Games are more often labeled 4X when the geography of the game board is revealed over the course of play – as this gets most directly at the idea of Exploration. If the geography is already revealed, then exploration elements might take the form of some other discovery mechanics (encounter tokens, card/event draws, resource draws, etc.) that play into the exploration idea. Also, while most Civ games do have maps, many games that are regarded as Civ games don’t have a map at all (Through the Ages, Nations, etc.) – I can’t think of any 4X games that don’t have a map.
History vs. Fiction
Games with fictional settings seem more likely to be labeled a 4X game. For most people, space empire games are automatically viewed from the 4X game angle for example. By contrast, games set in human history, evoking the whole “ancient civilization” vibe fall much more into the “Civ” camp. Often this goes hand in hand with having fixed and known geographies.
Trading (in the Mediterranean?)
Trading is often perceived as a vital part of a civilization game experience. Interestingly trading often gets left out of most civ games, or is heavily abstracted – and this may because it can be a challenging thing to implement effectively and without extending the game time significantly (e.g. Civilization + Advanced Civ.). By contrast, most 4X games don’t seem to emphasize trading, between players in particular, all that much.
Happiness & Welfare
Most 4X games seem to put the players in the shoes of a draconian emperor of some sort. You don’t care about your people – in fact their wellbeing and happiness rarely comes into play. In civilization games, happiness and welfare is often a critical consideration. As an aside, most “computer” based 4X games I’ve come across DO have a happiness & welfare aspect to empire management, yet it seems missing in boardgame 4X games.
The Arrow of Extermination
4X games tend to focus on the ultimate end point of extermination and military supremacy. Exploring, Expanding, and Exploiting define the ways you grow and build your empire to arrive at an end-game showdown between your forces and the opposing empires. Most of the design is oriented around or supporting the extermination aspects of the game, which often determines victory. Civ games more often appear to reward lots of different objectives and endpoints, and the scoring occurs in more varied ways.
The following are characteristics that are regularly important to games in both genres, yet don’t tend to distinguish the genres from each on their own.
Both 4X games and Civ games give the player a wide degree of freedom to perform their actions however they deem most appropriate. In contrast, non-civ games might provide far more restriction and impose more controls over how players take actions in order to push the game in a different direction mechanically. In Civ/4X games, the player could be treated as a Emperor with absolute control and oversight of all aspects of the empire.
Economy & Upkeep
Both civ games and 4X games use some sort of economic system, and often have an aspect of upkeep related to the management of your empire.
Technology & Advancement
Both genres tend to incorporate different ways to collect and advance your empires technology and capabilities over the course of the game.
Politics & Diplomacy
Games vary immensely in terms of politics. Some games leave the politics up to table talk and negotiation, others build in more specific political phases or actions. The games I can think of with specific political mechanics are all more on the 4X side of the fence (Eclipse, Exodus come to mind) – yet I’m not sure politics contributes to defining these games as 4X versus Civ.
Did we miss anything?
So, how would you classify the games listed below? Are they 4X? Civ? A hybrid? Just “Dudes on a Map?” Or "Cubes on a map?" Don’t meet your threshold for either category? Civ/4X themed but mechanically not? Something else entirely? Give it your best shot and explain your reasoning if so inclined!
Civilization / Advanced Civ
Clash of Cultures
Colonial: Europe’s Empire Oversees
Conquest of Paradise
Eight Minute Empire: Legends
Exodus: Proxima Centauri
Imperial / Imperial 2030
Game of Thrones
Race for the Galaxy
Roads & Boats
Settlers of Catan
Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Boardgame
Small World / Vinci
Space Empires 4X
Through the Ages
Tigris & Euphrates
Twilight Imperium 3