4X: Master Of Orion

On February 21, 2007, in Games, by peterb

This is the third in a series of articles about 4X games. Read the introduction here and the previous article here.

Perhaps the most well-known of the early era 4X games was Master of Orion. Master of Orion was developed by Simtex, who engendered a cult following with their overrated game Master of Magic. Orion was published by Microprose in 1993. This meant that it had real marketing muscle—Microprose was one of the giants in its day.

I’m going to talk (briefly) about all three games in the series, which might be a bit unfair, since for the most part the three games have nothing to do with one another. Life is tough sometimes. Let’s start with the first one.

Master of Orion is a very playable game. It can fairly be described as Spaceward Ho With Stuff. But the Stuff it adds is not trivial stuff, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

The basic mechanics of exploration, shipbuilding, and colonization are similar. Instead of Spaceward Ho’s straightforward “fuel unit” limitation on range, Master of Orion lets you explore any system within so many parsecs of any colonized world, which frees you up from having to micromanage your travel. This is good, because I hates micromanagement. I hates it, I hates it, I hates it forever.

The game brings a lot of color to the genre. Each team in the game is a different species, and each species has certain advantages or disadvantages. For example, the dog-like Bulrathi are more effective at ground combat, while the Psilons are superior at researching new technologies, and the bunny-lizard Sakkra hump a lot breed faster.

As in Ho!, the qualities of a world are unknown to you until you visit, but you can glean a little information from the color of the star. There are no guarantees, but certain star colors are more likely to have habitable or interesting worlds. That adds a nice bit of flavor to the exploration. In addition to suitability for colonization, worlds may provide you with a technology, economic, or other bonus.

You can spend your money in many ways. You can develop the industry on the worlds you have colonized, or their defense, or invest in technology, or build ships, or spend money on espionage. Technology and ship production are both done on a per-planet basis, which makes juggling the money a bit of a chore, comparatively. I tried collecting all of my money into a big pile and jumping into it naked, but it scared my advisors and, to be honest, it sort of chafed.

Technology research is both interesting and ponderous; the research tree branches in several places, and no given species can research all available technologies. Making certain decisions early on can foreclose other options later. When you do succeed in discovering a new technology, you get a very satisfying little splash screen where a species-appropriate scientist looks smug and explains the implications of the new find. Technologies have a somewhat rock-paper-scissors relationship to each other, so it’s entirely possible to spend many centuries chasing a certain technological thread only to find you’ve tied yourself up in knots and spent tons of resources on something useless. That’s not so fun when it happens.

Master of Orion has a much richer diplomatic game than many others. You can trade worlds, money, or technology with other species, once you’ve established diplomatic relations with them. You can bribe other races, which is a satisfyingly effective way to stave off an impending attack. You can also begin spying on them, spending part of your GDP on espionage. Once you have spies in place, you can use them to steal technology, perform sabotage, or engage in counter-espionage activities. A well-placed spy can tip the balance of a close game.

There are a few differences that make Master of Orion a bit easier, strategically. In many 4X games, you need to conquer an enemy world before you can colonize it. In MoO, if you conquer a world with ground troops, the “excess” ground troops become the planet’s native population after the victory. Thus, after the early part of the game you’ll almost never build a colony ship: bomb them from orbit, send in a huge troop transport, and you have a fully-functioning and profitable colony. Worlds can fall like dominoes in this part of the game. Especially if you’re playing as the Bulrathi.

The one part of Master of Orion that doesn’t work is the ship-to-ship combat. It’s a turn-based move-your-mice-roll-your-dice sort of affair that gives the illusion of tactical choice. In reality, there is almost no situation in which the moves you make in tactical combat make any difference whatsoever. In other words, the whole tactical combat screen is nothing more than a humiliating sham that wastes your time. There is an “auto resolve” button where you can have the computer make the moves for both sides. I suggest you press that button the first time you get to the combat screen, and forget that any other option even exists. You’ll like the game more for doing this.

So zooming back up to a high level, I view Master of Orion as a game that lifts most of the good ideas from Spaceward Ho!, and then adds a ton and a half of mise-en-scène to them. The game is an unqualified success, and is probably more attractive to those who seek this sort of game for the setting more than the game itself. If the play is a little less crisp than its immediate predecessor, we can forgive it because it has so much style.


Insert sophomoric caption here.

Hoping to capitalize on the name, Simtex released Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares in 1996. A much weaker game, MoO2 was, from my perspective, an attempt to graft the MoO mise-en-scène onto their earlier game, Master of Magic. The city-building parts of that earlier effort were shoehorned into MoO2, and it works about as well as putting a sausage inside a piece of strawberry shortcake: you might want to eat both of them, but, for the love of God, not at the same time.

The reason this doesn’t work, I think, is that there’s a fundamental difference in scope, conceptually, between running a feudal serfdom and a galactic empire. At some point, after the eighth time you’ve told some new planet to build some farms or, y’know, goddamned houses for their citizens, it stops being fun and starts being irritating. “Why am I doing this?” you wonder. “Why am I doing this for these idiots? They don’t deserve my leadership. I should just let them starve to death. Schmucks.” In fairness, there is a “governor” option, but as in most cases, it doesn’t work for me: once the game asks me to make the decision, it has asked me to care. And I can never get those neurons back.

In 2003, Infogrames published Master of Orion 3, a game so stunningly bad that it’s not even worth playing for free. I won’t go into detail here because it’s too depressing to write about. I just wanted to confirm, publically, that it really is about as bad as you heard it was. It’s actually worse. The word “unplayable” doesn’t even come close to describing it: it’s the worst game I’ve played that didn’t actually cause my computer to explode.

The original Master of Orion is clearly the best of the three: it’s fun to learn, pretty to look at, and if you don’t get bogged down in the pointless tactical combat, quick moving. It can even still be bought new at Amazon. It runs very well in DOSBox on both Windows and Macintosh.

The next article in this series is about Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations II.


13 Responses to “4X: Master Of Orion”

  1. Michael A. says:

    To my mind, MOO (the original), remains the superior 4X game of the lot. Spaceward Ho is good, but MOO adds that extra bit of chrome that makes the difference between a good game design and a classic.

    I’d disagree about the tactical combat being pointless; there were quite a number of ship configurations one could design that were extremely effective in tactical combat (but which would get slaughtered with any kind of auto resolution). IMO, the connection between research and tactical ship deployment was one of the things that worked very well in the game. The decisions one needed to make in tactical combat, though simple (basically, IIRC, mode of engagement, ranking of targets, and when to break off), could have a huge impact on the result of close battles. Being able to outplay the enemy AI in the tactical battles was also one of the things that made the game winnable in the hardest game configurations.

  2. CordableTuna says:

    “Overrated Master of Magic”
    Ooh, now that was interesting. Please elaborate. Was it because of the micromanagement?

  3. peterb says:

    Master of Magic has a rabid fan base that views it as a paragon of fantasy/strategy gaming. I view it as a warmed-over clone of Civ I with spell research replacing technology research, with a clunky UI and an OK yet still somehow unsatisfying tactical combat element.

    Most of the game is an exercise in clicking “end turn”.

  4. Doug says:

    I found essentially one easy way to win at MoM. With the right combination of alchemy and magic item creation you could get more mana out of your magic items than you put in to them, and convert that mana straight to money. Then you were able to build fast, buy heroes, outfit them with phantasm axes of death and flying capes and they would run around and kill everything all heroic -like. Armies were a waste of time.

    Right now I’m playing settlers 2 and having a blast.

  5. Doug says:

    Now I remember what it was like playing this game. Click next turn. Click next turn. Click next turn. Over and over again until I have taken over the universe. For some reason I keep clicking anyway, and suddenly a day is gone.

  6. Hans L says:

    This blog rocks! I always enjoy reading it. Constantly witty and wellwritten. Keep it up folks!

  7. Toby Hede says:

    The old click-to-win pattern, eh?
    So very … pointless … and addictive. Why is that so often the case?

  8. WCE says:

    Let no one doubt PeterB when he writes that Master of Orion 3 is one of the worst games ever. It is. There is a part of my soul that still howls with rage at Master of Orion 3.

    But unlike him, I urge you to check it out, try playing it for a while. Why? Because it’s exceptional. You can’t possibly know how bad a game can be until you play MOO3. But’s it’s not the WORST 4x game ever.

    That title belongs to 1997′s “Into The Void”. Check it out, if you dare.

  9. Doug says:

    Weird. I don’t recall taking particular note of MOO3 when I played it one way or other.

  10. The worst 4x game ever is Rise and Rule of Ancient Empires. Or Destiny.

    MOO3 is the worst in kind of way Black and White is the “worst”. Only moreso with much more catastrophic results.

    1) Highly anticipated
    2) Promising design choices
    3) Promoted and co-developed by Alan Emrich, who coined the term 4x
    4) Initial reviews were glowing.

    Then it came out and it took a few weeks for the suck to sink in. It really is a terrible game, not merely average like B&W, and it is the last game in what was THE 4x space franchise.

    I played more of MOO2 than the original, and therefore like it more. No real objective reasons – just I got used to the sequel before I touched the original. For a long time it was one of my favorite games.

    I wrote a retrospective on SimTex for CGM last year, so I had to play Master of Magic for the first time in forever. It really doesn’t hold up well. The MOO games, on the other hand…

  11. WCE says:

    Troy: Fair enough, I should have said space-themed 4x. But seriously, compare Into the Void with Rise and Rule etc. I loved having space battles between 2 ships that apparently went on for decades, with no resolution whatsoever. The image of that was priceless:

    “Well, lieutenant, it’s February, we’ve been firing constantly at them for nine months, and vice-versa, when do you anticipate either ship actually being harmed?”

    “Harmed? Well, I’m pretty sure they’re out of toilet paper by now…they’ll be grumpy for sure.”

    But I think you’re right, when a game is part of a beloved franchise, is built up in the gaming press and is highly antcipated and then turns out to be outright bad it’s worse than if it was a bad unknown.

  12. Philip Chalmers says:

    I’d like to speak up in defence of MOO 2. Before I go into details, the ultimate proof of the pudding is that there’s still a very active fan group for MOO 2 (www.masteroforion2.blogspot.com) – they’ve produced some patches and several mods.

    Michael A. (comment 1) pointed out that in Moo (original) you can design ships that are extremely effective in tactical combat. MOO 2 takes this to a level that no other space-based 4X game has matched, and it’s very satisfying when your 1 battleship destroys 4 enemy battleships that are apparently at the same or higher tech level (my personal best is 1 beating 6).

    The downside of MOO 2, as “Tea Leaves” says, is micromanagement. But at least it provides a very effective management tool in the Colony List screen. And MOO 1 has micromanagement issues too: you have to tell colonies to stop building missile bases, to stop putting resources into population growth when they’re full, to stop building ships. MOO 1′s Colony List is of very little use in handling these situations, because a colony’s activity is a set of 6 percentages rather than 1 build queue item, an it’s hard to squeeze those 6 numbers into an entry in a table. So I find MOO 2 easier to manage.

  13. george milton says:


    You can turn off tactical combat in Moo2 and it not only gets rid of the micromanagement it speeds up the game quite a bit. You do lose the joy of turning your ships to face remaining shields at inbound missiles and clever stuff like that so most of us prefer tactical on. Without tactical you also cannot refit and customize your ships.

    Moo2 improves on pretty much every aspect of Moo1. Clearly Moo3 was a failure and should be disregarded. Moo2 is still played multiplayer at my house and connected to other friends homes using Hamachi – it is played on windows machines using DosBox and IPX primarily. It can even be played on Vista machines if you get that IPX addon.

    The only problem with Moo2 is that it was so well done that it is nearly impossible to improve upon. Most people have difficulty responding to perfection. They range from disbelief to denial to rejection of the fact. Moo2 was the perfect space combat simulation. The fact that every last bug was never exterminated to bronze the game properly in the PC game hall of legendary fame is a true travesty.

    Now if I could just locate a full technology tree listing somewhere it would remove some of the adventure which keeps me from playing this classic excellent turn based space combat simulation as best I can..