Master of Magic (1994)

Along with point-and-click (and the occasional text) adventures and RPGs, my favourite genre of PC game in my younger years was strategy, especially long-view titles like those from the Settlers, Anno, and Heroes of Might and Magic franchises. I particularly remember spending months at a time playing turn-based “4X” games like Alpha Centauri (1999) and editions of Civilization . 4X, that means exploration of the environment, expanding one’s reach by building new settlements or conquering those of opponents, exploiting the landscape (and, sometimes, your conquered subjects) in order to gain a technological advantage, and exterminating all enemies. There may be a combat component, but it’s typically secondary to the broader, more strategic managing of one’s empire.

Master of Magic is a little older than the games I used to play, which explains why I didn’t own it back then, but follows the same basic principles despite taking place in a fantasy, rather than a quasi-historical, setting. It also adds a dash of Populous in that you play a powerful being (here a wizard) who competes with others similar to him for people and territory (which is changeable via magic and technology).

There are two win conditions. The easier one for most races is destroying all enemy wizards militarily (or rather, conquering the cities their towers are in), something that is complicated by the fact that there are not one, but two procedurally-generated worlds where opponents can lurk. Without powerful plane-shift spells, one may have to almost start from scratch if a wizard has built his empire in a different dimension with a completely different map. The two worlds also lead to interesting tactical challenges, though; for instance, the detail that one need not conquer all enemy towns, just his capital, can considerably shorten the time until victory if you have control of one of the planes, because you can plane-shift an army of elite unites to the enemy’s doorstep and conquer his tower in a surgical strike without having to engage any troops in the way. That is true for the AI as well, of course.

The other victory condition is to successfully cast a special spell that takes many turns to research and complete, something that requires so much time and resources, unless you’re playing mana-enhanced dark elves, that it’s just easier to build powerful armies and get rid of your enemies the old-fashioned way. I tried casting the Spell of Mastery once as a curiosity (in a game where I had basically already won and had the last enemy city surrounded so he couldn’t do anything); it involved so much clicking of the next turn button, I could have crushed dozens of enemies in the same timeframe. I suppose if several rival wizards are really entrenched on a plane you don’t have a good foothold on, it may be a real option, but I didn’t encounter that situation. There is a diplomacy component, but it seems broken; at least I never got offered anything except tenuous peace quickly broken by the AI and could not figure out how to offer treaties on my own.

Like the overland movements, what there is of combat is turn-based, as well, thankfully, though at times tediously (there is an “auto” button, but it’s buggy); I pretty much always make better tactical (and strategic, since individual units gain experience from combat, and I have a clearer picture of which units are expendable and which are not) decisions than if I let the computer take over. This also applies to the cities in your empire, where you can and, if you want to win, should decide yourself which buildings to construct and how to allocate your workforce; the aptly named “Grand Vizier” is not to be trusted to do so efficiently and can’t be fine-tuned. That leads to a lot of micromanaging, which can get quite annoying once your empire reaches a certain size.

Even more vexing is the complete lack of queues known from more modern strategy games: it is not possible to queue up several different construction orders so you don’t have to come back to a city every few turns, and it is not possible to automatically send a completed mobile unit (typically a combat unit) to a rallying point to wait for, say, a ferry. You have to do that individually, unit for unit. And while you can group single soldiers together into “armies”, it’s a cumbersome process, because you have to select and deselect them individually, there’s no dragging them all at once by mouse (unloading land units from a ship is similarly time-wasting).

It gets even worse with engineers, who can build vitally important roads, which make your other units move faster. Normal units usually find a way around rivers, lakes and bays just fine, but as soon as you want to construct a longer roadway, the engineers complain about water being in the way, forcing you to do it manually in increments, sometimes turn-by-turn. Also, once roads have actually been built, units do generally go where you tell them to go, but paths can be blocked, including by foreign units that are not (yet) my enemy and shouldn’t (but do) trigger combat when reached.

The graphics are, well, 1994-ish, with blocky pixels that can make some units hard to differentiate, especially in later stages of the game where the player can have characters of four or more different races and several different heroes under his control. While the resolution can be increased, that only scales up the images, not the map itself, which is comparatively small. The interface doesn’t help: the arrow keys don’t do anything, and there is no automatic scrolling, which can lead to lots of confused clicking when you control a large territory. The background music (which strongly reminds me of a more recent soundtrack, but I can’t remember which one) is inoffensive, but repetitive.

And yet, despite all that, despite its overall clunkiness and many small annoyances, the game is surprisingly addictive. There is lots and lots of replayability thanks to lots and lots of options even before a game is started: how big the map should be (or rather, how many islands there should be, since the actual size of the world doesn’t change), how many enemies there are, which race you are going to play, which of many magic specialisation combinations you choose, not to mention several different difficulty settings.

Yes, you have to micromanage, but the flipside of that is that the game gives you, as a player, a far greater degree of control than usual even with other games of this type. I played the game for a few hours every day for a week, and I know I didn’t even scratch the surface. It doesn’t surprise me at all that, over 20 years after its initial release, the game still has an active community and fanbase.

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