I used to dream about Master of Orion. It was 1996, I was still a kid, and the idea of building an empire to span the galaxy was foremost in my mind pretty much all the time. A turn-based strategy game, this was for many years my favorite game of all time, but as its sequels arrived and tarnished my opinion of this game, my interest diminished. It came to my attention that whether you believe the first game or the second game is the best in the series is based entirely on which one you were introduced to first. I got into this game first, so it’s obviously better. It’s colorful, reeks thematically of 80s-era sci-fi, and the gameplay keeps relatively simple, sometimes to a fault. When my dad brought this game home for the first time, it kept him up until 5AM. It’s unfortunate that no one has followed up on Master of Orion properly, considering this game (or this kind of game) would be perfect for tablets. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the only article you will ever need to read about Master of Orion.

The year is 2300 and you are the immortal emperor (or king, or high priest, or whatever you want to call it) of a budding new wave of space-bound species to appear in the galaxy. Thousands of years ago, the Orions ruled with a vast empire and then mysteriously disappeared, so now everything’s back up for grabs. Each race has special perks: Psilons research faster, Silicoids can settle in any kind of environment, friendly or hazardous, from the get-go but have limited diplomatic options, Bulrathi are better at ground combat, etc. These advantages are far more pronounced here than in the sequels, so you can start a game with a specific play style in mind and pick a race with little worry of deviation.

Master of Orion is technically the first 4X-style strategy game – eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate – in which the only current living example is the long-running Civilization series. You start out with a star system with a pair of scouts and a colony ship. Those scouts can only go so far beyond your colonies’ reach, so you’ll need to expand to continue exploring the galaxy. Eventually you can research better fuel cells to carry your ships farther into the heavens and better engines to get them there faster. Each star on the map represents a single colony (sorry, multi-planet systems don’t appear until the sequel) so losing a colony has a bigger punch.

Managing individual colonies is pretty simple: you’re given a variety of areas to focus your points (by way of slider bars) between defense, industry, ship construction, research, and others. As your colony’s population begins to fill out, you’re given more slider bar to work with. Leave your colonies with little points going to research and you begin to fall behind your allies’ (or enemy’s!) knowledge, fail to build planetary defenses and invading forces will walk right over you unless you’ve got an impressive fleet in orbit. Easy to learn, difficult to master, but you’ll eventually find solid strategies that work better in early settlements and different ones as they mature. Get those super-industrialized colonies working on those super-titan spaceships, not ecological clean up! Who cares about the environment!

If you want to make it in this game, you best expand as soon as possible, which is not to be confused with expanding recklessly. As your scouts explore new systems, you can determine at a glance where you’re going to settle based on their habitability. Each new hazardous environment requires a new colonization module that has to be either researched, traded for, or stolen and then equipped on a ship. Some of these planets (like the mythical Orion, protected by an intimidating guardian) even provide bonus stats like better research. Friendlier environments also allow for larger populations and you’ll eventually discover terraforming techniques that turn your worlds into glowing green paradises.

As your first new technologies begin to roll in, you’ll need to start designing new ships. You get six model slots, so if there’s a new design that you find is imperative to future operations, you’ve got to remove another one. Doing so eliminates every single unit ever produced of that model, so hopefully they weren’t the workhorse of your war offensive… and then hopefully you haven’t declared war on everyone. If you need a new colony ship, you better scrap your old design or you’re gonna hafta craft that colony module onto one of your battle-ready ships. This forces you to be a bit more resourceful about fleet management in a sort of arbitrary and simplistic way, like the rules of a board game.

No grandiose strategy game can be considered classic without a series of random events to occasionally wreck your junk. The handy GNN robot above pops in from time to time to not only deliver glanceable stats about how your empire fares against others, but also informs you about plagues, stars that are about to go supernova, crystalline entities sweeping the galaxy, or worse, your colonies falling into open rebellion. Of course, it’s even more fun when you see the report that you ended up covertly inciting a rebellion on one of your enemy’s most productive worlds. Just sayin’.

As you plow through the heavens expanding your sphere of influence, you’ll eventually come across other species. (The Sakkra pictured here are particularly frisky, leading to better reproduction rates and colonies that are reinforced that much faster.) You can form agreements with them, establish trade routes that yield money for all parties, and trade technologies. Diplomacy is easily the flakiest part of the game as the artificial intelligences involved are pretty fickle. If you form an alliance with Party A and they go to war with Party B, and you happen to be friends with Party B, Party A will not stop bugging the living crap out of you until you join them on their nightmare hell ride to rid the galaxy of Party B. At other times, a dedicated, long-standing ally will declare war on you for no reason whatsoever. Frustrating.

Being nice to other races comes into play later on when the Orion Senate materializes, which happens when a majority of the galaxy is settled. Every quarter-century, the races of the galaxy convene to vote for a Supreme Ruler between the two largest empires. If you’re the lucky winning bag of protoplasm, you win the game. If someone else gets it, you either automatically lose or you’re forced into a final war in which the only outcome is your destruction, or theirs. So, unless you’re a big boss on the galactic stage, best be treating your allies nice.

Of course, no one’s going to get far without doing a lot of research, or stealing it at the very least. Research allows you to optimize the colonies you’ve already laid claim to, churn out larger, more powerful ships quicker, and sabotage your enemies more efficiently and covertly (even allowing you to frame other races for your malicious deeds). Much like colony management, you’re given eight different fields of research (from planetology to weaponry) that you can divvy your points into. If there are particular fields of knowledge you simply don’t care about, just divert those researchers to WMDs. (Various races will even come to condemn you, one by one, if you use biological weapons.)

As you build up your colonies, they can produce faster and defend themselves better. Missile bases work like ships when it comes to space battle, so the more the merrier.

I mentioned in my video review for Rise of Nations how innovative it was to have an infinite queue in sync with staging areas: your factories would produce an unlimited supply of units, provided they had enough resources, and then ship them off to a staging point to better allow you to project your power. I must admit I had totally forgotten about Master of Orion and one of my favorite end-game tactics in which I would surround the last of a dying race’s worlds and mount up an insane amount of hardware, ready to crush any opposition lickity-split. All those streaks you see above were pain-stakingly redirected from each individual colony to Paranar there. Not as elegant as Rise of Nations‘ solution, but coming out a decade earlier, I’ll forgive them.

What you see above is a pretty lop-sided battle sequence, but one that highlights how space combat works. Because dedicating a massive playfield to bringing each of those ships into real space would’ve destroyed the 386-range PCs of that era, there are six slots on each side of the screen for, dun dun dun, your six different ship designs. If you have more than one ship of that design in a group, it ‘stacks’ them and then doles out the damage as if there were really a thousand ships attacking, rather than what looks like a single ship with a ’1,000′ next to it. It’s a simple model and as a result, most ship battles go pretty quick. It’s on this battlefield where you start with primitive nuclear weapons and work up to black hole generators that suck up random quantities of enemy stacks into the ether. In both shots above, my fleet was so overwhelmingly large and overpowered that allowing them to bombard the Bulrathi colony would’ve pretty much liquidated the entire surface.

Eventually, you’ll come to a point where you’ll win by either securing the Orion Senate vote or by destroying every last opponent on the galactic stage.

Any one game of Master of Orion can last from an hour to three days and the fact that it doesn’t get too bogged down in mechanics allows you to keep an open mind to greater strategies without needing to sweat the small stuff. (The sequel would give you plenty of minutiae to keep track of.) Its an incredibly clever and colorful design with memorable audio production that, while it looks aged now, is still incredibly playable. There was a time when finding a working version of this game was one of the most difficult tasks ever, considering it originally shipped on a patch of 3.5″ floppies, but you can find this game and its sequel for an entire six dollars at Good Ol’ Games with a nearly perfect DOSBox emulation wrapper. You’ve spent more on bad fast food lunches, you owe it to yourself to give this game a spin.

There are a number of features missing in Master of Orion that I prayed for in a sequel and when they finally arrived… well, you’ll just have to wait for that article.