Playing games through the (snail) mail.
May 5, 2011 12:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in novel recreational uses of snail mail, both historically and currently. Aside from pen-palling and exchanging goods, what kind of games or similar activities take place via old fashioned letters and postcards?

When I was a kid, I used to be involved in a sort of RPG fantasy pro-wrestling league that took place via the mail. Participants would create their own wrestling characters with various attributes and backstories and mail the info to the person who ran the game. This person would compile everyone's information and simulate wrestling matches, coming up with narratives for the matches, and send out results and updates every so often through the mail. Then the participants would periodically write back to him, providing more info, starting feuds with other wrestlers, etc. It sounds kind of weird now, but it was sort of fun. I think I found out about it through an ad in a wrestling magazine.

This got me thinking - what other sorts of games and similar activities have been conducted via good old snail mail, and does anything like this still occur today? I'm guessing some people still play chess via the mail, but what else?
posted by iamisaid to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I make puzzles for my friends. I take a bunch of blank note cards, fix them together in a big square on the wall, use my (adorable) projector to trace an outline of something onto them, color them in, separate them, then mail them out as post cards over the course of a few weeks. Costs as much as a few notecards, postcard postage, and some time, but is extremely entertaining.

(Partial) result.

This is just a thing I do. I'm sure I'm not the first, but I don't know if it's a standard thing people do with snail mail.
posted by phunniemee at 12:56 PM on May 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Not a game necessarily, but I was interested to learn that Victorian-era mail was basically more like Twitter than what many people think of today as traditional snail mail. In big cities like London it was delivered 12 times a day, so the messages were short and conversational, rather than long, detailed letters. It gave those Victorian ladies a way to gossip and make plans without leaving the house. I can't find the source where I originally read that but found more on that here. Because delivery was so rapid at that time, I could see mail being put towards other uses, so you might want to research the Victorian period.

Also, pyramid schemes seem to be popular through the mail. "Send a dollar to the people on this list", etc.
posted by halseyaa at 12:58 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, chess is still played through the mail...
for a really fun take on the perils of snail mail gaming, see Woody Allen's "The Gossage–Vardebedian Papers
posted by aimeedee at 1:00 PM on May 5, 2011

let's see if the link will come through this time...

posted by aimeedee at 1:01 PM on May 5, 2011

I played some play-by-mail games with Flying Buffalo when I was younger. I can't chech their website from work, so I don't know if they still use snail mail or not.
posted by Quonab at 1:04 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, I thought of another thing. PostSecret collected (collects?) art/confessions through snail mail and published several books containing them. I could see this being applied in other ways. Kind of like an old-school wiki or something where the final result was shared with or available to the contributors.
posted by halseyaa at 1:07 PM on May 5, 2011

A long time ago I played two play-by-mail games (PBMs), don't recall the publisher, but one was a gladiatorial combat game and the other an Age of Conan kingdom-level conquest game.

I've read about Diplomacy games being conducted by postcard. Players would send their moves to a GM who would update the board.

Wikipedia has a decent article, but one wonders what isn't covered.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 1:23 PM on May 5, 2011

Not games per se...but worth a shot.

In the early-to-mid-1990s, I was a big letter writer. I was also a fan of weird envelopes and packaging. Some of the stuff I remember sending or receiving: envelopes made entirely of magazine covers, envelopes made of foil, envelopes covered in used stamps (the 'real' stamp and address area were clearly sectioned off), toast ( the mail), and a letter in a clear glass bottle (the address label was stuck on the glass).

Another thing I did was make some kind of bread using a starter that someone sent me.
posted by methroach at 1:24 PM on May 5, 2011

I used to play around with seeing what was the smallest item I could get them to deliver. It took me a disappointingly long time to think of the most obvious item, a stamp itself. I wrote the to and from addresses on the back of the stamp and put it in the mailbox. A few days letter, I get back a big plasticine envelope with my stamp-letter inside and a note from the local postmaster listing the legally allowed dimensions for a mailable item.
posted by nomisxid at 1:55 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

The old-school equivalent of "reply to all" was the Round Robin letter.
Say I and my siblings grow up and leave home. My mother writes me a letter. I receive it, and write a note with my news and commenting on her letter, tuck them both in the envelope, and mail it to my sister. She reads both our letters, writes one of her own, and mails the envelope with all three to our brother. He reads, writes, adds, and mails back to Mom. She pulls her original letter out, writes a new one, and mails the packet to me - and the loop continues, I pull my first letter out, write a new one, etc...

Also popular among school friends on summer vacation or after graduation, cousins who meet at family reunions, etc. I remember my mom doing this; they'd all met on a show choir tour of England together back in their college days.
posted by aimedwander at 1:57 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

People write epistolary novels via snail mail. The first person creates a character, and writes the other people letters in the persona of that character establishing some setting and the characters the others are supposed to play. The plot and characters cannot be discussed outside of the letters; everything develops organically. Sorcery and Cecelia (and its sequels) was written this way.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 2:10 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Years ago a friend of mine sent me a postcard with a hand drawn archery target on it and nothing else.

Then over the next six months he sent me cards with arrows on them from every stop on his European meander.
posted by jamjam at 2:26 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

A friend and I exchanged acrostics through the mail for several years. Part of the game was that the recipient had to not only solve the puzzle he received, but create a new one that was somehow (however obscurely) related to the one he received. In addition, the new puzzle had to be accompanied by the creator's deduced (or guessed) explanation of how the puzzle he had received was related to the puzzle he had previously sent.
posted by trip and a half at 2:47 PM on May 5, 2011

Methroach reminded me: The Friends of Carl will send you some of his sourdough starter for free if you send them a SASE. See the site for info about Carl and his bread. My dad says the starter works very well.
posted by Quietgal at 2:52 PM on May 5, 2011

Great Maltese Circumglobal Trophy Dash. There's contact info on the web site; you could write a letter or email asking if the organizer has historical information written up.
posted by tantivy at 3:01 PM on May 5, 2011

Wired Magazine ran a mail art contest for several years. I tried googling examples but couldn't find anything after a nominal search. Basically readers would send in unpackaged items. I remember one winner was a pink flamingo with stamps on it. I always thought that was cool!
posted by hot_monster at 3:33 PM on May 5, 2011

The Calligraphers' Guild sponsors a Beautiful Envelope Contest every year. All entries have to actually pass through the mail, there are lots of very cool uses of stamps, color, and form. Galleries here.
posted by apparently at 4:05 PM on May 5, 2011

Can Any Mother Help Me? is the story / reprint of letters sent on from woman to woman as part of a correspondence society started in 1935. Not a game, but certainly a letter activity.
posted by paduasoy at 6:13 PM on May 5, 2011

Ray Johnson, artist, founder of "New York Correspondence School."
posted by pynchonesque at 6:38 PM on May 5, 2011

Wired Magazine ran a mail art contest for several years.

Games Magazine did the same thing. The winner would get a free subscription. They'd put all manner of puzzles on envelopes, sometimes postal employees would solev them, sometims they'd just send them over.

My favorite example of mail stuff [and I am a huge huge fan of postcards and plain old letters] is something I made part of a MeFi post about way back when. Not quite a game, but the Postal Microscopical Society, still in existence, was a boon in the early days when not everyone had slides.

Some subscription libraries will actually allow you to get books from the physical library mailed to you and back. This is exactly how people who receive books for the print disabled used to get them back when they'd be getting cassettes in the mail and not digital format books.
posted by jessamyn at 6:53 PM on May 5, 2011

John Tingey's heavily illustrated book The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects relates the story of W. Reginald Bray (1879-1939), a seemingly ordinary Englishman who gained notoriety for mailing over 32,000 unusual items and autograph requests. Apparently he decided to test the boundaries of postal regulations after he bought the Post Office Guide in 1898.

Additionally, UK artist Harriet Russell sent herself letters in which she purposefully obscured her address, often requiring the mail carrier to solve a puzzle (crossword, codes, connect-the-dots, etc.) to read it. Random House published a collection of them in 2005, Envelopes: A Puzzling Journey Through the Royal Mail. It is now out-of-print, but can be found inexpensively through sites like
posted by lrrosa at 9:27 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

There was mail art. As I remember it, it was mostly a between-artists thing. They'd make small post card sized art works that included a stamp and an address and were thus deliverable, mail them to each other and get other stuff back in return. It was kind of thing back in the eighties.
posted by nangar at 10:06 PM on May 5, 2011

I was part of the IWA as well. Thanks for bringing back that memory! I was curious and googled them and looks like they are still around.
posted by adustum at 10:16 PM on May 5, 2011

A friend and I have been playing the same game of battleships for over a year now through snail mail. At this pace, I estimate a winner will be declared around about 2023.

Sometimes we play our moves in a regular letter, sometimes we get creative. Moves have also been played through the medium of Facebook, text message and writing on the beach.
posted by Helga-woo at 5:32 AM on May 6, 2011

Pretend you're secret agents and send each other coded letters.

Glue crayon/pastel nubs onto a small, slightly heavy ball. Line a cardboard box with heavy weight matte paper, and drop the ball inside. Seal and post as usual. In theory the recipient should get a nice piece of artwork created by the process itself.
posted by fix at 7:19 PM on May 6, 2011

Joining pynchonesque and nangar - I've long found Mail Art, and Ray Johnson in particular, pretty interesting. There is a documentary on Johnson called How to Draw a Bunny that's worth watching.
Another favorite of mine: about 15 years ago, a couple of artists conducted a great series of exchanges between Buffalo and Albany NY, including a "toastcard".
posted by D.Billy at 11:21 PM on May 6, 2011

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