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Phoenix Review
Phoenix is one of the rarities of the PBM world. It is a PBM game that has managed the transition through PBM's darkest days into the current connected world without losing player base and with a consistency of playability that is the envy of many other games. To discuss where Phoenix is it is also necessary to note how it came to be there. When it first started it followed what many would regard as the standard PBM format. Players would pay a turn fee (say $2) to process a turn which would then return results to them. Years ago the current (and existing) game moderator Mica Goldstone looked to the future and was not happy with the path he saw there (either that or had a brain wave when drunk). He realised that a PBM that was complacent would collapse and took steps to move the game into the future.

The most important and obvious steps he took were as follows. He switched the game from a paper heavy model to an email heavy model. Mail and paper costs were and are still rising and they provided added expense for both the gaming company and the user. This allowed the second major switch from standard PBM usage as he then disassociated turn fees from the ships and moved them to the starbases. In practice this means that it is possible to play Phoenix for free for months should you wish. Costs are tied around more specific actions that either require a moderated input or for money in game (a political (another name for your main persona in game) or a starbase). This allows the games scale to drastically enlarge and provides a means for the players to scale their involvement to the game up and down according to their financial needs without it costing them in game resources. For example say a player runs two starbases and a political plus several moderated actions a week. They are then made redundant. Instead of stopping playing the game they could switch the starbases to become outposts (no cost for outposts) and stop running moderated actions but retain the political allowing them to carry on playing at minimal cost until their financial situation changed. In many other games such a circumstance causes you to stop playing and the chance of re-starting are usually small.

The final major change was that the company switched to using applications to generate the orders as opposed to the players themselves and they are continually improving methods to simplify order generation. This has meant the game has got progressively more streamlined and easier to play as time has passed.

None of this is to say that the company has rested on its laurels. Even with the above the two biggest strengths of the game lie in its two long serving members. Firstly Mica the Moderator who provides the human moderated section of the game and secondly Dave the full time programmer. Most PBMs built and then sold a game that was essentially finished. Phoenix is constantly evolving and improving. Currently plans include a more advanced character skill set and a system to enable more black ops to occur without players having to go pirate (pirates tend to get shot at by warships on sight).

All the above has led to a huge degree of longevity in its player base many of whom have been playing over fifteen years now. That in itself is a testament to the games strength but also leads to a huge reservoir of knowledge and experience that can be accessed via the games 'Nexus' web portal which includes a role playing forum where many players spend more time than they do playing the game themselves.

I should probably describe the game itself. Phoenix is a space Empire type game set in a future Universe that maps to any of the sci-fi specials whether you like Star Wars, Firefly, Starcraft or the Foundation books. Players control groups of ships , starbases and specialist characters (spys, scientists, soldiers) and the game activity splits into essentially seven loosely defined areas.

First up is the military side. This is a dark universe and heavily armed ships regularly fight it out. Ship combat is mainly dealt with by the computer application behind the game but is not something that can be easily calculated or gamed. Combat not only revolves around the configurations of the ships present but also the ammunition types and skills of the officers present so a small well led fleet can beat a large complacent one. Not all military action is confined to mass space combat. Combat can move from huge fleets of large warships down to much smaller frigate types fighting against pirates or ground combat actions to seize various bases.

Next up is trade. The game here functions in a similar manner to Elite. Starbases (usually player controlled) scatter the universe and ships move goods trying to find the best profit and attempting to avoid pirate action or hostile wars. Entire affiliations (the AFT and MOH) exist to trade and make money.

Our third facet is Exploration. Here Mica's moderating comes to the fore. Every world in the game (and there are many in an expanding universe) is designed and designed realistically (I believe Mica is an astro-physicist by training though tat could well be gossip). Players can find new systems and planets and explore and adjust them. The only limit here is the players imagination.

Next we have colonisation. Some people like expanding and protecting a race whether human or alien and this side is also catered for in game. Though the smaller groupings would find it wise to either find a strong protector or not to irritate any of the more militant groupings.

The more devious side of public relations is also available. Players can run spys and attempt to carry out either computer moderated actions to damage their opponents or human moderated actions should they come up with something beyond what the standard orders would permit. I would give more examples but do not want to A) Reveal possible actions to other people or B) Reveal I know about other peoples actions when they think I do not....

Finally their is the diplomatic side. Everything in game has its diplomatic overtones and this often plays out in the forums on the Nexus which have heavily IC (In Character) forums)

This only covers the topsoil really as the game essentially could be whatever you want it to be. The first and most important decision any new player has to make is what affiliation to join. An Affiliation is a group of players often playing with a similar set of ideals and you really want to pick the correct affiliation. This is such an important fact that if you ask them most affiliations will happily point you in the right direction should you wish to join something but are uncertain where you would fit best. It might be helpful to provide quick portraits of some of the affiliations.

You have your war like affiliations. There are the Imperials (IMP) who bear a close resemblance to the Star Wars Empire led by Darth Vader. Naturally a liking of lederhosen and jackboots plus leather gear would seem to assist in fitting in with these guys I affectionately know as 'the Gimps'. They are currently allied with the CNF (see Starcraft's own Confederacy) in an uneasy alliance which contains several other affiliations under the unifying banner of the (Human) Emperor . This alliance is looking shakier now after another military affiliation the Dewiek (DEN) decided to firstly spy on then launch a heavy attack against a minor member of the Empire (House Ravenstone). The DEN are an alien affiliation comprised of werewolf type beings who bear a close resemblance to the Vikings in their attitude to both alcohol and fighting. They are so touchy you would not want to go shopping with one of them

"What's that - you ordered peas!!! You have offended my honour !!!! Roaaaaaaaa for this you will die! Kill kill kill"

and if not for the fact that their military is not quite enough to take on the entire universe they would be much bigger than a general annoyance. If you want a visual reference the DEN are something like the Black Night in Monty Python in the Holy Grail -

" come on fight you buggers" -
"erm I just chopped of your leg " -
"Ha its nothing just a flesh wound have at it scum!".

The DENs attack created problems due to the apparent fractioning of the Empire several members of which were not only severely lackadaisical in their defence of their allies (the IMP went so far as to not to bother turning up and spent their entire time taking the p out of Ravenstone instead) whereas the GTT (Galactic Trade and Transport) turned up late then attacked everyone whether ally or enemy taking an admittedly easy going approach to target acquisition. To cement the 'positive' reception this caused they then proceeded to verbally berate the people they turned up to defend (Ravenstone) whilst dropping their alliance with the DEN (due to the attack) but praising them at the same time. They probably had to go shopping for peas with them the following day. The final big player in this massive fight was the irrepressible (and people have tried to repress them) House Liquan (HLQ) who recently lost their leader 'Prince Liquan' by sending him with a small bodyguard to investigate a huge alien ship which promptly left the known universe leaving the affiliation in the hands of 'Demetrius Liquan' who was last seen in an Imperial Prison due to his love of blowing up planets. It may seem risky to send the head of your entire organisation to explore an unknown hostile ship but the Prince has history of such risky endeavours indeed once the DEN had challenged him to single unarmed combat (he had probably ordered peas somewhere in their general vicinity) and rightly assuming that a pudgy 5 ft human taking on a 7 ft wolf with claws would be a bad idea had semi-meklanised himself (or for Doctor Who fans turned himself into half a cyberman or a cyborg if not) and promptly beat the living crap out of a rather surprised DEN champion.

That only involves a small part of the game elsewhere the Mohache (MOH) continued their trading rivalry and attempt to dominate the known universe without using any ships with offensive weaponry. Players in the MOH seem to have some sort of hive mind and are so single minded (and greedy for profit) that they resemble Team Americas World Police's Matt Damon in their single minded focusing on one thing -

"Hi I would like to trade"
" Matt Damon"
" How about you lower your prices "
"Mattt Dammmonnn"
"Oh sod it do it your way"

Leaving the Matt Damons aside the other primarily trading groups include the AFT (something or other Trade) who were the dominant traders (with guns) until they unwisely picked a fight with the GTT (Galactic Trade and Transport) and got the crud kicked out of them and have been steadily rebuilding ever since and gnashing their collective teeth at the success of the MOH in taking over their niche. The AFT and DTR (Detinus Republic) have recently had some trouble with pirates. It turns out the HLQ had been having the same trouble but took the innovative approach of saying - rather than lose approximately 70,000 stellars (the games currency)worth of ships each time they lost a ship to a pirate why not offer the pirate 25,000 a ship to blow up other people ships instead. The pirate accepted (when they found out the DTR did consider making an enormous bunch of 2 hulled ships (costing 2,000 or so) and leaving them for the pirate to blow up thus bankrupting the HLQ but decided bashing the pirate up would be more satisfying). Anyway the AFT and DTR after months of hunting finally found the pirates base to be that of a mouthy mercenary (Johnny Alpha) and launched an attack. This proved remarkably successful (especially the ground assault where the odds were only 3% in favour of them taking the base and they succeeded. One can only think that the defending officer was foreign and instead of saying fall on the enemy said something like fall on swords and they all bravely killed themselves) right up until the point that the FET (think of the Mafia in space) suddenly announced they had brought the entire lot and they were now under Imperial protection just as the fist was about to crush Alphas face. The FET will probably get some nasty consequences from this but for the moment it has left the others involved not so quietly seething.

The above is all the sweep of big politics on a quieter level my own character has been happily exploring a system and preparing to terraform a planet. As nothing is easy he has just been left disgruntled by the sudden arrival of two new affiliations in his otherwise nice clean system the Wimbles (think the cuddly ones from gremlins) and soon the Falconians (birds in space). My own pirate hunting fleet has shown an outstanding lack of success so far. Indeed the only encounter involved one ship attacking a pirate, realising it was actually unarmed and running away. The pirate, fortunately, surprised at the suicidal nature of this approach ran away as well no doubt suspecting some nefarious counter ploy. On a more positive note in a recent refit one of my combat vessels its officer gained some experience when he failed to find any targeting computers for his ship and this will soon be translated into an increased ability to kill people! I am also planning on moving my lead character out to gain some experience before the character changes kick in. The fact three affiliations would happily kill him is causing me some troubles in planning my route.

There are many other affiliations from the Confederate Intelligence Agency (think of the Stainless Steel Rat or Spys in Space), the Brotherhood (religious fanatics. Hood wearing is not compulsory) and the Flagritz a feline peoples who spend all the time beating up another feline race about events that happened so long ago no one seems quite certain what they are any more. I would not ask them though as they will happily go on for hours about who nit combed who.. Plus many others. If none of the existing appeal then you could go it alone or start your own though this approach is only recommended for the very experienced as any such approach is not easy and loses the friendly advice and assistance that the established affiliations will all be happy to provide.

The above is only scratching the surface really as there is a whole host of events going on which no one is aware of or that people want anyone else to be aware of.

The game covers all the traditional strengths of PBM's - a potentially global gaming group. The ability to play at your own pace. You can send orders in once a week or send orders in daily. The cost is the same the only differentiator lies in how you want to play. Equally it also has some of the traditional disadvantages - it needs some imagination to play and does not provide the immediate impact you get from a mmorpeg or first person shooter. This is not in itself a bad thing.

Play styles differ depending on what people want from the game. For some it is the roleplay and the story and these players build up histories of all their ships and peoples. For others it is the sweep of politics and massive fleets and though they to will often have favoured ships/characters they often possess so many ships this would not be possible to achieve for all of them. Perversely the numerical advantage this provides is often counter weighted by the more personal and individual attention players with less resources can provide to their own units.

Anyway if anything has perked your interest then give it ago. The basic game is free and you can get heavily involved without paying a penny.


If you do have a go feel free to ask me anything. I can happily say that my own character - Senator Matrim Saric of the DTR is one of the most respected and widely loved people in the entire Universe. His wise words and great common sense has won friends everywhere. If anyone says otherwise then they are obviously a deranged, dribbling psychopath who does not bathe. You have been warned.
Hi Matrim,

Thanks for this review. Phoenix looks very interesting.

My one question is how does the game design and or purchasing model throttle the ability to purchase victory via the pocketbook? Is it something where the physical time spent playing lots of starbases would prohibit domination via ducats or are there other mechanisms to keep folk from gaining tremendous advantage over other active players via trump towers? Are most of the advantages of the paid features narrative or military?

Thanks for your time and introducing us to this game!


Another Phoenix player here, enjoyed the review.

To answer your question Cort, whilst its possibly to run a lot of paid for starbases and in theory have more in-game power through them, you can't really write a cheque for success in this game nor do you need to.

Firstly, the affiliation structure and the in-game political blocs means that you are not competing as individuals and the game flows based on storyline, diplomacy and strategy.

For example, the DEN (which I lead) are as Matrim puts it, grouchy viking werewolfs who enjoy a good drink and a good fight. In terms of paid for assets we probably dwarf House LiQuan (HLQ) and House Ravenstone (RVN) combined but who is to say who has the most power in the game? They put up a spirited fight by calling on their other human allies.

The HLQ is a classic showcase of what a one-man affiliation, admittedly seeded in a position of some political clout and run by a clever and diplomatically skilled person, can achieve.

Likewise, Matrim's affiliation, the Detinus Republic (DTR), is by most measures one of the largest and most powerful in the game. Yet they are opposed politically, if not directly militarily as of yet, by a range of smaller affiliations.

Ultimately, there is a finite amount of paid positions you can run effectively without running out of personal time and energy. There are also in game resources limit your ability to do so, from needing populated worlds with friendly civilians that will allow merchandising / trade to ores and technologies that need to be acquired or researched over a long period of time.

Success in this game can mean a lot of different things and can be achieved at the small scale and at the large depending on your interests. Whether being a highly profitable trader, a noisy senator, or a mercenary who dances with the big power and gets away with it, its not all about big fleets and big starbases.

The biggest drain on my personal wallet has been the infectious nature of exploration. I don't think most of what I've done here adds anything but narrative and personal enjoyment to the game but that is a big part of it. This is offset by the roleplaying that happens on the forums which is free. So overall I feel I get a good deal.
(11-29-2011, 01:45 AM)Cortrah Wrote: Hi Matrim,

Thanks for this review. Phoenix looks very interesting.

My one question is how does the game design and or purchasing model throttle the ability to purchase victory via the pocketbook? Is it something where the physical time spent playing lots of starbases would prohibit domination via ducats or are there other mechanisms to keep folk from gaining tremendous advantage over other active players via trump towers? Are most of the advantages of the paid features narrative or military?

Thanks for your time and introducing us to this game!


As has already been suggested by Monkeyx, you cannot exactly bank roll your way to the top in this game, but you can certainly run a more significant power position (read paid starbase positions) if your are freely able to discount economic cost. However and it is a big however, power within the game affiliations is already held and as a new starting player your unlikely to find anyone who will hand over the crown jewels, most affiliations will give you a start from which you can forge your own path to glory. Also worth mentioning real life cash cannot help you build from nothing to be a power player and taking something from scratch to the scale of the existing power positions will literally take you years real time. Finally for me and most importantly, there is no victory as such to be acheived, there is no endgame, no roll of the credits, the format is entirely open ended, you can set yourself conditions and targets to achieve, but acheiving them merely opens you to more possibilities. The most redeeming feature for me is the role play this format provides and the community of players who play entirely in the spirit of the game.
Thanks guys,

Those are great answers, and very encouraging!

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