Monday, 5 December 2016

Friends Reunited

I emerged from my LEGO Dark Ages back in 2008. I've long suspected that the number of sets released annually since then has increased year on year, and a cursory interrogation of the Brickset database would seem to support that notion. According to Brickset, LEGO released a total of 410 sets of all types in 2008. This increased to 454 in 2009 and 501 in 2010, and the total has continued to rise every year since then to the point where in 2016 we're already up to 810 sets at time of writing. So basically a doubling of output in the space of less than 10 years - amazing!

It's fair to say that for much of the past decade my purchasing of sets has grown in a similar fashion. It was modest at first, but rapidly accelerated as my passion for the hobby increased. I reckon that I probably hit my purchasing peak back in 2013 or 2014, but since then I've increasingly tried to put the brakes on due to limited storage space. A few specific themes have borne the brunt of this restraint, notably City and Friends. From a City perspective I've admittedly continued to cherry-pick some specific sets, and I've been unable to resist some of the excellent summer City subthemes such as Deep Sea Explorers and Volcano Explorers, but in truth it hasn't been much of a hardship to forego the annual slew of City Police and Fire sets. Likewise for Friends, while I've felt some regret at passing on a few sets, for instance 41122 Adventure Camp Tree House (below) and 41134 Heartlake Performance School, in the main it's been fairly easy to abstain given the similarity of many sets to previous Friends releases.

All that having been said, regardless of the rules you set yourself, sometimes something comes along that forces you to make an exception, and 41129 Amusement Park Hot Dog Van definitely falls into that category; when Brickset threw up an alert back in October informing me that the set was 32% off RRP on Amazon I immediately pounced and pushed it to the top of my build queue.

It's been a while since I last built a Friends set, but as far as I can ascertain the box features the same scalloped edges and pretty much the same colour scheme that the Friends theme has been using since it debuted back in 2012. The branding has been subtly tweaked, though, and one obvious evolution concerns the five Friends themselves - while they continue to look out from the top right of the front of the box (above) like they've always done, their hairstyles and outfits are distinctly more glamorous and less "girl next door" than I remember. Looking beyond the branding, the front of the box showcases the completed build, with silhouettes of the Friends amusement park space ride and ferris wheel just about visible in the background, while the back of the box (below) is dominated by a number of vignettes highlighting various aspects of the set.

The box opens via a couple of thumb tabs and contains two numbered bags of elements, a single instruction booklet and a small sticker sheet which is loose in the box. You can see a scan of the sticker sheet below; note that all the areas which appear black are actually silver mirrored, but unfortunately this finish can't be reproduced by my scanner.

The cover of the instruction booklet can be seen below. The booklet comprises 64 pages from cover to cover, and in addition to the building instructions the contents include a one-page inventory of elements, three pages of advertising for the Friends theme, and a single page of advertising for the rather impressive 2016 Elves line up.

The set contains two minidolls, Stephanie and Nate. While this version of Stephanie (below) is unique to the set, her bright yellow hair complete with dark pink sun visor, her dark purple skirt with dark purple and magenta shoes, and her light flesh head with bright light blue eyes, have previously appeared as a part of other minidolls. Her torso featuring a medium azure top printed with a palm tree pattern is however currently exclusive to this minidoll and has yet to appear elsewhere.

As you can see from the picture below, Stephanie's torso is embossed with an incongruous "© 2009 LEGO" copyright notice which would have been better placed out of sight in my opinion. The head isn't back-printed, so there's unfortunately no alternate facial expression hidden beneath Stephanie's ponytail.

Nate has to my knowledge only previously appeared in a single set, 41101 Heartlake Grand Hotel from last year, and the version of Nate you get in this set (below) is exclusive to the set. All of the elements making up this minidoll have appeared elsewhere, although the dark red cropped trousers with dark red and white sneakers, and the hooped torso print, have each only featured once before.

Like Stephanie, Nate's lower back carries an embossed copyright notice (below) although in this case it's dated 2011 rather than 2009. Once again there's no alternate head print. A pair of small dark red pockets are moulded into the back of Nate's shorts, and the shorts also feature larger moulded side pockets.

Nate isn't just included in the set to keep Stephanie company - he actually has a job to do advertising her hot dog business. To help with this he's provided with the wonderful hot dog suit that you can see below. This element has only previously appeared on one occasion, as part of Hot Dog Man who was one of the Series 13 Collectable Minifigures released in 2015. In order to fit the suit you remove Nate's hair and just slide the element down over his head and body. It's interesting that the suit fits both minidolls and standard minifigures. I think it looks great - definitely a highlight of the set for me!

Before I move on to the build, a quick comment about minidolls in general. When I first wrote about them back in November of 2011 (you can read my post here) I was pretty dismissive, questioning why LEGO was abandoning the much-loved minifigure for its then-upcoming Friends theme, before rashly stating that I wouldn't be buying any of the Friends sets as a result. Barely two months later however I had broken that pledge, and in my review of 3931 Emma's Splash Pool I went so far as to write "I can't deny that Emma is cute and appealing, with an almost anime-like quality" - quite an about-turn, that.... In addition to their continued use in the Friends sets, and their presence in the well-received Elves theme, minidolls will also feature in the new DC Super Hero Girls theme which will debut in 2017; my enthusiasm for upcoming Super Hero minidolls such as Poison Ivy (below) suggests that I've now been well and truly won over....

And so to the build. Bag number one kicks off with assembly of the set's two minidolls as previously described, and then it's on to a number of small accessory builds (below) including a distorted funfair mirror, which consists of a mirror sticker applied to a white 6 x 2 curved slope, a couple of bar stools, and what LEGO describe as "a camera with instant photo function" complete with a stickered 2 x 2 tile to represent the photo. There's also a carnival cut-out board consisting of a stickered 1 x 6 x 5 trans-clear panel; this is topped off with a pair of medium azure 3 x 1 curved slopes only previously seen in nine sets, and a stickered dark purple 2 x 2 round tile which is only appearing in a set for the fourth time ever. The carnival cut-out board is mounted on a lime 4 x 8 semi-circular plate which has only previously appeared in a total of four sets.

With the accessory builds completed it's time to make a start on the hot dog van itself. This is built on a dark pink 2 x 14 plate only previously available in two sets. There's otherwise little in the way of rare or unusual parts until we get to the bulbous SNOT front and rear of the vehicle which feature pairs of tan 3 x 3 x 2 round corner bricks with dome top which are only appearing in a set for the third time ever in this colour. These elements are mounted on top of a tan 3 x 6 half round plate with 1 x 2 cutout which was previously only available in seven sets in this colour. The trans-orange and trans-neon orange elements that you can see towards the rear of the interior form part of the grill where the hot dogs are cooked.

Construction of the hot dog van continues with completion of the grill which is, appropriately enough, topped off with a number of modified 1 x 2 tiles with grille. A cash register consisting of a 2 x 2 45 degree slope brick printed with a pink, purple and yellow cash register pattern is then installed; this element has only featured in five sets including this one. Trans-clear 1 x 6 x 3 windscreen elements are then dropped into place at the front and back of the van, and stacks of dark purple 1 x 1 round bricks, which are only appearing in a set for the sixth time ever, are installed so as to provide the roof with additional support. Mustard and tomato ketchup dispensers are then placed on the medium azure counter top, as are a couple of hot dogs in buns, thus providing me with my first ever up-close and personal encounter with the wonderful tan hot dog bun element which is only appearing in a set for the sixth time. Talking of hot dog buns, the roof, which can be removed in order to provide access to the interior of the van, resembles a giant hot dog bun thanks to the use of various tan curved slope elements including modified 1 x 4 x 1 1/3 bricks with curved top which are only appearing in a set for the eighth time ever. The roof features a canopy made from alternating red and dark pink modified 1 x 2 x 1 1/3 bricks with curved top which have only previously appeared in a total of seven sets in dark pink. Also located on the roof is a dining area featuring four seats and a medium azure round table; there's a cushion on each seat consisting of a stickered dark purple 2 x 2 round tile. With the roof completed the wheels are attached and we're done.

Access to the rooftop dining area is via a ladder which can be seen in the rear-view picture below, and when the ladder is folded down Stephanie can gain entry to the van's interior. The back of the van is pretty much indistinguishable from the front, with only the absence of a steering wheel giving it away.

You can see the finished build below complete with all the accessories and both minidolls.

OK, so you don't need me to tell you what a bizarre-looking vehicle the hot dog van is, but it was precisely that which attracted me to the set in the first place and I wasn't disappointed - it's a genuinely fun set which put a big smile on my face. The build is pretty quick and straightforward, with accurate placement of the stickers probably providing the greatest challenge, and it's never dull thanks to all the humorous details plus a decent selection of unusual and/or interesting elements. There's also a good amount of play value for the younger builder thanks to all the accessories, not to mention the inclusion of the hot dog suit which is absolute genius in my humble opinion....

Set 41129 Amusement Park Hot Dog Van contains 243 elements and retails for £24.99 / US$29.99, although like me you may be able to get it at a decent discount from Amazon (UK/US) or other retailers.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Pick up a Penguin

I'm a fairly frequent visitor to my local LEGO Brand Store, and have been known to spend the odd few minutes at the Pick-a-Brick wall (below).... For the uninitiated, this is an expanse of wall embedded with clear perspex containers, each of which contains multiples of a single element in a particular colour; you pick up a large or small plastic cup from the display depending on your requirements and budget, fill it with as many elements as you can squeeze into it, and pay a set price depending on the size of cup you selected. While the choice of different elements is obviously limited, it can still be a good way of getting hold of elements you're looking for, albeit not necessarily at the cheapest price. I often find myself being seduced by all the shiny new LEGO and can't resist filling one or more cups with elements that I convince myself will be useful but which in practice generally end up being added to my stock of loose bricks and never seen again.

Anyway, in April 2015 LEGO started to roll out changes to the familiar Pick-a-Brick format. A small section of the Pick-a-Brick wall was given over to a new Pick-a-Model station (below) featuring a couple of simple builds and a bunch of blister packs dangling from metal hangers. The blister packs feature three empty compartments plus an additional space above which accommodates a leaflet containing a set of instructions for one of the aforementioned simple models together with a breakdown of the parts needed to build it. Basically, you're supposed to walk around the Pick-a-Brick wall collecting up the necessary elements and put them in the blister pack - a do-it-yourself official LEGO set, if you will.

I think it's fair to say that AFOL reaction to the Pick-a-Model initiative has been, to put it mildly, rather mixed. Some bemoaned the loss of precious Pick-a-Brick slots in the wall, thus reducing the available element selection in stores. Also, reports started to come back of some stores stopping general Pick-a-Brick customers from selecting elements needed for the Pick-a-Model builds, although this wasn't the case for all stores and hasn't been my personal experience. Some have also criticised the cost of the models, which have an RRP of £3.99 in the UK and $4.99 in the U.S.. On the flipside, some of the Pick-a-Model builds have been quite cute, for instance the panda below. The models on offer change periodically, and you can see a selection of the builds that have been available in stores to date here.

Although I've been aware of the availability of Pick-a-Model for well over a year now I've never previously indulged. This is mainly because when I've visited a store and remembered to check what builds were available they haven't particularly interested me. That however changed recently when I saw that one of the current models was a penguin - I can't resist a penguin. So I grabbed the relevant blister pack, dutifully filled it with the necessary elements from the Pick-a-Brick wall, and handed over my £3.99.

You can see the packaging above; by this point I'd already opened up the blister pack and emptied out the contents of the element compartments in preparation for building. It's worth noting that the packaging is resealable, so that when you're done with the build you can take the model apart and safely store the elements and instruction booklet back in the original pack if you want. The front cover of the leaflet can be seen below, complete with an image of the completed build and an inventory of the elements required to build it.

At only 39 elements it's plainly neither a long nor a tricky build, and none of the constituent elements are particularly uncommon apart from the 1 x 1 round tile printed with an eyelash pattern which has only previously appeared in a total of nine sets. You can see the completed build below; the main model, which features hinged flippers, is accompanied by a smaller penguin made up of just eight elements.

Some texture is added to the rear of the main build (below) via the use of black modified 1 x 2 bricks with grille, although to be honest it's barely worth the effort since from behind it's completely unrecognisable as a penguin anyway....

LEGO has produced a few brick-built penguins over the years, but as far as I can tell these Pick-a-Model penguins are the first standalone brick-built penguins that LEGO has released since 2009 when the little fellow below briefly appeared in stores as a Mini Monthly Build. Since then all we've had from a brick-built perspective have been the teeny, TNT-toting remote-controlled penguins included in 76010 Batman: The Penguin Face off from 2014, although we have at least had a couple of cute one-piece moulded penguins to tide us over, specifically this one and this one, not to mention Penguin Boy from the latest series of collectable minifigures and even a Duplo effort for good measure.

While I do think that the Pick-a-Model penguins are quite cute (below) it's hard to dispute the accusation that this 'set', and indeed the other Pick-a-Model builds, offer rather poor value for money. In my case this concern was partially mitigated by the fact that store staff were happy for me to stuff the compartments in the blister pack with as many elements from the Pick-a-Brick wall as I could fit in, meaning that in practice I actually had enough elements to build multiple copies of the set rather than just the one. I'm not however sure if all stores will interpret the rules so liberally, and I'd be interested to hear whether other customers have had the same experience as I have. I also have some sympathy with the concern that this initiative reduces the number of Pick-a-Brick element slots in stores, although to be honest the selection is so limited anyway that the chances of finding exactly what you're looking for were already pretty miniscule.

In summary, Pick-a-Model is an interesting attempt by LEGO to increase visitor engagement with the Pick-a-Brick wall. Providing store staff continue to allow me to completely fill the element compartments in the blister pack, and LEGO's designers can offer up some appealing little builds, then there's a reasonable chance that I'll pick up more of them in future.

Monday, 10 October 2016


Back in June of this year I posted a review of Set 10224 Town Hall (below). One of the reasons for building the Town Hall when I did, and indeed building Set 10243 Parisian Restaurant a few months earlier, is that I was planning to use these and other Modular Buildings to populate my work-in-progress LEGO city layout, at least until such time as I got around to designing and building a few suitable MOCs of my own to take their place.

Having finished building the Town Hall and placed it alongside a couple of other Modular Buildings, however, I started having second thoughts about dropping it into my layout. It dwarfed the surrounding buildings and just didn't look right positioned alongside them. So what to do with it, then - should I just omit it from my layout? Thankfully an alternative solution occurred to me. On account of the Town Hall's clock tower, its dark orange colour and its arched windows I've always thought that it was vaguely reminiscent of London's historic and spectacular St. Pancras railway station (image below from Architecture Week); given that I was planning to include a railway station in my layout, why not try to repurpose the Town Hall into a railway station?

The more I thought about it the more I liked the idea, although it was immediately evident that there would be a fair bit of work to do. For starters, the Town Hall would have to be expanded substantially to do the job. You can see the intended location of the station marked in blue on the picture of my layout below. The plan is for the station to occupy a total area of 96 studs by 48 studs, which would mean expanding the Town Hall to three times its original width and also constructing a 16-stud wide canopy at the rear to overhang the station platform and railway track.  

So how to proceed? Well, I'm a big fan of sketching things out virtually before diving into the bricks, and my sketchpad of choice is LEGO's own virtual building tool LDD which you can download for free from here if you don't already have it. The first thing I needed to do was to find an LDD file for the Town Hall, and in this regard I was indebted to Eurobricks which has a comprehensive library of LDD files of official sets which have been virtually assembled by Eurobricks members. Having located and downloaded the Town Hall LDD file I then spent a couple of hours on LDD virtually sketching out an idea for an expanded version which might conceivably fit into my layout. You can see a screen grab of my sketch below - I basically extended out the ground, first and second floors of the Town Hall, leaving an opening at ground floor level to provide access to a staircase down to the pre-existing subway platform below. A mirror image of the extension would attach to the right side of the Town Hall, creating a building which would occupy the best part of three baseplates in width.

Having arrived at a concept that I was basically happy with I was too impatient to develop the sketch any further and instead turned my attention to the job of sourcing the bricks I'd need to translate the concept into a full-blown LEGO model. Ideally I'd have taken the easy route and just shelled out for two additional Town Hall sets to part out for the elements that I'd need, but the price of the set has skyrocketed since its retirement, to the point where I'd likely have had to stump up between £350 and £400 for just a single unboxed copy. I therefore resigned myself to ordering the elements that I didn't already have from Bricklink and set about putting together a wanted list. This would of course have been a lot easier if I'd completed my LDD design rather than lazily skipping most of it, but as it was I ended up having to make a lot of educated guesses regarding of how many of each element I'd need. With my distinctly flaky wanted list drawn up, I placed a couple of pricy Bricklink orders and waited for the elements to arrive which they duly did over the next couple of weeks.

You can see the ground floor modifications above (click to enlarge). First of all I swapped out the Town Hall's tan baseplate for a dark bluish grey one; I anticipate that a small section of the side edge of the baseplate will be visible in the final build and I knew that I'd get irritated by the sight of a thin sliver of tan where there shouldn't be any. I then demolished the front left corner of the ground floor so I could attach the arch, after which it was basically a case of following my LDD sketch. My intention was as much as possible to incorporate architectural features and visual cues from the original Town Hall in the hope that my modifications didn't jar too much and the building ended up looking like a coherent whole rather than a Town Hall with a bunch of random stuff tacked on to it. Consistent with the original Town Hall design each floor of the building is topped off with tiles so that it can be readily detached from the floors above and below; this obviously provides access to the interior as well as making the model a bit more portable which will be welcome in the event that I ever manage to finish the layout and need to transport it. With the front of the ground floor extension complete I moved on to the first floor extension (below).

The first floor extension incorporates three additional windows which are pretty much identical to those found in the Town Hall's first floor, right down to the window boxes and the use of white car mudguards for the cornicing. I also constructed a variation on the Town Hall's central first floor doorway and balcony on the front left corner of the extension which required a bit of modification to get it to fit neatly on top of the corresponding section of the ground floor. As mentioned in my review of the Town Hall some of the elements found in the set such as the dark orange 1 x 8 x 2 arch, which you can see above the balcony, are fairly uncommon although thankfully they aren't very expensive on Bricklink; the dark orange modified 1 x 2 log bricks that you can see between the windows are also fairly uncommon, appearing in just 13 sets in total, but again they're thankfully inexpensive and also surprisingly adundant on Bricklink which is a relief given how quickly I burned through them while building this floor.

My strategy for the second floor extension (above) was basically the same as that for the first floor - build some additional windows similar in design to those in the Town Hall and then reproduce the central second floor feature, in this case a larger window with ornate cornicing and a windowbox, and modify it slightly to fit on top of the corresponding section below. I also continued out the characteristic cornicing pattern, consisting predominantly of white modified 1 x 2 bricks with groove, and the light bluish grey detailing beneath the windows, into the extension. The dark orange 1 x 4 arches, which you can see above the smaller windows, were probably the hardest elements to source for this part of the build; they've only appeared in two sets to date including the Town Hall and aren't stocked by many Bricklink sellers.

And so finally on to the roof (above). I did initially consider including a smaller version of the central clock tower on the front left corner of the roof, and I even had a play with a few designs, but the idea was eventually abandoned as everything I tried looked too fussy and it became evident that it wasn't really necessary. I did however retain the design of the balustrade running along the front of the roof, and I also decided to mark the construction of my Town Hall extension with the date that I started work on it; creating the '2016' numbering in the same style as the Town Hall's original '1891' provided an interesting challenge and I was glad that I had my Town Hall instruction booklets to hand.

With the extension on the left side of the Town Hall completed to my satisfaction the process of mirroring the design on the other side of the building should be considerably more straightforward, although I strongly suspect that I've underestimated how many bricks I'll need so another Bricklink order will likely be required. I also have to substantially modify the rear of the Town Hall to incorporate a station platform and a canopy to overhang it. I'll post an update when I've made further progress.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Every Cloud....

Around this time last year Bricks Culture editor Tim Johnson and I were discussing which collectible set I should write about for a Bricks Culture "Sets to Search For" article, and for a number of reasons we settled on Star Wars Set 10123 Cloud City. The article duly appeared in Bricks Culture Issue 3, as reported by me here in a Gimme LEGO posting. That was back in October 2015, and given that almost a year has now passed I asked Tim if he'd mind me reproducing the article here on Gimme LEGO and he generously agreed. So here it is below, together with a few extra pictures that I shot prior to disassembling the set - enjoy!

If you conducted a survey among LEGO Star Wars fans and asked them which set they would most like LEGO to remake, there’s every chance that Set 10123 Cloud City would be high on the list. In a theme notorious for regular rehashes of the most important Star Wars vehicles and locations, the tibanna mining colony of Cloud City, which floats above the gas giant Bespin, is unusual in having been immortalised in LEGO on only one occasion to date, and that was back in 2003.

At the time of its release, Set 10123 Cloud City was the biggest location-focused Star Wars play set that LEGO had ever produced; prior to that the largest LEGO Star Wars sets consisted of detailed versions of Star Wars vehicles, with key scenes from the movies generally consigned to small vignettes in modest, inexpensive sets. The Cloud City set is effectively a collection of vignettes representing some of the key scenes from Star Wars Episode V that were played out in Cloud City locations. These include Han Solo in the carbon freezing chamber, Lando Calrissian selling out Han and Leia to Vader in the conference room, and Luke’s lightsaber confrontation with Vader prior to the celebrated paternity revelations. It was the first time that LEGO had collected together a number of vignettes and tried to fashion them into a cohesive set.

Truth be told, LEGO’s efforts weren’t entirely successful. Unlike the later 2008 Set 10188 Death Star which skillfully fused multiple vignettes into a cohesive and instantly recognisable model in its own right, Cloud City has the feel of a collection of disparate modules which, while connected physically, seem stylistically disconnected with little in the way of shared DNA between them. Furthermore, the overall layout of the model, with its linear arrangement of modules augmented by a right-angled spur halfway along which gives rise to a walkway and a huge landing platform, feels more like an awkward sprawl rather than a cohesive whole. And about that landing platform…. It really is huge, occupying fully half of the set’s footprint, and it’s also empty and literally crying out for an appropriately scaled Millennium Falcon or Slave 1 model to occupy it. Problem is neither are included - a critical omission. It could reasonably be argued that the inclusion of one of these iconic craft would have significantly increased the projected cost, and since LEGO sets are designed to a target price this would have meant significant sacrifices elsewhere in the model. You suspect however that some prospective purchasers might have baulked at parting with US$100 or the UK equivalent seeing how so much of the footprint was given over to a barren landing platform.

On the plus side, the build is enjoyable, not least because of the variety afforded by the different modules, and there are some fun play-features included. The carbon freezing module, for instance, incorporates a winch mechanism for lowering Han into the carbon freezing chamber, followed by another mechanism for switching him with a black printed 1 x 2 x 5 ‘Han Solo in Carbonite’ brick which then emerges when the winch is reversed. Also, a number of quasi-destructible features are included in another of the modules with a view to being triggered while Luke and Vader fight it out with their lightsabers. I’d furthermore defy any LEGO Star Wars fan not to enjoy posing the Luke and Vader minifigures at the far end of the catwalk while playing out the denouement to Episode V.

Prospective purchasers looking to buy the set now might be surprised by the cost of the set on the secondary market, particularly given the criticisms above. For a pre-owned, complete and boxed example you’re looking at paying upwards of £500, while a new, sealed copy will cost twice that. Poor sales of the set back in the day may go some way to explaining this, but there’s another more important factor at play here and that’s the minifigures. Collecting LEGO minifigures has become a hugely popular pastime in its own right, with Star Wars minifigures at the vanguard. Set 10123 Cloud City includes seven minifigures, of which four just so happen to be unique to the Cloud City set, and it’s this that’s driving the aftermarket value. The jewel in the minifigure crown is the Boba Fett minifigure. While he appears in a multitude of Star Wars sets, Cloud City Boba Fett is the only version to feature printing on his arms, shoulders and legs; expect to pay upwards of £100 for this minifigure in used condition, or £150+ for a new copy. The other exclusive minifigures are Cloud City versions of Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker and Leia, and while these don’t command quite such extravagant prices you’re still looking at upwards of £100 for the three of them. Given this, it’s no wonder that prices of the set as a whole have gone through the roof.

If you’re a LEGO Star Wars completist then I’m afraid you’re just going to have to bite the bullet and stump up the cash; at least you’ll enjoy the build once you’ve recovered from the shock, not to mention resting a bit easier in the knowledge that you’ve managed to bag one of the more collectable pieces of the LEGO Star Wars jigsaw. Current aftermarket prices mean that that the set is harder to recommend to anyone else, though – while it certainly has its merits there are better sets out there for less, and the clever money is on LEGO releasing another Cloud City set one day. Maybe….

Thursday, 18 August 2016


With the dust having now settled somewhat, I wanted to take a look back at an event that I attended for the first time a few weeks back. Bricktastic debuted last year, and having been overseas on holiday when it came around in 2015 I was determined not to miss it when the 2016 dates were announced.

For the uninitiated, Bricktastic is the brainchild of Kevin Gascoigne, head honcho of charity Fairy Bricks. The charity, which arose in the aftermath of a spectacularly successful fundraising drive on the Brickset Forum a few years back, organises donations of LEGO sets to children's wards in hospitals and hospices, and many of us in the AFOL community have taken Fairy Bricks to our hearts and actively support the charity.

Bricktastic 2016 was held at the Manchester Central Exhibition Complex over the weekend of 2nd and 3rd of July. Most of the action was centred on Exchange Hall, which with a floor area of almost two square kilometres was more than large enough to accommodate an impressive line up of MOCs, a number of traders and their wares, a large interactive NEXO Knights-inspired mosaic build made up of 129,528 elements, and a variety of  areas set aside for kids to free-build and display their creations. In addition, Ed Diment from professional UK LEGO building company Bright Bricks happens to be a trustee of Fairy Bricks, so it was no surprise that the company brought a number of spectacular builds to the event, notably Smaug (above) and a unicorn (below). Robotics fans could also participate in interactive LEGO Mindstorms workshops which ran on both days of the show in a separate breakout room.

Members of the UK AFOL community turned out in force to support the event, many of them by exhibiting their own LEGO creations. Exhibitors included a trio of successful LEGO Ideas contributors in the shape of Tom Poulsom, Carl Greatrix and Pete Reid, plus many other well-known and respected builders. There were a huge number of superb builds on show and I've included pictures of a few of them that particularly caught my eye below; if you want to see more then a number of attendees have uploaded comprehensive online galleries of images shot at Bricktastic 2016, for instance here and here.

While I'm talking MOCs I do have to give a brief mention to Pete Reid's Turtle Factory. This Neo-Classic Space masterpiece has been around for a while now, but rather than just cart it from show to show and rest on his laurels Pete has continued to work on it over time and has added new features on an ongoing basis. Since the last time I saw it he's incorporated a couple of screens into the model which display an 'informational video' on a loop, and he's also added a soundtrack. You can see and hear a brief clip below of the Turtle Factory in action at Bricktastic; in the event that you can't view the embedded video on your device you can also access the clip here. Fellow Portal fans will I suspect immediately recognise the GLaDOS-esque tones of the video narrator which for me adds another dimension to what was already a superb model.

Bricktastic 2016 - Turtle Factory

I've previously exhibited at a number of shows, but Kevin had something else in mind for me at Bricktastic 2016. Regular readers may recall that back in 2014 I was asked to do a live build on behalf of Fairy Bricks at a Bricks UK event at Sandown Park. On that occasion my goal was to complete the 2989-piece Sydney Opera House set over the course of a weekend, and as I just about managed that feat Kevin decided to ramp up the difficulty this time round and set me the challenge of building LEGO's newly-released 4163-piece Big Ben set during the event.

It was a bit of a daunting prospect, if I'm honest - I'm a notoriously slow builder, and I only just managed to complete the Sydney Opera House build in the allotted time, so it felt like Big Ben might turn out to be a bit of a stretch. Mark Guest, editor of Bricks magazine, reassured me that he'd managed to build the model in just five hours while reviewing it for Bricks, and although I was a bit sceptical about his timekeeping I figured I was just going to have to suck it up and get on with it..... I was lucky enough to be allocated a couple of tables for my build next to first-time exhibitor Bob Turner who was showing off his Red Dwarf LEGO Ideas proposal (below). Bob provided me with frequent encouragement and also kindly offered to record my Big Ben build in a series of photographs, a couple of which I've included in this post with the remainder available here. Thanks, Bob, and good luck with your ideas proposal which is already almost two-thirds of the way to the magic 10K mark at time of writing!

There are a number of excellent reviews of 10253 Big Ben available, for instance here, so I'll refrain from posting a detailed account of the build. In summary, you start with some large bright green plates plus a single blue plate to represent the Thames and go from there. While the clock tower, known as Elizabeth Tower, is the most immediately recognisable part of the model, it's actually the horizontal section representing the North end of the Palace of Westminster (below) which is the most time-consuming and fiddly part of the build. Although construction of this section is undoubtedly repetitive, and I really can't recommend attempting it without factoring in a number of rest breaks, the level of detail and use of elements is outstanding; for example, the use of rare tan microfigs and tan modified 1 x 1 plates with vertical tooth for detailing is inspired, while the way that stacks of 1 x 1 bricks are rotated by 45 degrees to mimic the look of the actual building is unexpected and clever. Overall, while it was undoubtedly a relief to finally complete this section of the build, the final appearance is spectacular and it fully justifies the effort required to construct it.

Assembly of Elizabeth Tower can also predictably get a little repetitive, but it thankfully proceeded sufficiently rapidly that I didn't really find myself getting too bogged down. The bulk of the structure is made up of identical square panels which can be constructed in multiples in assembly line fashion to save time; these panels utilise the majority of the set's 200 tan 1 x 2 plates with door rail oriented vertically to convincingly reproduce the tower's pin-striped appearance. Elizabeth Tower includes a famous four-faced clock, which according to Wikipedia is the second largest four-faced chiming clock in the world. In order to accurately represent each clock face LEGO has produced a superb new printed element, and each clock also features a pair of hands. These are functionally linked via a Technic mechanism such that turning a knob at the back of the model rotates all four pairs of clock hands simultaneously - very cool. Knowing the ingenuity of the AFOL community it's probably only a matter of time before some bright spark figures out a way of integrating a real working clock into the structure.... A LEGO representation of the great bell, whose nickname of Big Ben lends its name to the set, sits just above the clock mechanism as you can just about see in Bob's picture below (click to enlarge).

Yet more intricate detailing adorns the upper reaches of the model, much of it utilising elements which are appearing for the first time in this set in their respective colours; examples include tan palm tops and 1 x 1 taps plus pearl gold 3L ski poles and a large number of round 1 x 1 plates with 4 tabs. I found myself building ever quicker as I neared the finishing line, increasingly eager to see the completed model which was finally revealed mid-afternoon on the second day of the show. I don't mind admitting that I felt a genuine sense of triumph as I stood back and admired the fruits of my labours - the model is an absolute beauty, and the reaction of Bricktastic attendees to the finished build was similarly enthusiastic. I'd certainly unreservedly recommend the set to anyone looking for a challenging, satisfying build with a beautiful end product, although I'd definitely advise purchasers to take their time and savour the building experience rather than rush through it like I did.

I spent a fair bit of time chatting to attendees during the build, and once Big Ben was complete I was able to wander around the show floor for a couple of hours, check out the exhibits and gossip with some of the exhibitors. I've attended numerous events over the years, and I have to say that Bricktastic was definitely one of the most enjoyable ever. I've pondered on the reasons for this, and I think it's a combination of different factors. Certainly the focus, namely to raise as much money as possible for a worthy charitable cause that we all believe in, resulted in a real shared purpose and camaraderie among the exhibitors, volunteers and traders which was evident throughout the show and at the Saturday night social gathering. In addition, I thought that the event attendees were some of the friendliest that I've encountered at a show, eager to interact with the exhibitors and respectful of the displays; I think that this may have a lot to do with the laid-back feel of the event, the spacious venue and the ease of access to the exhibits without the need to queue five deep for the privilege, although it may of course just be down to the fact that Manchester folk are naturally friendly! There were also more opportunities for attendees to get their hands on bricks and build for themselves than I've seen at most shows. Such opportunities included a variety of brick pits and themed building areas such a Minecraft zone where attendee builds were put on display; these seemed to be in constant use for the entire duration of the event, and provided a reminder than in order to engage youngsters in particular you need to provide opportunities to interact rather than just impressive things for them to look at. Whatever the reasons, many of those present remarked upon the great atmosphere, and I have a feeling that Bricktastic will go from strength to strength over the years to come.

I'm told by Kevin that as a result of funds raised via Bricktastic 2016 at least twenty more hospitals and hospices will be in line to receive a Fairy Bricks donation which is fantastic news. Huge congratulations are due to Kevin and his team of volunteers for staging such a successful and enjoyable event, and I'll definitely aim to be back next year if they'll have me....