Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas !

As the time approaches 12 noon Greenwich Mean Time, it's now 25th December pretty much everywhere across the globe, so I'd like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas - if you have a Christmas tree, may the parcels beneath it rattle in that special LEGO way, and I hope your dreams come true....

Wednesday, 22 December 2010


Regular readers of this blog might recall me mentioning a while back that I'd tried out LEGO's Factory feature whereby you design your own creation using a free computer-aided design package (LDD), upload the design to LEGO, and they'll pick the parts and send them out to you plus generate a set of building instructions. I designed a LEGO college to sit alongside my Modular Buildings, and although the whole process wasn't cheap, I was pretty impressed overall. You can see a screenshot of my LEGO college below (click pic to enlarge).

Not bad, but something's missing....
Anyway, LEGO have recently overhauled and rebranded this D.I.Y. service. It's now called LEGO 'Design by Me' and it boasts an upgraded version of LDD amongst other things, so I thought I'd give it a try. I touched upon my experiences with the new version of LDD in the previous blog post I mentioned above, but in summary, it definitely seems slicker than the old version - virtual pieces seem to snap together more readily, requiring less contortionism and rotation to manoeuvre them into place, and there are new features such as the ability to bend or twist certain elements such as chains.

Rather than design something totally new, I decided instead to go with the more modest objective of building an extension to my previous creation. While I think my LEGO college sits reasonably comfortably alongside my official Modular Buildings, I'd always regretted not adding a basement level in order to elevate it to the height of the other buildings. My trial of Design By Me presented me with an excellent opportunity to remedy the situation, however, so that's what I decided to do. Not very sexy, but it should at least serve to illustrate the process....

I started out by importing my original LEGO college LDD file into the new version of LDD. This occurred seamlessly. Then I built downwards from the bottom of the original design, attaching a nice curved staircase (the design of which was shamelessly plagiarised from Set 10190 Market Street....) and thus elevating the whole college building by a total of 4 bricks and 1 plate. You can see an LDD screenshot from this stage of the process below.

LDD screenshot - new improved LEGO college !
Next, I deleted all the parts from the original college building as all I wanted to purchase this time round was the basement extension. You can see a screenshot of the basement extension alone below (click to enlarge).
There's no pavement area in front of the basement as my intent was to cannabalise the plates and tiles from the pavement area in front of the existing model rather than order duplicates.

Having designed my basement extension I uploaded the file and was prompted to design some packaging, a process which consisted largely of choosing from a number of preset options and adding text. I was also given the option of ordering printed building instructions. This was not to my knowledge possible with the previous Factory iteration and is I think an excellent new feature. So I ordered printed instructions (which I think were free) and moved on to the payment stage. My design, which contains a total of 244 pieces, worked out at £38.62 Sterling not including shipping. I confirmed my order, paid, and waited for my creation to arrive. Time from order to receipt was a little under 3 weeks, and you can see pics of the unboxing below (click to enlarge).

I made that !
Box with sleeve removed

The goodies within...

Building instructions
I thought the set was more slickly packaged than my previous Factory creation, and it was really nice to have printed building instructions. I do however think that LEGO need to perhaps expend a little more thought on the building instructions - there were in my opinion too many building steps for such a modest creation, necessitating 2 instruction books. Perhaps the instructions are 'dumbed down' somewhat in anticipation of a younger customer ?

Building was as ever a pleasure, and in no time at all my basement extension was complete (see below).

LEGO College basement extension
Finally, all that was left for me to do was to attach the basement extension to the rest of the building and slide my newly-extended college into place on my desk between Green Grocer and Fire Brigade. Perfect !

Newly extended LEGO College
New LEGO College on Modular Row
The new Design By Me process worked very well, I thought - LDD is easy to use, and once the design was complete it was a breeze to upload the creation and design the packaging. Some may grumble at the price - £38.62 + shipping for 244 pieces is certainly not cheap - but as well as the pieces themselves you're also paying for someone to physically hand-pick the pieces for you and for the custom-designed packaging and building instructions. You're also indirectly funding the ongoing development of the LDD tool (which is free to download, and excellent in my opinion). And when you look at it like that, I guess the price doesn't seem so bad....

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Lucky Dip

I buy a lot of sets on eBay, both because there are genuine bargains to be had, and also because it's about the only place apart from Bricklink where you can get hold of old sets that are no longer available at retail. People are certainly getting wise to the enduring value of LEGO, so there aren't perhaps as many fantastic deals as there once might have been, but it's still a rich vein of interesting, unusual and sometimes rare LEGO-related stuff.

I've written before about some of the possible frustrations of buying used LEGO on eBay - "complete" sets that are anything but, for a start - but there's also an upside which you don't generally get when buying LEGO at retail and that's random stuff in the box which is completely unrelated to the set you've bought. OK, so new LEGO sets generally contain a few extra parts just in case you lose a cheese slope or a round 1x1 plate, for instance, but they don't generally contain extra minifigures from other sets, which have been a not uncommon inclusion in used sets I've bought. Admittedly they're sometimes carelessly substituted for the minifigs that are supposed to be included in the set, but better the wrong figs than no figs at all I guess. As an example, I found the 3 guys below in a couple of used sets from the old 9V train range that I bought recently.

9V Imposters !
The sets were dirt cheap 'Buy It Now' items and as such I was prepared for the worst; I took a punt however as both were boxed. I was certainly right to be wary as both sets were far from complete and contained none of the minifigs they were supposed to, but in their place were the figures above. The wonders of Bricklink mean that with a little time and patience you can often track down which set or sets your errant extra minifigs originally came from; in the case of the chap in the natty black waistcoat and red T-shirt center stage above for instance, the minifig, or to be more exact the torso ("Red V-Neck and Buttons Pattern / Red Arms / Yellow Hands") appeared in a total of 6 sets between 1979 and 1983. And in some of those sets such as Set 6382 Fire Station (below) it appears that he was actually a she ! Clearly the previous owner has swapped the headgear at some stage as that torso has never been paired with a construction hat in an 'official' set, but hey - it's LEGO so anything goes!

Set 6382 Fire Station from 1981 - spot the minifig (or at least the torso)

Aside from unexpected minifigs, the item below was one of the more unusual extras I've ever found in a used set, and I'm still trying to figure out what it is. On the basis of the helpful logo stamped on the piece it's certainly LEGO of some description, but beyond that I have no idea. There are no studs or antistuds to allow attachment to other pieces, although the curved ridges on both the upper and lower surfaces suggest that it might attach to something. And it's not heavy enough to be a magnet, in case you're wondering. I did wonder whether it might be a token or counter for some sort of LEGO-related game, but beyond that I'm out of ideas. If anyone reading this has any suggestions then please get in touch or post a comment as it's bugging me, otherwise the identity of this interloper will likely remain a mystery for ever....

Please will someone just tell me what this is....
Other extras I've received have included building instructions from other sets - the used set containing the curious part above also contained a set of building instructions for another set altogether - Set 7422 Red Eagle from 2003. Not the pieces, unfortunately....

Sometimes the haul of extras is ridiculous; on one occasion I opened up a used set I'd bought to find loads of flattened boxes and instructions from a number of other sets stuffed inside, plus a bunch of baseplates. On contacting the seller to let hm know, it became clear he'd been looking for this stuff for ages having previously squirreled it away and forgotten where he'd put it. He was mightily relieved to get it back. This incident did however bring up a question - what is the etiquette of extras ? Should the buyer own up to having received the extras, or is it 'finders keepers' ? Certainly when I contacted the seller above about the extras he was surprised I hadn't just kept the stuff and kept quiet. I'm not sure there are hard and fast rules about this, but in general, if the set is incomplete and the extras appear to be an attempt to make up for missing pieces then I typically keep them and move on. If however the extras clearly don't belong there I'll generally let the seller know and return the extra stuff at the seller's expense if they want it back, although they usually don't.

So the moral seems to be to carefully check the used sets you buy - you may be surprised by what you find.....

Sunday, 12 December 2010

So this is Christmas....

I love Christmas, and thankfully so do the LEGO company, who have blessed us with a multitude of Christmas sets of various shapes and sizes over the years. For as long as I can remember they've produced at least one advent calendar per year, and also a clutch of Christmas themed impulse sets. There are also the more idiosyncratic seasonal items such as Holiday Ornaments (i.e. Christmas tree baubles), Christmas magnets and the truly bizarre (to me at least) LEGO Holiday Countdown Candle, plus if we're really lucky a bigger, more ambitious set.

Although the LEGO company have been churning out Christmas-themed items for years, they have in my opinion really excelled themselves recently. I'm referring of course to the wonderful Winter Toy Shop set which was released in the latter half of last year to widespread critical acclaim, sold out at retail, and has of late once again been wowing the punters after being sensibly re-released for this Christmas period. There have certainly been other larger Christmas sets in the past which have their passionate supporters, notably Set 10173 Holiday Train, but for me the Toy Shop is the daddy of LEGO Christmas sets and I absolutely love it.

Set 10199 Winter Toy Shop
So where to start with this set ? Firstly, the overall design of the Toy Shop itself is wonderful - it brings to mind a gingerbread house - and I can confirm that it sits very comfortably, indeed proudly, amongst all the usual Christmas tat that people leave lying around on mantlepieces and next to the tree during the festive period. It even comes complete with a LEGO light brick to illuminate the interior ! Then there are all the brick-built accessories that come with the set - the excellent Christmas tree surrounded by some really neat gifts and draped with Christmas lights, and some olde worlde street lights and a bench (pics below - click to enlarge)

As well as the building itself and the above accessories, the set comes with lots of minifigures including some excellent carol singers, a shopkeeper and some skiiers. Given the ever expanding popularity of the LEGO minifigure, including all these minifigs is a bit of a masterstroke, further expanding the appeal of the set.

"Jingle Bells....."
You can see all the elements of the set together below. Surely only the most hard-hearted cynic could fail to love this set - just looking at it makes me feel Christmassy !

Winter Toy Shop set - the full Monty
And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, the LEGO company go and bring out  a new set which is clearly motivated by, and designed to complement, the Winter Toy Shop - Set 10216 Winter Village Bakery. Taking its design cues from the Toy Shop and following the adage of "if it ain't broke don't fix it", the Bakery follows the successful recipe laid down by the Toy Shop to a tee. Quaint design ? Check. Loads of minifigures ? Check. Superb accessories ? Check. It certainly ticks all the boxes, and while the cynic could with some justification accuse this set of being an entirely formulaic cash-in (particularly as it has less pieces than the Toy Shop but nevertheless costs more), my perhaps predictable view is that for all that it's still beautifully designed and will complement the Toy Shop perfectly. So I've bought it, and that's that.

Set 10216 Winter Village Bakery
Having built the Toy Shop last Christmas and subsequently disassembled and re-boxed it, it will I suspect almost certainly be hauled out and rebuilt every Christmas to come, such is its appeal. I've not built the Bakery yet, but if it turns out to be even half the set that its predecessor is then it'll be joining the Toy Shop on the mantlepiece year on year. You can currently snag yourself copies of both sets direct from LEGO if you like the look of them (links for UK readers are Toy Shop and Bakery). Hope you enjoy the Toy Shop as much as me !

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Winter Wonderland

Despite living a metaphorical stone's throw away from Legoland Windsor (LLW) I'd never actually visited, which is a pretty sad state of affairs for an AFOL. I did admittedly make an abortive attempt to visit earlier this year but somehow managed to pitch up at the front gate on one of the days when the park was closed..... Anyway, I'm pleased to report that this shameful situation has now been remedied as the Brickish Association (BA), a UK-based AFOL group, held its annual Christmas party there last weekend and I was in attendance.

There were a number of things about my visit to LLW for the Christmas party that differentiated it from a visit on any other day. Firstly, it's currently off-season for LLW so it's closed to the public at the moment. It was pretty odd visiting a major UK tourist attraction and finding it to be pretty much deserted. Secondly, we've recently had some significant early snowfall in the UK, and while the area around LLW has been largely spared, we were nevertheless in the unusual position of being able to wander round Miniland (the area of Legoland featuring LEGO-built model scenes) while there was snow on the ground. You can see some pictures below (click to enlarge) - my first sight of a deserted Miniland shrouded in mist, and some of the actual models surrounded by snow.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland.....
Tower Bridge
St. Paul's Cathedral

What's this white stuff on the ground.....?
Many of the day's activities were centered around St. Leonard's Mansion on the LLW site, an elegant house built in the 1700's that once hosted John F. Kennedy (although regrettably not during a visit to Legoland, obviously.....).

Dotted around the mansion were a multitude of LEGO scultures. No doubt the mansion's original architect would turn in his grave at the sight of all the brighly coloured ABS in the midst of such classic surroundings, but for a philistine like myself it was great ! You can see some of my favourites below (click to enlarge) :

To kick off the day we had an introductory talk from the former Chief Modelmaker at LLW who also helpfully happens to be an all-round good bloke. He initally gave us a run-down of events at the park over the past year, plus a sneak peek of some of the plans for the year ahead. This was followed by a guided tour, and one of my personal highlights of the day, a visit to the Model Shop where the professional LEGO builders do their magic. As well as seeing many exhibits under construction or being renovated, we were able to chat to some of the LEGO professionals and behold the tools of their trade - millions and millions of bricks of every available colour (and a few colours I'd never seen before) in huge storage units. I've posted a few pictures below (click to enlarge) to give you a flavour of the place, but really you'd have to see it to believe it - hundreds upon hundreds of models of all shapes and sizes surrounding the designers' workstations, and LEGO crammed into every nook and cranny. Amazing !

Welcome to the Model Shop !
Spot the rare colours....
Maersk Blue brick, anybody ?
Replacing worn out models
Shouldn't he be in the closet ?

Just don't mention the England World Cup bid.... :-(
I also paid a visit to the LLW Big Shop during the day - not quite a LEGO brand store as it lacked the LEGO exclusive sets, but still a fair bit to choose from including an interesting Pick-a-Brick section with a few compartments full of a mixture of pieces. I got the feeling that these 'lucky dip' compartments might have at least in part have contained surplus stuff from the model shop as I found a few pieces in unexpected colours; some 1x2 Bricks in Sand Blue, for instance, which has to my knowledge not been available for years, and which almost certainly has never graced the Pick-a-Brick wall in a LEGO brand store.

One of the things I loved about LLW was the enormous number of large LEGO-built sculptures placed in outside areas - next to paths, in communal areas etc.. The LEGO family in the pictures below were loitering outside the Big Shop, for instance, and were excellent. Just check out the dog raiding the coolbox !

That coolbox is amazing !
Off-season visitors. No, wait.....
A bit cold for ice cream, don't you think ?

All told, it was a fantastic day with the highlight being a peek at the inner sanctum - the model shop. I was also really impressed with the models in Miniland, and will definitely be going back next year when LLW reopens to the public and the weather improves....

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Unexpected Pleasures

There are few LEGO-related pleasures that can top the arrival of an order of pristine new LEGO sets from the LEGO online store, but one of those is when you open the sturdy packing crate and discover Free Stuff alongside the sets you ordered. If it's Unexpected Free Stuff it's better still. I contemplated on this yesterday when my latest order came through from LEGO shop@home. It was only a couple of discounted magnet sets (the rest of my order will follow in due course), but nestling alongside my bargain Pirates and Atlantis figures in the padded envelope was the item below (click to enlarge):

OK, so it's 'only' a poster, but it's a limited edition poster - number 62,919 out of 109,000 (!) - and it's a timely reminder that on 1st January 2011 I'll be able to get my eager hands on the new Harry Potter Diagon Alley set. It was also totally unexpected, and I do love Unexpected Free Stuff.

It occurred to me that I seem to have had quite a few freebies with my LEGO online orders over the past couple of years. Probably my favourite is the little guy below :

Admittedly he was Expected Free Stuff rather than Unexpected Free Stuff, but given that I was around and building LEGO in 1978 when the classic and much loved LEGO Space theme was born, he's still close to my heart. He arrived in a poly bag with my online order of the superb Shuttle Adventure set earlier this year. For anyone out there heartbroken at missing out on him, there may be a solution other than showering an eBay scalper with your hard-earned cash - I was in a LEGO brand store last weekend (Milton Keynes) and found the Spaceman Magnet on sale for £4.99, so if you're anywhere near a brand store you might want to have a look on the off-chance that they have some in stock. I unfortunately couldn't find him on sale at the LEGO online store when I checked yesterday, however.
Set 10213 Shuttle Adventure - any excuse for a picture of this cracking set
Talking of figures, the guy below arrived with an order in the Summer of 2009. Another welcome addition to my growing LEGO family, and who can resist a shiny minifig ? Admittedly he's hanging off a keychain, but I'll forgive him that. This item was in fact also available in the LEGO brand stores and online for £2.95, but still nice to get him for free, even if his hands are flesh coloured rather than gold.....

As a LEGO Star Wars fan and collector, I was also quite taken with the poster below (click to enlarge) which arrived free with an online order for Cad Bane's Speeder in September of this year. It contains images of every single LEGO Star Wars minifig produced during the 10 years of the LEGO Star Wars franchise, and you really can't argue with that - nice !
Another poster freebie (thanks to The Brothers Brick for the image)
My award for the strangest freebie in recent memory has to go to the item below, which arrived totally unannounced with an online order earlier this year.

I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I have to admit to being a tad non-plussed when a Duplo brick with a picture of Max the LEGO Club mascot came tumbling out of the box along with my order. Still, given that it was both Free and Unexpected I'm certainly not complaining.

There is of course no such thing as a free lunch - unlike the other regular supplier of LEGO to my front door (Amazon), LEGO generally charge for delivery - but Free Stuff certainly softens the blow of those delivery charges..... Has anyone had any other cool Free Stuff with their LEGO online orders ?