Wednesday, 29 September 2010


I've always been a bit of a hoarder. When I was a kid it was stamps, coins and toy cars. As I got older and into my teens and beyond I went through various phases, some of which still haven't ended - LPs (for any youngsters reading this, LPs are those circular vinyl things that go round and round and music comes out), video games, CDs, DVDs..... anything that I could catalogue and collect was fair game.

I did have a fair bit of LEGO as a kid, although I never really collected sets in those days. I generally binned the boxes, built the sets, took the models apart and mixed the pieces up with all the other pieces I had. I never really started collecting sets until about 3 years ago, and that was when my problems really started.....

One unifying characteristic of the things I collected in the past was that they didn't take up much space; you can hoard literally thousands of stamps or coins in a drawer somewhere. LEGO is different, however. LEGO comes in big boxes, and consequently, LEGO sets are literally taking over my house. It's like some sort of Danish invasion by stealth. It's just ridiculous. You can't move for LEGO. And the LEGO company don't help either - when you open the boxes, they contain more air than plastic. There's really no need for the boxes to be so big.

My wife maintains that we recently had to move house because of my LEGO. It's an exaggeration, of course - sure, my study was heaving with sets, and there was a fair bit in the loft, plus some sets above the wardrobes in my bedroom and my son's room, plus a couple of sets on display in the lounge, but that's all.... OK, so I suppose that is a fair bit, but at least there wasn't any LEGO in the kitchen or the bathroom. And anyway, she can talk - her shoes were were taking over the bedroom, but that's another story. There's more space now in the new house, but it's just a temporary respite - with all the recent 3 for 2 offers, plus the the UCS Imperial Shuttle, the upcoming Tower Bridge set and other impending sets such as Winter Bakery and the UCS Jedi Starfighter all the extra space will be used up and I'll be back where I started, drowning in LEGO boxes.

My dad thinks that I should build a house extension....out of LEGO. Problem is, while I do have hundreds of sets, most of them don't actually contain many 2 x 4 or 2 x 8 bricks, which are unfortunately what you'd need for such an undertaking. I'd really love to see someone try to build an extension out of cheese slopes, minifigures or round 1 x 1 plates which seem to be the most common pieces in the sets I buy these days. Or maybe I should just waterproof the boxes and build an extension out of those ? After all, the box for the UCS Millenium Falcon alone is bigger than some London flats I've visited.....

So, what to do ? Well, stop buying sets I guess - it's the only solution until I'm rich enough to live in a castle with hundreds of rooms, which will of course happen faster if I stop spending my money on LEGO. Either that, or maybe I could start storing my sets in the unused space inside the boxes of other bigger sets. On reflection, however, I think my preferred option is to just keep letting the LEGO mountain grow until I eventually drown in the stuff - while I'm in no hurry to expire, what a way to go !

Monday, 27 September 2010


OK, I'll admit to being one of those who regularly calls on the LEGO company to provide me with ever bigger, more detailed sets, be it via online forums or those questionnaires which the company sends out ever so often.

Problem is, sometimes you get what you wish for. Consider for a moment the behemoth that is Set 10179 UCS Millenium Falcon. This is the pinnacle of the LEGO Star Wars theme - the culmination of 10 years of sets. At 5195 pieces it's the second largest set that LEGO have ever produced, and it's gigantic. From the moment I first saw shots of the beast I planned and plotted how I might raise the £350 that it would cost to own it, and when I eventually got it, it took me a full month to build, working on it for 30 minutes here and an hour there. So far so good, but when it was finished, the inevitable question raised its ugly head - where the *@%^ could I display it ?

I captured the picture above (click to enlarge) by setting aside (a lot of) space on the floor, getting hold of a huge black sheet, gingerly lowering the beast onto it, and snapping a few shots. All well and good, but it obviously couldn't stay there - the wife wouldn't have it, and someone would have tripped over it eventually and done themselves and/or the iconic Corellian freighter some serious damage. So I had to find somewhere else for it, and you can see below where it ended up.

Dignified. Not.
It's on a chest of drawers. In my bedroom, behind the door. Hardly a fitting resting place for such a magnificent beast, a few inches above my socks and underwear. And it's also not really on a major thoroughfare - I only get to see it when I wake up in the morning (although it's admittedly not a bad sight on first opening my eyes) and when I crash out at night.

I had similar problems with Set 10030 UCS Imperial Star Destroyer. Another complete monster - 3096 pieces and around a meter long. It's absolutely jaw-dropping once constructed - one of those sets which has even non-LEGO fans shaking their heads in utter astonishment when they see it. It's also incredibly fragile, however - the enormous upper and lower surfaces are held in place by a series of magnets, and woe betide you if you touch it, breathe on it or even look at it - the laws of physics will kick in, gravity will overcome the magnetic forces, and the bottom of the ship will detach. And then you'll spend half an hour cursing and trying to reattach it.

UCS Imperial Star Destroyer - no chance of that fitting on a shelf....
Above you can see my 'staged' photoshoot, but afterwards I had the same problem - where to display it ? Once again my trusty chest of drawers came to the rescue, but once again it's hardly a fitting resting place for the might of the Imperial Fleet. And such was the length of the thing that the front stuck out over the end so I kept banging my head on it when I needed a pair of socks. Not good.

A Google search reveals that others have been a little more creative with their display solutions than I have, with the UCS Millenium Falcon at least. Two solutions which particularly impressed me were wall mounting and building the beast into a glass-walled and topped coffee table, but I have to confess that both of these solutions require somewhat more time and effort than I'm willing to expend. Still, kudos to those resourceful AFOLs.

This problem isn't going away. In a matter of days, the LEGO company will launch the 4th biggest set (in terms of piece count) in their history - Set 10214 Tower Bridge. It looks wonderful, and I want it. And it's a meter long..... Given that the Millenium Falcon continues to occupy the display plinth that is my chest of drawers, I wonder whether the wife will let me put Tower Bridge on top of hers.....?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Modular Magic

I had initially planned to feature one of the LEGO modular buildings in a "Favourite Sets" posting. When I actually sat down and tried to decide which one to feature, however, I realised that it was almost impossible to choose which one to feature as I love them all.....

                     Cafe Corner

                      Green Grocer

For the uninitiated, LEGO modular buildings are a series of sets for the more 'mature' builder which are purchased as standalone buildings but which fit together by design due to their uniform footprint and common design ethos. There have I think been five so far, starting with Set 10182 Cafe Corner in 2007 and Set 10185 Green Grocer in 2008, with Set 10197 Fire Brigade and Set 10211 Grand Emporium following in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

         Fire Brigade

                   Grand Emporium

I'm also including a fan-designed model (Set 10190 Market Street) in the list of LEGO modular buildings. This was available at retail from 2007 and largely follows the modular template, although was sadly discontinued sometime last year.

             Market Street - designed by the fans....

So what is it about these sets that's so great ? Well, just look them for a start - absolutely beautiful and crammed choc full of superb details. All the sets except Cafe Corner feature detailed interiors containing brick-built furnishings such as a grandfather clock and a fireplace (Green Grocer), a sofa and a table tennis table (Fire Brigade), and escalators and chandeliers (Grand Emporium).

Grand Emporium - First Floor Haberdashery....

Then there's the educational aspect - the designers of these sets have utilised loads of advanced building techniques which us lesser mortals can then use in our own constructions. A few examples of this include extensive use of SNOT techniques both externally and in the construction of furnishings, the diagonal placement of the Cafe Corner entrance and tower, the curving steps leading up to the Market Street entrance, and the use of mini skis to form an arch over the door of Cafe Corner.

There's also a dazzling array of cool pieces in interesting and rare colours - loads of sand green and some dark green pieces in Green Grocer, medium blue and dark blue pieces in Market Street, and dark red in Cafe Corner and Fire Brigade. The pricing is also pretty reasonable given the piece count, particularly on the older sets - Green Grocer, with it's 2352 pieces, seems like a bit of a steal to me at £99.99 and it's still available direct from LEGO. The sets even contain a selection of minifigs, although none particularly rare or interesting. Lastly, I love that these sets are effectively a gift from the LEGO company to AFOLs, an acknowledgment of their adult fanbase and their wish for some beautiful and interesting sets.

So are there any negatives ? Well, not many to be honest. I suppose you could argue that if you're planning on including them in your own larger LEGO town or set up, they have a tendency to make everything else look decidedly......ordinary, I guess. Certainly everthing else pales into insignificance against the detail and splendour of these sets. There's also the fact that the prices of the modulars are creeping up, and there's a massive disparity in pricing between the U.S. and the UK with respect to the Grand Emporium, with U.K. consumers having to swallow a much higher price. But I have to say that for once, all complaints are churlish in the face of such magnificence ! I just hope and pray that sales of modular buildings to date have been sufficient to induce the LEGO company to produce more of them. While it was LEGO Star Wars that dragged me out of my LEGO Dark Ages, I'd go as far as saying that it's probably the modular buildings which have provided me with my most LEGO-related pleasure since then.

If pushed to pick a favourite, I'd probably have to go for Green Grocer. It's still available at retail, and in my opinion it's an absolute steal at £99.99 U.K. ($149.99 U.S.). If you've not previously discovered the delights of LEGO modular buldings and want to climb on board then you really have to buy this one - truly an essential purchase for the adult LEGO fan.

If you hadn't guessed by now, I just love these sets !!

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Sweet Deals are made of this

OK, so there we all were wondering how we could afford to buy all the new LEGO sets we want, and along come 2 UK retailers with great deals to help us out...

First Boots do a 3 for the price of 2 deal which saved me the princely sum of £44.99, and not to be outdone along come Argos a few days later with the same deal but a wider selection, saving me a further £151.97. And before anyone justifiably accuses me of an understandable UK bias, I should mention that Toys R Us in the U.S. are also currently offering a 3 for the price of 2 deal, although while LEGO Star Wars sets seem to be excluded, the brand new LEGO Harry Potter sets and also LEGO Architecture sets are included, which is not the case on any of the current UK deals.

       A new addition to my collection, thanks to Argos....

Those savings look pretty good, but are they really ? Firstly, the sets in the deal are generally priced at the RRP or above to start with; if I was to buy these sets from, say, Amazon, I'd be getting a discount of between 5 and 10% on the RRP, so I'm actually not saving as much as it appears. Secondly, would I really be buying all these sets ? Really ? In this case I can truthfully answer "probably yes" BUT I might only actually have taken the plunge on a couple of them if I could get a decent discount on the RRP. So again, not necessarily quite as good as it first appears, but if you were going to buy the sets anyway then I still think that these are good deals.

You need to be quick, though. On this occasion I got advance notice of the Argos deal via various online forums. I therefore reserved the sets I wanted the day before the promotion started on Wednesday 22nd September, so that when I went in to pick them up in-store the following day the savings were applied to my order. What was interesting however was that within just a few hours of the promotion being up on the Argos website in the early hours of Wednesday many of the sets were already sold out online. Clearly. many of the LEGO-loving fraternity had also picked up on the impending offer and had gone through the Argos online stock like a horde of locusts and cleared out many of the most desirable sets within a few hours. Many people seem to have bought multiples of the same set, as evidenced by a large number of current MISB sets on Ebay later in the day, although I know of other people who have stockpiled some sets with the intention of selling a few years down the line when LEGO retire those sets and prices skyrocket.

Anyway, the Argos deal runs until 28th September. I'm not sure when the Boots offer finishes, but it's still ongoing as I type this. While lots of stuff is now showing as out of stock online at Argos in particular, there are many sets still available and well worth getting, especially at Boots who still have cool sets like Airport and others in stock right now. It's also worth checking your local bricks and mortar Boots and Argos stores as items showing as out of stock online may still be available in-store. Meanwhile, I understand that in the U.S. the Toys R Us deal runs out on the 25th September

So what are you waiting for ? Go stock up for Christmas, or better still just treat yourself....!

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Favourite Set #3 : Ultimate Collector Series Rebel Blockade Runner

Any ship appearing in the opening scene of Star Wars : A New Hope has surely got to be worthy of the LEGO Ultimate Collector Series treatment, and Set 10019 Rebel Blockade Runner doesn't disappoint. Released in 2001 and consisting of 1748 pieces, it comprehensively blows the more recent version (Set 10198 Tantive IV released in 2009 and shown below right) out of the water. In my humble opinion, naturally....


As well as looking great and nicely approximating the Rebel Blockade Runner ship from the Star Wars movies, I just think that the older set has more substance and presence than the slightly anorexic recent version. I mean, compare their engines, for a start.

I took the pictures below when I had finished building my set; click on the images to enlarge them. I generally don't leave models built for more than a few months as I only have limited display space and therefore need to free up space for other models after a while, but this set stayed built and on display for more than a year because it just looks so fantastic.....

In addition to the chunky design, I love the subtle use of standard red and dark red pieces, including the "go faster" stripe which runs the length of the ship, the restrained but effective use of greebles, and the massive engines. According to the excellent "LEGO Star Wars : The Visual Dictionary" by Simon Beecroft, this was one of the first sets ever to include dark red pieces.

The downsides ? Well, the engine section is quite fragile - be careful how you carry it - and heaven help you if you knock one of the engines off because they can be a right pain to reattach. There are also a couple of large stickers which cover multiple pieces, a pet peeve of mine. Finally, it's getting quite pricey these days - expect to pay between £200 and £300 for a used, boxed example in reasonable condition, and more for a MISB one. 

Pricey it may be, but in my opinion it's well worth the money if you can afford it - an interesting build using some cool pieces and colours, and the final result is excellent. Sure, you can certainly save yourself some cash and buy the more recent version, but it's false economy I reckon - this is one instance where I think the remake just doesn't reach the heights of the original.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

What's the Plan ?

After months of eager anticipation, Set 10212 UCS Imperial Shuttle arrived on my doorstep a couple of weeks ago, and I've been itching to get building ever since.....

I finally had some spare time over the past couple of days, so I took a deep breath and broke the seals on the box.

Building a big set like this, which has over 2500 pieces, requires some organisation. At least it does if you want to complete the build within the average human lifespan.... The problem is the sheer number of pieces. If you just pour all 2503 pieces into a huge bucket with a view to rummaging through them to find each piece you need for each step of the more than 300 pages of instructions, you will quickly lose interest and/or your sanity. To give you an example of the problems you'd face, this set contains 2 white 1x1 plates with a clip light attached. Do you have any idea how long it's likely to take you to find these tiny pieces amongst 2500 other pieces, many of which are also white ? Precisely - it could take forever. Which is why the experienced LEGO builder learns early to formulate a plan. Building is, after all, supposed to be fun rather than gut-clenchingly frustrating.

Every experienced builder will have their own way of doing things, but most will spend time up front sorting the pieces before they start actually building. This can take quite a while, but trust me - it will repay you many times over in the long run and ensure that you retain your sanity. I suspect that everybody sorts the pieces slightly differently; the key is that you need to have some sort of plan, and you mustn't forget what that plan is halfway through the build..... 

When I tackle a big set like this, I get hold of 3 large clear crates. One of them is earmarked for small pieces (generally 2 x 2 studs or less, plus a few additional pieces that I always sort with the small pieces such as Technic axles), one is for plates (i.e. flat pieces), and one is for bricks and everything else that remains. It's then just a case of opening the (many) sealed bags which hold the pieces and sorting them into the relevant crates. Sometimes you'll be lucky, and a bag will only contain plates, bricks or small pieces which you can quickly pour into the relevant crate, but other times there will be a mixture which you'll have to sort by hand into the correct crates. You can see a pic of my "work in progress" sorting the pieces included in the UCS Imperial Shuttle set below.

Sorting in progress - all 2503 pieces from the UCS Imperial Shuttle....
I'd always advise going for crates which are as big as you can possibly accomodate, so that once the sorting is done and the building begins you can spread the pieces as thin as possible over the bottom of the crate and find what you're looking for more quickly. And go for a clear crate, so that if you're struggling to find something you can lift it over your head and peer upwards through the clear bottom of the crate, or look through the sides.

Some people will sort more obsessively than this, making ever smaller piles of identical pieces, sorting pieces by colour etc. - whatever works for you. I have to admit that I'm reluctant to sort the pieces any further than I've described above. It feels a bit like cheating for some strange reason. Rummaging through the pieces, pulling your hand through them as if you're mixing hot and cold water in a bath, and of course the absolutely unique clattering sound of hundreds of LEGO pieces moving over each other, are for me as much a part of the overall LEGO experience as actually clicking the pieces together. So if I sort the pieces too much I miss out on part of the fun...... Consistent with this, I'm not a big fan of the way that the pieces in newer LEGO sets are often sealed in numbered bags which correspond to a specified part of the model you're making. Again, it feels a bit like cheating. I guess that for every builder there's a unique balance between making the building process sufficiently fast and efficient so that it doesn't get frustrating, but also prolonging the build for long enough to extract the maximum enjoyment. Each person just needs to find where that balance lies.

So happy building, but don't forget to sort first !

Friday, 17 September 2010

Fantasy Exchange Rates

Last time I looked, one of my U.K. pounds sterling was worth a little over one and a half U.S. dollars (actually $1.56696 according to earlier today). The U.K. pound to U.S. dollar rate has been pretty stable for a while now, pegged at around one and a half dollars to the pound.

You really wouldn't know this if you visited the U.S. and U.K. LEGO brand stores, however, or had a look on the respective U.S. and U.K. LEGO shop@home websites. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking that your pound is worth just one U.S. dollar. Would you like a Slave 1 set, sir ? That'll be £79.99 if you're in the U.K., or $79.99 in the U.S., which works out at a whopping 50% mark-up for the UK shopper, assuming an exchange rate of $1.5 to the pound (it's actually an even bigger mark-up if I use the more accurate figure above). Or perhaps the stunning new UCS Imperial Shuttle, which will set you back £239.99 in the U.K., or $259.99 in the U.S. - that's around a 40% mark-up if you're in the U.K., equivalent to paying about £66 extra. These aren't isolated examples - there are many more - and I'm told that the pricing disparities in certain other countries are even greater.

Yes, I realise that stuff is often cheaper in the U.S. - economies of scale, cheaper distribution costs, cheaper rental costs (although not perhaps on Chicago's magnificent mile, or at the LEGO brand store at New York's Rockefeller Center....). But a 40-50% mark-up ? As much as that ? Also, given that many purchases are now online, it's hard to believe that many of the old arguments trotted out to explain the massive disparity in U.S. versus. U.K. prices apply any more. U.S. sales tax very slightly redresses the balance, although it doesn't even apply on some internet purchases depending on which state you're in etc.

And there's another seriously confusing aspect to all this. Some sets DO reflect the difference in exchange rates..... The superb new Cargo Train set has an RRP of £129.99 in the U.K. and $179.99 in the U.S., so the price is virtually identical. And the Grand Carousel retails for £179.99 in the U.K. and a not-dissimilar $249.99 in the U.S.. So is it therefore something to do with the licensing process ? Do the LEGO company have to pay more in Europe for the rights to the licenced themes ? Well if so, why does the (licensed) Death Star cost almost the same in the U.S. ($399.99) as it does in the U.K. (£274.99). And why is there such a massive mark-up (£139.99 versus $149.99) on the (unlicensed) Grand Emporium ?! Absolutely baffling.

Gratuitous Grand Emporium picture - lovely set!

I'm sure that someone, somewhere within the LEGO organisation understands and can explain these blatant pricing inconsistencies and contradictions, but the rest of us will I'm afraid just have to live with it because I doubt we'll ever get a credible explanation. I'd really love to know, though....

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Curse of the Minifig

When the LEGO company first started to experiment with putting small figures (now better know as minifigures, or just minifigs) in sets, they surely couldn't have imagined in their wildest dreams how successful this 'line extension' would become. According to the excellent "Standing Small : A celebration of 30 years of the LEGO Minifigure" by Nevin Martell there are more than 4 billion minifigs in existence, with 3.9 being sold every second. Even a cursory poke around the internet reveals how popular collecting LEGO minifigs has become, and indeed how lucrative.

There's little doubt that for many, the inclusion of minifigs in sets has greatly boosted playability. In fact, it's getting to the point now where minifigs are becoming the entire focus of some sets rather than just a constituent part, as evidenced by the popularity of battle packs and the flood of themed minifig magnet sets over the last few years. By placing a new minifig in just one set and no other, the LEGO company are basically now able to pretty much guarantee that the set will sell. Hell, they could package a housebrick with a unique minifig and it would sell..... The LEGO company are also capitalising on the popularity of minifig collecting by releasing sets of 'vintage' minifigs which people might have missed first time round.

If you missed them first time round, here's your chance to make amends....

I have to confess to viewing this explosion of interest in minifigs as a bit of a double-edged sword. While I don't actually play with the sets I've built these days, instead just having them on display for a while so I can enjoy seeing the fruits of my labours, I certainly appreciate that the inclusion of interesting minifgs can add something to the sets. I'm also a fan of the first 2 series of collectible minifigs, and even blogged about this a week or two ago. The big increase minifig popularity can however be a bit of a headache for those of us who collect LEGO sets.

Consider for instance Set 7264 Imperial Inspection, released in 2005. It is, to be honest, pretty ordinary, being basically a rehash of the 2001 Set 7166 Imperial Shuttle with the addition of a small control console and a few extra minifigures. And yet the prices people are asking for this set now seem entirely disproportionate to the contents of the box. So what's the explanation ? Well, it's down to the fact that the set contains 4 stormtroopers who just so happen to have printed legs. This is unique - while stormtroopers appear in a host of sets, Imperial Inspection is the only one where the stormies have printed legs. You can see the 'special' stormie with the printed legs below on the left, and the 'standard' stormtrooper on the right. Such differences might appear incidental to most of us, but it pushes minifig collectors into a frenzy of excitement and drives up the price of the whole set.

Set 10123 Cloud City is another example of a set which has increased 2-3 times in value since it was released in 2003, at least in part because it contains a number of minifigs not available in any other set - a unique version of Boba Fett with printed legs, Lando Calrissian, and unique versions of Leia and Luke. To be fair, it's also an interesting set in its own right, so no wonder the price has skyrocketed.....

The 4 unique Cloud City minifigures

My final example is Set 4501 Mos Eisley Cantina from 2004. Not a particularly remarkable set overall in my opinion, although it's rescued somewhat by the use of some unusual colours (sand red and sand blue) in the build. It was expensive enough in its day at £27.99, or $30 U.S., but you'll have to shell out 3 or 4 times that much to get a mint, sealed example now. We mainly have Greedo to thank for that. He only appears in this set, and can cost upwards of £20 on his own.....

There are other examples, but I think I've made my point. The prices of these older sets are undoubtedly driven up by the presence of unique minifigs which is a bit of a pain if you're a collector looking to get hold of the sets themselves.

On reflection, maybe I've done the minifigs themselves a disservice - the high prices aren't their fault, after all. It would I guess have been more accurate to have called this post "the curse of the minifig collector".....

Monday, 13 September 2010

Who needs a train set ?

When I was a kid, I had a train set. I loved it, but it was fiddly and fragile (admittedly in part because it was an N-gauge set which is quite small scale). Another problem was that additional locomotives and coaches were really expensive. To hold the rails in place, my dad nailed some track down on a large wooden baseplate, and I spent many happy hours watching my 2 locomotives and 5-6 coaches going round in circles.

I was reminded of this when I recently took delivery of one of the new LEGO trains. Set 7939 Cargo Train is actually not just a cargo train at all - it's a complete LEGO train set in a box, consisting of a locomotive, 3 freight coaches and freight for them to carry, a cargo loading crane, an articulated lorry, and an oval of track plus 2 sets of points and extra track to make a couple of sidings.

Set 7939 Cargo Train - as good as a traditional train set ?

Critically, the set also contains a motor, an infra-red receiver and a remote control unit, so unless I'm missing something, the set basically contains everything and more than a similarly-priced 'proper' train set might contain. It got me wondering why anyone would actually buy a 'proper' traditional train set anymore. 

Some would argue that a major downside of LEGO trains versus a traditional train set is a lack of realism. The trains and rolling stock from a traditional train set certainly look a lot more like 'real' trains and rolling stock, as do the various trackside buildings that you can buy. There's also not much choice if you go down the LEGO route - I think that there are only three LEGO trains (7939 Cargo Train, 7938 Passenger Train and the magnificent 10194 Emerald Night Steam locomotive) and 2 dedicated trackside buildings (a station and a level crossing) currently available at retail, against literally hundreds from a company such as the much-loved Hornby who specialise in train sets. Even if you factor in the many retired LEGO trains, coaches and trackside buildings which can still be obtained via Ebay and Bricklink, a company like Hornby still offers more choice.

The beautiful LEGO Emerald Night locomotive and coach

The big upside of a LEGO train set is versatility, however. Once you get tired of playing trains, you can take the set apart and use the parts for something else, so it's unlikely to become obsolete. Someone once wrote that LEGO is the ultimate recyclable toy, and its certainly less likely to be left gathering dust somewhere than a traditional train set. The realism gap is also starting to close - just click on the picture of Emerald Night above and take a close look if you don't think LEGO trains can look authentic. I have to say I was astonished by the level of detail on this set, and the love that was lavished on it by the designer(s) is obvious. LEGO trains will never entirely match the level of realism that Hornby et al can offer, but the difference is nowhere near as glaring as it used to be.

When I was a kid, the LEGO trains looked much less realistic than they do now (although I did love my Set 171 Train Set without Motor......) and they couldn't be controlled remotely, so my traditional train set did the job much better. If I was a kid now, however, I suspect I might be tempted to choose a LEGO train set over a traditional set given the improved realism, ability to control the train remotely and the fact that it obviously integrates with other LEGO (both the pieces, of course, and also as a whole as part of a LEGO town). Perhaps therefore the LEGO organisation should consider working a bit harder to capture some of the traditional train set market, as their efforts in this area seem a bit half-hearted to me - relatively few products and little marketing spend. You can't even buy extra coaches or rolling stock as standalone items at present which is a major issue for enthusiasts. The LEGO train-related products that are available are great, but more choice really wouldn't go amiss...

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Celebrity endorsement

I doubt there are many LEGO enthusiasts out there who haven't heard by now that uber-celebrity David Beckham is a bona fide AFOL (Adult Fan Of Lego) who built the collossal LEGO Taj Mahal set in his hotel room while on loan at AC Milan. The internet was awash with stories of how sales of the Taj Mahal set went up by over 600% in the days after his 'revelation'. Given that the Taj Mahal is the biggest LEGO set ever at 5922 pieces, that's a lot of extra LEGO flying out of the door....

The famed LEGO Taj Mahal model

As it happens, I was actually watching the Beckham interview on BBC TV's Friday Night with Jonathan Ross show when he made his admission, and I was delighted to hear him revealing his love of LEGO on air. The guy's a massive role model after all, so it might encourage others to discover the joys of LEGO too. I was also a bit surprised he said it, though.  Not because he loves LEGO - if you're reading this you presumably don't need convincing of its merits - but because he actually admitted it to the world.

I surely can't be the only AFOL to have encountered amusement, scorn, disbelief, derision or a combination of the above when my passion for LEGO has come up in conversation.  I sometimes feel that I'm being (metaphorically) patted on the head, like someone might humour a small child or even the family pet..... You do have to wonder why people find it so hard to get their heads around it, though - after all, if I was sat in my garage or my shed all day trying to put pieces of a car engine together, or tinkering with pieces of wood allegedly in the name of D.I.Y., nobody would bat an eyelid. It's not rocket science - people just like putting stuff together. So is it the 'play' aspect that people have trouble grasping ? Well, I doubt anyone would be too surprised if they found an adult spending time doing a jigsaw puzzle, for instance, so that's probably not the issue. I guess it's just LEGO's image as a child's toy that causes the reaction.

So thanks, Becks, for giving us much misunderstood AFOLs perhaps a shred more credibility and for spreading the word. All we need now is for Schwarzenegger or Stallone to confess their secret passion for LEGO Belville and our journey into social acceptability will be complete.....

Friday, 10 September 2010

Exclusives are Rubbish

OK, time for a bit of a moan.

As a LEGO Star Wars collector, I get really irritated when new LEGO Star Wars sets or items are released which I'm prevented from getting at a reasonable price merely by an accident of geography. It's just not right.

So far this year, I can think of at least 5 LEGO Star Wars items which up until now have only been made available, or will only be made available, to people attending certain events overseas or living in certain countries. There were the Clone Wars Edition Cube Dudes (only available at this year's San Diego Comic Con), the Bounty Hunter Cube Dudes (only available at Fan Celebration V), the white Boba Fett minifig that I blogged about recently and a couple of Brickmaster sets (Set 20016 mini Imperial Shuttle and the yet-to-be-released Set 20018 mini AT-AT) only available to folks in the U.S. via a Brickmaster subscription.

The very cool Bounty Hunter Cube Dude Set, but you can't have one....

I'm really hoping that the Brickmaster sets and the white Boba Fett will appear on this side of the pond at some point, but the Cube Dudes are I believe all gone, so it's a case of paying over the odds on Ebay or Bricklink or just doing without. It's frustrating knowing that these interesting and desirable pieces of the LEGO Star Wars jigsaw are out there, but also knowing that I need to jump through hoops and cough up lots of cash in order to ensure that I can add them to my collection.

This isn't a new phenomenon - just check out the resale prices of the 64-piece 2008 Brickmaster exclusive mini Clone Turbo Tank if you want to see the kind of pain that collectors outside the U.S. have to endure, and there are numerous other examples of desirable LEGO Star Wars exclusives which give collectors sleepless nights. Chrome gold C-3PO minifig, anyone ? We should certainly be grateful for the existence of Ebay and Bricklink which at least mean that these rare items are attainable - I have Ebay to thank for my shiny gold C-3PO. It's just a pity you need a second mortgage to afford them !

Huw on Brickset reported yesterday that Brickmaster will be winding down at the end of this year. While that's a big shame for U.S. subscribers, it's one less source of 'exclusive' sets which aren't available to the rest of us. It's demise also raises the possibility that whatever replaces it might be a global rather than U.S.-only initiative which would be fairer, although I'm not holding my breath.

So I'll end with a plea to the LEGO company (who are obviously not reading this, but please just humour me anyway) : I implore you to stop producing limited edition LEGO Star Wars items for the chosen few. It benefits nobody except the Ebay scalpers and puts me in a bad mood.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Favourite Sets #2 : Santa Fe Super Chief

Today's star set is 10020 Santa Fe Super Chief, released in 2002.

There's no two ways about it - I absolutely love this set. Stunning attention to detail, a lovely colour scheme, and it's functional as well as beautiful, running on both the old 9V rail track and the newer non-electrified rails.

While the locomotive isn't motorised out of the box, it will accomodate an old 9V motor. It also appears that it'll accomodate the newer Power Functions battery box, motor and infra-red receiver, so it's forwards-compatible !

The year 2002 also saw the release of two further sets which meant you could add coaches to your Santa Fe loco - 10025 Santa Fe Cars Set 1 and 10022 Santa Fe Cars Set 2. These two sets, which are now highly prized and hence rather expensive (I'd love a whole train's worth but can't really justify buying more than one of each set right now) contained parts and instructions for making a mail car or a baggage car (Set 1) and a sleeping car, observation car or dining car (Set 2), but unfortunately only one car from each set could be built at any one time. Below you can see a photo of my Super Chief pulling an observation car :

The Santa Fe Super Chief set also includes 2 minifigs, who I assume are the train driver and his mechanic, and here they are posing proudly in front of their locomotive :

A gorgeous set, and a worthy addition to my favourites list.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


One of the most noticeable things about the online LEGO community is the sheer amount of time and energy spent speculating feverishly about which new sets we'll be able to get our eager hands on in the future (see for instance Eurobricks' LEGO Star Wars 2011 Pictures & Rumors), and also the excitement that surrounds the news of new set launches. This is, to be fair, in part fuelled by the ability of the LEGO company to keep a secret right up until the point that they're good and ready to make an announcement. Naming no names, I can think of a few other companies who could learn a thing or two from them.......

Anyway, if you can't beat 'em then join 'em, so here are the 3 confirmed sets that I'm most looking forward to right now :

1. Tower Bridge

Just look at this beauty ! Designed by LEGO legend Jamie Berard, at 4287 pieces it'll be the third largest LEGO set ever, and it's due to arrive in October 2010, so not long to wait. Given it's size (about a meter in length), there is the very real question of where on earth I'll be able to display it, but I'll worry about that when the time comes.....

2. White Boba Fett Minifigure

OK, so this one's a bit of a cheat as there are already a few floating about, but most of us have yet to have the opportunity to get one. Only so far given away at a couple of LEGO-related events overseas, I'm really hoping that there may be some kind of event or giveaway in the UK. Otherwise it's off to Ebay to get well and truly scalped........ :-(

I love Ultimate Collectors' Series (UCS) sets. They're generally huge, detailed and with fewer design compromises than other sets. When the magnificent UCS Imperial Shuttle was announced a while back, I thought that it might be our one and only dose of Star Wars UCS goodness for the year, but no - the LEGO company has another UCS model in store for us in 2010. We are truly blessed ! The UCS Jedi Starfighter will be with us in November.

So time to start saving the pennies, people.....

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Deja Vu

Having been a keen LEGO builder as a kid, I drifted away from it in my teens, and apart from occasionally dipping my toe back into the water thereafter, I didn't really emerge from my LEGO dark ages until a couple of years back when I received Set 10188 Death Star as a Christmas present. That set remains to this day perhaps my favourite set of all time - it's utterly wonderful - and it rekindled my enthusiasm for LEGO.

Receiving the Death Star on that fateful Christmas morning prompted me to start trying to collect as many of the LEGO Star Wars sets as I could. As I tracked down more and more sets and my LEGO Star Wars collection grew ever larger, a couple of things became apparent.

Firstly, the Star Wars theme is clearly extremely lucrative for the LEGO company. Having exhausted the majority of obvious candidates for sets during the first few years of the Star Wars licence, I suppose the logical step would have been to phase out the theme and move on to something else. But instead we got newer versions of the sets that had come before, sometimes over and over again. For example, we've now had 4 versions of the iconic Slave 1 ship during the 11 years of the LEGO Star Wars licence, and that's not even including mini versions, of which there has been at least 1. And if you think that's surprising, there have actually been at least 5 versions of the X-Wing fighter in 11 years, and that's not including at least 2 mini versions. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Note that I'm not complaining - nobody's forcing us to buy the sets and for reasons I'll go in to, there are often good reasons to keep buying.

Secondly, I have to say that in general, the sets have improved in quality over the years compared with their predecessors. OK, so they've also significantly increased in price, size and complexity, which is obviously not everybody's cup of tea, but on balance I'd rather have bigger, more expensive sets (which is generally what we get) than be asked to shell out for virtually identical copies of previously released sets.

It's not always so clear cut, however. Below you can see 3 of the 4 versions of the Slave 1 ship produced by the LEGO company over the past decade - Set 7144 from 2000, Set 6209 from 2006, and finally Set 8097 which came out just a few weeks ago. You can click on the images if you want to enlarge them for a closer look.

Set 7144 (2000)
Set 6209 (2006)
Set 8097 (2010)

There's not much doubt in my mind that the newer sets are a better representation of the Slave 1 ship from the Star Wars movies than the original from 2000, although they certainly ought to be given the price - admittedly I'm ignoring 10 years-worth of inflation here, but even so the newest version is four times as expensive as the original ! Compare the 2006 and 2010 versions, however, and it tells a different story - they're extremely similar in appearance except for some changes to the colour scheme, and have a similar piece count. In fact, the only major difference is the price - £39.99 for the 2006 model and a whopping £79.99 for the latest version. I do think the minifigures in the new set are superior (the new Boba Fett minifig in particular is superb) but otherwise I actually prefer the 2006 version.

So what's my point ? Well, some may disagree, but I can happily live with remakes providing they're an improvement on what came before. I'm really not a fan of the kind of deja vu that is the new Slave 1 ship, however, particularly when it comes at such a high price....

Thanks to Brickset for the images above.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Favourite Sets #1 : Rocket Base

OK, so this is the first posting in what could turn out to be a very long list...... In no particular order, a selection of my favourite LEGO sets of all time.

For your delectation today let me present Set 358 Rocket Base from 1973. I love this set so much that I can even remember the set number off by heart. How sad is that ?

This was one of the first sets I can remember owning as a child, and it's always stuck with me. Firstly, there's something about the box art that I just adore. No doubt that's partly because it evokes so many happy childhood memories, but I think it's also fantastic in its own right. I just love the colours, and the background brings to mind a spectacular sunset.

Then there's the astonishing level of playability - a rocket to swoosh around, a ground support vehicle, a rotating radar dish, even a rudimentary system for allowing the rocket to slide sideways up against the gantry on a couple of rail tracks. Playability-wise I think this set was way ahead of it's time.

The set also contains some great pieces - the big red baseplate, tons of white, black and yellow macaroni pieces, a nice selection of different coloured "milk bottles" as I used to call them, the transparent plates that make up the radar, and two TV aerials.

When I emerged from my LEGO Dark Ages one of the first things I did was to try and pick out all the pieces that made up this set from an enormous suitcase full of my old LEGO that my parents had, with significant foresight, stored for me in the loft. I eventually managed to find all the pieces (except one of the TV aerials which I eventually replaced via Bricklink), and the two pictures of the completed set above are the result. Some of the pieces are seriously battered and discoloured - look at the picture of the ground support vehicle above for evidence of that - but they're my old, battered and discoloured pieces which makes them special !

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Proper LEGO

It of course goes without saying that all of the pieces produced by the LEGO company are, by definition, "proper" LEGO. Except that I'm increasingly coming across pieces which don't feel like "proper" LEGO to me. It's a bit hard to explain, but basically I'm referring to huge pieces which in the old days would have been made up of a number of existing pieces, but which are now moulded in just one piece. This really hit me when I was building an Indiana Jones LEGO set, Fight on the Flying Wing, and was faced by the monstrosity below :

I mean, look at it. It's huge ! And is it really necessary ? This isn't a new phenomenon - I have 10- and 20-year old sets which contain unnecessarily big pieces - but I'm certainly noticing it more these days.

It feels uncomfortably like "dumbing down" to me, almost as if the intention is to get the build out of the way as fast as possible so that there's more time to play with the finished model. I can kind of see a logic in this, except that as a child, most of the pleasure for me was in actually building the model rather than playing with the finished article, to the extent that I'd generally deconstruct it after just a few minutes of play and then rebuild it into something different, or at least try to improve upon what I'd built earlier. Maybe I just wasn't a typical kid, or else kids today find actually building the model an inconvenient barrier to playing with it. It'd be a shame if that were true, but maybe it just is.

It could be reasonably argued that the sets with these big, ugly pieces are more targeted at a younger demographic, while the older and/or less impatient builder has a pretty good choice of sets containing more 'traditional' parts. That's certainly true, but I just hope that the temptation to pander to those who would rather play with the finished model rather than build it in the first place doesn't get any stronger.

Thanks to Peeron for the above image.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The curse of missing pieces

As I said yesterday, I really can't stand having my building pleasure interrupted by missing pieces. Unfortunately, if like me you buy the occasional old, retired set off Ebay, you've just got to accept that the sets you buy will often arrive with a few pieces missing. While I genuinely don't believe that this is because there are a lot of dishonest sellers out there, the reality is that most people selling LEGO on Ebay aren't collectors or professional traders, they're just people trying to raise a bit of cash by selling off their old toys, or mums and dads selling their kids' old toys to clear some space in the loft. Consequently, their idea of a "complete set" is often not the same as mine. They may for instance not think twice about substituting a missing piece with a similar but non-identical one, or even replacing it with the same piece in a different colour. Or they may just ask little Johnny if the set is complete, Johnny shrugs and says "I guess so", and 5 minutes later the set is listed on Ebay as "complete". Such is life.

So what to do ? Well, as is often the case, the online LEGO community is here to help. Allow me to introduce you to the joys of Peeron and Bricklink. Amongst other things, these miraculous websites contain databases which capture every single piece (part number, colour and quantity) contained in pretty much every single set that LEGO have ever produced. Ever. It's astonishing. Just think about it - at some point, an army of selfless, unpaid individuals have carefully sorted through all these thousands and thousands of sets painstakingly documenting which pieces they contain, how many and in which colour. And all that information is available to all of us, free, gratis and for nothing.

The end result of all this generosity is that it's possible to check whether your set is complete before you build it. I personally tend to use Peeron for checking my sets - while it's been somewhat neglected of late and doesn't contain information about the newest sets, I just prefer the way it's laid out. The process is as follows : go to Peeron website, enter set number, and hey presto - up comes a listing of all the parts that the set is supposed to contain, with full colour pictures of each piece should you wish to see them. Simples. Using the Space Shuttle Launch set I got a couple of days ago as an example, click the link below to see the full parts listing.

Space Shuttle Launch parts listing

How cool is that ?! So you've checked off the pieces against the online listing, and to your dismay there are a couple of pieces missing. Irritating, but thankfully not terminal thanks once again to the joys of Peeron and Bricklink. Believe it or not, the world is literally full of nice people who make it their business to help you replace missing pieces. They'll also supply you with pretty much any piece in any colour and any quantity for that life-size LEGO model of Chewbacca that you're constructing in your living room, if that's your thing. Most of these sellers don't do this for a living - it's a hobby. And let me tell you that these people are worth their weight in gold. Peeron and Bricklink generate a listing of the sellers who have the part(s) you need, in the colour(s) you need, and all you have to do is pick who you want to buy from, make sure they ship to your country, and you're laughing. And unless the replacement pieces you're after are particurly rare, obscure or huge, an added bonus is that they're often pretty cheap - literally pennies in many cases - although you'll obviously have to pay the postal costs on top. I generally use the Bricklink website to connect me to sellers who can replace missing parts, and touch wood I've never had a bad transaction so far.

So you've checked your set, replaced the missing pieces and now you're ready to build ! Never underestimate the satisfaction you can get by sorting an old set, replacing the missing pieces, and returning it to former glories. It's like restoring an antique. Sort of.

Friday, 3 September 2010

A new arrival....

OK, so look what the postman brought me :

This is the first of a number of sets that I'm expecting to arrive over the next few days. First impressions : the box isn't in bad shape, which as a collector makes me happy ! It's not perfect, but it's good enough that I won't be actively looking for a tidier set to eventually replace it with.

On lifing the front flap things still look pretty good, although the set has unfortunately been packed up in a partially constructed state. This is a shame - one of the greatest pleasures of building a LEGO set is seeing the fruits of your labours for the first time when you've finished bulding it, so seeing the set already constructed in the box robs you of some of that pleasure.

What now ? Well, another thing I can't bear is getting halfway through a build only to discover that a critical piece is missing and I can't continue building. So for this reason, and also because I collect this stuff and therefore need to make sure that the set is complete, the first job is to completely disassemble the set. Here's the set broken down into its constituent parts, broadly sorted into plates, smaller parts (generally less than 2 x 2 studs), and everything else :

And of course we mustn't forget the three minifigures which come with the set. They're shown here standing proudly on the baseplate that's also supplied with the set :

The next job is to make sure that all the pieces are present and correct. One of the things that my slightly bemused non-LEGO-loving friends ask me is how I know a set is complete without actually building it. They also ask how I track down replacement pieces when I discover that pieces are missing. The answer to both these mysteries will be revealed tomorrow !

Have a good weekend.