Master of Orion

24 Jan


Given the shadow which the original Master of Orion still casts over the gaming landscape of today, one might be forgiven for assuming, as many younger gamers doubtless do, that it was the very first conquer-the-galaxy grand-strategy game ever made. The reality, however, is quite different. For all that its position of influence is hardly misbegotten for other very good reasons, it was already the heir to a long tradition of such games at the time of its release in 1993. In fact, the tradition dates back to well before computer games as we know them today even existed.

The roots of the strategic space opera can be traced back to the tabletop game known as Diplomacy, designed by Allan B. Calhamer and first published in 1959 by Avalon Hill. Taking place in the years just prior to World War I, it put seven players in the roles of leaders of the various “great powers” of Europe. Although it included a playing board, tokens, and most of the other accoutrements of a typical board game, the real action, at least if you were playing it properly, was entirely social, in the alliances that were forged and broken and the shady deals that were struck. In this respect, it presaged many of the ideas that would later go into Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. It thus represents an instant in gaming history as seminal in its own way as the 1954 publication of Avalon Hill’s Tactics, the canonical first tabletop wargame and the one which touched off the hobby of experiential gaming in general. But just as importantly for our purposes, Diplomacy‘s shifting alliances and the back-stabbings they led to would become an essential part of countless strategic space operas, including Master of Orion 34 years later.

Because getting seven friends together in the same room for the all-day affair that was a complete game of Diplomacy was almost as hard in the 1960s as it is today, inventive gamers developed systems for playing it via post; the first example of this breed would seem to date from 1963. And once players had started modifying the rules of Diplomacy to make it work under this new paradigm, it was a relatively short leap to begin making entirely new play-by-post games with new themes which shared some commonalities of approach with Calhamer’s magnum opus.

Thus in December of 1966, Dan Brannon announced a play-by-post game called Xeno, whose concept sounds very familiar indeed in the broad strokes. Each player started with a cluster of five planets — a tiny toehold in a sprawling, unknown galaxy waiting to be colonized. “The vastness of the playing space, the secrecy of the identity of the other players, the secrecy of the locations of ships and planets, the total lack of information without efforts of investigation, all these factors are meant to create the real problems of a race trying to expand to other planets,” wrote Brannon. Although the new game would be like Diplomacy in that it would presumably still culminate in negotiations, betrayals, and the inevitable final war to determine the ultimate victor, these stages would now be preceded by those of exploration and colonization, until a galaxy that had seemed so unfathomably big at the start proved not to be big enough to accommodate all of its would-be space empires. Certainly all of this too will be familiar to any player of Master of Orion or one of its heirs. Brannon’s game even included a tech tree of sorts, with players able to acquire better engines, weapons, and shields for their ships every eight turns they managed to survive.

In practice, Xeno played out at a pace to which the word “glacial” hardly does justice. The game didn’t really get started until September of 1967, and by a year after that just three turns had been completed. I don’t know whether a single full game of it was ever finished. Nevertheless, it proved hugely influential within the small community of experiential-gaming fanzines and play-by-post enthusiasts. The first similar game, called Galaxy and run by H. David Montgomery, had already appeared before Xeno had processed its third turn.

But the idea was, literally and figuratively speaking, too big for the medium for which it had been devised; it was just too compelling to remain confined to those few stalwart souls with the patience for play-by-post gaming. It soon branched out into two new mediums, each of which offered a more immediate sort of satisfaction.

In 1975, following rejections from Avalon Hill and others, one Howard Thompson formed his own company to publish the face-to-face board game Stellar Conquest, the first strategic space opera to appear in an actual box on store shelves. When Stellar Conquest became a success, it spawned a string of similar board games with titles like Godsfire, Outreach, Second Empire, and Starfall during this, the heyday of experiential gaming on the tabletop. But the big problem with such games was their sheer scope and math-heavy nature, which were enough to test the limits of many a salty old grognard who usually reveled in complexity. They all took at least three or four hours to play in their simplest variants, and a single game of at least one of them — SPI’s Outreach — could absorb weeks of gaming Saturdays. Meanwhile they were all dependent on pages and pages of fiddly manual calculations, in the time before spreadsheet macros or even handheld calculators were commonplace. (One hates to contemplate the plight of the Outreach group who have just spent the last two months resolving who shall become master of the galaxy, only to discover that the victor made a mistake on her production worksheet back on the second turn which invalidated all of the numbers that followed…) These games were, in other words, crying out for computerization.

Luckily, then, that too had already started to happen by the end of the 1970s. One of the reasons that play-by-post games of this type tended to run so sluggishly — beyond, that is, the inherent sluggishness of the medium itself — came down to the same problem as that faced by their tabletop progeny: the burden their size and complexity placed on their administrators. Therefore in 1976, Rick Loomis, the founder of a little company called Flying Buffalo, started running the commercial play-by-post game Starweb on what gaming historian Shannon Appelcline has called “probably the first computer ever purchased exclusively to play games” (or, at least, to administrate them): a $14,000 Raytheon 704 minicomputer. He would continue to run Starweb for more than thirty years — albeit presumably not on the same computer throughout that time.

But the first full-fledged incarnation of the computerized strategic space opera — in the sense of a self-contained game meant to be played locally on a single computer — arrived only in 1983. Called Reach for the Stars, it was the first fruit of what would turn into a long-running and prolific partnership between the Aussies Roger Keating and Ian Trout, who in that rather grandiose fashion that was so typical of grognard culture had named themselves the Strategic Studies Group. Reach for the Stars was based so heavily upon Stellar Conquest that it’s been called an outright unlicensed clone. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement for the way that it manages to capture that sense of size and scope that is such a huge part of these games’ appeal on 8-bit Apple IIs and Commodore 64s with just 64 K of memory. Although the whole is necessarily rather bare-bones compared to what would come later, the computer players’ artificial intelligence, always a point of pride with Keating and Trout, is surprisingly effective; on the harder difficulty level, the computer can truly give you a run for your money, and seems to do so without relying solely on egregious cheating.

It doesn’t look like much, but the basic hallmarks of the strategic space opera are all there in Reach for the Stars.

Reach for the Stars did very well, prompting updated ports to more powerful machines like the Apple Macintosh and IIGS and the Commodore Amiga as the decade wore on. A modest trickle of other boxed computer games of a similar stripe also appeared, albeit none which did much to comprehensively improve on SSG’s effort: Imperium Galactum, Spaceward Ho!, Armada 2525, Pax Imperia. Meanwhile the commercial online service CompuServe offered up MegaWars III, in which up to 100 players vied for control of the galaxy; it played a bit like one of those years-long play-by-post campaigns of yore compressed into four to six weeks of constant — and expensive, given CompuServe’s hourly dial-up rates — action and intrigue. Even the shareware scene got in on the act, via titles like Anacreon: Reconstruction 4021 and the earliest versions of the cult classic VGA Planets, a game which is still actively maintained and played to this day. And then, finally, along came Master of Orion in 1993 to truly take this style of game to the next level.

Had things gone just a little bit differently, Master of Orion too might have been a shareware release. It was designed in the spare time of Steve Barcia, an electrical engineer living in Austin, Texas, and programmed by Steve himself, his wife Marcia Barcia, and their friend Ken Burd. Steve claims not ever to have played any of the computer games I’ve just mentioned, but, as an avid and longtime tabletop gamer, he was very familiar with Stellar Conquest and a number of its successors. (No surprise there: Howard Thompson and his game were in fact also products of Austin’s vibrant board-gaming scene.)

After working on their computer game, which they called Star Lords, on and off for years, the little band of hobbyist programmers submitted it to MicroProse, whose grand-strategy game of Civilization, a creation of their leading in-house designer Sid Meier, had just taken the world by storm. A MicroProse producer named Jeff Johannigman — himself another member of the Austin gaming fraternity, as it happened, one who had just left Origin Systems in Austin to join MicroProse up in Baltimore — took a shine to the unpolished gem and signed its creators to develop it further. Seeing their hobby about to become a real business, the trio quit their jobs, took the name of SimTex, and leased a cramped office above a gyro joint to finish their game under Johannigman’s remote supervision, with a little additional help from MicroProse’s art department.

A fellow named Alan Emrich was one of most prominent voices in strategy-game criticism at the time; he was the foremost scribe on the subject at Computer Gaming World magazine, the industry’s accepted journal of record, and had just published a book-length strategy guide on Civilization in tandem with Johnny Wilson, the same magazine’s senior editor. Thanks to that project, Emrich was well-connected with MicroProse, and was happy to serve as a sounding board for them. And so, one fateful day very early in 1993, Johannigman asked if he’d like to have a look at a new submission called Star Lords.

As Emrich himself puts it, his initial impressions “were not that great.” He remembers thinking the game looked like “something from the late 1980s” — an eternity in the fast-changing computing scene of the early 1990s. Yet there was just something about it; the more he played, the more he wanted to keep playing. So, he shared Star Lords with his friend Tom Hughes, with whom he’d been playing tabletop and computerized strategy games for twenty years. Hughes had the same experience. Emrich:

After intense, repeated playing of the game, Tom and I were soon making numerous suggestions to [Johannigman], who, in turn, got tired of passing them on to the designer and lead programmer, Steve Barcia. Soon, we were talking to Steve directly. The telephone lines were burning regularly and a lot of ideas went back and forth. All the while, Steve was cooking up a better and better game. It was during this time that the title changed to Master of Orion and the game’s theme and focus crystallized.

I wrote a sneak preview for Computer Gaming World magazine where I indicated that Master of Orion was shaping up to be a good game. It had a lot of promise, but I didn’t think it was up there with Sid Meier’s Civilization, the hobby’s hallmark of strategy gaming at that time. But by the time that story hit the newsstands, I had changed my mind. I found myself still playing the game constantly and was reflecting on that fact when Tom called me. We talked about Master of Orion, of course, and Tom said, “You know, I think this game might become more addicting even than Civilization.” I replied, “You know, I think it already is.”

I was hard on Emrich in earlier articles for his silly assertion that Civilization‘s inclusion of global warming as a threat to progress and women’s suffrage as a Wonder of the World constituted some form of surrender to left-wing political correctness, as I was for his even sillier assertion that the game’s simplistic and highly artificial economic model could somehow be held up as proof for the pseudo-scientific theory of trickle-down economics. Therefore let me be very clear in praising him here: Emrich and Hughes played an absolutely massive role in making Master of Orion one of the greatest strategy games of all time. Their contribution was such that SimTex took the unusual step of adding to the credits listing a “Special Thanks to Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes for their invaluable design critiquing and suggestions.” If anything, that credit would seem to be more ungenerous than the opposite. By all indications, a pair of full-fledged co-designer credits wouldn’t have been out of proportion to the reality of their contribution. The two would go on to write the exhaustive official strategy guide for the game, a tome numbering more than 400 pages. No one could have been more qualified to tackle that project.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Emrich did one more great service for Master of Orion and, one might even say, for gaming in general. In a “revealing sneak preview” of the game, published in the September 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World, he pronounced it to be “rated XXXX.” After the requisite measure of back-patting for such edgy turns of phrase as these, Emrich settled down to explain what he really meant by the label: “XXXX” in this context stood for “EXplore, EXpand, EXploit, and EXterminate.” And thus was a new sub-genre label born. The formulation from the article was quickly shortened to “4X” by enterprising gamers uninterested in making strained allusions to pornographic films. In that form, it would be applied to countless titles going forward, right up to the present day, and retroactively applied to countless titles of the past, including all of the earlier space operas I’ve just described as well as the original Civilization — a game to which the “EXterminate” part of the label fits perhaps less well, but such is life.

Emrich’s article also creates an amusing distinction for the more pedantic ludic taxonomists and linguists among us. Although Master of Orion definitely was not, as we’ve now seen at some length, the first 4X game in the abstract, it was the very first 4X game to be called a 4X game. Maybe this accounts for some of the pride of place it holds in modern gaming culture?

However that may be, though, the lion’s share of the credit for Master of Orion‘s enduring influence must surely be ascribed to what a superb game it is in its own right. If it didn’t invent the 4X space opera, it did in some sense perfect it, at least in its digital form. It doesn’t do anything conceptually new on the face of it — you’re still leading an alien race as it expands through a randomly created galaxy, competing with other races in the fields of economics, technology, diplomacy, and warfare to become the dominant civilization — but it just does it all so well.

A new game of Master of Orion begins with you choosing a galaxy size (from small to huge), a difficulty level (from simple to impossible), and a quantity of opposing aliens to compete against (from one to five). Then you choose which specific race you would like to play; you have ten possibilities in all, drawing from a well-worn book of science-fiction tropes, from angry cats in space to hive-mind-powered insects, from living rocks to pacifistic brainiacs, alongside the inevitable humans. Once you’ve made your choice, you’re cast into the deep end — or rather into deep space — with a single half-developed planet, a colony ship for settling a second planet as soon as you find a likely candidate, two unarmed scout ships for exploring for just such a candidate, and a minimal set of starting technologies.

You must parlay these underwhelming tools into galactic domination hundreds of turns later. You can take the last part of the 4X tag literally and win out by utterly exterminating all of your rivals, but a slightly less genocidal approach is a victory in the “Galactic Council” which meets every quarter-century (i.e., every 25 turns). Here everyone can vote on which of the two most currently populous empires’ leaders they prefer to appoint as ruler of the galaxy, with “everyone” in this context including the two leading emperors themselves. Each empire gets a number of votes determined by its population, and the first to collect two-thirds of the total vote wins outright. (Well, almost… it is possible for you to refuse to respect the outcome of a vote that goes against you, but doing so will cause all of your rivals to declare immediate and perpetual war against you, whilst effectively pooling all of their own resources and technology. Good luck with that!)

A typical game of Master of Orion plays out over three broad stages. The first stage is the land grab, the wide-open exploration and colonization phase that happens before you meet your rival aliens. Here your challenge is to balance the economic development of your existing planets against your need to settle as many new ones as possible to put yourself in a good position for the mid-game. (When exactly do I stop spending my home planet’s resources on improving its own infrastructure and start using them to build more colony ships?) The mid-game begins when you start to bump into your rivals, and comes to entail much jockeying for influence, as the various races begin to sort themselves into rival factions. (The Alkaris, bird-like creatures, loathe the Mrrshans, the aforementioned race of frenzied pussycats, and their loathing is returned in kind. I don’t have strong feelings about either one — but whose side would it most behoove me to choose from a purely strategic perspective?) The endgame is nigh when there is no more room for anyone to expand, apart from taking planets from a rival by force, and the once-expansive galaxy suddenly seems claustrophobic. It often, although by no means always, is marked by a massive war that finally secures somebody that elusive two-thirds majority in the Galactic Council. (I’m so close now! Do I attack those stubbornly intractable Bulrathi to try to knock down their population and get myself over the two-thirds threshold that way, or do I keep trying to sweet-talk and bribe them into voting for me?) The length and character of all of these stages will of course greatly depend on the initial setup you chose; the first stage might be all but nonexistent in a small galaxy with five rivals, while it will go on for a long, long time indeed in a huge galaxy with just one or two opponents. (The former scenario is, for the record, far more challenging.)

And that’s how it goes, generally speaking. Yet the core genius of Master of Orion actually lies in how resistant it is to generalization. It’s no exaggeration to say that there really is no “typical” game; I’ve enjoyed plenty which played out in nothing like the pattern I’ve just described for you. I’ve played games in which I never fired a single shot in anger, even ones where I’ve never built a single armed ship of war, just as I’ve played others where I was in a constant war for survival from beginning to end. Master of Orion is gaming’s best box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get when you jump into a new galaxy. Everything about the design is engineered to keep you from falling back on patterns universally applicable to the “typical” game. It’s this quality, more so than any other, that makes Master of Orion so consistently rewarding. If I was to be stranded on the proverbial desert island, I have a pretty good idea of at least one of the games I’d choose to take with me.

I’ll return momentarily to the question of just how Master of Orion manages to build so much variation into a fairly simple set of core rules. I think it might be instructive to do so, however, in comparison with another game, one I’ve already had occasion to mention several times in this article: Civilization.

As I’m so often at pains to point out, game design is, like any creative pursuit, a form of public dialog. Certainly Civilization itself comes with a long list of antecedents, including most notably Walter Bright’s mainframe game Empire, Dani Bunten Berry’s PC game Seven Cities of Gold, and the Avalon Hill board game with which Civilization shares its name. Likewise, Civilization has its progeny, among them Master of Orion. By no means was it the sole influence on the latter; as we’ve seen, Master of Orion was also greatly influenced by the 4X space-opera tradition in board games, especially during its early phases of development.

Still, the mark of Civilization as well can be seen all over its finished design. (After all, Alan Emrich had just literally written the book on Civilization when he started bombarding Barcia with design suggestions…) For example, Master of Orion, unlike all of its space-opera predecessors, on the computer or otherwise, doesn’t bother at all with multiplayer options, preferring to optimize the single-player experience in their stead. One can’t help but feel that it was Civilization, which was likewise bereft of the multiplayer options that earlier grand-strategy games had always included as a matter of course, that empowered Steve Barcia and company to go this way.

At the same time, though, we cannot say that Jeff Johannigman was being particularly accurate when he took to calling Master of OrionCivilization in space” for the benefit of journalists. For all that it’s easy enough to understand what made such shorthand so tempting — this new project too was a grand-strategy game played on a huge scale, incorporating technology, economics, diplomacy, and military conflict — it wasn’t ultimately fair to either game. Master of Orion is very much its own thing. Its interface, for example, is completely different. (Ironically, Barcia’s follow-up to Master of Orion, the fantasy 4X Master of Magic, hews much closer to Civilization in that respect.) In Master of Orion, Civilization‘s influence often runs as much in a negative as a positive direction; that is to say, there are places where the later design is lifting ideas from the earlier one, but also taking it upon itself to correct perceived weaknesses in their implementation.

I have to use the qualifier “perceived” there because the two games have such different personalities. Simply put, Civilization prioritizes its fictional context over its actual mechanics, while Master of Orion does just the opposite. Together they illustrate the flexibility of the interactive digital medium, showing how great games can be great in such markedly different ways, even when they’re as closely linked in terms of genre as these two are.

Civilization explicitly bills itself as a grand journey through human history, from the time in our distant past when the first hunter-gatherers settled down in villages to an optimistic near-future in space. The rules underpinning the journey are loose-goosey, full of potential exploits. The most infamous of these is undoubtedly the barbarian-horde strategy, in which you research only a few minimal technologies necessary for war-making and never attempt to evolve your society or participate in any meaningful diplomacy thereafter, but merely flood the world with miserable hardscrabble cities supporting primitive armies, attacking everything that moves until every other civilization is extinct. At the lower and moderate difficulty levels at least, this strategy works every single time, albeit whilst bypassing most of what the game was meant to be about. As put by Ralph Betza, a contributor to an early Civilization strategy guide posted to Usenet: “You can always play Despotic Conquest, regardless of the world you find yourself starting with, and you can always win without using any of the many ways to cheat. When you choose any other strategy, you are deliberately risking a loss in order to make the game more interesting.”

So very much in Civilization is of limited utility at best in purely mechanical terms. Many or most of the much-vaunted Wonders of the World, for example, really aren’t worth the cost you have to pay for them. But that’s okay; you pay for them anyway because you like the idea of having built the Pyramids of Giza or the Globe Theatre or Project Apollo, just as you choose not to go all Genghis Khan on the world because you’d rather build a civilization you can feel proud of. Perhaps the clearest statement of Civilization‘s guiding design philosophy can be found in the manual. It says that, even if you make it all the way to the end of the game only to see one of your rivals achieve the ultimate goal of mounting an expedition to Alpha Centauri before you do, “the successful direction of your civilization through the centuries is an achievement. You have survived countless wars, the pollution of the industrial age, and the risks of nuclear weapons.” Or, as Sid Meier himself puts it, “a game of Civilization is an epic story.”

We’re happy to preach peace and cooperation, as long as we’re the top dogs… er, birds.

Such sentiments are deeply foreign to Master of Orion; this is a zero-sum game if ever there was one. If you lose the final Galactic Council vote, there’s no attaboy for getting this far, much less any consolation delivered that the galaxy has entered a new era of peaceful cooperation with some other race in the leadership role. Instead the closing cinematic tells you that you’ve left the known galaxy and “set forth to conquer new worlds, vowing to return and claim the renowned title of Master of Orion.” (Better to rule in Hell, right?) There are no Wonders of the World in Master of Orion, and, while there is a tech tree to work through, you won’t find on it any of Civilization‘s more humanistic advances, such as Chivalry or Mysticism, or even Communism or The Corporation. What you get instead are technologies — it’s telling that Master of Orion talks about a “tech tree,” while Civilization prefers the word “advances” — with a direct practical application to settling worlds and making war, divided into the STEM-centric categories of Computers, Construction, Force Fields, Planetology, Propulsion, and Weapons.

So, Civilization is the more idealistic, more educational, perhaps even the nobler of the two games. And yet it often plays a little awkwardly — which awkwardness we forgive because of its aspirational qualities. Master of Orion‘s fictional context is a much thinner veneer to stretch over its mechanics, while words like “idealistic” simply don’t exist in its vocabulary. And yet, being without any high-flown themes to fall back on, it makes sure that its mechanics are absolutely tight. These dichotomies can create a dilemma for a critic like yours truly. If you asked me which game presents a better argument for gaming writ large as a potentially uplifting, ennobling pursuit, I know which of the two I’d have to point to. But then, when I’m just looking for a fun, challenging, intriguing game to play… well, let’s just say that I’ve played a lot more Master of Orion than Civilization over the last quarter-century. Indeed, Master of Orion can easily be read as the work of a designer who looked at Civilization and was unimpressed with its touchy-feely side, then set out to make a game that fixed all the other failings which that side obscured.

By way of a first example, let’s consider the two games’ implementation of an advances chart — or a tech tree, whichever you prefer. Arguably the most transformative single advance in Civilization is Railroads; they let you move your military units between your cities almost instantaneously, which makes attacks much easier and quicker to mount for warlike players and enables the more peaceful types to protect their holdings with a much smaller (and thus less expensive) standing army. The Railroads advance is so pivotal that some players build their entire strategy around acquiring it as soon as possible, by finding it on the advances chart as soon as the game begins in 4000 BC and working their way backward to find the absolute shortest path for reaching it. This is obviously problematic from a storytelling standpoint; it’s not as if the earliest villagers set about learning the craft of Pottery with an eye toward getting their hands on Railroads 6000 years later. More importantly, though, it’s damaging to the longevity of the game itself, in that it means that players can and will always employ that same Railroads strategy just as soon as they figure out what a winner it is. Here we stumble over one of the subtler but nonetheless significant axioms of game design: if you give players a hammer that works on every nail, many or most of them will use it — and only it — over and over again, even if it winds up decreasing their overall enjoyment. It’s for this reason that some players continue to use even the barbarian-horde strategy in Civilization, boring though it is. Or, to take an outside example: how many designers of CRPGs have lovingly crafted dozens of spells with their own unique advantages and disadvantages, only to watch players burn up everything they encounter with a trusty Fireball?

Master of Orion, on the other hand, works hard at every turn to make such one-size-fits-all strategies impossible — and nowhere more so than in its tech tree. When a new game begins, each race is given a randomized selection of technologies that are possible for it to research, constituting only about half of the total number of technologies in the game. Thus, while a technology roughly equivalent to Civilization‘s Railroads does exist in Master of Orion — Star Gates — you don’t know if this or any other technology is actually available to you until you advance far enough up the tree to reach the spot where it ought to be. You can’t base your entire strategy around a predictable technology progression. While you can acquire technologies that didn’t make it into your tree by trading with other empires, bullying them into giving them to you, or attacking their planets and taking them, that’s a much more fraught, uncertain path to go down than doing the research yourself, one that requires a fair amount of seat-of-your-pants strategy in its own right. Any way you slice it, in other words, you have to improvise.

We’ve been lucky here in that Hydrogen Fuel Cells, the first range-extending technology and a fairly cheap one, is available in our tree. If it wasn’t, and if we didn’t have a lot of stars conveniently close by, we’d have to dedicate our entire empire to attaining a more advanced and thus more expensive range-extending technology, lest we be left behind in the initial land grab. But this would of course mean neglecting other aspects of our empire’s development. Trade-offs like this are a constant fact of life in Master of Orion.

This one clever design choice has repercussions for every other aspect of the game. Take, for instance, the endlessly fascinating game-within-a-game of designing your fleet of starships. If the tech tree was static, players would inevitably settle upon a small set of go-to designs that worked for their style of play. As it is, though, every new ship is a fresh balancing act, its equipment calibrated to maximize your side’s technological strengths and mitigate its weaknesses, while also taking into careful account the strengths and weaknesses of the foe you expect to use it against, about which you’ve hopefully been compiling information through your espionage network. Do you build a huge number of tiny, fast, maneuverable fighters, or do you build just a few lumbering galactic dreadnoughts? Or do you build something in between? There are no universally correct answers, just sets of changing circumstances.

Another source of dynamism are the alien races you play and those you play against. The cultures in Civilization have no intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, just sets of leader tendencies when played by the computer; for your part, you’re free to play the Mongols as pacifists, or for that matter the Russians as paragons of liberal democracy and global cooperation. But in Master of Orion, each race’s unique affordances force you to play it differently. Likewise, each opposing race’s affordances in combination with those of your own force you to respond differently to that race when you encounter it, whether on the other side of a diplomats’ table or on a battlefield in space. Further, most races have one technology they’re unusually good at researching and one they’re unusually bad at. Throw in varying degrees of affinity and prejudice toward the other races, and, again, you’ve got an enormous amount of variation which defies cookie-cutter strategizing. (It’s worth noting that there’s a great deal of asymmetry here; Steve Barcia and his helpers didn’t share so many modern designers’ obsession with symmetrical play balance above all else. Some races are clearly more powerful than others: the brainiac Psilons get a huge research bonus, the insectoid Klackons get a huge bonus in worker productivity, and the Humans get huge bonuses in trade and diplomacy. Meanwhile the avian Alkaris, the feline Mrrshan, and the ursine Bulrathis have bonuses which only apply during combat, and can be overcome fairly easily by races with other, more all-encompassing advantages.)

There are yet more touches to bring yet more dynamism. Random events occur from time to time in the galaxy, some of which can change everything at a stroke: a gigantic space amoeba might show up and start eating stars, forcing everyone to forget their petty squabbles for a while and band together against this apocalyptic threat. And then there’s the mysterious star Orion, from which the game takes it name, which houses the wonders of a long-dead alien culture from the mythical past. Taking possession of it might just win the game for you — but first you’ll have to defeat its almost inconceivably powerful Guardian.

One of the perennial problems of 4X games, Civilization among them, is the long anticlimax, which begins at that point when you know you’re going to conquer the world or be the first to blast off for Alpha Centauri, but well before you actually do so. (What Civilization player isn’t familiar with the delights of scouring the map for that one remaining rival city tucked away on some forgotten island in some forgotten corner?) Here too Master of Orion comes with a mitigating idea, in the form of the Galactic Council whose workings I’ve already described. It means that, as soon as you can collect two-thirds of the vote — whether through wily diplomacy or the simpler expedient of conquering until two-thirds of the galaxy’s population is your own — the game ends and you get your victory screen.

Indeed, one of the overarching design themes of Master of Orion is its determination to minimize the boring stuff. It must be admitted, of course, that boredom is in the eye of the beholder. Non-fans have occasionally dismissed the whole 4X space-opera sub-genre as “Microsoft Excel in space,” and Master of Orion too requires a level of comfort with — or, better yet, a degree of fascination with — numbers and ratios; you’ll spend at least as much time tinkering with your economy as you will engaging in space battles. Yet the game does everything it can to minimize the pain here as well. While hardly a simple game in absolute terms, it is quite a streamlined example of its type; certainly it’s much less fiddly than Civilization. Planet management is abstracted into a set of five sliding ratio bars, allowing you decide what percentage of that planet’s total output should be devoted to building ships, building defensive installations, building industrial infrastructure, cleaning up pollution, and researching new technologies. Unlike in Civilization, there is no list of specialized structures to build one at a time, much less a need to laboriously develop the land square by square with a specialized unit. Some degree of micro-management is always going to be in the nature of this type of game, but managing dozens of planets in Master of Orion is far less painful than managing dozens of cities in Civilization.

The research screen as well operates through sliding ratio bars which let you decide how much effort to devote to each of six categories of technology. In other words, you’re almost always researching multiple advances at once in Master of Orion, whereas in Civilization you only research one at a time. Further, you can never predict for sure when a technology will arrive; while each has a base cost in research points, “paying” it leads only to a slowly increasing randomized chance of acquiring the technology on any given turn. (That’s the meaning of the “17%” next to Force Fields in the screenshot above.) You also receive bonuses for maintaining steady research over a long run of turns, rather than throwing all of your research points into one technology, then into something else, etc. All of this as well serves to make the game more unpredictable and dynamic.

In short, Master of Orion tries really, really hard to work with you rather than against you, and succeeds to such a degree that it can sometimes feel like the game is reading your mind. A reductionist critic of the sort I can be on occasion might say that there are just two types of games: those that actually got played before their release and those that didn’t. With only rare exceptions, this distinction, more so than the intrinsic brilliance of the design team or any other factor, is the best predictor of the quality of the end result. Master of Orion is clearly a game that got played, and played extensively, with all of the feedback thus gathered being incorporated into the final design. The interface is about as perfect as the technical limitations of 1993 allow it to be; nothing you can possibly want to do is more than two clicks away. And the game is replete with subtle little conveniences that you only come to appreciate with time — like, just to take one example, the way it asks if you want to automatically adjust the ecology spending on every one of your planets when you acquire a more efficient environmental-cleanup technology. This lived-in quality can only be acquired the honest, old-fashioned way: by giving your game to actual players and then listening to what they tell you about it, whether the points they bring up are big or small, game-breaking or trivial.

This thoroughgoing commitment to quality is made all the more remarkable by our knowledge of circumstances inside MicroProse while Master of Orion was going through these critical final phases of its development. When the contract to publish the game was signed, MicroProse was in desperate financial straits, having lost bundles on an ill-advised standup-arcade game along with expensive forays into adventure games and CRPGs, genres far from their traditional bread and butter of military simulations and grand-strategy games. Although other projects suffered badly from the chaos, Master of Orion, perhaps because it was a rather low-priority project entrusted largely to an outside team located over a thousand miles away, was given the time and space to become its best self. It was still a work in progress on June 21, 1993, when MicroProse’s mercurial, ofttimes erratic founder and CEO “Wild Bill” Stealey sold the company to Spectrum Holobyte, a publisher with a relatively small portfolio of extant games but a big roll of venture capital behind them.

Master of Orion thus became one of the first releases from the newly conjoined entity on October 1, 1993. Helped along by the evangelism of Alan Emrich and his pals at Computer Gaming World, it did about as well as such a cerebral title, almost completely bereft of audiovisual bells and whistles, could possibly do in the new age of multimedia computing; it became the biggest strategy hit since Civilization, and the biggest 4X space opera to that point, in any medium. Later computerized iterations on the concept, including its own sequels, doubtless sold more copies in absolute numbers, but the original Master of Orion has gone on to become one of the truly seminal titles in gaming history, almost as much so as the original Civilization. It remains the game to which every new 4X space opera — and there have been many of them, far more than have tried to capture the more elusively idealistic appeal of Civilization — must be compared.

Sometimes a status such as that enjoyed by Master of Orion arrives thanks to an historical accident or a mere flashy technical innovation, but that is definitively not the case here. Master of Orion remains as rewarding as ever in all its near-infinite variation. Personally, I like to embrace its dynamic spirit for everything it’s worth by throwing a (virtual) die to set up a new game, letting the Universe decide what size galaxy I play in, how many rivals I play with, and which race I play myself. The end result never fails to be enjoyable, whether it winds up a desperate free-for-all between six alien civilizations compressed into a tiny galaxy with just 24 stars, or a wide-open, stately game of peaceful exploration in a galaxy with over 100 of them. In short, Master of Orion is the most inexhaustible well of entertainment I’ve ever found in the form of a single computer game — a timeless classic that never fails to punish you for playing lazy, but never fails to reward you for playing well. I’ve been pulling it out to try to conquer another random galaxy at least once every year or two for half my life already. I suspect I’ll still be doing so until the day I die.

(Sources: the books Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay, Designers & Dragons, Volume 1: The 1970s by Shannon Appelcline, and Master of Orion: The Official Strategy Guide by Alan Emrich and Tom E. Hughes, Jr.; Computer Gaming World of December 1983, June/July 1985, October 1991, June 1993, August 1993, September 1993, December 1993, and October 1995; Commodore Disk User of May 1988; Softline of March 1983. Online sources include “Per Aspera Ad Astra” by Jon Peterson from ROMchip, Alan Emrich’s historical notes from the old Master of Orion III site, a Steve Barcia video interview which originally appeared in the CD-ROM magazine Interactive Entertainment., and the Civilization Usenet FAQ, lasted updated by “Dave” in 1994.

Master of Orion I and II are available for purchase together from I highly recommend a tutorial, compiled many years ago by Sirian and now available only via, as an excellent way for new players to learn the ropes.)


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65 Responses to Master of Orion

  1. Andrew Pam

    January 24, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    “Xenon” is a noble gas, and it looks like a typo for the game “Xeno”.

    • Mark

      January 24, 2020 at 6:30 pm

      (And also another game… Xenon Megablast) … a vertical arcade shooter for pc and amiga)

      • Onno

        March 22, 2020 at 11:05 am

        And the Atari ST

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 24, 2020 at 8:54 pm


  2. Aula

    January 24, 2020 at 6:09 pm

    “you’re almost always research multiple advances”

    should be “researching”

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 24, 2020 at 8:55 pm


  3. Seumas

    January 24, 2020 at 6:36 pm

    “constituted” should be “constituted”

    Sorry that all your comments are corrections! Article was a fun read.

  4. Original

    January 24, 2020 at 7:08 pm

    George Moromosaito, who developed Anacreon mentioned near the start of the article, is also working on a new and updated version for modern machines. Different than MoO, but enjoyable.

  5. Ken Brubaker

    January 24, 2020 at 7:44 pm

    Wonder of the World “contituted” should be constituted.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 24, 2020 at 8:57 pm

      No worries! Always appreciated.

  6. dsparil

    January 24, 2020 at 7:56 pm

    I used to play so much Master of Orion! I got a remaindered copy for something like $5 shortly after release because the box was a little dinged up. The sequel does have a slightly nicer UI, but it also falls prey to some of the issues that the original avoided. MoO isn’t literally a perfect game, but it does so much right that making any changes is inevitably going to make something worse.

    The custom race creator in the sequel was a good idea, but the possible races you can create are significantly better than any of the preset ones. My favorite combination (Feudal/Warlord/Creative/Cybernetic/Omniscient/-10 Ground Combat/-10 Spying) is completely broken in so many ways.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 24, 2020 at 9:01 pm

      Yeah, it’s been years and years since I’ve played it, so I didn’t want to say anything about it in the article. But my recollection is that it adds complexity without really adding a lot of, as Sid Meier would say, interesting decisions. I know that some people really enjoy complexity for its own sake, and that’s fair enough — but I’ve never been one of those people. Anyway, I’ll have to see if my judgment holds up when the time comes.

  7. Duncan

    January 24, 2020 at 9:17 pm

    A Java clone of MOO1 is currently in alpha and very fun to play:

  8. Patrick M

    January 24, 2020 at 10:22 pm

    Fantastic article!

    Glad I’m not the only one still addicted to this classic.

  9. Jonathan Badger

    January 24, 2020 at 11:10 pm

    I’m glad you brought up Reach for the Stars. As someone nearing 50, I well remember playing that for hours on the Apple ][. It was probably my favorite game on the platform. Certainly, when I played Master of Orion a decade later, I considered it “Reach for the Stars” but better.

  10. Kirinn

    January 25, 2020 at 12:26 am

    There’s also an open source engine remake of MoO1, called 1oom. Faithful gameplay, with a handful of interface enhancements available; you just need the original game’s data files to run it. I’ve been playing it for a while, and it’s solid, and warmly recommended.

    There are a few forks, this is the one I can vouch for:

  11. Michael

    January 25, 2020 at 12:36 am

    ” He would continue to run Starweb for more than thirty years — albeit presumably not on the same computer throughout that time.”

    This is certainly true; I can attest that I was in a game of Starweb (still being run through FB using all the old computer commands) as recently as two years ago. When Loomis died, I received a number of invitations from old players – presumably they are still at it.

  12. Martin

    January 25, 2020 at 12:53 am

    How does the difficulty setting work? As in how does the game play different at the different levels. Is it that you are given a worse hand at the beginning; the other races have better tactics; they play with some cheats or what exactly?

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 25, 2020 at 8:49 am

      It’s a combination of things. The AI is more aggressive and also more defensive under higher difficulty levels: building more and better ships and attacking you with them much more readily, and also building more missile bases and shields to protect its own planets. (It still can’t mount a concentrated, overwhelming assault on your empire to save its life, but then, I’m not sure you’d want it to. There’s a whole side discussion to be had here about how we want out AIs to be good, but not *too* good..) In addition, it costs more to achieve each research breakthrough with higher difficulty levels, enemies like the Guardian of Orion and the space amoeba become more potent, etc. Your rivals do get definite material advantages over you at Hard and Impossible, but in general Master of Orion is less reliant on scaling difficulty through outright cheating than Civilization is. (I’m not sure that there’s any difference at all in the AI itself at differing difficulty levels in Civilization; just differences in how egregiously the computer cheats.)

    • FilfreFan

      January 26, 2020 at 4:30 pm

      I routinely notice one particularly egregious cheat on the impossible setting: if there are empty planets available near the end of the initial expansion phase, computer forces are able to send colony ships and escorts to planets that are far beyond their range limits.

  13. Christopher Chang

    January 25, 2020 at 2:04 am

    Nitpick regarding Railroad in Civ 1: it wasn’t just the military value that made it so pivotal. It was also the most impactful economic tech: building a railroad improvement on a square increased that square’s food, shield, and trade-arrow production by 50% (rounded down, but still)!

  14. Jacen aka Jaina

    January 25, 2020 at 2:38 am

    You have Dani Bunten Berry, which I believe is a change from your usual/previous policy of using the designer’s old name, then mentioning the name they chose during their transition.

    Personally, I don’t have a strong preference either way.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 25, 2020 at 8:35 am

      We’re past the point where she made her transition now. She was living as Dani Bunten Berry, and a new version of Seven Cities of Gold had just been released crediting her under that name. It’s more appropriate now to use her new name, even from an historical perspective; this is how her contemporaries now knew her.

  15. Jason Dyer

    January 25, 2020 at 5:51 am

    You link to part 1 of your Civ rundown when you mention Emrich’s criticism for including women’s rights as a wonder of the world, and I can’t find any mention of that there; did you mean a different part?

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 25, 2020 at 8:56 am

      Ah, should have been Part 3 of that series. Thanks!

  16. Wolfeye M.

    January 25, 2020 at 10:17 am

    I have a vague memory of playing a Master of Orion game when I was a wee lad, but I’m pretty sure it was the second one. I got it from the library, oddly enough. Unfortunately, I don’t think I liked it very much, I remember disliking having to take turns in a strategy game. Still don’t, to this day, unless it involves small squads and fast enemy turns.

    But, I appreciate the place the original MoO has in history, especially since it led to games like Sins of a Solar Empire, which is a sci-fi RTS with 4X elements.

  17. Allan Holland

    January 25, 2020 at 4:12 pm

    Just as I lament the blog has moved past my favorite era of gaming, Jimmy writes us a masterpiece about one of my favorite games of all time. A programmer friend of mine and I still refer to being “ready to take Orion” as being fully prepared for something. What platforms supported this game? I remember playing it on an IBM PC 486, I believe, maybe it was the generation after? Did it play on the Amiga?

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 25, 2020 at 5:05 pm

      There was a Mac version which came out a couple of years after the MS-DOS original, but no Amiga port.

  18. Lisa H.

    January 25, 2020 at 5:27 pm

    I’d never even heard of this game or the “4X” genre before this post. The look reminds me a bit of Star Control 2.

    I’m amused that the human emperor’s name is Alexander, but… of course he’s an old white guy *sigh*

    • Allan Holland

      February 5, 2020 at 2:39 pm

      When the humans show up to wreck your beautiful Psilon empire borne of logic and Vulcan-style discipline, they are especially villainous. The old white guy can be someone you absolutely hate in this game.

      • Jimmy Maher

        February 6, 2020 at 5:19 am

        In my experience, the Humans are either your best friends or your worst enemies. Their diplomacy bonus makes them wonderful allies if you get to them early and they don’t grow too fast. But the same diplomacy bonus can make them really, really dangerous in the Galactic Council if they become one of the two most populous races. I’ve seen them win games with a near-unanimous vote that to my mind had barely gotten started.

  19. matt w

    January 26, 2020 at 6:12 am

    Because getting seven friends together in the same room for the all-day affair that was a complete game of Diplomacy was almost as hard in the 1960s as it is today

    It was particularly hard because at the end of the day you don’t have seven friends anymore.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 26, 2020 at 9:13 am

      :) I’ve actually never played Diplomacy, but I can relate. We used to play Fantasy Flight’s Civilization board game (designed by G. Kevin Wilson, founder of the IF Comp, as it happened). But we stopped because it always left bad vibes in its wake. It’s just not much fun to painstakingly build up your civilization over the course of hours, only to see someone you thought was your friend raze it with armies or sabotage, or nuke it into dust. On at least one occasion, my wife wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the day. So, we decided it just wasn’t worth it. Real life leaves you feeling bad more than often enough.

      • filfrefan

        January 26, 2020 at 4:39 pm

        I recall a completely unfair, but very fun, Risk game where my sister and I ultimately agreed to team, then ended the game with a two-way victory. That chapped a few hides… and taught us all, that sometimes blood IS thicker than water.

      • BoardGameNut

        January 28, 2020 at 6:44 pm

        So, I see you’ve played Kevin Wilson’s Civilization game, maybe you should check out FFG’s latest Civ game – Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn. It’s done a decent job of distilling the new Civ video games into a 1.5 to 2 hour game that might be less brutal. I find the action queue mechanism of this game highly fascinating, and I wish more games used it. There is still a lot of abstraction involved overall so it’s not a direct one-to-one connection with the videogame, but I think it holds up fairly well.

  20. Guillermo Lella

    January 27, 2020 at 1:02 am

    You finally got to review my favorite strategy game of all time!

    I still play MOO at least once a year. I have played and endless string of 4X games since then including the good sequel MOO 2 but almost all of them fall prey in coming up with overly complex stuff along the way.

    A great example of that is MOO 3 which was a disaster. But even current great ones such as Endless Space 2 or Stellaris are not as crisp, clean, fun and easy to quickly get the basics of the game and start playing as MOO. Not even the 2017 “remake” comes close which is fun but bland.

    I reinforce everything that you covered in the post and add 2 things:

    1 – tactical combat – not only you need to design well your ships vs your planned opponent, but also fleet composition plays a role, and how you play during the battle which is another game in the game. The more technically advanced ships can loose to a smarter fleet composition / disposition.

    2 – diplomacy – it is actually good and very well implemented, and also adds a layer of swinging moods of the AI opponents tied to your actions and their needs. Most of current games lack in that department. Only Galactic Civilizations 3 and a few others are materially better in that department.

    • tomcat

      April 6, 2021 at 8:34 pm

      You are not right. MoO3 was not a disaster, it’s an excellent game, incredibly deep and interesting game. But paradox is MoO3 is not MoO – that’s only title.

  21. Jeff Thomas

    January 27, 2020 at 10:47 pm

    Ah, Masters of Orion. Not long after it came out a co-worker lent me his copy on a weekend my wife was away on business. I installed it Friday night and finally finished a single game as the sun rose on Monday morning, having not really slept or eaten the entire weekend. It was an epic space opera of almost getting obliterated, winning back, rejecting the council and almost getting obliterated again only to fight my way back and eventually conquer the galaxy.

    I then uninstalled the game and return the disks to my friend swearing to never play it again, because I could tell it could be a consuming passion I could ill afford.

    There are very few games that can “one-more-turn” me into ill-health and suffering job performance, and this is one of them.

    Great writeup, I’m really enjoying your journey through ludic game history.

    • BoardGameNut

      January 28, 2020 at 6:19 pm

      I so don’t need to hear this (see my comment below). :)

  22. BoardGameNut

    January 28, 2020 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks for the history lesson connecting this classic back to some tabletop games I didn’t know existed. I’m a super avid boardgamer these days, since modern boardgames have improved so much over the classics of old. So, I appreciate the connection to my current favorite hobby.

    Speaking of classic space opera games, the one that is king these days is Twilight Imperium (now 4th Edition denoted as TI4) which is a standard six hour game for up to six players first published in 1997. So players can now get their space opera fix done in a day instead of taking weeks. It was the first product released by the very successful boardgame company, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) and designed by Christian Petersen (then CEO and now retired). It sees a lot of play at boardgaming conferences across the world. A lot designers are still trying to capture the essence of TI4 in a one to two hour boardgame with the likes of Exodus: Proxima Centauri and Eclipse. There is even a Master of Orion boardgame these days, but I don’t think any of these hold up to the gold standard of boardgaming space opera goodness that is TI4.

    The first edition is listed as having some influence on Master of Orion III videogame based on the designer’s diary. It’s possible that the original Master of Orion may have influenced TI, but I couldn’t find a source yet. I’m sure the early space opera tabletop designs had some influence on TI. Each edition was always an improvement upon the previous by streamlining the gameplay and incorporating more modern design concepts. Many TI gamers believe the latest edition is the best overall.

    Also you mentioned Civilization the board game in your blog, the boardgame industry still feels the affects of both this classic boardgame and Sid Meier’s videogame. Designers also are still trying to capture the essence of these very long games to distill it into a one to two hour boardgame. The latest entries are a game called Tapestry by Stonemaier Games and another called Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn by FFG. FFG also did a straight up Sid Meier’s Civilization in the 3 to 4 hour range about back in 2010. I could list many more.

    As a personal aside, Master of Orion is one of the classics that I have yet to get around to playing. I played the mess out of Civ, Civ 2, and FreeCiv back in the day when I solely into videogames. I had to put them down because they all sucked me in so bad I would lose nights of sleep. I’m such a huge sci-fi fan, that I still don’t know why I haven’t tried this game. It might be because I’m afraid of getting sucked into the “one more turn” black hole again. I do own it, and I believe my son played it for a while. I may just have to plan to get this one out this year and see if I can strike a balance of playing a bit then getting back to my responsibilities :)

  23. Jeff Graw

    January 28, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    Total self promotion here (sorry!) but I’m working on a game, Dominus Galaxia, which is a MoO 1 spiritual successor:

    Between it, 1oom, and RoTP, it’s a great time to be a MoO 1 fan.

    (Now we just need a proper SoTS sequel/remake/remaster!)

  24. Seji

    February 1, 2020 at 2:10 pm

    “He would continue to run Starweb for more than thirty years — albeit presumably not on the same computer throughout that time.”

    I’m unable to find the source now (I stumbled upon it a year or two ago) and I’ll probably mix up the details but if I recall correctly while the hardware was not the same, the code was pretty much unchanged. The code was portable and virtually platform-independent (written in Pascal-P if I recall or something similar in concept and could be launched as a self-booting application without the OS present) and at some point it was moved to a modern machine. However, the programmer (Steve MacGregor I think, but I’m not sure if that was him) died around 2000 or so and there was no one else since then who could develop patches etc., but the software was (is?) still running.

    • jsn

      February 18, 2020 at 3:54 am

      Rick Loomis elaborated on this to me a couple years ago at the Flying Buffalo convention. He explained that the programmer was the only one in possession of the source code, and it got lost in the muddle of his estate when he died. So all Flying Buffalo had were compiled binaries. Doing any development on the software would require it to be entirely re-implemented from “first principles”, and therefore too expensive.

  25. CdrJameson

    February 3, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    Curious that you call them ‘play-by-post’ games, presumably in the US.

    In the UK they were ‘play-by-mail’ (commonly abbreviated to PBM) in a country where the postman delivers the post from the post office.

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 3, 2020 at 4:08 pm

      They were at least as commonly known as play-by-mail games in the United States as well, but that phrase now introduces some potential confusion with play-by-email games. So, I chose to use “play-by-post” very consciously. Also, the mail is called the post here in Denmark as well, so it came naturally enough. ;)

  26. Max

    February 5, 2020 at 11:41 am

    All of the screenshots look blurry because when upscaling them you chose to use filtering. I’d rather see them in their pixellated glory :)

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 5, 2020 at 12:00 pm

      A big problem here is that Master of Orion runs at 320×200 resolution — i.e., it has non-square pixels. To scale only on pixel boundaries, without filtering — or even to simply present the screenshots in their original resolution — would screw up the aspect ratio on our square-pixel devices. And to scale across pixel boundaries without filtering would look all sorts of terrible. This problem should go away when we reach the SVGA era, which we’re just on the cusp of now. Square pixels finally became the norm then. Believe me, I’ll be as happy as you when they arrive. ;)

      • jsn

        February 18, 2020 at 4:24 am

        1600×1200 lets you have your cake and eat it too. It’s exactly 5x 320 and 6x 200, and so you can do simple “copy the pixel” upscaling while simultaneously canceling out the non-squareness and producing the desired 4:3 aspect ratio.

        • Jimmy Maher

          February 18, 2020 at 8:51 am

          Hmm… I hadn’t taken the math that far out. I’m not sure how practical it is, however, because a resolution that high will exceed the limits of many or most people’s screens/browser windows.

          • Iffy Bonzoolie

            July 17, 2020 at 2:50 am

            This article talks about the problem in detail, from a fellow Antiquarian of sorts.

            TL;DR: Per Olofsson: “Try nearest up to 640×1200 and then bilinear down to 640×480 for an even sharper image.”

            So, scale using the nearest-neighbor filter by 200% horizontally and 600% vertically. Then, scale with a bilinear filter by 100% horizontally and 40% vertically. It should produce a result that’s only slightly blurred on only the vertical axis…

  27. Doug Orleans

    February 22, 2020 at 10:36 am

    Your description of the infinite replayability of MoO reminds me a lot of Nethack. Have you ever written about that game (and its family of roguelikes)? Do you plan to?

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 22, 2020 at 10:43 am

      No, I haven’t. I’ve dabbled with it from time to time, but always found it… intimidating. But it certainly deserves a look. Maybe with Diablo?

      • matt w

        February 23, 2020 at 1:26 am

        Oh do it do it!

        …nethack is pretty difficult to play without spoilers. (One thing that’s really critical, and is kind of in the spirit to spoil yourself on, is weapon damage–when I started playing I just had no idea when I should switch to some new weapon I found, but base weapons use AD&D damage, so if you look up a damage table that’ll be helpful.) And its interface is pretty hard to deal with anyway, to the extent that I can’t really play it anymore. If you don’t mind breaking chronological sequence, the relatively recent Brogue is a roguelike that’s much more accessible in various ways–fewer commands to remember, generally tries to explain things to you–while still being a recognizable capital-R Roguelike.

  28. Timo

    March 14, 2020 at 11:08 am

    Thanks for this great article, it inspired me to finally try the first MoO for the first time a while back. I like the research system and the simple planet management, but otherwise I still prefer MoO II, as flawed in its own way as it is. In my mind it’s still the space 4X game of all time.

  29. Nate

    April 1, 2020 at 7:39 am

    Sounds like a great game. 1993 was when I went away to school and was deep into Unix and the Internet so I stopped games. I hope to catch up on some of these classics some day.


    The end-game is nigh when the there is no more room

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 1, 2020 at 7:46 am


  30. PJ

    May 4, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks for that. A great article.

    One other feature of MOO that is really good, which you don’t really mention, is the space ship design aspect. In Civ, you’re basically forced to use standard units, while in MOO you design your own spaceships. And because the design process is so:

    – intricate, with so many competing tradeoffs
    – ever-changing, as you advance up the tech tree,
    – competitive, because you have to design ships with an eye to what your neighbours are doing

    it is virtually a game in itself, and makes MOO much more fun to play.

    I absolutely agree about there being just about the right amount of colony micromanagement – MOO2 had much more, and so is almost unplayable on the very large gallery sizes.

    Despite all that, there are a couple of irritating flaws with MOO, though they are pretty small. For example, when you get a new planetary shield tech, you can’t build more missile bases until you’ve built the planetary shield, even if there’s an alien armada arriving the next turn. The same is true with terraforming and adding population points. But things like that are pretty minor complaints. It’s a wonderful game.

  31. Klaus

    June 27, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    About Stellar Conquest and Reach for the Stars; I’m listening to a Roger Keating interview right now, and he mentions that they’ve been working on an official adaption of SC for 6 months when Metagaming Concepts got bought out and they decided to lose the licensing and retool what they had into their own game.

    And speaking of SSG, do you have any plans for an article on the Warlords series, or is that too niche?

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 29, 2020 at 9:12 am

      That explains a lot!

      No, no plans for Warlords coverage, I’m afraid. It may get a passing mention when we get to Master of Magic or Heroes of Might and Magic…

      • The Wargaming Scribe

        December 14, 2022 at 8:53 pm

        I just finished a history of the founding of SSG and the development of Reach for the Stars :

        It is one of the few articles I am very happy with, and I think it is a good addendum to your history of Master of Orion – actually I tried to emulate your style a bit for the “history” part (the first half). The second half (the review, including a comparison to Stellar Conqest) may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

        Long story short : RFST was supposed to be an official port of Stellar Conquest – according to Keating it was signed. But then Stellar Conquest was sold to Avalon Hill. AH was OK with the Stellar Conquest video games as long as Avalon Hill / Microcomputer Games would publish it.. This did not fly with Ian Trout, so SSG went its own direction.

  32. Old Gamer

    November 21, 2021 at 7:51 pm

    You pretty much nailed it. It’s fun and it’s never the same game twice.

    I first play MOO in 1995. Here it is, 2021, and I still play it.

    There are precious few games I can say that about

  33. Nate Owens

    October 28, 2023 at 2:34 pm

    When you published this a few years back I immediately went to GOG and bought this game. It ended up kind of being a miss for me, not so much because I didn’t like it but because I couldn’t quite nail down the rhythm of the game, if that makes sense. When to focus on different elements, broadly speaking.

    But I actually found a PDF of the Emerich strategy guide you mentioned, and it helped a bunch. Lately it’s been my strategy game of choice, because once you internalize the UI and mechanics it’s just so clean. I especially love the different factions, they all provide so much flavor when you meet them. “Oh no, the Silicoids are my closest neighbors!”

    Anyway, this has ended up being a belated hit for me. Really enjoying it.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 29, 2023 at 7:52 am

      Yes. The mechanics of Master of Orion are actually very elegant and simple, but neither the game nor the manual do a great job of explaining them in an overarching — as opposed to granular — way. They’re quite different from later turn-based grand-strategy games, which tend to owe a big debt to Civilization. This doesn’t help the modern player who has had that set of approaches ingrained. But the game is very, very worth it once you finally get yourself on its wavelength.


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