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Review: Toy Soldiers – a diorama coming alive!

Posted by Andreas Ludwig on October 14, 2010

Game: Toy Soldiers

Platform: XBox 360 Arcade
Publisher: Microsoft, 2010
Developer: Signal Studios
Genre: Tower Defense, Strategy
Setting: World War I
Players: 1-2 (offline / online)

Our Rating (1-10):


Graphics: 9

Overall Rating: 9/10

PRO Awesome presentation (one of the best looking Arcade games ever!), impressive sound effects, cool music, strategically and tactically challenging, WWI-setting with attention to detail, 2 single player campaigns (Allied and German), multiplayer online and local split screen
CONTRA Only 5 multiplayer maps (more are added with DLC)




A WWI diorama

I suppose every wargamer is aware of the existence of a certain subgenre within our hobby which is mainly about portraying battles with little tin or plastic soldiers in so-called dioramas. That’s sort of the adult version of the battles we all did as kids with toy soldiers in our room, where the magic of imagination changed the floor into something completely different… soldiers marching off to war, while we were the commander. I really like to look at dioramas and I love the dedication these guys put into their hobby –  it’s a really time-consuming hobby and quite expensive. You have to buy the figures, paint them, arrange them, create terrain (even explosions!), you need some big table (or better an entire room) to show the beauty of it all and it’s simply not for everyone. Usually a diorama is not intended for actually playing out the battle, it’s more like a picture taken in 3D showing a certain  moment of the battle in question, a detailed study of uniforms and terrain, but not a wargame.  You can play with such figures, of course, in tabletop games – which could be called a “diorama in action”.

Toy Commander on Sega Dreamcast

Back in the good old days of the Sega Dreamcast console, there was a great game called Toy Commander which allowed the player to be a kid again, playing with little soldiers and toy vehicles, cars, tanks, fighter planes, helicopters. There was a complete house at your free disposal where these battles were fought while it was supposed that everything within the game was controlled by a young boy and his imagination. The introduction of the game did a great job in showing  how the imagination of a child can make everything real so there’s the moment when the boy fades away holding the aircraft and there’s only the plane flying around then… check out the intro movie to see what I mean.But this review isn’t about Toy Commander, is it? No, it’s not – but that was the immediate reminiscence I had when I first played Toy Soldiers on the XBox 360.

The game takes place in a room where a table with a World War I diorama stands. You see a battlefield, little soldiers, a toy box and all the stuff a kid needs to fight out great battles. I don’t like Real Time Strategy games very much, they are too confusing for my taste, everything happens at once, you’re constantly looking for your units which are always running around where they should not be, while you are suffering from supply problems and are forced to build and protect a base which is in turn attacked almost immediately by the enemy, while it is expected that you destroy the enemy’s base… very stressful. Strategy-wise I enjoy turn-based games much more. RTS is more about clicking faster than your opponent while turn-based games are more about the strategy,  about thinking and decision-making, at least that is what I think.

The WWI diorama in your room

When I first read something about Toy Soldiers I was quite thrilled because it sounded so much like my old favorite Toy Commander – just in a World War I setting, but then after trying out the multiplayer demo on the Xbox 360, it seemed to be just another RTS style game. So after playing a few matches against Denny, the game disappeared from my radar. Interestingly in the meanwhile I got somehow hooked on a specific sub-genre of RTS games – Tower Defense – after playing Monday Night Combat on XBox Live Arcade which is a mix of Tower Defense and Third Person Shooter (it’s also a mix of these genres with gladiator sports and strategy – a weird mix for sure, but a highly strategic game and entertaining game and I wholeheartedly recommend it!).

Monday Night Combat inspired me to look for other good Tower Defense games  and that was when I came across Toy Soldiers again – which was  coincidentally “Deal of the Week” on XBox Live Arcade then where it dropped from 1200 Microsoft Points down to 800 points, so I decided to get the full game and try it out again in the Single Player.

What is it about?

You always have a good overview over your battlefield

What I got was probably one of the most fun games I ever played – and I speak as a wargamer here! As I previously mentioned, the game is about WWI and you can play through an Allied and a German campaign taking place on some famous battlefields like Langemarck, Verdun, and several other places. The campaign consists of 12 single missions which take place in a diorama standing in the virtual room and the soldiers are made of plastic. But what starts as a game with plastic soldiers actually turns out to be a rather brutal and realistic portrayal of the nasty battles known from WWI. There’s no blood – plastic soldiers don’t bleed – but everything else is done so realistically that you soon forget that you are playing with plastic soldiers in a diorama  – and that’s the beauty of this game!

When you start a mission, the camera will first show part of the room and the diorama and then it zooms into the battlefield, so the player is on the ground, actually within the diorama. When the battle starts with all the little soldiers running over open terrain mowed down by your troops manning their plastic machine guns, you yourself sitting in the sniper tower shooting from afar, soldiers dying and screaming because of chemical weapons and flamethrowers or being squelched by tanks while bombs are falling from the sky and the arty is screaming, shells coming in over your head… you simply forget it’s a virtual diorama and plastic and you get immersed in some really intense war action.

There’s a considerable lack of WWI video games with so many games concentrating on WWII, so Toy Soldiers actually fills a gap and luckily it is a good strategy game as well. When you are a wargamer and you have a 360, then read on why this is the game for you!

Mission design

You can fly the planes yourself or let the AI control them... but sometimes, it's required that you get into the cockpit yourself

Each mission within the campaign has the objective to hold your position a certain number of rounds while the enemy sends out several unit waves. Sometimes there’s a so-called ‘boss battle‘ when you have to destroy a huge and strong enemy weapon like a special tank, a zeppelin, or a huge gun on a train. You have certain spots available on the battlefield where you can place machine guns, mortars, anti-air guns, artillery, flamethrowers, and so on to prepare yourself for the next attack wave. The enemy will try to get through your defenses and enter your ‘toy box‘, which is a specific building on your side of the map.In each mission, a certain amount of enemies are allowed to get into your toy box before you’ll lose the battle. On the normal difficulty level (which is the one I played so far) usually 20 enemies are allowed to get past your defenses and into your toy box, but when the last one crosses the line, you’ll see the surrender message on your screen. If you are able prevent the last enemy from getting into your toy box (or “HQ,” if that sounds better to you 😉 ) when the final enemy wave is on the map, you win the scenario. You can win even if your ‘tickets’ are down to 1 single point, but your rank during the mission debriefing will be measured on how many enemies did make it through your defense line and getting a “General” rank on all missions (which is the rank you’ll be assigned when no enemy units manage to get into your HQ at all) will give you some sweet gamerscore.

There are a certain number of  enemy waves coming at you in each mission and between the waves you can spend money to build more weapons or to upgrade the weapons you already have in play to a more powerful version of the same category.

Cavalry is fast and can cross any terrain, even jump over your own position

The money comes directly from eliminating enemies and for me it’s simply a way to say a good commander gets better weapons, so if you (or your troops)  kill an enemy, some dollars pop up and go right into your resource box from which you pay for the weapons. You can also sell existing weapons in play if you need the money to build a different weapon or to quickly place some expensive upgrade of an important weapon right now. The game allows for some different playing styles because you can always choose to be “just the commander” using the ‘sky camera’ or to lead your troops from the front, manning a machine gun yourself, helping from afar by being a sniper or flying a biplane dropping some bombs etc..

The classic Tower Defense games use the strategic view and in Toy Soldiers it’s often possible to win the mission using this overview only, but if you man a weapon yourself from time to time, you’ll get more money and some missions actually require your personal presence on the battlefield when you have to fly a plane or to drive a tank to acquire the first dollars for urgently needed weapons or upgrades.This keeps the experience fresh and it allows you to really get into the action with all the shoutings around you, cavalry jumping over your position while you try to hinder them in crossing your last defense line and a huge tank is getting some acquisition on your position.

Even the loading screens prove much love to detail

On the top of the screen you can see which unit type the enemy commander is sending out in the current wave and which units are preparing for the next attack, so you can – and you have to – adjust your defense accordingly. When you see the enemy is making the biplanes ready, then it doesn’t help to further upgrade your anti-infantry artillery positions. When you see there are no tanks left or you can’t destroy them anyway because they are out of  reach, sell the arties and place and upgrade AA guns to be ready when the planes come. All unit types can enter your toy box… eh… HQ…and having no AA guns ready when a wave of planes arrives, is a quick way to lose your battle. There’s also no need to waste your money on placing barbwire when you see the next waves are not going to be infantry but tanks – which can simply drive over barbwire without being slowed down. On the other hand, the slow firing artillery that can so nicely eliminate tanks with one hit won’t help you much against a horde of infantry running over the battlefield right into your HQ. So it’s absolutely essential to look at the bar at the top of the screen (which is your intelligence, your scouting reports so to say) to make the correct decisions what to place where. Because there’s always time in between two waves, you don’t have to resort to hectic clicking like in many RTS games – you usually have enough time to prepare yourself. But when the attack is launched, everything has to be at its place and you should have a clear plan of what to do, or the enemies will quickly overwhelm you.


The figures, guns, and surroundings are very detailed

Toy Soldiers is an Xbox Live Arcade game you can download from Xbox Live Marketplace. Although Arcade games got better and better graphics over the course of time, usually you don’t expect the same quality like in a full game on disc, say Call of Duty: Modern Warfare etc..

Well, I can say that Toy Soldiers belongs to the best looking games I ever played and that includes the big names of the games you get on a disc! The details are stunning, the animation of the soldiers is awesome, you really get the feeling that these little fellows are alive. The lighting is superb, especially the night missions are outstanding when machine gun fire and star shells are the only source of light while the battle rages on. The uniforms and the horses show many little details, the arty shells trail a thin white smoke line behind them and when they come down, you see dirt and stones flying everywhere. The graphics are crisp and clear and you get some very convincing textures to give everything a realistic look, while some missions use a special grain filter that makes the battlefield look like an old movie.

Fierce fighting in the trenches

Although everything is supposed to be made of plastic, it simply doesn’t look like plastic (except when the soldiers die, because then they actually break apart in several pieces like a toy soldier would do) which helps to immerse yourself in the situation of a bloody fight in the trenches and the mud. The diorama is full of  different terrain features, you have trenches protected by sandbags, hills with arty positions, you see mortars firing behind a little wood, barbwire that force the soldiers to actually crawl on their way, the crews are well animated when they reload and give each other some encouraging back-slapping when their shells hit the target. When the enemy comes too close, they even take out their pistol to shoot at them. The game often has a considerable amount of action going on, with all the firing and vehicles crossing the map and huge human waves of shouting soldiers running towards your positions and mostly there’s no stuttering and everything runs smoothly.

What I really like is the fact that the environment is totally destructible, so bombs and shells destroy everything they hit and after a few minutes the map actually looks like a real battlefield with ruins all over the place.


The game comes with full 5.1 audio and it really helps to let the battle come alive in your gaming room. Every shell flying, every weapon firing and every vehicle on the map can be located by their respective sound. The sound effects are very close to what you would expect the real things sound like.  and the sound scape of the different weapons, the roaring of the tanks, and the shoutings of the soldiers (in their correct language btw – the Allies speak English, the Germans German, which adds a lot to the realistic atmosphere) is simply great and works well to create a believable battlefield.

The music in the game is also quite fitting to the theme and the song played while being in the main menu (“The Sailor’s Life For Me” by soundtrack composer Stan LePard) is sort of earworm.


Boss battles are well staged with a really threatening, dramatic music which could be taken right out off a 20s silent movie

As it is so often the case with RTS games, the question of how much you can actually enjoy the experience on a console very much depends on the controls.

Although I’m a console gamer to the bone and I simply don’t enjoy playing on a PC that much, I agree that RTS games seem to work better with a keyboard and mouse setting because this allows for a quicker commanding of  your units. At least when you compare it with a sub-optimal controller setting on a console – which is something that can be avoided and there are several games available that do it right. I like especially the perfect voice control system of Tom Clancy’s EndWar, but this is also because the game is portraying a modern warfare context, so voice command simply adds to the overall portrayal of modern warfare.

Toy Soldiers is using the controller to command your units, to build and upgrade stuff and it works quite well. You can use the left control stick in addition with  the triggers to open a menu from which you can choose your actions. Using a weapon yourself, upgrading, selling and repairing can also be done via a quick menu that uses the D-Pad which is indeed quicker than using the full menu, so it comes in handy when the situation gets hairy. The left trigger can speed up your camera view when zoomed out to the strategic overview so you can quickly jump to wherever your commanding presence is needed while the AI is using the weapons you already placed.

You can even unlock Avatar Awards, for example this WWI gas mask...

...or even the famous Prussian "Pickelhaube" ("spiked helmet")

AI is quite competent, both on the friendly and the enemy side, but to be more flexible, you’ll have to jump in yourself once in a while because the AI will not for example change the covered arc of an arty or use an Anti Air Gun against tanks. So this sort of micromanaging is left for you, but that’s part of the fun and appeal of the game. Although in each mission the same basic formula is used, i.e. you prepare for an enemy attack, the enemies will try to get in your toy box and sometimes a boss will spice things up while you are trying to make it through the final waves of the attack, things don’t get really repetitive. The missions are rather interesting and puzzle-like and usually you have to play the mission several times to win – and/or to get a better rank, because at first you don’t know what to expect, where the enemy is coming from and so on. It’s nice that the game proceeds slowly through the first missions where you don’t have all  of the weapons or upgrade possibilities ready for you to use (you have to unlock them first), because it allows to get comfortable with the controls and the overall gameplay while giving you the possibility of first sweet victories.

Later missions can become quite tough, though, and strategic thinking is actually required to beat the enemy. The player starts with the Allied campaign which consists of 12 missions. When you have beaten the Germans, the “Campaign+” mode will unlock which is seen through the eyes of the German side this time. It plays differently and is also a bit more difficult than the Allied campaign, so another 12 missions will give you more fun while trying to beat the Allies. The German campaign has some nice looking night maps which are looking even greater than the day missions.

Then there’s the survival mode, where it is your only objective to survive enemy waves which become stronger and stronger with every round, while you are desperately trying to keep them out of your toy box. In the survival mode there’s no real pause between the waves and in the later rounds, things start to really get hard – but it’s fun anyway and there’s always the leaderboard where you can see how well your friends did in this mode and how long they endured.

When you are done with the two campaigns and the survival mode, then there’s always the  multiplayer. Two players can play against each other offline in split screen or online via XBox live. The gameplay is pretty much the same, but you also get the possibility to launch your troops against the opponent, so deciding when to send in what unit can make the difference in a multiplayer match. It adds to the strategic choices :you not only have to defend yourself against enemy waves sent by your opponent, but you also can get active in sending out troops yourself – which is more than you have to do in the single player which is strictly defensive gameplay. In addition to that, if you make  enough combos (eliminating many enemies at once, firing on infantry while slowing them down with barbwire etc.) it will help you to get access to barrage which is not available in single player. Barrage is a sort of off-board artillery that can cause massive damage on your opponent’s side and you’ll have to think carefully when to use it to your best advantage. The multiplayer matches against experienced players are more demanding than against the AI in the SP and give the game a good replay value, although ‘out of the box’ multiplayer has only 5 maps.

What I like most is that you can use military tactics in the game according to what you can use in a typical board wargame. It feels quite right and when you have some basic knowledge about how to use the different sort of weapons  and how to quickly check a possible LOS , or using terrain etc. it works and you can actually do what was done, say in WWII by Rommel when he used the 88s AA Guns out of context against tanks. See what you have at your disposal and then use it efficiently in the situation at hand.

Downloadable Content (DLC)

"Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."

So far, two DLC packages have been published by the developer, the first one is called ‘Kaiser’s Battle’ (available for 400 MS points) which includes you 2 more maps for the multiplayer, a new survival mode and which lets you play the French Army with their specific weapons in a three mission mini-campaign.

That may sound a bit short, but these missions are tougher than the Allied and German campaigns and take place on quite challenging maps, so it may take a while before you can see the victory message after the last of the three missions. There’s also a new boss, the mammoth German K-Wagen and three new achievements for a total of 50 gamerscore.

What the heck? The British don't play fair now!

The second DLC for the game is ‘Invasion’ and unfortunately doesn’t stick to the WWI theme but is more in line with the previously mentioned game Toy Commander, giving you the German army to command, again against the British – but this time, the latter are in some weird alliance with aliens. The new enemy units will include knights, fire trucks, space tanks, spaceman infantry, flying saucers, and a new boss unit “RoboBob.”

‘Invasion’ is available for 400 MS points as well and also adds two new maps for multiplayer,  three new missions for the single player, and 50 new gamerscore. I haven’t played this DLC pack so far and so I don’t want to comment on it, but I think it would have been better to further add more ‘real’ stuff to this superb little WWI game instead of turning it into something different and more toy like as it is done with the flying saucers etc.. It may of course still be fun to play and I think I’ll check it out one day anyway. It’s good to see, though, that the developer Signal Studios is supporting the game with DLC and that also for a reasonable price. It adds to the longevity of the game which already has a lot to do for you right out of the  ‘digital box’.


I highly recommend Toy Soldiers to anyone interested in strategic gameplay and some interest in the WWI topic, no matter if you played RTS games before or whether you like them or not.

The game feels new and different in a positive way, so you might like it even if RTS is not your cup of tea. Toy Soldiers belongs to the best Tower Defense games out there, has a deep gameplay, gives you  many hours of tension and fun and has a detailed and wonderful presentation.

If you don’t have the place for a real diorama or if you actually have a diorama in your room and always thought it would be great if it came alive, this is the game for you 🙂

My center is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack. ~ Ferdinand Foch





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