Crusader Kings II (PC, Mac)
Where to start with Crusader Kings II? Well, it’s an epic sandbox of a game that spans nigh-on 600 years of European medieval history and looks, on the outside, to be the very pinnacle of the “grand strategy” genre – but really it’s all about family.
Or rather, dynasty. See, rather than take control of a nation, in Crusader Kings II you’re steering the fortunes of a dynasty. Pick a ruler, from a lowly count to an emperor, and you play as that person until they die, at which point you switch to their dynastic successor. That person, let’s say your first-born son, might be a brave, inspiring paragon of virtue. But then he dies whilst on crusade to the Holy Land, leaving his moronic, venereal diseased, scheming and hunchbacked younger brother to inherit your lands and titles. Oh, joy.
The aim of the game? It’s really up to you to set your own goals. From the moment each game begins, it’s procedurally generating a million different stories all over its map, which reaches from Iceland in the west to (with the new DLC) India in the east. Your own tale is just one. Cultures and religions clash, family disputes erupt into murderous feuds, empires and won and lost. It’s truly, truly amazing stuff – once you get the hang of the rather complex mechanics that is.
Oh, and there’s an unofficial Game of Thrones mod which is almost as enjoyable as the “normal” game. But really, there’s no such thing as a normal game of Crusader Kings II.
State of Decay (PC, Xbox 360)
My, there are a lot of zombie apocalypse games in our list, but State of Decay fully deserves its inclusion thanks to being, essentially, the Skyrim of indie games. A large open world is your oyster and, unlike DayZ, there’s at least some semblance of a plot to provide narrative thrust and take the game beyond being a simple sandbox.
Gather a group, hunt for supplies, trade with other survivors and attempt to keep your base safe from the shambling undead hordes. State of Decay is about everyday survival – and inevitable death. The world’s supplies do not replenish, so at some point you’re going to run out of food or medicine or ammunition and then it’s curtains. Unless you trigger the endgame and escape.
It may be a tad rough around the edges, but for a 2GB third-person open world game that costs less than £15, it’s a pretty sweet deal.
READ MORE: State of Decay review
Limbo (PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, iOS)
Dark both in looks and mood, Limbo is a side-scrolling 2D platform game packed with puzzles – but it’s that mood that lingers longest in the memory, rather than the gameplay itself. The mechanics are simple and the story minimal (you play a boy searching for his sister in a dangerous, hell-like world), but the grainy monochrome visuals and frequent gruesome deaths make playing Limbo a gloriously gloomy experience.
Fez (PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, PS Vita)
Famous for its lengthy development time under the outspoken, perfectionist French Canadian developer Phil Fish (much of which was detailed in the excellent feature length documentary Indie Game: The Movie), Fez is an incredibly smart game that blends 2D and 3D to create a series of increasingly challenging puzzle levels: while the game works on a 2D plane, each level is actually a cube which can be rotated 90 degrees to open up new possibilities.
Its masterfully plotted learning curve and charm have bagged Fez an armful of awards, but sadly it may be Fish’s last ever game: in July 2013 he announced he was quitting game development due to growing disillusionment with the industry.
READ MORE: Fez review
Prison Architect (PC, Mac)
Remember how we all got a bit bored of all the Theme Park-style games? Well that was a long time ago and we now feel ready to love again, which is why Prison Architect has already made over $8million despite still being in bug-riddled Alpha. Build a prison and incarcerate crims, but treat them too badly and you’ll have a riot on your hands.