The Best 4X Games

Even if you don’t know what “4X” means, you’re likely familiar with some of the games in the genre. The term “4X,” coined by game developer Alan Emrich, stands for, “EXplore, EXpand, EXploit, and EXterminate,” outlining the different phases of gameplay. 4X games are well-known for their complex game systems, sprawling technology trees, detailed empire management, and strategic combat.

Most 4X games feature either turn-based or real-time gameplay and are commonly set in either real-world historical settings or in outer space. There are also a handful of great fantasy-themed titles. We’ve made sure to include our favorite below. If you’re looking for something new to get your “one more turn” fix, check out this list of our favorite 4X games!

Civilization IV: The Complete Edition


Screengrab via GOG.com

At a glance

  • Genre: Turn-based strategy
  • Developer: Firaxis Games
  • Platforms: PC, Mac
  • Original Release Date: October 25, 2005
  • Price: $29.99
  • Where to Buy: Steam, GOG

No list of the best 4X games would be complete without an entry from Sid Meier’s insanely popular Civilization series. While more recent Civilization titles, including Civilization V and Civilization VI, are certainly great, we always find ourselves going back to Civ IV as the definitive Civilization experience. The Civilization series set the gold standard of the turn-based strategy genre on PC.

We recommend picking up the Complete Edition, as it includes the full collection of excellent DLC, including the extremely good Beyond the Sword expansion. You’ll get a plethora of leaders, civilizations, units and more, offering the richest and most diverse experience possible. You’ll even get to fight zombies, which is a lot more than the real Otto von Bismarck can say. If you’re completely new to the 4X genre and decide to pick up only one title from this list, make it Civilization IV.

Stellaris


Screengrab via Stardock

At a glance

  • Genre: Space exploration “grand strategy”
  • Developer: Paradox Interactive
  • Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4 (upcoming), Xbox One (upcoming)
  • Original Release Date: May 9, 2016
  • Price: $39.99
  • Where to Buy: Steam, Paradox

Like Firaxis, Paradox Interactive are no strangers to the 4x genre, as their major developmental focus is on “grand strategy games,” wargames focusing on real-world maps and historical accuracy. Their credits include other great 4x titles including the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis series Stellaris is a slight departure from their historical titles, taking the exploration experience into the expanse of space.

In Stellaris, faster-than-light travel has just been developed, and empires are competing to be the first to succeed among the stars. As with most 4X games, you’ll start things off by choosing a pre-made empire, or you can opt to be assigned a random species. You can also use existing species and options to create a custom species or even create a new species from scratch with the game’s extensive modding capabilities. Speaking of mods, Stellaris has Steam Workshop support, and there you’ll find tons of mods to alter and enrich your experience. If exploring space and conquering empires is your jam, Stellaris is the game for you.

Galactic Civilizations III


Screengrab via Stardock

At a glance

  • Genre: Space strategy
  • Developer: Stardock Entertainment
  • Platforms: PC
  • Original Release Date: May 14, 2015
  • Price: $39.99
  • Where to Buy: Steam, Stardock, GOG

Stardock's latest entry in the Galactic Civilizations series offers a rich and diverse experience for fans of the sci-fi genre. Galactic Civilizations III focuses on space exploration and the development of your empire within, featuring many species to meet and new worlds to colonize. Galactic Civilizations III has a wide breadth of choices that promise a different experience every time. You even get to design your own ship.

Galactic Civilization III features a story-based campaign as well as multiplayer against actual players or an incredibly challenging AI. Galactic Civilizations III’s Crusade expansion, included in the $39.99 Steam and Stardock versions of the game, adds unique new features, allowing you to design your own faction right down to its citizens. You can even train citizens to serve as spies and soldiers to aid in your efforts of galactic conquest.

Endless Legend


Screengrab via Amplitude Studios

At a glance

  • Genre: Fantasy strategy
  • Developer: Amplitude Studios
  • Platforms: PC, Mac
  • Original Release Date: September 18, 2014
  • Price: $29.99
  • Where to Buy: Steam

Endless Legend is easily the best in the genre when it comes to fantasy-based 4X games. It takes place on the planet of Auriga, a land of an exotic assortment of races, each with their own history, technology, and skills. Endless Legend features a unique combat system that has you assign individual units to armies, then control them in battle by issuing commands and moving individual unit along the game’s hex-based map. This additional layer of depth makes combat in Endless Legend substantially more engaging than in other 4X titles.

As the name suggests, Endless Legend features endless replayability. World maps and quests are randomly generated with each new game. Endless Legend features excellent storytelling and RPG-like features, including the capability of equipping units with equipment to aid in battle. Additionally, The game’s latest expansion, Inferno, adds an all new race, Kapaku, who are adept at traversing newly-added volcanic terrain. They can even create volcanoes.

Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares


Screengrab via SimTex

At a glance

  • Genre: Space colonization
  • Developer: SimTex
  • Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
  • Original Release Date: November 22, 1996
  • Price: $5.99
  • Where to Buy: Steam, GOG

Master of Orion II may be positively ancient, but it’s also positively awesome. In this excellent classic 4X title, you’ll navigate the galaxy and colonize planets while being subjected to the grief of the Antarean race. The game is appropriately complex, while not absurdly challenging, offering an accessible and balanced experience once you’re able to get past the dated (though intuitive) interface.

As with any game focused on space travel and colonization, you’ll need a powerful spaceship. Master of Orion II offers an extensive ship design system, allowing you to construct and customize powerful warships featuring a variety of weapons and utilities complementing different battle tactics. You can even work towards constructing a Doom Star, essentially your own personal Death Star, capable of destroying almost anything in its path.

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion


Screengrab via Stardock

At a glance

  • Genre: Space strategy
  • Developer: Ironclad Games, Stardock Entertainment
  • Platforms: PC
  • Original Release Date: June 12, 2012
  • Price: $39.99
  • Where to Buy: Steam, Stardock

While not a traditional 4X game, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion combines real-time strategy with the 4X genre, blending together an interesting and unique experience. We felt it was worth including on this list as its 4X features are excellently implemented, though there is a notable focus on the “exterminate” part. If you’d prefer a bit more of the other three (explore, expand, exploit), you can download the excellent Enhanced 4X Mod, which adds substantial additional content familiar to 4X gamers.

In Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, you’ll choose from one of three races with which to explore the galaxy, conquering planets and gathering resources. It’s worth noting that the game does not have a single-player campaign, though you’re certainly welcome to play offline versus AI. Sins also features a wonderful soundtrack, and the graphics received an overhaul in a patch earlier this year, so the game is looking better than ever. If you’re a fan of RTS games and would enjoy adding the depth of 4X to your gaming experience, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a great pick.

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