Best 4X Games for Those Who Love to Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate

Top 10 Best 4X Games for Those Who Love to Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate

4X games have been around for almost four decades at this point and they’re not going away anytime soon. While not nearly as popular as MMORPG or FPS games, the subgenre does have a fiercely loyal fanbase that can’t get enough of their addicting gameplay.

If you’re one of those fans or want to get into this slow-paced but very rewarding subgenre of strategy, you’re in luck because this list is all about the best 4X games out there. These types of games usually come in series and we wanted to keep things nice and clean, so we’re pulling a WatchMojo and will only include one entry per series.

Before we get started, it’s worth noting that there’s quite a bit of overlap between 4X games and other strategy subgenres. In particular, grand strategy games. We just recently put out a list of grand strategy games so we’re not going to talk about them again here.

With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

15. Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes (2013)

best 4x strategy games

Fallen Enchantress is a fantasy 4X game from a company known for making sci-fi games. Stardock are best known for the likes of Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire, and Offworld Trading Company. But 10 years ago they came out with a fantasy game that became a bit of a cult classic.

Fallen Enchantress takes place in the world of Elemental, a realm filled with powerful magic and horrifying creatures. The world is on the brink of collapse but a handful of factions still seek to survive against all odds. You get to take control of one of these factions as you attempt to lead your people to victory with the help of brave heroes, an assortment of powerful units, and a few magic tricks of your own.

This game can best be described as a mix between Civilization and Heroes of Might & Magic. Just like in Civ, you start off by founding a settlement and gradually work to expand into surrounding areas while building your empire. However, the exploration part is quite different. Instead of sending a scout or a unit of warriors to see what’s going on around you, you send small armies led by heroes that scour the land while battling monsters and completing quests along the way.

As far as the combat is concerned, it’s pretty much exactly what you would expect from something like HoMM or Endless Legend. Battles take place on a separate screen and generally look like skirmishes, as opposed to all-out wars.

Fallen Enchantress looks outdated by today’s standards but it’s still a decent enough game. While there are better fantasy 4X games out there, you won’t be disappointed by what Fallen Enchantress has to offer if you decide to give it a chance.

14. Humankind (2021)

4x games ranked best to worst

Humankind should have been an instant hit. The title was developed by Amplitude Studios, the same folks who brought us a bunch of amazing 4X games in the past. Including the likes of Endless Legend and Endless Space 2. The developers are certainly not new to the genre. But it seems like they’re more comfortable with sci-fi and fantasy than history. If you’re into historical games, there are certainly better picks out there.

You don’t need a particularly keen eye to notice that Humankind takes a lot of inspiration from the Civilization series. Both in terms of visuals and gameplay. However, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a Civ clone because there are some pretty important differences between the two.

Ironically, Humankind puts even more emphasis on civilizations than Sid Meier’s series. But things work a bit differently here. As you move through various eras, you can combine elements from a multitude of cultures to create a unique civilization. You’ll want to plan things ahead, though, as the bonuses you choose at the start of each new era remain in effect until the end of the game. Humankind also brings some other interesting things to the table, like a customizable leader and a solid combat system.

The problem here is that the game just doesn’t live up to its potential. At least not yet. Humankind has plenty of issues, including a lot of technical ones. The developers have been working to address them but they’ve been uncharacteristically slow at it so far. Humankind might end up becoming a fantastic game someday but for now, it’s just kind of average.

13. Warhammer 40K: Gladius – Relics of War (2018)

Warhammer 40K: Gladius – Relics of War

You can find Warhammer 40K games in pretty much every genre imaginable, from collectible card games to third-person shooters and everything in between. Surprisingly enough, though, there aren’t that many Warhammer 4X games. Aside from – if you want to count these – a couple of Dawn of War expansions, all we really have is Gladius – Relics of War.

Luckily, Warhammer 40K’s first proper entry into the genre does not disappoint. The game takes place on the titular Gladius Prime, a planet said to contain a bounty of important relics containing lost knowledge. But, as it turns out, it also contains Necros. And that inevitably leads to full-scale war.

The game features most of the 4X staples you would expect but does lack a few key systems. Most notably, diplomacy and trade. In typical Warhammer 40K fashion, the game revolves around pounding everything into the ground so there’s no room for playing nice with the enemy.

In the context of this universe, it makes sense not to include things like diplomacy but that also results in a more simplified 4X game. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Warhammer 40K: Gladius – Relics of War is still in development and is set to receive its next expansion later this month. There are already several other expansions that add new factions, some of them arguably essential since the base game only comes with four of them.

12. Master of Orion (2016)

Top 10 Best 4X Games Master of Orion (2016)

Master of Orion is a series of space-themed 4X games dating way back to the early 90s. While a lot of people still swear by the original, we recommend checking out the 2016 reboot instead. No matter what diehard fans of the original might say, it’s hard to get into a game that came out nearly three decades ago. Besides, Master of Orion (2016) does a great job at modernizing the classic series while still preserving its spirit.

Technically the fourth entry in the series, the 2016 reboot is a worthy successor to the original trilogy. The game was created with the help of members from the initial development team and features all 10 original races. Along with a few additional ones plus the ability to create your own custom race. All races are fully voiced by professional actors.

Master of Orion lets you explore huge galaxies containing up to 100 solar systems and wage epic-scale wars against their inhabitants. Or, you can take a more peaceful route and try dominating the galaxy through science or economy. Most victory conditions are similar to what you might find in games like Civilization but there are a couple of more original ones as well.

Master of Orion is no longer the groundbreaking series it used to be but it can still hold its own against modern 4X games. Check it out if you ever get the chance.

11. Age of Wonders Iii (2014)

Age of Wonders III

Age of Wonders III takes some of the best parts of Civilization and Heroes of Might & Magic, adds a bit of XCOM to the mix, and wraps everything up in a rich high fantasy setting. The game focuses quite a bit on the story but you don’t necessarily need to be familiar with its predecessors to understand what’s going on. Though it would certainly help.

The exploration portion of the game should feel immediately familiar to fans of 4X games. You go around the map collecting resources and fighting enemies while gradually building up your cities and armies. Along the way, you’ll come across a variety of interesting creatures and will get the opportunity to form alliances with dwarves, orcs, draconians, and a few other races.

Unlike previous games in the series, Age of Wonders III plays a lot like an isometric RPG while still maintaining traditional 4X elements. You can choose from six different classes for your character, who also has the ability to level up, gain skill points, and equip various weapons and armor. Special hero units, which you can recruit to lead your armies, have many of the same abilities.

A big highlight of the game is its combat system. While visually similar to the system found in the Heroes of Might & Magic series, the combat here is a lot more tactical. With units relying on action points and having access to special abilities. The magic system is just like in HoMM, though, complete with an almost identical-looking spellbook.

10. Distant Worlds: Universe (2014)

best 4x games of all time

Distant Worlds: Universe is a space-based strategy game that combines elements from a few different genres like 4X, grand strategy, and RTS. It’s a mix that takes a bit of getting used to, especially since the game is quite complicated, but works very well once you surpass the initial learning curve.

The name of this game is quite fitting as it does make you feel like you have the entire universe at your disposal. There are well over a thousand star systems here. Not to mention tens of thousands of planets, moons, and asteroids to discover. Distant Worlds: Universe’s scale is genuinely impressive and the game does an excellent job at making you feel like a galactic emperor.

The number of systems and mechanics you’ll need to learn to play this game efficiently can be a bit overwhelming for newcomers. We’re talking resource management, trade, diplomacy, exploration, colonization, war, and more. Luckily, you can pause the game at any time and you should take the opportunity to do that often because it’s very easy to lose track of what’s going on otherwise.

Distant Worlds: Universe is a repackaged version of the original Distant Worlds, which was originally launched back in 2010. This version includes all the expansions that were released over the years along with some new content. The game got a sequel earlier in 2022 with Distant Worlds 2 but I wouldn’t recommend that one just yet.  The sequel needs more development time before it can reach the high bar set by the original.

9. Galactic Civilizations Ii: Ultimate Edition (2008)

best 4x games galactic civilization

You can’t talk about 4X games without mentioning this series. Galactic Civilizations has been around for almost two decades and is still going strong to this day. However, as most long-time fans will point out, the series reached its peak in the late 2000s with the second entry.

Galactic Civilizations II is another sci-fi 4X game, this one taking place during the 23rd century in a galaxy jam-packed with spacefaring civilizations. There are over a dozen civilizations to choose from, each with its own unique abilities and technologies. Every faction’s ultimate goal is to conquer the galaxy but you can go about doing that in a number of ways.

For the most part, Galactic Civilizations II is the quintessential 4X game. You explore, expand, exploit and eventually exterminate the opposition, unless you feel like going for cultural or political domination instead. There are multiple ways of winning a game of Galactic Civilizations II but, let’s be honest, military conquest is what most of us end up doing.

Galactic Civilizations II has a few more interesting features to offer, like the ability to create unique civilizations and customize ships piece-by-piece. You get a lot to work with both on a macro and a micro scale while playing this game.

If you’re not a big fan of old graphics, you may want to grab Galactic Civilizations III instead. While not as good in some ways, the third installment is still a pretty solid 4X game all things considered. You may want to check your wallet, though, because that one has a plethora of DLC packs.

As far as Galactic Civilization IV is concerned, don’t bother with that one just yet. It came out of early access back in April but still feels like an unfinished game.

8. Endless Space 2 (2017)

Top 10 Best 4X Games Endless Space 2

Amplitude Studios created a fantastic sci-fi universe with the first Endless Space and further refined it in this excellent sequel. Endless Space 2 is bigger and better than its predecessor in every way and can rightly be considered one of the best modern 4X games around. Especially if we’re talking sci-fi 4X games.

Endless Space 2 takes place in a galaxy that used to be dominated by the titular Endless, a highly advanced alien race whose empire eventually descended into chaos and civil war. Ten thousand years later, the galaxy is teeming with new space-faring races, many of which built their own empires using technology left behind by the Endless.

The game gives you 12 races to choose from (if you own all of the DLCs), each more unique than the last. From the samurai avians known as The Hisso to The Horatio, a race comprised solely of one man and his clones, each of Endless Space 2’s factions is fascinating in its own way. Not just that but every faction has unique gameplay mechanics, units, and technologies, making the game highly replayable. Some might even say endlessly replayable.

One of the most interesting things about these races is that some of them were actually designed by the players. As were some of the minor factions. Amplitude Studios is one of those rare gaming companies that pay close attention to their players and has been letting them help design races even before Endless Space 2.

7. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (2012)

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

Though primarily an RTS, Sins of a Solar Empire has enough 4X elements to warrant a place on this list. Those two genres don’t usually mix very well together because the sheer scope of 4X games demands a turn-based approach. Either during exploration or during combat; often both. But the developers at Stardock Entertainment somehow managed to pull it off and create a 4X that runs entirely in real-time.

Even more impressive is the fact that this is a huge game with a lot of different stuff to manage. Resources, ships, research, diplomacy, and more all need your attention. And you’ll need to keep an eye on everything in real-time while exploring the map. Luckily, the micromanagement rarely becomes overwhelming as Sins of a Solar Empire is focused more on the big picture. It also helps that the UI is very well designed.

While the first iteration of the game still holds up pretty well, we suggest starting right off the bat with the standalone expansion, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. The expansion brought to the table a lot of essential mechanics and features. And since this is a standalone expansion, it sort of made the original obsolete.

If you want to take things one step further, we highly recommend checking out some of the great mods created by the community. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a very mod-friendly game and you would be doing yourself a great disservice by ignoring them. Especially the Star Trek mods.

6. Heroes of Might & Magic Iii (1999)

Top 10 Best 4X Games Heroes of Might & Magic III

This one is a real blast from the past. Heroes of Might & Magic III always brings back fond memories to anyone who was gaming on PC in the late 90s and early 2000s. Despite its age, Heroes 3 holds up remarkably well to this day thanks in no small part to the random map generator introduced in its first expansion, Armageddon’s Blade. A feature that was either poorly implemented or completely lacking from its sequels.

Just as its title indicates, the game lets you play as a character specialized in either combat or magic. Combat improves the efficiency of your army while magic increases the potency of your spells. There are dozens of heroes to choose from split between a variety of different factions, each with its own unique units and buildings.

The basic gameplay loop revolves around exploring the map while engaging packs of enemies and collecting resources, as well as the occasional artifact. You can improve your skills by equipping these artifacts or by interacting with certain objects on the map. Meanwhile, leveling up also gives you a chance to improve your skills or acquire entirely new ones. Both the exploration and the combat are turn-based.

There have been a number of more recent entries in the HoMM series, though none of them were quite as good as the third one. Heroes V came pretty close, but Ubisoft decided to run the franchise into the ground afterward. These days, Heroes of Might & Magic is just a shell of its former self. Unfortunately.

Back in 2015, Ubisoft released an HD version of HoMM III on Steam but decided to cut essential features, including the aforementioned random map generator. Thanks, Ubisoft. If you’re thinking about giving the game a try, which you should, we highly recommend grabbing the GOG version.

5. Disciples Ii (2002)

Disciples II

Disciples is a series of criminally underrated 4X games that started back in the late 90s. Around the same time that Heroes of Might & Magic was at its peak, which might explain why the series never got the attention it deserved. Admittedly, these games can be a bit difficult to get into at first.

The series didn’t start off great but the sequel quickly rose up to become one of the best turn-based strategy games ever made. And I’m not saying that lightly. The art style, in particular, is remarkable and really sets the tone for the dark and decrepit world created by the developers over at Strategy First. Despite not managing to break into the mainstream, Disciples II did well enough to warrant getting a number of expansion packs.

Between 2009 and 2012 efforts were made to revive the series with Disciples III, which ended up receiving multiple iterations under publisher Kalypso Media. The company managed to keep the beautiful art direction intact but dropped the ball when it came to everything else. The definitive version, Disciples III: Reincarnation, ended up being overall decent but couldn’t quite hold a candle to its predecessor.

Back in October Kalypso brought back the series once again with Disciples: Liberation. This time around, they decided to change the game drastically and focus more on RPG elements. Ultimately, the game ended up being closer to King’s Bounty than Disciples 2 or the series’ main source of inspiration, Heroes of Might & Magic.

Having said that, Disciples: Liberation is a surprisingly good game that gives us hope for the future of the series. But it’s certainly not as good as Disciples II.

4. Old World (2000)

best 4x games old world

Despite having been around for about two years on the Epic Games Store, Old World fell under the radar for a lot of people. Now that it’s available on Steam, however, the game is finally getting some more recognition. And deservedly so because this is one of the best 4X games we’ve seen in quite a while.

Old World is the second project of Mohawk Games, the studio that brought us Offworld Trading Company a few years back. The game was designed by Soren Johnson, who also led the development of Civilization IV, a title that served as a big source of inspiration for Old World. The other major influence seems to have been Paradox’s Crusader Kings series.

Unlike most other 4X games, Old World puts a lot of emphasis on storytelling. In addition to building an empire, your main goal here is to build a dynasty. Family and politics play an important role in Old World, as do individual characters. And I’m not just talking about leaders. Throughout the course of a game, you’ll get to interact with warriors, philosophers, traders, and more. Some of which you’ll probably recognize if you paid attention in history class.

Just like its name indicates, Old World takes place during Antiquity. You don’t get to progress through various eras until you eventually reach modern times as you might expect from a game like this. However, the fact that Old World is so heavily focused on a specific region and time period makes it feel richer and more detailed than most of its competitors. Granted, this can also be a turn-off for those who don’t like this time period.

3. Age of Wonders: Planetfall (2019)

Top 10 Best 4X Games Age of Wonders: Planetfall

Don’t worry, we’re not breaking the ‘one entry per series’ rule. Despite sharing the same name, Planetfall isn’t part of the main Age of Wonders series. Triumph Studios did something similar to what Firaxis tried to do with Civilization: Beyond Earth by switching to a sci-fi setting. Only in this case, the game turned out to be good.

In many ways, Planetfall feels like a logical, albeit not necessarily ambitious, progression of the series. The game doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but it does polish to a mirror shine many of the gameplay elements introduced by its predecessors. That said, this isn’t just Age of Wonders with a new coat of paint as there are some new features to look forward to as well.

The developers put together a new diplomacy system inspired by Paradox games and significantly improved the combat, which now comes with destructible environments and more verticality. Age of Wonders: Planetfall also made significant improvements to the game’s economy and features factions that feel a lot more distinct than in previous titles.

Unlike a lot of other 4X games, Age of Wonders: Planetfall doesn’t have tons of DLC. There are just three expansions and a pack of bonus content that come with the Deluxe Edition. I’m a pretty big fan of that. I don’t know about you, but I hate browsing through dozens of DLCs trying to figure out what’s worth buying.

2. Endless Legend (2014)

Endless Legend

Amplitude Studios is easily one of the most prolific developers of 4X games of the past decade. After tackling the final frontier with Endless Space, the studio decided to go in a completely different direction with the fantasy-themed Endless Legend. And, in the process, ended up creating one of the most innovative strategy games we’ve seen in a while.

Endless Legend combines elements from a variety of genres, especially TBS and RPG. In addition to exploring, expanding, exploiting and exterminating, you also pursue quest objectives, level up characters, and collect equipment for your armies. And while the narrative isn’t necessarily a major highlight of the game, there are enough interesting storylines to keep in invested and immersed in the wonderful world of Auriga.

As far as traditional 4X elements are concerned, you’ve got your research trees (or rather circles in this case), your city management, your big map covered by fog of war, and everything else you might expect from a game like this. What you might not expect is that Endless Legend has no less than nine win conditions and 14 different playable factions to choose from.

There’s a ton of content here and it’s all thanks to Amplitude’s admirable efforts to continue supporting the game post-launch. Endless Legend came out back in 2014 and has received expansions and/or DLCs almost every year since. Including in 2021. In a world where annual releases are becoming commonplace and yesteryear’s games quickly end being up neglected by their developers, it’s nice to see a studio putting so much love into the continued support of its products.

1. Sid Meier’s Civilization VI (2016)

Top 10 Best 4X Games Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

This is probably the series that springs to mind most often whenever someone starts a discussion about 4X games. And it’s easy to see why. Civilization was one of the first games of its kind and strived to elevate the subgenre to a new level with each new iteration. Granted, there were some duds along the way but, for the most part, the Civ series has constantly evolved over its three decades of existence.

Choosing just a single entry from this series was extremely difficult. You could make some good arguments for why Civ 4 or Civ 5 should take the spot. But we ultimately went with Civilization VI because it feels like the best one so far in terms of balance.

Civilization VI finally made pursuing a cultural victory a viable strategy and refined the religion system introduced in Civ V: Gods and Kings. The Civics tree was another fantastic new addition, as was the introduction of districts. The game is arguably more complex than any of its predecessors while still being just as easy to get into. At least as far as the base game is concerned.

Just like with its predecessor, you may need to look up a DLC guide to figure out what’s going on with all the post-launch content. Firaxis did try to streamline things this time around by releasing the New Frontier Pass but that brought with it problems of its own. If you don’t want to bother with buying DLCs separately, grab either the Platinum Edition or Civilization VI Anthology.

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  • Jason Moth

    I'm a classic jack-of-all-trades author who loves to write about most topics, though gaming has always been my strong suit. That said, I definitely won’t turn down the chance to cover some juicy news involving superhero movies, Stephen King novels, or space travel. Or robots. Or space-traveling superhero robots disguised as Stephen King.

Written by Jason Moth

I'm a classic jack-of-all-trades author who loves to write about most topics, though gaming has always been my strong suit. That said, I definitely won’t turn down the chance to cover some juicy news involving superhero movies, Stephen King novels, or space travel. Or robots. Or space-traveling superhero robots disguised as Stephen King.

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