[reprinted from Shadis magazine]
The Play by Mail industry offers a few things which are hard to find in face-to-face gaming: a large number of opponents, and the ability to play whenever you have time. Olympia is a game which does even better than most Play by Mail games: in Olympia, you are immersed in a fantasy campaign in which you can play with (potentially) thousands of other players for years.
The first unusual thing you'll notice about Olympia is that the entire game is conducted using electronic mail. This allows the moderator, Rich Skrenta, to charge a relatively low price for a game with a lot of player input. The game has gone through two play-tests over several years, and I played in both. Internet trivia buffs will be amused to learn that Rich is the author of the first player-extendable multi-user dungeon (MUD).
The basic unit controlled by a player is a human nobleman. Each noble will generally be accompanied by a number of commoners, namely soldiers and workers and so forth. Commoners are basically faceless property who must accompany a noble at all times, and can even be traded among players.
There are two basic currencies in the game: gold and noble points. Noble points are used to buy new nobles and a few special skills, such as magical skills. Each faction starts the same number of noble points, and gradually acquire more as they grow older. Gold is used to recruit commoners, pay for their upkeep, and buy things at markets.
Nobles can study a large number of skills at cities. They can also research and learn hidden skills. Difficult skills such as black magic require both noble points and lots of time to learn. A large number of different schools of magic and religion exist, and most mages will know spells from several of them. My favorite school of spells is weather magic; these spells allow a mage to summon storms, which last many turns and be slowly flown around the map.
Nobles and noble points reinforce the role-playing aspects of the game. As a player, you are actively playing the 3-10 nobles in your faction. You can choose to use your noble points to recruit a large number of nobles and go into economic activities and exploration, or recruit a smaller number of powerful mages, or some combination thereof. If you lose a war, you might lose all your gold and commoners, but you will retain your noble points, and can rebuild your faction. Powerful factions will most likely not have enough noble points to carry out as many different missions as they'd like, so they will hire other players to help. Very powerful mages will be relatively rare, as they require most of a faction's noble points.
The world of Olympia consists of a series of islands. The map is a large one in the sense that there is enough room for a new player to sail off to the ends of the world and carve out their own little empire. Or, they can stick to civilization, or try to take over someone else's empire. Ships and structures such as castles and towers can be built by players. Castle owners can levy taxes, and a noble with enough power can become king of their island.
The economics in Olympia are relatively simple. Every economic aspect of the game has some sort of limit which allows steady growth, but not runaway growth. For example, only a limited number of peasants can be recruited in every province every turn. City markets buy and sell some goods, but only so many items per turn, to be sold or purchased on a first-come first-served basis. Armies cost a lot of gold to maintain, so players are unlikely to keep their maximum-size army around all the time, and will frantically attempt to mobilize more soldiers as the enemy approaches.
Much of the realistic feel of the game comes from simultaneous movement. Each weekly turn represents one month of game time, which is divided into game days. All players' orders are executed in lock-step, which means that everyone's orders for day 1 are processed, and then everyone's orders for day 2, and so on. Most large open-ended games process each player's orders for an entire turn at once, which can lead to strange effects depending on whose orders get processed first. I don't thinking "OK, I'll escape the pursuing forces if my turn runs first, but I'll be caught if theirs runs first." Games which process each player's orders separately also make it difficult for players to interact with each other during the turn. Olympia has no such problems, and offers a large number of orders which can be used to synchronize movement among nobles of the same or different factions. For example, a noble can move to a location, rendezvous with nobles from a different faction, and then, if the other noble is accompanied by the promised number of soldiers, proceed to attack the enemy. Although these orders can be somewhat complicated to use correctly, they offer an easy way to work with other players, security against screwups, and security against the occasional betrayal.
A few things about Olympia are quite nice and deserve special mention. First off, like any all-email game, all of the other players are an email message away. My phone bill appreciates this, especially when I am dealing with my Finnish allies. Second, a mail-forwarding system is provided which allows players to send a message to any noble they've seen at any time, even if you have no idea who the owner is.
Third, the all-email nature of the game allows much more player input than you normally find in a game for this price. My orders averaged 87 lines per turn, and my results averaged 16 pages. It's possible to do things such as moving a pile of stone from point A to point B using one unit making 5 round trips in a single game month. Such a simple action seems very realistic, but most games would either charge extra for the large number of orders involved, or would simply not allow you to issue that many orders for a single unit.
Finally, there are skills which a noble can use to hide which faction they are loyal to. This provides the opportunity for a player to be a staunch pillar of the community while controlling a vicious gang of thieves out raiding his friend's caravans. If the thief leader isn't caught, then the true owner is safe.
So how much does it cost to play Olympia? The turn fee is a flat $2.50 per turn for one faction, which generally consists of among 3 and 10 nobles. Most postal-mail based games would charge $12 to $20 for a similar amount of play. An electronic copy of the Olympia rules is free. Although Olympia does not provide fancy laser-printed maps or the other perks that can be sent through the postal mail, I find it to be an excellent value for the money, and look forward to seeing more games with this sort of format.