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Postal Worlds

Entry updated 12 August 2018. Tagged: Game, Theme.

Games such as Chess have been played by post since at least 1824, when the members of the newly formed Edinburgh Chess Club challenged their London counterparts to a correspondence match, and probably much earlier. These games, however, were played in alternating turns between individual participants, each of whom had a board displaying the current state of play. The concept of a game in which several players submit their orders for a turn to a central moderator, who processes them simultaneously and returns the results, appears to have developed only in the 1960s. Typically, the moderator (who may be a human being or a piece of computer software) is the only entity whose knowledge of the game world is complete. The virtual places in which such games occur are referred to by this encyclopedia as Postal Worlds, and are the subject of this entry. They are distinguished from other shared game worlds by the fact that communication between the players and the moderator in Postal Worlds occurs as a sequence of turns which are disjunct in time, as opposed to the continuous real time contacts characteristic of Online Worlds. Communication in Postal Worlds can occur by either physical post or electronic means (typically, email or web sites), and often includes direct negotiations between players as well as the actual submission of orders. Various literary genres and types of game have been played in this way, but most examples are either Wargames (often focused on empire building, in a manner reminiscent of 4X Games) or Role Playing Games, with backgrounds based on science fiction, Heroic Fantasy and historical conquest.

Amateur Postal Worlds first appeared in games of the negotiation- and warfare-based World War One era Board Game Diplomacy (1959) designed by Allan Calhamer which were conducted in personally produced magazines distributed by mail. This activity grew out of science fiction Fandom, with the first such game played in a dedicated Fanzine called Graustark (see George Barr McCutcheon; Ruritania) founded in 1963 by the US fan John Boardman. Diplomacy, in which all moves are determined in advance and executed simultaneously, and which depends heavily on players making and treacherously breaking alliances with each other between turns, is unusually well suited to postal play. One notable variant was Slobbovia (1972) designed by Charles Sharp, which used a modified version of the Diplomacy rules to emphasize story development and the characterization of national leaders in its eponymous Shared World, named after a country appearing in the humorous newspaper Comic strip Li'l Abner (1934-1977), written and drawn by Al Capp. Players of Slobbovia included Sharyn McCrumb and Greg Costikyan. The hobby soon spread to other countries, with Don Turnbull starting a UK-based postal game of Diplomacy in 1969 in the Fanzine Albion and the somewhat similar fantasy Wargame Armageddon appearing in Germany in 1970. Armageddon inspired a UK descendant, Midgard (1971) designed by Hartley Patterson, another product of science fiction Fandom. This game is notable for its early invention of many concepts used in the first RPG, Dungeons and Dragons (1974 Tactical Studies Rules) designed by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, including predefined roles for different types of character and numerical measures of magical power. While players in some of these games were charged for participation, the professional Play by Mail industry effectively began in 1972, with the incorporation of Flying Buffalo.

Flying Buffalo was created by the US games designer Rick Loomis as a company dedicated to running postal games which he could use to sell turns of Nuclear Destruction, a Wargame simulating a hypothetical World War Three which he had designed in 1970. Turns were processed automatically using a minicomputer, in contrast to the hand moderation used for previous Play by Mail games, an approach which was too expensive and time consuming for a commercial effort. Both Nuclear Destruction and Loomis' later sf game, Starweb (1976), were "closed", meaning that each game ran for a finite length of time, after which a winner was declared. These games offered several advantages over ordinary board and counter Wargames – notably, there was no difficulty in finding opponents, and the positions of players' pieces were completely hidden from other participants – and proved commercially successful, inspiring a number of similar works. Of these, the most significant was perhaps Tribes of Crane (1978 Schubel & Son [S&S]) designed by George Schubel. This game, in which players adopted the roles of leaders of nomadic tribes on a harsh, primitive world, more closely resembled an RPG than a Wargame. In addition to computer moderated actions, players could submit "special actions" containing any orders they could imagine, which were resolved by hand, as if by a Gamemaster. Tribes of Crane also differed from such games as Starweb by being "open", or of potentially infinite duration. Subsequent postal RPGs have generally followed this pattern, allowing hand moderation within games which continue indefinitely, while Wargames have typically adopted the Flying Buffalo approach of limited duration games moderated entirely by computer.

Play by Mail was most popular during the 1980s. Notable games of the era include Beyond the Stellar Empire (1981), Illuminati (1985) (see Illuminati), the remarkably complex and sophisticated Space Opera Starmaster (1981 S&S) designed by George Schubel, which began with each player designing their own species and homeworld, the Heroic Fantasy Legends (1986 Midnight Games) designed by Jim Landes and the J R R Tolkien-licenced epic fantasy Wargame Middle Earth Play By Mail (1991 Game Systems Inc) designed by Pete Stassun, William Field. Postal Worlds also saw some success in the UK and Australia, with the UK producing such commercial works as the sf Wargame Starlord (1981) designed by Mike Singleton (the original inspiration for Singleton's later Videogame Starlord [1993 Maelstrom Games, DOS; 1994 Amiga]) and the Sword and Sorcery RPG Saturnalia (1984) designed by Neil Packer, Simon Letts. The industry never became large, however, and sales declined in the 1990s as Online Worlds became generally available, at first through dedicated computer networks and then on the internet. Existing games converted from physical post to being Played by Email, but many players nevertheless deserted them for the more immediate and visually appealing online multiplayer 4X Games, graphical Multi User Dungeons and Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. Such games as Starweb remain commercially viable, but attract few new players. Many new Play by Mail games are amateur efforts, with some small scale commercial ventures such as the UK developed corporate Dystopia RPG Mammon Inc (1999 Undying King Games) designed by Mo Holkar (see M H Zool).

Meanwhile, independently developed Videogames (see Independent Games) had begun to adopt Play by Email as a cheap way of enabling geographically separated players to participate in the same game, without the sophisticated and expensive computer systems required to support Online Worlds. These works are almost exclusively Computer Wargames or 4X Games, played in sessions of finite duration and controlled entirely by software. SF examples include VGA Planets (1992) and the UK created Laser Squad Nemesis (2002) (see Laser Squad). It seems likely that the commercial future of Postal Worlds resides primarily with such "alternative" Videogames, though traditional Play by Mail and Play by Email games continue to attract some customers who find Online Worlds too time consuming or fast paced. [NT]

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