The End of the Hobby As We Know It?

by Richard Egan

This week’s question: “Is the hobby in terminal decline”? 

Martin Lewis paid us a visit over Christmas, and – well, you know how it is with us hobby types – what with one thing and another, we started talking about Sequences and Vienna and postal gaming in general. And it quickly became apparent that we’d both detected something of a lack of vitality in the postal Diplomacy hobby of late.

I suppose it was something I’ve been vaguely aware of for some time. there was a time when I’d be adjudicating eighteen games a deadline for Vienna – not to mention the ones being run by other GMs in the zine – whereas these days I’m handling no more than five or six. But I’m now also heavily involved in something called gridiron (a postal American football simulation, for those not in the know), which naturally absorbs a high proportion of the time I’ve got for gaming. Consequently, I’m probably spending no less time on GMing and the like.

When I’ve stopped to think about the lack of gamestarts in Vienna, and the way variant lists hardly ever fill (despite being offered for several issues), I suppose I’ve assumed people had picked up “vibes” or something. Well, all right, to be honest I haven’t stopped to think about it: I’ve got enough games to keep me happy, and that’s all that really matters to me. Certainly in recent years the ration between non-playing and playing readers has shifted quite dramatically towards the former, and I assumed this decline in Diplomacy playing was unique to Vienna. 

However, I’m also very heavily involved in the variant service zine Moonlighting, which carries in its pages an openings survey. This originally started as something called White Paper, and consists of a list of all the variants games being offered (to our knowledge) in the UK. As such, it’s an excellent barometer for variant playing in the hobby. And if it can be trusted, it’s telling us that people are losing interest in Diplomacy variants. Not only has the survey shrunk in size, but also a lot of the waiting lists don’t move fro issue to issue. despite the fact that in the same period we’ve expanded the number of zines we cover. 

Martin and I took a step back and a long look. How about zines? Classic titles like Mad Policy, Zeeby and Denver Glont are running down to a fold – zines we’ve grown up with in the hobby. And with them, we’re losing the interest of key people like RJW and Nick Kinzett in important projects like ManorCon. Of course, zines have always closed for business – it’s in the nature of the things to fold sooner or later. but in the past there have always been plenty of new zines rising to take their place. When we tried to think of new zines these days, we came up with Surfa Rosa, Arfle Barfle Gloop, Electric Monk and A Step Further Out – none of them really new zines and all of them zines edited for the most part by relatively old hands in the hobby, sometimes sub-zines going Solicitor’s Office and sometimes re-starts by old-editors. The last hobby “phenomenon” seems to have been the now somewhat jaded Small Furry Creatures Press. So much for vitality.

How can this be? Is the hobby simple undergoing a “phase”? the downturn on a cycle of expansion and contraction? Over New Year, the more I discussed it, in pubs and lounges, the more I became convinced that it may be something altogether different. Here is my theory. It is a theory I have.

Consider this: when the hobby started, it took an ideally suited, but already commercially successful boardgame called Diplomacy, and turned it into a postal game. It had a lot going for it: Diplomacy was successful enough to provide a pool of players already acquainted with the game. Anyone wishing to join a game could buy a copy in a toy shop or a local chainstore. Come to that, the rules were simple and could be picked up from watching a game or two. And then, just when things might have begun to get boring, along came variants and postal adaptations of other (though often less suitable) board games. We had Sopwith and Downfall and Railway Rivals and Stab and Cluedo and Deluge and Speed Circuit and… well, lots of games. Now, since postal adaptations of other games usually weren’t as good as Diplomacy, often requiring cumbersome modifications of rules or special mechanics for postal play, it was probably inevitable that sooner or later someone would think of designing something specifically dedicated to postal play. I suppose something like United might have been an early example, but not long after came commercial postal games.

Originally, I gather, these weren’t necessarily good value for money. At first often shoddily packaged, just like early hex-based wargames, competition and a desire to attract more custom drove them into becoming more and more professional in both presentation and content (understand that this assessment is based on the experiences related to me by a number of long-standing PBM players; I have little or no experience of the genre myself). Nowadays, I’m told, some of the more expensive PBMs can offer the quality and standards of the best Avalon Hill products, complete with coherently written and professionally presented rules, nice colour-printed maps and a very responsible approach to pricing.

At the same time, in the years since the hobby started, there can be no question that adults in the Western world have significantly increased spending on leisure pursuits. Whether or not it’s because they’ve got more disposable income is irrelevant: fact is, they’re finding it possible to spend more on their hobbies, and gaming, after all, is just one more hobby to add to the list.

One of the attractions of postal Diplomacy is that it has always been a relatively cheap pastime. For the price of a few stamps you can enjoy a pretty decent game through the post, and exchange letters with some like-minded people in the process. Friendships have been built through the Diplomacy hobby, and consolidated at cons organised by enthusiasts doing it for the love of it. And perhaps, above all, postal Diplomacy has always been carried out through zines that have offered something of a social environment, too, with letter columns and articles and all sorts of fun things.

But Diplomacy is getting old. A really serious gamer can now find some seriously sophisticated gaming to pre-occupy him in the commercial market: computer moderation opens up whole new fields for managing games. Now the PBM boys have even started organising conventions, to bring to their hobby the social aspect that was always a strength of the amateur hobby.

By contrast Diplomacy is more than thirty years old now, and was never really designed for postal play in the first place. You could point to something like chess and argue that games like Diplomacy have the potential to be eternally popular, but then you could just as easily point to Monopoly, which is having to be re-packaged far too often as it loses popularity to Trivial Pursuit and its clones.

When cheapness doesn’t matter so much, and when the state of the art in gaming, with computer-moderated, postally-dedicated games, is available, is it not inevitable that a hobby built around a game like Diplomacy will suffer? Why play Diplomacy variants when, for a bit of that disposable income, you could have yourself a whole new game in the commercial market? Even an enthusiast for the amateur hobby like myself must concede that commercial PBMs can offer a continually adapting and more commercially responsive array of options, far more than the amateur hobby can match. (And why bother with all the trouble of running a zine when you could make yourself some money by running a commercial PBM? Are all those non-existent new zine editors turning into commercial PBM GMs?) 

Conclusion? When I joined the hobby (aye, lad, them were great days), the talk was all of chat zines and how they were killing it. Instead, the hobby is still breathing a good five or six years later, whilst the chat zines have died and been buried. So I’m not going to be the one who writes it off a second time. But if you ask me, there are lean days ahead…

Reprinted from Vienna No.64 (January 1990)

For a response to this article written five years later seeĀ Why Richard Was Almost Right