Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Spaceward Ho! is a fantastic use of productive computer time.
The Long Version: It's hard to find a place to start describing a cowboy-themed space exploration game. First of all, it's by Delta Tao Software, which has versions for Mac OSX, Windows, and Palm OS. My only experience is with the Mac version, but I imagine that the version for Palm is also pretty good - they're more powerful than the computers the game was originally designed for. I started playing Spaceward Ho on a Mac SE and a Mac Classic, and whether those names ring a bell or not you'll have a pretty good idea how long ago that was. The game is now up to version 5, and it's matured very well.
Spaceward Ho's main attribute is that it's a complex game that isn't complicated to play. All resources are represented by two items, Metal and Money. Metal is the non-renewable resource, and it's primarily gained by mining it during the initial colonization of planets. Money can be earned from profitable planets or as interest from savings. When a planet is initially colonized, it requires money to support it, and a certain additional amount to mine the available metal and change the temperature into something more pleasant. Planets must have a suitable temperature and gravity to be profitable.
Money can be spent to transform planets, invested in technology, or saved up to build ships. Ships are used to explore the universe, colonize new planets, and expand the empire. I've tried playing with only one or two planets, but it's not nearly as interesting as taking a more expansionist approach.
But naturally there are others - Varlese - who are trying to build their own empires as well. It can be a multiplayer game, but the computer actually provides some stiff competition, especially when the resources are more limited. There can be as many as eight opponents, and they can either play in a free-for-all or as allies united against the human player(s). One neat idea behind the game is that everyone likes different temperatures and gravities, so it's possible that a planet that one player has rejected can be a profitable base for another.
If the computer players aren't arrayed against you, it's possible to form alliances with them. As with everything in Spaceward Ho, it's simple to do and free of any complication that will distract from playing the game. But don't get too comfortable, because sooner or later they'll probably break your heart.
And the only way to win is to be the last player standing. To get to that point you need to have made good use of our resources, chosen the right amounts to spend on technologies and ship savings, and made good strategic and tactical decisions. There's no winning formula, although there are certain techniques that work better than others, and there's also a bit of luck involved. It has a charming sense of humour, entertaining little quirks, and can be set up as a quick ten-minute diversion or an epic afternoon-long struggle.
At its very core Spaceward Ho is a mix of complex economics and strategy that's simple to play. It deserves to rank among the very best computer games.