Master of Magic is a remake of the “cult classic” Master of Magic from 1994, developed by MuHa Games and published by Slitherine, it will release on Steam on December 13, 2022. It is exceedingly faithful to its roots, both to its benefit and sometimes detriment. There is something to be said for updating an old game and preserving its gameplay while improving the graphics, sound, usability and interface, but it *has* been 28 years and there have been some developments in gameplay that might improve the game even further, but that’s a subjective call. As it is, it’s faithful and fun in a very old school way.
Master of Magic can be punishing as there are many “unfair” things in the game. Many of the units and spells can be used against a player unprepared for them, or your strategy that worked so well – casting earth to mud on the enemy and picking them off with an army of archers, could come up against an army of phantoms immune to your shenanigans. This extreme disparity in relative power leads to immense replayability, with as much cheering and celebration as there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth – and it’s glorious. With the recent steam release of Dwarf Fortress, I’m reminded of its decidedly old school motto – “losing is fun”, and just how different modern gaming is compared to 20 years ago both for good and for ill.
At a basic level the gameplay is stock 4X fantasy empire builder taking place on two main map modes. The overworld map is where you settle towns, construct buildings and train units in them, and move your armies. The battle map is where your armies engage other armies and maneuver your units, trying not to undo the last 30 minutes of economy grinding by losing your Hero and his army to completely fair and balanced enemies and random dice rolls. The beauty of Master of Magic comes in the fourteen fantasy races, from elves, dwarves, trolls, to orcs, gnolls and more, all with a wide variety of units and spells you and your heroes cast that have an outsized impact compared to other games.
The radically different races greatly change how you play the game, on the campaign map somewhat but mostly on the battle map. Spells can be cast on both maps and greatly impact the flow of the game, whether it’s an opportune buff on a unit in combat or a summoned army of rampaging bears you unleash onto your peace-loving neighbours. With over 60 special abilities and 200 spells to research, these is a tonne of options for how to utilise your army’s strengths.
The same role and tier of units can have substantially different stats reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of each race. The more civilized Humans have access to higher tech buildings, but their infantry is substantially weaker than Lizardmen and slightly weaker than Barbarians. Lizardmen would want to maximize this discrepancy early on by expanding aggressively, but by late game, unless you are going for an ethnostate, you can mix and match the units of multiple races.
The options menu is very bare bones. It has the basic essentials including high and widescreen resolution support, and no (or optional) framerate cap, and uses the best display option of borderless fullscreen, but having fullscreen and windowed options should be standard. Hotkeys are not rebindable which is also a standard feature now, but at least this can be remedied by using autohotkey. I encountered no bugs while playing which is impressive, other than one minor exploit allowing slightly cheaper (max 50%) building production when bought out with gold. Framerate was consistent and the interface controlled smoothly.
Overall, MuHa Games and Slitherine deserve high praise for the faithful, smooth adaption of a classic in Master of Magic. There is room for small improvement in some ways, most of which should be fixable via small updates. It will take some getting used to the older style of game if you haven’t played one for a while, or if you’re young enough to have never had the pleasure. There is substantial satisfaction to be had in learning and mastering the systems however, so you’ll be drawn back again and again, as with all good time vampire games. I hope the game does well and we get DLC out of it to extend its lifespan, there’s a lot of room for even more content here in this glorious blast from the past.
If you want to see more about the game, DasTastic (unaffiliated with Roundtable Co-op) has a 12-part lets play preview up prior to the launch of the game that’s well worth a look if you’re on the fence. This review utilised a key provided by Slitherine and Master of Magic is available now on Steam. If you are feeling nostalgic, the original game is also available to play on Steam.