E-mail board games catching on

So you say there's nothing new under the sun Spunky? Well, I've got the perfect antidote to your jaded world view.

So you say there's nothing new under the sun Spunky? Well, I've got the perfect antidote to your jaded world view. And it's a little bit of back to the future.

In the good old days (before the Web), people actually used snail mail for more than bills and circulars. And in addition to love letters and hate mail, some folks actually played board games through the mail. Sure, it was slow, but there was nothing like trouncing Old Uncle Ernie in a game of Chess, especially when it took six months to play a match.

Well, Hasbro Interactive remembers, and they've set out to capture that slower, simpler era with their new line of e-mail games. They've developed e-mail versions of some of the most popular board games, including Scrabble, Battleship, Chess, Checkers and Backgammon. Now you can play a slow board game with a friend anywhere in the world.

The implementation is fairly simple. The person who owns the e-mail game creates a new game, initiates the first move or roll, and then packages that move up and sends it to Hasbro's e-mail-games server via the Internet. That server then attaches a file containing your move to an e-mail and sends it to your opponent. In addition, the first turn also includes a text file that tells your opponent where to download the game executable.

You can play an unlimited number of games with friends, and only the person initiating the game has to own the software. And the software is cheap -- only $15. It's pretty easy to get going with these e-mail games.

But there are a few drawbacks. First, the software is not very well executed. The application itself is difficult to use, and because it's not a native windows application, it can cause problems on some notebooks. It was all-but-unusable on my Thinkpad 560, because the mouse disappeared during play.

Other fit-and-finish issues abound. The Battleship game didn't work well with my Notes client -- even after installing the run-time, I had to detatch the turn-file from my e-mail, and load it from Windows. I should have been able to just double-click the file and execute it.

It was also hard to do simple moves in Backgammon. You can't just move a single piece the entire length of a combined dice roll -- instead you have to move to the intermediate point, and then onto the final point. And the software requires you to drop the piece precisely onto a particular part of the point -- you can't just put it anywhere on the point to execute a move.

Using an e-mail server does make it easier for non POP clients to participate in e-mail games, but I'd like to see a direct version of these games available. Requiring an intermediate server means that Hasbro now has my e-mail address, as well as the addresses of all my friends. In addition, if the server goes down, or runs slowly, my games could get needlessly delayed. Also, you must be connected to the Net to make your moves -- you can't contemplate your moves while on an airplane.

And it's easy to cheat. In backgammon, before sending your first turn, you can keep re-starting the game until you get one of the top opening dice rolls. Scrabble suffers from the same problem -- you can just click away until you get lots of Xs and Qs in your letter-set.

Still, my hat is off to Hasbro Interactive for realizing that e-mail can be a more compelling interactive gaming environment than the Internet. Multiplayer real-time games are exciting, but require commitment, time and connection. These games are much better for the majority of us that are looking for a simple way to stay in touch and have fun with far-flung family and friends. The ability to attach a short message to each turn makes the social aspect even stronger.

And it lets you play your favorite games even when your local family and friends won't play with you. My Fresh Gear co-host Sumi Das loves Scrabble, but no one will play with her. Now she's got an outlet.

And it's a good object lesson for software and Internet developers. Sometimes a relatively low-tech, but almost universal implementation can be better than all the whiz-bang technology in the world. These e-mail games have the potential to bring people together in a fun and exciting way that's more powerful than a server full of 3-D avatars.

I just hope Hasbro can fix the nagging problems these games have before the next round. Imagine playing Monopoly, Risk, Clue and golf by e-mail. These multi-player e-mail games are going to be even more exciting.


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