Winona Ryder plays a hooker with a penchant for Shetland ponies, off on holiday with her sister (Phoebe Cates). The plane is shot down and they’re forced to struggle through the jungle clad only in lingerie. They are caught by a band of renegade Nazis, led by Nastassja Kinski…

Fantasy? Yep. But those with active imaginations can get the dream closer to reality – through a game called ‘Movie Mogul’, for a few quid a week, you too can be a Hollywood producer.

Movie Mogul is a Play-by-Mail game, or PBM for short. For those unfamiliar with this concept, a short introduction may be useful (I’m tempted to say that Play-by-Mail games are games you play by mail…). Almost any game with well-defined turns can become a PBM. Chess is a good example: send a move to your opponent, he posts his response back. ‘Diplomacy’ is another: turns go to a central controller who resolves resulting conflicts. The intervals between turns make it easy to engage in the mutual plotting, conniving and back-stabbing which are the game’s core.

PBM’s have been around for a while – probably, almost as long as mail – and a mini-industry has sprung up running them, ranging from bedroom amateur to seriously professional. They had a phase of popularity in the late 80’s, led by “It’s a Crime!”, which achieved notoriety as players played the parts of mob bosses and “won” by ordering their gangs to mug, rob and push drugs. This is one example of a game invented specifically as a PBM: most such fall into four categories: war; role-playing; space exploration; and sport simulations (such as fantasy football). However, Movie Mogul is really rather unique, which is why it’s appearing in TC.

Players in Movie Mogul run film production houses. Each turn, they can send in a film plan: 300-400 word synopsis, cast list, and budget breakdown. These are processed with the help of a computer, generating simulated box office figures based on genre, budget, certificate, stars, director, etc. You get back results showing how well everyone performed their jobs, plus a booklet containing all submitted synopses, press releases from the players, and a table giving summary data for every film. How to “win” is to a certain extent up to you: some want box-office smashes, others critical acclaim. The choice is yours, Emma Thompson or Sharon Stone?

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Firstly, you start with just one million dollars, and rapidly learn that even low-grade stars like Tom Berenger want a minimum of $500K. The first few movies, you’ll end up directing and acting in yourself, simply because you can’t afford anyone else. However, lack of budget is no barrier to imagination or invention! It’s nice the fantasy actors seem to have no scruples: hire Roseanne Barr & Traci Lords to wrestle in mud, and they’ll do it (for a price).

The major problem is other people. You want Winona Ryder desperately, but let’s face it, who doesn’t? If another producer offers her more, it’s bye-bye Winona, hello Pia Zadora. Rule #1: “There’s always someone with more money”, and it is a problem that if outbid, a replacement choice is automatically selected for you, and might not match your mind’s eye. Oddly, you can state backup directors and writers in case your top choice is unavailable, but can’t do it for actors. And the choice of crew seems odd: I’d rather be able to specify soundtrack composers than editors, though it has to be said, my knowledge of technical credits has certainly improved – “Adam Greenberg? Oh, yeah, cinematographer on the Terminator movies”.

In any case, other people are also half the fun, with sincerity, openness and honesty every bit as common as in Hollywood: studios happily snipe at each other in press releases, under the guise of anonymity. Plus, there’s no reason why your mogul’s name has to be the same as your real one: my company, Channel 83, is run by the irrepressibly psychotic Max Renn. It’s made 40 films, has a bank balance around $250m, and aims towards the ‘exploitation’ end of the market.

Basically, it’s a game for those with imagination, though if you’re short of ideas, you can ‘buy’ the rights to books, TV series, or just about anything else, and turn it into a movie. The potential is there for enormous profits – or enormous losses, the live-action version of ‘Aeon Flux’ is still spoken of in the same way as ‘Ishtar’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’. Initially, the challenge is provided by the limited assets at your disposal, but eventually this really ceases to be significant. The main problem is then the struggle to come up with fresh ideas: difficult though it is to believe, there is a limit to how many times one can portray Emmanuelle Beart having strawberry cheesecake licked off her. And originality is valuable: while standard action fare does ok, most big hits come from ideas not so much in left field, as sitting in the top deck of the stands.

This barely scratches the surface of the game: also involved are things like investment, advertising, long-term contracts, film festivals, etc. I’ve been playing for over a year and haven’t sussed out how it all fits together; Channel 83 have just come through a nightmare period of four total turkeys in three months, so I guess I still have a lot to learn. The entire universe is at your disposal – I’m still trying to work out the plot involving Nastassja, Winona, Phoebe…oh, and the blancmange too, of course. See you in Hollywood.

[Contact Andrew Perry, 55 Martley Road, Worcester, WR2 6HG. Send an SAE for info, or if you’ve already been convinced, £5 gets you the necessary rule-books, cast/crew list and first turn. Further turns cost from £1.50, depending on synopsis length and other options you select]