A play-by-mail game (also known as a PBM game, PBEM game, or a turn-based game) is a game played through postal mail, email or other digital media. Correspondence chess and Go were among the first PBM games. Diplomacy has been played by mail since 1963, introducing a multi-player aspect to PBM games. Flying Buffalo Inc. pioneered the first commercially available PBM game in 1970. A small number of PBM companies followed in the 1970s, with an explosion of hundreds of startup PBM companies in the 1980s at the peak of PBM gaming popularity, many of them small hobby companies—more than 90 percent of which eventually folded. A number of independent PBM magazines also started in the 1980s, including Flagship magazine, Gaming Universal, and Paper Mayhem. These magazines eventually went out of print, replaced in the 21st century by the online PBM journal Suspense and Decision.
Play-by-mail games—becoming known as "turn-based games" in the digital age—have a number of advantages and disadvantages related to other gaming genres. PBM games have wide ranges for turn lengths. Some games allow turnaround times in a day or less. Other games structure multiple days or weeks for players to consider moves or turns and players never run out of opponents to face. And if desired, various PBM games can be played for years. Additionally, the complexity of PBM games can be far beyond that allowed by a board game in an afternoon, and pits players against live opponents in these conditions—a challenge some players enjoy. PBM games allow the number of opponents or teams in the dozens—with some previous examples over a thousand players. PBM games also allow gamers to interact with others globally. And games with low turn costs compare well with expensive board or video games. Some drawbacks include the price for some PBM games with high setup and/or turn costs, and the lack of ability for face-to-face roleplaying. Additionally, for some players, certain games can be overly complex, and delays in turn processing can be a negative.
Play-by-mail games are multifaceted. In their earliest form they involved two players alternatively sending moves directly to each other by postal mail, such as in correspondence chess. Multi-player games, such as Diplomacy or more complex games available today, involve a game master who receives and processes orders, and adjudicates turn results for players. These games also introduce the element of diplomacy in which participants can discuss gameplay with each other, strategize, and form alliances. In the 1970s and 1980s, some games involved turn results adjudicated completely by humans. Over time, partial or complete turn adjudication by computer became the norm. Games also involve open and closed end variants. Open ended games do not end and players can develop their positions to the fullest extent possible, whereas in closed end games, players typically pursue a set of victory conditions until game conclusion. Finally, PBM games enable players to explore a diverse array of roles, from characters in fantasy or medieval settings, space operas, inner city gangs, or even more unusual ones such as assuming the role of microorganisms or monsters.
The earliest play-by-mail games developed as a way for geographically separated gamers to compete with each other using postal mail. Chess and Go are among the oldest examples of this type, with correspondence chess, for example being played for hundreds of years. In these two player games, players sent moves directly to each other. Multi-player games emerged later. Diplomacy is an example of this type in which a central game master managed the game, receiving moves and publishing adjudications.
According to Shannon Appelcline, "there was a little bit of PBM going on" in the 1960s, but not much. For example, some wargamers began playing Stalingrad by mail in this period. Additionally, Diplomacy was first played by mail in 1963.
In the early 1970s, in the United States, Rick Loomis, of Flying Buffalo Inc., began a number of multi-player play-by-mail games; this included games such as Nuclear Destruction, which launched in 1970. This began the professional PBM industry in the United States. Professional game moderation started in 1971 at Flying Buffalo which added games such as Battleplan, Heroic Fantasy, Starweb, and others, which by the late 1980s were all computer moderated.[a]
"[Rick Loomis] is generally recognized as the founder of the PBM industry."
— The Editors of Space Gamer Magazine, 1985.
For approximately five years, Flying Buffalo was the single dominant company in the US PBM industry until Schubel & Son entered the field in "roughly" 1976 with the human-moderated Tribes of Crane. Schubel & Son introduced fee structure innovations which allowed players to pay for additional options or special actions outside of the rules. For players with larger bankrolls, this provided advantages and the ability to abuse game systems. The next "big entrance" was Superior Simulations with its game Empyrean Challenge in 1978. Reviewer Jim Townsend asserted that it was "the most complex game system on Earth" with some large position turn results 1,000 pages in length.
In the early 1980s, the field of PBM players was growing. However, the PBM industry in 1980 was still nascent: there were still only two sizable commercial PBM companies, and only a few small ones. The most popular games of 1980 were Starweb and Tribes of Crane.
Some players, unhappy with their experiences with Schubel & Son and Superior Simulations, launched their own company—Adventures by Mail—with the game, Beyond the Stellar Empire, which became "immensely popular". In this same way, many people launched PBM companies, trying their hand at finding the right mix of action and strategy for the gaming audience of the period. According to Jim Townsend:
In the late 70's and all of the 80's, many small PBM firms have opened their doors and better than 90% of them have failed. Although PBM is an easy industry to get into, staying in business is another thing entirely. Literally hundreds of PBM companies have come and gone, most of them taking the money of would-be-customers with them.
Townsend emphasized the risks for the PBM industry in that "The new PBM company has such a small chance of surviving that no insurance company would write a policy to cover them. Skydivers are a better risk." By the late 1980s, of the more than one hundred play-by-mail companies operating, the majority were hobbies, not run as businesses to make money. Townsend estimated that, in 1988, there were about a dozen profitable PBM companies in the United States—with an additional few in the United Kingdom and the same in Australia.
The proliferation of PBM companies in the 1980s supported the publication of a number of newsletters from individual play-by-mail companies as well as independent publications which focused solely on the play-by-mail gaming industry such as the relatively short-lived The Nuts & Bolts of PBM and Gaming Universal. The PBM genre's "two preeminent magazines" of the period were Flagship and Paper Mayhem. Also in the mid-1980s, "general gaming magazines" began carrying articles on PBM and ran PBM advertisements, while the Origins Awards began a "Best PBM Game" category.
PBM games until the 1980s came from multiple sources: some adapted from existing games and some designed solely for postal play. In 1985, Pete Tamlyn stated that most popular games had already been attempted in postal play, noting that none had succeeded as well as Diplomacy. Tamlyn added that there was "a healthy amount of experimentation" in adapting games to postal play at the time and that "almost any game" could be played by mail. These adapted games were typically run by a gamemaster using a fanzine to publish turn results. The 1980s were also noteworthy in that PBM games designed and published in this decade were written specifically for the genre versus adapted from other existing games. Thus they tended to be more complicated and gravitated toward requiring computer assistance.
The 1990s brought changes to the PBM world. In the early 1990s, email became an option to transmit turn orders and results. These are called play-by-email (PBEM) games. Modern PBM game turnaround times now have wide enough ranges that commenters are beginning to use the term "turn-based games". Flagship Magazine stated in 2005 that "play-by-mail games are often called turn-based games now that most of them are played via the internet".
In the early 1990s, the PBM industry still maintained some of the player momentum from the 1980s. For example, in 1993, Flagship magazine listed 185 active play-by-mail games. However, in 1994, David Webber, Paper Mayhem's editor in chief expressed concern about disappointing growth in the PBM community and a reduction in play by established gamers. At the same time, he noted that his analysis indicated that "more and more PBMers are playing fewer games", giving the example of an average drop from 5–6 games per player to 2–3 games, suggesting it could be due to financial reasons. In early 1997, David Webber, stated that multiple PBM game moderators had noted a drop in players over the previous year. In 1999, Rick Loomis stated in 1999 that, "With the growth of the internet, [PBM] seems to have shrunk and a lot of companies dropped out of the business in the last 4 or 5 years." Shannon Appelcline agreed, noting in 2014 that, "The advent of the Internet knocked most PBM publishers out of business."
By the end of the 1990s, the number of PBM publications had also declined. Gaming Universal's final publication run ended in 1988. Paper Mayhem ceased publication unexpectedly in 1998 after Webber's death. Flagship also later ceased publication.[b] In the 21st century, a single PBM magazine exists—Suspense and Decision—which began publication in November 2013. This online magazine is supported by a smaller PBM community than in previous decades.
Advantages and disadvantages of PBM gaming
Judith Proctor noted that play-by-mail games have a number of advantages. These include (1) plenty of time—potentially days—to plan a move, (2) never lacking players to face who have "new tactics and ideas", (3) the ability to play an "incredibly complex" game against live opponents, (4) meeting diverse gamers from far-away locations, and (5) relatively low costs. Related to costs, Rick McDowell, designer of Alamaze, compared PBM costs favorably in 2019 with the high cost of board games at Barnes & Noble, with many going "for around $70", and a top rated game, Nemesis, costing $189. Andrew Greenberg also pointed to the high number of players possible in a PBM game, comparing it to his past failure at attempting once to host a live eleven-player Dungeons and Dragons Game. Flagship Magazine noted in 2005 that "It's normal to play these ... games with international firms and a global player base. Games have been designed that can involve large numbers of players – much larger than can gather for face-to-face gaming."
Greenberg identified a number of drawbacks for play-by-mail games. He stated that the "most obvious" was the cost, because most games require a setup cost and a fee per turn, and some games can become expensive. Another drawback is the lack of face-to-face roleplaying inherent in play-by-mail games. Finally, game complexity in some cases and occasional delays in turn processing can also be negatives in the genre.
Jim Townsend identifies the two key figures in PBM games are the players and the moderators, the latter of which are companies that charge "turn fees" to players—the cost for each game turn. In 1993, Paper Mayhem—a magazine for play-by-mail gamers—described play-by-mail games thusly:
PBM Games vary in the size of the games, turn around time, length of time a game lasts, and prices. An average PBM game has 10–20 players in it, but there are also games that have hundreds of players. Turn around time is the length of time it takes to get your turn back from a company. ... Some games never end. They can go on virtually forever or until you decide to drop. Many games have victory conditions that can be achieved within a year or two. Prices vary for the different PBM games, but the average price per turn [in 1993] is about $5.00.
The earliest PBM games were played using the postal services of the respective countries. In 1990, the average turn-around time for a turn was 2–3 weeks. However, in the 1990s, email was introduced to PBM games. Some games used email solely, while others, such as Hyborian War, used email as options for a portion of turn transmittal, with postal service for the remainder. Other games use digital media or web applications to allow players to make turns at speeds faster than postal mail. Given these changes, the term "turn-based games" is now being used by some commentators.
After the initial setup of a PBM game, players begin submitting turn orders. In general, players fill out an order sheet for a game and return it to the gaming company. The company processes the orders and sends back turn results to the players so they can make subsequent moves.
R. Danard further separates a typical PBM turn into four parts. First, the company informs players on the results of the last turn. Next players conduct diplomatic activities, if desired. Then, they send their next turns to the gamemaster (GM). Finally, the turns are processed and the cycle is repeated. This continues until the game or a player is done.
Jim Townsend stated in a 1990 issue of White Wolf Magazine that PBM games are "much more complex than other types of games" on the average. He notes that PBM games at the extreme high end can have a thousand or more players as well as thousands of units to manage, while turn printouts can range from a simple one-page result to hundreds of pages (with 3–7 as the average).
According to John Kevin Loth, "Novices should appreciate that some games are best played by veterans." He noted in 1986 that Midguard was a "very complex game" with a 100-page instruction manual and "255 possible line entries". Reviewer Jim Townsend asserted that Empyrean Challenge was "the most complex game system on Earth". Other games, like Galactic Prisoners began simply and gradually increased in complexity.
According to Paper Mayhem assistant editor Jim Townsend, "The most important aspect of PBM games is the diplomacy. If you don't communicate with the other players you will be labeled a 'loner', 'mute', or just plain 'dead meat'. You must talk with the others to survive". The editors ofPaper Mayhem add that "The interaction with other players is what makes PBM enjoyable."
Commentator Rob Chapman in a 1983 Flagship article echoed this advice, also recommending that players get to know their opponents. He also recommended asking direct questions of opponents on their future intentions, as their responses, true or false, provide useful information. However, he advises players to be truthful in PBM diplomacy, as a reputation for honesty is useful in the long-term. Chapman notes that "everything is negotiable" and advises players to "Keep your plans flexible, your options open – don't commit yourself, or your forces, to any long term strategy".
Eric Stehle, owner and operator of Empire Games in 1997, stated that some games cannot be won alone and require diplomacy. He suggested considering the following diplomatic points during gameplay: (1) "Know Your Neighbors", (2) "Make Sure Potential Allies Share Your Goals", (3) "Be A Good Ally", (4) "Coordinate Carefully With Your Allies", (5) "Be A Vicious Enemy", and (6) "Fight One Enemy At A Time".
Game types and player roles
Jim Townsend noted in 1990 that "there are literally hundreds" of PBM games available, ranging from "all science fiction and fantasy themes to such exotics as war simulations (generally more complex world war games than those which wargamers play), duelling games, humorous games, sports simulations, etc".
Play-by-mail games also provide a wide array of possible roles to play. These include "trader, fighter, explorer, [and] diplomat". Roles also range from pirates to space characters to "previously unknown creatures". In the game Monster Island, players assume the role of a monster which explores a massive island (see image). And the title of the PBM game You're An Amoeba, GO! indicates an unusual role as players struggle "in a 3D pool of primordial ooze [directing] the evolution of a legion of micro-organisms". Loth advises that closer identification with a role increases enjoyment, but a higher importance of this aspect requires more time searching for the right PBM game.
Closed versus open ended
According to John Kevin Loth III, "in theory, an open ended game lasts forever" and there is no "ultimate goal" or way to win the game. Jim Townsend adds that, "players come and go, powers grow and diminish, alliances form and dissolve and so forth". Since "surviving", rather than winning is primary, this type of game tends to attract players more interested in role playing, and Townsend echoes that open-ended games are similar to long-term RPG campaigns. A drawback of this type is that mature games have "factions of significant power and knowledge" that can pose an unmanageable problem for the beginner—although some may see this situation as a challenge of sorts. Examples of open ended games are Heroic Fantasy, Monster Island, and SuperNova: Rise of the Empire. Townsend noted in 1990 that some open-ended games have been in play for up to a decade.
Townsend states that "closed-ended games are like Risk or Monopoly – once they're over, they're over". Loth notes that most players in closed end games start equally and the games are "faster paced, usually more intense...presenting frequent player confrontation; [and] the game terminates when a player or alliance of players has achieved specific conditions or eliminated all opposition". Townsend stated in 1990 that closed end games can have as few as ten and as many as eighty turns. Examples of closed end games are Hyborian War, It's a Crime, and Starweb.
Companies in the early 1990s also offered games with both open and closed ended versions. Additionally games could have elements of both versions; for example, in Kingdom, an open-ended PBM game published by Graaf Simulations, a player could win by accumulating 50,000 points.
Computer versus human moderated
In the 1980s, play-by-mail gaming companies began utilizing computers to moderate games. To some degree this was an economic decision, as computers allowed the processing of more turns than humans, but with less of a human touch in the prose of a turn result. According to John Kevin Loth III, 100 percent computer moderated games would also kill a player's "character or empire" emotionlessly, regardless of effort invested. Alternatively, Loth noted that those preferring exquisite pages of prose would gravitate toward 100 percent human moderation. Loth provided Beyond the Quadra Zone and Earthwood as popular computer moderated examples in 1986 and Silverdawn and Sword Lords as 100 percent human moderated examples of the period. In 1990, the editors of Paper Mayhem noted that there were games with a mix of computer and hand moderation, where games "would have the numbers run by the computer and special actions in the game would receive attention from the game master".
Cost and turn processing time
Play-by-mail magazine Paper Mayhem stated that the average turn processing time in 1987 was two weeks, and Loth noted that this was also the most popular. In 1986, play-by-email was a nascent service only being offered by the largest PBM companies. In the 21st century, many games of this genre are called turn-based games and are played via the Internet.
Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo Games stated in 1985 that the Nuts & Bolts of PBM (first called Nuts & Bolts of Starweb) was the first PBM magazine not published by a PBM company. The name changed to Nuts & Bolts of Gaming and it eventually went out of print.
John Kevin Loth stated that, in 1986, the "three major information sources in PBM" were Paper Mayhem, Flagship Magazine, and the Play By Mail Association. These sources were solely focused on play-by-mail gaming. Additional PBM information sources included company-specific publications, although Rick Loomis stated that these were "of interest only to their own customers". Finally, play-by-mail gamers could also draw from "alliances, associations, and senior players" for information.
In the mid-1980s, "general gaming magazines" also began venturing into PBM. For example, White Wolf Magazine began a regular PBM column beginning in issue #11 as well as publishing an annual PBM issue beginning with issue #16. The Space Gamer also carried PBM articles and reviews. Additional minor information sources included gaming magazines such as "Different Worlds, Dragon, Game New, Imagine, and White Dwarf".
Besides articles and reviews on PBM games, authors have also published PBM fiction. Simon Williams, the gamemaster of the PBM game Chaos Trail in 2004, also wrote an article in Flagship Magazine about the possibility of writing a PBM fiction novel.
- John W. Kelly, Jr. and Mike Scheid also noted that Jim Dutton "decided to write a short story for each turn and the narrative game was born". Kelley and Scheid did not identify the timeframe or what company Dutton worked for.
- Charles Mosteller, the editor in chief of Suspense and Decision, noted in its November 2013 inaugural issue that Flagship's final issue had been previously published without providing a date. Flagship magazine's webpage lists its most recent issue (No. 130) with a copyright date of 2010.
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