Toys and games have taken on new significance in 2020. As many of us found ourselves homebound, we turned to our consoles, models, puzzles, and especially phones for respite, entertainment, and connection during social distancing. And for parents feeling the crush of holding down jobs while simultaneously making sure their kids were staying educated, constructive toys that develop their young ones’ skills and keep them stimulated became invaluable. That’s a lot to ask of something like a video game or set of plastic bricks, and some inevitably do it better than others. Through research and testing, we determined which ones.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
Final Fantasy VII is one of the most influential titles of all time. Fans had high expectations for the remake, and it manages to meet them. Square Enix took a chance by expanding the story into multiple parts and including characters and elements not seen in the original game, and the gamble paid off with a title that celebrates the source material without being constrained by it.
The Last of Us Part II
Few games hit as hard as this tale of revenge, which combines a mature narrative with visceral gameplay that continually asks you to question the morality of your actions. The original The Last of Us was the pinnacle of PS3 game design at the time, with its painstaking attention to detail, realistic character models, and beautifully orchestrated story. The sequel improves on virtually everything, imbuing the title with a sense of humanity, raw violence, and heartrending emotion previously unseen in any game. Ellie’s pain practically seeps through the controller.
War of the Zombie
Fans of challenging civilization strategy sim RPGs will take to War of the Zombie. They maneuver an expandable aircraft carrier-like ark around a world map to missions. Once on the ground, they control a four-person strike team to complete objectives that include wiping out zombies, rescuing hostages, and infiltrating underground bases, among others. The size of the world grants WoZ massive scope, with both turn-based and live- action elements.
Even though VR is arguably the most exciting gaming development to emerge recently, there aren’t a ton of killer apps for the tech yet, leading many to believe it’s a novelty. But Half-Life: Alyx proves how AAA gaming in VR can be satisfying, providing an immersive experience that can’t be matched by playing with a standard gamepad. Fling a bloodthirsty headcrab from your face using your actual hands. Reach around cover to pop off a few shots to clear the room of enemies. You don’t so much play Alyx as you become her—an impressive feat with VR still in its relative infancy.
We always appreciate cooperative shooting games with a sense of humor. Of course, humor is subjective—don’t look for elevated comedy here. It’s more like crass jokes and ’80s references, but as long as that amuses, players will be quite happy. Borderlands 3 is an improvement on installment 2; it’s longer, larger, and has a better balance of co-op special attacks, frightening enemies, obnoxious robots, innuendo, and wild planets.
Doom (2016) was a return to form for the series that helped establish the first-person shooter. Eternal takes everything about that game and ramps it up considerably. The combat is faster, the movement is more fluid, and the environments are more expansive. The Doom Slayer even has a compelling story and lore to go with the amazing, frenetic gameplay, which makes this demon-blasting good time even better.
Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics
Despite advances in graphics and platforms, we keep coming back to classics like chess, checkers, and solitaire. Clubhouse Games gives you access to 51 activities that have entertained humans for hundreds of years, but what sets it apart is its intuitive, attractive user interface.
Failbetter’s visually appealing (and brutal) exploration game came to Nintendo Switch this year. In it, London has sunk into the Neath, a subterranean world filled with a mix of ancient civilizations, retired corpses, actual devils, mechanical dynamos, and horrifying realizations. You trade resources, carry passengers, fight ship-sized crabs and sea anemones, and find out one unsettling origin story after another. Combining the best parts of roguelikes, exploration, and narrative elements makes Sea one of the deepest and most replayable games.
Steam Xbox One
Ghost of Tsushima
Ghost of Tsushima breathes new life into open-world games by dropping players into a gorgeous recreation of 13th-century Tsushima Island. Samurai warrior Jin Sakai works to restore order to the land by dispatching the invading Mongols armed with his katana and an array of stealth weapons. Like a Kurosawa film come to life, it’s simultaneously arresting and beautiful in its violence, and there are dozens of hours’ worth of content to wade through.
Beautiful, involved, challenging, and captivating, Okami offers eye-candy visuals that use cell-shading in a sumi-e art style, which looks downright stunning in 4K. The mechanics that require players to draw with a calligraphy brush for special moves make it more interesting than many button-mashers. It’s a visual treat that challenges players to think creatively with an engaging main story and fun mini games.
Steam Nintendo Switch
Red Dead Redemption 2
How can we deny the majesty of one of the best-selling and most cinematic free-roaming games ever made? Although we wanted to reach through the screen to choke Dutch (and Arthur for listening to Dutch), we still got teary eyed at both endings. And when the story triggers an emotional response, it means the developers did something right. Challenging hunting side-missions, animal-skin outfits, poker and blackjack, horse-taming, quick-draw shoot-outs, running your own ranch, alienating entire towns—Red Dead Redemption 2 has everything we want in an action-adventure game.
We rarely see what happens when massive sci-fi vessels are past their prime. In Hardspace: Shipbreaker, you’re a “breaker” who recycles decommissioned starships. Each one you encounter has a different layout. To avoid decompressive explosions, detonating fuel, and volatile reactors, you must approach with care. As we were challenged with bigger, more massive ships with each job, we began to appreciate taking gargantuan tasks and literally breaking them down into bite-sized pieces. It’s a certain zen that comes from tearing a multi-thousand-ton hulk down to nothing.
Signs of the Sojourner
This stylish and deep deckbuilding game challenges you to play through conversations. Most similar games have combat, but in Signs, the sparring is verbal; we love the way even small mismatches and victories affect how the game ends. You’ll need to match card symbols with your acquaintances, all while you travel around a dusty, near- apocalyptic world as a merchandise buyer. Signs aims “to capture both the feeling of leaving home and returning changed by our experiences,” says developer Dyala Kattan-Wright.
Yahtzee meets deckbuilding in this funny, grim, and fiendishly difficult game from Chipzel, Marlowe Dobbe, and Terry Cavanagh (the developer behind Super Hexagon and VVVVVV). They’ve created a rich, replayable game with six characters and dozens of challenge modes in total, all narrated by an evil game-show hostess. “[This] is the best game I’ve ever worked on,” Cavanagh says. We agree.
Merchant of the Skies
Merchant of the Skies offers a world that mixes roguelike elements, map exploration, and beautiful pixel art as you visit a place of lightning worship to recharge your ship and serenade a giant carrot in a top hat, among other things. What we love about Merchant is how it walks a fine line: It’s a crunchy resource game for spreadsheet lovers, but it’s also a lively, quick-travel and exploration game set in a fascinating environment.
If you’re looking to sink your teeth into something long and complex, Tapestry is your game. Take a couple of hours, whether by yourself or with up to four friends, and build your own civilization using “advancement tracks” like science, technology, exploration, and military. Designer Jamey Stegmaier built in some flexibility here: You can choose to focus on one of the four approaches (and reap improved benefits as you progress) or take a more “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” track.
Star Wars: Outer Rim
The lawless edge of the Star Wars galaxy lends itself to some interesting gaming. Play as a smuggler, have run-ins (and potentially work) with famous characters from the series, and tangle with different gangs. Here’s good news for people looking to play solo, or social distancing alone: In single-player mode, you can still compete against a character generated by the game itself, whose turns are dictated by a deck of cards with preset action options.
Gorgeously illustrated, Obscurio is part escape room with a twist thrown in: One player is the “traitor” secretly working to prevent the team from making it out of the library. The game is easy to get the hang of and emphasizes effective communication among the party. To succeed, members must decipher the meaning of certain images on their way to the correct exit.
Cartographers tasks players with charting out a new fantasy realm for their kingdom, revealing cards that represent areas of land that appear on the map. Though there are symbols to represent those areas, we preferred picking up markers and pencils to draw our own vibrant landscapes. Whoever earns the most reputation stars by the end wins. Other players can throw monsters at you to thwart your plans, so be flexible.
Exit: The Catacombs of Horror
This super-sized, two-part, escape-room game challenges players to find a missing friend under the streets of Paris. Featuring tough puzzles—like one that can only be solved by candlelight—and inventive gameplay, this Exit title proves that you don’t have to leave your house for a compelling escape-room experience. Pleasantly, for a game titled “The Catacombs of Horror,” it wasn’t too scary, either.
Abandon All Artichokes
Abandon All Artichokes requires players to become “heartless” by ridding their starting deck of any artichokes, as the title suggests. To do so, they must take new vegetables from the “Garden Row”—a series of five face-up vegetable cards that players may draw from—and use their effects. Players add these cards to their decks in the hopes of drawing a perfect five-card hand with no artichokes in sight. The concept of deckbuilding is often fairly challenging, but designer Emma Larkins has done an excellent job creating a simple game to teach a difficult concept, making this title a great way to introduce new players to modern tabletop gaming.
The Search for Planet X
In The Search for Planet X, players scour the night sky to find a mysterious new planet, using logic to piece together information about asteroids, gas clouds, comets, and more. Be careful, though: Any theories you make may help your opponents come up with the right answer. It’s a fantastic tabletop experience with great art that should appeal to players who want to dive into a thoughtful game.
The Crew is a cooperative trick-taking game, meaning players perform some action each round, and whoever does the best wins that hand—similar to Hearts, Spades, or Euchre. Groups of two to five players complete up to 50 missions together, targeting certain objectives (like taking certain cards, or winning certain hands). Should they fail, the players immediately lose. Thankfully, they can keep playing the same mission until successful, and the short rounds are easy to restart, making it ideal for players who want to settle in for a long session.
Rosetta: The Lost Language
Players work cooperatively to translate an inscription from a now-lost civilization, with one person—the “author”—creating the hidden message for the others to guess. The whole team wins if they can correctly decode the meaning. Because only the inscription must be hidden, Rosetta is conducive to remote play: With the right camera setup, players can easily collaborate. Featuring great artwork and encouraging creativity, Rosetta: The Lost Language is an engaging title for two or more players to have some group fun, even in quarantine.
The options for playing Cloudspire can seem overwhelming at first; the game incorporates boards, chips, dice, and cards and it supports PvP, solo, and team modes. But for 130 bucks, we would hope for some broad functionality that lends itself to multiple replays with a number of different participants. Cloudspire’s mix of world building and combat delivers.
How We Game Now
The joy and nostalgia of playing a classic board game is unmatched. Luckily, all you have to forfeit is the tactile component. With Pogo, choose from free games like Monopoly and Scrabble to play with friends. Simply create a private room and invite others to join.
Steam Remote Play
With Steam Remote Play, one player buys and runs a game, streaming it to everyone else in the group. The platform is free, but you must purchase a title to get started—something like Overcooked! ($17) is great for two to four players.
Who said video-conferencing was only for work? Invite your friends to a video call, fire up a game, and share your screen. We recommend The Jackbox Party Pack 3 ($25), which includes five quirky multiplayer games.
Nintendo Switch Lite
If you play—or plan to play—almost exclusively in handheld mode, alone, without much multiplayer, then get the Switch Lite, which is more portable and costs less than the standard Switch. This is a Game Boy for the 2020s, with its hard-button controls that phone games just can’t replicate.
Xbox Series X
The Series X wins on certain specs: 12 teraflops of computational capacity and a 1TB SSD. But while non-exclusive essentials like Call of Duty and NBA 2K look excellent on both this and Playstation, the Series X’s value is versatility. The system can play titles going back to the early 2000s, upgrading the graphics when possible. We’d budget for Microsoft’s Netflix-for-games program Game Pass Ultimate ($15 per month).
No gaming system matches Sony’s library of exclusive games. The Playstation’s hardware is as good as any, and we especially like that the PS5 has a trick proprietary system to efficiently pull data from its 825GB drive. But PS5-only titles like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Gran Turismo 7, and franchises like Uncharted and God of War alone can justify choosing Sony.
Lego Boost Creative Toolbox
You can count on Lego for engaging fun, but this robot kit adds some high-tech elements to the classic bricks. Made for kids ages 7 through 12, the 847-piece set includes five programmable designs, like a talking robot, guitar, cat, rover, and auto-builder. It’s also compatible with its own smartphone app, called Lego Boost, which has challenges and activities to help kids build their coding skill set.
Abacus Brands Professor Maxwell’s VR Science Lab
This science-lab kit opens doors to fun, hands-on STEM experiences. Kids can conduct 25 experiments (with step-by-step instructions and help from augmented-reality videos), then put on the included VR goggles to explore how each experiment relates to real-life examples, such as flying over an active volcano or going deep into a crystal cave.
Osmo Genius Starter Kit
If your kid already uses a tablet for gaming, the Genius Starter Kit can help turn those digital amusements into tangible learning opportunities. It Includes an iPad or Fire base, tangram pieces, and word and number tiles. The kit then captures what the user does live in front of the tablet, integrating those actions and pieces into five apps that help develop kids’ problem-solving skills through puzzles.
Mattel Hot Wheels Track Builder Unlimited Ultra Boost Kit Motorized Set
Hot Wheels offers plenty of builds that can be mixed and matched, but this motorized set won over kid testers with its two boosters, which click together in a variety of configurations.
Crayola Marker Maker
Don’t constrain creativity to pre-made color options. Crayola’s Maker Series allows kids to DIY their own hues. This Marker Maker has the tools they need to mix their own shades from three ink bottles and package them in up to 16 full-size markers.
Thames & Kosmos SolarBots: 8-in-1 Solar Robot
Powered by a compact solar panel, these little robots use mini electric motors and can march, crawl, and somersault. And the colorful, 48-page guide offers instruction on how to assemble up to eight of the robots, with interesting facts about real-life solar power as a renewable energy source.
Lego Creator Ford Mustang 10265
Pass on your mechanical knowledge by working with your kid to build this Lego Ford Mustang. Modeled after the GT 1967, the 1,471-piece replica includes a detailed interior, opening hood and trunk, and add-ons like a supercharger and spoiler.
Jakks Xtreme Power Dozer
We all need to vent, and it’s OK to occasionally indulge in a little destructive play time. The Xtreme Power Dozer is ideal for that, capable of pushing or pulling up to 200 pounds—whether it be plowing through other toys inside or piling up dirt and rocks outside. Maybe buy yourself noise-canceling headphones before handing this over to your kid, though; it’s equipped with LED lights and a piercing siren that alerts others to the nearby construction.
Discovery #Mindblown Toy Circuitry Action Experiment Set
Expose kids to circuitry and electrical engineering early with this set for kids ages 8 and up. With six total experiments, it enables them to levitate balls, spin a robot, and launch a rocket. Plus, the modules are flexible, allowing for some freeform experimenting so kids can build their own design.
Hasbro Nerf Halo MA40 Blaster
Modeled after a blaster in the upcoming Halo Infinite video game, Nerf’s MA40 can unleash 10 darts in quick succession, thanks to its motorized, clip-fed design. It even includes a tactical rail for attaching a number of accessories. But be sure to emphasize one rule: No aiming at the eyes.
How We Tested Toys
Our colleagues at Good Housekeeping (another Hearst publication) have been testing products for more than a century, just like we have. And they take toy evaluations seriously, making sure that the top games and devices hold to ASTM standards, and then sending the most promising ones out to the most relevant testers: kids. We partnered with the Good Housekeeping Institute for this package, combining some of their test results with our own evaluations to bring you this authoritative list of STEM and builder toys and entertaining games for your little tinkerer or future programmer.
Mattel Hot Wheels Cybertruck
One-tenth the size of Tesla’s real Cybertruck, this version from Hot Wheels features functioning head- and taillights, a telescoping tailgate, and “Chill” and “Sport” modes. Tesla and Mattel are even leaning into the now-infamous incident from the actual Cybertruck’s unveiling—a cracked window sticker comes included. It’s a fun distraction for those of us who may never own a Cybertruck to pretend like we do.
Spin Master Kinetic Sand Kalm
This tiny sandbox is like a zen garden for adults, but more fun. The squishy, granular Kinetic material feels like something between sand and Play-Doh, clumping together so you can mold it with the included scoop, rake, and knife. Our testers loved its therapeutic effects.
Lego Star Wars Imperial Star Destroyer Set
This isn’t just any Star Destroyer. Lego modeled this after the very first ship, named the Devastator, that graced screens back in 1977 during the opening minutes of A New Hope. Complete with an included Rebel Tantiv IV ship, this Star Destroyer has a staggering 4,784 pieces, eclipsed only by Lego’s 2007 and 2017 Millennium Falcons (about 5,000 and 7,500 pieces, respectively).
Spikeball continues to be one of our favorite games to whittle away time in the backyard. The premise is simple: Think volleyball where you team up with a friend (or, these days, an immediate family member or someone in your household) to face off against another pair, attempting to bounce the ball off the net so that the other duo can’t return it. There’s not much strategy to it, but it’s a great blood-pumping diversion after a week gazing into devices.
Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Yeah, it’s an expensive “toy.” But the iPhone 11 Pro has plenty of high-res screen real estate (at 458 pixels per inch) for playing mobile games. And it was the best iOS camera phone in our testing. It’ll show you what’s outside the frame of the photo you’ll take so that you can adjust and not miss something (or someone) important, and the Zero Shutter Lag function saves the sharpest frame closest to when you clicked the button, preserving crisp shots.
DJI Mavic Air 2 Drone
The Air 2 offers clear improvements over its predecessor in the two areas that matter most: its camera and flying capabilities. You can now shoot 4K video at 60 fps, along with still photos up to 48-megapixels, while the drone’s flight time has been increased to a lengthy 34 minutes (up from 21). Those upgrades do make this version heavier and larger than the last one, but it still folds small enough to tuck in a bag or backpack.