Below you’ll find our list of the best historical 4X games you can play on PC. For a long time, Civilization has been the standard bearer of 4X games, enjoining players to explore, expand, exploit, and, er, exterminate in turn-based strategy. Amplitude’s Humankind, however, looks set to refresh the genre when it releases in August 2021.
By getting rid of great leaders and starting players off from the same blank slate, Humankind offers a novel challenge to the 4X crown. Until then, here’s our choice of the best 4X games on PC.
Old World develops from the Civilization scaffold to deliver a hex-based historical strategy that’s much easier to finish. Designer Soren Johnson is well placed to identify some of the shortcomings in games that never end – he designed Civilization IV.
One of Old World’s innovations is a resource called order. This checks the number of things you can do in a turn and adds a novel tension to the 4X game. You can, for example, run out of orders in an empire which lacks the sufficient number of administrative buildings. Where do your priorities lie – at home or abroad?
It is a bit more cumbersome than the Civilization games, with a user interface that will make getting to grips with its remixed systems slightly taxing. Its art is also less cartoonish, which some historical strategy fans will appreciate.
The fifth entry into the mainline Civilization series is over 10 years old and often available at cheap prices, which makes it an accessible entry-point into 4X historical strategy games. The original game serves as more of a platform on which to append its transformative expansions. With the expansions, Civilization V makes for a reliable 4X experience.
Players settle cities, irrigate fields and mine into mountains, then create military units to hold off attackers. Different research trees furnish new technologies and social improvements. Eventually it’s possible for the player to conquer the innocent neighbour nearby whose only crime is having uranium inside their borders.
Jon Shafer’s At The Gates
Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer takes a cue from Sid Meier and affixes his name to the front of this historical 4X strategy. At The Gates has a narrower focus than Civilization, and for that matter it has a narrower budget, too. Funded by fans on Kickstarter, it’s ornamented with cheerful indie production values.
The player in At The Gates assumes the role of a lord trying to stitch a kingdom together after the collapse of the western Roman Empire. It’s more interested in economic development than vanquishing foes. And it’s slow, with turns that only account for half a month, and resources that are stretched thin across the map. At The Gates is for you if you ever thought a game of Civilization went too quickly.
City planners will delight at the fact that new wonders and districts in Civilization VI’s cities spill out into the surrounding countryside, necessitating some focus on how to distribute different tiles on the map. It’s one of several new features which generally iron out irritants present in Civ V. Support units can share tiles with other units now, for example.
The map the player explores and expands into also looks wonderful. In the early game, explored landscapes look like vivid oases on a sun-bleached canvas. The experience of folding back the map is one of the key components of the genre, and Civilization VI does it very nicely.
Its expansions, Rise and Fall and Gathering Storm, present worthy attempts to inject some more life into the late game. The most recent, Gathering Storm, introduces volcanoes and climate change-induced environmental effects to menace players’ ambitions. Civilization VI has a strong claim to being the best historical 4X game, and the overall best 4X game on PC.
Europa Universalis IV
Europa Universalis IV is a Paradox Interactive grand strategy game that is also effectively a 4X game. It can be intimidating, with complex systems that may lay beyond the reach of a first-timer.
On the other hand, it’s tremendously deep. We’ve included Europa Universalis IV in our list of the best historical strategy games.
What at first appears like an alternative vision of Total War: Three Kingdoms’s grand strategy is in fact a 4X game inspired by Chinese history. It largely plays like the 4Xs you know and love, however all players resolve their turns at the same time.
Coupled with its distinctive choice of setting, this element of surprise lends the game a unique place among historical 4X games.
Imperiums: Greek Wars
Develop cities, build infrastructure and cultivate the land in Kube Games’ synthesis of historical grand strategy and 4X games. The game launches in 359 BC, as Philip II takes the throne. Set against warring states, Imperiums: Greek Wars intends to reflect an authentic picture of the political relations of states at the time, while opening up the floor for players to carve their own path.
It’s not terribly accessible and looks fairly dry, but its 4X blend makes it stand out against similar titles. It couples in tales such as the legends of the Golden Fleece and Gordian Knot into its mission structure, while it simplifies city development in a Civilization vein.