The Best 4X Strategy Games30 Sep 2019 12
At its core this type of game allows the player to do four things, “eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate, and eXplore.”. 4X games can end up giving players an incredible story, satisfying gameplay, and a long journey to the finish line. Many even relish the more-tactical focus as it allows players to think before each move, and yet still allow control over vast empires and globe-spanning endeavours.
For something completely different; check out our guide to the best digital board games!
Here are some essential 4X strategy games that you should consider adding to your game library. If you've been reading our other guides, you'll have noticed 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.
Strategy Gamer is affiliated with the Paradox Store.
There aren't many new releases in the 4X genre at the moment, but here a couple that are on our radar, waiting to be given a proper evaluation.
Pax Nova - recently released into Early Access, this is another scifi 4X game that looks to offer a Civ-like planetary experience as well as a galaxy-spanning space-faring portion where you explore and colonise new planets. We want to let it settle before jumping in ourselves, but this one may be worth keeping an eye on.
Interstellar Space: Genesis - There was a period a few years ago where there were loads of new space 4X games releasing, but the niche seems to have chilled out since then. Probably for the best as the space was in danger of getting a little crowded. ISG entered the fray towards the end of July, and while it's yet another game that draws inspiration from Masters of Orion 2, it still does some neat things that allows it to stand out on its own. Not quite good enough to make the main list, but check out our review if you're interested in knowing more.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall (Review)
Triumph Studios have been the un-sung counter-point 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 set their sights on the stars, and Planetfall is the 4X sci-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 making tactical battles run quicker and smooth;y, making them feel like less of a grind.
The strategy maps is gorgeous as well, with new 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 has 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 5, and integreated the fantasy elements rather neatly. If this sounds like something you'd like to try out, we'd highly recommend it still.
Galactic Civilizations III (Review)
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment
Developer: Stardock Entertainment
Buy From: Steam
Galactic Civilizations III is a success story that is built upon the developer’s ability to create an incredibly polished experience completely independently. The series was known for its ability to allow a user-experience like no other game, allowing mods that opened the door to hundreds of other science fiction properties. Galactic Civilizations III follows this legacy by not only opening the door to more player agency, but also establishing a core that is continuously built upon.
Picking up Galactic Civilizations III and a variety of its DLC will be more than enough to keep you busy for years if this is the only strategy game that you manage to pick up from this list. The standard for 4X strategy games have been elevated since the release of it, and the customization for player experience is unparalleled. If you’re looking for a game which allows an unprecedented amount of game variety, look no further. At the time of writing the most recent expansion was Retirbution, which we suspect may be the last as it brings the internal narrative arc to a close. There's never been a better time to check out this pillar of sci-fi 4X gaming.
Stellaris (DLC Guide)
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Development Studios
Buy From: Paradox Plaza, Steam
If you’re looking for something more demanding, but equally rewarding, then Stellaris from Paradox Interactive will be right up your alley. Paradox is known for creating incredibly deep strategy games which are complex, and Stellaris is no different. A combination of the developer's classic 'grand strategy' style, mixed with everyone's favourite 4X theme - space. The scale in Stellaris is grand, and there are not many games like it in the 4X genre. With an overt amount of attention to detail and intricacies, look into picking this game if you’re interested in a systems heavy strategy game that will lead you on a grand space adventure.
It's the newest and youngest of all the Paradox grand strategy titles at the time of writing, so it's still largely accessible, even if it suffers some growing pains. Potential is still high though, and the game is set to be introduced to new audiences when it comes to consoles later this year. The most recent expansion, MegaCorps, has revolutionised the game once again, bringing it one step closer to perfection.
Warhammer 40,000 Gladius: Relics of War (Review)
Gladius: Relics of War attempts to answer the question as to what would happen if you take Sid Meier's classic 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 war game (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.
While we thoroughly enjoyed our romp across Gladius Prime, it remains to be seen whether a land-based 4X title can really survive the long-game with only only focus. Gladius is never-the-less a master-class in clean, concise UI, and the tutorial was one of the best I think we've ever encountered in a 4X strategy game. It's also incredibly pretty, which makes other game's lack of investment in the visuals all the more a shame. 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 DLC has proved to be one of the best adaptations of that race we've seen in a strategy game, so something for your to consider when evaluating this title. It's also just gotten another piece of DLC that introduces Chaos Space Marines as a faction.
Endless Space 2 (Review)
Developer: AMPLITUDE Studios
Buy From: Steam
If you’re looking for an easy way to get into the 4X strategy game genre, there aren’t any better places than with Endless Space 2. The user interface is easy to wrap your head around, and the game balances itself to ease players into the game’s systems. There’s a vast number of races in the game as well, and plenty of diverse gameplay options which will be sure to keep players busy.
Not only that, the soundtrack for Endless Space 2 is beyond comparison to the other games on this list. Mixing synthesized beats and ethereal orchestra samples to a tune which you won’t get tired of even when eclipsing your 100th hour. Endless Space 2 is a complete package which is a must have whether or not your looking to make your first dips into the 4X genre or are a genre veteran. It's recently had another expansion titled Penumbra, which brings in hacking and other asserting your dominance indirectly. We recommend also checking out our full DLC guide for a more complete picture of what's on offer.
Developer: AMPLITUDE Studios
Buy From: Steam
A great deal of 4X strategy games take place in space, and a great deal of enjoyment from those games come from being able to roleplay as an empire of galactic proportions. If you’re looking for something that deals with swords and sorcery, then look no further than Endless Legend from the same developers that created the Endless Space series.
Similar game design concepts are transferred to this more colorful and grounded version of the 4X strategy game. AMPLITUDE studios have managed to transfer their talent for creating a diverse and interesting number of races to a fantasy setting, with lore that is satisfying to delve into. If you’re a beginner looking to get into strategy games, and aren’t incredibly into science fiction this may be right up your alley. Now that the final expansion for the game has been released, you should check out our DLC buying guide for the game - it will help you decided which add-ons are right for you.
Civilization VI (DLC Buying Guide)
Buy From: Steam
We're throwing caution to the wind and putting Civilization VI back on the list in the wake of the recently released Gathering Storm expansion. With both this and the first expansion, Rise & Fall, Civilization 6 is now closer than it's ever been to fully realising its potential. It's not perfect, but then even Civ V still had draw backs after its own duo of content drops. If you're still suspicious, Civ 6 has now taken over Civ V in terms of player numbers as well, so they must be doing something right.
With a fresh new interface, interesting new mechanics and a real attempt at decent environmental story-telling, Civilization 6 now not only forces you to think about how to deal with your neighbours, but also the long-term consequences on how you interact the the world around you. City planning is a little bit more important and the re-introduced UN mechanics is actually a bit more engaging than it was in the previous game. Rise & Fall specifically makes all aspects of the game a little bit more engaging. The only problem now is that the price of the expansions is more than the base game itself, so you may want to wait for a sale.
Aggressors: Ancient Rome (Review)
While this game skirts the boundaries between 4X and historical strategy, Aggressors never-the-less is a very strong counter-offering to those looking for something akin to Civilization, but with more depth and purpose.The game mainly takes place in an abstraction of Roman times, allowing the player to choose among 20 period-appropriate factions. Besides Rome and the standard big players -- Carthage, Egypt, and the Greek states -- Aggressors allows you to choose small tribes and peoples like the Antigonid, Ardiaei, or Pontus. Each has its own economy, population, and starting territory, offering a bit of variety.
One of the big strengths of the game is, surprisingly, the tutorial: it portrays information in a way most strategy games don't. Aggressors features a basic and advanced tutorial that efficiently eases you into the game, first with a hand-holding series of tasks on basic and then a free-form list of objectives during advanced, getting you up to speed at your own pace. Being a small studio, there is a decided lack of polish, and the visuals arn't exactly modern, but this is a great transitional title between the mainstream to the hardcore.
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 would be suggested to 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.
Hall of Fame
Whether past entries or community favourites, there are more 4X games beyond what we feature above that deserve to be remembered. Here's a summary of the best of the rest:
- Civilization V
- Masters of Orion (2016)
- Polaris Sector
- Eador: Imperium
- Age of Wonders 3
What would your list of top 4X strategy games look like? Let us know in the comments!