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Welcome to our round up of the best 4X games on PC. Ever since the term '4X' was coined for the original Master of Orion, we’ve been Exploring, Expanding, Exploiting, and Exterminating our way through fantasy, history, and the depths of space. The genre has seen something of a renaissance in the last half decade, and while it’s great to have options, there’s also a lot to sort through.
Not every 4X game is for everyone, so we’ve taken a look at all the major players to enter the stage in recent years and why you might, or might not, want to play them.
Let's start with an unusual one. Dominions 5 is a 4X game about warring gods and their fantastical armies. You start by designing your deity, which could be a raging dragon or a mystical inanimate rock. Turn by turn you muster armies, recruit wizards to research apocalyptic magic spells, and fend off the attentions of other pretender gods.
Dominions' visuals are... old school, let's say. You need to dig into the community and get some decent user-made maps but, once you've done that and scanned the manual you'll find a detailed strategy game that generates mad stories. I'm used to controlling spaceships and cavalry in 4X games, only in Dominions can I send an alliance of satyrs, wyverns, elemental spirits and ghosts off to fight some atlanteans. The AI is easily to beat once you have played a few games but the game thrives in multiplayer about other people.
Who's it for: Players happy to get past primitive visuals to unpick a detailed magic system and command dazzling and varied factions.
A unique blend of 4X and RTS set in space, Rebellion is more fast-paced than most of the games on this list. It’s a standalone expansion, but also the definitive version of Sins currently available—so you don’t need to worry about grabbing the original to have a good time.
Who it’s for: Existing RTS fans who want to branch out into 4X, and players who like to get to the action fast and maintain a challenging pace. This one may be a little chaotic for the turn-based armchair generals of the world.
This turn-based fantasy 4X revolves heavily around Hero characters and a faction leader called a sovereign who can go on RPG-style quests and be used in many aspects of empire management, not just limited to combat.
Who it’s for: Classic RPG fans will feel right at home with the quest system, and the customizable fantasy armies are likely to appeal to tabletop miniature painters of the Warhammer and Hordes persuasions.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the universe in which Endless Space (and its sequel) are set is the mythology behind it. Much revolves around the ancient empire known as the Endless, and the quasi-magical Dust they left behind.Who it’s for: A good all-around entry level space 4X that will also challenge experienced players, and holds added appeal for anyone who wants to unravel facets of a mysterious, pre-written story while dominating the galaxy. It’s also available for beans now that ES2 is in Early Access.
If we could crown a king of 4X, Sid Meier’s Civilization would have little competition for that throne. Taking one of an armload of civilizations from the ancient to the modern age while competing for various victory conditions, this is the series that has championed the genre for years.
Who it’s for: Even with Civ VI out, Civilization V frequently goes on sale for absurdly low prices, so if you’re not sure you’ll like the series and just want to try it out without dropping the full $60 on the new one, by all means take advantage. It’s certainly an excellent, entertaining game in its own right, particularly with the Brave New World expansion. Plus, the mod scene is excellent.
While most of the other games on this list put you in a randomly-generated world or galaxy, EU4 is built on an extremely in-depth recreation of Earth between the years of 1444 and 1821. You can lead any nation on the planet, from France to the Comanche, through centuries of colonization, exploration, and technological discovery.
Who it's for: Considering it’s the highest review score I’ve ever given out, it’s almost easier who to ask who it’s not for. The complexity of the simulation and sprawl of interlocking systems for trade, war, and diplomacy might intimidate newcomers to 4X and grand strategy, but EU4’s interface and tooltips do an excellent job of helping you wade into the shallow end and get a feel for the water.
Taking the role of a demigod battling others of your ilk for control of the shards (all that’s left of the eponymous broken world), Eador is another 4X game that’s hard to categorize. It features 4X, RPG, and board game-like, tactical turn-based elements.
Who it’s for: Eador’s greatest strength might just be how different its setup is compared to most other 4X games. The breaking of the game world into shards, which each behave like a smaller version of a strategic map in a game like Total War or Crusader Kings, means you’ll enjoy it if you’re looking for something a bit different than the standard map conquest or flipping largely static planets in a vast expanse of space to your color.
Taking the Civilization formula into space, Beyond Earth casts you as the head of one of the first human colonies on an alien planet. You guide its development and compete with other colonial concerns using mechanics that will feel highly familiar if you’ve played Civ 5.Who it’s for: Beyond Earth is, in my opinion, a bit of a misstep in the Civ series, lacking elements that drive its siblings to success. While it has some cool things going for it, like a nonlinear tech system that allows you to evolve your futuristic technology in a number of distinct directions, it ultimately feels like a high budget Civ 5 mod that didn’t hold my interest for more than a couple dozen hours.
Similar to its sci-fi counterpart Endless Space, the unfolding fantasy epic of Endless Legend takes place in a richly realized world with character and backstory to spare. Civilizations are highly customizable, and each presents distinct opportunities.
Who it’s for: We awarded Endless Legend a Commendation for Design in 2014. It has its foundation in the time-tested elements that make 4X what it is, but is unafraid to build on and remix them in ways that will especially interest long-time players who might be suffering from genre fatigue. Beyond that, anyone just wanting to explore a rich and interesting new fantasy setting won’t be at all disappointed.
Warlock is pretty close to what I’d imagine a well-done fantasy overhaul of Civilization might look like. It makes good use of neutral factions on the map to be more than just an early-game annoyance.
Who it’s for: Due to its relative simplicity and adherence to genre norms, this is a fairly welcoming first step for those wanting to branch out into fantasy 4X from other subgenres. It also has a sharper sense of humor than its more dour, grandiose counterparts like Endless Legend and Fallen Enchantress.
Allowing you to discover the stars in a pausable, real-time galaxy, Distant Worlds features one of the more robust models of a civilian economy (which can run on auto-pilot while you handle the political stuff) I’ve seen in a 4X game.
Who it’s for: Aside from just being an overall well-designed 4X, Distant Worlds will have a special appeal for those who like to focus on exploration. This is because it really succeeds where so many other sci-fi games have failed: it makes space feel really, really big.
Similar to Sins of a Solar Empire, Star Ruler 2 is a bit of a 4X/RTS hybrid. It boasts quite in-depth systems for diplomacy and planetary development.
Who it’s for: This one skews toward the higher end of the complexity scale, and the sheer amount of fine control you have over its systems might be intimidating to newcomers. If you’re looking for gigantic, animated space battles, however, it may be worth your time to wrap your head around it.
Galactic Civilizations has cemented itself as the other 'blockbuster' contender in the 4X space, and GalCiv III is the most polished and extravagant entry to date.Who it’s for: If you’re sick of cookie-cutter victory conditions, one of the most positive changes GalCiv 3 made to the series’ formula was turning victory into a set of objectives you can pick and choose from. So even two different runs going for the same victory condition might look different.
Stellaris takes Paradox’s historical formula and blasts it to the stars where you’ll manage military, political, and economic aspects of your space empire.Who it’s for: Fans of historical grand strategy will feel at home in Stellaris, but for those used to more traditional 4X, it takes some getting used to. There’s a much heavier focus on politics, with elements like your form of government and the will of your citizens playing a large role.
The most recent in the lauded Master of Orion series doesn’t do much we haven’t seen before, but it plays the old hits well and wraps them in stratospheric production value and some big name sci-fi voice talent.Who it’s for: Despite being so new, MoO is bog standard 4X. Not much has changed here since its 1996 predecessor other than the graphics. That does make it a nice starting point for total newbies, but the real draw is hearing John de Lancie lament the war that's brewing between his empire and yours.
Endless Space 2 builds on some of the best ideas of its predecessor, this time crafting more unique story content for each of the distinct interstellar empires.Who it’s for: It shouldn’t surprise you at this point in the list that connoisseurs of interactive storytelling should jump for anything that says 'Endless' on it. Endless Space 2 is also arguably a better starting point for newcomers than the first one, as it’s made lots of improvements to your ability to access important, contextual information.
Civilization VI emerges from its chrysalis to reveal the most transformative and fresh take on the series in its storied history. Also, it has Sean Bean.
Who it’s for: Just about anyone who enjoys turn-based strategy. It presents lots of new challenges and opportunities even for the most weathered series veterans, but also remains among the most inviting 4X games for first-timers.
The arrival of a new 4X game is a special event in the PC gaming calendar, like a solar eclipse passing across a world split up into tiny hexes. It’s rare enough to feel monumental, yet comforting in its cyclicality; a sporadic dose of complexity reminding us PC gamers that, despite our growing propensity for couch gaming, there are some pleasures that remain unique to us. One year there’ll be a Civ game, another year there’ll be a Gal Civ and then an Age of Wonders. Fill any gaps with meaty DLC, and repeat the cycle.
But between 2012 and 2017, a trifecta of games from an upstart French developer shook up this 4X hegemony. Amplitude Studios’ Endless Space (2012), Endless Legend (2014) and Endless Space 2 (2017) reinterpreted the 4X playbook, working within its strict rulesets to push the genre further than it had ever gone before. Two of the leading ﬁgures in this 4X supernova are Romain de Waubert, cofounder of Amplitude Studios, and Jeff Spock, narrative director on the series. The Endless games have a strong narrative thrust, interconnected by a story about an extinct, advanced civilisation—the titular Endless—that destroyed itself through inﬁghting. There is no expository intro in any of the games. Instead, you learn about the lore by ﬁnding artefacts, carrying out quests and exploring planets and the vestiges of lost civilisations. Even something as fundamental as researching technologies is a pithy lesson, as most techs in the game originate from the Endless.
Spock believes that the 4X genre lends itself naturally to a subtle brand of worldbuilding, which still affords the player the agency they’ve come to expect from a 4X game. It was important to maintain that Civ ethos of enabling the player to create their own narratives, all the while offering compelling stories. “Because it’s a procedurally generated game, you don’t need a traditional storyline. It’s the player’s story, not the designer’s story,” he says. To that end, there are no cinematics. Instead, the Endless series relies on hand-drawn pictures and evocative prose. Quests are tales of monsters that you can hunt in haunting, misty oceans, or of species that worship mysterious beings that predate even the Endless. “I think it’s more interesting to use text and 2D images, and allow the player to come up with the rest of the imagery. All we want to do is keep throwing coal into the engine so whatever they’re imagining is rich and meaningful,” Spock tells us. “We deﬁnitely shouldn’t take over the imagination of the player,” adds de Waubert, “because then it wouldn’t be 4X anymore.”
Even in the short time span between the games, Amplitude has made iterations to abide by de Waubert’s sandbox paradigm. It’s why between Endless Legend and Endless Space 2, the faction quests evolved from linear to choice-driven. At a story juncture for the tree-loving Unfallen faction, for example, you need to pick between showing the galaxy that the faction won’t be swayed from its paciﬁst principles, or—in a ﬂourish of doublespeak—that it’s prepared to defend those principles with force. The quest goals force you to channel production either into inﬂuence or military power, but you can take the path best suited to your unique circumstances in a given game. The faction quests become integrated into the game’s systems, rather than layered over the top of them.
Balancing is a major preoccupation for 4X devs, and the megapatches that tend to follow most releases spend much of their time tweaking units, movement, faction bonuses and buildings to make sure the game feels just right. But Amplitude has embraced the joys of misbalance, making each faction drastically different. “With every other faction [apart from humans], we try to break at least one major rule,” says de Waubert. “And by breaking this rule, we accept that our game will probably not be very well balanced in the end. But that’s ﬁne, because once the player’s aware of that, it lets them go crazy.”
So where an expansionist empire in Civilization may get a unique building with extra productivity and a couple of passive traits to help you spread your borders, an Endless game takes the idea to its extreme. “We’d be in a meeting with designers and say, ‘We need a faction that’s expansion-oriented—they need to keep growing and conquering,’” says Spock. “So maybe it’s uncontrollable population—rabbits in space, you know?” The end result of this thought process was the Craver faction of Endless Space (though the only cunicular thing about them is their invasiveness). These insectoid creatures were created by the Endless for war, and their voracious consumption makes them the only faction to fully deplete planets of all their natural resources, forcing them to move onto the next star system, enslave whoever lives there, bleed it dry, then move on again. The Cravers are incapable of signing peace treaties, so you play in a perpetual cycle of consumption and war. Balance be damned.
These kinds of idiosyncrasies exist across most Endless factions. The Cultists can only build the one city but amass armies by indoctrinating minor factions around the world. The Riftborn from Endless Space need to spend industry to reproduce (they’re manufactured rather than conceived). The Roving Clans can’t declare war, and instead exert control through the Marketplace: a global market with a dynamic economy that they can shut other factions out of.
In a sci-ﬁ or sci-fantasy world, de Waubert believes that the “alien-ness of aliens” needs to be captured, praising the variety and weirdness of interstellar species in the TV series Babylon 5 and Iain Banks’ Culture novels. “If we were to say, ‘Here come these amazing mushroom men that reproduce through spores, but they have +2 Growth and -2 Industry, it just doesn’t work,” says de Waubert. “They have to break the game, otherwise the whole imagination of the sci-ﬁ universe is broken.”
A similar approach has since been seen in the Total War: Warhammer series, from Creative Assembly. The fantasy premise has allowed it to let loose with systems that weren’t possible in the historical settings. In Warhammer II, Skaven cities only appear as ruins to other players, while High Elves can manipulate and spy on their opponents via diplomacy. De Waubert reveals that the two fellow Sega developers have been exchanging ideas, but stops short of claiming credit for Total War’s innovations. “We try to learn from their experience, and share everything we can with them,” he reveals.
All these asymmetries and imbalances may sound intimidating to the 4X outsider. But where the blockbuster Civilization series is, to an extent, fettered to its own legacy, and inhibited from making drastic changes to make it more accessible, Amplitude got to approach the genre afresh, with a new generation of potential 4X gamers in mind. “When you’re starting on a blank page, you can do things differently,” de Waubert says.
“Half the effort with traditional 4X games was trying to ﬁgure out the interfaces,” says Spock. “You’d have to click through three menus then ﬁnd a slider bar and under that you’d ﬁnd another few options. We wanted to put an end to that.” Take the ‘Citizen Management’ screen in Civilization, where you assign population to gathering science, food and industry. For years, it’s remained largely similar—a system where you assign citizens to speciﬁc tiles surrounding the city, counting the amount of each resource on each tile. The Endless series simpliﬁes this by not even having a separate screen for managing city production, but a small table overlay where you can drag and drop citizens between the resources you want them to generate. All the info you need is right there in the table, and the effects are immediately obvious.
Spock says that the goal of this “beautiful, streamlined interface is that the player could get anywhere in two, three clicks”, but that doesn’t capture the omniscient feel of managing your empire in Endless Space 2, where you can seamlessly zoom from a galaxy-wide view to a star system to a planet in a couple of seconds by scrolling. Press the spacebar on a planet or star system, and you ‘scan’ whatever is highlighted. The interface posits you as an emperor, interacting with your hologram terminal, using graceful hand gestures; it feels like a modern, less intrusive answer to those clunky metallic interfaces of ’90s titles, like Fallout and Alpha Centauri, which aims to immerse players by allowing them to look at the game world diegetically.
This is a series of decluttered design elements, and both Endless Legend and Space follow the same principles to keep things looking clean. There are only a handful of unit types per faction, and you’re best off keeping them stacked in dedicated hero-led armies. Instead of inundating the player with increasingly advanced units through the tech tree, the games let you upgrade existing unit types through new weaponry and equipment—a system that’s instantly familiar to a playerbase more attuned to roleplaying game elements than it was even ten years ago. “Today, RPG elements are a reﬂex for the player, and a reﬂex for the creator,” says de Waubert. “But you need to not get lost in it. You have to keep in mind that the player is still an emperor, not a bunch of heroes.”
Citybuilding in Endless Legend borrows from its cosmic counterpart, where you’re conﬁned to colonising existing planets and star systems. In Legend, the rule is that you can only build one city per region. “Having to handle 20 cities in the late game isn’t so much fun, and we didn’t want to bog players down with micromanagement,” de Waubert tells me. Some of the greatest moments in Civilization come in those ﬁrst 100 turns, when the world is uncharted and uncovering it is fraught with danger and excitement. By preventing overdevelopment of an empire, de Waubert says, “You get to keep these wild places in the world where mystery always exists.”
“It’s more interesting if you have ﬁve or six important cities, where each of them matter and develop a character,” adds Spock. “The science one on the river, the military seaport city—this change from traditional design adds a layer of immersion that we feel improves the experience.” One of the big introductions in Endless Legend was districts, letting players spread cities across multiple tiles, bringing in more resources as well as building a distinct visual character for each city. When Civilization VI was announced in 2016, a similar districts system was its most touted feature, offering players ‘de-stacked’ cities for the ﬁrst time in the series. Amplitude is proud to have fed back into the series without which it acknowledges that its own venture wouldn’t have been possible. “We know guys at Firaxis. It’s a collegial competition,” says Spock. “If we always get jealous guarding our things and spiteful when people use them, the ultimate loser will be the player.”
The design philosophy of the series can be partly attributed to Amplitude swearing by the Early Access model, building up a community of backers that’s been offering nonstop feedback since 2012. It’s helped the studio understand what players want from a 4X game, especially in the early days when, de Waubert admits, “We had a bunch of ideas, but didn’t know how to make 4X.”
Five years on, and Amplitude has created the ﬁrst great 4X series of the Early Access generation and a distinctly modern classic of the genre, offering a fresh perspective that the stalwarts are already learning from. They’ve overcome longstanding 4X problems, combating mid-game lulls with compelling narratives and creating interfaces that aren’t tied down by a lineage dating back 15 or more years. De Waubert assures us that “this is only the beginning” for the Endless saga—the ﬁrst intrepid turns in a new instance of the 4X game, where rules are being broken and balance has been thrown out of the airlock for the better.
Sega has acquired Endless developer Amplitude, hoovering up another strategy great and putting the series alongside the likes of Total War.
We at PCG are big Endless Legend fans the mad variation between factions alone sets it apart from the 4X crowd. With the takeover, Sega will take charge of publishing the inbound Endless Space 2. It'll still go through Early Access though. We're told to expect it later this year.
Amplitude Studios is celebrating its fifth birthday with its second annual Endless Day: a day that lasts from 21 to 25 January, and that offers up rare heroes and achievements to people who play their games during this time, and who fulfil various conditions. That stuff is detailed here, and includes a trio of heroes simply for starting new games of Endless Space, Endless Legend, and Dungeon of the Endless. You can also bag some time-limited achievements, though these will require a mite more effort.
(Amplitude hints here that you might be able to get these things after January 25, perhaps by mucking about with the time settings on your computer.)
During a celebratory livestream, Amplitude also announced a new expansion for Endless Legend titled Shifters. Ampz sez "this expansion will include a new Major Faction called The Allayi. This new civilization will be able to shift during long winters", a fine alternative to sticking the heating on and hugging a hot water bottle, I reckon. Meanwhile, "all factions will also be able to collect a new resource called the Pearls of Auriga , enabling them to unlock new powers through the Altar of Auriga and modify the upcoming winters impact". Good on them.
Here's a picture of them there Shifters (ta, RPS):
One of the upcoming Endless Space 2's new factions has been revealed as well. The Sophons are one of ES2's eight major factions, and they're basically insectoid scientists.
The next game from Endless Legend creators Amplitude Studios has been announced. It's Endless Space 2, a sequel to the space-based 4X strategy. Below, you can watch the first trailer—a CGI affair that should successfully put you in the mood for some galactic colonisation.
Endless Legend fans will note that the trailer's ship is the same one from that game's recent free update. It added a victory condition that, as Tom Senior put it, "lets you build a spaceship and flee the planet in a culture-wide mic-drop exit that will make your enemies sad." Here's the ship in-game, and here's some lovely concept art.
It suggests that the new game will more directly tie into Endless Legend.
Head over to the official Endless Space 2 site to attempt to glean any additional information. It's slim pickings right now, but we'll learn more next week at Gamescom.
Each week on Show Us Your Rig, we feature PC gaming's best and brightest as they show us the systems they use to work and play.
Romain de Waubert de Genlis is Creative Director at Amplitude Studios, best known for 4X games Endless Space and Endless Legend. Romain has shown us both his home and work setups, but his personal rig is really the one that shines. It's extremely powerful, has a flashy blue interior, and an awesome monitor to tie it all together. Romain was kind enough to tell us about both his computers, as well as what he's playing right now and how his work PC is a little out of date.
Work is different, I have nearly the same computer since we started amplitude, I just updated the video card with something quite average and the CPU was changed as the other one fried. I have an okay screen which is the same as the artists so we are on the same tuning. My mouse does not click by itself and my keyboard is great for typing words…
Everything is bad ass, from the best screen ever (27 and UHD resolution at 166 mhz), water cooling and ultra-overclocked intel CPU and top notch nvidia GPU, mechanical keyboard and ultra-advanced mouse that clicks for you!
Of course I never go without my chocobons and expressos!
I am playing right now, like a few million people, the amazing Witcher 3… makes me feel very humble, they just nailed it!
My favorite game from all time? Civilization 4 with Rise of Mankind mod… it made me want to conquer the world so many times!
Humble Jumbo Bundle 4 is a nice collection of words to say. Not the 4, so much, but certainly the rest. Give your mouth a treat by saying them aloud right now. (Incidentally, how has there not been a Humble Jumble Bundle yet?)
That's enough mouth fun for one day. Humble Jumbo Bundle 4 is also a nice collection of games, all organised into different pay-what-your-want tiers.
The most basic tier will get you Outland: Special Edition, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes and Mercenary Kings. Beat the average—currently $4.63—and you'll also get Endless Space: Emperor Edition, The Stanley Parable and The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II.
At the very top end, you can pay $18 or more to get Space Engineers added to the mix.
There's some good stuff there. The Stanley Parable is excellent, and Endless Space is a decent 4X strategy—albeit not quite as good as Amplitude's follow-up, Endless Legend.
The bundle will be available for two weeks, and additional games will be added later in its run. The proceeds can be split between the developers, Humble, and this bundle's two charities, Save The Children and charity:water.
Remember last week, when I was all like, "Endless Legend is getting a free add-on next week"? Well now it is next week, or "this week" as we've decided to call it. Did Endless Legend get a free add-on? Yup.
Called Visions of the Unseen, it adds a new minor faction, the unseeing Eyeless Ones. They are literally eyeless, hence how they got the name, but possess a sixth sense—"kanjwe"—that lets them "feel all that is visible, and some that is not"." As with other minor factions, they can be pacified and assimilated—allowing you to build their units.
There's other stuff, too. Here's the major additions and changes of the add-on:
You can peruse the full patch notes here.
Endless Space got some love, too. Chronicles of the Lost adds a bunch more events for the Disharmony expansion. Here's the big stuff:
And again, full patch notes are through this link.