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Thursday, December 7, 2023

The best laptop games

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Sometimes I decide what game I want to play by first deciding where or how I want to play it. Between my powerful desktop, my laptop, and my Steam Deck, my library of games is now carved up into fiefdoms competing for my attention and time. A big, graphically intensive FPS may demand the desktop and large monitor. A 2D action game plays perfectly on the Steam Deck’s analog sticks. A relaxed card or strategy game like Civilization? Those were born for a laptop.

The best laptop games can run on low-end PCs, even though today’s gaming laptops can pack some powerful hardware. Because even if you have a beefy gaming laptop with an RTX 3000 series GPU, you’re constantly balancing heat and battery life when laptop gaming.

Best of the best

2023 games: Upcoming releases
Best PC games: All-time favorites
Free PC games: Freebie fest
Best FPSes: Finest gunplay
Best MMOs: Massive worlds
Best RPGs: Grand adventures

This is our selection of the best games for laptops and other low-end PCs—games that won’t set your fans going full blast, and are also ideal for playing with a trackpad or in relatively short chunks. The best laptop games have a lot in common with the best Steam Deck games, but without as much concern for controller or Linux support. We also have a lot more screen space to work with, so we don’t have to sweat text legibility on a handheld-size screen.

Below you’ll find quick pick-up-and-play games alongside complex RPGs that you can lose days in. There are choices that can become your new main squeeze, and others that are great when you just have a few minutes to kill time between meetings. We’ve mostly stuck to recommending new-ish games that have modest system requirements, but of course there are tons of ’90s and 2000s PC games, from Doom to Half-Life 2, that will run smooth as silk on any modern laptop. Check out GOG’s old games or the Internet Archive’s in-browser emulation library.

Looking for a new laptop to game on the go? Here’s our guide to the best gaming laptops

Best laptop games: Multiplayer

Stardew Valley

Release date: 2016 | Developer: ConcernedApe | Link: Humble

An indie sensation that brought the idyllic farm life of Harvest Moon to PC. Build your farm into a vegetable empire, go exploring, learn about the lives of your neighbors, fall in love and settle down. Simple graphics ensure this one will run like a dream on your laptop, and it’ll make long flights pass by in a snap. Stardew Valley has officially supported co-op farming for a couple years now, which is undoubtedly a great way to go back to Pelican Town.


Release: 2011 | Developer: Mojang | Link: Official site

One of the main questions you see asked online about laptops is “Will it run Minecraft?”, to which the answer, for future reference, is “Yeah probably”. Mojang’s infinite block-’em-up isn’t terribly demanding specs-wise, and it’s the perfect game to mess around with on a laptop when you’re supposed to be writing features for PC Gamer about low-spec games. While it’s often played on a tablet, phone or console these days, you’re getting the latest updates and mod support if you choose to build stuff with your PC. Here’s our frequently updated list of the best Minecraft mods.

Project Zomboid

Release date: 2013 (Early access) | Developer: The Indie Stone | Link: Steam

Despite technically being a decade old, we really just got into Project Zomboid in 2022; this multiplayer survival game has gone through some big updates in the last couple years. It’s far deeper than it looks, with intricate systems for injuries, foraging for food, vehicle physics, and zombies with modeled vision and hearing. Multiplayer is a relatively recent addition that sent Project Zomboid rocketing into the most-played games on Steam where it’s now carved out a comfy spot to call its own.

Portal 2

Release date: 2011 | Developer: Valve | Link: Steam page

We could have included pretty much any Source engine game here, such is the impressive way it scales to lower-spec hardware. (Admittedly, that might be because it’s getting on a bit.) While Half-Life 2 shines these days with visual mods and at higher resolutions, Portal 2 remains one of the funniest, smartest puzzle games around, even if you had cause to play it at 800×600 with all the settings turned to ‘Low’. You’re not playing this one to be wowed by fancy graphical effects—you’re playing for Stephen Merchant’s, J.K. Simmons’, and Ellen McLain’s terrific voice acting, and of course for that bit with the potato.

Best laptop games: Strategy

Crusader Kings 3

Release: 2020| Developer: Paradox Interactive| Link: Steam

There’s no series better at generating exciting, tragic, and hilarious stories than Crusader Kings, and there’s no better version to jump into than Crusader Kings 3. It’s just as complex as the original games, but it’s also much more approachable and friendly to new players. The blend of sprawling grand strategy and incredibly personal decisions makes CK3 a game that’s hard to quit playing, as you go from planning your conquest of Greece or your alliance with Moldavia to sweating out an assassination plot spearheaded by your own greedy spouse. The stakes always feel high, whether you’re managing warfare, diplomacy, and finances on the world stage or slowly realizing that your once-darling children have grown into backstabbing traitors. 

Loop Hero

Release: 2021 | Developer: Four Quarters | Link: Steam

This tiny strategy game was one of our early favorites in 2021. “From the moment the 16-color title screen fades in alongside dramatic chiptunes, you feel like you’re playing some forgotten, VGA-era fantasy RPG, a game that still contains some of the mystery and difficulty of 1991, but gently modernized to 2021,” Evan says in our Loop Hero review. Most importantly, all that classically-inspired goodness comes in a tiny installation that shouldn’t challenge your PC nearly as much as your strategy skills.

Slay the Spire

Release date: 2019 | Developer: Mega Crit Games | Link: Steam

An instantly addictive card combat roguelike, which takes the strategic fun of deckbuilding board games and marries it with the sensibilities of games like The Binding of Isaac and Risk of Rain, where finding random “relics” can change how you play. Or, if you get a lucky combination, turn you into a murderous card god. Like the best roguelikes and deckbuilders, Slay the Spire feeds you that immense satisfaction when you find a combo that absolutely wrecks. Enemies that were once intimidating fall before you like flies. It’s a fun one to replay again and again, thanks to unlockables like more powerful cards for each deck type, and protagonists that play wholly differently from one another.

Into The Breach

Release date: 2018 | Developer: Subset Games | Link: Humble

A phenomenal, bite-sized turn-based strategy game from the makers of FTL, and easily one of PC Gamer’s favorite games of 2018. A sizable free update in 2022 brought Into the Breach back into our regular rotation. It’s incredibly replayable, with different mech squads and tactics to master. As we said in our Into The Breach review: “Exacting, agonising, challenging, and intensely rewarding, Into the Breach delivers in the tiniest package the most perfectly formed tactics around.”

Civilization 6

Release date: 2016 | Developer: Firaxis Games | Link: Steam

Civ is usually a safe bet when it comes to low-end machines, and you won’t need a beefy PC in order to play the newest entry in the series in 2023. Just don’t go blaming us when you forget to sleep, so embroiled are you in your quest to wipe the warmongering Gandhi from the face of the Earth. While past Civ games have grown through larger expansions, Civ 6 has opted for the seasonal update model instead, and since 2016 has amassed dozens of new leaders on top of two expansions and smaller bits of DLC.

Magic: The Gathering Arena

Release date: 2018 | Developer: Wizards of the Coast | Link: Official site

This adaptation is finally the real Magic experience, and its recommended system specs belong to 2011 hardware—any modern laptop will handle it no problem. “It’s free-to-play and generous,” we wrote in our Magic: The Gathering Arena review. “When you buy a booster pack, whether with cash or gold earned in-game, you earn wildcards which can be traded for any card of an equivalent rarity (replacing the typical dusting and crafting systems of other digital CCGs). It is much more generous than tabletop Magic. You’ll still need to drop money for whatever perfect deck’s dominating the meta, or if you can’t be bothered grinding daily quests for gold. But if you climbed out of the money hole of collecting Magic cards in a book full of plastic sleeves back in the day, this is a safe way of re-experiencing that without going broke.”

Best laptop games: RPGs

Disco Elysium – The Final Cut

Release: 2019 | Developer: ZA/UM | Link: Steam

This is one of our favorite RPGs of all time, and our Game Of The Year in 2019. Disco Elysium is gorgeous in a sad, gritty way, but its painterly 2D environments won’t push your system. It’s a detective RPG that feels quite a lot like playing a classic adventure game or a visual novel. Expect to slow things down here to discover clues and secrets in its detailed environments and read a lot of fantastic writing. It’s sly, clever, and full of surprises, meaning you can get some of the best new RPG action without needing a GPU that handles ray-tracing. 

Thanks to the Final Cut version of the game that now comes standard, Disco Elysium’s installation size is a bit beefier than it used to be. If you’ve got the space to spare though, it should still run swell.

Genshin Impact

Release: 2020 | Developer: MiHoYo | Link: Official site

Don’t let the gacha mechanics scare you away from jumping into Genshin Impact. The Breath of the Wild-like open world is dense with puzzles, quests, and events to complete that don’t require gambling for powerful characters. Genshin’s variety is a boon if you want to squeeze it into a busy day or spend hours cleaning out a portion of its map. And its fast, ability-based combat has a surprising amount of depth if you endeavor to tackle its most difficult combat challenges.

Sunless Skies

Release date: 2019 | Developer: Failbetter Games | Link: Steam

Like Sunless Seas before it, Sunless Skies is part roguelike adventure, part interactive fiction. But it does both better than ever. It earned a 90 in our review, “because of how brilliantly its disparate elements combine to produce exciting stories, from scrapes you survive by the skin of your teeth, to moments where your own hubris gets you killed. It helps that death means something, because that elevates the stakes when you’re one direct hit from a yawning hole opening up in your hull and some hideous monstrosity is circling around for another attack… Beyond the changes you make, the sheer range of scenarios and potential outcomes means you’ll discover something new on every run.”

For more wonderful writing in a game that leans more heavily towards interactive fiction with fewer survival mechanics, check out the sublime 80 Days, too. A game about traveling the world is perfect when you’re traveling the world with a laptop.

West of Loathing

Release date: 2017 | Developer: Asymmetric | Link: Steam

Maybe the funniest RPG we’ve ever played. This is a game you explore for jokes, not loot. They’re in every corner of the world, and even in the options menu, and it’s a joy to discover them. West of Loathing is also a genuinely fun and clever RPG, with classes like the Beanslinger and Cowpuncher instead of genre standards.

As we wrote in our West of Loathing review: “Flush a toilet for an XP gain, search a haystack for a needle or dig through a mine cart for a hunk of meat ore (West of Loathing has a meat-based economy), and insult yourself in a mirror to gain a combat buff because you angered yourself so much. Most importantly, sticking your nose in every corner of West of Loathing isn’t just beneficial for improving your character’s stats and filling your bottomless inventory with weapons, garments, food, hooch, and hats (there are over 50 of them!). This is a funny game, and you’ll want to root out every last shred of humor before you’re done with it.”


Release date: 2015 | Developer: tobyfox | Link: Humble

2015’s breakout RPG inversion might owe a bit of its widespread success to the fact that a toaster could run it. This isn’t to say it’s not a looker or fun. For those versed in RPG and popular video game tropes, Undertale is a colorful, charming, upsetting swan ride through your habits and behaviors. Date a skeleton, pet (or kill) some dogs, think way too hard about mice and cheese. As we explain in our Undertale review, it will make you second guess every key press except the ‘Buy’ button.

Best laptop games: Puzzle & Adventure

The Case of the Golden Idol

Release: 2022 | Developer: Color Gray Games | Link: Steam

Investigate a dozen baffling and gruesome murders, all involving the same mysterious artifact, in one of the most inventive and satisfying detective games in years. In The Case of The Golden Idol you’re shown the moment someone has been killed, a grisly tableau frozen in time. Investigate by clicking on anything that seems suspicious or interesting—you can go through the pockets of the victim and bystanders, learn the names of everyone involved, and slowly collect clues, in the form of words, needed to solve the crime. Place the words into blanks on incomplete scroll to solve the murders and the motives behind them, each more puzzling than the last.

Alongside the individual mysteries there’s a sprawling story spanning decades centered around the powerful and bizarre idol itself and the horrifying things people will do to possess it. The murders are fun to solve, and the story behind them is fascinating. I don’t say this often (or ever) but this is one videogame that would make an outstanding mystery novel.


Release: 2021 | Developer: Witch Beam | Link: Steam

A light puzzler masking a surprisingly personal story. The game here is clicking and dragging items from boxes into drawers and onto shelves and walls, but over time you start to realize what those items say about the life of your unseen character. Unpacking is relaxing, and cleverer than it may first look.

Baba Is You

Release date: 2019 | Developer: Hempuli Oy | Link: Steam

The best puzzle game of 2019? Certainly the one with the catchiest name. It’s about pushing blocks, but also pushing words, which then become commands. And from those simple combinations, wild varieties of puzzles unfold. It’s hard to describe but easy to understand once you play it, and in our Baba Is You review we dig into why it’s so fun to play: 

“[One] solution is to make use of the blocks which determine your avatar—they read ‘Baba is you’ in a vertical line. Don’t disconnect them, otherwise ‘you’ no longer exist in the level and cannot interact with it. But you can use ‘Baba’ as the start of a horizontal command, a bit like a programming crossword puzzle. Write ‘Baba is win’ and it makes you (Baba) the win condition of the level. There’s so much potential and it’s so satisfying!”

Best laptop games: Action & Platformers

Psychonauts 2

Release: 2021 | Developer: Double Fine | Link: Steam

This sequel took its time arriving, but Double Fine made it worth it. Psychonauts 2 is a hoot, and the rare example of a big budget 3D platformer in this day and age, bursting with creative levels set inside its characters’ troubled minds. Go inside a brain casino, explore your ’60s spy movie-style secret base, dig into a shockingly long conversation about pancakes… there’s a lot to do here, and it all feels designed with real love.


Release: 2011 | Developer: Re-Logic | Link: Steam

Terraria is a huge game in a very tiny package. Even if you originally wrote it off as a 2D Minecraft clone, it’s grown far beyond that label in the years since. Terraria is a crafting adventure with heaps of updates to its name with new bosses, biomes, fishing, and too many other things to name, and it’s still seeing updates as of 2023. It’s also wild how little this huge game demands from your computer with its tiny install size and modest system requirements.

Amid Evil

Release: 2019 | Developer: Indefatigable | Link: Steam

In the wake of 2016’s Doom, we’ve seen a resurgence of new-but-old shooters that fully embrace the graphical styles and level design of 90s hallmarks like Quake and Hexen. Amid Evil may be the best of them: it’s the heavy metal album cover version of a 90s FPS, full of epic axes, swords that shoot green energy beams, and grenade launcher wands that fire miniaturized planets as weapons. Every area in the game has a unique aesthetic and set of enemies, so it never overstays its welcome. And because the design is faithful to its ’90s inspirations, it’ll run on a toaster (a suitably hardcore toaster, anyway).

If Amid Evil isn’t quite your aesthetic, check out the also fantastic Dusk or Ion Fury.

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