Preview - Master of Magic (DOS, 1994)

When it comes to strategy games, it's hard to have a better track record than Microprose. Over the years, this company has produced some of the most popular and widely acclaimed strategy titles ever to alter a gamer's sleep schedule. Railroad Tycoon and Civilization are already considered industry classics, and Master of Orion is sure to follow suit before long. Now Microprose is gearing up to release another high quality strategy game that is sure to inspire more sleep deprivation in its fans. Master of Magic will be upon us before too long, so it might not be a bad idea to start planning your vacation now.

Master of Magic is based in a fantasy world in which wizards are competing for domination of the land. Like its two direct predecessors (Civilization and Master of Orion) is a dangerously addictive mix of research, economic model, exploration, diplomacy, and war. Starting with one city, you'll have to build an empire to stand the tests of time. Whoops, sorry, wrong game. Well, you'll still start with one city (okay, a hamlet, if you must split hairs) and from such humble beginnings you'll set out to conquer two realms, one mundane and the other intensely magical.

Although Master of Magic is being developed by Simtex, the same group who created Master of Orion for Microprose last year, and it bears a striking similarity name-wise to its older brother, Master of Magic is much more similar to Civilization. Veterans of Civ will even find the interface roughly familiar, especially on the city management screen. In Master of Magic, each city is a production center. The cities produce military units like swordsmen, cavalry, and engineers, and they also build structures that add to the city's production capabilities. Some structures allow you to produce certain types of military units (like the stables which allow you to produce cavalry), while others give you increased income one way or another. (Examples of this include the marketplace which increase the gold produced by the city, and the shrine which gives you additional mana points each turn.)

There are three resources you need in Master of Magic: gold, food, and mana. Gold is produced by your cities, and is used to pay your army. Food functions in much the same way, causing the size and number of your cities to directly affect the size of the army you can support. Mana is the measurement of your magical power, which is used when you cast spells. Mana is stored up until you use it by spellcasting, and its proper use is crucial to your success in the game.

The technology trees found in Civilization and Master of Orion have been replaced by spell research. Spell research is automatically carried out, much like the research in Civilization, and you can decrease the number of turns it takes you to research spells by building libraries in your cities. Many spells are used in combat, such as blessings for your armies and ice bolts hurled at your enemies, while others enchant cities to alter their production. As an example, a spell might cause its target city to produce more research points, but slightly decrease its population growth. Other spells summon armies of creatures (war bears, skeletons, giant spiders . . . ) and bind them to your will, giving you more troops to take into battle.

One thing that Master of Magic does very differently than its predecessors is combat. Here, combat is carried out from a 3D isometric view. Different armies are brought into battle by stacking them all together and then moving them into a map square occupied by an opponent. Once in battle, each army is manipulated individually in turn-based play. If you've ever played one of SSI's AD&D Gold Box titles, you have a rough idea. This gives Master of Magic more tactical savvy than its forebears.

It has occurred to me that most people in the known universe are Civilization fans, whether they realize it or not. Anyone who has stayed up 'til dawn making peace with Lincoln and war with Alexander should have a great deal of fun with Master of Magic. It seems that Simtex and Microprose are being fairly conservative with this title, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Not by a long shot. There's a reason people still play Civilization, and anyone who has been captivated by that game is bound to fall hook line and sinker for Master of Magic. Soon gamers around the world will fall under its dark spell, and see their personal productivity plummet like a rock.

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