video game genre is a sub-genre of the strategy genre. The name comes from the 4 "X"'s that comprise a summary of the genre's gameplay:
Technically, it should be 4 E
, but the "X" just sounds cooler
In 4X games, you control an empire that is in competition with other empires. These "empires" can represent different clans
, tribes or cultures, or even different alien races. Different empires may also have different advantages or disadvantages; some games even allow you to create customized empires on your own.
The empires will be competing over a region that could be as small as England, or as large as the Galaxy. Most members of the genre do not require that you play them on a specific piece of terrain. Instead, most of them offer a randomized map generator, typically with settings that affect the outcome (how many planets, how much water vs. land on Earth-like worlds, etc). The map almost always features some degree of Fog of War
, requiring the player to devote resources to ex
plore the map in order to discover new resources to ex
On whatever map the player chooses, there are territories on which you can build "cities" (whether planetary colonies, space stations, or just cities). Cities ex
ploit the resources in the region where they are built, and can transform those resources into "buildings" (improvements to the city's efficiency), money, or units.
Units can move various distances on the map, possibly with terrain restrictions, and perform a variety of tasks — which may or may not include combat. You almost always have to produce a special type of unit that can create another city to let you ex
pand your empire. Some games allow you to create customized units based on your technology base (see below), in addition to the default units included in the game.
Other empires work under the same restrictions as you (except when they are cheating bastards
). You can talk to other empires, broker peace with them, trade with them, ally with them against a common foe, or kill them. Mostly kill them. Be careful: they will do the same to you, and they will remember what you've done to them
Most 4X games feature a Tech Tree
, though others may use Technology Levels
instead; some even combine the two. Cities produce research, which is used to research new technologies. The Tech Tree is so named because you cannot research a technology until you have its prerequisites. You can't learn "Alphabet" until you've learned "Writing", for example. Technologies provide upgrades for cities, letting you better use their resources, build new units, buildings, or weapons, and so forth.
A staple of the genre, borrowed from the originator of the genre Civilization
, is the "Wonder". It is a city-produced construct that only one city in the entire game-world can produce. Whichever empire builds it first gets its benefits, and everyone else gets zilch. It generally confers a substantial benefit to the civilization that produced it, and it can only change hands if the city it is built in changes hands. More recent 4X games offer less powerful non-global "Wonders" that each empire can build, but can only be built in one of their cities. These typically provide a large bonus to a specific city.
One other staple originated by Civilization
is the "goodie hut"; random local tribes/lost cargo pods/space anomalies that act as Inexplicable Treasure Chests
for the first player to discover them. Of course, some of them can act as Chest Monsters
, as well...
Just to make sure you can't be completely pacifist, you will usually encounter barbarian tribes
(pirates/guerrillas/terrorists/angry alien fungi) that appear out of nowhere and cannot be negotiated with (although their units may be captured instead of destroyed if the player is clever).
Victory in 4X games will always be available by ex
terminating all or most of your opposition. However, 4X games are usually expected to offer one or more alternative victory conditions. Some allow you to pool your civilization's production in order to produce a gigantic monument, such as Civilization's UN Unity Spaceship
, or Alpha Centauri's Ascent to Transcendence
. If you can do that, spending all of those resources while defending your borders from people trying to stop you, you win. In some games, researching a long series of technologies (typically that do not provide any immediate benefit) causes victory. If you ally with all other (surviving) empires, then you win in some games. While all victory conditions are usually open to all players, some factions are often more suited to pursuing certain endgames than others
Historical versions of the genre tend towards allowing Anachronism Stew
, but at the direction of the player. A player's civilization might reach tanks and battleships by 1000 AD while the computer players are still in the iron age or develop genetic engineering before electricity. Futuristic versions tend to use a lot of Techno Babble
in their unit/weapon/technology names and descriptions.
Gameplay is usually either real-time
. Sid Meier's Civilization
is one of most famous exemplars of the latter, while probably the best-known of the former is the Age of Empires
Not to be confused with either a popular Australian brand of beer or the stand-in continent for Australia in Discworld
. Neither with extreme
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- As noted below, Avalon Hill's Civilization served as an inspiration for Sid Meier's video game of the same name.
- Fantasy Flight Games brought out a board game version of Sid Meier's Civilization in 2010, designed by Kevin Wilson. The game remains mostly faithful to its PC counterpart, with production, research, combat, multiple victory conditions and a hidden map to explore, while condensing the whole experience to around 4 hours.
- Twilight Imperium is basically Master of Orion as a boardgame.
- Ascendancy was a game that let you control your species from the individual-planet-level project to managing the entire empire of star systems. It featured no less than twenty-one species, each with a different special ability - and humans aren't one of them.
- Aurora 4 X is a freeware 4X space game, and is considered the Dwarf Fortress of 4X games. it is notable for its expansiveness and unintuitive user interface (like Dwarf Fortress) and may be one of the most complicated space 4X games ever created. The game is more like a series of spreadsheets and drop-down lists than an actual game. Planets are generated with tectonics and ecosystems, ships must be carefully crafted with much thought put into the targeting and guidance systems as well as a whole plethora of minute details, armies and civilizations can be determined down to the individual person, needless to say this game is VERY detailed. It's available here.
- The Civilization series invented, refined or codified most of the tropes of this genre. It allows the player to shepherd a civilization through Earth's history. It was originally based on a board game by Avalon Hill that allowed you to play from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire era.
- Colonization is Civilization in America! Though it has some significant differences: no tech tree, and most units are very, very specialized. Also, Wonders are replaced by "Founding Fathers" (plus Pocahontas.)
- Civilization: Call to Power is an in-name-only Civilization game/spin-off which features similar gameplay to Civilization II along with its own unique gameplay features. It also had units which didn't appear in the Civilization series proper, such as lawyers and mecha, until much later.
- Crusader Kings
- Deadlock and its successor Deadlock II had different races fighting over a series of planets within a "Dark Cloud". The original game had only one planet; in the sequel, the races discovered that there was actually a series of planets further in, all formerly owned by a mysterious ancient race. The plot revolved around finding the technologies and temples left behind by this ancient race.
- Distant Worlds
- Elemental - War of Magic, a Spiritual Successor to Master of Magic.
- Imperium Galactica and its sequel.
- The King Of Dragon Pass is a strange example including lots of RPG and Visual Novel elements.
- Light Of Altair, a welcoming, simplified indie title.
- Master of Magic, a fantasy-themed spinoff of Master of Orion, below.
- The term "4X" was coined in a review of the first installment of the Master of Orion series. Master of Orion 3 riffed off this by including "The X's" as actual MacGuffins within the game, including a semi-mythical "5th X".
- Neptune's Pride and its sequel, Triton, are browser-based free-to-play 4X games. They're played in real time, but very slowly, with travel times between stars measured in hours and resources paid out once per day. A typical game lasts from a few weeks to a month or more.
- Rise of Nations, created when its developers realized they wanted a Real Time Civilization game.* It's an RTS with a "Risk"-Style Map, but covers a lot of the same ground.
- Shores Of Hazeron is a MMO 4X played from the first person perspective.
- Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri is the spiritual "sequel" to Civilization IN SPACE!. The game's tagline is "Explore. Discover. Build. Conquer." They even managed to integrate that into the gameplay on a second level: Technologies are divided into types (Explore=scout/exploration/environmental technologies, Discover=pure science, Build=industrial technologies, Conquer=military tech) and a player can have the AI "Governor" of any given base focus on one or more tracks if he/she doesn't care for micromanaging.
- Sins of a Solar Empire is a spacegoing Real Time Strategy game with shades of 4X.
- Spaceward Ho! is an interstellar 4X game with a Western theme.
- Space Empires, a series of highly-customizable 4X games with such an extensive system of micromanagement as to make the micromanagement need in the Civ games pale in comparison.
- Spore plays like one of these during the Tribal and Civilization Stages of the game.
- Starbase Orion started off as an iOS port for Master of Orion but has evolved since then.
- Star*Drive is a realtime example.
- The board/computer game Empire that is the source of the Wopuld family's wealth in Iain Banks' The Steep Approach to Garbadale is a particularly complicated one of these. A similar game: Despot features in his earlier novel Complicity. The author might just be a fan of the genre.