What's PBM?

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  Play-By-Mail Gaming (more commonly referred to as PBM) has been around for quite some time and has quite a devout following. PBM games, once you get used to the system, can be a great deal of fun and extremely addicting. If you are new to this hobby, read on.

  The basic concept for PBM games is fairly simple. PBM games are similar, in many ways, to standard board games. Generally speaking, they are multi-player strategy games of varying topics. The primary differences are that PBM games are designed to handle greater numbers of players (from as few as ten to as many as several hundred) and they are designed to be played through the mail/e-mail (rather than in person). The Game Moderator or GM (usually a company) develops the game system, provides all the necessary materials for playing (rules, etc.) and has the responsibility for running the game (processing everyone's orders, sending out results, etc.). Players put together a list of orders (their turn) and submit it to the GM (either via mail or e-mail). The GM processes the player's orders (turn) in accordance with the rules of the game and sends the results (a turn results printout) back to the player. The player evaluates the results of his last "turn" and prepares a new list of orders to submit for his next "turn". Concurrently, other players will be submitting their orders for processing and receiving their own "turn" results. The cycle repeats for the duration of the game.

  This may seem a bit awkward for those of you used to face-to-face board games, role-playing games or real-time online games but, in fact, PBM games usually run quite smoothly. It is just a matter of getting used to this style of gaming. There are, in addition, many benefits to the traditional PBM method of gaming.

  1. Traditional Play-By-Mail method vs real-time online gaming. [Next ¦ Top]

      PBM games do not require constant attention. PBM games are generally designed around the concept of you submitting a turn or move for your position every so often (once every week or once every two weeks is common). Once you submit your move, you wait for the results and then begin planning your next move. The time that you have between moves allows you to evaluate your position, carefully formulate your plans for the next move, conduct diplomacy with other players, consult with your allies, etc. You are not required to react to an ever-changing situation. The majority of PBM games are, accordingly, strategy oriented. Typically, PBM games are designed to give you a game that you can sink your teeth into and really think about. PBM games are not designed to test your reflexes.

      PBM gaming is much easier to play, with your friends, when you have a busy schedule. Playing a real-time online game with your friends can be a scheduling nightmare if you all have busy lives. Everybody has to be online at the same time and must commit to a certain amount of time. Finding a gaming time frame that is acceptable to everyone can be a tricky business. Real life intrudes far too often to ruin a gaming session. Family, work, school, sickness, computer problems, etc. are all valid reasons to miss a game session and if one person can't make it, the game session is often ruined for all. PBM, on the other hand, is not played real-time and does not, therefore, require that all the participants be available at the same time. Whenever you have the time, you can sit down and spend some time on the game you are playing. Thinking about your game strategy for an upcoming turn is the easiest of all. You can think about strategy while eating breakfast, during a commute or even while on a business trip, etc. Time is not a problem and scheduling problems are nearly eliminated.

      PBM games generally have very low technical requirements. You don't need a fast computer, the latest accelerator board, a great internet connection or, in many cases, any computer at all. PBM gaming, originally, was entirely done via the postal service and, even today, many people play PBM games by that method.

      Finally, professionally run PBM games are usually improved on a regular basis and, depending on the game, they can run for years. Professional game moderators make their living by providing a game service and you can expect them to be there month after month, year after year. Game improvements, often based on player input, are not uncommon. If you have a question, a problem or an idea, you can call and expect a response from the game designer/moderator.

  2. Traditional Play-By-Mail method vs face-to-face board games & role-playing games. [Next ¦ Previous ¦ Top]

      PBM gaming offers a ready supply of opponents. All gamers, particularly board gamers, have experienced the frustration of not being able to find somebody to play against in their favorite game. Gaming clubs and conventions can help but these are not for everyone. PBM fills this void by gathering in game enthusiasts from all over the world. There are many PBM companies offering a wide variety of games so that there is always a game in the process of setting up. Finding opponents is no longer a problem.

      PBM gaming is easier to schedule time for, particularly if you are playing in a game with some friends. Playing a board or roleplaying game involves setting aside a significant portion of time (i.e. "Let's all get together on Saturday night for four hours."). This gaming time frame must, in addition, be acceptable to all participants in the game (i.e. "Is Saturday night ok for everybody?"). Finding a gaming time frame that is acceptable to everyone, unfortunately, is often a tricky process. Real life intrudes far too often to ruin a gaming session. Family, work, school, sickness, etc. are all valid reasons to miss a game session and if one person can't make it, the game session is often ruined for all. PBM, on the other hand, is not played face-to-face and does not, therefore, require that all the participants be available at the same time. Players can evaluate their positions, formulate their plans, write their orders, write letters to their allies, call their allies on the phone, etc. whenever it is convenient for them (lunchtime, on weekends, etc.). Whenever you have the time, you can sit down and spend some time on the game you are playing. Finding time is not a problem.

      PBM games are usually designed to handle a great number of players (rather than just a few) and to run for several years or more. The GM that is responsible for operating the game is handling all the bookkeeping, etc. so the games can be designed to focus on your options as a player. The depth and complexity found in PBM games, therefore, is often greater than that found elsewhere. PBM games, in addition, offer you the "hidden movement" or "fog of war" that is so difficult to simulate in board gaming. The GM, again, serves as the referee and manager of the game database and is the only one to have access to all game information. Players will only see what their game assets allow them to see. PBM games, as a result, are usually very suspenseful. You cannot see the whole "board" and surprises are not uncommon (much like real life). You will often have to work with limited information, which will task your strategic planning abilities. A brilliant plan may well lead you to victory but the unexpected always lurks nearby with the potential to ruin any plan.

  3. PBM gaming - Some things to consider. [Previous ¦ Top]

      PBM games will be, for the most part, very different from games that you may be familiar with. The personal touch of a good role-playing game campaign, for example, is hard to duplicate when you are dealing with dozens or even hundreds of players in a single game. PBM games, in addition, usually are not "historical" games. Historical games, generally, are designed to be played by a very limited number of players (2-6 generally) with each player playing a specific role (or side) and the loss of a single player (quitting the game) usually results in the end of the entire game. PBM games, on the other hand, are generally designed to be played with no fewer than 10 players and often as many as a couple of hundred (or more). All PBM games will have a "drop" factor as players drop out of the game before its normal conclusion. There are numerous reasons why this occurs. Players have lives outside the game and occasionally they are forced to quit a game for one reason or another. Changes in schedule (lack of time) and changes in job situation (lack of money and/or time) are common reasons and there are others. PBM games, fortunately, are typically designed with this "drop" factor in mind. A good PBM game can withstand such player attrition while continuing to operate and provide enjoyment for the remaining players. This is one of the reasons why PBM games are usually designed to handle so many players. A game with 40 or more players does not suffer as much as a game with only 3 or 4 when one player decides to stop playing.

      PBM gaming, when provided by a professional, is not free. The company running the game will expect to be paid for its efforts. Running one or more professional PBM games is a full-time job for several people and it requires extensive computer & business skills. Personnel costs, office space, computer equipment, office supplies, postage and a wide variety of other business expenses must all be covered in order for the company to stay in business and continue to offer its PBM games to the market. A good PBM game will usually run you from $10 to $30 per month (per game position). This is not an insignificant sum of money but when you consider the time spent on the game and the enjoyment derived from it, you should find that PBM gaming represents excellent "value" for your entertainment dollar.

Give PBM gaming a try and you may find that it is what you've been looking for all along!