Video games can be great outlets for creativity, but what if you want them to push your mind a little further? There are plenty of sandbox titles that feature robust building systems, in-depth mechanics, and plenty of tools to tinker with to allow you full control over complex mechanisms. So we sought out the best of the best in the genre.
Update, 4/8/22: Verified all text, links, and videos still good.
Tralmaker’s robust building system opens the door for all sorts of vehicles, and you’ll need them to complete the game’s various races and missions. But once you’re done with the structured content, there’s no need to fret, because the open-world sandbox is the perfect testing ground for your craziest creations.
And if you run out of ideas, you can always take a visit to the Steam Workshop or Xbox Gallery and download the works of other players to mess around with or take inspiration from. There’s also four-player multiplayer—no crossplay, unfortunately.
Fly to the moon, or more likely, crash into the sun in a rocket of your own in Kerbal Space Program. This realistic astrophysics game has you fight gravity as you create space- and aircraft worthy of Kerbalkind.
Whether you’re messing around in the sandbox, discovering new technology in science mode, managing every aspect of the space program in career mode, or playing with one of the many user-created mods and vehicles (only on PC), you’re sure to have a great time. While there is a sequel coming out late next year, the original is still very much worth playing if you’re interested in this.
Factorio has you crash-landing on an alien world, and it’s your job to design the factory and processes needed to create the tools of your escape. This game will put your logical thinking to the test as you try to automate mining, crafting, and, of course, the eradication of the local wildlife that’s trying to destroy all your hard work. And now that Factorio is out of Early Access after four years, now’s as good as time as any to play this fantastic factory builder.
Scrap Mechanic blends engineering with survival as you try to build and maintain the perfect base amid hordes of enemies. You’ll need to craft weapons, machines, and elaborate vehicles to get the job done. Don’t worry though, there’s still a creative mode where you can mess around with the game’s building system without such concerns. Wrap all of this up into a stylized package that can be enjoyed with friends in online multiplayer and Scrap Mechanic is sure to deliver on many hours of mechanical engineering-fun.
Scrap Mechanic is currently in Steam Early Access, and has been regularly updated over the past four years—there’s no estimated 1.0 release date.
This game has a simple but alluring premise—what if you could create operational LEGO cars that explode? It’s hard not to be drawn in by such a concept, and whether you’re building up your latest creation or watching it be torn apart bit by bit, Brick Rigs is undeniably a great time. Regardless if you’re creating the fastest car brought to bricks or a destructive missile launcher, Brick Rigs supports it and makes sure you have a large sandbox to experiment in. There’s even online multiplayer so you and friends can put your creations up against one another.
Brick Rigs is currently in Early Access and has been regularly updated for the past four years—there is no estimated 1.0 release date.
Besiege is about destruction through construction. The 54 levels in the game have you destroy a great variety of things from castle walls to windmills all with machines of your own design. You can add wheels, flamethrowers, explosives, and more complex mechanisms like catapults to your vehicles to win the day. There’s an endless number of ways to tackle each stage, and they all test your ability to design vehicles and weapons.
But the 54 structured levels of Besiege are only the beginning. These levels introduce the core mechanics of Besiege’s building system to you, and they’re great in their own right. But once you open the sandbox and start seeing how far you can push this game is when the pieces really come together. Just a glance at the Steam Workshop proves how deep this game’s mechanics run, and shows that this medieval-themed vehicle builder is actually the perfect place to play as a transformer. There’s also plenty of user-created stages and mods to mess around with as well.
This open-world adventure game has you play as a robot who simply wishes to explore the world and turn its natural resources into something actually useful. You’ll start as a small buggy but eventually expand to having a small army of other robots that do your bidding. Discover new biomes, create new types of vehicles like planes, and even battle AI opponents scattered throughout the map. There’s also the co-op mode where you can do all this with a friend and even fight each other if the word “co-op” means little to you—there’s no crossplay, unfortunately.
Infinifactory is much more structured than the rest of the games here, but still has plenty of freedom for player expression. With a series of puzzle stages available, you must build assembly lines that produce products and machines to complete the level. However, there are many ways to complete each stage and as you get better at the game, you’ll learn how to complete levels with increasingly compact and efficient creations. Once you’re done with the base game, you can also create your own puzzle stages and play the creation of other players through the Steam Workshop (only on PC).
Not dissimilar from Infinifactory, Poly Bridge changes things up by having you create bridges to ford gaps and get cars and trucks safely to the other side. You’ll have to choose the right materials and building style, all the while making sure the project stays under budget. It’s a delicate balance to make sure your bridge is efficient while also being able to support the weight of heavier vehicles, and the mechanics introduced later into the games like drawbridges only enhance the complexity.
In Space Engineers, you’ll take to the final frontier and explore planets, moon, and space all in vehicles of your own design. You’ll need to take into account the terrain for ground vehicles and whether you’re building ships capable of atmospheric or space flight, so there are plenty of design challenges to overcome.
All of this is done in a solar system that you can freely explore. You can also build bases on the surface of planets, inside of asteroids, or create entire space stations orbiting overhead. And you’ll need a base to store all your materials in survival mode (but there’s also a creative mode for more free-form construction). And, of course, the best part is that Space Engineers features online multiplayer, which not only means you can play with friends, but also battle other players with your own designs—there’s no crossplay though.
To round off this list, we have one more space game for you, but Astroneers tries to simplify things a bit. While there aren’t any in-depth physics or robust building systems to be found here, Astroneer keeps true to the core of the genre by having you build up multiple space bases on a variety of planets to produce new products and explore new locales. Whether you’re smelting ore or creating an automated assembly line for rocket fuel, you’re sure to have a good time in Astroneer—it’s even fully playable in multiplayer. There is crossplay between Xbox and Windows 10 users, but that doesn’t work if you buy the game on Steam.