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The PBM Beat goes on
Charles Mosteller

Time marches on, and with it, the PBM Beat goes on.

Battered, bruised, in some instances no more for this world. But in various different locations secreted across the Internet with its seeming quadrillions of different URL addresses, PBM gaming carries on. Unbowed, undefeated, still in the fight to bring gaming entertainment, fun, and pleasure to the gaming public at large. This describes today's PBM scene.

Play By Mail, but not just play by mail. More options, but still PBM games that do offer turn results in paper format, even if some of them have apparently gone price-crazy in what they charge, now. Hyborian War, I would note, still costs, today, the exact, same amount that it costs when I first started playing it in the 1980s. If you factor in inflation, it's actually cheaper to play Hyborian War, now, than when it first came out. How is that not a good deal?

Because these issues of PBM Chaos tend to grow into fairly large PBM prehistoric beasts, the PBMville: Wild West Shootout stuff will be mailed out separately for Issue #19, also. I thought that this approach worked out well, last issue, so I decided to continue it for this issue, also (Richard Lockwood take note!).

Aside from Richard Lockwood bragging about his plan to hand out Brussles sprouts dipped in chocolate for this Halloween's trick-or-treaters, I didn't pick up on a lot of PBM chatter, since last issue. Of course, how far that I venture to and fro in search of PBM word goodies has been scaled back, compared to what it used to be a number of months (or even years) ago.

There's always some PBM chatter taking place. Websites, forum sites, discussion groups on the Web, and now Discords and their multitude of different channels all collectively generate a continuous flow of PBM-related material. My inclination to jump through PBM hoops is not what it once was, for better or for worse. Trying to track down interesting tidbits about PBM can be a very time-consuming pastime. I try to keep it all a manageable hobby for myself. Hopefully, others will begin to rise tot he occasion, and bring the PBM "stuff" to PBM Chaos - but will that actually happen? It could, but will it?

Since last issue, I have begun to "explore" that Champions of Middle-earth module a bit more. I didn't go overboard into my exploration into it, but I have begun to read that module. Thus far, I have encountered several things about it that I like, and at least one thing that I don't like. Of course, how things look on paper and sound in theory can frequently be quite different from how they actually plan out in reality, once put to the test. Even still, that John Davis of Middle-earth Games has succeeded in nudging me closer towards playing it warrants a kudos to him. I'm a stronger "maybe" on Champions of Middle-earth than I was, before.

The truth be told, and in case you hadn't guessed it by now, I probably derive at least as much enjoyment from discussing PBM gaming as I derive from actually playing PBM games. So, like the Black Númenórean who is the Mouth of Sauron, I continue to spout all kinds of stuff about play by mail gaming in an unending stream, assailing all within earshot of the greatness of PBM.

I'm sure that it probably all gets to be a bit tiring, at times, but the Ring of Power that is PBM seems to work its will upon me, regardless.

Halloween is almost upon us, now, so do try to enjoy this upcoming occasion. Here, it isn't really treated as a holiday, per se, but from my perspective, Halloween is oen of the most fun times of the year.

Almost as much fun as PBM!

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Is that still a PBM for you?

How do you see that? For example, Galac-Tac is no longer really played via email, both the input and the reports run via the website. Is that still a PBM for you?

Best regards,

Stefan Graf

Aming has ALWAYS been a form of turn-based gaming. The medium of postal delivery facilitated another way to play what are, in essence, turn-based games. Change is a constant in life, and technology is always progressing. PBM gaming, originally, encompassed turn orders filled out by ink pens or pencils. Many these days fill out their turn orders using computers and keyboards. Is "real" PBM gaming determined by the medium of delivery? Or by the methodology of filling out turns? Or is one an acceptable component for change, and the other is not?

As an American, we have a First Amendment and a Second Amendment in our United States Constitution. Should the First Amendment's constitutional protections and guarantees only apply to what existed more than two hundred years ago? In legal cases impacted by American constitutional law principles and considerations, there is debate, these days, over what does or does not qualify as "lineal descendants" - of the press, of speech and expression (think Internet), of firearms. And this is from whence my characterizations of some modern PBM games being "lineal descendants of PBM games" are derived.

The Hyborian War that I was playing in my recently-finished game (HW-982 as Nemedia) is EXACTLY the same Hyborian War that I was playing in my first game of Hyborian War in the mid-to-late 1980s (HW-85 as Asgard). There's no substantive difference. Certainly, I grasp what some might deem to be "PBM purists" think, and where they come from. But when I also consider the fact that many PBM games over the years offered more than just one medium or methodology of delivery (postal, e-mail, web interface, etc.), simultaneously, should I begrudge GMs who seek to reduce costs (eliminate postage costs, eliminate paper costs, etc.), and who seek to facilitate faster turnaround time for turn results to be delivered to the gamers who are playing the same game(s), no matter what the medium or methodology of delivery is?

Rick Loomis created what was a turn-based game to and deliberately made it playable by mail. In creating the commercial PBM industry, he set precedent to apply a different technology and methodology of delivery, as a viable approach to playing turn-based games. or said another way, Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo fame embraced technology to revolutionize turn-based gaming. Accordingly, we are not precluded from carrying on that tradition, today. Thus, I embrace PBM.

The very fact that numerous games playable, today, were once fully considered to be PBM games, I ask myself if those games ceased to be what they originally were? And in more than one case, they remain the same game. And what we, as individuals and as a society, choose to call and to label things, is the label that we apply to something the only consideration worthy of being considered? Are we all precluded from calling the same thing by different names? Not in my book.

Why not just dispense with the term PBM, altogether? Because I think that history is worth remembering, and PBM history helps to inform us, as gamers.

Rick McDowell, the creator and designer of Alamaze, at one time wanted us all to stop calling games (that we called and considered to be PBM games) PBM games, and to start calling them Episodic games, I told him, back then, that the word episodic wasn't in most people's vocabulary. I understood well why he wanted to "move away from" the term PBM (few games were played via the postal service, anymore), but it made no real sense to me that one would choose a term that is utterly alien to the average, ordinary person's everyday vocabulary. Is the term PBM in everybody's vocabulary? Of course not, but it is well-grounded in gaming history. Hyborian War isn't just a turn-based game. It is also very much a PBM game.

Is Chess any different a game, if played face-to-face or online, or by modem, or via the postal service? I don't think so. My own efforts with creating and "publishing" PBM magazines or newsletters, are they not magazines or newsletters, simply because I don't go to the expense of having copies printed in physical form, that I then have to incur even more costs, in order to mail them via the postal service to people all over the country or the world?

In a nutshell, I think that a number of things that the PBM gaming community as a whole quibble over can be interesting or thought-provoking, as a matter of DISCUSSION, at the end of the day we are still talking about turn-based-games. With Hyborian War, one can send their turn orders in via e-mail, or they can probably still call them in or fax them in (as they could in days of old), but you still receive your turn results via the postal service. So, maybe Hyborian War has become a hybrid-PBM game, but what is hybrid is the methodologies of sending and receiving of turns, and not an actual change tot he games, themselves. And decades ago, PBM gamers routinely would telephone their turn orders in. So, quite possibly, PBM games have always, or very nearly so, been games "playable " via more than one form of technology, simultaneously.

Me? I'm not the grand arbiter of all things PBM. We are each, as individuals, free to consider PBM games to be whatever we think them to be. I think that both the world and gaming are big enough for us all to think what we want to on the subject of what PBM games should or should not be called. And through it all, though all of our confusion and disagreement and ponderings, the games keep on existing and running and delivering gaming enjoyment, in spite of our inability as thinkers on such subjects to reach common accord over what are, when you boil it all down, labels. It's like of the what is the "right way" to pronounce the word "pecan?" Is it "pee-con" or is it "puh-con or is it pa-kawn?" The nut, itself, doesn't taste any different, either way.

We live in what has been termed an "oft disputatious society." We disagree, and we love and we hate to disagree, simultaneously. Should we change the name of chess, simply because it is playable by more than one medium of delivery? And what problem, exactly, would that fix, I wonder?

And so it is that I talk, even today, about PBM gaming. I talk about it, frequently. PBM is both a term of art - and more. 

Charles Mosteller

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To be or not to be? To betray or not to betray?

Charles Mosteller

Recently, I decided to "surrender" in one of the games of Alamaze that I am playing in. Specifically, I decided to depart the contest-that-wasn't that is Alamaze 5663 - where I played the kingdom of the Dwarves.

The turn before I ended my participation in that game, I noticed that the Underworld kingdom had decided to move against me. On Turn #17, a Level 8 agent of mind was kidnapped, and in the same turn, at least three different Underworld political emissaries were discovered in Dwarven population centers. Reckon this was all a mere coincidence?

And to think, way back on Turn #4, my Dwarves had declared the Underworld to be an ally. For the very reason that so many players had already dropped out of this particular game of Alamaze, it had long since become little more than a sandbox game for me - one where I moved military groups around, exploring and attacking Human or Neutral population centers. I wasn't really at war with anyone, and hadn't been for the entire game. Emotionally, I wasn't really invested in this game to any real degree.

One of my final acts in my final set of turn orders issued was to reverse course on considering the Underworld kingdom to be an ally, declaring it, now, to be an enemy. Clearly, my early declaration of the Underworld to be an ally proved to be of no value nor worth to the Underworld player. Accordingly, I then detached all value and worth from continuing on in this particular game of Alamaze.

Granted, the Underworld player had never declared the Underworld to be the Dwarves' ally. At no point in this "game" have I ever suffered under any self-inflicted delusion that such was ever the case. Clearly, the Underworld player attached no sense of loyalty to my early declaration of the Underworld as an ally, and when he finished trying to be clever and to begin sneaking in on Turn #17, when his treachery took full form on Turn #18, I felt no loyalty to that player - not even to the point of extended the undeserved courtesy unto him of granting him the privilege of war. He wanted my kingdom's holdings so bad, so I decided to accommodate the scoundrel, and let him have my entire kingdom.

He didn't consult me, before he put his plans of treachery into motion, so I certainly did not owe him any non-existent reciprocal courtesy of informing him that my interest in playing in Game 5663 had run its course. As game 5663 was one of my designated Learning Games of Alamaze, winning or losing was not a factor in my decision. Indeed, I have deliberately spent a LOT of time on the losing end, in various Learning Games of Alamaze that I have been playing in over the course of the last few months. And in that span of time, I've actually learned quite a lot about Alamaze - both good and bad.

In a recent e-mail to me, veteran Alamaze player Dan Warncke, aka Wookie Panz, told me, "It fun for me to see you learning the different aspects of the game. There are so many layers to learn and it takes time to peal the onion. When I started playing, my first goal was to last until the end of the game. It didn’t happen in my first game. After that, my goal was to make a podium finish. That’s one of the top three places. That took quite a while. It took years before I actually won a game by myself, but before that, I was in a few team games with veteran players, and that’s where I really learned quickly. I enjoy passing stuff on, it’s kind of like paying it forward."

Thus, even a diehard Alamaze player such as Woozie Panz seems to concur that I am learning the different aspects of Alamaze. Simultaneously, I have never forgotten what straight up treachery is in PBM games. I recognize it when I see it, and especially when it is visited upon me, first hand.

Had the Underworld player simply extended the courtesy unto me of asking me for a war between our kingdoms, I may well have granted him such a request. Instead, he chose to try and be clever - yet he didn't end up being clever by half.

Kidnap Agent 8 Mace was kidnapped! Guards pursued the agents and nearly caught them, but somehow they escaped in the dark.

UN Prince Drobo Stormcloud OR Desolation Circ Successfully relocated base to the town of Desolation Circle. UN Baron Osanova Darkheart QQ Frandor Successfully relocated base to the village of Frandor. UN Count Elquelian RS Harpoon Successfully relocated base to the village of Harpoon.

    Game 5663 - Turn #17

When I departed game 5663, the Dwarves had no less than 38 brigades in military service to my kingdom. I had 2 Warlords, 2 Grand Marshals, 1 Marshal, 1 General, 2 Captains, and 1 Centurion under my command. Thus, I was not without options at my disposal.

Recently, the new owner of Alamaze dropped a game of Alamaze that I was playing in. Come to find out, he had been in eight games of Alamaze (whereas I was only in seven), but if the owner of Alamaze can drop a game that he's playing in, then so can I. So can any player, for that matter.

One thing that I have taken note of, since I began playing in these Learning Games of Alamaze is that experienced players of Alamaze have developed a number of habits. In Hyborian War, the meta-game tends to yield more fun for me than the game, itself. And the meta-game, you see, involves the player aspect more than any aspect of the game's mechanics or rules.

Nothing quite like a good old fashioned sneak attack, huh? Well, nothing quite like a good old fashioned sneak departure, either. If sneakiness is good for the Underworld goose, then sneakiness is good for the Dwarven gander, also.

As a general rule of thumb, sneak attacks tend to work much better in games where players are emotionally invested in the outcome. In Game 5663, the Underworld player never lifted so much as a single finger, to develop an emotional attachment by me to that game. If treachery is one's ambition in a wargame, one really should learn to dot all of the I's and to cross all of the T's, before indulging one's self in the inherently undeserved luxury of treachery.

To be certain, the Underworld player owed me no notice of his planned intention to attack me. Likewise, to be certain, I owed this player no notice of my intention to deprive him of the glory of war to the lees.

He wanted my kingdom, and now, he has it. At least, as soon as he can take over all of those former Dwarven population centers, which by now are a combination of Human and Neutral controlled.

His path of treachery was in pursuit of an easier war, and now, he has been gifted a much easier war. Plus, it saves me time, by now having one less game of Alamaze to bother with. It turned out to be a win-win development for both of us.

In Hyborian War, my usual modus operandi was to provoke confrontation and conflict with other players. In essence, I would seek to "motivate" other players to wage war with my kingdom, even to the point of my kingdom's utter destruction. Losing, believe it or not, and as I have said before, can be as much fun as winning (if not more so).

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

In games of Alamaze, when experienced players operate on their assumptions that a population center which starts under another player's control in the main region that most of their kingdom's assets are located somehow is theirs, it has by-now become a standard practice of mine to teach them the error of their ways, the error of their assumptions. Treachery does not come without a price all its own. It is error to think or to believe otherwise.

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And what of my other Alamaze games?

Game 5684 - Underworld
My interest in this game of Alamaze has begun to pick up, again. That is one thing that I will say that Alamaze has going for it. Even if your interest in it begins to wane, at times, interest will begin to pick up, again.

Right now, two things happening in Game 5684 are acting as accelerants for interest for me. One is the entry of the Sorcerer kingdom into war against the Halfling kingdom, which I previously "nuked" two villages of by calling down meteor strikes on their heads. The other is the fact that I am still calling down meteor strikes on other population centers on the opposite end of the map, at present.

With 30 turns behind me, now, honestly and truly, I couldn't care less about winning or losing this game. For now, it suffices that I can nuke other kingdoms, even if I am only doing it a village at a time. I find myself laughing, each and every turn that I do this. Wizards calling down meteor strikes, and with frequency at that. Whoever heard of such a thing?

Game 5693 - Underworld
One could call this my Hell Game, I suppose, in that it has long since become an exercise in extended misery. We are headed into Turn #39, and my kingdom hasn't been a viable position in quite some time.

Be that as it may, I have begun to derive some long overdue joy, in the form my agents and fanatics carrying out an ever-growing campaign of theft and sabotage, not to mention the occasional kidnapping or assassination.

Gold is tight in this one, and food  is even tighter. I don't even fret over whether I can issue enough orders to fill all of my available order slots for any given turn. This one, I'm in it for the long haul, and the truth be told, I have lost a good bit of respect for my enemies' seeming inability to rid this game of my presence.

Game 5703 - Demon Princes

The object of my Alamaze affection, the darling of my Alamaze eye. This particular game of Alamaze is where I derive the most delight - both on the winning and on the losings of particular battles or interactions.

My kingdom of the Demon Princes (the nicest guys and gals that you'd ever hope to meet) showcases my best effort at playing Alamaze, to date. Not that that says very much, in and of itself, but I did manage to assassinate a military leader of the red Dragon, this most recent turn.

Hah! If I'm not mistaken, that's the first time that I've assassinated a military leader, since I first began playing Alamaze. Heretofore, I have concentrated my assassination efforts on political emissaries and agents. It was all the sweeter to em that it was a Red Dragon military leader who proved to be the first one to bite dust.

In the turn scheduled to process this upcoming Monday, I've decided to try some new tricks - hopefully, to the detriments of my enemies.

My kingdom's military strength and military leadership was utterly annihilated in a couple of battles just a few turns back. But I ain't going anywhere, anytime soon, as my namesake Demon Prince characters continue to be banes to my enemies, with their political rebelling and usurpation of enemy population centers, aided greatly by their ability to utilize demonic gates to zip around the map.

It's been a few turns, since I last bestowed Hell's generosity upon my Atlantean ally, so this last turn, I did manage to gift his kingdom a hundred thousand units of food. A lot of my kingdom's food tends to spoil each turn, anyway, so by giving large chunks of it away, my kingdom is really no worse off (thus far, anyway).

Game 5703 of Alamaze has proven itself to be a real joy to me, and it continues to retain my interest.

Game 5705 - Warlock
For a long while, now (a very long while, actually), Game 5705 has been a grand traipse through the very heart of boredom, itself. Finally, though, my interest meter is starting to peg. Will it last, though, as I had already long since given up hope for this particular game of Alamaze.

Not a lot to report, yet, but I finally detect a heartbeat of interest from myself in this Warlock position. You know, the Warlock kingdom that has no actual warlock characters to command. Just a bunch of wizards. Pah!

Game 5712 - Cimmerians
Oh dread of dreads, and boredom of boredoms, Game 5712 is a catastrophe with end, it seems.

No real food or gold to speak of, my kingdom of the Cimmerians is held hostage to some very questionable game design decisions. What a death spiral that Alamaze makes a reality for players who have no real gold or food assets to speak of!

Can't do this, can't do that, can't do much of anything. Can someone please remind me why I am still playing in this abomination of a game with this morass of boredom incarnate that is the Cimmerians kingdom?

My characters, what very few remain, continue to be assailed by assassins. Even my king has bitten the dust!

I continue to ask myself, where the Cimmerians in Game 5712 are concerned, why am I still here? To drop this game would be a true mercy to myself. What is a player supposed to do to entertain themselves, when their kingdom and the game that they are in have long since lost their interest?

You see, this is where I think that Alamaze goes wrong, in its basic design priorities. I have experienced, first-hand, many fun and exciting things, while playing in various different games of Alamaze. Plus, too, I still haven't had to sit and try to force myself to read the entire Alaamze rulebook, buffet-style.

But then, too, there have been too many instances where boredom creeps in, and a litany of instances where I have found myself with a kingdom that can't really seem to do much of consequence, either for me or against my enemies.

Lose control of your region, and there is no safe harbor for your troops' morale - even if parked right outside one of your population centers. From the perspective of "Is this fun?" - all too often my answer to myself is, "No, this is anything but fun."

I don't begrudge my Ranger and Lizard enemies their successes, but I do begrudge myself investing so much of my time in a game that seems utterly incapable, by deign, at providing me a fun and entertaining gaming experience.

In its current form, I would never willingly choose to play the kingdom of the Cimmerians, again. In a nutshell, this kingdom and this game of Alamaze have sucked, sucked, sucked, all the way through.

If the Ranger player had not launched a sneak attack against me early on, and had instead left my Cimmerians and the untrustworthy Lizards to ourselves, then perhaps my feelings about the Cimmerians kingdom could have blossomed under more favorable conditions. I'm not sure how, but I'm willing to extend the benefit of the doubt.

But when suddenly and unexpectedly faced off with the prospect of fighting two kingdoms with a kingdom that struck me as being starved for gold to begin with, I just never found a solution to a rapidly-worsening dilemma. With Alamaze designed as it currently is (I'll take this moment to pray for some major change in the game's underlying design), my kingdom entered a death spiral quickly, one from which it has never recovered, and which has only continued to get worse.

Game 5728 - Demon Princes

This game is still in its beginning stage, and not much has happened yet. Alamaze being what it is, the familiar build-up activities are the routine that one falls into. For some reason, PBM games seem to never have evolved much past the "Let's forces players to build and grow their kingdom/position, instead of just letting them enjoy a full serving of power and capability right off the bat."

It's not that there's nothing interesting to be found in the mundane routine of building up a position. Rather, there are times when I feel as if that particular horse in game design has been beaten to death. Is the "tried but true" build-up routine the best that PBM gaming can ever hope to offer a gaming public that, over the years and decades, seem to have begun to look elsewhere for their entertainment pleasures?

As Game 5728 progresses, I will try to share more thoughts in more detail, at a later time. For now, this is all that you get, but my other Demon Princes game gives me great hope for this game. I've already begin making "beginner mistakes" in this one, but nothing that I shouldn't be unable to recover from.

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