Play-by-mail games, also called PBM or Interactive Strategy Games, are played by mail, fax, or electronically. The basic method of play can be explained easily with a simple example. In chess, players make a move and wait for their opponent to move. This can be done by mail very easily. Each makes a move, writes it down, and sends it to their opponent, who then makes his response and sends it back, and so on. It takes a while, but it's very exciting -- you have plenty of time to consider all your options, and then you get to anticipate your opponent's response. Play-by-mail games are just like this, only more complex and intriguing. You'll find yourself eagerly awaiting your postman, and you'll get something interesting in your mail. Some people find PBM to be the most challenging way to play a game.
The typical PBM game uses a system of turns. Each turn corresponds to one "move" by all players, so if you use the chess analogy, sending a move to an opponent and getting his reponse would be one "turn." However, with PBM games you generally don't send moves directly to your opponent. Instead, the PBM company (in this case Agents of Gaming, or AOG) acts as a mediator, resolving your moves and sending you reports of what happened as a result. In our case, a computer handles all the data processing, so AOG is completely impartial 100% of the time. This is known as "computer moderation," as opposed to "human moderated" games in which a Gamemaster (GM) resolves many or all interactions. Human moderation is usually reserved for role-playing games in which there are far too many actions a player could take than could be easily handled by computer.
During each turn, you send in a report to the moderator, who enters it into the computer, "runs" the turn, prints out your report and sends it to you. For most games, this happens over a two-week period (though one- or three-week schedules are available for some variants). Each such turn costs a "turn fee," which varies depending on the PBM company, the complexity of the game, the size and intricacy of the reports and orders, and other factors. Some companies charge fees which rise as turns grow in size and become more complicated (though AOG does not do this). For the most part, you'll find that you get what you pay for -- games with low turn rates usually offer very simple, small games, while higher-priced "Cadillac" games are much more detailed. (Shameless plug coming...) Here at AOG, we feel our rates are some of the best in the business. Our turn fees are fixed and don't grow with the game, and you get a lot for your money! (End of plug.)
That's Play-By-Mail Gaming in a nutshell. Doesn't sound interesting? You just haven't tried it! If AOG's PBM games don't intrigue you, there are hundreds more. Check out Paper Mayhem, a US-based play-by-mail gaming magazine, for a list of other games you can try.