Monday, 13 October 2014

Double Agent

LEGO's recent reboot of the Agents theme in the form of Ultra Agents, and my subsequent review of one of the new offerings - Set 70162 Infearno Interception - reminded me that I've been meaning to revisit my collection of original Agents sets for a while now and review one of the sets on here. Consisting of 13 sets released in 2008 and 2009, the original Agents line-up contains some excellent offerings, so much so that I found it hard to decide which one to go for. I eventually plumped for Set 8971 Aerial Defence Unit and enthusiastically dived in.

One of the things I like about the Agents theme is the consistency of presentation. This is most evident in the use of an agreeable overarching colour scheme applied across all of the sets and which, in the case of the Agents 2.0 second wave of sets released in 2009, also extends to the branding of the packaging and instructions. All the vehicles at the disposal of the eponymous agents are predominantly, or at least partially, dark blue in colour with variable amounts of metallic silver on show, and the agents themselves sport dark blue torsos and legs embellished with lime green and silver printing. Dark blue and lime green also dominate the branding of the Agents 2.0 boxes as you can see above and below. It's not just the agents either; the villains, together with their vehicles and bases, also conform to a consistent colour scheme, in this case orange, silver and black in varying proportions. The back of the box (below - click to enlarge) showcases a number of the set's play features, and a series of small panels highlight other second wave Agents releases. I wish the previous owner of my pre-owned copy of the set had been a bit more careful opening the box, but other than the damage caused by removal of the original seals the box is thankfully in reasonable shape.

I believe that the set's 733 elements were originally packed into 4 bags when the set was new. In addition to the elements, the set contains a sticker sheet and two instruction booklets. You can see the sticker sheet below, which unusually for a pre-owned set is largely intact and unused. It won't be unused for long, however.... The sheet contains 16 stickers, and dark blue, silver and lime green are once again the order of the day.

The instruction booklets are both close to A4 in size and have covers which are the same except for the booklet number in the bottom left corner. The cover of booklet 1 can be seen below; the cover art is almost identical to the imagery on the front of the box, with only the age recommendation lacking. Both booklets are 76 pages long; booklet 1 consists almost entirely of building instructions, covering the minifigures, base and the first half of the helicopter build, while booklet 2 contains a 2-page inventory of parts and seven pages of advertising for Agents sets, the LEGO Club and a product survey as well as wrapping up the helicopter build.

The back cover of the first instruction booklet (below) contains advertising for the second wave of Agents sets released in 2009; a silhouette of the mech from Set 8970 Robo Attack looms large in the background, while in the foreground you can see the 4 x 4 from Set 8969 4-Wheeling Pursuit bottom right and the Agents vehicle from Set 8967 Gold Tooth's Getaway bottom left.

You can see a few of the less common parts contained in the set below (click to enlarge). As previously stated, the Agents theme is notable for its use of dark blue elements and that's reflected in the selection of elements on show here. The dark blue 1 x 2 - 2 x 2 bracket and curved 8 x 8 x 2 double slope are both unique to the set, while the trans-black 8 x 6 x 4 windscreen is exclusive to the Agents theme, having only appeared in this set and one other, Set 8634 Turbocar Chase. The dark blue 2 x 2 curved slope with recessed side ports has only ever featured in this set and two others, and that's also the case for the dark blue 8 x 6 x 2 curved windscreen. The black cylindrical element is a Basilisk body segment and has appeared in a total of 4 sets including this one, as has the bley 10 x 10 inverted dish, the orange telescope and the pearl light gray 7mm diameter 11L ribbed hose.  All other elements in the picture have also appeared in ten sets or less to date.

The set contains seven minifigures - three Agents, a villain and his three drones. The version of Agent Chase that appears in this set (below) also appears in two others - Set 8634 Turbocar Chase and Set 8635 Mobile Command Center. His torso is the same as that used for Agent Charge, the other male agent in this set, and indeed the same as that used for all male agents appearing across the various sets making up the Agents theme. His legs, which are common to all three agents in this set, are printed with an I.D. card and a continuation of the lime and silver pattern adorning his torso, while his head print features dark blue shades and a head-mike.

Agent Chase doesn't have a back-printed torso, but he does have a alternate expression as you can see in the picture below. Bricklink describes his alternate expression as "Angry Eyebrows and Scowl"; maybe he's on a downer because he's lost his shades.... This double-sided head is actually a "Chase exclusive" appearing only in the five different Agent Chase variants that you can see here.

Agent Swift (below) is unique to this set. Her torso print, which is obscured by her body armour in the picture below, is similar but not identical to that of the male agents and can only otherwise be found adorning the torso of Agent Trace, her fellow female agent. The body amour is predictably exclusive to the Agents theme and has graced a total of five minifigures, while as previously stated her printed legs are the same as those of the other agents.

There's no back-printing on Agent Swift's torso, not that it really matters as it'd be hidden by her body armour anyway. She does however have a back-printed head featuring a scared alternate expression for all those occasions when you want to place her in peril.... As was the case with her torso, her head print is only shared with the Agent Trace minifigure.

Rugged, mean-looking Agent Charge (below) is unique to this set. His torso and legs are identical to those of Agent Chase, but unlike Chase he comes complete with body armour. His snarling, stubbled face print and flat top hairstyle can be found in a variety of other minifigures outside of the Agents theme.

Similar to the other agents there's no back-printing on his torso, although like Swift the body armour would have obscured any printing anyway so no great loss. Unlike the other agents, however, he doesn't have an alternate expression, so basically you have the choice between 'mean' and 'mean....

Each of the Agents sets features at least one distinctive villain, and on this occasion the bad guy is Magma Commander (below). He's unique to the set, as are his torso and printed trans-neon orange head, although his metallic silver helmet can also be found being worn by Break Jaw, another Agents villain. Magma Commander sports a metallic silver mechnical claw in place of his right hand.

I've removed Magma Commander's helmet in the picture below so that you can get a better look at his groovy printed trans-neon orange head. The head doesn't feature any back-printing. Although his legs aren't printed front or back, they're nonetheless rare by virtue of the orange hips and this is the only set that they appear in.

You can get a closer look at Magma Commander's torso backprint and the detailing on the rear of his helmet in the picture below.

Rather than a posse of regulation goons or evil henchmen the Magma Commander is supported by three Magma Drones. These have identical legs and torsos to those of their master, although in place of his metallic silver claw on the right hand they have a trans-orange cone which is presumably meant to be some sort of weapon.

Each drone has an antenna consisting of a small black lever base with a black lever in place of a head; according to Brickipedia the drones are controlled via the large satellite dish mounted on top of Magma Commander's base which we'll come to shortly....

You can see the Magma Commander with his drones in the picture below (click to enlarge) - an imposing sight for our heroes. I have to say that I'm a big fan of the metallic silver, bley and orange colour scheme.

With the minifigures assembled it was time to get started on the various models. Differentiating between black, dark bley and light bley in the instruction booklets was frustratingly difficult initially and it took me a while to get oriented. First to be built was a small boat consisting of just 10 parts and a sticker; it's little more than a glorified jet ski and eventually fits into the back of the helicopter as you'll see later. Next up is Magma Commander's base (picture below - click to enlarge) which is formed from three distinct sections joined together by brick hinges. A couple of features dominate the central section of the base. At ground level there's a striking tiled black panel fringed with pearl light grey modified 1 x 1 plates with tooth. This is actually a doorway and by lifting the orange cone to the left of the panel you can raise the panel somewhat, although not enough to actually get the minifigures in or out.... Above the doorway is a huge dish which can be rotated by turning a knob at the back of the base. Bookending the doorway are a couple of smaller sections, each of which is predominantly made up of a reddish brown LURP; there's a narrow observation platform and stickered screen atop the right-hand section.

The rear aspect of the base is shown below (click to enlarge). To the right as you look there's a small control panel and to the left is a rudimentary reclining structure with a red base which can accommodate one drone at a time, perhaps for recharging. There's no doubt that the Magma Commander's HQ is small and insubstantial, but even so it does have the faintest whiff of 'Bond villain' about it and I was minded to go and build Set 8637 Volcano Base to sit alongside it and give the Agents a sterner test....

With the base completed it's time to get stuck in to the helicopter. My complaints about colour discrimination issues in the instruction booklets took an unexpected twist at this point with the realisation that black Technic pins do actually look black in the booklet and have white edges to highlight them; this means that if you insert a black Technic pin into a black element then they look like they're different colours in the booklet - really bizarre. First steps in the helicopter build involve the construction of a solid, sturdy Technic floor, after which you attach a pair of yellow winch reels and start to install structures in what will eventually be the fuselage. Next the two-seater cockpit is constructed and enclosed by the large trans-black canopy which is hinged at the back to enable easy cockpit access; you can see what the model looks like at this point in the picture below (click to enlarge).

You can just about see one of the two yellow winch reels peeking out from the back of the cockpit in the picture below (click to enlarge); the two winches operate independently from each other, their string being raised and lowered by turning the bley wheel on the corresponding side of the cockpit. The small structure consisting of a yellow 1 x 1 cone mounted on a Technic axle and pin connector acts as a stop to prevent the string from unravelling when you pull on it; in order to release the string you need to rotate the yellow cone upwards.

The next stage of the build (below - click to enlarge) involves construction of a lengthy tail boom and attachment of the rear rotor. The boom is largely studless, and at the point where it joins the fuselage of the helicopter it's flanked by a couple of jet engines which are fashioned from black Basilisk body segments described earlier. The cockpit and boom are then connected by black Technic bricks which form the beginnings of a roof over the fuselage.

You can get a closer look at the tail boom, tail and jet engines in the picture below (click to enlarge). Attachment of the boom leaves a small space in the area beneath the point where it attaches to the fuselage; this space will be used to store the small boat described earlier.

With instruction booklet one now finished it's time to move on to booklet two. The build continues with completion of the Technic frame to which the fuselage doors will be bolted, and construction of the mechanism for spinning the rotors; if you look closely at the roof of the fuselage in the picture below (click to enlarge) you can see a bley gear rack and red elastic band which form part of the mechanism. The string from the winches is no longer trailing out to the sides of the helicopter, having now been attached to a pair of what appear to be harnesses; the idea is that you attach Agent Chase and his colleagues to these harnesses after which you can lower them out of the fuselage or lift them up using the winches when the helicopter is in flight.

The mechanism for spinning the rotors can be seen a little more clearly in the picture below, and I'll describe it in more detail when I get on to talking about the set's play features. As well as the Technic-heavy work going on at this stage of the build there's also some tidying up to be done where the fuselage meets the cockpit and the boom.

The final stage of the build begins with the construction and fitting of the four fuselage doors; if you want the finished helicopter to look as LEGO intended then there are a fair few stickers to attach at this point including a couple of larger ones which attach to the curved surface of two of the doors. I don't like stickers at the best of times, and I particularly hate trying to neatly apply big stickers to curved surfaces, so I spent the next few minutes cursing while I applied and reapplied the stickers until I finally had what I considered to be an acceptable result. With the doors fitted the helicopter then gets some rudimentary non-retractable landing gear, after which it's a case of fitting a couple of large curved roof sections, building and attaching the pair of large main rotors, doing a bit of tidying up, and then we're done as you can see in the picture below (click to enlarge).

I love the dark blue and yellow colour scheme, although I wish that there was more metallic silver which is a feature of many of the Agents sets but which only appears here thanks to the stickers. The design is surprisingly studless, with tiles and curved panels covering most surfaces and liberal use of SNOT techniques; I'm aware that some prefer a more studded design, but I personally think that the helicopter looks polished and impressive.

As well as looking good, the helicopter is packed with play features, some of which you can see demonstrated in the pictures below (click to enlarge). As well as the previously-described opening cockpit canopy, we get four independently opening doors on either side of the body of the helicopter; you'd generally expect the side doors to open via simple hinges, but in this case a more complex mechanism is employed which offers increased access by allowing each door to be pulled laterally away from the helicopter body as well as offering the ability to open outwards. Not visible in the picture below are the pair of winches behind the cockpit which can be used to lower or airlift the Agents through the open doors while the helicopter is in flight.

The twin rotors rotate thanks to the inclusion of a Technic mechanism; the yellow and black section on top of the boom can slide backwards and forwards which makes the rotors spin, and because the rotors are tilted and their motion is syncronised their blades never touch - clever! The recoil from the red elastic band that you can see in the picture below (click to enlarge) returns the mechanism to its starting position so you're ready to go again and keep the rotors spinning. The small rear rotor can also spin, although it isn't attached to the mechanism for the main rotors.

As mentioned previously, at the back of the fuselage beneath the tail boom there's a compartment which accommodates the small boat. The picture below (click to enlarge) shows the boat pushed halfway into its compartment. When the boat is pushed in as far as it'll go it can be secured for flight by lifting up the dark bley modified tile with handle that you can see in the picture below; having thoroughly enjoyed swooshing the finished model around the room I can confirm that the boat stays put!

In summary I think this is a superb set, and it offers a welcome reminder of what an excellent job LEGO did with the original Agents theme. The helicopter in particular looks great and it's packed with play features. For once I think that LEGO's 8-14 age recommendation is if anything slightly optimistic as the build was surprisingly challenging, featuring more Technic elements and mechanisms than I'd expected; it certainly look me longer to build than I thought it would, and I enjoyed almost every minute of it.

Reacquainting myself with the original Agents sets has been a joy, but the downside is that it's lessened my affection for the current Ultra Agents theme. Don't get me wrong - I was quite impressed with the Ultra Agents Infearno Interception set that I recently reviewed, and a couple of the other Ultra Agents sets such as the Mission HQ look pretty good - but I can't get away from the feeling that some of the original Agents sets such as this one, the Mobile Command Center and the Volcano base are at a different level and put the newer offerings in the shade. Let's just hope that LEGO builds upon the competent first wave of Ultra Agents sets and gives us a few spectacular second wave offerings in 2015 that'll mean I no longer have to reminisce about how good the original sets were....

Set 8971 Aerial Defence Unit was released in 2009 and is long retired. It contains 733 pieces and according to Brickset it originally retailed for £41.09/US$79.99. I purchased my pre-owned boxed copy of the set from eBay for £30 plus shipping last year, although I did need to replace a few missing parts; you'll probably end up paying a little more than that now for a boxed example, although there are currently a few new sealed examples available on Bricklink for between £60 and £70 plus shipping which seems surprisingly reasonable to me, so you hopefully won't need to break the bank if you're after a copy. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Race Against Time

I'm a notoriously slow builder. Set 10179 Ultimate Collector's Millennium Falcon took me the best part of 3-months to complete, and it's a source of some amusement to certain AFOL friends of mine that it takes me so long to finish my builds. It's not so much that the process of finding each piece and placing it in the correct position takes forever, more that I take frequent breaks while I build, some of which have a tendency to last days, or occasionally weeks, rather than minutes.... I certainly like to savour my building time, that's for sure, rather than rushing things too much. After all - what's the hurry?

Given all this, you might consider that a recent request from Fairy Bricks head honcho Kevin Gasgoigne for me to live-build a large model over the course of a weekend on behalf of the Fairy Bricks charity might be somewhat foolhardy.... For those who aren't aware, Fairy Bricks raises money to buy LEGO sets which it donates to childrens' wards at hospitals and hospices, and Gimme LEGO is proud to consider itself a Friend of Fairy Bricks. The charity was due to have a presence at the recent Bright Bricks and Bricks UK Exhibition of LEGO at Sandown Park racecourse, and the plan was for me to live-build Set 10234 Sydney Opera House during the show as a way of encouraging people to buy tickets for the raffle where the first prize was a new and sealed copy of the set. I have to admit that I had my doubts - at 2989 pieces the set is by my reckoning the 11th largest that LEGO have ever produced, and I was only going to be able to attend the show for a day and a half as I had a couple of other commitments to fit in. All that having been said, it was obviously a request that I couldn't refuse. I therefore agreed, albeit with some degree of trepidation, and so it was that a couple of months later I found myself heading down to Sandown Park racecourse in Epsom, South London on a crisp Saturday morning.

So how does a laid-back builder go about constructing a 2989-piece collossus in a day and a half? Well, apart from a generous supply of caffeine and chocolate, I figured that I'd just have to get my head down and focus - no mean feat given that I'd be building the model in a crowded and noisy exhibition hall. Shortly after arrival at the venue I was given custody of the set (above) and I wasted no time in slicing through the three tape seals at one end of the huge, bulging box and emptying out the contents - four instruction booklets sealed in a cardboard-backed bag, a bunch of blue baseplates, and a prodigious number of bags containing LEGO elements. Most of the bags are printed with a number corresponding to the instruction booklet that they're associated with, and in this way the build is split into four distinct stages. I'd brought along a few of the clear plastic crates that I use to sort pieces at home when I'm building large sets, so for each stage in turn I emptied out all the correspondingly numbered bags into a crate and roughly sorted them into small elements at one end and larger elements at the other to make finding pieces a bit easier. Parts-wise I've never seen so much dark tan in one place, so if you're looking for a dark tan parts pack then look no further....

The first instruction booklet, which consists of just 48 pages from cover to cover, guides you through construction of the area to the front of the Opera House (pictures above and below - click to enlarge). This part of the build is relatively quick and straightforward. Consisting mainly of a representation of the 100-metre wide ceremonial staircase known as the Monumental Steps which leads up to the two main performance venues, this first stage of the build sits on a couple of blue baseplates with a combined area of 32 x 48 studs. The separate structure which sits to the front of the Opera House is actually a restaurant, and its roof isn't completed until the very end of the build. The restaurant windows are comprised of black 6 x 6 and 10 x 10 round corner bricks which are cleverly positioned and held in place 'back to back', i.e. underside to underside, as you can (just about) see in the photographs.

The second instruction booklet, which runs for a total of 72 pages, covers the construction of the rest of the Opera House and its surrounds, with the exception of the two main auditoria with their vaulted, sail-like roof structures and towering windows at the front and back. This section is mounted on a blue 48 x 48 baseplate which is unique to the set. By lunchtime on Saturday when I needed to sneak off elsewhere I'd been building for a total of approximately three and a half hours during which time I'd polished off the first instruction booklet and about a third of the second booklet.

I arrived at the venue early on Sunday morning to crack on with the build, conscious that the pressure was well and truly on if I was going to finish up by 6 pm that day. I polished off the remainder of the second instruction booklet within a couple of hours, at which point Stage 2 of the build (pictures above and below - click to enlarge) was complete. The next job was to join the two completed sections together; this is achieved using just a couple of humble Technic pins, with the yellow Technic liftarms protruding from the base of each section acting as guides to ensure that the sections are correctly aligned relative to each other. While the second section took a fair bit longer to complete than the first, the build was nevertheless once again quite straightforward. I thought the curved terrace section that you can see in the picture above was particularly nicely realised - the curve is approximated via the use of a number of 1 x 4 hinge plates and the area inside the curve is neatly filled in with a variety of wedge plates; if you look closely you can see a couple of awkwardly-shaped areas filled with two 2 x 4 wedge plates.

With the first two booklets completed it was time to move on to booklet three which contains instructions for construction of the larger of the Opera House's two main auditoria, the Concert Hall. In the model, the space beneath the sail-like roof is almost entirely filled with the structures which support the different roof elements and hold them at the correct angles. In comparison to the previously completed sections of the build, construction of the roof was trickier and needed a little care and concentration. The roof sections are held in place by a number of Technic A-frames which are angled via the use of ball-and-socket joints; it's pretty ingenious and the result is instantly recognisable, although if I have a criticism it's that the gap running along the apex of the roof isn't aesthetically very pleasing. In truth, however, it's hard to see how this could have been avoided.

You can see pictures of the completed Concert Hall above (front view) and below (rear view), with the sail-like roof sections bookended by large expanses of glass. The picture below nicely demonstrates how the different roof sections are held at different angles via the use of ball and socket joints as previously described.

Once instruction booklet three was done and dusted I felt like I was on the home straight. Without further ado I dived into instruction booklet four and the final part of the build.  This commenced with construction of the smaller of the two main auditoria - the Joan Sutherland Theatre. I was on a roll by this time, and with the end in sight I steamed through this section in double-quick time.

While not identical to the Concert Hall, construction of the Joan Sutherland Theatre predictably followed along very similar lines which inevitably provoked a sense of deja vu. That having been said, a degree of repetition is almost inevitable in a build of this size. You can see pictures of the completed Joan Sutherland Theatre above (front view) and below (rear view).

The completed Concert Hall and Joan Sutherland Theatre sections could then be dropped into their respective slots in the structure below, at which point Sydney Opera House was almost finished. Both auditoria are only attached underneath by a few studs but that's nevertheless more than enough to hold them securely in place. All that was left to do was to construct the curved glass structures at the rear of each auditorium, build and attach the restaurant roof, place 28 lamp posts onto the boardwalk around the sides of the building, and I was done ! You can see various views of the completed model below (click to enlarge).

Total build time turned out to be a little over 9 hours which was less than I'd expected. I'm pretty sure that I could have shaved some time off that if I'd been more focused and less easily distracted by visitors on the day, but chatting to attendees was a lot more interesting and worthwhile than trying to finish up more quickly, and it made for a far more memorable experience as far as I was concerned.

Prior to getting started, I did have some concerns that the build might be a bit dull thanks to the degree of repetition and necessarily bland colour palette employed. In the event, however, while there certainly was some repetition, it actually turned out to be a surprisingly interesting build, not least because of the number and variety of clever building techniques employed; construction of the 'sails' was particularly ingenious. With regard to the finished model, while I'm aware that some people who know Sydney Opera House much better than I do have expressed reservations about the accuracy and proportions of the model, to my untrained eye it seems to be a pretty good approximation.

Much more important than whether or not I enjoyed the build was of course whether it had the desired effect on raffle ticket sales. Kevin stood close by and sold tickets while I cracked on with the build, and our double act did seem to bear fruit - visitors would watch me build for a while, whereupon Kevin would appear and casually inform them that they could win their very own new and sealed copy of the set for just the cost of a £1 raffle ticket. All told, around £2,000 was raised from raffle ticket sales by the time the raffle draw took place late on Monday afternoon, so a big hand to Kevin and many thanks to all those attendees who bought a ticket.

The Sandown Park show itself, which was being held for the first time, was a great success, attracting almost 4,700 visitors over the 3 days which was apparently way beyond the expectations of the organisers. I'd brought a few MOCs (above - click to enlarge) to exhibit, all of which have previously featured on Gimme LEGO at one time or another. Thankfully Kevin had arranged for them to be on display adjacent to where I was building Sydney Opera House so I was able to chat to attendees about the models and answer any questions that came up. Which reminds me - thanks to the Gimme LEGO readers and Bricksetters who came over to say "hi" - it was good to meet you!

I had limited time to check out the models that other exhibitors had brought along, but I saw enough to be impressed by the high quality of exhibits. In addition to a healthy line up of new builds and previously-displayed models from a host of noted builders, professional LEGO builders Bright Bricks were in attendance and brought a number of excellent models along with them, including the amazing tropical seabed scene above (click to enlarge).

Given the success of the event, and the ability of the venue to accommodate larger numbers of exhibits and visitors if needed, I reckon there's a good chance that we'll be back there next year. I just hope my sore fingers have recovered by then....

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.