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Issue 11

Woeful Tidings!

Is there a better way to describe missing a turn in a PBM game? Once it happens, though, you can't really undo it. Not that no PBM companies have never reran certain turns for their games that had already been processed, but even that approach is not without risks. I recall dropping a game, once upon many years ago, where the turn was rerun. It's one thing to play against other players, but it's another thing, entirely, to play against GMs and PBM companies who take it upon themselves to rerun turns.

Sometimes in life, real life, itself, distracts PBM players from the PBM games that they are playing with. And so it was with me for Turn #13 of Alamaze Game 5712, where I currently play the kingdom of the Cimmerians. And believe you me, this was not a good turn to miss submitting turn orders for. Not that any turn is a good turn for that to happen, but the timing of this turn proved to be nothing short of catastrophic for my kingdom.

Fortunately, I don't emotionally attach myself to kingdoms that I play in PBM games. So, there's no great emotional upheaval on my end, no despair, no wringing of my hands. I have a choice of either dropping the game, or continuing to play. Each carries with it certain benefits and consequences. As a courtesy to other players in the game, though, I opt for the latter of the two.

Realistically, my kingdom is already outnumbered two-to-one. I suffer a disadvantage in experience playing Alamaze, relative to the sum totality of the two players who are currently seeking to crush my kingdom into oblivion. As I have observed elsewhere in the past, Alamaze isn't designed with new players in mind. It's geared more towards experienced players.

Plus, too, players who have played for a while and who have played a wide range of different kingdoms can pull up some of their old turns from past games, and get an idea of what assets a given kingdom starts with. New players to Alamaze do not begin the game with an equivalent amount of information at their fingertips, and this remains true, even when one takes into account that all players - both experienced and new - enjoy equal access to all thirty-two kingdom set-up files.

The kingdom set-up files for Alamaze do contain some useful information that new players can utilize to their advantage, but there is information that experienced players might know about their kingdom, that the new players may not know about their experienced opponents' kingdoms. Having been previously pointed out to Alamaze's new ownership, this will likely be remedied in due time. But until then. . .

Knowing what kind of characters a given kingdom starts with can actually be useful information at the start of a game of Alamaze. Now, whether you believe that or not, I leave it to you to decide for yourself how important or unimportant that may be. In this particular game of Alamaze that I am in, Game 5712, it doesn't play a decisive role in the situation that my kingdom now finds itself in, but it could have been information that would have been somewhat useful to me a few turns back, when trying to figure out what the Lizard kingdom's starting capabilities were.

Minding your own kingdom's business, as I was doing when Lizard emissaries and a Lizard military group (patrol sized) arrived at one of my kingdom's starting towns, is certainly no guarantee that your kingdom will enjoy a certain amount of time before other players begin antics with unfriendly intentions.

This particular game of Alamaze has, thus far, proven to be quite helpful to me in finally gaining a better grasp on the military side of playing Alamaze. New players to Alamaze are, I think, highly unlikely to just automatically grasp that they can issue vastly more military-related orders than at first seems obvious. Certainly, when I started playing in Game 5684 two to three months ago, I had no idea, whatsoever, that one could issue such a multitude of different orders to a given military group, in a given turn. Thus, I have no reason to believe that new Alamaze players won't necessarily fall into that same information deficiency trap.

Missing Turn #13, as bad as that was, is only the icing on the cake of kingdom sorrow, for the Ranger kingdom had already launched his sneak attack upon my kingdom prior to that. Then, of course, we have the Lizard kingdom bringing more power to bear, now, and the sheer disadvantage in resources relative to not one, but two, other kingdoms makes it fairly easy to see the writing on the wall.

In wargames, one position will always be the first to attack. Alamaze isn't a game of gentlemen's warfare, though in reading through some of Alamaze creator Rick McDowell's past writings in the Alamaze forum, I've long-felt that was perhaps what he personally craved that the game be. Make no mistake, though, in Alamaze, you can be - and you very well may be - attacked by one or more other kingdoms, with little or no warning. And the unwritten expectation, as with so many other wargames on the market, PBM and otherwise, is that you are tasked with finding ways to improvise and to adapt.

I already know that some changes are coming to Alamaze, but I don't have a detailed list of specific changes that are going to be implemented. Any and all changes that may be forthcoming will take time to implement, even after they are all decided upon - which could take some time. That said, I do think that Alamaze is better poised than it has ever been, heretofore, to improve upon its existing foundation. In a nutshell, Alamaze isn't a bad game. Lots about it is quite good, actually, but it can certainly be improved quite a lot, I think, even with a relatively minor amount of changes.

For lack of a better word off the cuff, Alamaze previously fell into what I will describe as a funk. That, I think, is behind it, now. Even the funk, itself, wasn't a planned or intentional thing. It's just sort of how things turned out. Alamaze's new leadership doesn't seem content to rest on Alamaze's past laurels, and all things considered, I think that these are exciting times for Alamaze, heading into the coming weeks and months.

The very fact that any changes to Alamaze are even being seriously considered is, in my considered opinion, real and substantial progress. If I didn't feel that there was any real chance of Alamaze changing and improving, I likely would never have joined as many games of Alamaze that I am now in - which currently totals seven different games of Alamaze that I am playing in, simultaneously.

Even the very best of PBM games have a tendency to stagnate, I think, if they cease to change. People get tired of eating the same old thing, meal after meal after meal, and likewise, people get tired of playing the same old games the same old ways, time after time after time. Middle-earth PBM, I think, demonstrates the necessity for change in the PBM sphere of gaming, as evidenced by a variety of different modules for that game that have come into existence over the years. Their underlying gaming product is fairly sound, from my perspective, and they now offer a decent variety of different takes on warfare in the realm of Middle-earth.

Alamaze now being in its 4th Cycle of development attests to an ongoing recognition of the need for change, also, even where this PBM game may have at one time been exceedingly popular based on its then-current merits. But where my current disaster-of-a-game in the works is concerned, any changes that may be forthcoming to Alamaze in the future will not save me or my kingdom, in the here and now.

Most of my kingdom's population centers in Game 5712 have already fallen from my control. I went to issue an order to create  a sanctuary, just now, but the game interface yielded the following error message, when I did:


I can do a #202 – Trade Gold For Food order and overcome that built-in obstacle to kingdom survival, but trading via the Open Market in Alamaze invariably results in a trading ratio that is not to your kingdom's economic advantage. But if you're not in currently communication with other kingdoms and their players, then the Open Market is the only real option that you are left with. And when your kingdom is in the middle of a losing streak, your kingdom's economic reality can become very precarious very quickly.

Ideally, of course, whatever kingdom in Alamaze that you play will get off to a good start, and you won't find yourself outnumbered too quickly. If you do find yourself in such an unfortunate situation, though, then don't assume that Alamaze's underlying game design will save your kingdom from crushing defeat. In a nutshell, it won't. At least your kingdom won't have to worry about going bankrupt, though, like in Middle-earth PBM. Fall of Rome used to have a similar bankruptcy mechanism, if memory serves me correctly. To each their own, of course, but for my own part, gold dependency is far from the Holy Grail of game design. It has its advocates, but I didn't care for it when I first played Middle-earth PBM with GSI many moons ago, I didn't care for it in Fall of Rome decades later, and I don't care for it, now, in Alamaze.

I am a firm believer that characters in wargames that feature kingdoms should have fealty and loyalty to their king or kingdom, and not to gold. Gold dependency in game design is as much an unbalancing feature of game design as it is a balancing feature of game design. Truly, it is a double-edged sword. But again, to each their own.

So, I decided that I will try to have two of my military groups to attack enemy villages in the upcoming turn, one a Ranger-controlled village, and the other one currently under the sway of the dastardly Lizards. And then, I shall move them to a common location, one where Ranger political emissaries were seen traveling to. Clearly, they intend to rebel and usurp a minor city that remains under my control, at present. Sounds good, right?

Wrong! My kingdom doesn't have enough ships for me to move either of these military groups, there. I've got to hand it to Alamaze's game design. It seems to suffer from no shortage of ways to frustrate a player, and especially when the going gets rough. This doesn't exactly motivate and inspire a player to hang in there. It just adds to the spiral of, "Why even try?"

As a designated Learning Game of Alamaze for me, I try to look at the good and the bad of each individual game mechanic that I encounter. Beyond who will win or lose a particular battle or a given war, I try to perceive whether a given mechanic in actual play makes the game more fun or less fun to play. In the current situation which my kingdom of the Cimmerians face, increasing seapower is a luxury, not a necessity. This Cimmerians kingdom has always been a kingdom that wants for gold.

What's something about the Cimmerians that I like? Different terrain types impact the Cimmerians less than any other kingdom that I currently play. Based upon my first-hand experience in playing the Cimmerians, to date, would I be tempted to play it again? Probably not. Magic isn't going to save my ass in Game 5712. A shortage of gold isn't going to save my kingdom. Quite to the contrary, it will expedite my kingdom's demise.

Much like the Warlock kingdom that has no actual warlock character, the Cimmerian kingdom suffers from having nothing of consequence in its design that reaches out and grabs me and inspires me. By comparison, Middle-earth PBM with its take on the Nazgul, particularly the Witch-king of Angmar, managed to accomplish this with but single character decades ago. I play games to have fun, not to win. Losing can be as fun as winning, if the game's underlying design is right.

Even fighting for your kingdom's survival can be quite a lot of fun, as I know first-hand from playing the kingdom of Shem in Hyborian War game number HW-955, after picking that kingdom up as a standby player after several turns had already elapsed in that game. I ended that game with only two provinces under my kingdom's control, with almost 60 troops in each of the two provinces' provincial armies in question. There, I was defiant until the bitter end, when that game finally ran its course and the game ended. Here, by comparison, it feels more like I'm just going through the motions.

But while writing this article, I also managed to get my turn orders issued for Turn #14 in Game 5712 of Alamaze. Not exactly an inspiring set of orders, to be certain, and I didn't end up using all of my available order lots for the turn, but that, too, goes hand-in-hand with gold dependency in game design.

Next turn, my kingdom's gold situation will worsen even further. It's just an undeniable fact, and there's no easy fix for that, in light of all of the relevant facts that collectively form my kingdom's precarious position, at present, in this game of Alamaze. Hopefully, if the Rangers and the Lizards in Game 5712 intend to eradicate this game of my kingdom's presence, they won't piddle around at it, like the Amazons and the Forgotten have been doing in Alamaze Game 5693 for some time, now.

When Turn #14 of Game 5712 processes, my kingdom should have a sanctuary created, as my kingdom will likely cease to control any population centers, at all, at some point in the next few turns. That said, a kingdom is invariably easier to defeat than a player. I can mock my enemies in defeat as easily as I can mock them in victory!

Some other Alamaze stuff

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Here's something that I like about the Alamaze game interface. Note the part which I circled in yellow. This is a good indicator, I think, that we may be able to obtain another player to take the place of the Gnome player, who just dropped/got dropped from that game.

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And here, you can see that I'm already caught up with all of my turn orders due through Tuesday night (tomorrow night, as of the time that I write this on Monday night). Clicking on that All Games button on the Alamaze game interface is one of the best, most useful options of the game interface. It's a quick and easy-to-use way to "remember" when your turn orders are due for all of the games of Alamaze that you are currently playing in. Of course, if you get busy in real life with other things, it's no guarantee that you will get your turn orders in on time. Life being life, things just have a way of happening, sometimes, unplanned and unintended though they may be.

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From Alamaze Game 5684, I decided to bring a couple of meteors down to vaporize a couple of Halfling villages. Looks like a very high level Dark Elven fanatic got unintentionally vaporized along with one of those villages marked for destruction in Turn #24 of that game.

From other information in my turn results, I can't really conclude that the Dark Elven are innocent bystanders. One of the good things about designated Learning Games for me is that I don't actually have to worry about whether my kingdom is doing good or doing poorly. I'm just playing with the game interface, and trying to get first-hand experience with as many of the game's orders and spells as I can. Why ask for volunteers, when you can just volunteer someone?

It's not as though one of my wizards didn't get assassinated, this turn. And what about those poisoning attempts that were directed at my loyal subjects? Tsk...tsk...tsk...

Galac-Tac image ad for Talisman Games

What's going on with Galac-Tac?

Let me go out on a limb, here, and take a wild guess. Most PBM gamers who follow along with us on these PBM Chaos journeys have never given Talisman Games' Galac-Tac a try, before. So, why is that?

Lots of reasons, I'm sure. And no end to the excuses.

Granted, not everyone likes space warfare games. But there's certainly plenty who do. The new PBM list that I am slowly but surely putting together (go here and scroll to the bottom of the page to find this new PBM list) lists more than a dozen different space warfare PBM games that are currently running. Or did you even have a clue?

The people who run Talisman Games and Galac-Tac are two of the nicest people that I have met on my long and winding journeys through PBM. Yet, does the PBM gaming community that exists today even seem to care?

But Charles, what do you mean?

Be very careful when you ask a question like that, and be even more careful when I ask a question like that. Davin Church of Talisman games is never going to tell you - the whole lot of you - to get off your ass and give Galac-Tac a try. Me? I have no qualms asking you why you haven't gotten off your ass, and signed up for a game of Galac-Tac.

Should I pause at this time, and give people a few years to come up with all kinds of half-ass excuses? Now, let me get this right. The very same people who bemoan that PBM gaming is dying won't lift a finger to even give this particular PBM game a try? Yet, if Galac-Tac suddenly ceased to be, the crocodile tears would start. Spare me the melodrama!

But let's face it. Go ahead and flip that Coin of Actual Reality over onto its other side. Is being arguably the nicest PBM GMs, in and of itself, sufficient to actually serve as "promotion" for the sole PBM game that they have on offer for the gaming public to enjoy?

In a word, no.

Feel free to let the hate mail commence, but while we're waiting on that (unlikely to ever happen, since that would actually require that people write in), let's contemplate a few things. PBM things. That's why you're here, right? PBM.

Think about all of those hundreds upon hundreds of old PBM games that have fallen by the wayside. Heck, you weren't even invited to their funerals. Yet, at the same time, you're quite content to let Galac-Tac die, and not do a damned thing to stop it. What a crazy world that we live in, huh?

In fairness, it's not as though no one, at all, ever plays Galac-Tac. Some do. Some have. In ancient PBM times, quite a few did. Honestly, it's not like no one plays PBM games, today. There are hundreds and hundreds of people who play PBM games, in today's day and age. But are they playing Galac-Tac?

While I haven't asked, specifically, if I had to venture a guess, and ask myself what the effective total budget for advertising and promoting Galac-Tac is, then my guess would probably be "effectively zero."

Which, coincidentally enough, is just about the same as the overall budget for all PBM games, combined, in the world today, Granted, that's just a guess on my part, but do this, sometime. Go out and actively search for PBM ads on the Internet or in magazines or even in your local barbershop. See how long it takes you to find even one. And don't look at me - I'm not holding my breath while you do that.

I doubt that the vast majority of you reading this would even make a modest attempt at doing just, exactly that. But that's not abnormal, you see. For the Minions of Do-Nothing are everywhere!

What's the plan, anyway? Is it for everyone to do nothing, and for bald, raw hope to save the day for PBM gaming? Yeah, how's that going? Is that working out good for you, so far?

You shouldn't have to force anyone to do anything. And in fairness, I've never forced anyone to play a PBM game. Ever! Just like I've never forced anyone to read anything that I write, whether here or elsewhere.

One of the things that I like most about doing stuff like this - whether the original Suspense & Decision magazine or PBM unearthed or PBM Chaos - is that I get to champion a cause. And that cause is PBM gaming!

And when you champion a cause, you get to slay dragons.

For instance, both night and day, I hunt down the Dragon of Lethargy. If you don't know what it means, then get off your ass and look it up. I use a dictionary far more, these days, than I ever used one in school. I even look up words that I already know the definition of, sometimes. Why? Because I want to make sure that certain things are fresh in my mind.

The Dragon of Lethargy is the dragon that refuses to die. Compared to the old days, the PBM gaming community of today has no real energy to speak of. Oh, sure, there are isolated pockets of energy and enthusiasm. There always has been. But in the modern era of PBM gaming, when somebody like Raven Zachary walks through PBM's door, someone like me instantly notices. And when the lethargy of the PBM community as a whole becomes so overpowering, that even a PBM vampire hunter like Raven Zachary begins to draw back and withdraw, that's noticeable, also.

On the longevity end of things, PBM GMs and PBM companies are some of the best, around. Individually and collectively, they have a very colorful and storied history. In the modern PBM era, however, there's a tendency amongst their numbers to maintain a relatively low profile. At least, that's how it seems.

The actual reality is substantially less exciting.

For the most part, PBM GMs go about their daily lives. What? You, too? How very unsurprising. Because we all do it. But when you enter the PBM scene, what then? Are you a fireball of PBM energy? Are you suffocating from your long-term addiction to the PBM nostalgia of old? Or are you already confined to a PBM nursing home?

There's a ton of people in and across PBM gaming that I like. There's even a number of you out there that I admire. But my function, my core and underlying function, in the overall PBM scheme of things is not to be your friend, nor to fill your digital ears with nothing but nice musings about the PBM gaming scene.

If you don't want PBM to die, then don't let it. You have more power to prevent PBM from dying, and to bring about a resurgence in PBM gaming, than you can ever even begin to imagine. But what do YOU do with all of that power?

Or do you think that you're powerless?

The truth be told, I'm as powerless as you are. And you are as able to do what I do as I am. Oh, sure, you may not write exactly as I write, but I can't write exactly as you write, either. But if you simply refuse to lift a finger, then virtually nothing becomes within the realm of actual possibility. We are, after all, our own worst enemies.

Every time that I sit down to write something about PBM gaming, I never know ahead of time what I'm going to write. Typically, I'm utterly clueless. And sometimes, things come together better than they do at other times. Invariably, there tends to be lots and lots of rambling, just utterly mindless rambling on and on about PBM this or PBM that. And you may not be a fan of that.

Feel free to write in and let me have it. Bless me out about it. Chew my ass about it. Give me hell and let me know in clear, plain language what you'd rather my spiels on PBM gaming be about. Are you scared that I won't print what you have to say, or that I will? I'm willing to risk it. Are you?

Very recently (as in, today), Davin Church the Galac-Tac GM told me via e-mail, "I still have more text blurbs to put in those mini-ads I had before, but I can't come up with any photorealistic artwork to match with them. I even tried out some of the AI-art, but it can't invent new stuff with aliens and future space concepts without real photos to draw from, so I haven't been able to get anything usable out of them."

What's wrong with this picture? What's wrong with that approach and that mindset? What was it that my Mama used to say, when I was little? Can't never could do nothing.

Anything that he did manage to come up with, even if he wasn't happy with it, none of us get to see. So, instead of something, we get. . .wait for it. . .nothing!

That approach is never going to work. It is always destined for failure. But do you know how many other PBM GMs sent me an e-mail about something PBM-related, last night? None. It was only Davin. His name is Davin Church. Sending an e-mail is a starting point. That's more than most PBM GMs are gonna do on any given day. Just a fact.

If you're somebody out there reading this, somebody like the legendary Richard Weatherhead, can you just imagine how little progress that I would ever make with publishing anything about PBM if I waited until I had things just like I wanted them? The first page would never make it to print.

Me? I have no PBM games currently running, and I've never had a programmed PBM game running and at my disposal, but here's Davin Church (and no, I haven't forgotten about you, Genny Carter White) with a fully programmed PBM game at his disposal, one that works pretty good from what I know about it, but the PBM community just doesn't seem to be interested in what Talisman Games is bringing to the PBM table.

Should he close up shop and just be done with it? Have you tried the game (Galac-Tac), and you just plain hate it? Does nobody like space warfare PBM games, anymore? Does nobody like building up an empire? Is it the game's interface? Is it the rulebook? Is it the ads? Is it the lack of ads? Is there no one out there in all of PBM that can help to shed light on why people aren't playing Galac-Tac, specifically, or PBM games, in general?

You have to be careful, when you start asking questions, because somebody might answer. Of course, knowing something is better than knowing nothing. Asking questions also helps lead to learning, and learning is frequently the path to finding solutions to problems, and to the improvement of products and services.

If you allocate no budget (regardless of why), and your approach to advocacy is fairly quiet and only intermittent, then what kind of results can one realistically expect from that kind of an approach?

If you want someone to notice your game(s), then bust the doors down. Come crashing into their lives like that Kool-Aid guy. Oh, yeah! I don't have a full-time artist on staff, but I still try to inject some fresh visuals, now and again, into our readership's line of sight. Yeah, I use free photo sites, I repurpose old comic book art, I even dabble occasionally in art created by artificial intelligence (A.I.). And none of it is perfect, and all of it is free. Sometimes, I even try to persuade PBM companies and PBM GMs to let me make some new PBM ads for them.

I just don't see nothing as being a solution.

So, I try all kinds of different things. And sometimes, I see a new name appear. Whether in a click on a game link in an issue of PBM Chaos, or whether on the like button over on the Play By Mail Facebook page. Maybe it will be the only time that I ever see that name, or sometimes, that new names evolves into a frequent like button clicker, or one who has a mad moment and begins clicking on all kinds of links related to PBM gaming.

If I did nothing, this article wouldn't exist, nor would that new Galac-Tac image ad, above, that was created by artificial intelligence. Nor would the article on Alamaze that precedes this article, nor the other piece of A.I.-created art at the top of the page. Nor even the name of this digital PBM publication called PBM Chaos, nor its logo image. Nor PBM Unearthed and its twenty-nine issues. Nor the original Suspense & Decision magazine and however many issues and pages of PBM-related stuff that evolved out of that. Nor the new PBM list that I am compiling and refining (though at my own leisurely slow pace, of course).

If I did nothing, then perhaps there never would have been a Special Variant Game of Hyborian War, where 50 turns were processed, before any player in that game of Hyborian War ever issued the first set of turn orders. Nothing means that I would never have met the likes of set-in-his-ways-but-Austerlitz-loving old man Richard Weatherhead, nor that dastardly old Smitty Smith, nor the most important man in PBM, nor Bernd (who I was rather enjoying attacking in a Far Horizons game that had him trying to figure out how to fend off Darkseid's starship minions), nor Robert Strudwick (who has fallen silent, of late), nor Rick Buda of NABOG fame, nor Indie Spin, nor Pete Thornhill, nor Clint Oldridge and John Davis of Middle-earth, nor Stephen Suddell, nor Mike Henderson, nor anyone that I ever played Hyborian War with (including the calculating Mason Bowering), nor countless other people associated with PBM gaming, including Carol Mulholland. I "met" these people by doing something, not nothing.

I responded to a PBM ad that was on the very back page of black and white oversized comic books. Doing something is how I encountered Paper Mayhem decades ago. It's how I first met Rick McDowell of Alamaze fame in a Yahoo! discussion group about PBM Design. To do nothing would mean that I wouldn't know who Steve Tierney is. It means that I would never have written a letter to Elaine Webber, nor that I would have Frank Coker's phone number in my smartphone, right now. He was the guy who owned Cyborg Games and ran a PBM game called The Next Empire.

To do nothing means that I would never have had interactions, both good and bad, with Rick Loomis, back when he was still alive. It would mean that I wouldn't even recognize the name, Lee Kline, much less have the respect that I have for her, today. She's the President of Reality Simulations, Inc., for those of you who remain clueless. Heck, I wouldn't even know who Davin Church is, nor what Galac-Tac is, if doing nothing were the course that I pursued.

Would I be playing in seven games of Alamaze at the same time, for crying out loud, if doing nothing was the polestar by which I steered my PBM interests?

If you're a PBM GM, and you don't know what to say about your own PBM games, then nothing stops you from telling people about other PBM games, and about other PBM companies and GMs. Who knows? Those other PBM Companies and GMs might just take a liking to the fact that you even thought about them, at all.

Find your heart for PBM, and that can become a beacon that helps to light the way for others to find you, and to find your PBM games that you want other people to play and to enjoy and to have fun with.

Where PBM gaming is concerned, be the light, be the noise, be the voice!

And when you're done reading this mess, get off your ass and sign up for a game of Galac-Tac.

Galac-Tac is there for YOU. But are YOU there for it?

Image ad for Talisman games' Galac-Tac and its rulebook

Assorted PBM Links

Image ad for GTac - The Galac-Tac Assistant by Talisman Games

  • Explore! Expand! Exploit! Exterminate!
  • Galac-Tac is a single unit level, science fiction war game.
  • Each galaxy is computer-moderated and close-ended, with the end goal of taking over the galaxy.
  • 10 to 15 players start equally in random, separated positions on a 100×100 galactic grid.
  • Turns are processed on any schedule the players agree to and all players move simultaneously.
  • Each game is computer generated, no two games are alike.
  • You can design your own ships and build as many as you can afford.
  • Only your economic and military decisions (and those of your opponents) will decide your fate in the game.
Did you know that PBM proliferates
in the Catacombs of Discord
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