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December 7, 2011 / jwaxo

Master of Orion II (The Hotseat)

Galactic Conquest, all in a 2D, pixellated screen.

So, remember a time ago when I told you about the super-sweet awesomely special spectacular Microprose game pack? Well, in that game came a very special game, Master of Orion. The game of galactic civilization, war, strange and fantastic alien species, and a very awesome star system named Orion that was not at all related to the Orion constellation.

Best Friend and I were obsessed with it.

We would spend entire weekends playing a game, sending fleets of hand-crafted ships across the galaxy, vowing to take out all of the enemies of our warring races. One of us would helm the controls, making the major decisions, while the other played the advisory. Perched from a stool, this person (normally me, because of my past admittance of loving the backseat role) would suggest technology to research, or gleefully watch while the other messed up major battles or picked horrible economic choices.

Eventually, one day, a sequel was announced. Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares.

Needless to say, we were ecstatic.

Best Friend kept a better handle on the news than I, probably trolling forums and news sites. He would keep me up with release dates, and features, and everything in between. “Twice as many races!” he told me. “So much more technology!” “Different sized galaxies!” “Custom species to play!” It all kept sounding better and better.

And then the bomb dropped. The big one. “Multiplayer functionality.”

Woah there. We could at last test our might against each other? Find out which of us was the better harbinger of the galaxy’s defeat, which of us could play the galactic senate beneath us like marionettes, which were the better explorers, more frugal colonizers?

Excitement reigned supreme.

“Ecstacy.”

After the longest amount of time that was probably only months because no way were we playing this when we were seven, and this was 1996 when the game came out. I’m already skeptical that we played it when we were eight, but the numbers can’t lie. In any case, it came out. And Best Friend’s preorder came in.

Let me ask you something: have you ever played Civilization? Master of Orion is pretty much Civilization, version Space. You control an entire race of people/aliens, colonizing, exploring, setting policies, taxing, providing food. Acting as the entire government for a huge body of beings. The thing is, in both Civilization and the MoO series, it’s turn-based. That is, you start a turn with a prompt for anything that’s changed since the last turn, colonies made, ships produced, technology researched. You select the options provided for you (changing build orders, creating jobs, etc), and click the huge “Next Turn” button.

On maybe 10% of your turns do you have anything to actually do. That means, nine turns out of ten, you’re just clicking that “Next Turn” button and watching numbers change.

We didn’t think that this meant anything bad. In fact, because the entire thing was turn-based, that meant there was no need for both of us to own copies of the game. After all, if we played over the internet (something that didn’t even occur to us due to the extreme slowness of the internet back then), we would still need to wait for the other person to make their turn. So what was the difference between playing at the same chair.

In other words: hotseat-style.

Ah, yes. That seat was mighty hot.

And here’s the problem. Remember that 90% of the turns had nothing happening? Now imagine playing those turns one-after-another, swapping seats while the other person politely looked away from the screen.

The bottom line: it was boring.

After a time, we would come up with things to do during our turn, just to make that sweet, sweet, half-minute more interesting. At least, I would. I would check up on all of my colonies, consider my next technology research very carefully, allocate spies and saboteurs. I would pull up diplomacy screens with the AI players just for fun.

The thing was, and we learned this very quickly, that some games are poorly made for multiplayer. Best Friend admitted this after a while, that the multiplayer for MoO II was tacked on at the end of the development cycle, mostly at the behest of fans of the original. But then MoO 3 came out and still had poorly-implemented multiplayer, all of it still horribly slow and boring and lame, and there was still a lot of waiting around and being bored.

Then again, I hear that Civilization multiplayer games take forever and only the most obsessed play them. Don’t look at me.

In any case, I still picked MoO II up for myself, at some point. It was still an awesome game. There was still a heck of a lot there, and I still have it sitting proudly on my shelf. But the main lesson was not to make something out to be something it’s not, and also not to waste time trying to have fun with something when it wasn’t even fun.

But man, that manual.

Yes, yes. A lot of meat in that game box, as you may recall.

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