I (Rick Loomis) have always been a game player, and like most game players I often made up my own rules for games, or "new versions" of games. In high school, I invented a multi-player wargame with hidden movement that was a lot of fun, but had a couple of serious problems. (1) no one else wanted to do all the work of refereeing it (so I hardly ever got to play, since I had to be the referee) (2) it took a long time to play, as the players turned in their moves one at a time so the referee could calculate the results of all his moves and attacks, before sending the next player his turn and (3) if there were more countries in the game than I could find players for, what did we do with the extra countries?
When I was in the US Army in 1970, I came up with a solution to all three of these problems. For the problem of unplayed countries, I came up with the idea of the "popularity index" where each player would have an "index" in all the non-played countries. You could raise your "index" by actions in the game such as giving money to the non-player, and the player with the highest "index" on a given turn could give orders to the non-played country. Since all my friends who used to play my complicated games in high school were scattered who-knows-where by now, I invented a simpler game (Nuclear Destruction) that made use of these indexes, so I could see how it worked. I dragged out my back issues of "The General" (a wargaming magazine by The Avalon Hill Game Company) and sent postcards to all of the people who had advertised in the classifieds that they were looking for pbm opponents. I offered them a free copy of my game rules, and said I would referee a game of Nuclear Destruction for 10 cents a turn (this was when postage was 8 cents).
My other two problems were solved when I realized what computers could do for me. Remember, this was before personal computers. Apple Computer Company didn't even exist. I met my friend Steve MacGregor and he agreed to write a computer program for my new game. We rented time on a CDC 3300 computer that wasn't far from Fort Shafter. (In Hawaii. One might wonder why I was wasting time with computers instead of hanging out on the beach watching babes in bikinis, but I really wanted to be able to play these games myself and if the computer did the moderating, I could play too!) Plus we could use simultaneous movement with the computer keeping track of everything, and that would speed the games up enormously.
When I had finished my (one and only) tour of duty, I had about 200 play by mail customers. By this time I realized that renting time on someone else's computer was not the way to go, so I purchased a Raytheon 704 minicomputer. (I forget the exact price, but it seems like it was something like $386 a month for six or ten years, but anyway it was over $30,000 total. Sigh. And it only had 4K of memory!) Steve agreed to join me in Arizona, and keep programming the games, while I ran the computer and invented new games.
People have been playing chess by mail for a long time, and people (John Boardman in particular) were running pbm Diplomacy and charging a fee before I started in 1970. But I like to use the slogan "We Created the Play By Mail Industry" (emphasis on the word "industry") because I was the first person to start doing this full time as my only job. I was DEFINITELY the first person to buy my own computer, JUST to run games! We incorporated Flying Buffalo in 1972. Some of my fond early memories are: driving the computer to Los Angeles in the back seat of my car to get the memory board fixed; getting a letter from The Avalon Hill Game Company saying they weren't going to print my ad for "computer moderated pbm" in the classified ads of the General until I sent them a letter of permission from whoever owned the computer that I was using(!)( I still have the letter); getting a letter from Avalon Hill inviting me to the first Origins Game Convention (I still have that letter too.); buying our second memory board with an additional 4K of memory for only $4000 (!); many years later buying a complete Raytheon 704 computer with 32K of memory for $500 from someone who was upgrading to an IBM; getting our first $100 money order in the mail (a military postal money order from Louis Melton, stationed in Korea); and being told by the zoning inspector that I couldn't run my business in the residential area where I had rented a house because if you wanted to have a home business, you couldn't have anything that a normal person wouldn't have in their home, and normal people didn't have a computer in their living room.
Just as an aside, one of my original customers who was in Nuclear Destruction game #1, Dave Mattson, is still with us, and has been in game #1 of every game we've started running since then.
In 1975, Ken St Andre tried to play Dungeons & Dragons (a trademark of TSR Inc, not to be used without their permission) and couldn't figure out the rules from just reading them. He decided that this was too complicated and invented his own fantasy role playing game, Tunnels & Trolls. He heard that I was going to Origins that summer, so he printed up 100 copies and asked me to take them with me to sell. (Actually I believe he only had 40 copies left by the time I left for Origins). I knew this game was dumb and no one would buy it. After all, there were no cardboard counters, no gameboard, and you didn't "win" it at the end. But I figured I'd stick them on the corner of my table and when I gave them all back to Ken afterwards, he wouldn't bother me any more. Of course, I sold every one of them, and we went on to become the publisher of T&T and all the solo adventures.
In order to have something to "sell" at game conventions like Origins, while trying to talk people into trying play by mail, I had invented a "boardgame version" of my Nuclear Destruction pbm game. (No longer available folks. Sorry.) It sold ok, but people kept asking me if this was that "card game" they had played in college that was so much fun. I had more than one person tell me that they had played this card game until the cards "wore out". I knew what game they were talking about, since I had played it in college too, and I figured that if people play it until it wears out, it has to be a winner. Unfortunately, the game was out of print, and no one knew where the inventer was. The only address on the rules of the game was "Douglas Malewicki, Los Angeles". I advertised in gaming magazines that I wanted him to get in touch, but he had only invented one game, and found out that you can't get distribution if you only have one game, so he had gone on to other adventures. Eventually a friend of mine (Russ Beland) found Doug's phone number in an LA area phone book. I knew I had the right guy when his answering machine answered with organ music and a dracula voice: "Mr Malewicki is not in, but if you will leave your name, phone number, and blood type, he will get back to you." This was the inventor of the hilarious Nuclear War Card game and ever since I bought the rights, it has been our most popular product.
Also in the mid-70's, we took a survey of our pbm customers, and most of them wanted a space pbm game. So I invented Starweb. I believe it was Russ Beland who wanted to call it "Star Wars", but I liked Starweb better, in reference to the "web" of connections that created the map. One wonders what would have happened. I think the Star Wars movie came out about two years later, so we would have had prior use. Would the movie people have sued us and made us change our name anyway (in copyright law, he who has the big bucks to pay the lawyers usually wins, regardless of who was really first)? Or would they have graciously offered us money for the use of the name? Or would they have ignored us? Who knows? But I do recall getting phone calls from people who wanted to sign up for our "Star Wars Game", so maybe we got the benefit without the hassles. I am proud to say that Starweb was the first pbm game to win an award at the Origins game convention. (Obviously Origins has meant a lot to me and to Flying Buffalo. For anyone unfamiliar, this is the official game convention of the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA), and for details on attending the next one, see our Important Dates page.
Over the years, we upgraded our computers from the Raytheon 704, to a Poly 88 computer kit, to a North Star Horizon, to IBM clones. Currently we have 6 computers (not counting the old Amiga or the Macintosh that aren't currently being used). The newest one is a 66 Mhz 486 with 8 megs of RAM, a 420MB hard disk, a CD, and a laser printer, and it cost less than that second 4K of memory did! We currently have 4 employees, and operate out of a 45 year old farmhouse in Scottsdale, Arizona. (This used to be my uncle's farm. Now it's practically in the middle of downtown.) (For picture Click here. If you have any questions, feel free to send me email. Or come visit our booth at any Origins or Gencon game convention. I also usually sponsor a seminar at both shows, which is the best time to ask me questions away from the distractions of customers trying to buy stuff.
Since I started Flying Buffalo, and proved you could make a business out of providing pbm games, hundreds of other people have tried it. A few of them are still around too. If you want to start your own pbm business, be aware that this is very much a niche market. You can make a living if you work hard at it, but it' s by no means an easy way to "make a few bucks" or to get rich. The computer doesn't do "all" the work, no matter what anyone tells you. If you want to ask me questions about starting your own business, the best time is to catch me at one of those seminars as mentioned above. Otherwise, wait until I finish writing my book "How to run a PBM business" (hopefully before the end of 2008.) -Rick Loomis
Send email to rick at flying buffalo dot com.
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