30 Years of Master of Magic – The Classic and Its Pretenders
Master of Magic is finally getting the remake its fans have been clamoring for
In 1994, I inadvertently bought into something that would become an obsession in the video game world for the next 28 years.
That was the year that MicroProse brought us Master of Magic, a fantasy strategy game depicting a struggle for power between godlike wizards. It was an early entrant into the 4X style that had been established by Civilization in 1991, but Simtex, the team behind Master of Magic, was already tinkering with the formula in interesting ways.
I really had no idea what I was getting into with Master of Magic. I bought it mainly because I thought it was connected to Magic: The Gathering (MTG), the CCG phenomenon that was then enjoying a moment of mainstream popularity. While MicroProse would eventually publish some official MTG games, this wasn't one of them. The misapprehension may have been deliberate, what with the very familiar font on the box cover and the use of five schools of magic that were treacherously close to MTG's five colors of magic.
Minor deceptions aside, Master of Magic was an excellent (albeit very rough) game and I certainly didn't regret picking it up. But as it turns out, Master of Magic was not merely a computer game but an object of worship. Simtex never produced a sequel, and the collapse of the company in 1997 meant that none would be forthcoming.
This began a three-decade race to see who could claim the throne still sat upon by the original Master of Magic. Many developers would attempt to create a spiritual successor; some produced only vaporware, while others released games of varying quality, none of which seemed like a true successor.
Next month, Slitherine, the current rights holder, will release a full-blown remake of Master of Magic. While we wait to see if this is the game that finally succeeds the original, let's take a brief look at the history of the game and its various claimants.
The Original: Master of Magic (1994)
While it wasn't around for very long, Simtex had a significant impact on the PC gaming scene. Their first title, the 1993 game Master of Orion, was the first game to be referred to as a "4X" and is now considered an essential strategy game. Master of Magic would follow in that tradition, trading science fiction for fantasy and introducing some new twists to the burgeoning genre.
Master of Magic puts the player in the role of a powerful wizard (either predesigned or custom-built using a points system) with the goal of defeating all other wizards and dominating the world. Aiding the wizards are their followers and thralls, drawn from 14 different fantasy races with different units, buildings, and capabilities. As the wizard grows in fame, he or she also attracts the attention of heroes-for-hire (including a selection of lesser mages) who can be developed into powerful, battle-shifting warriors.
There is no peaceful resolution - the game ends when only one wizard remains. Unlike their frail JRPG counterparts, the wizards of Master of Magic are extremely hard to kill and must instead be banished from the physical plane. This can be done through brute force by capturing a wizard's palace, but a sufficiently powerful opponent can always return. The only sure way to win is by researching and casting the Spell of Mastery, which annihilates all other wizards in a moment. It's not a subtle spell - the arcane force needed to cast it makes the wizard's palace glow across all planes of existence, making the prospective caster an instant target.
The most interesting part of Master of Magic - and what distinguishes it from Civilization, among others - is the division of the game into two levels. While most 4X titles focus on strategy by simplifying combat, Master of Magic features both strategic and tactical layers. The strategic layer - covering city building, diplomacy, and the nuts-and-bolts of 4X games - looks like Civilization, but when rival units meet each other, the game shifts into a more tactical mode reminiscent of Heroes of Might and Magic.
Now we come to the part where we have to take off the nostalgia goggles and talk about what's wrong with Master of Magic. It is, alas, a long list.
Let's start with the most obvious problem. I owned the original version of Master of Magic, which was by far the most unstable electronic game I have ever played. The game would reliably crash after about an hour of play, and this was not just my problem. Look up contemporary guides and you'll find that the most common piece of advice is to save the game every few turns so you don't lose your progress when it crashes.
But it wasn't just broad technical issues that plagued Master of Magic. The AI was notoriously bad even for the time, with opponents turning hostile so quickly that diplomacy was essentially moot. Many of the spells available for research were borderline worthless, which was a problem because the spells available were partially randomized. The races were also horribly unbalanced - some of them lacked the ability to construct essential buildings, so a player starting with such a race needed to find and conquer a neutral village of another race as quickly as possible. Top that off with random events that can occasionally wipe out an entire city without warning, and it's worth saving constantly regardless of the threat of a crash.
Later versions of the game fixed the bugs and attempted to balance the game. Sadly, they did not update the manual, which became obsolete in short order. Suffice it to say, if you play Master of Magic today, don't put too much stock in what you see in the manual.
In spite of all of this, Master of Magic has always been fondly remembered. Its many interesting features - the tactical combat, the ability to mix-and-match units from different races, and the element of exploration - not only made it stand out, but also helped it age a lot better than many strategy games of that era. It was a game with a lot of promise, and for this reason, the sequel was eagerly anticipated.
Sadly, the sequel wasn't meant to be. Master of Magic II was to be released in 1998, but the closure of Simtex in 1997 and the decline of MicroProse shortly thereafter put an end to that. Aside from a teaser in the Civilization II expansion Fantastic Worlds, the game was gone.
Yet there were many in the industry ready to pick up the torch. In the following decades, many companies announced their intentions to develop an unofficial sequel to the game. Most of these projects went nowhere. Below are some of the ones that came to fruition.
Age of Wonders (1999)
Of all the Master of Magic successor titles, none has been as successful or as well-received as Age of Wonders. While the game didn't sell well initially, it moved just enough units to justify a more popular sequel. This eventually turned into an entire series which, as of 2019, consists of five games.
The similarities between Master of Magic and Age of Wonders are immediately clear, but there are more subtle differences under the surface. Age of Wonders puts far more emphasis on the tactical layer, with the city-building aspect of the strategic layer being greatly simplified. The result is a game that feels less like Civilization and more like an RPG, albeit one where the player controls multiple parties at once.
Unlike many of the games listed below, Age of Wonders wasn't marketed as an unofficial Master of Magic sequel. While the influence is very clear, Age of Wonders is still trying to be its own game. This may well be the key to its endurance - Age of Wonders didn't need to live off the reputation of another title released years earlier.
Elemental: War of Magic (2010)
After Age of Wonders, there was a long period in which many people and entities announced their intentions to create a new game in the vein of Master of Magic, only for these plans to fizzle. The first one to see a proper release was Elemental: War of Magic, a game developed by Stardock, the company behind the Galactic Civilization series.
Anticipation for War of Magic was very high, especially among fans of the original game who had been waiting for a decade and a half for a sequel. Those fans weren't going to get what they asked for. War of Magic was riddled with bugs upon its launch and Stardock's forums quickly filled with complaints. Publications held off on reviewing the game until after the first round of patches, but even the patched game received generally poor reviews.
War of Magic did technically get a sequel in the 2012 game Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, but for Stardock this was more of an attempt at a fresh start. The last game in the series, the 2013 game Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, dropped the Elemental branding and thus severed all ties to War of Magic. Stardock no longer sells War of Magic, a game that is poorly remembered by the few who remember it at all.
Warlock: Master of the Arcane (2012)
Paradox Interactive's Warlock: Master of the Arcane is another game that lacks an explicit connection back to Master of Magic. Officially, it is linked instead to the 2000 real-time strategy game Majesty (incidentally, another game published by MicroProse). Paradox acquired the rights to the Majesty IP in 2007 and released a sequel in 2009, but that wasn't the end of it. They would proceed to develop several games in Majesty's Ardania setting, of which Warlock was the first.
Warlock bears more than a passing resemblance to Civilization V, which had been released two years earlier. As with the Civilization games, it focuses far more on the strategic layer. In fact, the similarities to Master of Magic are mostly thematic, as the game is more Civilization with magic.
Warlock did well enough to receive a sequel in 2014. While both games received positive reviews, neither one made a huge impact and the Ardania setting has laid idle since Warlock II.
Worlds of Magic (2015)
Confession time: I hadn't even heard of this game when I started writing this. It was one of the many Kickstarter successes of the early-mid 2010s and received some press mainly due to its stated intent to be an unofficial Master of Magic sequel, aided by the involvement of George Edward Purdy who had worked on the original game.
Unusually for a 4X, Worlds of Magic even received a console release, with an enhanced port (known as Worlds of Magic: Planar Conquest) coming to the PS4 and XBox One at the end of the year. The developers were even committed enough to make a Switch port in 2020.
None of its various versions were well-received. The original version was very buggy (a leitmotif for Master of Magic-related games, it seems) and while the enhanced port was seen as much better, the reviews were still generally negative.
Caster of Magic (2020)
The original version of Master of Magic has been available on GOG since 2010, and a Steam version is currently available as well. With the new availability of the game, there were fans who had a new idea: Rather than making a whole new game that captures the feel of Master of Magic, it might make more sense to just fix the problems of the original game.
Thus was born Caster of Magic, a mod that eventually became an official piece of DLC released under the IP's current owner Slitherine. Caster of Magic keeps the game essentially intact while making various changes under the surface. Little-used spells have been removed or redesigned, some of the races have been rebalanced, and the AI was given some significant tweaks.
That last "feature" has been something of a sticking point with fans, however. As with most mods, Caster of Magic was designed by people who had played the original game for an enormous number of hours and thus possess expertise not held by a general audience. To most others, Caster of Magic is going to come across as punitively difficult, with an extremely aggressive AI that has access to information (such as the disposition of troops) that the player doesn't.
Fortunately, owners of Caster of Magic have the option to disable it and just play the original version. Given that the mod only costs three dollars, it's certainly worth a try for fans of the original.
Master of Magic Remake (2022)
This brings us to today and the remake that will hit the market shortly. Whereas Caster of Magic was an attempt to enhance the original game without changing the overall presentation, the remake is going in the other direction - bringing the presentation up to date while leaving the guts of the game intact. It features a more modern, easier-to-understand interface, swaps out the isometric grid in the tactical layer for a wargame-standard hex-based grid, and adds some quality-of-life fixes to make the game move faster - slow gameplay being another complaint about the original.
It awaits to be seen if fans of the original will embrace the remake, let alone anyone else. However, there are a lot of people out there - people who have been anticipating a sequel for half their lives - who have to be hopeful. Here's to having hope.
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