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. 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 ofapart 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!