The 4X Genre Has Grown Stagnant, Here’s How To Fix It

When Civilization II came out, I spent an entire summer playing it for several hours a day. The only check on my binging was the fact that my parents would eventually come home and force me to pretend, for a few hours at least, that I cared about things other than Civilization II.

I was a senior in college when Civilization IV arrived. I’d barely played strategy games at all for the previous four years, and “senioritis” brought with it a case of intense nostalgia. I bought it in the spring before graduation. It was still consuming my days and nights when the leaves fell later that year.

That was probably the last time my enjoyment of a 4X game was pure and uncomplicated. Lately, I’ve been wondering where that joy has gone, and why so few games seem to add anything essential to those old experiences.

Few 4X games have a point of view or attempt to tell a story beyond “claim territory, make progress, get stronger than your neighbors”. They’re not even very interested in what one victory path implies versus the others. These endgames are supposed to represent the culmination of meaningful choices, but are themselves almost entirely meaningless. That lack of purpose or vision is palpable in games like Beyond Earth, the 4X equivalent of a shrug, or in the dull fantasy worlds of a half-dozen 4X pretenders.

Fundamentally, 4X games are stagnating because they are ultimately games about progress that nevertheless have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject. Their version of progress is almost universally boring.

Most 4X games tell the following story: a society gets more and more advanced tools and infrastructure to satisfy the same basic needs throughout its history. Its competitors go through a similar or identical progression so that relative gains remain fairly small. Meanwhile, the society itself changes hardly at all. Where it once needed “5 food” now it needs “50 food” but it’s fundamental relationship to the resource or the means of production hasn’t evolved one iota.

Progress is more interesting and complicated than that in reality, and games can embrace that rather than reduce it to a series of buffs. Two important games provide examples of promising approaches.

The first, predictably, is Alpha Centauri. Now, Alpha Centauri is fundamentally a successful con: it’s using flavor text and cutscenes to create a complicated and ambiguous context around the theme of progress, despite the fact that its (very traditional) mechanics do little to support its narrative. It gets away with it because that narrative flavoring can make the humdrum building-blocks of 4X progress feel alternately thought-provoking, chilling, or humorous.

This is what Alpha Centauri says about a building whose fundamental purpose is to reduce unrest / disorder in a city:

“The entire character of a base and its inhabitants can be absorbed in a quick trip to the Rec Commons. The sweaty arenas of Fort Legion, the glittering gambling halls of Morgan Bank, the sunny lovers’ trysts in Gaia’s High Garden, or the somber reading rooms of U.N. Headquarters. Even the feeding bay at the Hive gives stark insight into the sleeping demons of Yang’s communal utopia.”

Look at the levels on which that bit of text is operating. It’s telling me what the hell I just built, beyond its mechanical effect. If I don’t get that kind of feedback, then the building might as well be called “unrest reducer, Tier 2” and suddenly the game could be any other 4X. Second, the flavor text ties into the game’s factional identities. It’s another window into who the Morganites really are besides just the “corporate faction”. By telling me what the Gaians are building besides a hippie commune, this passage adds detail to its setting while letting me decide what I think about the Gaians’ ambitions. Finally, it forces a bit of reflection on both what these structures imply about each faction, but also what your own entertainments say about me.

And all I did was build a new building.

Progress is also hard to control or predict. Few games understand this like Victoria 2, which isn’t a traditional 4X but is such a trove of exciting ideas that it should be better-known and appreciated than it is. Set during the height of industrialization and the run-up to World War 1, Victoria is game that encompasses both classic 4X themes (improving technology and economic capacity) and the things 4X games struggle to address (civil society, politics, colonialism). Instead of giving you generic citizens who work resources and produce goods, Victoria creates a vibrant ecosystem of social classes, political beliefs, and economic needs. As citizens sort themselves into these categories, you get benefits but also a new set of needs and costs.

A rising capitalist class may help you build factories, but they’ll also want to reap the benefits and exert some political influence over the direction of the country. Staffing those factories requires a mix of blue-collar workers and middle-class managers… both of whom require greater investment in education. However, as “workers” become a greater portion of the population, and education rises across the country, new political movements awaken. Your own citizens start competing for larger slices of the pie that you were growing for yourself. You just wanted more factories to generate more wealth (and maybe more guns) but you ended up with Socialist and Liberal revolutionaries at the palace gates. Progress changed both the nature of the country you’re leading and your ability to direct and shape it.

Victoria’s fundamental insight is an important one: progress reshapes societies around the new needs it creates. That’s a fascinating theme that’s applicable to a lot of 4X games, but that hardly any of them touch.

Dull, rote progress undercuts every aspect of 4X games. Combat scarcely changes except that the statistics on units and weapons get a little larger, so that the war you fight at the dawn of history is almost exactly the same as the war you’ll fight at the end. Once settlement is over and development is underway, it becomes all too easy to hit “end turn” a few hundred times until the score screen, because there’s little to admire or enjoy in the process of building. Friends and rivals become abstract collections of math to be manipulated with trade offers and military strength values, rather than fellow actors on a heroic stage. You’re all there competing to build a better civilization, but with no idea of what you’re actually building towards.

In the end, the 4X genre needs to do more than get out of the shadow of Civilization and Master of Orion. Each new 4X needs to find a story to tell about conquest, survival, exploration, discovery, or all of the above. A game will be a lot more exciting if it’s built around those ideas and concepts rather than around the bones of old, familiar games.

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91 Comments

  1. OpT1mUs says:

    Love the article and wholeheartedly agree , but why the Endless Legend tag when it isn’t mentioned?

    • Guvornator says:

      There’s a picture of it.

      • darkath says:

        Those pictures could use a healthy dose of captions/alt text, to at least tell us from what game they are from and what they are supposed to illustrate. For instance, is Age of Wonders and Endless Legend examples of dull fantasy worlds or the opposite according to the author ?

        • JimmyJamNYC says:

          I agree, I thought I had missed something from the post, which was otherwise excellent. I do think games like Endless Legend add a lot to the genre, but I never really considered it 4x. I guess it is by definition, but I thought it had a far more compelling story than Civ of late.

        • Comco says:

          Agreed. It’s not an issue with this article so much an an issue with the entire site.

          Images are almost always low res with no link to a larger version so you can actually see what’s going on. They often post random images from some game but don’t provide any alt text from where it came from and they almost never caption images. Lots of room for improvement all round…

          • Premium User Badge

            MOONRGR says:

            “Agreed. It’s not an issue with this article so much an an issue with the entire site.

            Images are almost always low res with no link to a larger version so you can actually see what’s going on. They often post random images from some game but don’t provide any alt text from where it came from and they almost never caption images. Lots of room for improvement all round…”

            Agreed

          • Twist says:

            Yep, agreed. I love RPS, but they could definitely improve this aspect of the site.

        • cromagnumpi says:

          Endless Legend does a decent job with the faction quests of telling a story you’re involved in. Also, I love their minimalist ui and I wish every developer would incorporate the left click goes deeper – right click goes back a menu as a standard.

          And now I must try this Victoria game you make sound so compelling

  2. Premium User Badge

    Lacero says:

    Star Ruler 2 did original things. But no one bought it.
    Or even reviewed it.

    • Mezmorki says:

      Yeah, should’ve mentioned that one in my list below. It had some clever ideas for sure.

      Part of the problem though with SR2 is indicative of another problem with 4X games, which is that they are often designed (or appear to be designed) in such a way that players can sort of “play them” however they want. In the case of SR2, it was a clever collection of ideas and mechanics, but they don’t really come together as a tightly designed “strategy” game or even an engaging narrative (it’s still the same basic colonial narrative playing out).

      • Premium User Badge

        Lacero says:

        Totally. It doesn’t redefine the genre, but the diplomacy part does redefine diplomacy at least. The economics is new and more interesting than Civ in space, and the ship designer and combat is perfect.

        Still though, it has diplomacy and a ship designer so it’s along similar lines.

        (My easy game to make is a tech tree, no faffing with colonies or ships or wars. Just a next turn button and a tech tree and infinity)

    • Universal Quitter says:

      I can’t speak for reviewers, but my problem with SR2 is that SR1 was so much more fun to play. SR2 is a better competitive multiplayer game, but SR1 is still one of my favorite sandboxes in gaming.

      I think the main difference is the economy went from being a few numbers I loosely had to keep track of to keep in the green, to a color-coded mess of tiers and buffs.

      Not sure if this was the case for RPS or anyone else, but as much as I loved Blind Mind Studios, SR2 was one step forward and two steps back.

      • Einsammler says:

        This comment is more entertaining when it is about Saint’s Row 1 and 2.

      • Premium User Badge

        Lacero says:

        I found the opposite, SR one had a great idea for the economy that was really hard to keep track of and control with resources being spread across multiple factory ships and planets etc. And the game devoled to just building big things and rampaging across space strip mining it for the sake of it.

        SR2 feels much more focused and by the gameplay rules you necessarily only have a few planets to actually pay attention to.

    • Universal Quitter says:

      Still bought it, though, for solidarity’s sake.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      Yeah I love both of those games, that guy has tremendous and creative ideas, and they are both great examples why most developers don’t go outside the box. Because even the reviewers who constantly whine about how samey everything is don’t care.

  3. Mezmorki says:

    I think the central argument here, that most 4X games simply provide the same old conquer the stars/world narrative and that this lack of narrative interest leads to the same old mechanics over and over again is fair. Yes – these issues have long existed in the 4X genre. But, I think there are promising alternatives on the way (or have arrived):

    – Stellaris (from Paradox) aiming to take the 4X genre into the grand strategy realm
    – Imperia 5X, it’s almost looking like the King of Dragon Space … in a way.
    – Thea: The Awakening (4X meets roguelike survival-craft), already released, mixes up the formula.
    – AI War (slightly older game now) comes to mind as well…

    I’m sure I’m missing a few. It still doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of 4X games on the way that are still iterating on the same basic narrative underpinning, trying to perfect the formula that’s already been plenty of times before. I’m not sure the latest batch of upcoming games will hit that mark either, so I’m resting my hopes in the games that try to really shake up the formula.

    • Wisq says:

      +1 for Thea: The Awakening. I just started playing it last week and I pretty much adore its fresh take on the concept:

      – The single settlement. You can manage as many gathering parties as you want, but you probably won’t have enough people to have too many of those, and there will always be one home, so you don’t have the massive management bloat of most 4X games.
      – The world grows around you. It’s not you versus AI civilisations, it’s you versus the world. You can try to turtle, but the world will get stronger, harsher, faster. Better to always be out there exploring and swatting down monster lairs.
      – The events. It’s basically Sunless Sea, but without all that boring sailing between stuff (sorry, SS!). Sure, they can get a bit repetitive, but they throw enough wrenches into things that you can’t get into a boring routine.
      – The research system. Generally, at some point, crafting will be your main method of research — “learn by doing”. This has multiple effects: Encouraging you to find and craft with rare materials; putting pressure on you to maintain a good gathering and crafting economy even (or especially) while the enemy is at your gates; and ensuring that nothing you make is ever truly wasted, even if it’s just temporary until you get better materials.
      – The “roguelike with persistent progression” system. I generally have a fondness for roguelike-likes, but much moreso for the ones that let your previous efforts amount to something (other than just improved personal skill). It’s also not a bad difficulty mitigator if you don’t have what it takes to beat the game as it stands.
      – Individual (nameable) villagers. Always a nice personal touch, even if the default names get a bit repetitive.

      What I wish they’d change:

      – Let you see all (unresearched) resources in territories you’ve explored, but only let you harvest them if you’ve got the tech. It’s really cool (and adds variety) to know that some valuable resource is right next door (maybe even right under your village!) and adapt your gameplay to use it, rather than beelining for your favourite resources and occasionally discovering they’re further / closer than you thought.
      – The ability to sort items and villagers by any stat or measure. Really, this is a fairly major UI oversight that makes it much more annoying to outfit your characters and choose characters for expeditions.
      – The ability to preview your party’s stats for a challenge before you accept the challenge. By which I mean, showing their offense/defense/tactical abilities directly. (Ideally at any time, e.g. when choosing party members for a new expedition.) Sure, I can figure that out by filtering their skills, inspecting them all, and cross-referering against the in-game help, but holy crap who has time for that every few challenges?

      I worked around the resources issue just by cheating — start a new game, memory hack the number of tech points, research all materials, note which ones are nearby, reload the autosave (so back to “no research”), and continue as normal with that knowledge. But yeah, the UI could use some work.

      Still, a very promising shake-up of the standard 4X formula. (If you can even call it 4X; I’m not 100% certain.)

    • klops says:

      King of Dragon Space sounds interesting! Have to check the game out. Stellaris has also stayed under my radar, although I know it by the name.

      Thea on the other hand did not work that well for me.

    • MondSemmel says:

      Totally agree about AI War: it’s a phenomenal, and phenomenally unique game. It has an insane learning curve, though much like Dwarf Fortress, one eventually recoups any investment in learning the game’s systems, with interest.

      • chauncy50 says:

        Want to love this game, but can’t understand it at all.

  4. toshiro says:

    Wholeheartedly agree. The flavor is what makes the game fun. That’s why I find the random new world mechanic in eu4 very confusing. Without the flavor it becomes utterly meaningless as entertainment for a normal minded human ape, like watching a dice roll a thousand times and then calculating the no of 4s. Then start over.

    • DragonOfTime says:

      While I understand what you mean regarding the EU4 random new world, in a way it is excactly about ADDING flavour, as it allows you to discover a new world rather than think “Hmm, I think I’m gonna go discover Manhattan.” It is arguably more in the flavour of the great explorers than just going to map out what you know to be there.

      • toshiro says:

        I see what you’re saying. But for me this is not about exploring, it is about recreating a history that could have been. The flavor is in that, not the discovery of a fantasy world. That could be fun too, but the few times I’ve tried it it ruined the experience for me because I couldn’t connect to the new world in a flavor way. It became pointless 4X instead. But hey, if you like it, and it’s completely voluntarily an option, it’s not a huge problem for me.

  5. Decebal says:

    Spot on. I always find the first turns of any 4X game to be the most fun. Your actions are more intimate and the world is developing around you. Then it gets down to attrition and “management.” The story telling of AC was great and there is no reason something even better could not be developed into current games. Imagine a Civ game with a running history, that named your major battles, or your heroic units that held off multiple attacks. Headlines that describe the starvation in your besieged city, atrocities committed by pillaging barbarians.

    • thelastpointer says:

      I once held back a sizeable force with a single unit in AC while playing the Spartans in a multiplayer game, and of course I named a landmark Thermopylae. Sadly I defeated that player before he could see that :(

  6. FireStorm1010 says:

    I dont know i am ambigous about this article. While flavour/story is important, for me mechanics are even more important. This is strategy we are talking about , not a rpg. Meaningful decision, strategic and tactical choices, meaningful tech progress, AI this is what makes or breaks a game for me. I have seen this sentiment a few times, andi got a maybe wrong feeling that maybe guys like the author just changed and stoped liking strategy/4x games, and try to understand why they cant find the feeling they once had
    . And i dont undersdtand how they can omiss Endless Legend which imho was quite innovative.

    • Zankman says:

      Maybe they omitted Endless Legend because it was inconvenient to mention that the biggest 4X of the past how many years was good and at least moderately innovative?

      • arisian says:

        Endless Legend had a nice interface, and a few interesting mechanical twists, but the point of the article is that the genre needs more than just incremental improvements to mechanics and interfaces. To me, the main disappointment of Endless Legend was how little it did with its interesting setting; AC did a better job of integrating flavor text, and that was ages ago. When you win a game of AC, you find out what happened to the world and your people next. When you win a game of EL, you get a message saying “you win!”, credits, and then the main menu.

        • FriendlyFire says:

          EL didn’t really need a big post-game description because the quest system gives you way more backstory and integrates it into the gameplay in a very cool and unique way.

        • jonfitt says:

          EL communicates its story throughout the game. It’s not just about building the Wizard Tower to get a tech victory, or Fighting a Dragon, to get a Quest victory.
          It has typical victory conditions, but the story of the factions comes throughout the game. How the human scientist Rhiss al-Khali becomes part of the Necrophage Hive and throws its thinking into turmoil, or how OpBot works with the Vaulters, helping them and undercovering its own past.

          Those quest lines and the targets it gives you are the real progression of the civilisation. The end goals are just a way to cap it off.

        • mouton says:

          I loved Endless Legend but sadly I do agree with you. Its greatest failure is not conveying the themes of their factions as well as, say, AC.

          Some say there are quests – yeah, there are, but in my opinion it is not enough. The game ought to be drenched in flavor and Amplitude has a tendency of inserting a lot of generic +number stuff into their games.

          They ARE getting better, so any of their future 4Xs has a potential to be great.

    • Shadow says:

      Yeah, the renovation of the genre will come through gameplay and mechanics. Story and fluff are nice, but ultimately are just embellishment. Of course flavour adds to the experience, but it’s a secondary trait. Alpha Centauri was great for its time, but as the article says, the fluff was mostly make-up on top of a very simple game system (Civ 2.5).

      And it’s true that Endless Legend was fairly innovative, but I suppose it wasn’t revolutionary to the formula the author criticises.

      That said, most established genres at this point could use revolutionary advancement. They’ve been mostly following proven formulae for years now.

      As far as 4X is concerned, I’m hopeful about Stellaris, which might bring awesome Paradox grand strategy to the dynamic realm of space 4X.

      • Archonsod says:

        What made AC stand out were still it’s mechanical innovations – unit designer, being able to change the map via terraforming / planetbusters, a far more flexible government model, the fungus mechanic and of course the aliens rather than barbarians. The story was just a nice extra (and not particularly remarked upon at the time as I recall).

        • onodera says:

          The contemporary reviews I remember literally called the fluff “mind-blowing”.

    • bill says:

      He’s not saying that story / flavor text is important, he’s saying that the mechanics need to create some form of meaningful change or story.

      If gameplay hardly changes between the beginning and the end, and your society hardly changes (barring size and unit graphics) then the mechanics aren’t really meaningful. More so if they hardly change between games.

      Flavor text is a kind of cheap and cheaty way to try and add some meaning to your mechanics, but it would be better if the gameplay, choices and mechanics themselves were inherently more meaningful.

      • FireStorm1010 says:

        hmm might be but its imho all the same rubbish to prove a before defined point.All better 4x games dont have these flaws.
        Lets analyze some quotes:
        “Combat scarcely changes except that the statistics on units and weapons get a little larger, so that the war you fight at the dawn of history is almost exactly the same as the war you’ll fight at the end ”

        Endless Legend: You got 3 tiers of units that you unlock with time that can change dramaticly the way you play. Unlocking techs give you many items/amulets that allow you to alter dramaticly your troops abilites: Want to make a supermobile army of archers keeping ddistance? or SuperSolid tanks?Or mix the 2? More cheaer troops or few elite ones but very expensive?Do you have the resoruces to build thebest weapons/armor or you gonna have to do with lower ones? The terrain plays an important role, and choosing combat on strategic maps in hill terrain where you can place your archers on hills can give you tremendous advantage. Finally you must counter who you are fighting. As Wild Walkers i might have used mostly my archers as backbone, but going aginst vaulters with mostly archers is a suicide idea…

        Sword of the Stars 1 – Well the sentence is so silly when you pair it with Sots. You uncover all time different techs which can change your fighting dramaticly. PD, torpedoes, unguided torps, energy absorbers etc.

        “Once settlement is over and development is underway, it becomes all too easy to hit “end turn” a few hundred times until the score screen, because there’s little to admire or enjoy in the process of building.”

        Endless Legend: You can build up your city squares.You can plan expanding cities to claim resources or more importantly anomalies, becuae there are techs that give trmendous bonuses to that. Not all buildings are worth building everywhere.Besides in a 4x game Expansion phase never ends, as you will soon enter wars that rhopefully make you extend.So you must all time plan what resrouces you want to aqcuire.

        You got all time the influence/empire plan/luxury resources mechanics to plan for. You got the winter mechanic. In short , i really fail to see hwo yuo can die in boredom clicking nexdt trun button

        Sword of the Stars 1:Well there is no buidlingds at all lol so if you want to be literal he speaks the truth. But again imho he misses the point as there is tons to do on other fronts. Tech is complex, you to care for it. You got trade to micromanage. You got orbitals/ defenses to worry about, ships redeployments, Random menaces, Grand Menaces. And this a very war orineted 4x, so there is alwys war.

        I could go on…

  7. thelastpointer says:

    The flavor texts in AC were very good indeed, but what made it really successful was the social engineering and superior diplomacy play. The two were interconnected — you could even choose what your faction valued, and that altered your relationship to other factions (for better or worse). Moreover, the rules and faction advantages were in synergy with the faction profiles. Just imagine an island controlled by the Hive, or the way fundamentalist Believers fought. I think you could tell the different factions even if you’d replace all graphics and faction colors with generic ones.

  8. Rizlar says:

    The Mughal war elephant in the room does seem to be Paradox grand strategy games, though Victoria gets a mention and Stellaris/EU4 appear in the comments.

    But are they actually 4X games? In a Stellaris blog one of the devs mentions that they never considered it to be, but the public immediately decided that it was and they chose not to deny the label.

    Perhaps this is one reason the 4X genre feels so stale, because it’s actually just referring to a very specific, formulaic subset of strategy games in general.

    • Mezmorki says:

      I think this is a concern in the genre.

      If you talk about an FPS game, in most cases it really is a pretty defined set of mechanics across the entire genre: moving, sprinting, aiming, interacting with objects, shooting, reloading, switching weapons. At least as far as most popular shooters goes, you don’t get that much variation in the basic fundamentals.

      Are 4X games defined similarly by a narrow set of mechanics and a common narrative structure (e.g. colonial expansion)? Grand Strategy games have many of the same mechanical systems/idea, but the narrative structures are different (often faction specific goals, not a zero-sum game, etc.).

    • Blastaz says:

      I would say that there is a genre of grand strategy games, with fixed provinces and greater historical sense of place, of which the prime examples are paradox and total war, are somehow different from 4x games.

      But don’t at all ask me to justify that position!

      Stellaris looks like it is more of a 4x game.

      • iniudan says:

        I wouldn’t call Total War, a 4x game, as the main focus as always been the real time battle and the explore part is missing in quite a few game in the series.

      • Zenicetus says:

        That’s the distinction I make too. I’m sure there could be overlaps and edge cases, but if I know in advance what the map layout will be, and I can predict to a certain extent what the strategies will be in different parts of the map, it’s grand strategy.

        If the map is different every time, and (in some games) I don’t even know what opponents I’ll be facing, it’s 4X.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      I wouldn’t call the recent Paradox games 4x, with their obession with stamping out unwanted play-styles they’ve leaned increasingly heavily on punishing eXpansion and eXploitation and made it obvious they don’t want you to eXterminate any but the smallest of your nearest neighbors.

      • HopeHubris says:

        What makes you say that? I’m in the middle of a multiplayer game at the moment, and I’m expanding quite aggressively without too overwhelming resistance

        • onodera says:

          Their latest CKII patches added vassal limits, coalitions and many other things that do not allow you to rule the whole world.

        • Replikant says:

          I think, Hedgeclipper has a point. I believe the root-problem may be the incompability of historical accuracy vs player ingenuity. You either have a game where nations are comparatively small, with borders shifting back and fourth and the rise and fall of nations. Then AI opponents also have to stay small in order to prevent them from overwhelming the player. Or you have a game where everyone blobs like crazy, including the player, which ensures that there is some semblance of mid-game-challenge left.
          It is difficult to make a game that is challenging but managable for small countries and continent-spanning empires at the same time. Aggressive expansion rating and coalition mechanics help, but still.
          Also, I think that Paradox is adapting the game to the increasing skill of their player base. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily help to decrease the learning curve for new players ;)

          In earlier EU iterations (EU3 an early EU4 revisions) you could blob quite easily, with low coring costs and a number of easy vassal-feeding exploits. This way, you could blob comparatively easy and do a world-conquest.
          I feel that Paradox is trying to shut as much of that down as possible and tries to increase the resistance to blobbing. This increase the challenge and tends to make world conquest a lot more difficult.

  9. Thurgret says:

    Distant Worlds mixed things up a bit, I felt.

    • RedViv says:

      It does what I think is the best way to overcome the big issue with the “story beats” of 4X games: Put in as many ways to get your own stories as possible, and make sure that the world around you is alive even outside of AI opponent activity.
      4X which is more like a sandbox than a chessboard will always be more interesting to me.

      • RedViv says:

        Heck, it already helps a lot to just change the perspective. Drox Operative has a 4X running in the background while you play Spaceship Diablo.
        The Mandate will be XCom, Homeworld and King of Dragon Pass rolled into one delicious ball.
        And since AI War was already mentioned above: The Last Federation has an absolutely brilliant and entirely different way to approach 4X settings and gameplay, and I can’t wait to see what Stars Beyond Reach will feel like.

  10. markus_cz says:

    The issue, I think, is in mechanics. What Civilisation does right is that with each new invention and era, the gameplay changes a bit – you are not unlocking better statistics, you are unlocking new mechanics, and the game is never the same.

    Whereas in most other 4X games you are unlocking better numbers (e.g. +40% to production efficiency), but the gameplay itself stays the same. The only thing that REALLY changes in these games is the map because you keep conquering new territories. Everything else is still the same, only expressed with different numbers.

    Even Paradox is guilty – take, for example Europa Universalis. Nothing but the map ever changes, everything else is just numbers that allow you to repaint the map more effectively.

    • Replikant says:

      I don’t feel like Civilizations different ages are that much different, unit sprites/models change but (with the exception of aircraft) the basic mechanics seem to stay mostly the same.

      Europa Universalis does have some interesting mechanics:
      a) it is (most of the time) not an all out war, the warscore mechanic means that usually only a few provinces change hands (of which there are many). This helps to avoid static nature of some 4X games where the loss of a city may mean the end of the game.
      b) there is usually a good-sized area of effect for each action. In my experience in Civ games I am not really concerned about anything but my nearest neighbours for most of the time. In EU, your actions will result in a reaction from a hundred different nations, which will (sometimes) alter the strategic situation.
      c) the fluid nature of alliances and coalitions tends to shift the strategic situation around and constantly forces you to adapt your situation.

      • BisonHero says:

        Civilization does layer in new things as the eras proceed. First you have just land units, then you get roads and high-mobility mounted units, you get ranged units, then you get naval units that can only go in coastal waters, then you ocean-faring naval units, then you get aircraft and submarines, and eventually missiles. Not to mention that along the way, you gain access to religion, trade routes, and archaeology mechanics that are not present within the opening turns of the game.
        It does scale up over the course of a game due to the “research” element, and it’s something that some 4X’s don’t do as well because instead of really gaining new abilities, all that happens is you get more things that give “+20% to defense” or “+10% to production” or whatever, but nothing as significant a change as aircraft.

  11. Lord Byte says:

    You know what game did that right, and why I’m still playing it regularly up to this day? Star Wars: Rebellion
    The heroes in it were a stroke of genius, and the events would base themselves around your decisions, although in a limited way:
    Han Solo would keep getting attacked by bounty hunters, and if he’d be in a system with little troops or support he can easily get captured forcing Luke, Leia and Chewbacca to go after him, or when you attack or infiltrate a planet with Luke while Vader is on it (which you don’t necessarily know) will cause them to battle and might end up either one in the infirmary (usually Luke unless you were able to get a lot of increases in skill).
    Winning a tenuous battle, or sabotaging an army can lead one planet to revolt, go neutral, or even join your side, which can have a ripple effect on others, and so on…

  12. TheMightyEthan says:

    “so that the war you fight at the dawn of history is almost exactly the same as the war you’ll fight at the end.”

    War. War never changes.

    I’m sorry, I’ll get my coat.

  13. Doubler says:

    Can I mention the original Imperium Galactica as an interesting standout, both because it is story-based and because it essentially has you join the game in the middle.

  14. vlonk says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article.

    Strategy games offer themselves to interpretation as they unravel, showing emerging stories and developments.

    They do not need to be fair, they need to be memorable. But after countless hours in Civ V I can feel the formula. I started many maps but I rarely finish them. The repetition seems not worth the time invested. I explored the interesting parts and feel I should move on. I feel the particular game became predictable and stale.

    I would like to have more random impactful events, have the game recognize a narrative and “go with it”, maybe have the game show me crazy things that happened which I might have missed or compare my achievements with former games. Explore maybe the possibilities of the “advisors” and fill them with as much depth as you can Firaxis!

    When it comes to uneven playing fields Paradox is one step ahead of the competition by allowing me to literally play as any country on a map on a given savegame. EUIV is not fair, I could get swallowed by France or the Ottomans or any strong neighbour as a small player within an instant. Even as a ruler of the grandest empire I can roll an incompetent or an illegitimate heir and be thrown into a crushing civil war, centers of reformation can lead to religious turmoil, etc. etc.

    This keeps me coming back to EU IV right now.

    But I played Civ V for an even greater amount of hours. I adore this game, it is almost perfectly balanced. I humbly believe they can not improve the core gameplay. I wish for Civ VI that they enhance the narrative possibilities, explore diplomacy and hopefully add even more on the fringes that they did not explore yet in the series.

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      Andy_Panthro says:

      The key difference with Civ is that balance. You start off with any of the civilizations and can win the game by the end. All it requires is the skills and knowledge (and a little bit of luck).

      The Paradox strategy games don’t have that balance, they approach things in a different way. If I choose to play as France I will have a very different experience than if I were to play as a small kingdom or some lesser noble. The goals are different, and they will never be “conquer the world” or equivalent.

      • vlonk says:

        Paradox games also let me do “nothing” and just skip ahead until I feel I need to do “something”.

        You could say that they play themselves and I am often times just an observer. You can set many goals and priorities when and how to intervene. This info system allows many layers of knowledge and reminders (for instance “interesting country” message filter). I can breeze through a game or micromanage, I can filter all kinds of information on the map, all kinds of event feedbacks and can even automate some things (clumsily). My diplomatic options are staggering.

        I feel Paradox are tapping in several layers of game design that Firaxis did not even touch yet. Complex diplomacy or layers of in depth info (that is hidden in Civ and barely mined by addons) could work wonders to develop the Civ franchise. A man can dream?

        • FriendlyFire says:

          Civ is designed to be a bird’s eye view of what it’s attempting to represent, most of all approachable while retaining a certain amount of depth. It’s a careful balance that they’ve done an excellent job of keeping so far. It has far wider appeal than Paradox’s grand strategy games and I don’t really expect Civ to edge in that way at all.

          They’re different genres with different goals and audiences. I’d invite anyone to a Civ game, but even I feel somewhat repelled by something like EU4 or CK2’s complexity and opaque interface.

          • vlonk says:

            After watching the Civ multiplayer crowd for a while (Filthyrobot) I come to the conclusion, that their skills on the macro level are to a certain degree attached to feeling out the information, that Paradox games often times give away freely on different map layers, message and news filters.

            When someone is badgering over the Civ5 info screen to find out tech paths of their opponent, is hovering over the map to count hammers to see if certain (to them) hidden resources are tapped into, these are information snippets where a Paradox game would probably just allow you an alert message.

            I like the Civ5 micro manage game, but the macro information tools are lacking. Firaxis is empowering the player with many ways of automation. I can automate my city development, string techs up, and unit management ist getting better.

            Yet Civ games crumble on filtering information for the player. The bigger the game scales the harder it gets to gather information. There are no map filters to speak of, undeveloped tiles are a puzzle game, development potential cannot be highlighted and road networks need to be checked by hand for road=>railroad upgrades. I can check the actual power level of enemy civs, but I cannot compare their growth, even so almost all datapoints where available round after round. To access those graphs I would need to quit the game, check them, then restart it. Advisors have often times good reasoning, but they hide their arguments. Lastly, without the enhanced UI mod, Civ5 hides a metric ton of datapoints from the player, which are readily available in the UI, just hidden in submenus.

  15. Hobbes says:

    Except, and this is going to come as a non-shock to a lot of people, including very smart people who are making very profitable games. The games which stand on the shoulders of Civ and MoO -work.

    In other words, 4X might seem stale to the article writer, and they might apparently be in need of refreshment, but at least thus far, they’re still very marketable, very profitable, and there’s a very vibrant market with a good swathe of competition and demand not only for the obvious candidates (Firaxis’s entries in the Civ series) but for the less obvious ones as well which several in the comments thread have already pointed out. The ones that catch lightning in a bottle (Endless Legend, AI War) set precedents that if nothing else, engender discussion and create new ways forward for larger 4X franchises to consider innovations with.

    In Amplitudes’ case, a lot of what you’ve seen with Endless Legend is likely going to end up in various degrees helping form elements of Endless Space 2, because there are parts that worked exceptionally well, and Amplitude want to integrate those and take the lessons from each previous game and fold them in.

    TLDR : The genre doesn’t need revolution, revolution will come naturally over time. Evolution will take care of everything anyways. Stellaris is a good example of Paradox taking a logical step in this regard.

  16. darkath says:

    Victoria 2 and to a lesser extent CIV5 did something that few 4Xes ever achieved. In multiplayer the wars you fight are meaningful and not just a matter of winning or controlling victory points. You fight wars because you need to adress some new needs (usually in form of resources that are controlled by someone else).

    I remember a Victoria 2 game where world war 1 was started over an increased demand for rubber, and had the world powers fight over the main sources of rubber in the world (SE asia, sub-saharan Africa, etc).
    In CIV5 it is less thrilling but suddenly the player that has one of the few sources of aluminium will wield power over the other players who don’t, or be the target of their attacks.

    In most of the others 4Xs the resources you collect and need at the start of the game are the same as the resources you collect and need at the end of the game.

  17. jonfitt says:

    I am really excited by the concept that Rob talks about of a civilisation actually changing through time as technology and the situation they find themselves in affect them.

    What if that 200 year war with your neighbour Genghis Khan actually affected the way your people view the world. What if there was your typical -2 happiness war effect, but over time the people not only become resigned to war, but treat it as normality. Generations grow up accepting this. Then it affects the way they view other civs, and the technologies they will consent to using change as suicide bombing or weapons of mass destruction become considered morally acceptable.
    What if that leads to a huge rise in nationalism that allows for huge armies of many troops that are constantly refilled with willing volunteers.

    Space 4x games are criminally underutilised when it comes to the changing of a civilization. When people (or bear men) are spread out over light years the billions of people on each planet will socially and economically diverge over the years. When you have people living their entire lives on a lava planet mining for space ore, their political views are going to be a bit different to those living on New Eden.
    It is even more interesting when you eschew magic jump drives and move everything to hard sci-fi. Then travel between planets takes generations and your game moves onto a different timescale. You have to start thinking about pseudo-evolutionary changes in your civilisation as the citizens of Mega Prime 7 decide to embrace cybernetics, while the colonists on Meta Haven 3 find a plant that grants them mental bliss and they move into a pre-industrial communes.

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      Nauallis says:

      Shout out to you for this post. Agreed. The lack of long-term permanent consequences are a weak point against the civilization series of games.

    • darkath says:

      Rejoice, because in stellaris, your population will diverge as it become more spread out. Developping new genetic traits in some of your planets, or simply adopting new ethics. This will in turn create internal tension and subfactions attempting to break up from your empire.

      • jonfitt says:

        I don’t want to get myself too excited, but “Paradox Does a Grand Strategy Space Game” is the kind of thing that makes you pinch yourself.

  18. Danley says:

    There’s one thing I want out of any game in the current state of the industry, and it’s the ability to leave a lasting foundation I can come back to. 4X games from this era give you a substantial feeling of *homeland*, even if it’s just that first city. Civ V, Age of Wonders III and Endless Legend in particular. But what I really want is a game that takes my results and territory from one playthrough and pastes that world and that history into another one, so that I can jump into that same world with renewed threats or even in a different role than I played before. Civ:BE could easily do this with multiplayer being persistent so that anyone can make planetfall on any other multiplayer game’s world no matter what disadvantage you might be at. (I’ve only played a little bit of SMAC, and see they sort of do this by recycling the player if they die. Eador teases the functionality then mercilessly pulls it out from under you.)

    This wouldn’t even need to be a ‘Live’ mechanic but rather just a way of reusing people’s games to generate new ones for your single player games. But if there’s one thing I want out of any game’s multiplayer, it’s the constant threat of invasion from other players so that your fortress is actually fortified from something. What I’d like most of all is when I’m in a game and happen to have an Internet connection, I want there to be some question of whether I’m playing an AI or secretly playing another person who secretly jumped in the hot seat at some point during that session. Make it secretive so that the player has to balance building a secret network with alerting you to their presence. Rather than *PLANETFALL* like in Beyond Earth it could be something more akin to the threshold in AI Wars, after which they know there’s a player there but don’t know where.

    That’s my answer to all gaming monotony discussions, though: make it a Turing Test. The first time Goomba waddles backwards instead of forwards you’ll shit your pants.

    • MondSemmel says:

      Re: Your Turing Test suggestion: Have you looked at Spy Party? It’s a 2-player asymmetric multiplayer game fundamentally about deception, where the Sniper has to kill the NPC they believe is controlled by the Spy, whereas the Spy has to perfectly pretend to be an NPC so the Sniper doesn’t target them.

      • Danley says:

        Yeah, it’s very cool, as is Sleep is Death but both are kind of intimate experiences you set up for someone (or set someone up for). They may be even more careful with players than what I’m proposing. I want an online game that mines human interaction rather than relying on AI, and where you’re not congratulated for being PLAYER 2 (etc) but are rewarded instead with the immediate frustration you’re giving the primary player.

  19. JRHaggs says:

    From what games were screenshots 3 and 7 taken?

    • jonfitt says:

      Age of Wonders (probably 3), and Fallen Enchantress (probably Legendary Heroes).

    • Danley says:

      3 is Age of Wonders III, 7 I’m not sure but it looks like Fallen Enchantress. Maybe Elemental.

    • csbear says:

      Screenshot 7 – Looks like Sorcerer King (maybe Fallen Enchantress?)

      I personally really enjoyed FE:LH, but mainly for it’s RPG elements and ambiance, if not its 4x aspects. It would have been nice if FE:LH was held in higher regard, so Stardock could have improved on it and continue with a FE II.

  20. C0llic says:

    Great article and I sadly have to agree. Endless legend almost got there. It had the right idea, but falls short of truly capitalising on the teased narrative and interesting context it’s cinematics, world and races put in place.

  21. porps says:

    there was sins of a solar empire, that was kinda different at least

  22. lomaxgnome says:

    Sometimes it seems like we accidentally live in a universe where Alpha Centauri doesn’t exist. It had so many innovations that were never followed up on, things that should have become standard in the genre yet never seem to have had any influence at all. It’s bizarre to me how such a widely revered game could have had seemingly little impact on game design after all of these years.

    • Jeroen D Stout says:

      This is how I feel about a surprising number of games. A lot of great things from the late 90’s/early 00’s were somehow dropped and now we act as-if we have to re-invent them.

  23. Laurentius says:

    In single player, throw balance out of the window, go bonkers, adds more awsome, unique and bonkers stuff.
    Let the game shape you the world, not just crunching numbers. Let the game feel you achived something, not just +30 to production. Game world should change befoe you very eyes but it should not be only visual thta hides higher numbers.

  24. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    I never understood why the endless series, mostly legend, was so liked by some.

    The gameplay is so bland it felt like you were playing a 4X slow live suicid.

    Endless legend definitely made me sick over 4X formula.

  25. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    Anybody remembers Utopia on Amiga and probably Atari ?
    Such awesome memories …

  26. Unsheep says:

    I disagree, to me the world of 4X strategy games, and equivalently Grand Strategy, is rich and diverse.

    There’s everything from Sci-fi stuff like Star Ruler 2, The Last Federation and Endless Space, to Fantasy stuff like Worlds of Magic, Sorcerer King and Dominions 4, to Historical stuff like Imperialism, Victoria, March of the Eagles and Supreme Ruler.

    So there’s actually lots of variety within this genre.

    True, the mechanics and concepts are similar in these games but that is true for every other genre as well, in fact ‘having similar mechanics or design concepts’ is what creates a genre in the first place.

    Whether the storylines or campaigns are interesting or not is of-course subjective. However to me these games are more about creating interesting and cool gameworlds, rather than having a strong narrative. You want to feel that you have experienced and been part of something epic. I feel he same way about RTS and city-builder games.

    • Diatribe says:

      I can’t believe you are the first person to mention Dominions 4.

      You are absolutely correct. The variety between, e.g., Civ 5, Dominions 4, Victoria 2, The Last Federation, and Sword of the Stars is extreme. None of those games follows a similar pattern and they use wildly diverse mechanics and themes. There is plenty of innovation between the different types of games.

      The “4x” genre is much like the FPS genre. It’ll seem stagnant if you only play COD and Battlefield. If you expand the genre to include to Portal, Rainbow 6, Left 4 Dead, Borderlands and Evolve, you’ll see a lot more variety within the genre.

  27. Premium User Badge

    cpt_freakout says:

    I think this is a good polemic, but I do agree with Unsheep that there is a good degree of variety in the genre. The idea of progress does not drive games like Dominions or Thea, which is what makes them so exciting to play.

    A more up to date idea of progress, however, would definitely help make Civilization and its new offshoots much better. The way things work in the Sid Meier games (and those inspired by them) is through a 19th century idea of history, namely, that ‘progress’ is that historical movement in which the entire world slowly comes to resemble the ‘peak’ of human development in European culture/society at that point in time. Your society is tribal? Oh, that means you’re still like in the year 400 BC, and will eventually catch up with ‘us’, by discovering essentially the same things ‘we’ have. This justified a myriad atrocities, but that’s not the point I want to make.

    Such an idea does not account for changes in other kinds of societies over time, and does not allow for difference in the understanding of the world. This is why every culture in Civilization is essentially the same: we’re all destined to follow the same path.

    The alternative to this philosophy of history, though, makes for a much, perhaps impossibly more complicated game. First, it means having asymmetry as its basis, and it means actually trying to simulate and interpret the history of each civilization, instead of having one essential civilization with many masks. Second, it means having entire systems developed for each civ, taking care that they are ultimately balanced and interact well, which could mean making a different sub-game for each and every one. Third, it means pushing away the conventions of the genre by assigning very different ‘win conditions’ for each civ (so Alpha Centauri squared), according to historical interpretation and speculation. Of course, these have to be made viable and enjoyable, since most of what people seem to enjoy in these games is the conquest part, but that’s not because conquest trumps all, but because all other options are usually uninteresting mechanically speaking.

    I could go on; in any case, the thing is I think Rob is onto something, but perhaps it’s not as wide-ranging as he makes it out to be. More mainstream 4x games could definitely use a historian or two assigned to their design principles and not only the fluff/accuracy part.

  28. PhilBowles says:

    I think the issue is less that the gameplay hasn’t changed – though real innovation would be welcome, especially in space 4xes that remain fundamentally more simplistic and combat-focused than their ‘terrestrial’ counterparts – and more that the presentation of the flavour has gone, as you suggest with Alpha Centauri. Civs I and II had popups describing in detail the tech you just researched and its historical background; Civ IV and V just give you quotes. The new Master of Orion is much more effective than it should be, given that it’s not much more than a reskin of MOO 2, in part because it appreciates that what set the original apart was its character more than its mechanics – no other 4x ever had random events presented as a humorous newscast, but it was a staple of the MOO games enthusiastically revived for this one.

    Similarly Endless Legend got rave reviews because, while mechanically it’s rather lacklustre and its victory conditions are particularly tedious bucket-filling, it has a great deal of character.

    Some innovation does exist along the lines you suggest – Civ V managed to make warfare change fundamentally over time, first with the onset of artillery and more radically with aircraft, in a way no previous entry in the series managed.

  29. chauncy50 says:

    I kind of disagree with this article.I do agree that the 4x genre has grown stale, but I don’t think the problem is with the narrative. I can enjoy one of these games just fine as long as the gameplay is good, and currently it is too old to be enjoyable in many of these games.

  30. Urist13 says:

    I would whole heartedly recommend that everyone interested in a new kind of space 4X game keep an eye on Paradox’s new IP Stellaris, it looks like it’s going to be really nice.

  31. masterpain says:

    I kinda agree with the article, but IMO, there’s very little room left to explore in 4X genre. Heck, it is a genre that is defined by the very mechanics: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. That’s it. The way I see it, 4X would either go the RTS-way (radically changed from its roots, like Dawn of War II) or the CRPGs-way (going back to its roots a la Pillars of Eternity or Wasteland 2). Stagnancy isn’t so much a problem for genre with an already established fans, just take a look at sports management game: the same exact gameplay coming years after years and people still spend thousand of hours into it. (One of my steam friend clocked 3000+ hours into Football Manager 2016). The fan isn’t going to cry about lack of innovation here, the gameplay mechanic is well-tested and well-received.

    As for the uniformity of theme in the 4X genre, I think it has a rather healthy and diverse themes. There’s history in Civ, space in Master of Orion, fantasy in Endless legend and so on. CRPGs is far worse in this department (choose between two: futuristic sci-fi or high-fantasy)

    IMO the biggest problem for 4X is not about stagnancy or lack of variety, it’s accessibility. The learning curve for this genre is far steeper than any other genre. Civ V tried to streamline its mechanics and make it accessible for newcomers, but even some of my friends still won’t touch it. Too complex, taking up too much time to learn, etc. So yeah, the way to ‘fix’ 4X is to make it appealing for broader audience, allowing newcomers to taste it while at the same time making the die hard stays.