Friday 26 November 2010


The design of the city layout I mentioned in a recent blog posting is gradually coming along. Thanks to a few long evening sessions slaving over a hot Mac, I'm not far off completing Phase 1 of my design - the subterranean area. This basically consists of a large oval of track completely enclosed in a tunnel, and an underground subway station. Phase 2 will be a LEGO city featuring roads, more rail track including sidings, a rock formation with a rail tunnel running through it, trees and landscaping, and of course buildings, road vehicles and trains. The city level will sit on top of the subterranean area.

Per my previous posting, I'm using Lego Digital Designer (LDD) to design my layout. You can see an LDD screen shot of one corner of the subterranean area below (click to enlarge).

While LDD has proved to be a powerful and useful tool, there have been a few things which I couldn't readily do 'virtually', such as checking to make sure that a LEGO train could actually navigate the track curves within the tunnel without hitting the sides. Other tasks better lending themselves to a hands-on approach included figuring out an acceptable way of physically attaching the subterranean level to the city level above (the 32x32 baseplates forming the floor of the city level don't have inverse studs underneath), and also coming up with a way of supporting the city level from below without using a million bricks in the process. I therefore delved into my ancient loose LEGO and constructed a 'mock-up' of one corner of the layout out of whatever bricks I could lay my hands on. I'm pretty obsessional about keeping my 'official' sets together, so they were largely off limits for parts, but I thankfully found enough old loose bricks and random baseplates in various colours to get the job done, and you can see the result below. It's a bit of a dog's dinner, but it does the job.....

Mock-up of one corner of the subterranean level - the train fits !
I'm planning to run the train from Set 7938 Passenger Train (below) in the subterranean tunnel, and I'm relieved to report that the coaches seem to be able to navigate the corner curve without hitting the tunnel walls so I'm still in business. The colour scheme of the train should contrast well with the grey arches and walls of the subway tunnel, and I managed to get a couple of extra coaches from eBay as a nice finishing touch; I did fleetingly consider running the iconic Metroliner train in the tunnel to bring a touch of nostalgia to proceedings, but decided that the subterranean level was grey enough already without running a grey train through it......

Building a rough 'mock up' of part of the layout from real LEGO rapidly taught me that there are things you can do with real LEGO that you can't do with LDD. This is I suspect because LDD won't permit certain 'bad building practices' which, while physically possible with real LEGO, place additional stresses on the bricks. Aside from the psychedelic colour scheme and the multitude of substitute pieces, there are some more subtle differences between the mock up and the LDD version. I'm hoping that these won't be a problem when I finally come to build the real thing, however, although I'm nevertheless planning to order slightly more bricks than I think I'll actually need in case I have to redesign anything on the fly.

So far I'm making good progress with the design, but being predominantly a collector and builder of 'official' sets rather than a MOC'er, I keep encountering issues and challenges that would previously never have even crossed my mind. Like how to attach curved rail track to baseplates, for instance. And how to deal with the difference in thickness between standard plates and baseplates. And how to accommodate the geometry of curved rail tracks within a modular design. Honestly, I can tell you that this kind of thing would have seemed like really pitiful, anoracky stuff to me beforehand, but now it keeps me awake at night..... No doubt others have long figured out solutions to these conundrums, but I'm actually kind of enjoying the challenge of figuring it out for myself. Just like I did as a kid, in fact - this project may be on a bigger scale than my childhood efforts, but the principles are the same.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Bye bye barcodes

I've previously blogged about the explosion in popularity of LEGO minifigs, and nowhere is this more evident than in the feeding frenzy surrounding the 2 waves of collectible LEGO minifigs that appeared earlier this year. While presumably intended for youngsters to collect and swap with each other, older lovers of LEGO have also taken these minifigs to heart, and people have gone to sometimes extraordinary lengths to obtain them. At first it wasn't readily evident which minifig lurked inside each foil packet, but it was soon discovered that each minifig was associated with a unique barcode on the packet which could be scanned and the contents thus reliably identified. In this way, it was possible to avoid being lumbered with loads of duplicates and wasting a fortune trying to amass a full set.

All that was set to change with the third series of collectible minifigs, however. The AFOL community was (mostly) dismayed to discover that the Series 3 minifigs would not ship with identifying barcodes on the packaging, so we were once again faced with the prospect of a potentially expensive lottery in the form of buying up large numbers of random packs in our quest for a full set.

Pics of some of the Series 3 minifigs (with thanks to FBTB)
Anyway, Series 3 was due to appear in January 2011, but it seems that some retail outlets in the U.S. have already received stocks of the minifigs and have put them on sale, whereupon they've predictably been snapped up by the boxload. And then, within 24 hours of the first confirmed sightings of these minifigs in the wild, it appears that someone has already figured out a way of identifying which minifig is in the packet, and the method for doing this is now all over the net ! Apparently there are bumps embossed on the lower seal of each pack, and the pattern of these bumps reveals the contents; a cheat sheet is already available (see below; source : that guy and FBTB)

Barcodes - who needs 'em ?!
I have to admit that I find this situation absolutely hilarious ! This is mainly because I can think of no credible reason other than good, old-fashioned greed for the LEGO company to stop printing the barcodes on the packets as they did for Series 1 and 2, so to see their plan scuppered so fast serves them right I reckon. It was as if somebody within the organisation didn't like the fact that people were able to get hold of the specific minifig or minifigs they wanted without having to buy loads and loads of unnecessary extra packs. Shame on you ! Certainly the first time I bought some of the Series 1 minifigs, prior to the availability of the barcode 'cheat sheets', I ended up with more duplicates than I did unique figures, and no easy way of trading them without resorting to eBay. So the thought of some smug executive sitting there rubbing his hands together and thinking that he'd outmanoeuvred the LEGO community by removing the barcodes, only to discover less than 24 hours later that the 'code' had already been cracked, fills me with glee ! Let's just hope that this new method of ascertaining the contents of the minifig pack works for us in Europe as well.

More pics of Series 3 minifigs - love that Mummy !
I do hope that the LEGO company learns from this experience, sticks to what it's best at (i.e. designing superb products) and doesn't waste any more valuable time and effort in future trying to obstruct LEGO lovers from getting the minifigs they want. We'll no doubt get an indication of whether that's actually the case when Series 4 appears, however....

Wednesday 17 November 2010

It's LEGO Jim, but not as we know it.....

OK, so I lied - it's actually not LEGO at all - but I still think it's cool so I get to blog about it.....

I stumbled upon Gentle Giant LEGO Star Wars maquettes a couple of years back and immediately fell in love with them. For the uninitiated, they're a series of limited edition, large-scale metal models of LEGO Star Wars Minifigs. My favourite is probably Boba Fett (pics below - click to enlarge) although really I like them all.

Just to give you an idea of scale, I've posed the maquette next to the original LEGO minifig which inspired it in the picture below.

The maquettes come in 3 or 4 pieces depending on the particular figure. In the case of Boba Fett the torso, stand and blaster come as one molded piece, and the "LEGO Star Wars" plaque and head attach via magnets. The detachable head can even be posed to some extent.

I'm aware that these maquettes aren't everybody's cup of tea - some people just don't "get it", others don't like the way that the legs and arms are bent in an 'unnatural' way for a minifig. I however think they look great, and consider them to be an amusing homage to what seems to be an increasingly significant revenue generator for the LEGO company - Star Wars minifigs. I've previously blogged about the burgeoning popularity of the LEGO minifig, and nowhere is this more true than for the Star Wars minifig which seems to be able to shift as many sets as the actual model in the box, if not more in some cases.

"Are you lookin' at me....?"
Other maquettes in the range include Darth Vader (pic below), Luke Skywalker in his orange flight suit, a standard Stormtrooper, and a Blackhole Stormtrooper (click the links to check out CopMike's photo reviews of these guys on Eurobricks). Just to drive collectors into an even greater frenzy, some of the Stormtroopers are a Limited Edition Limited Edition (!) because the box contains Han Solo's head in addition to the standard Stormtrooper head, both of which attach with magnets (but not, of course, at the same time...).

The main problem with these guys is trying to get hold of them. Given that (1) they potentially appeal to fans of both LEGO and Star Wars, and (2) they were made in relatively small numbers, most of them sold out in double quick time and can now only only be bought from resellers at eye-watering prices. The Luke Skywalker maquette can be had for less than the others as there are more in circulation, but the rest (particularly the Blackhole Stormtrooper) cost a fortune now. If however you're feeling like treating yourself, eBay's probably your best bet.

If you want to read more about the Boba Fett maquette and see a ton more pictures, feel free check out my Boba Fett maquette review on Eurobricks.

Thinking about it, it's been a few years since Gentle Giant released these LEGO Star Wars maquettes. It's not as if there's a shortage of subject matter, given that there are literally hundreds of LEGO Star Wars minifigs to choose from. So how about it, Gentle Giant ? The fans are waiting.....

Friday 12 November 2010


I'm just back from a few days away in the sticks. It was a fantastic trip, but a bit of a LEGO lover's nightmare - no LEGO, and not even reliable access to my favourite LEGO-related websites due to patchy internet access.

So what's the LEGO obsessive to do under such circumstances ? Well, salvation was at hand in the form of LEGO Digital Designer, or LDD - LEGO's computer-aided design package. LDD, which works on Mac and Windows, can be downloaded for free, and basically allows you to build LEGO virtually, giving you access to a palette of LEGO parts in various colours, and enabling you to select the pieces you're interested in, rotate them to the right position, and slot them into place alongside other pieces until your virtual model is complete. It's pretty cool, actually. The piece de resistance is that once you've completed your virtual masterpiece, you can upload the design to the LEGO company who will work out what pieces it contains, dump those pieces in one or more boxes, and send them to you in the post so you can recreate your virtual masterpiece for real. The application even makes up a set of step-by-step building instructions for you to facilitate the building process.

I thought I'd try this out for myself a couple of years back, so I designed a LEGO college building which I hoped wouldn't look too out of place alongside my LEGO modular buildings and uploaded it as instructed. I was then walked through a pretty simple process for designing the box art for my 'set', and after paying a (fairly hefty) fee to cover the cost of the pieces, packaging and postage, the 2 boxes below arrived at my door a week or two later :

I made this !
The boxes contained a big pile of LEGO bricks plus a rough print-out containing a full inventory of parts for my model and a link to the online step-by-step building instructions. I quickly dived in, and not long after I was able to admire my creation - MOC LEGO College :

LDD + my imagination = MOC LEGO College 

MOC LEGO College - close-up

OK, so it's not Green Grocer, but it's not too bad for a first effort using LDD. The LDD application certainly has it's idiosyncracies (some of which have apparently been ironed out in LDD 4.0 which was released a few weeks ago), but it must be pretty user-friendly if a newbie like me was able to get respectable results with it the first time I used it.

Anyway, back to the present. Once back in the hotel room after spending the days out and about, and without any LEGO to play with, I fired up the laptop, clicked on the LDD icon and started work on a new LEGO project. I'd already given the project some thought prior to going away, but hadn't really gone much beyond the thinking stage. Basically, I've accumulated a number of LEGO trains over the past few years, and I recently decided that it was about time I designed a decent semi-permanent layout for some of them to run on. After pondering for a while, it was clear that even a modest layout would take up a lot of space, so I started playing around with the idea of a layout on two levels, with a subway train running 'below ground', and a LEGO city above featuring another oval of track on the outside which would enclose a central area. The central area should include some roads, some railway sidings, and a collection of my favourite 'official' modular buildings, plus perhaps some MOC buildings as well. I'd also like to include a small rail tunnel on the upper level running through a LEGO rock formation, and I want to landscape the upper level so that it doesn't just look like a bunch of baseplates chucked together with a few buildings on top. Finally, just to complicate matters, I want to make the whole layout modular, so that it can be relatively quickly and easily deconstructed, transported and reassembled. Why would I go through this additional hassle ? Well, if I do ever finish designing and building it and it turns out to be any good, it'd be cool to be able to display it somewhere other than the inside of my house. It was seeing some of the superb LEGO layouts at a couple of recent events that I attended which provided me with additional inspiration to start this project, so I'd like to return the compliment if my creation ends up being worth looking at and let others see it.

I think it's going to be a long haul; I have a pretty good idea of the dimensions of my planned layout and I think I've found some suitable display tables, but beyond that there's an enormous amount of planning to be done. Still, thanks to a few evenings tinkering with LDD while I was away I've made a good start on the design of the subway level at least. It'll be cut-away so that the train running within can be clearly seen, and it needs to be sturdy enough to support the upper city level. As the design process progresses I'll post some pics on here, so watch this space for updates.

And as for LDD ? It's great, but no substitute for bricks !

Sunday 7 November 2010

The perfect job

My rediscovery of the Brick after emerging from my LEGO Dark Ages a few years back has lead to a lot of enjoyment, but it has been a pretty solitary experience. Sure, I quickly stumbled upon some fantastic online resources such as Brickset, Peeron, Bricklink and Eurobricks and have interacted on various online forums (or should that be fora ?), but despite making some welcome and worthy 'virtual' contacts, I failed to meet a single other AFOL in the flesh in over 3 years.

My antisocial AFOL existence recently ended, however, when I decided to attend my first ever LEGO event - the Great Western LEGO Show at STEAM - during which I was finally able to put a face to some of the personalities that I had previously only encountered online. Significantly, I was also persuaded to join the Brickish Association (BA) while at STEAM. BA are a UK-based community of AFOLs, and in the short time I've been a member, my LEGO obsession has been transformed from a solitary pursuit into something more sociable. As well as the revelation that I am most certainly not alone in loving the Brick despite my advancing years, membership has already opened the doors to some activities and opportunities that I would otherwise most likely never have experienced

This weekend has provided a great example for this. As some of you may know, the LEGO company is shortly to open 2 more brand stores in the UK - Westfield in London, and Cardiff - in addition to the 3 existing stores in Milton Keynes, Bluewater and Brighton. These two new LEGO stores will be internally decorated with LEGO models, and BA members were invited to construct these decorative models for the Westfield store. To sweeten the deal, incentives including a discount at the Milton Keynes brand store were on offer for the builders. I jumped at the chance of being involved, and so it was that I met with 10 or so fellow BA members in Milton Keynes on the Saturday morning ready for a day of communal LEGO building.

The sets we were there to build were not retail sets, but specially designed sets shipped from LEGO HQ in Billund in plain brown cardboard boxes. They came with rudimentary instructions that were, at times, really not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced builder..... I found that the building experience ranged from incredibly simplistic and straightforward to surprisingly challenging. My first building task involved building an extremely rudimentary, but surprisingly endearing, LEGO Zoo (picture below, courtesy of Huw). I have to admit that it was incredibly refreshing to be building with 'real' bricks for a change rather than the increasingly specialised parts contained in many modern retail sets.

LEGO Zoo - gotta love that elephant !
The zoo was pretty straightforward, but things got rather more challenging when I opened the box entitled "Pool Party". This was a significantly larger, more complex set, with instructions that were at times a real mare to follow. To give you an example of this, I had to construct a baseplate out of 150-200 green plates of different sizes, a task which was illustrated by just 2 steps in the building instructions..... This model kept me occupied for the rest of the day, and even then I needed my fellow BA builders to pitch in as time started to run out (thanks guys and gals !). You can see the completed model below - certainly a cruder, chunkier model than today's sleek retail offerings, but it employed some neat building techniques, and contained loads of humorous touches such as a paparazzo shooting pics over the fence, a shark in the pool, and a dog squeezing through a hole in the fence (click on the pic to enlarge).

Pool party, with a few humerous touches....
We probably built anywhere from 15 to 20 models over the course of the day, with the remainder to be assembled by some of our BA colleagues the following day. The completed sets included some real crackers, and more than one of us remarked that we'd gladly shell out our hard-earned cash for some of the models if they ever appeared at retail. The plan is for the completed models to be carefully boxed up and shipped to the London Westfield brand store in time for the grand opening later this month; I'll try and get down there at some point and snap some pics of the models in situ, so watch this space if you're interested to see pics of a few more of the models in their final resting place.

Building the models was an excellent crack, fuelled by some great banter and cooperation between the builders, and if the day was typical of the kind of activities on offer to BA members then I really wish I'd joined a lot sooner. I'm certainly not here to act as a recruiting agent for BA, but if you're a UK-based AFOL and looking to add an extra dimension to your LEGO obsession then you should really consider joining. Next up is a Christmas party at Legoland Windsor - I can't wait !

So there you have it - my first (and unfortunately also probably my last) day as a model builder for the LEGO company.... As well as enjoying the day itself and getting to hang out with some fellow AFOLs, I also picked up a number of sets that I was planning on buying anyway at a discount as part of my 'reward', so I was effectively paid to build LEGO this weekend.... It really doesn't get much better than that !

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Not Rocket Science....?

Have you ever watched an adult build a LEGO set ? I don't mean an AFOL, who's been building LEGO for decades, I mean an adult who has never previously built a LEGO set. You should try - it's fascinating !

I recently bought LEGO sets as cheeky presents for a couple of people I know well, and I was present when they built them. It was, to be honest, an eye-opener. Both sets were pretty small and simple, with only a couple of pieces to be added at each building step, no Technic elements and no issues of colour discrimination in the instruction leaflets. And yet they found it surprisingly difficult. I constantly had to fight the urge to intervene. Just to be clear, neither individual is in any way intellectually challenged, nor especially clumsy, which made their struggles all the more surprising.

                Set 7634 Tractor - clearly not as simple as it looks....

This experience really drove home to me the extent to which experienced LEGO builders develop skills which they take for granted, but which apparently don't exactly come naturally and which evolve with 'practice'. Key is the ability to quickly recognise pieces, predominantly by sight, but also to some extent by touch. Watching the uninitiated struggle to identify pieces which I would consider to be pretty basic and 'obvious' was initially a bit shocking, but on reflection, why should the non-LEGO builder easily recognise them ? It's different for me - I've spent decades looking at pieces of LEGO from every imaginable angle. I also must have held some of these pieces in my hands literally tens of thousands of times and can probably now identify the vast majority by touch alone. But for the inexperienced builder, some LEGO pieces must be akin to alien objects, never before seen, and only very subtly different to scores of other pieces. It's really no wonder they struggled.

And then there's the act of actually fitting the pieces together. Again, I would have assumed that anyone with all their faculties intact could immediately do this with their eyes shut, but clearly not. There was some very real confusion evident with respect to how the pieces should align with each other. Closely related to this was a surprising degree of difficulty in following what looked to my AFOL eyes like very straightforward instructions. On more than one occasion, getting a piece in the right position was seemingly a process of trial and error, rather than the intuitive act of an experienced builder. Following the building instructions in a LEGO set can occasionally be a bit of a nightmare due to poor colour discrimination between black, dark grey and light grey pieces in instruction some booklets, but otherwise I've generally considered LEGO instruction booklets to be a masterpiece of clarity and intelligent design. There were however times when my adult guinea pigs looked at the instructions with the kind of bemusement that I more would have expected if I'd offered them an ancient Sanskrit scroll or a tablet covered with hieroglyphics and asked them to translate.....

LEGO hieroglyphics - care to translate ?
Finally there was a degree of confusion at the discovery of unused pieces when the model was eventually complete; this I could certainly understand, having myself wondered at times whether I'd absent-mindedly missed one or more building steps when faced with a smattering of unused parts at the end of a build. I've come to know, however,  that if the unused pieces are small (i.e. 1x1 round plates, cheese slopes, technic pins or other tiny elements) they're just a gift from the LEGO company in case we lose any of the little bits....

So what became of these newbie builders ? Well, I'm delighted to report that their faltering first steps didn't put them off the joys of LEGO - they've both since aquired further LEGO sets and successfully built them, with more to come I suspect. In fact, given that I've now recruited a couple more potential LEGO addicts, perhaps the company should pay me commission.... In LEGO, of course.