Master of Orion is a MS-DOS game that was released in 1994. Master of Orion(MOO) is a turn based strategy game. Starting on a single planet, the goal is to expand and colonize other planets, while researching better technologies; building industry, planetary defenses, and battleships; negotiating with rival races (as well as spying on them); and invading other people's colonies. As might be presumed by the list of activities, the game was geared towards conflict; all viable ways of winning the game involved having a significant military presence, through sheer numbers of units or just technological supremacy.

There is actually a bit of a plot to the game. As the title suggests, whoever becomes the "Master of Orion" will gain an advantage over the other races. Orion is guarded by the Guardian, a relic of the ancient race of the Orions (who have since disappeared from the galaxy). Your race, along with up to 5 others (out of 10 total choosable races) have just gained space flight technology. Should you defeat the Guardian, you would not only gain Orion (the best planet in the game for colonizing), but also plunder the technological secrets of the Orions, setting you years ahead of your rivals.

The user interface is poor by today's standards, but adequate-to-good for that time. The main screen consists of the starmap; the color of the names of the stars indicate which race (if any) owns a given star. On the right side of the screen, the currently selected object (a star or a fleet) is displayed, along with pertinent characteristics.

In the case of a star (note that a star only has one planet, so I use the term 'star' and 'planet' synonymously), the climate and maximum population size is always displayed (unless the star is unexplored, in which case nothing is known about it). If the star is colonized, a series of sliders determines what it produces. The entire output of the planet is always utilized; it can go towards building ships, building missile defenses or shields for the planet, building more factories, environmental aspects (like terraforming or cleaning up pollution), and finally, research.

In the case of a fleet, the display is much simpler. The types and numbers of ships comprising the fleet are displayed, as well as its destination and ETA.

The rest of the UI happens in sub-menus. The Design button allowed you to design new ships featuring your latest and greatest technology. In the Fleet sub-menu, the status of all of your fleets could be examined, the specs of your current ships could be determined, and the design could be scrapped if they were hopelessly outdated. The Map button showed the entire galactic map (only a zoomed in portion of it is visible on the main screen), along with information about planetary conditions. The Planets sub-screen shows all of your colonized planets, what they are producing, their populations, etc., and the Tech menu allowed you to examine what your scientist have researched thus far, and what they were currently researching.

The research system deserves a closer look. There were six fields of research, all of which were simultaneously researched. (For the record, they are Computers, Construction, Force Fields, Planetology, Propulsion, and Weapons). The fields are displayed in the Research sub-screen with slider bars next to them, so the percentage of total research devoted to them can be adjusted. Thus, if you need a new shield to counter an enemy's devastating new weapon, you'd ramp the "Force Field" slider up -- to the detriment of the other types of technology, of course.

The diplomacy screen also contains a good deal of detail. Each alien race that you've had contact with is displayed, as well as their attitude towards you. You can negotiate with them for trade pacts, technology exchanges, or alliances; more nastily, you can ask them to declare war on another race or threaten to attack them and hope they give you money. In addition, spying is initiated from the diplomacy screen, where the ubiquitous sliders control how much of your GDP is devoted to spying on a given empire, as well as a slider for allocating money towards internal defense.

Ship design is almost the best part of the game. Pick a hull size (small, medium, large, or huge), equip it with engines, computers, shields, ECM, and armor. Then, equip it with weapons. Beam weapons and missiles are the most prevalent choices, although torpedoes and bombs also are significant. Special additions to the ship can be added -- Battle Scanners tell you more about enemy ships, while Automated Repair fixes your ship at the end of every turn. Finally, you can choose which of the pre-drawn pictures your ship will look like, and what its name should be. When an alien race is edging you out in a fiercely fought war, there's nothing more satisfying than popping up the design screen and designing a Huge ship named "The Dominator" and arming it with ridiculous amounts of explosives, envisioning all the while your enemy's fiery death.

But I get ahead of myself. What are the ships without a battle system? When two enemy fleets are in the same system at the same time, combat is initiated. Combat is also turn-based; the fleets line up on opposite sides of the map and have at it. If there is a planet with a missile base on it, the planet also shows up on the star map (otherwise the planet is still there, but it is irrelevant). The ships then maneuver about, shooting at each other, until one fleet is destroyed or has run away. The winner then stays in control of the system, while the loser's ships retreat (if indeed there are any left).

As might be inferred from the above, I am quite a fan of the game. In my opinion, this is what a strategy game should be all about. It has quite a bit of depth and a number of "sub-games" combat, diplomacy, even ship design and research. Essentially, the entire preceding description can be taken as my endorsement of the game, and things I like about it. In addition, the game contains something that is often lacking: replay value. While military might is the foundation of a victory, there are many winning strategies that build off of it. Part of the fun of the game is that it is never mastered -- can you win while building only small ships? How about without researching technology, only acquiring it through trade or espionage? These factors alone lend the game tremendous replay value. In addition, the different races offer unique playing styles. Each race has its own advantage -- the Meklars can make more factories, the Darloks are expert spys, etc. A strategy that would work for one race might fall flat on its face with another. The final addition to its replay value is the multiple difficulty levels. At the hardest level, even an expert player must try quite hard in order to win. The one good thing about the interface is the slider system that controls everything; this takes a lot of the micro-management out of the picture, a problem which often plagues turn-based strategy games.

All this praise for the game must be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The most glaring problem exhibited by the game is the AI. The enemy races are capricious and irritating, breaking treaties and declaring war on you whenever it seems that you're gaining the upper hand. Should you convince them to declare ware on another race, they will, in all probability, make peace with them a few turns later. The interface is another negative point. It is controlled entirely by the mouse, and features few keyboard shortcuts. Finally, the game is also (obviously) dated; while this doesn't change the fact that it is fundamentally a good game, it does make it hard to run on modern machines, and gives it poor graphics, sound, and interface -- at least by modern standards.

All in all, Master of Orion is a very solid game that I have enjoyed for many years. Its replay value and depth make it a game that I keep coming back to. While it may have all the flaws of an 8 year old DOS game (bad graphics, sound, and interface), its core gameplay shines through its ugly exterior like a shit-covered diamond

If all of this has convinced you to try the game, go for it! It runs fine under Win2k (so probably under NT and XP as well), or in pure dos mode for Win9x. Also, xdosemu runs it flawlessly.

Part of the Node your homework series. Ah, the onerous chore of writing a game review.