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!

GameReleasedGenreDeveloperTrailer
RimWorld 2016-07-15 Indie Ludeon Studios
Don't Starve Together 2016-04-21 Economy Klei Entertainment
Cities: Skylines 2015-03-10 Economy Colossal Order
Universe Sandbox 2015-08-24 Indie Giant Army
Besiege 2015-01-28 Indie Spiderling Games
Valheim 2021-02-02 Sanbox, survival Iron Gate Studios
Crusader Kings III 2020-09-01 Strategy Paradox Development Studio
Red Dead Redemption 2 2019-11-05 Action & Adventure Rockstar
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Anniversary Edition 2011-11-11 RPG Bethesda Game Studios
Divinity: Original Sin 2 | Definitive Edition 2017-09-14 Adventure Larian Studios
HITMAN - GOTY 2017-11-07 Stealth IO Interactive
HITMAN 2 2018-11-13 Action IO Interactive
HITMAN 3 2022-01-20 Stealth & Action IO Interactive
Arma 3 2013-09-12 Action & Shooter Bohemia Interactive Studio
No Man's Sky 2016-08-12 Adventure Hello Games
Elite: Dangerous 2014-12-16 Adventure Frontier Developments plc
Just Cause 3 2015-11-30 Adventure Avalanche Studios
ARK: Survival Evolved 2015-06-02 Adventure Studio Wildcard
Surviving Mars 2018-03-15 Simulation Haemimont Games
Oxygen Not Included 2017-05-18 Action & Shooter Klei Entertainment
Metro Exodus 2020-02-14 Adventure 4A GAMES
ASTRONEER 2016-12-15 Adventure System Era Softworks
Grand Theft Auto V 2015-04-14 Adventure Rockstar North
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch) 2017-03-03 Adventure Nintendo EPD Production Group No. 3
Dishonored - Definitive Edition 2012-10-11 Action Arkane Studios
Dishonored 2 2016-11-11 Action Arkane Studios
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord 2020-03-31 RPG Taleworlds
Mount & Blade: Warband 2010-03-31 Adventure Taleworlds
Factorio 2016-02-25 Indie Wube Software
Saints Row IV 2013-08-22 Adventure High Voltage Software
Kerbal Space Program 2015-04-27 Adventure Squad
Kerbal Space Program 2 2023-02-24 Simulation Intercept Games
Conan Exiles 2017-01-30 Adventure Funcom
Terraria 2011-05-16 Adventure Re-Logic
Minecraft Java Edition 2013-11-19 Action Mojang Studios
Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition 2015-07-29 Adventure Mojang Studios

Kenshi

Release date:2018-12-06
Genre:Indie
Developer:Lo-Fi Games

Kenshi made one of the best possible trade-offs as far as the realm of sandbox RPGs is concerned.

Instead of dumping all effort into flashy graphics, it put into gameplay flexibility. And it works. It doesn’t look stunning, sure, but if you’re looking for an immersive, reactive, and wonderfully diverse sandbox experience, it’s one of the exemplars of its dual genre.

The world of Kenshi doesn’t want you to live. It’s not actively adversarial, usually, but it doesn’t really care if you live or die. You need to earn every bit of power you want. You could be a mercenary living by the sword, a trader trying to move wares from settlement to settlement, an intrepid explorer… and over time you’ll probably start gathering NPC allies to aid your cause, whatever you decide it should be.

Key features
  • Massive world to explore and survive in
  • Highly customizable characters
  • Accessible and meaningful base-building system
  • Truly grasping all of its mechanics can take quite an effort

Starbound

Release date:2016-07-22
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Chucklefish Games

You begin Starbound in a damaged ship and need to make some crucial repairs, stat.

Will the planet below have what you need? Possibly, but the universe is procedurally generated, so who could be sure? You will, however, certainly find something fascinating, dangerous, or both! Make your life in a diverse cosmos, find your own path for power, glory, or perhaps simply wealth.

Starbound is a fantastic, space-faring cousin of Terraria, allowing you to improve your ships, build bases on the planets, interact with NPCs, peacefully or otherwise, and take on many different jobs if this is the way you want to experience this world. There’s even a story you can pursue, and a multiplayer mode you can enjoy with your friends. A great sandbox if you desire a science-fiction adventure.

Key features
  • Lovely 2D pixel art graphics
  • A procedurally generated universe
  • Multiplayer-friendly
  • Three game modes, ranging from chill exploration to hardcore survival

Teardown

Release date:2020-10-29
Genre:Action
Developer:Tuxedo Labs

Teardown is a different kind of sandbox from the previous two.

It doesn’t really give you a chance to pursue many walks of life. It does, however, let you go nuts on destructible, voxel-based environments as you take on the role of the owner of a demolition company. The best part is that Teardown is physics-based, so you can see buildings collapse, walls explode, and the wrecking ball react believably.

Teardown has a story campaign, a string of increasingly complex missions linked by an investigation of corporate foul play, which sure is an interesting angle for a game about destruction. There’s also a sandbox mode, which allows you to just go nuts on the environment, learning how to use the game’s various tools and reveling in the demolition physics with no worries about objectives and escapes.

Key features
  • Voxel-based, physics-controlled world
  • Incredibly potent, free-form destruction engine
  • Two modes: story- and objective-oriented, and total sandbox wreckage
  • Plenty of tools you can use to demolish whatever you want

Outward

Release date:2022-05-17
Genre:Action
Developer:Nine Dots Studio

At the beginning Outward might appear to be fairly goal-oriented: you start out with a hefty debt you need to pay off within a few days.

However, once that plotpoint is solved one way or another, the world is open for you to explore… as long as you can survive the experience. Outward offers a ton of stuff to do, but it’s also quite challenging and doesn’t really care a lot that you’re the Player Character.

You could study magic, build a village, ally yourself to one of the major factions, explore dungeons, and more. Outward is very reactive, and since it used autosaving over manual saving, your choices (and weird things that happen to you) can create an entirely new experience every time you decide to begin a new campaign. It also has shades of Piranha Bytes games’ formula, for fans of that dev’s style.

Key features
  • Unique magic system: much more ritual-based than in most other games
  • Large open world filled with opportunities and challenges
  • Co-op friendly
  • The Definitive Edition includes both expansions, one of which introduced city-building

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Release date:2020-03-20
Genre:Simulation
Developer:Nintendo EPD

Animal Crossing: New Horizons absolutely blew up in popularity for totally mysterious reasons when it was released in March 2020.

But even without these mysterious reasons, it’s not hard why it’s a great game to spend time with. It has a friendly, warm tone, cute graphics, tons of activities, and plenty of creative flexibility makes AC:NH a delightful game for both children and adults.

The little cozy island is your playground to enjoy, with tons of customization options letting you decorate and arrange it for both form and function. The game has a trading element, letting players trade resources from their farms in order to get the “bells” useful for more investment into your idyllic real estate. It has a fairly narrow focus, true, but the freedom within these bounds is impressive.

Key features
  • Nintendo Switch exclusive
  • Cute, child-friendly aesthetic and lots of optional adult-friendly
  • Impressive customization options
  • A social experience: you can visit and trade with other players

Project Zomboid

Release date:2013-11-08
Genre:Indie
Developer:The Indie Stone

Project Zomboid will kick you ass, and then parade your rotten body around among the shambling hordes as your new avatar tries to survive a little bit longer than the last.

PZ is a survival/sandbox putting you in the harsh role of a regular person trying to survive in a modern urban and suburban area based on Louisville, Kentucky that’s been quarantined because of an acute case of zombies.

In Project Zomboid you’re pretty much free to do… anything, as long as you don’t die. The world is very detailed, while some things won’t have triple-A graphics, the range of interactions is impressive. Barricade yourself for the night, tend to your complex wounds, manage inventory, manage your mental state, you can put a lot on your plate, and the game is happy to give you the necessary tools.

Key features
  • Deep and broad interactions making the world interactive
  • Several modes, including a customizable sandbox mode
  • Isometric camera and relatively simple graphics
  • It is complex, and difficult, don’t go in expecting a breezy playthrough

Dyson Sphere Program

Release date:2021-01-21
Genre:Sandbox
Developer:Youthcat Studio

A Dyson Sphere is a solution to humanity’s all energy problems: just put a giant solar panel around a star and generate power this way.

Of course, this kind of megastructure is purely hypothetical, but in Dyson Sphere Program you can actually be in charge of building it, step by step. DSP is the factory simulation kind of sandbox, giving you the tools, the objective, and the space to do it your way.

Figurative space, but also a literal space: a procedurally generated star cluster filled with planets you could mine for resources and use as hubs for your ever-growing transportation network. The goal is, of course, to build a Dyson Sphere, but before then you’ll have a freeform construction playground to enjoy and defend from hostile parties trying to ruin your project.

Key features
  • You pilot a customizable construction mecha
  • A large, randomly generated cosmos to explore and exploit
  • A lot of freedom in the way you set up your cosmic factory
  • It’s not all construction challenges, defensive measures are worth preparing as well

My Time at Sandrock

Release date:2022-05-26
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Pathea Games

My Time at Sandrock is a sequel to My Time at Portia, and has a similar premise.

It’s set in a technically post-apocalyptic, but actually pretty cozy world which hasn’t managed to recover technology lost in the Calamity. This is where you come in, as a fresh-faced Builder bringing in much-needed technical expertise to the town of Sandrock. There’s much to be done.

Appropriately, a lot of your time will be spent working on the town: building houses, crafting tools, and so on. However, you’ll also get to explore Sandrock’s open world, delve into the dungeons looking for thrills and resources, build relationships with the locals, fight monsters and try your reflexes in a whole bunch of minigames. It’s engaging, friendly, and diverse enough to spend countless hours with.

Key features
  • Help a post-apocalyptic community bounce back
  • Friendly, welcoming atmosphere, the calamity was long ago, don’t worry about it
  • Dungeons to crawl and monsters to fight
  • Sequel to My Time at Portia

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Release date:2023-05-12
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Nintendo EPD Production Group No. 3

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom somehow managed to outshine its own illustrious predecessor, Breath of the Wild in terms of sandbox potential.

A massive new element of TotK are Link’s new powers allowing him to build machines and fuse items together to combine their effects. No blueprints necessary, if you can get the parts and figure out the mechanics, it’ll probably work.

This creative freedom boosted by new mobility powers and a handy time-rewind ability make TotK an incredibly impressive open-world sandbox. As for the story, it takes place a few years after Breath of the Wild, and perfectly sets the stage of the new adventure, with Link and Zelda investigating a mysterious substance only for things to go catastrophically wrong everywhere. Time to fix Hyrule!

Key features
  • Incredibly powerful and flexibly inventive construction system
  • The open world is now much more vertical, with floating islands and dangerous underworld
  • A sequel to Breath of the Wild, somehow making the formula even better
  • Nintendo Switch exclusive

Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord

Release date:2020-03-31
Genre:RPG
Developer:Taleworlds

Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is a full sequel to the tried and tested quasi-Medieval sandbox, and, as a sequel should, it has a ton of improvements and new features.

You can create your character and take them on a journey from vagabond to lord in a dynamic, complex world where more than just warriors can find a way to carve a slice of land for their ambitions.

Bannerlord is actually a few games in a trenchcoat. It’s a third-person action RPG, yes. It’s also, to an extent, a real-time strategy if you’re a bit more hands-on with commanding your legion. It has shades of economic simulation, and there’s enough factional politics to squeeze in a shade of grand strategy. It also doesn’t lock you into anything, you can abandon your armies and run caravans anytime you want.

Key features
  • Excellent field battles and sieges, no matter on which side of the walls you are
  • Many ways to make a name for yourself without bloodshed
  • You children can carry your character’s legacy as the next playable character
  • Steam Workshop support for those who desire to tweak their experience

Stardew Valley

Release date:2016-02-26
Genre:Adventure
Developer:ConcernedApe

Stardew Valley is a bit like Ford: you can do anything, as long as it’s related to farm work somehow.

You begin the game with a freshly inherited and very neglected farmland you need to bring back to full operation. There’s also a nearby town which gathers a friendly community you’ll probably get to know quite soon, because many NPCs are involved in game mechanics one way or another.

There’s all the farmwork to be done, from clearing debris and planning where to grow each plant to making sure the plants are watered and collecting the crops. There are dungeon-like mines to explore for rare items, there are NPCs to build relationships with, and a calendar of in-game events to be mindful of. It’s very focused, but also very open-ended and quite relaxing, despite the time pressure.

Key features
  • Lovely tribute to farming sim classic Harvest Moon (AKA Story of Seasons)
  • The passage of time is an important element of the design
  • Cozy, friendly tone and aesthetic
  • Engaging farmwork and management

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.

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

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.

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

Valheim

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

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.

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.

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.

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
Image credit: The Sims Studio

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
Image credit: CCP

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

ARK: Survival Evolved

Release date:2015-06-02
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Studio Wildcard

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…

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

Factorio

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

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.

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
Image credit: Tarn Adams, Zach Adams

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

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.

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.

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

Minecraft

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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!