Review - Master of Magic (DOS, 1994)

Simtex and Microprose are lying to you. There's no other way I can put it. It's not really a bad lie, but they are distorting the truth as it pertains to marketing. I can't really blame them, though. It's been a weird 12 months as far as publicity for their products is concerned. About a year ago they released Master of Orion; although Microprose had nothing to do with this, MOO was heralded by the press as being "Civilization in space." It wasn't. Now we have Colonization, which was hyped as the sequel to Civilization. It is. Last but not least there's Master of Magic. Considering its name, and the fact that it was developed by Steve Barcia and Simtex Software, it should come as no surprise that it has been billed as the sequel to Master of Orion. It's not. It's another sequel to Civilization. Weird, huh?

To top off the whole mess, Master of Magic and Colonization were released mere days apart from one another. Someone at Microprose must be kicking themselves in the head over that one. Didn't they see that the two games would only compete with each other on the strategy market? Didn't they realize that by placing their release dates three months or so apart they could get people to buy the first game, play it for a while, then buy the second one? Should I quit writing, shave my eyebrows, and get a job in the marketing field?

I'm not trying to slander Microprose. All the above mentioned games are superb high-quality strategy games, the kind Microprose has built its reputation on. Which leads me to the game at hand...

Master of Magic may be billed as the sequel to Master of Orion, but it has more in common with Civilization, right down to the main interface. MOM is a game of magical conquest. You play one of up to five competing wizards, who are all struggling to become the ultimate magical presence of two parallel worlds--the earth-like realm of Arcanus, and the shadowy arcane plane of Myrror. There are two ways to win: by demolishing the opponent wizards with military force, or by successfully casting the Spell of Mastery, a feat that can only be accomplished through massive amounts of spell research.

You start off with only the basics--a small city and just enough military units to start exploring the land around you. Like a certain other Microprose game that doesn't start with "Master," the production of your cities is one of the key points of the game. Each city has a certain production value (which is dependent on population, natural resources, and a few other factors) which is used to create buildings and military units.

With each game turn you build up three key resources: food (which feeds your citizens and armies, in case you couldn't figure that out for yourself); gold (which pays for things like armies, building maintenance, and heroes-for-hire); and mana (which powers all your magical efforts). As you would expect, careful management and usage of these resources is the only way to stay afloat. Creating too many military units and hiring too many expensive heroes can leave you unable to feed your subjects and maintain your buildings, while frivolous spellcasting will leave you open to all kinds of attack.

It should come as no surprise that magic is the most important element in the game. As opposed to, oh, a technology tree for example, your scholarly efforts are spent researching spells. Through the use of spells you will defend your cities, increase production in stagnant areas, attack your enemies' units, curse the cities of opposing wizards, travel between the two planes, and accomplish a host of other neat tricks. But even if you've researched every spell in the book (yeah, right!) you'll need mana to cast them with. Although there are many ways to acquire mana in isolated bursts, there are two main paths to building up a steady turn-by-turn mana income. The first is by creating the appropriate buildings within your cities; certain buildings, such as libraries and parthenons, produce an amount of mana each turn, although they usually cost a similar amount of gold per turn for upkeep. The other way of generating mana each turn is by controlling nodes. Nodes are sources of magic which appear as easily identifiable squares on the map. Nodes are usually guarded by vicious creatures, so they must be liberated by military forces. (This act usually yields some treasure in the form of gold, mana crystals, magical items, or heroes imprisoned within the node that immediately volunteer to join your ranks.) Once a node is free from monsters, you can cast a Magic Spirit or Guardian Spirit spell, which summons a magical spirit you can send to meld with the node, directing its power to you. Naturally, melded nodes are subject to hostile takeover, so you can expect them to be the site of many battles over the course of the game.

One aspect of MOM that sets it apart from the typical strategy game is the freedom you are granted when creating your character. You can choose one of the stock wizards or create your own. There are five different schools of magic, each with their own spells, and you can choose to be knowledgeable in many different combinations of them, or specialize in only one; to further customize yourself, you can choose your race (which dictates the type of units and buildings you can construct), and choose a special skill. These skills give you enhanced abilities, like being able to draw double the normal amount of magic power from nodes. This enhanced character generation, coupled with heroes that gain experience and abilities over time, adds an element of adventure to MOM, without detracting from the strategy element in any way.

No fan of strategy games should be without Master of Magic. It's that good. It's a long, detailed, highly involving game that will swallow your leisure time like a black hole. I can't say that it has automatic crossover appeal to Master of Orion fans, because MOM resembles MOO only in the diplomacy screen, but they are two different games of the same type, so if you like one you're likely to enjoy the other. Once again, Microprose has turned out a top-notch strategy game that should keep us pleasantly addicted for ages to come. Master of Magic, like Civilization, Master of Orion, and X-Com, is a shining example of the type of strategic contest that no one else does quite like Microprose. Or as well.

Play the demo for this game directly in your browser