Of all the possible game types out there to write about, the 4x genre is the only one that intimidates the hell out of me. It took me two years to finally be satisfied with the Civilization review, simply because I knew these were popular games that many people already knew the ins and outs of. Coming in as a newcomer with a “fresh perspective” seems more likely to just recycle issues veterans have already debated to death, or demonstrate some total ignorance by overlooking some important aspect of the model. So, it was with great reluctance that I installed Master of Orion – starting a series I knew dick-all about, and winding my way through its various versions and clones. To put it another way, the only empire-building space game I’ve ever played is Star Wars: Rebellion, so you’re about to be in for a real treat…
Like many of the early computer greats, “MOO” (yeah…) takes its cues from old strategy board games. In particular, Stellar Conquest from 1974 sets up many of the ideas seen here, along with the early Commodore 64 sim Reach For The Stars from 1983. These empire builders also share quite a lot in common by nature of the systems they simulate, so it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to call this “Civilization in space.” You will pick a starting race with diverse inherent bonuses (increased production, diplomacy, espionage, etc) and colonize an ever-expanding swath of the galaxy out from your starting world. Along the way, you’ll need to figure out how you want to handle your galactic neighbors, and also be prepared to deal with whatever they choose to throw at you.
On starting a game, you define your difficulty level, the size of the galaxy you’ll play in (small to huge), and the number of other races you’re competing against (up to five). The Huge setting drops 108 planets onto the board, making for very long games with a substantial number of turns before you even see a scout ship from another race (I never actually met the fifth race in my first game). Difficulty mostly affects aggression and speed at which other races up their technology and production in relation to you. On the lower difficulties, everybody’s pretty much chill little Fonzies as long as they have room to grow. On the harder difficulties, you’ll be up against some assholes that will go to war simply because they see your race as an inferior blight on the galaxy, while also dealing with increased random disasters, from earthquakes to space monsters.
Planets are generated randomly at the start of the game, and vary in atmosphere type and maximum population. The total population of your empire is the single biggest factor toward winning the game (everything stems from it), so planets that support more people are obviously more valuable. The atmosphere type determines when you and your opponents will be able to colonize the planet – harsher planets like toxic, irradiated, or dead will require tech upgrades first. Planets can also randomly have a modifier to population growth, industry, or research. Rich and ultra rich planets can double or triple your returns, making those planets a particular prize.
When you’ve colonized a new planet, the first order of business is to grow your population. You can’t do much of anything until at least 10 million colonists are around, so you’ll need to either wait for this point to slowly grow, or send an influx of settlers from your other nearby worlds. Colonists build industry, and as long as you spend resources to manage factory waste, industry and population can grow at the same time. Once the planet is generating a respectable amount of industry, that resource can be turned to ship building, generating research points, or building up planetary defenses. Later research will let you terraform planets or allow more factories per colonist, so you’ll be revisiting these allocations even after you’ve hit the maximum population or industry for that world.
Sliders for each planet control how much industry is going toward each area, and naturally, it’s a balancing game to optimize them for that moment in the planet’s development. Fortunately, and unlike Civilization, each planet doesn’t act as a build queue that must be micromanaged. Spending industry to generate more industry always seems to be a good idea, and generating research points is as important as (if not more so than) building your fleet. As long as you don’t poison your own population with waste, these planets can churn on their own for quite a few turns, while automatically building and contributing to the potential strength of your empire.
Research is the direction of that strength, and is broken into six different categories with 50 inventions per. All generated research points go into a central pool, which is then divided among project categories by a separate page of sliders. Most areas of research aren’t even military in nature. Planetology lets you colonize new world types and enhance the planets you already own. Construction makes industry cheaper and cleaner. Propulsion helps your scout ships extend their range. Computers raise the maximum number of factories per colonists. It’s all useful, and can even be traded to push alliances or appease your warlike neighbors.
So while the first Civilization was a game of strictly military conquest, diplomacy and science can absolutely win the day in Master of Orion. Non-aggression pacts and alliances can be signed with the other races (and the AI will actually abide by them), trade routes with exponential returns can be set up, and some level of trust (monitored by a meter on the Races tab) can be built up over time. The system has the potential to keep other races off your back and out of your turf while you focus on researching the best gear or maximizing your planets – just as long as you keep expanding. Again, population is the ultimate key to both research and industry, and you will need to planets to keep things growing. Of course, so will your enemies, so galaxy-wide war is inevitable when the uncolonized planets run out.
Fortunately, MOO is also quite capable in combat. As ships are built, they are organized into fleets around the planet that made them. These fleets can only be sent to other planets (there are no engagements in deep space), where they will encounter opposing fleets or planetary defenses. Space combat is a fairly simple, turn based routine where you maneuver ships into weapons range and fire at the vessel of your choice. Some planet or asteroid tiles can offer cover. A wide variety of possible tech covers the damage you do, the damage you resist, and even how many moves each ship has per turn. More advanced ships can cut down entire armadas of smaller or technologically inferior craft.
Ground combat is even simpler, with the number of troops sent rolling invisible die against the number of existing colonists, plus whatever tech bonuses each side has. Hardened ground defenses can be softened up though. Ships equipped with bombs can attack from orbit, however, more industry will get destroyed than defending colonists (thus weakening the value of the captured world). Biological weapons can be researched to kill the population of a world while keeping the industry intact, at the cost of becoming a galactic pariah for using them.
Interestingly, you never research new ships. Instead, you research new components, and then design your new units by packing in whatever components will fit. There are four chassis of increasing size you can choose from, with increasing weight limits (and increasing costs). Engines, shields, countermeasures, armor, and weapons are all added individually, along with special equipment like colony bases or reserve fuel tanks. You’ll have to balance what you want with what will actually fit, and almost always make compromises. Though you could stuff it all into a battlecruiser, the cost (and thus, turns needed to make it) will likely be prohibitive, forcing you to scale down to smaller, specialized vessels. Fortunately, as your research level in each category increases, the older tech gets refined and “miniaturized,” letting you build more equipped ships as you go on.
There are two ways to win the game. If you run the board and colonize every planet, you obviously win for being the last empire standing. The other, diplomatic way is through the Galactic Council. After most of the planets have been colonized, the Council convenes every 25 turns. Here, each race votes for the “Galactic Emperor” out of the top two races. Total empire population determines how many votes each civilization gets (population returns yet again!) and a 2/3rds majority vote wins. Races you’re friendly with are more likely to give you their votes, though total power also plays a role, and your rival can (and will) vote for themselves. If you’re not in the running at all, you can vote strategically or abstain altogether to push the vote off for another 25 years.
The final consideration is the Orion of the title. One of the generated worlds will always be Orion – a world with the remnants of an advanced civilization. Whoever controls Orion gets a massive research boost, plus the ability to research exclusive technology not on the tech tree. The Master of Orion will thus have access to the best tech in the galaxy, and a serious boost to their campaign in the Galactic Council. The catch is the Guardian. The Guardian is an automated death bot of otherworldly power that will take extremely advanced tech and a sizable fleet to destroy. He’ll carve up anything you throw at him until very late in the game, so Orion becomes more of a final chance for the underdog to tip the scales, or for the ruling emperor to cement their lead.
There’s a lot to keep track of, but a clean and uncluttered interface makes this easy. Races are distinctly color coded, with ships and colony names showing accordingly on the main galaxy map. Any of them can be clicked on for more detailed information, or to give your own ships instructions. Information pages are smartly divided into six categories running along the bottom of the screen. Each of those categories is kept to one main page, so the information and controls you need are right there the first time. Especially helpful are the Fleet and Planet lists which give you a quick layout of status without having to hunt around the map to find them. Sure, it’s difficult to keep track of hundreds of planets and ships, but that’s more because that’s a lot, and not a fault of the interface.
Graphically, information is well-presented and designs are smart. Ship icons are surprisingly distinct, with different designs based on the color (flag) you choose for yourself at the start. Races are creative and distinct, most apparently when meeting with giant versions of their emperors in the diplomacy screen. You can even watch their expression change if something you propose has offended them. My only real complaint is that you can’t change the zoom on the main galaxy map. There’s a galaxy-wide version that’s a bit too small for the Huge galaxy type, and scrolling inside the fixed zoom default takes a fair amount of clicking. It’s not a serious issue by any means though, just a clear point where future versions and better graphics tech can improve the interface.
Five difficulty levels, along with the random nature of the game, help with the replayability. The biggest change per game comes from who you’re facing, and each race has been given a distinct “personality” that the AI will follow. The only disappointment is that, without species-exclusive technology or abilities, there’s little practical difference in playing as the different races. The overall simulation also isn’t as minutely detailed as something like Civ, so you won’t need to worry about corruption, the actual buildings of your colonies, or need to manage the mood of your civilians – if you want to uproot 12 million of them and ship them off to your new colony in the galaxy’s asshole, their bags are packed!
Overall, it’s a great start to a series that would help make conquering space a popular genre. Like any freshman effort, there’s certainly room for improvement, but what’s modeled here works well and is legitimately engaging. A functional diplomatic path to victory offers appreciated variety, the ability to design your own units is very cool, and AI with different race behavior and actual respect of your peace treaties (and that doesn’t cheat!) all make MOO great fun to play. Later, graphically enhanced games probably do the very same thing better, but original MOO isn’t a bad way to kill a weekend… or three.
Distinct behavior from AI empires, clean interface, logical rules. The AI doesn’t blatantly cheat to keep up, which is a nice change of pace. Design your own units instead of unlocking pre-built ones.
All races share the same tech, so each playable race isn’t that unique. Fewer fine details to obsess over (both a good and bad thing). Some tech limitations (can’t zoom or smoothly scroll the map).