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October 24, 2009

A game for mind readers?

Mail train

Mission From God - the directory of postal gaming zines




Paul Oakes examines why some games are better by post

It doesn't take a genius to see that the original reason for postal games playing was the difficulty in getting enough players in the same place for long enough to play the game. Given that game was Diplomacy, the postal hobby was practically essential to get a game (either that, invent computer gaming or start a large family, the approach several hobby members have taken as insurance against the hobby failing).

Apart from having time to work out really sneaky moves, not knowing how long Russia spent talking to England and a bit of conditional retreats/builds there was no difference to the face-to-face version, as any set of house rules makes clear in rule 1 ("Except as detailed below, the 1971 rule-book will apply").

Then a few editors (in the UK notably Clive Booth in Chimera and Keith Thomasson in Griffin) got fed up of playing just one game, and weren't that keen on writing 14 page reviews of Joy Division records, so they started trying something other than Diplomacy or the three thousand variants around at the time. And that's how we got here.


But these games generally have sequential turn systems, so unless each issue of the zine was to have only one player making his move, some changes had to be made. The simplest is to allow the players going later to make their orders conditional on the earlier moves. This method is used in Acquire and 18XX. In these games half the skill is in making the right moves as in the face-to face versions, but anticipating possibilities and ordering for them is vital. That ain't so hard in Acquire when you're second to play, but it looks bloody impossible in 1830 (plenty of people still do it though, the fools). And this is a good thing, because it has brought another aspect to playing the game.

But the real cunning move was to make the game into a simultaneous move structure, with no conditional orders possible. Breaking Away is an example of this - in face to face play you can see where everything is, and just slot your bike in to the gap, but postally you have to calculate/negotiate/guess where the other idiots will stick there little men, and still get it wrong.


However, the archetypal example is Railway Rivals, where an excellent face to face game was vastly improved. Now you have to guess where the others are going to build, and if they can get in your way (in RR building alongside opponents track is criminally expensive). Large elements of bluff, threat and building to pick up penalty payments suddenly appear, as well as the minor detail of trying to end up with a network that connects some of the useful bits of the board. Also, the boring die-rolling contest at the end of the game is now managed by the GM, leaving your valuable time free to play a game of postal Snowball Fighting or something.

Unless you're prone to misordering or can't keep a straight face Diplomacy is the same postally or personally, but this is a different (and better) game if you can find some mug to do the donkey work in his zine, and anyone who's played RR but found it either too slow or not challenging enough should give it a try in a zine.

If you know of other worthwhile games where postally the movement is simultaneous but in the original it's sequential, then it's probably worth trying both to see what the differences are; I'd certainly be interested to know of further examples.

(Paul Oakes)


Postal gaming

Published in November 1998

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