4X games, so named because they allow you to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, are one of the most enjoyable genres in all of gaming. The best 4X games deliver slow but addictive gameplay and reward long-term planning – you’ll start as a small, puny faction in an unknown, scary world, and end up a conquering behemothic empire. If that sounds good to you, this guide offers up the very best games to try.
Naturally, there’s a lot of overlap here with the best turn-based games – so, if you don’t find a winner here, check that one out. And if you just love thinking with that big noggin of yours, be sure to check out our guides to the best strategy board games and RTS games. You might also want to save some cash with our guide to the best free strategy games. For now, though…
The best 4X games in 2023 are:
- Endless Legend – the best asymmetric 4X game
- Age of Wonders: Planetfall – the best 4X game with tactical combat
- Stellaris – the best space 4X game
- Humankind – the best alt history 4X game
- Old World – the best fast paced 4X game
- Civilization 6 – the best 4X game in 2023
- Warhammer 40k Gladius – Relics of War – the best Warhammer 4X game
- Crusader Kings 3 – the best RPG-like 4X game
The best asymmetric 4X game
A turn-based fantasy 4X game by Amplitude Studios, Endless Legend stands out as much for its interesting, asymmetrical factions as it does for its innovations in gameplay.
Each faction plays dramatically differently – from the eerie Cultists, converting minor factions from a central uber-city, to the Roving Clans who can move whole settlements in a nomadic playstyle, to the Necrophages, who just want to eat everyone up.
Each has its own story questline, and completing yours can win you the game. Colourful and surprising, no game does the explore part of 4X quite like Endless Legend.
The new mechanics are interesting too, from the periodic ravages of winter, to the influence system, Endless Legend brings plenty of new features to the table. Its combat system is a bit marmite-y: some love the tactical battle system, while others find it slow and ponderous, especially in multiplayer.
For the full, unabridged tale, read the Endless Legend review on our sister site, PCGamesN.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall
The best 4X game with tactical combat
It’s hard to decide whether Age of Wonders 3 or Planetfall should make this list, but since we just did a fantasy game, let’s switch gears to sci-fi. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is an experimental departure from the tried and true formula of this series, and it shores up a lot of its shortcomings.
Though the brilliant magic system, and some of the personality is lost in this newer title, it’s a more well-rounded game overall, not purely focused on combat – you can play an economic or diplomatic game in Age of Wonders: Planetfall.
It’s no slouch on the combat front either, though. Particularly worth a shout out is the mod slot system, which lets you equip your units in all sorts of ways, drastically changing their role on the battlefield.
To ensure a safe landing, you’d be well advised to read the full Age of Wonders Planetfall review on PCGamesN.
The best space 4X game
Straddling the line between a 4X game and grand strategy, and the only ‘turnless’ title on this list, Stellaris does an amazing job of taking a galaxy-full of content and making it relatively accessible.
It might not have the sheer depth of something like Distant Worlds 2 or Terra Invicta, but it definitely doesn’t lack for varied and interesting gameplay, particularly with all the mods and DLC available. It’s a great strategy game to while away some relaxing hours, a map painter where you can gaze at the stars – bliss!
If you’re somehow not sold on becoming an interstellar emperor, PCGamesN’s Stellaris review can offer a little more depth.
The best alt history 4X game
Released to some fanfare in 2021, Amplitude Studios’ Humankind is a quite compelling riff on the classic Sid Meier’s Civilization 4X formula, which – though it doesn’t quite impress in all areas – deserves a place on this list for its innovations, undeniably addictive gameplay, and gorgeous graphics and animations.
You’ll still be shepherding an empire from the dawn of humanity through to the space age – but, instead of picking from a pre-set list of real-world civs to lead, you’ll get to mix and match elements from different cultures, traditions, aesthetics, and gameplay styles as you progress through the game’s six historical eras.
You might enter the Ancient era as Egypt, enjoying bonuses to your industry, building pyramids and whatnot; transition to Romans in the Classical age (unlocking the badass Praetorian Guards unique unit); go all Aztec during the Medieval era; become the Venetians in the Early Modern; cosplay as Austro-Hungary in the Industrial Era, and close out the game’s Contemporary Era as the Soviet Union.
As gameplay gimmicks go, it might not be as awesome as we all thought it would be during the spectacular pre-release hype period for this game – but it’s still brilliant fun, and delivers lots of replayability. A relatively shallow, but reliably enjoyable turn-based battle system sees you zoom in to control individual battlefield units on a grid (as opposed to classic Civ’s simple dice-driven ‘stack versus stack’ combat) – and this, too, adds spice.
The best fast paced 4X game
Everyone knows that the early stages of Civilization, before troublemakers invent confusing, new-fangled technology like the compass, is the best part of the game. So it was only a matter of time before someone (someone like Mohawk Games) made a historical 4X game with only one era.
Old World is a rarity in 4X games, in that it respects your time – with a 200 turn limit, and an orders system that means not all your units can move or attack each turn, you can breeze through a game in a mere 15-20 hours.
There’s a lot of tweaks to the 4X formula under the hood, but perhaps the most noticeable one is the characters. You don’t have some undying avatar representing your nation, instead controlling real people with personalities and stats, who raise heirs and then die, leaving the new blood in charge. To succeed in the Old World, you’ll need to manage, not just an empire, but also a family.
For more parental (and empire-building) guidance, check out PCGamesN’s full Old World review.
The best 4X game in 2023
Speak of the devil! We could hardly leave this one off our list. Civilization 6 is the most popular, most prestigious 4X game in the world, by a wide margin. Dangerously compelling, to the point where it can be hard to step away from your PC, there’s something oddly hypnotic about guiding a real life nation from mud huts to skyscrapers.
Some fans of the series took a while to learn to love Civilization VI’s cartoonish graphics and gameplay tweaks, but now its player base regularly puts it in the top 20 most played games on Steam. It’s Civilization but with more cities and more mechanics – especially with all the DLC, which adds everything from loyalty to global warming.
For the full run down of Civ 6’s triumphs and tribulations, read PCGamesN’s original Civilization 6 review.
Warhammer 40k Gladius – Relics of War
The best Warhammer 4X game
Warhammer 40k games can be somewhat hit and miss, so it’s pleasing to get a fine example of the 4X genre in Warhammer 40k Gladius – Relics of War. As you’d expect for a game in this universe, warfare is the order of the day, diplomacy is not an option. In fact three out of four of 4X’s Xs are somewhat vestigial in Gladius.
However, if you’re a Warhammer fan, and you want to slug it out in a tactical combat game with some 4X decision-making thrown in, we can definitely recommend picking this up. If it doesn’t ‘load your boltgun’, however, you might find something else you like in our guide to the best RTS games on PC – or perhaps among the best turn based games.
Crusader Kings 3
The best RPG-like 4X game
Combining the best elements of a 4X strategy game and an RPG, Crusader Kings 3 is an immersive medieval ruler simulator that gives you an enormous amount of freedom. True, you’ll often approach the game with the typical map-painting mindset, looking to rise in status and power till you (or more likely, your great-great-great-great-grandson) becomes emperor of the world.
But you can also have fun just larking about in the province of your choice, going on hunts, making pals at a banquet, seducing your vassal’s husband, perhaps idly assassinating a foe or two. It’s easy to get lost in Crusader Kings 3 and discover, when you’re pulled out of its world of fighting and fratricide, that hours have gone by.
There’s also a slowly growing pile of extra content to expand your medieval doings – check out our Crusader Kings 3 Royal Court DLC review for more info.