I couldn’t stay away. At first I thought I’d just take a break from games while my wrist healed, but soon I gave in and started looking for games I could play with one hand. Fast-paced action games were out of the question, unless I could play them entirely with the mouse, so I started looking at turn-based options. Roguelikes would work, of course, but I wanted something with a longer playtime. Eventually I settled on Master of Magic, the 1994 fantasy-themed strategy game by Simtex. While Simtex are perhaps more famous for creating the first two Master of Orion games, Master of Magic garnered a loyal community of fans, many of whom are still playing it today.
Most players describe Master of Magic as a fantasy version of Sid Meier’s classic Civilization series, and while Master of Magic certainly has its differences, the description is fairly accurate. Much like Civilization, players in Master of Magic start off with a single city and must expand their empire by managing production of buildings and armies, exploring the world map, founding or conquering new cities, and eventually encountering other empires controlled by computer players. But this all takes place in a fantasy world, where the players are powerful wizards and there are all manner of monstrous creatures to encounter or recruit as they vie for supremacy. And best of all, it can be played entirely with the mouse, and it’s all turn-based so I have as much time as I need to make decisions. Perfect!
Like Civilization, Master of Magic is a complex game with a lot of depth and detail, and as was standard for games of its era, it has no in-game tutorial. So the first step was reading through the hefty 150-page manual. Not to mention the separate and almost-as-hefty spellbook. This actually worked out well, as I was a bit out of it in the early days of recovery and reading was a less daunting task than sitting at my computer making tough in-game decisions. It also meant I got pretty excited as I learned about the game’s features. I learned that there are actually two worlds in the game, Arcanus and Myrror, and that skilled wizards will learn to use both in their quest to become the Master of Magic. Arcanus is a standard fantasy world, much like Earth but populated by Gnolls, Halflings, Orcs and the like. Myrror, on the other hand, is more alien, and has a stronger current of magic running through it. Races of a more mystical bent like Dark Elves and Draconians call Myrror their home. Units can shift between the two worlds at wizard towers or through certain spells, enabling stealthy sneak attacks where armies move through one world then suddenly appear in the other right at the enemy’s gates. And of course there’s the magic. There are a huge number of spells that players can cast, ranging from simple combat spells to long-term enchantments on friendly or enemy cities to powerful global enchantments that affect everything on both worlds. This all adds up to a staggering amount of strategic possibilities.
Getting the game running was completely painless. I got it from GOG.com and it came pre-configured to run through DOSBox with no fiddling required. I did elect to apply the fan-made Insecticide patch, which fixes a lot of bugs and AI inconsistencies, but that was as easy as downloading the patch and extracting it to the game directory. Once it was running, my first task was to pick a wizard, or design my own. As a new player I decided to go with one of the pre-designed wizards, and since I was intrigued by the Nature school of magic, I went for Freya. She has ten spellbooks in Nature Magic as well as the Nature Mastery perk, which lets her research new Nature spells faster and get more mana from Nature nodes found in the world. Here she is:
I’d started on the easiest difficulty since I’m relatively new to complex strategy games, and left all the game settings at their defaults. My next task was to choose a starting race. Each race in the game has various advantages and disadvantages, and at least one unique unit. But players are not stuck with their choice; by conquering neutral or enemy cities populated by other races, players can gain access to their special traits and even build their unique units. Not really knowing how the different races would play, I opted for Nomads as they sounded appropriate for a Nature-themed wizard. Then I found myself on Arcanus, looking at my little starting hamlet, with only a tiny bubble of the map visible around it, the rest shrouded in darkness and waiting to be explored. I had one unit of spearmen and one unit of swordsmen, so I left the spearmen in my hamlet for defense and sent the swordsmen out to explore. But they were really slow, so I decided to summon a magic spirit to act as a scout. This is as simple as opening my spellbook and clicking on the appropriate spell, and in only a few turns I had a brand new magic spir-
Seriously? That’s what Freya is wearing? A fur bikini? Come on, Master of Magic… being made back in 1994 doesn’t excuse you from this stuff. Sure, there are male wizards in the game who are shirtless, but none of them are wearing thongs. I’ve mentioned Male Gaze before, and it’s here too, but fortunately only in the character art for a few of the wizards. I was able to start ignoring it pretty fast.
Anyway, as the game got underway I began to see that it’s much more focused on warfare than Sid Meier’s Civilization games are. There are only two ways to win: conquer the capital cities of all the other wizards, or research and cast the Spell of Mastery. While the latter may sound like the “peaceful victory” option, it’s actually not, because once you start casting the Spell of Mastery (which will take many turns) all the other wizards immediately declare war on you, because they know that if you successfully cast that spell they’ll be banished from both worlds. What’s more, combat becomes necessary very early in the game, as critical resources are scattered across the map inside temples, ruins, caves and monster lairs, almost all of which are guarded by various deadly creatures. Even if you’re set on going for the Spell of Mastery, you’ll need to field some sort of army in short order to clear these places out and jumpstart your economy.
As a Nature wizard, my spell repertoire is geared towards summoning fantastical creatures, rather than relying on standard troops, and I start with a couple of low level summoning spells. Soon I’ve conjured some war bears and some sprites to try and loot some ruins, which leads to my first experience with the battle system. As is fitting for a strategy game with such a focus on warfare, the combat is quite involved. Taking place on a separate isometric battle screen, it allows the player to move individual units around the battlefield, and unit special abilities like ranged attacks or first strike play a large role. In addition, some units contain multiple “figures”; for example my unit of swordsmen actually has six little people in it. That means it effectively attacks six times, but as it takes damage some of the people can die, weakening the unit. My unit of war bears has only two bears but they’re pretty strong, easily outclassing most of the defenders I encounter (but not all… one cave is guarded by an Earth Elemental, a frighteningly powerful creature that I won’t be able to summon myself until much later). But, whenever any melee combat takes place both sides take damage, and soon the bears aren’t looking so great. The sprites, on the other hand, are doing much better. As flying creatures, they can’t be attacked by ground-based enemies unless those enemies have ranged or breath attacks, or if the sprites try to engage in melee themselves. But the sprites have a magical ranged attack, so they can just float there blasting enemies until they run out of ammo. As long as they’re not terribly outnumbered, they can handle most enemies without taking a scratch.
Two units of sprites are all I need to clear out most of the ruins around my starting town, and I’m rewarded with plenty of gold and mana crystals. Gold, food and mana are the three resources in the game, and while gold and food are generated in your cities (by collecting taxes and designating townsfolk as farmers, respectively), mana is harder to come by. Certain buildings can be constructed that will provide mana, but the best way to get it is to find nodes scattered across the map and send out magic spirits to meld with them. Nodes are guarded too, and usually by tougher enemies than the ruins or caves, but I’m lucky and find a nature node nearby that just has two war bears guarding it. My sprites make short work of the bears and I have my magic spirit meld with the node. Since Freya has Nature Mastery, I get even more mana from the node than usual, which really boosts my magical capabilties.
Mana is by far the most complex resource. The total amount of mana I’m getting each turn is called my Power Base, and can be allocated in three ways. I can send some to my mana pool, which is used for casting and maintaining spells and summoned creatures, or I can allocate some to go towards spell research, so I’ll learn new spells faster, or I can divert some to improving my casting skill. Casting skill basically determines how much mana per turn I can use for casting a spell; early on my skill is low, so an expensive spell will take many turns to cast even if I have enough mana in my pool to cast it. Improving my skill is a long-term investment, depriving me of mana now so that later in the game I’ll be able to throw spells around faster.
This all sounds confusing, and early on, it was, but I got the hang of things quickly. I soon got into a rhythm of exploring, clearing out lairs and caves, and managing production in my rapidly growing city every turn. Every building is useful, from increasing the amount of food or gold a city generates to unlocking more powerful units to boosting spell research, and picking the next thing to build is as infectious as it is in the Civilzation games. I even manage to conquer a wizard tower, which rewards me with a free spell and lets my units enter Myrror. I don’t spend much time in Myrror to be honest, but it does have its own set of ruins and caves to explore, and I get right to it. Shortly after this I meet the first of my opponents.
It’s Oberic, who specializes in both Nature and Chaos magic. He actually seems fairly nice, telling me we don’t have to be enemies, and the diplomacy screen informs me that he’s Lawful, meaning he won’t break treaties. I try to trade spells with him, even offering him a few for free to get him to like me first, but he scoffs at my meager knowledge of magic. So I decide to ignore him and just keep building up my own empire. By now I’ve conquered a few neutral cities and built a second city of my own, and I’m working up the ladder to more interesting units out of curiosity more than anything else. Soon my magic spirit scout (I summoned a new one) finds the rest of the wizards, some of whom are fighting each other already. They’re not interested in trading either, sadly.
Then Oberic declares war on me. Seems the AI in Master of Magic aren’t that great at being friendly, and will turn on the player when the player gets too powerful. Well, that’s certainly the case; Oberic only has two cities with some middling units, and I’ve just managed to research how to summon basilisks. It’s on. Basilisks are gigantic lizards with a powerful melee attack, high defense and tons of health, and they can turn enemies to stone if they fail their resistance check. It takes a while to summon one, but just one is enough to take Oberic’s northern city. His capital city takes two. Bye-bye Oberic.
I’ve basically abandoned diplomacy by this point. I’ve got the infrastructure to make griffins, one of the units unique to Nomads, and use them to back up my basilisks as I take out the other wizards. For my final opponent I hold off long enough to summon a great wyrm, which is ridiculously powerful and can tunnel through the earth, effectively teleporting during battle to get within melee range instantly. Freya is victorious in no time.
Having gotten a sense for how the game works I start again to try a different strategy. I bump the difficulty up to Normal and design my own wizard, based off of Ariel. I want to try fielding regular armies rather than summoned creatures so I focus on Life magic, which is all about buffs for my units and cities. I also grab the warlord perk which boosts my military units. Then I take Famous and Charismatic, two perks that will help me attract hero units and merchants selling artifacts.
Oh yeah: heroes. These are special units that will occasionally offer their services to your wizard, if you’re famous enough. Freya got one, although he wasn’t very good. But some of them are supposedly quite powerful, especially if you equip them with magical artifacts, which are things like enchanted weapons, armor and jewelry. I didn’t really get much of those with Freya so I wanted to see how they would play. For my starting race I chose halflings, who produce a lot of food (helpful for maintaining my army) and can make slingers, cheap and powerful ranged units.
This game plays very differently. I never summon anything except for magic spirits to meld with nodes, and I rarely cast anything else. I throw up a global enchantment to further increase my fame, and I was planning to use buff spells on my units, but ended up not needing them. I hire my first hero very early, and he’s a spellcaster which means he can hang back and shoot fireballs at enemies. He’s good enough to take on a few of the caves and temples on his own, and soon I’m cranking out slingers to help him out. Slingers are really good, especially considering how easy they are to make, and I’m soon stomping around the map conquering everything. When I meet my first enemy wizard, I try trading with him since my Charismatic perk supposedly makes other wizards like me more. He’s not interested, so I just conquer him, which is easy with an army of slingers led by my hero. Soon I have four heroes and I’ve cleared out the whole continent, with only one other wizard, Lo Pan, remaining. He’s smart enough not to cross the ocean and mess with me, so I spend some time on my own affairs. I build roads, something I never bothered with as Freya (and it seemed wrong for a Nature wizard to build roads anyway), which let me move troops between my cities more easily. My heroes are so much fun that I send two of them on a rampage through Myrror with an army of slingers, conquering all the neutral cities and monster sites they find (I eventually build a trireme and send it over to Myrror using my Plane Shift spell; this carries my army to all the different islands of Myrror as they continue their crusade). My heroes and other units have gained a bunch of levels and are now absurdly powerful, especially with all the magical artifacts I’ve been finding and buying from merchants. And I’ve conquered some cities populated by High Men and manged to build their powerful paladin units, who add some melee power to complement my slingers.
Eventually Lo Pan declares war on me, so I poke over to the other big continent on Arcanus to see what he’s up to. He hasn’t been resting on his laurels. He’s got tons of cities over there, all built up, and some big armies. I could conquer him, but it would take a long time and be a bit tedious. Instead, I decide to see if I can cast the Spell of Mastery. I’ve been finding spells left and right as I cut a swath through Myrror, and I have plenty of cities with buildings boosting my spell research. So I set up a beachhead on Lo Pan’s continent, send some heroes over there and reinforce them with lots of paladins. Then I just have to wait it out.
It takes a lot longer than expected. Apparently, if one doesn’t opt for a research strategy early, it takes a great deal of time to switch over. Lo Pan keeps sending armies at me and then trying to blast my heroes with lightning bolts once the battle starts. This kills some heroes on a few occasions, but I’m able to bring them right back in only a couple of turns with my Resurrection spell. Still, constantly defending against his attacks ends up being more tedious than simply conquering him would have been. Nevertheless, I do finally manage to research the Spell of Mastery, and start casting it. Lo Pan goes crazy, launching suicide attacks against me nearly every turn, and even sending some flying units to try and sneak attack my capital. But they never reach it. I finish the spell, banish Lo Pan and take my place as the Master of Magic.
Even after these two very different playthroughs, I still feel I’ve only scratched the surface of this game. There are three schools of magic I haven’t even tried, and from looking around online it seems that with careful play diplomacy is possible too. Different starting races can change one’s strategy quite a bit, and then there’s the option to build a wizard who starts on Myrror and is able to choose from one of the Myrran races like Dark Elves or Trolls. Having only used Myrror as a place to search for resources and items, I’m quite intrigued by the possibility of actually building an empire there. And of course every game generates a new map for Arcanus and Myrror, so even with the exact same settings it will be a new experience every time.
Neither playthrough was particularly challenging, and consensus is that the original game’s AI is simply too easy, even on high difficulty settings. Fortunately, this is one of the main things that the Insecticide patch is designed to fix. It offers three difficulty settings geared towards generating a challenge (Hard, Extreme and Impossible) and tweaks the AI to make it more aggressive and dangerous. I definitely recommend it; the easier settings are still forgiving enough when learning the game, and the harder settings will be welcome next time.
And there will definitely be a next time, because Master of Magic is great fun. There’s a lot to learn up front, but once you do, you’ll find yourself catching the famous “one more turn” syndrome. The interface is surprisingly intuitive, with only a few signs of its age showing through, and the sheer amount of stuff in the game ensures that it won’t get old even after many plays. The graphics and sound are the most dated aspects, with simple MIDI music and low-res sprites that are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another. But if you can get past these you’ll find it very easy to get sucked in and not come out for a long while.
Given that the Civilization series is still going strong, it’s a bit odd that there was never a sequel to Master of Magic, or even another game in the same vein. The closest ones are probably the Heroes of Might and Magic games, but those have more of a focus on adventuring and small-scale combat, rather than empire-building. More recently, there’s also Warlock: Master of the Arcane or the forthcoming Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, but fans of Master of Magic claim that these still aren’t quite in the same spirit. It’s a good thing then, that you can still play the original Master of Magic. And you should.