Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Gimme LEGO Awards 2014

Yes - it's that time again! Welcome to the 2014 Gimme LEGO Awards and my annual trawl through the good, the bad and the ugly of the year viewed through LEGO spectacles. This is the fourth year I've presented the awards and as ever my selections are entirely subjective so please feel free to leave a comment if you violently disagree (or indeed agree...) with any of my selections. So here we go....

1. Best Theme

Last year's winner : Creator, including Creator Expert

2014 winner : The LEGO Movie



Yeah, I know - surprising, eh? I don't mind admitting that I winced when the LEGO Movie was annnounced - I feared that it'd be a car crash. I was similarly sniffy about the prospect of a raft of lazy tie-in sets which I assumed would target starry-eyed juveniles fresh out of the movie theatre and offer little in the way of originality or creativity. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not only did the movie turn out to be a whole lot better than I had feared, but so far as the LEGO Movie sets themselves were concerned the lazy tie-ins for the most part failed to materialise and what we got instead was surprisingly good in the main.



The eye-catching flagship of the theme (both literally and metaphorically) was obviously Set 70810 Metalbeard's Sea Cow, but the reason that the LEGO Movie wins Best Theme this year isn't just about a couple of stand-out sets, it's instead a reflection of the number and diversity of quality sets at a variety of different price points. The roster of interesting and creative offerings starts at pocket money prices, and there's something worth having at pretty much every price point thereafter I reckon, including the likes of Set 70803 Cloud Cuckoo Palace, Set 70808 Super Cycle Chase, and of course Set 70816 Benny's Spaceship, Spaceship, SPACESHIP! which turned out to be one of the most talked-about sets of the year.



Unfortunately, the LEGO Movie set line up for 2015 is looking distinctly thin right now, with only three small sets on the horizon at time of writing; with the LEGO Movie sequel not due until 2017 this isn't altogether surprising. Let's just hope that LEGO is already preparing to impress us with another stellar line-up of tie-in sets in 2017.



Honourable mention : LEGO Ideas. From its humble origins as LEGO Cuusoo and the release of the Japan-only Set 21100 Shinkai 6500 Submarine, LEGO's crowd sourcing platform really exploded into the public consciousness over the past couple of years with the hugely successful Minecraft and Back to the Future DeLorean releases. I reckon that 2014 was the strongest year yet, with highlights including Pete Reid's Exo-Suit and Brent Waller's Ghostbusters Ecto-1, although I thought that all four 2014 LEGO Ideas releases had their merits. With Tom Poulsom's Birds project set to hit the shelves in early January, LEGO Ideas looks set to continue to be a source of diverse and at times quirky products, and long may that continue.



Honourable mention #2 : Mixels. Written off by some as just another cartoon tie-in, the Mixels have turned out to be a bona fide phenomenon. Some excellent creature designs, a nice selection of parts, and very competitive pricing have ensured that they've flown off the shelves from day one, and they seem to have captured the imaginations of younger builders and AFOLs alike. Although you have to wonder how long LEGO can continue to pump out new Mixel tribes with their own unique identities, people have been saying that about the Collectable Minifigures for years now and still they keep coming. Providing LEGO can keep the quality of designs high and the prices low there's no reason why the Mixels can't carry their success on into 2015.



2. Most Disappointing Theme

Last year's 'winner': Super Heroes

2014 'winner': Not awarded

You know what? There actually isn't a standout candidate this year in my opinion, so fair's fair - I'm not awarding the 'prize'. That having been said, there are undoubtedly a few themes whose 2014 report card might conceivably read "Could do better".... Last year's 'winner' was the Super Heroes theme, and if I'm honest there were still too many mediocre DC and Marvel Super Heroes sets released this year; that having been said, the theme was dragged up to a respectable level overall by a few genuinely decent offerings such as the excellent Set 76023 The Tumbler and the better-than-expected Guardians of the Galaxy sets. Elsewhere, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles offerings were a bit of a mash-mash, a situation not helped by the mixture of cartoon and movie sets in the line-up, but again the theme was saved by a few worthy efforts, particularly the Batcave-like Set 79117 Turtle Lair Invasion. Finally, LEGO's saturation of the market with what felt like a million Legends of Chima sets was neither subtle nor it seems particularly successful; even so, some of the Chima sets were pretty good - imaginative, well-designed and fun to build - so credit where credit's due.


3. The "Medieval Market Village" award for Best Non-Licensed Set

Last year's winner : Set 10232 Palace Cinema

2014 winner : Set 10243 Parisian Restaurant



Ho hum - another year, another Modular Building taking the non-licensed plaudits. Honestly, there's a danger that this category will end up having to be renamed 'The "Modular Building" award for Best Non-Licensed Set' at this rate. But what can you do? After all, while LEGO continue to release beautiful sets like the Parisian Restaurant I'm hardly going to just ignore them in order to give other sets a chance, am I? Let's therefore just sit back and rejoice at yet another wonderful addition to the Modular Building range.


What struck me first when I saw the pre-release publicity shots of the set was the colour scheme. The Modulars have frequently championed less common colours and the Parisian Restaurant is no exception with its predominantly olive green and dark blue colour scheme. This choice isn't just a gift for builders looking to bolster their stocks of elements in these colours either - I think the combination looks lovely. The next thing that struck me was just how much is crammed into the model - this isn't just a static display piece, it's a vibrant, detailed scene which captures an astonishing level of detail both inside and out. Honestly, every time I look at it my eyes are drawn to something different.



A characteristic feature of the Modular Buildings is their ingenious use of elements, often in the pursuit of architectural detail. Once again the Parisian Restaurant doesn't disappoint, as evidenced by the the sea shell and croissants on the roof (above) or any number of other lovely little touches worked into the design. To sum up, I think it's a beautiful model that's fun to build, packed with interesting elements and rare colours, overflowing with detail, and a tutorial in advanced and ingenious building techniques to boot. At £132.99 / US$159.99 / €149.99 for 2,469 pieces it's even reasonably priced. Stunning.




Honourable Mention : Set 31021 Furry Creatures. OK, so this Creator 3-in-1 set was never realistically going to win the award, not against the Parisian Restaurant or even other stand-out non-licensed offerings such as Set 10244 Fairground Mixer or Set 21109 Exo-Suit. But few 2014 sets have this much personality or indeed the ability to make me smile like this one does - the startled-looking mouse alone never fails to crack me up. This has been a good year for cartoon-styled sets, with seasonal offerings such as Set 40090 Halloween Bat and Set 40092 Reindeer nicely complementing the Creator 3-in-1 animal sets. Set 31031 Rainforest Animals looks set to continue the trend in 2015, and I for one can't wait for more.



Other contenders: Set 21009 Exo-Suit, Set 10244 Fairground Mixer.


4. Best Licensed Set

Last year's winner : Set 10236 Ewok Village

2014 winner: Set 70810 Metalbeard's Sea Cow

Similar to last year this was a fiercely contested category with a lot of outstanding licensed contenders vying for the prize. Ultimately, however, the decision wasn't too hard, with one set rising above its peers to claim the win. I built and reviewed the Sea Cow back in June and thought then that it was pretty much nailed on for the Best Licensed Set award; while the appearance of the Tumbler in November at least made a contest of it, the Sea Cow still gets my vote.


Prior to sitting down and writing this, I spent a few moments re-examining the Sea Cow model which is still built and on display in my house. I then took a quick look back at the review I wrote 6 months ago. The review is pretty gushing, using words like "spectacular", "remarkable" and "stunning", but I can confirm that those words ring as true now as they did then - the Sea Cow is a special set and deserves all the plaudits that I can throw at it.


The first thing you notice is just how huge it is - more than half a metre tall and around 60 cm long. What's remarkable is that seemingly every bit of space inside and out is crammed with little details - in the review I likened it to the kind of attention to detail that'd you'd generally only find lavished on the modular buildings. It's also incredibly quirky, the Steampunk-inspired fusion of olde worlde galleon with more modern machinery and weapons making for an at-times bizarre spectacle. And yet despite this the finished model just works, unlike some previous left-field experiments that I could mention (Time Cruisers I'm looking at you....).


Another thing worth highlighting is just how much fun it is to build; there's an almost organic feel to some sections and the build is never dull. There's an interesting selection of elements used, including a few which are unique to the set, and a number of interesting building techniques are showcased - construction of the sails using Technic panels is ingenious, as is the use of minifigure whips for ornamental detailing, to provide just a couple of examples.


While summing up my thoughts on Set 10236 Ewok Village which was my Best Licensed Set in the 2013 Gimme LEGO Awards, I made the point that such sets are a reminder that the LEGO company are still willing to take commercial risks in order to give their fans incredible products. This is doubly true for the Sea Cow which doesn't even have the Star Wars juggernaut behind it. For what it's worth, I'd rate the Sea Cow ahead of the Ewok Village - it's that good.

Honourable Mention : Set 76023 The Tumbler 


Rumours of a UCS Tumbler were doing the rounds for a while before the set was finally announced; I have to admit that I didn't give the rumours much credence which shows how much I know.... When The Tumbler did eventually appear in November it didn't disappoint - it's huge, incredibly detailed and immediately recognisable. Interestingly, the set seems to have caught the eye of people who I wouldn't necessarily credit with being LEGO fans - a couple of friends of mine have bought it despite having not built a LEGO model for years, and the set has received extensive media coverage well beyond the usual LEGO-friendly media. Spectacular.

Other contenders : Set 70816 Benny's Spaceship, Spaceship, SPACESHIP!, Set 21108 Ghostbusters Ecto-1, Set 71006 The Simpsons House, Set 75059 Sandcrawler.


5. The "Phantom Menace" Award for Most Disappointing Set

Last year's winner : Set 76008 Iron Man vs. The Mandarin: Ultimate Showdown

2014 winner: Set 76014 Spider-Trike vs. Electro

Oh no - not again.... Having served up the 'winner' and the runner up in this category last year, the Super Heroes theme has somehow managed to achieve an ignominious double by grabbing the worst set award for the second year running - for shame!



You know, I get that minifigures are big business, and that for (presumably) licensing reasons LEGO can't release the minifigures on their own. I also appreciate that the set designers didn't have much budget left to play with after the cost of the minifigures had been accounted for. But a Spider-Trike? Really?! It's not even cool looking - it almost seems as if LEGO have gone for the "designed by a 5-year old" look in order to be consistent with the 5-12 age rating on the front of the box. Lest anyone forget, Spiderman can negotiate whole city blocks in moments by spinning webs and swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper. And yet he gets a Spider-Trike. That's just rubbish, and if you can't see why then I despair.

(Dis)honourable mentions: Set 21107 The End and Set 21117 Ender Dragon. Just to be clear, I don't have an issue with Minecraft - I played it for a couple of weeks in the name of research and quite enjoyed it, and I'm perfectly happy to encourage my youngster's enthusiasm for it. I also liked most of the Minecraft microscale sets, and I've bought a few of the minifigure-scale Minecraft sets as Christmas presents. Be assured, therefore, that my scorn for Set 21107 The End isn't ideological, just a reflection of the fact that I think it looks a bit rubbish. And Set 21117 Ender Dragon looks even worse, a rare misstep in what is otherwise a decent first wave of minifigure scale Minecraft sets.


6. Best Minifigure

Last year's winner : Tonto

2014 winner : Itchy and Scratchy


Perhaps the most subjective judgement of all, the 'Best Minifigure' award is increasingly hard to judge because the quality of LEGO's minifigures has become simply extraordinary over the past few years. Consequently, the choice is increasingly driven by more intangible factors rather than any objective measure. With all that in mind I'm going for a joint award this year, and Itchy and Scratchy get the nod. Although I do think they look great, they didn't win because they're particularly detailed - there are a host of other 2014 minifigures which feature more intricate and beautiful printing - nor indeed because they're an outstanding likeness of the subject matter. They basically win because my heart filled with joy the moment I liberated them from their foil packs, spied their mischievous expressions and set them loose on each other, and I still grin every time I see them.

Honourable Mention : Green Classic Spaceman. For me, one of the best stories of 2014 was the success of Pete Reid's Exo-Suit on LEGO Ideas, Mark Stafford's sympathetically designed retail version of the model, and the enormous buzz that surrounded the launch of the set. While the Exo-Suit itself came out really well, the icing on the cake was the inclusion of a pair of never-previously-seen green Classic Spacemen - fan service simply doesn't come any better than that.


Other contenders : Collectable Minifigures Series 12 Piggy Guy, The LEGO Movie Benny


7. The "Better than Expected" Award

Last year's winner : The Lone Ranger theme

2014 winner : The LEGO Movie

Given all my comments earlier on in this post, I guess that the recipient of this award is no surprise to anybody; while it might have been nice to try and spread the awards around a bit more, any other choice in this category would have been absurd.

    Similar to the Lone Ranger theme last year, my expectations for the LEGO Movie itself, not to mention the sets based on the movie, were pretty low. To say that what we ultimately got was a pleasant surprise is therefore a gross understatement; it speaks volumes that I'm disappointed that as previously stated we're only getting three small LEGO Movie sets among the first wave of 2015 releases.

    Honourable Mention : LEGO Star Wars Microfighters sets. These pocket-money sets featuring chibi-style renditions of iconic Star Wars vehicles complete with a minifigure looked faintly ridiculous in the publicity shots. The minifigures were absurdly oversized for the models, and it felt a bit like another cynical attempt to shoe-horn minifigures into unsuitable sets. Except that when I took the plunge, built and reviewed one of them (you can find the review here) I couldn't help but like it.... Clearly I wasn't alone as a second wave of Microfighters sets are incoming for 2015, and I'll likely be getting them.


    Honourable Mention #2 : Guardians of the Galaxy sets.  Given the extent to which the Marvel and DC Super Heroes sets have blotted their copybook over the past couple of years I was fully expecting the Guardians of the Galaxy sets to follow the tried and trusted formula of rubbish models used as an excuse to release a bunch of minifigures to a ravenous fanbase. What we actually got was nothing of the sort, though - all three retail sets were decent, particularly the largest of them which I reviewed here. A nice reminder that LEGO can still design worthwhile System scale Super Heroes sets as well as just excellent minifigures.


    8. Most Welcome LEGO-Related Announcement

    Last year's winner : Peter Reid's Exo Suit to be the next Cuusoo Set

    2014 Winner : UCS Slave 1 incoming



    LEGO have been drip-feeding us with Star Wars UCS sets since 1999, generally a couple per year. Up until now, however, there's been a massive Slave 1-shaped hole in the UCS line-up; given the iconic nature of the ship, not to mention the perfectly manageable scale and technical feasibility of the design task, the lack of a Slave 1 has been a baffling and frustrating omission. Until now, that is - the wrong will soon be righted with the imminent arrival of a UCS version of Boba Fett's Slave 1. What's more, I've been lucky enough to get my hands on a pre-release copy of the set (review here) and I'm delighted to report that it's superb. So any chance of a UCS A-wing next, or even an AT-AT....? :-)  

    Honourable mention : Birds to be made into a LEGO Ideas set. Granted LEGO Ideas has spawned a number of desirable sets to date, but I know I'm not alone in bemoaning the preponderance of licensed creations on the platform. I'm all for LEGO versions of some classic I.P's, but not to the exclusion of everything else; it's almost as if a generation of builders has lost the ability to come up with their own original ideas. It was therefore gratifying when Tom Poulsom's Birds project hit 10,000 votes on LEGO Ideas and got the greenlight for production. The resulting set, which will be available in early January 2015, consists of three beautifully-designed models of birds, and there isn't a licensed I.P. in sight. More original concepts like Birds and the Exo-Suit please, LEGO.


    Honourable mention #2: Jurassic World sets announced. I love dinosaurs, and I love LEGO dinosaur sets. I can't get enough of them. Imagine my joy, therefore, at the announcement that LEGO have signed up to create sets based upon the upcoming Jurassic World movie. Hopefully LEGO will also go back in time and give us some Jurassic Park sets while they're about it.... LEGO Jurassic World sets will hit the stores in May 2015, with the movie arriving in theatres in June.

    9. Gimme LEGO Reader's Choice Award

    Last year's winner: Set 10236 Ewok Village

    2014 winner: you tell me....

    Now it's your turn. At the top of the page on the right of the screen you'll see a list of what I consider to be eleven of the best sets of 2014. Please vote for your favourite; if your pick isn't on the list then select 'None of the above' and leave a comment or send me a message via the contact button above the list letting me know which set you think should win the prize. Cast your votes - one person, one vote - and at midnight on 15th January the poll will close and we'll have our winner.... If you're on a smartphone or similar and can't see the poll then click "view web version" at the bottom of the page in order to see the nominations and cast your vote.

    *Update* Voting has now closed and you can see the results here.

    Previous Gimme LEGO Awards : 20132012, 2011

    Sunday, 21 December 2014

    Christmas Surprise

    So it's Christmas and therefore once again time for the Brickish Association Christmas party. Displaced from our customary LEGOLAND Windsor venue by renovation work at the LEGOLAND Hotel we were nevertheless able to continue the annual Brickish party tradition thanks to the organisational skills of James Camplin and the flexibility of LEGOLAND Senior Designer and Chief Model Maker Guy Bagley, so thanks guys for your hard work! Party activities included the opportunity to build the suitably festive Miniland scale figure below, and you can find a brief account of the event here.

    Despite all the on-site building work we were still able to spend some time at LEGOLAND Windsor during the event, and in addition to a tour of the Model Shop and a stroll through Star Wars Miniland (which, it appears, has had a few upgrades since my previous visit) we got to visit the Big Shop. With LEGOLAND owned by Merlin rather than LEGO these days, the Big Shop isn't a bona fide LEGO brand store, although it does carry many of the LEGO Exclusives not generally available outside LEGO's own stores.


    Christmas party organiser James had managed to negotiate a discount at the shop for Brickish members attending the event so we piled through the doors with particular enthusiasm. I was able to find the two sets on my hit list, one of which was Set 75045 Republic AV-7 Anti-Vehicle Cannon which completed my 2014 Star Wars collection, but I didn't have plans to pick up anything else. As it happens, however, a couple of things did catch my eye....


    Firstly, I was surprised to find Set 40034 Christmas Train (above, courtesy of my youngster who built it earlier today) for sale in the shop.  According to Brickset this 82-piece Seasonal polybag was only available at retail for about a month back in late 2012 and it hasn't to my knowledge been seen anywhere since. I therefore wasn't expecting to see a load of them available for purchase, and couldn't resist picking up an extra.


    The other unexpected find was Set 30197 Snowman (above). This polybag contains 60 pieces and is part of the 2014 Creator line-up. I'd never seen this set before and hadn't even seen any reports of UK availability so again it was a welcome discovery. While smaller than this year's more widely-available Set 40093 Snowman, it's still cute and well worth picking up if you can find it; there were still a bunch left in the shop yesterday afternoon so you might want to drop in if you're local.

    I'm currently compiling my 2014 Gimme LEGO Awards; if I can finish the Awards posting in time then I'll publish it before Christmas, so keep 'em peeled just in case.... In the more likely event that my Awards posting appears between Christmas and New Year, however, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish all Gimme LEGO readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Monday, 1 December 2014

    Dino Crisis

    As I've previously mentioned, in addition to my stewardship of Gimme LEGO I also write for Blocks Magazine. I'm pleased to report that Blocks editor Mark Guest has generously granted me permission to post some of my Blocks reviews and other articles on Gimme LEGO after an appropriate delay so that folks without access to Blocks can read them. I'll aim to publish content pretty much as it originally appeared in Blocks, with the exception that I'll add hyperlinks as appropriate. First up is my review of Set 5975 T-Rex Transport which was published in Blocks Issue 1 - enjoy!

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    Given the recent flurry of internet rumours regarding the possible release of LEGO sets based on ‘that’ popular dinosaur movie franchise (I’m sure you can figure it out !) I thought I’d go back in time and dig up a long-retired LEGO dinosaur set from the archives to see how it measures up by modern standards.



    LEGO have been producing sets featuring dinosaurs for decades now, both in standard LEGO and DUPLO form; the set I’m focusing on here, Set 5975 T-Rex Transport, was released in 2000 as part of the Dino Island subtheme of the Adventurers theme and contains 321 pieces.

    Minifigures

    For some LEGO fans minifigures are the main reason to buy a set, and this set contains five of them which you can see in the accompanying photo. None are unique to the set, although slightly scary-looking lone female Alexis Sanister (second from the right in the picture) only ever appeared in one other set. According to Brickipedia, Alexis is the sister of theme villain Baron Von Barron (far left) who has a hook in place of his left hand. Fellow pith-helmeted Dr. Charles Lightning (far right) is a scientist and sports a bowtie and braces. Front and centre is theme hero and intrepid adventurer Johnny Thunder. He’s an ‘Adventurers’ theme regular – this ‘desert’ version of the minifigure appears in 21 sets, and alternative versions can be found in a host of other sets. Finally we have Mike, longtime companion to Johnny Thunder and Charles Lightning. He appears in a total of 5 sets. None of the minifigures have backprinted heads or torsos.



    Elements

    This set was released in the days before LEGO moved to its current colour palette of browns and greys and therefore contains ‘old’ brown, light grey and dark grey elements. Apart from the dinosaurs themselves which we’ll get to in a moment, the set doesn’t contain many rare or unusual elements, although there are a few of interest. The front of the ship is made up of large, specialised 8 x 10 x 1 bow bricks in light grey and white; the light grey bow bricks are unique to this set, and the white ones only appear in this set and one other. Further notable elements include a couple of red 8 x 16 bricks (this element hasn’t appeared in any colour since 2009) and a 26-stud long light grey trailer base.

    Dinosaurs !

    For me the most interesting aspect of this set is the three dinosaurs it contains. The dark grey triceratops is unique to the set, while the large T-Rex appears in this set and two others; both of these bad boys are made up of 5 separate elements and feature moveable fore- and hind limbs and tail plus a hinged upper jaw. The cute green baby T-Rex has appeared in a total of 9 sets, the last of which was released in 2006; the baby T-Rex has also appeared as recently as 2009 in metallic gold as part of the Agents theme. While undoubtedly far less realistic and detailed than the dinosaurs which grace LEGO’s later Dino 2010 and Dino themes, they still have a rough charm.


    The Build

    The set comprises three main components, the first of which is a ship. This is, to be honest, pretty basic but at 48 studs in length it’s certainly sizeable and more than capable of accommodating the triceratops with ease. Despite the lack of detail, the ship at least comes equipped with accessories for the minifigures to use – tools such as a spade and a pickaxe, and also weapons including rifles and a pistol. The ship’s wheel turns and the ladders hanging from the sides of the bridge can be raised and lowered but that’s about it so far as moving parts are concerned.



    Next to be built is an articulated vehicle which is designed to carry the big T-Rex. I hesitate to call this quirky vehicle a truck since the tractor unit looks more like a vintage car, and it certainly doesn’t look capable of hauling a fully-grown T-Rex, but let’s not get too hung up about such details…. With the restraining bar at the top removed the sides of the trailer can be easily popped out of their clips to provide easy access to the flatbed, and the trailer pivots where it attaches to the tractor unit.   



    Last up is a small car which it appears is used by the baddies to get about. It has the same odd vintage aesthetic as the truck and comes complete with a side-mounted rifle and a crate containing dynamite (or at least a 1 x 2 tile printed with a dynamite design….)



    The Verdict

    Collectively, while the various components of the set come together to make a decent play experience, it’s not really a set that you’d build and display. If like me you’re a fan of LEGO’s dinosaur sets, however, it’s a worthwhile purchase for the dinosaurs alone if nothing else, particularly the triceratops which is unique to the set.


    I bought my used, boxed and complete copy of the set on eBay around five years ago for a little under £30 including shipping; at time of writing there aren’t any examples for sale on eBay, but you can pick up a boxed example on Bricklink for just under £50 plus shipping.

    You can see all my T-Rex Transport set pictures here, including some not included in the review.