The term 4X goes back to the 90s with the computer game Master of Orion. In the game, you get to eXplore space, eXpand your empire, eXploit the resources and landscapes you find, and most importantly, eXterminate anything that tries to stop you.
If you missed that, 4X stands for:
Master of Orion may have coined the term, but we’re not here for digital games, we’re here for analog. Luckily, the concept of 4X games translates beautifully to the board game table and there are some amazing options out there. Your scouts can easily get lost while searching for the perfect 4X game.
? Our Top Picks for Best 4X Board Games
In a hurry? Check out our favorites below.
Fortunately for you, we’ve done the research and will be your guide. Now, let’s eXplore the best 4x board games.
#1. Clash of Cultures
Clash of Cultures seriously reminds me of the Civilization PC game almost more than the actual Civilization board game. It has literally everything you’d want from a 4X game and a Civ game.
There’s hidden fog of war tiles that need to be explored and intricate yet accessible tech tree, combat, and city and economic management.
Players start out with a single small settlement that can grow and expand, depending upon what’s built within the city.
What’s that? You don’t want to be a warlord?
Well then, build up your cultural respect so that other nations will be unable to stop you as their populace rebels from within their own cities.
It’s probably one of the best examples of 4X & Civ simulations that I’ve ever found and is a must-try for any fan of either genre.
The best part is it’s not a massive slog time-wise. You can still complete a full game of Clash of Cultures and still have time in your day to do something else.
#2. Twilight Imperium
Twilight Imperium defines space opera. It breaks the mold in every possible way.
TI is an epic space game where each player controls an entire alien race in the Imperium. The previous emperor has died and players will struggle in the power vacuum to try and fill the void.
It’s an epic struggle that usually lasts several hours as players deal with all aspects of their galactic conquest. There’s an intricate system of political intrigue throughout the board. Players will need to form alliances, backstab, and exploit the weaknesses of other warring factions. Meanwhile, you’ll need to manage the tech level and economy of your race to keep up with the power struggle.
I won’t lie, Twilight Imperium is a LOOOONG game. It’s not impossible to spend an entire day playing a single game, but for the drama, intrigue, and story that unfolds on the table, there’s no comparison.
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#3. Space Empires 4X
Don’t let the generic artwork and lack of detailed miniatures deter you.
Space Empires 4X is a hardcore space strategy game. The generic tokens indicating ships are actually pretty crucial to the combat system. The tokens are played face down so only the owning player knows exactly what’s under each token. The only way to find out is to send your own ships in to explore. It could be a teeny ship acting as a decoy or it could be a massive fleet amassing on the edge of your systems. This would be pretty impossible to do with a ton of minis on the board.
Space Empires truly puts you in control of your own galaxy. It has all 4Xs that you would want in a hardcore strategy game and it’s even written on the box. It’s got to be good, right?
#4. Tiny Epic Kingdoms
I love the Tiny Epic series. Each one is its own microgame with a unique theme. They often change up the mechanics so that every entry in the Tiny Epic series is completely different.
Each player will get a unique race with their own tech tree. The goal, as with all 4X games, is to spread out and conquer everything in your path.
I’m always blown away with the “Epicness” I get from these tiny games. The box is so small and yet there’s a lot of game jammed into each box. You can honestly never go wrong exploring a Tiny Epic board game.
You can check out our in-depth review of Tiny Epic Galaxies here.
#5. Civilization: A New Dawn
I think my first 4X computer game was Civilization. I probably sank countless hours into that game with its various versions.
Luckily for me, it’s been adapted to a board game, and New Dawn is the latest version. They’ve tightened up the rules from the previous 2010 Civilization board game and made it much more approachable while still keeping all of the strategy you’d expect from a 4X Civ game.
Players will be able to pick from their favorite historical leader/ruler/tyrant and grow their initial settlement into a sprawling empire. Complete with all of the wonders and rage-inducing roving barbarians that you’ve come to know and love from the Civilization series.
If you’re a fan of the series than A New Dawn will be a welcome addition to your collection.
- Offers new, streamlined form of gameplay
- Multiple paths of victory offer unique strategy opportunity
- Expansive game engages both new and experienced players
Impulse is a minimalist’s dream when it comes to board games. The entire game is basically a deck of cards and some space minis. Surprisingly though, Impulse packs as much 4X strategy into the box as many fancy, overproduced games.
Players start with their empire on the edge of the hexagonal board made up of cards and from there, send out their ships and traders to expand their empire.
Impulse uses an interesting mechanic in which players use a shared card pool in addition to their hand. Players will need to balance adding cards that are beneficial to them, while simultaneously trying to hinder their opponents.
For a small box card game, Impulse offers a ton of gameplay.
#7. March Of The Ants
March Of The Ants reminds me of the old school Super Nintendo game SimAnt. March Of The Ants hits every single 4X strategy element.
Players take control of a colony of ants on a farm and eXplore/eXpand their colony’s influence over the farm. It’s a breath of fresh air to have a family-friendly theme other than SPACE WARS, but I may be biased from my Super Nintendo nostalgia days. Don’t worry, the 4X space fans will still find some familiar elements… I mean, there’s still wormholes.
The game itself offers plenty of strategic opportunities and it’s on the simpler side for rules. It’s perfect for family game night. Although direct confrontation is built-in, it isn’t 100% necessary to victory.
- Package Dimensions: 6.858 H x 28.956 L x 21.082 W (centimetres)
- 70 minute playing time
- Package Weight: 2.799 pounds
#8. Alien Artifacts
Alien Artifacts is another card-based 4X strategy game. It has everything you’d want from an epic space game: ship combat, researching technologies, alien civilizations, and of course, raiding and expanding empires.
It uses a unique double-sided card mechanic to add an insane amount of strategy. Each card has 2 sides that either give an immediate bonus or an ongoing bonus throughout the game. It’s pretty straightforward at the beginning but after the first few rounds, players will be strategizing with counters and counters to those counters… might as well throw in a backup plan with a third feint, just in case.
- Provides a true 4x experience in under an hour
- With over two hundred cards, Alien artifacts offers players many...
- Easy to learn and fast to play
#9. Empires of the Void II
Ok, so I may get some flack for putting Empires of the Void II on here. It’s more of a 3.14X game instead of 4X.
There’s eXploration, eXploitation, eXpansion, and combat. The game has a very tight ruleset but the game is designed to have players skirmish and battle throughout space without exactly eXterminating other players. Combat is necessary but you won’t see the overwhelming behemoth fleet swarm through to clear the board.
What it does offer is an awesome management/civilization building mechanism with a lot of replayability.
Overall, it’s an excellent game that fulfills most expectations you’d have of a 4X game, minus the brutal eXtermination bits.
#10. Heroes of Land, Air & Sea
I’m surprised that there aren’t more fantasy-themed 4X games out there. It seems like there should be a lot more than there are.
Heroes of Land, Air & Sea is another 4X edition from Gamelyn Games and pits players against each other using orcs, dwarves, elves, and humans.
It has an overall more light-hearted feel than some of the other games but still packs some serious X’s when it comes to gameplay.
Players are able to build up their technology using an interesting mix of worker placement and economic building. Players can supplement their economy by using their peons to help build and produce resources since they won’t be able to do all of that eXploring and eXterminating if they’re at home working.
It brings a breath of fresh air to the genre with solid mechanics in a fantasy setting.
- For 1-4 Players. Ages 14+
- 30 minute playing time
- Includes 80 detailed miniatures and cardboard constructs
#11. Master of the Galaxy
Master of the Galaxy sounds like a late-80’s cartoon, and to be honest, the designers took a lot of inspiration from classic sci-fi and space-fantasy. It’s one of the prettier boards I’ve seen and I really enjoy the artwork direction they chose.
There are 9 races to choose from, inspired by all manner sci-fi lore, and there are multiple paths to victory.
Players can attempt to expand faster and place all 9 of their pieces on the board, collecting 5 matching supremacy symbols from planets, or taking over an opponent’s home planet to win.
Each one is a viable path to victory.
Master of the Galaxy does have a unique mechanic that others on this list don’t have. Resources from your empire are represented by color-coded cubes that are placed in a bag. Each turn players will pull blindly from the bag to get resources. This definitely changes up tactics and has players trying to remember who has what resources leftover in their bags.
- A fast-playing 4X board game of space empires
- Officially Licensed
- 2-4 Players | Ages 13+
#12. Star Trek: Ascendancy
Another space-themed 4X (I know) but this time it’s borrowing some street cred from Star Trek IP.
In this 3-way galactic brawl, players take control of the Federation, Klingons, or Romulans.
This Star Trek 4X game plays heavily on the exploration side of the Xs. There’s a lot of new systems to explore and it’s one of the most fluid examples of exploration in a game.
The one really odd part about Ascendency is the player count. It’s specifically for 3 players. Not 2 or 4 but exactly 3 players can play this game. This limits a lot of groups so although it’s an excellent 4X game, it may not hit the table as often as it should.
Intrigued? Check out our full review of Star Trek: Ascendancy before you buy!
- Contains 3 iconic races: Federation, Romulan and Klingon Empire...
- Each race has 33 ships and 3 fleet markers
- 45 card exploration deck
#13. Dominant Species
Dominant Species breaks from the norm a bit by having a completely different theme. Players will control one of 6 animal classes: mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, arachnid, or insect.
Players will fight for supremacy before the ice age hits in earnest. Although it’s not 100% a 4X game, I still wanted to include Dominant Species on the list. It’s a great blend of area control and 4X.
I really like the evolution/adaptation mechanics of the game and it still feels like your trying to wipe out (or seriously hinder) the other species. It’s such a unique theme and game that it had to be on the list.
Intrigued? Check out our full review here.
Archipelago is another mashup of genres that ends up being a 3.14X kind of game. Players will take on the roles of European explorers during the Renaissance.
There’s a host of islands and locations to explore, along with objectives, hidden objectives, and the battle for economic dominance. This has the best player interaction of any of the games on this list, as players will be constantly negotiating and dealing with their fellow players.
The only X it’s really missing is the eXtermination factor. You’ll be able to get in each other’s faces, but outright extermination isn’t really in the game.
- Modular game with vast possibilities
- A semi-cooperative game by Christophe Boelinger (Dungeon Twister,...
- The possibility of choosing the length of your game - from 30...
#15. Forbidden Stars
Of course, Games Workshop made a 4X game. Why wouldn’t they?
Forbidden Stars doesn’t quite hit all of the X’s but it’s a fantastic game to add to your collection. The only real aspect missing is eXploration. The board is built at the beginning of the game and stays relatively static throughout.
Forbidden Stars is set in the 40k universe and players control 1 of 4 iconic factions.
- Space Marines
- Chaos Marines
Each faction plays a little differently, but possibly the most interesting aspect of this game is the objectives. Instead of simply building an infinite replicating engine that spits out a wall of ships, players will notice that the big point bonuses in-game are all from objective cards.
Once completed, they’re done and you can move on to the next. This creates plenty of opportunities for players to change up the traditional 4X strategy. You’ll see more hit-and-run tactics and once the objective is complete you don’t need to hold on to it for the whole game.
It’s not uncommon for players to brawl over contention of a planet only to have it completely abandoned a few turns later. It makes for a very thematic and fluid gaming experience.
#16. Runewars (Revised Edition)
There’s a lot of space-themed games on this list, so if you’re feeling more of a fantasy vibe, Runewars will have you conquering in style.
Runewars is from the same universe as Descent from FFG. The 4X game is not to be confused with the new miniatures game of the same name. They’re both completely different but share the same name. I have no idea what their marketing department was thinking that day.
Runewars is an epic strategy game with layers and layers of depth. It’ll be around the 3rd game where you start to really feel like you got the game down. Around your 10th game, you’ll realize that this thing goes down way deeper than you originally thought.
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- Playing Time: 2–3 hours
That should be enough exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination to last the rise and fall of several empires.
The best 4X board games tend to be very long and require a lot of micromanagement but we’ve tried to include the whole lineup of styles and genres so that anybody can experience an amazing 4X game.
Did your favorite game not make our list? We’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.