Contrast and Comparisons of Various PBeM Play Aid Utilities

an Objective Review by Melvin Williams

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(Webmeister's Comment: This was sent to me unsolicited by Mel; the words in black normal type are his.  I liked it so much I decided to post it here-- I shy away from contrasting the current slew of PBeM aids out there on the market because I think it would compromise my objectivity here, but Mel has no such compunctions!  I thought it might be illustrative and helpful to include commentary by some of the leading PBeM playing aid programmers, so I forwarded it to them.  I received comments back from Dale Larson (Cyberboard) and Todd Zircher (VMAP).  Dale's comments are in green font, Todd's in blue.   Where Todd and Dale reference Mel's original statements, I italicize and precede the statement with a double greater than sign">>")


Thought I'd give you some feed back on my experiences so far with three of the e-mail systems I've downloaded from your web site. Maybe this will be helpful somehow.

Got the program downloaded and installed with no trouble. This system seems to work smoothly and the interface is simple enough. It has a decent web site with a small collection of well done microgame sets which serve as good examples. Unfortuantely the blank hex template included only has 23 rows and 23 columns. This is fine for microgames but leaves me baffled on how to create a larger map (my Rocroi map requires 23x28). I'm not much of a graphics artist and have minimal experience with paintbrush. The program would be even better if it included some sort of bitmap template editor. (Note: I'm not a computer genius so maybe there is a simple way to do this, if so I haven't figured it out yet.) For small map games this program seems well suited. I have a design drawn up for a simple microgame and this utility should be helpful in putting it together and even playtesting it via the web.

Todd Replies:

Mel observed:

> > I got the impression that this was V_MAPs sexier sister.

Two points for Mel to pick on that quickly. SMS and V_MAP have a number of parallel features. The biggest being that they use conventional images for maps and counters. In the sexy features race, SMS is 'winning'. (Although since both of these are freebies, the gamer is the real winner.) I got a few tricks in development though. One thing that I would love to do given time is add a read/write SMS format feature. (Knowing that we'd be limited to a common set of capabilities, I still think it would be a good thing.) The VMP file spec is already open to the public. I go into detail with the Dealer gameset so that when and if third parties what to play with it they can. [It sure helped Robert, whose's working on a Java port. And, there's a group of Warhammer fans that are interested in making a custom version for their PBEM gaming group.]

Cyber Board:
This utility seems to have some good features and at first seemed to be the best program. However, the interface was somewhat confusing and the help files are a bit lacking. After a few hours of toying with the program I am still unable to edit a map properly. For some reason I can't seem to consistently use text and colors with the drawing feature. Also, each time I attempt to place a predrawn hex tile on the map the program also paints the outside background image surrounding the hex onto the map.  In fairness, the designer does point out that this is only a beta and is being tested. But I don't understand why two seperate program downloads are required, one for the 'gamebox' editor and one for the actual play program. If the designer ever gets this thing running smoothly in one package and tweaks the interface a bit this could really be a smoking utility.

Dale Larson Replies:

The primary reason people have difficulty with CB is not understanding the model it presents of board games (GameBoxes, Scenarios and Games). The sparseness of documentation certainly doesn't help on this front. The board editor has many features and is also poorly documented which can cause confusion. Once people get the hang of CB they generally like it a lot. It's necessarily a more complicated system since it does more than many of the programs out there. I believe actually playing a game using CB is very simple and straight forward. In many respects CB is very much a "FanWare" product...I do the programming and other folks like Walt O'Hara, Pokke, Chris Fawcett, and many others provide user support. Yet another person has approached me to do a manual (we'll see if this comes to fruition). The cost in time to write manuals is considerable and the lack of manuals is reflected in the price of the program. ;) When I have time to burn I spend it doing programming.

>> In fairness, the designer does point out that this is only a beta and  is being tested.

Fairness isn't needed here since the operation of the program won't change when it is no longer dubbed a Beta release. I have to reiterate why CB even exists out in public: CB was just gathering dust on my disk and I thought some folks would like to use such the system at the cost of a little tinkering around. I warn up front it isn't commercial quality.

>>But I don't understand why two seperate program downloads are required, one for the 'gamebox' editor and one for the actual play program. If the designer ever gets this thing running smoothly in one package and tweaks the interface a bit this could really be a smoking utility.

Interesting...I offered the separate download because some people complained they didn't want to download the entire package just to get the editor program update. *Sigh* I guess I should be getting around to merging the versions. I wanted to wait until I had more minor fixes in. Note that a slightly older editor is included in the main download. This editor is fine for most users.

Dale Larson


Strategic Map Simulator:
Had a bit of trouble unzipping this one after download. Had to actually download it twice. This may be an unrelated glitch and could probably happen to any download file. Just to be safe, the author may want to remind users to check their Winzip and upgrade to 7.0 before downloading.  Once the file was loaded and unzipped it installed smoothly with the appearance of a professional, store bought program. The interface was extremely simple and the tutorial and help files were well written and easy to follow. The system runs on common graphics files including bitmaps which makes it easy for computer dolts like me to grasp and apply. I really liked the pull down dice rolling feature and felt I could jump right into an e-mail game with little hassle.  I got the impression that this was V_Maps sexier sister. But like V_Map, this program would really rock if it had a feature for designing background hex templates. SMS leaves you totally on your own at providing maps and tiles/counters.  Of the three I rate SMS as the best.

(note: Jeff Patterson did not reply)

I hope these might help. Not being too computer literate I may be missing out on a lot of features with these products but I feel that any good software should pander to newbies and be intuitive enough to be figured out. After all, I'm a wargamer, not a computer programmer. I plan on ordering ADC2 after my budget recovers from Christmas. I'll be glad to send you some feedback on that if you want it. Feel free to pass this along to the designer guys or post it in any way you see fit.  I will send you copies of any game sets I manage to design.

Thanks again.

Mel Williams