Everything You Need to Know About 4X Games

5 minutes read

For gamers of all stripes, real-time strategy games that allow you to build and conquer your own virtual world have held a strong cultural sway for decades now.

If you are even remotely familiar with the world of real-time strategy (RTS) games, you have probably come across the term "4X games" before. But what are 4X games, and what is a 4X strategy game actually meant to consist of?


What Does 4X Mean in Games?

To put it in simple terms, let's break down that "4X". Coined during the earliest days of the genre back in the 1980s, the four X's in 4X games stand for:

  • Explore: a core feature involves sending your scouts across the map to uncover and unlock new territories.
  • Expand: you can build your in-game empire by claiming new territories for yourself and building settlements on them.
  • Exploit: you can use the resources in your world to expand your settlements and increase your power.
  • Exterminate: you can attack and kill rival players and in-game enemies as you grow your empire.

What Is a 4X Game?

In a nutshell, the best 4X games, no matter what time or space they are set, involve cunning, diplomacy, alliance-building, and a fair share of trickery in order to succeed. Now that you know what a 4X game is, it's time to choose the best ones around.

Remember that the game in question technically must have all four features in order to qualify. When assessing the top 4X games in history, the Civilization series is the most oft-cited example, given that it so perfectly blends these elements to create a shining example of the genre.

What Is 4X Game Content?

A true 4X game is always characterized by a rich, gripping, and linear storyline that players must traverse as they conquer worlds.

There is also invariably a turn-based format in all of the top 4X games, which forces all players to think very carefully before each move as if playing a game of chess.

Civilization VI

You cannot have any roundup of the best 4X games without mentioning this bad boy. As well as being one of the best action games around, Civilization VI is the 4X game par excellence, one that any newcomer to the genre will love.

This is the game that takes everything we know and love about the Civ series and cranks it up to 11, allowing you to build a world empire that spans millennia and incorporates a staggering number of historical and cultural references.

This is 4X gaming as it is meant to be played.

Galactic Civilizations III

Definitely one of the top space 4X games out there, Galactic Civilizations III is the one that pushes the boundaries of what is possible to the absolute limit. All of the action takes place within a 100% randomly generated galaxy that is yours to dominate.

Using a dizzying array of features, you can set the political agenda for your galactic government and expand accordingly, choosing your foreign policy, investment priorities, fiscal stance, military strategy, and more, all within the infinite reaches of deep space.

Europa Universalis IV

This is one of those 4X games that takes realism to a whole other level. As with the previous games in the series, EUIV takes place in a fictional Europe, comprised of several nations.

This game, which spans the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, allows you to use realpolitik and diplomacy to get the upper hand over your European neighbors and conquer the continent.

If you're interested in 4X games that have something to say and can teach you a lot about real-world history and politics, this is the one for you.


Another one of those unmissable 4X space games, Stellaris takes the hyper-realism and gritty politics of Europa and combines it with the stunning intergalactic setting of Galactic.

It is quite possibly the largest in-game 4X environment in the world to date, with new updates and patches being constantly added by an eagerly engaged community of players.

While the goal is to stake out your corner of the galaxy and build a home on a planet of your choosing, the real beauty of Stellaris lies in the game's ability to automatically evolve and grow, meaning that nothing is predictable with this AI.

Meanwhile, if you're on the lookout for the best new games, then this is one to keep in mind since free expansions and mods are added almost weekly.

Is There Also a 5X Game?

5X is an unsettled term that some gamers use to describe certain 4X-style games with an extra component. This could be EXpedience, which describes a 4X game with a special emphasis on diplomacy, or EXcavate, which describes a 4X game with a stronger focus on resource extraction.

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