Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Curse of the Minifig

When the LEGO company first started to experiment with putting small figures (now better know as minifigures, or just minifigs) in sets, they surely couldn't have imagined in their wildest dreams how successful this 'line extension' would become. According to the excellent "Standing Small : A celebration of 30 years of the LEGO Minifigure" by Nevin Martell there are more than 4 billion minifigs in existence, with 3.9 being sold every second. Even a cursory poke around the internet reveals how popular collecting LEGO minifigs has become, and indeed how lucrative.

There's little doubt that for many, the inclusion of minifigs in sets has greatly boosted playability. In fact, it's getting to the point now where minifigs are becoming the entire focus of some sets rather than just a constituent part, as evidenced by the popularity of battle packs and the flood of themed minifig magnet sets over the last few years. By placing a new minifig in just one set and no other, the LEGO company are basically now able to pretty much guarantee that the set will sell. Hell, they could package a housebrick with a unique minifig and it would sell..... The LEGO company are also capitalising on the popularity of minifig collecting by releasing sets of 'vintage' minifigs which people might have missed first time round.

If you missed them first time round, here's your chance to make amends....

I have to confess to viewing this explosion of interest in minifigs as a bit of a double-edged sword. While I don't actually play with the sets I've built these days, instead just having them on display for a while so I can enjoy seeing the fruits of my labours, I certainly appreciate that the inclusion of interesting minifgs can add something to the sets. I'm also a fan of the first 2 series of collectible minifigs, and even blogged about this a week or two ago. The big increase minifig popularity can however be a bit of a headache for those of us who collect LEGO sets.

Consider for instance Set 7264 Imperial Inspection, released in 2005. It is, to be honest, pretty ordinary, being basically a rehash of the 2001 Set 7166 Imperial Shuttle with the addition of a small control console and a few extra minifigures. And yet the prices people are asking for this set now seem entirely disproportionate to the contents of the box. So what's the explanation ? Well, it's down to the fact that the set contains 4 stormtroopers who just so happen to have printed legs. This is unique - while stormtroopers appear in a host of sets, Imperial Inspection is the only one where the stormies have printed legs. You can see the 'special' stormie with the printed legs below on the left, and the 'standard' stormtrooper on the right. Such differences might appear incidental to most of us, but it pushes minifig collectors into a frenzy of excitement and drives up the price of the whole set.

Set 10123 Cloud City is another example of a set which has increased 2-3 times in value since it was released in 2003, at least in part because it contains a number of minifigs not available in any other set - a unique version of Boba Fett with printed legs, Lando Calrissian, and unique versions of Leia and Luke. To be fair, it's also an interesting set in its own right, so no wonder the price has skyrocketed.....

The 4 unique Cloud City minifigures

My final example is Set 4501 Mos Eisley Cantina from 2004. Not a particularly remarkable set overall in my opinion, although it's rescued somewhat by the use of some unusual colours (sand red and sand blue) in the build. It was expensive enough in its day at £27.99, or $30 U.S., but you'll have to shell out 3 or 4 times that much to get a mint, sealed example now. We mainly have Greedo to thank for that. He only appears in this set, and can cost upwards of £20 on his own.....

There are other examples, but I think I've made my point. The prices of these older sets are undoubtedly driven up by the presence of unique minifigs which is a bit of a pain if you're a collector looking to get hold of the sets themselves.

On reflection, maybe I've done the minifigs themselves a disservice - the high prices aren't their fault, after all. It would I guess have been more accurate to have called this post "the curse of the minifig collector".....


  1. Jabba the Taff15/9/10

    I get annoyed with the sets that have lots of figures, that jack up the price, but all of them are available in plenty of other sets. The new AT-AT (8129) is a case in point. I know Han Solo has a unique print, but he's in similar prints elsewhere. Take a couple of minifigs out and save a few bob!

  2. Good a points! The funny thing is that when I clicked through on the "imperial inspection" link above, I was shocked that it included 8 minifigs. I feel like only very expensive sets feature that many, and with Star Wars, they reserve a minifig count like that to something like the $400 Death Star playset. (just my impression)

    But LEGO, like most smart companies, knows that the secondary market is overall, good for their brand. It drives interest. Sure, they could offer minifigs for sale on Pick-A-Brick, but they won't. They serve an adult collector market, and they know it.

    Just look at Playmobil, they focus on kids - so they don't play these games like LEGO does. When they released individual figures, they didn't make them a guessing game, or collectible - they just made enough and distributed them well, and keep them in production for a few years.

    Great article.

  3. I agree with much of what you say. Whilst I wouldn't describe myself as a minifig collector I do think the presence of new and exclusive figures can certainly make a set more desirable. I would not however buy a set purely for the figures, hence my reluctance to shell out £80 for the new Slave 1 when I already own the similar/ arguably better 6209. I did however want the bossk figure so bought it on ebay at what I thought was a fairly reasonable price. The same goes for the Home One set. I really had no interest in the model but wanted the Ackbar and Madine figs so I sought them out separately.

    I do think you do the Imperial Inspection set a bit of a disservice. It may look a little modest now (especially compared to the UCS shuttle) but back in 2005 it was very well received. Any set which included 10 minifigs and retailed for £40 was always going to be popular. The fact that it contained all Imperial figures made it particularly cool as so many OT sets focused on the rebels. I agree the prices have been inflated to astronomic proportions and I don't really understand the hysteria over printed legs but it is still a good set in my opinion.

    Anyway great blog, I really enjoy reading it.