A Handful of Excellent Sandbox Games
As I wrote last week, the “sandbox Euro” of Feudum is a handsome but troubled youngster. It’s got some great ideas, a slick sense of style, and knows it’s clever. But maybe that’s the problem. For everything it does right, it comes parcel with two exceptions, fussy rules, or instances where it stubbornly refuses to be streamlined.
Still, it’s hard to deny that this dizzying blend of movement puzzle, player-driven feudal holdings, and market manipulation taps into something desirable. The freedom of a sandbox game can be intoxicating, trusting players to pursue their goals with unusual latitude. Where most games offer an intensely curated experience, it’s a joy to be set loose within a set of systems and trusted to sink or swim, boom or bust.
So, as an alternative for those who might be thirsting after something a little more open-ended than usual, what follows are a bunch of my favorite sandbox-style games, ranked in order of their ascending complexity.
Among other things, one of the many reasons for Scythe’s success was the unusual breadth it afforded its players as they attempted to establish dominance over its somethingpunk frontier. Everyone was working toward the same broad set of goals, but Scythe let you pursue them pretty much how you pleased. Did you want to raid enemy lines for resources? Fight battles? Bunker up and focus on economic growth? Explore the distant countryside? Especially in the first half of the game, the choice was yours. Later on, as the frontier was claimed and battle lines were drawn, your success was often measured by how well you’d navigated those first moments.
In short, while it’s the least gritty of the sandboxes on this list, it still stands out as a game that tried to combine Euro and sandbox and actually did a pretty admirable job of it, all without becoming too convoluted for its own good.
#9. Empires of the Void II
You could argue that Ryan Laukat’s latest was a full-on celebration of colonialism. As the captain of a worldship, it was your job to parlay with the locals, make allies and enemies, and carve out a niche for your people in this uncharted region (uncharted to whom, the literate university student asks with a sneer).
Then again, hey, you don’t need to fret over the ethics of subjugation when the folks you’re bombarding are killer robots. It also helps that Empires of the Void II introduces you to its interlocking systems of alliances, dominions, and liberations, gives you some general guidance, and then pretty much leaves you alone to either grasp the tentacle of friendship or stomp on it. Or, more often, both at once at different ends of the sector. Despite a slightly wonky action system, most of its freewheeling adventures were stellar in two senses.
On the other side of the Yeah, colonialism spectrum sits Archipelago. You’re still pushing around an indigenous population, but this time the game is totally in your face about it. If the locals are unemployed, they’ll make trouble. If they want fish, they’d better get their damn fish. And if you want your markets and churches set up, you’d do well to ensure your fledgling colony doesn’t go the whole machetes-in-the-dark route.
Where Archipelago makes its mark on the sandbox scene is with its array of secret objectives. Each player knows one of the ways that everybody will be evaluated, so one person’s emphasis on timber might mean it’s time to deforest some islands. Unless they’re just preparing their fleets for some exploration. Or unless they’re the secret separatist who wants to sow the seeds of rebellion. Then it’s really time to watch out.
Either way, this one wears its cheery brutality right on its sleeve, both in terms of its thematic message and the way it portrays colony management as a series of highly uncertain decision points.
#7. Tales of the Arabian Nights
One of the first things you’ll notice about Tales of Arabian Nights is its bulk. Not the size of its box, but the sheer weight of the thing. That’ll be the Book of Tales, a 300-page monstrosity packed with thousands of, well, everything. It’s a literal choose-your-own-adventure novel — a dozen novels — crammed with every last wonderment or ailment that could possibly befall your hapless hero as they travel across the game’s fantastical landscape.
How does it work? Mostly by throwing something crazy at you and gauging your reaction. You’ve met a living statue on the road? Great! Do you listen to its tale? Flee in horror? Attack or aid it? Maybe fall onto the ground in worship? Over the course of a single play, fate will twist you in the wind like a piece of errant confetti. Travel to India! Meet a prince! Get hounded by debt collectors! Meet a rapscallion djinn and survive a forced gender change! Maybe quit early because Tales has a tendency to drag on after a while!
It’s crazy, unpredictable, and totally about the journey. It’s also one of the undisputed kings of narrative sandbox gameplay for a reason.
#6. Merchants & Marauders
(also Xia: Legends of a Drift System and Firefly: The Board Game)
Ask three board gamers their definition of “sandbox” and you’ll likely get five opinions about how open is open enough, how restrictive a game’s victory conditions are allowed to be, and whether we can even in good conscience apply that term to board games at all.
It’s likely that the closest we’ve gotten to corrugating the open-world experiences of something like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls is found in pick-up-and-deliver games like Merchants & Marauders, Xia: Legends of a Drift System, and Firefly. You’re still limited by an ultimate goal — doubloons, fame, cows, whatever — but by setting their players loose upon a sprawling ocean with hardly any direction, these are games defined almost fully by the freedom they afford.
For my money, the best of them is Merchants & Marauders, especially with the Seas of Glory expansion. You’ll follow the wind, dodge pirates, prey on the ships of opposing empires, smuggle contraband, hunt for treasure, and scout for talent. Best of all, it’s the sort of game that makes newcomers stare and say, “So, uh, where do I go?” Anywhere, friend. Anywhere.
#5. Twilight Imperium (4th Edition)
(also Star Trek: Ascendancy)
While Twilight Imperium initially seems to be pulling you in a single direction — a massive bombardment and subsequent invasion of Mecatol Rex — its path to galactic dominance is surprisingly serpentine. For one thing, a point is a point, and there are any number of ways to pick them up. Whether holding the most important planet in the universe or accomplishing one of the game’s many public and secret objectives, victory is often less about following a set path and more about getting creative.
That sense of creativity triples in importance once everyone starts talking. You’re encouraged to both make and break friendships, using social leverage and a whole lot of promises in order to get what you want. And while the game needs some breathing room, the new fourth edition only takes about five hours to complete. Honestly, it doesn’t feel a minute past four hours.
Occupying the same broad category of socially-charged 4X sandboxery is Star Trek: Ascendancy. This one’s path to victory is a bit more focused, but provides a broader sense of discovery in the game’s first act. Also Star Trek.
#4. Bios: Megafauna (2nd Edition)
You could argue that evolution was the world’s first sandbox game. You know, if you were a pretentious doof. Or maybe you could just play Bios: Megafauna instead. Here, your phyla’s progress through the ages is completely self-directed. Whether you’re learning to fly, developing some new emotions, or growing sex organs, the choice — and their consequences — are yours.
And it’s in those consequences that Megafauna really gets interesting. The race for suitability is a tight one, with various species outperforming each other at nearly every turn and the possibility of stagnation lurking just around the corner. For instance, it’s one of the few games about evolution where being too successful at fine-tuning your species might propel it into a Darwinian dead end, doomed to inhabit its niche and never pressed into becoming anything more innovative. Sort of like a lot of worker placement games.
#3. Pax Renaissance
(also Pax Porfiriana and Pax Pamir)
These three aren’t entirely similar, but the sandboxy natures of the Pax games are largely shared. By casting you as the middlemen of history — the land-owners, tribal chieftains, and bankers struggling to surpass those who would see you firmly trapped in your proper stations — each of these games fosters an anything-goes mentality. Bully the market, recruit mercenaries, and manipulate the religions and cultures and needs of those around you, then unleash them all in a climactic bid to claim the big chair for yourself.
Even more than that, though, it’s rare that two players will walk the same paths to victory, fostering an ongoing tension between undercutting somebody else’s victory conditions while pursuing your own. As such, these games demand an above-average quantity of attention, but make good on that investment at nearly every turn, allowing for maneuvers and counter-maneuvers with every new turn. Bending Teddy Roosevelt’s ear in order to invade Mexico and install yourself as governor is one thing; halting an imperial power from gaining too many kingdoms while simultaneously propping up independent republics is sublime. And yes, I’m mixing my Paxes right now.
#2. Mage Knight
(also Star Trek: Frontiers)
If you want movement puzzles, the freedom to pursue your objectives however you like, and big hefty superpowers tempered by infuriating wound cards, then look no further than Mage Knight. Or Star Trek: Frontiers, which allows for additional diplomatic options.
And, well, there you have it. There isn’t much more to say about these ones. Don’t play with more than two people or you’ll seriously regret it.
Okay. Let me tell you about why Pericles is one of the smartest sandbox games ever designed.
For much of its playtime, this is a game about gridlock. While it technically claims that you can play it with one or two or three people, it only truly shines at four. Then you divide into pairs: one team for Athens, the other for Sparta, with each player representing a political party within their chosen city-state.
Then the arguments start. Like the most hellish of all dysfunctional marriages, you and your partner can’t agree on a single thing, yet there’s no option to part ways. Should you recruit troops or hold some proto-Olympic games? Declare war on your rival city-state or keep fighting little puppet conflicts? Bring some satellite cities into the fold, or use their status as independents to claim far-flung territory? Go after a granary in Sicily or protect what you’ve already got? Some of these issues might be trivial, except your constituents are always watching, judging, and lavishing honor on the side that wins the debates.
And that’s just the first half of each round. Then you’ve got to take those issues you won on the floors of the assembly — a military campaign here, some diplomatic overtures there — and put them into practice against the other team. It’s like conducting a couples therapy session while under fire by a team of snipers.
Right when things are looking bad, that’s when Pericles gets clever. See, it isn’t just about dysfunction. It’s about that peculiar dysfunction called compromise, the un-ideal ideal solution for politics and relationships alike. The Greek isles are yours to seize, but only the faction that wrangles both their enemies and their friends will rise to prominence.
And there you have it! What are your favorite sandbox games?
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Posted on May 16, 2018, in Board Game and tagged Archipelago, Bios: Megafauna, Board Games, Empires of the Void, Feudum, Firefly, Mage Knight, Merchants & Marauders, Pax Pamir, Pax Porfiriana, Pax Renaissance, Pericles, Scythe, Star Trek: Ascendancy, Star Trek: Frontiers, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Twilight Imperium, Xia: Legends of a Drift System. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.