The best 4X games that define the classic genre

The best 4X games do exactly what they’re supposed to: give you chance to “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.” Yes, that sounds a bit intense, but that’s how the genre got its name, allowing players to take control over massive civilizations and do with them what they see fit. If you’ve got a god complex, these games won’t alleviate that.

4X games are widely considered the backbone of PC gaming. They’re synonymous with mouse and keyboard control schemes and usually require a ton of bandwidth to run at a reasonable speed. But some of the games on this list are available on other platforms like Nintendo Switch, PS5, and Xbox Series X, so if you don’t own a gaming PC, you may find something that works out well for you. Expect to see iconic titles like Civilization on here, as well as a few that may pique your interest.

Since its inception, 4X has morphed into a hybrid genre. Many games now mix in different strategy elements or focus on exploring rather than expanding or other various combinations of the four key terms. But the best 4X games take elements from all genres like RTS and wargaming to make something new, exciting, and intriguing. So, is your favorite game on this list? Here are the best 4X games.

20. Aggressors – Ancient Rome

(Image credit: Kubat Software)

Developer: Kubat Software
Platform: PC

Many 4X games take their cues from Civilization, but by enhancing its bureaucracy and garnishing it with real history, Aggressors becomes the ultimate fantasy for Ancient Rome buffs. This realism makes Aggressors a deep simulation of leading an empire with all the rules that applied during its time.

That can be daunting in its complexity, but in reality, Aggressors stays well within the boundaries of the familiar to anyone who’s ever played Civilization. Ultimately, Aggressors’ downfall is also its biggest asset – it’s in no way easily approachable, but all that effort leads to quite simplistic combat in the end.

19. Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes

(Image credit: Stardock Entertainment)

Developer: Stardock
Platform: PC

A sequel to developer Stardock Entertainment’s 4X efforts that began with Elemental: War of Magic, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes held the crown for fantasy 4X for a short time before it was barrelled over by Endless Legend. This is a wargame, first and foremost, intent on pushing you into battle rather than finding a diplomatic way out, with your territory expansion being a potent tool to growing your armies.

At the same time,  having a hero lead the charge and needing to keep them happy in order to appease your best unit also paves the way for some excellent RP elements, including plenty of side quests. You can also customize units in meaningful ways that aid replayability. Even after several years, this is a literally magical title fantasy strategists shouldn’t miss.

18. Thea 2: the Shattering

(Image credit: MuHa Games)

Developer: MuHa Games, Eerie Forest Studio
Platform: PC, Xbox One

No less than a hybrid of 4X, RPG and card game, Thea 2 clearly wants to be many things – and succeeds, thanks to the love developer MuHa Games put into its fantasy world. You take the role of a deity tasked with leading their flock. To do that, you appoint a hero, who has to deal with various RPG-style quests while exploring, and decide round by round how to deal with what you find. Since your fantasy party never grows the size of a 4X army, combat is resolved with cards, a unique and fun flourish.

Because the focus on a specific hero in an RPG setting doesn’t leave much room for the grand maneuvering of a people and the management of their relationship with others, Thea 2 is perfect for those who enjoy some of the genre’s systems over others. On the other hand, it’s perhaps a bit light on features for 4X veterans.

17. Warhammer 40k: Gladius – Relics of War

(Image credit: Proxy Studios)

Developer: Proxy Studios
Platform: PC

If your favorite of the four elements of the best 4X games is “exterminate”, you can’t really go wrong with Gladius. Its big draw is, of course, the 40k universe itself, offering units you simply won’t find anywhere else, and translating their strengths and weaknesses into fun gameplay.

But Gladius misses the depth 4X players are usually looking for in all systems but warfare, which makes it great for beginners but a little too simple for genre veterans. As a 4X with a unique setting, and a game for 40k fans, this does a terrific job by focusing on the strengths of the material it adapts, but not much more.

16. Oriental Empires

(Image credit: Shining Pixel Studios)

Developer: Shining Pixel Studios, R.T. Smith, John Carline
Platform: PC

This is best 4X to go with if you’re looking for a game focusing on Chinese history the way Aggressors does for Ancient Rome, especially with the Three Kingdoms and Genghis DLC. In a callback to 4X’s board gaming roots, Oriental Empires uses the WEGO system, where all players resolve their turns simultaneously, offering some welcome suspense. Generally, Oriental Empires is one of the best games if you’re looking to be surprised, even if a surprise could turn out frustrating.

Random catastrophes and willful citizens can net or cost you a win that seemed a given. While warfare here is a letdown due to obtuse AI, complex expansion systems and interesting tech tree options make up for it. While Total War has since produced a Three Kingdoms instalment, among true 4X games, Oriental Empires is still the only one offering this specific setting at such depth, and that dedication makes it one of the best of the genre.

15. Star Wars Rebellion/Star Wars Supremacy

(Image credit: LucasArts)

Developer: Coolhand Interactive
Platform: PC

Not to be confused with the boardgame of the same name, Rebellion is the 4X for Star Wars fans, despite being over 20 years old. Play as the rebels or the Empire in a campaign set after the destruction of the Death Star, and help raise either faction to former glory with the help of characters from the expanded universe.

While of course the graphics in 3D battles and its pseudo-real time system, it’s still fun to send familiar characters out on missions and build diplomatic ties with factions you recognise. This emulates the feeling of helping shape a familiar universe – central to 4X and a thrill every time.

14. Master of Orion (2016)

(Image credit: NGD Studios)

Developer: Simtex, Take-Two
Platforms: PC, Mac

The 2016 edition of Master of Orion is a remastering of sorts of the original Masters of Orion 1 and 2, complete with modern visuals and a boatload of celebrity voice actors. This is the game for people who want to know more about the beginning of the genre, but who think Simtex classic from 1996 may possibly be too dated.

If you’ve played many other 4X games set in space already, Master of Orion’s impact as game that coined the term 4X may get lost on you, but MoO veterans will appreciate the love that went into the reboot. Beginners can appreciate having a similar starting point as many 4X players back in the day.  And really, what more reason do we need to try a game than the option of meeting new fun alien races?

13. Scythe: Digital Edition

(Image credit: Asmodee Digital)

Developer: The Knights of Unity, Asmodee
Platforms: PC, iOS, Android

The PC version of one of the most enduringly popular board games around, Scythe paints a picture of an exciting alternate WWI-era Eastern Europe, where mechs roam the open planes to fight for you. This is the ideal  introduction into digital board gaming – beautiful to look at, easy enough to get started, with a wide variety of win conditions that don’t all rely on battle.

The variety of win conditions especially sounds like a given but it’s more likely you’ll encounter the same conditions across franchises with little variety. Scythe tries not to overwhelm you and is fundamentally a game that you can quickly pick up and put down without too big an investment.

12. Imperialism 2: The Age of Exploration

(Image credit: Frog City Software)

Developer: Frog City Software, Strategic Simulations
Platform: PC

If you can forgive Imperialism 2 its 1999 graphics, then the only thing that aged badly about this 4X is its New World theme. Still, the idea of building up a nation and actually having to interact with your people like living beings instead of numbers and carefully allocating resources to their benefit is  more in line with classic RTS games such as Age of Empires than Civ.

It helps add realism – wars are difficult and expensive, because they put a strain on your populace as well as your armies, proper exploration and trade are a necessity. Imperialism II is amazing because it achieves a great balance between all these systems, leading to many different outcomes.

11. Distant Worlds: Universe

(Image credit: Code Force)

Developer: Code Force
Platform: PC

The word “universe” in the title isn’t for show – Distant Worlds: Universe is one big game, because it’s asking you to do no less than to build an empire consisting of as much of space as possible, bringing imaginative alien races into the fold one way or another, until you rule over up to 1,400 randomly generated planets.

That doesn’t have to be daunting: you can micromanage every aspect or leave it to the computer. Doing that will certainly be necessary at some point, as Distant Worlds: Universe is dedicated to each of the four exes and then some, offering a vast array of possible outcomes for each action, allowing you to really manage an empire rather than just prep for war and wait for the go sign.

10. Galactic Civilizations 3

(Image credit: Stardock Entertainment)

Developer: Stardock
Platform: PC

The universe is your oyster – Galactic Civilizations 3, Galaxy  Civ to friends, is a playground of epic proportions, which allows you to build your own alien race and your own fleet of ships, making the part of designing a civilisation as important as conquering others.

Distinctive factions and well-thought-through ideological traits, which influence every aspect of the game, really drive home that this is a game about civilisations as a whole. It’s obvious developer Stardock Entertainment really enjoyed designing alien races with their own quirks, and that attention to detail leads to there being something new to discover with every game.

9. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

(Image credit: Stardock Entertainment)

Developer: Stardock, Ironclad Games
Platform: PC

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is an approachable game, its systems fitting snugly between there being so much to do that your only option is to give up some control to an automated system (Distant Worlds) and dealing with overwhelm simply by persistently pushing through (Stellaris).

The original Sins of a Solar System was squarely focused on combat, but this updated version balances the game in a way that doesn’t forget about the other aspects of empire-building. It’s a difficult balance to strike, always is with 4X games, and by sheer virtue of pulling that off and offering a manageable pace, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion stands out from the crowd.

8. Dominions 5

(Image credit: Illwinter Game Design)

Developer: Illwinter Game Design
Platform: PC

Before there were high fantasy 4X games, before Warhammer 40k offered us mech units walking on spider legs, there was Dominion 5. Despite its dated visuals, Dominion 5 still boasts an imaginative, unique world, expressed through its fantasy factions, and a research system that deals in magic.

Making sacrifices so you can gain really powerful units and then let them loose on the battlefield is still thrilling, and even after all these years there’s nothing quite like leading an army of zombies against merfolk warriors under the sea.

7. Age of Wonders: Planetfall

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

Developer: Triumph Studios
Platform: PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

With how synonymous the Age of Wonders franchise is with high fantasy 4X, Planetfall turned out to be a surprise, but Triumph Studios has proven there’s more than enough… space for fantasy in sci-fi. Interesting races form intricate relationships with each other, which you can discover across several campaigns per faction.

The XCOM-style turn-based combat is great fun, but be warned – combat is about the only thing that doesn’t have a steep learning curve. If you think you’ve seen it all, Planetfall’s complexity and good looks will quickly draw you in, proving there’s lots more to the 4X genre than Civilization.

Available on: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch

6. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

(Image credit: Firaxis Games)

Developer: Firaxis Games, Westlake Interactive
Platform: PC

It’s got to be said that even more than 20 years later, there’s no 4X with a better story out there. Because Alpha Centauri doesn’t start you on the domination path for domination’s sake. It’s insanely good at dealing consequences to your actions and to drive home the fact that a bunch of humans in space generally have no idea what they’re doing.

For a 4X to paint a dark version of our possible future is rare, and one where winning doesn’t mean you’re the best and most powerful even more so.

5. Endless Space 2 

(Image credit: SEGA)

Developer: Amplitude Studios
Platform: PC

There’s probably no 4X out there that currently looks or sounds better than Endless Space 2. In a genre where looks often have to stand back behind the enormous mechanical undertaking of the available systems, Endless Space 2 really makes it its business to drive home the vastness of space.

RPG quests  and events help keep you on your toes, and the route to the endgame is never straight. Thanks to its clear tutorials  and good UI, this is also a great game for beginners who don’t want to spend an afternoon reading a manual before they can begin playing.

4. Endless Legend

Endless Legend

(Image credit: Iceberg Interactive)

Developer: Amplitude Studios
Platform: PC

Like Age of Wonders developers Triumph Studios, Endless Legend dev Amplitude Studios decided to pivot from the setting that had been good to them for a long time to the other popular 4X setting – with Endless Legend, they swapped space for a fantasy setting. But Amplitude uses just what makes spacefaring games so cool – maximum imagination.

Every faction comes with unique advantages and drawbacks, such as not being much for diplomacy because your zombie race tends to see people as food only, which also makes it easier to, er, have a steady food supply. Also, Endless Space somehow allows you even more freedom as usual in your decision making, not just on a grand scale – you can goad your opponents into war for example, but there’s a multitude of ways to do that, a level of role-playing reminiscent of Crusader Kings.

Endless Legend is the best fantasy 4X currently available – deep, creative, and really beautiful to look at.

3. Europa Universalis 4

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

Developer: Paradox Interactive
Platforms: PC

Among players there’s a lot of discussion whether Europa Universalis 4 isn’t more of a grand strategy game, given the theme, but it’s functionally a 4X, the best example of alternate history there is. The biggest complaints of any 4X game, the lack of accessibility and ugly UI, are basically non-existent here.

Giving you the whole world to play with, even if the scope is reduced, if you will, by the timeline, is no small feat. Europa Universalis 4 is one of the deepest, most realistic simulations of nation management.

2. Civilization 6

(Image credit: 2K Games)

Developer: Aspyr
Platforms: PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

Whenever there’s talk of 4X, there’s talk of Civilization. Civilization clones, systems taken from Civilization, and attempted improvements – there’s simply no way to get past Civilization’s influence. Yet, the franchise actually still manages to introduce quality of life changes to a rock solid formula. Choose your favorite nation and conquer the world against all other world leaders, no matter how personable (and in Civilization 6, they all are, in their own way). Plus there’s still always something new to play, like the currently ongoing Frontier Pass.

If you’re a beginner, you’re going to want to start here. If you’re a seasoned 4X-er, you’re already playing this.

1. Stellaris

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

Developer: Paradox Interactive
: PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One

If you’re new to Stellaris it can be overwhelming. With more DLC than is possible to comprehend, it can be tempting to just jump straight into the rabbit hole. But, it’s best to watch Stellaris evolve. It’s a game that feels incredibly open, so that more often than not, you find yourself on the way to attaining victory conditions while you’re having fun resolving an exciting event.

Stellaris has taken a lot from Paradox’ other smash hit Europa Universalis 4, and came out combining the breadth and depth of a close simulation of real-world nation leadership with stunning space battles. With its patches and DLC, Paradox also closely listened to player feedback to resolve issues like a boring late-game stage. This is simply the culmination of many years of work across different strategy games, taking the best of each, from a developer that understands what makes its work fun and building on that. This is the best 4X game around.

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