by John Markley4
Spaceward Ho! Review
The Venerable Interstellar Empire Game Returns
Spaceward Ho! is a very old name in the turn-based interstellar empire strategy genre, born when the building blocks of the first atoms were coalescing from the primordial quark-gluon plasma after the Big Bang and games made specifically for the Macintosh were a thing. It’s undergone a number of revisions since the original release for the Mac in 1990, reaching its current form in 2003. Spaceward Ho! for Android is the first official release of the final version on a non-Apple platform, and while it has its weaknesses it’s fun if you’re a fan of the genre.
Gameplay begins with the player in control of a single inhabitable planet and its surrounding solar system on an interstellar map. To expand, you send scout and colony ships to explore and settle nearby worlds. When you encounter hostile ships or worlds, combat occurs automatically with results calculated based on the attributes of the combatants.
There’s considerable complexity for a mobile game. You must manage your income and allocate it to shipbuilding, mining, terraforming, savings, maintenance, and five different categories of research. Money is generated by planets each turn based on their population. Metal, needed to build ships, is mined from planets and has a finite supply on each- once a planet’s metal is gone, it’s gone. Planetary temperature can be adjusted by terraforming to support a larger population, though if gravity is too extreme the planet will never be habitable enough to be profitable and is better strip-mined and abandoned. Colonies initially cost much more than they bring in and often require significant investments in terraforming to be profitable, so you have to plan expansion carefully.
Ship design is detailed, allowing you to adjust traits like offense, defense, and speed as you research new technologies, as well as use of “miniaturization” technologies that let you build ships that cost more money but use less metal. There’s also plenty of customization possible for each new game – you can set the number and power of rivals, map size and shape, star density, and turn length.
(Minimum turn length is ten years, which – bizarrely enough – means that a mobile game where control of planets is indicated with planet-sized cowboy hats is one of the most realistic portrayals of interstellar travel times I’ve seen in a video game.)
Gameplay is fun, with lots of options and strategic considerations, and keeping your empire expanding without overreaching is an enjoyable challenge. Having two in-game resources, one endlessly renewable and one not, adds some additional depth. The user interface is fairly intuitive and makes all of the information you need readily available, though the sliders that distribute spending don’t allow for much precision.
Graphically the game is awful, even for an Android 2.2 port of something released by a small company in 2003. Planets are ugly, mostly featureless brown-orange lumps that become smears of green, blue, and purple when terraformed, with unsightly rocky encrustations indicating remaining metals. Ship graphics are better, and I like how their appearance changes to show new components when you adjust a design’s stats, but there are some jarring stylistic choices- depending on a ship’s stats, you can end up with things like giant panting dog’s head where weapons should be. It might have worked if all of the ship components and designs were consistently goofy like that, and some people might find it appealing, but for me it was off-putting.
This is symptomatic of a more general problem: At no point did I really care very much what happened to my budding galactic civilization., because the game didn’t inspire any feelings of investment in me. That can be done through an interesting setting – whether laid out explicitly or implied through graphics and game mechanics – an evocative graphical style and presentation, or a consistent tone, but Spaceward Ho! doesn’t have any of those. It isn’t an issue of technical muscle or fancy art assets – there are enormously evocative, imagination-grabbing strategy games that are basically glorified spreadsheets. I never I felt like I was witnessing the story of an interstellar empire, and without that feeling I was less interested in what happened next. Despite these flaws, Spaceward Ho! is an entertaining game with an impressive degree of complexity for a mobile title. If you like interstellar strategy, it’s worth a look