The turn-based strategy genre's star has been waning since the late-Nineties, although the Civilization series is still marching on, even if original visionary Sid Meier has trotted off to do other things. But back in its heyday, before Westwood came along and made base-building RTS titles popular, turn-based strategy was the king. A particular collection of games, that placed research and diplomacy, economics and expansion over action-packed battles and tactical skirmishes, popularised by Meier's astounding title in 1990, came to be known as 4X - a moniker which stood for Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate.
The 4X sub-genre, though, tends to refer to a small collection of titles that refused to place combat at the forefront. Most strategy games have you dealing in exploration and resource management, but titles such as Reach For The Stars and VGA Planets were deeply complex, with an added emphasis on diplomacy, trading resources and information, economics and branching research trees.
It was in a preview for Simtex's Masters of Orion, though, that the term '4X' was first coined back in 1993 by Alan Emrich in an issue of Computer Gaming World.
The original Masters of Orion was a breakout hit, although far from perfect. Although praised for its depth, the economics model was somewhat simplistic and the lack of multiplayer proved to be a problem for many, particularly when other similar games boasted it from the off. Taking place on a large galactic map, players began with a single homeworld, one colony ship and two scouts that could be used to rapidly explore neighbouring territories.
The choice of race at the start was key. Each had their own strengths and weakness, and it was more often than not this initial choice that would set the player on a more aggressive military path or a peaceful technological path, looking to win approval from the Galactic Council through superior tech, outstanding research and, of course, lots of covert spying. Espionage, as much as ship building, alliance foraging and commodities trading, was one of the most fun aspects of the game. Though fleshed out more in the sequel, you could send your little James Bonds to observe your neighbours, reporting back with intel and stolen research, or demolishing buildings for you.
It was with Masters of Orion II: Battle At Antares in 1996, however, that the series really hit its stride. They key word here? Complexity. Suddenly star systems had multiple planets ripe for colonisation, meaning that from time to time if you weren't vigilant enough you might end up sharing a star with another race. Players could actually create their own races too this time around, weighing up the positive and negative attributes to create their own ideal setup. Combat was far more complex this time around, with a huge variety of weapons and shields available for research, insane levels of micro-customisation and the ability to deploy small fighters and Marine-manned shuttles for assaults. If you didn't like the default schematics for your ships, you could literally design new ones. Oh, and you could blow away entire planets, Alderaan-style.
Players had to heed that subtitle too. As well as carefully managing relations between your neighbours, you had to be permanently on the lookout for the
Bastards Antarans. Condemned to a pocket dimension thousands of years ago by fellow super-race, the Orions, the Antarans apparently broke free and delighted in cheating the space travel laws you had to adhere to by turning up near one of your finest colonies unannounced with two or three turns to react. Invariably their superior ships would destroy your colony and turn you into a hair-tearing, gibbering mess. I distinctly remember building my beloved Acheron Prime four times, only to have it razed each time by Antaran gits.
But whether you annihilated everyone, got yourself elected Supreme Ruler of the Galaxy, or fought the Antarans back to their homeworld and defeated them, MOO II offered up a supreme banquet of replayability, cracking space battles, and excellent galactic-spanning masterful manipulation.
Then, however, the Golden Age ended, for a number of genres. Simtex dissolved in 1997, with the rights to all of its games going to Atari, a subsidiary of publisher Infogrames at the time. In 2003 a third game was published, but this time Steve Barcia was completely absent, and it showed.
We don't talk about Masters of Orion 3.The legacy of the brilliant first two games does live on though, and they still provide a benchmark for comparison when it comes to space-based strategy titles. But although you can pick up the Ultimate Bundle for Galactic Civilizations 2 for just over a tenner, I suggest you pay half of that, head over to GOG and play Masters of Orion I and II for yourselves.