4X games are a respected if underserved niche of games. However, I wanted to think about the structure a little more and see what it would be like if we were to make a 4X a little more 4Xy.
Breaking Down Civ On The X-Axis
For Civ, these phases would be:
Explore: The early scout game is very much an exploration action. Doing things like finding native villages, natural wonders and even other players is the core of the exploratory phase. This is also the phase where barbarians are a major threat, and not just a nuisance, which also fits in with the feeling of vulnerability that complements exploration well.
There are further exploration phases when you get seaworthy vessels and when you can explore the other continent, but as they lack the rewards of the initial exploration phase, they don’t feel like true exploration phases.
Expand: In Civ, this is mostly the building of cities. There is also the natural growth of the cities, but that is the result of building them in the first place. This phase is at its best when there’s something of a scramble for good locations between you and your neighbors. However, even without that, the act of settling is inherently satisfying as you bring more parts of the map, and especially natural resources and wonders, under your control.
Another key part of Civ’s expansion is actually the trade routes generating roads. These connections consolidate your empire and make the expansion feel integrated.
This phase naturally ends when you and the neighboring civilizations run out of decent space to expand into.
Exploit: There’s surprisingly little exploitation in the sense of gathering and using natural resources in Civ. The cities themselves become more productive pieces throughout the game. Additionally, you do have workers develop the land for increased gains and harvest natural features. This however is both a constant throughout the game and is a fairly light feature.
There are points that result in major jumps in productivity though, like the onset of industrialization. Interestingly though, the game abstracts away the material underpinnings of the actual Industrial Revolution, a period that required both a sudden surplus of raw material and expanded markets for finished goods.
Exterminate: This axis is also a constant part of the game. War is an intrinsic part of the game right from the beginning. Additionally, the early game actually encourages you to annex other empires due to the benefit you get from the early expansion of your empire.
A Hypothetical, Delineated Civilization
What would Civ look like if these phases were more clearly delineated?
Exploration: The first, most necessary piece would be to push settlers a little further down the game so as to emphasize the exploration phase. It’s also necessary to have this phase be more impactful. A natural solution here is to both make settlers more expensive and city locations more impactful and easier to understand so that players feel more of a need to find excellent starting locations for their cities. This is tricky though because of how much value a city produces over the course of a game and how that value snowballs. It’s hard for any cost to feel comparable to the benefit of setting up new cities early.
Another option is to dial up the rewards of this exploration phase. An exploratory phase would be characterized by more of an adventurous feel than a typical grand strategy feel, albeit heavily flavored by the structure of Civ. The keys here are more variety in the things that you discover and the ways that you interact with them and a little more feeling of danger, which would have to be tempered by having most losses at this stage not be crippling. A natural issue with the early stage of Civ games is that losses in the early stage can be quite a big deal because of how the game snowballs. Instead you would need to either have units like scouts be split into multiple cheaper units or instead of having them be killed, have them simply be disabled for a while as they escape whatever beat them.
A cool idea here would be to start the game with nomadic tribes instead of being able to immediately settle cities. This allows for the period to feel more exploratory while still retaining the general structure of Civ. You could then also increase the tech boosts from exploration in the early game to further emphasize this.
My belief is that the value of this is going to be felt most in the more advanced stages of the game. One of the major aesthetics achieved by Civ is the feeling of building an empire from humble beginnings and I feel that emphasizing an exploratory phase would do a lot to further push that feeling. This also forces some variance in the play experience. The flip side is naturally increased cost and complexity.
Expansion: From here, expansion is pretty straight-forward. Converting the nomadic tribes to cities will kick-start the shift. From here though, I would try to put in a second expansion activity to punctuate the phase. One option is outposts so that you can pick up raw materials. Another option is to make the expansion of cities something that requires more player attention than Civ now asks. That has the potential to become micro-management heavy though.
Another possible option is to have a city upgrades after population thresholds that cause the boundaries of the city to drastically expand. Ideally here, this phase would be opened by a quick succession of tribes turning into cities, followed by a couple further settlements and then should have a staccato of city expansions before transitioning to the next phase.
Exploitation: I think that a critical part of exploitation is the resources that are exploited. Having cities be more tied up with the land that they are built on would do a lot to make the exploitation feel more like exploitation. It would also do a lot to make the cities feel more different. Colonization does this well, but suffers from heavy micromanagement and from cities that do not develop to the same degree as Civ cities.
The districts of Civ had the potential to make the cities feel different, but tend not to as an empire as a whole often has definite aims. Additionally, while the districts have different yields, they don’t actually change the feel of the city that much. Also, they’re not very connected to the land.
The workers are nice for the idea of exploitation, but feel too simple a mechanic. A little more complexity here would emphasize the point. Involving the city with the building of improvements would also be nice.
Another thinking point is that it would be nice to exploit other players. A focus on raw materials and their finishing could provide the grist for this. This is not merely a point of seizing advantages, but one of tying diplomacy deeper into the economy such that trade wars and the like are expressible.
Extermination: Leaving actual extermination to the end of the game is an interesting conceit. The military is a key part of every phase of Civ and with that comes the concept of extermination. A possibility is to allow shifts in territory from the beginning, but to have full extermination require late game technology. I would present this as a question of being able to manage disparate empires without advanced civics. This would be ahistorical however as there have been many cases of large empires from well before what would correspond to Civ’s late game.
Those empires never fully assimilated their dominions though. Honestly, even current day empires seem mostly to fail at assimilation. Perhaps the answer is in having the civ be vassalized instead of exterminated until the dominating civ is advanced enough to complete the assimilation. I think this would be still manage to feel like an extermination phase as you watch competing players get fully removed from the game.
An issue with this is that players might effectively lose well before they actually lose, although this is an issue that has always been endemic to Civ.
The New Seen Through The Lens Of The Old
The big concern with this is that it would hurt the interesting decisions that Sid Meier is famous for. The blurring of the phases in Civ makes it so that players have to weigh a wider range of actions and so can make the decisions more interesting.
The sharper phases seem like they would do a lot to push the idea of growth over time though, which is a key aesthetic for the game. It would also add some more variance in the way the game plays over time, which I imagine some players will want and some will not.
I’m going to experiment a little with this alternate structure for Syphilisation and see what comes of it. Looking at Civ from this perspective has given me some solid ideas.