The Core Mechanism Of 4X Part 1: An eXposition


I recently got into a debate with my good friend and colleague Oliver on our internal eXplorminate forums about what is or isn’t a 4X game. The staff has these debates every now and then, usually sparked by a game that doesn’t exactly fit the pure 4X definition – games like Total War: Warhammer, Sorcerer King, Thea: The Awakening, Apollo 4X, Stellaris, Sovereignty: Crown of Kings, etc.

Oliver is a great thinker, and if you haven’t checked out his personal blog, you ought to. There’s a lot of really good reading there. In our debate, he suggested we classify 4X games by the attributes they possess. For instance, he suggested we put all 4X games that focus mainly on combat like Age of Wonders III or Planar Conquest in one 4X sub-group and real-time 4X “hybrid” games like Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion in another. You can read a more in-depth explanation in the original  article.

When Oliver and I were debating these categories, he listed many main systems that make up a 4X game. Looking at these systems, we might be able to identify what a 4X game is and where a subgroup title might fall within them. The attributes that Oliver came up with (which shouldn’t surprise 4X fans!) include:

  • Player controls and manages many, most, or all aspects of a sovereign empire/faction/ city-state/etc. at a high level
  • Large geographic scale that is typically (but not always) unknown and becomes known through exploration
  • Technological progress
  • Empire management is structured around population centers (cities, colonies, etc.)
  • Internal management systems for your empire (upkeep costs, population happiness, growth rates, etc.)
  • Symmetric or asymmetric opposition that can eliminate you from the game (other empires, AI threats, etc.)
  • Resource collection/generation is connected to geography and is a point of interaction and conflict between players through territory growth and expansion (settlement, vassalizing, whatever)
  • Turn-based or slow/pausable real-time (not focused on twitch or APM)
  • Mechanisms for non-hostile interaction (diplomacy, trade, culture, etc.)
  • Mechanisms for hostile interactions (combat, war, espionage, etc.)
  • Often multiple ways of accomplishing victory or reaching an end state – which may not (but can) require hostile action

Oliver referenced the Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblance approach to classification in regards to the above list. This approach asserts that not every member of a family (e.g. 4X games) needs to exhibit the same set of traits to be part of the “Family” (e.g. 4X genre), but if they have some critical amount of shared traits they might be related.

Um, yea… Just like that!

I recognize that this method has its uses, but to me it doesn’t define 4X games at a deeper fundamental level – it merely tells you what features they have. My concern is using the Wittgenstein method to define 4X just becomes an ever-growing checklist for designers. I want more in a theory than something that tells us what mechanical systems tend to be used in a given genre. I also want it to be able to show where the genre might go or, more importantly, where it should go in the future. To really define 4X, I think you have to delve deeper than resemblance traits.

In Pursuit of a Core Mechanic

As I’ve been learning more and more about 4X games, I happened upon the concept of the Core Mechanic. The more I discovered about this idea, the more I realized that if we focus on what 4X games are really about, the more likely we are to understand what is or isn’t a 4X and what makes them good or bad.

Video game designer and theorist Keith Burgun describes the core mechanic as a combination of the core action (the main thing you do over and over) and the core priority (why you do that thing over and over) of a game. I think that’s fine as a starting point, but it can be really tough to apply that to every type of video game.

Video games, like all games, are governed by rules. Rules are created to guide behavior. What’s one of the best ways to guide behavior? Offer rewards and punishments. Therefore, to my way of thinking, the core mechanic (or core mechanism as I sometimes call it) is tied into rewards – what does the game reward the player for doing (or punish them for not doing)? The answer to that question is the game’s core mechanic.

The core mechanism really gets to the heart of what a game’s experience is about. If you ask a designer what their game is about, you’ll sometimes get a description of the setting or the main storyline or some of the nifty mechanics. But the true soul of the game is what the players find fun; what they want to do over and over again to reach victory.

There may be some exceptions out there to what I’m going to present, but if I let the possibility that I’m not universally right stop me every time I go to write something on game design, then I’d never make any progress. I’m also not expecting unanimous agreement – just the start of a really good debate.

Ok, Then What is the Core Mechanic of 4X?

If I were to identify a core mechanism for 4X games, it would be “unlocking hidden tools for victory” Let me unpack what I mean word by word.

No…. Not that kind of core!

First, “unlocking” means that the player must take some action and/or wait a certain amount of time before some new option or opportunity appears. These options are inaccessible at the start of the game, meaning that the player can’t see or can’t interact with them until they are unlocked.

Next, “hidden” is being used in a very broad context. It means that it isn’t completely obvious to the player what he or she is going to unlock. There may be a tooltip or description, but it isn’t obvious how that thing will affect the game. Think of a tech tree that is mostly greyed out but still visible. Hidden could also mean literally hidden from the player such as diplomatic options that are missing from the menu. Hiding things from the player is a defining feature of 4X, and it’s natural that uncovering those hidden things would be part of its core mechanic.

Tools” means the mechanics, options, technologies, quest rewards, and everything else that become available to the player over the course of the game which must then be used as part of an overall strategy to win the game.

Victory” is an important attribute for 4X games; it’s one of things that separates the genre from Grand Strategy games. But as we will see, victory can take on a number of different forms. The game rewards the player with something new to play with every time he or she performs whatever actions are necessary to unlock the game’s shrouded tools and move towards the end game.

Unlocking Tools for Victory in Empire Management

Empire management typically involves building trees, income generation, and/or population management, with the most significant subsystem usually being the building trees. Almost all building trees in 4X games have either prerequisite buildings or are tied to technology research or both!

In Master of Magic, for example, you’re only able to build a Builder’s Hall, Barracks, or Smithy when a new city is founded. All the other buildings are unavailable and not even listed (see the flowchart representation below). Here is a clear example of the core mechanism I’ve identified. The player must build certain structures in order to uncover other useful structures down the road that allow creation and maintenance of powerful new units and/or currencies necessary to win.

I apologize for the crudeness of the illustration, but you get the idea.

Other games take a tech tree approach to buildings. By researching a particular technology, you gain access to new buildings that make your empire more efficient or open up new resources. Endless Legend is an excellent example of this. One of the early techs in that game is Topography, which allows you to build the Genomic Lab and Center for Mineralogy. This building, in turn, allows your population to research faster. However, you don’t get to see those two buildings in the city UI until that research is completed. Core mechanic reinforced!

You don’t have any Genomic Labs. How can you have any labs if you don’t have Topography…

Let’s move on, briefly, to income. In most 4X games, you earn some type of currency (like gold, dust, or energy credits) or some type of resource such as mana for spells or minerals for spaceships. When it comes to mana or minerals, it’s easy to see how they unlock tools for victory. You can’t cast a crucial strategic spell or build a fleet of ships without them! And you’ll never know what those spells and ships are really like until you use them in the game.

This is also an area where 4X game design can break down if it doesn’t follow its own core mechanic. In many 4X games, an experienced player will get to a point where income doesn’t matter anymore. Their gold/mana/mineral/energy income is so high that fluctuations have no material impact on play. Oftentimes this leads to a negative effect we call snowballing. Why is that?

I submit it’s because the incomes are no longer being used to unlock and support new strategic tools for victory. The act of paying unit upkeeps or paying casting costs for spells has lost all its impact by that point, and there’s nothing new left to do with all these stockpiled resources. This results in boredom or “tedium,” which are two buzzwords you’ll see in a lot of negative 4X reviews. The critical connection is that income and resource management are tedious because the game gets to the point where there’s nothing mechanically novel to do with those resources.

4X design should, in my opinion, provide ways for income to unlock new tools at every stage in the game. The costs of revealing that content can scale with the economy, so that managing the resources is still a relevant aspect of decision making (i.e. strategy) right up until the moment of victory. That is likely hard, I know. But ignoring how to do that is holding 4X game design back.

As a final example, let’s look at, population management. Of all the aspects of empire management, this is probably the one that most often fails to connect to the core mechanic I’ve proposed – although some games have tried. Warlock: Master of the Arcane made population relevant to unlocking new tools. For instance, your cities had to have a certain population before you could add a new building. Some of those buildings, like the Rogue’s Guild, unlock new units. If you can’t place that building, the content it allows stays locked.

That appears to be several cities actually…

Endless Space 2 allows you to move pops from planet to planet. Ostensibly, this is about putting the various species of your empire into the types of environments where they are most comfortable and productive. The result, however, is a massive spreadsheet micromanagement puzzle that’s all about maximizing industry, dust, science, or whatever. Working out the puzzle just rewards you with higher values in content that’s already available. In other words, engaging in this content doesn’t give you NEW tools for victory (say a quest or random event with a sweet reward or a harsh penalty), it just makes the old tools you have more efficient.

For the most part, though, population management doesn’t have much to do with unlocking tools, which is why I submit that players often describe population management as tedious or monotonous. Moving little people icons among the different FIDSI columns in Endless Legend isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s even less so in games that have a terrible user interface.

If keeping your population at a certain level of happiness or jamming all the population of one planet into doing one thing (like Research in Master of Orion) opened up new options, events, buildings, or any other type of content for the player, then this aspect of empire management would be a lot more meaningful and fun. Having that option would present a strategic decision that carries both a potential risk and a potential reward – especially if the player wasn’t sure if/when that would happen.

Unlocking Tools for Victory in Research

I won’t spend much time showing how research follows the core mechanic of unlocking hidden tools for victory. It’s apparent. I’ve seen people wonder why research is such an integral part of 4X games when it doesn’t fit neatly into one of the X’s. First, I think the four X’s are a really bad way to describe 4X games in general. Secondly, deep down, I believe most 4X designers know that unlocking new content and tools is really the core mechanism of the genre and a driver for all the “X’s.” That’s why they often spend so much time tweaking the tech trees and spell lists. In some aspects, progression through the tech tree IS what drives the underlying progression through each of the 4Xs.

Looking at our genre as a game about slowly revealing unexpected game elements instead of eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation, and eXtermination puts research into a much more sensible context. That’s also why I think that people speak so fondly of the semi-random research system in Sword of the Stars 1 and bemoan games where the research tree is filled with +5% bonuses to old tech. SotS1 gave them what they wanted; i.e. its research system reinforces the core mechanic.

Or It changes from game to game like in Sword of the Stars 1.

But again, research can become a useless aspect of 4X in the lategame. I recently played a game of ES2 where I researched the whole tech tree and still produced tons of science every turn (I had all victories turned off except Supremacy). What’s the point? I couldn’t channel that currency into anything useful. It was just wasted value. The same could be said of Religion in Civilization VI.

Old Civilization games had something called “Future Tech” and Master of Orion had “Miniaturization.” These added some bonus to various things for each level you researched. It was a way to continue dumping your research into something to get a bonus. It’s kinda lame, but it’s better than nothing. But good 4X design would have a way to utilize science that can’t be spent on tech anymore that would still unlock new content. That content could be new quests, random events, generic bonuses, improved happiness, etc.

Unlocking Tools for Victory in eXploration

Like research, I feel there isn’t much to prove when it comes to eXploration unveiling new opportunities and tools. We’re all familiar with the fog of war. Some games do it better than others (Civ 6’s fog of war looks really cool), but the fog serves its purpose.

A lot of 4X games also have what I call the “Haze of War.” A translucent grayish fog replaces the opaque (typically dark colored) fog that covers land that’s been explored but currently has no active unit or city nearby. In its Shifters expansion, Endless Legend has reinforced its core mechanism by adding Pearls that can’t be seen under the Haze of War after each winter. You can only find the Pearls by re-exploring hazed hexes. I won’t go into a lot of detail about that; you can read Dallin’s review. But it’s an excellent example of how to use the core mechanism to push the player towards victory even in the late game.

The point I want to make is that all the game’s subsystems should feed back into the core mechanism: revealing as of yet unseen content over time. The haze of war, in the past, mainly just hid enemy troop movements, but the Shifters expansion takes a ho-hum mechanism and makes it more important to the type of play people actually enjoy: finding stuff they weren’t necessarily expecting or at the very least didn’t know for sure was going to be there.

Questing, which has also become a popular mechanic in recent 4X design, is also a method for re-engaging the core mechanic via eXploration throughout the game. Unfortunately, questing is usually relegated to the early game in most titles. If the quests get reset through tech research or random events, that reset is usually unsatisfying; Thea: The Awakening being an exception.

Unlocking Tools for Victory in RPG-Like Advancement Systems

A good number of 4X games have adopted unit/character advancement from RPGs. The first to do this was the venerable Master of Magic, but other 4X games have followed suit. For the most part, these systems just give units or heroes more hit points or a better chance to hit, but the really good games give the player a chance to unlock new content.

I hate to keep bringing up Endless Legend, but this game does so many things right! One of those is the hero advancement system. Not only do heroes get stat buffs, but there’s a whole advancement tree that players get to eXperiment with as they play. The best part of it is that the tree is divided into three sections relating to three very different aspects of play. A player won’t generally have time to unlock all the abilities in all the trees for each hero, so that means the enjoyable aspect of hero advancement is drawn out longer.

Endless Legend’s hero advancement provides engaging new content at each level.

I’m also going to give a shout-out to Galactic Civilizations III in this section. Its ideology system is a form of advancement that’s very different from typical experience point systems but provides another avenue for players to unlock hidden content. Not every advancement mechanic has to be RPG-like. To be good, they just have to reinforce the core mechanism.

More than likely, it will take several playthroughs to unlock all these.

Unlocking Tools for Victory in eXploitation of Resources

Exploitation is sometimes the least developed X in a 4X game. I suspect that, in many cases, that’s because the designers don’t know exactly what to do with it. The best games use whatever fancy resources (mithril, plutonium, etc.) to present interesting choices to the player through newly unlocked content.

As an example, let’s take the strategic and luxury resources from Endless Legend (yep, again!). Strategic resources are new materials (mostly metals) that open up new crafting recipes and unit designs. Players cannot see these recipes until they’ve unlocked the appropriate resource through the tech tree. Likewise, luxury resources (which provide diverse bonuses to empire management) are hidden on the UI and the map until the player researches them. I find this a much better execution of the core mechanism of the 4X genre than, say, Civilization V where resources merely provide a static bonus to food, production, or gold along with empire happiness.

Unlocking Tools for Victory in Diplomacy

In a recent poll on eXplorminate, we asked our fans in what aspect of 4X design they’d most like to see innovation. It wasn’t exactly scientific, but the I think the results are instructive because they totally blew us away. Diplomacy won the poll by a massive amount, tripling the next closest option. It beat design aspects we were expecting to do pretty well like UI design and faction asymmetry. One has to wonder why.

Real world technology and game design theory have improved a lot since 1993, but unfortunately, diplomacy in 4X games really hasn’t. To this day, most 4X games use diplomacy as a means to trade in-game items like spells, tech, or resources and start/end wars. If you’re lucky, a game might allow you to establish trade networks or intelligence sharing with the AI. Technically, these are examples of unlocking inaccessible content. Some games let you win through diplomacy or allow you to get technologies the game’s research system might block off via research branches like in Predestination.

Make a hard choice now, then get the other techs in trade later.

None of this is fresh or exciting, though. Diplomacy is one of the key subsystems of 4X that has been least tied to the core mechanism. There just aren’t many “tools” unlocked through the diplomatic system in many 4X games. Thus, diplomacy often feels unsatisfying to players – even in a game like Endless Space 2, which comes with a relatively sophisticated diplomatic AI.

But there are some good examples to consider. Going way back, Master of Orion 1 took the limited diplomatic system of Civilization 1 and expanded on it with the Galactic Senate. The player is left to wonder what the results of winning the election will be, especially the first time he or she plays the game. It’s an excellent, if early, example of how diplomacy could unlock obfuscated content in a 4X game. GalCiv3 took a stab at the same thing, but I feel like it didn’t push far enough into new design territory.

Star Ruler 2 is a more recent 4X game that really applied the core mechanism to diplomacy in an innovative way. You earn cards as you play and the cost to play those cards varies each turn. Diplomacy cards are bought using influence (similar in limited ways to Endless Legend’s influence mechanic) and are also tied in with what one might consider espionage – gaining intelligence on enemy maneuvers. The cards themselves have varied effects: some can turn negative relationships positive, thwart your enemies’ attempts at establishing rapport with other empires, or negotiate for annexing planets outright. I’m not prescribing every 4X game do exactly what SR2 did, but it is a good example of how a new mechanic can spice up a traditionally bland system by holding to the core mechanism.

I’m also going to give a nod to Stellaris. I know a lot of people have problems with the exact implementation, but I also think Stellaris does a lot right when it comes to diplomacy. Vassals, alliances, federations, sectors, etc. are all interesting relationships that can be developed among the various powers. Hopefully future development more closely ties these cool features to the core mechanic where new content and tools are opened up because of your diplomatic choices.

I feel diplomacy is a massive opportunity for 4X designers to truly improve the genre by more intentionally applying the core mechanic to inter-faction relations. Let’s say you establish a peace treaty with another faction. What does that give you that either no relations or hostile relations didn’t? What about alliances, trading pacts, research agreements, and so on? Aside from bonuses to this or that resource, what new spaceships, magic spells, quests, events, heroes, wonders, etc. did those agreements unlock that were previously inaccessible? Even better, what happens if a player maintains one or more of those relationships with an AI (or other player in multiplayer) for 100 consecutive turns? Maintaining relations for that long requires forethought and active management. It ought to be rewarded through novel content. Devs should focus on addressing these kinds of issues as they design their diplomacy system.

Designers should consider what the implications are for each state of diplomatic ties and the impact that could have on what a player can build, access, manage, trigger, or explore. Once 4X games start doing that, I think the level of satisfaction with diplomacy will greatly improve.

So far we’ve looked at what the core mechanic is and how it applies to 4X games, including what it adds to exploration, research, and diplomacy. Part 2, I’ll examine the core mechanic in extermination and expansion as well as explain why understanding it is important to game development.

33 thoughts on “The Core Mechanism Of 4X Part 1: An eXposition

  1. Any strategy game that features, exploring, expanding, explorting, and exterminating is a 4X. Won’t mean it’s good though, that’ll have to be through proper execution.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Command and Conquer, StarCraft, Sid Meier’s Starships, Age of Empires, HoMM, Victoria 2, and Total War all have those things, but I don’t consider them 4X games. The four X’s are an innacurate schema for understanding our genre. We’ve just been stuck with them since Alan Emrich’s MoO review. After almost 25 years, I think we can move on to a more nuanced and substantive categorization of these games.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All those games you mentioned are lacking at least one X. Total War is lacking exploration, for example. And the whole reason for the term 4X was to make it easier to identify these type of strategy games from others. I would rather that not be taken away.


      2. I can’t tell from your post what you mean by eXploration, or any other X for that matter. Perhaps your definitions are different from mine or remarkably narrow? Regardless, the traditional definition you’re defending may be the very thing hindering to improvement in 4X design. I believe it is A) inaccurate to begin with and B) extremely restrictive.

        For instance, in what X is diplomacy? What about research or discovering the abilities and special units of the various factions in a game? I don’t think you can answer those using the four X’s.


    2. That’s what I was thinking reading the attribute list at the beginning of the article. Warcraft 1 and HOMM were 4X Nevertheless I always called them Strategic games not 4X or gestion games as for Civ and AoE, while in the same period, MoO or Homeworld were really 4X. For me 4X refers to space 4X.
      The fantasy is most strategy. Maybe 4X refers most on strategy + real physics research appliances while Strategy refers to strategy + Magical research consideration..


      1. I do know that some would limit 4X to only space games since that was its original use. However, I can’t think of any other video game genre that limits itself to a single arena like that. I find it hard to believe that the design principals in MoO are impossible to translate to games with non-space settings.


      2. 4X doesn’t just pertain to space, everyone should know that. Space 4X games are just so abundant because space is so popular, and so many are trying to make the perfect clone of MoO. Don’t know why, that game already exists. How about a unique setting or mechanics instead.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You don’t explore in Total War because the land is all seen from the start. It’s called Total War, exploration would be kind of dumb. Diplomacy is part of extermination as it often pertains to victory conditions. Some even have a diplomatic victory. Researching and the like is part of expansion, obviously, without your empire will get left behind. The 4Xs hold a lot more to them then some might think. While it is true that real time strategy games, like Star Craft have elements from 4X games they aren’t on the same empire building scale which is really what sets them apart.


      4. There’s an awful lot of scouting and reconnaissance in Total War, and I could entertain an argument that says those sorts of things are a type of exploration.

        Diplomacy being part of extermination seems odd to me since many games don’t have a victory through diplomacy option. Some have argued it’s part of eXploit since you can exploit your relationships with other factions to get things you want like tech and currency. I’m not sure I how I feel about that idea, however. It could be both, or maybe neither. But the four X’s don’t really help us clear up that ambiguity.

        I can’t get behind research being part of eXpand either. Plenty of games, if almost all 4X games let you expand without having to research it. ES2 gives you a colony ship right off the bat. In Master of Magic you start with a settler. And so on. Could it be eXploration since you’re learning all the cool new technologies or magic spells that are in the game? Could it be eXploit because you’re exploiting whatever research mechanics are in the game (like science, mana, etc.). Could it be eXterminate since no 4X game with a tech tree can be won without moving further up the tech tree? I can see legitimate argument for all of them. And when something can fit in all of them it’s part of none of them. It’s something different and on equal footing. That’s why I say the four X’s aren’t a good description of 4X games.

        It’s interesting that you bring up empire building as a key aspect to 4X. I would submit that the Age of Wonders III is both a 4X game and very light on empire building. Same goes for Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. Regardless, when you say a game has 4X elements but isn’t 4X because it’s still lacking something, that tells me that the four X’s alone aren’t enough to tell us what a 4X game actually is. I’m endeavoring to do that in this article series.


      5. I completely agree that 4X is not accurate enough to define the genre. On one hand we have games that have all 4X-s yet are not 4X (most of the RTS-s fall into this category). On the other hand we have games that don’t have all the 4X-s yet are very similar to how a 4X plays (series like Total War, HoMM, Paradox titles etc fall into this category).

        So in conclusion the term 4X is too narrow for the genre and not reflective of what actually makes a so called 4X game and it’s also restrictive when developing new games. I think the community and developers would both gain from it if we weren’t too literal and strict about the 4X-s.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an interesting and thought provoking piece for sure. Would love to see the discussion take off here. For my part, I’m not entirely sure yet what to make of this!

    I’ve analyzed games from a number of different lenses, e.g. in terms of “Core Priority” which is more of a player-centered view of what draws a player to a particular game genre or style.

    4X games, like most PC “strategy” games, likely map closest to “challenge” as a core priority. In other words, we like 4X gamers like to think. But increasingly 4X games trend towards “simulation” or “fidelity” (as with other wargames). We like to see this living, breathing clockworld world of interlinked systems start ticking as we navigate our way through it.

    I’ve also looked at games in terms of their raw mechanics a bit differently from the “core mechanism” that Troy distinguishes here.

    This is more about “what & how” a game is doing rather than “why” it is doing it. For example, adopting board game terminology (very applicable to strategy games), we can think of 4X games as “engine building” games (like many euro-style boardgames) coupled with an “area control war game.” Basically the 4X genre is this: fight for territory to secure resources, which you ten use to build up your empire “engine” in one or more ways, with victory occurring when you hit a critical threshold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wanted to say (but couldn’t edit my comment) that these articles really separate eXplorminate from the rest of game web sites. In addition to the focus on 4X. You guys are really thoughtful about gaming. Much appreciated!

      Liked by 3 people

  3. The interesting thing is, that the Diplomacy quandary is pointing back to why 4X is still appropriate, even though this article in my opinion is pretty valid.
    This is because at the core of any of these games is the fact that you want to WIN, and the Extermination X is a vast part of this; in all these games, even if you wouldn’t WANT to exterminate and play a peaceful unending game – what about the “others”? You must protect yourself, and the need for protection is the only thing that stops these games becoming a competition in optimizing production systems, because “protection” is – military budget – WASTING resources with stuff that gets obsolete.

    “Diplomacy”, by definition is countering or at least mitigating this, which is the reason why Diplomacy must be limited. If you bring in Diplomacy you invariably bring in a simulation aspect, because on one hand Diplomacy must not be “reliable” (meaning, you cannot allow the Diplomacy system to neutralize the extermination aspect completely), which in turn means, treaties must be breakable, factions unreliable and so on.

    When it comes to diplomacy, I think you don’t need to go farther than MoO 1 (indeed), because it was the perfect system, by combining
    1) A clever victory condition (the Galactic Council is just a monster of a game engine because it so forces you to try for diplomatic relations AND expansion, because if you are isolated you may end losing fast)
    2) What here would be called a hidden tool for economic gain (the gain of treaties depend on the time they are in effect)
    3) What would be called a hidden tool for research gain (the system doesn’t allow you to research ALL, so if you miss something important you may HAVE to barter it)
    4) An Espionage system that allows you to FRAME others, that is – you can “attack” diplomatic relations of other factions – at the risk of failure, of course, and negative effects for you.
    5) Simple Leader personalities (!) that reflect kind of a general unstableness – “erratic” personalities are unreliable which is necessary, while aggressive leaders will kill you, if you trust them too much, presenting them with too good an opportunity to pass it up.

    What I want to say is, that MoO 1 had the Diplomacy blueprint spread out since over 20 years now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yep. Moo is probably the best game ever designed, simply because it nailed the concepts of
    a) Research (both random picks from level groups and probability-based finish times)
    b) Diplomacy (as described) and
    c) Space Combat: stack-based, limited design slots (which somes with its own decision-making problems, because at some point in the game you will have to scrap stuff to get new tech into your ships, which means, you cannot design a new ships type for each new gadget – plus, having virtually THOUSANDS of ships (and being able to produce hundreds in one turn) is so much more appropriate than the single-ship nonsense you ususally get

    Not to mention the concept of master tech to be found on some planet with a superior guardian, adding to the feeling of urgency MoO creates – even though it’s just a couple of bars you move, no fancy planet-building, no nothing.


  5. You mention “hidden content” as a good feature, but it runs counter to a strategy game for many people, you can’t plan around what you don’t know. Well, you can, and I like it just fine if it’s well done, but I think many would disagree. Regardless, after a few hours, you know what’s in the game anyway, so it’s not hidden anymore, not in “fog of war” terms but on “haze of war” if it’s dynamic.

    As to diplomacy, I wouldn’t consider the Galactic Senate of SR2’s influence cards as diplomacy. I think of diplomacy as agreements and disagreements with other actors, but there’s no negotiations in the case of those systems, even if they’re as interesting and good as they are. We should find another classification for those, because “influence” isn’t brilliant either.


    1. On the contrary. In reality you wouldn’t have perfect information most of the time. A good strategy is one that also accounts for failures. So each time new information is revealed you have to adapt your strategy accordingly.

      I do agree that SR2-s system while innovative and certainly interesting is not actually diplomacy.


  6. While I agree, that 4X is a very broad definition of a genre and the intent of the term was to refer to a set of games that share a much more limited subset of features, I do not believe it is up to any one person or site to decide if the genre is to be changed.

    A 4X game is a 4X game if it checks these boxes:
    – Exploration – the act of uncovering hidden areas or features of the game map,
    – Expansion – the act of extending your empire or influence over said game map,
    – Exploitation – this is probably the most controversial as it can mean a lot, but from the order where it comes after expansion suggests at least that it is connected to the exploitation of newly acquired territories – even though it can be the exploitation of other things, like weaknesses found (which can also be an exploration theme), political capital, etc.
    – Finally: Extermination – the act of putting an end to the conflict by eliminating / exterminating all who oppose you.

    Not a lot of hard thinking needed to do that. You might not like the results, but that’s not Emrich’s problem, nor is it mine, unless you try to force your preferences – how close or far from mine they might be – onto me.


    1. Just to clarify that statement a little. Games are made around core concepts – well, good games at least – and not pretty words of genre definitions. As such, how a genre is defined should have no impact on how games are made.

      Now if a game does not fit a genre, then what do you do? What Emrich did: Invent one. Sure its harder than to simply change the rules of existing genres, but it is the proper thing to do. Why? Because just as games are not shoehorned into genres, so should genres not be altered to fit certain types of games.

      The discussion in the article itself is valid, it is just the notion that there is something wrong with 4X is a little off the mark.


      1. 1) I am proposing there be a change, not deciding. That’s something that will take years, if it happens at all, and it will only happen if the community of players and community of game makers both adopt it. But if I want to see change, I have to start somewhere. So I’m starting here.

        2) I’ve already established that a game can have the four X’s and not be a 4X game. Therefore, I submit that the X’s are an inaccurate definition of a 4X game. The inaccuracy is exacerbated because everyone has a slightly different definition of what the X’s mean to them. Conversely, I’m trying to establish a definition that is as clear as I can make it. Perhaps it needs some refinement, but if I waited until the definition was perfect, I would never had written this article series to begin with.

        3) I don’t think I understand what you mean by a genre should have no impact on how games are made. I know of plenty of designers who aim to create a game specifically for a specific genre.

        4) I don’t think your core concept is all that different from Burgun’s core mechanic. If so, could you explain?

        5) If there is nothing wrong with 4X, I must be misreading an awful lot of people in our forums. According to what I read, and also my own experiences, there is plenty wrong with 4X games right now. Not that this isn’t a good time to be a 4X gamer. I happen to think it’s a great time! But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still problems, some of which have been with us since 1991.

        6) As for what should or shouldn’t be changed, what should or shouldn’t be shoehorned, who made these rules? Are they written down somewhere? Why are they immutable? Other concepts such as art, media, communication, and so on have changed and stretched over they years to adapt to new ideas, discoveries, and philosophies. Why are game genres different from any of them?


      2. @Troy:

        1) The proposal is based on a decision. You already decided what you think is a 4X game and are now arguing to make others take on that same idea. My point being that you should not do that, but instead come up with a new name for the more specific genre you would like to define.

        2) This made me laugh. You have argued, that 4X might be too broad a term, but you have not established anything and definitely did not convince everyone. You should not claim that there is a problem with the definition, just because it allows certain games to be called 4X, which do not fit your ideal. It might fit the ideal of others.

        3) Well.. I know plenty of games, that suck… and I definitely see a correlation there with your statement. I claim that the games suck because developers are making games around genres and that’s basically just the tip of the iceberg, where the iceberg is the overarching lack of creativity in general. Sure you can make genres more specific, but then those limited designers would have even less room for movement and you would end up with horrible copies of a single game.

        4) Never claimed differently. In fact, would one be inclined to do so, they could always create a new genre with certain core mechanics being the defining factor for them. That would not be 4X though, because 4X is not defined by core mechanics, but the four rather vague characteristics described already. The idea would have to be distilled down a lot for that though.

        5) Well, Troy. 4X has survived almost three decades. That’s called: the test of time. If it would have a problem, the journalists and the wider audience would have changed it already. The genre is not people’s problem. Shoddy games being made are. I mean come on. Do you expect games to get better because you change the meaning behind four words? Don’t be ridiculous. See my point above about inherently flawed though processes of people trying to make games for genres, instead of games for ideas and THEN find a genre their game fits into (or come up with one) That is the true problem people are having these days – in my opinion at least.

        6) Common sense made those rules? Do I really have to explain why it is inherently bad thinking if you are desperately trying to fit or even shoehorn things inside boxes? Especially in game design? Hell. .the whole problem you are complaining about, how games are sub standard because of the genre.. that’s not a problem of the genre mate, that is a problem of people trying to base their game around the genre due to their inability of thinking outside of the box.

        So yes, I would prefer my genres be broad, even if I myself think that when Emrich coined the term in ’93, he did mean a much more specific interpretation than what is in use today. I want people to not cringe on genres and labels too much, but rather focus on creating a fun, original game. So what if we cannot describe a game with a single genre? Is that a bad thing? Hardly..

        That and the extremely long winded analysis / explanation leaving little doubt in me that your chances of actually making a change are nil. IF (in caps) you mean it that you want to change how 4X is percieved, then what you need to do is coming up with a similarly concise and fitting description as the original 4 X-es.

        There is a reason genre definitions like RTS, FPS, 4X stick and that is their simplicity and catchyness. If you need a 2000 word article just to describe part one of what you think 4X should be, then you either don’t even know it yourself, or you are incapable of explaining it to others.

        3-4 words, 3-4 sentences at most.. that’s all you got for a genre. Anything more and it will simply not stick. It might be an interesting discussion, just not have the end result you apparently are trying to achieve.


      3. 1) Your equivalency there is just ridiculous since almost everything we do is a decision. Therefore, I’m just going to dismiss your first counter argument as absurdist.

        2) Your first statement is blatantly false in the first then you take upon yourself to speak for everyone else who read the article in the second. If these are going to be your rhetorical tactics, I’m just not going to respond. Speak for yourself and your perspective only unless you have evidence to back your assertion.

        3) This is an overgeneralization fallacy and not worth entertaining any further.

        4) Burgun says that all games have a core mechanic and games of the same type share the same core mechanic. If you agree with his philosophy, then all 4X games should share the same core mechanic. If you feel my idea needs to be distilled down further, I’m all ears. As for what defines 4X, yep, I agree. It’s been traditionally defined by the four X’s, which I submit has hampered their development. I’m looking for something else besides those four X’s that ties them (and other games like them such Thea, SK, etc.) together. Doing so, I believe, will spur their evolution like Endless Legend should have but for whatever reason didn’t.

        5) 4X has died. From 2000 to 2009, there was very little in the way of 4X. Outside of the Civ franchise and Sword of the Stars, barely anything came out in that 10 year span. Even now, in the 4X Renaissance, 4X games outside of Civ and now (maybe) Stellaris have a terrible time gaining traction. If you want to call that survival, you can, but it can hardly be called thriving. I’m endeavoring to find what makes 4X games actually fun so designers and developers can focus on that, rather than just checking off boxes on a list.


      4. Troy:
        I think you are reading too much into what I wrote.. I mean, literally too much. Also you are / were clearly emotionally loaded. I bear no hostilities towards you and if my wording was a little sarcastic, that’s well.. it is aimed at the topic rather than you personally, so my suggestion, in the interest of keeping it civil is to assume I am not trying to insult you here, but rather trying to point out you are – in my opinion – wrong and fundamentally so.

        1) Maybe the disagreement starts at the core – no pun intended – here. You think you are making a proposal, by proposing a solution to a perceived problem, the problem with 4X as a genre.

        I react to the IDEA of the 4X genre having a problem in the first place and disagree there, so your proposal, from where I am standing is nil, because you have not even convinced me – nor did you put too much effort into – of the problem in the first place.

        You are of course right, at a high level, you are making a proposal here, but that proposal is based on an idea, which in my opinion you did not establish too well and at least one person out there does not share.

        2) Please do note, that I wrote EVERYONE and not ANYONE. I usually am very careful this way and while sometimes I make an editing mistake, this time it was not the case. So you will forgive me for claiming that your whole rant about me being presumptuous and arrogant is somewhat misguided and misses the point.

        3) I find it sad that you dismiss such a profound idea out of hand claiming it as over-generalization, when your whole basis for the entire article is: “me and my buddies noted quite a few people being unhappy with the genre as of late”. So please tell me, why should anyone take you seriously, if you fail to entertain even the notion that your whole proposal might be based on false assumptions?

        Just a few things I believe you should be reading up on: Framing, Declinism, observer-expectency bias, confirmation bias and expectation bias.

        Alternatively, just think about this:
        – Consider, that for a newborn, everything is new
        – Consider, that we observe new things as more interesting, engaging as old, known ones
        – Consider, that over time, we tend to see the past more favorably than the present, let alone the future
        – Consider, that for any new idea, the potential to innovate declines over time

        Now take a genre invented some 25 years ago, where about anything that could reasonably be added to the formula have already been added in one for or another. Consider that you have seen all these variations.

        What do you expect to happen from changing the definition of 4X? Your problem is not the genre, your problem is your age and the age of computer gaming in general, but mostly your age. As time passes, you find less and less things fun and engaging, because you simply saw them all already. Trying to better define what makes an engaging 4X game would only lead to more similar games being made which in turn would reduce the chance of innovation and increase the likelihood that you would find those games boring.

        When I say that the lack of creativity is killing games, I mean it even knowing that if everyone would be thinking outside of the box all the time, I would still be bored most of the time, because there is only so many ways you can combine the same elements and I have mostly seen them all.

        4) I think the core mechanic principle has merit, good games are built around a few of those, and they could surely be used to categorize games, BUT.. genres are not drawn around core principles. You are claiming 4X has a problem there, but what about the other genres? Some more general than 4X even.. should all of those be reinvented just so you can claim, that all games in them share the same core mechanisms? What about the games that fall through the cracks? Should we just come up with the genres for them? Say: FPRPGS?

        The genres are one way of categorizing games. There might be others. Do not presume that your preference for one genre of games is shared by all, or should be treated as the standard as it is a false and highly arrogant line of thinking.

        5) Oh boy… sorry to say Troy, not sure how old you are, but if I had a penny every time someone in PC gaming claimed something has died, I would be filthy rich by now. Okay.. 4X has died.. but did that change what the 4 X-es stand for?

        Let me simplify this for you. If you were to redefine 4X, then it would not be 4X anymore, because 4X is called so due to its four words. If you come up with a definition that requires extra explanation, then you are not talking about 4X any more. If it makes you feel better, you can call any game any genre you like. that’s your prerogative as a creator of game reviews. If people like your definitions, then they will stick.

        With that being said, this is as far as I am going to explain this. I am looking forward to part 2-n, because I generally found the core mechanic part interesting, even if a little long-winded and drawn out and dwelling too much on game examples.. I just do not think that it will or should ever replace the old system of genres.


      5. Okay. I’m just going to ignore all the insulting things you said about my emotions and my age and go to this:

        The things you’re struggling with WRT my article are the same kinds of things many others have struggled with when the read the writings of guys like Keith Burgun, Raph Koster, and others like them. And that’s okay. There have been many benefit from their work, Raph more than Keith. I’m not anywhere near the level of those guys, but it’s my hope that I can contribute something to my small corner of game fandom and as a result a genre of games I like will improve.


  7. You are probably the easiest person to insult out there.. pity. You need to thicken up man. You can’t play the “oh, you are hurting my feelings” card, every time someone disagrees with you, especially when you are putting your views and ideas on public display for mass consumption. (well, technically you can – and you do, but you shouldn’t)

    Then again, I think you are not that fragile, just running out of arguments you never had in the first place and its easier to dismiss my posts claiming i’m unjustly insulting you instead of facing even the possibility that you might be wrong.

    Say what: let’s return to the topic, when you stop contradicting yourself, Mr.

    Here is a hint:
    – You have “established” “that a game can have the four X’s and not be a 4X game.”
    Logic has called – he would like to have a chat with you on that one.



    1. You literally insulted him though, and IMO while you made valid points your argument is not even that strong, I’m still more inclined to agree with troy here which is actually much more focused on the argument at hand rather than pertaining to colorful ad hominem insults and strawman facts from misunderstandings troy’s points.

      Not that i side with troy because he’s more focused though, I just agree with his points that the Xs in 4X are not enough to describe a 4X game, your insults are just irrelevant and that you stubbornly defend this unpleasant style in argumentations just shows how big of a dick you are.


      1. If this “dick” can ask for something, then please do point out where and how I insulted anyone. It is a genuine plea, because my intention was not to insult. Hell.. the last thing I want in an argument is to give an easy way out to the other party by playing the “you just insult me” card.

        So I would really like to know where and how I went wrong, so I can avoid doing such mistakes in the future. So humor me, please…



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