From Civilization, to Endless Space, to Alpha Centauri, the hallmark of any 4x game is the development of a “just one more turn” syndrome. It’s so easy to get completely immersed in these types of games, starting up a new world at 9am, and realizing that you’ve skipped breakfast, lunch, AND dinner at 1am the next day. But why is this a thing? How do these types of games so deeply appeal to our psyche that we completely forget about everything else? I believe it’s a combination of our human nature, and good game design.
For example, in most 4x games – even if you’re playing single player against AI, you set yourself up for a different experience every time you play. Sure AI may be predictable in their diplomacy or how they tend to settle/militarize, but the circumstances will always be different due to random world generation and other factors. In addition to this, 4x games tend to have a plethora of different win states to offer: conquest, supremacy, culture, science, wealth, etc. The replayability of these games is so vast, that it’ll keep you coming back for game after game.
But that’s assuming you can get through an entire game (especially if you’re playing with a group of friends). In the midst of a game of a 4x game, you’ll find yourself always hitting “end turn,” in anticipation of finishing something, achieving some small objective (or working your way up to a big one). There’s always something on the horizon that’s just out of your reach, always something to do, something to get started on. You figure “eh, I can play 3 more turns to get that wonder,” but in those 3 or 4 turns you discover a new tech, or someone declares war on you, something starts up before you reach your “stopping point.” And it’s a deceptively simple way of retaining a player’s attention and getting them to keep clicking that big red “end turn” button – keeping content and activity spread fairly evenly across all parts of the game from the beginning to the endgame.
4x games have discovered how to push our buttons, delving into human nature and dangling the proverbial carrot in front of our faces to keep us from taking the “end turn” button at its word.