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Alternative view on PBSE
I've been playing this a week, and my experiences couldn't be more different than Grimfinger's.

The advice I'd read suggested that the game offers much more fun at the faction / affiliation level, above and beyond just being a solo player. Thus joining an affiliation early is the recommended route. They can a) mentor you in the game b) provide you with resources and objectives in the game that would otherwise take a long time to acquire personally c) provide you with a roleplay platform which would largely be otherwise reduced.

I posted on the forum advertising that I wanted to join an affiliation that offered roleplay, long term planning and lots of communication. The welcome was friendly and the consensus was that the Dewiek Elder Nation (think bipedal science-hungry viking wolf-analogues) would be a good fit. These guys were roleplaying all over the forum and had a significant list of successful projects under their belt in recent history. I was sold.

Joining them gave me access to lots of support to understand the game's basic mechanics. The missions Grimfinger found so unenjoyable are indeed rather stilted affairs, but they do introduce players to the gameplay. Each week you get 300 Time Unit movement points. These actually accrue at the rate of 60 per day, and turns are processed every weekday, if you have remaining TUs. This is very refreshing, coming from a pure PB(e)M perspective. Moving through the missions with your starship introduces you to moving between star systems, moving between planets, landing on them and trading/interacting with the NPC locals. When you wish, you can also create a Political position in the game. This position, like your starter starship, can perform activities during turns, but needs to be on a ship to move around the galaxy. Gaining a Political position grants you additional ships, each of which are independent positions that you control via turns. Significantly, the Political position allows you to properly participate in the affiliation's politics and ultimate manage a star system, when you and the affiliation are ready. If the affiliation has conquest or war plans with other affiliations, you can participate and help direct the action, whether that's a key solo mission or part of a multi-million troop combat operation.

In addition to the automated mechanics of the game, the GMs offer Special Actions, which allow the player (at £2 cost) to perform whatever actions (within the game's laws of physics) the player sees fit, from assassination plans against other positions, to researching items for exploitation and sale, to interacting with the GM-managed storylines and characters placed in front of players to see if they'll bite. A mixture of special actions and game mechanics have lead the players of the game to produce a fascinating and never-ending history of the galaxy as seen through the trials and tribulations of competing and warring affiliations.

There are LOTS of details in the game to learn. It has been running as postal PBM in the 90s before being web-ified, but the game has been played essentially continuously for 30 years, and has continually evolved to offer more and more richness to the players. This means there is a large learning curve for players, but those who get a sense of what they can get out of the game will work through that with their affiliation mentors to a point where the fun really starts.
My brief stint in PBSE was much like Fungus' experience.  

The moderators created a very polished interface and kept the game fresh with interesting events/newsletters.  They meet with players each year at a pub in England, gather input/suggestions from their players, and explain modifications to the game that need to be made to maintain balance.

Most importantly, I met some extremely generous, patient and kind players in several affiliations.  

As stated by Fungus, role-playing is encouraged, but not mandated (except in certain forums).  Many players dispense with role-playing and just power game and that is also accepted.

I would still be playing except for three reasons...

1). The expense.  You can play ships for free, but the real fun comes from running space stations which cost roughly $2.25 (IIRC) per station per week.   This can add up quickly...

2). The time investment.   Station turns are run once a week but ships can run a turn each weekday.  If you are not super organized, it can become overwhelming.

3).  I (generally) do not like open-ended games.  The tendency for some established players to annihilate newer players' stations simply because they can leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  PBSE has its share of bullies...but the majority of players are some of the nicest people I have encountered in PBM.

If you have the time to spare, and the money, and you do not mind occasionally getting stomped by more powerful players, PBSE has a lot to offer.

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