How many PC games are still playable more than fifteen years after their release? Better yet, how many Civilization-style 4X games can still be enjoyed so long after their prime? The better 4X games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) have seen modernizations of their initial installments, from the well-loved aforementioned Civilization, which popularized the genre, to the endearing Master of Orion (MoO) series by 4X masters Simtex.
Yet, though MoO received two follow-up titles after the original, the developer’s second entry into the genre has never found an official successor. I’m speaking, of course, of Master of Magic (MoM), a game that combined the “just one more turn” addictive quality of 4X with (of all things) the Magic: The Gathering card game to bring a unique and special title into PC gaming history that has yet to be reproduced. Many have tried, with some games, like the Age of Wonders series, coming as close as anyone to recapturing the brilliance of MoM, but somehow falling just short in spirit. What is Master of Magic and why is it worth discussing sixteen years after its release?
4X? Wait, Is This Suitable for Children?
For anyone who might be unfamiliar with the genre (feel free to skip this section if you know the drill), 4X games are a crossbreed of board games such as Risk, city building and management games like the popular Sim City series, and the map-based war games you used to see some of the oldtimers playing in hobby shops. At its core, it’s essentially about empire building, with a traditional 4X title presenting the player with a small territory with which they begin, and tasking them with global (or intergalactic) domination. The 4X comes into it with the above-mentioned four elements that are key to the genre. Exploration is needed to expand the player’s scope of the world. By discovering new lands, civilizations, and (often) computer-controlled AI leaders with which to compete for dominance, the player will try to reveal an entire world.
As they eXplore, they will also need to eXpand if they have any desire to survive. Similar to real-world civilizations, grabbing land and planting your flag on it is key to success in the genre. Expansion is handled in different ways depending on the game, but generally requires the player to send out groups of colonizers to set up new cities in the name of your empire. Empires, of course, require resources to survive, and therein lies the eXploitation element. Similar to the RTS genre, the player needs to make use of the world’s resources, collecting raw goods and harvesting foods with which to grow their fledgling empires.
All of this is done with one overreaching goal of course, eXtermination! Though diplomacy is often a factor, with some games even allowing for joint victory amongst multiple empires, the core purpose of the 4X genre is global domination, and the quickest way to achieve this goal is by destroying those who stand against you, killing their armies, invading their cities, subjugating their citizenry, and reigning as the supreme dictator over all.
The genre has traditionally been turn-based, though some more recent titles such as Sins of a Solar Empire have introduced more real-time elements into the mix. They tend to have a heavy focus on researching new technologies (or, in the case of MoM, new spells) in order to help expand the player’s empire. Many games in the genre also play up by varying degrees the differences in the competing empires’ civilizations, which could be as simple as a mix of appearances and starting strengths, to entirely different unit and technology sets for each individual empire. Sid Meier’s Civilization might be the most recognizable title of the genre, but it has a certain vanilla flavor, sticking close to real-world histories and cultures in favor of some of the more fantastic elements found in many others, including Master of Magic.
Did You Say 86 Unit Types?
In Master of Magic, the player takes on the role of a fledgling wizard, with a limited knowledge of magic, a small band of soldiers, and a single tiny kingdom. You get to choose your wizard’s appearance, starting traits, your spellbooks (of which there are five categories to build from), and your empire’s race. The selection of traits and spellbooks are key in many ways, and play a huge role through most of the game. You are given 11 points to distribute between the lot, and have enough options as to make those points seem like a pittance. With 18 traits and five spell categories, each with up to 11 books to invest in, this early choice can soon feel overwhelming. Do I focus on magic? What sort of magic? Will I be a healer or a summoner? What about military strength?
One of the most important traits to decide upon is whether to invest the 3 points to allow you to start in Myrror and choose one of the powerful races associated with that world. What is Myrror? Well, one of the most compelling elements of MoM is that, unlike a game such as Civilization which takes place on a single world map, MoM has two opposing worlds, like the two sides of a coin. The first is Arcanus, a “light” world akin to the kind of environments in most high fantasy settings, a reflection of our own world with forests and deserts and snow-covered polar caps in the north and south. On the other side of the world, though, is Myrror, which is more of a dark fantasy environment with alien plant life, powerful magics, and dangerous monsters.
Both sides have their advantages and disadvantages as starting points. Arcanus can be an easier place to start, with more mild monsters and dungeons, and an easier chance at initial expansion. The problem is that most of your foes will also start here, and thus provide more challenge to expansion. Myrror, on the other hand, is a far more dangerous setting in which to build an empire, but you have the bonus of choosing from one of the dark races such as the dark elves, which can be much more powerful throughout the game. You also tend to have most of Myrror to yourself as the computer-controlled wizards would need to have chosen that trait as well in order to start there, and 3 points out of 11 is not a cheap choice.
The selection of race is also a crucial decision. You get to choose from 14 different groups, and, unlike most games, they all feature unique units, abilities, and graphics. Couple that with monsters that can be summoned from your various spell books, and heroes and mercenary units which can be hired during gameplay, and you end up with distinct armies every time. In fact, the game boasts a whopping 86 unit types, each with their own graphics and animation, ambitious even by today’s standards.
Once all your selections are made, you’ll find yourself somewhere in a randomly generated world, and you’ll soon be exploring the neighboring countryside with your small band of starter troops. You can explore dungeons and keeps where you’ll fight monsters and claim treasures. You can try to gain access to magic nodes, which will increase your magical powers. Or you can just try to start expanding your empire by building settler units and founding new hamlets in hopes of eventually growing them into thriving cities of your empire. You’ll also start to meet other wizards who you have a choice of befriending or battling, and the different wizards each have their own distinct personalities and play-styles.
Many of the towns and cities you come across in the game won’t be controlled by any one wizard, and will be neutral territories which have their own armies and ambitions. With the lack of a wizard to back them up though, they are often easy pickings for early empire expansion. Additionally, once you take a city controlled by a different racial group, you’ll gain access to their unit types and racial bonuses, a great way to pad out your own racial weaknesses. Just make sure to find ways to either placate the less-than-welcoming populace to help them accept their new bosses or set up the kind of military state that will keep churning out the goods to fund your wars.
As your troops explore the world, your wizard will be in his tower researching new spells, summoning creatures to aid you in battle, flinging various magics at enemies, and casting powerful overworld spells which can change the fates of everyone playing. Spells are a key element in the game (duh! it’s called Master of Magic for a reason), and though military might is key to victory, powerful magics will be needed to assure that very same might.
The magic system borrows heavily from the Magic: The Gathering card game series. The 5 primary schools of magic being color-coded like in M:TG, with white being healing and buffs, black being a counterpoint focused on death, green being nature-based, red representing chaos and destruction, and blue having the airy quality to counter other spellbooks. You also have a sixth type, the arcane school which is open to all wizards, and features the game-winning spell of mastery, the largest and most powerful spell in the game. It can take years to research the spell, and as soon as a wizard begins, every empire will turn against them. After all, gain this spell, and you win the game.
Wow, That’s Sort of a Lot to Take In…
And I’ve only really covered the bare minimum of the game. What’s perhaps so surprising about this classic DOS-based 4X, though, is how easily it can still be played today. So many of the classics, despite having strong gameplay mechanics, can be difficult to play today due to clumsy UIs and ugly graphics. MoM manages to have an easy-to-use and clean UI, with every single button, option, character, spell, unit type, and so on giving you a detailed explanation with a simple right-click of the mouse. This feature alone makes it highly accessible to new players, and surprisingly easy to pick up without a manual. It also has a nice pixel art graphic style which manages to still work today.
It’s not just me here loving on an old childhood classic either. Alan Emrich, the guy who coined the term 4X, considers the game his favorite of the genre. Gamespy and Computer Gaming World have included the game in their Halls of Fame.
So why hasn’t the game seen a new incarnation? The developer was said to have been working on a sequel back in the ’90s, but that fell through when they went out of business. Since then, many imitations have popped up, including the excellent Age of Wonders series and the less-than-great Elemental: War of Magic. No game really captures the simple joy that MoM has brought so many players. Thankfully, you can pick Master of Magic up from the great people at Good Old Games. I would still love to see a faithful adaptation with newer graphics and higher-resolution settings, but I can live with just playing the original if that doesn’t happen.
If you are a fan of the 4X genre, enjoyed any of the Master of Orion games, or just want an excellent fantasy empire-building experience, I would still recommend trying this well-aged classic.