Best 4X Board Games [Our Top 10 Picks 2020]

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Featured image credit: Scott Rubin / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Although the term “4X” was coined in the 1990s, to refer to the video game, Master of Orion, it’s now also used to describe board games in which players:

  • eXplore
  • eXpand
  • eXploit
  • eXterminate

So, what is the best overall 4X board game for most people? We have to give the nod to Sid Meier’s Civilization – A New Dawn. Of all the 4X games, this one finds the right balance of accessibility, playability, and overall fun factor.

Our Top Picks
Best Overall
Sid Meier's Civilization - A New Dawn
Best for Sci-Fi Fans
Twilight Imperium - 4th Edition
Best Budget Option
Gamelyn Games GSTGMGTINY01 Tiny Epic Kingdoms, Multicoloured
Name
Sid Meier’s Civilization – A New Dawn
Twilight Imperium
Tiny Epic Kingdoms
Features
This is a board game version of the classic video game. It is a fast-paced race between different players as they guide their nations to prosperity, expansion, and victory.
With seventeen races and over 1,000 components, this sci-fi space opera has depth and complexity. It balances all aspects of 4x while ensuring no two games are the same.
As the name implies, Tiny Epic Kingdoms condenses an epic struggle between monarchies into your pocket. It is especially accessible to Settlers of Catan veterans.
Best Overall
Our Top Picks
Sid Meier's Civilization - A New Dawn
Name
Sid Meier’s Civilization – A New Dawn
Features
This is a board game version of the classic video game. It is a fast-paced race between different players as they guide their nations to prosperity, expansion, and victory.
More Info
Best for Sci-Fi Fans
Our Top Picks
Twilight Imperium - 4th Edition
Name
Twilight Imperium
Features
With seventeen races and over 1,000 components, this sci-fi space opera has depth and complexity. It balances all aspects of 4x while ensuring no two games are the same.
More Info
Best Budget Option
Our Top Picks
Gamelyn Games GSTGMGTINY01 Tiny Epic Kingdoms, Multicoloured
Name
Tiny Epic Kingdoms
Features
As the name implies, Tiny Epic Kingdoms condenses an epic struggle between monarchies into your pocket. It is especially accessible to Settlers of Catan veterans.
More Info

Related post: Best Campaign Board Games

Best 4X Board Games

Best Overall – Sid Meier’s Civilization – A New Dawn

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Best Overall
Sid Meier’s Civilization – A New Dawn
This is a board game version of the classic video game. It is a fast-paced race between different players as they guide their nations to prosperity, expansion, and victory.

There are many different 4X games to choose from. However, Sid Meier’s Civilization – A New Dawn is our choice for the best overall game.

Gameplay is straightforward and basically follows the computer game of the same name. Each player takes control of a different historical figure. From there, you must transform a humble settlement into a mighty empire that will make the world tremble.

As a true 4X game, there is something here for every kind of player. Want to send your hordes invading all over the planet? You can do it. Want to explore the new world through the lens of history? You can do that, too.

Ultimately, Sid Meier has brought us one of the best examples of the 4X genre.

Best for Sci-Fi Fans – Twilight Imperium

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Best for Sci-Fi Fans
Twilight Imperium
With seventeen races and over 1,000 components, this sci-fi space opera has depth and complexity. It balances all aspects of 4X while ensuring no two games are the same.

Fortunately, the 4X genre isn’t limited to history and fantasy. For sci-fi fans looking to scratch the 4X strategy game itch, it simply doesn’t get any better than Twilight Imperium.

The game bills itself as a space opera, and that’s no joke. There are 17 different space empires to choose from, and this gives you endless options for replayability.

In fact, you could say that this game is infinitely replayable. Thanks to the random board setup, no two games are ever exactly alike. Just be warned: if this is your first real introduction to 4X gaming, it will be difficult for other games to match this level of production value and playability.

Another warning: this game can take 8 hours to play, especially if you max out on 6 players. You better plan your day accordingly!

Best Budget Option – Tiny Epic Kingdoms

Best Budget Option
Tiny Epic Kingdoms
As the name implies, Tiny Epic Kingdoms condenses an epic struggle between monarchies into your pocket. It is especially accessible to Settlers of Catan veterans.

Normally, a “budget option” in gaming means that you must make some serious compromises. However, Tiny Epic Kingdoms is the rare game that packs a ton of fun into a small and affordable package.

The small box is literally tiny enough to fit in your pocket. But inside, you’ll find a game for 2-4 players that is brimming with tech trees, unique races, and several different paths to victory.

In many ways, the “tiny” design is one of the biggest benefits of this 4X game. You can easily bring it to work or school in a way that you can’t bring bigger 4X games like Twilight Imperium.

While the game is best with 4 players, it also provides a really solid 2-player experience. This is particularly good for any couples that have been looking for fun 4X board games to play together.

Best for Veteran 4X Players – Clash of Cultures

Best for Veteran 4X Players
Clash of Cultures
Clash of cultures is true to its name, helping players find the right mix of “explore expand” gameplay as well as “exploit and exterminate” gameplay. Best played by veterans of the 4X board games genre.

Some 4X games are designed from the ground up for newbies. Others are made for veterans of the 4X strategy game. And the best such game for veterans is definitely Clash of Cultures.

There is really nice production and presentation here, including sculpted figures from WizKids. This helps bring the 7 Wonders of the World, to life, and they look great on your shelf.

Ultimately, we love this board game for the simple reason that it wholeheartedly embraces the spirit of a 4X game. Cultural victories are just as important as martial victories. And more importantly, the path to each kind of victory is completely engaging and stimulating, giving you great replay opportunities each time you play again.

Best for Fantasy Lovers – Heroes of Land, Air, and Sea

Best for Fantasy Lovers
Heroes of Land, Air, and Sea
This is a fantasy-based 4X board game that features great art and even greater strategy. If you grew up reading Lord of the Rings, this cheeky fantasy adventure is made for you.

So far, our list has focused primarily on historical board games and the occasional game about space empires. But what if you’d rather enjoy fantasy 4X games? In that case, Heroes of Land, Air, and Sea is what you’ve been waiting for.

The game features the 4X strategy game features you’ve come to expect, including tech trees and strategy involving worker placement and economic growth. But it spices things up by throwing orcs, elves, and dwarves into what is normally just a human kind of game.

At the end of the day, there is only one “bad” thing about Heroes of Land, Air, and Sea. And it’s that this game is so good that you’ll never stop wondering why we don’t have more fantasy-based 4X games!

Best for Non-Confrontational Players – Archipelago

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Best Non-Confrontational
Archipelago
This game emphasizes exploration and economics over outright conquest. In that sense, it’s more of an “explore expand exploit” game that leaves out the exterminate component.

We’ll be honest: some gamers may quibble with calling Archipelago a true 4X board game. That’s because this game emphasizes hidden objectives and open interaction over extermination. Long story short? There are winners and losers, but wiping each other out isn’t really in the cards.

In that sense, the game is semi-cooperative instead of outright competitive. That makes it a great choice for players that aren’t very competitive or confrontational. And the high degree of interaction means this is always a hit on game night.

The cherry on top of the design is the fun Renaissance setting. History nerds will have no end of enjoyment when playing one of the best 4X games that are currently available. Bring up to 4 players for a maximum of 5-player fun.

Best for Minimalists – Impulse

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Best for Minimalists
Impulse
Impulse is one of the most minimalist board games you will ever play. It brings all the fun of managing space empires with all the thrills of streamlined gameplay.

When it comes to sci-fi board games, what’s the worst part? Simple: such games are typically way too complex, trying to squeeze a ton of science and technobabble into what should be a straightforward game. But if those games are the problem, Impulse is the solution.

Navigating the game board means sending your tiny ships across a hexagonal board. Along the way, you must master exploration and trade while handling a surprise game mechanic: a shared pool of cards.

Ultimately, Impulse achieves the impossible. It packs the complex fun of a great 4X board game into a minimalist design with streamlined gameplay. It is easy to learn and easy to teach, meaning you will have constant opportunities to grow the ranks of rival players.

Best for Hardcore Players – Space Empires 4X

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Best for Hardcore Players
Space Empires 4X
Despite its simplistic appearance, Space Empires 4X is a tough game designed for hardcore players. Difficult but fair, this is one of the most challenging 4X games you will ever play.

At first glance, you might think this sci-fi 4X game is another simplistic adventure like Impulse. Despite sharing a minimalist aesthetic, Space Empires 4X is more designed for hardcore strategy players.

As complex as gameplay gets, this strategy title borrows some of its sensibilities from the classic board game Battleship. That’s because it involves face down tokens representing ships, and players cannot discover what they are without exploration.

This leads to surprisingly deep gameplay. Do those tokens represent simple scout ships or an encroaching enemy fleet? This creates a sort of “fog of war” that makes sure gameplay is very intense. While it typically only takes a couple of hours to play, we can guarantee you will get many years of enjoyment from this title.

Best for Imaginative Players – March of the Ants

Best for Imaginative Players
March of the Ants
This 4X strategy game gets back to basics by having you take control of an ant colony. From there, you must take on the world...literally.

Most 4X games have their roots in history. That makes it easy for you to imagine the epic exploration and extermination of empire after empire. But if you’re armed with a powerful imagination, March of the Ants offers something truly unique.

In this unique strategy game, you take control of an ant colony on a farm. Through successful gameplay, you have an opportunity to take over the farm and assert victory. And the gameplay itself is reminiscent of certain video games (most notably the classic SimAnt).

As far as strategy titles go, this is one of the simpler games to play and learn. But that’s not a bad thing: if you need a new staple for family game night, this may be the best 4X board game you can snag!

Best Strategy Game – Conquest of Paradise

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Best Strategy Game
Conquest of Paradise
Focuses on the exploration of Polynesia. And one of the most notable aspects of this game is that it can be played solo using the special “solitaire” rules.

If you play enough 4X games, you quickly realize that most are located in two places: Europe or outer space. But what if you want to do something very different than managing another European empire? In that case, we recommend the Conquest of Paradise.

This game centers around the exploration of Polynesia around 500 AD. The novelty of the setting alone is enough to make us recommend this strategy game. Fortunately, the gameplay is also top-notch.

You’ll be exploring and colonizing various island groups, all while training the warriors you need to defend your growing empire. And gameplay is refreshingly fast: it shouldn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes to learn, and you can usually play a complete session in hour and a half or less.

What to Consider When Buying a 4X Board Game?

Setting

One of the biggest things to consider before buying a 4X game is the setting. In other words, what kind of environment do you want to play in?

Our list includes games focused on space, fantasy, and different historical periods. Carefully choosing the right setting will create the best gameplay experience for you and your friends.

Complexity

Whole table view of Twilight Imperium early to mid game

Jld1985 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Complexity is another major factor when it comes to a 4X game. In other words, how hard is it to learn and play this game?

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Some of the games on our list can be learned in just a few minutes. Others may take the better part of a day to really master. While simpler games are better for younger players or 4X newbies, veterans of the genre may prefer something that is a bit more challenging to learn.

Time to Play

If you’re reading this article, you love to play board games. But it’s important to ask yourself exactly how long you and your friends want to play a 4X session.

Some of the games on our list can be played in as little as one hour. Others (most notably Twilight Imperium) may take up to 8 hours to play. While that brings its own kind of fulfillment, not every player wants to devote the equivalent of a full work day to a single game!

Price

The last factor when it comes to 4X games is the price. In short, how much do you want to spend on a new game?

Some of the games on our list are the equivalent cost of a discount video game. And others cost as much as three new games put together.

With higher prices generally comes better production value and extra features like maps and tokens. But keep in mind that “pricer” doesn’t mean “better.” Finding a great 4X game is usually a matter of finding the gameplay you want at the price you can afford.

Number of Players

Heroes of Land, Air & Sea

One final factor is very simple: the number of players. How many people do you hope can play this game together?

Our list generally featured titles that required 2-6 players. In one case, you could even play solo. But some games are better “one-on-one” than others. If you want to play a single friend “head on”, it’s important to do your homework about which games work best with only two players.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a 4X game?

Our list is designed to help you find the best 4X games that are currently on the market. But before you can make your purchase, you need an answer to the fundamental question: what, exactly, is a 4X game?

The “4X” actually stands for four different words: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. What makes this genre notable is that successful gameplay revolves around mastery of each 4X component.

For example, exploration is usually a matter of sending scouts to discover information about unknown territory. Expand means expanding your existing territory, either by physically expanding your settlements or culturally expanding your influence. “Exploit” is a catch-all term for finding and using the resources that are available to you. Finally, “exterminate” refers to different methods by which you can remove other players from the competition.

How is this different from other strategy games?

Now you know what 4X games are all about. However, this leads to another question: what makes a 4X title different from other strategy games that you may be familiar with?

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The short answer is that most strategies only focus on some of the 4X factors without focusing on all of them. For example, the popular game Settlers of Catan focuses on expansion and exploitation, but there is no way to explore hidden areas or wipe out the other players. And tabletop games like Munchkin focuses almost entirely on the extermination of other players.

4X games are ultimately rewarding, specifically because they require you to master so many different skills. Because of that, though, the genre is a bit more complex than other types of games. That’s why you need to make sure you have players who are ready for this type of experience.

Close up photo of Twilight Imperium 3rd edition board game

Jld1985 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) — resized image to 600×400 (px)

Where have I heard “4X” before?

You may have never played a 4X board game before. However, the term may be familiar. Why is that? In all likelihood, you can blame video games!

The origin of the 4X term goes back to the video game Master of Orion. When Alan Emrich previewed the game for the 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World, he dubbed it an “XXXX” game. In part, this was a play on pornographic movies (often rated as “XXX”) and in part an homage to the exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination.

To Emrich, this was likely no more than a simple throwaway joke. But the term stuck as a perfect description for Master of Orion and many similar games that would soon follow. Eventually, tabletop gaming got in on the action and we had our own selection of games that followed in the Master of Orion footsteps.

What is the difference between 4X video games and board games?

Now you know that this particular type of board game owes its very existence to video games. That leads to another simple question: what is different between 4X video games and board games?

The simple answer is that it depends on the game. Early 4X games were more like strategy games that included turn-based gameplay. Later games in the genre often focused on real-time gameplay and combat. But that kind of real-time play is impossible with board games, so 4X board games returned to their turn-based roots.

In the early days of 4X video games, these titles were generally strategy games that had a special focus on the four specific factors. Nowadays, however, 4X video games are considered more complex and more laid-back than other strategy games. This is due in large part to titles like Command & Conquer and Starcraft redefining much of the strategy genre in terms of real-time combat.

How strict is the whole “4X” thing?

On paper, the 4X formula is very simple: any game with this designation should balance all 4 factors. In reality, though, things are a bit more complex.

There are many classic games we think of as 4X that don’t really meet the definition. The original Civilization board game, for example, doesn’t really have exploration or extermination. And even in games where extermination is nominally an option, it is often impossible to wipe other players out due to various game balance mechanics.

This is why “4X” ultimately became a more abstract notion. Modern games of this genre strive to include all of these elements, but some are usually more prominent than others. The important thing is that these games offer more depth and complexity than the standard tabletop or video game experience.

Chris Snellgrove
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Last update on 2020-10-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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