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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.