If you are the kind of player who loves slow burns and has a knack for games that need extensive planning and scheming, then you really ought to try strategy games.

There’s one particular subgenre of strategy that is a cut above the rest, especially when it comes to invoking the true meaning of immersion: 4X games. What is a 4X game, exactly? 4X games are tactical games that incorporate four elements: expand, exploit, exterminate, and explore; hence, the “4X” title. 

4X games can either be turn-based or real-time. Regardless of the format, what makes 4X strategy games stand the test of time is how they tickle a player’s imagination by allowing them to exercise their fantastical dreams of building and governing human society. 

What Was the First 4X Game?

The 4X genre can be traced back to as far as the 80s, 1983 specifically. 

The game that began it all was aptly called The Cosmic Balance II, where players are faced with various space warfare scenarios and have to balance their resources accordingly. 

In 1993, game designer and writer Alan Emrich came up with the term “4X” in his review of Master of Orion. Initially, Emrich used it merely as wordplay. Eventually, the terminology became the norm in the gaming community. 

How Do 4X Games Differ from Other Strategy Games?

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Other strategy games could also contain 4X elements, but it doesn’t automatically make them 4X. There are also a lot of things to consider, especially for the newer 4X games which are more complex in nature.

Nevertheless, the essence of 4X has always remained consistent.

To the untrained eye, any strategy game with a map would automatically seem like a 4X game. It’s easy to see how a game like Command and Conquer or Warcraft could be mistaken as a 4X game, but some distinctions can only be determined once one actually starts playing the game. 

Generally speaking, the strategy surrounding 4X games is all about building a nation. 

This is not just the simple placement of structures or planting of resources. There are also factors like economics, geography, enemy nations, and conquering territories. A good example is Humankind.

There is an unpredictability in 4X games that makes it an incredibly exciting and fulfilling genre to play. 

On the other hand, the tactics behind games like Command and Conquer or Warcraft are akin to military warfare or tower defense. Both have different strategic depths, but the volatility of 4X games is what makes it different.

What are the Best-Selling 4X Games of All Time?

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4X games have a solid following, but they are pretty niche especially when compared to the likes of FPS or fighting games.

Even so, these 4X games have found mainstream success and are even considered classics. The most popular 4X game, without a doubt, is Sid Meier’s Civilization series, more commonly referred to as Civ. It is so popular, in fact, that if this were a list of top five best-selling 4X games, Civilization would most definitely occupy 4 slots.

Civilization V

The highest selling game in this storied franchise is Civ V which was released in September 2010 and has sold 8 million copies so far. It is dubbed by many fans as the zenith of Civ games.

10 years after it was released, Civ V has remained as the most ideal out of all the Civilization games; with its smart expansions, effective game balance, and the introduction of the hexagonal-grid map.

Civilization VI

Civ VI was released in October 2016. In the entire franchise, Civ VI is the fastest-selling iteration of this game series so far with 5.5 million copies sold. Based on these numbers alone, Civ VI could most definitely overtake Civ V soon.

Even though a huge chunk of the player base holds Civ V in higher regard, it cannot be denied that Civ VI is the product of years of game design and research resulting in a game that fills the gap of all the other Civ games.

Civilization IV

The fourth title in this series was released on June 30, 2006, and has sold 3 million units.

A lot of people still hold Civ IV at a special place in their hearts, and rightfully so. There is just something more fun in Civ IV, both in graphics and in gameplay. It’s also the last one to retain the original layout of square grid maps.


Stellaris is a visual delight of a game with its grand space empire strategy. Whereas Civ built its appeal by using human history and the possibility of re-shaping it, even just virtually, Stellaris is all about the fantasy of the impossible and the beyond.

Stellaris has sold 1.5 million copies since its release in 2016.

Civilization III

Since this Civ wasn’t directly designed by Meier, there were a couple of new game elements, like religion or culture, that were integrated. Eventually, these things became an important part of the series. Civ III was released on October 30, 2001 and has sold 2 million copies worldwide.

The Future of 4X Games

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Ever since its inception in 1983, each 4X game has become more advanced, resulting in the subgenre being a sort of well-thought-out complicatedness. 

RPGs may be the king of possibilities but 4X games take the cake when it comes to tactical intricacy. 

Additionally, players aren’t going to find much RNG in this subgenre because it values personal decision-making above all else. 

With the development of AIs, the 4X subgenre is also an exciting place to be.

The endless possibilities of an extremely well-coded AI will propel the subgenre to new heights.