What is a Sandbox RPG and why you should play it? A comprehensive guide to some of the best Turn-Based Games Out There
Sandbox RPGs are still something of a niche subgenre, but more and more players are becoming dedicated fans. Better still, developers are finding new ways to create epic, free-form adventures where you can explore and influence the world. As a result, we’re seeing a renaissance for Sandbox RPGs.
Table of Contents
What is a Sandbox RPG
Sandbox RPGs present players with an open world, though it’s typically much more zoomed-out than traditional RPGs like Baldur’s Gate. Instead of a few set-piece locations, you can explore a full country, continent, or even world, visiting settlements and carrying out quests with no set objective.
The world carries on without your input in Sandbox RPGs. Traders move from town to town, causing prices to rise and fall. Wars can cause territory to change hands between the major players, or invaders from beyond the map might wipe out populated areas altogether! Of course, if you’re powerful enough, you might be able to turn the tide of these world-shaping events or sit back and profit from them.
Sandbox RPGs might have a narrative or an endgame, but it’s usually focused on the big picture, allowing players to create their own stories. This is a big part of the genre’s appeal since everybody’s game will turn out differently.
Key Features of Sandbox RPGs
The biggest feature of a Sandbox RPG is its open-world exploration. From the moment the game starts, you’re free to travel wherever you’d like. If you don’t care for your starting location, you can just pack up and move somewhere else! Of course, finding a new home might mean new threats along the way, and there’s nothing to stop you from going somewhere with enemies that you aren’t ready for.
Combat is one of the primary challenges in a Sandbox RPG, and while you’re traveling it’s common for hostile forces to follow you if you pass through their territory. Fights are usually deeply tactical, and since many games in the genre include permadeath, even an easy encounter can have serious repercussions.
Choosing and equipping the right party members is essential to survival, as well as knowing what threats you can handle and which ones you can’t. The overall challenge of simply surviving in these games is often what keeps players coming back for more, even after getting wiped out.
Typically, you’ll build your party by hiring randomly generated characters. Each settlement will have different recruits available, and skilled players will be on the lookout for useful traits, quality equipment, or in some cases characters who combo well with their current lineup. Often, gaining even a single level is an accomplishment, so it’s important to keep your longtime teammates alive and well – if they die, all their power and experience goes with them.
Your character’s backstory will usually be told in broad strokes, letting your imagination fill in the blanks. In most cases, there will be a reason for your protagonist to be starting with the clothes on their back and a few coins – a stunning betrayal, the ravages of war, or simply bad luck. What happens after that is up to you!
Players can usually take on minor quests at nearly any settlement to give themselves some direction. As you make yourself known, important NPCs might start to recognize you and seek you out for more important missions… or to get revenge for meddling with their plans. If the game has a main plot, the machinations of the game’s factions will usually be involved in a big way.
Sandbox RPGs are usually quite difficult, so getting to the end of a storyline or establishing yourself as one of the world’s power players is always an accomplishment. The best part is your rise to power was truly yours since no hand-holding or plot is railroading to push you in a given direction.
Popular Sandbox RPGs with Turn-Based Mechanics
Presented below is a curated list of my top Sandbox RPG recommendations. These games not only guarantee extensive gameplay but also embody the previously discussed characteristics. It’s important to highlight that while some of these titles remain in Early Access, their current depth and quality deliver an experience akin to that of a fully-fledged game.
Nomads of the Fallen Star
The majority of Sandbox RPGs have a dark fantasy setting, but Nomads Of The Fallen Star is a great example of what the genre can do with sci-fi. Leading a team of scavengers on a lost space colony, you’ll find yourself caught in the middle of a war for the last remaining resources on the inhospitable planet.
Trade, crafting, and economy are highlights of the game, but Nomads Of The Fallen Star also has plenty of combat to test your tactical skills. You can even harvest the alien creatures that you encounter and use their parts to create new equipment! Get Nomads Of The Fallen Star on Steam
Releasing out of early access in April of 2023, Wartales is one of the most polished sandboxes currently available. Shiro Games has created a lush, immersive world that will draw players in as they forge their fate.
If you’re looking for a jumping-on point for Sandbox RPGs as a whole, it’s hard to do better than Wartales. It’s a bit more expensive than many of the other titles on this list, but the hours you’ll put in make it well worth the extra investment. Get Wartales on Steam
Star Traders: Frontiers
Why explore a single planet when you can explore an entire galaxy? Star Traders: Frontiers lets you live out your very own space opera, whether you’re a peaceful trader or a ruthless bounty hunter.
You’ll have to manage both personal combat and ship-to-ship battles, giving Star Traders additional avenues for strategy and progression. If you like this game, the Trese brothers’ newest title, cyberpunk tactical RPG Cyber Knights: Flashpoint is launching later this month. Get Star Traders: Frontiers on Steam
Fabled Lands has the benefit of already having an established setting; if you’re familiar with the gamebooks of the same name by Dave Morris and Jamie Thompson, then this game is a whole new way to experience the beloved fantasy world. The Fabled Lands are brought to life with lovely, colorful maps and character designs, making this one of the most aesthetically pleasing sandboxes around.
Whether you choose to take part in the struggle for the throne or just go your own way, Fabled Lands offers lots of adventure. You can even visit temples to petition deities for aid, or buy yourself a ship and sail the high seas in search of wealth and glory! Get Fabled Lands on Steam
Raiders! Forsaken Earth
Raiders! Forsaken Earth lets players indulge their inner bad guys by putting them in charge of a ruthless band of post-apocalyptic raiders. Strength and survival are all that matter as you and your team explore the wasteland in search of plunder.
Raiders allow for larger battles than many other sandbox games, with as many as ten combatants on a side. You can even eat your soldiers if you’re running out of food – it looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys! Get Raiders! Forsaken Earth on Steam
Vagrus: The riven Realms
Post-apocalyptic fantasy isn’t especially common, but Vagrus proves that it can be quite a treat when done right. The world-building is some of the best in the genre, which means you’ll want to explore every corner of the Riven Realms if you can.
Vagrus is one of the best sandboxes around, but be warned – it’s punishingly difficult, even by the standards of a genre known for hard games. Even if you keep finding yourself beaten and broken in the desert, though, you’ll want to come back for more, armed with new knowledge and strategies. Get Vagrus: The Riven Realms on Steam
Stellar Tactics has been in early access for several years now, but it’s shaping up to do for sci-fi what Wartales has done for fantasy. With an enormous, living galaxy to explore and countless options for your ship and crew, this game, in its final form, could offer unmatched replay value.
The current roadmap has Stellar Tactics releasing sometime in mid-2024, so at this point it could be worth waiting for launch. From everything we’ve seen thus far, it will be a launch that sandbox fans won’t want to miss. Get Stellar Tactics on Steam
Low Magic Age
If you miss the era of classic fantasy games, Low Magic Age will bring back memories in the best way possible. It feels like a game straight from the ’90s, and playing it is like traveling back in time to hack, slash, and cast your way through charming static sprites.
Many classic RPGs could have been termed sandboxes back in the day, so Low Magic Age fits right in with its source material. If you need a dose of nostalgia, give this one a try. Get Low Magic Age on Steam
The Iron Oath
Of all the early access titles we’re keeping an eye on here at TBL, The Iron Oath is one that has our full attention. It’s already carving out a place for itself as the definitive sandbox experience, and its brilliant sprite animations and unique character classes make it truly something special and unique.
There’s already a vast world to explore in The Iron Oath, and by the time it’s done your campaign could measure in decades or even centuries by the in-game calendar. We can’t wait for the full version, and once you’ve tried it, chances are you’ll be just as hyped as we are. Get The Iron Oath on Steam
The Lost King of Avallon
The Lost King Of Avallon is another sandbox title that’s sure to resonate with fans of the classics. Visually, it looks like the game that Diablo could have been if it had been a turn-based title like it was originally planned to be. You can even recruit elementals, demons, and angels to your cause!
The world of Avallon is enormous and procedurally-generated. Not only will the world be different with each playthrough, but the political landscape and overall story can change as well, promising a huge amount of replay value. Get The Lost King Of Avallon on Steam
Urtuk: The Desolation
Urtuk: The Desolation features creepy, dark-fantasy creatures in a blighted, dangerous world, all of which are hand-drawn. The result is a living swords-and-sorcery comic that lets players fight to survive in an ancient, destroyed world.
Urtuk is a solo project, making its gameplay and visuals all the more impressive. The combat has loads of positioning and environmental hazards which are sure to give your tactical side a workout! Get Urtuk: The Desolation on Steam
Balrum is an RPG in the style of old-school Baldur’s Gate or Fallout, letting players freely explore a gigantic open world. Unlike lots of other sandboxes, Balrum is kind enough to give players a home base where you can craft, grow crops, and build a house while you’re on a break from risking life and limb.
If you always thought Stardew Valley needed more combat, Balrum could be right up your alley. The Steam version is part of a bundle for old-school RPG fans, which is itself a pretty good deal as well! Get Balrum on Steam
Wildermyth is one of the most engrossing, charming games of the last five years, and it’s a perfect example of everything that a Sandbox RPG can be. Your party members will age, change, and retire as their adventures progress, and they will eventually pass into legend. Your next crop of heroes may even grow up hearing tales of the heroic deeds you performed in previous campaigns!
The Monster Breeder
As you probably guessed from the title, The Monster Breeder lets you raise and train fearsome beasts for gladiatorial combat. Breeding and enhancing your creations gives you nearly limitless possibilities as you strive to create the perfect battle beast.
The Monster Breeder is still in early access, with no definitive release date as yet. However, a free demo is available if you want to give it a try before jumping into the arena. Get The Monster Breeder on Steam
For many players, Battle Brothers is the standard by which all other Sandbox RPGs are measured. From the free exploration to the merciless difficulty, this grimdark mercenary sim is the genre’s founder as it currently exists.
Whether you’re fighting simple bandits or standing firm against an orc invasion, the only constant in Battle Brothers is challenge. Your party members will suffer debilitating injuries even as they gain fame and skill, and all it takes is one lucky shot to send a character to their demise. Every victory is hard-won, and with several expansions available there will always be something new to explore. Get Battle Brothers on Steam
PROS of Sandbox RPGs and Conclusion
Sandbox RPGs offer an immersive experience that you can’t get anywhere else. While the details might change from game to game, once you’re playing, you start to feel like you’re really in charge of a spaceship, a caravan, or a mercenary company. Your choices – which are much more than a simple A or B decision in a dialogue tree – will impact your fortunes and may ultimately even decide the fate of the world!
At the end of the game, when the dust settles, you’ll be able to look at everything you’ve done and really feel like you accomplished something, which is more than can be said for most other types of games. Best of all, if you don’t want the story to be over, it doesn’t have to be!
With nearly infinite paths and choices, Sandbox RPGs provide incredible replayability, giving them some of the best value in terms of cost-to-playtime in all of gaming. Even a single title on this list could keep you occupied for dozens if not hundreds of hours, and since most are indie titles they’re generally quite affordable, too.
If you haven’t tried a Sandbox RPG, pick your favorite game from the list above and try it. Let us know how it went! Or, if you’re a longtime fan, maybe it’s time to start up a new campaign. You never know what the future might bring, and that’s where the fun comes from.