Sandbox Social opens new mini golf center in Haute City Center

Apr. 22—The only thing "mini" about Zack Johnson's Sandbox Social empire is his miniature golf offering, Lucky Putt.

Johnson began his Haute City Center operations with the digital gaming center eBash and expanded with the Bank of Pinball, which is now up to 55 machines. He then added Highlanders Digital Axe Throwing, a restaurant and Weathertop Board & Card Games.

A month ago, Lucky Putt opened and has already entertained more than 3,000 players, "which I'm blown away by because we've not advertised it at all," Johnson said.

Lucky Putt is unlike any game of golf you've played in that the goal is to achieve the highest score rather than the lowest.

"We're trying to describe [scoring] to folks without scaring them off," Johnson said. "It's high-tech mini golf, but it's still just mini golf — hitting the ball into the hole.

"We spice it up a little bit with challenges on each hole and you're trying to score points by achieving those challenges."

Every hole begins with a goal of first getting the ball in an initial target hole lit in blue — that's good for 5,000 points. Other holes lit in green are worth fewer points, but landing in traps will advance the ball but deduct 200 points from one's score. Bonus points are also issued for finishing a hole within a certain amount of time.

There are nine holes in a Lucky Putt round, and each has a name and a quirky task or two to accomplish:

—The Launcher has an air compressor that shoots the ball up a tube and lands it inside a cage with several targets worth between 2,500 to 250 points. From there, the ball is sent near its final target.

—Bonus Buckets offers something of a Skee-Ball challenge. You're putting towards a series of buckets that will deposit your ball close to the target hole — the closest is worth 1,000 points and the most distant earns you 5,000. Missing all the buckets costs you 200 points.

—Lucky Bounce is a variation of Plinko — landing the ball in the blue hole transports it atop a Plinko-like area, and every colored dot it hits on the way down is worth 50 points.

—Sharp Shooter has a ramp taking the ball toward a number of initial target holes with a bonus 5,000 for the blue hole in the center and 2,500 for any of the greens holes around it. Missing all those reveals you to be not so sharp a shooter and sets you back another 200 points.

—Cresting Success has a ramp with an arc on it that curves the ball toward the cup. "This is a pretty hard one to get the 5,000 bonus on," Johnson admitted.

—Three Ring Putt gives your putter a rest while you place your golf ball in a pinball machine and set it in play with the plunger. Points are scored as you manipulate the flippers to keep the ball in play.

—Inversion recalls the classic holes of old-fashioned mini-golf with the loop-de-loop target spinning the ball in a circle and sending it toward the goal.

—Perfect Timing is one of Johnson's favorite challenges. The are three initial holes — one blue, the others green — but the colors on each those change at intermittent intervals, making that 5,000-point bonus rather elusive.

—Turbine is the last hole on the course and also harkens back to an old mini-golf familiar, the windmill. Slipping the ball between the windmill's blades earns 5,000 points.

Each player pays $10 a round of Lucky Putt. To date, the highest tally scored on a round of golf is 54,000 points.

The Creative Works company created Lucky Putt, and it did so employing software designed by Johnson's company.

Putters contain computer chips which store the player's name, information and scores. A leader board lists, variously, the day's high scorers or all-time scorers.

When the course is humming with players, a group of two are allowed to move to any open hole if a larger party is taking a long time on a certain hole.

Johnson is considering beginning mini-golf leagues, as well as awarding Sandbox Social gift certificates to people hitting a certain high score.

He recently put a new job listing on for an events director, as a few groups have hosted events at Sandbox Social and many more are seeking to do so, including Eli Lilly, which wants to have a team-building exercise there, and the Terre Haute North class of 2014, which wants to bring in 200 people for a reunion on a Saturday night.

Johnson enjoys giving customers high-tech workouts.

"I like physical entertainment blended with digital," he said. And he's developing ideas for additional games — he has his eye on renting three more vacant mall spaces near Sandbox Social.

Among his new ideas are "a game that seems to place players in the middle of a video game" and one combining virtually reality with laser tag. He's also developing variations of the digital axe-throwing challenge with darts or Nerf guns.

David Kronke can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at