REVIEW: Master of Orion: The Boardgame

Designers: Ekaterina Gorn and Igor Sklyuev
Publisher: Cryptozoic Entertainment
2-4 players, 45-60mins
Price: £30-40 approx

Master of Orion: The Boardgame is something of an anomaly, in my opinion. Appearing seemingly out of nowhere early last year (2017), with very little in the way of preamble or advanced publicity, it seems to have had a haggard time getting into retail stores, despite the strength of the computer game license firmly behind it.

For us 40-somethings, the Master of Orion computer game this is based on was an awesome experience: released in 1993 by Microprose, it was the best ‘4X civilization in space’ game that ever existed, at least until Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares turned up a few years later (and won the Origins Award for Best Fantasy/SF Computer Game in 1996). Later still, the Final Frontier mod for Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword appeared (and is still going strong btw: Final Frontier Plus), and this pretty much signalled the beginning of the end for the affectionately titled MOO series. There have been a few efforts to try and revive the brand since, but all have proved rather disappointing, frankly, which is particularly fitting, because so it is with this boardgame version…

To be fair, Master of Orion was never going to be an easy game to transfer to a board simply because of the grand majesty and depth of it all: it would literally need to be a full-on 4X version of Civilization in space, something arguably other games have already made a very good job of (yes, I’m looking at you, Twilight Imperium).

For those not familiar with Master of Orion, there were 10+ alien races all vying for their slice of the galaxy following an almighty war between the Orions and Antarans that left it devastated and in disarray. Each race had its own special ability and home planet, and would have to feed/maintain and expand their population, production and technology levels in order to build ships that could fly off and attempt to colonise other planets which might then need some form of terraforming technology to allow a successful colonisation (which would also need to be researched and fitted to your ship). The game featured multiple tech trees, the ability to build and redesign your spaceships ‘on the fly’ (usually to make them smaller and cheaper, but just as powerful), epic space battles, spies and political machinations, ancient technologies to discover, an almighty ‘boss’ ship that protected the planet Orion itself (called The Guardian, of course), and multiple routes to victory: it was, in a word, awesome!

So how does the Master of Orion boardgame stack up?  Pretty badly, to be honest, and although it’s easy enough to grasp and play once you’ve disentangled your way through the rulebook, getting to that point is a bit of a chore in itself — I’ll talk more about this later.

The first thing you’ll notice when you break this open, is that it isn’t really a boardgame at all — the game is predominantly card-based, and the closest you’ll get to a board is the one that sits in front of you to keep track of your resource levels and actions each turn. And yes, there’s a scoreboard, too, but in the grand scheme of things, none of these are even boards, they are actually just ‘thick card’ (and I’m sure we can all appreciate that Master of Orion: The Thick Card Game would never fly)…

The game itself is more of a solo tableaux-builder in the sense that each player has a set of resources (which determines how many ‘action cubes’ they start each turn with) and a hand of ‘structure cards’, and uses one to build the other. Some cards will generate more resources, others will convert one type of resource into another (or even into VPs if you’re lucky), and a few will even allow a passable interaction with other players’ ‘systems’. Erm…. and that’s it.

There is also a laughable attempt at introducing ‘Combat’ which is another major let-down:  you put one of your action cubes onto an opponent’s board to show you’re attacking them —something you can only do if you have more Fleet strength than they do— and then you’ll lose 2 Fleet resources to gain 2 VPs. Your opponent, evidently devastated by your attack, loses a single point on their Morale score… and erm… that’s that, combat over.

I should probably add at this point that I don’t actually dislike this game: it’s easy enough to play, and as long as players know what they’re getting into, it’s functional and it works. However, bottom-line —and here’s why ‘disappointing’ is the term I’d use to describe this— it’s also pretty bland and boring, with very little player interaction (unless you’re mutually joining the rest of the players in a universal mockery of the game), and very little to get excited about.

To backtrack just a little, you have six races to choose from, each with their own starting resources and ‘special ability’ (you can also choose to be Human and have no special ability at all — and no, I do not understand why anyone would choose to be Human in this game), and will start the game with five Structure Cards. Your highest resource level will determine how many action cubes you’ll have for the round, and players will then take it in turns to use these cubes to perform actions as indicated on their player board (or place it on another player’s board to indicate an attack on that player), until they run out of action cubes, resources or otherwise choose to pass for the round.

MOO_Board

Your actions/options each turn (as shown on the player board) are: build a structure card from your hand, discard a card for resources, draw more structure cards, exchange one resource for another, raise your morale by 3, hire an Advisor by discarding three structure cards from your hand, or activate a card/structure you’ve already built.

sample_cards
Each player is allowed a maximum of four ‘systems’, and these are created as you build structure cards and stack them vertically on top of each other below your player board. Many of the cards will provide additional resources at the start of each round (shown on the top of the card), but only the topmost one in each system is considered ‘active’ or ‘working’ for the purpose of using the ability or advantage it provides. Many of the structure cards also have a VP score indicated in the bottom-right of the card, and all of these are totalled at the end of the game to determine your final VP score.

Everything is driven by your player board, and once you’re familiar with the basic iconography, the game speeds up considerably, although as you build more structures and ‘systems’, your options each round will also grow, meaning that gameplay can slow down a bit in the last few turns as each player tries to calculate and maximise their final score.

There’s little else to add other than players have to discard down to five structure cards at the start of each round if they have more than that, and the game ends after 8 rounds, or when a player starts the round with 0 or less Morale, or when a player has successfully built four systems of five structure cards each.

I really didn’t want to rip into this, but it’d be wrong not to draw attention to the fact that the production and rulebook quality leave a lot to be desired, giving the impression that the whole thing was rushed.

Apart from the biggest and most unforgivable error that’s already been highlighted by players across the world (the Darlok and Meklar alien race images are the wrong way round on the player boards — how does that escape quality control?), there are a host of minor oversights and other errors that are just as annoying. Nowhere on the box or in the rulebook does it tell you how many players the game is designed for (instead, you are left to deduce this from the fact that they only provide four sets of different colour wooden cubes in the box — we actually played our first game with 6 players, utilising pieces from other games, but I do know it’s pitched at 2-4 players), and other than the odd allusion to the icons/symbols, the rulebook gives you very little to work with. I’m all for a design that tries to be intuitive, but if the rulebook then has to have 3 pages of hints and clarifications for races, Advisors, and structure cards, something’s evidently gone awry somewhere along the line.

To sum up, my opinion is not that this is ‘a bad game’ per se, it’s more of an overwhelming sense of disappointment that such a license has been so cruelly abused: gone is the ancient technology of the Orions and Antarans (and the Guardian planet-protector), gone is the sense of expanding your civilisation through research and development, ditto all the backseat politics and subterfuge that allowed you to take over the Galactic Council or use spy networks to steal technology and bring down a rival from the inside, gone too is the ongoing need to maintain your population and spacecraft to ensure you remained a force to be reckoned with in space battles, etc. Indeed, gone is the entire sense of a battle and conquest for the stars… leaving this game very much adrift of any purpose at all other than to ‘fill a gap’… And even then, I fear it won’t be a popular choice for many.

On the flip-side, although not designed for solo play, this game may well have a lot more appeal for lone gamers, and there’s been some discussion about this already on BGG (boardgamegeek.com). I put forward my own ideas in a forum titled “Anyone working on a solo variant?” and written more about it on this blog: HERE.

Master of Orion: The Boardgame at Amazon.co.uk

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