From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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 and George Schubel of Schubel and Son in the 1970s. 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 moves 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, the first professional magazine devoted to play-by-mail games. A similar publication, Flagship, focused on British and European PBM games. Flagship has evolved into a general gaming magazine, with minimal PBM coverage. 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.
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.
See also play-by-post role-playing game.
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 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.
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. That it was hugely labour intensive to run and moderate was certainly true, but it remains the best cerebral reconstruction of Medieval power-politics ever designed. Where Lies the Power was also popular, covering all the classic space-opera themes. Although occasionaly slow turn around led to it being dubbed "Where Lies the Turn" by some, the basic games design and mechanics remains unchallanged for it's vast galactic scope. 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. 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.
"To make a small fortune in Play by Mail, start with a large fortune..." Judith Proctor, GM, Delenda est Carthago.
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:
- Quantum Space, designed and programmed by Don Daglow, on the QuantumLink, PC-Link and AppleLink services (later unified and renamed AOL), (1989-1991). AOL Founder Steve Case personally supported the project.
- Rebel Space, designed by Daglow, Mark Buchignani, David Bunnett and Hudson Piehl, which ran on Prodigy from 1992 to 1994.
Several non-commercial email games played on the Internet and BITNET predate these.
- Chess (first game known to be played by mail)
- Diplomacy (game) (first non-public-domain game known to be played by mail; first game to generate a broad hobby of postal gaming zines)
- A list of thousands of PBM games
- FAQ: Play by email (PBEM) role-playing games
- Mission From God -- Guide to the amateur PBM in the UK
- Play By Email (PBEM) Players -- Articles for players of PBEM games
- The Tangerine Terror -- PBM 'zine for wargames and strategy games