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

Much like Vern, I got into the play by mail games by starting off with Star Web.

It was a gift from a girlfriend, who saw it in a science-fiction magazine, and knowing that I was a science-fiction enthuasist, thought I might like it. She was ever so correct.

Later, I saw Empyrean Challenge advertised in an Isaac Asimov's science fiction magazine, and I thought I'd give that a try. I would say that seemed to take well, as I played in these games for about 20 years. First, in the EC-1 & EC-5 games that Vern Holferd had started, and later into several of John Ess’s games (Maxi challenge’s, I believe they were called). The Maxis differed from the EC games, in that in an Empyrean Challenge game, your position was akin to a single nation on earth (obviously among many nations), whereas in the Maxi games -- like Cluster Wars-- your position was akin to the sole ruler of an earthlike planet.

When John had had enough, (there were several aspects of running the game that were too taxing for him, and also, not profitable enough), I purchased it from John.

Around 2003, I contacted Vern, and negotiated with him for his help in an effort to relaunch the game. I had acquired the rights, but very little, if anything, in the way of programming code from John..

2. 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?

Presently, Vern and I are running the relaunch, together.

Initially, I provided the financing, and hired Vern to do the programming. As time went by, we developed a close working relationship, and decided to somewhat throw our lots together. In our working partnership, Vern does virtually all of the programming ( I say virtually, because I occasionally hire some outside assistance, which, of course, Vern oversees). We both work diligently on the conceptual and design aspects of the game. Presently, I'm engaged in play testing a massively developed position, which is somewhat more complex than I would've imagined (and more rewarding), while Vern is kept busy fixing bugs in the code, and adding or making changes as suggested to us by our platoon of dedicated playtesters -- Mostly, former Empyrean Challenge players and affectionatos, of the game.

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

While the game is turn based, as any play by mail was, the ability to use the Internet allows us to to both process turns simultaneously, and deliver them quickly and easily. The game combines not only war like strategy and tactics, but also, resource management and diplomacy in a way that encourages empire development and conflicts that, quite amazingly and consistently, parallels the development of civilizations or nations expanding and exploring here on earth .

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

Initially, you must concentrate on taking the resources you have at hand, and growing your empire and production facilities in the fastest manner you can muster.

The ability to grow your production base depends not only on your resource management, but also, it hinges on the decisions you will make, based on your exploration of the known universe.

Much like on planet Earth, you start alone in the universe, and deplete the resources of the planet that you are on. Soon, you will need to gather resources from nearby planets, and later, nearby stars.

Eventually, this path of interstellar development leads to the meeting of other developing civilizations.

From the point of first contact, diplomacy, Machiavellian alliances, tactics, or simply pure, brute force will eventually yield a sole dominant power.

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

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

6. What are you hoping to accomplish with Empyrean Cluster Wars?

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.

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

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

Unlike its play by mail predecessors, you are started off with your factories up and running, and the means of production set up and on a very reasonable path of development.

So, that means starting and learning game is really quite easy. Remember, though, the goal of the game is to achieve intergalactic dominance.

As supreme ruler, you will lead your home world, along with the population and production that you control, through a period of accelerating economic and industrial development & expansion. This era of growth and technological advances will quickly fuel the need for interstellar exploration and colonization.

Voyaging into deeper space, establishing your mining bases, and projecting a military presence, you will continue to expand into the neighboring star clusters, where you eventually will encounter other space faring civilizations.

Ultimately, it is in this intergalactic arena that you and the other emerging alien empires will struggle for economic control and military supremacy.

Strategy, military tactics, Machiavellian alliances (or perhaps just plain, brute force), will eventually yield a sole dominant power.

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

That simply depends a lot on how big the player's empire is. It could be a few hours on up.

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

Empyrean is the name of the seventh heaven. Vern's wife thought of it, although when we go commercial, we may shorten it, for simplicity, to Cluster Wars¶

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

There really is no set limit. The game can accommodate two players on up.

However, personal experience tells me that the most enjoyable configuration, for us armchair generals, is about eight players, and no more than about 20, with the universe containing about 25 star systems per player.

The current test game is 14 players and 465 systems.

11. 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?

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.

12. 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?

No. The populations in each empire have the same behavior patterns, and can do the same things, just like the populations of different nations on planet Earth do.

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

Currently, everyone is playing as an individual, but we do intend to add team aspects in the future.

Of course players do form alliances and thereby may act as a team, but this is quite different than being on a team as part of a formal basis.

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

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, and of course we are always adding the “bells and whistles” as I like to call them, and streamlining the game.

15. 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?

Star Web was a classic I also enjoyed Beyond the Stellar Empire,

Historical note the developers of Beyond the Stellar Empire were EC players.

16. 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.

Sadly, I believe it is part of the past, I think the play by mail is going the way of newspapers these days, it's an ever shrinking economy. On the bright side, however, the Internet is alive and well and I think that's the future.

17. 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?

I wish I had something to say on the topic, but alas, the answer is simply no.

18. 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?

Well, I'm pretty sure they were a, if not the, major source of subscribers for the play by mail industry. My only wish is that they (the magazines) had given bigger advertising breaks to their PBM advertisers.

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

Well, I imagine that through the use of the Internet we can combine the thrill of

sci-fi with the strategy and tactics that are par for the course of hard board war games and bring them to the various gamers and potential generals that I know are out there.

20. 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?

Well EC certainly really was a mountain of fun to play. I certainly was quite addicted to it for decades.

But cluster wars will easily top it. There are, of course a number of reasons for this, I'll give you a few of the major ones. For instance, recordkeeping is now automatic, you don't have to go pouring through your old turns to find various bits of information like surveys, planetary configurations, alien ship numbers, messages that you have sent or received etc. through the use of central command and filing cabinets all your information is readily accessible, as you need it.

Another biggie is that central command properly writes your orders for you (whereas in the old games, you either had to write them out by hand or input them manually on a disk or an e-mail).

You still have to input your orders, but it's much more automatic, and the real result of this is that you make far less errors. They used to be an argument that these types of games were less about strategy and tactics, than who made the least amount of errors in putting their orders. Cluster wars is changing all of that.

21. 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?

The computer side of it is run from Los Angeles, and the business side runs from New York City.

Good gaming

Jay Colombo
Excellent interview.

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