I recently purchased several copies of Dragon magazine from the early-to-mid 1980s. They contain several references to fairly large play-by-mail games that I haven't heard of before. How were these kinds of games played?

Two notable examples:

  1. Dragon #72 has an article called "The PBM scene: Facts you can use when YOU choose what game to play". The article categorizes games based on whether they have finite or infinite length and how many players, but otherwise doesn't discuss the mechanics of the game (which I assume would have been well known to readers at the time).
  2. Pages 34-35 of the same issue has several ads for play-by-mail games. My inference from those ads is that players were charged for entering and participating in games. They say things like "registration fee still only $10 ... first two turns free."

"How are these games played" is pretty broad. In particular, I'm interested in the logistics of the game:

  • How did the revenue model work (how did people pay and what were they buying?)?
  • What were people sending in?
  • Did they send things to each other (like when I play chess by mail) or did they send it to some kind of "server"?

1 Answer 1


There was a fair bit of variation, but the basic idea was like this:

  • The individual or company running the game advertises.
  • People who want to play write to them, and get sent information on paper about how to play, and when the next instance of the game would start.
  • A game runner would usually have several instances of the game running at once, and start a new one every month or so.
  • When a new instance of the game starts, players sent in their moves, actions, or whatever the game calls them to the game runner. There would be a deadline for each turn, maybe fortnightly or weekly.
  • Soon after the deadline, the game runner writes to all the players with the results of their turns. They then send in their new turns.

Payment might be with each turn, although that would involve a lot of small checks or money orders, or it might be quarterly in advance, or something like that. To add to this, many had "cheap or premium" turns. In It's A Crime you could make 3 "moves" per turn for a low price, or for a few dollars more you could take a premium turn and make 5 extra moves (a total of 8). If you won (or placed well) in a game like this, you'd also get some premium turn credit.

A home computer and a printer were immensely useful for all of this paperwork, even if you didn't have a modem or any other kind of computer communications. Flying Buffalo Inc started as a play-by-mail company in the early 1970s, renting time on a computer, and were the first commercial organisation in the field.

Play-by-mail had existed for much longer for chess and similar few-player games, but computers were needed to run many-player games without human errors messing up the game, and you needed lots of players to be able to make a living doing it.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I was in a space based game back in the mid 80's that was run just like this. I wish I could remember the name of it. We got computer printouts with turn results either weekly or biweekly. check enclosed with each turn. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 19:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ To add to this, many had "cheap or premium" turns. In particular It's A Crime you could make 3 "moves" per turn for cheap, or for a few dollars more you could take premium turn and take 5 extra moves (a total of 8). If you won (or placed well) in a game you'd also get some premium turn credit \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 15:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aslum: Thanks, I've added that to the answer, since comments are ephemeral. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 18:29

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