Explore, expand, exploit, ex… citing? Yes, that’s definitely how it goes. The term ‘4X’ may only have been coined by strategy guide writer Alan Emrich as recently as 1993, but the concept of guiding a nation/space fleet/strange fantasy species across generations through diplomacy, war, and technological progress has already proven to have endless appeal. (And yes, the last X stands for exterminate, for those cracking their knuckles and heading for the comments section.)
Related: The best strategy games on PC.
The genre owes much to Sid Meier’s Civilization series, but we thought we’d show a bit of love to the other games that have helped elevate the 4X genre to achieve the prestige it enjoys today. Here are the best 4X games to keep you one-more-turning.
Age of Wonders III
Had enough of the space race, earthly architectural wonders, and unpredictable scummers like Gandhi and Ramkhamhaeng pretending to be your pals before sending an elephant army to trample your capital? Then Age of Wonders III is a solid option, sweeping you off to a high-fantasy world where magic and mythical creatures can ruin you instead.
On top of the obligatory imperialistic 4X gameplay whereby you spread your nation of elves/dwarves/orcs/other assorted fantasy races across the land, AoW III is speckled with roleplaying elements. There are heroes to lead your armies, and you create a leader whose class and stats will have an effect on your empire’s diplomacy, development, and battle tactics.
AoW III is conquest-oriented, with war being your most likely path to victory. To that end, it has a fittingly deep turn-based system in which your armies take on enemies on tactical battle maps, where wise use of action points and terrain is crucial. If for some reason you find yourself hitting the walls of its vanilla incarnation, there's also an AoW III level editor and full modding support to expand your game with.
It looks and sounds absolutely lovely, too, making it a nice escapist take on the 4X formula.
Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension
The Dominions series has been quietly doing its thing in the background of the 4X scene. It's built a niche but devoted audience who have come to worship it over the years.
That worship culture is fitting, because actual worship plays a big role in the game. You are a godlike being in charge of a nation, with dreams of ascending to godliness by controlling all the titular thrones in the land. These, however, are being contested by a whole bunch of pretenders, so war is inevitably a big focal point in Dominions.
The setting is fantasy, but instead of elves and orcs the world is populated by creatures and peoples of diverse mythical and historical settings such as ancient Egypt, alongside Norse and Greek mythology. The game is much deeper than its simple visuals would suggest, and does admittedly take a while to gain a foothold in. But once you do, it’s one of the more unique 4X offerings out there.
Best played online with several other buddies with a god complex.
Galactic Civilizations III
Probably the most popular frontier for 4X games to explore (exterminate, expand, and exploit) is deep space. It’s a natural fit: the fantasy of meeting new races and discovering new worlds across an entire galaxy is filled with tantalising possibilities.
GalCiv 3 (as the scenesters call it) came out nine years after its cult classic predecessor, and takes place in a huge, randomly generated sandbox universe. There’s a loose story that follows on from the last game, but really the joy is in populating star systems, conquering planets, and interacting with the nine colourful space races that populate the universe. You play as one of these yourself, with each race encouraging a distinctive playing style based on their unique abilities. Or based on Bernie Sanders' political policies, as we tried once.
Much like Civ, there are multiple paths to victory, including conquest, technology, cultural domination, and political alliances, making for a great balance of deep diplomacy, careful development of your civ and, of course, intergalactic warfare.
Kind of a given, but it’d be rude not to include it. Look at the most-played charts for Steam and you’ll see that Civ, in its various incarnations, remains one of the most consistently popular games on the platform.
Civ VI took the bold step of expanding cities across more tiles, introducing the districts mechanic, and re-stacking combat units to an extent. They sound like minor tweaks but they go a long way and, frankly, the foundations Civ V left behind were rock-solid in the first place. It's very close to being the best Civilization game of them all according to PCGN's deeply scientific rankings.
Really, the only reason to stop playing Civ VI will be when Civ VII comes out, but even then the successor has a tough task in topping a game that learned so much from Civ V's shaky launch, and subsequently arrived in decidedly complete form. Check out the Steam workshop to see what the community's been doing with Firaxis' base game so far.
Europa Universalis IV
Shoving aside the inevitable debate about the differences between 4X and grand strategy games, the fact is that much of Europa Universalis IV’s gameplay revolves around those four big Xs, all contained within a stunningly comprehensive, historically meticulous simulation of Europe circa the 15th and 19th centuries…
… look, it’s a deep game, and it scratches that Civ itch, so shush.
Even for a seasoned Civ player, EU IV is daunting, in part because it feels so unrestricted by mechanics and forces you to deal with just about everything you can imagine a nation of the period having to deal with. Arrange marriages, declare war after spending a year fabricating a just cause for it, be among the first to head to Africa and establish the infamous slave triangle (or elect not to be an absolute monster and instead abolish it). One political misstep and your precious empire can quickly crumble around you. The scope is truly breathtaking. Even more so after installing Europa Universalis IV's Mare Nostrum expansion, which focuses on the oceans and all the bounties floating underneath.
Granted, you won’t be settling cities as per the 4X norm, and much of the world is laid out before you from the get-go, but no other game will teach you so much about the realities of managing an empire as this.
Want more? Here's our Europa Universalis IV review.
Stellaris is a space-faring empire builder that blends the best of Paradox’s grand strategy games with the 4X genre. You pick one of a number of intergalactic races – or create your own – and start off with a single solar system to your empire’s name (that’s not a lot, on the galactic scale). The robust ‘ethos’ scale lets you pick with precision the kind of empire you want to be – will you be a collectivist militarist hivemind whose denizens crush all who oppose them? Or maybe an entrepreneurial empire that gains fame and dominance through business?
Unlike other Paradox games, one mistake isn’t likely to destroy you, and you always have the chance to adapt to the ever-changing political structure of the cosmos. It’s not only accessible, but has echoes of Europa Universalis within its rich diplomacy system, as well as confronting you with monumental galactic events that can turn a game upside-down. This fresh new take on the space-based 4X game is already giving GalCiv III a run for its money.
Want more? Here's our Stellaris review.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Older by the day but still very playable, Alpha Centauri was created by Civ legends Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds after they left MicroProse. You could superficially call it ‘Civilization in Space’, but that’d be ignoring the fantastic narrative running through the game. You’re working both with and against several futuristic factions from Earth, each of which has a different idea about how to colonise the mysterious planet Chiron.
As you go about the usual Civ responsibilities of building up and maintaining your faction (albeit with completely new units, resources, and bizarre alien technologies), you uncover through monoliths and alien technologies that humans weren’t the first advanced species to visit the planet. The plot thickens deliciously in the Alien Crossfire expansion, where you can play as the mysterious alien Progenitor race.
With intelligent writing and innovative gameplay features that you can see in much later 4X games, Alpha Centauri is an important landmark for the genre, and still worth replaying for its excellent story that muses boldly on humanity’s competitive nature versus its need to survive.
Ignore the spiel that Civilization: Beyond Earth is the spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri. Where Beyond Earth felt like Civ V with a reskin, Alpha Centauri was a rich story-driven experience as well as an accomplished 4X game – traits it shares with Endless Legend, one of our favourite games of 2014.
Like Alpha Centauri, Endless Legend is about several factions that crash-land on a mysterious planet, and seek to dominate it through various means (military conquest, science, expansion, diplomacy etc.). The game is an artful blend of high fantasy and sci-fi elements, as magic and steampunk technologies collide.
Each faction has its own story that you uncover as you play, as well as unique attributes that make for unique playthroughs. Several of the game’s features, such as the fog of war depicting a hand-drawn cartography map and de-stacked cities, can even be seen in none other than Civilization VI.
From the combat (which takes place on a dedicated battle screen) to the tech tree, to the lovely presentation of both sound and visuals, Endless Legend is a 4X masterclass, set in one of the most imaginative worlds in recent gaming memory. And it's nothing if not true to its name.
Want more? Here's our Endless Legend review.
So, those are our picks. What do you think? Let us know about the 4X treasures you’ve been keeping a secret from us all this time in the comments below.