War, The Way It Was Intended - By Email

Christmas Eve already... it only seems like yesterday that I was last fleeced by the forces of retail. Some might see the fact that it’s the "Holiday Season" now rather than the Christmas season as political correctness gone mad. I, of the more cynical and thus clairvoyant frame of mind, prefer to see it as a marketing move to ensure that even the non-Christians in the audience are roped into the season of spending and platitude.

Ohh well, what can you do... at this stage all my hard earned money has been spent, my presents are making their way under trees and into stockings as children await the dawn with fevered anticipation and at least I know that somebody will be thinking of me in a positive light for about two seconds in the morning.

In between courses of Christmas dinner and boozing I can look forward to being given a demonstration of what the latest Barbie can do and then a nice, relaxing sit down to be asked all sorts of technical questions about upgrades and new rigs for the new year... just what I love being asked on my day off.

What, apart from the two seconds of platitudes and thank-you’s, am I looking forward to on Christmas Day do you ask ? Why one of life’s simple pleasures... my PBEM game of Combat Mission with a wise and cunning ex-Colonel of the US Army.

PBEM, for those of you born after 1990, stands for Play By E-Mail. It’s the electronic evolution of the really old Play By Mail system for turn-based strategy gaming over a distance.

Rather basically, one mails ones moves to your opponent who then mails his moves back to you and so on. Email obviously speeds up the process somewhat, but it is considered a rather old-fashioned system of online play in this era of high-speed broadband and massively multiplayer games. Pssht, what would the whipper snappers know ?

For the playing of turn-based games such as Combat Mission PBEM is possibly one of the best and most used modes of online play. Myself and my regular Combat Mission opponent are a perfect example of why I’m showering the seemingly lethargic system with heaps of praise.

Separated as we are by a five hour time zone gap and our days filled as they are with all the rigours of professional life myself and my opponent would find it quite difficult to find enough time in our differing schedules to sit down and play even part of a "live" game.

Rather than scheduling perhaps one game every odd weekend, we choose to draw out our games over a period of sometimes months, making decisions and watching their outcomes on an incremental but ongoing basis, savouring every turn like a fine wine rather than guzzling it like an alcohol obsessed 14 year old in one frantic game in a blue moon.

The email part of PBEM is also important to the experience. Rather than having the social experience of meeting up every now and again and mostly discussing a limited range of topics, myself and my opponent wind up discussing a plethora of things across the course of a game.

Rather than being casual acquaintances we are good friends who manage to stimulate one another on an intellectual as well as a gameplay level, using the canvas of the game to challenge one another in a militaristic sense, and the blank page of email to challenge one another on an intellectual level.

Of all the games I play, from Battlefield to Civilization to Call of Duty, with all their different styles of gratification and stimulation, it is my slow burning game of Combat Mission, a new turn of which is assuredly sitting in my inbox when I wake up in the morning and a few more which we can complete when my early afternoon intersects his early morning, which I enjoy the most.

This is partly due to the truly excellent mechanics and gameplay of the truly gem-like Combat Mission series, which I would recommend as being worth a look to anyone even vaguely interested in turn-based strategy games or World War 2. Another part of the enjoyment is the afore mentioned human interactions along the way, missing from the Battlefield’s of this world and the sporadic "live" TCP/IP games we could arrange.

Many people may see PBEM as being an outmoded form of online play, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Your choice of opponent might matter as much as the game or the scenario being played, but get the right opponent and you’re 90% of the way to having an enjoyably drawn-out game in front of you.

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