Called "MOO" by the fans of this excellent game, Master of Orion and its sequel Master of Orion 2: Battle of Antares are widely considered two of the best space empire building games ever made. Not until Imperium Galactica II came out a month or so ago has there been a space game as good as the MOO series.

What makes these two games so incredibly addictive is their scope and flexibility. Call it Civilization in space, if you will. You can research technology and design your own ships. There is space combat and ground combat. You can take over a planet or destroy it to prevent the enemy from using it again. Diplomacy was a big part of the game.

Both games were made by Microprose. What they lacked in graphics and eyecandy they made up in gameplay. Despite its age, both are highly recommended.

Master of Orion is a MS-DOS game that was released in 1994. Master of Orion(MOO) is a turn based strategy game. Starting on a single planet, the goal is to expand and colonize other planets, while researching better technologies; building industry, planetary defenses, and battleships; negotiating with rival races (as well as spying on them); and invading other people's colonies. As might be presumed by the list of activities, the game was geared towards conflict; all viable ways of winning the game involved having a significant military presence, through sheer numbers of units or just technological supremacy.

There is actually a bit of a plot to the game. As the title suggests, whoever becomes the "Master of Orion" will gain an advantage over the other races. Orion is guarded by the Guardian, a relic of the ancient race of the Orions (who have since disappeared from the galaxy). Your race, along with up to 5 others (out of 10 total choosable races) have just gained space flight technology. Should you defeat the Guardian, you would not only gain Orion (the best planet in the game for colonizing), but also plunder the technological secrets of the Orions, setting you years ahead of your rivals.

The user interface is poor by today's standards, but adequate-to-good for that time. The main screen consists of the starmap; the color of the names of the stars indicate which race (if any) owns a given star. On the right side of the screen, the currently selected object (a star or a fleet) is displayed, along with pertinent characteristics.

In the case of a star (note that a star only has one planet, so I use the term 'star' and 'planet' synonymously), the climate and maximum population size is always displayed (unless the star is unexplored, in which case nothing is known about it). If the star is colonized, a series of sliders determines what it produces. The entire output of the planet is always utilized; it can go towards building ships, building missile defenses or shields for the planet, building more factories, environmental aspects (like terraforming or cleaning up pollution), and finally, research.

In the case of a fleet, the display is much simpler. The types and numbers of ships comprising the fleet are displayed, as well as its destination and ETA.

The rest of the UI happens in sub-menus. The Design button allowed you to design new ships featuring your latest and greatest technology. In the Fleet sub-menu, the status of all of your fleets could be examined, the specs of your current ships could be determined, and the design could be scrapped if they were hopelessly outdated. The Map button showed the entire galactic map (only a zoomed in portion of it is visible on the main screen), along with information about planetary conditions. The Planets sub-screen shows all of your colonized planets, what they are producing, their populations, etc., and the Tech menu allowed you to examine what your scientist have researched thus far, and what they were currently researching.

The research system deserves a closer look. There were six fields of research, all of which were simultaneously researched. (For the record, they are Computers, Construction, Force Fields, Planetology, Propulsion, and Weapons). The fields are displayed in the Research sub-screen with slider bars next to them, so the percentage of total research devoted to them can be adjusted. Thus, if you need a new shield to counter an enemy's devastating new weapon, you'd ramp the "Force Field" slider up -- to the detriment of the other types of technology, of course.

The diplomacy screen also contains a good deal of detail. Each alien race that you've had contact with is displayed, as well as their attitude towards you. You can negotiate with them for trade pacts, technology exchanges, or alliances; more nastily, you can ask them to declare war on another race or threaten to attack them and hope they give you money. In addition, spying is initiated from the diplomacy screen, where the ubiquitous sliders control how much of your GDP is devoted to spying on a given empire, as well as a slider for allocating money towards internal defense.

Ship design is almost the best part of the game. Pick a hull size (small, medium, large, or huge), equip it with engines, computers, shields, ECM, and armor. Then, equip it with weapons. Beam weapons and missiles are the most prevalent choices, although torpedoes and bombs also are significant. Special additions to the ship can be added -- Battle Scanners tell you more about enemy ships, while Automated Repair fixes your ship at the end of every turn. Finally, you can choose which of the pre-drawn pictures your ship will look like, and what its name should be. When an alien race is edging you out in a fiercely fought war, there's nothing more satisfying than popping up the design screen and designing a Huge ship named "The Dominator" and arming it with ridiculous amounts of explosives, envisioning all the while your enemy's fiery death.

But I get ahead of myself. What are the ships without a battle system? When two enemy fleets are in the same system at the same time, combat is initiated. Combat is also turn-based; the fleets line up on opposite sides of the map and have at it. If there is a planet with a missile base on it, the planet also shows up on the star map (otherwise the planet is still there, but it is irrelevant). The ships then maneuver about, shooting at each other, until one fleet is destroyed or has run away. The winner then stays in control of the system, while the loser's ships retreat (if indeed there are any left).

As might be inferred from the above, I am quite a fan of the game. In my opinion, this is what a strategy game should be all about. It has quite a bit of depth and a number of "sub-games" combat, diplomacy, even ship design and research. Essentially, the entire preceding description can be taken as my endorsement of the game, and things I like about it. In addition, the game contains something that is often lacking: replay value. While military might is the foundation of a victory, there are many winning strategies that build off of it. Part of the fun of the game is that it is never mastered -- can you win while building only small ships? How about without researching technology, only acquiring it through trade or espionage? These factors alone lend the game tremendous replay value. In addition, the different races offer unique playing styles. Each race has its own advantage -- the Meklars can make more factories, the Darloks are expert spys, etc. A strategy that would work for one race might fall flat on its face with another. The final addition to its replay value is the multiple difficulty levels. At the hardest level, even an expert player must try quite hard in order to win. The one good thing about the interface is the slider system that controls everything; this takes a lot of the micro-management out of the picture, a problem which often plagues turn-based strategy games.

All this praise for the game must be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The most glaring problem exhibited by the game is the AI. The enemy races are capricious and irritating, breaking treaties and declaring war on you whenever it seems that you're gaining the upper hand. Should you convince them to declare ware on another race, they will, in all probability, make peace with them a few turns later. The interface is another negative point. It is controlled entirely by the mouse, and features few keyboard shortcuts. Finally, the game is also (obviously) dated; while this doesn't change the fact that it is fundamentally a good game, it does make it hard to run on modern machines, and gives it poor graphics, sound, and interface -- at least by modern standards.

All in all, Master of Orion is a very solid game that I have enjoyed for many years. Its replay value and depth make it a game that I keep coming back to. While it may have all the flaws of an 8 year old DOS game (bad graphics, sound, and interface), its core gameplay shines through its ugly exterior like a shit-covered diamond

If all of this has convinced you to try the game, go for it! It runs fine under Win2k (so probably under NT and XP as well), or in pure dos mode for Win9x. Also, xdosemu runs it flawlessly.

Part of the Node your homework series. Ah, the onerous chore of writing a game review.

NOTE: Game restrictions are extra rules users come up with and implement themselves to modify computer games slightly - usually things they won't allow themselves to do, hence the name game restrictions. For more on this, and why it works see |games restrictions]. The basic idea here is to make your old friend, game X, less tiresome and more exciting and unpredictable again. If you like Classic Gaming you may already be improving your gameplay with sets of restrictions without ever having sat down to think about the subject systematically.

Here's my set of restrictions for the original MOO:

As with many restrictions, these are to be applied to the second highest difficulty level or below:

1) No extra scouts beyond the two provided may be built until at least nuclear engine technology is discovered. Usually I interpret this to mean that no SMALL ships with extended fuel tanks can be built until nuclear engine tech, or better, has been discovered and ships can be built that move faster. The alternative interpretation is that only large ships, colony size and above can be given extended range fuel tanks before nuclear engine technology, or better, is discovered.

WHY: Because it's too easy to sequester a bunch of planets near you by building a bunch of scouts and parking them on every planet you can reach, and keep that screen up as you expand. Enemy scouts and colony ships will bounce of your unarmed scouts for quite a long time, well into the start of the game. To exaggerate a little, by the time they do, it may all be over but the shouting. Boring. Your computer opponents don't ever do this as a strategy, and if you do, it gives you such an advantage that you'll win too many games hands down, too early in the game before anything exciting has happened.

2) No micro-managed tactical combat. Instead, you use automatic tactical combat except that you allow yourself to stop/pause automatic combat twice and only twice, either to check how things are going, or initiate retreat, or both. This means that the second time you halt automatic combat between turns on the tactical map, you must make a decision to retreat or to stay permanently – even if your forces are destroyed by this decision to stay. This pushes you into making some very interesting decisions which often have exciting *#$&^$^@ results. No risk, no adrenaline - no adrenaline, no replayability.

WHY: This fixes at least two things. Tactical combat can be pretty mechanical and straightforward and boring, but the computer is so bad at it that you daren't just turn things over to automatic most of the time, even in lopsided battles. For one thing, it won't retreat you out of there even when you're obviously doomed otherwise. Also, because, the MOO computer AI is often perfectly hapless at tactical combat you not only become too powerful but this tends to narrow your choices in ship design, etc, down to a few boring choices that exploit the holes in how the computer AI handles ships in tactical combat. As well, especially if you lean towards huge ships, being able to easily retreat at any time may mean you almost never lose a ship once the game is properly underway - and that often makes your eventual win too predictable and how you get to that win so straightforward it's boring. Tactical combat is the most frequent complaint about MOO, this is at least a partial fix.

3) Keep you technology budgets as they are at the beginning of the game, don't touch them sliders. Ever.

WHY: I haven't found a lot of dazzlingly interesting decisions to be made there. For the most part, just obvious paths and biases that are pretty mechanical micromanagement that ain't the game. I actually find it more exciting if I make it a rule just to leave the sliders where they are. This also makes the game harder without having to choose the very hardest play level, an act which sadly alters the game beyond recognition by forcing any race of human player to be ludicrously warlike in order to seize enough tech advances and stay abreast of the computer players.

4) No circling back to continue a battle. (On the main map - we've already covered rules for re-engagement on the tactical map.) This is a patial return to the unrevised Version 1.0 MOO in which once ships were given orders, those ships' orders couldn't be altered. As well, if you lost a battle at an enemy (or friendly) star retreat paths were created for your ships to nearby stars and couldn't be changed. This restriction isn't as harsh, however - you can still change orders unless ships have just engaged in and lost (retreated from) a combat. You can even circle a ship or fleet back to a star if it arrived too early, ahead of other forces, and retreated without exchanging fire with the enemy at that star - simulating that ship or fleet waiting for it's fellows. However I still generally don't allow ships to choose where they retreat after an unsuccessful engagement.

WHY: Particularly with Huge ships, which are too much favoured in the game already, it's too easy for the human to circle back repeatedly and slowly, boringly and predictably attrit enemies until a battle can be won some turns hence - something your computer opponents never allow themselves to do. With this restriction extended to the human player as well, decisions about whether and when battles should be engaged become less easy, and outcomes a bit less predictable, with a larger penalty for your misjudgements. All of which makes for more interesting decisions.

5) Only at most two designs of any ship size may exist at any one time. This one is optional - some games I use this restriction, sometimes not. (Sometimes I use it until it looks like I'll lose.)

WHY: This strengthens a restriction already in the game: that you can only have six ship extant designs at any one time. I used to hate that *$&% restriction when I first played the game. It was obviously there to save the programmers work, and keep the size of the data structure small, it was wildly unrealistic, and it forced me to make extremely tough, nearly undecidable decisions about when to scrap entire fleets of ships just so I could use my new tech. Of course, years later, this is what I most love most about the original game of MOO - that this restriction still forces me to make very interesting decisions about the game, with big consequences. So I've strengthened it a bit, in order to make those decisions come up more often, and so that they have larger consequences. As well, huge ships have too much of an advantage over other designs, and are a wee bit too invulnerable, tending to unbalance play between you and the computer late in the game since your computer opponents have no marked preference for them.

This may not be a complete list of useful restrictions, and you may have other restrictions to add of your own. Restrictions usually slowly accumulate with experience in a game and can be idiosyncratic - finely tuned to prevent a given player's laziest or most predictable tactics and mix the game up a bit.

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