The best sandbox games strike at the heart of what makes games fun: Just playing. From the voxel world of Minecraft to the depths of space in Universe Sandbox, there are a lot of different types of sandbox games. The genre has morphed over the years, especially as open-world and Minecraft-like games have become more popular, offering unique experiences no matter what type of gamer you are.
With so many options, though, it’s hard to find the top sandbox games. We rounded up 11 of our favorite titles that give players endless freedom to explore, create, and play.
To avoid too much crosstalk with our lists of the best survival games and the best open-world games, we had to define what a “sandbox game” is. For this guide, we’re talking about games that you can not only play, but play within. That means you can freely ignore objectives or certain mechanics and just play around with the tools you want.
Minecraft is the quintessential sandbox game, and it’s largely responsible for the building game craze. As one of the bestselling games of all time, Minecraft needs little introduction. It’s the voxel-based builder where anything that can fit into a 1-meter cube is possible, and players are still discovering new ways to combine and build.
You can have a ton of fun just playing with a random world, especially if you set up your own Minecraft server. But you can take the game much further. With one of the best Minecraft seeds, you can choose the world you want to build in or set up a unique survival experience, and with the best Minecraft mods, you can do everything from fly around in a jetpack to explore an industrial-era version of Minecraft. There are also several Minecraft shaders available if you want to beautify the game a bit.
Minecraft is a huge game, and that’s great for a sandbox experience. There are so many different ways to play Minecraft, and if that’s not what playing sandbox games is all about, we don’t know what is.
Hitman levels have always been a playground, and the latest entry features some of the best levels in the entire franchise. As a cap to the rebooted Hitman trilogy, Hitman 3 throws everything at five of its six locations. Although there’s a certain level without too much to do — if you know, you know — the other five levels are packed with so much detail that they more than make up for any shortcomings Hitman 3 has.
The standout level is Berlin, where you’re tasked with taking down a group of ICA agents without any story missions or clear paths. It’s classic Hitman, giving you a giant sandbox filled with lethal toys to play with. There’s also Dartmoor, where you have multiple options to dispatch a returning villain from Hitman 2, including dressing up like a detective in a traditional whodunit.
The entire rebooted Hitman trilogy is excellent, so we recommend giving all of them a shot. Hitman 3 has the best levels, though, so it earns this spot.
Read our Hitman 3 review
Garry’s Mod is a sandbox — no goals, no story, and nothing to get in the way of playing. It was originally a mod for Half-Life 2, based off the Source game engine and available for free. However, the developer ended up signing a publishing deal with Valve in 2006 for an exclusive release on Steam, and even after 15 years, it remains one of the most popular games on Steam. And it’s easy to see why.
In the game, you spawn whatever items you want and play with them. That’s it, and that’s all it needs to be. With a massive community and an endless stream of mods, Garry’s Mod has grown beyond a sandbox to experiment with the Source engine. It was the breeding grounds for the widely popular Trouble in Terrorist Town and Prop Hunt game modes, which still show up in games like Fortnite.
Kerbal Space Program
Most of the games in this roundup are “physics-based” in one form or another, but Kerbal Space Program takes physics to the next level. Specifically, Kerbal Space Program has an orbital physics engine and accurate aerodynamics. You’re in charge of a space program for an alien race known as Kerbals, and it’s your job to design and build rockets, spaceships, and vehicles to break the atmosphere and reach space. The issue is the physics system, which makes designing a vehicle much more involved than slapping a few parts together.
Although there are objectives and guided builds early in the game, you can still play around with Kerbal Space Program‘s building features and physics engine to see what works and what doesn’t. The dedicated sandbox mode gives you all of the components and technologies in the game, so you can get started with everything right away.
Grand Theft Auto 5
Although Grand Theft Auto Online has stolen some of the post-game limelight, Grand Theft Auto 5 is still a massive, crime-ridden sandbox. After a short intro mission, you’re let loose on the streets of Los Santos to organize your crime syndicate, raise your wanted rating as high as possible, or just cause whatever mayhem you can. True to form, Grand Theft Auto 5 includes a long list of cheat codes so you can play the game how you want.
Rockstar didn’t shy away from the ridiculous cheats, either. There are the basics like raising or lowering your wanted level, as well as max health and armor, but also some crazy ones. Superhero Punch gives you an explosive melee attack, for example, and Dead Eye gives you three tiers of slow-motion aiming à la Red Dead Redemption. The Grand Theft Auto franchise has always offered massive, ridiculous sandboxes, and GTA 5 is the series at its best.
Read our Grand Theft Auto 5 review
Starbound has a pretty basic setup: You’ve fled from your home planet to take to the stars, but after you find yourself lost in space with a damaged ship, you’re forced to beam down to the nearest planet to survive. From there, it’s up to you for what comes next. Starbound is similar to Terraria and, by extension, Minecraft. There’s a full single-play story, but you’re free to ignore it and chart your own path.
In addition to building your ship, you can also explore new planets to colonize them, gather materials to craft thousands of different items, and capture monsters to help you fight.
You’ll never run out of things to do. Starbound features procedurally generated worlds, and each planet is unique with multiple distinct biomes within. Exploring, crafting, and playing in Starbound are all a joy, even if you ignore the quests, bosses, and story. Take the two together, and Starbound is a must-buy.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is currently in early access, and it needs that development time. It’s a massive open-world game that delivers on the promise of letting players truly do what they want. For gameplay, it’s a mashup of action RPG, grand strategy, and life sim. You control your own character that you can equip with armor, weapons, and perks, but you can also zoom out for a Civilization-like view of the region as A.I.-controlled factions move around you. Outside of battle, Bannerlord has a robust in-game economy that you’ll need to stay on top of to keep your troops fed and yourself profitable.
It’s not a sandbox game in the traditional sense, but Bannerlord offers very little in the way of guidance. You’re dropped into the massive world and it’s up to you to figure out what to do. Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is a game you can almost live inside. There’s never a shortage of things to do, and you’re free to handle tasks in whatever order or way you want.
That said, Bannerlord is still in early access, and it needs a little more time in the oven. If you want a fuller experience and don’t mind dated visuals, you can pick up the first game, Mount & Blade: Warband.
Universe Sandbox tells you everything you need to know in the name. It’s a good chunk of the observable universe set in a massive sandbox that you can play in. Universe Sandbox is as much of a game as it is an educational tool. In addition to 1:1 representations of solar systems and galaxies, it features accurate climate, gravity, collision, and material interaction systems. With that, you can run accurate simulations to do everything from see the effects of climate change on Earth to see how the collision of the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies will play out some 4 billion years down the line.
Additionally, you can chart solar and lunar eclipses to see them from space, and you can even create your own systems and simulate them on a scale of millions of years. The original Universe Sandbox was only for Windows, but developer Giant Army released an updated version (basically a sequel) with support for MacOS and Linux. The new version supports AR and VR headsets, too, so you can literally hold the whole world in your hands.
Calling Dreams a “sandbox game” is reductive. It’s a game creation system that offers a lot more than most game-making games, with players recreating titles like Sonic Adventure, Fallout 4, and Final Fantasy VII Remake with a surprising amount of accuracy. It’s not too difficult getting started, either. You can use elements from other users, including 3D models, and there are a number of Gadgets — essentially in-game logic — available to you.
Once you learn the ropes, you can go deeper. You can create animated effects, manipulate sound effects and music, and tweak the various assets that make up your game. Dreams is an excellent game creation tool, and it will likely be the starting point for a handful of games down the line. It’s robust, easy to use, and above all else, fun to play.
Read our Dreams hands-on preview
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 is only half-sandbox game. The main story is engrossing and worth the time investment, but Rockstar keeps players on a straight track during story missions. Outside of that, Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a completely different game. The vibrant western world sucks you in with its detail and life. From early industrial towns to the somber plains, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a breathtaking game that begs you to explore.
You can have a lot of fun, too. Although the game doesn’t lean into the absurd as much as Grand Theft Auto 5, you’re still free to do what you want and ignore the objectives laid out before you. You can take to the forest to hunt and camp, ride through the world on your horse looking for NPCs to mess with, hunt down treasure using map fragments, and so much more.
Read our Red Dead Redemption 2 review
Totally Accurate Battle Simulator
Totally Accurate Battle Simulator is, well, a somewhat accurate battle simulator. You set the stage for each battle, choosing the troops that will be on both sides before letting the simulation play out. Watching the chaos that comes after is what Totally Accurate Battle Simulator is all about. You can set up accurate skirmishes, sure, but Totally Accurate Battle Simulator is at its best when you create hordes of unique fighters to clash in physics-based mayhem.
And there are a lot of unique fighters to choose from. Totally Accurate Battle Simulator boasts over 100 unique “wobblers,” including everything from spearmen to woolly mammoths, and you can create your own units, too. Additionally, Totally Accurate Battle Simulator features a sandbox mode where you can play around with the different units, as well as a campaign and battle creator so you can stage your own fights.
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