Games: 4X Games, And Why You Should Play Them
Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. These are the four X’s of which we speak. Yes, we know they don’t actually start with the letter x, you can blame the chap who coined the phrase back in 2001, when reviewing Master of Orion. That phrase has since been adopted as a legitimate genre all its own. The title is worn proudly by such games as Civilization (Sorry editors, that’s how it’s spelled!), Sins of a Solar Empire, Endless Space and the many titles of the Total War series.
The meaning of each X is fairly straightforward and provides a good basic idea what to expect in a typical 4X game:
eXplore: The game world is big, and to stand any chance of survival you’ll have to find out what’s out there, whether it be rich new resources or a rival on the warpath. Send out scouts, keep track of what goes where, discover ancient ruins/ripe juicy asteroid belts!
eXpand: You can stay at home all you like, but your rivals won’t. They’ll be out extending the influence of their home turf, or grabbing whole new lands for themselves. You’ll have to do the same if you don’t want to be squished into a small box.
eXploit: All these games involve an economy, usually from gathering resources in your territory, sometimes processing them into something else, and selling them for cash or using them to engage in the other 3 X’s. The more efficient you make your economy, the easier that will be.
eXterminate: Big as a map may be, there’s only so much room for everyone. At some point, if you want to expand any further you’ll have to take someone else’s territory to do it. And that usually means fighting for it.
There’s way, way more to a typical 4X game than the above might suggest though. The genre is famous for being deep and complex, and there are several different ways to go about playing, and almost as many ways to win. Oh sure, you could wipe out every other civilisation in the game, but you could also achieve cultural, technological or economic dominance, or forge alliances and negotiate peacefully and win without bloodshed. Some 4X games allow the players to agree on specific win conditions beforehand: first to research a certain technology, first to build a certain building or unit… hell, it’s possible for everyone to vote on who won after so many game turns.
4X games are definitely not the kind of thing you dip into for an hour while you wait for your socks to dry. With their scale and complexity, it’s more likely you will sit down to have a go before dinner, and when you look up again your tea is ice-cold, the sun’s coming up again, and your parents are weeping silently in their room at having lost their beloved child. If you have no patience, chances are you might not enjoy them. But if the thought of directing a civilisation on a global or galactic scale appeals to you, then my goodness, you’ll enjoy a bit of 4X Here are three of the best currently available. It’s worth noting that aside from being huge and engrossing for months on their own, each also has a dedicated modding community to add even more to the game for years to come.
Total War: Shogun 2
As daimyo (lord) of one of Japan’s 16th century clans, you fortify, develop and expand your territory by various means: why risk hundreds of troops in battle when you could secure those lands with an arranged marriage? Why risk dishonour crushing an obviously weaker opponent when you could make them a protectorate instead? Rival army about to march on your city? Send out a ninja to poison their water supply or eliminate their general. Worried about the same happening to you? Hire spies and police to travel your borders and root out ne’er-do-wells. Strike a balance between happy peasants and high production. Improve your farms, build dojos to train your troops and operatives, send trade ships to distant gaijin lands to make money. By whatever means, bloody or peaceful, honourable or shameful, your eventual goal is the city of Kyoto. If you can hold the seat of the Shogun and hold out against surviving rivals, the Emperor will have no choice but to declare you Shogun, military ruler of all Japan! With plenty of tutorials, expansions and customisation options, you have tonnes of game for your money.
Sins of a Solar Empire
This is multiplayer only, but has plenty of backstory nonetheless. Suffice to say there are 3 factions: The TEC (Trader Emergency Coalition), who are essentially the bog-standard human empire; The Advent, a group of psychic transhumanist heretics banished from human space a thousand years ago, back for revenge; and the Vasari, an alien race who are battling both for resources because they’ve been on the run from some mysterious enemy that wiped out their whole empire 10,000 years ago. If you have the latest version of the game, Rebellion, each faction is further split into two – the original faction and a splinter group with opposing ideals. Each rebel faction plays a little differently to its parent faction, and has a couple of different units available. There’s a wealth of research and diplomatic options available, from forming trade agreements to secretly paying pirate fleets to attack rivals, and you can spread your cultural ideals to other planets to foment unrest (and lower taxes) on enemy worlds, or have them rebel or switch sides altogether. The scale of the game is vast, with anything from a dozen to hundreds of star systems available for conquest, and the ship battles are staggering in size and beauty.
Civilization V (and Gods and Kings expansion)
Civ is one of the granddaddies of 4X gaming. The first was released back in 1990 and made a lot of gamers very happy indeed with its huge scale, depth and detail. Each game since has been essentially the same thing but with refinements and additions, and today we have the fifth incarnation and its massive expansion. Take control of one of earth’s historic civilisations, such as the Celts, Mongols, Greeks, English or many more, and guide them from a primitive tribe of nomads to the glories of the modern age and beyond. Build settlements, manage them and turn them into huge cities. Explore vast maps and meet interesting new people, from other civilisations to free city states to bloodthirsty barbarians. Negotiate, beg, threaten, or battle. Spy and sabotage. Create your own religion, and spread it across the globe via prophets and trade routes. Develop technologies from the simple wheel to astronomy, navigation and gunpowder. Build the Wonders of the World and reap the rewards. Reach for the very stars. With the option to play on Earth’s map or an unlimited number of randomly generated maps, the replay value is immense.
So there you are. 4X games are bloody fantastic, and you should really be playing them instead of seeing daylight ever again. They’re good in single player, they’re better in multiplayer, as the diplomatic options take on a whole new level with a human element added. You won’t get the instant gratification provided by Shooty McDeathkill’s Genocide is Fun FPS-style games, but 4X isn’t about that. It’s more the tantric sort of game, the long slow pleasurable build-up that just keeps getting better and better, and then BAM! You shoot hot sticky dominion all over your opponents.