallic wheels. It’s nothing short of a thematic masterpiece.
A complimentary copy was provided.