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[PlayByMail.Net Interview] Vern Holdford of Empyrean Cluster Wars
Tell us the origin of both Empyrean Cluster Wars and its PBM predecessor, Empyrean Challenge.

[Vern Holford] I got into playing Star Web by Flying Buffalo, about 1977, I think. I also started playing Galaxy II by Brett Tondreau, about the same time. Empyrean Challenge was inspired, in part, by those two games and a board game, Stellar Conquest. I decided I could do as well, or better, and launched Superior Simulations, in 1979. After about 10 years of limited success, I sold it to John Ess, in 1988. John finally had to give it up, due to health issues, I believe. Jay would know more about that. I was not involved with the game, at that time. Around 2002 or 2003, Jay contacted me, to acquire my interest in the game, as he had been given the go ahead by John to have the game relaunch. Eventually, about 2004, I became involved in the relaunch, which became Empyrean Cluster Wars.

I should mention that Empyrean Challenge had a version called Maxi Challenge, that involved fewer players than Empyrean Challenge. Empyrean Cluster Wars is basically an update of the Maxi Challenge variant of Empyrean Challenge.

Who are Jay Colombo and Vern Holford, and what are your respective relationships to the game of Empyrean Cluster Wars? Also, which one of you does the most work on Empyrean Cluster Wars?

[Vern Holford] At this point, Jay and I are running the relaunch as a partnership(correct me if I'm wrong, Jay). I do or oversee the programming, We both work on the design aspects. Jay is running a huge position in the test game. I'm not sure who does the most work. Also, I need to mention that the testers are, except for one player, all players from the old days. They are all helping, immensely, in finding bugs and critiquing the rules.

What about Empyrean Cluster Wars distinguishes it from other space games?

[Vern Holford] I think we have a unique combination of features. While the game is turn based, as any play by mail has to be, we process turns, simultaneously. We combine strategy and resource management in a way that allows for diplomacy, as will as combat. Most important is, we take advantage of the Internet for turn and orders transmission. This helps in keeping the costs down and turn around more rapid.

We are using computer software for turn presentation and interactive order editing, so that we have almost no costs for input or output, just development and processing. Traditional play by mail computer games require hiring people to manually input the orders, and then paper, printer, and postage costs. A game the size of Empyrean Challenge would cost as much as $50 a turn for a good size empire.

One unique feature still under development is a kind of team play, where the player in charge of a given game position can recruit subordinate players to help run his empire, while they learn the game, at the same time. Along with this, we are also planning in-game alliances, for the larger games.

For players, what is the primary focus of the game?

[Vern Holford] The focus starts on growing your empire, resource management, and exploration. Then goes to diplomacy and combat. Information gathering is always important. I would say the players must maintain multiple focus areas, in order to win.

What were some of the similarities, as well as some of the differences, in the programming of Empyrean Cluster Wars and Empyrean Challenge?

[Vern Holford] Empyrean Challenge did not require a user interface. Orders were written by the player, and then keyed in, at our end. The user interface in Empyrean Cluster Wars must present the data, and help the players edit their orders. It also contains tools to help the players manage their vast empires.

What are you hoping to accomplish with Empyrean Cluster Wars?

[Vern Holford] We do actually hope to make this a viable entertainment business, Or at least, bring back a game many people enjoyed, and make it much more playable, in this format. Actually, Empyrean Cluster Wars is not play by mail, anymore. The client called "Central Command" presents the game data, and helps the player create an order set, which is them sent through the web site to our processing server. In the old game, we needed a much longer turn around, for the United States Postal Service to handle all of that paper going and coming.

I would like to get the full turn around down to less than a week, with most of that taken up by the players writing their turns and doing between turn planning and diplomacy. That might be reduced, still further, by things like our ship design tools and standing orders.

How much effort is required for an individual new to Empyrean Cluster Wars to get off to a decent start in the game?

[Vern Holford] It takes a bit of study and planning. This is not a beer and pretzels game. Players have been known to claim that their hobby is running an interstellar empire. The satisfaction of building a respectable empire, though, is correspondingly large. This is a game you can sink your mental teeth into. We plan to allow a sort of sand box variant for players, that will allow them to try out the game system, without any nasty neighbors to contend with.

On average, how long does it take for a player to issue orders for their position in Empyrean Cluster Wars?

[Vern Holford] That depends, a lot, on how big the player's empire is. It could be a few hours on up. We are adding tools to cut down on this, as we continue in the development. Standing orders, alliance victory, and team play(subordinates), for instance.

How did you come up with the name Empyrean in the first place?

[Vern Holford] My wife, at the time, used a thesaurus. Empyrean is the name of the seventh heaven in Dante’s Inferno.

What is the maximum number of players that can play in Empyrean Cluster Wars?

[Vern Holford] I anticipate several sizes of maps. Each map is a 3 dimensional cube. The smallest is 10 light years on a side, for two player games, or even 1 player trial games, and 10 to 20 systems. 20 light years on a side, for 4 to 16 players, with 80 to 160 systems. 30 light years (that was the original Empyrean Challenge standard) on a side, for 14 to 54 players, with 270 to 540 systems. Possibly larger universes, depending on how we do reducing the player's time commitments. In fact, the largest one I can currently imagine is 50 light years on a side, for up to 250 players, and 2,500 systems. Players would have several sub ordinate players, and there would up to 25 players in each alliance. Testing will show if the larger numbers are feasible. The current test game is 30 light years on a side with 14 players and 465 systems. Its turned out to be too many systems for the number of players.

During Empyrean Challenge's heyday, which other PBM games of the space genre from other PBM companies did you feel presented the greatest threat to Empyrean Challenge's player base?

[Vern Holford] I didn't really look at it that way. No one had exactly the same thing, so the main thing was our service and avoiding errors. If we had problems with those things, players would go elsewhere. People seemed to like several types of games.

Are alien races a part of Empyrean Cluster Wars, and are players in the game each playing a race or a species that is alien to the positions of all other players in the game?

[Vern Holford] The populations in each empire have the same behavior patterns, even though we treat them as separate races. They do not have any distinguishing characteristics, except a number.

Does Empyrean Cluster Wars incorporate players on teams, or do all players in the game compete with one another on an individual basis?

Vern Holford] Currently, they are playing as individuals, but we do intend to add team aspects, as I mentioned above.

Design-wise, what was the hardest thing about Empyrean Cluster Wars to get right?

[Vern Holford] Combat is the biggest item on the processing side. The Order Writer and ship/colony designer were the hardest on the client(Central Command) side. The order writer is still growing.

Not counting Empyrean Cluster Wars and Empyrean Challenge, what were some of your personal favorite old school Play-By-Mail games to play, and what made them your favorites?

[Vern Holford] Star Web is a classic. I also enjoyed Beyond the Stellar Empire, for the open-ended-ness and epic feel. Historical note, the developers of Beyond the Stellar Empire were Empyrean Challenge players before they started Beyond the Stellar Empire.

How would you describe the Play-By-Mail game industry, as you see it from your perspective? Describe its past, it present, and its future through your eyes.

[Vern Holford] I haven't been following it much lately. I think its always going to be part of the gaming industry, in one form or another. Flying Buffalo is still out there, and from what I can tell, doing well. It’s always going to be at least a niche market.

Have you ever attended any PBM conventions or other gaming conventions, either as an individual gamer or as a game company, and what were some of your most memorable moments attending those?

[Vern Holford] Yes, at least, it was a general gaming convention in Los Angeles in 1989. I do not remember the name of it. Flying Buffalo was there, holding a seminar. I went with my oldest son to play games. I do remember that some of the local guys had an enhanced map for King Maker that include Scotland and Ireland. The Scots got control of Parliament.

What is your view on the role that magazines have played in impacting the Play-By-Mail genre of gaming, and what do you wish that those magazines had done differently, if anything?

[Vern Holford] I only wish they flourished. I do not know what they might have done better.

When all is said and done, what do you think will be Empyrean Cluster Wars' legacy to the world of gaming?

[Vern Holford] Well I hope that, by using the Internet, we can bring the fun of having your own interstellar empire to any one who wants it.

In issue # 33 of The Space Gamer magazine, Empyrean Challenge was described as a mountain of fun to play. How - specifically - does Empyrean Cluster Wars intend to top that, and what kind of gamer do you believe would be attracted to playing Empyrean Cluster Wars?

[Vern Holford] We can top that by making easier for the player to participate. Our players will be interested in the thinking and planning, rather than the flash bang, manual dexterity required by a lot of gaming.

Empyrean Challenge was operated out of Boise, Idaho, according to an old ad for that play by mail game. Where is the real world headquarters for Empyrean Cluster Wars?

[Vern Holford] Actually, it's in Los Angeles and New York. The computer we run it on is with me, in Los Angeles.
Good one, Grim.

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