So recently I was playing Master of Orion, which is a strategy game that came out for the PC in 1993. I owned this game in 93, when I was about 8 years old, and I’ve been playing it on and off for the last 22 years. Recently I became way more heavily into it after I realized how wonderful and elegant it is. The sequel, Master of Orion 2, used to be way more to my taste when I was growing up, because it had way more options, way more things to build, way more methods of customizing your race and your starships
(The two MOOs are 4x games. I forget what the x’s stand for, but one of them is exploit and one of them is explore. Anyway, it’s basically a game where you try to conquer the galaxy by colonizing planets and then conquering your opponents’ planets).
But now that I am an adult, I’ve come to realize the elegance of the original game. What I like most about it is that there are fewer options, fewer things to build, and fewer methods of customizing your race and your starships. What’s awesome about MOO1 is that each planet only has a few stats associated with it (population, number of missile bases, and number of factories, primarily) and you only need to make a few decisions (using a series of five sliders, you allocate the productive power of the colony between five functions: research, ship-building, building missile bases, building factories, or cleaning up waste from industry). This sounds like not very much, but believe me, when you have ten planets under your control, it’s more decisions than you want to make.
The game is also very well-balanced. Missile bases are extremely powerful in this game. It’s very difficult, though not impossible, to take a planet that has a sizable number of missile bases. It’s also not very easy to build a large fleet. When you initially conquer or colonize a planet, it has no missile bases, and generally its productive ability is low, so constructing missile bases takes time.
This means that in order to gain territory you need to slowly build a fleet, then move in, take a planet, and defend it for twenty turns, until you can build enough missile bases that you can finally afford to move your fleet. However, given the pace of research in this game, your fleet will by then be obsolete, and you’ll need to build a whole new fleet, with up to date technology. It’s really an exquisite game, and I don’t think that they’ve yet matched it. Modern games, sadly, just have too many options. The strategy is obscured behind the thicket of decisions that you need to make.
Anyway, I got so enamored of this game that I recently did something I have never found the time to do, not in the entire 22 years I’ve been playing…I read the game’s manual.
And it was a revelation! All this time I’d been treating the various stats–attack rating; defense rating; maneuverability, etc–as being somewhat abstract. But once I read the manual, I understood exactly the ways in which these stats functioned. Basically, I realized that if your attack rating is more than a few points lower than the opponent’s defense rating, you’re probably not going to hit them at all. And conversely, if your attack rating is higher, then you’re going to do much more damage. It was really an interesting insight into ship design. I also realized some facts about the way the game handles factory-building and waste cleanup.
It’s all rather unimportant, but what matters is that when I returned to the game I had a whole new sense of the available strategies. For the first time, for instance, I picked a race, the Altari, whose primary virtue is that their ships have a high defense rating. And, using that knowledge, I built a horde of tiny ships that were nearly invulnerable, and then I went out and conquered the galaxy.
Wait, this post was going to be about chess.
Oh yeah, so after I played that game with the Altari, I got very into the strategy of Masters of Orion, but then at some point I was like…err if I’m actually trying to get good at this game, why bother? Maybe I should go and put my time and intelligence into a game that has some social cachet. So ever since then I’ve been playing chess instead.
And it’s been awesome! I don’t know that I’ll ever be an amazing player, but before this, I never understood chess. I thought it was all about being a zen master who can see forty moves into the future and map out everything your opponent will do before he does it. But it’s not. At least not at my level, it’s not. At my level, it’s all about tactics. It’s a lot like Masters of Orion, actually. Defense is much more important than offense. The way the game of chess is balanced, you can’t just dart in and take an opponent’s piece. You need to advance carefully and you need to cover your pieces at all time (so that if they take your piece, you can take theirs). You need to put pressure on their king in order to limit their options. You need to move your pawns carefully in order to open up or close down certain areas of the board. And at a certain point you need to start making judicious decisions about which pieces you’re going to sacrifice.
Anyway I haven’t played a human opponent yet (my chess board isn’t going to get here until tomorrow), but I’ve loved playing the computer. I’ve already jumped it up by a bunch of difficulty points in the last week. Basically any time I start to win, I’ll increase the difficulty. It’s great. Of course when I play the computer, there’s an ‘undo’ function so I can try out different moves. Which has been great for learning what moves will provoke what reactions (I learn strategy by seeing how the computer strategizes), but it’s obviously not good for turning me into a real player.
I posted on Facebook to see if anyone wanted to play me, and I’ve already gotten a number of offers. I am really really looking forward to playing real people.