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PLAYING THE LONG GAME
You may think two hours playing Monopoly with the family after Sunday lunch is a major time committment, but the truth is, you’ve barely scratched the surface
By Michael Fox
Whenever you sit down to a new game, whatever the type, you’re making an investment. With videogames you’re looking at the hours you spend in front of the screen, working your way through fantastic adventures or one-shotting enemies with a sniper rifle across a distant planetscape. Some may take a considerable time to complete. Think about your average RPG, many of which boast forty or more hours of gameplay on the box as a major selling point. Some, like World of Warcraft, are essentially open-ended and may never be finished; there’s always an instance that can be fired up, after all.
Now, think about the kind of games you play when sat around a table. For many people who have a limited experience of such things, they may recall a couple of hours playing Cluedo or Monopoly as children. Surely no-one would want to subject themselves to anything more than that? In reality, gamers are a hardy bunch. A couple of hours spent on a single game is often the norm. Many can last longer; three, four hours on a game like Age of Steam is nothing… but then you begin to look a little deeper. You can dig down a bit further and discover that to some gamers, four or more hours spent on a single game is a drop in the bucket. There are titles out there where you can spend that long (and more) on a single turn.
Length doesn’t necessarily equate to complexity, though. If you look back into history, there’s plenty of evidence of Victorian gents playing chess matches by post that could potentially take weeks or months to complete. Nowadays, with our modern technology, it’s easy enough to reach checkmate in the space of a few minutes by using an app on your chosen smartphone, but there remains a hardcore out there who draw from the past and still love to take on opponents in far away places in a relatively old fashioned (albeit still speedier than the old days) manner. It’s called PBEM, or play by email, and it’s unlike anything you’ve played before.
Originally released back in 1959, Diplomacy is often labelled as the game that destroys friendships thanks to the making and breaking of deals, endless backstabbing and destroyed promises. It’s war in its purest form, with European powers at the beginning of the twentieth century battling for supremacy, and is certainly not a game to play if you’re one to bear grudges once everything goes back in the box. While there is a wide range of games that people try to adapt into a PBEM format, amongst aficionados Diplomacy is the only real choice. Already a game that can take up a whole weekend in real life, the digital version can take weeks to work your way through a single play.
Playing an online or PBEM version of the game adds in a whole new strategic layer – who do you know to trust when the only thing you can see are the written words before you? Robert, a Diplomacy player who refused to give his surname for fear of giving away his secrets, insists that a PBEM game is a whole new challenge. “It’s all about nuances, about reading between the lines and working out what the other players are really saying. When a decision you made days or weeks before turns out to have been totally right, you just don’t know how good it feels. Of course, there’s a flipside: if you’ve developed an alliance with someone else who then turns around and stabs you in the back you just feel like a sucker – but you can’t let that affect you next time around. There’s no room for metagaming.”
PBEM groups come together through one of the many sites that organise such games. Countries are handed out and the emails fly. “You’ll often find that one player takes the lead when it comes to organisation, sorting out turns and such things,” says Robert, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can be trusted.” Tracking the various plays can be done using online apps and sites but many gamers apparently enjoy a rather more old fashioned method.
“Yes, I have a board set up. It makes life easier. When everything’s laid out before you it’s relatively simple to see what’s happening. Of course, you get the majority of your information from your discussions with other players, but spotting someone else’s sneaky tactics while they’re essentially lying to your inbox is very satisfying.”
When asked about the appeal of PBEM, Robert has a few ideas. “It’s a whole different type of game. If you’re looking for something that you’re comfortable with but also brings new challenges, it’s an ideal arena. You have the bonus that you don’t have to concentrate on it in one solid block, you’ve got time to consider your actions. It’s also a great diversion. When a new mail drops into your inbox and you get to see if your plans are working or not… it’s always a new experience, no matter how long the game runs for.”
Of course, ‘long’ is a subjective thing. Spending half an hour on something you don’t enjoy could feel like time itself is slowing down but there are plenty of games out there that will make even the most hardened player take a step back in a combination of fear and wonder. It takes a special breed to take on these monsters; people with a combination of stoic patience and utter passion for the game that sits before them. Silent War, Advanced Civilisation, Diplomacy… they all inspire a mix of awe and dread that can only serve to enhance the experience, but if you want to go all the way to the top there’s only one game to seek out: The Campaign for North Africa…
This is just a small extract from the full feature in Issue Two. To read the entire article, click here to purchase the complete digital edition of Continue for just $2.99/£1.99/€2.25.