Master of Orion - just a poor copy of Civilization or an independent game? The opinions differ extremely. There is hardly anyone who thinks it is mediocre. Either you hate it or you love it. As everbody can assume, I belong to the second group (else it would be in a different category). I'll explain why.
Master of Orion is build on the same basis as Civilization. Just that it takes place in space, i.e. in the future. As an immortal dictator you guide a race to become the dominant one. It is pure social darwinism.
First you choose one of ten pre-built peoples. It is not possible to edit them or even create a completely new one. Each race has its specific (dis-)advantages. In order to design the races, the designer have obviously taken animals as models. Both viewable and regarding content known creatures can be found. Apart from humans there are kinds of cats, ants, reptiles, birds of prey and bears. The respective abilities are easy to follow. Birds of prey are of course good at attacking, while ants are especially productive because of their society.
Beside these there are two other races that belong to the humanoid branch of evolution. In contrast to the trader and diplomat race of the original humans, the one is a race of scientistes and the other ones are master spies. Besides there are the obligatory cyborgs. One single difficult to imagine life form remains: a kind of mineral creature. These live in fusion with the planets and they are therefore shapeless.
Up to five of the not chosen races of course appear as enemies.
You begin with just one single planet, two scout ships and a colony ship. Around the home world there are other unexplored solar systems. In order to decide which ones are capable to be settled on you send you fleet to explore. If you have found a fitting planet you just build a colony there. Now the whole planet belongs to you because it is not subdivided into different regions. You expand this way until all planets are settled in the end.
On each planet live from one to several hundred million colonists. Different from Civilization, different things can be done at the same time (just like in reality). You also do not build single buildings or structures, what would be ridiculous on whole planets anyway, but you divide the working force in the sections ship building, defense, industry, ecology and science. That is done by simply adjusting some bars on the main screen. All values are relative, so that if the overall productivity changes (because of more factories or colonists), you do not have to adjust them again. Of course it is also possible to cut down one section to zero, e.g. if you do not need new ships at the moment, or if you want to stress another one.
The planets not only differ in the level of development, but also in their natural prerequisites. There are 13 different basic types, from earth-like through deserts to toxic or even radiated planets. You can only settle each with the right technology. Beside that their usefulness is modified by the factors mineral richness (increased productivity) and possible artifacts (more effective research).
But as the game takes place in a future where technology is almighty, possible disadvantages can later be balanced out, so that in the end there are only (almost) perfect planets. Only the mineral richness cannot be changed by technology.
One special planet is the same in every game: "Orion". According to the story it was once the seat of the galactic government. Then this empire fell. So now it is "just" a very huge, very fertile and very mineral rich planet full of artifacts. Unfortunately, this planet is guarded by the so-called "Guardian", a single space ship with special technology that attacks everyone who comes near this planet. When you have defeated this guy, you can colonize "Orion" like any other planet.
Now we have reached one main point of Master of Orion. The negotiations with the other leaders play an important part. It is impossible to win the game if you just attack all the other fractions.
Instead you can really take profit out of good relationships. There are several possibilities of positive interaction. You can haggle about technologies and establish trade routes which increase you annual income. For military safeness you can sign a non- aggression pact or with especially good friends even an alliance. The computer-operated enemies will not just "forget" these contracts like in so many other games. If they break them, they will announce it and they will have good reasons. If you for example gather a large fleet on the border, although you have a non-aggression pact, the enemy will get suspicious and he will not hide that but he will pressurize you.
Apart from these official contracts there are other ways of positive and negative care. Being inferior you will more likely act slimy and donate money or technologies, while a superior power can also threaten and demand things. You can for example ask another race to break its alliance with a foe and you offer technology for that. All these possibilities are excessively used by the computer, what makes him a tough opponent.
The question how the sympathy for another race is, is answered by a self-explaining bar (red-green). Reactions to proposals become quite easy to follow by that, so that you will not propose an alliance to the hated enemy because you misinterpreted the situation.
Furthermore, espionage belongs to the section of diplomacy. It is handled by simple bars, again. You comfortably adjust the wanted level of defense and actions against other races. It is possible to both take action against certain planets like inciting rebellions and to do simple spying for techology. Active spies in other empires also bring you current information about the other races. So you get to know about alliances, wars and which technologies the enemy owns. This information is very useful to judge the situation, just like the diagram that shows the power situation in different categories.
Here you have to distinguish between space and ground combat. If you want to conquer a planet, you send a space fleet first. A battle between this one and the defender's ships with possible planetary missile bases takes place. This fight is decided in a simple tactical sequence. The planet's surroundings are divided into squares, in which the ships move around turn-based. As special "terrain" there are asteroids fields, which cannot be flown through and which partly destroy missiles. A bit tactical skill is needed, but mostly the technologically superior will win.
The used space ships are by no means standard models, but they are designed by the player. In four basic sizes you install engines, targeting computers, weapons, jammers, shields and more extras. Therefore it is possible to both build huge ships that are almost invincible and masses of specialized ones.
When you have gained air superiority over a planet, you can either just bomb until everything is destroyed or dead, or you send ground troups in order to keep infrastructure and industry, so that you can use it yourself. The term "people's war" is taken literally here because instead of armies the colonistes fight, so that millions die. The ground combat is just calculated, you cannot intervene. Technological advance plays an important part here, either.
This is the second main aspect of Master of Orion apart from diplomacy. Like at the planetary production, you can (in contrast to Civilization) research several things at the same time, since there are six technology fields: computers, construction, force fields, planetology, propulsion and weapons. You choose a goal out of each which are researched parallely. Again, it is possible to stress one field or different ones, e.g. if you are in desperate need of the latest energy cannon.
Everything comes to science in the end. Without technological advance, it is impossible to win. That is especially evident in space combat. A single modern ship can easily destroy thousands of the first models.
Handling, comfort and random events
The menus are extremely clear and effectively built. Almost everything concerning planetary management can be done from the main screen. For every other section there is respectively another screen that is again as easy to use.
Often there are cross-references which take routine work off the player's shoulders. E.g. when you discover a new robot technology which lets you build more factories, you can use it in your whole empire immediately with just one click, instead of ordering every planet to do it individually. That makes the handling much easier and the game is not interrupted that often.
From time to time there are random events. These sometimes only effect one planet, but sometimes the whole galaxy in a positive or negative way. From simple money donations
to space monsters everything can happen.
Winning the game
There are two ways. Either you rely on the military and erase all other races. You automatically win by that. But it is more elegant to be elected as the leader by the so-called "High Council". This council gather from time to time and it only serves for this one purpose. Each race's leader has votes proportional to the population which he can give one of the two candidates (the leaders with the most votes). Abstaining is possible, either. For tactical reasons it is even often the case that you do not vote for yourself, in order not to annoy another fraction.
If a candidate reaches a 2/3-majority, he is elected. The player does not have to subordinate himself to this. If he is the militarily superior, but all the other leaders have conspired against him, he can withstand. In this case war is declared on him by the so- called "New Republic" (an alliance between all the other races) immediately. Diplomacy is disabled then, this war will be fought until the end.
Master of Orion is my favourite game ever. The sybiosis between comfortable handling, accessibility and nevertheless enormous depths and motivation to play it again cannot be found in this compressed form anywhere else. Not even in its sequel which does feature some detail improvements indeed, but in some points (planetary structures) it is a step in the wrong direction. Of course, some things could be better (more diplomacy options,...), but we have to be satisfied with what we have. And that is genious!
MoO! Yes, you heard me right… MoO! If you were a DOS gamer in the 90s, you knew the term and you knew it well. Master of Orion, or MoO, was the definitive 4x game of its time. In fact, according to Wikipedia, Alan Emrich coined the 4x term [explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate] "in his September 1993 preview of Master of Orion for Computer Gaming World."
Yes, you can thank MoO for the "4x" term… it was and still is that good. True, all of today’s 4x are immensely more deep, but you can’t fault MoO for being first.
So what is MoO? It's a turn-based strategy game set in space, where you explored planets, expanded your empire by settling planets, exploited the planets' resources to make war machines and then exterminated your opponents… hopefully with a Death Ray or by lethal BioSpores. The 4x formula that addicted so many of us.
MoO set standards for the 4x genre. There were other, older 4x games, but none that fulfilled the little conqueror in each of us. MoO took us to new heights with its research trees (ala Civilization), its economics, customization of starship loadouts, and unique gameplay that made the game so much more than just a turn-based strategy game.
MoO sets you out at first with just one colonized homeworld, a colony ship and two scout ships. You need to quickly start a strategy of what nearby star systems (planets) to send colony ships to, and what technologies to research in order to expand your empire. You can win the game by two methods. First, you can wipe everyone off the map. Second, you can win their hearts and get voted supreme ruler. The way to go about accomplishing either is much more complicated though. You'll have to wage war, make alliances, conquer and maybe even concede planets, stay competitive with technology and expand… all at the same time.
MoO gives you a lot of control of the design of your fleet. You can choose the size and the look of the starships based on a variety of hull designs and, depending upon your levels of research, choose different modules like shields, lasers, photon torpedos, sensor systems, fuel pods and other numerous technologies. The mix is almost unlimited in options especially with the largest of ships that can hold hundreds of modules, though to afford the largest ships you need to have a good-sized empire with a lot of revenue. If you have a lot of modules on a large hull it’ll take you awhile to build them. Sometimes having a hundred fighters acting as one large ship can easily outmatch any foe.
One of the ship types critical in the early part of the game are colony ships to settle planets and expand your empire. Many planets are like your homeworld and easily colonized, but not all planets are like your homeworld. You have to research specific colony modules in order to colonize particular worlds, like Radioactive and Tundra. The types of planets you can easily colonize depends upon the race you play and you’ll need to colonize as many planets as you can. Planets and their population is the basis of your tax revenue, construction times and defending/invading forces. Each planet type can only hold so many colonists, but with the right research you can turn a barren wasteland into a very productive world.
The research tree is varied. Computers, weapons, shields, planet improvements, sensors and so on. There’s nothing like getting the new photon torpedos to wipe out your enemy! Of course in order to remain competitive you can’t just research weapons and shields, you’ll need to research planetary and industrial improvements and other technologies. If you don’t research clean technologies you might turn your Utopia into a wasteland… You don't have to research everything though… you can always steal it by way of espionage! Just be careful of sending in your spies, because if the race you’re stealing from finds out, war could be imminent.
The battles are turn-based, and offer either quick computer-controlled auto run-through or taking manual control of your ships yourself. Massive battles of dozens of ships fighting each other can take only a few moments to play out on auto, so manual might be the way to go if you want a drawn-out battle. Also if you’ve selected the computer controlled auto run-through the computer wouldn't fight smart sometimes, like bombing a colony for only 1-2 damage while the starship is being attacked by fighters. You can always retreat to a nearby colony though, which comes in handy once you encounter the almost invincible Guardian ship at Orion… the best planet on the map that offers 4x research.
Once you’ve vanquish an enemy armada defending a planet you’ll have to send in troop transports to secure it. If you’ve got bombs or chemical/biochemicals you can wipe out a planet’s population without having to send in the troops, or at least soften the defending forces. Ground wars aren’t very interesting though, which is where the game falls a little short of perfection. An invasion screen shows two armies on either of the side slowly battle out for supremacy, but there’s nothing for you to do but sit back and be a spectator or skip to the end. I typically did the latter. You can research specific technologies that can help your troops win during the battle, like armored exoskeletons and better weapons and shields.
Alliances aren’t needed, but can be very helpful especially if who you’ve allied with is more powerful than yourself. Alliances afford you the luxury of knowing who isn’t (usually!) going to invade your weak spots and also as a secured income from trade, though trade can exist with non-allies. Being allied with enough races might win you their vote during the great galactic counsel thereby winning the game through diplomacy.
Throughout the game some random massive tragedies can happen to your empire, just to spice up the game. One of your colonies could be in danger of their sun going supernova if a technological solution isn’t researched in time, or all of your research could be lost due to a super computer virus. The last time I played the game my utopian super-world turned into a toxic wasteland due to a global catastrophe, not fun when you’re knee-deep in a bloody war with an adversary. The bright side is that this can happen to any race, so your might foe might have a streak of bad luck allowing you a moment of opportunity.
MoO captured a lot of people's hearts back in the early 90s, and set the standard for 4x games in general. Even today's 4x games incorporate most of MoO's features. You’d be hard pressed to find a strategy game today that doesn’t take its cues from this gem.
You can't call yourself a true DOS gamer until you've played MoO. If you haven't played MoO yet, treat yourself to the experience of playing the original grand-daddy 4x game. And watch out for the Space Crystals…
Considered to be one of the best 4X strategy games of all time, Master of Orion caught me complete off guard when I first played it. Being a big fan of many Microprose games, I really should have known better, however, I had never heard of the actual developer SimTex at the time. Having played this at my cousin's place shortly after its release, I quickly saved up to buy it for myself, and dumped a great many hours into it for the coming years. I still have my original boxed copy to this very day.
Master of Orion laid the ground work for many, many 4X games to follow over the following years, and its influence can be indirectly felt to this very day.
Throughout play, there are interactions with other races initiated by the player, or by the computer AI. There is also a news network which occasionally pops up to make announcements of various events happening around the galaxy. Some events would be disasters or fortunes happening to the player, or any of the other races, an anomaly of varying intentions entering the galaxy, a star potentially going supernova, or various other events of various types.
In all, the game had a lot of little things going on, especially for its time. It really helped immerse the player in to the theme of the game.
Presentation is all menu driven, and resolution was nothing spectacular for the time. A primary window displays the galaxy map and can be scrolled through in any direction up to its borders.
All actions are executed via point and click, with most requiring entering a menu of some sort. This would likely never be an issue to anyone who is a fan of strategy games, so it worked just fine, and I actually felt right at home with it myself.
Graphics surely didn't blow anyone's top back in its day, however, there are some nice displays of the various races when in contact with them. Aside from these, the icons used to represent ships and such are adequate, but nothing jaw dropping.
This game relies solely on its addictive gameplay, and very, very little on its graphical fidelity. It knows what it is, and it's fantastic at what it is.
Sound in the game is fairly well done. Taking advantage of sound cards for sound effects and music. It was basically on par with various games of the time, if not maybe just a little behind in terms of audio quality. Certainly not a detractor to the game in any way whatsoever though. Even to this day, the sound has a charm all its own.
Controls are mostly reliant on the mouse and some keyboard shortcuts. Depending on the machine it was run on at the time, the controls ranged from very clunky, to minorly clunky.
The controls are not lightning fast responsive, and sometime feel almost laggy. They certainly could have been better, however, a person would typically get used to them, and would be totally unnoticed after a short session of playing. They are not broken by any means, they simply could have been a little quicker in terms of response.
The name Master of Orion these days, is likely known by people who never even played the game at any time in their lives. That is the scope of the effect this game has had since its release in 1993.
Any fans of 4X games are surely aware of its existence, at the very least. Having opened the door for what is arguably, a bigger and more influential game in Master of Orion 2, this is a game that deserves all the praise it gets, and should most definitely be played by any fan of strategy games.
This review would have been 3 or 4 times its length had I really dug in to what makes this game so special. A must have, and an incredibly high recommended game.