Play By Email Week: Two from Flying Buffalo

Flying Buffalo is generally credited as the first company to make commercial Play By Mail games. Now a couple generations later, they’ve made the switch to email but still feel like the same small group of hobbyists they always were. The games are generally inspired by old-school wargames, and they have a per-turn fee.

The old-school vibe carries through everywhere, including the 1990s utilitarian design of their website. (If you want to send a credit card payment, you’ll find the page doesn’t even use SSL, and has a note on it that “the darn [security certificate] costs $100 a year, and doesn’t make any difference that I can see.” Fortunately, there are other ways to send them money.) And even though all games are run through a computer, they still have a staff of people who copy your orders from email into the program! I’ve found them to be pretty friendly and helpful, sometimes pointing out errors or even correcting obvious mistakes when it was too late for me to fix things myself. Even so, it can’t compare to the immediate, automated order checking of Diplomacy.

I tried two of their games, Nuclear Destruction and Starweb, which both offer a discount for new players to try out.

Nuclear Destruction is a very simple game about building missiles and factories, and then lobbing those missiles at opponents. You can, of course, negotiate with the other players (“major powers”) to choose targets, but a lot of the strategy comes from trying to win influence over the non-player-controlled “minor powers”. Gifting them money and bombs, or selling factories, could win their favor so that they attack the nation of your choice, or it could just be adding to the infrastructure of a country that’s under control of an enemy.

With its negotiation and simultaneous moves, Nuclear Destruction has some things in common with Diplomacy. The biggest design difference is the fact that there is hidden information. You get three spies per turn that can tell you the current influence and resources of other major and minor power, and otherwise you’re almost completely blind. It’s important to negotiate with others to increase your total information, though they could be lying to you. I find that idea to be really exciting, because hidden information adds a new element that the open board of Diplomacy can’t offer.

Otherwise, though, the game is lackluster. In fact, it’s so simple that there hardly seems to be a point. Anyone can attack anyone else, so there is no board or tactical maneuvering. The only difference between positions is in what minor powers you are vying to control. You can launch all your missiles at once if you want, and I don’t see much reason to hold back. Unless your target is annihilated in one round, they’ll be able to strike back with all of their missiles the next round. In my game, attacks usually knocked a player out of the game in one blow. For most of the attacks, including the one that wiped me out, I have no idea why anyone chose the targets they did.

The game is simple and relatively inexpensive, and if it ran quickly (say, a couple of turns per week), it might be a fun and chaotic experience. But instead, the standard length is three weeks between turns! Played like that, it’s ponderous without being weighty enough to justify it, and you’ll almost forget about it between turns. There’s just not much game here.

Grade: C-

The other game that I tried, though, has a lot going on! In fact, I find it a little scary that Flying Buffalo considers Starweb to be of only “moderate” difficulty. Turns in my game ran every two weeks, and they could take hours to plan out, in addition to all the negotiation going on at certain times. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any faster. At first, I thought that the game seemed very overpriced. Though I had the introductory $1/turn rate, the normal price is about $5/turn, with games taking fifteen or twenty turns. When I thought of it as “this game is costing most players at least $75 each!”, it seemed ridiculous. But after a few months of experience, I realized it might be more fair to think of it as a hobby that cost $10 per month. At half the price of World of Warcraft, this immersive and time-consuming game (but one you can deal with on your own schedule) is actually justifiable. It’s all in how you look at it.

Starweb is, literally, about a web of wormholes between star systems. Thanks to these warps in space, the 255 worlds are not necessarily laid out in a simple two-dimensional (or even three-dimensional) structure. They don’t do a lot, mainly producing metal and building ships, but there are a lot of subtleties to the way that movement and battles work. Additionally, there are several different character types, and each one has its own powers and scoring. As your empire builds, and you control more worlds and fleets, expect each turn to involve about 70 individual orders to your empire.

The biggest criticism of Starweb is that it’s basically Spreadsheet: The Game. Much of the “fun” comes from all the information encoded in the dense reports you get every round, and in using your limited information to predict what the other players might be doing beyond your view. This probably sounds interesting to only a small percentage of my readers, but if it does, you should check it out.

Like Nuclear Destruction, this is another game of diplomacy with hidden information. Once again, though, the nature of the information makes the game very different from others. In this case, there is a lot of data out there, and everyone has only a little bit of it. Having the most information is a huge advantage, which means that you need to form partnerships that share it freely. This enforces complete trust, though: It’s suicide to betray someone once you’ve told them exactly where your strategic centers are and how they’re guarded. Besides, if a group gets held up by internal squabbles or withheld information, they will quickly be outpaced by more cooperative alliances. Apparently, as the Starweb community has come to terms with this reality, it evolved to the point where almost every (fifteen-player) game ends up with two or three large teams rather than lots of smaller, shifting alliances. Unlike Diplomacy, if you get a reputation for betraying allies, no one will ever work with you again. I’m not going to fight that system, as it clearly is the optimal strategy, but it was a little disappointing that the diplomacy phase of this game only lasted a few rounds. Once the alliances had settled down, that thrill was gone.

Though it won’t appeal to most people, Starweb is a unique and very deep game. I do want to try it more, but I definitely need a break first.

Grade: B-

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