Tuesday, 26 August 2014

An Art or a Science ?

The Art of LEGO Design by Jordan Schwartz is the latest in a procession of adult-oriented LEGO-related books from No Starch Press to drop through my letterbox. The timing was perfect - it arrived just as I was casting around for some suitable holiday reading - so I gratefully shoe-horned it into my already overstuffed suitcase and took it away with me. The book's a further illustration of the astonishing diversity of LEGO-related print offerings available at present; previous Gimme LEGO book reviews have included a Technic reference manual, a coffee table LEGO art book, a couple of books crammed full of instructions for MOCs of vehicles (here and here) and a Neo-Classic Space BibleThe Art of LEGO Design occupies yet another sub-genre, dealing as it does with a study of building techniques rather than just showing off a selection of finished creations.

According to the press release which accompanied my review copy of the book, author Jordan Schwartz became one of LEGO's youngest-ever designers when he landed an internship in Billund at the age of 18. While working for LEGO he was part of the Creator/Creator Expert team and worked on the likes of Set 10232 Palace Cinema. The Art of LEGO Design is his first book, aiming to provide practical guidance to LEGO builders, cast some light upon the thought processes underpinning the design choices of expert builders, and provide inspiration for those of us looking to build our own LEGO creations.

The book is a hefty, soft cover affair containing around 270 pages in total. The binding is nice and sturdy and the book feels well put together. The simple front cover features the image of a Nepali Tata Truck, a model which is featured in the book; similar to the cover of the recently-reviewed LEGO Space book from the same publisher, the image is glossy and therefore 'pops' against the matt background. The back cover (above) contains a succinct but representative summary of the book's aims and contents, plus a close-up of the author's model of Rob Serling from The Twilight Zone, so you know that he's got good taste in TV at least. After some introductory words we're into the first of thirteen chapters, each of which is split into a number of subsections. The ordering of the chapters seems a little random at times, for instance the chapter which focuses on the use of LEGO figures (minifigures, Fabuland, Belville, Technic and hybrids of these) in builds preceeds the chapter addressing fundamentals of brick, plate and slope geometry; that having been said, there's a comprehensive 3-page list of contents, and that together with the detailed 8-page index means it's easy to find what you're looking for.

Ming the Merciless by Jordan Schwartz
So here's the thing: designing and building your own models from scratch is a very personal thing I reckon - while there may be certain common behaviours and approaches among builders, when it comes down to it we all do things our own way. Anybody approaching the book looking for a definitive guide to MOCing is therefore likely to be disappointed I think - there's no 'right' way to do it, and each builder eventually figures out a style and approach of their own. While reading the book I was struck by how differently Jordan Schwartz approaches the task compared with how I like to do things; I tend to design my MOCs using computer design tools like LDD and don't trouble myself with tape measures and sketch pads which the author deems "indispensable building tools". That being said, I did find it interesting to observe the design and building process through the eyes of another builder, particularly someone with such an impressive track record, not to mention a different building style to mine.

Battle of the Leviathans by Ryan Rubino
What struck me most when I initially dived into the book was the sheer variety of content; I guess some might perceive the choice of subjects covered as idiosyncratic or even incomplete, but in reality it's just a reflection of the author's own modus operandi and preferences and it once again highlights the subjective and individual nature of the design and building process. Having discussed "Inspiration and Preparation" in the first chapter, followed by the use of the various types of LEGO figures in chapter two and then basic brick, plate and slope geometry in chapter three, there's a lengthy section on planning, building and framing mosaics. This chapter features the first of a number of brief interludes where the author 'interviews' renowned builders who specialise in some of the techniques, styles and MOCs featured in that particular chapter. In this case there's a short Q & A with Katie Walker a.k.a. eilonwy77 on Flickr whose mosaics are I think among the best in the business. I like these digressions - they reinforce the point that there's no "right" way of doing things and provide insights into the way that a number of outstanding builders go about their business. After patterns the book moves on to textures, predominantly the use of fabric and rubber elements; while some of the techniques presented give rise to effects which perhaps don't look sufficiently 'LEGO' for my taste there's no doubting the fact that the techniques are ingenious and impressive. We then move on to ways of creating organic effects and stylised models; this was a particularly interesting chapter for me as I really struggle to create realistic curves in my designs. Battle of the Leviathans (above) is one of the examples presented to illustrate the use of bows, slopes and wedges to produce organic effects, and the chapter also addresses the use of flexible elements such as hoses to produce believable curves; to wrap up the chapter, Tyler Clites a.k.a. Legohaulic is interviewed about the distinctive style of his models (such as Mind If I Wet My Whistle below).

Mind If I Wet My Whistle by Tyler Clites
Subsequent chapters touch on the use of natural and artificial lighting, perspective and colour to create specific effects, after which the focus shifts to designing and building specific types of models - animals (both real and fantastical), trees and foliage, large-scale figures, cars and other vehicles, buildings (both exteriors and interiors), mechs, spaceships and dioramas - see, I told you the content was diverse ! Some of these chapters feature interviews with notable builders, including a couple of builders whose creations just so happen to be among my favourites; I was particularly pleased to read the interview with Luke Hutchinson a.k.a. Derfel Cadarn who is responsible for some of my favourite MOCs ever and whose work I've previously featured on Gimme LEGO. There's even a brief section on photographing, Photoshopping and sharing your work, although to be honest this is probably too high level to be of much value unless you're a complete novice.

Twilight of the Gods by Luke Hutchinson
As previously stated, anyone buying this book in the hope that it'll hold their hand and walk them step by step through the proces of designing and build their own models is likely to be disappointed - it's not a MOCing instruction manual. What it is is one experienced builder's account of where he finds inspiration for his builds. some of the things he considers when designing models, and a selection of building techniques, tips and tricks that he employs, rounded off by a showcase of MOCs which he uses to illustrate some of the points that he makes. This is supplemented by choice insights from other renowned builders. I definitely enjoyed reading it, and not just because I took it away with me on holiday and read it while sitting on the beach sipping cocktails.... Whether or not a particular reader will end up inspired and better equipped to design and build their own masterpieces is hard to say, though; I actually suspect that everybody will walk away with something slightly different. I took away some ideas for a few new MOCs of my own and learned a couple of new building techniques that I'll definitely try out; others might be blown away by one or more specific example MOCs in the book and try to reproduce them, while some folks might not find much at all that's new to them.
Woolly Mammoth by Jordan Schwartz
In summary, if you're an enthusiastic builder looking to develop your skills then you'll almost certainly find some content of interest regardless of your ability. If however you're hoping for a step-by-step guide to designing and building your own creations then this isnt't really it, and nor I suspect did the author ever intend it to be. You could argue that much of the building technique-related content can be found for free on the web, but the inclusion of interviews with renowned builders adds welcome value by bringing some different perspectives into the mix, and overall it's a decent read.

The Art of LEGO Design has an RRP of $24.95 US, although at time of writing it can be obtained for less than this from Amazon in the UK (click here to buy) and the US (click here to buy). My thanks to No Starch Press for sending me a copy of the book to review on Gimme LEGO.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Agents Rebooted

Some say you should never go back, and LEGO has some history in that regard, not least with their 'Legends' series of classic sets which failed to hit the commercial heights. The rights and wrongs of rebooting rather than innovating aside, LEGO's decision to revive the cult Agents theme under the "Ultra Agents" banner took me by surprise, not least because the original sets weren't retired that long ago. Consisting of 13 sets released in 2008 and 2009, I missed out on the original Agents line while it was still available at retail and have been playing catch-up ever since. As I've discovered to my cost, some of the sets have become quite sought-after in the aftermarket; not surprising, given the quality of sets such as Mobile Command Center, Volcano Base and Aerial Defence Unit which recreate larger-than-life scenes from your average Bond movie and are crammed with cool play-features and neat details.

I first spied the Ultra Agents sets at the London Toy Fair earlier this year and was, if I'm honest, a bit underwhelmed. One of the things I liked most about the original Agents sets was the consistency of the colour schemes and design DNA running through the different sets, and at the Toy Fair at least this wasn't so evident in the new sets, giving the range a less than cohesive feel. The best of the new sets was perhaps Set 70165 Ultra Agents Mission HQ which seemed to be a remake of the original Agents Mobile Command Center, but the other sets were a decidedly mixed bag. For me, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the reboot wasn't even the actual sets but what appeared to be a close tie-in to a complementary app which would, we were told, enhance the play experience. I left the Toy Fair very much on the fence about the reboot and needing to be convinced.

I got to dip my toe into the water a couple of weeks back - I needed to place an order at S@H in order to secure a promo Classic Spaceman and it was the perfect excuse to pick up one of the Ultra Agents sets so I could run the rule over it. I chose Set 70162 Infearno Interception and it duly arrived a few days later. The front of the box (above) features an action shot of Agent Solomon Blaze battling the dastardly Infearno, with the Ultra Agents logo prominent on the packaging and the availability of a free app highlighted in one corner. The back of the box (below - click to enlarge) highlights some of the numerous play features of the set as well as once again pushing the accompanying app.

I ignored the two thumb tabs on the back of the box, slipped a sharp knife under the left end flap, popped open the box, and surveyed the contents. Two large bags of parts numbered '1' and '2' and an instruction booklet were all I saw initially; when a quick flick through the instruction booklet revealed that that there were supposed to be some stickers in the box as well I examined the packaging again and discovered the errant stickers clinging to the inside of the box. Thankfully they were still intact (picture below - click to enlarge) and mercifully there aren't too many of them to apply.

The instruction booklet (cover shot below) has a footprint of around 12.5 cm x 20 cm and contains 56 pages from cover to cover. In addition to the building instructions there's a two page inventory of parts, further advertising for the Ultra Agents app in seven languages, and a request by a green Ninja for the reader to provide product feedback.

A selection of rare and/or interesting parts to be found in the set can be seen in the picture below (click to enlarge). Considering that this is a relatively small set there are quite a few elements of note including six which are currently unique to this set - the black printed 45 degree slope, the dark red surfboard, the flat silver 2 x 2 and 4 x 1 curved slopes, and the trans-light blue 6 x 6 webbed radar dish and 8 x 4 x 2 windscreen (not shown). The blue Technic axle and pin connector toggle joint, flat silver air scoop and trans-light blue cheese slope appear in this set and one other, while the trans-orange 8L arrow, the black 6 x 6 inverted dish and spoiler and the flat silver pin connector have all featured in less than 5 sets. All the other elements in the picture have appeared in ten sets or less, with the exception of the curious light and dark bley 1 x 4 brick-like element in the top right corner which I'd never seen before but which has nevertheless surprisingly graced 27 sets to date; it's actually a spring shooter, of which more later. Like the previous incarnation of the Agents theme there's a sprinkling of silver, albeit flat silver rather than the sexier metallic silver that featured in the original sets. There's also a goodly quantity of trans-light blue elements which in addition to those mentioned above also include no less than sixteen 1 x 2 plates, a couple of 4 x 4 inverted dishes, and eight round 1 x 1 tiles.

The set includes two minifigures. Agent Solomon Blaze (below - click to enlarge) appears in this set and one other - Set 70165 Ultra Agents Mission HQ. Striking a blow for age equality, it appears that Solomon isn't a youngster but a grizzled old pro complete with grey hair and a weather-beaten face. His hair is actually a new element for 2014 which is thus far restricted to just Solomon Blaze and General Airen Cracken from Star Wars Set 75050 B-Wing, and his head, torso and legs are unique to the Solomon Blaze minifigure. The Torso is printed with the pattern of a Suit jacket complete with the Ultra Agents logo and a gold tie Pattern, while his right leg is printed with what Bricklink describes as a "Silver Prosthetic Bionic Right Leg Pattern".

Solomon's torso is backprinted (picture below - click to enlarge) although it's easy to miss the subtle pattern unless you look closely. He has an alternative expression, again visible below, described by Bricklink as "Determined/Smirk"; it's the sort of expression that you might conceivably expect Indiana Jones or Han Solo to sport.

The other minifigure in the set is super villain Infearno (below) who's only available in this set. Every element making up this minifigure - the head, torso, armour, legs and flame head piece - is unique to this minifigure. While the armour undoubtedly makes Infearno more imposing, it's unfortunately at the cost of covering up the excellent torso print which features a furnace and a pressure gauge. The torso print extends downwards onto the front of the legs which feature extensive printing from waist to toe.

Infearno's armour also obscures the torso backprint, which resembles a furnace door. Neither his head nor his legs are backprinted, although given that the flame head piece is transparent a backprinted alternate expression wouldn't have worked well on this occasion anyway. Note the two 1L bars protruding downwards from the base of the armour and the hollow stud on his back - their relevance will be revealed momentarily....

Infearno comes with a host of accessories, and you can see him fully tooled up in the picture below (click to enlarge). A pair of fire-spitting flamethrowers attach to the 1L bars mentioned above and wrap around the sides of his body; the flamethrowers are supplied by a fuel tank which attaches to the hollow stud on the back of his armour. As if twin flamethrowers weren't enough, he also carries a bundle of dynamite in each hand. Infearno gets about on a flame-powered hover board; this is made up of 8 elements including the rare dark red surfboard mentioned earlier which is propelled by a large trans-red flame with marbled trans-yellow pattern.

With both minifigs assembled it's time to get cracking on Solomon Blaze's vehicle, perplexingly described as a "convertible car" on the relevant page of the Ultra Agents microsite. It's a fairly quick and simple build, and you can see the completed model below (click to enlarge). The vehicle is certainly not 'convertible' in the traditional automotive sense, and it looks more like a 4-wheeled version of the iconic Tron Light Cycle than a car thanks to the black and trans-light blue colour scheme and the distinctive, sleek side-on profile, but that's fine by me.

Each front wheel is made up of a pair of black 6 x 6 inverted radar dishes with black curved bricks sandwiched in-between and trans-blue webbed 6 x 6 radar dishes on the convex surface of the black dishes. Although the front wheels are designed to rotate, the absence of tyres and consequent lack of friction means that they don't turn well on a smooth surface. The sides of the vehicle are greebled with a number of flat silver elements which further reinforces the high-tech feel, and a pair of forward-facing dual cannons complements the vehicle's main weapon which we'll get to shortly.....

The rear of the vehicle (above - click to enlarge) is a bit untidy on account of the big red knob sticking out of the back. Pushing hard on the knob activates a simple Technic mechanism linked to a rudimentary ejector seat with the result that Solomon Blaze is launched out of the cockpit. The two trans-orange bars protruding from the rear of the vehicle are actually the back ends of a pair of 8L arrows; push down on the rear spoiler and the vehicle's main weapon - twin spring-loaded missile shooters - are revealed (picture below - click to enlarge). Some gentle downwards pressure on the back of an arrow activates the firing mechanism and launches it a good few metres across the room - quite impressive.

In Bond movies the ejector seat often seems to be designed to get rid of the bad guy, but in this case Solomon Blaze uses it himself to get up close and personal with Infearno on his hover board and take him out. Our intrepid hero is ejected from the cockpit seated on a section of the cockpit floor (below - click to enlarge); once in mid-air it's presumably just a simple case of whipping out his mini blaster and dispatching the villain..... It's the first time I've encountered one of these weapons, which were only introduced this year. A small dark bley trigger clicks into the body of the blaster; once the trigger is in place you attach a round 1 x 1 plate to the end of the weapon, whereupon pressing down on the trigger makes the plate ping off quite energetically with a range of perhaps 1-2 metres.

I've already described a number of play-features, notably the spring-loaded missile shooters, but I've left the best 'til last - the vehicle has a hover mode which you can see below (note : the transparent stand isn't included in the set). This transformation is achieved by folding the front wheels inwards and the rear wheels downwards; pleasingly, there's sufficient friction in the respective mechanisms to keep the wheels folded like this even when you swoosh the model around. I'd somehow missed the fact that the vehicle had a hover mode until I'd bought the set and got it home, so it was a nice surprise.

You can see all the components of the set below (click to enlarge). I started out somewhat sceptical about the Agents reboot, and while I probably still need some convincing about the theme as a whole, so far as this set's concerned at least I like it. Infearno's an interesting baddie, and Solomon Blaze's car looks good and has some interesting play features, particularly the hover mode. For more information on this set and indeed other sets in the theme I'd encourage you to have a poke around LEGO's Ultra Agents microsite. I was a big fan of Crackdown on the XBOX 360 and I get a definite Crackdown vibe from the graphics and videos on the site; this impression was reinforced when I downloaded and played the Ultra Agents companion app on my iPad. The app, which is free and available for iOS and Android, offers a mixture of interactive comic book and minigames, and features distinct chapters each of which reflects one of the six Ultra Agents sets.

Set 70162 Infearno Interception contains 313 pieces and retails for £24.99 / $29.99 US. At time of writing, discounts on the set are few and far between; UK readers can get it here for a pound off RRP, while US readers can order via LEGO shop@home.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Lost In Space

Having recently wallowed in Classic Space nostalgia with my review of Set 918 One Man Space Ship and in the process touched on the Neo Classic Space movement, I figured it'd be the perfect time to run the rule over what could conceivably be described as the Neo Classic Space handbook, A.K.A. LEGO Space - Building the Future. This book has been out for a while now, but as there were a glut of reviews upon its initial release I decided to hold fire and let the dust settle before diving in and sharing my thoughts on it. The timing's actually perfect right now, given the recent reveal of Set 21109 Exo-Suit, but more of that later.... Before I get started, I need to declare an interest - I know the guys responsible for putting this book together, so bias is possible.... That having been said, as you'll hopefully have seen from previous reviews on Gimme LEGO, good or bad I'll call it as I see it, so let's begin.

First impressions are extremely positive. My hardback copy of the book is a surprisingly weighty tome and looks gorgeous. The 24 cm x 28 cm front cover (above) has a predominantly matt finish, but the image of the spaceship is glossy and therefore 'pops' impressively, giving the impression that the ship is literally flying out of the cover. The back cover (below) uses a similar trick to highlight six panels which provide a sneak peak of a selection of images that you'll find within. Opening the book reveals 218 thick, glossy pages, and overall the book feels like it's been expertly put together and with laudable attention to detail, all of which bodes well for the actual content.

Authors Peter "Legoloverman" Reid and Tim "Rogue Bantha" Goddard are stalwarts of the Neo Classic Space scene and accomplished and renowned LEGO builders to boot, so levels of anticipation were high when news of this book started to leak out. I've frequently featured their creations on the pages of Gimme LEGO over the past few years, for instance here and here, and I was one of those eagerly awaiting the book's release. I was particularly intrigued to discover what form the book would take; my best guess was that it'd contain pictures of Pete and Tim's Neo Classic Space MOCs together with the original LEGO sets that inspired them, plus maybe the Neo Classic Space 'building rules'. I was partly right, but as it turned out the book goes well beyond what I'd imagined.

Rather than just being a showcase for Pete and Tim's superb space-related MOCs, the book tells a story. This begins with a brief history of space exploration to date before venturing into one possible future taken straight from the fertile imaginations of the authors. The journey is illustrated by way of a large number of exquisite photographs provided by Ian Greig and Chris Salt, the latter perhaps better known for his excellent stop motion LEGO animation. What particularly stands out for me about the photographs are the glorious backdrops; as you'll see from some of the sample images I've included here, such as the picture of Voyager 2 above, it's easy at times to forget that you're looking at LEGO such is the quality of the builds, and the superb backdrops really help to reinforce the illusion.

As previously stated, the first few pages of LEGO Space set the scene for what's to come by providing a factual if highly selective potted history of space exploration to date. The launch of Sputnik (above) in October 1957 is the starting point, followed by the Apollo landings, then Voyager 1 and Voyager 2's tours of the solar system and beyond in the late 1970's, and most recently the exploration, mapping and analysis of the surface of Mars by Opportunity and Curiosity (below).

With the scene appropriately set, we quickly move from reality into fantasy, whereupon the authors can really let their creative juices flow.... A possible Neo Classic Space vision of mankind's future is laid out for us, starting with the birth of the Federation in the middle of the 21st century and the establishment of a permanent lunar colony in the Sea of Tranquility. Profits arising from robotic lunar mining then help to finance the establishment of a permanent base in the Cydonia region of Mars. Construction of a frontier space station in orbit around Jupiter follows soon after with a view to outer-system expansion and exploration, and it's from here that the Federation's Inhospitable Climate Engineering (ICE) teams set out to explore Jupiter's moons and unwittingly set in motion a train of events that will threaten humanity's very existence....

While the Sci-fi story within the pages of LEGO Space is admittedly somewhat basic, what it does do is provide the book with a unique and welcome personality, something sorely lacking from many other LEGO-related titles. It would have been all too easy for LEGO Space to have ended up as a slick, sterile volume of photographs of cool MOCs and nothing else, but the inclusion of the backstory lifts it to another level, providing welcome context to the featured models and drawing the reader in. A nice touch is the naming of certain characters in the story after longstanding members of the AFOL community; they must be pleased as punch to get an affectionate name check !

Whole chapters of the book focus on spaceships, such as those above, and other vehicles germane to the story. This of course provides the perfect opportunity to showcase some of Pete and Tim's superb Neo Classic Space designs including a couple of my all-time favourites - LL-497 Explorer and LL-605 Marauder - not to mention Peter Reid's celebrated Exo Suit (below). This model, as many of you will know, provides the basis for the imminently available LEGO Ideas Set 21109 Exo-Suit having secured 10,000 votes on the LEGO Ideas platform and subsequently been given the green light by LEGO to go into production.

At various points within LEGO Space there are brief interludes in the form of building instructions for micro-build models with relevance to the story, such as Sputnik. There are some great-looking little builds included, although some readers may struggle to find the necessary elements in their collections to build the models as there are some fairly specialised parts used. Even so, it's a nice touch which adds further value to the book.

Overall, I really can't recommend this book enough, and trust me when I say that I'd be raving about it regardless of whether or not I knew the authors. It's beautifully presented, it's packed with inspiring MOCs and fabulous photographs, and everything is held together and given welcome context by an interesting Sci-fi backstory. Regardless of whether you're a child of the 1960's or 1970's and fondly remember LEGO's Classic Space sets from when you were a youngster, or whether you're a younger LEGO fan with an interest in space, you'll love this book.

At time of writing, UK-based readers can purchase LEGO Space here for the bargain price of £12.24 (an absolute steal I reckon) including shipping while folks in the US can get it here for $15.78. Although I didn't have to pay for my copy - thank-you to LEGO Space publisher No Starch Press for sending me a review copy - this is one book that I'd have had no hesitation in shelling out for myself. Epic !

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Who wants to be a Millionaire ?

A few days ago Gimme LEGO became a pageview millionaire.

Not bad going for an infrequently-updated LEGO-focused blog founded less than 4 years ago I reckon, so please indulge me while I pause briefly and celebrate this milestone.

The last time I wrote a celebratory piece was back in August 2012 when I marked Gimme LEGO's second birthday. On that occasion I shared a list of the top ten most popular posts on the site since launch. The most viewed article back then - my two-part review of Set 10221 Super Star Destroyer (below) ahead of its release - continues to occupy the number one slot now, almost 2 years later. This is mainly because a number of other sites linked to the review back when it was first published and have continued to refer visitors ever since.

Below you can see an updated list of the top ten most read Gimme LEGO posts ever, ranked in descending order of pageviews. The saga of my recreation of cavegod's UCS AT-AT was split into a number of different posts; the first of these was the third most viewed Gimme LEGO post ever, and also attracted more comments (56 to date and counting) than any other. Event reports are clearly of interest, making up a relatively small proportion of posts but occupying half of the top ten slots, and the end-of-year Gimme LEGO awards also seem to be popular - although only the 2012 awards made the top ten, if I'd extended the list to the top fourteen posts ever then the 2011 and 2013 awards would also have made the cut.

1. Set 10221 UCS Super Star Destroyer

2. LEGO Star Wars UCS Exhibition, National Space Centre July 2011

3. Building the Perfect Beast : The UCS AT-AT

4. MOC City Layout - Change of Plan

5. Great Western LEGO Show 2010

6. AFOLCON 2012

7. LEGO Inside Tour 2013

8. The Gimme LEGO Awards 2012

9. Great Western LEGO Show 2011

10. Sneak Peek : Star Wars Miniland

One small caveat to the ranked listing above is that fixed pages such as the Index of Previous Posts and Bargain Hunt listings are excluded; if they're factored into the equation then the most visited Gimme LEGO page ever is, as it turns out, the Bargain Hunt page with 50% more visits than any other. Go Bargain Hunters !

A third of all pageviews since Gimme LEGO started out have come from the US and around 20% from the UK, with Germany in third place; the other countries making up the top ten can be seen below. Overall, a total of 185 countries are represented in the readership to date, with 23 countries including Syria, Somalia, the Congo and Angola providing a solitary pageview each....

As well as giving me the perfect excuse to unleash my inner anorak and share some site stats, milestones like this are a great opportunity for me to thank readers of Gimme LEGO for visiting the site and reading my ramblings. Thanks also to those people whose support and encouragement helps to keep me motivated and posting stuff on here and the recently-launched Gimme LEGO Facebook and Twitter pages. And finally, particular thanks are due to Huw from Brickset for all manner of technical assistance and for allowing me to make frequent use of Brickset's library of images and data, without which my postings would undoubtedly be shorter, more boring to look at, and less informative. OK, so shorter might be a good thing, but hopefully you get my drift.... Thanks again, and leg godt to all.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

One Man Show

With the massive success of this year's LEGO Movie and the subsequent release of Set 70816 Benny's Spaceship, Spaceship, SPACESHIP! I think it's fair to say that there's been something of a Classic Space revival; anyone wondering what I mean by Classic Space might want to check out this posting before continuing. In the most basic sense, Classic Space is a collection of space-themed sets released by LEGO in the late 1970's and early to mid-1980's; it has however grown to become much more than just a collection of sets, coming to represent a distinctive building style and colour scheme, and sparking the Neo Classic Space revivalist movement. Neo Classic Space has its own building rules and advocates, none more so that Peter "Legoloverman" Reid whose re-imagining of the daddy of all Classic Space sets you can see below.

Classic Space never went away for some of us, then, but for many it's taken the events of this year to remind them of its delights, or indeed to introduce it for the first time. In honour of this I thought I'd take a walk along memory lane and review another of the old Classic Space, um, classics - Set 918 One Man Space Ship, referred to by some sources as Set 918 Space Transport.

At just 23 cm wide by 14 cm tall by 4 cm deep the box is ultra slim and extremely compact. I assume that when new the set was shrink-wrapped in cellophane; alas my copy of the set was pre-owned when I bought it so I can't say for sure. The outer box is actually a slipcase, the front of which you can see above; this slides off to reveal an inner box which holds the pieces. The front of the slipcase carries a less than pin-sharp image of the set contents superimposed on a blurry starfield with a nearby planet top left and a barren lunar-like surface below. In addition to that we get the LEGO logo, the set number, and that's it; the 6+ age recommendation is relegated to one of the sides of the box and the set name is nowhere to be found. The rear of the slipcase (below) features photographs of a bunch of alternate builds which can be assembled using elements contained within the set. As stated in previous reviews I wish LEGO would provide such inspiration to today's builders, but the current fashion is to highlight play-features of the modern day sets on the back of the box instead.

Removal of the slipcase reveals the appropriately decorated inner box (below) which features double-walled sides and is adorned with a star-field pattern reminiscent of the front of the slipcase. Unfortunately the double walls reduce the space available for the pieces, so that when they're bagged up it's hard to slide the slipcase over them.

The cover of the instruction booklet, which looks pretty much the same as the front of the slipcase, can be seen below; I say 'booklet' but it's actually a single sheet measuring around 27 cm x 54 cm which is folded up into an approx. 13.5 cm x 13.5 cm square for storage. Unfolding the sheet reveals the clear and easy-to-follow building instructions which break the build into just 12 steps.

The building instructions take up almost all of the available space, with the two remaining panels being taken up by the cover art (above) and a diorama (below - click to enlarge) featuring a clutch of Classic Space sets. The same diorama picture also appears in the instruction leaflet for Set 894 Mobile Ground Tracking Station.

You can see selection of rare and/or interesting elements which can be found in the set in the picture below (click to enlarge). The blue 1 x 4 brick with the printed LL918 pattern is unique to this set, as is the light grey 1 x 4 brick with printed Homemaker stove switch pattern. The trans yellow 4 x 6 plate only appears in this and one other set, while the blue 33 degree 3 x 6 slope printed with the Classic Space logo and the light grey left and right 1 x 3 x 1 doors appear in a total of 5 sets. The trans yellow 33 degree 3 x 6 slope is a Classic Space staple and appears in a total of 9 sets. The other elements in the picture - the light grey stand, tail and 1 x 1 modified brick with positioning rockets, and the blue 2 x 2 - 2 x 2 bracket - are more commonly available, having initially appeared in the Classic Space sets and then subsequently been used in other themes.

It's hard to convey the excitement that I and other young LEGO fans felt back in the day when we were confronted with the Classic Space part and colour palette, some of which you can see above. To put things into context, up until the appearance of the Classic Space sets, the LEGO building experience had largely consisted of the use of basic elements in red, yellow, blue, white and black plus a smattering of trans clear elements, some light grey and green baseplates, and a few green trees. Then I opened my first Classic Space set and my senses were assaulted by trans yellow bricks, plates and slopes, small trans green and trans red plates and round bricks, light grey wedge plates, cones, positioning rockets, aircraft tails, stands and other exotica, and minifigures wearing space suits and carrying air tanks and radios. OK, so maybe if you weren't there you'll be scratching your head right now wondering what all the fuss was about, but trust me - at the time it felt like my LEGO world had been turned upside down, and for the better.

The set contains just one minifigure, but what a minifigure ! This red incarnation of probably LEGO's best-loved minifigure design of all time might look simple by today's standards but he's no less beautiful for that. Mine has managed to avoid one of the common Classic Space minifigure pitfalls, that of the cracked helmet strap lovingly parodied by Benny in the LEGO Movie, but as you can see in the picture above he's unfortunately fallen victim to the other - fading of his torso print; you can see what his torso print would have originally looked like here. His head has the standard grin pattern and isn't backprinted. You can get a good look at his airtanks in the picture below; this part first appeared as part of the Classic Space sets, and the same design is still in use to this day. This red version of the Classic Spaceman appeared in a total of almost 50 sets all told between 1978 and 1986.

The build is predictably simple - literally a matter of just a few minutes - and you can see the finished model below (click to enlarge). It seems incredible that a set as small and quickly-assembled as this could be considered so ground-breaking, but you need to remember that pre-1978, LEGO models utilised basic bricks, slopes and plates; the appearance in 1978 of wedge plates and other more specialised elements, plus the expanded colour palette, revolutionised design possibilities and gave us LEGO spaceships which at the time seemed impossibly sleek and desirable. Many of the new elements are immediately evident - the blue 33 3 x 6 slope with the iconic Classic Space logo, the trans yellow windscreen and 4 x 6 plate which forms the cockpit roof, and the light grey wedge plates, positioning rockets and tail to name just a few.

From behind you can see the large light grey cone, another of the new elements ushered in by the Classic Space revolution, and it's attached to the rear of the ship by the blue 2 x 2 - 2 x 2 bracket. The rear of the ship tapers neatly thanks to the use of more wedge plates.

As you can see from the picture below, there's more than enough space inside the cockpit for our Classic Spaceman; he sits behind a steering wheel and the light grey 1 x 4 brick with printed Homemaker stove pattern mentioned earlier which is used a a control panel. The trans yellow cockpit roof is attached via a pair of hinges on the right of the cockpit and it opens to provide cockpit access. The only other moving parts are the pair of light grey 1 x 3 x 1 doors on either side towards the rear of the craft.

In summary, Set 918 One Man Space Ship was released in 1979 and contains 81 parts; it appears to have only been released in Europe, Australia and Canada. It was one of a small, select group of much-loved and groundbreaking sets which were literally the start of an era, and whose appeal has IMHO deservedly endured to the present day. Old it may be, but I think this set has retained its charm in spades - great to look at, and also eminently swooshable. The enduring popularity of Classic Space sets in general is reflected in the aftermarket prices. At time of writing there are only 10 examples of this set listed for sale on Bricklink of which only 2 are boxed; the only used boxed example will set you back over £100 plus shipping, and if you want a mint, sealed copy then prepare to shell out almost £1,000 / US$1,500 for the privilege.... The set does periodically come up on eBay - that's where I got my copy a few years back - so keep your eyes peeled and you may get lucky.

For more Classic Space goodness you might want to check out my review of Set 894 Mobile Ground Tracking Station or read some of my related ramblings here and here. Further Classic Space reviews to come in due course - it's always a pleasure to look back at these sets !

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Family Values

So there I was, having a relaxing sit down and a nice cup of tea after my epic two-part Sea Cow review. The pressure was off - two whole weeks to figure out what to write about next, to do any building and photography that needs to be done, and to formulate, format and publish the next Gimme LEGO posting. Deep breath in, exhale, and chill out.... Then in walks my other half and my youngster fresh from a last-minute trip to LEGOLAND Windsor, and they've bought me a present ! Surely not a LEGO set, though - I've got pretty much all of those already. Except, wait a minute - not this one.....

Set 40115 LEGOLAND Entrance with Family is apparently a LEGOLAND exclusive and only available from LEGOLAND parks. While I was aware of its existence before it arrived in my house, I had yet to see any reviews of the set on the sites that I frequent. I therefore decided to dive straight in and check it out for myself.

The box is fairly compact, with a footprint of 26 cm x 14 cm. It's surprisingly deep and heavy for such a small set, however, and unusually for a box of this size it's secured with tape seals rather than providing the option of thumb tabs. The box art is about as simple as it gets, with an image of the completed build posed against a simple backdrop dominating the front of the box (above); a small inset image to the bottom left of the main image offers a clue to the most intriguing aspect of the set, however, and when you flip the box over this feature is revealed (below - click to enlarge). The set contains the necessary elements to build both a light-skinned and a dark-skinned family, albeit not at the same time. I've never seen a LEGO set offer this particular customization option before, and I'd be fascinated to know if this is a LEGO first.

Cutting the tape seals reveals four un-numbered bags of elements, two slim instruction booklets, a cardboard backdrop, and an 8 x 16 light bley plate loose in the box. There's no DSS.  You can see the backdrop below; the foreground is printed with a fairly crude and generic representation of the entrance to the LEGOLAND parks, with a silhouette of the park attractions in the background. The backdrop is perforated close to its lower edge by a couple of slots which will be used to attach it to the finished model.

As reflected by their front covers (pictures below), one booklet contains instructions to build the dark-skinned family, and the other to build the light-skinned family. Both booklets are around 40 pages in length, with one being a couple of pages longer than the other by virtue of the inclusion of a 2-page inventory of parts at the end. Unusually, apart from the LEGOLAND references there's absolutely no advertising in either booklet.

You can see a selection of some the more uncommon elements contained within the set below. There aren't any elements unique to the set, although the dark tan 2 x 2 tile printed with the gold star has only previously featured in one other set, the Palace Cinema. Other elements such as the tan modified 1 x 1 plate with vertical clip and the left and right dark green 6 x 3 wedge plates can only be found in two other sets, and this is only the fourth appearance of the ovoid shield with lion head motif. All other elements in the picture have appeared in ten sets or less.

The build itself is predictably fairly simple. You start out by assembling a stand using green and light bley plates; this is then decorated with dark green wedge plates, some dark bley 2 x 2 round tiles and 1 x 1 round plates, and a few bright light orange and dark pink flowers. Then it's time to start work on the Miniland-style figures themselves.  There's liberal use of plates modified with clips, closed handles and hinges to allow some arm movement, and clips and clip lights are pressed into service as hands so that the figures can hold a variety of accessories including a sword, a shield, a wand, a brick-built camera and a bunch of flowers. Mum has a 2 x 2 turntable at waist level so is able to rotate the upper part of her body; all the figures have a 1 x 1 round plate for a neck, so head rotation is simply a case of twisting the head to the desired position. Baby's curls are formed from modified 1 x 1 plates with clip light, while dad has for some reason got the dark tan printed 2 x 2 tile stuck on his chest, presumably to represent a naff sweater....

The picture below shows how the backdrop is attached to the base. Dark green 1 x 3 tiles pass through the two slots at the bottom of the backdrop and attach to structures behind and in front. This securely anchors the backdrop to the base, although it does have a tendency to lean forwards or backwards a little.

As previously discussed, the set contains parts and instructions for an alternate build which you can see below (click to enlarge). Here, all the tan elements in the figures which represent exposed skin are substituted by reddish brown elements, with the exception of the elements making up the hands which are replaced by their black equivalents. This is understandable in the case of the 1 x 1 plate with clip light which doesn't exist in reddish brown, but less so for the 1 x 1 plate with vertical clip which appears in reddish brown in one of the currently-available Minecraft sets. Additionally, mum and baby get black hair.

Set 40115 LEGOLAND Entrance with Family is available now from LEGOLAND Windsor and other LEGOLAND parks. It contains 270 pieces and costs £12.99. As a fan of 'old school' builds I found the model to be quite charming, although the crude, simplistic nature of the Miniland-style figures won't be to everybody's taste, and some will no doubt complain about the lack of minifigures.... At £12.99 for 270 parts it's decent value for money, and it isn't often that you can say that about any aspect of the theme park experience.

Next time on Gimme LEGO : we're overdue a dig through the archives and another dose of Classic Space I reckon.... ;-)