Strategy games have been around for thousands of years. We’ve played them in all of their various forms, but before we had StarCraft, we had Chess and Carcassone. There came a time when the bustling utility of the computer allowed for more sophisticated fare that didn’t require tons of custom paperwork, massive table tops, a complex set of dice and the inefficient industry of the human calculator. One of the most popular genres to emerge from this new computer gaming was the XXXX strategy game, which isn’t short-hand for extra-dimensional porn, but the perfect way to produce a game of a massive scale – like building an empire – without bogging you down in minutiae. With developers continuing to push out 4X “tribute” games that fall way short of their influences, I’ve decided to step back to explain what makes those games so special, rather than rag about what makes these would-bes inferior.
Know What A 4X Game Is
Strategy takes a number of forms and until Alan Emrich invented the term in 1993 to describe Master of Orion and Civilization. The 4X takes many flavors, but consists of four core attributes: Explore: To gain traction on this massive board, be it galactic, worldly or otherwise, you’ll send scouts out to discover the world around you. This establishes scale and prevents you from making long-term strategies straight out of the gate.
Expand: Like competitive real-time strategy games, a single base/city/outpost isn’t enough to sustain you for long. Unlike those games, you won’t need to micromanage their construction. As your force grows, you’ll need to scale it to tackle bigger goals.
Exploit: To keep your empire running, you’ll need to take advantage of local resources. Sometimes it’s just ore, but it can become quite an affair as you harvest a variety of unique items across the landscape which, of course, can lead to war.
Exterminate: All games have this, but your goal will ultimately be to engulf the enemy’s sphere of influence with the flagella of your own power blob.
While not strictly in the title, there are a number of other key components you’ll need as well:
Research: While your game doesn’t need to span the ages like Civilization does, your culture will need to shift and evolve. Research comes naturally to any expanding faction over time, so allowing the game to change as you develop new technologies is a must. This also means that because of the game’s scale, you’ll have a variety of forms to research and pick through as well, whether they affect your civilian or militaristic castes.
Diplomacy: Maybe you don’t want to wipe out the enemy, but you can definitely use them to your advantage. While you’re exploiting, expanding and exploring, so are they. Sign agreements, swap tech, benefit from their trade. Okay, so many games feature these, but what are they getting wrong? Let’s move on.
I. Explain Yourself… Gently
Yeah, I get you’re a crazy ambitious and complex game, that’s the order of the day, but there’s simply no need to blunt the player with explanation. Point out each new element as you go, as if you were teaching the game to someone else in person. The player should imagine the developer remoting into their desktop and being able ot highlight things. Do you need thick slabs of text to do this? No. Absolutely not.
II. Go Big Or Go Home
There’s nothing in the rules that states games have to be thematically large, but 4X games are designed to be complex by proxy. You’re establishing a large, interdependent system that works optimally through scale, so why keep things on the DL? Playing on smaller maps or with fewer stars I can understand, sometimes these games don’t need to swell to fifteen, twenty hours (which makes them horrible for mobile). But if you’re going to tackle the genre, do something big or new. I have yet to see a 4X game in the scope of human cell – that could be cool! – or in a SimCity-style environment. If all I’m doing in your game is establishing a few footholds to eliminate an enemy’s couple outposts, that’s just not enticing, regardless of its qualities.