I recently encountered the tag 4X when I was on the Steam page for Endless Legend. So I did a bit research and found even on this site following answer in this topic from Kevin Y:

According to Wikipedia:

4X games are a genre of strategy video game in which players control an empire and "explore, expand, exploit and exterminate".

When you now google 4X a list with games is immediately shown, but I never found Age of Empires.

In further researches I found different indices that AoE is not counted in that genre and my question is why this is so. What does Age of Empires distinguish from games such as Civilization V regarding those points (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate)? Civilization V appears to be a very famous 4X-Game and I am pretty familiar with it.

  • Had problems with finding tags for this topic, however I didn't want to create a new one. Nov 19, 2015 at 14:11
  • please link where it says AoE isnt a 4X game
    – Eumel
    Nov 19, 2015 at 14:24
  • @Eumel e.g. this source: reddit.com/r/civ/comments/1ksww4/… that's why i talked about indices. there are no clear statements about this Nov 19, 2015 at 14:56
  • 4
    Wikipedia mentions that "real-time 4X games are not uncommon" but I can't actually think of any that are truly real-time as opposed to the hybrid model with real-time tactical battles within strategic turns. Unless anyone has a counter-example, I'd argue that a useful rule-of-thumb is that any multi-player RTS, like Age of Empires, is not a 4X game. Though then you have to consider whether Eve Online and the ironically-named X3 could qualify as X4 games.
    – Lilienthal
    Nov 19, 2015 at 15:43
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    @Lilienthal - Sins of a Solar Empire describes itself as a real-time 4X, or "RT4X".
    – MikeTV
    Nov 20, 2015 at 14:39

6 Answers 6


I have played both Civilization 5 and Age of Empires extensively. Comparing the 2, these are some of the differences:

1. Tech tree

Civilization 5 and other 4X games have an extensive tech tree: you start with a single technology unlocked in the very first part of the game. You then have a choice of about half a dozen other techs, each of which can unlock other techs. Some techs require more than 1 base tech to unlock. Each tech has a specific theme that either gives you something new to use, or augments something you already can build.

Age of Empires has techs as well, but instead of a vast tree that spans the ages, it's more of a shrubbery: you build a new building and that building gives you the option to research a new tech. There are very few techs that require you to have 2 different buildings. Techs are also much more aimed at augmenting existing options rather than unlocking new options. They're mainly upgrades for existing units and buildings, rather than giving you an entirely new type of unit to play with or a new type of building.

2. Scale

4X games are on a far greater scale than traditional RTS games. Age of Empires is actually only a very small map when you look at it. if your map has a prebuilt city, this usually takes 1/3-1/4 of the map. Meanwhile, in Civ 5, you basically have an entire planet to explore, or a continent depending on the map type, and your city only takes a small fraction of that map, even if you include the culture region. Age of Empires only covers a fraction of human history compared to Civ 5: 1000 years in Age of Empires, at least 6000 years in Civ 5.

3. Advancement through the ages

4X games have a different take on entering a new age compared to AoE. In AoE, advancing through the ages is a choice you have to consciously make: you have only 1 town center for most of the early game, it can't build new workers while you're advancing, making it a meaningful choice that's not just "do it as fast as possible". However, it brings substantial long-term bonuses in terms of extra options. In Civ 5, advancing through the ages is more of a side effect of teching up: it's an indication of your progress and doesn't really bring anything new aside from some bonuses to certain currencies.

4. Diplomacy

Diplomacy in 4X games, as other people have indicated, is far more involved than in Age of Empires. In AoE, you have 3 things you can do with other players on the map:

  1. You can change your disposition to someone between friendly, neutral and hostile;
  2. You can send them messages;
  3. You can send someone resources.

Anything beyond that isn't really supported and has to be negotiated via messages.

In Civ 5, you have an EXTENSIVE system of diplomacy, where there is a TON to do:

  1. Make several different military pacts, ranging from joint warfare against a 3rd player to open borders to a defensive pact.
  2. Send spies and/or diplomats to another player to steal their tech or improve relations.
  3. form the United Nations and vote on global proposals that affect all players and can have a major impact on progress.
  4. ask or even demand favors from the other player.
  5. when at war, broker a peace treaty with another player in return for some of their cities;
  6. trade strategic and luxury resources as well as gold.
  7. Establish trading routes over both land and sea.

In addition, there's a system of non-player city states that have their own disposition towards each player and can influence UN votes, give you extra resources and even gift you units.

5. City management

City management in Age of Empires is based around positioning your buildings in the right way. The focus is less on choosing what to build and more on where to build it and how much resources to dedicate to it.

Civ 5 allows you to micromanage each city and specialize cities for several purposes: generating gold/culture/science/faith, building units, getting a valuable resource before another player can,... The focus is on building an empire, not a city.

There are a ton of other differences, like how the win conditions are organized differently and how Civ 5 has a secondary tech tree based on culture. These are just some bigger differences that in general just indicate that Age of Empire is more a tactical game based on army composition, while Civ 5 is more of a management game where tactical choices take a backseat to empire management.

  • Another comparison of the tech tree would be that Civ feels like you are taking a path whilst Age of Empires is more like a checklist.
    – user101016
    Nov 19, 2015 at 16:42
  • Overall pace is also very important. Even looking at "true" 4X RTS, like Sins of the Solar Empire, the pacing is generally extremely slow compared to traditional RTS games. 4X games tend to take hours, or even tens of hours per game, while traditional RTS games usually end after 10-20 minutes - especially in multiplayer.
    – Luaan
    Nov 20, 2015 at 10:10

See Wikipedia's article on the subject, specifically the Difficulties in Definition section:

While many computer strategy games arguably contain a similar "explore, expand, exploit, exterminate" cycle, game journalists, developers and enthusiasts generally apply "4X" to a more specific class of games, and contrast 4X games with other strategy games such as Command & Conquer. Hence, writers have tried to show how 4X games are defined by more than just having each of the four Xs. Computer gaming sites have stated that 4X games are distinguished by their greater complexity and scale, and their intricate use of diplomacy beyond the standard "friend or foe" seen in other strategy games. Reviewers have also stated that 4X games feature a range of diplomatic options, and that they are well known for their large detailed empires and complex gameplay. In particular, 4X games offer detailed control over an empire's economy, while other computer strategy games simplify this in favor of combat-focused gameplay.

The difference is somewhat subtle and hard to articulate cleanly. It's often easier to point to games 'in' and 'out' of the cluster and learn the boundary from there than it is to explain why any particular game is in or out of the cluster; for AoE specifically, the argument is "it plays more like StarCraft than like Civilization."

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    the reference on diplomacy is manifesting. thats what i never thought of Nov 19, 2015 at 14:59

There was an old game called Empire.

From it descended the games Civilization and Dune 2.

Dune 2 is the grand-daddy of the RTS genre, and Civilization is the grand-daddy of the 4X genre.

Games that are "like" (the original) Civilization, and "like" the more famous games that where categorized as 4X, are categorized as 4X games.

Games that are "like" Dune 2, and "like" the more famous games that where in turn categorized as RTS, are RTS games.

This holds true even before the labels 4X and RTS where defined.

They are similar games in some respects; but their definition is determined by their difference. Their labels describe the genre, they do not define the genre. The genre exists independently of the label; it is influenced by the label, but it is not "anything that matches the definition is the genre".

For other examples of where this happens, examine the genre "urban fantasy". It does not apply to any book containing fantasy elements in an urban environment; rather, it is defined by the archetype of the books usually with a female main character, with tattoos, set in a pseudo-contemporary setting, with a romantic triangle subplot (usually involving vampires or werewolves), etc.

A popular exemplar appears. Copycats develop, with variation. The clump of copycats and the exemplar examine a space of ideas; the clump becomes the genre. Latter copycats expand, migrate or refine the genre clump. Sometimes a sub-genre develops, or splits off, with its own pattern of ideas.


What does Age of Empires distinguish from e.g. Civilization V regarding those points (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate)? Civilization V appears to be a very famous X4-Game and I am pretty familiar with it.

Age of Empires, Starcraft etc are very much "all-action" style real-time strategy games. The phases for exploring, expand, exploiting and exterminating do exist in such games but are very simple, and often quick to perform. The main aim of the game is to wipe out the enemy. The complexity will be in your constant handling of units real time over making thoughtful, planned decisions. Sure, you make decisions, and there is a strategy, but you need to make the decisions fast and you see the outcome very quickly.

In games like Civilisation the phases are far slower, and far more complex. There are often multiple paths in each phase. Diplomacy, as you may know, has a greater bearing in games like Civilisation. 4X games will often last a lot longer than something like Age of Empires. Another difference is the scale of a battle. In Age of Empires you have a small regional map whilst Civilisation will be an entire world or continent.

If you read the wiki article in full you will probably find that complexity and time are key points raised regarding what defines a 4X game.

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    So the X4 term as "explore, expand, exploit and exterminate" transformed to a very complex strategy game in general and the 4 terms theirselves dont have big validity, right? Nov 19, 2015 at 15:07
  • Well, the definition came about before these all action RTS style games became established. Back then, the definition distinguished games like Civ 1 from other strategy games. I would guess that such a definition would not exist if RTS and Civ 1 were established around the same time.
    – user101016
    Nov 19, 2015 at 15:18

I read a bit, mainly on here:

The TL;DR version of what I found is that its about complex ways to win and diplomacy.

AoE is one army on each side fighting and the win condition is destroying the enemy. Diplomacy is mainly peace or war.

Civ is way more complex such as having unit upgrades and more ways to win. Diplomacy goes way over just peace or war.


Similar to what others said, but I think a more clear reason is that AoE is pretty heavy into the RTS camp. The only thing that could separate it from other RTS games is that it has diplomacy, but this diplomacy is severely limited and IMO does not set it apart from other RTS games.

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