Master of Orion 3, for better or for worse, was both my first introduction to the Master of Orion franchise and my first introduction to space 4X. I was just entering my teenage years when it was released in the early noughties, and I was just beginning to explore my nascent interest in strategy gaming. Up until this point, I’d largely invested my gaming time in platformers because, surprisingly, that’s what my grandma played. (My gaming grandma is architect-in-chief of my hobbies today, and perhaps deserves a post all of her own.)
I had dabbled with Civ III so knew that this fresh (to me) TBS thing was appealing. I loved – and love – space, so what wasn’t to like about this game with a fancy red box and its attempt to introduce a fifth X – eXperience – to the 4X genre?
I spent many, many hours buried in menus and working my way around this game that was alien in more ways than just being full of aliens. I think I realised there was more going on under-the-hood here than I could properly understand and wasn’t sure whether that feeling of fumbling about in the dark was intentional.
That said, MoO3 was a black-box to me, and being the tinkerer that I was, that was appealing, even if I didn’t fully get to grips with the game. Perhaps the rose-tinted glasses are too thick more than a decade on, but I believe I enjoyed this game.
That’s in stark contrast to the opinion that seems to ooze from reviews about the web. Apparently it was full of bugs; I wouldn’t have known, I was barely a teenager, and was still of the opinion that surely the products I’d spent my pocket money on were of impeccable quality. Apparently the AI was bad; that might explain that feeling of fumbling about in the dark, especially for a game that’s supposed to have swathes of empire management handed over to the AI.
My intention here isn’t to review the original, as-released, Master of Orion 3, but if you’re interested in a more contemporary look-back on the game, see the Rock-Paper-Shotgun article Friendless Space: Why Master of Orion 3 Is Important by Sin Vega.
Since 2003, there have been a number of mods created for MoO3, including some generally well-received (in the fringe MoO3 community) “unofficial patches”. These come in three varieties:
- Vanilla: aims to fix all known bugs. (No changes to base game mechanics beyond this.)
- Strawberry: includes fixes from Vanilla and adds graphics, sound, and other cosmetic improvements. (Still no changes to base game.)
- Tropical: includes everything from Strawberry and adds some more “fun” stuff and rebalancing, including tweaks to races, weapons, and tech.
I ended up picking the Tropical version because I like to add more stuff to my games, if I can get away with it. I also used a mod to increase the maximum screen resolution to 1024×768 (yeah, that’s all your getting!). See the Installation section for instructions on how to get these mods working.
I toyed with the idea of trying out the Master of Orion 3 base game for comparison before adding the Tropical mod on top, but I thought I’d leave my childhood memories untarnished and evaluate the mod on its own merit. From what I can gather, MoO3 with one of these mods is closer to the original vision, anyway.
So I jumped right in and picked the Eoladi as my race. I didn’t bother with any race customisation, not least because I didn’t understand how the various options would affect my game from the get-go. What I do see is that the Eoladi have bonuses to diplomacy and creativity (some research modifier) and maluses to mining and manufacturing.
I loaded a 250 star, four-arm spiral galaxy with 16 races and ended up very close to the core, which I thought I could play to my strength given my diplomacy bonus.
At this point I realised quite how spoiled I’d become by the likes of Stellaris and Distant Worlds; 250 stars seemed like a pitiful excuse for a galaxy. As I played, however, I found it was more than sufficient for this game.
Anyone who hasn’t played MoO3 might think these graphics are looking a bit dated, and you’d be right. Even for their day, they were dated. Anyone who has played MoO3 will have already noticed some differences introduced by the mods I’ve installed, notably that the various menus are accessible on the right rather than at the bottom of the screen, which I assume is to reclaim some screen real-estate on the more “generous” 1024×768 resolution.
At the start of every turn, you’re presented with a sitrep, which contains links to various relevant sub-menus so that you can drill into the details of just what you’re being told. You have to dismiss the sitrep before you can continue with the turn. I found there was often too much in this sitrep and, save for a few important items near the top (it is thankfully sorted by importance), I generally ignored it, which didn’t seem to hamper my game.
I assumed I’d be playing a relatively peaceful game given my mineral/manufacturing malus and my research/diplomacy bonus. But the Silicoids had other plans. It was at this point I realised just how heavily MoO3 relied on military engagements to keep the game ticking along as your various automated governors kept your empire largely under control.
I ended up forging a close relationship with the humans living nearby, who actually ended up engaging the Silicoids in battle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a military ally be quite so useful in an engagement – in any game. Perhaps this was a fluke of the situation, but I was certainly impressed.
I eventually focused all of my attention of the ongoing Eoladi – Silicoid war, eventually pushing them to the fringes of the galaxy, and… getting bored, unfortunately.
I’d like to tease apart my feelings here because, as stated, this article isn’t supposed to be a review of MoO3, it’s supposed to be a first glance at the Tropical Unofficial Patch for MoO3.
The game as a whole didn’t live up to my memories of it, but presumably I’ve got more experience of the genre now and have been spoiled with modern graphics, interfaces, and gaming concepts. That said, there are certainly other games from the same era that I return to and enjoy myself.
That said, I did enjoy some of mechanisms in the game. Migration and magnate races in particular sparked my imagination. Magnate races are races that don’t form fully-fledged interstellar civilisations but are tied to a single world. You, as an imperial menace (or friend/liberator, it’s all the same, right?), can choose to colonise these worlds anyway. They don’t turn under your control until you have a significant number of your own species on the world.
It took me a while to work these mechanics out (as for many mechanisms in the game – it took me no fewer than 20 minutes to figure out how to specify which specific ships I wanted a planet to construct), but they worked well.
As for the Tropical mod; it did its job. This is really the best thing I could say about it because I think it’s purposefully rather innocuous.
I noticed the changes to the races as I was trying to decide who to play; they certainly gave them some more character. I noticed that the diplomatic interactions were more consistent, although I was continually asked to enter mutual economic treaties and research treaties, even if I’d already said yes. (Perhaps there was a timeout? If there was, it wasn’t obvious.) My various governors responded well to the high-level changes I made to the empire policies, development plans, and finances.
It’s worth dwelling on that final point, as I think it’s important, and it’s something that Vega wrote about in the aforementioned Rock-Paper-Shotgun article; that MoO3 is about taking away the micromanagement that plagues some games in this genre. You, as a galactic emperor, should not have to worry about the production queues on each planet of the dozens or hundreds of worlds of your empire, but rather should be painting the broader strokes. “More ships”. “More spending”. “More industry”.
And I’ll reiterate; this worked well. I think that the game AI (for the other empires as well as within your own) was something that was lacking in the base MoO3, and I certainly didn’t get that feeling playing the Tropical mod.
All-in-all, we should celebrate the Tropical mod as a success. It has smoothed out some of bumps in MoO3 so that the creators’ original vision can shine through a little brighter. I’m still not overly-enamoured with that vision, but I can at least go some way to experiencing it in its intended form.
(If you’re interested, I did a guest review for Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars over on Old Man Mordaith. I recommend checking out that blog regularly if you like the content here; the owner and primary contributor has similar tastes to me!)
The instructions I followed are laid out in this post on the GoG forum. It’s worth noting that this guide does specifically apply to the GoG version of Master of Orion 3. I actually bought a physical copy of MoO3 and, while it launched having followed an adapted version of the instructions of the GoG forum, it crashed a lot. If you do happen to already own a physical copy of MoO3 and really want to try the patches, I’d recommend saving yourself the trouble and just buying the GoG version.
So, getting the Tropical mod working is as straightforward (hopefully) as following the linked guide. There is a great collection of other mods at the Master of Orion 3 Guardian website. Here are some additional points I’d like to make about the Tropical modding process that might answer questions you have about the process as you carry it out:
- You must choose either the AlliedVictory or SenateVictory patch when running the patcher. They’re incompatible. I ended up choosing AlliedVictory, but you might have a different opinion.
- Don’t install WindowMode!
- Some of the patches, when being installed, will request a value from you. I’ve assumed that whatever the default value is is what is recommended by the Tropical modders as an “ideal” value, so just left them as-is. For reference, these patches and the associated default values are:
- FighterSpeed = 15000
- GalaxyConfiguration = 36
- MissileRackSize = 2
- MissileRacks = 3
- MissileSpeed = 17500
- Oribtals = 18
- StarlaneEvent = 6
- SystemDefenseTF = 32
- TFsPerCombat = 16
I also installed the 1024×768 MOD II: Battle At Aruspex mod, as recommended in the linked guide.
And that should be it! It worked!
If you do go on to read the rest of the posts in that forum, you might be tempted to try some more up-to-date versions of the Tropical mod, hosted on some randomer’s Dropbox account. I’d recommend against this. First of all, downloading from a random Dropbox account is significantly more sketchy than a dedicated MoO3 modding website. Secondly, you’ll need to acquire a DLL from some other sketchy website, and DLL download repositories are notorious for being filled with malware. You have been warned.