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4X Game

Entry updated 2 April 2015. Tagged: Game, Theme.

Term used to describe a form of Videogame of which the archetypal example is Master of Orion (1993). The phrase was coined by the journalist and designer Alan Emrich in a preview of that game, as an acronym of sorts for "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate". This construction is in fact something of a misnomer; while 4X Games typically involve players in exploring unknown regions, expanding into them and exploiting their resources, there is no requirement that anything be exterminated. A more helpful definition might be that a 4X Game models the evolution of a developing civilization over many years, simulating complex interactions between the economy, social system, scientific research and trade, diplomacy and conflict with other (usually computer-controlled) cultures. Players will typically see events unfold on a two-dimensional map, with additional displays to represent more abstract developments. Such games are generally slow-paced and intellectually demanding, with events proceeding turn by turn rather than continuously (in "real time"). Victory over other civilizations may be achieved by methods as diverse as military conquest, the achievement of economic, cultural or political dominance, or (in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri [1999]) by unifying all the minds on the planet into a single Transcendent consciousness.

While Master of Orion was the first game to be referred to as 4X, it was not the first of its kind. Precursors include the Wargames Stellar Conquest (1974) and Outreach (1976) (see Starforce: Alpha Centauri), as well as the Australian Videogame Reach For The Stars (1983) (see Master of Orion). The earliest clear example of the form, however, is Civilization (1991 MicroProse, DOS; 1992 Amiga; 1993 AtariST, Mac, Win; 1994 SNES) designed by Sid Meier, in which players can guide the evolution of their chosen civilization from the Bronze Age (see Prehistoric SF) to the near future, competing with other cultures for territory and knowledge. Civilization itself appears to have been influenced by early God Games as well as by such Board Games as the French Risk (1957) (see Risk 2210 AD) and the UK Civilization (1980 Hartland Trefoil) designed by Francis Tresham, which has a similar theme but quite different mechanics to its Videogame namesake. A clear line of development can be drawn between Stellar Conquest and Master of Orion, however, suggesting that the 4X form may have grown from several similar seeds.

Other significant examples of the form include VGA Planets (1992), the pseudo-medieval fantasy game Master of Magic (1994 Simtex, DOS) designed by Steve Barcia and Galactic Civilizations (2003). There have also been various sequels to and spinoffs from Civilization, including Colonization (1994 MicroProse, DOS; 1995 Amiga, Mac, Win) designed by Brian Reynolds and Sid Meier – based on the early history of the Americas – Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri and the less commercially successful and less well reviewed Civilization: Call To Power (1999 Activision, Win; 2000 Mac, Lin) designed by Cecilia Barajas, Mark Lamia, William Westwater, a sequel made by other hands which extends from prehistory into the Far Future. Meanwhile, the Hungarian game Imperium Galactica (1997 Digital Reality, DOS) designed by Gábor Fehér, István Kiss attempted (only partially successfully) to combine 4X gameplay with Real Time Strategy elements and a linear story (see Interactive Narrative) in which the player is an officer with a hidden past in the military of a future Galactic Empire.

Most 4X Games are science-fictional, with the exception of the Civilization series, which is sf only in the limited sense that it allows players to generate counterfactual Alternate Histories of Earth's development. Considered as sf, however, the frame narratives (see Interactive Narrative) of otherwise excellently crafted members of the form can lack colour and vitality, though this is by no means a universal failing; Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri and Emperor of the Fading Suns (1996) (see Fading Suns) are both set in richly realized milieux. 4X Games are essentially a niche type, but one which remains commercially viable. Recent releases include Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (2006) (see Galactic Civilizations), Sid Meier's Civilization IV (2005 Piraxis Games, Win; 2006 Mac) designed by Soren Johnson and Sid Meier – the fourth instalment in the main Civilization series – and the Canadian sf game Sins of a Solar Empire (2008), which follows Imperium Galactica by borrowing many gameplay elements from the RTS school. The form remains of considerable science-fictional interest for the way it enables players to act out the evolution of societies as an Interactive Narrative (see Sociology), a potential most impressively explored in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. [NT]


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