4X games are a special breed. They give you a taste of godhood, granting you an all seeing eye and the ability to manage an entire planet — or even the cosmos itself. Today, I wanted to peer into this incredible genre and search out the 10 best 4X games.
What is a 4X Game?
But first, let’s go over what a 4X game actually is…
4X stands for the four X’s in eXploration, eXploitation, eXtermination, and eXpansion. The core gameplay of a 4X game generally revolves around building and maintaining an empire while performing these four X’s. Players must manage their economy against their technology, and balance their defense with offense, all the while aiming for victory. This genre offers players multiple routes to claim supremacy, either by science, culture, religion and even diplomacy. The essence of a 4X is to play your way.
Humankind is the first on this list for good reason. Amplitude Studios has laid the groundwork for a 4X game that can rival the likes of Civilization, introducing unique mechanics while avoiding the many pitfalls that often plague Civ-like games.
Humankind allows you to pass through the ages as era-specific empires, starting as the ancient Mayans and moving forward to the early-modern British. How you navigate through the millennia is up to you. The community behind Humankind is desperately pouring out love for this game, they believe that with a few more iterations, it can stand with greats. It’s rocky around the edges, sure, but with each passing month the game is constantly updated with DLC and bug fixes.
Warhammer 40K: Gladius – Relics of War
Warhammer 40K’s own 4X game. And it’s good? Perfect. Proxy Studios were the ones to breathe life into this game back in 2018. It is by no means the oldest on this list nor the youngest, but with a few years under its belt Gladius has maintained a loyal following.
All the factions expected of a 40K game make an appearance. From Space Marines to Necrons then right to Tyranids, fans will find their favorite empires to control. A diplomacy-absent 4X game is certainly unique in the fact you’re just here to conquer the world and squash your enemies. In true 40K fashion.
Gladius suffers from a host of content locked behind a DLC paywall. The base game offers a well-designed experience that many will enjoy, but those that desire a more will find this frustrating. Steam sales are a gift from the heavens… I’m sure Gabe has a sale right around the corner…
Amplitude Studios’ Endless Legends is a fantasy-themed 4X game that is drenched in its lore and focuses heavily on narrative. At almost a decade old, Endless Legends has withstood the test of time, still impressing players with its visuals.
The game offers you a selection of factions, fairly typical, but then presents you with a quest that is unique to your empire. Completing this quest will grant victory, but be warned these missions are not easy.
Endless Legends forces players to be more strategic. For example, the world is split into regions and only one city may be built in each region. If you choose too hastily, you may find a new area with more resources. But if you wait for the perfect spot, you may hurt your economic curve in the future. The combat system has many layers of depth, replacing the usual ‘unit hit unit, take x damage’ with an emphasis on larger-scale battles. It is commonly found on recommendation lists, and that’s why it deserves a spot right here.
Master of Orion Conquer the Stars
Developed by NGD Studios, Master of Orion Conquer the Stars is the remake of Master of Orion 2. Putting a fresh coat of paint on the dated graphics, adding several changes to bring the game to the modern decade. It retains its simple combat and doesn’t reinvent the wheel. A game seemingly happy with its place in the 4X world.
NGD Studios does a fantastic job guiding players through systems and mechanics. Its pick-up and play nature stands opposed to most other 4X games, which are usually brimming with uniqueness that often scares away budding 4X fans. Master of Orion embraces simplicity and for new players that will be a refreshing take. Like most space-faring 4Xs, MoO introduces a plethora of interesting factions for you to command that will diversify the gameplay.
Ever wanted to play Civilization but limit the lobby to only medieval technology? Well, Old World developers, Mohawk Games, answers this question with resounding success.
Old World introduces a rare sight into the 4X genre; fast-paced action. The turn limit is set to 200! So you can expect a full game to run its course in about 20 hours. A very fast pace compared to the usual 100+ hour saves. To compensate for this cap, the game uses an Orders mechanic that permits a unit to move more than once per turn. No more pesky turtling science players ruining all the fun… time to grab a barbarian club and pillage to victory. Old World does away with the immortal leader of your empire and instead tweaks the formula to add living, breathing characters with their own lives. Your leaders will birth heirs that will take the sovereign reigns once their parents pass on. You will have to manage family affairs and the empire at large to succeed.
Sid Meier’s Civilization V
Civilization 5’s appearance should not be a surprise. Civilization in one name or another will always dominate the 4X strategy genre and here is no exception. Just like in the previous installments, you control your chosen empire and raise them up from dirt and rags to today’s technology. All the while fending off all manner of disasters, foreign dignitaries and all out war.
The first 4X experience that hooked me on the genre was none other than Civ 5. I’d lose weekends due to this game. One blink would transport me to 4AM with a grumbling stomach and commitments waiting for me only a few hours away. Despite its successor absorbing a sizable chunk of the player base, Civ 5 is still the second most popular 4X game on Steam and deserves the attention.
Endless Space 2
Amplitude Studios’ second foray into space was a hit with players searching for a turn-based 4X game that placed more emphasis on the personality of your empire. Its storybook gameplay may appeal to newer players to the genre.
Endless Space 2 is slower than its counterparts Stellaris and Masters of Orion, but it capitalizes on the ability to role-play as your empire. You are able to fully embody an entire race of people and enjoy their story through the cosmos. ES:2 is easier than most space 4X games to understand, its mechanics are on the simpler side but are by no means shallow and wasted. It has to be said that this game has an unprecedented polish and has learnt from previous Endless installments. If you are searching for a concise space-faring 4X strategy, then look no further.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centuari
Almost 25 years old and still the most perfect example of a 4X game ever created. Alpha Centuari holds up against the greats despite the low graphical fidelity. SMAC places players on a hostile alien world and are told to build a civilization while maintaining or breaking allegiances with their ideologically opposed neighbors. Once again, you can choose from 7 factions that all alter your goals for the planet and your empire.
The narrative grows deeper with every inch that you explore the planet. You uncover lost technologies and alien monoliths that point to an advanced alien race that once inhabited the planet. The 4X community adores this gem, it is a mainstay on many recommendation lists and deserves the praise it receives. While it is understandable that the dated graphics are hard to stomach for some, this diamond earned its place.
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI
It should be no surprise that Civilization 6 is on this list alongside its predecessor. It’s the most-played 4X game on Steam at around 41,000 players in September 2023. And it’s no understatement to say that the Civilization series has a monopoly on the people’s vision of a 4X game. Wherever there is talk of the 4X genre, Civ will always make an appearance.
In previous installments, a game of Civ was skewed towards building tall, rather than build wide. This has since changed with Civilization 6, moving its tile supremacy into sprawling your empire across as many tiles as possible. Districts are the major point of addition that shakes up how you approach city building. Previously, the most important tile was your city centre, but now districts can be built on any tile in your empire. City location and management just became far more important. Mountains are great for science-dedicated cities, while those that anchor beside a beach can earn gold through trade hubs. The magic you know from Civilization is still here, its polish is unquestioned, and its additions all hit the right mark.
Stellaris is a 4X grand strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive and released way back in 2016. You pick between a host of intergalactic races that all have their unique strengths and weaknesses. After, you’re placed into a single solar system belonging to your empire and must expand, exploit, exterminate, and explore your way through the galaxy.
Stellaris has been my favorite 4X game for years. The community and mod support constantly inject new life and interesting ways to play a standard Stellaris match. Customization is unparalleled, allowing you to dictate how your space-faring empire will evolve from the very beginning. Do you want to be militaristic and dominate all alien life? Do you want to take control of an entirely robotic race and exterminate the galaxy? You can do that.
This game also features a fairly unique turnless core gameplay, so those who enjoy RTS games may also find a kindred spirit in Stellaris. There is so much this game has to offer and any fan of 4X will do themselves a disservice if they haven’t tried this one yet. Stellaris features a host of unique events and challenges that are thrown at every empire in the lobby. Some are player-specific and require you to tackle them on your own, but others are game-warping and can spice up the game state. Since its launch, Stellaris has exploded with content and even to this day, its base mechanics are being updated.