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Popular Mechanics: Exploring the 4X Genre of Games

6 Minute Read
Jan 22 2018

Your empire may start small and weak, but through careful scouting, growth, gathering of resources and combat, you can achieve greatness.

Hey friends!

Welcome back to Popular Mechanics. In this series, we break down a gaming mechanic and really dig deep into figuring out how and why it works.  In this chapter, we’ll be looking at 4X games and today in Part 1, we’ll be breaking down the mechanic into its components.



You’re probably familiar with the concept of 4X, even if you don’t realize you are. 4X is shorthand for the 4 aspects which make up the genre: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. It describes games which require players to travel through an often unrevealed map, build on that territory, gather resources to further their conquest and go to war with the other players.

It should probably be 4E games, but the X makes it sound cool.

These games are often very strategically oriented and have lots of moving parts and pieces to keep track of. Often, these are ‘marathon’ games, taking even the best players several hours to complete. So let’s take a closer look at each of these 4 Evil Ex’s and see why each one is important to building a fully functional game.


Explore is my personal favorite of the aspects. Explore is what allows the game to really vary from game to game. It’s also what encourages players to think of their feet. It’s much more difficult to have a pre-planned strategy if you don’t know what sort of environment you’re getting into when you play.


Explore is fairly core to the game, even if the map is predetermined. Essentially, Explore denotes the genre’s requirement for a map. If the game’s map is fully known at the start of the game, Explore bleeds into Expand, since they become the same concept of broadening your territory.

While each aspect of 4X is important, I think Explore is the most important. The game’s map drives the fundamental core of the game. The map defines how the players will move throughout the world.  It defines how they will expand and gives them an opportunity to exploit. The map and the game rules will define how quickly and easily players will be able to start a war with each other. Without Explore, the game can’t function.


Out of all the 4 aspects, I like Expand the most. Expand defines the player’s growth throughout the game. As the players settle upon new lands, take over additional planets and construct fortifications, their expansion throughout is what will keep their empire growing.  Expand is what will differentiate one player from another. How a player chooses to expand will define their playstyle and will guide their strategy throughout the game.

Because 4X games often have an expansive map, how a player chooses to expand throughout the map will greatly drive their route to victory. A player could choose to expand very aggressively to try to gain an early lead, however this will make them a larger target during mid game. Alternatively, a player could decide to expand mostly within their own region and fortify heavily, making other players less likely to consider attacking them later. Both of these options and anywhere in between are both viable options in Expanding.

Expand is probably the most important of the 4 aspects. The whole concept for the genre is for players to build an empire of sorts. Without Expand, the genre shifts to something else. Not saying that would be bad, but it wouldn’t be 4X. Players need Expand because without it, there is literally no room for growth. The game falls apart if players can’t enhance their empire to attempt to achieve victory.



4X games obviously require all 4 aspects, but if I had to choose a favorite, I’d pick Exploit. Exploit is the largest part of the game. It’s what allows player’s empire to expand. Without Exploit, there would be no way for players to gain power over each other.

When regarding Exploit, it’s important to consider that nearly everything in 4X games should be considered as a resource. Gold, minerals, or whatever other obvious resources, sure. But also, combat units, tech advancements, popularity, the amount of settlement tokens you have remaining and everything else that can have a number attached to it is a resource. So with this in mind, Exploit, which is counting the player’s ability to gain resources, is almost the single deciding factor of an player’s empire’s strength.

Exploit has such a huge control over the victory conditions, which makes it the most important aspect in 4X games. Victory in 4X games often boils down to one of two things.  The first victory condition being ‘ increasing one specific resource to a certain threshold’. For example, some 4X games offer victory to the first player to achieve the highest scientific advancements or the first player to colonize a certain number of locations. The other victory condition being decreasing the other player’s resources to 0.  For example, eliminating all of a player’s combat units or settlements or reducing their food generation to nill.


Exterminate is without a doubt the most fun aspect and my favorite among them. Exterminate is the aspect which controls getting to rip into the other players as they get a little too close to victory or because you’re feeling particularly spiteful. Without Exterminate, 4X games become Parallel, where players are simply racing to victory with no interaction between each other.

Exterminate grants the players the most control over achieving victory. If Exterminate wasn’t an aspect, there would be no means to wrest power from each other. It means that the player with the best initial start would always win. Exterminate is what forces players to consider their actions and how it might make them look to their opponents.

On top of all of that, 4X game maps are often not quite big enough for the number of players. Either there is not enough space for all the players to fit their empire comfortably, or there are limited number of the best locations. This forces players to want to fight, either for control of the best locations or for getting in the way of their growing empire.

Exterminate is, without a doubt, the most important aspect. Without it, games would turn into hours of helplessly watching your opponents speed towards victory while you stumble behind them. Exterminate is not only what gives aggressive players the ability to war with others, but also gives them pause to consider potential retaliation.



Alright, so if you’ve read this whole article (which I’m certain you’ve done before commenting…. right?), I hope the point I was trying to make is clear. Each of the 4 aspects are fundamental to how the games are meant to work. Each of the 4 components must work together in harmony to make something greater than their parts.

While I do have a favorite (no spoilers), they are all vital to how a 4X game is meant to play. The main appeal of 4X games is their depth of strategy. They offer multitudes of strategy options and for players who like marathon length games, like myself, they can offer hours of entertainment.

So now that we’ve covered each of the aspects of a 4X game, next time we’ll be looking at some examples of games that shine within the category and hopefully how they take a unique look at each aspect.

Thanks for reading!

Author: Matt Sall
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