Next to the “Metroidvania” genre, space 4Xs (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate, which really leaves no reason for it to not be the “4E genre”) are my video gaming bread and butter. Ever since the first time I laid eyes on the box for Twilight Imperium Third Edition, a massive, long-winded board game and contender for THE GREATEST THING EVER CRAFTED BY HUMAN HANDS AT ANY POINT IN TIME, it seemed by magic that I immediately understood what the genre was all about without actually experiencing it. Massive empires belonging to strange alien races spanning countless solar systems, discovering new planets and technologies, diplomacy, political intrigue, all out war among the stars…I knew I wanted to immerse myself in it.
I’ve played alot of Twilight Imperium since that first fateful encounter, as well as a plethora of similar board games, but that’s a story for a different day. The genre also exists in the digital realm, and today I narrow down the dozens that I’ve played down to a mere four. No, that’s not four for each “X” in “4X,” though that would make for a great KISS ripoff song. “You Put the ‘X’ in ‘4X.'” Yeah, dibs on that. No, I’m doing four because I feel like it. No other reason.
4. Galactic Civilizations II
Galactic Civilizations II, or GalCiv2 as it’s typically referred to, really isn’t all that unlike Sid Meier’s Civilization IV. Civ IV came out first, and its impact is, well, everywhere in this game. But GalCiv2 takes place in space, and that’s what we’re here for, folks. Besides, I kind of hate the BS cutesy historical time nexus theme of Civ, and setting something in space will win me over every time without fail. GalCiv2 is single player only, which would turn some people away for sure, but the AI is some of the best, if not the best seen in any 4X game. It doesn’t cheat and it seriously hates you. It’s accessible enough for Civ vets, and the inherent “one more turn” addiction point will set in early enough, but the reason why it isn’t higher on list for me is what we talked about first: It’s alot like Civ IV. That’s fine, Civ IV is a great, great game, but the space thing feels like a coat of paint, nothing more. Still, GalCiv2 is a terrific game and should not be overlooked.
3. Master of Orion 1&2
Picking two isn’t cheating. Which one is better is split between the fanbase, but everyone can agree that you can’t go wrong with either. Master of Orion is the galactic great grandaddy of the space 4X genre, and I’m sure it was the inspiration for Twilight Imperium. Over 20 years later, these are still what every newcomer is compared to. With the first game, there’s a certain beauty in its simplicity. Nearly everything is controlled with slider bars. The second game is more complex adds more direct narrative. Both games are prone to more micromanaging than I enjoy as they go on, and both have some dumb, broken stuff in them, but are totally with the $6 they’ll run you on GOG.com. Don’t think, just buy.
2. Endless Space
So I guess there’s a large chunk of people who don’t like this one, but lucky me, I’m fresh out of giving a shit. I love this game. I love how clean it is, I love how easy to pick up it is, and I love some of the weird choices it makes in an effort be so clean and accessible. If you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “That Josh Look is on to something, building up space empires and researching space technology and having space battles sounds awesome but I don’t know where to begin (other than in space),” let me point you to Endless Space. The learning curve for me actually came from not having to manage as much as I’m used to in this sort of game. The combat is definitely odd, you and your opponent simply have three phases in the entire battle and you both pick just pick a card in each one. Certain types of cards cancel others. You get watch a little movie while it happens, and I think that’s cool. Can’t recommend it enough, and you should definitely check out the other Endless games, too. This almost took the top spot, but there’s just a few things I feel the game in the top spot did better.
Wow. This one is the newest game on the list, but there wasn’t any way I couldn’t put it in at #1. It nails everything I’m looking for in a space 4X. Steam tells me I’ve put 31 hours into it at the time of publishing this, which isn’t much for the genre, but I’m confident in my choice. The exploration and encountering new life feels like Star Trek, which is to say it’s superb. The game is massive, but not overwhelming due to how it tends to break things down into decision points. What really sets it apart is the narrative. While other games on this list may have narrative, it’s typically done through one-time random events. You might find the remnants of an alien civilization in other games, but when that happens in Stellaris, the story of the civilization doesn’t end with that initial discovery. You could find more clues about their existence spread all throughout the galaxy across several solar systems. I once had one a ship in my fleet turn against me because the guy I had in charge of it secretly belonged to a religious cult. He blew up one of my asteroid mining facilities and hit the black, leaving me none the wiser as to where he was headed. I eventually found him. I attacked his ship, sent a science team in to investigate, found where the cult was based, and proceeded to wipe them from existence. The game does this kind of stuff constantly. If there’s a downside to Stellaris, it’s that it often feels like watching paint dry. I’m told that that’s what developer Paradox does, but there is an awful lot of waiting in Stellaris. That may not be for everyone, but given how awesome everything is around the time spent just staring at the screen is, it is for me.
There you have it. If you’ve got favorites, talk ’em up. If you play any of these, let me know what you think! Someday I’ll revisit this subject and cover my favorites on the tabletop.