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Cycles in Gaming

Cycles in Gaming

As a regular down at the yearly Birmingham Games Expo, I have to say that there is a palpable growth in the enthusiasm for board games. A 40+ year old, I was raised on games such as Talisman though these often were pre-cursors to a solid RP session. Board games now however often limelight for a great night's entertainment especially at family occasions. Broad appeal games such as 'Ticket to Ride' and 'Ch'teau Roquefort' are clear favourites amongst those not overly keen on gathering gear and smiting things - usually other players and monsters.

This is most definitely at odds with the situation less than a decade ago when I was waxing nostalgic about the golden years of RPG's and board games and cursing the rise of vacuous online gaming.

Reading around this phenomenon I have come to the conclusion that for a time MMO's (and 'RP' computer games) stole many hard-core gamers and to some extent robbed board games and RPG's of a generation of young gamers. I certainly noticed during the first few years that the Birmingham Games Expo was dominated by early middle-aged men and their young/teenage children. There was a distinct deficiency in attendants in their 20's and 30's.


Despite this initial kick to the market, they have opened gaming to a much wider audience than has ever previously existed. I also suspect that there are a lot of people just like me, now with families that are teaching the social benefits of gathering round a table to game.

The distinct playing styles of a board game, its turn-based mechanics and ability to socialise while playing the game between turns is clearly not present in MMO's where the emphasis is log-in, do the mission/quest and log-out until next time. Being members of guilds/factions will create some sort of down-time camaraderie but this rarely extends beyond the guild/faction. Further, the commercial aspect of the game is generally based on having a vast player-base, leaving no room for individuality on the bigger playing board.

There is however one hobby that spans the gap between small social groups gathered round the table and the vast morass of strangers that are MMO's, I refer to PBM's and their legacy.

For those unfamiliar with this acronym, it stands for Play-by-Mail - essentially a group of players remotely playing a board game, giving instructions to the game master to move their positions on the master board.

The board could be a physical object though more likely a computer generated board. The orders could be simple such as in chess, through to complex such as organising a thousand starships to converge on multiple targets scattered across twenty star systems.

Always being a niche of the board gaming and RPG industry however meant that the downturn of these was the death knell for the vast majority of PBM companies. It was labour intensive, low profit margin and often required personal interaction between the game masters and the customers. Even with adaptation to changing technology such as PBeM (yup, you guessed it, Play-by-email), and online versions supported by full interfaces, they were still very much tied to the mechanics of a board game and by association a dwindling and aging player base.

The story however does not end there as we recall the opening paragraphs on the rise of the board game. It does seem that there is light at the end of the tunnel for the companies that have weathered the storm and for the few companies that have invested time and effort into their games. The reason for this is that their games are still at their heart board games. There is the turn-based structure, a computer generated landscape on which assets are placed but most importantly a modest sized community that spans the entire player base.


Just as PBM grew out of the need for gamers who were unable to get their board game fix because their mates went to university or their jobs took them away, it looks as though the growth in the board games market is having a knock-on beneficial effect for the legacy of the PBM industry.

People are becoming choosier about not only what they play but who they play it with. They want the GM's of old, the personal service that cannot be offered by the large faceless MMO's. They want a game where they are part of a community such as offered by board games and they want the professional service that they accept they can only get through paying.



While it is too early to say that the renaissance of PBM (well, its offspring at least) is on the table, the transition of board gaming to mainstream thanks in some part to MMO's can only be a good thing though the companies will definitely struggle on account of the demise of the wider communities dedicated to this hobby. The last copy of Flagship Magazine was some years ago now and the website shows little activity. Unless you went searching specifically for Play by Mail, you are unlikely to find much more than a few soccer PBM's, KJC Games and Harlequin, but then, if you were searching for Play by Mail, you would undoubtedly be aware of these two companies as both have been around for decades.

It therefore probably comes down to customer demand. Demand for a means to play when nobody was available created PBM's. Can the a rejection of being spoon-fed repeats of the levelling system offered by Warcraft clones and a desire to play good quality turn-based games with a smaller community lead to increased interest in the hobby? Can we expect a resurgence of programmers looking to create their homebrew systems as we had back in the mid 90's? The main hurdle though will be to create an online interface that looks professional such as Phoenixbse, though simpler approaches such as static pages with perlscript submissions are a reasonable first pass. The important thing though is that there is a solid game such as is not currently offered by the market at large.




 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Fox Effects Fantastic Turnaround

With his feet barely under the table, Xavier Fox has managed to dramatically turn things around at the GTT. With year-on-year sales figures up by 23%, manufacturing up 42% and ship production increased by 36%, the megacorporation is running at full steam with noticeable impact on local economies across the Stellar Empire. Political analysts also note that after a period of retrenchment following the disastrous leadership of Ike Krieger, investment in defence is at a five-year high. After such bullish growth, the trick will be for Mr. Fox to recruit C-level executives fast enough to match his ambitions. It is notable in temperament, the current crop of GTT politicals do not exhibit the monomaniacal xenophobia of their predecessors and have resisted repeated provocations by the DEN to enter a pointless spar before they have re-established superiority against the foolhardy aliens.


 
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Felini flounder in Winter against superior Dewiek forces

The FEL have managed to get their asses kicked by the DEN yet again after provoking the definitely “not cute or cuddly” Dewiek in the Crossley system. The furry punching bags had bought a civilian flagged outpost in the system, without permission or under certain conditions depending on who you ask, and then had the gall to reinforce this error by positioning warships in orbit. The famously patient warlord Halvor did not buy the story these heavy hull armed ships were merely transports and sent a pack to clear the orbit. The mouthy yet green Felini fleet commander Pr'prz fancied his chances against what looked like a light complement of DEN warships and ordered his own warships to engage in the neighbouring Winter system. The result was predictably a wipe out of the FEL forces consisting of forty-seven capital warships at no loss to the DEN. Once again, a series of calamitous decision making resulted in Felini lives being wasted by a leadership barely fit to clean a litter tray. The otherwise untested Halvor can now claim some victory ale although with his penchant for picking on creatures as weak as Gracians, it’s not exactly clear how much glory this new breed of Dewiek warrior can claim against the legends of old.


 
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Dastardly Dewiek Disregard Yank Neutrality

The governor of a MRC outpost in the Yank system reports that a 400-hull DEN warship called Grey Hunter Axiom entered orbit of Spritzer and opened fire with weapons of mass destruction (WoMD) against a platform, outpost, ground party and ship. Reports indicate significant casualties to Kastorian personnel both in space and on the ground. The KAS Junta is gruffly warning, with a slightly indifferent air, that everybody better stay out of the sector of the outpost for their own health. It is unclear what measures the KAS have or will take against the DEN on this matter. Such a breach of Yank neutrality has in the past caused the Dewiek to froth at the bit against the Empire for their disregard of ‘civilised’ norms. Their current silence on this matter speaks volumes.


 
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Yenni-bodies Pirates?

A PIR outpost was miraculously discovered by an IMP freighter, of all things, in the Yanni system with several Javelin class warships in orbit. After noticing the IMP freighter and seeing the public post by Jack Jones on subspace, the PIR decided to flee and leave a combined force of IMP and FET forces to capture the outpost. A brain damaged three-year old commentator who still believed in the goodness of people and Santa Claus was quick to commend the IMP on their good work, dismissing those who thought it no more than a convenient clearing up operation signifying* completion of operations in the nearby FET claimed systems of Graydown, Canth and Onissian by IMP puppet Edward Lowe. Meanwhile, the Wolf Lord Lyceum summed up the view of many when he screamed, “What is this amateur b*llshit?” into an uncaring universe.


 
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Crowe Coups Self

The IMP Viceroy Tiberius Crowe has finally achieved something in his unremarkable tenure by relinquishing even the semblance of wearing big boy pants and instead, appointed Jack Jones as Patrol Commissioner, salty spokesperson and policy maker for the Empire. Crowe will now join CIA Director Laton in riding the special bus to work where the two of them will enjoy long pleasant afternoons sipping cups of tea. Actually, just tepid fruit-scented water as neither of them can be fully trusted with a hot kettle. Occasionally, they might be visited by equally dynamic war “veteran” Admiral Bridge to enjoy mimes presenting the latest comics from the Howl. Meanwhile, Jones is putting pressure on the FET and will soon no doubt find a pretext to deploy his vast mercenary forces against anyone else who is seen working too closely with his most hated of enemies, the HEX.


 
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Highlord Aadolf Loses Control As Dewiek Break Peace Treaty

Around one hundred DEN warships have launched an attack on a small GTT destroyer squadron of forty ships in the Daggern system. Two GTT ships were destroyed and another fifteen suffered noticeable damage. CEO Xavier Fox issued a restrained but angry statement demanding the DEN explain themselves. Highlord Aadolf’s buffoon-like response amounted to “Dewiek be Dewiek, let’s drink and forget about it.” Cold comfort for the dead crew onboard the GTT ships and their families. Especially, as seems likely at this time, the Empire will settle for some bloody money instead of retribution.


 
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The Worm Turns

The FET have reduced relations with the IMP to neutral. Sneezy boss Cu Chulainn took the bold step of putting 1 and 1 together by linking recent mercenary attacks in their systems with the IMP scouts seen loitering for some time and refusing to move. Even bolder, hints that they believe “a certain Imperial citizen” is responsible for Edward Lowe’s entire underhand operation were voiced loudly enough that the handsome but hard of hearing Tiberius Crowe had to take note. He was seen grappling in trademark fashion with his skin tight jacket, pulling it down over his partially concealed middle-aged girth, as he sat to issue a terse public statement. Exactly who this citizen may be was left unnamed and no news channel subject to Imperial laws would dare unmask the villain. Luckily dear readers, we are not subject to phony Imperial laws. It’s Jack Jones everybody. Jack Jones, butcher of Naplians and fancier of silver long johns.


 
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”Necessity hath no law”

Lord Cromwell of the DOM slapped a fleet of privateers, on charges of "knavery", "bad manners" and "poor sportsmanship." Such offences carry the death sentence in the Dominion, a nebulous territory neither part of the Empire nor apart from it. At least thirteen Armadillo class ships, typically sold by the DOM, were destroyed at a location Cromwell was unwilling to disclose publicly. Bloodthirsty Dewiek as well as "prince of peace" Yahn Wodenzoon were quick to congratulate the DOM for their merciless carnage. It seems the consensus in the galaxy’s ruling class is that not presenting valid identification is a crime worthy of the murder of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unfortunate crewmen. This is all just another indicator that the political elite are far removed from the lives of ordinary people who are seen as little more than meat inventory. It is telling so-called “man of the people and the downtrodden” Wodenzoon so readily aligns himself with this grisly concord. Meanwhile, the archaic elocutionist Cromwell further establishes the recent trend of mild exertions of power by the cold-blooded DOM.


 
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Return of the Fox

The galaxy is still digesting news of the return of Xavier Fox to the boardroom of the GTT. The ailing corporation's share price began a sharp rally after a six month downward spiral under Ike Krieger, credited with being the worst CEO in the megacorporation's history. The only surviving board member from Fox's initial tenure as CEO, and perhaps across the entire GTT board, is Antt Tilton the Research Director. The reclusive Tilton is the brains behind the ascension of GTT technology, particularly in the field of antimatter weapons and super-heavy dreadnought size ships, Tilton offers a small measure of continuity during this tumultuous time. Mr. Fox has therefore resorted to a broad appeal for new blood to join the ailing firm. So far, the result has been a number of two-dimensional "Yes" persons being promoted to the C-suite. Still, key stakeholders were upbeat with one commenting, "Fox is the man to turn this bloody disaster around. He knows how to put a great team together and where to bury the bodies of the non-performers."


 

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I’ve played on and off for approximately 10 years, over a 20 year spell. After some interesting debate on the in-game forum, I did wonder what, exactly, has kept drawing me back to the game, when for so many others I’ve generally lost interest after a few months.

Ultimately, I think it is a combination of automation (that allows the game to handle thousands of positions to interact on a daily basis) coupled with Special Actions (that allow the story arc to develop in a way that could not be catered for by a set of predefined list of available orders).
-Zigic