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Issue 6

PlayByMail Mailing List

Chaos strikes! It appears that my MailChimp account for this whole PlayByMail.Net ball of wax is beginning to bump up against the limits of the free account that I was using there, and so I made the decision to try and find a replacement - one that would give us more breathing room for the mailing list, going forward. So, now and for the foreseeable future, I will be using Sender for PlayByMail.Net's mailing list duties.

Hopefully, this change will serve us well!

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Calidor speaks to the new owner of Alamaze


Hey Brek- Here is my honest opinion. Alamaze as it exists is too complicated. Over the years it has grown and been tailored to the 20 or so players that stuck with the game, got bored with doing the same thing, and thus wanted to add more and more mechanics. It's fine for the expert, but it's simply overwhelming. Even starting the game is overwhelming when you have to pick from something around 35 kingdoms. Then you have to pick a region, and they all have a large variability between major cities, terrain, Summer/Winter, bordering kingdoms, and a crazy amount of bonuses to things like influence, production, fleets, companions. Then right off the bat you have to pick ESOs and Customization for your kingdom (if new players even remember). Many Kingdoms have unique rules just for them.

Then your first turn arrives and you have a 300 page rulebook to wade though. Maybe I am just out of touch, but to me that's a daunting expectation of a potential new player. In the past I have advocated for different levels of Alamaze. One for the "Masters" which is what you have now. But then another for the true new folks which maybe has a smaller map, less kingdom choices, and a far reduced rulebook. The last would be in between. Now I know there are challenges to that from both a resource perspective (your time/money) and from the idea of further splintering a small player base. But just look at the game I am in now (with you and Lutty). I think half or close to half of the players have dropped by turn 6. That kind of says it all about the state of the game for new players. There is no current cost to play, so it only takes time, and those folks still decided it wasn't worth their time to continue.

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JulianTheApostate disagrees with Calidor

JulianTheApostate — 09/24/2023

Opinions will differ, of course, according to taste, but I disagree. I don't find the game too complicated, and I just came back to playing it very recently and only played it enough the last time, more than a decade ago, to get wiped out early without accomplishing anything. But then, I like complexity in games.

What I will say is that not everything that should be known is explained in the rules. For instance, just learned from an experienced player in one of the games I'm playing in that for groups, at least, you can have them do more than one thing in a turn by clicking Extra Orders and giving the same group another order, so you can have them attack or recruit and then move. That's a big change from the one or the other order as I had been playing up to now and obviously speeds developments up considerably. On the other hand, thinking it would apply equally to other categories, I tried having a wizard support an encounter and then summon later after the group it was in moved, only to get the verify orders message that the wizard had already performed its one allowed action for the turn.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don't!

Alamaze, like numerous other PBM games or their lineal descendants (online, e-mail, web, etc.), struggles with numerous challenges posed to it by the modern era of gaming. How to grow the size of its overall player base is not a new challenge to a PBM game, nor is it particularly unique to Alamaze.

Complexity in game design is a double-edged sword. With an increase in complexity of game design, there is also a natural accompanying of increased complexity in rules and other game-related documentation (beginner's guide, help files, player aids, etc.). A countervailing force and consideration is intuitiveness, in both game design, itself, as well as in a game's supporting documentation. At what point does a game acquire too much complexity mass, that it begins breaking apart under the Roche limit of player confusion?

PBM gaming's history is replete with instances of both simplicity in game design and overarching complexity in game design. Game design, it would seem, seems to always outrun the pace of accompaning game documentation. How many pages of explanations does - or should - a PBM game require, in order to inculcate all would-be players of it?

The more intuitive that a game's design and any accompanying game interface is, the less baggage that is needed in the form of supporting documentation. I first played Alamaze well over thirty years ago, quickly decided that it wasn't for me, and never tried it, again, until decades later - when it was playable online, rather than in paper format with turn results arriving via the postal service.

When I tried it, again, at the beginning of this year, what I ran smack dab into was a combination of misguided rulebook evangelism and confusion atop confusion. Accordingly, I had (from my perspective) every reason that I needed to avoid Alamaze like the plague, and never bother with it, again.

Fast forward several months, and I now count myself an Alamaze advocate, though simultaneously, I remain a vocal critic of numerous things about the game. I challenge any and all PBM gamers, however, to show me a PBM game, no matter how popular that it was or is, which has zero critics.

From what I have been able to gather over the years, Empyrean Challenge by Vern Holford may well have been the apex of complexity in PBM game design. Honestly, I don't think that Alamaze even remotely approaches that degree and level of complexity in game design. Indeed, where Alamaze is concerned, the complexity of the game's design is, in my considered opinion (speaking as someone who is currently playing in six different games of Alamaze, simultaneously), rather manageable, all things considered.

Where Alamaze screws the pooch, so to speak, is in select instances of interface design choices (though overall, the Alamaze game interface actually facilitates learning the game), entrenched rulebook worship that promotes flawed orthodoxy, and an identity crisis of both what it wants to be and which version of itself it wants to be.

If you choose to play Alamaze, you are not gonna run into a bunch of bugs. Thus far, where my own first-hand playing of Alamaze is concerned, turns process like clockwork. Of all of the PBM games currently running that I am aware of, both postal and digital varieties, Alamaze isn't lagging behind any of them, in terms of innovation and programming. Rather, Alamaze has been cast into relative obscurity among gamers, due to the wholesale lack of any real marketing effort getting it before the gaming masses at large. In a curious turn of events, advertising and marketing are probably easier, today, than ever before (though competition is enormously intense), but PBM companies are, by and large, worse at advertising and marketing than ever. Go figure!

In Alamaze's favor, it has a new owner, one who brings with him energy, a true passion for the game product that he bought from its prior owner, and some resources and network connections that should be able to serve Alamaze well, when he gets things refined to the point that he begins to advertise and market Alamaze in earnest. He's also proven himself to be quite adept at embracing and enduring criticism of shortcomings in areas where Alamaze can be improved. I know, because I have inundated him the last couple of months or more with countless e-mails and messages pertaining to all kinds of things about Alamaze, its design, its programming, its website, its forum, and its litany of supporting documentation.

Alamaze has 32 different kingdoms that players can choose from. Hyborian War, by comparison, has 36 player kingdoms that players can choose from, when deciding to play. Thus, the number of kingdoms available for Alamaze players to choose from to play isn't really where the problem lies. Human beings, by their very nature, tend to like to have choices to choose from. This is true, both in and out of gaming.

The entrenched orthodoxy of "how one should learn to play Alamaze" warrants being challenged at every turn. The almost three hundred page rulebook (293 pages, to be exact) is hefty, indeed. However, it is also the end result of multiple documents being merged into what is perceived by some to be a more comprehensive - and convenient - whole. I am currently playing in a half-dozen different games of Alamaze, but I haven't discovered any actual need to read the entire thing, here months later. That big, thick rulebook is something that players can reference, at their own pace and as they encounter new things in the game that they need to brush up on. When you buy a bunch of groceries at the grocery store, that doesn't mean that you need to eat them all in one meal.

Anybody that tells you that you need to read that big Alamaze rulebook, before you give the game a try and start having fun, doesn't really know what they are talking about. How many times have I opened the PDF copy of the Alamaze rulebook? More times than I can remember. How much of the Alamaze rulebook have I not actually read, yet? Most of it, if I had to venture a guess. Plus, everything that one needs to know about Alamaze isn't contained in that very same rulebook, anyway.

If one were to gather all of the rulebooks, starting guides, help files, and other assorted documentation associated with all PBM games currently on the market and available for play, and were to cross-compare them to one another, what one would likely find is that the 293 page Alamaze rulebook isn't an outlier. Documentation, websites, even game-related wikis all seek to make PBM games more accessible to new players. Anyone who thinks that PBM games are dead obviously hasn't taken a look at the vast assortment of PBM documentation that has proliferated with the passage of time.

Generally speaking, rulebooks are not the apex of advertising and marketing tools. Rather, they are behind-the-scenes tools that support the learning of the game. In and of themselves, they do not constitute de facto embodiments of self-executing familiarization with the games that they exist for and were created for.

Are there things about playing (or trying to learn to play) Alamaze that annoy me, or that drive me right up the wall? Oh, absolutely! No doubt about it. But how many different PBM games could I say the exact, same thing about? And say what you want to about Alamaze, the very fact that I am playing it, and playing it like crazy by being in so many games of it, currently, speaks volumes about how Alamaze's complexity can be overcome.

No, it's not a game that you learn in a day. Rome wasn't built in a day, and you don't learn everything about Alamaze in a day, either. That's just a plain, indisputable fact!

The real measure of a game, though, is whether it is fun or not. Volume-wise, how much fun does Alamaze package for prospective players? A shit-ton of it, that's how much!

Can Alamaze be improved? Yes. Is it being improved? It is. Can obstacles and impediments to learning the game be reduced, or in some instances, outright eliminated? They can. What it requires is time, effort, energy, resources, and commitment.

One question well worth asking is, where each nuance of game design choices is concerned, how much fun factor does each one of them add to, or detract from, the game and the experience that is Alamaze? Some game design choices are the equivalent of force-multipliers, whereas others are questionable, as far as what they bring to the table for players. And some things are just pain too hard to do, especially if you do a basic comparison of how hard other things in the same game are to do. Quite a number of things in Alamaze are actually very easy to do. And that, I think, is something that all too often gets left unsaid. And when you also factor in that many individuals who give Alamaze a try don't exactly put forth a yeoman's effort to actually learn the game, the relatively small size of Alamaze's current player base turns out to be less of a surprise.

Alamaze's player base has plenty of room for growth. With some changes that are going to be taking place in forthcoming weeks and months, I think that Alamaze has a real chance of growing its player base. The underlying game product it offers to the gaming public is quite fun. I can - and do - recommend it, but you really do need to give yourself at least a six-turn window, for the basics of the game interface to really begin to sink in. If you only make a half-assed attempt to learn the game, then odds are that you won't successfully make the transition to adding Alamaze to your repertoire of gaming entertainment.

Charles Mosteller

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