Master of Orion originally launched in 1993 and brought the 4X strategy game with it. Fans of the genre are familiar with the four main ways to achieve victory within the game; eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The last game in the franchise was released over a decade ago in 2003, than laid dormant until Wargaming.net purchased it from the Atari bankruptcy. Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars is a reboot of the franchise. To be fair, I’ve played strategy games here and there, but this is my first time diving into a Master of Orion game or a 4X strategy game. I found MoO to be more of a finished game than many of its Early Access peers. The game does have a manageable learning curve, efficient menus, good micromanaging, but may suffer in terms of replayability due to a straightforward technology tree and relatively similar races.
There are three main resources in MoO; research, food, and production. These resources are all driven by population, the player’s most valuable asset. Food is needed for population to grow, research is needed for new technological advances, and production is needed to for the construction of buildings and ships. Population is effectively the medium for putting those learned technological advances to use. Population superiority in the game is advantageous to progressing faster in all areas, being able to do more in less time.
These resources are simple to grasp, but that simplicity on the surface disguises the complexity that involves managing the resources at hand to advance and expand your empire as fast as possible. Habitable planets also vary in what they have available due to their differing sizes, biomes, and mineral richness. Players have to adapt to what’s available and seek out more favorable planets to colonize. The ability to create, or terraform planets also becomes available with the right research as the game progresses.
Players also have to worry about population morale and planet pollution, as well as roving pirates. There’s enough going on at all times to keep players busy: making small and large decisions and weighing risks, and hedging threats. The better strategy games have the ability to offer checks and balances among the various aspect of the game. You do find that here with constraints and ways to overcome them. To sum up the main problem of the game in a single question: how do you maximize the productivity of resources within constraints, and what can you do to maximize the parameters of these constraints? Constructing different types of buildings or ships, colonizing new planets, and advancing certain technology allows players to overcome those constraints. However, it takes resources and time to commit to overcoming those hurdles. It’s this push and pull between the resources used and benefits gained, that leads to delicate decision making for players.
The game offers five ways the player can reach victory (I know, I know it’s a 4X game but there’s technically five ways in the reboot of MoO). Score has players reaching the best overall score before the time limit. Conquest Victory means eliminating all your opponents by destroying all colonies. Technological Victory involves the research and construction of three advanced technologies to transcend the universe (yay science!). Economic Victory requiring players to build at least one Planetary Stock Exchange and reach 42% of GGP and purchasing 42% of outstanding GMF shares for at least 10 turns. Finally, there’s diplomatic victory which involves becoming the elected Supreme Chancellor of the galaxy.
Each game is different due to different starting points, different surrounding planets, different races to play as and against. The races all have slight differences from staring on different home worlds with different biomes, to differing starting technologies, bonus to certain resources and so on. These can affect how the races play, with some being more difficult to win with than others. The ability to create custom races always exists as well. While the technology tree doesn’t change between races, having different races does add longevity to the game’s lifespan.
Your race advances using a Technology Tree with a few starting points to choose from; Government, Advance Magnetism, Electronics, Biology, and Engineering. The Technology Tree is large and will keep players busy even in long running games that take the full 500 turns. Some reach needs multiple prerequisites to be met (usually two) before it can be chosen. Nodes can give you upgraded ship weapons, armor, new buildings, increased command points and so on. Other nodes make you choose between two or more different types of research, so picking one means you cannot learn the others. I found all the technology to be useful in one way or another. It was nice to see that, as choosing between two useful technology advancements makes decision making hold more weight. Early nodes are important for establishing base needs of colonies, so players will likely spread the research evenly early.
Analyzing it at a higher level, the Technology Tree is a bit of a hit or miss with me. It’s very flexible and forgiving, as players can research various types of technology at ease. Great for players who don’t like being forced into a single strategy as the game progresses. However, since it doesn’t isolate the player or force them down one branch every game seems to run together. This kind of undermines the “tree” where going further down a branch makes it tougher to switch strategies the further you commit to your current one. However, with a 4X strategy game and multiple ways of victory putting players in an increasingly narrow silo isn’t the best idea either (i.e. since you can win in multiple ways). Hence the mention of it being a bit of a hit or miss. I never really felt like I needed an overall plan or strategy for my empire. It’s certainly possible to dominate in all categories of victory simultaneously. Which usually led to the best tactic in my games to boil down to: research it all!
An important factor for the game’s success is how well the menu’s function and how well the game minimizes the pain of performing 500 turns full of micromanaging. While micromanaging is a big part of this game (and is fun), reducing some of the pain associated with this is a must. I felt Master of Orion accomplished this. The game tells you what ships need orders, and allows you to advance ships all at once. This minimizes pointless micromanagement, which is a good thing. Learning the icons didn’t take too long and utilizing them to quickly manage your empire was fairly easy. You’ll mostly be spending the micromanagement queuing up production projects or managing your each colony’s population to squeeze out every ounce of productivity you can. Updates are given every turn appear on the bottom right of the screen regarding pirates, competed projects, population growth etc. I can focus on these without having to check every single planet, for every single turn.
Fleets engage in combat with each other in one of two ways. Players can take control of the fleet directly, or through an automated battle. Player can see the strength of the other race’s fleets, plus the game generates a battle favorability bar that gives approximate odds (i.e. excellent, fair, etc.). Manually controlling the fleet occurred on a grid with the two opposing fleets and floating asteroids. Players can select which ships to send in and what they should do. Most importantly you can pause and start the battle at any time to adjust tactics and think about your next move. Overall I found manual battles to be a bit tedious, opting for the automated battles. If you’re proficient and the computer is giving lower odds, I would say go for the manual battle as players will lose automated battles with lower and even equal odds quite often.
In general this is a weaker part of the game. I didn’t find a better strategy than have a larger and stronger fleet. Yeah, it’s a bit obvious that having a stronger fleet would lead to a victory in head to head matches. That’s because its only head to head space battles. There’s no reason to sacrifice a small fleet as decoy, or use a pincer attack with another fleet. The combat just doesn’t work like that. Military might in this fashion isn’t very strategic. Once the enemy AI fleets are gone, it’s just a war of attrition on the colonies.
Master of Orion is shaping up to be an enjoyable strategy game. The menus and visuals are nice, and easy to navigate. The game has a steep learning curve, but after a game or two players should understand the majority of games main gameplay functions and mechanisms. There are almost a dozen races to choose from, but they aren’t entirely different to truly affect how players manage their empire. The same is true for the technology tree. You’ll come across the same technology since all races share the same trees. Space battles aren’t very strategic and the best course of action is though brute force. The main problem the game faces is longevity and it comes from the Technology Tree and races. Not in the sense that matches are short, actually they can be quite long (I had a single match go 15+ hours for the full 500 turns). Its longevity in regards to how many matches can a player play, before they’ve seen it all before.