The Research Column

The Research Column: Postal Play-by-Mail Games

In The Research Column, Raven Zachary explores a new topic of research in the play-by-mail gaming hobby and shares his findings in each issue of Suspense & Decision magazine.

Welcome to a new column I will be writing for Suspense & Decision magazine. If you haven’t figured this out by now from my prior articles, I’m a bit obsessed with play-by-mail gaming. I returned to the hobby in early 2018, and I’ve been sprinting ahead ever since. With any hobby (oh, the list has been a long one for me), I tend to push the limits of passion in the early phase and there has been an inevitable burnout where the hobby gets literally boxed up and put into the storage area of the basement, at which point, it may or may not come back out for re-exploration at some future date. Play-by-mail gaming has survived the early and middle phase burnout test, and I keep sprinting ahead. I don’t see this hobby getting boxed up at this point – there are several reasons for this which I will explore in a future Suspense & Decision article.

In addition to being a play-by-mail gaming fanatic, I am also one of these people who is a life-long learner. I probably spend more time on Wikipedia than any other website. My wife will sometimes jokingly ask in the morning what I learned the night before as I try to fall asleep absorbing some obscure topics on Wikipedia. Last night, it was Kalmykia, morganatic marriage, and Turtle Island Foods. Those three topics have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and I can’t recall what led me to those topics. I suppose I could concoct a situation where those three topics were, in fact, interrelated, but that’s for a different magazine: Vegan Family Life in the Russian Federation.

My plan with this column is to present the findings of the prior research topic and draw attention to a new topic I will spend time researching in-between issues of Suspense & Decision magazine. Most of these research topics will require the help and participation of the readers, either through an online survey or a request for research leads as I pursue the selected topic. With that background provided, here is the current research topic I need your help with:

Postal Play-by-Mail Games

I am trying to collect information about the play-by-mail games in existence today that offer a postal service option for turn results. Please email me, raven@rinzai.com, any play-by-mail games (or play-by-mail companies) that you know of that offer regular, consistent, postal turns. I add the qualifiers in the prior sentence because some PBM gamemasters have told me they would be willing to do postal turns on a case-by-case basis. I don’t want to know about those games – only the ones that have a standard postal offering. It doesn’t need to be postal-only, although it could be. Some may be country-specific, but I am still interested in collecting that information. I will present the findings in this column for Issue #21 of Suspense & Decision magazine. Right now, I only know of Reality Simulations (Hyborian War, Duel 2, Forgotten Realms), Rolling Thunder Games (SuperNova & Victory), Madhouse (DungeonWorld), and Flying Buffalo (too many games to list here).

This has been a topic I’ve been thinking about for almost two years since my first stint with Hyborian War by Reality Simulations (RSI) in the summer of 2018. It’s a game I am now playing again as of April 2020 and I was struck by the oddity that Hyborian War, while it allows you to email your orders in, does not allow you to receive turn results via email. At first, I thought that was just resistance to change by Reality Simulations, as even old computers can support a print driver that exports the print output to a PDF file instead of pages on a printer. I later heard from some players this was a licensing issue with the Conan intellectual property owners. I have not confirmed this with RSI.

What has re-focused my attention on this topic recently is that I have been corresponding with a few people at the United States Penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona, USA, (USP Tucson, for short), as my first empire in SuperNova by Rolling Thunder Games has encountered another empire and that player is an inmate at USP Tucson. I’ve had regular correspondence with the player, Matt, as well as a few other play-by-mail gamers there who also play SuperNova. I’ve also encountered two other empires in the game, run by Preston and Larry, in two other federal penitentiaries. Many (but not all) federal inmates are allowed access to a basic email service called CorrLinks which they can use to send orders in, but incoming email attachments, such as PDF files, are not allowed, so they are limited to play-by-mail games that offer postal turn results.

For federal inmates who do not have CorrLinks access, a standard two-week turnaround cycle can be challenging to both receive turn results and send orders in via postal mail in that span of time, based on internal mail processing delays in both directions. Coincidentally, two play-by-mail companies, Reality Simulations and Flying Buffalo, are also based in Arizona, so the two-week turnaround with those two companies, who do offer postal turns, is less of a concern at USP Tucson. In the case of Hyborian War by Reality Simulations, there is also a slow game format with a 28-day turnaround. I am told that this slower game format is popular with inmates.

What surprised me in corresponding with some of the players in USP Tucson was learning that there are at least 42 play-by-mail gamers there. Thank you to Pat and Mike for sharing this info with me, and for their advocacy work regarding play-by-mail gaming at USP Tucson. That’s just one facility of over 100 federal prisons in the United States (not including state prisons, municipal jails, or juvenile detention centers). At USP Tucson, that’s at least 2.6% of the population participating in a play-by-mail game. If 2.6% of the adult population in the United States participated in play-by-mail gaming, that would be over five million people. And, that’s just the United States.

Based on a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the prison population in the United States at the end of 2016 was nearly 2.2 million people. Applying the earlier 2.6% from USP Tucson to this number, that would be more than 50,000 additional play-by-mail players. Considering that the entire play-by-mail gaming hobby probably has a few thousand active players (a generous estimate, it’s likely less than that number) across all games currently, that would be a huge increase in players – possibly 20 to 30 times larger than the current player base. USP Tucson has internal advocates, not every facility does, which is why we’re not seeing these numbers today.

The world of play-by-mail gaming is a great hobby opportunity for incarcerated persons. I am working on a PBM flyer for the prison system that provides an overview of the hobby and a list of games that can be played by postal mail. I have also already begun to print and mail issues of Suspense & Decision magazine to USP Tucson based on the level of interest in play-by-mail gaming there. Issues #18 and #19 were passed around at USP Tucson and I have been told that the magazine was greatly appreciated. Issue #20 will be mailed as soon this issue is published.

Please email me, raven@rinzai.com, any play-by-mail games (or play-by-mail companies) that you know of that offer postal turns. I will present the findings in this column for Issue #21 of Suspense & Decision magazine. Thank you.

UPDATE (9 March 2021): Based on the results of my research and feedback from various PBM companies, I have created a one-page flyer for inmate players. I will be sending this out to known PBM gamers in prisons in the coming weeks.


Raven Zachary (raven@rinzai.com) returned to play-by-mail gaming in 2018. He lives in Portland, Oregon, USA, and is user Rinzai on the PlayByMail.Net Forums. Raven currently plays Middle-earthSuperNovaTribeNetTakamoHyborian War, and Midgard.

9 thoughts on “The Research Column: Postal Play-by-Mail Games

  1. Russ Norris @ Rolling Thunder Games replied that Victory! The Battle for Europe is no longer offered for postal service, but SuperNova: Rise of the Empire is.

  2. I’ve differentiated between Battle Plan and Worldwide Battle Plan as two different games from Flying Buffalo based on feedback.

  3. I have completed work on the first version of my one-page flyer for inmates. Once I get all the information confirmed by the five PBM companies that offer postal service, I will post this flyer to the blog.

  4. Lugh – yes, I think most of the SuperNova players are actually inmates. There are a lot who play Hyborian War, as well, and Flying Buffalo tells me that Riftlords is popular in prisons. I have sent the flyer on to six inmate players I know at four different prisons. I don’t have a plan at this point to send it on to any inmates I don’t know from my games, but when I send various PBM information to an inmate, it often will get photocopied at the prison library and passed around internally.

  5. I hope others who have contacts within prisons, especially with inmate PBM players, would print out this one-page flyer and mail a copy.

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