Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Master of Magic

Over at the Quarter to Three forums, we occasionally pull out a classic game to revisit. A bunch of people play it, and we compare notes and reminisce over the old days when it was cutting-edge gameplay. Recently one of my all-time favorite games, Master of Magic, was chosen as the spotlight game.
All Life magic, all the time.
Master of Magic is a 4X turn-based strategy game, a genre I've written about before. It was first released way back in 1994, so it's certainly old enough to be considered "classic." I remember playing it in my college days, when VGA graphics were top-of-the-line for PCs, and floppy disks were common. The graphics certainly seem dated now, but much of the gameplay and user interface in the game have held up well over time.

Part of the reason that Master of Magic is still an enjoyable game today is work by the community. Some very dedicated fans released a patch to update the AI and fix some bugs back in 2010, which I've used each time I reinstalled the game in the last few years. There's another update that's new this year as well, though I haven't tried that one yet. These patches are largely a way to update the AI for the computer players, who have a hard time properly making use of the complexity available in the game.
The outcome was never really in doubt, of course!
That complexity is the main reason that I keep coming back to play Master of Magic, even after more than 20 years. There are so many ways to approach the end goal, which like all 4X games is basically to rule the world. (Or worlds, since the game takes place on two "planes" each with its own map.) There are fourteen different races to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. You can choose to focus your resources on magical might, a large population with mighty armies, or (almost always) a balance between the two. The system of magical spells and abilities is highly complex with many different directions to choose from. Powerful hero units will occasionally become available for hire, which with appropriate care and feeding will become your best weapons. All that may sound fairly commonplace today, but Master of Magic was one of the first games to pull it all together, and even today has one of the best implementations of the concept.

The game has plenty of less-than-ideal characteristics as well, of course, even leaving aside the obvious one of its advanced age. The higher difficulty levels are largely implemented as simply giving the AI a whole bunch of extra resources, so a player who can win on Hard might get simply overwhelmed on Impossible. (The community patches help, but it can still be an issue.) There are certain combinations that are way overpowered - Undead War Trolls was always my favorite - so it's necessary to avoid those if you'd like a challenge. And the game can really drag on past the point where you have the obvious victory, since you must either defeat all opposing wizards or cast the Spell of Mastery (which takes a very long time to research and cast).
Fairly poor score, but then, I wasn't really trying to run it up.
For the current classic game thread on the forums, I started up a game on Hard difficulty using a custom wizard with maximum Life spellbooks, leading the High Elves. My starting position wasn't too great, on an island with lots of high-level monster lairs around, but I managed to expand across the ocean eventually. The game moved fairly slowly, both because of that unfortunate starting area and because I hadn't played in a couple of years, but eventually I got the war machine rolling and took the fight to the other wizards. There were four opponents, and I defeated three of them by taking their capitals - in-fighting among the AIs got the fourth. I was confident of the win about halfway through, once I'd banished one opponent and was nearing the capital of the second. The clean-up to finish off my win was a bit boring, but using my crazy-powerful stacks of heroes, Elven Lords, and Slingers to conquer city after city was still amusing.

Revisiting older favorite games doesn't always work well - the technology changes, our perceptions are different, and our tastes change. But Master of Magic has always held up for me, and it was fun to have an excuse to pull it out again.

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