Spaceward Ho! has been around in one form or another for what seems like forever. It's a much loved and time-tested conquer-the-galaxy game. More to the point, it's a conquer-the-galaxy game lite: easygoing, simple to understand and play, and quite breezy in tone. There's none of the mass of Master of Orion, or the narrative and complex interactions of the Star Control series. You won't have to learn much to play it, and you can adjust the game size to whip off a full conquest in under a lunch hour.
Spaceward Ho! IV is the newest version of this old standby from Delta Tao and New World Computing. Gameplay is not only a snap to jump into, but also highly customizable. In the first screen, you pick the type of galaxy you want to play in: densely or sparsely populated; circular, spiral, ring shaped, random, gridded or clustered in terms of planetary layout; and anywhere from small to humongous in size. You can set the base intelligence of computer players from dumb to super-smart, and the number of opponents from none to 19. Once set, the game creates a random galaxy and you're ready to begin play. (If you're playing a multi-player game, it pauses until everyone's ready.)
The game is based around a main screen dominated by a large map of all the planets in the galaxy. Each player starts with one planet, a colonizing ship, scouts, and a certain amount of cash and metals in reserve. These cash and metal deposits are used to build new ships and research new technologies. The main action takes place as you send out scouts to explore new planets, determining which are best suited to terraforming and mining, and then colonizing them. Metal is the name of the game: you need it to build and expand your empire. The unsettled planets have it, but many are hostile to your life form: they're too cold or too hot, have bad gravity, or their other settlers make things tough. Sometimes you need to take a chance on an iffy planet just to get some funds to keep going, and sometimes you have to go to war to defend your colonies or to get a particularly tasty planet.
All this is tracked with a fine interface that allows you to set sliders to track expenditures, designate money for research, examine the status of your holdings, and view charts and graphs detailing your progress. It's a pretty wide-open system. You can choose from a number of different areas to research, for example, which will give your spaceships an edge in range, speed, weapons, and so on. Spaceship-building itself is delightfully customizable, allowing you to create your own ship design by setting ranges, speed, weapons, shields, and miniaturization (which conserves metal).
As you come in contact with your enemies, you'll have to expand your fleet to include armadas of warships. Ship-to-ship combat takes place when you enter the orbit of an enemy planet, and is abstracted in a screen showing battle results. Or, you can avert combat by forging peaceful relations, using a fairly complex set of diplomatic instructions that can be sent to other opponents. These are simplified stances such as I want to be your ally or I want your planet, and work with computer opponents as well as human.
It's all quite easy to get into and quite fun to play, without many glitzy flourishes or complex foo-faws. The general improvements over previous versions are new ships, new graphics and sounds effects, a time clock, and other features that help balance gameplay and keep things running smoothly. The only real gripe I have with it is that Internet play is not automatically implemented, though it can be hacked. Such a low-bandwidth title as Spaceward Ho! is ideal for Internet play, and it really should have been native.
SH4 won't blow you away with its technical brilliance or design innovations. It's actually quite plain. But it's also tremendously playable and lots of fun, especially in a vast network game. Joe Bob says check it out.