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PBEM (Play By Email) Games, Recommendations and Resources

January 1, 2004

in All Articles,Email and messaging,Games

Sitting around a table, you take a swig of caffeine and roll the dice. Making your move, you munch handfuls of heavily-salted snacks. I love playing games, and not just because of caffeine and salt. Tabletop, RPG, video and card, all game types are wonderful ways to pass the time with friends. But I rarely play because I have no time. “Real life” gets in the way, and most of my gaming buddies don’t live anywhere nearby.

Here’s the fix: “Play by email games”, or PBEMs. While you won’t find “Twister”, many game types are available online, for free, via email.

PBEMs have several advantages over traditional game formats. Time isn’t an issue, you play whenever and wherever you want. Distance is no problem, play with friends on opposite ends of the planet. And you’ll have access to new game types, resources and opponents.

PBEM games are played with email as the communication medium. If playing chess, you email your move to a moderator (a human or computer). Later, your opponent’s return move appears in your inbox. If you’re playing a role-playing game, you might email your characters strategy, dialog and moves to a mailing list, and receive similar information from players in daily or weekly digests.

PBEM limitations

It’s harder to keep track of PBEM players. I once played in an excellent sci-fi mystery role-playing PBEM. After the first few turns, the person running the game simply stopped communicating with all five players, and we never found out why.

PBEM games don’t have a standard. Formats are decided by whoever runs a particular game. You may use email. You may join a mailing list. You may need to communicate via Google Groups, Yahoo Groups or similar forums.

Picking a good PBEM game

Some games are great. Others, quite frankly, stink. To pick the best PBEM game, first look at the game description itself. Is it written well, with good grammar and spelling? The game will mirror the quality you see here. See if there is a “lurkers” area, where you can browse and judge the history of previous games. How long has the game been running? A game or service with a five-year history has a much better chance of surviving than something just created. Check requirements to make sure you can commit your time to the game, as most PBEMs require weekly or daily turn updates.

PBEM Resources

A word of warning: Though these are called “games”, they don’t always resemble Monopoly, Checkers, or a game about happy hopping animals trying to find their way through a forest. These games are played by adults, and while some are light-hearted with a PG rating, others are complex, requiring hard strategic thinking. Others deal with adult themes. Anything is available to play. Depending on your perspective, this may be good or bad.

The PBEM world suffered a recent shakeup when a major PBEM resource suddenly stopped operating with no warning or reason. At this point, it’s difficult to pick the single best PBEM resource. But, as we see by Seinfeld and Cheers reruns, no one person needs to be the best if there’s a great ensemble cast.
Nothin’ fancy, but lots of info and over a thousand games (free and commercial), with detailed category descriptions for each. Keep clicking the “Subcategory” links to drill down and find exactly what game types you want.
Weird interface, but plenty of games and resources.
This focuses on strategy intensive games. A small but well-defined gameset, with very helpful descriptions and instructions for all games.
Game announcements for commercial and free PBEMs.
A fairly new but promising site.
A PBEM server focusing on traditional (and not-so-traditional) board games.

It’s hard to emulate or replace the fun of getting together with friends and playing a game. PBEMs can’t give you the full social experience, but they do let you play good games wherever and whenever you want. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an email I want to send.

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