Master of Magic review
Mater of Magic (MoM) is a 4x strategy game published by Microprose in 1993. It’s a turn based game that mixes deep 4x strategy with tactical combat and throws in some RPG elements. The result is an addicting and awesome videogame that many tried to emulate but it’s still unsurpassed.
Imagine a videogame that mixes Civitlization 4x strategy with King’s Bounty or Heroes of Might & Magic tactical combat. There are many amazing mechanics right? MoM merged them and it was done right. But don’t get confused, this videogame is much more than just a Civilization clone and far from the HoMM gameplay too. It’s a totally new experience.
The game is truly deep and it’s worth to read about it (I also added a small FAQ to describe each magic realm and some mechanics):
- Well implemented 4x mechanics:
- eXploration: is more interesting than in Civilization because you can explore monster lairs.
- eXpansion: you can settle new cities but you should also expand by taking neutral cities, there is not penalty at all (in recent Civilization, city states can be conquered too but usually it’s better to influence them or trade).
- eXploit: you can gather gold and food to maintain regular troops but you can also gather mana to maintain spells and fantastic units unkeep. The “industrial” production goes to building stuff, population growth or gold. But in MoM “exploiting” resources is no so relevant to win a game.
- eXterminate: it’s very likely you end fighting and conquering enemy cities to avoid getting exterminated yourself.
- The player chooses/customizes a Wizard on game start, the most important choice. Meta-game wise, it serves the same role as a civilization or an empire in other 4x games. In MoM, most of the game spell researching possibilities will depend on the wizard books. You can also choose “empire-wide picks” to focus on a strategy (same as race picks in Master of Orion 2). The result is that every game is very different as the chosen wizard deeply affects strategy, more even than on Civilization games.
- Spells are the core aspect of the game and these cover every 4x aspect:
- there are spells to help you exploring, to help cities grow more quickly, to gather more city resources, to directly attack/protect a city or units both overland or on combat, to buff units or to summon fantastic units.
- the spells are divided on magic realms and you can freely choose books for them. This opens various strategies as you choose just one color to boost a realm strength or “go rainbow” to be more versatile.
- there is a special realm, called arcane, whose spells are common and usable to all wizards.
- One strong point: the production or research aren’t so important in Master of Magic. In other 4x you just win by outproducing and/or outresearching your rivals but, in Master of Magic, making good use of spells and units is the key to win.
- There are two planes, like in Stranger Things, and your units can travel between them. The “normal” world is called Arcanus. The other plane, what you’d call upside down in Stranger Things, it’s actually called Myrror. Myrror is more dangerous but also there are better rewards so it’s worth to explore and conquer.
- Tactical combat is fun. It’s slightly slow paced as in K’B / HoMM but it’s interesting as you can both attack with troops and heroes and/or cast spells for offense, defense and summoning. I find spellcasting is better in MoM than the other two mentioned games.
- As in HoMM and K’B, Master of Magic heroes can earn experience and get stronger. They can also equip items. The difference here is that every Master of Magic hero is unique and special, instead of being mostly generic. There are various tiers and the most powerful heroes are called champions.
- All units can be buffed by using spells: read more.
- Instead of technologies, the player can research spells. This means there are no passive bonuses from research. The player must proactively use any researched spell. The ultimate spell, Spell of Mastery, allows the wizard to win the game when casted but it’s costly.
- There are no civilizations. The main game “entity” is a Wizard instead. But, to customize cities, there are many races.
- City unrest is related only to the city size and the starting race’s penalty. It can be suppressed with buildings and unit garrison. There are no empire-wide penalties to expansion.
- There are various useful strategic resources: Nightshade to protect the city, Mithril and Adamantium to build better normal units and get more power, etc.
- As usual on 4x games, there is diplomacy too, but it’s weak, secondary. Rival wizards are going to hate you as soon as you share same continent, get stronger or banish an enemy wizard.
- The AI is fine for a 4x and it can challenge the player on higher difficulties. It tends to harass the player by using nasty spells.
- There are only 4 wizards on same game and a wizard can lose if they lose their magic fortress. But if the wizard is powerful enough, he/she can cast an spell to come back to game.
I consider Master of Magic a flawless gem as it’s for sure the best fantasy 4x game ever done and it’s almost perfect. The gameplay is fine as is.
There are just few balance issues that are addressed by fanmade patches to make MoM a perfect experience. I’ll talk more about later, but for know, let’s enumerate them:
- Spell balance issues: There are some balance issues with spell costs and unkeeps, and some magic realms are just weaker than others.
- AI issues: AI plays dirty as abuses some mechanics and spells. Also, the AI has problems when facing spells like wall of darkness, dealing with flying or invisible units, defending walled cities and it can just cheesed to death by using fast ranged units.
- Race balance issues: Some races are mostly worthless (bad units, no magic weapons, few buildings so bad magic or research) and other races are good on everything.
- Hero balance issues and other unit balance issues: fantastic units are too weak for their cost and heroes are easy to kill and un-useful when low-tier.
- Item balance issues: it’s the less relevant problem.
- Mechanics issues: diplomacy is unpolished and broken.
- General bugs: version 1.31 is polished enough to be playable totally fine but there are some minor bugs and there are many fanmade patches to address them.
- Graphics: the game art for portraits of wizards and heroes looks very good but, in the other hand, the overland sprites (terrain, units) just never were good.
Those issues are addressed/solved in fanmade patches. I recommend the Aureus Mod as it’s the best balance mod, it carefully fixes every balance issue without changing the game as other patches/mods do. It still feels Master of Magic but better.
In Heroes of Might and Magic games, the focus is set on the units. Few endgame spells, the best tier units and ranged units are going to win games. Everything else is not relevant. The hero just serves to empower them or to support with spells.
In Master of Magic, endgame units or spells are not so important. Any spells can prove decisive on battles. You can also win with “any” normal units if buffed and experienced enough. You can just win battles with any properly equipped hero too, given it’s a champion or it’s low tier but very experienced. Of course, high tier units and high tier heroes are more likely to have natural defenses to resist enemy attacks, but in MoM, slingers, hell hounds and other “low-middle tier” units win games.
Why to play?
If you like 4x strategy games like Civilization or you enjoyed other fantasy turn based games like Heroes of Might and Magic, then it’s likely you’re going to enjoy Master of Magic. The game is still very alive today as there are many players that never quited playing this game and it’s still being patched and modded by fans. Yes, more than 25 years later.
MoM OST, negative theme:
How to acquire
You can buy Master of Magic in gog.com and it’s cheap and totally worth every penny without discount. The gog version is the lastest official update (1.31 for MSDOS) and also it comes with the manual and spellbook in PDF format, which are worth a look into if it’s your first time playing this game. Of course, it includes DOSBox.
Master of Magic patches
The game has only been released for PC (MSDOS). The last official patch is the 1.31 for the vanilla game. It’s a fine game, but some fans chose to develop various mods and patches and those are good enough to be recommended over Master of Magic 1.31:
- Aureus Mod (aka MoM 2.0): a mod focused on rebalancing MoM without tweaking gameplay too much. Aureus did it right, it still feels MoM but just better. Download here or read this thread.
- Insecticide (aka MoM 1.4): This patch is focused on bugfixing 1.31, improving AI and added few UI improvements. It’s made by Kyrub and the last stable version is 1.4n (up to 2019). It’s very popular between MoM fans. Bad side, I find the AI more annoying and the patch brings it’s own new bugs. More info in the Insectecide patch thread.
- Master of Magic 1.5: This patch is an update over Insecticide. It has the same focus as Insecticide patch and includes it but it fixes new Insecticide-only bugs and includes it’s own stuff like a new diplomacy system. Download Master 150 here (Caster of Magic is there too).
- Caster of Magic: This is an actual mod, as it tweaks gameplay more deeply, adding spells and tweaking everything else in the game. The diplomacy is almost same as in patch 1.5. More info here.
- Psyringe’s Lush In-Game Help Text (PLIGHT): This is a patch focused on severely improving ingame texts (this includes adding new UI text to improve it). I’d recommend it to new players for sure. Last version is v0.7 and you can download PLIGHT from this thread.
- Implode’s MoM Multiplayer Remake: An awesome open source project that deserves some serious love. It’s a totally new game, remade in java from scratch, still unfinished.
- Multi-player hotseat MoM shell: an interesting approach was to implement hot-seat.
The job that fans made is amazing considering that the game totally lacks mod support and they had to rely on reverse engineering.
It’s interesting how Master of Magic is still played and even fan patched by today. This, of course, wouldn’t guarantee any future for the franchise as it’s going to need a sequel or remake some day to keep future generations interested. But there are some news regarding the Master of Magic IP.
To the date (summer 2019) the game IP is in hands of a mobile company (https://trademark.trademarkia.com/master-of-magic-86488759.html) but it seems abandoned and Atari, back from the dead, could be requesting it again.
If the trade mark finally goes back to Atari, it’s possible that there is a reboot on the franchise some day. Who knows? We could finally have Master of Magic 2.0… Just let’s hope they don’t try to make it “modern-friendly” like it was done in the Master of Orion remake.
Games like Master of Magic
I’ll mention some games that are also fantasy turn based 4x:
Age of Wonders: clearly inspired on MoM, the game has been quite a success as it spawned several sequels and expansions. You can acquire it on steam and gog.
Worlds of Magic. This game was kickstarted and released as an early access for 40$ but it’s buggy and it was never completed.
Warlock, Master of the Arcane: this game is also slightly inspired on MoM but it’s more near to Civilization: it dropped the tactical combat for the strategic map combat of Civilization. It’s in Steam. There is a sequel (Warlock 2: The Exiled) which could be worth checking.
Elemental, Legendary Heroes: made by Stardock, it’s a remake of Elemental, Fallen Enchantress which is a remake of the critized Elemental: War of Magic game. It’s have a totally different feel.
Endless Legend. Well, this game isn’t like Master of Magic neither Civilization. Instead, it’s an interesting and totally new fantasy 4x videogame of great quality. It has it’s own mechanics and stuff and it’s totally worth it.
Other titles that may be worth to look into: Eador, Sorcerer King, Planar Conquest.
Master of Magic is another timeless PC classic and for sure the best 4x strategy game ever done. It was truly advanced for it’s time, very complex and deep. It’s something still amazing today.
Let’s wait for the day that the Unofficial Rally Point announces the true Master of Magic 2. Until then, just go back to Arcanus.
Master of Magic mini FAQ
Moved to FAQ.
Read more in the mini FAQ.
- Every race is different: they have special perks (flying, lucky, thrown, …) and also bonus/penalties to growth, production, food and power-per-population.
- The buildings you can create on the city depend on the city race. It’s not affected by research.
- Every Wizard chooses a starting race, but they can conquer cities of other races and build more afterwards. The only penalty is some unrest on those conquered cities (which depends on the starting race compatibility).
- Some races start in Arcanus and other races start in Myrror. And it’s random, you aren’t guaranteed to have access to all races on every game.
Spell balance issues
- Boost-able combat spells are too powerful when considering cost-effective: heroes are costly to rise (time wise) but very easy to kill with them.
- Fear is a broken mechanic (useless).
- Some item powers are also broken: chaos and invisibility.
- Death realm is a rather weak magic school. Life could look weak too, but at least there you got healing, some buffing for your normal units and other useful spells.
- Cracks call is a bit overpowered and it makes Nature scary (it’s very dangerous against heroes).
- Spell of return is a bit costly, taking over an fortress is an overpowered strategy.
- In general, there are some balance issues with spell costs and unkeeps.
- AI is not very good when needs expanding on other continents.
- AI tends to heavily spam units as soon as it grows enough. That can throw the player into a attrition war.
- Also it tends to use guerrilla tactics like throwing a boosted spell against your hero and flee (defender always have initiative), many times one-shooting your hero.
Race balance issues
Some races are mostly worthless (bad units, few buildings) and other races are good on everything:
- Some races can’t use mithril or adamantium to boost their units.
- Some units doesn’t gain the racial bonus (e.g. breath or thrown attack on bowmen, shaman or magicians).
Hero balance issues
- Most heroes should have higher resistance to counter some spells.
- Various lowest tier heroes are almost worthless: no useful skills for overland scouting and bad at combat.
- Overall hero boosting:
- low tier heroes would benefit a lot from new skills as they aren’t meant to end game combat anyways but they can be useful early game utility.
- high tier heroes would benefit from having better stats as are expensive to maintain and too easy to kill and weak on early game.
Unit balance issues
- Multi-figure units are overpowered. Single figure rare units usually have ok attack but bad defense.
- Summoned unit balance issues:
- Mana cost and unkeep is too high.
- Some middle-tier chaos units are slightly underpowered.
- The highest tier life and death units are underpowered.
- Nature units are a little weak against magic attacks.
- Sorcery units are costly.
Item balance issues
- Some item powers are unbalanced. E.g. magic immunity, stoning, death or regeneration are too cheap, giant strength too costly to be useful, …
- Maces are slightly underpowered.
- Shields and chain mail are worse than plate: ok to buy if offered but worthless to craft when you can really choose.