In case you weren't around in 1993, allow me to bring you up to speed. Master of Orion (often referred to as MOO) is considered one of the greatest PC games of all time, and is undoubtably the most influential 4x game ever made. Moo served to really popularize the genre and bring it into the main stream. This game is not only a fantastically fun and artfully designed strategy game, it is immensely important to the history of PC gaming. Turn based strategy games everywhere owe at least a little something to MOO.
Though, after the third game in the series flopped--due to some really terrible design flaws--this series has been all but forgotten. And really that's a tragedy considering what this game did for our hobby. So let's right that wrong here and now!
Master of Orion was the work of the near legendary developer MicroProse. Co-founded by Sid Meier in 1982, they were behind some of the best games to come out of the 90s including the Civilization series, RollerCoaster Tycoon, X-Com, and many others. Few people who've come into PC gaming later have ever heard of MicroProse as the company was bought out in the early 90s, but in their time they completely reshaped PC gaming into it's modern form.
Back in their day, Microprose didn't just make and publish games, they invented entire genres and redefined what PC strategy gaming was. Literally every turn-based strategy game and 4x PC game ever made since 1991 owes something to Sid Meier and MicroProse. These guys were true pioneers--not to mention brilliant game designers--so it should be no surprise that a game as influential as MOO came out of their office.
Master of Orion actually started out as a much simpler and smaller game called Star Lords. The game was the work of Steve Barcia and his Texas based game developer, Sim Tex. Submitted to MicroProse in 1993, an early build of Star Lords found it's way onto the desk of Alan Emrich. At that time, Alan was a writer for a magazine called Computer Gaming World. Seeing a good article, Alan called up his old friend Tom Hughes for a second opinion.
The two were enthralled by the game's great design and depth, but saw an even greater potential. Soon, they found themselves passing on suggestions and game design ideas to MicroProse, so regularly in fact that MicroProse eventually put the two into direct contact with Barcia. As Emrich later wrote: "The telephone lines were burning regularly and a lot of ideas went back and forth. All the while, Steve was cooking up a better and better game. It was during this time that the title changed to Master of Orion and the game's theme and focus crystallized." And thus PC gaming history was made.
The original sweet looking MOO box art
Both Hughes and Emrich would get a special credit in the MOO manual, and later went on to pen the official Prima strategy guide for the game (yeah, Prima was around even back then). It's an interesting story of a chance collaboration leading to something amazing. But it's also a great example of the intense focus developers used to have on game design above all else; something that is unfortunately lacking in today's games.
Master of Orion play very much like Civilization in space, but with some key added complexities. Galaxies are randomly generated maps of selectable size which players spread out across by building colonies in each star system. Colonies act much like cities in the Civilization series, they have specific populations and production capacities, and the production of each planet can be tweaked towards a specific resource such as research, unit production, or further increasing production capacity.
There are ten separate races each with their own distinct attributes. The Bulrathi are supreme ground fighters, the Darloks superior spies, the Humans are the best traders and diplomats, etc. etc. Each race also has different advantages or in some cases disadvantages in technology; for example Humans get bonuses for propulsion and shield research.
The ultimate goal of the game is either complete military conquest or to be elected the supreme galactic leader. To accomplish the latter, one must achieve a 2/3 majority vote in the Galactic Republic, with votes being allocated based on the population of each of the empires. Elections are held every 25 years after at least 2/3rds of the planets in the Galaxy have been conquered. Should you lose the election, you can choose to ignore the ruling of the New Republic, but know that every race in the Galaxy will team up and declare an allied war on you.
It seems like a relatively simple concept--and it is--but it's the way that MOO artfully executes each aspect of the game play that gives it such incredible depth. There's never a straight forward "right" answer, every move you make will have you considering the strategic implications. The diplomatic/espionage and ship building options really add to this, and the immense tech tree just caps off a brilliant game. Though the graphics may be poor and the UI options dated, this game is still loads of fun. It may just be one of the best designed turn based strategy games ever.
The game starts out with each player controlling a single planet and three ships: two scouts and a colony ship. The first goal is to explore the surrounding star systems and found a new colony, which consumes the colony ship. Since ships cost upkeep, and those colony ships are oh-so expensive, the sooner you do this the better. At the outset, your ships can only travel up to 3 parsecs from any of your colonies, (Scouts are equipped with extended fuel tanks and can go out only to 6 parsecs) so there's likely to be only a few colonization options.
Each star system has exactly one planet capable of supporting a colony, and the different star types harbor different types of planets. There are two main type of planets, "normal" and "hostile", with the latter only opening to colonization after discovering new technologies (though the Silicoids, a race of giant rock monsters, can colonize any worlds from the start as their racial bonus). Beyond this there are sub types such as jungle, arid, terran, ocean, tundra, etc which all have different maximum population limits or require specific tech to be able to colonize.
Many planets also have bonuses like fertility or artifacts which confer population and research bonuses respectively, or they may have negatives like being mineral poor which negatively impacts their production. Since galaxy maps in MOO are entirely random, you can be forced into making some tough decisions pretty early on.
The maximum range of 3 in the early game means that you may end up having to colonize a mineral poor arid world to be able to reach the fertile terran world or world containing artifacts. You have to decide whether to rush to produce colony ships or build up production on your existing worlds. It's a race to snap up as much territory as quickly as possible without leaving yourself defenseless and open to any unfriendly neighbors.
There's one last planet to watch out for: Orion. The home of the ancients, protected by a very powerful robot called the Guardian. If you are unfortunate enough to run into it early on, it's likely whatever ships you sent there will die immediately. But much later, when you technology gets good enough, you can defeat the Guardian and reap some extremely advanced tech from the planet.
The thing that really sets MOO apart from other games is the customized unit design. In MOO, you design the ships you build; choosing from available weapons, shields, missle defenses, etc. But, the key item is that you can only have 6 different ships fielded at the same time, if you want to design a new one you have to scrap all of one of the existing 6 types. It's a bit unrealistic (you'd think an intergalactic empire could have a few more than 6 ship models), but it adds a great strategic element to the game and definitely forces you to have to make some tough choices.
There are four main chassis to choose from, small, medium, large, and huge. Each larger size has a larger space limit, but is also costs significantly more production than the last. Space is just that, how much stuff each one can hold. Each item you put on the ship, be it weapons, a battle computer, armor, engine, whatever; takes up space. As technology advances, previous technologies are miniaturized and take up less space on the ship.
This means ship design is a very dynamic process. Do you put in the latest weapons that take up a ton of space, or more of the previous generation of weapons? Do you put in missile defenses, or use that space for heavier armor and better shields?
One thing is for sure, if your ships are allowed to get too old they will become entirely useless. One ship with graviton beams can easily take out an entire armada of ships with just Gatling lasers. Picking the right moment to scrap out old ships and start producing new ones is super important. Do it too soon and your fleet will be tiny, wait too long and you'll be woefully out-gunned.
The ship design element is something simple that adds a ton of depth and strategy to this game. It's also a lot of fun, especially since you can give custom names to your ships. Who wouldn't want to fly into battle on a Destructinator?
As in Civ, production is king in MOO. BCs, or Billions of Credits, are the game unit of production, and are essentially the default resource in MOO. Each colony produces BCs, the amount being based on the size of the population and the number of factories. Empire wide expenses like espionage or bonuses from trade agreements are subtracted from and added to this number, and the remaining BCs are split up between 5 values for each planet. These are ship building, defense building, factory building, toxic waste removal, and research.
Building more factories obviously increases production, but the more factories on the planet the more toxic waste has to be eliminated. Turning down the ecology production leads to the buildup of waste, which then reduces the planets overall population; so technologies that reduce factory waste should be a priority early on, or you'll end up wasting a lot of BCs cleaning up toxic goo.
At the game's outset, each unit of population (1 million colonists) will produce .5 BCs per turn, and factories produce 1 BC per turn. Colonists are required to run factories, the game's starting technology allows 1 unit of population to run two factories each.
And this is where it gets interesting, as you can also transfer colonists between planets. If you've got a colony with a population that's in excess of double the number of factories, you should move those colonists to a less populated world ASAP as to not waste their potential. Of course population grows faster on planets with more people, so moving too many colonist could mean you might find yourself without sufficient population to support those shiney new factories you're building.
This works out absolutely brilliantly. While it may seem simple, there is in fact a ton of strategic depth built in. The result is game play with lots of micromanagement early on that slowly gives way to a more macro oriented game as time goes on. Once you have tech that allows a single unit of population to control three or four factories, you can easily dispatch 10 or 20 million colonists to that new planet without worrying too much about completely crippling the production on the planet you're moving from. Likewise, techs that decrease toxic waste production or speed up factory production mean you spend increasingly less time fretting over colony development and more time focused on the interstellar war you're probably involved in.
MOOs tech system is awesome. It's positively immense and, in an extremely cool design move, almost entirely random. That's right, each game has a slightly different tech tree. Actually, each race in each game also has a slightly different tech tree also. In all, there are some 300 technologies. But at the start of each game, the computer selects about half of them and throws out the rest. There are a few dozen key techs that exist in each game, but other than that there's not telling exactly what techs are or are not in the game.
For me, this creates an awesome amount of replay-ability. It means that each game can play out slightly differently; there's no standard strategy to build X ship by Y turn. And you have no idea what techs are missing until you actually finish the previous research, you won't for example that the Battle Computers Mk II tech is missing until you research mk I. And then maybe IV is missing too. Or maybe they're all there. That kind of on the fly decision making adds a lot of fun and spontaneity to the game.
Research is one area where MOO does get complicated, perhaps a bit too complicated. Research is driven by Research Points, which are generated by dedicating colony production to research. These research points are then divided up between the main areas of research: Computers, Construction, Force Fields, Planetology, Propulsion, and Weapons. There are also a number of sub categories for each category, you have to research at least one item in a sub category to unlock the next higher sub category.
As each tech finishes, you're prompted to select the next one to research. Each race has specific bonuses, Humans for example research Propulsion, Planetology, and Force Fields much faster than the other three techs. Other races research some items more slowly, the Klackons for instance are rather poor at researching Propulsion.
Now here's where it gets complicated, each individual tech has an associated level. Battle Computer mk1 is level one, Duralloy armor is level 10, etc. etc. You also have a level associated with your tech advancement in each category. Now stay with me, that level is determined by multiplying the highest level technology you have researched by 0.8 and then adding 1 for each technology level you have that is lower level than your highest technology. Yeah, I told you this was a bit complicated.
Anyway your tech level in each category determines how miniaturized your previously researched ship technologies will be. Each ten levels of technology above the minimum required level decreases the size of a tech by 25%. Weapons miniaturize at a rate of 50% for every 10 levels.
Got that? Probably not. Anyway, the point is that research in MOO isn't just a matter of picking the thing you need the most. Research choices have to very carefully take into account upcoming ship designs, what sub categories you want to unlock next, as well as what techs you need next for whatever you're planning.
The system is a bit too complex in my opinion, but it's definitely got some great strategic depth to it. It's certainly an interesting departure from the Civ style "what do I need right now" system of research. If you don't keep ship design and miniaturization in mind, you could be quickly screwed.
Techs can also be stolen from other races by Spies, or from you by other race's spies. If you're way far ahead in tech, you may just want to increase your empire's security (which costs BCs unfortunately). Of course if you're next door to a braniac race of super researchers, why not just steal what you need? Remember before I said each race can have it's own tech tree? Using espionage you can actually get access to techs you might not be able to research.
Attacking in MOO is done via space battles and ground battles. Ground battles are entirely out of your control, the only decision you get to make is how many colonists do you want to ship off to fight on the attacking world. Missile defenses can take down a percentage of transport ships, but otherwise it comes down to numbers and technology--except for the Bulrathi who get a huge bonus in ground battles. Take a colony in a ground battle and you can capture factories and, if you're very lucky, even technology.
Space battle are fought in a turn based format from a top-down 2D view. Not the most dynamic of space battles, but hey it was 1993 and this is a Dos game. Battles are pretty straight forward, all ships of the same kind are stacked, and move and fight together as one unit. Movement is determined by engine type, and damage is calculated based on the type of weapons and armor involved. Missiles obviously have a much longer range than lasers, but offer limited ammo and can be defended against with jamming computers and anti-missile devices.
Typical medium-sized space battle
Despite the rather plain graphical appearances, battles can at times become real nail biters. The 2D view in some ways is a good thing, it keeps battles simple and short. And given how many battles you're bound to fight in the course of a single game, I think you'll agree that it's a good thing. There is some strategy to be had though, but you won't need to be freaking Hannibal to win the game. The system actually works out really nicely.
If there are no ships or missile bases left in an enemy system, and your attacking ships have bombs, you're given the chance to bombard the planet each turn, killing colonists and factories. Kill all the colonists and you wipe out the colony entirely, leaving it open to colonization by whomever wants it.
You can also employ spies to sabotage your enemies, either inciting rebellions or destroying missile bases and factories. Though spies are probably much better used to steal tech, inciting rebellions may be useful when warfare isn't an option.
The game also has a pretty in depth diplomacy system. You can trade technologies, offer tribute, offer alliances, make treaties, threaten neighbors, and even make trade agreements. Trade is one of the most interesting aspects. Trade agreements generate excess BCs, but take a while to setup. Trade agreements actually start with an income of –30% of the treaty amount. Each turn after that, your trade income increases by +0–5%. The game manual explains that this is because "establishing trade requires an initial investment for organizing patrolled trade routes and establishing customs". Whatever the reason, it offers yet another bit of strategic depth. Building a working trade agreement takes long stretches of peaceful coexistence; something that isn't always easy when your neighbor is colonizing what ought to be your planets.
You can also use spies to sour diplomatic relations between other races. Often when stealing technology your spies will be able to fix it so another race of your choice is implicated in the theft. Just one more cool aspect of the diplomatic system (though perhaps a bit of sinister fun, fun nonetheless )
In all the diplomatic system is fun, but it's one of MOO's failings in my opinion. One of the issues with the system is that certain races start the game off being hated by the other races, and there's often not much you can do about it. The Darloks, known for their skill as spies, will be treated with suspicion by everyone in the entire game. The same goes for the Mrrshans, their set of default relationships is so bad that you'll end up in wars with half the galaxy for no reason. It makes them almost unplayable at on the higher difficulties.
And that leads me into the last bit here, the game's downsides. There aren't many, but racial balance is the one place where this game really falls flat. Each race is supposed to have a set of unique advantages that they can employ to win the game, but it doesn't necessarily work out that way. As I mentioned, the diplomatic relationship system is a bit of a mess. But some of the other benefits are a bit out of wack too. The Psilons, with their huge research bonus will, if left unchecked, become ridiculously powerful rather quickly. It takes a bit of the fun out of the game when you get 200 turns in and end up steam-rolled by an opponent simply because their bonus was better. It doesn't ruin the game, and frankly on lower difficulties it probably won't be that big of a deal. But it is a problem with the game, and needs to be mentioned.
But other than that, MOO's downsides are tiny and few. This game is really well designed. Clearly a lot of thought went into every single aspect of this game, and that's why this game has the reputation that it does.
The fact that I can pick it up almost 20 years later and spend an entire Saturday enjoying the beegeezuz out of it--even with it's pixly graphics and midi music--is a true testament to just how fantastic it really is. This is a masterpiece of game design, it looks so simple yet has such amazing depth, much more than half the "strategy" games out today anyway. It's hard not to be amazed by the myriad of choices and hard decisions one has to make while playing it.
If you have never played this game, do it. Hell, pirate it if you need to; but play it. The graphics make it look like a board game more than a video game that we think of today, but I guarantee if you like strategy games you will find yourself completely caught up in this game. This game deserves every accolade and praise it's ever gotten and more, and that's all that I can say at this point. (-edit: if you're interested in buying it, it is on GOG here)