Play-by-mail games, sometimes known as "Play-by-post", are games, of any type, played through postal mail or e-mail. One example, chess, has been played by mail for centuries (when played in this way, it is known as correspondence chess). Another example, Diplomacy, has been played by mail since the 1960s, starting with a printed newsletter (a fanzine) written by John Boardman. More complex games, moderated entirely or partially by computer programs, were pioneered by Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo in 1970. The first such game offered via email through a major online service was Quantum Space from Stormfront Studios, which debuted on AOL in 1989.
Play by mail games are often referred to as PBM games, and play by email is sometimes abbreviated PBeM -- as opposed to face to face (FTF) or over the board ( OTB ) games which are played in person. Another variation on the name is Play-by-Internet (PBI) or play-by-web (PBW). In all of these examples, player instructions can be either executed by a human moderator, a computer program, or a combination of the two.
In the 1980s, play-by-mail games reached their peak of popularity with the advent of Gaming Universal, Paper Mayhem and Flagship magazine, the first professional magazines devoted to play-by-mail games. (An earlier fanzine, Nuts & Bolts of PBM, was the first publication to exclusively cover the hobby.) Bob McLain, the publisher and editor of Gaming Universal, further popularized the hobby by writing articles that appeared in many of the leading mainstream gaming magazines of the time. Flagship later bought overseas right to Gaming Universal, making it the leading magazine in the field. Flagship magazine was founded by Chris Harvey and Nick Palmer (now an MP) of the UK. The magazine still exists, under a new editor, but health concerns have led to worries over the publication's long term viability.
In the late 1990s, computer and Internet games marginalized play-by-mail conducted by actual postal mail, but the postal hobby still exists with an estimated 2000–3000 adherents worldwide.
Postal gaming developed as a way for geographically separated gamers to compete with each other. It was especially useful for those living in isolated areas and those whose tastes in games were uncommon.
In the case of a two player game such as chess, players would simply send their moves to each other alternately. In the case of a multi-player game such as Diplomacy, a central game master would run the game, receiving the moves and publishing adjudications. Such adjudications were often published in postal game zines, some of which contained far more than just games.
The commercial market for play-by-mail games grew to involve computer servers setup to host potentially thousands of players at once. Players would typically be split up into parallel games in order to keep the number of players per game at a reasonable level, with new games starting as old games ended. A typical closed game session might involve one to two dozen players, although some games claimed to have as many as five hundred people simultaneously competing in the same game world. While the central company was responsible for feeding in moves and mailing the processed output back to players, players were also provided with the mailing addresses of others so that direct contact could be made and negotiations performed. With turns being processed every few weeks (a two week turnaround being standard), more advanced games could last over a year.
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