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What is a PBEM?

A Play By E-Mail (PBEM) game is played via mail. This usually means that the game itself is a multiplayer, turn-based game. All players send their orders via mail to a host where the mails are collected.

From time to time, all the orders are evaluated and the result is mailed back to the players. Usually the PBEM games hide a lot of information from the players. The players only get the information they are entitled to. The reports that are mailed to the players are therefore unique and hold valuable information.

Most PBEM games are hosted by a computer program. That usually means that the number of players is possibly very large. As human players are usually much more interesting than computer players, PBEM games often do not feature computer opponents at all. All important positions are filled by human players. In this, PBEM games resemble other multi user games such as MUDs and MUSHes very much.

The Essence of Game Design

When designing or redesigning, you want to increase the elusive quality called Spielspass in German. Spielspass can be translated as the joy resulting from playing the game. If your game has this quality, then players enjoy playing the game, they want to play it again, they look forward to playing it, they get involved.

Designing Turn Based Games

A lot of time passes between turns. Time the players are potentially thinking about the game. This is the good news. If the game contains elements that make communication outside the game meaningful, player involvement increases.

Sometimes, however, the communication is so much part of the game that you want to keep it inside the game. Such is the case in Diplomacy. Most of the game is dealing and intriguing. Communication is vital. This can lead to problems: Players complain about forged emails, replacement players have no idea about past communications with their allies and adversaries. In order to avoid these problems, all mails must be routed through the host. Mail forwarding does not depend on the hosting of turns. The mail routing just makes sure that everything is archived.

There is a downside to a lot of communication, too, which you will want to avoid when designing or redesigning a PBEM. A lot of communication can lead to a lot of unnecessary work: Changing orders again and again, trouble managing very complex reports when dealing with a lot of allies and foes. From a player perspective, this leads to a decrease in Spielspass.

Take care, therefore, so that the possible results of communication are important and meaningful to the player, but easy to implement in terms of orders.

One of the things that worked best in German Atlantis was alliances. Every player played a faction, and factions could ally themselves to other factions. Doing so required but a single command. Alliances resulted in joint defense against attacks, the capability to tax peasants in your allies territory, and trade with your ally. It was simple and elegant.

If you wanted to trade just once, you could create a temporary alliance between two units. This did not work as intended. It was just too much work to look up the correct unit numbers in the exhaustive reports.

This brings us to another potential probem: You want players to face difficult choices with lots of possibility, but you don’t want bury them in boring work. PBEM games should not be complex, but the little complexity they have should be based on player decisions, not on player work.

This was one of the problems with German Atlantis: After your faction had gone through the growth stage and through the warfaring stage, when it finally reached the status and power of one of the Old Factions, the game turned out to be boring: Reports got longer and longer, writing the orders took more and more time, and in the mean time, the game got less exiting.

Designing for Many Players

Since the PBEM game is hosted by a program, the number of players might be very high. You can use this to your advantage: Instead of programming a lot of intelligence into computer opponents, allow players to interact.

In order to make this interesting, player interaction must have consequences. The easiest interaction with immediate impact is combat. This is very easy to understand (find allies, attack foes) and the consequences are very non-trivial (gain or loss of power, wealth, perhaps even the end of the game for the looser).

More subtle forms of interaction are harder to devise. If you want trade, then the trading of goods must have consequences, or the owning of goods must have consequences. Even if trading goods results in wealth, then wealth must have consequences.

During the design of Oligarchy – the follow-up to German Atlantis – it was still unclear to me what that meant. There was wealth, but nothing could be done with it. There were items, but it was unclear what they were used for. The next game, Nulligarchy, made things much clearer. In the end, everything boils down to combat. Items (ingredients) can be combined into weapons using magic, weapons can be used in combat to increase the chances of winning. Trade involves the exchange of ingredients and weapons, such that even more powerfull weapons can be created.

An alternative to the problem of consequences was devised by Chris Rusche and myself for a game design we submited to the Swiss National Exhibition EXPO.02: Social feedback. If whatever actions players make are publicly available, such as in Top-10 ranking lists, bulleting boards, news, then social consequences arise: Fame. Many people will find more fame to be enough of a reward to justify the effort spent in playing the game.

Designing the End

Most PBEM games fall into one of two categories: World domination games, where the goal is to vanquish all other players, or open end games, where the game never ends.

World domination games are difficult to design, because as more and more players are vanquished, more and more trivial options are available to the remaining players. Maybe there are more units to control. Or there are more ressources to move around. The important thing is to make sure that this does not result in unnecessary complexety and boring work. VGA Planets is such a game. Eleven players fight over a fixed numbers of planets. The last two players have to manange practically all the planets while fighting. This is boring work.

Open end games must avoid the same pitfall. Eventhough it is not necessary to eliminate other players, the older players will grow in power or fame. The game design must ensure that this does not result in more boring work. This, unfortunately, happened in German Atlantis. Older factions grew in power and required more and more effort. Boring work.

The solutions are not trivial. In order to keep the complexity from growing as the number of players shrinks, the playground available to players must remain constant. When less players remain, the world must shrink. In order prevent older players from doing boring work, power must not correlate with complexity. The Nulligarchy game lets people play one character only. This assures a constant amount of complexity, irrelevant of that character’s power.

Referenced Games:

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I was doing a search for PBM games, and I happened upon your site. This is a good article, and I hope that you continue to expound upon the subject.

GrimFinger 2011-03-17 13:31 UTC

Thank you for the kind words. I’ve just reread the article and I still agree with it, even though the last edit was 2003-12-13. Wow, in Internet terms, that’s forever. :)

AlexSchroeder 2011-03-17 14:52 UTC

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