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"Essential" (as in Essence) 4X Tabletop Game

Recently, Oliver Kiley described his desires for a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) video game that did not rest largely on warfare. His idea is to have players compete to Transcend, for the race to rise to a higher plane of existence.

The problem is that if the players cannot compete with one another in a way that hinders or harms the others, then you're back to a multiplayer solitaire (parallel competition) kind of game, which I wouldn't want. I think Oliver wouldn't want it either. So the question I've been asking myself is what can we substitute for all-out warfare that still enables players to affect each other as they try to achieve their objective, whether it's Transcendence or something else.

The not-so-long-ago concluded Cold War is the obvious example, but I have been reading a maritime history of the world, and you to use in a game the kind of competition that the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish, and others waged during the age of European expansion. This was sometimes called "no peace beyond the line", a reference to the virtual line drawn by the Pope to separate the Portuguese and Spanish areas of control early in the age of expansion. English, French, and Dutch, but especially the English, harried the Spanish in the Spanish Main and even in the Pacific Ocean, raiding their commerce and sometimes attacking their towns. In effect, there were rules of engagement, rarely broken, that usually prevented the competition from becoming all-out war, although all-out wars did result at times.

While at WBC I was told about a game that offers only three possible actions, and suddenly decided I'd like to try making a tabletop 4X game with 3 or 4 actions, to be played one action at a time in turn! It's intended to be the essence of 4X, as simple as possible so that players can concentrate on strategy, certainly not on resource management.

When I tried to make a list of essential actions, I came down to:
● Explore
● Colonize
● Build Ships
● Attack

You could try to combine Explore and Attack in a "Move" action, or Colonize with Explore or Build, and I may experiment with these combinations. But the list seems good, and as I couldn't make a full prototype and play it while traveling, I thought more about the game. I want a typical action to involve just one ship/fleet. At some point I realized that the Diplomacy model of movement and support would work, and adopted it here in a turn-based form that I've used in one other game years ago. I have a board I created for a co-operative space wargame that I've modified to try in play.

But mainly I tried to think of add-on modules, sets of rules that could be added to the simplest base game. So far I've come up with a Dipomatic module (possibly including forced non-aggression pacts), Sabotage, Trade, Technology, Culture (which could lead to "Transcendance"), and Commerce Raiding modules. Orbital Forts and Bishop's Rings (Halos) can be included in one module or another.

Now I have to make a prototype and test the basic idea. Delayed because "Britannia in Outer Space" has taken precedence!


I hope to get my comments about WBC and GenCon up here pretty soon.

ICYMI, the list price for my book "Game Design" has been nearly halved, to $19.99 (was $38). That's also reduced the ebook price to $9.99 (Kindle). This is much less than the price for any game design book I know of (not counting "anthologies" with many authors).


In 4X games, when the game is

In 4X games, when the game is well done, you can compete for various non-military things. For example, in civilization revolution, the victory objectives are pretty clear, and you can see how well you are competing in the field of Technology, military, culture and economy which each are a path to victory.

Another thing about 4X games are the phases of the game. In the early of the game, you are more likely to do explore and expand while in the last part of the game, you are more likely to exploit and exterminate. So when you map actions directly to an X, you will have actions that will be only used in a specific phase of the game. Which personally, I find pretty dull. I would like all actions to be useful in all phases of the game.

This is why most board games try to focus on a slice of time. Instead of growing from the beginning until the end of the history, you play only the most important slice of time. Which basically means removing some of the X.

Another idea I thought is that the initial exploration, expansion could be part of a longer setup phase, then you start playing the game when civilizations are in interaction with each others.

Have you read through the

Have you read through the rules or played Seafall? It may offer some inspiration for the game you're looking for. It has many of the elements you're talking about, and warfare in the game isn't encouraged nearly as much as other 4x games.

I really like the idea of having a "no war zone." Part of the board could be a wild west type of deal where anything goes, but in another part, warfare could be totally off limits.

Good luck with the project!

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blog | by Dr. Radut