Pursuant to my comment over here, and following Zubon’s idea, I wanted to take a nostalgic look at Master of Magic, and with any luck, discern some game design principles that might be useful for designers today.
Ah, the MicroProse days. Master of Orion was one of the first games I spent a lot of time in. (The other being Star Control 2, another brilliant game that I’ll write about another time.) Later, XCom: Terror from the Deep was fantastic (difficult and frustrating at times, but the core concept and gameplay were excellent).
At its heart, Master of Magic is a 4X game, an expansive strategy game based on the 4 “X”s: — eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. It borrows themes from Magic: The Gathering and gameplay mechanics from Master of Orion, throwing in a fair bit of Civilization and shades of D&D. In other words, it uses time-honored gameplay and fantasy world elements. There were no earth shatteringly new concepts in MOM, but the game pulled elements together into a very enjoyable whole.
This “review” covers elements of the game, and how they are relevant today. First, the 4X concept:
MOM and the MOO games have random geography. Each game plays differently based on how the world is formed at the game’s start. There are a few factors to tweak to push the replay value even beyond the randomizer’s ability to provide new challenges, such as more powerful mana nodes (magical power sources) with concurrently more powerful guardians.
- This sort of randomized replay is great for players who want to test out different ideas. There’s a huge amount of replay in this game. Much of it is based on the choices that you make to start with; your magical focus and your race. There are a huge number of possible combinations. It must be said that the balance isn’t perfect, so some “builds” will be stronger than others, but even “weaker” choices will provide for unique challenges.
MOM has a dual world design, similar to the shadow world of The Legend of Zelda, a Link to the Past. There are towers that facilitate travel between the dark and light planes, but there are no guarantees of similar geographical features otherwise. Eventually, players may learn spells that allow their units to jump between planes outside of the towers (which are usually guarded by beasties). The dark plane is populated by meaner enemies and richer rewards.
- The dark/light duality is one that has been explored in many games in many ways. Here, it’s a way to provide a second front to fight on, as wizards typically start out in the light world. The choke points of the towers can provide for tactical blocking… at least until a wizard learns to jump planes without them. The increased power of the dark plane makes for a more interesting end game, as powers and costs escalate. It’s a nice pacing mechanism, and it provides for a second surge of exploration later in the game. Being the first wizard to start exploring and exploiting the dark plane is a great strategic edge.
Players start in a town of a race of their choice, controlling a wizard with chosen magical specialities, including different schools of magic and a variety of “talents” that modify different aspects of the game, like starting out on the dark plane, or being more charismatic, and thereby more attractive to heroes. Units must be sent out into the wild world to peel back the shroud of the unknown, possibly meeting heroes who can command your armies, neighboring wizard towns, neutral towns, or monsters.
- The initial choice of wizard spell school, talents and race make a big difference in the game. Again, the balance isn’t perfect, and there are some outstanding abilities as well as some real clunkers, but it’s fun trying out the different options, finding synergy between the mortal armies, magical abilities and talent modifiers. Giving players options is almost always a good thing, and in a game like this, it’s a huge part of the depth of the game. It’s designed to be played repeatedly, where a single world conquest may take a few hours or many days. Replay is vital in a game like this, and MOM has deep replay potential.
Pushing the edges of the unknown is both an external and internal process. Even your capital city will eventually run out of room, so you must expand. As you explore the world, you can and should send out settlers to build new towns. Town locations are important for the resources they offer to your empire, and a settlement near a river’s mouth will offer different strategic choices than a mountain village.
- Expanding the mortal empire via settlers provides a nice “empire management” layer to the game. Long term success depends on planning ahead, and exploration and expansion are key to positioning yourself to take advantage of the late game. This is the stuff that strategy geeks love, since players are rewarded for taking the time to really think about their plans, and for managing to execute them well.
You should also research the magics of your chosen discipline, developing greater knowledge of spells and greater ability to use them. Mana nodes found in the world can be claimed to channel energy into your efforts. It is even possible to win the game through research and the casting of the ultimate spell of mastery.
- Alternate win conditions are welcome in games that offer as many other options as this one does. It would have been great to offer a third win condition like MOO2 (a political conquest in addition to the military or mastery track), but the fact that you can fight a defensive war and win from your own tower has a certain appeal to it. It definitely lends itself to different play strategies, which is a good thing. That said, more often than not, whenever I’ve played and actually cast the spell of mastery, I could have had a military win as well. The buildup to make the spell of mastery possible will often coincide with the military might to wipe the planes of your enemies. I’d have liked a bit more differentiation between the paths.
- Magical research over time is a huge component of the game. Spells your wizard learns can affect combat, empire resources, creature summoning, hero abilities, artifact generation and more. Research is often key in games like this, and MOM carries on the fine tradition.
A budding empire needs resources. Towns are the primary source of the fuel for your conquest. Your most important infantry will come from the towns that you control, and the industry towns provide will sustain your armies as well as your magical efforts. The technology tree of town buildings provides for morale, magical research, military research and training, tax and trade income, defense and other tactical edges in the inevitable conflicts with neighbors. Smart city planning, including town location, will be key in building a self-sufficient empire.
- The midgame can sometimes get bogged down in the minutae of micromanaging an empire, for better or worse. It really does pay off to figure out ahead of time what your long term plans are. This sort of gaming is far removed from the twitch offerings of the FPS genre, and as MOM is turn-based, it’s even a step removed from the management of a typical RTS game. These 4X games are more leisurely affairs, where careful analysis and thinking are essential to succeed. It’s a different experience than the hyperkinetic games of the “mainstream”, and it’s all the richer for those who spend time seeking to understand the intricacies of the game.
Ah, combat. Every would-be conquerer will need to understand the art of war, even if it’s only as a means to defend yourself. Heroes shine in combat, as they are typically your strongest units, and can often confer benefits to other units in combat. They can also be equipped with magical artifacts (your wizard can create these, or they can be found or bought in the world) which push their abilities even further. Most will ask for an annual salary, but a few independently wealthy heroes will contribute to your war chest every year.
- Heroes aren’t vital to completing the game, but they do provide some great benefits. They will often make the difference in a tight fight, and often a team of heroes can move quicker than most other units, making for some great strategic options. Their abilities give greater depth to combat and strategic maneuvering than could be achieved with mere infantry.
Fantastic creatures also roam the lands. Everything from the undead zombies and skeletons to great dragons, hydras and djinns wander the world, and provide valuable experience (and sometimes useful loot or even magical tomes) for your armies when conquered. This is key, since your heroes have levels of ability, and experience can mean the difference between a dead hero and a legendary adventurer. Success hinges on building not only the resources of an empire, but also on building up the ability of your army. Some of these fantastic creatures can join your armies as a result of magic, but most will be challenges for your military units.
Speaking of military units, the bulk of your armies will be the stalwart souls you recruit from your loyal population. Controlling a race of Beastmen will provide different options from a Draconian warlord. Even mere humans can field some of the most dangerous units in mounted cavalry they call Paladins. Choosing magic spells and military units with complimentary strengths is one key to a successful campaign.
- This is perhaps where the game’s imbalances are most pronounced. Some races are flat out inferior in combat. Paladins slaughter pretty much any other unit, especially on the attack. They are expensive, but very powerful. It’s fun sometimes, but I’ll admit that it would have been nice to have more contenders to make things more interesting.
Combat itself is a tactical affair, played on an isometric grid. Opposing armies face each other, and must move across the field (or fly or teleport) and engage in ranged or melee combat. Wizards and some hero units can cast spells to affect combat, ranging from enchantments that buff your own units, hexes to punish opposing units, direct damage spells, or a host of status altering options.
- This is another place where the game could have used more polish. As it is, the game is still a great deal of fun, but things like flanking bonuses and terrain elevation and line of sight would have been great additions. The tactical combat is nice, but a relatively bare bones system compared to what it could be.
These 4X games are built for the thinking gamer, offering a wealth of strategic and tactical options. They are generally slow paced, and typically customizable. There is a great deal of play time packed into these games, and huge value for their cost. The classics of the genre, the “Master of” games, vigorously show that game play is still king in some genres. They are still very playable today, over a decade later, and provide much the same satisfaction as they did when they were new. Such lasting appeal is something that most designers aspire to. MOM is a classic game for good reason; it’s a lot of fun to play, and play, and play.
It’s even such a key to the genre that there are various projects to revitalize it for this newer generation of gamers. Stardock was angling to make a sequel, and while their desire in that seems to be frustrated, it is heartening that they have taken the design of MOM to heart.
Speaking of Stardock, for a modern 4X game, there really isn’t much (yet) to match the game play of MOM. There is, however, Sins of a Solar Empire, which I’ve heard much good about. One of these days, I’ll have to try it out. It would be interesting to see how things have evolved since MOO and MOO2. (I’m ignoring MOO3… that game doesn’t really belong to the Orion family, despite the name and license.)
There have been games in the MOM vein, like the Heroes of Might and Magic series, the Sierra Lords of Magic, or Warlords, but while those games have some charm of their own, they just don’t quite measure up to the playability of MOM, even with its warts. In a genre where game play reigns, Master of Magic is still in a class of its own.