Artificial intelligence and more

Remnants of the Precursors (RotP) is a faithful remake of the original Master of Orion published in 1993. It has cast a long shadow over the genre, only being eclipsed by Master of Orion 2, published in 1996, and even this is disputed by some MOO1 veterans. There have been many attempts to build on the original formula of these games, but somehow none of these succeeded to unanimous acclaim. Somehow no one ever got around to remaster the original game faithfully. Ray Fowler, the developer of RotP, intends to change this. The game is open source, currently in a pretty polished beta, fully playable and ready for download here. It even runs under Linux.

The premise

In Master of Orion you play as the leader of a starfaring civilization. You direct the development of your civilization's planets, build spaceships and try to become the most powerful player in your region of space. It's a typical 4X strategy game, where you build up your empire, expand and test your mettle against hopefully worthy competition.

The game is turn-based and features strategic gameplay on the star map, while you fight tactical battles with your ships pitted against your opponents. What makes Master of Orion interesting is that you design your ships yourself from the components that your civilization has access to. This pool of components isn't static but expands continuously as you research new technologies. This is truly what is at the heart of Master of Orion, outstanding battles between fleets of spaceships. Naturally you have to do well on both levels, on the strategic level to acquire the necessary resources and technology to build your fleets, and on the tactical battlefield.

Is it still good?

After downloading the latest version I was of course curious how the game plays, particularly because it has a 25 year old design and today we are used to so many bells and whistles in our games.

Starting the game is easy, I chose a star map size that would have been the biggest available in MOO1 and the maximum number of opponents on this map. There are many more options, but the default setting for each is fine. As I am a MOO2 veteran, I chose the hardest difficulty.

You start out with your homeworld, two scout ships and one colony ship. It matters that you make the most out of the resources you initially have.

It soon turned out that the game had placed my "empire" in a position close to the eastern border of the star map, which isn't necessarily a disadvantage, but what matters more, there were three other empires nearby that blocked mostly any route for expansion. What made matters worse, their worlds were already much more advanced, i.e. they had many more resources and a higher production capacity, which effectively closed down any other way to deal with them.

Given my choice of the hardest difficulty, I wondered whether this was the game's way to give me a good challenge. The question was whether the game had placed these rivals nearby on purpose and gave them additional resources to boost their start.

As the game is open source you can inspect the source code and check how the difficulty setting affects the gameplay. It turned out that the game uses only one cheat, which is in a way, if you accept the notion of cheats, at least a clean way to go about it. It scales the production each world generates based on the difficulty. On hard it is increased by 50% and on hardest it is increased by 100%, i.e. it is doubled. But make no mistake it is a powerful cheat. Production in RotP is used for everything: you get double ship construction, double industrial output, double funds and double tech research.

But that my empire was boxed in was simply coincidence. This can happen. While obviously an AI could be used to ensure balanced starting conditions, the game chooses to simply go with full randomization. Doing it this way is beautiful in its own way, but it requires you to start over if you see that your starting position is hopeless.

Starting out

Armed with this knowledge the question was how to set up a game that is fair and challenging. Everyone who knows what I am working on understands that I am not a fan of cheats as these effectively skew the playing field if your opponents can take lots of liberties. That the developer has chosen to go with cheats indicated already that the AI can't be that good.

In order to get a good overview of RotP and see all its parts in action I decided on playing on the hard difficulty, i.e. the other factions getting a 50% boost. Map size and the other options I left unchanged.

This time we start in the middle of the map and have a good deal more options for establishing colonies. So let's see how things go.

On the right border of the screenshot you can see and adjust what your currently selected colony produces. MOO1 uses a highly streamlined and abstract model for this. Your population and factories generate production and you can allocate the production to achieve different tasks. It means your initial objective is to increase production as fast as you can. Once you have reached the maximum of factories you can build you can switch to other tasks. In practice it is a bit more complex because your population also determines how many factories can be operated, but for your homeworld prioritizing to maximize your factories is always a good rule of thumb.

Scouting the immediate space around our homeworld revealed three good systems nearby that will allow us to build a solid core for our empire to be. That's cause for optimism, with a setup like this we should be able to counter strong opposition this time. We need to get going to build colony ships asap.

As our empire slowly develops and builds colony ships, our scouts encounter two alien species, the Alkari and Darlok. It is noteworthy that at this point we haven't seen a colony of theirs, only their ships, so it means they are most likely a bit further out, which is good. But on the downside, we don't know where exactly they are.

More importantly though our scouts discover another excellent system nearby. If we could claim this world, we will have made another big step towards building a substantial power base. It is already a bit farther out, so the chance that another faction will claim it first is real. We have to make haste. It is also out of the reach of our ships with standard range, so we have to research the proper propulsion tech first.

Fast forward to year 514 we were indeed able to build a strong foundation for our empire. By coincidence we didn't encounter any opposition on our eastern flank, which means we could claim Hubble and expand further in this direction. We have good standings with the Alkari to our west. The Darloks are to our south, they always mean trouble.

Research has been going steady with a strong base in place, and as we play the Psilon, the species that is most adept at research, our defenses and ships should have an advantage over any opponents who attack us. We just have to be prepared to haul out ships from our shipyards once this happens, but in the meantime we can continue strengthening our empire. Building up the colonies and spending our funds on tech research is a good way to go.

Twenty years later, in 535 we encounter the Bulrathi to our north, who seemingly consider our lack of large defensive fleets a weakness and declare war. The Alkari seem content doing their own thing, the Darlok appear to be constrained to a few worlds to our south.

Another twenty years later, in 559 the Psilons have repelled the first wave of Bulrathi attacks and are on the counterattack now.

There are two strategic levels of combat in RotP. You can use your fleets to attack other fleets and colonies. But to capture an enemy colony you have to send ground forces. The small horizontal bars in the screenshot above represent transports with invasion forces or reinforcements. Your colonies' defenses, i.e. missile bases, and fleets can intercept enemy transports but not necessarily completely. This takes some time to get used to, as you can have a strong defense fleet in place, but somehow the enemy can still snatch a colony in ground combat from under your nose. You have to be prepared.

As you can see in the screenshot above, while our fleets fight the Bulrathi in the north, the Darlok in the south take advantage of this situation and attack us from the other side. It's time to hectically build up our missile bases to defend our colony and to assemble another defensive fleet.

It took me 40 game years to learn how to do this efficiently. How big your advantage needs to be to go successfully on the counterattack, how to defend against approaching combat transports, and in general what type of technology, i.e. weapons, shields and other ship equipment, you need to gain the upper hand in combat. In the end a good viable way is to build relatively large ships that are technologically superior. You can also equip ships with bombs that destroy enemy colonies step by step.

That's technically the core game loop of MOO1. It isn't as clean as I would like. But in principle you build ships, assemble fleets and then do some trial and error to learn how to attack successfully and probe your enemies' strengths and weaknesses, what tech research you best focus on next and so on. Eventually one side succeeds and decides a war in its favour.

I have to admit that I found sending out transports with ground troops tedious and not necessarily an advantage, because you will have to take the population from your flourishing colonies away for this, which will take a good deal of time to grow again. The alternative is to destroy an enemy colony with bombardment from the orbit and then rebuild it with a colony ship. In the end this is what is more easy to do.

In the end the Darlok and Bulrathi could not cope with the fleets the Psilons sent. They fell too easily by simply not being able to use their fleets to good effect. It wasn't so much the difference in technology, they had superior numbers of ships, but often it was wrong ship types in terms of equipment, weapons and defenses. If they had known which ships to build and where to send these, they would not only have been able to mount an effective defense, with the 50% boost on production they would have stood a real chance of winning the war.

In my book RotP really lacks a good AI. And so it was over too soon. Taking over their colonies wasn't more than an exercise.

What was left was to check the western part of the star map whether there is somehow a powerful opponent that hasn't been discovered yet because of the limited reach of our scouts. After researching the necessary propulsion tech and exploring this region of space, it turned out there wasn't any.

A look at the intelligence we gathered showed that there was little point to continue this game, so the game was basically won.

Conclusion

First if you never played a MOO1 game, RotP is absolutely worth checking out. Don't be fooled by this easy victory. There is still the hardest difficulty, usually you won't be so lucky with your starting position, and the game is still in beta with lots of improvements in the last month alone (I used a version from February).

Pro

  • Outstanding turn-based gameplay from one classic of the genre
  • Lots to discover and play around with
  • The excitement when you spot a great potential colony to claim
  • Researching tech to build your own space ships and direct them in combat is very rewarding
  • It's free!

Contra

  • Cheats to compensate for a weak AI
  • Your opponents don't know how to use their fleets effectively
  • Sometimes tedious defense against ground troop invasions

In general the relatively abstract colony presentation in MOO1 and RotP is a matter of taste. I prefer MOO2, which is in many ways more refined, even above this remaster of MOO1. MOO2 is still a great game, the only thing you have to know is that you never need to build fleets larger than 20 ships in size. If you follow this rule, MOO2 is a fantastic game with good AI, a smart way to grade difficulty and lots of fun to be had for a space admiral.

Looking forward though there are more things I would like to see a spiritual successor to improve on. One of my biggest gripes in this playthrough was the genocidal idea of sending billions of troops, a large part of the population, as cannon fodder around the map.

I also would love to have a proper campaign with an interesting story, played map by map, a revised tech-tree, and fully fledged star systems across a large star map with plenty of things to discover.

One day someone has to develop this game, with a fantastic AI to boot.

You’ve successfully subscribed to Quantomas AI
Welcome back! You’ve successfully signed in.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.