JOHN MINSON finds out how to play games without switching on your Spectrum, spends a day in London doing so and comes away with dreams of world domination. All in a day’s work for a CRASH writer, really...
Fed up with the limitations of being the only Elite-level space trader in your galaxy? Or do you find orc slaying a dispiriting occupation when there’s not even a tavern where you can swap tales of tribulations with trolls? While nobody can deny that the micro revolution revealed a new world of adventure gaming for many people, there’s always the limitation of such sci-fi or fantasy quests being solitary occupations, without the satisfaction of competition on the human level.
“Go down to Islington Town Hall,” said Graeme, “You’ll find the first national convention of pbm-ers there.” “Pbm-ers?” I asked, “sounds somewhat worse than the DT’s.” “Pbm is play by mail,” he explained patiently as he booted me Out of the door. So I ended up walking out of the wintery north London weather into the crowded convention hall. What manner of beast is the p.b.m.-er? And what is his or her relevance to computer users?
A brief history. People have been playing games by post ever since stamps cost a penny — an old penny, mind — and letters were delivered the next day. At first it was the standard board games... chess or Diplomacy with two moves a week. Obviously not a hobby for the impatient. Then, in the last twenty years came a games revolution. A young man called Gary Gygax invented something he called Dungeons and Dragons. It was the first of the role playing games (rpgs).
Many other rpgs followed, becoming a major part of the games industry. For anybody who has been asleep for the past five years, the idea is this. In a rpg the players play the roles (not really — who’d have thought?) of characters in a world created and governed by the referee, often known as the Game Master. Whether they become barbarians slaughtering orcs or spacemen shifting alloys around the universe, the players submerge themselves totally in their characters. It’s not hard to see the link between these games and the adventures that found their way from the mainframes to the micros.
Meanwhile there was also a resurgence of interest in board wargaming, with cardboard counters and maps — another genre that has found its way, with varied success, into the confines of 48K of memory. But both types of game suffer from the fact that they take a lot of time and call for regular meetings of the participants. Rpgs also need the moderation of a Game Master who has all the rules at his fingertips, while too often the strategy games are swamped in tables and dice rolling.
In 1971 Chris Harvey started a new sort of gaming in Britain — one which which was already becoming established in the States: games played by mail, with a skilled referee processing the turns submitted by players and sending them details of the effects of the actions they had requested. And the idea caught on, so that players began to communicate with each other outside of the games, planning alliances and secret pacts to strengthen their positions. More games appeared, more topics, and now this — the first official congregation of postal players.
The first impression of the gathering was one of enthusiasm. People milled around a variety of trestle tables, getting details of games with names like Starglobe 3, Beyond the Waves and From the Mouth of Hell. And from the other side of the stands came a similar sense of involvement in what was being done. And down in the bar (my first port of call — natch!) groups of people were huddled round their pints in animated discussion of strategies, moves and games — the great and the small, the good and the bad. Feeling quite lost I set out to look for Dr Nicholas Palmer, who Graeme had promised would fill me in on the scene.
Nicky Palmer, as he is known to his readers, is an author of several books on gaming, designer of Crash Smash wargame, Their Finest Hour, and editor of Flagship, the only professionally produced international magazine of pbm. He was obviously the man to explain it all to me, so I dragged him away from his stand and back down to the bar. So tell me, Nicky, what’s it all about?
“Most games are science fiction or fantasy, with anything from fifteen to over one thousand players. You take the role of a particular character — you may be leader of a band of explorers or a space tyrant or virtually anything else. Every two to four weeks you send in the orders for you character and the forces at your command and some days later you get the results, which depend on the decisions of all the other players.”
It all sounds rather slow moving, I observe. “That’s the biggest drawback,” Nicky agrees, but goes on to point out that you can work out your moves when you want — you’re not tied to meeting other players at a set time. Should you miss the deadline for your next move, games include default actions, though you won’t do well unless you throw yourself into the action.
So what sort of role could I take on? “There are around forty UK games,” I’m told, and Nicky shows me a listing in Flagship. Well, the variety’s certainly there because next to the star captains and kings of mythical lands are transport barons in Railway Rivals, soccer managers in Football League and those covert individuals who are trying to control the world via organisations as diverse as the CIA and the Boy Sprouts — The Illuminati. This last mentioned is an official version of a successful strategy card game, and despite the cost of licenses there are other pbm official versions including, I’m told, the inevitable Dungeons and Dragons.
Right, but who does it all appeal to? “There’s a strong base among students. There are two main types of game really, attracting different types of player. First there’s the role player, attracting people from White Dwarf (the long established British rpg magazine) who want to expand, and there are the chess and wargamers who are looking for strategy.” But it’s definitely on the increase. “There’s been enormous growth in the last two years. The appearance of magazines has helped. At the hard core there are those who play more than one game.”
Not surprisingly computers have their part to play in all of this. Some games are primarily computer moderated, while others are more open in the options for your characters, though even in these hand moderated games there’s liable to be a micro humming away in the background, processing data. Obviously the humble Spectrum lacks the memory to compete with the Macs and other machines that do this work, though there’s no reason why a QL couldn’t be called into service, Nicky agrees. And the link between pbm and micros is stronger than both sharing a family tree leading back to the rpg.
Mike Singleton, author of Lords of Midnight and its related games, ran the first pbm with really good graphics, Starlord. In fact his games for Beyond, with their combination of role playing and strategy suggest nothing so much as adaptations of postal games for the micro’s limited memory.
Quite what happens during a game will depend upon its type, but the form is always the same. Having registered and received the starter pack, the cost of which quite often includes the first couple of turns, you plot what you will do. Nicky suggests I look at Mitre Games, who are keen to improve the visual standards of the games, whether of the maps and diagrams that they produce on a Mac to accompany turns, or the glossy boxes which contain the introductions to the games and are even available over the counter in some specialist games shops. One of their latest games is Midgard, so let’s use that as an example.
Midgard is a game of mediaeval power politics. As the second son of a noble family you are thrown out of the house with a couple of hundred followers, a few friends and some cash. The problem is to make your way in the world. In the hostile environment of mediaeval England you may find it a good idea to join one of the seven major factions, such as a religion, or pledge allegiance to another family. There are also minor factions, but if you’re feeling really ambitious you can try to go it alone, and may even try to start your own faction. Depending on your success, fate may bring you into wars, in which case you’ll be presented with maps to detail your success in campaigns, but the game is weighted so that no one player can dominate.
Impressed by the professionalism of what I’ve seen, I return to Nicky, who tells me that the British scene is on the whole efficiently run nowadays, after some early teething troubles, and that the obviously amateurish appearance of the bad means that they’re soon weeded out. How long would I play for then? “Some games have specific victory conditions. Others — generally the role playing games — are open ended.” Fine, but isn’t all of this going to end up rather costly?
According to Nicky it need not burn too big a hole in your pocket. Initial enrolment may be free though more often a fee is charged, though it’s seldom bigger than five pounds. Then it costs, on average, £1.50 per turn, though as that’s only once every two or four weeks it won’t add up to much over the year, and consider all the time you’ll spend pondering the best actions for next time, which is an important point... you can’t just rush off your orders. The scale of the games means that you’ll have to give a lot of thought before you commit any decisions to the post. And you’ll need time to contact other players who you may have joined in alliances — and to read your quarterly copy of Flagship for hints, tips and general news of the pbm world. Plus you may find that an individual game has generated its own fanzine with information for players.
As Nicky told me at the start, the growth of these games has been fast over the past few years, so I wondered if he had any predictions for the future. As well as the general growth he foresees, “A continuing trend to spread into new areas — political, power struggles and war games, sports games. There will be an expansion into greater sophistication with better graphics — that’s been the Achilles’ heel so far. List output isn’t enough any more. And several people are getting into electronic gaming,” Nicky adds. “In fact, several of the stateside software companies are moving into play by mail because it’s a more vibrant market.”
Common use of modems is still a while off, I’m told, because of the simple fact that too few players have access to the necessary telephone lines, though Micronet 800 have moved into the area with Starnet, their play by modem game of space strategy, itself a version of Mike Singleton’s Starlord. But British Telecom makes life less than easy for the networks, according to Nicky, though there are special cases for computer communication, such as taking part in American games. But for more information on this topic I’m directed to Ken Mulholland and his wife Carol at Time Patterns. Ken has managed to introduce artificial intelligence into the computer moderation of his games.
This is just the right time to speak with Ken, At the end of April, or thereabouts, he will launch a new modem game which sounds as ambitious as it is bizarre. The basic plot is that each player starts in a blue void and can make of it what he or she wishes. “You could become anything from a microbe in the bloodstream to the creator of a whole galaxy,” he tells me. Your world has three connections to other nodes though, and so you have to create traps that will halt other empire builders who dare venture into your creation, while setting out on your own voyage of conquest. Central clearing will be done at Time Pattern’s Birmingham base, but Ken hopes that all calls will be available at local rate, and though the time turnaround will be swifter, with synchronised weekly turns, the cost will be cheaper than average — approximately 75p to £1 a time. “There’s nothing similar,” Ken tells me and with a plot like that I can believe him.
By now I’m in a daze with all the details of this hidden world of gamers. Actually being seen to be there has to be their main problem — even the traditional role players gather noisily in pubs at regular intervals, but if your opponents are spread from Lands End to John o’ Groats, or maybe even abroad, that’s not so easy. However if you want to find out more about the scene in general don’t wait till next year’s convention, Nicky Palmer has kindly agreed to make individual copies of the Flagship available to Crash readers at £1.75 — a useful introduction because they contain details of all the pbms available, plus articles that will give you a further flavour of the games themselves. And though they may not set the pulse racing as fast as a shoot ’em up, they’ll certainly reach parts way beyond the memory of a micro!
I stagger out of the hall into the chilly daylight of Islington, an evil grin on my face — an evil ambition in my mind. Shall I attempt nothing less than World Domination? The answer, inevitably, is in the post.