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Popular Mechanics: Exterminating Boredom In 4X Games

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Feb 5 2018
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Get your foam darts and water balloons ready. Call up all your friends and make sure you’re parents know you’ll be Home Before Dark.

Hey friends!

Welcome to Part 3 of this chapter of Popular Mechanics on 4X Games. If you missed the previous parts of this chapter, click here for Part 1: Exploring or Part 2: Expanding. As always, in Part 3, we’re going to take what we discussed and learned in the previous parts and design our own game.

The overall concept of 4X games gives us an easy goal: Improve on each of the 4 aspects of a 4X game: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate.  We will focus on each aspect individually and attempting to improve upon it a little bit.

Home Before Dark

The game we’ll be designing today is called Home Before Dark.

Players take the role of neighborhood kids having an all out war with water guns, royalty free Norf guns and plastic laserswords in an attempt to win the most fights before sundown when everyone has to go home for dinner.

Exploring The Neighborhood

Each map tile represents one house with backyard and can have a variety of different game effects. For example, Fences prevent bad guys (everyone not on your team) from moving through that tile.


Except the Sausage King of Chicago

Some houses offer Snacks or Drinks which can be used to keep your kids in the fight. Kids using water guns will have to take note of which houses have Hoses, which refill empty water guns.

Why It’s An Improvement

I want the map to be a real active part of the game, not just the medium on which the game is played. What I like about this theme of a kid’s neighborhood fight is it makes the map important.  Things like Snacks and Hoses make some locations important to revisit and Fences offer opportunity for safe tactical retreats.

Expanding Your Team

Most houses will grant another kid willing to join someone’s team, increasing that team’s size. To get a kid to join a team, they need a weapon and sometimes a bribe. Some kids will have their own weapons but kids with the best weapons know to hold out until someone offers them the best deal.  These kids will join the first team to offer them something good.

Occasionally, a some kids will be able to convince their Older Sibling to join you. Older Siblings are powerful allies and can be a force to be reckoned with. Use caution though. Sometimes the Older Sibling will think this is just a “dumb game” and become an aggressive neutral unit that attacks every kid, regardless of team.


While in control of a house, your team can move through their yard freely, allowing for shortcuts. Otherwise, you might have to take the longer route all the way around the block to get to where you need to be. However, if the house doesn’t have a fence, bad guys can attempt to sneak through the backyard.  But if they get caught, they will get in trouble and have to go home.

Why It’s An Improvement

Because Home Before Dark allows any team to pick up any kids, each game will play out differently and no team is pre-designed into playing a certain way. However, to allow for variation, there are a multitude of weapons and different kids will have different stats.

Movement in Home Before Dark is much more available than in other 4X games.  Kids are meant to move around the map a lot on each turn.  This allows kids to get to where they need to be and get to the fights. Controlling as many houses as possible makes it easier to use a shortcut to move around the neighborhood as well as grants the bonuses of that house.

Exploiting Your Parents

Most resources in Home Before Dark are tied to the houses rather than freely acquired tokens.  Things like Hoses are essential to a team with a lot of water guns or water balloons.  However, they are tied to the house and can’t be moved. However, Snacks and Drinks can be collected to be used later.

While this is all-out war, teams can trade if they so choose. Trading away your Norf Bullets for Snacks will help you now, but you’ll regret it later when you’re under hails of foamy gunfire.


Billy made a killing in the juice box markets

Certain rare resources also exist, which can grant a team very useful abilities.  Roller Skates grant bonus movement for 1 kid, but a Bike can move 2 kids faster together.  Finding a kid with a Cell Phone will let you check in with your parents without having to go home (more on that later). Kids with the best weapons might need to be bribed with Trading Cards to join your team.

Why It’s An Improvement

Usually in 4X games the scale is such that maintaining ammo resources is outside the scope of the game. However, since Home Before Dark is a much smaller scale, we can keep track of ammo for water guns and Norf guns without too much added effort.

Each resource has multiple uses. Snacks are used for bonus movement or granting a kid an edge in a fight or placating a dog so you can sneak through its yard easier. You could use your Drink to refill your water gun in a pinch, but then you won’t have it to cool down after a fight. You might not use Norf guns, but you could trade them to another team for access to their Hose.

Exterminating The Bad Guys

Every weapon has pros and cons so it’s important to balance your armory carefully. Too much focus on water guns will make you dependent on staying close to Hoses.  Norf guns are powerful but run out of ammo quickly. Plastic laserswords are excellent close combat weapons, but obviously have no long range capability.

A big part of the game is dealing with parents.  As the fighting in the streets continues, parents will start to worry someone could get hurt.  With each fight, the Worry Meter increases.  If it reaches certain levels, the parents will start to confiscate certain weapons.  You could shoot your eye out with that Norf gun! If the Worry Meter reaches maximum levels, parents will call Curfew and start calling other parents to start calling their kids home early.


It’s important for kids to stop back home once every few turns to make sure their parents don’t worry.  Checking back in will reduce the Worry Meter.

Why It’s An Improvement

Fights in Home Before Dark are meant to take place over several turns.   Home Before Dark’s combat plays out much closer to Warhammer 40,000 than Scythe. In many 4X games, a unit loses a fight because the other team played a better card or spent more resources.  And when a unit loses a fight, they either retreat or are lost.  In Home Before Dark, you play the whole fight out and you decide when or if you want to make the retreat. The combat is much more in your hands.

With the Worry Meter, it’s important the the kids take a break from the fighting every so often to lower the Worry Meter. However, if the bad guys are using mostly Norf guns, them being confiscated could really help you a lot. So maybe you want the parents to worry. Manipulating the Worry Meter will give good players an edge.

Final Thoughts

I really tried to steer away from the space opera or emerging civilization themes that so many 4X games cling to.  4X games are meant to be very in-depth and strategic, but that doesn’t mean they have to be dark and gritty. A lighthearted theme like kids playing with water guns really brings a new light to the genre as a whole. I want this game to be fun and silly but also as strategic. More than anything, I think the multi-turn combat could allow for some real strategic maneuvers.

Little Johnny testing out his war crime

So that’s it for this chapter of Popular Mechanics! Hope you had fun!

Thanks for reading!


Author: Matt Sall
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