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Kingdom Design

Kingdom Design

By: Rick McDowell

Issue #19

If you are thinking about playing a “PBM game” you are not familiar with and that your friends haven’t played, well, why should you play? You exhale, thinking, this is going to be some work.

PBM games are complicated! There may be 60 pages or more of rules, but there are some with only 4 pages though I don’t quite understand those, as paradoxical as that might sound.

Let us assume you are thinking you might want to take on a new PBM style game: you are back in the saddle again. You know what you like, which I will assume means a fairly deep game of strategy, at intervals processed simultaneously, where the attraction is to both hope for both your tactical choices and the purveyor’s program producing perfect execution, your strategic outlook considering many possible scenarios that may unfold and your superior utilization of resources, and as reward for serious play, in turn receiving results that both make sense and enthrall. Most importantly, joining a strategy game that draws you in more deeply with each turn, where each turn new knowledge is gained, and more possibilities unfold. In a great game there are no “meh” turns and you must be focused, carefully choosing from among dozens of potentially viable orders to produce that perfect set of commands. Intimidated? No? Good, you are our kind.

In my game of that type (Alamaze), you choose both a kingdom from among 24 available including some staples like Dwarves, Elves, Dark Elves…well, that’s about all the expected ones, or Tyrant of Gor, Warlock, Sorcerer, Necromancer, Atlantians, Underworld, Pirates, Gnomes, Sacred Order, Black Dragons and at least a dozen others.

You choose your kingdom carefully, considering its strength not just as a number but across its characters and kingdom traits, along military, economic, covert, magical, divine and esoteric characteristics. Of course, who doesn’t?

Now you pick your region in Maelstrom, the continent in play. There are 12 to choose from, each with different characteristics. There are Capital Regions, Free Trade Regions, City States, Savage Regions. Which terrain mix is preferred? Major city like in the large capital regions, or more secluded island regions? Lots of coast and sea, or perhaps more mountains or forest?

In Alamaze, kingdoms are defined primarily by more than 24 Cultural Traits, as well as terrain adeptness, magical proficiency, and special abilities. Each kingdom is very much distinct. As The Underworld, you feature intrigue and have special orders unavailable to other kingdoms. You will steal, assassinate, kidnap, and reveal skeletons in the closet on your enemies. As the Atlantians, you can control the seas and have powerful nobles to usurp control of PC’s. As Red Dragon, all fear you will bring your wrath to their kingdom as even cities with high walls hardly concern you.

Alamaze perhaps has gained most distinction by differentiating its kingdoms and letting wildly different strategies succeed in the right hands. Despite so many gigantic differences between kingdoms across all aspects of play, and so many thousands of possibilities with any kingdom in any region, no kingdom has become dominant or shunned, and the same can be said of the regions.

Alamaze is famous for not just staying power for 30 years and the design and interface enhancements through four generations that sustains that appeal, but for the quality of its elements – including its magic system, where each kingdom has unique spell lists over nine levels of power. That’s just a hint on one aspect of Alamaze. Your brigades will gain experience and become veteran and with further success rise to be elite. Your leaders will rise from captain to general to marshal in increments and may eventually become game-changing Warlords. Your agents at the highest level can enter the castle of your enemy and slit the throat of their king. Your wizards will rise in power to cast incredible magic.

But all this will not overwhelm you, you instead will be drawn in. Alamaze will flow over you, and you may join those with us that have played on for decades, always discovering something new. Its been around now after winning Game of the Year at Origins and GAMA, for 30 years, now in its fourth generation with all web-based interaction (no snail mail)

Find us at Alamaze Signup there. You are never asked for credit card info and won’t be invoiced until after you do the tutorial, and at least one Duel (against likely a mentor), and only when you get it your first game that begins are you then invoiced for $9.95 for a month. Yes, ten turns in a month for $9.95. You owe it to yourself to give Alamaze a look. There is nothing to risk.

See you soon!


Alamaze Designer

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Something Else Entirely!

Something Else Entirely!

By: Vince L. Falcone

Issue #19

     The Arch Necromancer speaks on PBM Games

I have waged wars across all kinds of platforms; I have played solo missions against endless hordes of villains and monsters only to end up fighting their super-inflated ‘Level Boss’. I have played MMOs and fought everything from intergalactic wars to first-person shooters in a dozen cities across a dozen countries even on a dozen worlds. I have lead armies across maps and rolled the dice that would determine my fate and the fate of the world on more occasions than can be remembered.

And that is my point. I cannot remember in great detail a single one of those ‘glorious battles’. Oh sure, I may recall a particular shot I made, or a kill I landed, but it ends there. Forgotten, along with the rest of the things that just don’t warrant memory. My guess is because the image was overlayed onto my brain, and no real thought or energy was expended on my part. It was simply a manufactured memory; and like all things manufactured –they aren’t built to last. Because it’s a computer-driven game, with brilliant lights, and fancy sounds backed up with a slick soundtrack. None of it is mine. Not the look, not the feel, not even the playing of it. Its all generated to stimulate. No real effort required on my part.

But then, like the kings of old, or an anxious general waiting for news from his scouts, my PBM turn arrives in the mail! This is something else entirely! This is what I have been waiting for all these weeks – news from the front! Word of deeds back home at court or in faraway kingdoms.

I eagerly open my turn, and it reads as if my own vizier were before me, transporting me to where I need to be. And, just like the kings and queens of a forgotten time, I have numerous decisions to make – dozens of decrees that will either seal the pacts of alliance, or send thousands to their death in glorious battle. Mine is the power to command spies to inform me of my neighbor’s activities, send assassins to silence forever a troublesome diplomat, or order my generals and heroes to war for the greater good of the realm. Wizards are summoned to work their arcane magics and summon powers in the service of their king that go beyond the scope of mere mortals.

Armies are hurled at my enemy’s frontiers, and garrisons are reinforced to defend against hostile raiding parties. Treaties are made and broken, tributes demanded, and gifts of jewels, spices and gold are sent to entice prospective allies, or hire the talents of distant nations to do those deeds that cannot be associated with the crown.

And while all of this is enough to stir the imagination, and keeps the piston’s of my mind firing endlessly; turning various options in my head over and over and over again, this is still not the end… the greatest aspect of the game has yet to unfold itself…

Your turns are submitted and received via the mail, but so too is the greatest feature of the PBM system… the interaction with players from all over the world. Why should your kingdom wage war alone, when you can write to another and strike up an alliance, or forge a peace treaty? The power to communicate with players from all walks of life, from every corner of the map who are all here with a singular purpose – the same purpose as yours– the conquest of a realm!

It is interesting to note, that many of the players will interact ‘in character,’ adding to the flavor of the already sumptuous game. Knowing that there are other kings and queens contacting, and waiting to be contacted only adds to the fun. In time, real-life friendships will arise, and where once a floundering alliance may have existed, talks of a second game with even greater cooperation may begin, and so the wheel continues to spin… and it is a war without end… the kingdoms you play may change, as will the allies and enemies you may have, but the adventure will always be there, and the memories from each war will last a lifetime. The victories will burn brightly in your recollection, and your defeats will gnaw at you for a chance at revenge – but the two greatest things you will take away from your PBM games will always be: the friends in unexpected places you have made, and the memories of the adventures and wars you have journeyed through together.

The time is now, ‘O king. Will you heed the call, and partake in the greatest of adventures, or will you sit by and listen to the tales of the courage of others?

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Nowhere But PBM

Nowhere But PBM

By Rick McDowell

Issue #1

     Where else can you compete against a dozen or more mature, intelligent adults in a sophisticated, thinking man’s game set in a genre of mutual interest? In a format that lets you play whenever you wish within a cycle of several days, and affords that same convenience to all allies and enemies in the campaign? Where else do games build to a crescendo over several months of thoughtful planning and execution, where lifelong friendships may be made, some of whom may also frequently play the role of arch nemesis? Where reflexes matter for naught, strategy is everything, both in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your position and style of play, as well as those of your fellow competitors?

     Nowhere other than here: PBM/PBEM. While there are thousands of computer, online, and well-presented board games, no other style offers all the advantages of PBEM. So why is the hobby waning instead of waxing?

     Ironically, for some of the same reasons it stands alone as a most appealing combination of attractive game play elements, it is neigh unapproachable to the huddled masses hooked on instant gratification, splashy graphics, download-and-start-clicking, and a torrent of low brow free online games.

     PBEM games and their purveyors are high-end boutique in comparison -for very discriminating buyers who generally know what they want and what they’re getting into:

  • Complexity, which they appreciate rather than cringe from and which by their nature means lots of rules to absorb and enjoy before doing anything in the game;
  • Anticipation replaces instant gratification. This is a hallmark of PBEM but a foreign idea to most gamers, especially younger ones;
  • The boutique (low volume, high cost and high customer loyalty) requirement of producing PBEM is met by the uninitiated as priced too highly. Probably all PBEM moderators have heard something like, “I can play World of Warcraft unlimited for $13 a month. Why would I pay your price?”

     All gamers that haven’t should try World of Warcraft (WoW) or something similar to see what it’s about. After all, it has tens of millions of mostly teenaged players. If after a few hours of play or a few leveling ups, you don’t find WoW tedious and numbingly repetitive, haven’t seen there is little substance behind the flashy graphic veneer, don’t mind a game dominated by 16 year olds who aren’t thinking five minutes ahead, and/or your monthly entertainment budget is about that of a movie and a box of popcorn, you should stay with WoW and its ilk.

     If you want something more stimulating for your brain than for your eyes, come back to PBEM and bring your friends. Players in good PBEM’s think about their game even more of their time away from the game than while actually playing it. They are evaluating the situation, considering alternatives, calculating the implications of every move, inventing the next steps in various diplomatic overtures and the potential consequences of each. It is absorbing, thought provoking, challenging, fraught with peril for miscalculation and great intrinsic reward for plans well-conceived and executed. Of course, there is also that underrated aspect of going against (and with) very bright fellow competitors of living tissue instead of AI. And each campaign is very different than the one before, bringing fresh challenges.

     PBEM will always be boutique; it will never attract a million followers. But it can survive and encourage its bright designers to create new worlds that entertain us for years to come. Here are some obstacles to overcome:

  • Marketing is not very effective because a single company has a very limited budget and is trying to compete online with the marketing dollars of gaming companies with millions to spend.
  • The perception that PBEM is too expensive.
  • The learning curve to come to love the game is normally substantial.
  • The demographic is aging and not necessarily the most technically savvy.
  • The lack of glitz and instant gratification.
  • We need exciting new concepts for games and worlds.

     To those obstacles, I suggest the following be considered:

  • PBEM companies should consider forming a consortium for marketing and awareness and sharing player lists to build a unified community of gamers.
  • PBEM isexpensive, although many boxed games are expensive as well. So are high quality products in any field. The value proposition must be emphasized, meaning the hours of enjoyment per dollar and the uniqueness of the experience for each player, rather than having the same experience a million others might have identically in most online and computer games.
  • This is a delineator for sure. A casual gamer (plays free games) is unlikely to become an avid PBEM gamer, because it is too complicated. We need to find those gamers who enjoy the challenge and mental stimulation, and they are less likely to be actively looking for challenging games than are kids looking for the newest release
  • This is much a marketing problem: we are trying to reach the people who would really enjoy the hobby but just don’t know about it or think immediately that they would enjoy it, and they aren’t looking for it.
  • Producers can make largely text results more attractive, but this is another hard line between eye candy gratification and mental stimulation and anticipation. It seems avid readers of both fiction and non-fiction are the best target demographic, rather than existing gamers
  • A breakthrough design in a totally new genre or an existing genre presented completely differently with lots of hooks could be big for the whole field by bringing new attention

     Word of mouthremains probably the most important marketing tool and way to convey what our hobby has to offer those who would seek mental stimulation in their entertainment. Players, tell your intellectual friends about your favorite PBEM game and join your favorite game with them to help them learn the ropes and become a happy member of our wonderful PBEM community.

Rick McDowellDesigner and Producer for Alamaze, Fall of Rome, and Kingdoms of Arcania