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Issue 9

Getting Started In PBM

One of the greatest of challenges standing in the way of growing the size of the overall PBM player base is helping newcomers to play by mail gaming become actual players.n If they don't start playing, then in a nutshell, everything else is moot. Just getting newcomers started playing a PBM game can literally be the highest hurdle that any PBM company or GM can face.

On its face, this can come across as a fairly simple task. Ah, if things were only that easy. But they're not. For if they were, then PBM gaming would never have shrank to begin with. Back in the golden era of play by mail gaming, PBM GMs and PBM companies thought that competition was stiff. Well, that was nothing compared to the competitive headwinds that PBM companies and GMs face, today.

One reality that has dawned since the early days of PBM gaming is that entertainment options for consumers have expanded exponentially. There was no Netflix back then, nor any Amazon Prime, nor Hulu, nor any of countless different streaming entertainment options which have proliferated in recent years.

Oh, sure, those aren't games, per se, but they are entertainment, and entertainment, in its vast array of options and offerings, threaten to crowd PBM gaming out, altogether. Because PBM games are a form of entertainment, not just a form of gaming. How many ways do human beings spend time pursuing leisure of every sort?

Before you can even start worrying about how to smooth the transition for PBM gamers, you first have to figure out how to get their attention. Streaming video, video on demand, high definition graphics, high resolution imagery - these things and countless vie for the attention of the human mind. To compete with all of that, what has the PBM industry brought to the table, lately?

Not a lot, really.

Not that I can see, anyway. Hell, these days, there are a variety of A.I. (artificial intelligence) options for art generation. And in very recent memory, who in the PBM industry was leading the pack in exploiting this new option available to PBM companies and GMs? Roy Pollard who was, until recently, running The Isles PBeM game.

Not the PBM companies who currently have licenses for very well-known intellectual properties for PBM gaming purposes, of which there are but two that come immediately to mind - Middle-earth PBM and Hyborian War.

I'm as firm of a believer in the concept of repurposing of imagery as anybody that you are likely to find. Even still, at some point, new imagery associated with PBM games need to enter the visual stream of the gaming public. I know that the new owner of Alamaze is making some use of A.I. created art on the new Alamaze website, but within the game, itself, what new imagery has arrived in recent times to be paraded before the eyes of gamers? None, that I'm aware of.

While it was never a role that I initially envisioned taking on, way back when, as things have worked out, it appears that one of my functions is to be a beater of dead horses. Time and time, again, I pound the Table of Contemplation, in attempts to drive home certain points. And truthfully, for the most part, my words continue to fall on deaf ears.

I challenge all of our readers to take a guess - How much of a budget do you think that PBM companies and GMs allocate for new PBM-related art? Forget the GMs running PBM games for free for a moment, and focus only on the commercial PBM sector.

Finite resources limit what can be spent, obviously, but extend your view back for years on end, or even decades on end, and do you end up with the feeling that PBM companies and GMs have ever really made visual imagery to attract newcomers an actual top priority? If you don't use visual imagery where you can, then where will you use it at? When was the absolute height of the PBM industry making widespread use of imagery in PBM ads? The 1980s, maybe?

If you don't grab their eye, how do you hope to get them started playing PBM games? And if they don't start playing PBM games, how do you hope to grow your player base?

This issue of PBM Chaos features a new Middle-earth PBM ad, albeit one with repurposed artwork, along with more than 20 text links to articles and tips aimed at helping newcomers get started playing the PBM game that is Middle-earth PBM. This compilation of links stretches back to the year 1991 - thirty-two years ago!

Video game systems brought the arcade experience into people's homes. These days, there's tons of boardgaming websites and blogs featuring a plethora of visual imagery aimed at grabbing the human eye. Computer gamers have websites like Steam to help pull them in. What's PBM gaming's plan to compete with the massive proliferation of entertainment-oriented imagery and websites? Or is there even a plan?

Maybe there's a multitude of plans across the PBM industry and hobby. Fair enough, but what are they? Are they secret plans? Are they confidential plans? Are they too important to share? What's the word that I'm looking for? Are they proprietary?

Since commercial PBM gaming first appeared on the scene decades ago in the 1970s, shareware came about. That was in the 1980s. These days, the open source concept gets bandied about a lot. I use some of it, myself. Open source is a lot more prevalent, now, than it was in past years. Some of it is better than others.

Some PBM games are better than others also, though in truth, everybody doesn't like to play the same games, nor the same types of games. PBM gaming used to offer a vastly greater variety of games for the public to play. There's still more PBM games out there, today, if you include digital lineal descendants along with paper format PBM games, than at first meets the eye. Who among them all, though, is at the vanguard of the visual cutting edge, as it relates to PBM gaming?

Getting newcomers to start playing PBM games isn't the actual start of the whole process. Rulebooks, beginners guides, player aids, and all kinds of different stuff aimed at "helping" newcomers to PBM games all all fine and dandy, especially in theory, but in actual practice, you have to succeed at getting players attracted to your PBM game products, before that array of ancillary stuff comes into play.

So, whenever you think about starting points, it might behoove you to actually start at the very beginning.

PBM Quote

I played a number of classic PBM games back in the 80s -- Battle Plan,

Its A Crime, Monster Island, Silverdawn, Out-Time Days, and a few

others. And the grand-daddy of all close-ended computer-moderated space

empire games -- Empyrean Challenge. I spent hundreds of dollars,

obsessed over drafting orders, waited with extreme anticipation for the

mail to come, collaborated and conspired often, and even ran a

newsletter for my team on EC. At intervals I wanted to run my own PBM


The reason I dropped off had nothing to do with the internet. It had a

fair amount to do with the *expense* of it all. And there was the

perennial problem of having other players drop out -- usually well over

50%, even for games that held a deposit. And finally, some games were

starting to become available to scratched that itch while playing them

at home -- board games and computer games.

- Ixnay (01-07-2011)

[Click HERE to read the entirety of what Ixnay had to say.]

Middle-earth PBM image ad

Articles for new Middle-earth PBM players

The Encyclopedia of Arda

A fabulous online resource focused upon Tolkien's realms and peoples.


Talisman Games

Galac-tac image ad for Talisman Games
Alamaze image ad for Old Man Games, LLC.


There are some people out there who think that I never read rulebooks - even for PBM games that I play. After all, I never tend to hide my disdain for rulebooks, which are frequently text-dense mazes where many gamers get lost and are never heard from, again.

Oddly enough, I've probably opened and browse and read portions of PBM rulebooks more in the last two months, than I likely have in the last twenty years before that. My distaste for rulebooks, particularly ones that are exceptionally well-versed in the art of turning players away from the very games that they were written for in the first place, should never be mistaken for me not actually spending any time reading them.

I will say this for the rulebook for RickLoomis PBM's Nuclear Destruction PBM game - at least it doesn't tend to waste a lot of the reader's time, weighing in at less than three full pages in length.

The truth be know, there's probably no one out there alive, today, who has spent more time with the Alamaze rulebook than I have. Just reading it all in one sitting? Not  a chance. I probably have a dozen, maybe two dozen, copies of the Alamaze rulebook on a computer hard drive, right now. Rulebooks, of course, are not primary tools for attracting players to games. Rather, they are support mechanisms. If rulebooks are the end all and be all of inculcation of game knowledge, they why are beginner guides, help pages, player aids, and all of that other stuff even necessary, at all? Do you ever stop and think about things like that? I do.

Mountains upon mountains of explanations in text form. You need more text to explain massive reams of text. Me? I'm a text kind of guy. I love text. I love writing. Yet, these excessively-lengthy tomes of explanatory text are a form of poison, all their own. If big, thick rulebooks overflowing with text at their seams was the answer to getting more newcomers playing more PBM games more often, then PBM gaming would have long sense become a humongous sector of gaming.

Why do I complain about PBM rulebooks as much as I do? Well, in a nutshell, it's because my first-hand experience with them has been that some of them aren't even worth reading. Some out confusing. Some are exercises in textual sloppiness. Some gamers force-feed themselves a diet of PBM rulebooks, and view it as little more than a means to an end - the lesser of evils, so to speak. Hey, here's an idea - get a group of people together just for the purpose of reading a variety of PBM game rulebooks for multiple different PBM games. Then see how excited that they are, assuming that they ever make it through that exercise, at all. And do be sure to time how long it takes for them to make their way through all of that text served up buffet-size.

Why are PBM gamer populations so relatively small in size, if PBM rulebooks are so well-written and are what PBM companies and GMs rely upon as primary mechanism for gaining new players, by way of increasing understanding so as to smooth the transition from knowing nothing about the game to having all of the relevant information about their game(s) all compiled for the ease and convenience of newcomers to their little corner of PBM heaven?

You'll bore people to death, hawking text-dense PBM rulebooks to them. From what I have seen of PBM rulebooks over the last several decades (and I try to limit my exposure of them, in a bid to avoid insanity), they tend to make for very dry and very boring reading. People want to play games. You don't play rulebooks, after all. But if you're a newcomer to PBM, prepare yourself for long, slow journeys through Rulebook Hell.

Torment takes many forms. Reading PBM rulebooks is one of them.

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Your people start off in the middle of nowhere as a nomadic tribe. You know nothing about your environment and you have but a handful of skills. You explore your world and build skills and resources.

TribeNet simulates a nomadic and growing tribal life and lets you choose where it may lead. There are components of TN that allow you to become Builder, Trader, Fighter, Sailor and Explorer. The potential and possibilities are endless.

Can your clan survive and become a civilisation? It’s up to you.

TribeNet is for those who enjoy living in their imagination and have organisational skills. Most players quickly see the importance of spreadsheets and forward planning. There are no graphics involved (apart from a map), no shooting, no funky miniatures or boards or special effects. It’s just you and your imagination. It is you who animates the game play.

But it comes with a warning: it can become seriously addictive and you have to be prepared to think. But if you need help jump onto Discord and see what other players have to say.

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Back Issues of PBM Chaos

Click on the links below, to access back issues of PBM Chaos!
Issue #8 Issue #7 Issue #6 Issue #5 Issue #4 Issue #3 Issue #2 Issue #1

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