4X: Spaceward Ho!

This is the second in a series of articles about 4X games. Read the introduction, here.

“Keep It Simple, Stupid.” It’s a principle that, in games, is more honored in the breach than in the observance. I’ve written before about how user interface is critical to a game’s playability. But beyond UI is a principle that many developers don’t seem to be able to grasp:

Have me make decisions about things that are important. Don’t bother me with things that aren’t important.

Spaceward Ho! is a 4X game that is entirely designed according to this principle. When it was released, it was the best game in its class. In my opinion, it’s still the best today.

What Spaceward Ho! does so well is abstract away complexity while still managing to maintain character. The game is simple, almost sparse. The object of the game is to take over the galaxy.

Spaceward Ho!

The galaxy in the Ho! is a simple place. It consists of a number of named stars. You can choose for a galaxy to have a specific arrangement, such as a cluster, or spiral, or have the stars spread randomly. Each star has one planet. Every planet is inhabitable, although some are more or less hospitable to your race, which is expressed in terms of gravity and temperature: your people like planets close to 1.0g and 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

You begin the game with one planet. Each turn, you accrue money based on the number of people on a given planet (planets with few citizens provide no income, and in fact cost money to maintain). Money can be spent in exactly four ways: you can spend it on building ships, you can invest in your planets (terraforming them to be closer to your ideal temperature, or mining metal for use in building ships), you can invest in technology, or you can save the money for another turn. Each turn you decide how much money to spend on each activity. Money is a renewable resource.

Metal is a nonrenewable resource: it is mined from planets, and used to build spaceships. When you run out of metal, you can’t build any more ships. You can scavenge metal by scrapping old ships, or by destroying enemies in battles at planets you control, but generally speaking, once you run out of metal, you’re screwed. The mid to late game of most Spaceward Ho! games tend to be fierce battles over metal.

Technology research can be split among six areas: weapons, shields, speed, range, minaturization, and “Radical”. The first five areas allow you access to marginal improvements in their respective areas, while “Radical” techs may be useless or game-changing. Technologies have a variety of whimsical names (“You now have Topping Off the Tanks range technology."). When you go to design ships, newer technologies are displayed on the image of the ship being built (for example, a faster ship might have more engines. A ship with higher weapons tech might have ominous looking missiles dangling from it. Or a big boxing glove.)

There are a few basic ship platforms. Fighters are the standard ship type, existing at your “official” technology level. Scouts can fly farther than your other ships, but are weaker. Colony ships can conquer new worlds, but are hideously expensive in terms of both dollars and metal. Tankers can refuel fleets even away from your colony. Satellites cannot move, but can attack and defend enemy ships. And Dreadnoughts are, essentially, ridiculously powerful (and expensive) fighters. There are also a few odd variants, such as decoy or biological ships, that add flavor to the mix.

What separates the Ho! from other games in the genre, I think, is that it is a fast game. Even in a huge game, the decisions you have to make are crisp and clear: decide where to spend your money, decide how many ships to buy, and decide where to send them. That’s really all there is to it.

Of course, saying “That’s really all there is to it” is deceptive in a game whose playing field is an undirected graph. The other thing that sets Spaceward Ho! apart from the field is its excellent AI. Perhaps it is a consequence of the simplicity of the game, but the computer opponents here are no pushovers. Lower difficulty levels provide a great diversion for the gamer who is just looking to noodle around. At the highest difficulty level the game will challenge even the most jaded tactical genius: the AI fights hard, reacts quickly, and has a knack for leapfrogging your defenses.

Battles are resolved automatically whenever two hostile ships are at the same star. There’s a brief animation that plays to show you how the combat played out, but it’s easily skipped. Both technology and overwhelming numbers can make a difference in any particular battle. Higher tech ships are massively powerful, but also tend to be massively expensive. Furthermore, monetary investments in technology tend to give diminishing returns after a certain point. Lastly, prototype ships are extremely expensive compared to production ships. This means that the first ship you build with any technological change will drain your treasury. Thus, there’s an incentive to not rush new technology out to the front lines immediately, but to wait “just one more turn” to see if you can save on prototype expenditures. This tension between spending your money to develop more powerful ships and saving money to buy more powerful ships drives the late game.

The game’s simple UI lends itself to quick play: it is, quite simply, the Advance Wars of 4X games. You won’t need a manual. You don’t have to stare at on-screen icons wondering if that thing over there is a button or a depiction of an alien ballet dancer intended to increase your “immersion”. There is no full-motion video. Most UI actions are accompanied by audio confirmations. These also are whimsical: move a ship to another planet, and you’ll hear a cowboy shouting “Hyaaaah!” Status messages come with a brief but satisfying “click” to let you know they’ve registered.

The game supports internet multiplayer, as well, but I find that the Ho!’s quick-playing nature lends itself to solo gaming sessions.

People play 4X games for different reasons. I have no doubt that truly hardcore science-fiction fans might be put off by Spaceward Ho’s whimsy, by its iconic rather than representational graphics, and by its focus on gameplay rather than on the Very Serious Business of Intergalactic Political Relations. But from a pure gaming – or, dare I say it, ludological – perspective, Spaceward Ho! is the gold standard against which all other 4X games should be judged. If I could only take one 4X game with me to a desert island, this would be the one.

Spaceward Ho! for Windows (version 4, $24.95), Macintosh (version 5, $39.95), or Palm OS ($19.95) is available from Delta Tao.

The next article in this series is about the classic 4X game Master of Orion.