When we dig into the details of board games beneath ground level, we often talk about mechanisms and theme. Mechanisms to a board game are kind of like the rules of grammar to a book; they are tools to help a designer (or author) connect with the end user to create an experience. Authors attempt to create emotional connections or communicate ideas, game designers try to create enjoyable game play, but the tools do not inherently create great end products.
Theme in a board game equivocates to the setting of a book; time, place, context for the activity that is going on. In a book, setting is usually pretty important to the story, although we’ve all seen remakes, fan-fictions, and retellings that change the setting of a story. Theme in a game gives context to a players actions; in some cases, theme is central to a game experience. In others, it simply facilitates the connection between the mechanisms that make up the game.
But there certainly more levels that we can dig into. Something we haven’t really talked about before is genre. In books, genres are very closely related with settings; science fiction, drama, romance, historical – these all imply a sense of location, at least on the surface. However, the genre simply defines certain characteristics of a book and sets up expectations for the reader. What kind of book is this going to be? In the same way, board game genres define certain characteristics of the game, characteristics that are not necessarily tied to the theme directly, nor are they tied directly to mechanisms. Yet the three can be somewhat intertwined.
So the genre I”m going to talk about today is the “4X” genre, one of my favorites. This genre is not a set of mechanisms, and it is not directly related to a specific theme (although many 4X games are set in space). It is simple a set of expectations and characteristics of a certain type of game. What type of game is that? Well, read on to find out.
“4X” when viewed out of context is pretty meaningless, so in case you don’t already know what it means, let me spell it out for you. Literally. “4X” refers to 4 staple elements of the genre, all of which have X’s in them, or rather start with the syllable “Ex.” These elements are: Exploration, Expansion, Exploitation, and Extermination.
Exploration refers to the player ability to uncover new things during the game, usually geographically. They can discover new locations, find new resources, or encounter new peoples (that may or may not be other players).
Expansion is the growing sphere of a player’s influence. Often this involves conquering the previously Explored areas, but it can also refer to building up structures or vehicles or units resulting in increased power on the board or abilities to do more things.
Exploitation sounds pretty heavy, but it really just refers to the idea that players can harvest and use resources discovered using the whole Exploration part of the game. When players find new locations or resource-producing elements, they can exploit them to help with the expansion of their empire.
Finally, Extermination refers to the players ability to engage in combat, either with other players or with non-player elements. Often necessary as once all the exploration has taken place, players must create more room in order to continue expanding, and that often overlaps into another player’s space.
Each individual “X” is really a genre unto itself, but 4X combines them together to create a unique gaming experience.
While 4X games often take place thematically in Space, this is not a requirement. A great example of this is the relatively new offering from Z-Man games, Clash of Cultures, set among ancient civilizations right here on earth. As long as you have some sort of civilization that grows over time, explores, takes advantage of resources discovered, and is able to fight against enemies, you’ve got yourself a 4X.
The reason why Space is such a common theme for the 4X genre, aside from the fact that this genre was essentially invented by electronic strategy games set in space, is that Space is ripe for the exploration element. In real life, space is vast and wildly unknown, leaving lots of room for discovery and surprise. Here on earth there is a lot less that we don’t know about. The unknown, the potential for great danger and great discovery, makes space exciting especially for this genre.
4X games find their appeal in that they give you so much control over your empire. In less expansive genres, you may be building a civilization – but you are more limited in how that civilization expands. You work within the limits of the genre. In many cases this is a self-contained economic system, OR it is a dice-heavy combat environment; not both.
4X allows players to build, explore, expand, and fight how they choose. Many 4X games allow players to focus on one or two of these elements, resorting to others as a fallback, a support, or a back plan. There is much freedom in a wide array of actions and choices. At the end, the empire you built is YOUR empire; you feel more as if you made choices and lead your kingdom into its glory, rather than efficiently utilized an economic system.
The drawback of freedom is heftiness. Many 4X games are not just packed with rules, they’re packed with lengthy playtimes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it can take a day to simulate on the table. The length of these games can also be heavily dependent on how many players are involved; in something as epic as Twilight Imperium, each player can add 1.5-2hrs to game length because there is simply SO MUCH going on.
Games of this heft and freedom have to have the rules to handle any situation that could arise, which means thick rulebooks and a lot of details to remember. The sheer amount of rules is a barrier to entry, and new players can be overwhelmed when trying to join in with an experienced group.
However, not every 4X game is of maximum heft. An upcoming title from Carl Chudyk, Impulse, promises a 4X experience in 30-60 minutes. Will this title truly be “4X”? Perhaps. It will certainly be “lite” and may not appeal to hardcore fans of the genre, but it may prove an exciting new entry into the genre that will allow those who can’t stomach the 3+hr game times a chance to enjoy 4X.
4X games tend to be highly interactive. You’re not just depriving resources from other players by claiming them first; in many cases, you are actively removing resources from other players, attacking and conquering their supplies, and destroying things they have built. This high interaction is highly desirable to many players, as it offers a significant amount of immersion and engagement not just with the parts on the table but with the players you’re with. To others, this heavy interaction is a turn-off; that players can influence each other too much rather than just trying to play the most effeciently and effectively on their own, that luck of the die or players teaming up against each other can swing the outcome.
I personally find 4X games to be exciting to play, despite their lengthy playtimes. They allow so much activity. You can watch your empire grow over the course of the game. Some 4X games even push beyond the 4 X’s, because, why not? Twilight Imperium, possibly my favorite game of all time, includes the extra… X… of politics (Politix?) allowing players to engage in dialogue, negotiate for political position, and literally vote in new rules, restrictions, and abilities into the game.
Hopefully this guide has helped you understand the 4X genre a little bit better. Please feel free to leave any questions in the comments. And now for your viewing pleasure, here’re a few recommendations for 4X games:
Startin’ off with the biggest baddest box of boards and bits, Twilight Imperium is one of my favorite games of all time. With a fantastic action-management system, a role-selection system that adds a slew of activities like trade and politics and technology to the hex-grid map of planet conquering and fleet-building, Twilight Imperium is a game that is filled with life. Even though this is the longest game I have ever played, every hour of the game is filled with tension, tough decisions, and exciting empire building. Not to mention beautiful plastic minis.
Carrying a very similar theme to Twilight Imperium, with various races starting on their own individual home planets and expanding out into the universe, Eclipse doesn’t have the same soul as TI but it does have more streamlined mechanisms. The economic element of the game is front and central with brilliantly designed player aids that track not just income as planets are settled, but the financial burden of an ever-growing empire. Don’t worry, though; there are ships a-plenty, and a fascinating ship customization system that lets you design your own fleet.
Impulse is a 4X game that plays in around an hour. “An hour?” you say. “How can a 4X game worth anything play in an hour?” And it’s true, Impulse is a different kind of 4X game, with Carl Chudyk’s signature use of cards as multiple things. But the game maintains a feeling of exploration and expanding through its spatial element, there’s a lot of exploitation (through coming up with combos), and big points can be gained through exterminating the other players. This game isn’t released yet, but it should be available in early 2014.
Clash of Cultures
I have to admit it; I haven’t had a chance to play this game. But it’s gotten rave reviews across the board, has all the classic staples of epic 4X games including plastic minis, and it has the standout honor of being the only game on this list NOT set in space. It sold out its first printing quickly and has only recently come back in stock, but this game lets you perform all the staples of 4X and even has actual cities that you physically add parts to as you build them up.
There are many more 4X games out there. Some are not as good as others, some are fantastic. Please feel free to share your favorites in the comments.