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Where To Expand Your Empire: 4X Games IRL or Virtual - Antsy Labs

Where To Expand Your Empire: 4X Games IRL or Virtual

For fans of the classic 4X genre, the games keep getting better.

With plenty of compelling titles available virtually (like the brief Games Radar article about the 20 best 4X games for building your digital empire) and in real life (Game Cow’s Top 16 Best 4X Tabletop Board Games), you already have enough options to keep you strategizing until the sun comes up.

So today, we’re not here to debate what the best 4X game is (Civilization II, because those games we play when we’re 7 and 8 years old stick with us forever). 

Today, we’re going to talk about whether these expansive, empire-building games work better in the virtual world or on the physical table (the term, which came from a 1993 preview of the game Master of Orion, rated the game XXXX for EXplore, EXpand, EXploit and EXterminate).

Though there are clear limitations with a board game, there’s nothing quite like triumphing over friends in their presence. And virtual games are only limited by, well, certainly not 1.44mb floppy discs.

So, without any further ado, let’s get into it. We’ll provide a winner for each X of the 4X, and then see which one triumphs. May the best format win!


For these kinds of games, exploring means for players to send scouts across a map to reveal surrounding territories.

  1. Virtual 4X - With virtual 4X games, there is almost limitless terrain to explore. And since the 90s, those games have only grown deeper and more complex. If you’ve got the time, there’s nothing quite as immersive.

  2. IRL 4X - These board games are no slouch, with some enjoying the scope of galaxies and universes. Still, the physical restrictions of a tabletop set ultimately can’t match up with the digital offerings.

Winner: Virtual 4X.


In 4X games, the second X is for Expand, as in claiming new territories, creating new settlements, or extending the influence of existing settlements.

  1. Virtual 4X - This is one arena where the graphics have advanced and the accompanying joys are much higher. Watching your crews get to work and watching the civilization blossom while thinking of your next steps is one of the most satisfying components of this style.

  2. IRL 4X - Though there are similar limitations to those above, there is a satisfaction to physically moving your pieces, occupying territories, and watching your opponents work.

Winner: Virtual 4X.


This is where the game gets good. Exploiting represents a player’s gathering and use of resources, and in some cases, the first skirmishes.

  1. Virtual 4X - The momentum is clearly building here in the game, but this can be the point where it’s easier to focus on what you’re doing and less on what your opponents are doing. That sort of tendency amplifies the sometimes solitary nature of virtual or online gaming.

  2. IRL 4X - The fun begins for the in-person gamers. The advantages of graphics can tend to fade as the emphasis on strategy and strong movements takes the forefront. Watching the reactions from your moves is a real joy.

Winner: IRL 4X.


Because with those resources, you can now begin to Exterminate. By attacking and eliminating rival players, or in some instances, claiming all the territory, you gain control - and eventually, you win. 

  1. Virtual 4X - On the scale of galaxies and universes, it can be compelling to wipe out your opponents and claim victory for yourself. Still, with turn-based games down remotely, that delay can rob the victor of some of the satisfaction.

  2. IRL 4X - Turn-based strategy is made all the richer when you get to watch your allies succeed and your foes cower in front of your very eyes. Savor each step of in-person conquest.

Winner: IRL 4X.


And with that tie, we the arbiters (and arbitrary rule makers) cast the deciding vote in favor of…

TABLETOP GAMING (and just because we love celebrating tabletop gaming with one of our favorite IRLA Packs). 

But we’re not so stubborn we can’t be convinced otherwise. Let us know below if you disagree with our 4X gaming showdown!

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