Crossing The Rubicon: Defining The 4X-like Genre



Classifying games into genres is a challenging endeavor. The terminology for describing games is often loosely defined, or is understood differently from person to person. Even when there is common language, new games are routinely created that seem to defy categorization. For instance, what was once a well-bounded RTS genre is now routinely a mashup of MOBA and RPG influences.

Other times, the entire undertaking becomes an uphill battle against those that call into question the entire point of the classification exercise. What is to be gained by trying to classify genres? The definitions will never be perfect, right? And finally: what’s the point, it is all going to be different tomorrow.

I’m going to answer rather blunty: the topic of game and genre classification is of interest to me at an academic level, and so I’m going to talk about it. Whether anyone else will listen or care is another matter! But I believe there are practical outcomes to these efforts. The design theory uncovered in the process can be useful to game designers and developers. It can shed light on gaps between genres or at the margins where design innovation and novel ideas can flourish. Classification can also help broaden the gaming community’s understanding of a particular term or concept, and elevate the level of discourse.

Ultimately, I approach game classification with this notion in mind: don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. There will never be a perfect classification system for games, or for anything else for that matter. Entire scientific disciplines are devoted to the classification of living organisms, always with an understanding that such systems will evolve as new discoveries and insights are uncovered. But nevertheless, I think we can work towards a “good enough” system for a subset of video games that is usable and flexible while giving us anchor points to talk around. It will fail at times, but those failures are sources of insight as well.


The Quest for the Meaning of Life 4X

The 4X genre is a tricky one to classify, especially since there are radically different approaches one might utilize. Different people coming at the classification effort from a different direction might end up talking past one another.

One approach takes the four X’s at face value: does the game have exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination? Of course, defining what we mean by those four terms can be its own challenge! Moreover, this approach often runs afoul because there are games that leverage those same, ambiguous characteristics. For example, many RTS games utilize 4X elements (eg. Age of Empires), and yet we don’t call a traditional RTS game a 4X game.

Another approach seeks to identify the unique heart, or core mechanism, of the 4X genre as a means of defining it. Troy’s series of articles (Part 1 & Part 2) on a proposed 4X core mechanism – unlocking hidden tools for victory – is one such instance. However, this line of analysis seems better suited for identifying particular “styles” of 4X game rather than trying to classify the genre itself.

A third approach lifts board game classification terminology (which is quite well developed and nuanced), and would describe 4X games as some combination of engine building, area control warfare, press your luck, and objectives race. The board game taxonomy defines genres based on identifying the primary thing you do in order to win. For 4X video games, this can be difficult because victory conditions can take many different forms – and some games don’t even appear designed with victory conditions in mind at all!

Yet another approach is to crowdsource the genre definition. As part of my background research on this topic, I conducted a tag analysis of games flagged by Steam users with the “4X” tag. The intent was to understand (a) what games had that tag and how strongly that game was tagged “4X” relative to all the other tags it received. Games with a higher ratio of 4X tags are more strongly perceived by Steam users as “4X” relative to other genre labels.

The downfall of all these approaches is that they are too restrictive. They rely on narrowly defining a certain mechanism, or checking off a list of features, or fitting into a categorical slot, or relying on sourced user data. The classification method isn’t flexible enough to capture the existing breadth of 4X game design, let alone accommodating a desirable range of diversity and innovations as the genre evolves.


Roguelike Relativism and the Rise of 4X-likes

The “4X” label is problematic as it is not clear about what it intends to capture. Most often, people seem to be referring to games like “traditional 4X” games (e.g. Master of Orion or Civilization that pioneered the genre decades ago). But the term will also get applied to games that are definitely not traditional 4X games (e.g. Thea: The Awakening and Sorcerer King: Rivals). The approaches used to define 4X often work for traditional 4X designs, but fail to account for non-traditional titles.

Troy’s article referenced a list of 4X attributes I proposed in concert with Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblance approach to classification. For pure genre classification, I believe this latter approach can be quite powerful. Unlike the approaches listed above, it has built-in flexibility. A game doesn’t have to do ALL of the things in the list of attributes to be labeled as a 4X, just enough of them to be in the “4X-like” family.

As a point of reference, this approach has been used to clarify the Roguelike genre (and Roguelike-likes). A “traditional roguelike”, as in games that nearly exactly clone the basic mechanics and systems of Rogue, has at least the following four key attributes:

  1. Procedural generation of game environments
  2. Permadeath
  3. Turn-based, top down gameplay
  4. Player controls a single character

Traditional Roguelikes use these same four key ingredients as the basis for the design, but others depart from the formula. Some Roguelikes discard the turn-based, top down gameplay in exchange for a first person system. Others switch from turn-based to real-time or a sidescrolling platformer approach. But we can still easily trace the family lineage back to traditional roguelikes.

Here’s the crux of this approach: by defining a “traditional Roguelike”, we can gauge how far other games are relative to that known reference point. As a game has more of these core family characteristics, it moves closer towards traditional roguelikes. It is then possible to have a discussion about “how much” family resemblance is necessary to be a core member of the family (the roguelikes) versus a more distant relative (the Roguelike-likes and Roguelites) versus a game that merely uses some roguelike elements.

We can apply this same approach to 4X games by identifying the key minimum traits expressed by a “traditional 4X” game and then determine the cut-off point for staying within the 4X-like genre. For this, we will use a rubric!


The 4X-like Rubric

When is a game “4X-like” enough to feel like a part of the 4X-like family? The following rubric provides a more objective way of determining how closely a game lines up to the key attributes of a Traditional 4X game. “Traditional 4X” games are the benchmark specifically because they provide a clear reference point that is likely to be understood by a broad spectrum of strategy gamers.

The rubric is based on six criteria. Some of these criteria relate directly to gameplay mechanics and systems, others are more about theme and the roles players assume in the game. I must stress upfront that this rubric does not assess the quality or validity of a game as a strategy game, nor should it be viewed as a list of features that games “must have” – it is purely a system for classification (see **DISCLAIMERS below).

Criteria #1: Exploration of unknown geography

  • Unknown geography typically means that the game’s geography is procedurally or randomly generated and different from session to session such that it cannot be known to the player in advance.
  • Exploration typically means that the geography in the game (the starmap, the landscape, etc.) is fully or partially obscured from the player at the start of the game. Maybe the location of stars is known, but not exactly what’s in the system. Or it has a fully hidden map (e.g. Civilization) at the start of the game that is revealed through scouting.

Criteria #2: Expansion through territorial control

  • Expansion can take many forms: it is typically settling a new city or colony. It may also be staking claim to territory using markers, influence, culture, or other resources to secure exclusive control. The key point is that the controlled territory or geographic asset falls under the ownership of a specific player.
  • Player empires grow in size over the course of the game. Typically empires will begin with a single colony or city and expand out from there.

Criteria #3: Technology advancement and internal development

  • Technology advancement typically means that there is a system for research and/or advancement that reflects the progress of the player’s empire and assets through technological means, often over long periods of game time from a thematic standpoint. Technology is a loose term. It can refer to magical spells, futuristic weapons, combat abilities, development projects, etc.
  • Internal development typically means that players have ways of upgrading their internal empire “engine” by building improvements that increase the effectiveness or outputs of controlled assets.

Criteria #4: Management of a large-scale, sovereign empire

  • Sovereign empire typically means that players control or manage an entire sovereign territory / state / empire / culture / civilization. This includes management or consideration of the population and civil society. The game is about more than just managing military assets.
  • Large-scale typically means that the game is played on a strategic map where cities/colonies/planets/etc. are organized into an abstracted management unit, typically with its own dedicated UI interface.

Criteria #5: Slow paced gameplay

  • Slow paced gameplay means the game is typically designed for a slower pace of play, using either turn-based, pausable real-time, or slow-time systems. The game does not reward or require fast paced “twitch” gameplay where reaction time matters.

Criteria #6: Competition towards victory conditions

  • Competition typically means that players are competing against other peer empires/players that are striving to achieve victory while interacting through the same gameplay systems. There may be asymmetric aspects to the game, but other players/agents are nonetheless in competition with each other and using the same gameplay mechanics and systems.
  • Multiple victory conditions typically means that there is more than one avenue for triggering a win, including both military AND non-military means of victory. While military interactions may be a critical aspect of the gameplay, it is typically possible to achieve victory without the direct use of military force.

Using the rubric to assess a game’s 4X-likeness

To apply the criteria towards a given game, go through the list with the following guidelines:

  1. If the game fully meets the typical requirements for a criteria, it is fully-met.
  2. If it only partially meets the criteria, it it counts as half-met (subject to heated debate!)
  3. If the game clearly meets none of the requirements, it is not-met.

Tally up how many criteria are fully or half-met. Two half-met criteria can combine to count as one fully met criteria. After tallying it up how many criteria are met, take a look at the chart below:

  • 6 criteria    The game is most likely a full-on “Traditional 4X” game.
  • 5 criteria    A Non-Traditional 4X game that deviates in some notable way.
  • 4 criteria    With 4 of 6 criteria met, it is 4X-like enough (welcome to the family!).
  • 3 criteria    Probably not a 4X-like, but it almost is… from a certain point of view.
  • 1 – 2 criteria    The game may have some “4X-like elements” but is not a 4X-like game.
  • 0 criteria    Space Invaders called and wants more quarters.

As you can see from the scoring chart above, a game that meets four of the six criteria is deemed 4X-like enough and is part of the broader 4X-like genre (four-criteria, 4X-like. See what we did there?). Examples for how this breaks down across various subcategories is presented below. But so far, I haven’t found a game that feels like a 4X-like but fails to meet at least four criteria.

That said, the rubric can also be useful in helping people better identify their own preferences and tolerances. You may intend to find games that are more like traditional 4X games, and hence look for those meeting all six criteria. Or you might be interested in going the other direction, and finding interesting edge cases (i.e. games meeting only three criteria) that nevertheless have “4X-like elements” to them. How you use the rubric, and where you draw your line in the sand, is up to you.


(A) This rubric is NOT intended to assess the quality of a game. It is a tool to help categorize a game relative to traditional 4X games. A game that meets four of six criteria is not inherently better than one that meets two of six or worse than one that meets all six. Instead, the criteria highlights how the two games are just different despite sharing some common elements. If a game meets a given criteria “badly” (botching the attempt to meet it), for the classification purposes that criteria is still be counted as fully or partially met in the rubric.

(B) The rubric is NOT advocating for games to be more like traditional 4X games, rather it is intended to promote broader genre inclusion. The rubic and the emphasis on “4X-like” games is intended to cast a wider net around a pool of games that likely share certain common features and would be of interest to a common audience. By pulling more games into the pool, the hope is to encourage more cross-fertilization of ideas and support continued diversity and innovation in the genre.

(C) The rubric is NOT assessing the validity of a game as a deep or engaging strategy game. A game that scores a six is not inherently more sophisticated, deep, or engaging than a game that scores a zero (and vise versa). Rather, the game is just less like a Traditional 4X game, and it may more than compensate with other gameplay elements that are added to the overall experience.


Sub-Genres of 4X-Like Games

The rubric uses Traditional 4X games as the primary reference point for defining the 4X-like genre. However, one additional and desired outcome is that the rubric can also be used to identify related sub-genres and styles of 4X-like games. We can gain a greater understanding of the genre and how to place a given game within the broader bucket of 4X-likes.

Below are some suggested sub-genres of 4X-like games. Each sub-genre reflects a departure from Traditional 4X games in one or more key ways (i.e. based on not meeting one or more of the criteria).  Of course, games within these sub-genres may also ADD gameplay elements that aren’t part of the Traditional 4X definition; and so despite scoring lower on the rubric these games can certainly still be (and often are) just as deep or engaging as their Traditional 4X counterparts.

The taxonomy below reflects an improvement on a similar one developed previously, but now leveraging the rubric to bring greater clarity.

Traditional 4X / Empire Builders

These hit all six criteria. When you think of the most clear-cut cases of a 4X game, these are it.

    Examples: Civilization series, Master of Orion series, Endless Space/Legend

Grand Strategy

These often do not meet criteria #1, as geographies are typically known and fully revealed to the player at the start of each map. Most often, there is no procedural generation of the game world in grand strategy games either. Grand Strategy games generally focus on simulating a point in time (real or imagined) and have specific end game triggers or win conditions tied to that simulation (e.g. scenario based and/or conquest-only) that depart from a traditional multiple victory conditions approach. And so Grand Strategy games often only partially meet criteria #6.

Examples: Crusader Kings 2, Europa Universalis, Total War series

War-Centric 4X

These are games that are close to Traditional 4X games but often deemphasize internal development and management (criteria #3 is usually only half-met) and focus more on goals related to military conquest. They may not have non-military victory conditions (criteria #6 half-met).

    Examples: Age of Wonders 3 (base game), Dominions 5, Ultracorps

RTS-4X Hybrid

These games hit many of the criteria except that they are designed to play more like a conventional RTS game, rewarding reaction time and twitch gameplay to some degree, and thus do not fully meet criteria #5. Often, they may also be structured at a smaller scale, for example managing only one settlement at the level of individual workers, therefore only meeting criteria #4 partially.

    Examples: Sins of Solar Empire, Rise of Nations, Northgard, Driftland

4X Survival Simulation

These games pit the player against a hostile environment and are not structured as a competition between peer empires – and thus do not fully meet criteria #6. In many cases, these games also focus on smaller scale settlements with limited or no means of expansion (criteria #2 and #4 half-met).

    Examples: Thea: The Awakening, Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville, AI Wars

Heroic 4X Adventure

These games de-emphasize internal management and technology progress (criteria #3 half met or not met) and instead focus more heavily on character/hero development mechanics. Expansion may be limited to utilizing existing settlements as opposed to having a free/open colonization system (criteria #2 half-met or not met). The default mode of play for many of these titles are on “challenge” maps that are the same from game to game (criteria #1 met only if you intentionally choose a random map).

    Examples: Heroes of Might & Magic, Sorcerer King: Rivals, Last Federation


These games hit all of the criteria but may do so in a more streamlined or focused manner, leading to a smaller scope game. The size of the decision space and/or the gameplay time required streamlines the whole 4X experience into a tighter package. While some may meet all six criteria, the overall combination feels like it doesn’t quite add up to a traditional 4X experience. Typically 5 or 6 criteria met with criteria #4 being the least likely to appear.

    Examples: Battle for Polytopia, Antihero, 10 Minute Space Strategy

Ultimately, I’d like to use this rubric, alongside any suggestions for improvement, to begin the process of classifying the catalog of 4X-like games and matching those against crowdsourced classification data (e.g. Steam tags). From an empirical standpoint, I want to test how well this rubric and the sub-genres above match overall gamer perceptions.


Yoda? LHC? Ya got me.


It is important to acknowledge the limits of the 4X-like rubric. First, it is aimed at putting a box around the 4X-like genre based on distance away from Traditional 4X games. Second, it is not intended to make judgements about the quality of one game compared to another, but instead to facilitate a discussion about how and why those games might be different from a design standpoint. Of course, it can also draw attention to those critical shared attributes and facilitate comparison and contrast style analysis.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that there may be other important characteristics of 4X games that this taxonomy doesn’t capture at all. Two games might be equally a 5-criteria 4X-like, but one emphasizes a complex simulation and open-ended gameplay whereas the other is all about tight, focused competition between rivaling empires. Additionally, there are other facets to the design of 4X games, whether manifested through a core mechanisms or schools of design type inquiry, that are good to bear in mind and may be grounds for future investigation.

Language frames our understanding of the world, and much of my game analysis writing has focused on language and terminology. Game design is not an exact science, but having effective terms to use – whether for designing a game or critiquing one – is invaluable for advancing the level of conversation in the genre. If nothing else comes from this undertaking, I hope that the term “4X-like” sticks in our collective consciousness and that we use it as a means of advocating for a broader pool of games to be “in the family” than we might otherwise assume.

Community Feedback

We are deeply interested in what you think about this article and the proposed approach for classifying 4X-like games. So interested, in fact, that we’ve put together a detailed survey that will allow you take the rubric for a test drive with a range of different games (or any other game you suggest!). We will periodically analyze the collected data and see how it can further this conversation.  Please check out the anonymous 4X-like perception survey. And, as always, we look forward to talking with you in the comments below.

59 replies »

  1. I see Some problems here.

    First Off, where is diplomacy? I can’t think of any traditional 4X game that didn’t have a big time diplomacy system. I don’t really see that anywhere on your list. So, I think you might want to add it as a seventh criteria.

    I also feel like you under sell starting conditions. Having only a single settler or colony shipr or one planet is part and parcel to 4X. Also, most 4X games start you out with a unit or two, even if its just a scout ship. You just burry that in expansion, which is weird since it’s a game setup thing. Also, speaking of game setup, you don’t mention that 4X games always give you choices for starting factions/leaders. There are lots of strategy games that don’t. Perhaps, you should add an 8th criteria that addresses game setup for 4X.

    Another problem I see is that this list just encourages people to value what we’ve always gotten. I know some think we’re in a golden age right now, but most of what we get is just derivitive games. Stellars, Thea, Sorcerer King, and Endless Legend (haven’t bought ES2 yet) are the only games doing anythign interesting and tehy break all kinds of your “rules” for making a trad 4X.

    And then your definition for 4X-like is problematic. There’s already a name for games like that. It’s called “Strategy Games.” You definition for 4X-like is so broad, almost anything with a map and a military unit counts. That’s just too broad. StarCraft would qualify if you turn the speed down low enough.

    That problem really shows itself when you name Northgard and Driftland as 4X Hybrids. They’re both stripped down WarCraft 1 & 2. If WarCraft is a 4X-Like game, then all RTS’s are 4X-likes. You erase all the distinctions with your arbitrary choice of “4 out of 6 is good enough” and “games can earn half-points if I feel like they should.”

    Speaking of that, whether or not something fits fully, partially, or not all in a category seems incredibly subjective. It’s going to vary wildly from person to person depending on each person’s experience with strategy gaming and what types of games they encountered first. There doesn’t seem to be any objective way to measure what “growth in size” might mean for instance. If a game has just two provinces and you start with one and take over the other to win, is that enough to count for your criteria #2? If so, then that’s silly. If not, then how much does it take? How will you measure that?

    What counts a technological progression? Do you have to actually get new game pieces through research? Or can that just mean +5 to your axeman’s attack bonus or something like that? The way you have it worded now is so vague and arbitrary. There’s too much room for interpretation. Also, what’s slow paced? Would Space Tyrant fail #5 because it’s meant to be played fast? This just doesn’t seem all that well thought out to me. Too many exceptions and interpretations are needed to make this work. It’s just not objective enough to be useful IMO.

    Finely, you undervalue the goal of play. In 4X it’s to win. That’s not the case in Grand Strategy games like EU4 and CK2. Those games have totally different goals and mentalities. Not-like-4X games, not 4X-like games. People play CK2 for very different reasons than Civ6. Those games are not “like” each other. Other than they have a map and military units.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Lot to unpack!

      On a general note. I want to avoid adding too many criteria beyond what is absolutely essential. Could I have had 9 or 12 criteria? Sure – but it’s going to make using the rubric much more difficult. Also, keep in mind that each of these criteria (except for #5) has two elements to it and can get partial scores as well. So it is sort of like there are 12 points already.


      I tried to avoid calling out too many specific system in the rubric. Most traditional 4X games (especially recent ones) also have a strategic resource system and unit/building upkeep costs and cultural influence mechanics. But I haven’t included those either. I view diplomatic systems as one of many possible interactive systems in the game. One tweak might be adjust criteria #6 to specifically mention that empires “directly” compete for victory through “multiple interactive system.” This of course would include military conflict and the flip-side of the coin diplomacy.


      The second bullet point under criteria #2 explicitly says that you typically start with one colony/city.

      I don’t see faction differential as a must-have element. Sure, most games have it because the variety is nice. I could add that as a note under criteria #2.


      As I said at multiple points in the article, the purpose of this is specifically to draw attention to a BROADER gene of “4X-like” games and people/designers/players talking about a bigger field of games in order to share ideas and design innovations. I think we need to start calling “Traditional 4X” games out as “traditional” so that we can let the overall 4X-like genre grow and diversify more.


      There are plenty of other types of strategy games that aren’t similar to 4X-like games at all. RTS, MOBAS, Tower Defense, Match-3, Card Games, XCOM-likes, Tactical RPGS, Wargames, Turn-based tactical games, historica consims, economic games, city builders, base builders, survival simulators, and on and on….

      Starcraft doesn’t count as a 4X-like. It, and similar traditional RTS games don’t have randomized maps that need to be explored (Age of Empires is an exception), have very minimal empire management/ (no upkeep costs generally – just a very simple spend accumulate and spend economy), no victory conditions outside of conquest/domination, represent a small scale military-focused engagement, heavy reliance on twitch/reaction gameplay.

      You should try using the criteria to assess a few RTS games compared to edge cases like Sins of a Solar Empire or Northgard or Rise of Nations.


      Yes – to a certain extent it is subjective. But, then again, the intent of this all (with the disclaimers in mind) is to separate your perception of quality or validity of a given game and its systems for whether the mechanic/system is present or not. Yes, it could probably be made more objective (and I’m open to suggestions).

      However, my approach is to generally give games the benefit of the doubt, and a half-a-point, when in doubt. why? Because again the intent is to broaden the conversation about 4X games more. As you point out, we get a lot of derivative games. We’re going to continue to get derivative games if we continue to define 4X games more and more narrowly as the years go by. Looking back at the roots of 4X games (in boardgames), I’d say the definition has already shifted and become more focused. Each generation of 4X game that goes by expects all the new mechanical stuff added last generation to be included in the next. It’s a rat race that is hamstringing the genre to people’s expectations about what something “must be” in order to be a 4X.


      That’s why I have criteria #6 – it’s all about the goal of play. And I specifically mention in the sub-genre description for Grand Strategy games that they depart from this win-focused goal.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “First Off, where is diplomacy? I can’t think of any traditional 4X game that didn’t have a big time diplomacy system. ”

      I’m not terribly experienced, but I can only think of 2 games with relevant diplomacy: Civ4 and GalCiv2 (and probably 3). In most games, it’s just there to tell you who the AI plans to attack (including war declarations).


      • All 4X games have diplomacy. I think many of us can agree that it is often done poorly in 4X games, but they all have it – even Thea where it’s quest-based. But I think MoO 1 did it well, so has Stellaris, Endless Space 2, and Star Ruler 2.


    • I fail to understand your comparison of Warcraft/StarCraft with Northgard in the context of the article.

      The blizzard titles rely heavily on twitch gameplay and a fast pace. They have only one win condition. They have static maps and fog of war.

      Northgard does all of that differently. How does your description of “stripped down” make any sense? What is “stripped” out? Feels like a rush to judgement. Northgard and blizzard style RTS are fundamentally different games other than the basic controls, building-centered bases, and isometric view.

      I think your reaction makes sense based on a flawed comprehension of the ideas in the article. I’m not saying you have to agree with the overall premise, but I think your arguments are coming from a few misconceptions about what has been presented.

      The space tyrant example shows what I mean. It’s not the length of the game, but rather the reliance on twitch gameplay versus turn based or slow real time games with adjustable speed and commands issuable while paused.


      • The comparison to WarCraft 1 and 2 makes sense to me. In fact, I would say Northgard is much much closer to those games than any 4X-RTS hybrid like Sins or Stellaris. I played a lot of Dune, WarCraft, and Red Alert in the mid 90’s. Those games didn’t require Twitch play IMO. Computers didn’t have the processing power back then to support it. Everything had to move slowly. Graphics cards didn’t start coming into widespread use on PC until around 1997.


      • @troycostisick

        We probably thought these games didn’t have twitch play because we were probably all just really bad at playing them.

        I played early C&C games in multiplayer thought and it was definetly twitchy play.

        I dunno – I don’t see how you can use the rubric criteria on Warcraft vs Northgard and come to the conclusion that they are similar.

        I think people are getting hung up on the theme and thematic scale of the game (i.e. Clan/settlement scale) rather than looking at the mechanics themselves.

        Imagine replacing all the art assets in Northgard with space stuff. In stead of individual workers it was fleets of civilian freight haulers. Instead of mining camps it was gas giant helium extractors. Instead of the small region areas, it was solar systems.

        If you look purely at the mechanics and look past the theme, the fundamental gameplay systems are a different thing entirely. I’m really struggling to see how you can appraise the games using the criteria and end up with the same type of game.


      • You’re making an awful lot of assumptions, Oliver.

        1. That I was bad at playing those games.

        2. My memory is faulty.

        3. I lack the imaginative powers to replace Northgard’s assets with space assets.

        In addition, I can guarantee you weren’t playing any CnC game in multiplayer prior to 1997.

        You and I might just have different ideas of what twitch play is. Which is fine, but I don’t think Dune, Dune 2, CnC 1, CnC RA, WC1, or WC2 required any faster gameplay than Northgard. Processing power put a limit on how fast units could move back then.


      • How can you possibly say I wasn’t playing multiplayer CnC games prior to 1997? Talk about making assumptions.

        You’re taking to someone that was playing Doom 2 over dialup, dragging their computer to LAN parties to play doom games, diablo, quake, command and conquer, Total Annihilatikn, etc … before 1997.


        Edit: You still didn’t respond to the last part of my prior post about using the criteria to evaluate the game more objectively. We’re getting hing up on twitch gameplay when there are 5 other criteria that are also relevant.


      • I can say you weren’t for several reasons.

        1. The 33.6k modem wasn’t widely available until 1996. Most people didn’t have them until late that year.
        They became more common in 1997. The 56k modem wasn’t even invented until 1996. Most people didn’t have them until late 1997 or 1998.

        2. CnC Sole Survivor didn’t come out until 1997.

        3. The expansion for Red Alert that allowed multiplayer didn’t come out until 1997

        And I don’t think I understand the last point you made, so that’s why I didn’t respond.


      • Yes Troy, you’re right. Playing Doom 2 1v1 matches over 28.8k dialup peer-to-peer must have just been a figment of my imagination. My bad.


      • The first CnC game game out in 1995. I’ve played it in a LAN settting. Total annihilation came out in 1997 and I played a ton of that in Lan as well. Ditto for Warcraft 2. We used to go into university computer labs way late at night back in the day.

        Anyway, I don’t appreciate being called out for making assumptions (which I intended to make in a light hearted manner) and have someone reply making even bigger assumptions about my personal experiences.

        Back to the original topic. Clearly we disagree about the level of twitch gameplay required in early RTS games. And perhaps we disagree about the amount of twitch required in Northgard.

        But much earlier I was asking you for your thoughts on the other 5 criteria. What about randomization of geography and exploration of it? What about the multiple victory conditions including those that are non-military based? I’ve posted my assessment using the rubric here, and in the explorminate forums (CCC), and haven’t received a detailed response to it.

        It’s frustrating when people say X is just like Y. And then I point out using the criteria how X is different from Y in multiple significant ways, and there is no response or acknowledgement to that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You make a good point about the maps, so let’s try to give something like WarCraft 2 a score.

        Criteria 1: Nope, no random map, but it does have a Fog of war. So half a point.

        Criteria 2: Check and check. The minimap shows what geographic assets are controlled by whom and the game starts with a single building and worker. One point.

        Criteria 3: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I’d argue even better than Northgard since you actually have to research new units. Another point.

        Criteria 4: You have to manage your workers, which can fight (like in Northgard) but aren’t really military units. I’m not sure about scale. Like, how big does something have to be to be large scale? So at least half a point here.

        Criteria 5: I think it’s slow paced. It’s certainly pausable. So one point.

        Criteria 6: There’s certainly competition, but no multiple wincons. So just half a point.

        So let’s see, WC2 gets a 4.5 on the rubric when I score it. Guess it’s a 4X-like. And if it is, I suppose Northgard is too along with a whole bunch of other games I wouldn’t consider to be in the 4X family.


      • Warcraft 2 vs. Northgard

        If everything else was the same in your assessment, I’d put Criteria #5 at 0 points for WC2 and 0.5 points for Northgard. That would bump WC2 to 3.5 (not a 4X-like) and Northgard to 4.0 (just barely a 4X-like). The Warcraft-lineage of games, continuing on to star craft, is the epitome of twitch based, high APM (action per minute) type of gameplay. Unit micromanagement, unit-by-unit ability casting/timing, etc. make it very much a twitch game IMHO and the opposite of “slow-paced” in my opinion.

        But there are other differences too:

        Criteria #1
        Maybe this a point to clarify in the definition. I don’t think fog of war alone (or scouting) should be equivalent to “exploration.” With static maps and no randomization in the game setup environment at all (even fixed start positions revealed before the game even starts), there isn’t anything to explore. Once you’ve played a map once you know the basic layout. The fog of war mechanics relate to scouting and military reconnaissance. Still, I’ll give it half a point.

        WC2 = 0.5 points
        Northgard = 1 point

        Criteria #2
        In Northgard, territories have discrete boundaries and player ownership is exclusive of those territories. This is a big departure from traditional RTS games. In WC2 you can claim mines, but lumber extraction and territory in general is open and fluid. This criteria needs to be clarified, and I have a few ideas around doing that. That said, both games do have you have expanding outwards from a small start.

        WC2 = 0.5 points
        Northgard = 1 point

        Criteria #3
        The difference here, and again this should be refined in the next iteration of the criteria, is that Northgard has a distinct research economy. You can do things specifically to boost Lore generation, which is used to advance down a research tree that isn’t coupled to specific building developments. In both games, there are things that get unlocked as you progress through. Northgard doesn’t have that for units, but some of the techs unlock new capabilities.

        WC2 = 0.5 points
        Northgard = 0.5 points

        Criteria #4
        I’d give each game a half-point here. They do both have civilians (workers/peons), although the upkeep costs and needs to manage happiness of your population elevates that aspect of it in Northgard. That said, per the criteria addition you added, these are both games about placing buildings on a “board” and the management/arrangement is not abstracted to the extent larger scale games are.

        WC2 = 0.5 points
        Northgard = 0.5 points

        Criteria #5
        Discussed at the start.

        WC2 = 0 points
        Northgard = 0.5 points

        Criteria #6
        Players are peer-competitors in a race to victory. With Northgard’s more varied and non-military win conditions, I think it get a higher score here.

        WC = 0.5 points
        Northgard = 1 point

        In total, here’s my summary of the two games:

        WC2 = 2.5 points
        Northgard = 4.5 points


    • While I did enjoy the read I’m having the same issues with the article. There are a lot of strategy games that can score 3-4 points on that scale yet are very much not 4X so the criteria are not sufficient to define whether the game is 4X or not.


      • Just to re-clarify the terminology used in the article, the total number of points should be interpreted as “how similar is this game to a ‘traditional 4X’ game?” A game that has 3-4 points, as you say, has some similarity with a traditional 4X game, but departs in many other ways.

        My suggestion in the article is that games that score 4 points are “4X-like enough” to be part of a broader grouping of games; the 4X Family (a suggestion offered in the comments below). Games that score a 3 or less, aren’t enough like a traditional 4X game to be part of the “4X Family.”

        Does that make anything clearer? Trying to help! Cheers,


      • Ok fair enough. I see that you wanted to make a simple grading system and yea it works as to give a rough estimate. Yet a more complex one with more criteria and different weights for each criteria would be more accurate but wouldn’t be as simple to use.


      • The complexity and ease of use for a system like this is important. Yes, we can surely make a more robust and accurate system, but at what point does it get so unwieldy that people are turned off to using it or framing their thinking around it. It’s a tricky thing to balance.


  2. First. Thank you, Rob. I haven’t always been plesent on e4X, so its nice of you to say that.

    Oliver, I see a lot of words, but no real response.

    Too many or too few criteria is irrelevant if your criteria fails to encompass what a game is really all about. Is there something magic about the number 6 I don’t know about?

    As for diplomacy, it’s not something that was just added recently or is only a minor aspect of 4X. It’s been an integral part of the genre from its very founding. You cannot have a “traditional 4X” without it. You can have a traditional 4X without cultural influence, so this is a glaring omission in your rubric. And it’s not something you can just tack on later with “interactive systems” which could mean almost anything.

    When I said that putting starting conditions under #2 was doing a disservice to how much that means to 4X, you can’t refute my argument by pointing out you put that under #2! That’s the problem! Starting Conditions are not expansion. Having an array of factions/leaders to choose from is not expansion. You’re just failing to acknowledge another hole.

    There is no functional difference between Northgard/Driftland and Warcraft 1 & 2. Except WC had way more content and better campaigns. Are the WarCraft games 4X-like in your book? and StarCraft 1 fits most of your criteria, “from a certain point of view” which is what you said in your scoring breakdown for 4/6. The criteria is so broad and non-objective, you can make almost anything fit. Look. I know you’re a boardgame guy. Is Risk 4X-Like? Is Axis and Allies? They’d meet 4/6 criteria.

    Anyway, I saw that you have a goals mentioned in #6. I’m not blind. What I said was you undervalued the importance of goals. If the goals of a game, or even better, the reasons you are playing a game are radically different (like they are in GS v.s. 4X) then those games are not “like” each other. I mean, are Monopoly and Axis and Allies alike because you use dice, move little plastic pieces around a board, and use fake paper money to buy stuff? I don’t think so. But both games involve a lot of strategy. You can’t put them in the same category unless that category is “boardgame” which is what you’ve done here. 4/6 is really “Strategy Game” not 4X-like.

    I noticed you didn’t really address my points about tech. What is technological progression? Is just getting bonuses enough or does it require getting new game pieces?

    Finely, you seem to just want to expand the criteria you have rather than add new criteria. When you do that, you just open your rubric up to even MORE subjectivity and interpretation. You move further and further from any objective analyiss. This makes the tool less reliable. That just seems counterproductive to me.

    Liked by 1 person


      I could see adding that as a criteria in version 2.0 of the rubric. While it hasn’t always been the genres strong suit, I’m hard pressed to think of any traditional 4X that didn’t have a diplomacy system at all. It’s usually there to some capacity. I also think of diplomacy as the flip side of the coin from strategic-level warfare. In a multi-lateral game like these, one usually doesn’t exist without the other.


      Sounds like you are more bothered by the starting conditions being listed under the “expansion” heading specifically? Because it’s called out as a key component of that criteria and is certainly important. In my mind, the entire premise of “expansion” begs the question, “expansion from where/what?” – and so it makes sense to me that starting conditions are part of that equation.


      Have you played Northgard?

      There is absolutely a fundamental different between that game and most traditional RTS games. One is that there is upkeep and a much greater focus on internal management. In most traditional RTS games, if you run out of food or other resources, it just means you can’t built more new stuff. In Northgard, you run our of food, people die, people get unhappy, productivity drops, people die in winter with no firewood, etc. #2 are the multiple different victory conditions in Northgard. Including many that are non-combat based. Most traditional RTS games are entirely combat-based for victory (eliminate enemy HQ, wipe out all units, King of the Hill control, etc.). Most traditional RTS games also use static maps, with the dominant play mode either competitive MP (in which case having fixed/balanced maps is key) or played through scripted campaigns. Northgard is all about the procedural generation of its maps. Lastly is the level of micromanagement and twitch reflexes required to play.

      RE: GOALS

      If game’s have very different goals, they can still be like each other in many other respects.

      RE: TECH

      Tech can be unlocking new capabilities and/or expanding the potency of existing capabilities. I don’t think it’s critical to distinguish that.


      One approach to refine this more would be to split apart all the sub-criteria into their own thing. With adding diplomacy and other minor adjustments, you’d end up with 12 criteria. Effectively, you could have a 0-12 scale measured in whole points or a 0-6 scale measured in half-points. Maybe the former would make it more clear and explicit?


      • 12 is an ugly number. I don’t know if there’s anything magical about the number 10, but once you get past that, it seems kinda bad to me. I can see the allure of using only whole points instead of half points, but yeesh, that number!

        I think 7-9 is nice, if you choose to go that route, Oliver. At least for the cleanliness of the rubric. But I can see the other side.


      • Well, 12 happens to be my favorite number so for me I like it a lot :)

        But per one of the comments below, I like having less criteria overall since it’s easier to remember. If criteria can be nested, e.g. 6 criteria each with two sub points, it’s easier to remember as well.

        I wonder about capturing diplomacy as the part of a strategic warfare criteria. In my mind, the two go together like two sides of a coin.


      • I think Oliver did a pretty good job in repeatedly explaining throughout the article that just because something is more or less like a “traditional 4X” doesn’t have any bearing on whether the game is actually good. Therefore, the gripe of listing nonconforming games as “doing something interesting” is even more subjective than the criteria put forth.

        As for Northgard and Driftland, I somewhat agree they’re more like RTS than 4X since reaction time is pretty important, but comparisons with Warcraft and Starcraft don’t fit well. For example, Driftland is much more like NetStorm (bridging floating islands) or Majesty (flagging unit actions). As someone who played a lot of Warcraft2 and Starcraft:BW, it’s as if they define the real-time strategy genre, along with Dune and the Red Alert series, like MoM and MoO does for 4X.

        When classifying games into categories/genres, it’s hard to avoid such comparisons so we invariably end up describing the games themselves rather than the genre. We can really only make a few broad generalizations.

        Netstorm relied heavily on static units and procedurally generated maps, but it definitely was an RTS. However, there was an unlocking of units by beating opponents, so that was like tech advancement which carried over after each match. I think it is due to the pacing. If one plays Northgard or Driftland slowly and methodically, they’ll wind up losing the game. The more I play Stellaris, the less I feel like it’s a 4X. The same issue of pacing applies. The main difference is the ability to pause the game and plan out strategies, which doesn’t really work for multiplayer. In single-player, I still wind up in a bad spot if I don’t consistently colonize new systems or snipe them from the AI.

        All in all, I think 4X (or any genre) can’t be really be defined strictly by a rubric anymore. Hell, MOBAs was just a custom rules map for Warcraft3 (i.e. DOTA) before LoL made an extremely similar game, thus spawning a genre (or subgenre).

        I’m going to be real honest; when I look for 4X, I’m just looking for a Master of Magic derivative with a few new interesting elements and updated graphics. Innovation is overrated when nowadays the “interesting” titles just combine and implement features from other genres. We’re sort of past the era where entirely new gaming styles were created, and even then, they were built upon previous iterations. So, unless we want more Orion clones, I don’t think we should bother trying to argue over criteria.

        All that said, I still enjoyed the article. There definitely was some thought put forth for interesting discussion.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Personally, I like this idea of Technological Progression equaling the unlocking of new game pieces or content rather than just bonuses. Though that relates back to the articles I wrote that Oliver mentioned in his article. So make of that what you will. I’ll have to think on this some more. But I do hate it when a game just has +5% damage to laserbeams or whatever for technology. I’d like to discourage that kind of lazy design.


      • Yes, I agree that having techs unlock new stuff is usually much preferable over just incremental bonuses. Totally agree.

        But – for purposes of the rubric I don’t know if it’s a critical distinction. After all, the rubric isn’t about assessing the quality of the game. But this is one to keep thinking about.


    • I’d have to mull over the remaining arguments, but I don’t agree with the necessity for a diplomacy specific entry. During my initial read, I saw diplomacy VERY well represented on both categories 2 and 4 and I can’t agree with a necessity for a specific diplomacy category.

      Since the seminal 4x titles that coined the term that diplomacy has always been largely devoid of a meaningful in-game presence. And for the vast majority of games, it is virtually useless in multiplayer setups, if not downright ignored by the players.

      I agree it is always present in 4x games. But its secondary nature is better described in more generic terms, like categories 2 and 4 and not as a category of its own that it frankly never owned. Not even when the term 3x was coined.


      • Yeah, Mario, I can definitely see it as part of the “Sovereign Empire” entry. I think a little rewording there with “including engaging other factions/empires both militarily and diplomatically” or something along those lines would do it.

        The Galactic Senate in games like MoO and GalCiv are pretty critical game systems that involve simulated diplomacy. Stellaris offers a whole lot with potential for even more. But I wouldn’t want to add too many new categories. Maybe one or two if Oliver feels the need.


      • I cant accept that at the moment. Diplomacy leads to victory in so many games now. It cant just be relegated to a casual mention or worse, and implied mention in a couple different catagories. It’s to integral to what 4X games are. Need I remind everyone, that MoO1 had a diplomatic victory right from teh get go. It needs to be in here somewheres.


    • “There is no functional difference between Northgard/Driftland and Warcraft 1 & 2.”

      No, no, and no! :-) These 3 games are completely different.

      In Driftland, a player does not directly manage units which significantly eliminates micro-management and privilege of reaction speed. What’s more, the units are so autonomous that they take away many less important responsibilities from the player.
      The game is focused on building and expanding the empire. The population is a kind of resource too and must be provided with living space and food. Units acquire levels, experience and use the skills learned in the relevant buildings. Speaking of resources, it should be mentioned that in Driftland there are quite a lot of them, they have different applications, some must be discovered by issuing the order of geology to the units of explorers, and then extracted using appropriate mines.
      I will not be more elaborate on this topic, more can be found here: http://www.driftlandthegame.com/

      Designing Driftland, we assumed that by introducing a completely new IP, we need to create an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master game. Real time was used, among others to eliminate the problem of lengthening turns. In addition, we have reached for solutions from genres such as god game or simulation.


  3. wow, great article….and much to read and think about.
    took the survey on 4-5 games i own and was surprised that the decisions on some games wheren’t so simple as i was expecting.


  4. One thing I’m noticing in looking through some of the feedback responses is inconsistency in how people are interpreting “slow-paced” in criteria #5. Some seem to view that as meaning the overall length of the game is short versus long. The “slow-paced” notion in the criteria is specifically about the need for fast reactions (i.e. twitch gameplay) versus the player being able to take as long as they want to make decision and execute actions.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a really cool article, Oliver. I don’t know if I fully agree with everything yet, but I can tell you put a lot of deep thought and consideration into it. I’m very glad you posted it.

    Also, I went through and did as many games as I could on your survey at the end. It was a lot of fun doing them. I hope everyone who reads this article takes the time to do that! :)


  6. Really liked the article and the definition you arrived at. It leaves out a lot of traditional 4X elements, but I think simplicity is more valuable for this purpose.

    It covers nicely why some strategy games aren’t quite 4X while similar ones are, but leaves space for some variation and the list is short enough to be useful (no lists of exceptions or explanations of explanations).

    I think this “rubric” could be updated with better definitions, but not expanded by adding new categories. If anything, the definitions should be condensed by using better language.


  7. While I found the article a really good read, it served well to make one thing clear to me: people try and read too much into things. Generally spoken, things are a lot easier. 4X was coined with a specific game in mind in which you eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate – and THAT IS IT. Every game in which you do that is a 4X game, period.
    With this in mind, OF COURSE AoW3 is a 4X game, for example – a pretty good example, actually. And since Diplomacy was mentioned – plays no role here. It MIGHT feature, but obviously isn’t defining.

    That said, I fuilly understand the desire to organize and define and describe things more sharply – but shouldn’t we keep in mind, that the “4X” moniker wasn’t coined with the purpose to categorize a new class of game, but instead just a good summary for a good game that stuck.

    4X shouldn’t even be considered a “game category” – it’s more like a kind of quality seal, like an afterthought: there is this new empire-building space game that you review – but is it 4X as well, and how good are the Xs?

    Incidentally, I always thought about the well-known Paradox games like EU, HoI, Victoria and so on as SIMULATION Strategy games. You don’t have eXploration – and you may not have any eXpansion either (say, you play Britain in HoI). EXtermination is not a given as well – in fact, games that will have non-extermination victories, that is, allow to win the game without ANY extermination AT ALL, miss an X as well here.

    So – to summarize. I don’t think 4X is a genre. Nor should it be treated as one. It’s more like a certain quality, imo.


    • “Every game in which you do that is a 4X game, period.” – Well all the 4X-s could be applied to most RTS games yet they are the opposite in strategy game spectrum to 4X so it’s not entirely correct.

      You say that 4X was not originally meant to classify a new class of game but isn’t that how a new sub-genre usually starts? With one game you can’t describe with existing classifications so you have to come up with a new phrase for it and later when other similar games are being made it becomes it’s own genre.


  8. Oliver, we might be getting somewhere with diplomacy and warfare being two sides of a coin. I hadnt even gotten to warfare. It’s not really present in your rubric. 4X thrives are managing the minutae of units. Moving them. Leveling them. Producing them. Researching them. Attacking with them. I suppose you cover that in competing with other empires, but #6 doesn’t capture enough nuance for me when it comes to managing your military. So maybe, a 7th catagory could be “Engaging other empires in military and non military arenas.” I almost put rivals, but it’s possible to win co-op victories in many 4X games, so I didn’t.

    Back to Northgard. Of course I’ve played it. The better question is are YOU actually following its development. The first part of the first campaign was just introduced to the game. It isn’t the greatest, but the devs are promising more. LOTS MORE. Not only that, we just finished testing the multiplayer servers. Go check out the steam charts for this game. It got 7k last month at max. It wasnt because sandbox suddenly became popular. I mean, you didn’t think that when you saw that many peeople playing did you? That was all about Multiplayer stress testing. Multiplayer and the campaign(s) will be the expected default mode of playing Northgard once they are implemented. The game is in Early Access. They had to get sandbox right first before implementing the aspects we’ve all been waiting for. You didn’t think the game was close to launch did you? It’s not, and it’s well on it’s way to being WarCraft 2.5. Northgard would be terribly boring if you only ever played sandbox. All the same could be said for Driftland too, but I’m not following its development as closely. I think Northgard will be better.

    I don’t see how earning a bonus to some value is considered technological progression. If buying a bonus with research points is okay with you, you have to change the wording. That’s not technological progress. That’s just being more conscientious about putting a sharper edge on your stone axe.

    And just because games have similar pieces, don’t mean that their similar. Go back to my Axis and Allies and Monopoly analogy. GS and 4X might have similar parts, but they aren’t similar games. They provide totally different feels, experiences, challenges, and the reasons people play them are different. You dont play them to kill everybody like in a 4X or to comlete a race quest like in Endless Legend. Youre trying trying put several genuses (RTS, GS, 4X) into the same species, which is just blowing my mind. It makes the rubric very unuseful. I mean you could go through the hole article, replace every 4X-Like with the word GS-Like and still be ok.

    Maybe it comes down to a lack of common vocabulary. I see your words as far to wide open for interpretation. As a result, I don’t think your rubric does a good job of narrowing down games.


    • @Amber:

      I’ve been following Northgard moderately closely. I knew the MP beta launched and that the first campaign section launched. I last played it a few weeks ago but haven’t tested those new elements out yet.

      Overall, I’ve already started compiling a list of revisions to the rubric, thanks to your suggestions and those from others. I think the big thing, that one poster (Elda King) also mentioned above, is that the language could be tightened up to be more specific, and make it easier to be objective in appraising a game in terms of each criteria.

      As a quick summary of suggestions, capturing diplomacy + strategic level warfare explicitly is one addition. Whether that’s presented as “two sides of a coin” or two separate criteria I’m not sure yet – and it warrants more discussion. At a gut level, I like the idea that the two are intertwined and inseparable. As you say, they’ve both been there from the beginning.

      Another change is refining the tech advancement definition. In particular, I think there needs to be a distinction between games that “have tech upgrades” versus those that actually have a technology/research “system.” The key trait I feel for the “system” is that there is a research currency of some sort. In most traditional RTS games, you use the same combination of gold/ore/gas/etc. to buy tech upgrades. This feels very different to me than a game where you have to make a strategic choice in investing in labs/buildings that give you a boost specifically to research capacity in order to unlock a broader range of advancements. Is this a meaningful distinction? Or is tech advancement more about reflecting tech progression across larger sweeps of time?

      To your last point about meshing very different games:

      In my mind, the term “4X” isn’t very useful these days, because people call all sorts of things 4X games. If someone says “Traditional 4X” (i.e. MoO-clone, MoM-clone, Civ-clone) it’s much clearer to me what they are talking about. But the term “Traditional 4X” doesn’t get much use form what I’ve seen.

      So much of this effort was driven by a desire to cast a wider net around a bigger pool of games that share a lot of common points so that A) we have a shorter identifier (i.e. I like “4X-like” games … instead of saying, I like 4X games, and Grand Strategy Games, and RTS-Hybrid 4X games, etc.); (b) encourage gamers and developers to look at, play, and learn from a broader range of games that share similar elements but where there are opportunities to cross-pollinate ideas. Maybe these goals can’t be met with this approach.

      Ultimately, the rubric is looking at this bigger mix from the vantage point of a traditional 4X, with assessed being relatively closer or farther from that point. You could develop other criteria for GS games and likewise gauge how GS-like games were from that reference point.

      But more broadly, I totally understand what you are suggesting in therms of the core fundamental differences between styles of games (i.e. traditional 4X vs. GS). Even if they share many similar attributes, how those add up to a total experience can and does yield very different results (i.e. axis & allies vs. monopoly example). Most GS seem to be structured more as a simulation, allowing players to explore various “what if” scenarios without the game being contrived as an artificial, competitive race to victory. I agree that these are fundamental differences – and I think each of the sub-genres listed should be discussed in depth to tease out what these core purposes and priorities are. I think it would be a fantastic discussion.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and insights!


      • Hi Oliver,

        I think focussing on a “research system” is a good idea. I like that. I especially like the idea of saying it has to have some currency that you accumulate then spend to gain a new tech – or triggers a new tech once it reaches a threshold which is waht I think you were saying with research labs, right? That makes sense to me.

        I guess part of my problem is when I see 4x-Like I think of games that are like a 4X. I dont think CK2 and Northgard/Driftland is like a 4X game. I think they have parts that are similar, but they aren’t “like” each other because youre going for a totally different feel with them. I dont know how to fix that vocabulary problem right now.

        I filled out yoour survey a few times btw.


      • I wonder something. If we always meant “Traditional 4X” when we said 4X. Is there another name or umbrella for all these games to fall within? Something smaller than “Strategy” games. Maybe simply “Empire games?”

        On the other hand, I do think it’s helpful to think about “how like a 4X” a game is as well. There are some practical reasons for wanting to have a concise definition and/or criteria for determining 4X-enough when it comes to covering games at journalistic or analytical level. E.g., if we want to do a market of all 4X games, how do we identify that set of games objectively?


  9. During my commute this morning, something came to me that I hadn’t thought about yet. It concerns what I wrote here:

    “And if it is, I suppose Northgard is too along with a whole bunch of other games I wouldn’t consider to be in the 4X family.”

    I wanted to post about this sooner, but the fascists in charge of my place of work have WordPress entirely locked down. Anyway…

    I got to thinking, that my statement might not be true. You see, I’m nothing like my father. Everything that makes me who I am as an individual is different from who he is. We share the same structures, sure, like a skeleton, nervous system, DNA even. But I am not “like” him. I realized, however, that I am part of his “family” and of course very glad to be

    What that realization meant to me was, that perhaps all this time I’ve been tripping up on the “like” part of 4X-Like. I think that Grand Strategy games might share some structures with 4X games, but I don’t think they are alike. I think that Northgard might have some structures in common with 4X games, but I don’t think it is “like” a 4X game. I do think, though, I could say they are in the same “family” of games. Maybe even the “4X-Family” of games. So, I think if your rubric was presented as describing the “4X-Family of Games” rather than 4X-Likes, I would be able to get behind it.

    “Family” think has a few advantages you might consider. One, you’re using the Wittgenstein Family Resemblance theory as a basis for your rubric. “4X-Family” dovetails nicely into that, and anyone familiar with that theory would instantly recognize it in your rubric. Two, in biology, a “Family” is a larger group of plants or animals or whatever. It’s above Genus. I see Grand Strategy, Wargames, Traditional 4X’s, etc. as totally different species from one another. But I can certainly see how they are all related. Putting the rubric two hierarchies up from Species makes sense to me, and I think it would be a very defensible position from which people could categorize and analyze these types of games. Three, this is a personal thing, but “4X Family of Games” has an aesthetically pleasing ring to it compared to 4X-Like. That’s a small thing, but perhaps an important one in terms of encouraging wider adoption of a term. In fact, I think I’ve heard people say something like “EU4 is the the 4X family of games” on podcasts or articles elsewhere, although I can’t place it right now. Maybe 3MA? I don’t know.

    Anyway, something for you to think about.


    • Yes, yes, and yes! I think we’re having a break through moment here :)

      Your description of the “4X Family” is exactly what I’ve been on about for months now in terms of the “broader umbrella” of related games. If it works to think of it as a “family” instead of “-like” I’m good with that, and it might clarify this effort for others as well to refer to is as the family.

      Family -> Genus -> Species is the biological scientific naming convention as you say, and it’s a perfect analogy here. The “species” is the individual game. The “Genus” are the sub-genre’s described in the article (i.e. Traditional 4X, Grand Strategy), and the “Family” is this broader “4X Family” or “Empire Building” family of games. Next begins the search for a common ancestor to that family ;) Probably a wargame boardgame from the mid 1970’s if i had to guess…

      And, FWIW, I think “4X Family” rolls off the tongue a bit smoother than 4X-like. So I’m supportive of your suggestion of rephrasing this concept across the board.



    • Interesting idea but isn’t your description of “4X Family” pretty much the same as Strategy Game Family. The challenge here is to find a classification that is not too wide to cover nearly all strategy games but at the same time not to be too narrow to only fit traditional style 4X games.


    • That’s a much better list of criteria yet I don’t think all those criteria are equal in importance so I’d give each criteria different weights. For example something like slow, thoughtful pace is much more important than any other category so if a game meets every other criteria but has twitch RTS gameplay it should be merely a 4X-like game. And a lot of the categories should have middle ground besides just 0/0.5.


  10. Honestly, I think that empire management is so fundamental to the genre that you really have to give primacy to that and build from there. I mean, it’s so deeply built in and assumed that you’d already mentioned player empires in two of the pillars before you even got to addressing it directly!

    I know 4X specifically is your wheelhouse, of course. It still may be more useful to start higher up, though – looking at the broader category (order?) of empire management games, and to look how the 4X family and subgenera fit in among others.

    This way, I think it’s a little easier to work with different perceptions and distinctions between, say, traditional 4X games and traditional RTS games. Instead of just a metric of proximity to traditional 4Xs, or just counting which Xs it hits, we can compare how they do empire management (and on this, I think your pillars are quite good).

    Besides, without the explicit frame of empire management, we could say that Rogue is more 4X-adjacent than Neverwinter Nights because it has exploration of procedurally-generated terrain, and this is extremely silly.

    (‘Empire’ of course doesn’t have to be too literal.)



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