State of 4X in 2016

Well, here we are again. On the cusp of eXplorminate’s 2nd anniversary, the team has changed once more. Rob, aka Devildog, changed roles to be more of a guest contributor for the group, and Nate, aka Nasarog, took up his mantle. In non-eXplorminate news, a slew of 4X games came out this year and more are on the way.



Our findings show…


Launched This Year:

  • Endless Legend: Shifters (expansion)
  • Falling Stars: War of Empires
  • Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars
  • Planar Conquest
  • Polaris Sector
  • Pocket Space Empire (early access)
  • StarDrive 2: Sector Zero (expansion)
  • Star Ruler 2: Wake of the Heralds (expansion)
  • Stellaris
  • Thea: the Awakening – Return of the Giants and Multiprayer (expansions)

To Be Launched Later This Year:

  • Civilization VI
  • Dawn of Andromeda (early access)
  • Eador: Imperium
  • Endless Legend: Tempest
  • Endless Space 2 (early access)
  • Oriental Empires
  • Sorcerer Kings: Rivals (expansion)
  • Stars in Shadow (early access)

Where does that leave eXplorminate and the 4X genre? In a good place, we think. Here, in honor of two years together and many more to come, are some of the eXplorminate group’s opinions on the state of 4X gaming in 2016.



2016 is going to be a huge year for the 4X genre when all’s said and done, but I’d like to focus on Amplitude Studios and its acquisition by Sega. Yeah, that Sega. The one that made the Genesis/Saturn/Dreamcast systems, the Sonic the Hedgehog and Golden Axe franchises, and also the publisher for Creative Assembly and Relic Studios. Is this a good thing for Amplitude? Maybe.



“Hark, who goes there? Just us fish…”

I’ve heard directly from Amplitude that they needed help managing all of the people working there now. With the success of Endless Space, Dungeon of the Endless and Endless Legend, they grew too big for the founders to manage it all alone. Here at eXplorminate, we can certainly empathize with that. Civilization VI is coming in October. Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars is out, and Stellaris has been leading the pack since May. For Endless Space 2 to compete, it needs the management skills and the advertising budget to run with the big dogs. Sega certainly brings that to the table.

But, is that enough? Sega has shown us through various Creative Assembly and Relic titles that they like to keep a tight reign on “hard” release dates and DLC principles. Basically, that means they push for A LOT of DLC. Some will say Amplitude did that with Endless Legend already, maybe, but Sega will want two, three, maybe four times the DLC. So we’ll wait and watch.

Speaking of Civ VI and MoO:CtS, it will be interesting to see how those games push the genre forward. MoO:CtS is designed to deliver a streamlined eXperience rooted firmly in nostalgia for the classics of the past. And why not? Not every 4X needs to crush your spirit as you slowly learn the game. Civ VI on the other hand is looking to build on what they started with Civ V and that’s always a good thing.

So, let’s try to stay optimistic and judge these changes based on actual results and not speculation and fear. I am certainly going to give it a shot.


I remember as a child, being beyond excited for 1989 because we were getting Batman, Ghostbusters 2, AND Indiana Jones all in the same summer. It seemed impossible that so much goodness could come together in just two short months.



Security pact securing things.

Well here we are in 2016 and my old bones are feeling the echoes of that little boy’s giddy excitement. A year with Stellaris, Civ VI, AND Early Access Endless Space 2? Not to mention the new MoO, Oriental Empires, and Dawn of Andromeda all on top of the still-vibrant, always improving Age of Wonders 3 and Endless Legend. And sure, like that summer of ‘89, some of these games may turn out to be turds (like Ghostbusters 2). And maybe a title that we thought was an all time classic will be eclipsed by later iterations (a la Batman). But we’re still going to be talking about the 2016 4X avalanche for a long time.

And while I’m not thrilled about the number of developer acquisitions we’ve seen this summer, I will say I see a positive there, as well. All that corporate attention means that our favorite genre is profitable. People see 4X as a place where there is money to be made. That’s a good thing. It means more 4X in the future.

Overall, I think we’ve stumbled into a special time in 4X and I consider myself so lucky to get to be a part of it.


Here’s the thing: we’re in the midst of a 4X renaissance of sorts – and yet I am standing in the middle of all these releases and I’m just not very excited about any of them.

Stellaris needs a lot of work (in my opinion) – and the Heinlein patch due to come out, maybe, in October, doesn’t look as transformational as I was hoping it would be. As it is, Stellaris is a bit of a dud for me with a dull mid-game and non-existent end-game. I think StarDrive 2 with Sector Zero out-MoO’ed Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars, and so I’m passing on nuMoO. And I’ve never been a big fan of the Civilization series (so Civ VI isn’t all that appealing).

Of the “big titles” on the horizon, it is down to Endless Space 2. The design documents for the game look intriguing, but at the end of the day neither Endless Legend nor Endless Space really grabbed me the way they did for so many others. Am I becoming too cynical and jaded? Or am I expecting something from 4X games that they just aren’t able to deliver?


“Ride like the wind..er, Undead carriage.”

As my article on the nature of strategy brought up, I’m not sure I like the overall direction that many 4X games appear to be headed. 4X games seem to be either devolving into optimization puzzles or turning into overly complex simulators – and the strategic sausage making is getting lost along the way. As a result, the most enjoyable strategic experiences I’ve had this past year have been with Total War: Warhammer (which some would argue isn’t really a 4X game in the first place) and the Battle for Polytopia (an atomized, mobile 4X game on iOS).

While the genre appears to be growing, particularly as larger publishers are stepping into the ring, the question of whether it is providing unique and compelling design remains to be seen. The golden plateau we appeared to be climbing towards at the start of the year is looking more and more like a small foothill.


A year ago, I would have said that 2016 was going to be a golden age of 4X games. Sadly, I still feel like I am waiting. Stellaris and Master of Orion have both left me wanting more. That isn’t to say I feel that either game is bad, rather they need to mature in terms of content. They just haven’t hit that sweet spot for me, personally. Endless Legend: Shifters, on the other hand, has been the most fun I have had with a game in a long time. It is nice to see what I deem the crowning jewel placed onto an already great franchise.



“Hi, how u’ doin’?”

While the year has been somewhat lackluster so far, I am still anxiously awaiting Endless Space 2 as well as Civilization VI! Amplitude has been perfecting their formula since the original Endless Space through the Endless Legend series, and I think (hope?) it will be the space 4X game I have been looking for since Galactic Civilizations III. As for Civilization VI, let me put it this way, Civ V is my most played 4X game ever by hundreds of hours and I couldn’t be more excited!

The future looks bright, fun, and full of hundreds of hours of gameplay!


I’ve been staring at this document for ten minutes, not knowing where to start. So many 4X games! Those that have already dropped and those still to come. Civilization VI awaits at the end of October like a big exclamation point.

The highlight for me thus far, has been Stellaris. It’s so bloody outstanding! I often sit back in my throne – err, desk chair – and watch with glee as my empire thrives and hums. The giddiness I often feel whilst playing Stellaris is hard to quantify. It’s imperfect in a lot of ways. A few of my favorite games have been flawed masterpieces, and it seems Stellaris has quickly joined that handful of awesomeness. There’s something in Stellaris that is palpably amazing and altogether divergent from other 4x games. Perhaps it is the real-time nature, or the many quest lines, or just the glorious soundtrack. I simply cannot wait to see where it is in a year or two.


“See anything you like?”

I’m also excited to see where Galactic Civilizations III will be in another year. I’m one of the few GalCiv3 hipsters ‘round these parts. It took me a while to grow to love it, but love it I do (and I don’t tell anyone about that dark period – oh wait, yes I did, in my shamelessly plugged Mercenaries review). I love the GalCiv3 engine and Stardock has been churning out free patches as well as a slew of small DLC and there’s a massive expansion in the works. Stardock says it’s their biggest expansion for any of their games… Ever! Bring it on!

Anyway, I think the future of 4x is bright throughout this year and into the next, and if every game proves an unlikely disappointment, there’s still Age of Wonders III to keep me happy.


The next Golden Age of 4X gaming has arrived, and it hasn’t disappointed me thus far.  


Space Jar Jar Binks thanks you for your patronage.

I’ve kept my eye on some of the bigger titles that promised to smash our understanding of the 4X universe like Stellaris, Endless Space 2, Master Of Orion:CTS and Civ VI, but there were smaller titles that ended up as pleasant surprises as well. The Star Drive 2: Sector Zero expansion impressed me by pushing the boundaries of what a “war-like” 4X game can accomplish. Stars In Shadow also looks like a great 4X title and has a fantastic old school appearance.

What I look forward to the most with all these games is the post-launch process of patching and feature additions through expansions and DLC. I can only imagine digging deeper into Stellaris a year from now, in awe of how far it has come since launch. The future is bright, my fellow 4Xers. I’ll catch you on the other side of the wormhole!


A year ago, I put myself down on record as being wide-eyed and excited about the state of strategy and 4X gaming. Despite some good launches, this year has left me feeling more pessimistic. While I’d hoped this would be a year of pushing boundaries, most titles have been safe and conservative. Even the vaunted Stellaris, which I’d put a lot of hope in, took a cautious toe-in-the-water approach to pushing Grand Strategy to the stars. That’s not to say the games have been bad. It’s just that most of them have been happy nudging at the confines of the genre, and those confines are getting real tight real fast.



Ships, ships, and more ships.

It’s 2016 – two decades after MoO II and Civ II – and I still feel like I’m playing those games over and over again. Granted, those were two of my formative games, and even now I love them to pieces. But let’s be honest; gameplay in the bulk of 4X games has made only small, slow gains in the interceding years. Diplomacy is still threadbare at best in AAA titles. Combat still bogs down and becomes more punishment than pleasure. Empire management is still more about workflow optimization than making difficult decisions and sacrifices. I still have no way of interacting with my neighbors in meaningful, interesting ways – other than slaughtering them. We still have snowballing victories that replace endgame tension with endless tedium. Research is still king. And most of all, I still feel like the Grand Imperial Workflow Optimizer and Micromanager rather than the Grand Emperor. I can’t help but feel that the genre holds so much potential that’s just waiting to be realized.

As our other contributors have pointed out, 4X game development is becoming a lucrative endeavor. Maybe that will prove to be the antidote to decades of stagnation, but given big money and powerful investors usually seek safe, guaranteed returns, I’m not hopeful. Of course, it goes without saying that I’d love to be proven wrong. So get to it, developers!


Well. All I can say about 4X so far is that there were so meh-ny games that came out this year. Planar Conquest, Polaris Sector, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars, and Oriental Empires are all play-it-safe designs that probably aren’t worth the price they’re asking. And while the latter two games are still in beta, there’s not much hope that they’ll receive major makeovers that will turn them into cutting edge strategy titles. It’s not that any of them are bad games. None of them strike me as miserable titles like we had in 2015. It’s just that none of them seem like they’re really going to excite the hearts of their fanbase.


“The slumber party is over.”

We still have Civilization VI coming out this year, and Endless Space 2 will launch in 2017. There’s reason to hope for our beloved genre, but that hope rests with the two most professional development teams in our space. We shouldn’t be surprised if those games turn out to be great. It’s expected. I’m just not seeing something like a Thea: The Awakening this year.

The year started out with great expectations, but it seems like we are falling on hard times with our 4X titles. Let’s hope that the remainder of 2016 pleasantly surprises us in the same way 2015 did.


Golden Age of 4X? Certainly in terms of the sheer number of titles released over the past couple of years. Otherwise, I am not always so sure. For me, 4X-wise, the past year has been a little underwhelming. Sure, some of my favorite titles have received some new content here and there and been patched up by their loving developers, but overall the year has left me pretty cold so far.

I think that may be because the genre feels stuck in a rather odd place: betwixt and between. While some titles have shown some remarkable innovations wrapped in a comfortable package (Endless Legend and its expansions), other titles seem firmly rooted in the past, for good or ill (the new MoO, for instance). We have seen interesting new combat systems, a broader variety of themes, and a new level of depth in faction differentiation. But the genre still struggles with the same foes critics were pointing out 25 years ago: cumbersome micromanagement, laughable AI opponents, and mid-to-late game slogs to the finish line.

Even so, I remain cautiously optimistic for the future. There are more eyes on, and more minds thinking about, the genre than ever before. There are more studios, great and small, working on these issues than at any other time in the genre’s history. If the demons that have plagued 4X games can ever truly be slayed, I think it will be in the near future. There are promising titles on the horizon, and I am looking forward to them.



Everyone needs a break now and then.

In the meanwhile, I find myself delving deeper into some of the games featured on our Friday eXcursions and I would encourage any of our readers suffering from a little 4X fatigue to do the same. We use that space to highlight games that have borrowed a lot from the genre and that we think will appeal to any 4X fan.


I’m not nearly as cynical as some of my compatriots here. While Stellaris and MoO didn’t quite live up to expectations, the fact that there’s two giant releases already in 2016, with arguably at least two more (Endless Space 2 Early Access and Civilization VI), there’s never been a bigger array of choices for 4X fans.

I’m personally most excited for what’s still coming this year, like Stars in Shadow, Sorcerer King: Rivals, Endless Space 2, another title that I can’t talk about yet that is an expansion to one of my favorite games ever [editor’s note: Endless Legend: Tempest], and the big dog, Civilization VI.



“My name Cravigo Moncraver. You killed my…. Broodmate. Prepare to DIEEEEEE!”

I’ve even been lucky enough to play a bunch of ES2 and I can tell that it’s Amplitude’s finest game yet, despite its very alpha state. We’ve seen lots of video of Civilization VI and it appears to be poised to reinvigorate that series like few iterations have before it. Stars in Shadow is already pretty fun, if not a bit devoid of diplomatic content. All this to say that those of us that are a bit disappointed by what’s already come this year still have a lot to be excited for as we close out 2016.

I’m still as excited as I was when we first started eXplorminate. I’m honored to still be a part of it and I’m eager to continue covering the best genre of games in existence.

So, there you have it folks. 4X is strong and looks to keep improving. Thanks for joining and staying with us as we look forward to 2017 and all the goodies it shall bring.

23 replies »

  1. You have a typo in Rob’s. Endless Space:Tempest? Lol
    Great read. I’m looking so forward to ES2. This is the big one for me. I never cared for Civ. Games. Stellaris is a little too light on the grand strat. I was expecting more. The thing about 4x that bothers me is the limited diplomacy. It’s just trade this for that or get off my lawn kinda stuff. It needs to be deeper. Making agreements to maybe work on a large project together (building a Dyson Sphere and sharing the output). Then you could be sneaky and try to steal more of the power than your share until you get caught. Etc. But there should be a threshold. Attacking an enemy fleet should not immediately start a war etc. Idk. Just needs work in 4x games in general. Looking forward to Imperia 5x . I think the a.i. and diplomacy in that game could be what I’m looking for. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “I’m not nearly as cynical as some of my compatriots here. While Stellaris and MoO didn’t quite live up to expectations. ” Rob

    Haha – When is the last time anything lived up to our ever rising expectations?

    Probably it was the last time we were surprised when we did not have any expectation. Such is life.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “I’ve even been lucky enough to play a bunch of ES2 and I can tell that it’s Amplitude’s finest game yet, despite its very alpha state.”

    Can we get a preview? I loved, loved, loved the asperations of ES but hated with ire of a dyspeptic Craver on a vegan diet the gameplay.


  4. The most dissapointing thing to me is that everyone complains about the lack of variety in the 4x genre, but then comes a game like Star Ruler 2 which basically revolutionizes EVERYTHING in the genre (and it’s expansion is huge as well), and everyone just ignores it and the studios has to close down.

    Liked by 5 people

    • SR2 is hard to wrap your head around initially, but I think their lack of success was due to many factors and not just the 4X community turning up their nose at something that was *too* different. Though that probably played a small part.


    • I’m all for new and different mechanics – and on paper I like most of the ideas in SR2 quite a lot. The connected planets, the diplomacy mini-games in particular. But as an overall experience it just didn’t come together for me in a way that I enjoyed. I felt schizophrenic playing it or something – like I was playing four different games simultaneously and no way to keep it straight. And use, I used the pause button liberally.


    • Most of the complaints I’ve read about Star Ruler 2 were about a poor UI and/or loads of never-addressed bugs. I’m sure you’re right about the innovation but it’s hard to look past those issues.

      (Note that I have never played it so I make no claim as to the validity of those complaints. )


  5. It would be hard to over state how much this site contributes to my enjoyment of the 4X genre.

    Keep up the good work guys, you are really appreciated.

    Oh, and CiVI may need an expansion or two before it’s polished but I think it’s going to be the best game ever!


  6. I really hope ES2 gets a Linux release. EL is probably my favorite game of the last 10 years but I hate having to wonder before I buy each expansion if it’ll still run in wine.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I thought Stellaris was going to BE DW2. But not quite. DW:U is amazing but the ui actually hurts my eyes. Like someone punches you in the eyeballs while playing.

    Liked by 1 person


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