Master of Orion Game Review

The Basics:

  • For ages 10 and up (publisher suggests 12+)
  • For 2 to 4 players
  • Approximate 60 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Pattern/Color Matching
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Hand/Resource Management
  • Bluffing and Misdirection
  • Trading
  • Worker Placement

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Moderate
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • Conquer the galaxy, but be careful not to upset your people!

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek approved!
  • Child Geek approved!

Overview

Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher, Sun Tzu, said “To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” In this game, players engage in combat both directly and indirectly. Players will quickly learn that the journey to victory can be traveled on many roads…in space.

Master of Orion, designed by Ekaterina GornIgor Sklyuev and published by Cryptozoic Entertainment, is comprised of 1 Central board (used to keep track of victory points and rounds played), 6 Civilization boards (more like thick sheets, really, and double-sided), 1 First Player token, 10 “-1/-3” Moral tokens, 4 “+50/+100” Victory Point tokens, 1 Round marker, 60 wooden cubes (in 4 different colors, 15 cubes per color), 90 Structure cards, and 8 Advisor cards. The game component quality is excellent. Cards, boards, and sheets are thick and durable and the illustrations are detailed and colorful, adding thematic elements to the game to draw the player in.

Preparing the Galaxy

To set up the game, first have each player select a Civilization board of their choice or randomly deal them out. On one side of the Civilization board is the Human race. This race selection is good for beginners or for those who want a balanced civilization to play with. On the other side is one of six different races that each have their own pros and cons, giving the players a total of seven races to select from. Note that neither civilization has a huge advantage over the other. Once the players have selected their civilization, have them place it in front of them and place any unselected Civilization boards back in the game box.

Second, place the Central board, oddly enough, not in the center of the game playing area, but off to one side. Place the Round marker on the starting “ringed” space on the Round track on the Central board.

Third, give each player a set of 15 colored cubes of the same color, placing any not used back in the game box. Have each player place one cube on their starting Civilization resources (Food, Fleet, and Production). which is indicated with a circle. Then have each player place one cube on the top of their Civilization board’s Morale track on the “10” spot. Finally, have each player place one cube on the “zero” Victory Point track spot on the Central board. All remaining cubes should be placed to one side of the player’s Civilization board.

Fourth, shuffle the Advisor cards and randomly select five. Place these drawn Advisor cards face-up next to the Central board where all players can see them. All remaining Advisor cards are returned to the game box.

Fifth, shuffle the Structure cards. Deal each player five cards, face-down. Players should review their hand and may, optionally, discard any number of cards and then be re-dealt an equal number of cards back, but only once per game set up. Collect any discarded cards, shuffle the Structure deck again, and place it face-down next to the Central board. This is the Structure draw deck for the duration of the game.

That’s it for game set. Determine who will be the first player and give them the First Player token.

Introduction to Civilizations, Advisors, and Structures

The cards and the Civilization boards in the game play a big role and need to be clearly understood if a player is to have any hope of conquering the galaxy. Each of these game components are summarized here.

Civilization Board

Each Civilization board has three major roles. The first is to keep track of how many resources a player gets during the game, which will continually shift through the rounds. The second is to keep track of the player’s civilization’s morale, which can impact what a player’s civilization is willing to do. The third is to help keep track of actions the player can take by default.

The Morale track identifies how popular the player is with their selected civilization. At the start of the game, the player can do no wrong. As the game progresses, a player can make decisions that negatively impact the overall morale by over exerting the civilization or when attacked by an opponent. If a civilization’s morale ever drops below six, they will not longer build new structures. A player can also lose the game if they let their civilization’s morale drop too low.

The Resource track indicates how much Food, Fleet, and Production is available to the player during rounds of play. Resources are spent like currency in the game, with different Structure cards requiring a specific number of resources to play. The Resource track is split into three columns. The far left provides very little in the way of resources, but increases the the number of cubes, cards, and morale available to the player. The middle column doesn’t provide any additional cards or hurt morale and gives the player four cubes. Think of this as the “sweet spot”. The far right is where the player begins to tax their civilization by over exerting their power and demand. The player will be given five cubes, but at the cost of reducing their civilization’s morale.

The Actions/Round Order section of the Civilization board provides the player with a summary of how a round is played out and the most common actions. Specifically, Construction, Exploration, Research, Trade, Propaganda, Attack, and Contract.

Advisor Cards

Advisors are independent third-party experts that will work for whatever civilization currently pays their fee. Each Advisor provides a special benefit and unique rules that are only available to the player who currently has an Advisor on their payroll. Only one Advisor card can be controlled by a player at a time, but the player is always welcome to hire a new Advisor if they want to switch their strategy and tactics.

The parts of a of one Advisor card follows (they are all different, but have the same card layout structure):

A) Name of advisor
B) Resources produced by the advisor
C) Advisor primary effect
D) Advisor secondary effect (in this case, reserve a cube)

Structure Cards

Structure cards provide three benefits. First, they can award the player victory points immediately or at the end of the game. Second, they provide resources. Third, and finally, they can grant additional actions and benefits. Each player has access to four “systems” in the galaxy of Orion. Systems are visually represented in the game as columns of stacked cards. When a player builds a Structure card, they can either put it in a new column as long as they do not have anymore than four columns of cards, or place a Structure card on top of a previously played Structure card.

Building out a system is not something a player should take lightly. Only the top-most card in a system (the last card played to that system) provides its card effect and is considered “active”. When a Structure card is played over, it only provides its resources noted at the top of the Structure card. In addition, each Structure card has a symbol that identifies its type. Players can earn additional points by building systems with specific Structure card types.

The parts of a Structure card are as follows:

A) The name and type of structure
B) Resources produced by the structure once built
C) Resource cost to build the structure
D) Trigger for listed effect and additional rules
E) Cube space to activate the structure
F) Structures effect when a cube is added to activate it
G) Exploitation effect
H) Victory points

A Galaxy Under Siege

Master of Orion is played in rounds and turns for a total of eight rounds at most. A game round is summarized here.

Step One: Gain Resources

Each player reviews their Civilization board and shifts their cubes on their Resource tracks to the right for each resource type provided by any played cards in their System or Advisor. No more than a total of nine can be collected of any resource per round. Players will skip this step during the first round of game play.

Step Two: Determine Exertion

Each player now determines how over taxed their civilization is by looking at the resource cube that is the furthest right. The column that the resource cube is in (the resource type doesn’t matter, nor does it matter if more than one resources are in the same column), determines the player’s civilization’s current exertion level. The player collects a number of cubes, adjusts morale, and might be allowed to draw an additional Structure card. The cubes collected represent the number of total actions the player can take during this round.

Step Three: Resolve “At the Start of the Round” Effects

Some cards and civilizations will give the player a bonus effect at the start of the round. Beginning with the First Player and continuing in turn order sequence, each player resolves any “At the Start of the Round” effects they may have.

Step Four: Take Actions

Beginning with the First Player and continuing in turn order sequence, each player will take one action each by placing one of their available cubes provided during step two. These cubes are placed in an action space found on their Structure cards, their Advisor cards, or on their Civilization cards. Structure and Advisor cards provide too many unique actions to list here, but each player always has access to the following actions from their Civilization board.

  • Construction: Play a Structure card from the player’s hand by first reducing the number of resources on their Resource track to pay for it.
  • Exploitation: Discard one Structure card from the player’s hand to immediately gain the listed Exploitation effect.
  • Research: Draw two Structure cards and place them in the player’s hand.
  • Activate: Place a cube to activate a card with an empty “A” space.
  • Trade: Exchange a specific type of card of one resource type for another.
  • Propaganda: Increase the civilization’s morale.
  • Contract: Hire an Advisor (if the player already has an Advisor card, they must place their current advisor back in the row and then take the new one).
  • Attack: Attack another player’s civilization by reducing the player’s Fleet.

This step continues until all players have used up all their cubes. Note that players will not always have the same number of actions. Continue in turn order sequence until the last cube is used.

Step Five: Check for Endgame Condition

After all players have completed their actions, the players determine if the game will come to an end, which it will if any of the following conditions are met:

  • The end of the 8th round
  • At least one player has a civilization with a morale value of zero or less
  • At least one player has five cards in each of their four systems

If the game does end, all players immediately go to end of game scoring. If not, the game continues.

Step Six: Discard

Each player now reviews the cards still in their hand and discards down to five cards. Discarded cards are placed in a pile, face-up. Note that players can have more cards in their hand based on certain cards they have active in play.

Step Seven: Reset Cubes

All cubes currently in play return to the player’s cube pool.

Step Eight: Pass the First Player Marker

Finally, pass the First Player marker to the next player in turn order sequence.

This completes one round of game play. The next begins with step one noted above.

Ending the War, Winning the Galaxy

If the endgame is triggered during a round, all players now determine their final score. This is done by counting victory points earned by specific Structure cards, sets of specific Structure cards, and unique system builds determined by Structure card descriptions. Each player also adds (or reduces) their current Morale value. Use the Central board to help keep track of victory points earned.

The player with the most victory points is the Master of Orion!

Game Variant

Master of Orion is not what I would consider a difficult game to grasp, but if playing with younger or inexperienced players, you can reduce the game’s overhead and complexity by only allowing players to use the Human race and removing Advisors. I personally don’t suggest this approach past your first game, as unique civilizations and random Advisors make each game unique.

To learn more about Master of Orion, visit the game’s web page.

Final Word

The Child Geeks were a bit slow to pick this one up, but once they found their footing, they were all in. Only our older and more experienced Child Geeks wanted to play the game, as our younger and less experienced Child Geeks found the game to be a bit too long or too “big”. For those Child Geeks who did venture into the Orion galaxy, they were most pleased with their trip. According to one Child Geek, “At first, I was confused, but when you explained again that it is all about the cards you build, the game started to make a lot of sense.” Another Child Geek said, “I like this game a lot for two reasons. First, you always have something to do. Second, you can never make a bad move.” Technically, you can, but only in hindsight and only after the end of the game. In which case, such insight isn’t much use except to those who immediately want to play another game. That being said, all the Child Geeks voted to approve Master of Orion, finding it to be a game that challenged them, but was always first and foremost fun.

The Parent Geeks, especially the more experienced players, found Master of Orion to be a blast. Even the more casual Parent Geek gamers found Master of Orion to be a game they liked exploring. According to one Parent Geek, “The game gives you a lot of options, which at first, don’t make a lot of sense. As soon as you are done with your first round and see how other players took their turn, the game suddenly becomes very clear.” Another Parent Geek said, “I normally avoid science fiction games, but this one really tickled me. I found I enjoyed building my civilization a great deal, leaving me with a sense of accomplishment even if I didn’t win the game.” The only aspect of the game play the Parent Geeks found to be weak was the combat, which wasn’t much used by any others except the most aggressive players. Even so, the entire game was awarded the Parent Geeks’ approval.

The Gamer Geeks enjoyed themselves to the fullest. According to one Gamer Geek, “I’m a big fan of Eclipse and other 4x games. They allow me to fully explore and push the limits. This game did the same thing without reducing what I could do despite being only eight rounds long. It plays tight, engaged me from the start, and never once lost my attention.” Another Gamer Geek said, “A great game, I think. It does everything right. It gives players a lot of options without overwhelming them, lots of different ways to win, and has seemingly unlimited replay value.” Like the Parent Geeks, the Gamer Geeks were not fond of the combat in the game, either, but for different reasons. While the Parent Geeks found that action to be aggressive and interrupting, the Gamer Geeks felt that combat was not developed enough and felt a bit out-of-place. As one Gamer Geek put it, “I understand why they did it the way they did, but I don’t think combat should be determined by simply seeing who has more resources. There should be more to it with a bit of chance for the underdog to win the day.” Despite their disappointment in the combat system, they unanimously agreed that Master of Orion was a game they all approved of.

Master of Orion was one of the first science fiction space exploration and diplomacy computer games I ever played way back in the day when I still had hair and abundant free-time. The board game version takes all of the subterfuge and politics and streamlines it. Rounds are quick, actions are meaningful, and the game flows naturally. The only time any of our games slowed down was when a player wasn’t thinking about their next turn when it wasn’t their turn. If you wait to “react” to opponents in this game, you aren’t playing it right. Master of Orion is about having an agenda and then adjusting your tactics to achieve that agenda based on how the galaxy unfolds.

I am also a fan of Eclipse, but have a very hard time getting it to the table. If you use the expansions, a single game of Eclipse can take hours with four people. With the same number of people, I get a game with 4x elements that takes less than an hour in most cases. Although, to be clear, Master of Orion is not a 4x game. It just feels like it.

The game is laser focused and immediately puts the player in the action, as well as the driver’s seat. And that is a very important point that needs to be made with a bit more emphasis. What really grabs a player in this game is the feeling of total control they are provided. Master of Orion gives players immediate feedback and a lot of information that is easy to collect and then take action on. The game empowers players, teaches them with simple cause and effect resolutions, and then challenges them to make a new choice based on what they observed.

Master of Orion quickly became a favorite at my gaming table with all our groups. I think you’ll find the game entertaining, too. Give it a try and explore this galaxy. You’ll find the trip well worth your while.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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