The 4X board games genre is one of the most popular in the hobby. While it may be daunting to newcomers, it’s also one of the most rewarding. The term was coined in the 90s and it owes much to the video gaming which began using it generously.
To understand the meaning of 4X, you simply need to look for pretty much any game that allows you to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. All of these factors must be met for a game to be considered a fully-fleshed member of the genre.
Today, we take a look at the best 4X board games that have created some of the most successful designs and mechanics incorporated into the tabletop hobby. While originating in computer games, you can rest assured that 4X does board games credit.
List of the Best 4X Board Games
- Twilight Imperium
- Imperial Brazil
- Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition
- Space Empires 4X
- Forbidden Stars
- Dominant Species
- Empires of the Void II
- March of the Ants
- Europa Universalis: The Price of Power
- Dominant Species Marine
- Eclipse: Second Dawn
- Alien Artifacts
- Rise of Tribes
- Northgard: Uncharted Lands
- Heroes of Land, Air & Sea
- Master of the Galaxy
- Star Trek Ascendancy
1. Twilight Imperium
Twilight Imperium is what many love to call the defining 4X game. A bit of a hench in terms of playtime, this galactic power struggle can easily draw out for hours. Frankly, this is one of its charms. The designers give the total play time as anything between 240-480, so if you are looking for the ultimate 4X showdown – this is it.
Twilight Imperium may only be played with 3 to 6 players, and while all of this seems a bit much, the trade-off in terms of satisfaction, completeness, and depth of the experience is significant. Players take over an alien race which aspires to conquer the Imperium. The former Emperor has died, and his job is up for grabs.
Twilight Imperium is also no fresh phenomenon in tabletop games or the 4X genre. The first edition was released in 1997, and the fourth one, which is the latest as of 2023 – was introduced in 2017. In a word, TI is a bonafide four X’s game and one that you definitely must have on your shelve or try at least once.
2. Imperial Brazil
Imperial Brazil is a game published in 2021 and therefore one of the freshest attempts at the 4X genre. The game centres around the great colonial struggle of powers of bygone ages which took over Brazil and vied for prestige, influence, and subjugating the locals for the conquerors’ gain.
As part of this same experience, you will play as one of the great monarchs and seek to construct buildings, explore lands, trade with your opponents, and manage resources skillfully to advance your faction at the expense of rivals.
Once again, you are aspiring to rule over the entirety of this fictional world, and the title of Brazilian Emperor awaits the player who manages to build an era of peace, freedom and prosperity for the people. Of course, as a true 4X game, you need not guarantee any freedom, prosperity or peace to your subjects as you seek ascendcy to the throne.
3. Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition
Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition is a rerelease of the 2012 edition, and its subsequent expansions, incorporated in one hefty box. What you get in there is an inexhaustible variety of armies, civilizations, leaders, and buildings, as you seek to leverage the advantages of your faction in what is often hailed as one of the greatest 4X board games of all times.
The game will have you collect resources, deploy your leaders to secure some unique advantage that can protect you from invading players, fend off the roaming non-character barbarians, or assist you in conquering new lands yourself.
Combining both elements of civilization and 4X board games, Clash of Cultures excels at both experiences, making a lasting impression. Despite its heavy nature in terms of gameplay, the game is easy to teach and understand, and its rulebook makes for an easy and intuitive reference guide to help catch you up on any elusive detail.
Clash of Culture: Monumental Edition also balances well in terms of playtime you may put with skilful and war-bent players able to quicken the pace and add intrigue and variety to this streamlined board game design.
4. Space Empires 4X
Great, as if we did not have enough of space already. Well, we did not, but you are about to – almost. Lots of 4X board games are about space exploration, but we have only listed those that take on the theme and introduce compelling core mechanics and freshness. This is where Space Empires 4X comes in.
The game was released in 2011 and it was an immediate success and an important turning point for the genre as well. While Twilight Imperium could be seen as intimidating because of its length and complexity, Space Empires 4X board game focused on keeping things relatively simple and focused.
Space Empires 4X saved on production by using cardboard instead of plastic, but the quality is superb nevertheless, and the overall time it takes to play through is low for the genre with 180 minutes. The game can be played solo and with up to four players, introducing you to a true Space Odyssey.
5. Forbidden Stars
Forbidden Stars is a 4X board game with a militaristic taste enriched by the highly-thematic nature of the game. Designed by Samuel Bailey for 2-4 players and playing between 120-180 minutes, this is a game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and one of the few board games to have appealed to the fussy lot that are Warhammer fans.
Forbidden Stars is the intersection where war gamers, miniatures fans, and true board game buffs come together to… fight to the death. Beautifully sculpted and designed, the board game is a perfect example of a 4X game that leans more heavily on the war aspect but makes sure that the others X’s are well-represented and available.
The backstory is also fantastic, which has always been the signature style of the entire Warhammer Franchise. The only protest we have about this game is that it’s so hard to get. Gamers Workshop and Fantasy Flight Games ended their marriage rather abruptly, leaving Bailey with a designed but unfinished expansion for the game that never came to be.
6. Dominant Species
It’s nature’s apex predators, baby, and they are getting hungry.
This Ice Age prelude of a 4X board game was released way back – not in 90,000 BC when the game events are taking place – but in 2010, is one of the top experiences in the genre you could ask for.
Dominant Species is about the survival of the fittest in a game where animals vie to adapt to the rapidly changing climate, procreate, and admittedly – not become food for a rival species.
Players dive into the gameplay assuming the role of one of the species they want to play, including mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, arachnid, or insect and then make their choices to become the “dominant species” of the game.
Propagating your species will earn you points, so there are a lot of tactical choices to be made here and in a word, it’s no surprise that this 4X board game – thematic outlier as it is – is a fantastic example of the genre.
Impulse is an important addition to the 4X genre and one that arrived when this type of board game was only getting started. The game is minimalistic, easily portable, and makes the best use of its components by fitting everything in a small portable box along with 30-60 minutes of playtime, which makes it a perfect way to introduce people to the hobby that is 4X board gaming.
The key difference with other games is that exploration happens as 2-6 players hop from one space sector – represented by a card – to another. There are also up to ten possible actions which give the game its variety, depth and that fear of making the wrong decision. Yet, Impulse plays easily and you focus on building a powerful armada of ships that is capable of destroying your opponents’.
Players seek to constantly add to their numbers as they down enemy ships of any faction that crosses their path, collecting glory points and racing to hit 20 points before any of the other players.
8. Empires of the Void II
We all go our separate ways and this is the base premise of Empires of the Void II where 2-5 players set off for the fringes of the galaxy and seek to reestablish society, with each player doing so in their own way. While factions parted on amicable terms, competition for resources, territories and sectors intensifies, setting empires on a collision course.
Sooner or later, you run into others who are keen to expand their boundaries and control over the galaxy, and this is where conflicts flares up. As a powerful empire, you also seek to conquer local species which will ally with you and bestow various advantages to your economic and military ascendancy.
The game has a vibrant trading and economy aspect, but it equally expects players to stand their ground against opponents, pirates, and marauders, and deal with other calamities large civilizations face – including pandemics and resource scarcity. A distinctly different 4X board game, Empires of the Void II is a worthy addition to the genre to explore.
9. March of the Ants
March of the Ants is a successful reimagination of the 4X theme which is mostly reserved for long-drawn space battles. No more, as designers, Tim Eisner and Ryan Swisher have found inspiration in one of the fiercest warrior species on earth – ants.
Players get to vie against each other in this epic 4X game where the battle rages on so that only the ant nest may remain. You control your ant colony and invade your enemies, prepare more warriors to bolster your expansion, and breed larvae to strengthen your military and economic might.
Ants even discover new ways to mutate and evolve so that they gain advantages over competing nests and lay merciless devastations on their opponents. The game finds a lot of inspiration in entomology which makes it doubly rewarding, and while it appears a wee bit different and more abstract than most 4X board games on the market, it’s all tight together by a sound scientific principle.
10. Europa Universalis: The Price of Power
This is our second 4X board game inspired by a video game, and it’s a hench. Europa Universalis means business with its 90-300-minute playtime and 1-4 player setup. The game is definitely on the heavier side of the genre, and without a doubt one of the most complicated ones to learn, teach others and even find people to come along on your journey across the Dark Ages where every nation faces its unique challenges – and opportunities.
Unlike other games where you want to precipitate yourself in open military conflict, here you will need to skillfully navigate the political landscape of the times with ploys, striking meaningful alliances and furthering your kingdom’s strength and position. When the time comes, though, you will also need to march out and meet others on the battlefield – or bite a piece out of a waning kingdom.
Control over provinces and regions can be quickly lost and there is no telling whether your neighbors won’t decide to gang up on you and seek to put an end to your lineage and kingdom. The expansion of the game adds two more players for a total of 6. This one is a major undertaking, though, so make sure that you have fellow 4X gamers who truly enjoy the title and are eager to plunge into the intricacies of Dark Ages politics, plotting and intrigues.
11. Dominant Species Marine
For those of you who can hardly get a copy of the original published in 2010, we have some good news! Dominant Species: Marine is back after 11 years of waiting. Published in 2021 by the original designer, Chad Jensen, you will plunge to the deepest depths of the oceans and encounter odd and dangerous species.
Just like their earth-dwelling counterparts, these species want to survive and spread across ocean floors and, if evolution would have its funny way – beyond. The game is set after the end – or rather – towards the end of the ice age, but the mechanics are all about the 4X board games genre.
You get to play as reptiles, fish, cephalopod or crustacean, and this game is scaled down to four players unlike the original, but it’s still an epic survival tale where the 4X mechanics is implemented in a unique and highly-imaginative & rewarding way.
Runewars is another acclaimed blast of the past with the game originally released in 2010 as a base game, and a revised edition arriving in 2013. Since then, there have been a number of expansions and additions to keep the core gameplay alive and thriving.
Yet, Runewars is a true 4X board game that stands very well on its own and without any extra frillery. As the game puts it, you are in a world of fantasy and constant contention where you will have to conquest, adventure, raise armies, and defeat any of the opposing and standing players.
It’s a sort of Middle Earth meets Mage Knight: Ultimate Edition sort of thing that makes us very keen to keep coming back to this game. Balance works nicely, and the miniatures are excellent, notwithstanding the telltale marks of manufacturing back in the late 2000s.
At the centre of this conflict is control over the “dragon runes” that will bring power, fame and prosperity to the warring faction that wins in the end, but there could only be one survivor. Runewars takes the best filaments of fantasy story-telling and pours it generously into the gameplay of this 4X board game delight.
13. Eclipse: Second Dawn
Eclipse Second Dawn is one of the persisting 4X board games and part of the genre’s canon. Without Eclipse, the entire 4X mechanic will be all the poorer, but don’t you worry.
The game has already had multiple reprints, it’s always found in stock and major hobby shops, and is under constant revision and improvement. A major update is released once in five or so years, with a few small optional bits and bobs you may pick along the way.
But hold on, what is Eclipse: Second Dawn? Well, it’s a game of space exploration and civilization building, which uses discovery tokens, travels, and not so much fighting as posturing and threatening the other factions to stay at bay and not engage in battle.
In a way, Eclipse: Second Dawn is more heavily focused on the economy and focuses on what is usually a showdown, although more aggressive playstyles do succeed if played right. You get to build ships, collect resources, and pivot your strategy based on unique technological ties and trees.
The game was released in 2018 and got a great expansion that introduced a very strong automa in 2020. The Rise of Tribes: The Vul’Keth Invasion expansion is a great way if you have always wanted to try a 4X game solo, and guarantees to add to the experience. We love how the theme of early civilizations going to war has been captured in the original, though, and strongly recommend it.
14. Alien Artifacts
We are back at – you guessed correctly – space-themed 4X board games! Alien Artifacts is a board game developed with a very strong focus on exploration and resource management, and while the other X’s are present, they are designed to ensure that the first two primary objectives can be carried out beyond the grabby hands of opposing factions.
The game scales nicely with the player count and adds more variety while playing very fast – just 60 minutes. You develop powerful ships that allow you to attack aliens and pilfer their technology and valuables, as you also conduct skilful trade and try to maintain peace with other powerful factions.
The game is less focused on player annihilation, which is refreshing, and more so on raiding unwitting alien ships which thought they were out for a routine flight… well, they are for a rather rude awakening when they encounter you!
15. Rise of Tribes
Rise of Tribes is a unique addition to the 4X genre, focusing on specific Euro elements, but delivering every X on the list. The game will have your tribe conquer prehistoric society and establish yourself as the dominant faction relying on vigorous civilization built in what can often be hostile environments and under the constant pain of being invaded by your belligerent neighbors.
You continue to build villages across the game and strengthen your borders before you decide to push out and go on the offensive against your opponents when they are at their weakest. The game further uses a unique variety of dice and cards to resolve various actions, add variety, and admittedly add just a wee bit of uncertainty to spice things up.
Voidfall is another game set in space, with Dune vibes written all over it – not Dune the game, but Dune the franchise. Similar to Twilight Imperium, this is a world where different houses vie to accumulate wealth and influence over their lesser.
And if you are in the space-faring business, you will pretty much think anyone is your lesser. The designers, Nigel Buckle and Dávid Turczi, have focused on crafting a powerful title that is tailored to appeal to 4X gamers but also Euro enthusiasts.
Voidfall is big on player interaction, tension and in-depth empire customization that lets you choose your unique path amongst the stars. Plus, the designers have promised that this is a game of pure luck and strategy where the roll of the die will not save you and when entering combat, you already know if you will win.
Yet, this is a 4X game that is ambitious hoping to add more to the genre and become one of its lasting pillars.
17. Northgard: Uncharted Lands
Originally an adaptation from the namesake video game, Northgard: Uncharted Lands is an interesting take on the 4X genre with the added twist of deck-building, which has got overwhelmingly positive responses.
The game has a lightsome cartoonish look which is nevertheless bolstered by the fantastic art and the Viking and Scandinavian theme. Uncharted Lands is about all four X’s of the genre, with fights proving somewhat forgiving and your Vikings scurrying across territories to attack or retreat.
Northgard: Uncharted Lands is refreshing in more than one way as it uses non-player characters, known as great animals, that have their unique abilities and add variety, challenges and opportunities to the base game. There is also the Warchief expansion to that add even more to this beautiful take at 4X. Do not let the light theme of the art fool you – this is a game of the cut-throat competition.
We find the 4X board game genre to be well-represented here. The game itself is a great way to get more people involved, and a worthy overall addition to the collection of serious games as well.
18. Heroes of Land, Air & Sea
Heroes of Land, Air & Sea is set to arguably appeal to a more casual audience where the powers may have their own of manifesting devastating victory over the opponents. Strategy is all very well until you are faced with powerful spells that blitz through even the most clever composition of forces.
But this minor criticism aside, Heroes of Land, Air & Sea is a beautifully-crafted high-quality product set in what discreetly appears to be the Warcraft universe. Humans, dwarves, and elves fight to secure control over the land and advance their kingdoms’ agenda.
Developing kingdoms unlocks new achievements and allows units to quickly improve in their training, proving a menacing force in battle. Each kingdom is also bustling with work as you are preparing and pushing your outposts and forging your destiny.
One thing is certain, Heroes of Land, Air & Sea’s excellent sculpt have a very strong tabletop presence and if you want a catchy way to introduce someone to the more complex games of the genre, this is a great choice. Make no mistake, though, as the game can easily stretch to 180 minutes, which is decent for the genre.
19. Master of the Galaxy
Released in 2018, Master of Galaxy is one of the lighter additions to the 4X board games genre. The game is played between 45 and 120 minutes and it allows 2-4 players to dive into the fast-paced intergalactic warfare and civilization-building exercise.
Each player starts in control of one of the available star systems, and gradually leverages resources and technological advancements to take the fight to the opponents and secure ever more resources. While this narrative may strike a little too familiar, the gameplay of Master of the Galaxy is not.
With its interesting design, excellent color palette and robust gameplay, you have a game that has every right to be part of the 4X experience. An added plus is that as with every four-ex game, Master of the Galaxy allows for depth of choice and strategy in pursuit of a final victory.
20. Star Trek Ascendancy
Inspired by the Star Trek Ascendancy, this ambitious 4X board game has managed to not only capture the authenticity of the franchise it’s based on but also craft a solid game design that is infused with robust mechanics and excellent overall balance.
The game posts a tunnel-like playing field throughout which popular characters from the TV series will embark on emerging victorious from the brewing conflict between the United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire, and the Romulan Star Empire, with each of the three players taking one of the sides.
Set at 180-minute playtime, Star Trek Ascendancy has limitless replayability and does both the TV series and the 4X board games genre justice.
Disclaimer: The list was compiled with the help of and combines the mixed experience of Meeples Herald’s editorial team, BoardGameGeek ranking, and online search volumes.