Play-by-mail game

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Play-by-mail games are games, of any type, played through postal mail or e-mail. One example, chess, has been played by mail for centuries (when played in this way, it is known as correspondence chess). Another example, Diplomacy, has been played by mail since the 1960s, starting with a printed newsletter (a fanzine) written by John Boardman. More complex games, moderated entirely or partially by computer programs, were pioneered by Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo in 1970. The first such game offered via email through a major online service was Quantum Space from Stormfront Studios, which debuted on AOL in 1989. (Internet and BITNET email games predate 1989.)

Play by mail games are often referred to as PBM games, and play by email is sometimes abbreviated PBeM -- as opposed to face to face (FTF) games which are played in person. Another variation on the name is Play-by-Internet (PBI) or play-by-web (PBW). In all of these examples, player instructions can be either executed by a human moderator, a computer program, or a combination of the two.

In the 1980s, play-by-mail games reached their peak of popularity with the advent of Gaming Universal and Flagship magazine, the first professional magazines devoted to play-by-mail games. Bob McLain, the publisher and editor of Gaming Universal, further popularized the hobby by writing articles that appeared in many of the leading mainstream gaming magazines of the time. This magazine however failed quite early in its history as did some in the UK. The leading magazine in the field (and the first) was Flagship magazine founded by Chris Harvey and Nick Palmer (now an MP) of the UK. The magazine still thrives, albeit under a different editor over twenty years later.

In the late 1990s, computer and Internet games marginalized play-by-mail conducted by actual postal mail, but the postal hobby still exists with an estimated 2000-3000 adherents worldwide.


[edit] Postal gaming

Postal gaming developed as a way for geographically separated gamers to compete with each other. It was especially useful for those living in isolated areas and those whose tastes in games was uncommon.

In the case of a two player game such as chess, players would simply send their moves to each other alternately. In the case of a multi-player game such as Diplomacy, a central game master would run the game, receiving the moves and publishing adjudications. Such adjudications were often published in postal game zines, some of which contained far more than just games.

The commercial market for play-by-mail games grew to involve computer servers setup to host potentially thousands of players at once. Players would typically be split up into parallel games in order to keep the number of players per game at a reasonable level, with new games starting as old games ended. While the central company was responsible for feeding in moves and mailing the processed output back to players, players were also provided with the mailing addresses of others so that direct contact could be made and negotiations performed. With turns being processed every few weeks, more advanced games could last over a year.

Game themes are heavily varied, ranging from leading a party of heroic or dastardly adventurers in Crassimoff's World, with both party and player alliances, both within the game and in the real world, to simulations of running a street gang in It's a Crime, to playing a monster exploring a tropical island populated by strange plants and animals in Monster Island. While some games are based on actual events or historical periods, many take place in alternate worlds of pure fiction.

Some PBM games developed into very richly defined worlds with massive amounts of background information that many players would only ever scrape the surface of. Tribes of Crane was probably the first of these, but the Dune-like power-plays of Where Lies The Power and the realistic medieaval political world of Delenda Est Carthago took this depth to even greater levels. Delenda Est Carthago (designed and run by Judith Proctor) was as much a work of interactive fiction as a game. It was hugely labour intensive to run and moderate. Where Lies the Power was also popular, covering all the classic space-opera themes. Saturnalia set the industry standard for consistency and scale, providing an interactive fantasy world for thousands of players at its peak. Saturnalia has run continuously from 1984, although since 2001 it has been restricted to a single games master.

Inevitably, the onset of the computer-moderated PBM game (primarily the Legends game system) meant that the human moderated games were pushed into the "non-profit-making sector" of the industry.

"To make a small fortune in Play by Mail, start with a large fortune..." --Judith Proctor, GM, Delenda est Carthago.

[edit] Mechanics

The mechanics of play-by-mail games require that players think and plan carefully before making moves. Because planned actions can typically only be submitted at a fixed maximum frequency (e.g., once every few days or every few weeks), the number of discrete actions is limited compared to real-time games. As a result, players are provided with a variety of resources to assist in turn planning, including game aids, maps, and results from previous turns. Using this material, planning a single turn may take a number of hours.

Actual move/turn submission is traditionally carried out by filling in a turn card. This card has formatted entry areas where players enter their planned actions (using some form of encoding) for the upcoming turn. Players are limited to some finite number of actions, and in some cases must split their resources between these actions (so that additional actions make each less effective). The way the card is filled in often implies an ordering between each command, so that they are processed in-order, one after another. Once completed, the card is then mailed (or, in more modern times, e-mailed) to the game master, where it is either processed, or held until the next turn processing window begins.

By collecting turn cards from a number of players and processing them all at the same time, games can provide simultaneous actions for all players. However, for this same reason, co-ordination between players can be difficult to achieve. For example, player A might attempt to move to player B's current location to do something with (or to) player B, while player B might simultaneously attempt to move to player A's current location. As such, the output/results of the turn can differ significantly from the submitted plan. Whatever the results, they are mailed back to the player to be studied and used as the basis for the next turn (often along with a new blank turn card).

While billing is sometimes done using a flat per-game rate (when the length of the game is known and finite), games more typically use a per-turn cost schedule. In such cases, each turn submitted depletes a pool of credit which must periodically be replenished in order to keep playing. Some games have multiple fee schedules, where players can pay more to perform advanced actions, or to take a greater number of actions in a turn.

Some role playing PBM games also include an element whereby the player may describe actions of their characters in a free text form. The effect and effectiveness of the action is then based on the judgement of the GM who may allow or partially allow the action. This gives the player more flexibility beyond the normal fixed actions at the cost of more complexity and, usually, expense.

[edit] Internet play-by-mail

With the rise of the Internet, postal gaming and postal games zines have largely been replaced by e-mail and websites. Play by mail games differ from popular online multiplayer games in that, for most computerized multiplayer games, the players have to be online at the same time. With a play by mail game, the players can play whenever they choose, since responses need not be immediate; such games are sometimes called turn-based strategy games. Some computer games can be played in a play by mail mode: one makes one's "move", mails a file to the opponent who uses it to make his or her "move" in response, and he or she then mails something back.

The first commercial play-by-email games offered by major online services were:

Several non-commercial email games played on the Internet and BITNET predate these.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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