Top 10 Best 4X Board Games

4X Games involve 4 central mechanics:

  1. eXploration – exploring a map and uncovering new areas
  2. eXpansion – creating and expanding your influence economically or politically
  3. eXploitation – gathering and managing resources efficiently
  4. eXtermination – attacking and destroying other players or colonies

You’re probably aware of 4X video games, from titles like Civilization 5, Endless Legend, Alpha Centauri, and Master of Orion.

But there are also a slew of great 4X board games to play as well. You get all the allure of 4X in a fun, social environment. We’ve compiled 10 of the best 4X board games to play for you here.

Here’s the quick summary:

  • If you want to build a massive economy – Eclipse
  • If you want politics and backstory – Twilight Imperium
  • If you want combat and technology – Space Empires 4X
  • If you want a 4X you can finish in 1 hour – March of the Ants 
  • If you want a unique 4X game – Archipelago or Dominant Species
  • If you want a fantasy-based 4X – Runewars 
  • If you want to feel like you’re playing an RTS – Forbidden Stars
  • If you want civilization 4X themes – Civilization: The Board Game or Clash of Cultures 

#10 March of the Ants

march of the ants

March of the Ants was a 2014 Kickstarter project that’s had quite a bit of success. It’s probably the best 4X game out there that plays quickly – setup takes 5 minutes and games run about 60 minutes, compared to the usual 4X gametime of 4+ hours.

The theme of the game is lighthearted and fun, as players work to create and grow their ant colony while competing with other ants for resources and territory. At the same time, there’s still a lot of complex decision-making involved with multiple paths to victory.

There’s also a solo and cooperative mode to add even more replayability and variation to the game. The expansion, Minions of the Meadow, introduces new predators, improved tools, and rewards to the base game.

Pros

  • The perfect 4X game if you’re strapped for time or just want a quicker game.

  • Every decision is important. Combat involves casualties on all sides, so politics and player interaction play a big role.

  • Beautiful artwork, sturdy game pieces.

Cons

  • There’s a bit of randomness with regards to the card draw, but no more than most other games.

#9 Civilization: The Board Game

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The Civilization Board Game is an adaptation of Sid Meier’s Civilization video game series. Like the original game, the board game involves players taking on leaders of various civilizations to explore a module board, establish settlements, engage in combat, and advance their influence.

Civ covers every X of the 4X well, including Exploration which many games fall short of. The tech tree is extremely detailed and interesting in scope, and combat does not require dice which reduces the RNG involved.

One drawback of Civ is the Military aspect. Having a weaker military than another player puts you at a big disadvantage, and part of the combat system relies too much on luck rather than strategy. If you pull dud cards in the draw before battles, you’re all but guaranteed to lose the fight. So once another player upgrades their military, all the other players have to follow suit and do the same.

Luckily, there are two expansions to Civilization and both of them do an excellent job fixing this frustration and others, as well as balancing the game better. For example, the Wisdom and Warfare expansion adds new military unit cards with different values, and also factors in wounds on units when deciding combatant winners.

Pros

  • Captures the feel of the PC games well.

  • Various paths to victory.

  • Beautiful art and overall aesthetic.

  • Hits all four of the 4Xes very well.

Cons

  • It can be hard to keep track of all the pieces and powers, at least compared to the PC version where it’s all laid out for you.

  • The base game has a couple weaker areas, but the expansions fix these and add a new dimension.

#8 Archipelago

Archipelago is an under-the-radar semi-cooperative that offers outstanding, unique gameplay. In Archipelago, you’re brought to the shores of an inhabited island that you reveal one hex at a time. Each player has their own secret victory condition that they’re trying to achieve, while at the same time working with the other players to ensure the island natives don’t trigger a rebellion.

This means the game is cooperative and competitive at the same time. If you play too cooperatively, you may lose at the expense of another player. If you play too selfishly, you may make everyone lose.

In terms of 4x, Archipelago hits 3 of the 4 very well – the game revolves around Exploring, Expanding, and Exploiting. You can’t actually Exterminate your fellow players enough to remove them from the game, but you can certainly do enough damage and backstabbing for this game to make the list.

Adding the War and Peace expansion introduces a lot more of the Exterminating element to the game. The expansion is 40 new evolution cards that can be used to gain an advantage over other players.

Pros

  • Gorgeous artwork.

  • Complex game that combines the best of resource management, deception, cooperative, diplomacy and other types of games.

  • Plenty of action choices every turn, from harvesting or buying resources, exploring the board, taxing, hiring, reproducing citizens, building ships, the list goes on.

Cons

  • Archipelago requires a few games with the right group of players for everyone to really understand the interworking systems and semi-cooperative nature of the game.

  • Teaching/learning the game can take 30-45 minutes.

#7 Clash of Cultures

If you’ve ever played the Age of Empire video game series, Clash of Cultures will seem very familiar to you. It has a very thematic feel, covering the pre-powder period, and will make you feel like you’re playing an RTS.

Players select a race and lead their fledgling civilization to becoming an empire by exploring, building and expanding settlements, and exploiting and conquering other civilizations.

To win the game, you must secure victory points as a result of the number of skills you develop/upgrade, the number of buildings you own, objectives accomplished, winning battles, and building Wonders.

The game lasts about an hour per player, and is packed full of complexity. There’s a ton of replay value because it takes so many games to develop a solid understanding of all the different strategies and how to optimize them.

Pros

  • Checks all of the four Xes and has a map, a tech tree, culture, and trade.

  • Easy to teach, learn, and figure out the basics to play quickly. But also has enough depth that you’ll learn something new each playthrough.

  • Game components are well-made and sturdy.

Cons

  • The expansion pushes this game to even greater depths with 14 new civilizations, but unfortunately is hard to find as it’s no longer in print.

#6 Dominant Species 

Image result for dominant species

Dominant Species isn’t your stereotypical 4X game, nor is it one you’d necessarily think to include.  Most would classify it as a war euro, but it actually also contains all of the elements in a great 4X game.

Every player chooses one of six species: amphibian, arachnid, bird, insect, mammal, or reptile. Players win by achieving victory points through a variety of means: eXploring new terrain from Wanderlust, eXpanding from Speciation and Migration, eXploiting by gathering elements through Adaptation, and eXterminating through Competition and Glaciation. (Don’t worry if these terms are unfamiliar, they’re just game terms)

Sounds like a 4X to me! And just a fantastic game overall. It combines area control, worker placement, modular board, tile laying, and card drafting smoothly to create a heavy strategy game. While it can seem daunting to setup, the game is actually easy to teach and learn.

Pros

  • A great game regardless if you’re playing with 2 to 6 players.

  • You are engaged at all times with a healthy amount of tension – there isn’t any sitting around waiting. So even though the games can last 2-4 hours, the time flies by.

  • Each animal has a unique attribute but provides freedom to still play the game however you want.

  • Blends short-term tactics with long-term strategy well.

Cons

  • Some people aren’t fans of “conflict games” that involve direct attacks against other players, so just be understanding of who you play with.

#5 – Forbidden Stars

First on our list is Forbidden Stars, which is a 2-4 player space war game where players manage resources to build their troops, upgrade their units’ abilities, and set off into battle and acquire objectives.

Forbidden Stars hits just about every X – there is plenty of Expanding, Exploiting, and Exterminating. It’s light on Explore during the actual gameplay, but there is some component involved when you build the board at the start of every game.

Playing Forbidden Stars will make you feel like you’re playing a real-time strategy (RTS) game, just in a turn-based board game format. This is largely due to the way the Order System is setup, where players stack orders (advance, build, harvest, purchase upgrades) across the board that are then resolved top to bottom. Having your actions be intertwined with those of your opponents adds an interesting dynamic and layer of tension to the game.

The combat system in Forbidden Stars also adds a fair bit of strategy to the game, as it’s a nice mix of dice rolling and deckbuilding. Many strategy games fall short on this front, having combat rely solely on dice which can add too much RNG.

Pros

  • Sturdy, well designed plastic miniature pieces

  • Good balance between luck and strategy during combat. It’s very possible to win as an underdog.

  • The Order system creates fun tension and allows you to bluff, block, and stall.

  • Four unique factions, each with their own special abilities that add another strategic layer – e.g. Chaos can increase their numbers quickly, Eldar has extra mobility.

Cons

  • The game can last 3-4 hours with four players, depending on how quickly turns are.

  • Combat is a 2-player interaction, which can add some downtime for the other players.

#4 Runewars

Runewars is similar to Heroes of Might and Magic. It’s one of the only fantasy-themed 4X games out there.

In Runewars, you not only build up a military and economy, but also your Heroes. Combined with the typical aspects like resource management, diplomacy, area control, and epic battles, this game will surely satisfy your 4X itch.

One thing Runewars does differently than most games is having card decks for combat, instead of the usual dice battle system. This allows you to assess probabilities a bit better, because you can evaluate what’s already been drawn and discarded before making your move.

Pros

  • Each race has their own unique abilities, units, and different resources, all of which affect your strategy from game to game.

  • Heroes add an interesting dimension to the game.

  • It’s truly an epic game that will leave you thinking about decisions long after the game. There aren’t any other games like it.

Cons

  • Games can run a long time, from 4-6 hours with 4 players. With 2 players, games are only about 2 hours.

#3 Eclipse

Eclipse is another fantastic space themed game. Unlike Space Empires 4X, though, Eclipse feels more like a euro, while SE4X feels more like a wargame. So it depends what type of game you’re looking for when deciding which to play.

Resource management and economics are a big part of Eclipse, and the game rewards resource/engine generation moreso than epic battles and political interactions. Players have nine rounds to explore, collect resources, build ships and technologies, and other actions to accumulate the most victory points.

There are six alien races and a Human race, several paths to victory, a modular board, and a fair amount of unpredictableness that all keep the replay value high.

Pros

  • Epic, resource allocation, economy-based game.

  • Various strategies to win. It’s possible to win without ever engaging in combat if you so choose.

  • Very well-balanced.

Cons

  • Light on political diplomacy.

  • Setup can take a while.

#2 Twilight Imperium

Twilight Imperium is the go-to 4X game if you want the grandest, longest, most epic game you can get your hands on. Games can run 8-9 hours with 6 players and 4-5 hours with 4 players.

While Eclipse is all about building an economic engine, Twilight Imperium is almost the opposite – there are few economic considerations while the political and story aspect is core to the game.

Twilight Imperium is a sci-fi space opera filled with strategy, tactics, diplomacy, backstabbing, and storytelling. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you love complex strategy games and have a core group of players who are just as interested in playing the game out till the end, you’ll have a blast playing it.

Pros

  • Widely considered one of the best board games out there.

  • Lends itself well to role-playing while also being strategically complex.

  • Good balance between perfect information and random chance.

  • 17 different factions and a random board setup.

Cons

  • Games take a long time to complete.

  • You need a lot of space to play, as the board is huge and there are many parts.

#1 Space Empires 4X

Space Empires 4X is the quintessential 4X board game – it’s right there in the title. You’ll feel like you were playing Starcraft, commanding an epic military operation in space.

Compared to Twilight Imperium, Space Empires offers a similar style of gameplay that’s also more intuitive and faster to complete. This is because for every economic phase, there are three movement phases, and economic phases are completed simultaneously among players.

The coolest thing about Space Empires 4X is the fog of war mechanic, where players can hide their units and upgrades from being seen. Enemies won’t know how big your army is or what kinds of research you’ve conducted until they engage you in combat. Scouting is thus a big part of the game.

The game is well balanced, as every technology has a counter technology. Rules are simple and consistent, and everything ties together thematically. Overall, the game plays extremely smoothly for something of its grand scale.

Pros

  • Hidden information means exploring is a large aspect of the game and makes battles interesting.

  • Plays fast for a 4X game of its scale.

  • Feels like you’re playing a space RTS with warfare – exploring, mining resources, building space stations, researching technologies, etc.

Cons

  • You’ll need to do some pen and paper bookkeeping, which some players aren’t a fan of.

  • The artwork is on the more drab side, if that’s a big deal to you.

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