Introduction to Play By Mail Games

Brief introduction to Play By Mail games.


Play-by-mail (PBM) games have been around for quite a long time. It's generally recognised that chess players were the first to play games through the post, and they started almost as soon as there was a postal service. After that the first play-by-mail games were commercial board games adapted for postal play. Diplomacy was the first to be played on a wide scale. Purpose-built play-by-mail games first appeared in the 1970's and have been growing in popularity ever since.

At Software Simulations and Ab Initio Games we've been designing and running professional play-by-mail games since the early 80's after "crossing over" from postal Diplomacy.

Since the mid 1990's email and the Internet have continued to expand and we've continued to develop existing games to run "via the net" as well as designing games expressely for internet play (which allows much quicker turnaround times than relying on the post).

The type of game that works best this way is important. If you like the sort of game that involves plenty of thinking, where you make up plans, decide between different tactics and strategies, then test your ideas to see how well they work - that's what works best. If the game isn't worth thinking about between turns, and you can't remember what you were doing a week ago, then it's not going to be interesting for long.


One of the main advantages of play-by-mail games is the availability of opponents. Depending upon the game, you'll be playing against between half a dozen and thirty "live" opponents, rather than a computer program.

The fact that you're playing against other active players rather than against the computer means that every game is different (unlike a computer game where you soon learn what your computer will do in each situation). Many players enjoy the challenge of a battle of wits against active opponents, which is very difficult to arrange in any other sort of game.

Simulation Games

In a simulation game (like our sports simulations) you're taking the role of a real-life coach or manager. The team you coach or manage is not the same as the real-life team. The names and those of the players are usually the same but the team and player strengths will vary according to your decisions - the game has to be able to respond to your decisions and it wouldn't be able to if player details had to be the same as real life.

For these games play-by-mail is ideal for the detail involved. The players usually don't get to know exactly how everything works, and this information remains secret to the programmer. The players have to simply play the game as they see it, rather than simply "playing the rules".

An advantage with sports games is that many players find the games increase their appreciation of the sport in real-life. Often you'll find through playing the game you'll learn more about the real-life game and understand it better than when you started.

Stats Games

In our stats games we take a slightly different approach. Instead of real teams with imaginary players we have imaginary teams with real players. Each stats game runs in parallel with its real-life sport, and results are decided by the real-life performances of your players (when a player you picked in your team scores in real life then he scores for you as well).

A big difference from the sort of game you might see in a newspaper is that our games are still proper league and simulation games. Each player can sign for only one team in each league (always the highest bidder) so that players can be bought and sold from team to team. Teams carry over from season to season so that when you're not winning you can build for next season by signing players for the future.

Player Interaction Games

Some people might tell you that all play-by-mail games are about player interaction, mainly because live opponents are what play-by-mail can offer than other games can't - but sports games are about sports first and interaction second. In a true player-interaction game the real "action" is what happens between the players, making and breaking alliances, making deals and making enemies. In these games you definitely play the man, not the ball, so they're usually wargames or business games, where you work together with some of the players and against some of the others.

Getting Started

When you first start in a play-by-mail game it may seem quite daunting. The games are often fairly complex and it often takes a few turns to get to grips with the rules and all of the aspects of the game. However, this isn't a reason to be put off. If a game is so simple to play that you can pick everything up straight away it's unlikely to be a game that will continue to hold your attention for very long. Our games are designed for long term enjoyment and there are players who've been playing in the same game for ten or fifteen years quite happily.

Most established postal players will tell you that postal games are a very exciting way to play. One or two weeks per turn may seem quite slow at first, but you'll soon find that you're using a lot of that time for thinking and planning. Once you've sent in your instructions you'll probably find yourself patrolling the doormat each morning (or the mailbox each evening for email) in anticipation of receiving your results.

If you want to play more often then most people do that by playing more than one game.