I have been holding off on doing this post for a while now until recently when I was finally able to play one of the quintessential 4X games on the market…after which I felt I was released to put this list together.
I simply love the 4X genre! I love the various elements and feel that it is such a great system to deal with the various types of exploration and colonization games out there. I also typically am drawn to anything Sci-Fi, although 4X doesn’t have to use a space theme, and I have played several very good games that have used other themes in the 4X model, such as Conquest of Paradise from GMT Games. So what is 4X all about? A 4X game must use the following 4 elements in its design and focus; eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. These are further defined as follows:
- eXplore means players send scouts across a map to reveal surrounding territories. These territories have some type of resource or other valuable needed to fuel the economy or provide additional planets/areas to colonize.
- eXpand means players claim new territory found on these tiles by creating new settlements, or sometimes by extending the influence of existing settlements.
- eXploit means players gather and use resources in areas they control, and improve the efficiency of that usage in order to purchase new ships for combat, technologies or other infrastructure.
- eXterminate means attacking and eliminating rival players. Since all territory is eventually claimed, eliminating a rival’s presence can be the only way to achieve further expansion.
Basically the game model is move out from your home planet (or base if not a Sci-Fi theme), establish new colonies, build new technologies and units and then move out to engage and destroy the competition until only one stands supreme. The following games are those that I have played that I feel do these elements really well.
3. Eclipse from Lautapelit.fi
One of the many reasons that I love Eclipse is that this 4X game is generally played fairly quickly, say in 3-4 hours as opposed to 6-8 hours for the other games on this list. It might play faster but that doesn’t mean that it skimps on anything and it still has the really great parts of the genre integrated in the design so you don’t walk away from the table feeling unsatisfied.
I really love the way that technology is developed. Each round, a certain number of technology tiles will be blindly drawn from a bag and made available to players for purchase. But there is a catch, if there is only one technology of a given type, the first one to purchase it will be the only one able to develop it that round until the next round might bring it out again. This is a very tense part of the game and it is always a race to be the one that gets the first Antimatter Cannons that inflict four hits on a single successful attack die. But more than just the weapon upgrades, players will find themselves fighting over a lot of other very useful tech to improve their research capability, build their economy, improve their nano technology to take more building actions, add space stations to their fleets and upgrade their ships defensive capability. The technology part of the game is one of the best elements and is very well done. They even throw in the odd special technologies that just make the game that much better and more fun.
I also really like the way that resources are collected and the ingenious way the game uses those resources. There are three types of resources, money, research and ore. Each of these resources come from different planets with those types of resources found on them. All you have to do during the Explore phase is influence a planet and then place one of your same colored cubes (either orange for money, pink for technology or brown for ore) in those spaces on the planets and the number you uncover on your track by removing the cube is your current level of that resources. Simple and very slick. Each of these resources are used for a specific purpose as money allows you to purchase your actions each round, while research funds new technology and ore is used to build your fleets.
My only real beef with the game is that sometimes luck is just not on your side when you explore and you uncover a turd of a planet that doesn’t offer anything. Frankly though this is a problem with almost every 4X game and is just something that you will have to learn to deal with. Eclipse is a really great representation of the 4X genre and is one that I will never say no to playing.
2. Space Empires: 4X from GMT Games
Space Empires: 4X from GMT Games is a fairly simple and clean game, although the largest complaint that I have is the book keeping aspect. The game uses a very solid 4X system to model the action in developing your empire but where I think that the design excels though is in combat.
The system provides a lot of different examples of types of ships with a lot of differing abilities and powers. I really enjoy having the variety in the types of ships as you can truly craft a very unique strategy to foil your opponents. In addition to the normal units you would expect to see, including Cruisers, Destroyers, Fighters and Carriers, there are very specialized units such as Mines and the counter Mine Sweepers. You can actually create a force of Mines that you either lay all together to create an impenetrable area or intermix them with your regular forces to surprise your enemy. If they haven’t invested in Mine Sweepers they will pay. There are also ships that are cloaked and your opponent must have the right tech to even hit you.
The other great part of the ships and forces that you move around the map is that they are all hidden. All you see is a stack of colored chits but you don’t know what is under that top counter. Is there a stack of killer Cruisers with upgraded offensive firepower or simply a few Destroyers? To make the hidden element even more interesting, there are Decoy units that you can move around the board hidden that will confuse and confound your opponents as they move to intercept and find only a ghost!
I mentioned that the Explore portion of 4X games can be the Achilles heal but in Space Empires: 4X each side has the same amount of starting planets and systems to explore in their Home system and there is a good mix of colonizable planets, harvestable resources and dangers like super novas to keep it interesting but really make this part of the game even. There is a bit of randomness to the tiles once you reach outside your Home system but at least there is a good mix to get all civilizations off to a good start.
I have written quite a few Action Point posts on the game and its expansions and have listed them here for your reading pleasure: Action Point 1 – Exploring Your Home System, Action Point 2 – Technology Tree and Shipbuilding, Action Point 3 – Combat, Action Point 4 – Solitaire Variants, Action Point 1 Close Encounters Expansion – Empire Advantage Deck and Alien Technology Deck, Action Point 2 Close Encounters Expansion – New Units, and Action Point 3 Close Encounters Expansion – Research and Industrial Centers.
Space Empires: 4X will not really be for everybody as there is a lot of bookkeeping trying to track your resources, track your new technologies and then track which ships you have built after developing those technologies (as older ships that existed prior to the tech being developed don’t automatically gain the new tech). But we simply love this game! We have always loved the details of the combat and the deception involved and feel that the additions of the cards and other more advanced options for economy and technology in the Close Encounters Expansion have really polished this diamond in the rough. If you haven’t played SE: 4X yet, do yourself a favor and get a copy and get it to the table. You wont regret it!
1. Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition) from Fantasy Flight Games
I only very recently had a chance to play Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition) at a convention and I can tell you that I was not disappointed and actually very glad that I played this game last. After playing, everyone agreed that the Fourth Edition shortened the game as our playthrough only took 6 hours with two new players.
The real beauty in the game is that a round of Twilight Imperium begins with players selecting one of eight role cards that determine both player order and give their owner a unique action for that round. As the roles are played, the other players can take an action under the role by expending a Command token so they are not precluded from taking the action but the action they can take costs them and is not as good as the playing players action. This causes players to try to make decisions about what they are trying to do and how best to do it and this creates a lot of really delicious tension, especially with those limited Command tokens.
After the role selection phase, players take turns either playing their chosen role or moving their fleets from system to system, trying to claim new planets for their empire to create new power for their economy and to begin collecting types of planets to meet hidden or open objectives to score victory points. That was the other really awesome part of this design that combat isn’t really necessary for a player to do well and compete in the game. Don’t get me wrong, I know there is always a lot of fighting over systems and for control of the center of the galaxy Mecatol Rex, but you can only dabble in combat and still have a shot at winning. I also really like that the races are all different and provide really divergent strategies to playing the game as you can either be a warmonger and do nothing but engage in combat but you can also try to trade with other factions and can have a realistic chance of victory. Negotiation is also a really important facet of the game and we had a lot of fun with it. The final phase of each turn is that players will gather in a council to pass new laws and agendas, which can really introduce some very interesting situations and challenges. This part of the game fell flat for me but afterwards I looked through the deck and realized that it was simply because we didn’t draw the best and most interesting cards.
We had a great time with TI IV even though it was our first time playing. I know that many of you will think how can he say it is the best when he only played once? Well, I can say that because I have played a lot of 4X games and with a game that lasted 6 hours, if I still liked it at the end, you know there was something great about it. I really look forward to my next opportunity to give this one another go.
I have also really enjoyed my plays of Conquest of Paradise from GMT Games (not a 4X game based in space but in ancient Polynesia that is really good), Dominant Species from GMT Games and I also really liked Colonial from Stratagem Game Design. So let me know what games I should have included on my list.