The classic Master of Magic was a trailblazer in its time. A 4X strategy title with a wide variety of races and magic to enlist, it broke away from the mold of the genre at a time when most factions played remarkably similar. Its process of mixing-and-matching different aspects of your wizard before the game had even begun was especially thrilling to those of us who loved plenty of customization options in our chosen sources of entertainment. Though it lacked a strong, independent narrative, each world was different due to its own generation, player choice, and random events.
Needless to say, when I heard that Master of Magic was getting remade, I knew that I had to get my hands on it. Though it’s been many years since I played the original, it was clear to me that as long as the classic was respected, it would be worth it, thanks to the modernized graphics and audio. As such, the question that ends up being raised is less about whether or not Master of Magic is a good game, but whether or not it continues to stand as a gem amongst its contemporary competition.
Ruling From Atop The Tower
The wizard that you play as has a significant impact on how your empire develops, even if they do not appear as a unit directly on the campaign map or in any battles. The first choices you make involve deciding upon the starting race that you rule over as well as your wizard’s traits and collection of magical books. These traits and books are predetermined by the wizard you choose unless you opt in to custom-build one of your own.
There is a notable selection of races to rule over and your initial choice determines your racial politics, though it does not restrict you from ruling over the others as you find and conquer them. There are fourteen races in total and these range from barbarians to high elves to gnolls to dragonmen and so on. Each has its own quirks that will grant boons and penalties to your empire, such as dwarves receiving significant boosts to their economy while barbarian units throw their weapons for an additional attack before engaging in melee. Which generic unit types are available varies from one race to the next, though they all provide at least one unique unit of their own that provides a significant punch to whatever the faction’s military composition is.
Settlements provide their holders gold, production, food, power, and research. Gold is primarily used to maintain units and buildings, though it is also used to purchase items from events and to buy out the remaining time for building or training new units. Production is used for producing buildings and units and the higher it is, the few turns they will take to be added to your empire. Food sustains your population and serves to maintain your mundane units. Power serves as your mana for casting spells and maintaining their effects, including magical units, which are the most powerful available in the mid to late game. Finally, research is what expands your selection of spells and enhances the effectiveness of your wizard.
The world map provides many bonuses to be exploited by conquest or settlement and is split into two dimensions: Arcanus and Myrror. Arcanus is reminiscent of Earth with familiar terrain and resources while Myrror appears as something of a dark and foreign world. Most of the races populate Arcanus while a smaller selection populates Myrror. Wizards can only choose the latter’s races if they have a special trait naming them as a native there, though gates exist that connect these worlds and a small selection of units can phase between them at will. Though gold, coal, adamantium, and the like can provide significant bonuses, the most important landmarks that are discovered are nodes which provide a direct and significant source of power outside of religious buildings in your settlements. Claiming as many of these as possible is paramount to your success in declaring these worlds your own.
Empire management may not be as complex as we have seen in more recent years, but it’s a strong set of systems that work well together. Each new settlement added to your empire is felt in your economic strength, whether they are freshly settled at ideal locations with your preferred race or ripped from the cold, dead hands of your enemy. Advanced cities become production powerhouses that provide large numbers of resources as well as powerful units, especially if they have access to potent natural resources to augment their capabilities. The fact that the empire management system plays so well with magic only further builds upon the overall strengths of the experience as a whole.
Spellbooks of Limitless Power
Magic is highly influential in a number of systems in Master of Magic. In an indirect sense, it acts as a resource to be collected to power your spells, enchantments, and magical units. It can be spent for an immediate effect such as a fireball exploding upon your enemies or it can have longer term effects like summoning and maintaining your powerful angels or prolonging the length of your enchantment that is causing the dead to rise from their graves in your service worldwide.
The number of spellbooks that your wizard holds determines their strength in each of the arcane categories including Life, Nature, Sorcery, Chaos, and Death. They will cast spells more efficiently and begin with access to a larger selection of them with the more related books that they hold. For example, Rjak has access to nine books of Death, meaning that he is exceptionally talented with this category of magic but will not have access to spells of Life, Nature, Sorcery, or Chaos. As such, his enemies would do well to expect hordes of undead as well as dangerous black magic weakening their forces while strengthening and transforming his own.
There’s no question that the magic system is an exceptionally entertaining one. Each wizard is designed to have a different mix of books at their disposal and although there’s overlap in spells, the flavor difference is apparent. Each node that you acquire and its accompanying power generation boost expand your capabilities for fielding magical armies and twisting the world to your image with global spells and you’ll genuinely get a thrill with each step forward that you take. As the entire theme of this title is based upon wizardry, it stands proudly with a strong claim to having one of the best magic systems we’ve seen in a 4X.
War of the Wizards
Master of Magic provides a large number of units for wizards to populate their armies with. While they will primarily be trained from the mundane masses of settlements in the early game, as time progresses, an increasing portion of them will be summoned directly instead. The earliest unit available to all races is the spearman which is cheap, easy to produce, and particularly weak, however, as settlements expand and grow, more potent choices will become available such as halberdiers, magicians, and racial units. Summoned units will act in a supplementary role early on, while eventually, it will become feasible to field more of them as your empire’s arcane power economy grows and your armies are composed of top-tier mundane units and even more powerful summons.
When two armies meet each other on the strategic map, they will enter a hexagon-based tactical map where they will clash. This is where the individual attributes and traits of these units will come to the forefront as each type is unique even amongst themselves depending on which race it belongs to. The strength between different beings can be immense as a dozen bands of swordsmen would struggle to even scratch a demon lord or one of the experienced champions that have been recruited along the way. Though combat mostly moves and clicks to attack without too much depth, unit composition plays a heavy role in your military success.
Combat is simplistic and won’t push the capabilities of the more experienced tactical commanders among us. It plays it safe without any notable flaws or annoyances but is certainly not the most innovative part of the title. I found myself auto-resolving combat fairly frequently when battle victories were assured and only directly commanding those with higher stakes.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to note that Master of Magic in 2022 is quite similar to Master of Magic in 1994 aside from the vast improvement in its presentation. Those who seek the nostalgia of the game they played years ago will find it an easy buy and rightfully so as everything that once made it a great experience is present while perhaps even being slightly improved. The passion that went into its new aesthetics and the respect for where it came from is apparent and far from being one of the remakes that ruined the purity of its legacy. Bugs were non-existent even in the pre-release build that I played and everything worked together well to make an enjoyable experience.
On the other hand, new players will be a somewhat more difficult sell. It’s a good game and a solid entry in the 4X genre though compared to its modern competitors it leans toward the simplistic. Unit-wise, races are fairly varied but rely on mostly the same selection of units with minor stat variations, while settlement-wise every faction looks oddly similar. Whether it’s orcish, halfling, or klackon, its buildings look the same even if they may have different options available from the same pool. It’s also a particularly slow-paced experience that has a significant amount of pressing the ‘End Turn’ button, especially when you’ve just started out. This may be appealing for some, though it’s a stark reminder of how much we’ve sped up the early portion of our 4Xs in recent years. Master of Magic is not a title for those seeking immediate gratification from the moment they kick off a new world.
Overall, however, I recommend the newly arrived Master of Magic remake to strategy fans. As long as those items noted above are not deal-breakers, I could see most experienced 4X players enjoying themselves even if they don’t have their minds blown by the game mechanics of 1994 (as innovative as they may have been at the time). It won’t be shattering any Game of the Year awards, but it will certainly be finding itself a nice space on my digital Steam shelf where it will be revisited from time to time over the years to come.
I was a big fan of MoM back in the original release, but had to abandon it then due to the high frequency of crashes. I was also a frequent Master of Orion player, so this was much the same but with land instead of space … or a Civ game with magic. I’ll be trying out this version.
I remember uninstalling and reinstalling Master of Magic (from multiple 3.5in floppy disks, of course) so many times when it would get glitchy . . .
Worth it every time, but I think I’ll stick with Age of Wonders going forward.
Master of Orion II was another gem.