Just what are 4X games? At its core this type of experience allows the player to do four things; eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate, and eXplore. 4X games can end up giving players an incredible story as they make the long journey towards the finish line. Many even 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.
As a term it was originally coined by guide writer Alan Emrich as far back as 1993, but the concept of guiding a nation, space fleet, or strange fantasy species across generations through diplomacy, war, and technological progress has already proven to have endless appeal.
We’ve compiled a list of some essential 4X strategy games that you should consider adding to your game library. We’re skewing more towards modern titles, as we don’t think yet another list touting MOO2 as the grand 4X daddy does the gaming community any real service. 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
The best 4X strategy games on PC are:
- Age of Wonders: Planetfall
- Galactic Civilization III
- Civilization VI
- Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
- Endless Legend
- Distant Worlds: Universe
- Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War
- Shadow Empire
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, they’ve turned their sights towards the stars with Age of Wonders: Planetfall. It’s the 4X sci-fi romp we never knew we needed. It’s got a few kinks that needed working out on the strategic layer, but one of the game’s biggest triumphs is offering turn-based tactical battles that run quick and smooth. It’s almost like you’re playing XCOM.
Buy now: Pick up Age of Wonders: Planetfall today
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. Essential material for any 4X fan out there.
Planetfall has definitely ousted Age of Wonders III as the best game of the series, 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. If this sounds like something you’d like to try out, we’d highly recommend it still. Planetfall has several expansions, including the recently released Star Kings.
Galactic Civilizations III
Galactic Civilizations III came out nine years after its cult classic predecessor, and takes place in a huge, randomly generated sandbox universe. There is 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 in other 4X games, there are multiple paths to victory, including conquest, technology, cultural domination, and political alliances. This makes for a great balance of deep diplomacy, careful development of your empire and, of course, intergalactic warfare. It’s also grown over the years through various DLC expansions, including the near-perfect Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade.
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 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.
Buy now: Now’s a great time to get into Civilization VI
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 is working on a new 4X title called Humankind, which looks like a worthy Civ competitor.
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.
More like this: The best grand strategy games
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: Universe
If you’re looking for a hardcore 4X strategy game experience, look no further than Code Force’s Distant Worlds Universe. The complexities and inner-workings of the game are unprecedented and this would be suggestion for players who are looking for a challenge. While this challenge may seem unfair, it’s the tactile enjoyment of the game that keeps its many players going.
The complexities found here are ones which nourish a feeling of accomplishment that isn’t found with any other strategy game to date. If you want to play games in a quick and dirty fashion, you can customize it to fit that way. Or, if you want to create an experience that has you exploring every nook and cranny of the galaxies that Distant Worlds has to offer, you can set that up for yourself as well. This is is a defining experience for sci-fi 4X strategy game fans, and one not to be missed. You might be interested in hearing that a sequel is due out in 2021!
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 is 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. It’s got plenty of other faction packs that add in your favourite 40K races as well.
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 accessible UI design or modern graphics, but it does represent a remarkable look at what happens if you take a logistics-based wargame, a post-apocalyptic setting, and the personality driven gameplay of grand strategy games and then blend them all together.
This 4X game 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.
More like this: The best war games on PC
Also note that this game will be released on Steam on December 3. If you buy via the Matrix store directly, when the steam release does come you’ll be given a free key to use on Valve’s platform.
Other 4X strategy games
- Dominions 5: Warriors of the Faith
- Imperiums: Greek Wars
- John Shafer’s At the Gates
- Old World (Early Access)
- Civilization V
- Masters of Orion (2016)
- Polaris Sector
- Age of Wonders 3
- Masters of Orion 2
- Interstellar Space: Genesis
- Endless Space 2
A bit of trivia to conclude with: the term 4X came from an XXXX review score given to the original Master of Orion, which was a pun on the well-known pornography rating. Of course, if that was the sort of content you were looking for then perhaps this list of the best sex games will help. For the time being however, we’re more than happy with our safe for work ‘X’ collection.