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Author Topic: Sandbox Hill  (Read 589 times)


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Sandbox Hill
« on: November 15, 2006, 10:38:08 am »

Sandbox hill, by Animalball games.

A bit of an introduction to this game and my relation to it: I don't work for Animalball or have any stake in them or this game's success.
When I joined the animalball forums I checked out their product blurbs, and reading Sandbox Hill's blurb, it immediately reminded me of another wargame, the first modern hobby wargame in fact.

Way back before WWI, renowned author HG Wells (yea, the war of the worlds guy) wrote a book called "Little Wars", which is generally seen as the first modern wargame. Prior to that, there were the German Kriegspiels, but those were actual military training games that were in fashion in german military academies, and not amateur hobbyist's games.

Little Wars was a pretty simple affair, made to be played with the little tin or lead soldiers that were popular kids' toys in that era, as well as with a kind of simple artillery toy that shot rubber bands. They incorporated basic movement rules, and firing was based on the rubber bands.  It was all very Edwardian, meant to be played in the children's drawing room.

Now, the Animalball guys claim that they designed Sandbox Hill without ever having read HG Well's Little Wars, in fact, they currently are investigating the possibility that Well's may have used his Time Machine to rip THEM off:

Even so, assuming that Wells wouldn't have bothered to use his Time Machine for something so trivial, there does exist the other possibility, which is that the Animalball team may have at some moment read Little Wars, or something that described the basic concept of Little Wars, years ago and have just forgotten they have done so.  This sort of "accidental plagiarism" has happened in a lot of occasions; George Harrison apparently did it with My Sweet Lord, Nabokov apparently did it with Lolita. It doesn't make their works any less masterful, and if you take them at their word they did it accidentally.

But then, its also possible that they came up with the same basic concept without ever having read Well's book.  I mean, toy soldiers just beg for some rules to run battles with, and rubber bands are always a good means of determining those rules. Plus there are some significant differences between the rules of Little Wars and the rules of Sandbox Hill, though most of those have to do with the differences between what toy soldiers were like back in Wells' era and what they are today; and with the difference between Well's more or less civilized concept of warfare and the Animalball gang's psychotic interest in violent bloody warfare.

So, first, the basic format of Sandbox Hill: Its an 18 page PDF, very nice format, full colour with lots of illustrations and nicely edited. Top marks all around.
The whole pdf is full of witty dialogue, and a good sense of humour. Besides clever stories from "the sarge" about the battle for timmy's sandbox, there are repeated blurbs by the "super safety rules lawyer" with various safety disclaimers and warnings, all (sort of) tongue in cheek.

The PDF is only the rules of play, for obvious reasons none of the components are included. To play SH you will need to get at least two sets of standard plastic army men (ideally of different colours), a huge quantity of rubber bands, something to represent tanks (the authors suggest using matchbox cars, which makes sense), a 12 inch length of string, a 12 inch ruler, a pair of dice, quarters for use as landmines (if your country doesn't use quarters then any other coins will do) and some scissors, cinder blocks, and safety goggles (as well as, optionally, water balloons).  More on these last few items, and a revelation of the true mental illness of the AB crew, later in the review.

One brilliant note about the rules: if you've ever owned plastic army men (and which boy hasn't?), you'll remember that they come in three or four different molds.  There's the standard guy, standing with the gun in his hand; there's the one lying flat on his stomach, there's the one lying down with the machine gun, the one crouching to shoot, and in some sets there are officers aiming pistols, guys with minesweepers or flamethrowers, radios, bazookas, or even paratroopers, depending on what kind of set you find.  Sandbox hill divides the different molds into different classes of soldiers, each with their own abilities.  They don't cover all of them (for example, every set I've ever owned had flamethrower figures, while they claim never to have actually seen one; whereas I've never seen a "medic" figure, but they have rules for one), but the basic principle is set up for you to houserule any figures that your set might have that aren't covered in the standard rules.

In this, there is a variance from Well's rules, where the figures (as best I recall) were all just standard and worked with the same rules (I may be remembering incorrectly, but he might have had rules for cavalry pieces, but that's it). This is a clear difference based on the way toy soldiers have changed. Another is the inclusion of Tank rules, using either real tank toys or matchbox cars or what have you; obviously, Wells' rules predate the tank, and thus don't cover it (seems to be pretty clear evidence against the "time machine rip-off" theory).

I'll cover the rules very basically: You can set up the pieces in any battlefield, indoors, outdoors, on the beach, or on the driveway, each with their own particular nuances for play. It is recommended that any outdoor play be done in a context where you can protect the area from pets or other interlopers, unless you want to incorporate the possible damage from these interlopers in a kind of "lost world" scenario (housecats as rampaging dinosaurs, etc).

Movement is covered with the 12-inch string, pieces move the length of the string and the string must be laid flat on the ground, not held in the air, to determine the complications of traversing terrain. Also, no piece may finish movement no terrain where it can't stand up on its own (obviously, this gives the "snipers", pieces who lay flat on their stomach, an advantage in movement).
Soldiers shoot ranged attacks by firing their rubber bands from their current position. They handle hand-to-hand combat by rolling dice against each other, and they must be touching to engage in hand-to-hand.
Tanks can move twice, shoot twice, or move and shoot.

Damage is one area where SH's rules differ from Wells'.  Like Little Wars, any piece that gets hit with a rubber band (or indeed multiple pieces) counts as a "hit".  But in Little Wars, damage was determined by simply counting any piece that falls down as "eliminated"; wheras in SH, any "hit" man makes a damage roll to determine damage, that can vary from a non-affected "flesh wound" to a direct "head shot" that eliminates it, as well as arm or leg injuries.

Here is where SH really varies from LW, and where the true mental illness of SH's designers is revealed.  They recommend, nay, in fact they INSIST that any "injured" piece should reflect that injury by having the piece's arms or legs snipped off by the scissors! Likewise, any tank piece that takes injury should be smashed with the cinder block, and is rendered inoperative when its wheels break off!  They even insist that no alternate injury rules should be used, because, you know, "war is hell".

This is all fine and good to make a point, but what the hell do these guys think, that we're all made of money?? This rule would require that you pretty much have to buy new army men and matchbox cars every time you play, because by the time you're finished most of them will be destroyed.

As much as I appreciate the Animalball gang's dedication to show the horrors of war, this just doesn't seem economically sound to me. I get their insistence, and the humourous, and possibly entertaining aspect, of wrecking whole sets of army men like truly violent children, but the game could have been helped by using a damage system that at least presents an alternative to the logistical nightmare of having to get more army men every time you play.  Still, its easy enough to devise such alternatives.

The game also incorporates rules for different kinds of scenarios; the three that are outlined being "capture the flag", "all out deathmatch", and the "sandbox hill" concept itself (where the battle is resolved by taking and holding a specific terrain target).
Finally, there are some very clever rules for using quarters as landmines, waterballoons as aerial bombardment, and the common garden hose for napalm strafing, as well as some optional rules for multi-player battles.

In summary, these rules are great fun for some lighthearted play, if you have or can easily attain some basic army men and matchbox cars. Its no "history of the world", but it hearkens back to a kind of simplicity that wargames have gone too far away from, especially when you consider that ALL wargames (even History of the World) are basically nothing more than an excuse for allegedly adult men to get away with still playing "war" with toy soldiers.

HG Wells' Little Wars is almost forgotten today, his book having met a lot of initial success in its time but losing its appeal a few years later when the very real horrors of the first world war showed the lie of his very "civilized" notions of warfare, and the 20th century rules of war made his cavalry pieces and lined-up infantry troops obsolete.
The Sandbox Hill rules go too far to the other extreme with their damage rules for my tastes, making the simulated battle too destructive for comfort.  But they share the same concepts of simplicity and practicality (other than the impracticality of destroying your toys) that Little Wars had, and almost no other wargame shares.

I do recommend that anyone who has toy soldiers laying around, and wants to use them for some structured play, check this PDF out. You won't be disappointed.

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