4X: Excite, Excel, Exhaust, Exclude?

Yesterday my friends and I had a snowy day to contend with and we passed the time by playing a board game. It’s a game called Scythe that I got as a gift from my girlfriend for Christmas. Scythe is described as a 4X board game – and just in case you didn’t listen to last week’s podcast, 4X stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate. You explore a map, expand your empire, exploit the land for resources, and exterminate your rival empires.

These types of strategy games are found in both the spheres of both board and video games. Classic examples of 4X video games include the Civilization series, the Masters of Orion series, Endless Space, and Stellaris. Examples of 4X board games include the aforementioned Scythe, Civilization: The Board Game, Twilight Imperium, and Clash of Cultures.

4X games often take a very long time to play – I’ve personally spent a whole day playing Civilization 5 on the computer and not finished the game, and it took two long gaming sessions to finish one game of a board game version. This is because there are often a lot of intersecting mechanics and choices you have to make and since it is a strategy game there are lots of considerations to make every time it is your turn. Also because there is a lot of information to cover, the first time you play such a game it will take a lot longer to set up and understand.

I really enjoyed playing Scythe with my friends and am already eager to try it again. However, when I’m faced with a 4X video games I often shy away from them aside from the Civilization series. So why is 4X more palatable to me in board game form over video games? That’s what I’m going to explore and expand upon (get it?) in this article.

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A picture of the beginning state of our game of Scythe.

Scythe was a complex start-up. None of the four of us playing had ever played before, so taking into account explaining all the rules and setting up the board it probably took us an hour/hour-and-a-half before we actually started playing. That’s one hell of a time commitment – thankfully with all the snow outside none of us had anywhere to be. The full first game took us about three hours to complete once we started playing – so the game took about four to five hours, give or take. That’s well under what most other 4X games I’ve played have taken, especially video game versions.

The key part about Scythe that kept me engaged was that the turns were simple: when it’s your turn, you have an option of four different tactics. Each tactic has a “top” and “bottom” action so you are taking two actions per turn. You can’t select the same tactic twice in a row (except if you have a special ability) so each turn you are usually deciding between three ways to proceed. Once you’ve figured out what those four actions are, the game becomes about strategically choosing which action is the best. Despite the long set-up, the actual moment-to-moment gameplay is fairly straightforward.

This is different in the Civilization video games. I’ve put over 100 hours into Civilization 5, and probably at least another 100 (if not way more) into Civs 2-4. Despite the fact that I love these games and will sink hours of my time into them (and I plan on getting Civ 6 as soon as I decide whether to purchase it on PC or on the Switch) I still don’t fully understand what I’m doing some of the time. I understand the basic tenets – what units do, how to make new cities, what resources are for, etc. But I’m always winging it by the seat of my pants in terms of moment-to-moment gameplay.

Let’s talk Civilization 5 specifically – there’s a tech tree that tells you every technology in the game and how to research to get to each tech. I just wing it and usually pick whatever is fastest to research. There is culture, tourism, and faith that you can grow, but I just generally try to get a balanced amount of each. Culture relates to social policies, which there are several trees and branches you can go down. There is diplomacy between empires and spies you can send to other empires. Each city has a population that you can control their output. There are great leaders you can assign to maximize certain production, but there are specific ways you create each type of great leader. And cities can produce food, science, production, resources, culture. You can have workers build roads and improvements on tiles around your cities….the list goes on and on and on.

Yes, I’m familiar with all of these options in their own separate bubbles. But every time I play Civilization I always feel like I’m not playing optimally because comprehending how all the moving pieces fit together is just out of my reach. Even though I can play on a moderate difficulty level against computers I can usually win, but paired against people I’m almost always outmatched – just like when I play real-time strategy. In both cases it’s because I don’t do micromanagement well, but unlike in RTS where it’s because I don’t have the reflexes and brain power to switch back and forth and micromanage efficiently, in 4X turn-based games it’s because I just haven’t figured out how all the interconnected systems work best for my current leader or my overall play style. So when I fall behind or lose outright on harder difficulties, I don’t understand why what I’m doing isn’t working.

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Here’s a look at the map in Civilization V – just look at all that information to parse.

In Scythe, when the game ended and I had lost, I knew exactly what I had done wrong. The strategy was still complicated, but the systems were simple enough that upon my defeat I figured out why my friend had won. I was still performing all 4 Xs, but I had a clearer understanding of how each action I could take worked in concert with other actions and my opponents’ actions. I feel like the next game I play I will have a better understanding and get closer to victory, while a loss in Civilization 5 does not make me feel like I’ve made progress – instead I will just play another game of Civ 5 at the same level of understanding I’m already at. That isn’t to say I’m not having fun playing Civ, but I feel like there is a skill wall I just can’t get past.

Part of that is just the format. A video game, by design, has the option to include way more complicated systems than a board game. There is just so much more you can do with variations on characters, skill trees, and beyond when you can just add a new tab to click on under the help menu. Meanwhile a board game has to fit into a physical box and not many people are going to want to read a 100-page manual just to play one game, so gameplay has to be straightforward enough that the game will grab their attention quickly.

So I think I prefer the board game version of 4X because it’s simple enough for me to understand and learn from. And as for video games, Civilization balances the right amount of fun and complex strategy for me – despite the fact that I’m not comprehending the full picture, I still have fun playing it with my as-is understanding of all the systems. I’ve tried a few other 4X type games (thanks to Steam sales) and I always burnt out very quickly – often before an hour or two passed in game. I guess it’s mostly because I grew up playing Civ 2 so the basic tenets for that particular game have stuck with me throughout my life, while any new 4X video game I will be learning the mechanics from the ground up…and I just ain’t got the time for that, especially if the best result I’m going to get is the same level of understanding as a Civilization game.

In conclusion, don’t expect me to be reviewing any 4X video games – except maybe Civ 6 – in the future. But I do recommend Scythe as a tabletop version since its strong blend of complex strategy but simplicity in actual actions to take translates 4X well to a physical game. Now I just need another snow day so I can get my friends in the same place to play again.

One thought on “4X: Excite, Excel, Exhaust, Exclude?

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