Skip to main content

20 best 4X games for building your digital empire

(Image credit: Firaxis Games)

The best 4X games are very much the backbone of the best PC games, as they are so synonymous with mouse and keyboard control schemes. The genre’s name refers to what you can expect to get up to - “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate”. This translates to taking control over many different aspects of a sprawling civilization – it’s no incident the Civilization series is formative to the genre.

Like real-time strategy, 4X has become somewhat of a hybrid genre – while there are still a few purely 4X games being released every year, you often find 4X elements mixed into other genres, like grand strategy, which are more about expanding and exterminating than exploring and exploiting, for example. 4X is an important part of the strategy umbrella, together with real-time titles and wargaming, and the best 4X games take elements from all the genres to make something new.

20. Aggressors - Ancient Rome

(Image credit: Kubat Software)

Many 4X games take their cues from Civilization, but by enhancing its bureaucracy and garnishing it with real history, Aggressors becomes the ultimate fantasy for Ancient Rome buffs. This realism makes Aggressors a deep simulation of leading an empire with all the rules that applied during its time.

That can be daunting in its complexity, but in reality, Aggressors stays well within the boundaries of the familiar to anyone who’s ever played Civilization. Ultimately, Aggressors’ downfall is also its biggest asset – it’s in no way easily approachable, but all that effort leads to quite simplistic combat in the end.

Available on: PC

19. Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes

(Image credit: Stardock Entertainment)

A sequel to developer Stardock Entertainment’s 4X efforts that began with Elemental: War of Magic, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes held the crown for fantasy 4X for a short time before it was barrelled over by Endless Legend. This is a wargame, first and foremost, intent on pushing you into battle rather than finding a diplomatic way out, with your territory expansion being a potent tool to growing your armies.

At the same time,  having a hero lead the charge and needing to keep them happy in order to appease your best unit also paves the way for some excellent RP elements, including plenty of side quests. You can also customise units in meaningful ways that aid replayability. Even after several years, this is a literally magical title fantasy strategists shouldn’t miss.

Available on: PC

18. Thea 2: the Shattering

(Image credit: MuHa Games)

No less than a hybrid of 4X, RPG and card game, Thea 2 clearly wants to be many things – and succeeds, thanks to the love developer MuHa Games put into its fantasy world. You take the role of a deity tasked with leading their flock. To do that, you appoint a hero, who has to deal with various RPG-style quests while exploring, and decide round by round how to deal with what you find. Since your fantasy party never grows the size of a 4X army, combat is resolved with cards, a unique and fun flourish.

Because the focus on a specific hero in an RPG setting doesn’t leave much room for the grand manoeuvring of a people and the management of their relationship with others, Thea 2 is perfect for those who enjoy some of the genre’s systems over others. On the other hand, it’s perhaps a bit light on features for 4X veterans.

Available on: PC

17. Warhammer 40k: Gladius – Relics of War

(Image credit: Proxy Studios)

If your favourite of the four elements of the best 4X games is "exterminate", you can’t really go wrong with Gladius. Its big draw is, of course, the 40k universe itself, offering units you simply won’t find anywhere else, and translating their strengths and weaknesses into fun gameplay.

But Gladius misses the depth 4X players are usually looking for in all systems but warfare, which makes it great for beginners but a little too simple for genre veterans. As a 4X with a unique setting, and a game for 40k fans, this does a terrific job by focusing on the strengths of the material it adapts, but not much more.

Available on: PC

16. Oriental Empires

(Image credit: Shining Pixel Studios)

This is best 4X to go with if you’re looking for a game focusing on Chinese history the way Aggressors does for Ancient Rome, especially with the Three Kingdoms and Genghis DLC. In a callback to 4X’s board gaming roots, Oriental Empires uses the WEGO system, where all players resolve their turns simultaneously, offering some welcome suspense. Generally, Oriental Empires is one of the best games if you’re looking to be surprised, even if a surprise could turn out frustrating.

Random catastrophes and wilful citizens can net or cost you a win that seemed a given. While warfare here is a letdown due to obtuse AI, complex expansion systems and interesting tech tree options make up for it. While Total War has since produced a Three Kingdoms instalment, among true 4X games, Oriental Empires is still the only one offering this specific setting at such depth, and that dedication makes it one of the best of the genre.

Available on: PC

15. Star Wars Rebellion/Star Wars Supremacy

(Image credit: LucasArts)

Not to be confused with the boardgame of the same name, Rebellion is the 4X for Star Wars fans, despite being over 20 years old. Play as the rebels or the Empire in a campaign set after the destruction of the Death Star, and help raise either faction to former glory with the help of characters from the expanded universe.

While of course the graphics in 3D battles and its pseudo-real time system, it’s still fun to send familiar characters out on missions and build diplomatic ties with factions you recognise. This emulates the feeling of helping shape a familiar universe – central to 4X and a thrill every time.

Available on: PC

14. Master of Orion (2016)

(Image credit: NGD Studios)

The 2016 edition of Master of Orion is a remastering of sorts of the original Masters of Orion 1 and 2, complete with modern visuals and a boatload of celebrity voice actors. This is the game for people who want to know more about the beginning of the genre, but who think Simtex classic from 1996 may possibly be too dated.

If you’ve played many other 4X games set in space already, Master of Orion’s impact as game that coined the term 4X may get lost on you, but MoO veterans will appreciate the love that went into the reboot. Beginners can appreciate having a similar starting point as many 4X players back in the day.  And really, what more reason do we need to try a game than the option of meeting new fun alien races?

Available on: PC

13. Scythe: Digital Edition

(Image credit: Asmodee Digital)

The PC version of one of the most enduringly popular board games around, Scythe paints a picture of an exciting alternate WWI-era Eastern Europe, where mechs roam the open planes to fight for you. This is the ideal  introduction into digital board gaming – beautiful to look at, easy enough to get started, with a wide variety of win conditions that don’t all rely on battle.

The variety of win conditions especially sounds like a given but it’s more likely you’ll encounter the same conditions across franchises with little variety. Scythe tries not to overwhelm you and is fundamentally a game that you can quickly pick up and put down without too big an investment.

Available on: PC

12. Imperialism 2: The Age of Exploration

(Image credit: Frog City Software)

If you can forgive Imperialism 2 its 1999 graphics, then the only thing that aged badly about this 4X is its New World theme. Still, the idea of building up a nation and actually having to interact with your people like living beings instead of numbers and carefully allocating resources to their benefit is  more in line with classic RTS games such as Age of Empires than Civ.

It helps add realism – wars are difficult and expensive, because they put a strain on your populace as well as your armies, proper exploration and trade are a necessity. Imperialism II is amazing because it achieves a great balance between all these systems, leading to many different outcomes.

Available on: PC

11. Distant Worlds: Universe

(Image credit: Code Force)

The word “universe” in the title isn’t for show – Distant Worlds: Universe is one big game, because it’s asking you to do no less than to build an empire consisting of as much of space as possible, bringing imaginative alien races into the fold one way or another, until you rule over up to 1,400 randomly generated planets.

That doesn’t have to be daunting: you can micromanage every aspect or leave it to the computer. Doing that will certainly be necessary at some point, as Distant Worlds: Universe is dedicated to each of the four exes and then some, offering a vast array of possible outcomes for each action, allowing you to really manage an empire rather than just prep for war and wait for the go sign.

Available on: PC

Turn to page two for our ultimate top 10 best 4X games...