I have been an avid fan of turn based empire-building games since I was a child. I’ve played many of them, and usually for days on end, I probably have thousands of hours logged in Civilization II. Based on my experience I can confidently say that Master of Orion II is the best of the bunch even looking back now from 2018.
It just got so much right! So many elements of this game were leaps ahead of the genre. Everything is fun in Master of Orion II; exploration, empire building, science, war, even espionage. Many games that bring innovation to the genre, but many times that innovation falls flat on it’s face (Have you seen Master of Orion 3?) Master of Orion 2 challenges you on every level, and presents you interesting choices in all elements of gameplay.
The first noticeable difference between MOO2 and the other 4X games, and probably the most entertaining, is species creation. In MOO2 you get to create your alien race using an impressive customization screen reminiscent of the Fallout 1 and 2 character generator. Of course there are plenty of stock aliens to choose from, but you better believe it’s way more fun to make your own!
You can create a race of fragile, slow-to-reproduce, subterranean ultra smart science super nerds. Or you can make a race of telepaths that have a fetish for gold coins who use their telepathy to make favorable trade agreements. You can even make a race that doesn’t need to eat organic food but can get by eating minerals allowing them the ability to live on any planet and never worry about farming.
You could even draw on other popular aliens of science fiction and see how they would perform. How would you create StarCraft’s Zerg or Protoss in this sandbox? How about StarTrek’s Klingons, Romulans or Borg?
I have played hundreds of games and I still have builds I am interested in trying. The replay value is unparalleled.
Exploration and Colonization
In MOO2 expansion has some subtleties that make it fun and interesting. This game takes place in space, and instead of settling on land, you settle on entire planets that orbit stars. Early in the game your ships have primitive engines and can not venture very far from your home system.
Generally the map is generated to put some distance between you and your neighbors, at least until you settle a little further away. This means you will not need to fight for expansion space with any other races early in the game. There is usually plenty of room in your own little area to build up a solid empire before you need to arm up and battle.
The juiciest randomly-generated systems often come with a space monster protecting them. You need to develop the firepower to destroy the space monster before colonizing that system. This is awesome for three reasons:
- It mitigates luck based advantages of starting next to a high quality system because even if you do, it will take some time to destroy the space monster.
- Interesting game states present themselves in which a player must make the choice of researching weapon systems and building ships to destroy the monster as fast as possible as opposed to taking a more balanced research path and concentrating on infrastructure.
- Race situations can take place, where two competing civilizations try to destroy the space monster and colonize the system before the other.
There is a good variety in expanding in this game as opposed to Civilization. In Civilization you always need to fight for land because if you fall behind in number of cities then you are at a disadvantage. That is true in Master of Orion 2 as well, but you can simply colonize fewer but higher quality planets for equal footing.
Even if that doesn’t work you can make poor planets better by getting terraforming technology, hydroponic farming or biospheres.
Diplomacy is always a breaking point in these 4X empire building games. In my opinion this is always the low point of Civilization games since Civ2. Either there aren’t enough diplomatic options or the AI acts so inexplicably the diplomacy screen isn’t even worth visiting. Well for a game that was released in the same year as Civilization 2, it had diplomacy that was more interesting that it has ever been.
The typical options are all there: trade technology (more on this in the science section), offer gifts to improve relations, demand technology/money/system, make alliances and if you really want to, you can surrender.
This all seems pretty normal, and for the most part it is. But here is what this game offers that is so brilliant and head of its time. When you sign a trade treaty or a science treaty you don’t just gain an immediate trade. Instead both of your civilizations begin PAYING money, and then eventually over several turns your deficit turns into a bonus and this bonus gets bigger over time. Both of your civilizations begin gaining bonus research points and income every turn and this number continues to grow as your civilizations prosper.
Civilization 5 recently (and I am talking 2010) implemented a science treaty system similar to this, and I am happy they finally realized what a great idea it is. This gives you incentive to actually stay at peace, and keep the peace with everyone. Also when you have a very strong and beneficial agreement going, it puts both parties in an interesting position to make demands. In this case a declaration of war isn’t just an inconvenience (and sometimes in the case of being very far apart, a total non-issue) to an actual detriment because losing the 200 research points and 150 income every turn is a big deal.
I can’t stress enough how innovative and excellent this move is. Not being at war isn’t the only incentive for peace anymore. You actually WANT to build many long-lasting relationships because the more science and trade agreements you have the higher you can fly.
One of the racial attributes is called Repulsive, and having it means you cannot do any diplomacy other than declare war and surrender. Sometimes the other races in the galaxy are repulsive (very often in the higher difficulty levels), and you have no choice but to be at war with them. It keeps you on your toes and makes diplomacy with the other races even more important.
Name a game that has fun espionage. Go ahead take your time. Espionage in turn based strategy games is like a water level in a side-scrolling platformer. It almost feels like a necessary evil that breaks up and bogs down the gameplay. It’s something that you need to deal with before continuing with your game.
MOO2 gets it right once again. In this game you handle all your spying activity in one screen with no need to manually move all your spies around. You simply assign offensive and defensive spies where you choose, give them a mission and thats it. Depending on how many spies are on offense vs how many spies are on defense, together with spy skill (which can be modified by racial bonuses and technology) your missions are successful or not on a given turn. Sometimes you will capture enemy spies. An alert saying “Your spies have caught and killed a Bulrathi spy” will be shown. Other times your spies will get killed, and you will need to replace them.
Here is the cool part. Sometimes after completing a mission (stealing technology, blowing up a barracks) your spy will report with “Your spy has stolen Planetary Supercomputer technology. Your spy framed the Bulrathi.” Making your target think the Bulrathi stole the technology! Leaving you without any diplomatic problems and maybe even causing some between your enemies! I am sure when you get reports of “Bulrathi has stolen a tech” it’s a frame up much of the time.
You can choose to confront the spy civilization in question and tell them to stop spying, but what if they never spied? Is it worth the risk of ruining a trade agreement?
Science isn’t managed like in other games where you will get all the technology eventually. See in the picture there are eight fields of science? And in each field there are several options? Well you get to choose only one path of research per field, per level. Meaning, in this case in the Physics field of science, I can choose to get the Phasor (which is a ship weapon), Phasor Rifle (for my ground troops) or Multi-Phased Shields (Ship defense). If I choose phasor I will be forever unable to get Phasor Rifle or Multi-Phased Shields. The next time I see the physics field it will have three different options and I will need to choose again.
You always need to choose what component of your technology you want to improve. Do you want faster engines or more powerful missiles? Do you want more food per farmer or a faster growth rate? Do you want more income or better trained troops?
This concept is also what makes technology trading so interesting. You can get research one thing, and an ally can research another, and then you can trade them. Another reason why having long-term allies is good in this game beyond just safety. Of course you can also steal the technology with spies or through capturing ships! I am a big fan of making choices in my games. Having to make a definitive choice on which technology to research and which technologies to leave behind is one of the most interesting choices and greatly improves variety.
This system of science mitigates a runaway leader problem because that runaway leader can never get all the technology on the way up. Although the AI isn’t very good at this, conceptually if all of the “losers” band together and trade technology while the runaway leader is only getting 1 tech per field the losers might have a pretty good catch-up mechanic.
Of course, racial attributes can effect how you research. When you are customizing your race you can make them generate more research per scientist, or you can take the “Creative” trait, which means you never need to choose. When you research a field you get all technology in the field. It’s a very powerful trait. On the other hand, you can take “Uncreative”, and only have one random choice available from each field.
Another awesome concept that has to do with science: when you keep developing in one field of science, it improves your ability to use that technology. Applying level of “miniaturization” to all your ship systems from that field. This means when you first discover a new kind of gun it takes up lots of space on your ships. Then once you keep researching laser weapons, with each level of research you complete, the gun gets smaller and smaller on your ship. It’s progressive and realistic concept that goes almost unnoticed.
Space combat is a rewarding experience in MOO2. You get to design, construct and name your ships. You have a full hands-on approach to making your fleet. You choose the size of your ship, and all the systems on it from a list of weapons and upgrades you have researched.
Missile ships, beam ships, ships that carry smaller ships, ships that do nothing but move quickly and self-destruct, ships with tractor beams, bombers and ships that are specialized in boarding and taking over enemy ships. That isn’t even all of them, those are just some of the archetypes I find myself using. Not to mention that “missile ship” has dozens of ways to do it.
Even the missiles themselves have upgrades! You can make your missiles super fast so they spend less time flying in space and being shot down. Missiles can be heavily armored so it takes more hits to shoot them down. They can have anti-jammer technology which will let them ignore enemy jammers, a common missile defense system. Your missile can be “MIRV” which means they split into multiple warheads and do 4x the damage on impact. Or… your missiles can be all of these things!
When you board an an enemy ship your crew and the enemy crew do battle. If you win you gain control of the ship. Sometimes you can use the ship, other times its immobile and has to wait until after the battle. You get a choice of keeping the ship, or reverse engineering it for technology.
Leaders can be assigned to ships to give them bonuses (more on leaders later). The only problem with war in MOO2 is how poorly the AI makes ships. The AI tends to go for a balanced approach to ship building when a min/max approach is usually superior. It’s a minor gripe, making your own ships is super fun.
Oh did I mention this game has multiplayer!? Yeah you can go fleet vs fleet with your friend. Of course setting up multiplayer on this ancient DOS relic is a bit of a chore.
Other than the pride in victory, taking over planets has been injected with more fun than ever. Remember how I said all the aliens are different? Well they keep their racial attributes when you capture them.
Once you have them enslaved, you can transport them to other planets in your systems and breed them (as… politically incorrect as that sounds…) Let’s say for example that you conquer the Bulrathi. The Bulrathi can live and work on high-gravity planets with no ill effects (Usually working on a high-G planet has penalties). If you have high-G planets in your empire you can move the Bulrathi citizens to those planets where they will not suffer any penalties, and safety move your fragile colonists to a normal or low-G planets. Or maybe you capture a race of strong researchers and transport them to a planet with ancient artifacts to maximize your research. Master of Orion II is the best games at rewarding your micromanagement.
A fun little gimmick. Leaders randomly offer you their services. There are colony leaders, and ship pilots. They offer special bonuses to the colony or ship. Usually these bonuses are VERY good like +40% to production or science. There isn’t much you can do about actually getting leaders other than wait, although the “charismatic” racial trait does help attract them. But it’s definitely fun to get a staff of truly powerful leaders (like the game in the picture above). Some planets you have can become amazing powerhouses when they get +60% to production and moral.
Creating amazing colonies is one of the funnest aspects of Master of Orion (or any empire building game). Remember when I said micromanagement is rewarded? Colony management is where it shines. Each planet has different size, weather, toxicity and mineral richness and some are better than others. You will look for large abundant terrestrial planets for your powerhouse colonies, but even that tiny, toxic, poor, high gravity worlds can be made into great colonies because of how buildings work.
While games like civilization have buildings like a library or a marketplace which add a multiplying to the cities natural output, Master of Orion goes a different way. Buildings in this game give you base resources in addition to the multiplier. A automated factory for example amplifies your production, but also adds production. Even if you don’t get any outstanding planets you are still in decent shape thanks to all the building bonuses you can acquire.
Winning the Game
There are several ways to win the game. You can win via diplomacy, by being voted galactic council leader, which is accomplished by having lots of alliances with people and buttering them up so they vote for you. Then of course you can kill or conquer everyone. The third is the most interesting win condition, you can call it the scientific victory. The Antarans are a race of malevolent aliens that harass you all game. They come out of nowhere and attack your colonies with superior technology and just do damage. Maybe towards the end of the game you can actually defend yourself, but for the majority of the game they are like a mob of raging barbarians. One of the victory conditions is to go to the Antaran home world and destroy it. It involves developing a dimensional portal and marching a massive fleet into unknown Antaran space. It is exciting.
Master of Orion 2 got everything right. Even today, knowing what I know now, with all my experience playing these types of games I can’t think of anything to change about this game. Maybe it needs a graphics and sound overhaul, but even the graphics and sounds aren’t that bad. You can play this game on DOS if you have the correct tools. Do it. Here are the links.