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Issue #5 - PBM Editorial - Charles Mosteller
My recent plunge into the realm of Alamaze has resulted in me talking a lot about Alamaze, of late. I invite you to write in, and tell us all what PBM games that you are playing (or reminiscing about), these days.

When I think about Alamaze and about playing Alamaze, my mind and my memory wanders to Hyborian War and to Middle-earth PBM. These three PBM games that all originated decades ago actually have a lot in common, even though at first glance they may each appear to be quite distinctive things. And for certain, they each are quite distinctive from one another, in their own way.

All three of them are wargames. All three of them places characters and armies and troops at the player’s disposal for waging war upon one another with. Each game features an economy and economic aspects. And each game features artifacts, of sort, though Hyborian War’s in-game artifacts take a much more subdued form (magic weapon, magic armor), one which players have far less control over, compared to Middle-earth PBM and Alamaze.

Which of these three PBM wargames is perfect? None of them. They each have their pluses and their minuses, they each have their strengths and their weaknesses. Back when all three of them were still fairly young (back in the 1980s), I tried all three of them. And of the three of them, I ended up playing Hyborian War the longest, and Alamaze the least. Middle-earth PBM, I only played in a couple of games of it - but that was twice as many games of it that I played, compared to the Alamaze of back then.

To a degree all three of these PBM games are team games, in that players almost always tend to end up working together, in various ways and to varying degrees. Middle-earth PBM, however, is the true purist team game of the three. It trounces the other two hands down, in this regard - but it isn’t as though Alamaze and Hyborian War can’t be played with true teams, because they can be played that way, and in fact, they have been played that way, before.

In their design and mechanics, Alamaze and Middle-earth PBM are the most alike. There are numerous similarities, but the actual feel of these two PBM games is quite distinct from one another. Even decades later, I can still recall how it feels to begin a game of Middle-earth PBM. You’re immediately transported to the realm that is Middle-earth. This is due primarily to two things - the characters and the map.

Interestingly enough, it was the military side of Middle-earth PBM that I wasn’t particularly fond of, way back then. The character side of the game always commanded very strong appeal. For who doesn’t want to be Er-Mûrazôr, the Witch-king of Angmar and Lord of the Nazgûl?

Yet, here we are, almost forty years later, and yours truly has begin to play Alamaze in earnest. No doubt, my old friend, Rick McDowell, the designer of Alamaze, would likely be pleased that, at long last, I have “seen the light.” Too bad that it had to be after Rick sold Alamaze to someone else and went on to other things in his life. As the old saying goes, though, better late than never!

And do it is hard for me to play Alamaze without thinking of Middle-earth PBM, and all of the wonderful lore that goes along with it. But how much more amazing it is, then that I am discovering that Alamaze is growing on me. Middle-earth with its high fantasy lineage and Hyborian War with its sword and sorcery lineage, but where does Alamaze properly fall? Probably somewhere between the two, but leaning more on the high fantasy side of things. Both Hyborian War and Middle-earth PBM adhere more strongly to cartographic certainties than does Alamaze. Alamaze suffers from having a literary heritage to attach itself to and to ground itself in, whereas Middle-earth PBM has Tolkien’s writings to fall back upon, and Hyborian War has Robert E. Howard’s writings to cling to. Where is Alamaze to find a similar Rock of Gibraltar in literary form to ground itself in?

But the games are not like the books. The games are not the stories. Try as they may, apples will ever be apples, and oranges will ever be oranges. Books and movies and games, at best, only borrow from one another. They are never truly one and the same. But then again, how could they ever hope to be?

On the programming end of things, Hyborian War is the least-changing of the three. In recent years, which of these three games do I think has shown the most progress on the programming end of things? To me, it’s a no-brainer. It’s Alamaze. But that should not be taken by anyone for me to mean that Middle-earth PBM has made no programming progress in recent years. New modules have appeared. But Alamaze has truly undergone some wholesale programming changes, both in recent years, and since Alamaze first appeared on the play by mail gaming scene several decades ago.

Of the three of them - Hyborian War, Middle-earth PBM, and Alamaze - in my estimation, Middle-earth PBM has the strongest overall support staff. To its credit, Hyborian War has the longest serving intact support staff, by far. And Alamaze in its current form has a brand new owner aided by one who is, arguably, the most energetic programmer to be found at any of these games’ respective companies - UncleMike.

It’s just my gut instinct and nothing more, but the folks at Middle-earth PBM seem (and I stress the word, seem, here) to be constrained in their development of new games that sit atop their underlying game “engines” by licensing issues. Clint Oldridge and crew at Middle-earth PBM, feel free to write in and correct me on this, if I am wrong on this particular point.
Which of these three game “engines” do I think would be the quickest to adapt to growing their gaming legacy, if the folks behind them had the resources and the drive and determination to do so? Personally, I think that the Alamaze game “engine” would be the quickest to bring a new gaming product to market. For instance, imagine all three of these games’ underlying engines (programming/code) adapted to run, say, a World War II game. Or any other genre of game or game setting.

Can they even do that with the Middle-earth engine? The underlying programming, itself, I don’t think would be under licensing shackles from whomever controls Tolkien Estate licensing issues. Likewise, I don’t think that the underlying programming for Hyborian War would require approval from the Conan licensing folks. The underlying code for Hyborian War is old, and doesn’t seem to get updated with any real degree of frequency. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

The lack of new games in PBM built atop the underlying programing infrastructure of existing games is one of the greatest deficits in all of PBM history. Proven and time-tested game engines relegated largely to single-purpose these and settings. Talk about missed opportunities!

As it relates to gaming, what is programming? In my own words, programming is the art of what’s possible. Lack of initiative, lack of time, lack or resources - these three things continue to hamstring PBM gaming. And PBM gamers are the worse for it.

How many different ways do you slice the same cake? Lee Kline at Reality Simulations, Inc. has already demonstrated that new possibilities exist for old PBM games, when she agree to run a Special Variant Game of Hyborian War that I concocted several years back. Same programming, but with some manual changes made at the beginning of the game. Fifty turns were ran, before any player started issuing turn orders to their kingdoms. A special character added to the game - Tsotha-Lanti (which in the game became Tsotha-lanti the Vulture).

Did it break the game? Yep! It sure did. But it proved to be nothing that Lee Kline and RSI couldn’t fix and overcome. Where before there was uncertainty, now Lee has acquired new experience. It just goes to show that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Whether anyone fully realizes it or not, manual changes can inject a ton of flavor and excitement into new games of Hyborian War. Programming changes or additions hold no monopoly upon increasing the offerings available for PBM gamers to choose from.

Changing base data files is an option worth exploring more. Changing kingdom names, character names, adding new characters to starting positions - these are all things very much worth considering and trying. But if you can change the underling code, itself, if you can add to it, then the world is truly PBM’s oyster.

In a way, we are all running out of time. Time passes - steadily, methodically, unrelenting in its acquisition of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and decades. If not now, then when?

Jason Oates’ Games still runs Company Commander. What about Company Commander in a more updated setting? How about a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict scenario? Or what about a Russo-Ukrainian War or individual fronts from that war replicated in game form for past (and future) Company Commander players? Or is that a licensing barrier, also? Maybe a programming one, as well. Who knows? I don’t - but I do wonder.

And the first step in getting gamers to try PBM games? Getting them to wonder. To wonder about the games, and to wonder about the possibilities.

Tell me this - does a willingness to bring more options into PBM gaming bring chaos with it? Or without such options, are we all left to languish in the chaos of old?

Think about it, but be sure to write in and let us all know what you think.

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