You start off with a single homeworld in a hostile galaxy. You have to build ships, colonize worlds, research technology, grow your empire, construct warships, defend your colonies, and (eventually) subjugate the other other players to become the dominant species. It’s sometimes referred to as “Civilization, but in space”.
Some people celebrate Master of Orion 2 as the pinnacle of this sort of game. And just so you know what you’re getting into here: I am one of those people. The game came out in 1996, the same year the original Quake hit the shelves. MOO2 turns twelve this year, and I still think it’s the best of its kind. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Galactic Civilizations series is outstanding, but it never matched the MOO2 perfection for me. (Sadly, while I celebrate MOO2 as the best of 4X games, the sequel not only failed to live up to the greatness of its predecessor, it failed in a more general sense to be entertaining at all. MOO3 was the worst 4X game, and should only be sampled out of curiosity and masochism.)
Like my Starcraft review, I want to examine this classic and see if we can figure out what
made makes it so great, and why its charm has never been duplicated.
Preamble thus complete, let’s get pedantic:
At the heart of a 4X game is the strategic decision making. The interface needs to clearly convey information, and then allow you to act on it as seamlessly as possible. It’s very easy to flood the user with too much data, or to muddle it. I think these games can be judged on the strength of how well they communicate with the user. A 4X game is its interface. On one hand, the game involves juggling tons of numeric data. On the other hand, the more it looks like a spreadsheet the less fun it’s going to be.
When administrating any one of the many planets in your empire, you have to decide what proportion of the inhabitants to assign to each of the three jobs: Farming, Production, and Research. They can spend time making food to support the population, working in factories to construct buildings or space cruisers, or researching technology to make more bountiful harvests, better buildings, more powerful space ships, etc. Anyone who’s played a strategy game will recognize these tradeoffs. On each planet, there can be several different type of inhabitants:
- Conquered and rebellious alien slaves: Like, you just invaded this planet a few turns ago and their technological distinctiveness has been added to your own. Because you’re the magnanimous sort of conquering tyrant, instead of exterminating the populace you’ve clapped them in irons and set them to work. Rebellious slaves have terrible output no matter what job you give them.
- Assimilated or subjugated slaves: After spending a few turns under the whip, the unruly slaves accept the inevitability of your iron-fisted rule, and begin working for you in earnest. Their inherent racial bonuses kick in at this point, so if you’ve enslaved the brainiac race you’ll get the most out of them by handing them lab coats and making them come up with new zap guns or whatever. If they are more of a mechanized Borg-like race, then the factories are the best place for them. But, you know, whatever your malevolence desires.
- Androids: Depending on the needs of your empire, you can “build” robots instead of “growing” people. They eat no food, they don’t have morale problems, but they don’t get any fancy bonuses to their output and they incur an ongoing cost to maintain. Depending on the makeup of your empire, you might find it useful to build some.
- Indigenous tribals: Once in a while you’ll run into a planet with an existing tribal population. They join your empire without hesitation, but their simple primitive minds can’t handle the complexities of your jet-setting, space-faring lifestyle. Ergo, they can only farm.
- Your own people: The eventual and rightful rulers of the galaxy, assuming you don’t botch your job and end up losing.
This is actually a bit tricky from an interface perspective. In a more modern game, you’d probably allocate people to these jobs with sliders. Maybe they’d throw a drop-down box in there. But MOO2 just has a bunch of icons that you can pick up and shuffle around, like moving stacks of poker chips. This makes what would otherwise be a very dull bit of accounting into a visually appealing and tactile experience. When you click on a worker, you grab them and everyone to the right of them, making it easy to move huge numbers of people from one job to another with minimal cursor calisthenics. It’s simple, it’s elegant, and it’s been replaced in modern games with sliders and buttons and scrollbars. Think of it this way: If you were playing Risk, would you rather scoop up armies and place them by the handful, or enter numbers into a grid?
But ease of input is just half of the equation. As fun as it is to put your minions to their work, you need lots of information before you can make those kinds of decisions. It’s one thing to look at the list of numbers associated with a colony and see the number for “economic output” is really big and the number for “research” as much smaller. It’s quite another to look and see this huge stack of glittering coins over a meager handful of beakers. It builds a sort of procedural face to go with the sterile numeric data. The colonies themselves become more iconic and memorable. The numbers are there too, if you need them, but most of the time you’re just looking for information like “which is bigger?” and “who has the most?” If I’m deciding if I want to have the cake or the pie, I’d rather look at the desserts in question than see a listing of how much each one weighs.
Space combat is far and away more interesting than combat in any other turn-based series I’ve played. The ship designer feature of Galactic Civilizations is tremendous fun, but once you get into a fight the two sides just float about blasting each other like armadas of jellyfish. In MOO2, the ships move about on a grid in the best tradition of tabletop strategy games. Different weapons have different damage outputs at different distances, and this mini-game offers incredible depth for anyone who enjoys moving their pieces around the board and making the other ships go kablooey. (It reminds me a bit of how Battletech has been described to me.) Me? I’m impatient, so I usually hit the “auto” button and let the AI go to town. It still makes for a fun show.
New engine and shield technologies are automatically applied to all existing ships. This is a little unrealistic, but it really eliminates a ton of busywork other games impose on you as you scroll around, upgrading each unit manually. This can turn into a huge time sink if you’re in the middle of a war and are racing up the tech ladder in an attempt to beat your foe with brains instead of brawn. In MOO2, you only need to upgrade when you want to roll out new weapons.
This is not to say that MOO2 is flawless or that it should be imitated in all ways by later games. The Galactic Senate screen is hopelessly shallow. The diplomacy is so primitive as to be nearly useless. And while I’ve dumped on the GalCiv AI from time to time, it’s lightyears ahead of the schizophrenic idiots running your rivals in MOO2.
But in the end the MOO2 gameplay has endured. MOO2 has levels of fun not found in later strategy titles, because newer games have moved away from the blocky icons and “game piece” style interface as they tried to put a more grown-up face on the old gameplay.
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