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The History of Play-by-Mail and Flying Buffalo [By: Rick Loomis]
The History of Play-by-Mail and Flying Buffalo
By: Rick Loomis
Reprinted from FBQ#48 (June 1983)
[Anything in this kind of bracket was added in 1999

I often get requests from reporters, new customers, and others for information on how play-by-mail got started, what it is, and so on. I decided the easiest thing to do would be to write an article for FBQ. Quite a few of our readers have only been with us a little while and don’t know anything about our history. And then I can printup extra copies of this issue and give it to people who ask for an interview!

When I first got interested in play-by-mail, the only things going on were the two player games such as chess or pbm Stalingrad, and Diplomacy. Diplomacy was the only multiplayer game with a referee that was being regularly moderated, and no one was doing it as a business. It was mostly college students with access to a mimeograph, typing up game moves
and fanzines on weekends and after school.

This was back in 1970, long before there was any such thing as a personal computer. I had invented a multi-player game called Nuclear Destruction which was a little different from Diplomacy in that it had hidden movement. Thus, the moderator had to send different information to each player (for pbm Diplomacy, the referee makes a copy of everyone’s moves and results and sens the same information to all the players.) I wanted to test my game, so in January of 1970 I started sending postcards to people who I knew might be interested in pbm. I got their names from the pbm ads section in the back of The General magazine [published by The Avalon Hill Game Company]. These were people who were interested in two player pbm games, and I figured they would likely be interested in my kind of game.

I was right. I offered to moderate my game for them, in return for just a stamped self-addressed envelope each turn, and I soon had several dozen players. Eventually I changed that to ten cents per turn (this was when postage was 8 cents). I was making an enormous profit of 2 cents per turn processed, and I still remember the twit who sent me an anonymous
postcard saying he wasn’t going to play my game because I was just “trying to make a profit off of wargamers”! [What does he think The Avalon Hill Game Company and other wargame companies are trying to do?]

At this time I was serving in the US Army with tough duty in Honolulu, Hawaii. All this gaming kept my mailbox full of letters, which was the primary purpose back then. But soon I had over 200 players in my game, and it was becoming difficult to keep up. So I asked my friend Steve MacGregor to write a computer program for me which would run the Nuclear Destruction game. We rented time on a Control Data computer which was near the Fort.

This was when the name of the company came about. Most of the game companies, clubs, organizations, or magazines which I knew about either had the word “Simulations” or some kind of German word in their title, representing the interest among adolescent male wargamers in WWII Germany (Panzerfaust magazine, International Kriegspiel Society, games called Kriegspiel, Panzerblitz, and Blitzkrieg, etc.) I considered naming my company something like “SImulated Simulations, Inc” or “Kriegblitzpanzerspiel Inc” but instead decided to get something more distinctive. I actually coined the “Flying
Buffalo” title as the name of the stamp and coin shop I was going to start when I got out of the army. (From Flying Eagle pennies and Buffalo nickels - Rick’s Coin Shop is so boring!) Steve and I started using that name for fun, but soon discovered that it made us very distinctive. When I went to the computer center to pick up our run for the day, the clerk at the window didn’t have to go look us up to see whether it had been done yet. He knew as soon as I mentioned our name whether it was done, and where it was.

Somewhere in here, one of my players asked me if I would mind if he started running a few games of his own. I couldn’t see any reason why not, so I told him it was ok. Soon Ed J. was running 5 or 6 games, and he even started up an elaborate “tournament”. Unfortunately Ed soon became “busy” and stopped answering letters from his customers. A lot of people complained to me and all I could get out of Ed was that he would “take care of it soon”. Eventually I offered to finish all his games for him, but even then I didn’t get all of the material from his games (current positions, players’ addresses, etc) until I actually drove to San Francisco and picked them up. This took place over a period of a year or two, and at the end of it I was back home in Arizona.

This may seem like a minor event, but it is indicative of a deeper problem. At least two years after this was all over, I received a letter from someone who had read one of my ads for Nuclear Destruction, and he asked me “Do you have anything
to do with a Mr Ed J from San Francisco? One of my friends sent him $3 two years ago and never got an answer”. He also was advertising a game called Nuclear Destruction.”

I can see a lot of potential customers getting ripped off by someone else, and then assuming that all pbm companies are the same. Unfortunately, it is very easy to get in over your head in pbm. Anyone with a little imagination can come up with a game (or a description of a game!) that sounds exciting, and anyone with a little money can buy a full color advertisement in some slick magazine. Unfortunately, neither of these characteristics (imagination or money) necessarily has anything to do with whether you have the determination, energy, time, and responsibility to give your customers what they expect and deserve.

It sounds so easy: get a personal computer, write a program to run your game, put an ad in a few magazines, then sit back and let your computer do all the work while you bank a few extra bucks each week. Unfortunately there are so many problems that are not initially apparent: program bugs, equipment breakdowns, answering rules questions, answering complaints, [see the letter to the editor in this issue of FBQ] opening letters, entering moves into the computer, correcting mistakes [both mistakes that YOU made, and mistakes that the customer made], moves that arrive late, moves that have unreadable game numbers or return addresses, keeping track of how much money everyone owes, deciding what to do about someone who hasn’t paid the money he owes but is still sending in game turns [here at FBI we “write off” $2000 to $4000 a year in accounts of people who were allowed to go ‘a little bit’ negative, and then ended up quitting without ever paying us], handling bounced checks, and on and on. It is easy for a newcomer to get swamped, and then there is a tendancy to put everything off.

There is plenty of room for lots of competition. There are millions of potential customers out there, and no one company is going to satisfy all of them [or even get in touch with all of them]. I just hope that not too many people are put off by the ones who drop out. I have seen at least a hunded people start up some kind of pbm service, and the vast majority of them have quickly disappeared. [At this point the number is more like 500]. Enough editorializing, back to the story.

In 1972 Steve & I got out of the army. We pooled our savings and made a down payment on a $14,000 computer (for you computer freaks, it had 4K (!!!) of core memory, a teletype for input and printing, and a high-speed paper tape reader and punch for mass storage.) [Yes, paper tape for storage. Each game was saved on a paper tape, which was rolled up and hung on a nail on the wall. We started this long before there was such thing as a floppy disk drive.] This was a Raytheon 704, which we still use for some of the games (it is a real heavy duty model). WE have since added 24K of memory, a Centronics printer for output, and a CRT for input. But it still uses paper tape for mass storage. [This article was written in 1983. In 1985 when we moved to our current location, we were still using the Raytheon 704 for a few games. Now, however the remains of the faithful 704 computer are sitting in the back yard with weeds growing up through the frame.]

We rented a small three room house in downdown Scottsdale. Steve lived there while I lived with my grandparents. The only income we had other than what Flying Buffalo brought in was the GI-BIll money I was getting for going to school part-time. [I eventually got my bachelors degree in accounting at Arizona State University]. We gradually got bigger and bigger, adding more games, more employees, more equipment, and more space. We moved five times in five years (each time to a bigger location) before we got to our present spot. Right now we have been in this location for just over 2 1/2 years. We have 4000 quare feet of space, 21 employees, 5 computers, and over 3000 customers. [When the lease expired at that location two years later, I purchased an old farmhouse in Scottsdale. Now we only have about 2000 square feet of
space, and some storage space, but I own the building. I also sold off the retail store part of the company when we moved in 1985, which cut down on the number of employees and space needed. We still have 5 computers, all of which are more
modern, and the latest of course has more memory and disk space than all of the old ones combined.]

A lot of things have happened over the years. Some of the ones that stand out in my memory are the couple who met while playing Battle Plan and eventually got married; the fellow who wrote and asked to be dropped from all his games, and then called on the phone frantically asking us to ignore his letter since “I decided to get a divorce instead!”; “Iron Man” Lane Marinello (who got his name from playing in 20 games of Nuclear Destruction simultaneously) who won a game of ND by
telling the other players that he was dying of cancer (he wasn’t); having our vice president [David Sleight] commit suicide for reasons unknown; having Avalon Hill refuse to accept one of our advertisements because they thought we were stealing time on some university computer (this was long before it was common for people to own their own computers); [I must be the first person in the world to actually buy a computer specifically to play games with it!] having my grandmother keep asking me when I was going to ‘quit playing games and get a job”; having a part break on the teletype that “never breaks” and then finding out that there are no spare parts anywhere in the State of Arizona because “it never breaks” and having to fly a spare part in from Dallas; and meeting my British agent for the first time and finding out that he is also a Methodist, a Conservative, and a Barry Goldwater fan! [That’s Chris Harvey - it turns out he is also a Clint Eastwood fan and a Mason. There is a story about why he is the reason I joined the Masons, which you are welcome to ask me if you see me at a convention.]

One of the big goals I have had in mind for FBI (by the way, the acronym was an accident) [but it’s so much fun, I got
personallized license plates with “FBI”] is to finish, program, and then play “The Game”. I designed the first version of “The Game” way back in high school. This is a multi-player, hidden movement wargame which is both tactical and strategic, including production and research. Players move individual divisions made up of infantry, armor, and artillery; they have three or four different types of aircraft, eight or nine different types of ships including submarines, aircraft carriers and merchant ships; they have factories for various kinds of units; multiple kinds of research’; and the map (either squares or hexes - it has been both) is at least 80 x 100. Over the years I have moderated or played in several different versions, but it was always obvious that thee was no way this game could be properly played without a computer keeping track of all the paperwork. We still have plans to run this game, and someday we will announce it. I know not everyone is interested in this kind of game, and it will be expensive to play. But boy, will it be fun! [Unfortunately we still haven’t had time nor money to program this game. It is MY ideal game, but I realize that only a small minority of game
players will have the interest and time to play a game this complicated. So it remains a dream while we continue with the
day-to-day work of running a business. If I ever get a few dollars ahead, I will make a serious effort to finish getting this game programmed.]

I think I should point out to all our customers what my philosophy of gaming actually is. It is important that you know
what you are getting into. No matter how careful we are, problems will come up. WE cannot please everyone, and not every mistake or error can be corrected to everyone’s satisfaction. I believe very strongly in moderator non-interference. One
reason why all of our games (except TTT) [TTT was a solitaire role playing game run by hand - don’t ask about it - we don’t offer it anymore] are completely computer-run is so that there is no way the referee can be biased, either for or against you. You may not like the results, but you have the same chance as any other player.

[A lengthy addition here: elsewhere in the issue was a letter to the editor from a customer who said he received a message from an enemy threatening him by claiming that he (the enemy) was a friend of Rick Loomis, and if the victim didn’t do what he wanted, he would make sure that the computer at Flying Buffalo would screw up his turns in the future. It should be obvious on the face of it, but no one who would say such a thing is a friend of mine; and if he was, he would no longer be. No non-employee is allowed access to our computers, and the game data [except for Covert Operations] is not kept on computers that have modems. Some employees do occasionally play in games (for instance I like to play in Anonymous Starweb games and the Anonymous Partners Challenge WWBP game), but they are carefully watched and their game is kept segregated. In the 29 year history of Flying Buffalo, only one employee was ever caught cheating in a game, and he was immediately fired and banned from all games. If an employee ever made this kind of threat he would also be fired immediately. This is only a game to you, but it is my daily bread.]

The only time we run into problems (other than people who refuse to believe that we don’t interfere with the results) is
in error corrections. Some people knock me when I refuse to change a company policy. Again, this is an attempt to be evenhanded. If I can anticipate most of the possible problems, and make a decision about what will be done before the problem comes up, I cannot be swayed by who the person is or how persuasive he or she is.

An example is missed turns. We receive something like 200 to 300 turns a day. Some of them are going to be late. If the game has not yet been run when your turn arrives, we will include your turn. We don’t like missed turns either; it spoils
some of the fun. But if it arrives after the turn has been run, or if it never arrives, you have missed the turn and there is nothing that can be done about it. Once a turn has been run, that’s it. Anyone who has missed the turn, has indeed missed the turn.

There is only once exception. If we later discover that your turn did indeed arrive on time (i.e. on or before the due date) but it failed to get processed due to some error on our part (such as being filed with the wrong game), we will run the turn over again and mail corrected turns to all the players at our expense. We admit that it occasionally happens, and we are not afraid to correct it. But if your turn completely disappears and we have no trace of it, or if it arrives late, you are stuck with the result.

[Actually there is one other exception. If it is a private game, or if every other player in the game agrees to have us run the turn over and include your orders, we will do it. As someone once angrily pointed out - that is not much of an exception; of course his enemy doesn’t want us to run the turn over again. And of course that is the point. If we run the turn over again to help you out, we are hurting your enemy, and he is a paying customer too.]

We cannot “do just your builds and loads” just because “my allies will kill me.” A player may swear that he mailed his turn eight days before the due date, and it is a vitally important turn. but if we have no record of it, there is just nothing we can do. I may believe you, but do you really want me to believe your enemy when he says he mailed the turn in plenty of time and would I please do his move for him? After he has seen the results of the turn and discovered that you are backstabbing him? And remember, we have over 3000 customers, and they all want their next move processed and mailed as quickly as possible. We cannot afford to wait for you. You have to be responsible for making sure your turn gets here on time. It’s not because we don’t care. We do care when someone misses the turn, and it makes us very unhappy. But we can not do anything about it. When I first started I tried to wait until all the turns were in. I even phoned people whose turns weren’t here. But even when I was only running five games, that didn’t work. [When this kind of problem comes up, someone always pipes up with “What about ‘The Customer is Always Right?’ “ That may work well for a department store or a gas station. But our business is a competition between you and other customers. If your problem is just between you and me, we’ll do all we can to help you out. But if fixing your problem means giving a disadvantage to another customer, we can’t do it. Remember, some players go to great lengths to make sure they never miss a turn. If we allow other people to go back and make up a missed turn, then we are treating these people unfairly. You can always call us on the due date and ask us whether your turn has been received. If you send your turn by email, we always send a receipt back by return email. And you can sign up for our “Phone Alert” system where we call you if your turn is missing.]

There I go editorializing again. I suppose I should give a description of the peple who process your game turns for you.
Most of the people who work here are gamers of one kind or another. Joe Formichella stops by the post office on his way to work five days a week and picks up the mail. (I usually pick it up on Saturdays and Sundays; yes your mail is delivered even on holidays). He is the one who opens the envelopes, sorts out the turns, and passes the mail to the various people concerned. [After the move to the current location, Chuck Gaydos picks up the mail every day on his way to work, 7 days a week. However the post office doesn’t usually put much (if any) mail in the po box on sundays or holidays anymore. We check, but there’s seldom anything there. We do of course receive email and faxes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.]

After the due date has passed, or if all the game turns are in, one of the typists takes the game out and runs it through
one of the computers. Wayne West is the day shift, Lee Russell is evenings, and Terry Riseden is night shift. [Wayne and Terry have moved on to other jobs - Lee is still with us. Now the game typists are Lee, Chuck, Jason Sato and Bob LaGrange]

After the game is run, it is passed to the billing computer where we print out your name & address and the little piece of paper that says “you have $2.50 left in your account”. From there it goes to the checking desk where either Lee or
Chuck Gaydos checks over the game for obvious errors, billing problems, etc, and inserts standbys if necessary. Chuck is the computer room supervisor.

From checking, the game goes to Allen Nordendale, who sorts out all the papers and stuffs them into the proper envelopes, then runs them through the postage meter. I usually drop them in the mailbox at the main post office when I go home in the evening. [Allen has also gone on to other jobs. Currently the “stuffer” is either Lisa Walker or Charlotte Walker, or occasionally Jimmie Walker. Jimmie is also the “shipping room” person who packs up orders for our card games & role playing games and gets them ready for UPS.]

Steve MacGregor is still the computer programmer. He spends most of his time making little adjustments to the old programs or writing new ones. One of his main projects right now is making a new version of the Starweb program so we can
run it on a newer, more portable computer. This will allow us to run Starweb games at various conventions, and do other
exciting things that we can’t do with the current version (such as Starweb by phone). [Steve no longer works here full time. He has a day job elsewhere, but still makes program corrections evenings. Chuck does most of the programming now. We did get Starweb programmed for IBM Clone computers and now I can run it on a laptop at a convention. And of course now
we can send and receive turns for all the games by modem over the internet.]

And we mustn’t forget Felicia Radzio. She works in the mailroom, and she is the one who processes all your payments, new game requests, and orders for merchandise. [Felicia has also moved on, and Lee now does most of the mailroom stuff.]

This article is also supposed to be a history of play-bymail so I should mention some of my competitors (those who are still alive and those who are long gone). I can briefly mention the former customer who got infuriated when I had to post a large price increase on all my games. He dropped out of his games and promised to “destroy” me in “the marketplace” by
showing me how a pbm company should really be run. He called his “The Little Company”, promised no price increases for the life of the game, a free newsletter to all players, and if any game turn was processed more than three days after the
due date, it would be completely free. Within three months I was receiving letters from people who had sent him $1 for rules and had never heard any response. I don’t know of anyone who ever played a turn of his game, although there were supposedly a few.

I suppose the most notorious of the “disappearing pbm companies” was Lords of Valetia. This was announced via a flyer and then a full page ad in Strategy and Tactics magazine. It was a hand-run, fantasy role-playing game announced just as D&D was getting popular. I understand that he immediately got 1000 players and was swamped. Unfortunately, it was run by one college student, entirely by hand. There was a long delay and then another group announced they had taken it over. They actually ran several turns for many people. (Mike Stackpole says he got five or six turns). Then they ran into trouble also, and a fellow named Elmer Hinton, who called himself “Gamemasters Publishers Association” offered to take it over. They eagerly handed it over to him, and he published several newsletters and took out many full page ads in magazines like The Space Gamer and The Dragon. Unfortunately I’m not sure whether anyone actually got any turns from Elmer. He was going to put the whole thing on a computer, and had lots of other grandiose plans that never quite got anywhere. [I believe Elmer “bought” the game from its second set of owners by promising to honor the money owed to current customers,
and then chastized those customers for expecting him to keep his promise and give them the turns due them. He didn’t realize what he was promising, and it was ‘unreasonable’ of them to expect him to keep his promise. I don’t think Elmer ever intended to defraud anyone, but he certainly had a lot of gall. And if he had spent as much time processing turns as he did explaining to everyone why he wasn’t processing any turns, he might have had a decent game.]

Sadly there have been several people who advertised a marvelous game and accepted startup fees so that they could use the money thus received to buy a computer so they could program the game so they could run the turns they had contracted to run when they accepted the money in the first place. But there are other companies out there who seem to be doing a decent job. One of the earlier ones is Conflict Interaction Associates (their acronym is deliberate). They have a game called Pellic Quest, which is mostly Starweb with a few additions (they asked permission and pay me a small royalty.) They seem to have been successful by limiting the size of their operation. They decide how many games they can run and will not accept more customers after the games have been filled.

Another one is called Superior Simulations. This fellow has a very elaborate, very complicated space game called Empyrean Challenge. If you play this game, your turn can be a stack of paper half an inch thick! The game is expensive, and I am told that there are a lot of errors in the computer program. One player told me that every time he received a turn, he had to spend a half hour on the phone with the gamemaster, getting all his errors corrected. It sounds like a great game if the guy can just get all the bugs out.

Of course I have to mention Schubel & Son. At the moment, they appear to be my biggest competition. I’ll start by admitting that several people have told me that their Tribes of Crane and Starmaster games are a lot of fun. I don’t want to sound like a “sour grapes” competitor, but I am going to list some of the things that I consider disadvantages. If you can live with the disadvantages, then you might really enjoy their games.

Most of their games are what is called “computerassisted”. This means that although a computer is keeping track of various details, a human gamemaster actually processes your turn. An advantage of this is that you can do anything you can think of on your turn, something that just isn’t possible with a completely computerized game. Unfortunately this also means that the results of your turn are highly dependent on which gamemaster processes your turn THIS time. S&S does not assign you a gamemaster - whenever your turn comes in it is processed by whichever gamemaster is ready for it. This avoids the problem of a gamemaster being slow or getting sick or quitting, but it can create all kinds of headaches for players when different gamemasters interpret various orders differently.

Their games are also more expensive (actually I think a hand-run game has to be). At first glance the turn fees are about the same. But in order to play one of the big games, you have to pay extra for “extra actions”. You don’t have to do “extra actions” but you’ll never get anywhere in the game if you don’t. And each one costs an extra turn fee. I had one fellow explain to me that he spends $50 a month on his Starmaster game (well, that explains how they can afford all that advertising). In addition, if you want to attack anyone, you have to pay extra for a battle turn. That seems reasonable to me. But the person being attacked also has to pay extra for a battle turn. That seems unreasonable to me, but apparently they have a lot of customers who are going along with it. This gives rise to the apparently often-used tactic of multiple attacks. The idea is to get several players together to all attack one guy, not to defeat him in battle, but to force him to pay for multiple battle reports (each one is charged separately of course). If it is done properly, he will get tired of paying out all that money and will drop out of the game.

Not all of the S&S games are computer-assisted though. They do have some that are completely computer-run like ours. They have a mark-sense card reader for input. I am somewhat amused by their advertisements that Catacombs of Chaos has “easy to read room descriptions in full text with no codes to decipher” (as if the secret of “F10 means Fleet Ten” is difficult to decipher), but at the same time in order to send in your move, you have to decipher a computer card and put pencil marks in the right places. Ah, well.

There are many differences of opinion on what makes a good game or what is a fair price to charge. At least S&S are well established and have been there for several years. If you like their kind of games, you can at least expect to receive game turns on a regular basis.

There is now a lot of competition in the field and a lot of games to choose from. If you don’t like what you’ve seen so far, look around. Just be careful how much money you send anyone in advance. I don’t think any of the guys who have
disappeared really set out to deliberately cheat anyone. But nevertheless, people sent them money and didn’t get it back.

[All of the above companies have, since this was written, gone out of business. Some of their games were bought by other companies and some were not, and some of those other companies have since disappeared also. Please don’t ask me about where you can play any of the above mentioned games, as I don’t know. Currently our biggest competitor seems to be Midnight Games of California. They have a very popular fantasy role playing game. There is also GSI in Florida who runs a Middle Earth licensed fantasy game, and several smaller companies still around. With the growth of the internet, pbm eems to have shrunk and a lot of companies dropped out of the business in the last 4 or 5 years.]

In July will be the annual Origins convention. This year it will be in Detroit, and I have arranged for a “play-by-mail”
booth. Many different pbm companies will have flyers or catalogs available free at that booth. If you can, you might
consider going to Origins this year and meeting some of the people involved in pbm. Flying Buffalo will have its own booth too, and I will definitely be there (there is an ad for Origins elsewhere in the issue). I am aware of at least 25 other pbm companies (other than those mentioned above) who have been invited to participate in the the pbm booth. I apologize for not being able to mention them all in this article, and I hope a lot of my readers will visit us all in Detroit.

[This year, and for at least the next few years, Origins will be in Columbus Ohio. Flying Buffalo always has a booth there, and usually there are at least 3 or 4 other pbm companies there also.]

NOTE: Permission to publish this article on the PlayByMail.Net website from Flying Buffalo Quarterly # 79
was granted by Rick Loomis, owner and PBM moderator of Flying Buffalo, Inc.. on March 13th, 2011.

Click here to visit the Flying Buffalo website.
Wow, great read. I wonder how things are going for them nowadays.

Edit: I also wonder what their percentages look like for players submitting orders via post and email. Also, the game Empyrean Challenge he mentions still exists and is still in development. Looking at their forums, it seems to be pretty active.

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