Wednesday 23 February 2011

That's more like it !

After having been somewhat underwhelmed by the first wave of 2011 LEGO offerings, I've now been able to take a closer look at what's coming later this year, and things are definitely looking up. New York Toy Fair 2011 has come and gone, and finally we have high quality pictures of the Summer 2011 wave of sets. As a result, I'm pleased to report that my levels of enthusiasm have gone from "Meh" to "Get in there !" almost overnight.....

Reasons to be cheerful ? Well, a solid City and Creator line up for starters. Then there's a couple of licensed properties - Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean - which I freely admit to not initially thinking I'd be interested in but have had to revise my opinion of after seeing pictures of the sets. Plus there's a brand new theme - Alien Conquest (pics below - thanks FBTB !) - which looks very promising, harking back to some of the LEGO Space sets from past eras but with some interesting new twists.

Alien Mothership from the Alien Conquest theme

Earth Defense (sic) HQ from the Alien Conquest theme

But first things first - what of the Summer 2011 LEGO Star Wars sets ? Well, I have to admit that the first wave of 2011 Star Wars sets left me a bit cold. When it comes to Star Wars I'm a traditional kinda guy, worshipping the Original Trilogy, liking Episodes I-III more than most, but with only a passing interest in the Clone Wars and next to no interest in the Expanded Universe. Consequently, I didn't recognise the ships making up the bigger sets so far this year - the Bounty Hunter Assault Gunship and the T-6 Jedi Shuttle - and therefore found it hard to get too excited about them. The Summer 2011 Star Wars sets are largely back to basics, however. Most of them are remakes of older sets from Star Wars Episodes I to VI, which is great for newer collectors but perhaps not so good for me who already has multiple versions of some of the sets. We're getting a new System Scale Millennium Falcon, for instance. This will be the third System Scale Millennium Falcon that LEGO have produced, following in the footsteps of Set 7190 (from 2000) and Set 4504 (from 2004), and the sixth LEGO Millenium Falcon that I own when you include Mini, Midi and Ultimate Collector Series versions. In fact, when you add the Millennium Falcon Bag Charm to the list that's seven overall....!

Set 7965 Millennium Falcon : come in Number Seven - your time is near....
I've moaned a bit in the past about all the remakes in the LEGO Star Wars range, but I have to say that LEGO can't really win. Since 1999 they've produced LEGO versions of pretty much all the recognisable vehicles from the Star Wars films, which means that either they have to remake sets they've produced before, in which case long-time collectors like me complain, or else produce sets based on obscure stuff or ships from the expanded universe, in which case traditionalists like me complain.....! So like I said, they can't win, although the millions upon millions of dollars that LEGO earn from this most lucrative of licenses probably softens the blow. To be fair, one of the Summer 2011 Star Wars sets significantly improves upon what's come before - Set 7962 Anakin's and Sebulba's Podracers looks great, and far better IMHO than any previous podracer set. Hands down the highlight of the Star Wars Summer 2011 releases for me. I also think that the new Sith Infiltrator set (Set 7961) somewhat improves upon what's come before (particularly the ghastly 1999 version), even if it is the third System Scale version, and 4th version overall, of a ship which only appeared briefly in the movies.....

Set 7962 Anakin's and Sebulba's Podracers

Set 7961 Darth Maul's Sith Infiltrator

So what of the pleasant surprises awaiting us later this year ? Well, I'd largely written off the Cars theme as kid's stuff, but now I've seen some decent pics I'm not so sure. OK, so they certainly are aimed squarely at the younger market, but I can't help finding them quite neat... On the basis of first impressions, my favourites so far are probably Set 8487 Flo's V8 Cafe and Set 8677 Ultimate Build Mater (pics below, with thanks as ever to the wonderful Brickset), although there are really quite a few cool sets. I can certainly see myself buying a few of them, although not perhaps all 14 sets which are apparently on their way.... Merchandising tie-ins - don't you just love 'em ?

Set 8487 Flo's V8 Cafe

Set 8677 Ultimate Build Mater

Set 8486 Mack's Team Truck

And then there's Pirates of the Caribbean, another theme which I didn't think I'd be that fussed about. Except that some of the minifigures, such as the multiple versions of Captain Jack Sparrow, look superb, and a few of the sets such as 4195 Queen Anne's Revenge (pic below) look decidedly interesting....

Set 4195 Queen Anne's Revenge

So, an expensive 2011 awaits, I fear - in addition to the sets above there are some other potential gems on the horizon such as Set 5770 Lighthouse Island and a LEGO Star Wars advent calendar, not to mention new Harry Potter stuff and the new set I'm waiting for with the most excitement of all - Set 10219 Maersk Train which will be with us on 1st April 2011!

Set 10219 Maersk Train - now officially announced and on it's way....

Thursday 17 February 2011

He's at it again.....

OK, so you may recall me waxing lyrical a while back about an amazing LEGO model of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Intrepid lovingly constructed by Ed Diment (Lego Monster). It's probably the most impressive LEGO creation I've ever seen, to be honest. Well, as evidenced by his Flickr stream, the guy is absolutely prodigious, pumping out amazing creation after amazing creation on a regular basis. His latest MOC particularly caught my eye :

Amazing ! Having spent much of my childhood building Airfix kits of Spitfires (and tearing my hair out trying to paint them neatly), this LEGO creation really brought the memories flooding back. I love it, and I want one. Really badly. I even contacted Ed to ask about possibly reproducing his model, at which point reality took hold when he told me that it was an "insanely complex build" containing about 3,500 pieces. I'm not generally one to shirk a challenge, but if even Ed reckons it's insanely complex then I reckon I'd better just save myself a world of pain and pass this one time. :-)

While I'm on the subject of amazing MOCs, another recent creation caught my eye - "Three Story Victorian with Tree" by Mike Doyle (!snap! on Flickr) :

Absolutely jaw-dropping. I showed the pic to a few non-LEGO-loving friends, and nobody could quite believe that the model was built from LEGO. The attention to detail is unbelievable, and it's truly a marvel to behold. Mike estimates that his creation contains between 50,000 and 60,000 pieces and took him around 450 hours to complete. I can well believe it - stunning !

I never cease to be amazed by the levels of creativity, ingenuity and artistic ability in the LEGO community. And in case you're wondering, the word "artistic" was deliberately chosen - some of the many fan-built creations out there are as much "art" as any fine oil painting or stone sculpture. Interestingly, the world outside the LEGO fan community is starting to cotton on to this, as evidenced by the amount of publicity that LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya has been getting of late. Nathan is a full time freelance artist who creates sculptures out of LEGO, and you can check out some of his work here.

"Bedroom" by Nathan Sawaya
Even a cursory search on the internet will reveal a multitude of superb LEGO fan creations, and it's hard to keep track of what's new. To that end, I'm indebted to a number of websites which sift through many of the creations out there and bring some of the best to our attention. One site which I've increasingly been visiting of late is the excellent The Brothers Brick, which highlights great new MOCs on a regular basis. I've added the site to my list of recommended links in recognition of my increasingly frequent visits, and in the highly unlikely event that the webmasters are reading this, thanks for the great site guys, and keep up the good work !

Saturday 12 February 2011


My right thumb hurts, and so does my index finger. I've spent a couple of hours continuing to build Tower Bridge, obsessively aligning 1x1 plates and various types of 1x1 bricks to make the build as neat as possible, and now the pads of my thumb and index finger are sore. It even hurts to type this. It got me thinking about other occasions when my beloved LEGO had caused me pain, and whether others had suffered similar fates.

My most serious LEGO-related injury can't really be blamed on the LEGO itself, to be fair. It was when I was a small boy, maybe 8 or 9 years old. The family was going on holiday in the UK, and I was in fine spirits having been permitted to load up the car with a huge amount of LEGO, presumably to keep me quiet during the long evenings. Over the course of the holiday I painstakingly constructed a huge ship - a supertanker which was six or more 16x32 baseplates in length. So when the holiday was over we gingerly manoeuvred my behemoth into place on the back shelf of the car so that it would survive the journey home in one piece. Big mistake. On the drive back we crashed into the back of another car, and my angular masterpiece launched itself forward like a guided missile and smacked into my head, injuring me and showering the other occupants of the vehicle with hundreds of bricks. One can only wonder what onlookers made of the aftermath - an upset, dazed boy with a LEGO-induced head injury standing by the side of a major motorway surrounded by bits of LEGO strewn around the tarmac.... The trauma was such that it would be 30 years before I would contemplate building another ship - Set 10152 Maersk Sealand Container Ship.

Set 10152 Maersk Sealand - therapy
Other than that incident it's just been sore fingers and painful feet really. While there's little to compare with the exquisite pain of treading on LEGO bricks in your bare feet (and haven't we all done it at least once ?), it could hardly be described as life-threatening.... Help is at least at hand for the fingers, however - the risk of LEGO-induced finger injury plummeted with the advent of the Brick Separator in 1990. Up until then, LEGO builders had to rely on a combination of brute force, fingernails and teeth to separate stubborn pieces, with the predictable painful accidents that come with such activities.

All hail the LEGO Brick Separator....

So what of other people ? Well, a quick Google search reveals that I'm not the only one to have been injured by my favourite product. I found numerous reports of cuts, choking, trips leading to injuries and scarring, fingernails being pulled off, broken toes, head injuries caused by models falling off shelves, grazes and various puncture injuries. Thankfully for the LEGO company, almost all of these incidents seem to fall into the category of 'human error', crass stupidity or just plain bad luck, with no responsibility falling on the product itself.

But what of LEGO's restorative properties ? LEGO has surprisingly been credited with almost miraculous healing powers. Consider for instance TV presenter Richard Hammond, who was nearly killed when the jet car he was driving crashed at almost 300 mph. He sustained a number of serious injuries but has thankfully made a good recovery, and said in subsequent interviews that LEGO saved his life, helping him to regain brain function during his rehabilitation.

And with healing properties like that, I'm sure my sore fingers will recover in no time.....

Friday 4 February 2011

Top Secret

Another day, another brief flurry of excitement as an image of an upcoming LEGO set transiently appears on various websites, only to disappear shortly afterwards as LEGO ask for it to be removed. This time the image was of the utterly delicious Set 10219 Maersk Train Set; on previous occasions it's been preliminary images of collectible minifigs, or future Star Wars sets, or something else.

You can generally tell when images are not for our consumption - they usually have a huge watermark with "CONFIDENTIAL' stamped across them. The spat over Set 10219 was different however, as the 'offending' image wasn't marked as confidential and was in fact hosted on LEGO's own server in a publicly accessible area. An enterprising fan discovered the image and alerted Brickset, who quite understandably published the picture. Shortly afterwards, Brickset were asked by LEGO to remove the image, which they did. Other websites and individuals were not so accommodating, however - the image is still freely available elsewhere, including bizarrely on LEGO's own server in exactly the same place as it was when it was first discovered......!

LEGO have on a number of occasions shared their reasons for wanting such images to remain confidential until such time as they feel ready to go public with them. Indeed, an open letter from LEGO CEO Jorgen Vig Knupstorp was recently posted online explaining the reasons. In a nutshell, they're concerned about competitors copying 'novelty products', their future products being misrepresented because products may be modified prior to launch, and the confidentiality of licensed partners being compromised. LEGO also say they want to "give customers a 100% experience of our products and campaigns", although I don't really know what that means.

I have to confess to being somewhat conflicted on this issue. On the one hand, I can sympathise with at least some of the reasons above. I have no doubt, for instance, that the manufacturers of other brands of construction toys (you know who they are) look enviously at the success that LEGO enjoy and would just love to get an early warning of what their competition will be doing. I can also well believe that some of LEGO's licensed partners insist on being 100% in control of the release of every single image and snippet of information that emerges.

The problem I have is two-fold, however. Firstly, when I see the explosion of excitement and anticipation that invariably accompanies the leakage of these images, it seems to me that contrary to concerns about the business being harmed, the leaks are instead acting as spectacular pre-marketing. Just look at the comments on Brickset following the posting of the Set 10219 image if you have any doubts. This also provides LEGO with valuable feedback which is almost certainly more honest and candid than that provided by the kind of focus groups that companies pay handsomely for. On balance, therefore, it could be argued that such leaks are actually beneficial rather than detrimental.

Secondly, it appears to be LEGO's own practices that fuel the leakage of confidential images. Aside from the appearance of the picture of Set 10219 which was a special case (i.e. someone made a mistake, basically), it seems to me that the majority of leaked images originate from the catalogues that LEGO give to retailers to help them to decide what new LEGO products they're going to want to stock in the future. While this practice might have been low-risk prior to the advent of the Internet, it seems incredible to me that LEGO still apparently believe that they can hand out catalogues filled with confidential images, and that these images won't be posted on the Net and spread like wildfire within minutes...... I mean, if secrecy is really so important, it surely can't be beyond the wit of the company to find more secure ways of sharing information about upcoming sets with retailers, be it via a secure website which prevents screen grabs, or something else. In the final analysis, while LEGO persist in handing out catalogues containing images of upcoming sets to retailers, the power of the Internet means that they will never be able to keep those images under wraps, and they must surely know this.

Still, when all's said and done, from a personal perspective it's really no great hardship to respect LEGO's wishes - they'll release official images sooner or later anyway - and hence the lack of images of Set 10219 in this blog post. And who knows - despite my doubts, maybe they're actually right about the negative effects on the business.....?