sparr (sparr0) wrote,

PBEM game explanation

I want a particular computer game to exist and be played by enough people that finding people to play and games to join is easy. The genre of this game does not have a name, and you've probably never heard of any games like it. Some example games in the genre are Atlantis (, Olympia (, Eressea (, Lorenai (, and my personal favorite Overlord ( They are very niche, with a peak player base across the whole genre of perhaps 1000 people 10-20 years ago; recently a new game of Atlantis started up, the first in a few years, and players were excited to find a few dozen others across the whole community. A key term in searching for them is "PBEM", which stands for "Play By EMail", but that is a generic term that also includes a thousand other games played via email from chess to diplomacy to mafia/werewolf to thematic role playing games.
A rough outline of the genre is as follows.
There is a fictional world, often inspired by fantasy tropes. The world is laid out on some sort of grid map, with locations on the grid having properties such as terrain, weather, population, animal and plant growth, towns and cities, and perhaps less common things like magical effects. Some grid locations might contain natural or artificial additional smaller nested locations, such as towns and cities, buildings, caves, etc, which connect to each other in ways other than the typical compass directions of the main world map. Minor activity happens in the world outside of players' control, such as economic changes, city development, monster and animal migrations, and similar things, but most major events are driven by the players.
In this world each player of the game controls a faction or nation or other grouping of individuals sharing some loyalty or purpose. The player has full knowledge of everything the members of their faction can see, and controls the actions of those members by giving them instructions about what to do.
The game operates in discrete time units, often conceptualized as months, sometimes as days. On a regular real-world schedule each player finds out what happened in the world during the previous game-world time that has passed and has the opportunity to submit new instructions at their leisure. A common configuration is for 30 game days or one game month to pass for every real world week, with players experiencing the game in discrete 30-day chunks. To be specific, submitting instructions on Monday or Friday has the exact same effect on the month of game time that is about to be processed.
The player's faction is often divided into logical groupings of people and items, which can be treated as single recipients of new instructions and single sources of new information. There are various ways to handle this, with different restrictions on the total number of different units of people that can be controlled at once, and how they might be structured.
Here is an example taken from a game I am currently playing. Below is an excerpt from a game report which I receive every two days and represents one game month of time passing. This excerpt focuses on a single unit:
Scout (1234): Rides from swamp (15,11) in Linsstu'ist to mountain (14,12) in Wenhin.
Scout (1234): Rides from mountain (14,12) in Wenhin to mountain (13,11) in Wenhin.
Scout (1234): Claims 10 silver for maintenance.
mountain (13,11) in Wenhin, contains Tranlastan [city], 17154 peasants
  (humans), $17497.
  Wages: $15.1 (Max: $3499).
  Wanted: 116 grain [GRAI] at $27, 178 livestock [LIVE] at $23, 198
    fish [FISH] at $24, 30 leather armor [LARM] at $67, 52 wine [WINE]
    at $287, 32 perfume [PERF] at $290.
  For Sale: 38 vodka [VODK] at $76, 25 gems [GEM] at $130, 686 humans
    [MAN] at $48, 137 leaders [LEAD] at $845.
  Entertainment available: $1046.
  Products: 35 grain [GRAI], 22 iron [IRON], 10 stone [STON].
  North : ocean (13,09) in Atlantis Ocean.
  Northeast : ocean (14,10) in Atlantis Ocean.
  Southeast : mountain (14,12) in Wenhin.
  South : ocean (13,13) in Atlantis Ocean.
  Southwest : mountain (12,12) in Wenhin.
  Northwest : mountain (12,10) in Wenhin.
- City Guard (48), on guard, The Guardsmen (1), 120 leaders [LEAD],
  120 swords [SWOR].
* Scout (1234), Sparr (11), avoiding, behind, sharing, consuming
  faction's food, won't cross water, high elf [HELF], horse [HORS].
  Weight: 60. Capacity: 0/70/85/0. Skills: stealth [STEA] 2 (90).
- Unit (678), centaur [CTAU].
I have focused here on unit #1234 whose name is Scout. This is a unit under my control. In the previous turn I told it to move a couple of times, which it has done, ending the previous month in the described region which contains a city. The unit is composed of a single person, of the race high elf which has some effect on what skills they can learn to advanced levels later. The unit has a single horse, and ignoring some arithmetic could travel while carrying 10 weight units of cargo at riding speed or 25 units at walking speed. The unit has previously studied (under a teacher, as it happens, but that's not evident here) the stealth skill, which makes the unit harder for other factions to see and get information about, and also gives this unit the ability to attempt to steal or perform assassinations. Also I have a small amount of money available to any unit of my faction anywhere in the world, without them needing to carry it with them and I am currently spending 10 silver per month from that fund to keep this scout alive. My next wave of scouts are better trained in earning their own keep while they travel, but this one represents the earliest wave of scouts I sent out into the world.
Also shown are details about the region. In this game, the city itself isn't physically represented, it just describes a very high level of economic activity throughout the described region. Every region has some amount of wages that can be earned by working units, taxes that an army could collect, entertainment value that a performer or magician could earn from the population, and a few other aspects. Most regions have some resources that can be purchased and some that can be produced with the right skill. All of this is detailed here, and some of it might change over time depending on how I and other players interact with the region, and also on some background economic changes that the game itself implements.
There are also a couple of other units present. The city has a force of guards which are controlled by the game engine, and whose job is to prevent fighting or pillaging in the city, among a few other things. Finally there is a lone centaur controlled by some other faction that I cannot see any other information about.
Now I have a few days to talk to other players and consider my options, then I will send in a new set of orders telling this unit (and all of my others) what to do for the next month of their life. This particular unit has a future as a courier, carrying items and money from place to place, for which stealth and a horse (or, later, a flying horse or airship) are key.
I had intended to actually write about the game I want to build, but this explanation of the genre and the example have already run longer than expected. Next time I write about this, I will start to describe what I want to do differently than the previous games, in terms of interface and features and game mechanics. Stay tuned!
Tags: development, game, pbem
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