Game designers have thought long and hard about this problem over the entire history of the genre. There have been numerous attempts at putting in mechanisms to slow down a player with a large empire but they often just make the game more tedious. I think this is the wrong approach. Once you reach an overwhelming advantage the game should allow you to close it out easily.
I think of chess at a high level. If no player ever resigned, instead forcing their opponents to perform extremely long, drawn-out checkmate sequences in theoretical win positions, people would hate it. Just resign so we can move on to the next game!
It's an issue I have with all of these infinitely replayable games, and a fundamental part of human psychology, I think. Most people tend to start lots of personal side projects, but not many can truly commit to finishing something worthwhile.
... because like a snowball, once you start rolling downhill, you only ever get bigger, which makes you roll faster, which makes you get bigger, etc.
More recently Stellaris gives you three topics to research at once, but you're limited to about 3-5 choices (there are ways to increase the number of choices) in each category. Those choices are weighted to appear based on how rare / expensive the tech is and the area of interest of the scientist researching that area. There are also gameplay elements which impact the choices you're presented with, like for example if you have a gateway in a solar system you own (think stargate), then you're more likely to get an option for the tech for building stargates. It works pretty well.
I thought it was an interesting idea but it seems fundamentally incompatible with having a tech tree at all.
Are there any modern 4x “lite” type games like this?
The game also completely broke this approach by including a racial attribute that guaranteed you discovery of every technology at each level - "creative". You could stack population growth and the Creative stat and pay for them with minor downgrades in other nonessential characteristics (e.g. ship dodge % or spying effectiveness %). The resulting race would have stupidly advanced ships and the economy to support them very early in the game, which usually leads to a total stomp as you just roll over the local enemies and claim a large chunk of the galaxy map as your own, turtling until the endgame.
I liked the one in the old Stars! game where you invest in broad categories (chemistry, biology, etc...) and tech would unlock at a combination of tech levels. A better laser might be electronics 4, metallurgy 2 for example.
Civ, and also SimCity, always felt as if they would progress along more or less the same trajectory of growth, with little actual choice for the player as long as they broadly stayed within the bounds of what the designers considered typical gameplay.
In Col, I loved building these intricate industrial networks and trade routes.
Now that I’m writing this, I’m wondering if Colonization possibly came too close to the Soviet idea of central economic planning for the taste of the audience.
It's worth it -- the Civ IV DLC version didn't really capture the magic of the original, and FreeCol has been a work-in-progress for a long time. The '90s graphics of the original can take a little getting used to, but the gameplay is still extremely solid. I keep a copy on my laptop to play when I'm stuck waiting around in airports.
I think the bigger blocker is that civ has no real tournaments to fuel AI popularity, that the game (and 4X in general) is likely buggier due to less online-play (meaning the AI is likelier to get trapped exploiting uninteresting bugs) and at least newer games are probably somewhat unoptimized and will have longer simulation times (thus slower training) (both valve and blizzard are quite good about making games playable on a toaster; Firaxis is.... not.)