As any good military officer is wont to do, I'll go straight to my Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): I like play-by-mail (PBM) much more than play-by-electronic-mail (PBEM) and as much as face-to-face. In that regard, my friend Jamie McQuinn hit the nail on the head with his pro-PBM piece in this 'zine a couple issues back.
But geez, Faz, you might be saying, how can you relegate yourself to those, those ..troglodytes.. who haven't joined the Information Age? Simple; it strikes me as more enjoyable, and offers better opportunities to use a variety of tactics that are a little harder to implement in FTF or PBEM.
Let's look at the name first. The term "snail mail" may connote slowness to some. To me, however, it evokes the image of home-brewed beer, or sun tea: a process that ages, allows for time to "ferment," to analyze the letter, digest its contents, and the reply in a fitting manner. With PBEM it seems (to me) that the deadlines are quicker, the pace more rushed. If you're like me, you try and juggle your gaming life with work (the dirtiest of four-letter words!), with keeping mama and the kids happy (and trying to remember what they look like after a long day/week at the office), taking poochie for a walk, doing the "honeydew" chores ("honey, do this, honey do that") and all the other time constraints that impinge on your gaming. With PBM one has time to receive a letter and let it sit for awhile, confident that you have two-to-three weeks to reply, or to call or (gasp) e-mail a short reply in an emergency....I just feel that it allows you more "breathing space" to properly mull over its contents as compared to ftf and PBEM timeframes.
The letter's reply is even an art form in itself. In e-mail, the sender knows you're there (and can even get the system to indicate a successful delivery). Whether you want to discuss information with others (whether to plot a stab or work an alliance), or if you merely want to find an evening to set up the board and analyze the options, common courtesy would dictate that you owe a reply fairly quickly after receiving a note. In fact, if you don't reply via e-mail in a proper time, the sender may get nervous/suspicious. And if you wish to deliberately delay a reply to Sender X, you can only use the "my system is down" excuse for so long. However, with PBM's snail mail, letter replying becomes an art unto itself. Person X sends you a letter; you wish to ignore its onerous contents, or even plot a stab. You can delay acknowledgment of the letter for quite awhile ("Well, you know, you did mail this from California; it'll take a little longer to arrive; I'm sure I'll get it soon"). In addition to delaying receipt of said letter, you can always blame USPS for non-delivery: "Letter? What letter? That d**n Post Office!" And let's face it: how many of you have had a letter lost/misrouted by USPS? I rest my case. Plausible denial works!
Timing thus becomes a weapon in your arsenal by using snail mail. Another example: it's close to deadline. You want to gain an advantage on someone, but not totally alienate them; let's say it's a quasi-potential ally. However, you're unsure of his intention, and you still want what you want. You merely send a letter, timed to arrive right around the due date. If it arrives early and the person is interested/has concerns, you can expect a last-minute call. If it arrives on the due date, or right after, then, hey--you tried, but the mail screwed up your coordination for this time. This ploy also works if you're trying to psyche someone out. Let's say you're in BOH, moving on Vienna against the Archduke, who's tightly allied with a hostile Hun against you and your pals. You can send a last-minute "gloating" card to Germany, saying in essence, "Well, now that the deadline is here and you can't change anything, here's what we did to you in Munich." Of course, you send the letter so it arrives on the day before or the day of the moves being due. Germany is happy that the post office worked extra-efficiently, and feels like he can prepare a crushing riposte against this smug Bohemian--he may even call the Austrian and pass along the "intended Mun hit," which may lull the Viennese defenses in time for you to do what you really intended all along!
Another beauty of PBM snail mail is the misdirection ploy. You want to spoof a target, or perhaps get someone to join you, but want to do it indirectly. Unless you travel to Sheboygan and use another player's terminal, people can generally "see" the sender's identity. Not so with letters. One tactic that's worked for me involves sending a typed letter (using a different font, to make it "not your style") in a small envelope with no return address. The letter basically says, "I'm a friend with the same enemies/concerns as you, but don't want to compromise my identity, or worry in case you perhaps 'turn me in' to the person(s) I'm ratting on. Here's what your enemy is planning to do to you this turn." I then mailed this envelope in a larger envelope to a friend (usually a non-gamer). The friend opens his envelope, sees your letter to Target X, and is told in a short note by you to drop off the Dip letter in a local mailbox. Bingo! Your letter now is postmarked 500 miles from where you live, bearing some cryptic words of wisdom to Target X. Your target--especially if s/he is under siege or in need of good help--is usually willing to at least accept part of the note (why not? what's left to lose?). If you do this for a "one-shot deal," you can devastate an enemy's position. If you are allied with someone but don't want them growing too fast as compared to you, you can make this a longer-term project -- send mostly-true data on what your ally's doing, but only half-truths on what you're doing. The Target will thank his lucky stars that this letter-writer is at least "80% correct," and you can still work your wiles while keeping your faster-growing ally at manageable proportions. Once you've lulled the Target over a longer period of time, you merely pick your stab time in a final "truthful" letter (cackle)!
Finally, there's something to be said about the mere act of receiving a Dip letter. Oh yeah, bold-faced e-mail announcements are nice to note, but getting a letter is fun. When I started playing PBM 21 years ago (egad; I'm getting old), I lived for the mailman's arrival -- it was almost like Christmas coming every day. Of course, "in my time" back in the late 70s/early 80s, the PBM hobby was much more vibrant and active. Everyone wrote, every turn -- not this Weak Willie situation in the hobby today, when you're lucky if a non-adjacent neighbor writes you at all before 1905. Letters conveyed true dedication to the game -- By Gum, if you were serious about the hobby, you were sending and receiving mail, in spite of all the aforementioned constraints. It became the benchmark of your reputation: "I deal with him because he writes, and that's the name of the game." If someone didn't write, they generally weren't alive by mid-game. Heck, with e-mail, anyone can now sit down a zap a three-line note, but is there effort behind it? (And in my current "ghodstoo" PBEM game -- the one where my head is being handed to me on a platter -- even some of those Hobby Greats can barely find the time to correspond, and they stare at the terminal all day! Have we lost the Correspondence Aura when we went cyber?) As Jamie mentioned in his piece, there's just something about sitting down in front of the board, or at the table, with your freshly-arrived correspondence -- usually ignoring friends, family, food, or other distractions the minute you tear open the envelope and began devouring the contents. THAT can't be replicated via any other means.
I'm sure the devotees of ftf and PBEM would tell me that I overemphasize the bennies of PBM and downplay their modes. And perhaps I do. I mean, I love the convenience of e-mail, and you can't beat ftf for real-time enjoyment and reaction from your buddies as you play. All these media have a part in hobby participation. It's just that, for my "cuisine," I'd rather have a diet of "snails." Call me wacky if you will.