So, you want to know about the best 4X games? At its core these types of strategy games allow the player to do four things; eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate, and eXplore. Many relish the turn-based focus as it allows players to think before each move, and yet still allow control over vast empires and globe-spanning endeavours.
We’ve compiled a list of some essential 4X games that you should consider adding to your game library. The term was originally coined by guide writer Alan Emrich in the ancient past of 1993, but the concept of guiding a nation, space fleet, or strange fantasy species across generations through diplomacy, war, and technological progress has always proven to have endless appeal.
We’re skewing our list more towards modern titles as we don’t think another list touting MOO2 as the grand 4X daddy does the gaming community any real service, and we’ve also tried to expand this list beyond merely games like Civilization. While these games have helped shape the genre there are plenty of new entries that are trying to leave their own mark and we believe they deserve the attention more than the old legacies.
The best 4X games on PC in 2023 are:
- Age of Wonders: Planetfall
- Galactic Civilizations IV
- Civilization VI
- Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
- Endless Legend
- Distant Worlds 2
- Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War
- Shadow Empire
- Starborne: Sovereign Space
Age of Wonders: Planetfall
Triumph Studios has been the under-stated counterpoint to Civilization for years; their fantasy based Age of Wonders series offering a unique mix of hardcore wargame sensibilities and mainstream 4X strategy values. Now under the guidance of Paradox Interactive, the studio has turned its sights towards the stars with Age of Wonders: Planetfall. It’s the 4X sci-fi romp we never knew we needed. One of the game’s biggest triumphs is offering turn-based strategy battles that run quick and smooth. It’s almost like you’re playing XCOM.
The strategy layer is gorgeous as well, with planets divided up into regions that you’ll need to explore, colonise, and conquer. Each world you generate has its own story to tell, but whether you choose to engage with it or just paint the town your colour is up to you.
Planetfall has definitely ousted Age of Wonders III as the best game of the series – as you can read in our Age of Wonders: Planetfall review – but being science-fiction versus fantasy it’s not a wholly fair comparison. AoW3 was a lot closer to Civilization V and integrated the fantasy elements rather neatly.
Galactic Civilizations IV
While the fourth entry in Stardock’s flagship series lacks the legacy of DLC and expansions that Galactic Civilizations III has, it’s already off to a strong start, as you can read in our Galactic Civilizations IV review. Calling this game (and series) ‘Civilization in space’ is a tad reductive, but Galactic Civilizations IV has certainly managed to achieve the same level of approachability and smart strategy design as Sid Meier’s titan has enjoyed since Civilization V.
Picking from one of 18 different civilisations, you must guide your space-faring empire out into the stars, founding colonies, building up trade and infrastructure, and researching new technologies that will keep you competitive. GalCiv IV’s scale has changed, with the maps broken up into galactic sectors that divvy up all of the played civilisations across several chunks of space. You may be the top dog in your local cluster, but what do you know about who’s on the other side of this slipspace tunnel?
Again, all GalCiv IV really lacks at this point is the wealth of post-release expansions and updates the previous game has under its belt, but with such a strong foundation we imagine this newest entry into the space 4X pantheon is going to evolve in leaps and bounds for here.
Kind of a given, but it would be rude not to include it as when most people think of 4X games this series springs to mind. Look at the most-played charts for Steam and you’ll see that Civilization, in all of its various incarnations, remains one of the most consistently popular strategy games on our fair 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.
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 would be ignoring the fantastic narrative running through the game. You are 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 were not 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.
Like the venerable 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, and diplomacy. The game is an artful blend of high fantasy and sci-fi elements, as magic and steampunk technologies collide.
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 masterclass in 4X games, set in one of the most imaginative worlds in recent gaming memory – it is nothing if not true to its name.
You’ll be pleased to know that developer Amplitude Studios has released a new 4X game called Humankind. It’s not quite to the same level as Endless Legend or Civilization VI yet, so it doesn’t get it’s own spot, but it’s still pretty good – as our Humankind review can attest.
Stellaris is a space-faring empire builder that blends the best of Paradox’s grand strategy games with the victory paths of 4X games. 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 is 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 is not likely to destroy you, and you always have the chance to adapt to the ever-changing political structure of the cosmos. It is 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. It is a fresh new take on space-based 4X games with all the depth and wackiness that its sci-fi setting entails.
Like all the best 4X games, Stellaris has ballooned in size since launch, which is partly down to Stellaris mods, and partly down to Stellaris DLC expansions like Apocalypse and the more recent Federations. It all boils down to new playstyles, more replayability, and more of those juicy Xs.
Distant Worlds 2
While Distant Worlds 2 hasn’t quite modernised the first game’s format to the same extent as other series have in recent years, we’re still very excited to see this venerable cult space 4X classic return with shiny graphics and at least an attempt at making it more palatable to a mainstream audience.
Distant Worlds has always been about freedom, freedom underpinned by an intimidating complexity rarely found in strategy games these days. The full breadth of systems contained in Distant Worlds 2 are hard to master, but even just getting a handle on one of them is incredibly rewarding. Better yet, you can tailor your experience so you can engage at a level that’s right for, right down to literally handing over everything to the AI, leaving you in charge of a single fleet or group of ships.
If you want to know more, check out this Distant Worlds 2 review written by our friends over at Wargamer.com.
Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War
Warhammer 40,000: Gladius attempts to answer the question (that nobody was asking) as to what would happen if you take Sid Meier’s classic Civilization series and throw it into the warp so that it emerged in the Warhammer 40K universe. Proxy Studio’s debut endeavour was another 4X called Pandora: First Contact, which was essentially Civilization: Beyond Earth, but as a wargame (even though Pandora came first). Gladius, staying true to the IP, is also more concerned about war than it is diplomacy, trade or ‘culture’. Victory comes in exactly one flavour, and that flavour tastes like las.
If nothing else, Gladius is a master-class in clean, concise UI, and the tutorial is one of the best we’ve ever encountered in a 4X strategy game. It’s also incredibly pretty, which helps. Still, a worthy addition to the list and if you’re looking for something that gets straight to the point, you might enjoy this. The Tyranids expansion has proven to be one of the best adaptations of that race we’ve seen in any strategy game, so something for your to consider when evaluating this title. Overall it’s a pretty good Warhammer game, although it’s facing stiff competition these days.
This one is a little bit more hardcore than the rest of its peers, but then again it’s published by a company who also specialises in military wargames. Shadow Empire may not be a great example of approachable UI design or modern graphics, but it does represent a remarkable look at what happens if you take a logistics-based war game, a post-apocalyptic setting, and the personality driven gameplay of grand strategy games and then blend them all together.
Shadow Empire puts you in charge of a post-apocalyptic society on a fallen world that once belonged to a big interstellar empire. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to emerge from your hovels and explore what else has survived around you. Half the fun is in the random planet generation options prior to the start of every game, while the rest is derived from expanding and conquering the planet around you. There are some internal mechanics as well and individual characters that will need to be managed, but this is definitely more of a wargame than it is anything else, so make sure you adjust your expectations accordingly.
Starborne: Sovereign Space
This one is a little different, but hear us out. Starborne is an MMORTS with a heavy 4X streak that’s designed in the style of the browser-based MMO’s of old. It runs in a standalone client so you don’t need a web browser, and the graphics are beautiful, but this is an experience that involves timers and cool downs so you’re making the same commitment as you would to something like EVE Online. It’s currently in open beta.
You start off with a single station and some meagre territory, but as you level up your empire you can expand your reach, raiding NPCS and other players for resource. Players can then band together to form alliances and engage in large-scale PvP affairs. There are a few different victory conditions, and the game is free-to-play with some microtransactions. It’s honestly quite good, though like most online games you have to be able to put in the time to get the most out of it.
That’s everything you need to know about 4X games. For more 100% accurate lists make sure you check out the best turn-based RPGs on PC, or perhaps you want a management game or a city builder game instead?