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In these fast-moving times where nothing takes a break, there is one form of slow-motion entertainment that has endured: play-by-mail games. The genre refers to mail without an “e” before it, with a notable game being Duel2, a gladiatorial simulator-RPG whose aging demographic makes it more like an AARPG. Given what is currently happening with the U.S. Postal Service, Duel2 is in for some challenges, but before we go any further, we need to go back. And I mean way back to when I was in eighth grade.
The place was Tucson, Arizona, the year was 1984, and I spent my time dabbling between being a runner, a breaker, a head-banger, and a dungeon master. It was then that my friend Jeff, an avid collector of Conan the Barbarian comics, delivered some exciting news. His cousin in Tempe, Arizona, ran a company called Reality Simulations, which had just launched a play-by-mail gladiator combat game called Duelmasters. Since the general public didn’t use the internet back then, the idea of using the mail for a game was more ground-breaking than off-putting.
The initial setup involved getting a sheet of five warriors with randomly generated numbers for various stats, such as strength, speed, wit, deftness, constitution, etc. You then had 14 extra numbers to add to the stats of your choice and 10 fighting styles to choose from. This aspect felt like character creation in Dungeons & Dragons, where you have stats that lend themselves to certain characters, but instead of a thief or a wizard, you are a gladiator with a fighting style that is offensive, defensive, or a hybrid of both. Style matchups play out like rock-paper-scissors, but the right strategy can have paper crush scissors.
Once your warrior is created, you fill out a strategy sheet for each minute of a 7 round fight that includes your activity level, your offensive effort, your kill desire, the body part you want to attack, and the part you want to protect (fights can go many more rounds, even in the thousands, but your strategy from the seventh round repeats). You also choose your weapon, armor, and whether you want to try and raise a statistic or learn new skills.
A couple weeks after your turn is mailed in, you get back an 8-by-10 orange envelope with dot matrix printouts that showcase a computer-generated turn-by-turn recap of each of your warrior’s fights versus another opponent in the arena. There is also a newsletter to track the success of your warriors and team, publish quips about your opponents, and plan challenges for the next turn with the hope of becoming the arena’s Duelmaster.
In 1986, after playing for about two years, I boxed up a stack of fight sheets that could have decimated the forest population of Endor and quit to pursue bigger aspirations, such as growing my imported Goth music album collection. Life then happened: I went to college, got married, had kids, and became deeply entrenched in the console gaming industry, which included working on the launch of Sega Dreamcast and BioShock, among dozens of other titles. As the next 21 years rolled by, Duelmasters became a childhood memory of simpler times like a scene from Stand By Me.
Fast-forward to 2007 and a Google down memory lane when I decided to see if Reality Simulations was in business. It turns out Duelmasters was still active, but now called Duel2 (an online search for Duelmasters instead surfaced a popular manga series). While Reality Simulations’ site showed they had embraced the internet age, it was only so far as to post the game’s newsletters – the gameplay was still being played by snail mail!
On a whim, I called the company to see if they had my 20-year-old records on file, which surprisingly they did. They also noted that my assortment of teams (I ran about five of them) all had incredible win/loss records. Since I had an ample supply of whims, I thought it would be funny to run my teams again and surprise all the current players. Imagine the looks on their faces when a slew of teams they had never heard of appeared in the top spots of their respective arenas. Priceless! Well, not exactly priceless, but I will talk more about pricing below.
Since this isn’t Hollywood, my teams all got demolished. During my time away, a host of resources for managers to share their wisdom and evolve the game was now online, even if the game wasn’t. It was obvious I needed help to get reacclimated.
While gaming has its celebrities like Ninja, Shroud, and TimTheTatman, Duel2 has Mannequin, TUM, and Doc Steele, among others, but the main difference is that Duel2’s stars have been stars for decades. It was top veteran players who were able to provide enough tips for me to once again embrace this welcome distraction from the work anxiety that filled my head in the evening.
Although the players had gotten wiser, the only obvious updates to the game were that the envelopes were now white instead of orange and turn sheets occasionally came in different colors, albeit with the same dated gladiator drawing adorning each one to ensure they can never be filled out in public. Regardless, I plunged ahead for another two years!
After re-engaging with the community, I gathered up details about the other members through forum audits. There appeared to be about 200 managers, and of the 75 or so that responded to my audit, most were in their 30s or 40s, a couple in their 50s and 60s, and the three seated at the kids’ table being in their late 20s. As a result, forum discussions usually involve players referencing mortgage payments, unemployment, medical updates, and life as a parent. There was none of the newfangled jargon, acronyms, and toxicity that is second nature to modern day gaming communities. The biggest revelation was that there were rarely new players. Everyone I met had played since the ’80s or ’90s or returned after a long hiatus like I had, or got their own kids into playing it.
With work picking up, I said goodbye to the community again in 2008 and added the ream of paper to my previous stockpile in a folder aptly labeled “geek stuff.”
It’s now 2020, and COVID-19’s stay-at-home mandate had me doing Marie Kondo-inspired cleaning around the house, including purging old files. I then came across the “geek stuff.” Remembering I had left some money in my account, I took a refresher course on how to play which involved reading tutorials, some of which I had actually written 12 years earlier! I also reconnected with some of the managers I had audited back in the day, a couple of which are now in their 70’s. It turns out many were still playing, but this time around it did not surprise me. I also got guidance from one of them (a skilled manager known as TMM) before creating a new team and sending my turns in. Unfortunately, that first turn arrived late, which made the post office issues top of mind and required me to be quicker about submitting my turn sheets.
Even though the game has its previously mentioned website, navigating the forums and its messaging app is an antiquated molasses-moving experience that might lead you to believe Duel2 had long since been sunsetted. Updates and upgrades to the game itself are also few and far between. In many ways, Duel2 feels like a Dharma Initiative experiment kept on permanent autopilot, but that only enhances rather than tarnishes its charm.
There has been one noticeable update since my previous visit in 2008 — somebody created an external chat group using Chatzy. Chatzy looks and works like a relic from the ’90s, which is not much different than the game’s actual site. I suggested creating a new Slack or Discord channel and while some knew of these apps, a lot had no interest in learning a new program. As one member said, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Even using that dated expression was a tell sign of the age of the community. Also, since I couldn’t find a Twitter handle for the company, I just created an unofficial one this month.
Beyond all the mailed-in action, there are two face-to-face tournaments a year (one in winter, one in summer), which the small but passionate community looks forward to (the most recent F2F was done online this year due to COVID). You can check out photos and videos from past F2F events here with the most recent ones looking like a 30-year high school reunion.
If you are concerned about the cost given the current economy, there is a $3.25 base fee for each turn plus $1.50 for each gladiator you enter into combat (you are not required to run all 5). This means that it ranges from $4.75 to $10.75 a turn. What is notable about the price is that it has not changed since the game launched. Let that sink in. It’s like a rent freeze for 36 years. If that is still too much for a bi-weekly budget, there are 11 slow arenas out of the 103 that run once a month, one of which is an Advanced Arena (these are where the top gladiators go once they graduate from their regular arenas).
So what is the appeal of playing a game like this in the age of instant gratification? For me, it’s that it is not a time-consuming obsession like everything else in life, whether it’s checking my Twitter feed, all the new series on Netflix, or the hours I spend on epic games like Ghost of Tsushima. Instead, it gives me something to look forward to every couple of weeks which is exhilarating since there is not much to get excited about beyond the hope that things in the real world will get better. It is also the comfort food equivalent of Freakies (wiki it, kids).
For those who wish to take the plunge, which should appeal to number crunchers, role-players, D&D fans, and nostalgia buffs, your best bet is requesting a start-up package from RSI and then posting a note in the forums that you’re new and need help, such as which arena to request (Arena 93, Noblish Island, is great for newbies since some managers there like to provide guidance). The dinosaurs who play the game know that extinction could come at any time, so warm-blooded players that can stave off the impending ice age are always welcome. And while you might think the game has been mastered, there is still a lot of experimenting going on that keeps it fresh.
Given that the only time I discovered an actual new player, he was the son of an existing one, it is time to change that. Come find out why this game has endured and give yourself something to look forward to every other week. You will also be supporting the postal system who desperately needs it.
Stamps go on the top right corner of the envelope.
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