This was originally going to be a completely different essay, but I’ve realized it’s past time to tighten up my definitions some, so I’m not continuing having to stop and figure out/explain pieces of my foundation just so I can say something coherent. This really should have been the first post in the ‘game genre’ series. Well, second would have been acceptable.

So, now to talk about what’s been the elephant in the room, the 4X genre. Borrowing from Wikipedia:

The term “4X” originates from a 1993 preview of Master of Orion by Alan Emrich, in which he rated the game “XXXX” as a pun on the XXX rating for pornography. The four Xs were an abbreviation for “EXplore, EXpand, EXploit and EXterminate”.


While many strategy games arguably contain a similar “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” cycle, game journalists, developers and enthusiasts generally apply “4X” to a more specific class of games, and contrast 4X games with other strategy games such as Command & Conquer. Hence, writers have tried to show how 4X games are defined by more than just having each of the four Xs. Gaming sites have stated that 4X games are distinguished by their greater complexity and scale, and their intricate use of diplomacy beyond the standard “friend or foe” seen in other strategy games. Reviewers have also stated that 4X games feature a range of diplomatic options, and that they are well known for their large detailed empires and complex gameplay. In particular, 4X games offer detailed control over an empire’s economy, while other strategy games simplify this in favor of combat-focused gameplay.

The next thing to note is that I both agree with the fact that ‘4X’ adequately describes the course of a wide range of strategy games, and that I tend to define it even more narrowly than the restrictive game journalists. Because of the initial definition of “4X” with MoO, I always associated it with space conquest games. Part of this is also from the fact that the standard 4X cycle is implicit in the nature of space-based wargames. The standard idea, from Stellar Conquest and StarWeb on, is to start with one planet in a big, unknown universe, explore it, claim and settle it, build your empire into a powerful economic force, with which you can eliminate the other players and win the game.

In fact, MoO itself subverted this already existing style with its diplomatic model, and the ability of the game to end without conquest (the Galactic Council vote). For me, 4X naturally already meant games that strongly relied on this cycle without fiddling around with ‘greater complexity’ or ‘intricate diplomacy’ as differentiators, and I would indeed say those don’t make an adequate definition. Reach For the Stars is not that complex compared to many strategy games, and there is no in-game support for any diplomatic status other than ‘war’. But it is a space 4X game.

The heart of the 4X game is the interplay of discovery (explore), colonization (expand), development (exploit), and warfare (exterminate). I’ve touched on the role of colonization in some strategy games already, and should probably tackle those subjects explicitly soon.

But for the overall definition of ‘4X’: Command & Conquer (to use Wikipedia’s example) has you explore the map, and Tiberium fields are one of the things you look for. Then you send units out to get the Tiberium, and get it to your base so you can build more units to kill the enemy with. Sounds fairly 4Xish. And it is. As Wikipedia then points out, it can get hard to say many typical combat-heavy games are not 4X games without a lot of hair-splitting and tightening of definitions.

But I would say the difference is the hair-splitting of scope and emphasis. In fact, it has to be, as everything we are talking about here belongs to the general category of ‘games about being rude neighbors and wanting their stuff more than they do’ (and 4X, no matter how defined, is a subset of that). My first rough breakdown, with the genre labels I tend to like using:

  • Wargame
  • (Base-building) RTS
  • Fantasy Conquest
  • (Space) 4X
  • Empire Management
  • Civilization

There’s more, and overlap, and complications, but that’s enough to be going on with. I’ve also arranged them in something of a sliding scale with games that have detailed combat and little else at the top, and games with simple combat a lots of other detailed systems at the bottom.

There’s some strangely specific ideas mixed in with some very broad ones. Of course, these are meant to be… real genres—genres where there are a number of different games that center around similar ideas or mechanisms, even if that is a fairly lumpy distribution. The main standout from that viewpoint is wargames, which is a superset genre with a long and varied history in both board and computer games, and has plenty of sub genres, like hex-and-counter, CDG, area-impluse, and so on. The definition in this list says they are games with combat, and no real economic or diplomatic systems. Risk fits here as easily as War in the East, but Third Reich starts separating out and moving down the list. That will sound a bit strange to an old board wargamer, but helps with the more general discussion I hope to continue soon.