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A Handful of Excellent Sandbox Games

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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.

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Bios: Mega-fun-a

The unceasing demands of their respective biologies calls to them, urging them forward. TRY TO MATE, TRY TO MATE, these unheard voices shout. The centipede is down; the mouse-thing is more wary. Last time it listened to those voices, it made some very bad memories that haunt it to this day.

One of the most-repeated criticisms of Phil Eklund’s designs is that they hew closer to simulations than proper games, complete with persnickety rules exceptions, icon-strewn layouts, and overly dense rulebooks crammed with scientific and historical footnotes. And that’s to say nothing of the gameplay itself. If Eklund feels that the outcome of the Renaissance was due to some nebulous conflagration of commerce, class, religion, and imperialism, then by hook or by crook his game on the topic is going to contain a nebulous conflagration of commerce, class, religion, and imperialism.

At first glance, the second edition of Bios: Megafauna — which Eklund co-designed with Andrew Doull and Jon Manker — appears determined to prove the stereotype, with a rulebook liable to make even a veteran gamer’s mind wander somewhere between defining Cheshire cat mutations and the sprawling glossary where certain rules have been sent to wither in obscurity. And don’t even get me started on the mental gymnastics necessary to forge your way through that first learning game.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that this just might be Phil Eklund’s most accessible game since… scratch that. Most accessible, full stop.

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