Master Of Orion (1993, DOS)
The classic Master of Orion is the greatest space 4x strategy game. It was developed by Simtex, released in 1993 for MSDOS and it’s an inspiration for other 4x games.
Don’t confuse it with the remake released in 2016, which directly took it’s name (without number), pretending to be a reboot or confuse the players into thinking they remade the classic game (which they didn’t).
This is the game that MOO3 wanted to be (but they just overdid and it failed miserably) and the game MOO remake never tried (they wanted to emulate MOO2).
This game shines because of it’s simple but good mechanics, that make everything just easy and let’s the player focus on the strategy and the pure 4x conquest. There are just a few screens and the sliders, but you won’t miss anything.
- Game design simplicity at its best:
- Just move 5 sliders to control industrial production. That’s it. No need to constantly micromanage to build same stuff over and over on every planet or to rely on bad AI automation. Read more.
- Spying is just a slider too and you just get reported of results. You don’t have to manually build spies all time like in MOO2. Also it’s impossible to abuse a strong AI with 50 spies, but it’s very useful to change the tide of an early to mid game war.
- Other 4x space games, like MOO2, mimic Civilization city building as planetary facility construction but that’s just a micro-management fest.
- Small hull ship in big fleets are relevant to win wars:
- You can build hundreds of small ships cheaply, with strong firepower. But those ships have less space, so they’re lower tech and also are defensively weaker.
- In the other hand, bigger ships are sturdy, have more stuff and/or better tech, but costly to build.
- In MOO you can choose either strategy and win. In other 4x games the small and medium ship are just a step until you can build bigger ships.
- As usual on the 4x genre, there are random events, to spice up things.
- Tech development with minor randomization mechanic and slider:
- Tech tree is random. You don’t get access to all technologies by research, so every game is slightly different as that affects your initial strengths. The rest of tech can be acquired from enemy or from events.
- No single focus: tech production is shared between every type by using sliders.
- Tech breakthrough is probabilistic: no guarantee to get tech in X years, but once you reach the threshold, there is a probability that you’re going to get the tech the next year.
- You can choose between 5 techs every time:
- Choose the cheapest to get more immediate benefits or more expensive but advanced (to get a upper hand).
- New tech is unlocked to be chosen as you progress.
- Unified population transport and planet invasion mechanic, simple but great:
- No need to build population transports, just use a slider to send them to other imperial colony and wait.
- You don’t have to build and manage troop ships too. Just send population to an enemy planet and it will fight.
- Tactical combat was entertaining and I just enjoy how it’s done. I like the compact battle scenario (everything in screen) more than the spread battle scenario of MOO2.
- Ground combat is cool, very similar to MOO2. Another fine example of how to abstract something complex like ground tactical combat into something pre-calculated that’s still fun to see and quick, so player isn’t distracted too much by it.
- Ship design UI is nice, with a wide array of components to install. Choosing the right design wins the war. Game designer did a great job here.
The game is not truly flawed, but I just dislike few things:
- Race design in Master of Orion games is uninspired. Only Darlock, Meklar and Silicoid are interesting. Human are fine. The rest, underwhelming. I know those are now the game alien races but it’s just so poor…
- No ambient music loop during the game. There is music only for events and diplomacy screen.
- Graphic sprites are a bit simple and too colorful. They look ok when compared with other old games but MOO2 or Ascendancy just look better.
- AI minor issues:
- It tends to do sneak attack (send troops), on early game undefended planets, without DOW nor diplomatic penalty.
- It can be a bit annoying with its attacks (lots of fleets reinforcing a position) and, in vanilla, there isn’t a computer calculated combat resolve.
There are still some bugs in the 1.3 patch. It’s minor stuff, but they’re there unless you use an unofficial patch. You have to babysit the planet production sliders after a tech like “+10 terraforming” or when there are too much planet reports (the game doesn’t handle all the sliders in that case), but still it’s only a little bit of micromanagement.
And the game is lacking (but it could be nice to see on a MOO classic true remake, if kept simple enough):
- Diplomacy options are good but there is room for a bit more. It’s an old game, so no research treaty, no cold war, etc.
- There aren’t fancy mechanics like government types, religion, leaders, ship boarding, carrier/fighters, remote mining… Just the empire diplomacy, the spies, ground combat, the ships, the research and the planets.
- The galaxy lacks multi-planet stars, moons, asteroid belts and black holes. I can bear with the lack of +planets/moons/asteroids, but black holes are a must on any serious galaxy!
- Story. The sequels MOO2 and MOO3 tried to introduce a bit more of story, specially MOO3. Ascendancy alien race background was great too. But something more elaborate like in Endless Legend is better.
Why to play?
If you like turn based strategy games or you’re into Sci-Fi themes, Master of Orion is a good introduction to the genre. And, if you like the genre, this is likely to be the game you come back playing year after year. This, or MOO2.
I like the original MOO soundtrack when played on SB16 midi synth, but I found this other version for the Darklock theme, quite interesting:
How to acquire
You can acquire MOO classic bundled together with MOO2 in GOG. Given than both games are awesome and complement themselves, it’s great to have them bundled and the price is fair even out of sale.
If you play with gog version, just remember to press CTRL F12 half a dozen times to raise DosBOX CPU cycles to something reasonable. 3000 cycles (default) is just too low.
Version / Platform
I’m reviewing Master of Orion released for MSDOS in 1993 but patched to 1.3. I recommend to start with that version, few bugs but slightly easier.
Having a reboot for Master of Orion was amazing news but, in the end, developer never remade the original games at all, they just made their own thing, copied some stuff and took the name. They never polished enough the AI to make it interesting. And, in 4x, AI is half the game.
There is also a open source game called Free Orion but, again, it isn’t a remake, it’s something else.
In fact, all 4x space games has been inspired by MOO2, not MOO.
I don’t think there will be any new titles in the next years, not after the failure of Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars. Which is sad. But we can always go back to the classic.
Games like Master of Orion 1
If you’re interested on other 4x space games:
- Ascendancy: Awesome space 4x that innovated and did many things right, totally worth checking.
- Endless space: a good modern 4x. It’s similar to MOO 2 and it has some interesting alien species and a plot to uncover. It has a sequel.
- Stars!: Popular old school multiplayer Windows 3.1 game. Featured mining, fuel management and terraforming as core aspects.
- Space Empires IV: nice to switch off MOO, it isn’t too impressive but it has some cool things.
- Galactic Civilizations 2: the whole galaxy screen is also the tactical view, a distinct approach and popular too.
This is one of those true “one turn more” 4x games, very addicting (on the good way, the time just flies). Like Master of Magic, Civilization saga and few Paradox games (one month more).
Production value is calculated from population and factories. The resulting production is spent by sharing between 5 sliders:
- Maximize industry to build new factories.
- Maximize industry to upgrade factory controls. on spent is spread, so various level upgrades can built at once, given enough production is spent. After upgrade, the excess industry goes to build new factories.
- When industry capacity is reached, all that excess industry production goes to monetary reserve.
- Minimize ecology to keep industrial production clean.
- Excess ecology over minimum is used to increase population growth, if under the cap.
- Ecology production should be maxed to terraform the planet. Excess production after terraforming is spent on population growth.
- Once max population is reached, the excess ecology production is totally wasted.
- Tech slider gives technology points, that are divided between the tech type sliders.
- This is the fallback slider: when done with factory production, the slider fallbacks to tech development.
- There is no excess production during tech building: everything is spent on tech development sliders.
- Planetary defenses:
- Maximize slider to build shield level upgrades up to top tech level. Production spent is spread, so various level upgrades can built at once, given enough production is spent.
- When shield is at top tech level, all the excess defense slider production goes to build defense bases.
- Planetary bases can be dismantled after built. Half their value goes to monetary reserve.
- Ship building:
- Production spent on ship building is spread, so it’s possible to build many ships at once.
- Ship building is also used to build stargates. Stargate can only built once, excess production is stored to use on slider next year.
- Ships can be scrapped after built. Half their value goes to monetary reserve.
Planetary monetary reserve can be used to buy production value on any planet. When sent back to planet, it raises slider production value for the next year.
The production slider design is a just a good way to abstract something complex in a simple but effective way.
I think the MOO2 decision of using Civilization like building queues was a bad design choice that we’re still paying today. ¿A single hidroponic farm for a whole planet? ¿A single missile base? That’s fine for a city but it isn’t for a planet. If they wanted to build stuff on the planet, the right way to do it is like in Ascendancy: a surface/orbital facility, of your choice, per square. Or the sliders. Or something like the MOO3 districts.