Sirian's Master of Orion Page
Sirian's Master of Orion Page


The Player

Master of Orion is unique in its gameplay balance.

There are plenty of randomized elements in the design. In fact, there are more than in most designs.
However, the game is carried out on a large scale, a grand scope, wherein none of the randomized elements plays a decisive role.

I hope to offer you a chance to hear the music that this symphony of instruments can play for you.
The experience for you as the player is what counts. You will not be disappointed.

For now, let me list the gameplay elements in brief, to give you the outline, then later to fill in the colors.
I will describe all of these elements in more detail when I take you on a tour through The Theater.


Map Generation

Each map is randomly generated. The map is a collection of stars. The game is played out at the stars, with space between used only for transit, and no action taking place during transit. You can see ships in transit if they are in range of your scanners, although later in the game, cloaked fleets may sometimes escape detection.
Each star has a number of variables. These combine to create a wide range of planets to play with. Yet in the total effect when you combine all your planets into an empire, the randomnity fades into statistics. The details of your planets will vary from game to game, but the shape of your empire will fall within a certain statistical range that lends stability to the game. Thus, there is wide variety in the small details, but a steadiness to the big picture that ensures a high ratio of fun games.

Expansion

The expansion phase is widely varied. At the start of the game, you can only settle half of the planetary classes. The rest are rated hostile, and you will have to develop Planetology tech to be able to settle those. Thus, you will have to work around the hostile planets at first, and because of the variety in the way the planets will be distributed (at random) during map creation, the expansion phase will vary widely from game to game, and will require some creative strategizing in many cases.
Compare this to Civ3 or even to GalCiv (Galactic Civilizations), where all terrain is accessible from the outset, and the expansion phase dominates the early game and then usually comes to a relative early end, as well. In Master of Orion, the expansion phase extends deep into the game, as the most hostile planets will go unclaimed until somebody develops the tech to make use of them. This extended element of expansion adds many layers of strategy to the game (both for the initial expansion, and later expansion to hostile planets) that are simply not present in other games.
There is also the range factor. Range starts out rather short in Master of Orion, limiting your early expansion and warfare options, as well as insulating you to some extent from potential adversaries, for a while.

Territorial Disputes

There is a delicious balance of rules that creates a complex diplomatic situation. Conflict between races does not always lead to war. Most empire games deal with aggression as an all-or-nothing affair. Opponents are either at war with you, in which case they will dedicate their resources to attacking you, or they will be at peace, wherein they respect your territory and leave you alone. Master of Orion has a gray zone between these, where opponents will take what they can by force without bothering to declare war or send everything they have at you. Instead, they will set a particular objective and eliminate anything standing in the way, but will focus on their objective, rather than on hurting you. Wars tend to weaken all participants, so the MOO AI's will engage in undeclared hostilities in border skirmishes, and not get worked up if you wipe out some of their assets, IF they were the aggressor. If you are the aggressor, they will react less kindly. Thus, you will have to fight for everything, but if you are clever enough, you can fend off their probing advances or beat them out at a disputed world, without having to end up in all-or-nothing wars over minor incursions.
This adds a lot of flavor to the expansion phase. The first to plant their flag on a given piece of dirt may not be the one who ends up with it -- especially true for you. If you stick out your neck, your opponents will happily chop it off, if they can. Yet if you take a chance and lose out, if they take something away from you, it doesn't have to mean you end up at war. So, you can take more chances than you can in other games, where conflict is all-or-nothing.
Destroying ships is a relatively minor incident. Enough of it can lead to war, but a little pushing and shoving when it comes to competing for territory is to be expected. If you can protect a planet by keeping a winning fleet in orbit, to fend off the scouts and colony ships, and early escort fleets, of your rivals, you can make good on your claim. Fortune favors the bold. You'd better be prepared to back up your claims with guns and missiles, though. Your rivals will not cede territory to you just because you planted your flag. You will have to prove to them that it really does belong to you. Invading the colonies of your rivals is much more dire than battling their fleets, and almost always leads to war. If you cannot afford a war, and someone else manages to plant a flag on a world you wanted, you will have to make some tough choices.

Research

There are six independent areas of research. In other words, there is not one tech tree but six, and they are not trees, but ladders. There is no branching out, no interweaving. You climb each tech ladder separately. Which areas of research to emphasize and when, and to what extent, leaves you a wide open range of possibilities.
Even more exciting, there is redundancy in the technology. There are several key types of research in each field, and new advances usually mean improving your performance in a key area, rather than gaining access to unique options. There are a few techs that offer unique benefits, but they are definitely a minority. Most techs merely improve upon existing technology, allowing you to do something cheaper, faster, or better than you already do.
Why is that exciting? Because in each game, some of the techs are taken off the table, at random. Because of all the redundancy in the techs, you don't need them all. Having more tech is always better than having less, but if they were all available, you'd tend to figure out the "best" options, the "best" techs to go after, and the "best" ones to skip. It would be like a puzzle, and once you solved it, you'd pursue the same winning strategy every time. Instead, the game forces your hand. It takes some of the options away, forcing you to do without them. Which options are missing changes with each game, but there are always enough options to play the game. That is, you'll never be stuck unable to compete because an indispensible tech is not available.
The missing techs are not the same for each civilization. Thus, others may be able to research options that are missing from your research paths. You can trade for them, try to steal them through espionage, or try to take them from the enemy's planets by invading them.
Most of the time, you'll be missing a few techs in this area and a few in that one, but may have one or two areas where you are missing more than half the options, especially in any field in which your race is rated Poor. You will have to adapt.
Master of Orion's randomized research mechanism, more than any other single element, creates a wide variety of strategic challenges, reducing the predestiny of the gameplay to a masterfully low level.

Planetary Management

There are five ways to spend your resources: ships, defense bases, factories, ecology, and research. Ships are mobile, bases are not. Factories increase production and income. Ecology cleans up after the factories and terraforms the planet. Research is self-explanatory.
Each planet will have a total amount of resources to spend each turn. 100% of resources will be spent, divided among the five types of spending. Each planet is managed with a simple set of sliders. You can set one area of spending to maximum, 100%, or you can divide spending. You can lock each area with a single click. Locked sliders will not change unless you unlock them.
When certain new technologies are learned, you will be given an option to change spending globally, for all of your planets. Otherwise, you manage planets individually.
Some adjustments will be made automatically. More about this later. For now, all that matters is that you realize that the game frees you from having to be involved in the no-brainer adjustments.
Once you learn how to use the slider locks, managing the sliders is a piece of cake. Knowing where your spending is going, what you are getting for it, is a bit more complex, but not that much. I'll give you those details later.

Ship Building

You construct your own ships. The shipbuilding panel is straightforward and informative.
There is a set amount of space for each hull size, affected by your technology. You add components in whatever combinations you please, so long as they will fit. You can have up to four weapon types, but you may put as many of each type as you like, so long as they fit within the available space.
Learning how to design effective ships is part of the fun. Because of tech tree variations, there are no "best" designs or perfect formulas to use. You'll have to learn about the different weapons and components as you play, using trial and error for the most part, although reference charts and materials may aid you. What looks good on paper doesn't always work well in the field, though, so the data charts and stat sheets can carry you only so far. The rest you will have to gain through experience.
You may also add up to three specials per design, if your ship has the space to hold them. Specials are unique items that give a bonus effect, many of which are unique or rare.
One of the drawbacks of using small ships is the inability to deploy some of the bulkier specials. Once you gain access to some of the game's best special devices, you may find yourself using large or huge ships, to make use of the specials.
Still, don't let me give you the impression that specials dominate. Without adequate engines, shields, computers, armor and weaponry, you won't get very far. Once again, the majesty of this game lies in its superb balance.

Diplomacy

The diplomacy in this game is remarkably rich and subtle. Some of that comes from the variance among the races. The rest comes from the well balanced relations mechanism.
There are lots of ways to harm relations, and only a few ways to improve them. It is very difficult to be friendly with everybody, since one of the strongest ways to improve relations is to attack (and successfully do damage to) an enemy of a given race. If you do enough harm, you can even swing relations from one end of the spectrum to the other, although that requires a massive military strike. Of course, this will trash relations with the race you attack, while boosting them with the enemies of the race you attack.
Thus, if you jump into an existing war, it is relatively easy to forge alliances with the enemies of your enemy. You can't have your cake and eat it, too, however. In order to make friends this way, you must also make enemies. If you choose unwisely, this could be a game-losing move.
Short of getting involved in other people's wars, the best way to improve your standing is with treaties: trade agreements and nonaggression pacts. If you sign military alliances, you may be dragged into any wars that your allies engage. Of course, your allies will also come to your aid, so you will have to weigh your options carefully when it comes to alliances. The right alliance can make your game. The wrong one may break it.

Combat

Planetary combat is an automatic affair. Defenders gain a small boost. Otherwise, strength is measured by the technology of available equipment. Total strength is compared, and the difference between the two numbers is matched with a chart to determine probability. Each round of combat, one unit of troops will be eliminated. The stronger side has the better odds. Dice are used to determine the outcome, but since combats tend to involve dozens of units, luck only rarely intervenes in the large battles. When it comes to small battles, don't try to finesse it. Send in enough to be sure. Troop units are eliminated one at a time. The game shows you a graphic abstraction of the units, but shows no fighting, only the dying. Combat rounds continue until one side is completely wiped out. You can skip the animation if you like. Your involvement as player in ground combat is to pursue technology to aid your soldiers, and to issue orders to your fleets and your transports. You decide how many to send and from where, then it's out of your hands. If sending troops from more than one source planet, you will want to coordinate arrival times to coincide. Your involvement is purely strategic. When the invasion begins, all you can do is watch.
Starship combat uses the Heroes of Might and Magic model. All units of a given type are stacked. They move and fight together on a small grid. Combat is turn based. Stacks move in a preset order, based on "initiative", which is affected by a variety of variables, all of which you can learn about and understand, thus manage.
The combat is simplistic, somewhat abstracted. A tactical game this is not. Don't complain about the simple combat. If you want tactics rather than strategy, seek elsewhere. Trying to flesh out the combat, rather than leaving it abstracted, has been the downfall of every would-be successor to this game. The function of the combat is to measure the net results of your strategy against the net results of your enemy's strategy: tech, production, design emphasis and fleet maneuvers rolled into one mathematical package, with a small dose of simple tactics thrown in to spice the dish. Strategy covers 90% of the result, in terms of what you bring to the battle. The starship combat in this game will let you carry out your ship-design strategies, to put your designs to the test. If you have gained access to enough tech, and put together a strong enough design, and built enough of them, you WILL prevail. The scope of the combat is such that only battles between evenly matched forces will turn on the dice. Winning strategies produce winning fleets. On the other hand, if you don't have enough tech, or you don't have enough production to match your enemy in numbers, there isn't much you can do at the tactical level to trick your way to victory. Because there is almost no limit to the number of ships you can stack together (tens of thousands), raw numbers will overwhelm everything except a decisive edge in technology.
The good news is, defense rules in this game. Planetary defense bases are upgradable, while ships are not. Thus all you need to do to defend yourself is to build an adequate number of bases, then stay current enough in technology for your bases to fend off enemy fleets. You can hide behind your defenses and play on, even if you are too weak to do any harm to the enemy. As your enemies build fleets, tech marches on. The strength of their designs begins to fade as more tech is learned, while the strength of your defenses continues to improve with new technology. If you can defend yourself for long enough, you will render your enemy's fleet obsolete, and then he must start from scratch with new and better designs to build a new fleet.
In fact, in order for anybody to win, they have to amass a decisive advantage in technology and/or production and translate that into an unstoppable fleet. Thus, there is no such thing as winning by luck in this game. If the two sides are close in strength, the defender will win every time, and the status quo will persist. Only when one side or the other pulls ahead in a decisive manner will the defensive advantage be overcome and the weaker civilization begin to collapse. At that point, no amount of good luck can swing the tide.
This also means that you, as player, will have many opportunities to try to close the gap, if you are playing from behind. If you do enough things right, you may have a chance to win. There are many possible paths to pursue that could be successful. Some might do better for you than others, but you won't be on a search for the Holy Grail, for the one best way to play. Instead, you will face a variety of situations with a variety of options at your disposal, never the same game twice.

Victory

To win by conquest, you must eliminate all rivals, to wipe out every colony they own. Victory can be obtained short of that through diplomacy.
Once three-fourths of the stars in the galaxy have been settled, the races will meet every 25 turns to hold a vote. The leaders of the two most populous civs are nominated. Thus you must become one of the two largest civs in order to win. You can do that by outgrowing your rivals, or by weakening them (directly or indirectly) through wars. There is no such thing as the one planet challenge in this game!
If the Silicoids are present in the game, they will be able to settle hostile worlds immediately, and so the voting process may begin relatively early. If the Silicoids are not present, somebody will have to develop enough planetology tech to be able to settle enough of the hostile-environment worlds to reach the 75% habitation needed to initiate the voting cycle. Stars with no planets do count toward this total, so the effective ratio actually has to climb above 75%. If neither the Silicoids nor the Psilons are present, sometimes the voting won't begin until very late into the game.
To win by the vote, you must obtain two-thirds of the total available votes. Votes are weighted by population, with all of a civilization's votes cast in a bloc by its leader. Civilizations may choose a candidate, or they may abstain. Abstentions are counted as neutral votes, rather than ignored. As long as neither side can gain a two-thirds majority, the vote will be inconclusive and the game will go on for another 25 turns until the next vote will be held.
You might think that once you control more than a third of the votes, that you cannot lose. This is an erroneous analysis. If you have more than a third of the votes, you are secure against losing by the vote, FOR THE MOMENT. However, if one of your rivals gains enough technological advantage over you, or in some cases, enough production advantage, they may be able to overwhelm your defenses and weaken you down below that security threshold, to where you could lose the vote again. They may also be able to outstrip you in the planetology department and outgrow you, dropping you back below one third. They might even run away with the game and defeat you militarily. They could also find a way to eliminate all the other races in the game, whereupon with only two races left, the diplomacy win is disabled and you'd HAVE to conquer them to win.
By the time you have enough technology and production to be secure in your victory, you should be able to win by diplomacy. That is, the game is very good at gauging when you have won. Since you need a decisive advantage to be able to win militarily, by the time you've proven that your strength is in fact decisive, you will have the opportunity to take your victory in the vote and move on to the next game, if you like. Or, if you want to keep playing, you can do that, too, right up to the point of galactic conquest. Your choice.
You even get the choice to play on if a rival wins the vote. You can choose to reject the vote and enter a Final War against the new Galactic Republic. All the AI's will form a team, sharing their techs with each other and dedicating everything in an endless war of conquest against you. They won't even speak to you again. Either they will wipe you out, or you will wipe them out. If you're feeling suicidal, you can go down fighting, if you like. Not the responsible thing to do, if you care about your people, so to speak, but... you can do it. The fight is almost surely hopeless, if you did not even control enough territory to stop a vote, but you can give it the old college try, as they say.
The diplomatic victory is more than just a way for conquerors to avoid the mop up phase, though. Sometimes you can win a game by diplomacy that you could not have won by conquest. Other times, you may be able to win by diplomacy quickly, especially if you play as the Humans. Up to you as to whether to take your win when you can, or to play on. Winning by conquest is always more involved and invariably more challenging than diplomatic victory. If you can win the vote all by yourself (meaning you have more than two thirds of the population all by yourself), then you can be sure that you've reached military dominance, not just political consensus. The only reason to play past that is for the joy of mopping up or to get a chance to play around with some of the high tech toys.

High Scores

There are no high scores. There is no scoring in this game. I find that to be a tremendous blessing, since without score, there is no way to play for score. My mind stays focused on enjoying the journey.
No matter how well-intentioned or well-designed, a scoring system for this type of game will hurt the long term replayability. Look at every game out there. Then look at how the scoring dictates the strategy, controls the experience. Players chase score and lose sight of the game. At least most players do.
That Master of Orion lacks a scoring system is a stroke of genius, a mark of restraint, a badge of honor, even a sign of humility. If there's no way to get it right, don't put it into the game. This game's creators knew what they were doing. It shows at every turn, in a thousand small details. They never lost their focus, never got overtaken by feature creep, never allowed attachment to pet ideas to override what was best for the game. Truly a masterpiece. I only wish somebody would come along and make a new game that is half as good. Better yet, a remake. Remake this game, just as it was, with new graphics, a few upgrades to the tools for empire-wide management, a stronger AI, a few bug fixes, an editor, and more options for setting up games and crafting scenarios. Is this likely to happen? No, but one can dream.


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