The Perils of Play By Forum

MT Updated

pbf-screenshotAs most of you know, I don’t get out much nowadays so I’m forced to get a lot of my gaming goodness through electronic tools. Play by email is my medium of choice most of the time, but of late I’ve dipped my toe into the world of play by forum. I find the entire concept rather peculiar because playing by forum requires a moderator, and unlike a role-playing game where the games master has an active, exciting job to do in setting the scene for the players, I can’t fathom what motivates people to moderate an online game other than sheer good-heartedness. Whatever the reason I’m very grateful, because play by forum is a lot of fun.

What it isn’t, surprisingly, is anything like playing the game face to face or indeed very much like email play using a tool such as Vassal or ACTS to track the game state. Play by forum games, even of relatively quick-fire and exciting games such as Starcraft, are almost always much more detailed and analytical than their counterparts, with players discussing and analysing the repercussions of decisions way back in game time and using that information to help them with current issues and strategies.

There are two primary differences that cause this effect. The first is the ease with which previous information about the game can be accessed: much easier to scan through a series for forum posts than to repeatedly load and click through a series of Vassal log files. So it’s relatively easy, if you’re motivated enough, to check back on previous moves that would otherwise be forgotten. The second is that the appeal of play by forum seems to rest largely in its ability to allow multiple players to play at once, as opposed to the usually 2-player focus of play by email, which in turn means the time span of a game is correspondingly longer. That means other players will normally have the patience to wait while this sort of information mining, research and discussion takes place.

One of the most popular games for play by forum is the Fantasy Flight masterpiece Battlestar Galactica. It’s not hard to see why this took off as a play by forum favourite: a very popular game that requires a large enough number of players and time commitment to make it awkward for weekly game night slots, and yet which is compact enough to finish an online game in a reasonable time. What’s fascinating about it is the way in which the dynamics of play by forum games have become almost the diametric opposite of those in the face to face game.

Consider: playing in real time is really about about convincing others of your sincerity, regardless of whether you are in fact sincere or not. There are mechanical considerations of course, but on the whole they take a back seat. It’s common for players to analyse the cards played into a skill check straight afterwards but if, as is usually the case, the results are inconclusive, those cards will quickly be forgotten. Players, especially Cylons, have to make fast decisions in which they try to rapidly calculate the likely political and mechanical repercussions of their moves since hesitation will normally be seen as the sign of a hidden traitor and single mistakes will rapidly be discovered and acted on. It’s an extremely tense game, governed by a subtle blend of strategy and social interaction and that’s what makes it special.

In contrast play by forum games offer cylon players all the time in the world to plan their decisions and subterfuge. The political aspect of the game is almost entirely lost because, as a cylon, it’s amazingly effective simply to say relatively little and thus avoid accusations that you’re seeking to encourage players into destructive behaviour, a tactic that would be rapidly noted in a face-to-face game but often goes unnoticed in the storm of messages that occur during play by forum. Instead, Cylons are often outed by an amazingly detailed analysis of the sequences of cards in previous skill checks, the ongoing analysis usually being sufficient to prove conclusively that one particular must have been the one to sabotage one or more checks. In addition card counting during event and jump steps becomes both strategically and politically important: you know what cards are already gone and so can calculate the likelihood of what might come and act accordingly, something I’ve never seen happen in a live game.

I have to say that while I’ve enjoyed all the forum games of Battlestar Galactica that I’ve participated in, I find this behaviour utterly bizarre. There’s no way I’m interested enough in the game - any game, for that matter - to even bother with the relatively trivial task of card counting. let alone plough through page after page of forum posts looking for detailing mathematical clues to tiny strategy errors. Whatever side I was on, I was grateful that other players did this and thereby increase my chances of winning, but at the same time I found it rather irritating that people were abusing the mechanics rather than role-playing, decreasing the atmosphere and my immersion in the game.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in the only other game I’ve played several times via forum, Dune. There’s no traitor players to out, of course, and keeping notes about cards held and leaders in the employ of other players is standard practice in face to face games so that should - and does - translate perfectly well to forum play. What’s different is the double-dealing. In a forum game, negotiation between players can be done entirely in secret whereas in a live game players will at least know who is talking to who. The form of the negotiation also becomes much more complex, with intricate deals often spanning multiple aspects of the rules and player powers being the norm, even over relatively minor prizes. I appreciate that some people might enjoy this as being more in keeping with the source material, especially the added paranoia of completely secret deals, but I found it detracted from the mechanical meat and potatoes of the game, to the point where I got so lost in the byzantine machinations between players that I completely lost focus with what was happening on the board.

So why do people playing on forums highlight these aspects of play that have the potential to spoil the game, or at least detract from its atmosphere? The simple answer is because they can: if extra analysis can offer a higher chance of winning, players participating who are sufficiently motivated to win will make the effort to do the analysis. A more complex answer is because this sort of analysis is the sort of thing a lot of gamers seem to enjoy, often over and above the social aspects of gaming. One of the other reasons I suspect that Battlestar Galactica has proved such a popular play by forum game is because gamers bought up on fairly demanding mechanical strategy games like Puerto Rico and Agricola thrive on the opportunity to play something based on a popular and much-loved TV franchise with the focus moved away from interpersonal politics and toward mechanical analysis.
It might be unavoidable, but it’s still a shame. All that extra time that’s available, all that extra effort being made to dig through old posts could be used instead for scene-setting and role-playing, making up for the absent social dimension of a multi-player game with greater character and atmospherics, adding something genuinely new and thrilling to a game that can’t happen face to face. I remember a play-by-forum game of Diplomacy I participated in where everyone attempted to write in the prose style of early 20th century diplomats which leant a quite wonderful patina of authenticity to the proceedings. But analysts will be analysts, I suppose, and on a positive note it does mean that play by forum does offer a strikingly different angle for playing your favourite games. I’ll carry on playing and enjoying them, but at the same time I’ll carry on hankering for my fix of real-life, face to face gaming with my friends.

There Will Be Games

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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