Yesterday’s Expansion Pack has me thinking a lot about technological advancement, so come with me as I muse about that classic 4X space strategy game, Master of Orion II.
MoO2’s “tech tree” is really just eight parallel lines representing different fields of scientific advancement, from biology to physics to sociology. There is no cross-pollination between these fields; no branching prerequisites or synergistic bonuses. At least not directly. You can combine technologies from different fields to powerful effect, but they do not directly impact on each other.
The interesting thing about technological advancement in MoO2 is that for each field of study you are forced to choose one practical application (unless you have the Creative trait). So while your researchers are working on advanced construction techniques, you have to decide whether to pursue applications in automated factories, planetary missile defense systems, or heavier ship armor (smart money’s on the factories every time). This seems counterintuitive. If this research potentially enables all these inventions, why can I only get one? But on an abstract level, it makes sense that a combination of cultural blindspots, competition for resources, and disappointing early tests would result in some applications reaching fruition while others wither on the vine. This also stimulates technological trade between empires, as you trade (or steal, or take) technologies with the civilization that decided that planetary defenses were more important than trade facilities. Notably, forgoing a certain kind of application in early research doesn’t prevent you from jumping back on at a later point. Neglecting to develop early missile designs, for example, does not prevent you from researching the better varieties at a more advanced stage in the game.
The other interesting thing about technology in MoO2 is the way it intersects with the game’s robust ship design system. Ship design in MoO2 is essentially a point-based affair, with each hull having a base capacity for systems and weapons to be shoved into it, and a base cost that is added to by the costs of those systems. Research gives you new weapons and systems to use, but further research miniaturizes those previously invented systems. They become more efficient, taking up less space, costing less, and enabling certain optional modifications. This means that when you research those fancy new Neutron Beams, they won’t necessarily outperform the now more space efficient and moddable Fusion Beams you’ve been using. It also means that you don’t have to constantly be researching military applications in order to keep up with your opponents.
There’s a lot to like about MoO2 (I haven’t even touched on species design or colony construction), but it falls prey to those two ever-present bugaboos of strategy games: poorly-balanced options and weak AI. The game has tons of options, but many of them are only feasible at the lower difficulty levels, where the AI has all the aggressiveness of a fainting goat. Remember that robust ship design system? The AI is absolutely terrible at designing ships, and no great shakes at commanding them either, so a human can generally take on fleets much larger than their own. This means the AI needs huge production and tech bonuses on higher difficulties which correspondingly narrows the player’s options down to the most efficient. Diplomacy is so easily exploited by the player that the game has to turn the AI into complete jerks on higher difficulties to compensate, meaning that it’s not worth even trying to use the system. All this would be forgivable if there was a sweet spot where you could play around with different strategies and still see a decent challenge from the AI, but the game flips from one extreme to the other so quickly that there’s no in-between. There just isn’t enough granularity in the system.
Don’t get me wrong, the game is still fun for quite a while, and there’s still enough potential strategies at the highest difficulties for some interesting experimentation. Sooner or later, though, you’ll have to sigh and give up your dream of playing a fun game as a race of charismatic traders. The galaxy just isn’t friendly enough for that to work out.