Sometimes there is a genre that you just don’t get. Maybe you didn’t ever play a game in the genre during your earlier years of gaming when you were used to everything being new and bewildering and needing time and energy to work out. Or maybe you played one of the weaker examples of a genre, hated it and painted the whole genre with the same brush. Maybe a specific genre only really has games on certain platforms and until recently you never had access? Whatever the reason, there are some genres that are avoided by some, one of them being the 4X genre.
What is 4X? I’m so confused…
4X is a type of strategy game where you control an entire empire. With this empire, there are four things that you will be doing or can choose to do: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. These games make use of complex systems, empire management, unit management and several interconnecting systems that let you take your empire to victory, by military, economic, technological or other means. 4X games are not short affairs due to the number of decisions you have to make and a fair amount of micromanagement but therein lies part of the allure as you learn how to take your empire to its heights and watch it flourish as you learn about medieval Europe or what could happen if we started travelling beyond our own star.
Picking your path
In most games, there is one way to win: kill the other people. Sure there are many fun ways to kill people but is it really the only way to win, or to conquer someone else? 4X offers many more options for beating your opponents and you can mix and match as you choose or based on factors like your starting location’s resources (or lack of them), your factions strengths or what you feel like, really. I often enjoy striving for a technological utopia, a land where strife, hunger and poverty are wiped out by a perpetual golden age created by my scientists. However, some nations will see your technology as a threat, or think you defenceless and weak for not focusing on military exploits. At that point, you might build a few units to defend yourself but then, you are so advanced compared to their ineffective weapons. Maybe you should rule the world instead right now, then you can pursue scientific utopia without disturbances. See how easily your path was changed mid-game? Even when I play through the game with a certain victory condition in mind for an achievement, the game reacts to what you are doing and sometimes throws a curveball at you that you need to respond to, or a situation you can exploit.
In gaming we spend a lot of time looking for the most efficient way to build our characters, to build a base, skills to use and item builds with the most efficient monster killing stats. Running an empire is no different in that you want to find the most efficient way to run your empire. Should you expand right now, or shore up defences? Which technology will give you the best benefit right now vs what will benefit you more over the long run? Should this city take 20 turns to build something that improves your research abilities, or should it improve on industry first? Because you spend time looking at these details and making decisions every turn, you don’t see a game as something that takes 500 turns, but rather focus on what you are doing right now: being efficient and finding the best way forward for your whole empire.
Experimentation and learning new things
Remember the very first time you played that new RPG? Or your first ever RPG. Everything was alien. There were strange people, strange items and acronyms and items and which way was to safety in this dungeon and which way leads to treasure and battle? You had to explore, to experiment to get ahead or just to move forward. 4X games love people that experiment, that arrive wanting to learn. Sure you can go along with what an advisor tells you to research, but sitting and reading through the various options will quickly make it apparent why a technology or building is desirable to your empire. Every time I play a 4X game I feel like I learn something new: a more efficient way through an age or a better way to build cities. In some games, you also learn a bit of history while you play too, which appeals to the side of me that love medieval history and architecture.
So much worldbuilding
In 4X games, there is often a rich story being told somewhere. Some games go for elaborate quotes with every new technology you discover. You might meet new alien races and have to learn about them, or why you use matter drivers and the enemy prefers plasma. Why does this one civilization eat people and what is this weird magic stuff in one setting? Some games even explain the various technologies you upgrade, complete with new elements in the periodic table. Everyone has a reason for being there, every technology adds a bit to the illusion of a living, breathing world.
Part city-builder, part relaxation
In a world where everything is immediate, where QTEs and precision movements are required, it is nice to find a slower pace in a turn-based game. Take time to enjoy surveying your empire. Sit back and listen to the music. Inspect the map for a nice resource or to see where there are holes in your farm network that sprawls across the continent. There is something satisfying about upgrading every single tile in the game, in making sure your empire has the best means of transport, cutting-edge researching equipment or massive factories to support your industrial empire. Just zoom in and spend a bit of time enjoying what you built, watch all those numbers get bigger.
Victory is so sweet
There is something satisfying about working against various obstacles and winning a game and 4X piles on the obstacles. A victory is something that takes a few play sessions or perhaps even a good Saturday of gaming but that is what makes it taste so sweet: the time it takes to get ripe. From games where you just know that you are going to win thanks to your awesome military, to those stressful wins where you and your opponent are rushing to complete the same goals, making you spend turns on ferreting out information on how close they are or even downright sabotaging their efforts, there is something to look forward to. Something that pushes you to play another game to feel that victory once again.
From screenshots 4X might not look like much to you, but these games offer relaxation, enjoyment, challenge, a sense of accomplishment and most of all, they keep my mind busy as I get lost in the music and the minutiae.