Pod Bay One

Master of Orion (2016)

For this fresh take on Master of Orion, the developers mixed the first two games in the series, streamlined the rules, and then polished the result to a fine sheen.

Written by Josho Brouwers on 30 November 2018

In 2016, Wargaming.net published the game Master of Orion. It’s a reboot of the series that started off with what I consider a near-perfect space 4X game, the original Master of Orion. For those not in the know, Master of Orion, released in 1993, is a space empire strategy game that caused Alan Emrich to coin the term “4X” to denote its genre: a turn-based strategy game, played on a grand scale, in which players build a star empire by eXploring new star systems, eXpand their empire by founding new colonies, eXploit those worlds for their natural resources, and ultimately eXterminate any rivals.

A sequel was released in 1996, Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares (yes, MOO: BAA). It was even more successful than the first, despite the fact that it shook up the formula of the original game dramatically, making it more similar to developer SimTex’s other 4X game, Master of Magic (1994). The latter borrowed heavily from Civilization and I never felt that Master of Orion 2 was as good as its predecessor (though most people seem to disagree on that). The property ended up in the hands of Atari, who published Master of Orion 3 in 2003. That game was an unmitigated disaster and ended up being panned mercilessly by critics, though it did get some mods that improved the game and it continues to somehow have a small handul of very loyal fans.

The trademark eventually passed into the hands of Wargaming.net. They tasked NGD Studios with development duty for the new game that is, in the fashion of most reboots these days, simply called Master of Orion instead of Master of Orion 4. Occasionally, the new game is given the subtitle Conquer the Stars to better distinguish it from the original game.

Conquering the stars

Initially, it seemed like the reboot of Master of Orion was going to hew close to the 1993 original. But this has turned out not to be the case. The races are the same, though the visual design has obviously been changed in many instances. The music is recognizable, most noticeably when you found a new colony. But almost everything else is different, and the game borrows much more from Master of Orion 2 than the original. Nevertheless, the game is advertised as using many of the original developers. This is odd considering that the original lead developer, Steve Barcia, is missing in action.

Master of Orion looks great, with high production values. The developers also hired some good voice talent. The Alkari leader pictured here is voiced by Mark Hamill (i.e. Luke Skywalker from Star Wars), the narrator is Michael Dorn (Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation), Dwight Schulz (Lt. Barclay from Star Trek: The Next Generation) does the voice of one of the GNN robots, and John de Lancie (Star Trek’s Q) does the voice of the human leader.

In any event, the game mostly borrows most of its systems from Master of Orion 2. As in that game, colony management takes the form of three bars where you allocated “workers”. You get one worker for every point of population on a planet, and you can drag and drop workers form one bar to the other to have them change specialization. Clearly, in the distant future, people can switch from becoming farmers to factory workers to scientists (!) without any need to acquire any particular skills in that area. (And yes, I know it’s an abstraction and it’s basically a worker placement game.)

Of course, I’m among those old gamers that feel that the original Master of Orion handled this sort of thing much better. You didn’t assign individual workers. Population was something that generates taxes (income) and that determined how many factories you could build. You didn’t have to manually assign people to tasks: like a real space emperor, you essentially allocated budgets using sliders. This percentage of the planet’s economic output (money, calculated in BCs or “Billions of Credits”) will be devoted to shipbuilding, this much to planetary defences, this to industry (factory-building), this to pollution cleanup, and this to research. No need to drag and drop little people icons from one slot to another.

And as in Master of Orion 2, we’re back to constructing individual buildings on each and every single one of our colonies. Is there anything more tedious? I find building construction a chore in almost every 4X game. It’s probably one of the reasons why Civilization V made it so you could, in theory at least, play viably with a relatively small empire of about five or six cities. Not so in Master of Orion, unless you want to play on a tiny map. In this game, you really have to get out there and conquer as much of the systems as you can. And just as in Master of Orion 2, each system can have multiple planets. And then you have to construct buildings on each and every single one of them.

For better or for worse, Master of Orion uses starlanes to create bottlenecks in space. But sometimes anomalies show up that exist outside of the starlanes and star systems: they require you send a ship out to investigate.

There was a certain simplicity to the original Master of Orion, which only had one planet (at most) per star system. Of course, I know that most star systems out there probably have more than one planet, but I saw it as an abstraction anyway: the system was colonized, and the planet that was shown to me was the best that the system had on offer. And I didn’t have to build individual buildings on the planet’s surface either – all I had to do was drag sliders around and my invisible minions would construct bases, shields, factories, and so forth.

Of course, the reboot has tried to make things simpler. There’s a build queue, of course, so you can queue up buildings to a certain, limited number. And you can activate automation to have the AI do all the construction for you. But this is something that always bothers me: if you design a system in the game where you feel that players might, at some point, want to automate it, isn’t that a flaw in the system itself? Should that system not be reviewed and changed? Civilization: Revolution, the console and portable version of Civilization that was again designed by Sid Meier himself, didn’t feature any automation (e.g. auto-exploration for units). For Meier, it’s important for the player to always be in control. I think that’s the point of a game like this, too, and I’m therefore always wary when the game features automation of particular systems.

In the case of this new Master of Orion, it seems no lessons were learned from Master of Orion 2, which also featured automated building. The problem with the game is that the only way to win is to keep growing, keep expanding. But colony management in the game isn’t built to cope with this expansion. It isn’t elastic. You’ll be doing essentially the same thing at turn 200 that you were doing at turn 1, only you’ll be doing much more of it. In the original Master of Orion, the sliders were simple and nothing ever got wasted (excess production was pumped into planetary reserves, i.e. banked). It was fun to tinker around with the sliders and it didn’t matter too much, especially in the late game, if you didn’t adjust the sliders regularly.

While all the aliens have been redesigned, they do feel close to how they looked in the original game, and veer towards the adorable. Here, the Psilon scientist is very happy to report on the progress they’ve made in developing a research lab.

The new Master of Orion also borrows a concept from the third iteration in the series, namely space lanes. Movement from one system to the other can only occur along these space lanes. They have been used in many 4X space games, including Endless Space. I understand why designers include them: space itself doesn’t have much in the way of interesting terrain. Unlike Civilization, the map is essentially flat and featureless, and you move from system to system, node to node. By limiting travel along space lanes, you get to create choke points: systems where multiple space lanes connect and that you can occupy to prevent the enemy from reaching other systems.

However, it does feel like a step back when compared to the original Master of Orion. In the latter, your expansion radius was limited by your fuel cells, and vision range limited by radar technology and the like. Unless you unlocked the required technology, you couldn’t move further away from your colonies than a certain number of parsecs. And the original also included terrain of sorts in the form of nebulae (systems inside nebulae had a higher chance to contain rich worlds). There was no need to limit travel to space lanes, since the fuel cells made sure you couldn’t expand to just any part of the galaxy at the beginning anyway. Of course, the reboot does away with the concept of limited range entirely.

The reboot also uses a different turn structure. Like Endless Space or a multiplayer game of Civilization V, all movement on the map takes place at the same time. If you click a fleet to move to an enemy planet, and it has enough movement points left, it will go there and you can immediately attack. The original used simultaneous turn resolution. You plotted the course you wanted a fleet to take, but it wouldn’t move until you hit “End turn” and committed your moves. At that point, the computer would execute all of the issued commands. If enemy fleets ended up in the same system, or if a fleet ended up in orbit around a rival colony, the game would then resolve combat and other conflicts, and you, as the player, would deal with them one after the other insofar as they had an effect on you. It’s a neat system and I might prefer it over what the reboot does, but it’s a minor point.

Battles take place in real-time and offer various levels of control. For the most part, though, you’ll probably opt to either auto-resolve them or simply to watch the battle unfold. The in-game camera does a good job of framing the action and actually makes most battles fairly engaging to watch, especially the larger ones.

However, the changes made to research are not necessarily an improvement. You now have a technology tree, similar to Civilization and a plethora of other 4X games out there. Sometimes you have to pick between two technologies once they are researched, in a faint echo of the system in Master of Orion 2, where you could only research one tech in each block of techs (unless your chosen race had the “creative” trait). But again, the original game had such an elegant system. Technology was divided into six fields, and you used sliders to allocate resources to each field. Each field had 50 levels of technology (not all of them filled), divided into clusters of five each. If you researched one tech in a field, the ones in the field immediately above were unlocked and ready to be researched in turn.

The real strength of the research system in the original Master of Orion was that it was randomized. You never knew exactly which technologies you would have available to you in every game, apart from a few that were fixed. This meant that trading for technologies – or stealing them via espionage or conquest – were vital parts in progressing the overall technology level of your empire. In the reboot, though, you could theoretically research everything and the few choices offered aren’t that interesting. Like in older Civilization games, you can trade for technologies you don’t have, but that’s a short cut rather than a necessity.

Naturally, the game features both diplomacy and espionage. The former isn’t too different from what was in the earlier games: you list what you want and what you can offer, and the AI will agree or disagree. For the most part, diplomacy actually works fine, and it’s quite possible to forge a lasting alliance with an AI-controlled alien empire. Espionage is largely an abstract affair where you recruit agents and send them off on missions: it’s not very exciting, but it does the job, especially if you play as the Darloks, who have bonuses when it comes to subterfuge.

The Antarans were introduced in the game’s one (and only) expansion pack, having originally been a part of Master of Orion 2. You can’t play as the Antarans: they are an evil alien species bent on destroying the galaxy. They cannot be reasoned with, only defeated in combat.

Not too long after release, Wargaming.net released an expansion pack that added three new races to the game that were originally introduced in Master of Orion 2: the Elerians, the Gnolam, and the Trilarians. It also added the Antarans from the 1996 game. The Antarans are a major antagonist to all of the races in the galaxy and offer a new victory condition. They normally hide in a pocket dimension, but venture out every once in a while to be a thorn in the side of whatever unlucky victim they decided to pick on. It’s not an essential purchase, but the expansion pack means more Master of Orion and that’s never a bad thing.

Closing thoughts

My criticisms above perhaps made it sound like I hate the rebooted Master of Orion. But I don’t. It looks fantastic. I love the design of the different alien races and the space ships. The interface is clean and concise. It looks, feels, and plays well. This is a modern game, and an accessible one at that. It captures the spirit of the original games, while also offering a modern, streamlined 4X game. It’s the only turn-based 4X game in recent memory where I’ve played multiple games all the way through to the end. In short: I love this game.

Among many good changes made to the formula is the space combat. It’s no longer turn-based, but real-time (with pause), and I think it works well. At present, I think I even prefer this over the turn-based combat of the original. It even has a cinematic mode to turn battles into something from Endless Space. It keeps the pace going, which is important as this new version, unlike the original, supports multiplayer out of the box.

I also like how the game prompts you to upgrade ship designs when new technologies become available. I like how they’ve done the Galactic Council in this game, and happy that it’s still possible to win by simply voting yourself Galactic Emperor. And I absolutely love how you can click on any point in the timeline graph on the “path to victory” screen to go back to an earlier turn. That’s the kind of quality-of-life features that I’d like to see more often in games.

As in the original games, GNN – the Galactical News Network – will pop up every once in a while, and its robot hosts will tell you how things are going. Some people find the robots annoying (there’s a toggle to switch them off in the options menu), but I enjoy these brief cinematic interludes.

But as pointed out earlier, the gameplay is different from the original Master of Orion. I’m sure some will accuse me of looking at that game with rose-tinted glasses, except that I still play the 1993 original from time to time. But for some reason, developers haven’t taken much inspiration from it.

The original Master of Orion let you focus on the big picture: you didn’t have to faff around with constructing individual buildings on planets. Nor did it limit you in how you moved your fleets around. And it added variety through the use of AI personalities for rival leaders, randomized technologies, and more. It’s a simple game, but never simplistic; it doesn’t waste your time needlessly and let’s you get on with the business of pretending to be the leader of a vast empire spread across the stars.

And that original game isn’t going anywhere. It’s still there for me to play. And I’m also happy with the reboot. It’s a great game. Will I still be playing it 25 years from now? I have no idea. But I’ve been playing it ever since it first became available in Steam Early Access, bought it again when it was released on GOG.com, and it hasn’t left my hard drive since, several years down the line. It’s by far my favourite turn-based 4X game to have been released in a long time. If you’re interested in space strategy at all, you have to check out Master of Orion.

The DRM-free version of Master of Orion is available on GOG. If you prefer, you can also get the game on Steam.