Two articles by yours truly appeared on Ars Technica over the weekend. The first is a list of thirty games to play while surviving a global pandemic. Since I wrote only six of the thirty entries, it’s a good thing we’re not currently stuck at home with nothing but the list’s flimsier offerings. Which six did I write about, you ask? Good question. I’ll give you an easy clue: the best six.
The more substantive piece focuses on a handful of titles that are good picks for Earth Day. These are my favorite games for learning about this little blue marble we all happen to share, the interconnectedness of its climate and inhabitants, and our responsibility for its well-being. The first few titles are familiar family fare, but props to my editor for letting me include the last third, which consists of games you usually don’t see discussed on more mainstream sites. I hope someone picks up the Bios trilogy and goes cross-eyed at the lexical carpet bombing that is Phil Eklund’s principal mode of communication.
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.
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.