Ever since Elite let players explore a universe on their own terms, “sandbox” games have existed as the creative gamer’s alternative to the rigid confines of traditional gaming.Minecraft’s open-ended survival game is interesting, but its creative mode had proven to be an equally compelling playground, with creative gamers recreating movie worlds, programming logic circuits of flammable powder, and building music sequencers. The Sandbox is just such an experience. Part toy and part game, it’s a simple-but-deep construction kit with infinite possibilities.
You might recognize the basic concept from the many “falling sand” particle simulators that you can play in your browser. These games give players a palette of material types that can be painted on-screen and lets you watch as they react. Lava will burn wood, or explode gasoline, while water will cool lava and turn it to stone, while evaporating and forming clouds of steam. The Sandbox offers one of the more robust selections in the genre with 30 different materials, each with their own individual properties, as well as weather and light simulation, and a host of special sensors, lights, and other tools to build with.
The Sandbox attempts to flesh out this basic concept into more of a game, by including a 71-level campaign that will teach players the ins and outs of the game’s many materials, and test their skills with a few puzzles. Much of this campaign feels like an extended tutorial. This is helpful, since there are a lot of subtleties to the game’s simulation, but it’s also disappointing because there’s so much untapped potential for real open-ended puzzle design.
Playing through the stages unlocks Mana, the in-game currency used to unlock materials, backgrounds, and decorations. As a free-to-play experience, The Sandbox is frustrating. You’ll have too little Mana to buy the materials you want, and all but one of the five campaigns will be locked out. A single $3.99 in-app purchase remedies this by unlocking all the stages and giving you enough bonus Mana to get through them comfortably. Once you complete the campaigns, you’ll easily have enough Mana to buy all the basic materials, electronics, and minerals, and still have enough left over to buy a few extra backgrounds and set decorations. Like Cordy, its “free” status is misleading, but as a $4.00 paid app, it offers a good value.
The extra campaigns are each 10 or 11 stages, and cover some very different territory from the free levels. “Music” takes advantage of the “note” element, and teaches you to build music sequencers by placing them along a metal circuit. “Contraptions” has you fix various electronic machines using wires, diodes, and sensors. “Dinosaurs” is a silly diversion with puzzles revolving around inanimate dinosaur props. “Pixel art” is probably the weakest of the bunch, asking you to do little more than trace images, one block at a time.
These challenges cover a really diverse range of skills, all of which can be applied in Free Mode. This mode is perhaps the centerpiece of the whole game. Although you can earn Mana by completing achievements in Free Mode , there isn’t any real objective or “game” to it, and you can simply create whatever your heart desires. You can craft a still life, or create working machines, Rube Goldberg devices, or challenges for others to take on. All of your creations can be uploaded, and you can easily browse the best sandscapes created by others. Some players will tire of this mode almost instantly, but others will spend hours carefully crafting their little worlds. It’s sandbox gaming in its purest form.
As a game, The Sandbox never really lives up to its potential. The campaign will take most players a couple days to get through, and the stages are mostly pretty obvious and dull, and those that aren’t can sometimes have unclear criteria for victory. But as a creative toy, The Sandbox is truly excellent. It’s simple enough that kids will love it, but deep enough to drive some truly elaborate contraptions; the perfect game to play with your kid. Like a bucket of legos, it’s only as entertaining as your own imagination, but its potential is boundless.