Open-world! Sandbox! These two terms are nearly ubiquitous in modern game advertising, and developers are eager to prove that their new game is the sandboxest and the open…nest of all. Here we’ll pay special attention to sandbox games, but some love will be given to open worlds too, because ultimately, they tend to go hand in hand.

The Basics

For clarity we should briefly explain the difference between “open world” and “sandbox”, because contrary to popular understanding they are not the same.

Open worldopen world games have just that. An open world. It isn’t a gameplay concept as much as a world structure. If your game has a large/huge overworld map and allows largely uninhibited travel, then it’s an open world. Not much to say about it.
Sandbox – can be coupled with open world, but really doesn’t have to. Sandbox games give you tools and let you run wild with them. The gameplay is open-ended, and you are encouraged to make your own fun, instead of experiencing what the game has specificallyprepared. Often you’re given a specific task, but the game leaves it up to you figure out how to complete it, so you can flex your creative muscles.

Having set the terminology, we can move on to giving a subjective brief list of top sandbox games you could play right now!

GameReleasedGenreDeveloperTrailerSale
RimWorld 2016-07-15 Indie Ludeon Studios - Read more
Don't Starve Together 2016-04-21 Economy Klei Entertainment -66% Read more
Cities: Skylines 2015-03-10 Economy Colossal Order Ltd. -88% Read more
Universe Sandbox 2015-08-24 Indie Giant Army -45% Read more
Besiege 2015-01-28 Indie Spiderling Studios -16% Read more
Valheim 2021-02-02 Sanbox, survival Iron Gate Studio -1% Read more
Crusader Kings III 2020-09-01 Strategy Paradox Development Studio -75% Read more
Red Dead Redemption 2 2019-11-05 Action & Adventure Rockstar -73% Read more
The Sims 4 2014-09-04 Simulation Maxis -76% Read more
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Anniversary Edition 2011-11-11 RPG Bethesda Game Studios -68% Read more
Divinity: Original Sin 2 | Definitive Edition 2017-09-14 Adventure Larian Studios -34% Read more
HITMAN: Goty 2017-11-07 Stealth IO Interactive -92% Read more
HITMAN 2 2018-11-13 Action IO Interactive -84% Read more
HITMAN 3 2022-01-20 Stealth & Action IO Interactive -71% Read more
Arma 3 2013-09-12 Action & Shooter Bohemia Interactive -79% Read more
No Man's Sky 2016-08-12 Adventure Hello Games -71% Read more
Elite: Dangerous 2014-12-16 Adventure Frontier Developments plc -78% Read more
Just Cause 3 2015-11-30 Adventure Avalanche Studios -82% Read more
ARK: Survival Evolved 2015-06-02 Adventure Efecto Studios -1% Read more
Surviving Mars 2018-03-15 Simulation Haemimont Games -95% Read more
Oxygen Not Included 2017-05-18 Action & Shooter Klei Entertainment - Read more
Metro Exodus 2020-02-14 Adventure 4A GAMES -87% Read more
ASTRONEER 2016-12-15 Adventure System Era Softworks -38% Read more
Grand Theft Auto V 2015-04-14 Adventure Rockstar North -66% Read more
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch) 2017-03-03 Adventure Nintendo -13% Read more
Dishonored - Definitive Edition 2012-10-11 Action Arkane Studios -75% Read more
Dishonored 2 2016-11-11 Action Arkane Studios -84% Read more
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord 2020-03-31 RPG TaleWorlds Entertainment -48% Read more
Mount & Blade: Warband 2010-03-31 Adventure TaleWorlds Entertainment -81% Read more
Factorio 2016-02-25 Indie Wube Software LTD. - Read more
Saints Row IV 2013-08-22 Adventure Deep Silver Volition -75% Read more
Kerbal Space Program 2015-04-27 Adventure Squad -86% Read more
Kerbal Space Program 2 2021 Simulation Intercept Games - Read more
Conan Exiles 2017-01-30 Adventure Funcom -83% Read more
Terraria 2011-05-16 Adventure Re-Logic -23% Read more
Minecraft Java Edition 2013-11-19 Action Mojang -7% Read more
Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition 2015-07-29 Adventure Mojang - Read more

        

RimWorld

Release date:2016-07-15
Genre:Indie
Developer:Ludeon Studios

RimWorld is a science fiction cousin of another indie game, discussed further down the list: Dwarf Fortress.

Instead of a fantasy realm, we get an alien planet and a bunch of mostly luckless colonists trying to make a living. Your toons are randomly generated and come with unique sets of skills and traits, and a bit of backstory for extra flavor. Of course, they also have specific needs you must cater to.

RimWorld

While you have the silly colonists to manage, and the clever AI Director makes sure your life is interesting, but you’re mostly left to your own devices, with no grand goal beyond just, you know, making sure the colony survives as long as possible against the environment, raider, aliens, incompetence… RimWorld is quite complex, and lets you just have fun with that complexity.

Key features
  • A space colony-themed variation on Dwarf Fortress’ gameplay ideas
  • Friendly aesthetic
  • More complex than it appears
  • AI Director lets you decide what kind of playthrough you would like
        

Don’t Starve

Release date:2016-04-21
Genre:Economy
Developer:Klei Entertainment

Don’t Starve is driven by two truths: you must find a way to discover in a Burtonesque world, and you probably should find a way out of this stylish misery. It’s a survival game through and through, with setting up a flimsy campfire to defend against the darkness, building useful contraptions, and exploring the wilderness for resources…and running away when something tries to eat you.

Don’t Starve

The flipside is that if you die, you’re dead, and you get to potentially cash in the XP you earned for a different character. Indeed, Don’t Starve is both a survival and a roguelike game, and it’s great at being both. The game’s core mode is Sandbox, but if you’d like a bit more info on the characters and some driving story, you go into the Adventure mode, which is more structured.

Key features
  • Unique, excellent aesthetic
  • A mix of survival and roguelike gameplay ideas
  • There’s a multiplayer-oriented spin-off: Don’t Starve Together
  • Many characters with unique talents and flaws
        

Cities: Skylines

Release date:2015-03-10
Genre:Economy
Developer:Colossal Order Ltd.

Like many city-builders before it, Cities: Skylines is as happy putting before you some goal to accomplish, as it is willing to just let you do anything you want.

The game provides a huge chunk of land to build your glorious metropolis on, and in the creative mode you’re pretty much free to design districts, manage public services, and do all the traffic work as you please.

Cities: Skylines

You can try to optimize things to make everyone’s lives better… or try to conduct some harebrained scheme or urban experiment, even if it might have disastrous consequences. Cities: Skylines also has a ton of mods available on Steam Workshop, and a whole bunch of DLCs, so there’s little risk you’ll run out of toys for your urban sandbox.

Key features
  • One of the best city builders on the market
  • Plenty of mods
  • Detailed simulation of traffic
  • You get to define districts and set up policies, as a good mayor would
        

Universe Sandbox

Release date:2015-08-24
Genre:Indie
Developer:Giant Army

It’s in the name, after all, no? And, truth be told, the title doesn’t lie, Universe Sandbox does give you cosmic power to manipulate celestial bodies however you please, withing physical reason.

You probably won’t make a flat Earth, but you can fling it at the Sun and see the game simulate in real time what that does to the unfortunate piece of rock.

Universe Sandbox

You can also create brand new planetary systems, put comets on orbits, witness stars collapsing… it’s an incredible…well, it’s probably more of a software than a game, but it’s quite able to bring you hours of great fun, and on top of that: it might teach you something about astrophysics! It’s even VR compatible, if you really want to get into the POV of a playful demiurge.

Key features
  • Detailed and quite realistic simulation of celestial body interactions
  • You can play around with the Solar system, or come up with your own
  • Got revamped in 2018, with the old version made available as Universe Sandbox legacy
  • VR-compatible
        

Besiege

Release date:2015-01-28
Genre:Indie
Developer:Spiderling Studios

Have you ever built siege engines? It’s a lot of hard work powered by the ingenuity of our ancestors.

While now it’s hard to get good lumber cheaply, you can live your best engineer fantasies with Besiege, a sandbox game about building machines out of available parts. Technically, the core game is mission-based, but it’s entirely up to you how you want to clear the objective.

Besiege

See, if the game tells you „kill 100 enemies”, it doesn’t care if you built something sensible, or a barely flying monstrosity, as long as 100 enemies die before your contraption is immobilized. There is, of course, a proper sandbox mode, as well as a level editor, and even multiplayer, so you can match your haphazard creations against those of your friends.

Key features
  • The construction system is very flexible and easy to understand
  • Simple goal, and the solutions are as complex, as you want to make them
  • Robust mod support via Steam Workshop
  • Great fun in multiplayer
        

Valheim

Release date:2021-02-02
Genre:Sanbox, survival
Developer:Iron Gate Studio

A surprising hit of 2021, Valheim takes you on a trip to a Norse afterlife. Not the big one, a supplementary one, because Odin has some problems to take care of and you’re the solution. Valheim falls neatly into the survival game type of sandbox, with food that needs to be cooked, monsters that need to be kept away from your crops, and shelter that need being built.

Valheim

While you do have bosses to kill and new areas to discover, the game isn’t really going to hold your hand. You absolutely can spend fifty hours building a cool house on a cliff or exploring your current area looking for trouble, experience, and resources. Eventually the ways you can interact with the environment turn out to be limited, but you aren’t forced into linear gameplay at any point.

Key features
  • A Norse-themed open world survival game
  • Procedurally generated world
  • Obviously there’s a strong element of sailing between islands for plunder
  • Robust base-building
        

Crusader Kings 3

Release date:2020-09-01
Genre:Strategy
Developer:Paradox Development Studio

Crusader Kings 3 isn’t the kind of game you’d think of when you hear the word “sandbox”, but consider this: the game just… lets you loose on the map of Europe, free to do whatever.

If you want to form a new religion, you can. Run a spy network? Sure. Get twenty children and marry them off to different kingdoms to set them up for claiming the throne? Nobody is ever going to stop you.

Crusader Kings 3

It might be an exaggeration, but only a minor one. Like its predecessors, CK3 is very complex, and doesn’t have much graphical flair, but the degree of simulation, the scope of the experience, and very few hard goals plant it firmly into the sandbox drawer of playstyles. On top of all the features that are already built in, Crusader Kings 3 is also quite mod-friendly, letting you add even more stuff!

Key features
  • A complex mix of grand trategy and a role-playing game
  • Detailed ruler creation
  • Large playground, many tools, few hard rules
  • Built-in mod support
        

Red Dead Redemption 2

Release date:2019-11-05
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Rockstar Games

The sequel to 2013’s RDR, Red Dead Redemption 2 turned out to be one of the most detailed, immersive games of its generation and, possibly, ever.

RDR2 is set during the fading glory days of a notorious bandit gang led by Dutch van der Linde and puts you in the shoes of his right hand, Arthur Morgan. You get to play through great heists, and the fall, setting up the previous game’s story.

Red Dead Redemption 2

As usual in Rockstar Games’ releases, there is a solid, engaging storyline you are free to follow, but…you don’t really have to. There’s so much in the world to do without touching the story. There is wildlife to hunt and document, tons of sidequests to go on, including extended storylines, or you could just go exploring, looking for secrets or talking to NPCs using a smooth, intuitive system.

Key features
  • A massive, detailed open world
  • A fascinating story set in the Old West
  • Very realistic wildlife
  • Exciting gunfights
        

The Sims 4

Release date:2018-06-22
Genre:Simulation
Developer:The Sims Studio

Having a list of sandbox games and NOT having a The Sims game would be a grave mistake, wouldn’t it?

So, here we are, bringing The Sims 4 to your attention, as it is the latest and still actively supported with patches, updates, and a bunch of DLCs. The premise is simple: create a few Sims, build their house, watch them live their simulated lives, and interfere for fun and profit!

The Sims 4

The gam eis extremely open-ended, guided mostly by the aspirations of individual Sims rather than an over-arching storyline or gameplay imperatives. The Sims are mostly capable of existing on their own, but you can nudge them towards certain actions to see what happens. The Sims go to work, travel to different neighborhoods, pursue hobbies, die in hilarious ways… it’s all good fun.

Key features
  • Extensive Create-a-Sim system covering both appearance and personality of your Sims
  • Watch AI-guides Sims live their best, mildly incompetent lives
  • No goals other than the ones you set for yourself
  • A lot of extra content in DLCs, adding new careers, locations, systems, ton of stuff
        

EVE Online

Release date:2019-04-10
Genre:Space MMORPG
Developer:CCP

When you jump into EVE Online, you must know that there is no such thing as a shallow end of this pool. It begins at “deep” and then it gets deeper.

But this complexity makes EVE unique and fuels its player-driven… everything. Most interactions you’ll experience in EVE are going to be with other players. In a way, it’s a simulated universe more than a game, really.

Eve Online

EVE has player-driven economy, ruled over by player-driven corporations issuing player-driven jobs to smaller agents, who are also, you guessed it, players. You can do almost anything you want, from trying to make a name for yourself as a miner, to being a space pirate. Nothing is going to be straightforward, but a lot is possible, especially if you get the funding from a corporation.

Key features
  • Let us reiterate – it’s player-driven to an astounding degree
  • Two plans: free and premium
  • Many career paths to pursue
  • When great player clans clash, it is something to behold
        

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Release date:2016-10-27
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Bethesda Game Studios

Despite being explicitly about killing dragons and taking part in the civil war, two aspects of the game we’re introduced to almost immediately, Skyrim is a really good sandbox RPG as well.

There ARE these two storylines… but you don’t have to care about any of that. You can go to unrelated cities and complete quests, pursue a career in one of the guilds, or commit to a life of craft… or crime.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

When you’re not in combat you can look for ore deposits to mine resources for your blacksmithing hobby, or chase butterflies and collect flowers for alchemy. You could sneak around and be a thief, or spend some time building and decorating a house. It’s a huge world, with internal physics and logic which can lead to creative solutions, like the famous case of blinding a shopkeeper with a bucket.

Key features
  • One of the most popular action RPGs of its time
  • Many different supported playstyles
  • You can ignore the main storyline as much as you want
  • Progression based on things you’re actively doing
        

Divinity: Original Sin 2

Release date:2017-09-14
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Larian Studios

A sandbox-oriented gameplay is one of the most important features of Divinity: Original Sin 2.

Usually you’re presented with a goal to accomplish…and that’s it. What you do to accomplish your goals is limited only by your creativity and by the, rather permissive, logic of the game. You can move objects around to change the environment in your favour, and exploit interactions between abilities.

Divinity: Original Sin 2

Every skill line features abiltiies which can drastically change how you’re going to approach any given challenge. Teleportation, creating elemental surfaces, stealth… You can get creative, or be as straightforward as it gets, your choice. Each act also features a large map full of unique locations you’re free to explore in any order. No wonder DOS2 is considered one of the best cRPGs of recent years.

Key features
  • Flexible progression – no fixed classes
  • Interactive environment
  • Memorable characters
  • Great local/online co-op and Game Master modes
        

Hitman World of Assassination trilogy

Release date:2022-01-20
Genre:Stealth
Developer:IO Interactive

The Hitman games have always been good about dumping you on the map and letting you figure out a way to cap your target, but the World of Assassination trilogy running between 2016 and 2021 really ran with the idea. So much so, that the series has been actually dubbed an assassination sandbox, and it’s easy to see why: the maps are large and full of interesting opportunities.

Hitman World of Assassination trilogy

Discovering all the ways of causing extremely bad accidents is a big part of the fun on this Hitman trilogy, but you can always find a screwdriver and ram it into your target’s temple while you’re dressed up as a clown. Or just use a weapon like a normal hitman, sheesh. The point is, that how you complete a mission is up to you, especially if you leave no trace of your existence.

Key features
  • Large maps letting you come up with your own assassination plans
  • Many bonus missions, including temporary Elusive targets and evolving Escalation contracts
  • Tons of disguises for Agent 47, both pragmatic and quite silly
  • There’s also a quite interesting story underneath the main missions
        

Arma 3

Release date:2013-09-12
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Bohemia Interactive

The third incarnation of possibly the most complex military simulator out there is undoubtedly detailed, expansive, and flexible enough to allow a lot of freedom to its players.

This time everything takes place in the near future of 2030s, around the Aegean Sea and South Pacific. It is your playground, and while Arma 3 is demanding and complex, it also doesn’t limit you too much.

Arma 3

It doesn’t really place any specific boundaries on player activity. It has a huge amount of various military equipment ranging from weapons to vehicles, offers plenty of possible mission types, and has an editor for the creative minds to enjoy. If you enjoy military fiction, roaming the islands of Arma 3 is likely to give you the thrill you seek.

Key features
  • Powerful editor enabling the creation of new modes and missions
  • Extensive catalogue of military equipment
  • Massive maps
  • A singleplayer campaign in addition to the multiplayer mode
        

No Man’s Sky

Release date:2016-08-12
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Hello Games

Lacklustre release notwithstanding, No Man’s Sky became more feature-complete with every major update, to the point where it is now.

Almost all promises that put the game on the radar have been fulfilled, chief among them the long awaited multiplayer. You have an entire galaxy to explore, and when you’re somehow done doing that, the game is happy to throw another one your way.

No Man’s Sky

New unique lifeforms top spot and name, new geography, and challenges. Build a base with your friends, invest in a better spaceship, keep every meter in the green, and map the galaxy. Learn an alien language and reach the centre of the galaxy again. No Man’s Sky has truly become the game everyone was hoping for.

Key features
  • A ridiculous number of planets to visit
  • Worthwhile base-building
  • A mystery to uncover
  • Mod support
        

Elite Dangerous

Release date:2015-04-02
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Frontier Developments

If the somewhat abstract, pastel-coloured vibe of No Man’s Sky isn’t to your liking, but you still want to explore space, Elite Dangerous might be the game for you.

It has a definitely more realistic look, and follows in the footsteps of a classic franchise. If frequent long-distance, in-character runs exploring edges of known space are anything to go by, it’s pretty engaging.

Elite Dangerous

Set in the fourth millennium, it benefits from all the technology we might be able to create by that time. It also features space pirates, space bounty hunters, space miners and many other space jobs that the players are free to take up any time they wish. Or, if no job seems appealing, they can just go exploring, as long as they have the necessary supplies for the trip.

Key features
  • A lot of systems recreated based on astronomical data
  • Plenty of jobs and activities to busy oneself with
  • Space-age MMO
  • The world changes dynamically through players’ actions
        

Just Cause 3

Release date:2015-11-30
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Avalanche Studios

The Just Cause series is notorious for giving the players a large open world, and a free reign about how they go about liberating it from the forces of some dictator or another unwelcome ruler.

In Just Cause 3 Rico Rodriguez has to free his own homeland, a Mediterranean island of Medici.

Just Cause 3

JC3, much like predecessors, is a generator of explosive chaos, capable of escalating to a very satisfying degree. Rico is a true demolition man, and with the help of the game’s physics a creative player can cause a really entertaining mayhem. You can easily use the physics of the game to perform crazy stunts and make enemies look like fools.

Key features
  • Physics engine supporting your ideas
  • Extremely useful grappling hook with many creative uses
  • A story that provides perfect excuses to engage with the gameplay
  • Ridiculous and spectacular action sequences
        

ARK: Survival Evolved

Release date:2015-06-02
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Efecto Studios

ARK is certainly among the most well-known survival games, and as the genre frequently joins forces with a sandbox approach to gameplay, its appearance on this list was a foregone conclusion.

“It’s the one with dinosaurs and dragons” is probably the fastest way to identify ARK: Survival Evolved. Indeed, there are animals, including dinosaurs, to tame and train, there are places to explore, bases to build…

ARK: Survival Evolved

In general the player has a lot of freedom as to how to interact with the world. Just be mindful of your hunger or thirst. It IS a survival game after all. You’re not given many specific tasks, so you’re on your own, buty if you need some direction, here’s one option: create a dino-zoo. Or collect lore scraps. Explore the boundaries of the system and thrive within them.

Key features
  • With DLCs: several diverse worlds to explore and survive in
  • You can tame dinosaurs, ride them, and make them work for you
  • Team up with other players and build a powerful clan base together
  • Work your way up the tech tree, from throwing rocks, to Energy rifles
        

Surviving Mars

Release date:2018-03-15
Genre:Simulation
Developer:Haemimont Games

Surviving Mars allows you to check if you would be any good at establishing a colony on the Red Planet.

You have an army of friendly-looking drones to prep the basic infrastructure, various types of domes for you eventual colonists to live and work in, and a bit of science-fiction mystery to deal with every now and then.

Surviving Mars

Surving Mars is a very fun game, and once you get to the landing pad doesn’t really care that much about how you establish the colony. As long as it works, it’s fine. Nobody’s stopping you from making a really aesthetically pleasing colony, if you can manage to keep everyone fed and happy at the same time. As long as it works, you do you.

Key features
  • Mars colony simulator
  • Pleasant aesthetic design
  • Alien mysteries and cataclysms
  • Diverse colonists with randomised traits
        

Oxygen Not Included

Release date:2017-05-18
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Klei Entertainment

Where Surviving Mars is all about setting up a colony on the surface of the planet, Oxygen Not Included is more interested in creating life-sustaining conditions within an asteroid.

You have some blueprints for helpful devices, but it’s up to you to figure out how to use them. What you need to understand, however, is that you’re pretty much working with a closed system.

Oxygen Not Included

You need to make arrangements to collect waste, to let harmful gases flow elsewhere, and to manage temperature. ONI is quite good at simulating basic fluid dynamics, and soon you’ll find a way to create a healthy and beneficial cycle using just your wits and the tools the game offers. Even if it takes five stages and twenty repairs along the way.

Key features
  • Duplicants you give orders to have their own personalities you need to manage
  • Many different asteroid environments changing mission parameters
  • Recognizable cartoon aesthetic typical for Klei Entertainment
  • Well designed fluid physics
        

Metro Exodus

Release date:2020-02-14
Genre:Adventure
Developer:4A GAMES

This is the third game in the video series adapting the novels of Dmitry Glukhovsky.

This time the persistent protagonist Artyom takes his family and friends out of the tunnels and out into the post-apocalyptic surface.

Metro Exodus

Exodus features both discrete levels, as well as larger, open areas where Artyom can do as he pleases, which includes scavenging for resources and crafting tools for survival. The story even includes some choices to make, which will influence the ultimate outcome.

Key features
  • A mobile base of operations: the steam locomotive Aurora
  • Levels alongside large sandbox areas
  • Crafting and resource management
  • Choices and consequences
        

Astroneer

Release date:2016-12-15
Genre:Adventure
Developer:System Era Softworks

Astroneer is a very friendly-looking game with a few cool ideas worth noting.

All of it takes place of procedurally generated planets, all of which have an open-world structure. Your player character is the eponymous Astroneer, and one of the coolest tools in their disposal is the deform tool.

Astroneer

That tool is useful not only for collecting crafting resource, but is also capable of terraforming, letting you reshape the planets you visit. It could be used to build bridge, or create more elaborate structures, if you feel like it. For a creative and industrious player it can be a ton of fun.

Key features
  • Powerful terraforming
  • Mysterious artefacts to understand
  • Explore the diverse planets
  • Family-friendly aesthetic
        

Grand Theft Auto 5

Release date:2015-04-14
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Rockstar North

The Grand Theft Auto series has a legacy of making its cities feel like places full of things to do, but GTA V is by far the most comprehensive among them.

The fictional city of Los Santos as well as the surrounding area is fully open to players, who can follow the story… or play golf, tennis, try themselves at a stock market, or go to a cinema.

Grand Theft Auto 5

The story follows a trio of criminals, Michael, Trevor, and Franklin, who are strong-armed into completing a number of robberies. There are some choices to make, there is much conflict due to the dynamics between the three, it’s all good crime story stuff. The player isn’t forced into a single character, but can freely switch between them, often catching them in the middle of some unrelated activity.

Key features
  • Three protagonists with unique skills and abilities
  • Extensive online component
  • Massive city full of activities
  • Freedom to do what you want, when you want
        

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Release date:2017-03-03
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Nintendo

The most recent entry in the history of the Legend of Zelda franchise has a pretty decent amount of sandbox to it.

Most importantly, it uses the sandbox to give the world as such a lot of believability. Everything works just as you’d think it would, boulders, fire etc. and the game encourages you to take advantage of it through your exploration. Even better: Link has a number of magical abilities acquired via runes, and nothing really stops him from using them at will everywhere.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

In Breath of the Wild’s case all of this serves to create a world which feels coherent, even if to some extent arbitrary. And it succeeds at doing so with flying colors, we must add. If you happen to have Nintendo Switch Breath of the Wild is a must have for many reasons, and it does make sandbox gameplay feel useful and a worthwhile world-building exercise instead of a gimmick.

Key features
  • A competent physics engine enables creative solutions
  • Freedom to beat the game in any order you want
  • One of the best first-party games on Nintendo Switch
  • A lot of cooking
        

Dishonored (franchise)

Release date:2012-10-11
Genre:Action
Developer:Arkane Studios

Arkane Studios struck gold with Dishonored. They started the search in Arx Fatalis and kept it up in the Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, but Dishonored, oh boy.

We’ve written about it before, and have called it a goal-oriented playground. Dishonored (1, 2, and Death of the Outsider) lands the spot here, because it does little beyond giving the player a goal to achieve and some fun tools you can use at will anywhere.

Dishonored (franchise)

Essentially DH is a simulation of an arcane assassin. All powers work dynamically within the physics engine rather than being scripted and being given canned animations. You can teleport to any structure in range wide enough to support you, possess NPCs from rats to guards, stop time to interact with bullets and crossbow bolts shot by enemies or yourself…. There are plenty of other videos showing off just how sandboxy the game can feel and how creative you can get. And it’s only open-world within the levels themselves, the game progresses linearly otherwise.

Key features
  • Play as an assassin’s equipped with magic powers
  • Choices in gameplay have story-bound consequences
  • Plenty of tools to use in creative ways
  • A classic revenge story
        

Mount & Blade: Warband

Release date:2010-03-31
Genre:Adventure
Developer:TaleWorlds Entertainment

Mount&Blade is a simulator of a person trying to make a living in a more or less medieval-like setting. This doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but bear with me for a moment.

The character creation makes M&B look like a relatively complex RPG, with some background details for you to define, a huge number of face-customizing sliders, a bunch of stats etc. and none of this prepares you for what comes after. When you leave the chargen you’re given a rudimentary combat tutorial and are let loose on the world. You’re free. Do what you want.

Mount and Blade

Get a small band of warriors to protect you and become a trader or support craftsmen. Get a larger band of warriors and pledge allegiance to a king, get a rundown castle and a a half-dead village. Or fight for yourself, capture a keep or a city, become a new power in Calradia. Be just a roving mercenary or just a guy who makes a living by fighting in tournaments. M&B: Warband is an extremely open-ended game, with many possible outcomes and little overarching plot or goal other than an occasional quest from a lord or another distressed NPC. Otherwise, you are free to do whatever.

Key features
  • A no-magic fantasy land for you to conquer
  • Hectic, intense battles
  • Tons of diverse equipment: weapons, armour, etc.
  • You can invest in industry and help trading caravans
        

Factorio

Release date:2016-02-25
Genre:Indie
Developer:Wube Software LTD.

Have you ever dreamt of having a massive factory? Factorio allows you to. What is Factorio?

Essentially a game about creating the most optimised (or the most convoluted, if that’s your thing) way to produce expected results. Your Factory expands almost as fast as it grows in complexity. Factorio allows for the creation of pretty weird constructions. One player managed to create a Factory playing the music video to Darude’s Sandstorm, of all things. No kidding.

Factorio

A further YouTube trip reveals self-replicating factories, and even a rendition of Portal’s ‘Still Alive’ and a couple other songs. If you can imagine something work thanks to a sequence of programmable units, there is good chance it can be done in Factorio and the game won’t mind one bit. The problem is setups like these require some extreme planning and probably engineering skills, and thus have a high skill threshold. Nothing that can’t be overcome, of course.

Key features
  • Set up elaborate automated production lines
  • Skill ceiling limited only by your imagination
  • Challenges your engineering aptitude
  • Build a rocket and leave the planet you got stranded on
        

Dwarf Fortress

Release date:2006-08-08
Genre:Construction and management simulation
Developer:Tarn Adams, Zach Adams

This is a game that might be largely unknown to many of you. Not surprising, too.

It’s not particularly pretty, being fully text-based (although the Steam version will have ‘proper’ graphics), it’s very weird, and gets weirder with every patch, and its skill threshold is through the roof if you want to play for any extended period of time. It is however quite possibly one of the most complex city simulators out there, complete with robust procedural generation of pretty much everything. It also has some of the silliest accidental occurrences anywhere.

dwarf-fortress
The game doesn’t give you any goals other than keeping the settlement alive and, preferably, growing. What you do beyond that is entirely up to you. Notably, Dwarf Fortress was cited to be an inspiration for Minecraft, and was picked to be featured in the Museum of Modern Art. If you have time and patience, you should check it out, it’s freeware.

Key features
  • One of the most complex games in existence
  • Uses ASCII graphics by default
  • The patch notes can be really funny
  • Easily moddable
        

Saints Row 4

Release date:2014-07-15
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Deep Silver Volition

Saints Row 4 get the spot at the expense of GTA V for the sheer insanity of everything that happens in there. It’s also probably the best superhero game to date, and the least angst-driven, to boot. What is SR4?

A simulator of a superpowered unapologetic and oddly cheerful criminal. The playable character over the course of the game gains access to multiple abilities, all of them considered… unnatural. If you’ve played Prototype before you almost know what to expect, but Prototype didn’t have mad doctors with cat heads running amok, ragdoll-based side activities, and the kind of rampage GTA with its more realistic style can’t really provide.

Saints Row 4

Most importantly, The Boss has an outstanding and incredibly entertaining traversal powers, letting you run fast, jump high, and glide far. Then you add several different flavours of blasts, including one turning everything to gold, a couple flavours of telekinesis and a couple more. All of them allow you to have a smashing good fun and ignore the insane narrative whatsoever.

Key features
  • One of the best supowerpower-based games around
  • Excellent use of licensed music tracks
  • Plenty of creatively bizarre scenarios
  • Excellent character creation
        

Kerbal Space Program

Release date:2015-04-27
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Squad

This is a very smart and very cute game, with a very good physics model. Importantly, unlike most other games on this list, this one can actually teach you something.

The idea is that you’re helping a humanoid race known as Kerbals launch their space program. That’s pretty much it, but when coupled with a very complex physics engine we get a game that even NASA and Elon Musk are interested in. Where does the sandbox part comes in, though? In building the various rockets and other interplanetary exploration gear, of course.

Kerbal Space Program

KSP boasts a very detailed physics engine, which allows all objects to be reasonably accurately simulated with Newtonian dynamics. Watching your meticulously constructed monster rocket fall apart in a realistic way is extremely satisfying. Although efficiency is strongly favoured, nothing stops you from going wild. You can experiment with a large list of components to create some fairly outlandish machines, of this is your jam. As long as you meet the win condition, you’re good.

Key features
  • Help the titular Kerbals go to space as safely as possible
  • You don’t have to sacrifice creativity for function if you’re good enough
  • Pretty realistic physics
  • The Kerbals are very amusing to watch
        

Conan Exiles

Release date:2017-01-30
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Funcom

This list would be severely incomplete without some representative of the inexplicably popular more-or-less online survival game genre.

Conan Exiles gets the honor due to it being probably the freshest in the early accessed survival genre, and doing its best to capture the atmosphere of Robert E. Howard’s and succeeding to a reasonable degree. What can you do in Conan Exiles? You can survive. That’s pretty much the central idea.

Conan Exiles

What you do to survive is another thing. You can devote yourself to hunting animals for resources, mastering the various crafts, becoming a warrior. If you want you can even summon humongous avatars of your chosen god (Mithra, Seth, Yog) to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and wreck their carefully build settlements.

Key features
  • A sandbox survival set in the world created by Robert E. Howard
  • Very flexible building construction
  • You can summon avatars of your chosen god
  • Big emphasis on crafting
        

Terraria

Release date:2011-05-16
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Re-Logic

Easily one of the finest examples of open-world crafting-centered sandboxes in recent memory.

If you are hungry for crafting, dungeon crawling, and some basic survival mechanisms (monsters mostly come out at night, mostly) but don’t want to manage a three-dimensional space, then Terraria is just the game for you. It’s done in a 16-bit style reminiscent of games of old, but boosted by some basic physics engine, making dungeon crawling more dangerous (as it should), because you never know when you can get flooded by lava.

Terraria

The players are encouraged to create their elaborate home bases, which can grow to actually impressive sizes and house a number of loyal subjects, provided you tend to their needs. It’s an all-round good fun worth checking out, but, sadly, it can’t quite compare to the king of all sandboxes.

Key features
  • 2D game about building and dungeon delving
  • Pixel-based artstyle
  • Allows you to build some amazing structures
  • There is a lot of underground dungeoneering to be done
        

Minecraft

Release date:2015-07-29
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Mojang

Here we go. The MVP of sandboxes. The one that despite being now 6 years old remains relevant. The one that pretty much formed a subculture around it.

The one that created ample opportunities for people to recreate some of the most incredible feats of human architecture. Minecraft took the world by storm. And it isn’t really hard to see why. It is by far the best at capturing in digital form the joy of putting together crazy Lego builds.

Minecraft

If you so choose you can flat out ignore the survival game that inhibits unbridled creation, too. The things which were unthinkable to achieve until somebody came along and did it, over usually weeks of work. If sandboxes are about having fun with the game’s systems, then there’s probably no game that can beat Minecraft.

Key features
  • The archetypal freeform crafting game
  • You can build virtually anything, especially if you use mods
  • Excellent in multiplayer, as many people can contribute
  • Survival mode provides some structure for those who want it.

Can there be the end?

A specific ending to an article might run counter to the overall theme, but texts have their own laws that need to be obeyed to some extent.

This list isn’t complete, of course, nor can it be: new sandbox games come out every so often, and, as with many genres, it can be something of a losing battle to stay updated. Which is why we don’t list them all, only the ones you really should check out!