Developed by Simtex and published by MicroProse, Master of Orion is one of the earliest entrants in the 4x turn-based strategy genre, and was in fact the title for which the term 4x was coined. While there are earlier examples of the genre, such as Civilization and Simtex's own Master of Orion predecessor, Star Lords, it was not until after game journalist Alan Emrich's description of Master of Orion that games of its type would come to be described as "4X" games, as the main imperatives within them are to "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate".
Master of Orion charges players with the higher-level management of an entire galactic empire, with activities including, but not limited to, colonization, diplomacy, research and development, and hostile expansion, with the main objective being to eventually conquer the galaxy through some combination of violent and non-violent means. Players may choose from one of ten races at the game's outset, each with their own unique advantages over their peers, and from there are given a single colony and a few ships before being left to their own devices to turn these humble beginnings into a far-reaching interstellar empire.
Originally released in 1993, Master of Orion would be followed by two sequels, Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares in 1996 and Master of Orion III in 2003, the latter of which was developed by Quicksilver Software five years after Simtex's closure and the subsequent acquisition of the franchise by Atari. The game was received well and continues to be held in high regard by both gamers and critics, and is furthermore a perennial favorite on many "Hall of Fame" compilations, such as those created by PC Gamer, GameSpot, and GameSpy, to name a few.
Master of Orion is a turn-based game in which a single human player and between one and five A.I.-controlled opponents take alternating actions. Each turn represents a single year of game time, and the player's activities during the planning phase of each turn primarily serve to specify what actions are to take place during that year, be they military, exploratory, or industrial in nature. The game is controlled primarily through the use of the mouse, though as in most computer strategy games, keyboard hotkeys exist as well in order to easily access more common commands. No time limitations are imposed upon turn length in Master of Orion; once a player is sufficiently satisfied that they have designated all necessary actions for a given turn, they can advance the game through to the action phase, in which both the player's and opposing factions' forces will attempt to carry out their directives to the best of their abilities before commencement of the next planning phase.
The Galaxy Map
The main action of Master of Orion takes place within a scrollable depiction of the galaxy, the size of which can be determined before play. From here, players can not only view the overarching game world, but also have access to most of the game's functions. All planets within the galaxy can be seen from the start, but the overall habitability as well as any special traits inherent to them cannot be ascertained without first scouting the planet in question. This is done from the Galaxy Map by assigning one or more of one's ships to travel to a specified planet, while colonizing a suitably hospitable planet is done by moving a colonization ship to said planet. Later on, attacking occupied planets is done in much the same fashion, though scouting vessels are naturally replaced by military ones. The Galaxy Map is also the only way to set the relative production ratios of each planet in an empire, which can be adjusted to focus in varying degrees on one or more of five areas: ship building, defense, industrial development, ecological development, and research. Along the bottom of the screen is a series of additional buttons which allow easy access to interfaces for ship design, diplomacy, research imperatives, and a number of information readouts.
In order to properly expand one's empire in Master of Orion, it is necessary to scout star systems close to one's own for inhabitable planets. Not all star systems contain planets of a habitable size, and of those that do the planets therein may still not be suitable choices for colonization for other reasons. Upon being explored, a planet's maximum supportable population size (in millions) is displayed, as well as any other relevant information pertaining to its colonization. Ideally, players will want to settle their people on planets which can sustain large populations while also imparting other bonuses to its population, though in practice it can be prudent to make compromises when a planet's strengths outweigh its disadvantages. Initially players are only able to colonize planets relatively close to their home planet, but with research this radius can be expanded.
- Arid: This planet contains roughly a quarter of the normal amount of surface water.
- Barren: This planet has no available surface water whatsoever.
- Dead: No atmosphere or surface water are present.
- Desert: In addition to very low surface water, dust storms are quite common here.
- Inferno: The planet is extremely uncomfortable due to extreme heat.
- Jungle: A young world with dense foliage reminiscent of prehistoric Earth.
- Minimal: Oxygen and water are present in very limited quantities.
- Ocean: Almost the entirety of the planet's surface is covered in water.
- Radiated: The planet receives a constant dose of powerful solar radiation.
- Steppe: Contains tough terrain that is difficult to clear for colonization.
- Terran: An environment similar to Earth's, and quite suitable for habitation.
- Toxic: This planet's atmosphere is highly corrosive to equipment.
- Tundra: Exhibit constant and barely tolerable sub-zero temperatures.
- Artifact: Contains artifacts left behind by past civilizations which help to boost research production.
- Fertile: This planet is easier to colonize than most, and population growth is boosted by fifty percent.
- Gaia: This planet is truly idyllic, and population growth is twice that of normal planets.
- Hostile: Population growth is halved, and colonization may be difficult if not impossible.
- Mineral Poor: With poor natural resources, all results of construction are halved.
- Mineral Rich: With abundant natural resources, all results of construction are doubled.
- Ultra Poor: Natural resources are so scarce that construction yields only one-third the normal results.
- Ultra Rich: Natural resources are in such abundance that construction yields are tripled.
Once inhabited, planets will typically be set to full industrial production by default, which produces factories. Population size and number of factories are two of the most important planetary features, as they directly determine the rate at which it can build ships, construct missile bases, and research new technologies. Each planet's ability to produce is measured in BC (or billions of credits), and this number roughly corresponds to the number of colonists (in millions) combined with the number of factories built, plus any other additional revenue which might result from trade pacts and the like. In the same fashion that planets have maximum population sizes, a planet can also support a finite number of factories, which is always twice the number of its population cap. Once industrial growth has been maximized, the player can continue to focus on industry, though any excess effort will be placed in planetary reserves. Likewise, once a planet's population size has reached its limit, there is little incentive to focus further on ecological growth past what is necessary to ensure that the planet remains a livable environment. In the mid to late game, it is possible through research of terraforming technologies to increase a planet's population cap, and thus its factory output as well.
Ship Customization and Interstellar Combat
While each race begins the game with a number of basic spacefaring vessels that they can construct, ship customization is an important component of success in the unkind vastness of space. New technological advancements can be researched over time by the player, but rather than being automatically applied to existing ship designs, players are given access to a ship creation system which allows them to build designs for new ships which incorporate newer tech. Only six different ship designs can be stored at any given time, so older designs (and ships) must be scrapped in order to make room for new ones. This is crucial because the game's space combat system, although it gives some tactical control to the player, definitely rewards those who have invested in newer technology and mass production more often than not. Players have many factors to consider when building blueprints for a new ship, as there are four different hull sizes and eight different component classes to take into consideration. Larger capital-class ships, for instance, may be able to hold a larger number of components, but they are also more expensive to produce and easier to hit than smaller ships.
Ship Component Classes
- Computers: A ship's computer systems directly affect how likely it is to hit its target.
- Shields: Shields absorb a set amount of damage from all incoming attacks based on their class.
- ECM Generators: Standing for Electronic Counter Measures, these reduces the chances of successful missile attacks.
- Armor: The ship's hit points, armor is a direct reflection of how much damage a ship can take before being destroyed.
- Engines: Affects a ship's movement speed (out of combat) and maneuverability (in combat).
- Maneuverability: Determines a vessel's overall ability to move quickly when in combat.
- Weapons: All equipment designed either to damage vessels or colonies falls under the weapon category.
- Special Devices: A special device is equipment that provides a benefit, but is housed separately from the ship's other systems.
It is inevitable that the player will encounter other races in their space travels, and when that happens, Master of Orion's detailed diplomacy model opens up. Aside from the general decision of whether or not to be hostile toward other races, players can choose to establish trade agreements and exchange technologies, or devote resources to espionage and sabotage, among other things. Each race starts with a general attitude toward the other nine races, though the player can change this attitude depending on their actions. The feelings of A.I. races will constantly but slowly gravitate back toward their starting values, which means that both positive and negative actions taken by the player will be forgotten over time.
Default Race Relations
The advancement of technology is an important component in Master of Orion, as all areas of play, be it combat, expansion, or development, can be improved by it in some way. Planets that dedicate effort to research will produce Research Points (or RP), which are the currency needed to develop new tech. There are six separate areas of research, and like planetary production it is up to the player to decide which field or fields they wish to focus on. Specialization in a particular field can yield benefits other than just advancement of technology, as older tech becomes less expensive with newer discoveries. In order to keep the experience fresh between play sessions, the technology available is somewhat randomized with each game, and thus it is not possible to follow the same expansion path each time.
Areas of Research
- Computers: Improves the effectiveness of various ship-based and planetary computer systems and the effectiveness of spies.
- Construction: Increases the efficiency with which bases, ships, and factories are built and provides additional construction-related bonuses.
- Force Fields: The main defensive area of research, force fields provide advanced shielding technology for both planets and ships.
- Planetology: Improves ecological technologies, allowing for terraforming, settlement of hostile environmental, and bioweapon development.
- Propulsion: Augments ship mobility, allowing vessels to travel farther distances and at faster speeds.
- Weapons: Develops new weapons which can be used by ground troops, missile bases, and space ships.
The factions of Master of Orion are composed of ten different races, all of which come with unique strengths and disadvantages while also displaying distinct gameplay tendencies when not controlled by the player. This is evident both in their general demeanor and their particular manner of colonizing the galaxy. While the disposition of a particular race does not come into play while said race is under player control, racial bonuses usually correspond directly with the propensities attributed to that race (i.e., Mrrshan receive bonuses in combat, and thus are militaristic), so the disposition in this case can be taken as a general guideline for their intended style of play.
Disposition: Honorable Militarists
Disposition: Erratic Industrialists
Disposition: Aggressive Ecologists
Disposition: Ruthless Militarists
Disposition: Aggressive Diplomats
Disposition: Pacifistic Technologists
Disposition: Honorable Diplomats
Disposition: Aggressive Expansionists
Disposition: Xenophobic Industrialists
Disposition: Xenophobic Expansionists
Randomly occurring events are a means of inserting a modicum of uncertainty into what is otherwise a very calculated game. They are typically brought to the player's attention by way of brief explanatory Galactic News Network (GNN) broadcasts. These events can vary greatly in nature, from severe diplomatic blunders which cause significant harm to one's galactic reputation, to extreme mineral depletion which suddenly renders a colony far less productive. Many crises incorporate timed elements that allow players to potentially avoid disaster if certain actions are taken, such as researching a cure to an outbreak or destroying an incoming comet within a certain number of turns, though others do not. Each passing year carries with it the likelihood of a disaster, and each year that passes in which a crisis does not occur increases the chances of such an occurrence the following year. To counterbalance these negative events, there are also a number of positive outcomes that may occur, such as the discovery of unexpected mineral deposits in an existing colony or an encounter with an ancient derelict which contains previously unknown technology. Whether for good or for ill, these events can often have far-reaching repercussions, and even when they don't, they oft require an immediate refocusing of one's resources.
Goals and Victory Conditions
Master of Orion has two primary victory conditions: either the total subjugation of all opposing races, or the election of a player to the position of supreme ruler of the galaxy. While the former might seem like the more time-consuming option, the diplomatic route is no mean feat either, as it requires a two-thirds majority vote to be passed through the High Council, which can only be called once every twenty-five years. Whether the player chooses to win by conquest or influence, the larger part of the galaxy must be under one's sway in order to succeed, so aggressive expansion is required in either case.
Though the ostensible goal of Master of Orion is to reach the fabled Orion star system in order to take control of it, this is not actually a victory condition in and of itself. It is still incredibly desirable to do so, however, as Orion houses powerful technology and the planet itself is usually quite rewarding for whichever race is lucky enough to colonize it. This jewel cannot be obtained without a price, of course, and the price in this case is an incredibly advanced warship which fends off any who approach. This Guardian is all but invincible early on, and even later it requires a sizable fleet to take down.