Landes began making computer games in 1980, but when missed release dates killed the company he launched his own PBM brand in 1984. Based in Oregon, his creations included Swords of Pelarn, which Landes initially moderated by hand, an “arduous” process that could take 20 to 30 minutes for each player’s turn. Even with the aid of computers, data entry and mailing remained labor intensive.
“We had a bank of dot matrix printers running all night to print out the results and the next day we would package up the turns, do the accounting and then mail them out,” Landes said. “At our peak in 1991 we were spending over $25,000 per month in postage. The local post office joked that we should have our own zip code.” Today, that would be over $49,000 a month.
Landes sold his company in 1992, and today he teaches game design while working on his own projects, including the popular Mount & Blade mod Prophesy of Pendor and the upcoming StariumXCV. Swords of Pelarn can still be played online through PBM company Harlequin Games, and that its current guidebook is 117 pages speaks to how complicated these games can get. But what keeps players coming back after all these years?
Unparalleled Complexity, If You Can Wait a Few Years
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To Raven Zachary, the appeal of PBM is in “the level of depth, the complexity, the sense of a long-term commitment, and the epic nature of the games.” Zachary is a member of PlayByMail.net, a community where fans swap stories of hounding their mailmen for updates, and he helps run their Facebook group, maintain an index of active games, and write for their blog, among other efforts. As a child, Zachary saw PBM ads in Dragon magazine, and played from the early ‘80s until 1993. He returned in 2018, because while his hectic work schedule had made it difficult to have lengthy board game sessions with friends, PBM could be played in spare moments while still engaging his love of long-term planning and diplomacy. He’s now active in seven different games.
While PBM can’t offer the intimate roleplaying of D&D with friends, Zachary explains that they “excel at large-scale, strategic, diplomatic endeavors that are not achievable in board or computer games.” The long waits between turns can be spent strategizing and coordinating with allies, which in turn gets players more invested in outcomes. Calling it an “experience that you just can’t get in any other format,” Zachary says, “I find myself thinking about my plans for the upcoming turns throughout my day. When the time comes to commit, I’ve really come to terms with what I am going to do.”
That fits Landes’ design philosophy. “The strength of a game is not in playing it,” he explains. “It’s in how much the player thinks about it when they are not playing. It’s all about that ‘What if” scenario that occurs like a light bulb going off, and causes them to want to return to the game to see the results of their insight.” Conversely, he argued that a bad PBM game produces predictable results; if a player can sense how the game will end, why should they pay to keep playing? To keep players engaged, Landes “avoided closing avenues of success until the ending stages of the game,” and tried to prevent “the perception of loss” by emphasizing games where players compete to accumulate resources, rather than try to whittle each other down to nothing.