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A Handful of Excellent Sandbox Games

rawr

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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Ascendancy: The Next Generation

Ah yes, the forehead phase.

Star Trek: Ascendancy was not only among my favorite games of 2016, but also one of its most unique for how defiantly (yeah, that’s a reference) it clung to the vision of Star Trek. It was sprawling and dangerous, complete with a burgeoning playtime and the possibility of player elimination. But it was also as sleek and streamlined as a Starfleet vessel, every single turn — nay, pretty much every move — cast as an episode of the original series, with planets and cultures and deadly space phenomenons popping onto the table. It was rife with political intrigue, border tensions, shaky alliances, and a futurist’s appreciation for technology.

Well, buckle up — or don’t, because real Starfleet ships don’t have seat belts — because now that its first two expansions are out, Ascendancy is better than ever.

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Star Trek Done Right

I'm listening to the Wrath of Khan theme as I type. Tearing up already.

Fifty years ago today — that’s either August 8th, 1966 or stardate 1513.1, depending on how much of a nerd you are — marks the first appearance of the USS Enterprise, as Kirk, Bones, Spock and the rest of the crew grappled with a mystery of hidden identity, a long-dead civilization, and a salt vampire. It was the moment that kicked off the series that would flop, get cancelled, become a hit, and spawn a thousand new episodes, movies, books, games, and imitators.

The difficulty with adapting Star Trek to cardboard has always been that there are nearly as many ideas and topics that encompass the notion of “Star Trek” as there are episodes — that’s 726 across six television series, to be precise. Is it about exploration? Ethics? War? The power of communication? Teamwork? The answer to all of these is, at turns, yes. And many more besides. How do you capture the essence of something that has ambitions on nearly everything?

Star Trek: Ascendancy, however, has not been designed by any old two-bit studio. This is coming from Gale Force Nine, the same people who captured the treachery and violence of Spartacus, the paranoia of Homeland, the tough-guy act of Sons of Anarchy, and the meandering twang of Firefly. And now they’ve done it again. By Grabthar’s Hammer, they’ve done it again.

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