Fancy embarking on a grand campaign of total domination? Video game strategy enthusiasts have been enjoying 4X games for decades, but the epic-tier genre isn’t exclusive to the world of pixels. EXploration, eXpansion, eXtermination and eXploitation – the four Xs from which the genre takes its name – have also found a home on the tabletop, even if the genre may appear a little impenetrable at first glance.
Best 4X board games
- Twilight Imperium
- Civilization: A New Dawn
- Clash of Cultures
- Tiny Epic Kingdoms
- Space Empires 4X
- Through the Ages
- Ascending Empires
For comparison, think of video games like Civilization, Age of Wonders or Sins of a Solar Empire. Big, bulging and often knotty games that invite shrewd tactical thinking and demand hours of time. They all follow a similar premise: grow and develop a burgeoning empire, civilization or people, while encountering uncharted lands and dealing with rival inhabitants as you go. On the tabletop, it’s much the same, and there are a few titles that stand out from the rest.
Our pick of the best 4X board games runs the gamut of the genre. You’ll find the typical sprawling epics that soak up hours of playtime (and a good chunk more if you’re to read their rulebooks), alongside slimmer picks that capture the heart of the genre in a few quick rounds. Even if you’re not a veteran strategist, don’t worry – the greenest commanders will find something that eXcites them.
1. Twilight Imperium
The best 4X board game to soak up an evening
4X board games don’t get much bigger, or lauded, than this. An enormous game of galactic conquest, Twilight Imperium might best be thought of as Fantasy Flight Games’ answer to Dune. Mixing diplomatic manoeuvrings, economic management, political machinations and the odd military spree, it's space opera writ large, with all the taxing rules you might expect.
Taking control of one of 17 factions, your challenge is to claim hegemony of the galaxy by extending your reach across star systems, harrying your opponent’s economic and political forces, and completing objectives to seize the throne of the wonderfully named imperial homeworld Mecatol Rex. Games are long (think anywhere between six and 12 hours) and the rulebook intimidatingly thick. But invest enough time, and you’ll be rewarded with an engrossing sci-fi experience that offers immense player freedom and differs each time you play. Twilight Imperium takes the depth of 4X board games to its peak.
A digestible but grand sci-fi epic
Take a look at Eclipse’s grand sci-fi theme, hexagonal space tiles and heaps of plastic tokens, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re staring at another version of Twilight Imperium. But despite their surface similarities, Eclipse offers a distinct experience.
Again, you take control of a human or alien civilization with dreams of territorial domination. Technology must be researched, political players influenced and industries built to facilitate your journey across the stars. Managing your limited pool of resources takes on central importance, as you reactively deal with your opponents while expanding your own engine of growth.
Not quite as crunchy or cognitively overbearing as Twilight Imperium, Eclipse is more intuitive to pick up and can be played in a shorter time. Spaceship combat rules are particularly granular, but the game rolls you into the action from the get-go, buoying your galactic conquest with a constant sense of momentum.
3. Civilization: A New Dawn
The latest official tabletop take on Sid Meier’s Civilization
Sid Meier’s Civilization series has become something of the heavyweight champion of 4X video games, but its tabletop adaptations have also made a name for themselves. The latest of them, Civilization: A New Dawn, is perhaps the most novel of the lot.
Much of the game will be familiar to fans of the video game series. You’ll lead a newly found country to uncover hidden map tiles and establish cities to accumulate resources. Barbarians are sprinkled across the map, city-states are available to trade with and a tech tree imitates that of the original game. Shorter than many other 4X board games, it achieves a nicely balanced level of depth that makes learning it intuitive, but mastering it a joy.
Don’t expect a straightforward adaptation, though. Civilization: A New Dawn is remarkably streamlined in places, fostering the sense of its video game namesake in a neater package better suited for the tabletop.
4. Clash of Cultures
The best 4X board game for Sid Meier’s Civilization fans
A more faithful tabletop adaptation of the Civilization video games than the officially licensed board games, Clash of Cultures has you grow an ancient settlement into a blossoming metropolis. Hexagonal territory cards are revealed gradually as you discover the map, hidden objective cards will chart the development of your civilization, and great wonders must be constructed to get the edge over your enemies.
Throw in the heaps of plastic minis, and more granular concepts like city size and civilization leader abilities, and Clash of Cultures starts to feel just as complex as its digital stablemate. An elegant turn system that eliminates downtime helps push the game forward, while an equal focus on cultural and economic development as conquest makes it one of the more comprehensive 4X games around. The closest you can get to Sid Meier’s Civilization in a board game.
5. Tiny Epic Kingdoms
The best 4X board game with a short playtime
Crammed in a pocket-sized box, Tiny Epic Kingdoms is proof that 4X board games can be small but mighty. Played with only a handful of cards, counters and tokens, it’s quick to play and smooth to pick up.
Taking control of various warring kingdoms, each player races to earn victory points by constructing towers, expanding their population and researching magical inventions. Turns are simple, handing you a small array of actions, and while you’ve often difficult decisions to make, Tiny Epic Kingdoms leans into player interaction. Don’t expect reams of strategic depth, but for a 4X board game that newer players can quickly enjoy, and one that doubles as a nice warm-up game, it ticks all the right boxes.
6. Space Empires 4X
The best combat-heavy 4X board game
Ginormous, granular and not in the least bit easy on the eyes, Space Empires places a strong emphasis on the extermination quarter of 4X. Combat is key, and while much exploration, expansion and exploitation are to be had, victory can only ultimately be achieved by vaporising your opponents in fleet battles.
Yet rather than getting bogged down in endless naval skirmishes, Space Empires moves briskly. Combat is relatively simple next to other hex-and-counter games, and the emphasis placed on movement means the shape of the map can change surprisingly fast. Diplomacy and resource-gathering take a back seat, and at times Space Empires feels more like a wargame than a traditional 4X board game. That’s no bad thing if you don’t mind handling lots of fiddly tokens.
The best abstract 4X board game
Another entry in the field of diminutive 4X board games, Homeworlds ditches the board entirely for an abstract showdown of colourful plastic pyramids. Each player takes command of an interstellar fleet (represented by said pyramids) to discover and claim new star systems (also represented by the pyramids) in a quickfire race of geometric domination.
Turns follow a simple flow of constructing, trading, moving or attacking, but are made all the more difficult by the claustrophobic size of the play area. With a limited pool of pieces to pull from, and each colour and size of pyramid providing different abilities, Homeworlds is as much about anticipating the moves of your opponent as it is implementing a carefully laid plan.
Of course, what really makes it stand out is its size and abstraction. The slim rulebook won’t take you long to pick through, but understanding its intricacies will only come with time. Easy to learn, hard to master - and all the better for it.
8. Through the Ages
The best 4X board game that doesn’t look like a 4X board game
Another weighty civilization builder, Through the Ages shakes things up by wrapping all the hallmarks of a historical 4X board game – technological advancement, resource-gathering and military stand-offs – around the mechanics of a Eurogame (think competitive, strategy-heavy games with little luck or direct player engagement). There’s no central board to march across, there’s little in the way of player interactivity and most actions are performed through card play.
More focus is therefore placed on building your country’s industrial engine, while a cutthroat resource management system forces you to make hard choices on what to spend and what to let go. As you progress, you’re handed more abilities and optimisation dilemmas, aping the feeling of an ever-growing empire brought down by its own bloated expansion.
While its playtime might seem long relative to your average Eurogame, two hours is a quick jolly next to board gaming’s 4X titans. A great pick for anyone who wants to experience the thrill of a 4X epic within a more unusual system.
9. Ascending Empires
A 4X board game of flicking your way across the stars
Are board games improved by hamfisted hands-on fighting systems? Ascending Empires certainly suggests so. A sci-fi empire builder that challenges you to expand your space-based domain, it mixes the usual staples of 4X with a simple but effortlessly fun dexterity mechanic. To navigate the stars, you must flick small starship tokens across the board, carefully nudging them into the firing distance of opposing forces. Flick too hard, however, and you risk a fatal direct hit, but go too softly and you may miss your mark entirely.
Besides counter catapulting, you’ll be distributing troops across planets to mine them for resources, constructing cities and capturing different coloured systems to expand your abilities. Turns are quick and games are short, making it one of the more accessible 4X board games out there. Unfortunately, Ascending Empires has been out of print for the past several years and is difficult to find in stores. If you spy it secondhand, pick it up for its original genre mash-up.