The Best “Starter” 4X Games

Updated: December 30th, 2018

I see this question asked a lot on the 4X Gaming subreddit and I’ll occasionally get asked myself, “what’s the best 4X game for someone new to the genre?” and it’s about time I really sat down and thought about it.

It’s honestly a hard question to answer, as most 4X games are pretty detailed and hard to truly understand as quickly as say, a First-Person Shooter or even most Real-Time Strategy games. It may take a while to get good at Starcraft 2, but most players can pick up the basics in less than an hour.

4X games, on the other hand, have a lot of working systems and they’re not always really good at explaining them (I’m looking at YOU, Endless Legend, Stellaris and Endless Space 2 and ESPECIALLY YOU, Distant Worlds). There are usually buildings to construct, research to queue up, units to build, and population to manage, just to name a few mechanics that’ll be vying for your attention.

I believe that in order for a 4X game to be accessible enough to those new to the genre, it has to:

  1. Look decent, i.e. can’t be a much older game and can’t be a bunch of spreadsheets
  2. Have simple enough mechanics that are more easily understood, i.e. an economy that isn’t super complicated and is relatively limited in its scope
  3. Have decent tooltips and/or a good tutorial
  4. Limit micromanagement by default or have options to limit micromanagement
  5. Limit research options, so as to not overwhelm new players
  6. Preferably contains all of the mechanics associated with the genre, i.e. a tech tree, moderately-deep diplomacy, build queues, city/colony management etc.
  7. Multiple victory conditions that are easily understood and preferably easily tracked by the player

Are there any other considerations that I’m missing? Let me know in the comments below.

So which 4X games can more easily be understood and can help ease you into my favorite genre? I can only think of a few, but here are my top picks:

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars

In 2016, teamed up with NGD Studios to reboot the grandfather of them all: Master of Orion. For those that may be unaware, Master of Orion is the game that the 4X term originated from. In a preview of Master of Orion (1993) in Computer Gaming World by Alan Emrich, he described Master of Orion as a strategy game in which you eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. Thus the term “4X” was born.

Many 4X veterans hold Master of Orion 1 and 2 in high regard. Unfortunately, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (MoO:CtS), couldn’t quite live up to those lofty expectations for a variety of reasons that I won’t really get in to. You can actually read my review of the base game over at eXplorminate HERE.

That being said, I still think MoO:CtS has a great deal of value to the 4X community if but for one reason: to introduce players to the 4X genre with a decent-quality, high-production-value entry that doesn’t get too deep with its mechanics.

There are many reasons I think MoO:CtS is a good fit for those new to the genre, like:

  • Colony management is simpler than most 4X games and the tutorials also do a decent job of explaining the various management tools
  • Ship movement is limited to planets and between systems
  • Research topics are well documented and the player isn’t overwhelmed by choice
  • Diplomacy is matter-of-fact and setting up trade deals and interacting with opponent AI is easily understood
  • RTS combat that doesn’t require micromanagement
  • Few resources to keep track of and manage
  • Very high production values, which make it easy to “bridge the gap” between other game genres
  • Races are different enough to change gamplay to a degree, but not so different that they require “relearning” parts of the game
  • A limited amount of ship hulls and an “auto best build” option that allows people to ease into building their own ships

Those are just a few of the reasons that I think MoO:CtS would be appealing to “newbies” and easier for newcomers to learn and enjoy.

Once you’ve figured out the basics, there are some great mods that really flesh out the game further, in particular, the “5X Mod“, which fixes some of the base game, while adding some needed variety to the research tree and other aspects of the game.

It’s probably the best “entry” space 4X game that I can think of right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one that fits the bill. Let’s take a look at a couple other games that might help new players find our beloved genre.

Stars in Shadow

Ashdar Games set out to release a 4X game that brought out the best in Master of Orion 1 & 2, Sword of the Stars, and maybe a few others, and did a pretty damn good job of it.

This sleeper hit 4X game undersold at a criminal level, especially considering how tight and decently polished it is as a 4X experience, not to mention its very affordable price point.

What makes Stars in Shadow such a great introductory game is that it’s one of those easy to pick up, hard to master” kind of games. Okay, maybe not super hard to master, but there’s some hidden depth to the game that isn’t obvious at first glance (or your first few playthroughs).

That being said, here’s why I think Stars in Shadow works well for new players:

  • Planet management is pretty straightforward, if not a bit more strategic than you’d first think
  • There are only a few resources to keep track of
  • Tactical combat is pretty straightforward (but very fun!)
  • The technology tree isn’t incredibly large or overwhelming and each topic is well explained
  • Games can be made to be pretty small in size, reducing micromanagement and the need to track too many colonies
  • Games can actually be played to completion in a much shorter period of time than other 4X games
  • Diplomacy is also pretty straightforward and doesn’t require too much thought (to its detriment in some ways, though)
  • Races are different enough to be interesting, but not too different to be overwhelming

Those are just a few of the reasons I would recommend Stars in Shadow to someone new to the genre. I’m also partial to SiS because I believe that more people need to be buying it/playing it, so there’s that bias to consider 😉

The great thing about SiS is that there’s some hidden depth that’s within the more easily-understood basics, too: race asymmetry, different population types, different colony build orders and specializations, and more. So, once you’ve understood how the game functions, you can start digging deeper into how certain populations can benefit your empire, how to properly set up your colonies based on a variety of dynamic factors, and more.

Plus, SiS has a freaking space-Seahorse race. They’re glorious!

Stars in Shadow and Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars are both great entry points to the genre, though I think Stars in Shadow is the better 4X game of the two. Not only that, but Stars in Shadow continues to get updates (just get on their development build, if you’re on Steam), with some serious hints at future paid content to come soon-ish.

But there’s one game that I think beats both of them as a starter game, a gateway drug, err game, of sorts, into the 4X realm:

Yes, that’s right: the FOURTH entry into the Civilization series is probably the best way to see if you like 4X games, with one caveat: if you absolutely need “modern graphics”, then Civilization 5 is a pretty decent choice, too.

However, I think Civilization 4 is the better game of the two and stands the test of time pretty well. Additionally, it is generally cheaper and the base game, along with the fantastic expansion packs, can usually be had for under $20 (at the time of this article, they’re $7.50 USD on Steam).

Why do I think Civilization 4 is a great entry? Here are a few reasons:

  • As mentioned, the price is usually very cheap, so if you find that 4X games aren’t for you, you haven’t lost out on much
  • Most players understand and are at least remotely familiar with general history, which makes the tech tree easier to understand
  • Most players also understand are at pretty familiar with the major wonders of the world, which makes that type of mechanic easier to understand, too
  • At the lower difficulty levels, you really don’t have to be good to do well, allowing players to start with “training wheels”
  • There is a fantastic tutorial system and a great encyclopedia of terms, mechanics, and other useful information in the “Civilopedia”
  • It’s not CPU- or GPU-intensive, thus allowing just about anyone with a moderately modern computer to play it
  • It is the last entry before “1 unit per tile”, thus making unit movement a bit easier to grasp and get the hang of
  • There are fewer mechanics than the fifth and sixth iterations of Civilization, thus making it a bit easier to understand
  • However, there’s more depth than meets the eye and as players familiarize themselves with the basics, they can begin digging deeper into the gameplay mechanics

Like I said in the beginning, though, if you’re a self-proclaimed graphics snob, or a self-aware graphics connoisseur, I think Civilization 5 is also a good choice. Either way, you’re playing the preeminent 4X series and easily the best selling of any 4X game on the market.

Once it gets your hooks in you, though, 4X games have many different flavors and universes that will take you on many different journeys. Much like First-Person Shooters or Real-Time Strategy games, the mechanics may be somewhat similar, but the games can be completely different. The same is true for 4X games.

Fan Addition: Sins of a Solar Empire

After posting this article on the 4Xgaming subreddit, I was politely and emphatically reminded of Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. The arguments made for why it should be included on this list were particularly well put together and even, dare I say, truly convincing!

Needless to say, they were so convincing that I’ve decided to add this game to my list, especially as I want this list to truly represent the best gateways to the genre and I have plans to update and edit this list/article as time goes on.

One Redditor, Kursah, made these particularly good points:

The new DLC will allow for some more eXploiting and eXpansion is already there and something that keeps the early game entertaining in a combat-oriented fashion. Not interesting like DWU (Distant Worlds: Universe) or Stellaris with research…much more wargaming-based…and more so than SOTS (Sword of the Stars) and Polaris Sector during the early game because of the remnant forces that exist or the pirate factions.

There’s some trade with the limited resources and there’s plenty of research especially with mods. Most of it attributes to building up to war and combat to winning via domination, though other choices exist for completion/win/success and it seems some more recent 4X games forgot about that even though gaming communities seem to want it.

I like the trade nodes and visual traffic from that, it lends to a more alive universe and is something I would like to see in more 4X games, hands down. DWU does this well, but many others don’t. Not only does it lend to a more successful economy, it lends to a more visually interesting or appealing game which for me makes it more engaging.

Combat beats most any modern 4X game hands down, and it should, being a combat-oriented RTS at its essential core. But that’s also saying a lot about the sad state of combat in modern 4X’s… SIS does well with turn-based combat, but it doesn’t maintain my interest for as long. SOTS combat is my favorite 4X combat, Polaris Sector is up there too. The lack of combat control in Stellaris and GC3 (Galactic Civilizations 3) is disappointing, to say the least. Especially seeing how well SOTS handled it, and the potential from SOTS2 which really could’ve taken the lead if the rest of the game were better.

That being said, I do wish there was a little more tactical control, focus aiming, and that facing direction and such mattered more in SOASE, I do wish it ripped a few pages from SOTS’s combat mechanics as it could’ve had a little more depth here for my taste. But considering what we have in GC3, ES2 (Endless Space 2) and Stellaris, I’ll gladly take SOASE’s combat over them any day of the week. Far more engaging, entertaining and rewarding in situations where you’re playing harder AI or in MP where you have to spread out more and plan your fleets more carefully. Manual control and no auto-casting helps, but then you run into micromanagement frustrations for those that don’t want combat to be THAT dominant of a feature.

Diplomacy is weak for sure, I’m hoping the new DLC can help with that a little…but odds are it’ll be more towards the combat side of things. That being said, for a starter 4X, I really think SOASE is a great fit. Especially if the said gamers are familiar with RTS, this game will immediately be easier to get into and more comfortable as it introduces mechanics that are featured in other 4X’s. Sure it may be shallow in some spots, but it also has more depth in others that should make other 4X games blush in my opinion, especially considering this game came out in 2012 and is STILL supported by the devs, and a stronger than ever modding scene that maybe only Stellaris can rival…maybe.

At the end of the day, my preference and identification of what is a 4X that fits as a starter versus yours or anyone else’s may be different. But I strongly believe SOASE Rebellion absolutely fits as a starter 4X, that one can get 100s of hours of entertainment from, especially with the excellent mods available. If it had a little more depth to empire development/management and diplomacy, it’d probably be solid gold in this section. Regardless of what’s weak, what is strong, is very strong with this one.

– Kursah

I’m going to yield to Mr. Kursah, as I’ve not played Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion enough to definitively give more information or thought to this argument, but as described, it definitely sounds like it fits enough of the criteria that I personally have for 4X games and for this list.

I will absolutely take some time soon to play SOASE to see how it stacks up as a “starter 4X” soon and add to Mr. Kursah’s argument as necessary.

If you have more to add, please do so on the subreddit or down below in the comments here!

Alternative: Warlock 2

The reason I don’t include Warlock 2 in my actual list is that it’s not necessarily a 4X game, though it has a lot of 4X elements. Sure, there’s city management (and a pretty cool management system at that), there’s diplomacy, though very limited, and there’s expansion and there’s some exploitation, too.

However, Warlock 2 is very clearly and deliberately focused on war and that’s okay. Especially since its battle systems, while very basic, are actually pretty fun.

Additionally, the victory conditions are almost entirely limited to combat-related goals and the game as a whole doesn’t quite feel like a traditional 4X game does. It’s hard to articulate exactly, but it doesn’t quite meet the criteria that I personally have for a 4X game.

Here come the arguments, no?..

But if fantasy is more of your cup of tea and you want to try this whole “4X thing” out, Warlock 2 might just give you enough of a taste of what a 4X strategy game can be, that you might just move on to more deep and engaging titles. It’s also a game you’ll find on the cheap, with it being as low as $2.50 for the base game.

That’s less than a cup of coffee at some joints, so why not give it a shot at that price?

Anyway, I’ve done my best to outline some good options for those of you that haven’t dipped your toes in to the deep (and growing deeper by the day) pool of 4X games. If you want some very specific recommendations, let me know in the comments below and I’ll be happy to do my best to address them.

Until then, keep eXploring!

2 thoughts on “The Best “Starter” 4X Games

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