Putting down a Top 10 list is always a tricky and infamous task furthermore if talking about 4X Strategy games, given its vast library. 4X is a term coined by Alan Emrich in 1993 and stands for eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate, and eXplore, and that’s exactly what the players of this sub-genre are called to do inside these games.
The 4X genre is truly something special. Between endless replayability, opportunities to create emergent narrative and deep game systems, it’s no wonder that 4X fans will spend hundreds – if not thousands – of hours on their favorites. There have been a lot of very good 4X games over the years, and recently more and more quality titles have pushed the genre’s boundaries. Let’s take a look at some of the absolute best 4x games of all time.
The Top 10 4x Strategy Games of all time
10 – Master of Magic (1994)
Simtex’s cult classic gives players the chance to explore a fantasy world, claiming sources of magic and hurling spells at their enemies. Its inclusion of isometric battles gives the game depth at both the strategic and tactical levels. While many 4X games since have given the player options to customize their leader to change how gameplay works, very few have also given us multiple schools of magic to juggle. Being able to scratch the fantasy-adventure itch at the same time as the 4X itch something that Master of Magic offers like no other, even to this day.
While Master of Magic never developed into a franchise of its own, its influence is easily seen in later 4X games – many of which are on this list! Its closest cousin is probably Age of Wonders series, which has taken on a life of its own. Anyway I’m so excited for the underdevelopment Master of Magic Remake by MuHa Games, Eerie Forest Studio which will bring Master of Magic back.
9 – Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999)
Science fiction is a natural fit for 4X games. The final frontier offers limitless opportunities to explore the map, expand your influence, exploit resources, and exterminate your opponents. In Alpha Centauri, the scale is more terrestrial in scale than many other sci-fi titles in the genre; players are only conquering a single planet.
Part sequel, part spinoff, Alpha Centauri is based around the core conceit behind a Science Victory in the Civilization games wherein the winning civilization constructs and launches a colony ship capable of reaching the nearest star system to Earth. Once the colonists arrive, they find themselves right back where their ancestors were millennia ago – staring down an unexplored map with a Settler and the power of endless possibilities. Alpha Centauri borrows many features from Civilization II, its closest contemporary in the parent franchise. In fact, both games shared a lead designer in Brian Reynolds. Alpha Centauri spices up Civ II‘s core gameplay with advanced technology, alien encounters and even terraforming.
Although Alpha Centauri never ended up spawning its own franchise, its inspiration can be felt in plenty of other sci-fi 4X titles. In particular Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth draws a number of parallels for obvious reasons. While Beyond Earth is a great game, it never quite gained the cult status of its cousin.
8 – Civilization IV: Colonization (2008)
Another Civ spinoff, Colonization was originally released in 1994. Rather than focusing on all of human history, the game zoomed in on the settling of North America by Europeans and the rise of newly independent nations there. The game was rebooted as a total conversion for Civilization 4 nearly fifteen years later, and that version remains excellent.
Colonization uses many unique mechanics to separate itself from Civilization and to immerse the player in the historical setting. Rather than a Settler, the player starts with a ship in the middle of the ocean. They’ll need to sail west and chart the coastline, finding the best place to settle before rival colonists get there.
Once there, the monarch back home will send increasingly demanding requests for goods, threatening force if his orders go unheeded. Eventually, the player will need to convince their colonists to declare independence and defeat the massive army of royal troops that will be dispatched in response. The sudden shift from an economic to a military focus is one of the hallmarks of the game, making for memorable and desperate battles.
Colonization also takes the concept of population specialists and brings it one further. Each pop can only do one thing; if they’re out patrolling as a Militiaman, they can’t be in town making cigars to sell to the Old Country. As the game progresses, the player can even assign pops to agitate for liberty in the town square – not very productive, but it gets the people riled up enough that the player can declare independence.
It doesn’t seem likely that there will be a remake of the remake any time soon, but stranger things have happened. A tribute to Pirates! was added as a game mode in Civ 6, so who knows what the future holds?
7 – Scythe (2016)
Originally a board game, Scythe boasts a digital version that makes the game’s unique take on 4X gameplay highly accessible. If you’re looking for a new experience within the genre, Scythe is the cream of the crop. The game takes place in an alternate-universe version of the First World War. Smoke-belching mechs are the weapons of choice, and heroes from the conflicting countries wander no-man’s-land, protecting or exploiting the civilian population for the glory of their respective empires.
Scythe is masterfully paced, unlocking more and more of the board as the players progress. Players can’t leave their starting area until they unlock the ability to cross the terrain that’s boxing them in, at which point the central area of the board becomes the main source of conflict. Combat is rare but critical, and winning just a few fights can mean victory.
The game also has the advantage of being one of the few with a morality or alignment system that actually works. Players can choose to be a tyrannical brute, usually in the interest of expediency, but doing so lowers the Victory Points their deeds are worth at the end of the game. This means that the burden is on the player to make sure their warmongering ways generate enough points to make up the deficit with the do-gooders.
For players seeking a little more action, Iron Harvest is a real-time strategy game set in the same universe as Scythe, indicating that Stonemaier Games intends to keep the franchise going for the foreseeable future. With such a creative take on game design, it’s going to be very exciting to see where the series goes next.
6 – Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares (1996)
The importance of the original Master of Orion can’t be understated. Released in 1993, it was the first game to be referred to as a 4X title; Alan Emrich coined the term in his review of the game for Computer Gaming World. For all that Master of Orion did right – and there was a lot – the sequel refined it all into something legendary.
The original Master of Orion introduces many features which are now hallmarks of the genre. Each faction had a unique specialty, for example, and players could design their starships for a tactical advantage. Master of Orion II added the ability to design custom factions, as well as boarding actions, a food economy and multiplayer support.
While many games have come along to build on what Master of Orion II did for the 4X genre (and strategy gaming in general), few if any can claim to match its influence. Indeed, Master of Orion II still holds up despite its age. With a graphical update, players might be hard-pressed to tell they’re playing a game from the mid-90s. The series was rebooted in 2016 by NGD Studios with Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars, but it’s unclear if the franchise will continue as of right now.
5 – Endless Legend (2014)
There are few games in any genre quite as creative as Endless Legend. A fantasy game with heavy sci-fi elements, Endless Legend is much more story-based than most other 4X games. Each faction (each of whom plays wildly different from the others, to the point where sometimes it feels like you’re playing a different game entirely) has a unique storyline that details their struggle to survive in the world of Auriga.
While the game has manual tactical battles, they are usually little more than issuing orders to your troops and hoping they are executed properly. The real place where battles are won is at the forge – controlling access to strategic resources allows the player to develop new weapons and armor for their troops. This allows a level of customization not usually seen in games that don’t involve spaceships.
The greatest challenge in Endless Legend is the world itself. Throughout the campaign, the seasons will shift between Summer and Winter. Winter imposes stiff penalties that get worse as the game progresses. Worse still, each Winter is longer than the last and you’re never sure exactly how long until the next one. The game’s overall storyline follows the different factions trying to find a means to survive when Auriga inevitably becomes an uninhabitable chunk of ice.
Endless Legend is part of Amplitude Studios‘ Endless Universe franchise, so it shares a setting with both Endless Space games and Dungeon of the Endless. It’s clear that the developers mean to keep this series alive and well, so hopefully we will see an announcement for Endless Legend 2 sooner rather than later.
4 – Age of Wonders: Planetfall (2019)
The Age of Wonders series celebrated its 20th anniversary by departing from its traditional epic fantasy setting and taking to the stars. Planetfall offers deep gameplay on both the strategic and tactical maps, which is something of a rarity. The game’s space opera setting allows for all kinds of over-the-top units, from tyrannosaur-riding Amazons to lightning-spewing cyborgs.
Taking a leaf from its predecessor’s system by which a faction’s capabilities were determined by the race and class of their leader, Planetfall allows each of its playable factions to select a Secret Technology. These technologies, which range from psychic studies to viral mutations to bending space and time, allow players to mix and match with the diverse factions the game has to offer.
In the most recent expansion, Star Kings, Planetfall added a mode called Galactic Empires which will hopefully be adopted by future games. In Galactic Empires mode, each map you complete is a planet added to your empire, allowing the player to unlock new units and bonuses for future conquests. It’s a great way of keeping a record of your memorable games, and allows for some neat emergent narrative as well.
3 – Heroes of Might and Magic III (1999)
Heroes III is experiencing something of a renaissance right now, with new players picking it up and veterans returning to Erathia to visit old friends. It’s easy to see why – this is the game that perfected the franchise. While technically a direct sequel to the first two games in the series, players don’t need to have played them to get the full enjoyment that’s possible from a game of Heroes of Might and Magic III.
Players assign armies to march under the command of Heroes, who go out into the world in search of resources to claim, quests to complete, and enemies to fight. The blend of 4X and RPG gameplay creates a style that is often imitated but never truly matched, not even by later entries in the series. The game’s factions, each with their own unique rosters of recruitable troops, make for plenty of replay value.
The Heroes of Might and Magic franchise is still alive, but the later games have not been well received. Indeed, the most recent entry is a Clash-of-Clans-like mobile game, so longtime fans may want to cloak themselves in nostalgia and stick to the classics for now.
2 – Endless Space 2
Technically a sequel both to the original Endless Space and to Endless Legend, Endless Space 2 continues the story of the struggle for Dust and manages to nearly perfect the space 4X game at the same time. While the factions aren’t quite as varied as they are in Legend, they are still unique enough to offer widely diverse gameplay experiences. The economy is balanced in just such a way that no aspects of running your empire can be ignored, and the game’s unorthodox tech tree is a stroke of genius.
All the best parts of a space 4X are present in Endless Space 2. Players will research and design ship patterns to keep an edge over their enemies, and go even further by customizing their ground forces for planetary invasions and selecting tactics for fleet battles. Managing dozens of systems with populations of wildly different species gives tons of options for builds. If you’re of a militaristic bent, you can always blow up a planet or two, Death Star-style, to make a point or to save having to conquer a useless planet. If you’re truly monstrous you can destroy entire star systems with the right technology!
Endless Space 2 is everything a 4X game should be. It rewards planning, allows for multiple playstyles, and is above all fun. I would almost consider calling it the greatest of all time, but there is one game – one – that eclipses it.
1 – Sid Meier’s Civilization VI
It should come as little surprise that the granddaddy of every other game on this list would come out on top, especially with how well-designed the franchise’s most recent incarnation has turned out. Civilization is one of the few franchises that improves with each new entry without backsliding. Civ 6 has proven that the team at Firaxis can pinpoint what makes their games fun and keep those elements while still experimenting and pushing the genre forward.
Civilization VI isn’t afraid to try new things, and it’s paid off in spades. Multiple leaders for individual civilizations (such as Greece having access to Gorgo, Queen of Sparta or Pericles, the “democratic” leader of the Delian League) allow for different playstyles within the same nation. The game has even gone one further, adding multiple versions of the same leader or allowing historically-appropriate leaders like Eleanor of Aquitaine to be available to two different civs.
Add in natural disasters, exciting new game modes such as Secret Societies, and the developer’s willingness to see which way the wind is blowing and adapt, and the King of 4X Games retains its throne against all challengers. Though no official announcement has been made, it’s looking like Civilization VII is starting development and the future looks bright for Civ and for the 4X genre as a whole.
This was a tough list to narrow down – there are so many great 4X games and it was painful to leave some of them off. My Top 10 4x Strategy Games of all time ends here, if you have a favorite that deserves some praise, be sure to let me know!