Master of Orion

I want to get one thing straight with whoever ends up reading this thing, right off the bat.  Master of Orion is not Civilization in space.  There are several similarities, which I will try not to dwell on in this review, but they are two very separate, unique games.  One similarity that cannot be dismissed, however, is that they are both a hell of a lot of fun to play.

The goal of Master of Orion is simple:  conquer the galaxy.  Thankfully, achieving that goal is a complicated, thought-provoking process that will take many hours of gameplay to accomplish.  Starting with one colony and a tiny fleet (two scout ships and a colony ship capable of spreading your influence to one more star system), you must build an empire greater than those of your computer-controlled competitors, all of whom are out to do exactly the same thing.

The first thing I noticed while watching the animated introduction sequence is that Master sports the best graphics of any strategy game I have ever played, with the possible exception of Westwood's Dune II.  Color and shading are used stylishly, and that combined with the fine detail of the graphics almost tricked me into thinking I was watching something in Super--VGA, despite what the game box said.  But the graphic display soon faded, and it was time to get down to the meat of the game.

As soon as the main game screen appears, a number of help boxes pop up to describe the sizable array of buttons and sliders on the screen.  A total of five different help pages are available, and these can also be accessed later in the game by pressing F1.  Read the help screens.  If you don't know what you're doing, you won't do anything very well, and you won't do most things at all.  Master also comes with a good-sized manual.  You should read it, at least the first half.  I like to jump in immediately and play just like a lot of people, but this is definitely not the best approach this time around.  This is a game that is definitely worth learning how to play right.

As I said before, the game starts you with one colony, two scouts, and one colony ship.  In a sidebar on the right side of the screen lie the controls for manipulating the colony at your disposal.  The efforts of your colonies are measured in billions of credits (BC), and a simplified version of each colony's purpose is to produce as many BC as possible.  This is done by increasing the colony's population to the maximum that its world can support, and increasing the amount of factories present to the maximum that the colonists can operate.  Here's where those five little sliders come into play.  Increasing money spent on industry creates more factories, and allocating enough BC to ecological development will cause your colonists to multiply faster.  (Once you have the technology, a good ecological budget will allow you to terraform the planet, increasing the maximum amount of colonists it can sustain.)  In addition to this, once your colony is on its feet financially, you'll need to build planetary defenses like missile bases and shields, invest liberally in technological research, and build yourself some more ships.

Before you expand further into the galaxy, you'll need to know what's out there.  That's why a couple scout ships are provided for you.  On the galactic map/playfield, each star system may or may not contain a planet capable of sustaining a colony.  There are several different colors (types) of stars, each with its own tendency toward a certain type of planet.  Clicking on an unexplored star system brings up a brief description of the general kind of planet you are most likely to find, although this is a guideline and not a rule.  Moving a scout (or any ship for that matter) to a star system surveys its world (if there is one) and lets you see exactly how many colonists it will support and what its environment is like, giving you enough information to decide whether or not to form a colony there.

As in many games of production, the initial phase of the game is quite slow.  It will be a fairly long time before you have more than a few colonies, and each colony that is formed must go through a growth period before it becomes particularly productive.  Fortunately, there is one way to help a new colony along.  Colonists can be transported from one colony to another, giving a new colony an almost instant infusion of workers.  You'll still have to build the factories the old fashioned way, but adding new colonists from a colony that is mature enough to spare them is often a good way to speed up a part of the game that otherwise can become quite dull.

One aspect of Master that surpasses all other games of its type that I have played, even Microprose's other game I'm trying not to mention, is diplomatic involvement.  Once you make contact with another race its diplomat will contact you.  This informs you that you can now establish diplomatic relations with the race.  By requesting an audience with the alien diplomat you can establish trade agreements, sign non-aggression pacts, form alliances, exchange technologies, and, of course, declare war.  (KILL!  KILL!  KILL!  Oh, sorry, bad diplomacy.)  While all this is fairly standard, the diplomatic element of the game really shines once two-thirds of the galaxy has been colonized.  When this happens, the Galactic High Council is formed for the purpose of democratically selecting a leader to unify the galaxy.  Only the leaders of the more advanced empires will be nominated, but all empires get to cast a number of votes based on their population.  While brute force can win the game over time (a lot of it), being on good terms with the weaker nations can sway their votes to you, helping you attain the two-thirds majority vote needed to win the game.

Of course, no game of colonial expansion would be complete without a good deal of treachery, deception, isolated hostilities, and all-out war.  (Now that it's appropriate...KILL!  KILL!  KILL!)  Fortunately, doing bad thing to other empires is not only advantageous to your game, it's also a lot of fun.  Establishing spy networks to infiltrate other empires (friendly or otherwise) will allow you to pull up a report on that race's general personality and technological developments.  Your spies can also steal technology (and sometimes blame their espionage on another race!), incite revolution, and sabotage colonies.  You'll also have to take into account your own internal security, for alien spies can, and probably will, infest your empire as well, and these little tricks aren't nearly as fun when you are the recipient.

When diplomatic relations break down, and they always will, a long, expensive war is called for.  There are three kinds of battles:  ground, ship-to-ground, and ship-to-ship.  Ground battles, which occur when colonists land on an enemy colony in an attempt to overrun it, is fully automatic, a quick routine in which the advantage of advanced technology will become apparent.  Ship-to-ship combat is turn-based and occurs on a tactical screen in which your ships move around and fire at the enemy fleet; it's not revolutionary, but it's solid, easy to understand, and usually brief.  Ship-to-ground combat is instigated when a ship with the capability of bombing planetary targets (i.e. colonies) enters a colonized star system.  If the planet in question has missile bases, the combat takes place on the same screen as the ship-to-ship combat, and follow the same procedures.

Although the ship-to-ship combat engine is not anything great in itself, what makes the combat fun instead of a necessary bore is the chance to see your technology in action.  As you develop new technologies, you must design new ships to implement them, as the ship designs that come ready-made with the game will likely be obsolete long before you even see your nearest neighbor.  By the time a full-scale war evolves, you should have a very extensive array of interesting and powerful weapons at your disposal, and seeing them in action can be a real treat.  With a good tech. budget, there's always something new to see in combat.

Master of Orion is a serious, large game that will require a hefty amount of time, effort, and thought to play well.  Fortunately, it is also very rewarding to the serious game player.  The more you put into it, the more you will get out.  There are few games that come along that make time pass as quickly as Master does.  I have gone without food and sleep on more than one outing with this game, simply because I was unwilling to stop playing for even a little while until that one corner of the galaxy I had my eye on fell into my grasp.  You know it's a good game when your watch says 4:30AM and you think to yourself, "Gee, it was midnight just a couple of minutes ago."  Master of Orion is not Civilization in space, but it's good enough that future production/strategy/war games may be described as "Master of Orion on earth."