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The 6 Best Strategy Games for 4X Fans

February 11, 2024 • Devin Partida

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The best strategy games come in numerous formats. Experience the JRPG-infused Fire Emblem, or the classic puzzle of chess. There is a diverse range, but 4X strategy fans want a more complex, nuanced experience in their video games. These top-tier offerings are the pinnacle of tactical, immersive gameplay for dedicated fans of the genre.

What Is 4X vs. Grand Strategy?

Before diving into the games our team chose, we must define a few niche terms in the strategy gaming world. The most common words thrown around are 4X and grand strategy, which contain real-time strategies (RTSs) and turn-based systems. Are they interchangeable? Not quite. 

The umbrella of 4X strategy has precise criteria. Every 4X game contains these qualities relating to the win conditions:

  • Explore
  • Expand
  • Exploit
  • Exterminate

It’s reasonably straightforward and indicative of how players will progress through their narratives. You’ll have to look around the map to familiarize yourself with the world and its civilizations — whether in space or a fantasy world. Grab new territories and make the world your own in the expansion phase. Gain resources and take control to eventually defeat adversaries for domination. 

gaming computer setup

Other connotations with 4X strategy games include their high learning curve and scale. Many 4X games require hours of practice and study to understand the nitty-gritty inner workings, which turns away many casual gamers unfamiliar with the gameplay scope. Strategizing requires patience and expertise.

Does this not sound like a grand strategy? It does, because they are also complex. In fact, grand strategy is typically called a subset of 4X games. The primary differences are a tendency toward asymmetrical gameplay and slower-moving turns. The details are even more granular and structured than other 4X games with greater malleability. Grand strategies require even more planning to garner consistent success.

Now that we are clear on these terms, we can explore what each of the best strategy games in this category offers.

Age of Wonders Series

Platforms: PC, Playstation, Xbox (depending on the entry)
Developer: Triumph
Categories: Turn-based, fantasy or space (depending on the entry)
Released in: Started in 1999

Age of Wonders has explored its range to fantasy and sci-fi settings, and no matter where it goes, you know you’re going on quite the adventure. Its defining art style encapsulates an engrossing and unbelievable experience that puts a spin on traditional mythical races and behaviors. Like many 4X games, Age of Wonders has a robust modding community to make the game as expansive as you desire for infinite replayability.

Stellaris

Platforms: PC, PlayStation
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Categories: RTS, grand strategy, space
Released in: 2016

Strap in because Stellaris is one of history’s most intricately designed games. This sci-fi masterpiece is a masterclass in building an all-encompassing galactic empire. It covers a gamut of beloved tropes and narratives of space-themed media while giving players enough sandbox-like freedom to micromanage and traverse the universe.

You’ll need a stellar graphics card — pun intended — to get the most out of this visual stunner of a game. Thankfully, plenty out there are high-powered yet more affordable than the most recommended, recent releases that are probably on backorder, anyway.

Sid Meier’s Civilization Series

Platforms: PC, Playstation, Xbox, Nintendo DS (depending on the entry)
Developer: MicroProse, Activision, Firaxis (depending on the entry)
Categories: Turn-based, historical or space (depending on the entry)
Released in: Started in 1991

Civilization has had numerous titles and spin-offs in its time, but it is quite possibly the most well-known turn-based strategy in history. Every mainline title explores new ways to interact with civilization building, including facing natural disasters in Civ 6. You become emotionally invested in your budding communities and cultures of choice through its numerous win-cons, including:

  • Diplomacy
  • Domination
  • Religion
  • Culture
  • Science

After every turn, you’ll consider taking another, as the satisfaction of generating even more resources or making even more enemies keeps the adrenaline flowing.

Crusader Kings Series

Platform: PC
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Categories: Grand strategy, middle ages or medieval (depending on the entry)
Released in: Started in 2004

Like many 4X games on this list, subsequent entries get even more polished and comprehensive. Seeing the original CK game turn into the marvel of Crusader Kings III would make anyone curious about what it’s like to rule as a medieval noble. The political intrigue, warfare and dramatic storytelling make CK special compared to other 4X games — perhaps because of its atypical setting. Regardless, creating a coveted legacy will take time and governance.

Total War: Warhammer Series

Platform: PC
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Categories: Grand strategy, fantasy
Released in: Started in 2016

Even if you don’t play the world’s most recognized tabletop wargame, you can still enjoy the legendary lore of Total War. Traverse domains of the Chaos gods, engage in tower defense, go to every corner of its monstrous map and befriend — or destroy — every faction. 

Good luck with this, especially since war is in the name — it’s probably what you will spend most of your time doing. It will take ages to discover everything this game offers, from its objectives to playable lords, so be grateful for the game’s extensive multi-hour tutorial. 

person in a gaming chair playing video games

Distant Worlds Series

Platform: PC
Developer: CodeForce
Genre: RTS, space
Released in: Started in 2010

Who likes pausable real-time strategy? Distant Worlds is another space-themed empire builder with some excellent quality-of-life inclusions compared to other 4X games. Some players find micromanaging their civilizations taxing, tedious and altogether unpleasant. Distant Worlds allows players to organize fleets and pursue attacks while automating research or designing ships. For those not ready to take on a Stellaris-level beast, you might consider Distant Worlds.

Today’s Best Strategy Games

There are plenty of other fantastic strategy games out there. A few we didn’t mention include XCOM 2, Starcraft II, Europa Universalis IV, Sins of the Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations. There are many incredible games to break your brain for gamers longing for the ultimate strategizing experience. The 4X world is complex, but once you get sucked in, it’s hard to get out. What do you think are the best entries into the genre? 



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