Play-by-mail games are games played through postal mail, email or other digital media. Correspondence chess and Go are 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 have a number of advantages and disadvantages related to other gaming genres. PBM games allow plenty of time—sometimes days or weeks—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. Some games allow the number of opponents or teams in the dozens, even as high as fifty. 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, processes, 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, turn results were sometimes 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.
HistoryThe 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. In these two player games, players send moves directly to each other. Multi-player games emerged later. Diplomacy is an example of this type in which a central game master manages the game, receiving moves and publishing adjudications. 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. 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 game. Schubel & Son introduced fee structure innovations which allowed players to pay additional fees for additional options or special actions outside of the rules. This provided players with larger bankrolls the advantage or 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. By 1980, the PBM field was growing but 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 game, 'Beyond the Stellar Empire', which became "immensely popular". In this same way, many people have 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. Jim 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 run PBM advertisements, and the Origins Awards began a "Best PBM Game" category.
The 1990s brought the onset of the digital age of computers, with many gamers shifting to digital platforms versus play-by-mail games. In 1994, David Webber, the editor-in-chief of Paper Mayhem, stated that the PBM community had been trying to "get more people into PBM gaming" for years with apparently only marginal growth. 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.
However, the shift to the digital age introduced new opportunities as well. PBM companies have introduced play-by-email options or games that are run in a turn-based fashion by email only. Modern PBM game turnaround times have wide enough ranges that commenters are beginning to use the term "turn-based games".
In the early 1990s, the PBM industry still maintained some of the momentum from the 1980s. In 1993, Flagship magazine listed 185 active play-by-mail games. However, over time, the play-by-mail industry has gradually declined.
In 1998, Paper Mayhem magazine ceased publication suddenly after the unexpected death of its longtime editor in chief, David Webber. The last of the play-by-mail magazines started in the 1980s, Flagship, went out of print in 2010. The number of remaining play-by-mail publications is relatively small—mostly newsletters associated with play-by-mail companies, although Suspense and Decision remains as an independent online journal for play-by-mail gamers in the 21st century.
Advantages and disadvantages of PBM gamingJudith Proctor noted that play-by-mail games have a number of advantages. These include plenty of time—potentially days—to plan a move, never lacking players to face who have "new tactics and ideas", the ability to play an "incredibly complex" game against live opponents, meeting diverse gamers from far-away locations, and 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 number of players possible in a multi-player game, comparing it to his past failure at once trying to host an eleven-player Dungeons and Dragons Game.
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.
DescriptionIn 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. The average turnaround time is 2 weeks. 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 is about $5.00.
MechanicsAfter the initial setup of a PBM game, players begin submitting turn orders. In general, players fill out a turn sheet for a game and mail it back to the gaming company. The company processes the turns and sends back turns sheets 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 turn sheets to the gamemaster. Finally, the turn sheets are processed and the cycle is repeated. This continues until the game or a player is done.
DiplomacyAccording 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.
Player rolesPlay-by-mail games provide a wide array of possible roles to play, 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. 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 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 endedAccording 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. In open ended games, the designer has provided a system that enables players to develop with no upper limit. 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.
Loth states that most players in closed end games start equally and the games are "faster paced, usually more intense...presenting frequent player confrontation; the game terminates when a player or alliance of players has achieved specific conditions or eliminated all opposition". Examples of closed end games are Hyborian War, It's a Crime, and Starweb.
Computer versus human moderatedIn the 1980s, play-by-mail gaming companies began leveraging 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.
ComplexityAccording 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.
Cost and turn processing timeLoth noted that, in 1986, $3–5 per turn was the most prevalent cost. At the time, some games were free, while some cost as much as $100 per turn.
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.
Information sourcesof Flying Buffalo Games stated in 1985 that the Nuts & Bolts of PBM 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 magazines such as "Different Worlds, Dragon, Game New, Imagine, and White Dwarf".
Flagship Magazine ran into the 21st Century, but ceased publication in 2010. In November 2013, an online journal for play-by-mail games, Suspense and Decision, began publication.