Popular Mechanics: Expanding Our Understanding Of 4X Games

Today, as we delve deeper into the 4X genre of games, we’ll be deciding what is worth eXploring and what needs eXtermination.

Howdy, friends! Welcome to Part 2 of this chapter of Popular Mechanics where we are looking at the 4X genre of games.  If you missed it, you can click here to read Part 1 – Exploring the 4X Genre of Games. In this part, we’ll be taking a look at some 4X games and picking them apart to find out what makes them worth exploring and what needs extermination.

There are a million great 4X games so I can’t mention them all! I’m picking some well known staple games and ones that show off some niche methods. Let me know your favorite 4X game in the comments!

Twilight Imperium

It is well established that the first edition of Twilight Imperium was created by Alexander the Great. A lot of people don’t know the full length of this famous quote, “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain and wept for there were no more worlds to conquer, he turned to board game development.”

Twilight Imperium has a steep learning curve and lots of moving parts, but it’s one of the most well known 4X board games out there. It’s got all of the key ingredients to make a full 4X game, so it makes sense that it would be the first game we examine. But, why do so many people love it?

Worth Exploring

Twilight Imperium has massive depth and strategy.  Players looking for that deep tactical board game needn’t look further than Twilight Imperium. Because the game is so modular, it’s got high replayability and tons of different routes to victory.

Each game has the potential to fully engross the players and really draw them into the theme of the game. It’s easy to shrug and be indifferent towards a game of tic-tac-toe, but a game of Twilight Imperium can make for stories that your gaming group will reminisce about for years.

Needs Exterminating

Twilight Imperium’s biggest upsides are also it’s biggest downsides. It’s massive depth and strategy make for a high learning curve with a lot of rules to learn. A thick rulebook is the easiest way to keep hesitant gamers from giving the game a chance.

Similarly, the exciting ebb and flow of a power struggle can make the games take forever to finish. Marathon length games can be draining on even the most veteran players. With this sort of game, when one player starts losing interest (or worse getting frustrated), the gaming event can be ruined for everyone. Choose your players wisely.

Ultra Tiny Epic Kingdoms

Ultra Tiny Epic Kingdoms is about as far on the opposite of the 4X spectrum as you can be from Twilight Imperium. The game is literally tiny, the entire game box is about the size of a standard deck of cards. Many 4X games are huge endeavors that take all day to play and can take hours to learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Worth Exploring

Ultra Tiny Epic Kingdoms takes minutes to learn. If the rulebook were on standard size paper, it might be 3 sheets. The actual size of the game is one of its biggest draws. It literally fits in your pocket and can be pulled out to play anywhere.

Games won’t take more than an hour, so it’s perfect for spur of the moment games. It’s great fun and allows for multiple win conditions. Also, the game allows for solo play with a neat AI option.

Needs Exterminating

The map is (like the entirety of the game) very small. Players won’t have massive empires spanning galaxies, they are going to have probably around 4 armies and no cities nor fortresses. The map is known to all players at the start so there isn’t much ‘exploring’ to do.

Ultra Tiny Epic Kingdoms doesn’t offer nearly as much varied gameplay options as other games might just because of the scale of the game. Overall, while it does technically hit all the checkpoints for being a 4X game, Ultra Tiny Epic Kingdoms doesn’t have the same ‘feel’ as other games in the genre.

Scythe

Scythe is fairly new to the gaming world but it quickly gained tons of well deserved popularity. Scythe does a great job of finding that middle ground between Twilight Imperium and Ultra Tiny Epic Kingdoms.

Worth Exploring

Scythe streamlines a lot of the aspects of 4X games that tend to bog down gameplay. Compared to other 4X games, it is very easy to pick up and learn. It’s only when different elements start interacting when things begin to get more complicated. Fortunately, Scythe has that handled as well.

Because of how the map is designed, players start on isolated sections of the map can’t leave their island, even if they wanted to, until they’ve built up a little first. This is a great way to ensure players have time to eXpand and eXploit a little bit before they need to worry about eXtermination.

Needs Exterminating

Scythe certainly is far less combat oriented than other 4X games.  While players can fight each other and attempt to drive them off, doing so will ultimately hurt the player’s popularity, which is vital towards achieving a high score at endgame.  Scythe punishes players who want to have a more combat focused strategy more so then they are rewarded unless they are constantly aggressive.

Further, from how the game’s victory conditions are laid out, player’s need to maintain a balance in each of the game’s aspects (constructing buildings, training workers, winning combat, etc…).  Each player will basically run the same course throughout the game, albeit in potentially different orders. And to that point, because the game is so streamlined, there are not many game mechanics which can be tweaked and still maintain a good balance.  As such, the faction abilities tend to be fairly frivolous. Because each player needs to do a little bit of everything to win, you can’t really have the ‘science faction’ or the ‘trade faction’.

Final Thoughts

The point I was trying to make here is the 4X genre is vast.  There are games which dive into the deep end right away, games which maintain a fun and light experience and games that find a happy medium. There is no right answer for which is best. Luckily, there are hundreds of 4X games out there and there is certainly a game for everyone.

Join us next time for Part 3 where we will be designing our own 4X game and trying to take everything we’ve learned in Part 1 and Part 2 to make it as good as we can.

Thanks for reading!

  • Allerka

    I want to like Twilight Imperium, but the absolutely insane amount of time required to play and poor pacing, which is a problem I find endemic to most FFG games but this one best exemplifies those issues, means I just can’t.

    I think Star Trek: Ascendancy has the best balance of complexity/depth and investment required that I’ve seen so far, to say nothing of being well balanced and relatively accurate to the side material.

  • I just played Scythe this weekend for the first time. While originally it was quite intimidating with so many pieces and moving parts, once we dove into actual gameplay, it moves quickly and is VERY engaging. I find it to be a delightful blend of Catan and Risk, two game systems I enjoy heartily. I give it two thumbs way up, and look forward to playing the expansions we just ordered!

  • Davis Centis

    I super enjoy 4X games. From the original Master of Orion right through to Civilization games today. Currently sitting down and even replaying Heroes of Might and Magic (the 5th one right now) again!

    My favourite board game at the moment is Forbidden Stars, because it’s the only game I know where a battle between just two board game pieces can be epic and swingy and important. It is light on “exploring”, but the board is different every time, the gameplay is different every time, and it’s just a joy to eXploit, eXpand, and eXterminate, with some wonderful tension between the three.

    • el_tigre

      I love it too, and while their are quite a lot of variables and moving pieces I find each little segment of the game is simple enough that the whole doesn’t become too daunting.

      The recent GW boardgame boom has been great, but there’s a tiny part of me that wishes the licence had stayed with FFG just do we could have an expansion or two.

      My one gripe would be that 2 player games tend to swing a little on who gets an early territory advantage. Been thinking of playing a few games with a strip of three neutral tiles in the middle to start, that might mitigate it a little and make for some awesome battles when the sides meet a turn or two later than normal.

      • Davis Centis

        I haven’t ever played 2-players, always 3 or 4. I don’t think adding more space would be better for a 2-player game. Generally, in 4X games, the tighter the confines, the more you get into combat, and the wider the confines, the more you build up. In effect, larger board game areas tend to result in even more lopsided-ness if one side gets ahead. Instead, I’d suggest purposefully crafting your map tiles so each player starts with worlds of about equivalent value in hand. Even then, I find the game has enough tension between all the different kinds of effects that planets/voids give that every system is about equally valuable, but in different ways (lots of Skulls is great for defence and production, lots of materiel is obviously helpful, token planets are awesome, and no planet in the game has all three of these at high values).