What is a 4X game? Explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate are the pillars of this genre, in which you’re tasked with steering a nation or faction across multiple generations.
4X was a term 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 from board games to PC games.
4X games owe much to Sid Meier’s Civilization series, but we thought we would show a bit of love to the other 4X games that have helped elevate the genre to achieve the prestige it enjoys today. We have also done our best to include a range of settings and strategy focuses in our best 4X games list, so if you are not all that interested in guiding an empire through history then you can also expect 4X games about medieval conquest, space empires and even religious domination.
The best 4X games are:
Galactic Civilizations III
Probably the most popular frontier for 4X games to explore (exterminate, expand, and exploit) is deep space. It is a natural fit: the fantasy of meeting new races and discovering new worlds across an entire galaxy is filled with tantalising possibilities.
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 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. It is very close to being the best Civilization game of them all according to our 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 has been doing with Civ 6 mods.
Europa Universalis IV
Shoving aside the inevitable debate about the differences between 4X games 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 games 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.
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.
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 the best 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, and diplomacy. 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 one-off 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 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 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.
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 expansions like Stellaris: Apocalypse and Stellaris: Synthetic Dawn. It all boils down to new playstyles, more replayability, and more of those juicy Xs.
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? Age of Wonders III is a solid alternative, 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, Age of Wonders III is speckled with RPG 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.
Age of Wonders 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 is also an Age of Wonders III level editor and full modding support to expand your game with. It is also one of the prettiest 4X games going, making it the ideal candidate for a spot of fantasy escapism.
As an added bonus, there is now full modding support for Age of Wonders III, which means you’ll find even more replayability in the Steam Workshop.
Endless Space 2
Look, if Civ gets two entries in a 4X games list then so can the Endless series. Endless Space 2 builds on the steady foundations of both Endless Legend and the first Endless Space, delivering arguably the most stylish, sleek, and downright pleasant experience available in the 4X genre. Neat touches like its faction-specific soundtrack combine with beautiful art, a crystalline UI, and rich cutscenes to lavish charm and character over Endless Space 2’s sturdy strategic foundations. It’s not just among the best 4X games, it’s one of the best space games, too.
Expanded features like a deep and impactful political system and a bonkers cast of sci-fi races whose history and even their biology determine how each path to victory plays out ensure a level of depth that belies the game’s accomplished aesthetics. Fortunately, too, Endless Space 2 never locks you into any of its victory paths – discover later into your game that you enjoy growing your economy more than waging war and you will not be punished for changing tack. The flipside to that is Endless Space 2 also requires you to perform a delicate balancing act even if you just want to be a murderous space warlord – thankfully, a thorough tutorial and some wonderfully helpful UI tools like a searchable tech tree make doing so easy for those new to 4X games.
Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension
The Dominions series has been quietly doing its thing in the background of the 4X games scene. It has 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 quickly becomes apparent why Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension is one of the best 4X games out there.
That’s it. The best 4X games. A little 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 XXX games will help. For the time being however, we’re more than happy with the exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating four X’s. Anyway, kettle on, slippers at the ready – it’s time to start a nuclear war as Gandhi.