The 10 Best 4X Board Games in 2021

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Our Top Picks for the Best 4X Board Games

March of The Ants Strategy Board Game
Best 4X board game for solo players
The ant colony theme is very unique, fun, and appealing for younger players. It’s also one of the easiest on the list to learn and doesn’t take several hours to play through.
The Best 4X Board Games: GMT Games Dominant Species
Best overall
Kids of all ages love a theme involving prehistoric creatures. Tricky to learn, but the competitive nature of species makes it a fun world to immerse yourself in.
Space Empires 4X
Best 4X board game for 2 players
It’s one of the simplest games to learn and has a relatively short playing time, as far as 4X games go, making it perfect for two players. It’s also one of the most affordable options.

If you’re into video games, you’re probably familiar with the term “4X Gaming”, which originated in the early ’90s. You may not know, however, that this genre has branched out into the boardgame world and is rapidly growing in popularity. They offer a great opportunity for you and your serious gamer family members and friends to sit down for an intense session of world domination, tabletop style.

The term “4X” refers to the four necessary aspects of each game: eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation, and eXtermination. Players start small, with only a few game pieces and abilities, but they use these to explore the territory of a game board, expand across the board to build empires, exploit the resources of those areas they control — and crush other players’ attempts at empires. Here are our top 10 picks for the best 4X board games.

The Best 4X Board Games

10. Tiny Epic Kingdoms

A short, inexpensive game, Tiny Epic Kingdoms is a fantasy fight involving several types of fictional creatures as they explore, interact, and build. Gamers begin by choosing a faction: Lizardfolk, Halflings, Undead, Orcs, Dwarves, Goblins, Elves. Each has special abilities.

Each player has a territory board, an action board, and a tower-building board. Ultimately, players are trying to get points. These are gained by building the tower, adding meeples to the board, and your levels of magic. The game ends when someone’s tower is built to the top, their magic is maxed, or when all of a player’s meeples are on the board.

Territory boards are double-sided and provide opportunities for gaining resources. Individual types of terrain allow you to collect resources once you’ve placed a meeple there. Resources include magic, food, and rock. The action board shows the action you choose to take, and everyone takes the same action at the same time. The next player decides on the next action everyone takes, etc.

The options for actions are Patrol, Quest, Build, and Research. Patrol involves moving your meeple from one region to an adjacent region on the same territory card. The Quest action allows you to move a meeple from the outside of one territory card onto the outside of another. To Build means you’re adding to your tower, with each building addition costing resources. Finally, a Research action allows you to improve your magic or other abilities.

If choosing the Quest action, you may find that you’ve moved onto a terrain section occupied by an opponent’s meeple, and war ensues. You fight using resources and magic, plus rolling a die. Making alliances is also possible.

Playing specs
  • 2-5 players
  • Playing time: 30-45mins
  • Recommended ages: 13 & up
  • Complexity: 2.09/5

9. Runewars

Runewars is a fantasy game with heroes and monsters trying to collect rare Dragon Runes. Play begins with each player receiving a unique board that describes all their game pieces, the initiatives they are to complete, and spots to keep track of resources. Players get their own game pieces in a specific colour, Command Cards, a goal card, and other tokens. Each round of the game represents a season, and it takes four seasons/one year to complete.

The basics of play are simple: Use a specific card from one of the several available decks that let you make the move you want to do. If you want to recruit game pieces, play a recruiting card. If you want to move your tokens around, play a movement card. There are 8 different Round Cards with instructions for how to move your tokens around, reset your dials, conquer cities, build developments etc.

Each player has one “Hero” (with opportunities to gain more) who can move around the board, are unaffected by armies, and work on individual quests. Once their quest is complete, the gamer receives new items/tools to use for the rest of the game. The Fate Deck has cards with positive and negative symbols on them, allowing you to recruit various neutral pieces on the board to use in combat and other things.

The goal of the game is to collect Dragon Runes, or Runestones, and these are acquired by completing quests. The number of Runestones up for grabs in a game is decided by the number of players: 3 players get 3 stones, 4 get 4, etc. You must collect six stones to win, else whoever has the most at the end of the game’s four seasons is the winner.

Playing specs
  • 2-4 players
  • Playing time: 180-240mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 3.78/5

8. Clash of Cultures

This is the very definition of a civilization-building game. The game board is made up of tiles of various types of terrain and players must create cities and expand their civilization into new territories. Each person has a game card that details the actions available each turn: found a city, activate a city, move, civic improvement, and cultural influence.

To create a city, players use individual sections — like ports, fortresses, academies etc. — and connect them together to help it grow. The size/number of components in your city determines what level it achieves. If you have five sections, you have a Level 5 city, etc.

At the beginning of each round, each player receives an action card to be used on their turn or during combat. Everyone also gets an individual objective card that is worth two points once you accomplish one of the specific objectives listed. Objectives include having all 4 warfare advances, having at least one of each city-type on the board, having a city that is 5 or more spaces away from your starting city, and so on.

The three options involved in activating a city are building units, collecting resources, and increasing the city’s size. Everyone has one army, boats, and settler pieces that are used to explore the terrain, establish new colonies, etc. Event cards provide surprise actions or events like adding “barbarians” to the board, gaining technologies etc.

There’s also a special board that lists possible types of technology to accumulate. Once acquired, you put a cube in the slot for that specific piece of tech, reserving points for yourself. These technologies allow you to choose cards from the “Wonder Deck” and create “wonders” around your new world, like the Great Lighthouse, Great Library, Great Wall etc. Each of these earns you extra victory points at the end of the game. Once all six rounds are complete, with three turns per round, the game comes to an end.

Playing specs
  • 2-4 players
  • Playing time: 180-240mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 3.60/5

7. Forbidden Stars

A space conquest game, Forbidden Stars centres around exploring outer space rather than other lands or worlds on earth. The factions include Eldar, Orks, Space Marines, and Chaos Space Marines. Once chosen, gamers receive a faction-specific starting sheet that lists the pieces they can use to build up the board.

Players start with a certain number of tokens that are then strategically placed next to opponents’ planets and then retrieved throughout the game. Whoever gets them all back first, or whoever has the most tokens after 8 rounds, is the winner.

As with other 4X games, the main game board consists of various tiles that players add as the game progresses. Here, the tiles are squares featuring four distinct areas or “worlds”. Games are divided into three phases. The planning phase involves placing order tokens (explained below), the operations phase is when these tokens are put into effect, and the Refresh phase allows players to profit from the planets they’ve taken over, move the “warp storm barrier”, and heal wounded game pieces.

Players get 8 “order markers” and place 4 of them in the middle of a tile/area where they already have game pieces. These order markers come in four different types: Dominate, Deploy, Strategy, and Advance.

Using the Dominate order allows you to gain resource tokens, indicated by symbols on the planets you control. The Deploy order lets you build cities, factories, bastions, and new mobile units. You can buy “strategy cards” by using the Strategy order. Each player has 10 of these cards to begin with, but you lose them in combat, so buying more is very helpful. Lastly, the Advance order lets you move any of your pieces into an adjacent area.

Playing specs
  • 2-4 players
  • Playing time: 120-180mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 3.83/5

6. Eclipse: 2nd Dawn for the Galaxy

The original version of Eclipse is no longer available on Amazon, but many gamers prefer the second version anyway as it’s much easier to set up and keep track of individual game pieces. It’s a space exploration game involving exploration, technology development, building structures and ships, and expanding empires.

To begin, choose an alien character to play and set up the accompanying player board. On it, you’ll find a set of basic layouts of your ships and areas to keep track of scientific development, discovery tiles, and actions taken.

There’s a computer at the center of the main game board — destroy it for extra points — and gamers place tiles around this as they explore. Home systems for each player are added to the board at the beginning. There are five options for actions: Explore, Research, Upgrade, Move, and Influence. Through these actions, players can add more game tiles, gain new technologies, improve ships, move pieces along the board, and more.

There are 8 phases to the game and at the end of each phase, if competitors each have a ship on the same tile, they must do battle. These ships are reflections of the blueprints on your player board, showing their components and abilities. Combats are decided by rolling dice.

The gamer with the most victory points after 8 phases is the winner. Points are accumulated in various ways, like trading ambassadors, building monoliths, winning combats etc. If you make and break an alliance, you receive a “traitor card”; and if you still have it at the end of the game, you lose two points.

Playing specs
  • 2-6 players
  • Playing time: 60-200mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 3.46/5

5. Archipelago

With three separate decks of objective cards, Archipelago is unique in how it allows you to choose (to a point) how long you want the game to last. One deck is used for a short game, one for medium, one for long. Once players decide how long of a game they want to play, the appropriate deck is chosen and play can begin.

The theme of this game is exciting and unique: it takes place during the “age of discovery,” between 1492 (discovery of America) and 1797 (colonization of Tahiti). Players represent European explorers whose mission is to create peace, meaning that the importance of harvesting commodities and engaging in international trade must be balanced with keeping the local people happy and well provided for. If the locals aren’t treated fairly, they will rebel and a war for independence could begin.

There are many different aspects of this game that make it difficult to summarize how to play (hence its complexity rating, listed below). It’s mostly a cooperative endeavor with everyone working together to maintain peace with the locals while still managing and profiting from European exports and trade.

Each player has their individual objective card though, and there might be one who is a separatist or pacifist with secret objectives. This can complicate the mutual balance other players are striving for, and if the natives become unhappy, trigger a rebellion, and begin a war, the game is over.

Individual objective cards also list player-specific conditions that trigger the end of the game. They also list player-specific criteria for accumulating victory points, which is how the game is won.

Playing specs
  • 2-5 players
  • Playing time: 30-240mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 3.75/5

4. Space Empires 4X

Space Empires 4X
It’s one of the simplest games to learn and has a relatively short playing time, as far as 4X games go, making it perfect for two players. It’s also one of the most affordable options.

In this extensive space exploration game, there are two categories of ships: non-combat and combat-capable. Combat ships have individual details to assist during attacks, while the non-combat ones help with things like settling colonies and transporting minerals. Within each category, there are numerous types and versions of ships, all with different abilities. One unique feature to this game is that all ship markers look the same when placed on the board, which means your opponents have no idea what type or strength of ship you’re sending out.

There are three turn phases in a round: Move, Fight, and Explore. Ships are sent out to explore your own homeworld as well as “Deep Space,”, which is harder to navigate through but provides greater reward possibilities. You can grow a fleet by placing number tiles underneath a ship on the board. Nobody knows what these numbers are except you, so they don’t know how big your fleet is. 

Begin by exploring space with military and colony ships, setting up new colonies, and so on. As colonies grow and economies improve, you research technologies to help build on and gain new ships that are sent out to do more exploring and fighting. As you’re exploring, you come into conflict with other civilizations/players. Only once you’re in combat do you reveal the size of your fleet and what type of ships they are. The attack ratings of your ships go up against the defense ratings of your opponent.

Each planet you colonize is worth points, as is your home planet. If you build a pipeline from colonized planets to your home, you gain extra advantages. The game can end in several different ways, depending upon which version players agree upon before beginning play. Usually, the first player to destroy an enemy’s homeworld is the winner.

Playing specs
  • 1-4 players
  • Playing time: 180mins
  • Recommended ages: 12 & up
  • Complexity: 3.34/5

3. March of the Ants

March of The Ants Strategy Board Game
The ant colony theme is very unique, fun, and appealing for younger players. It’s also one of the easiest on the list to learn and doesn’t take several hours to play through.

The theme is unlike almost all other 4X games, centering around a player’s colony of ants within a larger farm. It’s also one of the quickest-playing games on this list. Each game consists of four phases — Worker, Soldier, Queen, and Slumber — and whoever has the most points after round four is the winner. Points are collected by achieving goals (found on Goal cards), controlling specific tiles, or stealing opponents’ points through battle.

Players each have a personal game board, plus everyone contributes to the main game board. The main board starts with one tile, the “Great Tunnel”, and new tiles are added when players choose to take the associated action.

Your personal board shows the phases of the game, has a spot to store your food, and a picture of an ant separated into three sections: head, thorax, and abdomen. These three sections can be upgraded by gaining specific cards throughout the game, like a blasting head, harvester thorax, mimic abdomen etc. These make your ants more powerful during combats.

On each turn, you have the opportunity for four actions: Explore, March, Forage, or Play a Card — allowing you to turn over a new board tile, move ants around the board (which can cause a battle), draw cards from the deck, or pay the cost to play a card from your hand. Each action is paid for with food though, so be sure to stock up. Keep in mind that every time you take an action, other players get reactions — e.g. if you march five steps, everyone else can move one step, etc.

The ant colony theme is very unique, fun, and appealing for younger players. It’s also one of the easiest on the list to learn and doesn’t take several hours to play through.

Playing specs
  • 1-5 players
  • Playing time: 70mins
  • Recommended ages: 13 & up
  • Complexity: 2.63/5

2. Twilight Imperium

As the oldest game on the list, Twilight Imperium has various versions and expansions. We’re focusing on the 4th version here. It’s a huge, long, impressive space epic game that hardcore gamers love.

You begin by choosing from one of the 17 races/species options and the playing sheet/board to accompany this — the back of which describes your species in detail, including the special abilities or commodities they hold. Each species comes with tiles representative of their home planet and has both production and political value.

Public objectives are displayed for everyone, and individuals also have secret objectives to help gain points. Your species will have special abilities and technologies to give you an edge, like a special type of armor that helps repair ships faster, or being able to add extra infantry when you need reinforcements.

Players each have action cards to start with and can gain more. These can be played at any time, allowing you to surprise opponents with things like gaining extra speed, giving you an extra vote, removing another player’s token etc.

Play revolves around 8 strategy cards that represent various factors of exploration and existence: Leadership, Diplomacy, Politics, Construction, Trade, Warfare, Technology, and Imperial. Gamers choose a card that gives you a special/primary ability for your species but that also features a secondary ability available for others to use.

As players make their way across the universe, they engage in combat, practice diplomacy, explore new territories, and — most importantly — collect victory points. The first to ten points is the champion. It’s a game where all players are involved at all times, almost, no matter whose turn it is, which makes for the type of extremely interactive experience that hardcore gamers seek.

Playing specs
  • 3-6 players
  • Playing time: 240-480mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 3.49/5

1. Dominant Species

GMT Games Dominant Species
Kids of all ages love a theme involving prehistoric creatures. Tricky to learn, but the competitive nature of species makes it a fun world to immerse yourself in.

Set during the time before humans roamed the earth, gamers aim to make their species adaptable to different environments to ensure survival. Players can choose between reptiles, birds, amphibians, mammals, insects and arachnids, and follow along with the large information card that accompanies it.

As the game progresses, markers can be added to change the type of climate(s) your species can tolerate, etc. You can lose markers though, and you have a set amount to work with. Players must work to dominate their habitat, move to new habitats, and grow their population.

Players can add new hex tiles to the main game board and expand the “world”. You can also migrate/move your species around on the board. “Competition”, or “war”, means fighting and killing off other species trying to overtake your tile.

“Domination” occurs when you have the most cubes (representing you/your species) in a certain area. The player who dominates an area is awarded various victory points, dependent on the specific type of terrain dominated. Up to 9 points can be gained from dominating the sea, 8 for the wetlands, 5 for the forest, and so on.

When a player adds their domination marker to the board, they then receive one of the “Dominance Cards” located along the side of the game board. These give special powers, like the ability to eliminate all but one species on a certain tile. The game ends when someone takes the very last dominance card, the Ice Age Domination card.

This game gets the number one spot on our list because of its uncommon theme. Playing with dinosaurs is entertaining for players of all ages, young and old. Combining the excitement of creating a new world for prehistoric creatures, plus the mental challenge required to strategize against your opponents, makes Dominant Species our best 4X board game pick.

Playing specs
  • 2-6 players
  • Playing time: 120-240mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 4.04/5

Final thoughts

As you can see, all 4X board games have extremely similar components and setup. The exploration factor, played out in part by participants adding tiles to the game board on their turn, makes this form of game quite unlike any other. And since the game board will be created differently each time, every game will be distinctly different. The best 4X board games provide your family with an exciting new experience every time you sit down to play together, and all the games on our list achieve that marvelously.

Want to find more strategy games? Check out our list of the best deck-building games!

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