Wednesday 25 April 2012

Dreams Can Come True...

OK, so let's just say that you design and build a cracking LEGO model, and that by some stroke of good fortune someone with influence within the LEGO organisation sees your creation and falls in love with it. They manage to persuade the powers that be within LEGO to produce and sell your model, and they give you a share of the proceeds. Then LEGO offer you a job as a set designer, and you live happily ever after.... I suspect many young (and not so young) LEGO builders have fantasised about a scenario like this at some point. Just a pity that it won't ever happen.

Except.... Welcome to Cuusoo, where all your dreams can come true ! Maybe. According to the website, Cuusoo has apparently been "partnering with The LEGO Group to create a user innovative design system for people to create and market their own LEGO sets in the Japanese market" since 2008, although it only came to my attention sometime last year. Basically, you upload your own design to the Cuusoo site where it's then displayed for all to see. If the public like your creation they can vote for it, and if it gets sufficient votes, LEGO undertake to review the design with a view to putting their own version of it into production and giving you 1% of net sales. Nice !

Three fan-designed models have been greenlit since Cusoo's inception. Set 21100 Shinkai 6500 Submarine and Set 21101 Hayabusa are already on sale, having hit the 2,000 votes required to trigger LEGO review when Cuusoo was Japan-only. Cuusoo went global last year, at which point the number of votes needed to trigger LEGO review jumped to 10,000. Only one set has been given the thumbs up since then - Set 21102 Minecraft Micro World - and the release of this set is imminent.

Set 21100 Shinkai 6500 Submarine

Set 21101 Hayabusa

This isn't the first time that LEGO have released fan-designed sets, of course. Many of you will remember the Factory theme, which consisted of fan-designed creations released between 2005 and 2008. For me, the clear pick of these is Set 10190 Market Street, which was designed to fit with LEGO's range of modular buildings. Released at an RRP of £59.99, this sought-after set now regularly fetches more than £500 on eBay and Bricklink. In marked contrast, the other Factory releases really didn't hit the same heights, and I still shake my head in wonderment at how the likes of Set 10192 Space Skulls was ever deemed fit for release....

Set 10190 Market Street - great !
Set 10192 Space Skulls - not so great....

While I think Cuusoo has been broadly welcomed, it has come in for criticism on a few fronts. One problem is the way that viable, quality designs can quickly become lost in a sea of mediocrity, much like the "needle in a haystack" syndrome that afflicts the likes of Apple's iTunes Store. LEGO have acknowledged this, and have recently started to apply a greater degree of quality control to proceedings, which should hopefully cut down on some of the nonsense. Some folks have also complained at what they see as the potential for Cuusoo to be abused, and cite the recent success of the Minecraft Micro World project as evidence for this. The Minecraft design hit 10,000 votes in double quick time as a result of the huge global Minecraft community being skilfully mobilized to hit the Cuusoo site on masse and vote it through. Critics have however argued that the majority of these individuals would be unlikely to ever actually buy the set, although time will tell I guess. With regard to the Minecraft set (picture below), my issue is less about any possible abuse of Cuusoo and more to do with the set itself which looks pretty uninspiring to me; certainly it's hard to see many outside the Minecraft community having any interest in it.

Set 21102 Minecraft Micro World
A fourth Cuusoo project recently passed the threshold for LEGO review. The Winchester, a project by yatkuu which was modelled on the pub from the movie "Shaun of the Dead", recently hit 10,000 votes and is currently under consideration by the LEGO company. Given the obvious potential disconnect between the blood and guts subject matter of the movie and LEGOs brand standards, this one might not get the green light, however - in the words of the LEGO Cuusoo Team "due to the themes behind Shaun of the Dead there would need to be some significant internal discussion for us to agree to produce this as a product". The Cuusoo team do however go on to acknowledge that Shaun of the Dead is a comedy, that The Winchester is presented in a humorous fashion, and that even though the zombie theme puts the project "at the edge of what we produce" they recognise that LEGO do produce other products "where themes of violence and death play a significant role". So some hope, then....fingers crossed !

"The Winchester" by yatkuu
As a way of doing my bit to try and prevent some excellent designs on Cuusoo from being lost in a sea of mediocrity, I'd like to quickly highlight a few of my favourites in the hope that some of you may decide to support them and help them towards their goal.... First up is Exo Suit by Peter Reid. Better known in the online community as Legoloverman, Pete is renowned for his superb Neo-Classic Space creations (you can see his Flickr stream here) and he's submitted the cracker below. At time of writing, this gem already has more than 2,000 votes on the board after less than a month. Click here to add your vote.
Exo Suit by Pete Reid
Next is Pete Brookdale's stunning UCS AT-AT walker, which I've featured in previous blog postings here and here. Pete, better known as Cavegod (see his Flickr stream here), has finally bowed to pressure from various people including me and submitted his AT-AT design to Cuusoo a few days ago. You can vote for it here.

All hail Cavegod's UCS AT-AT !
Finally, there are a couple of creations below by marshal banana that I'd like to mention. His Modular Western Town has received wide coverage on Brickset, Eurobricks and elsewhere and has so far amassed more than 7,000 votes; you can see more pictures and add your support for it by clicking here - let's see if we can help push it over the finishing line. I'm also a huge fan of his enormous UCS Sandcrawler which you can vote for here.

marshal banana's Modular Western Town
UCS Sandcrawler

On the surface, 10,000 votes seems like a fairly modest threshold to reach in the context of an audience of millions, but in practice, anyone who wants to vote has to register with Cuusoo and provide details on how much they'd be willing to pay for the model if it went into production, how many units they'd buy, why they think the model should go into production etc. which I guess might discourage all but the genuinely interested (and the designer's mother, maybe). So best of luck to the designers of the creations above, and I hope to see your models on the shelves soon....

Thursday 19 April 2012


I'm sorry to report that on account of 'technical difficulties' there won't be a posting this week. To be fair, there was actually a posting written, a rather a good one as it happens, but it was cruelly and irreversibly deleted by dark forces beyond my control. I'll stop there as this is a LEGO blog rather than a "rant uncontrollably at unnecessary software upgrades" blog. Suffice to say that if LEGO don't feel the need to keep 'upgrading' their product why should anyone else ? I mean, can you imagine it ? "Sorry sir, but the LEGO you bought almost 2 years ago is now obsolete and your new LEGO won't work with it.".....

No need for an upgrade...
Anyway, normal service will be resumed next week when I've conquered the technical gremlins, so see you then....

Wednesday 11 April 2012


Here we go again.

I shouldn't be surprised, of course - it happens a couple of times a year at least. I'm referring to the appearance of another exclusive, limited edition LEGO Star Wars item which can't be bought through retail channels but which nevertheless needs to be gotten somehow in order to keep my collection complete, and which has the eBay scalpers rubbing their hands with glee as they extort small fortunes from completist suckers like me....

This time it's a Star Wars promo minifig of Darth Maul (below) which was initially only available to visitors to the LEGO stand at the 2012 New York Toy Fair and which has also recently popped up at LEGOLAND Windsor in the UK where its being given away with purchases of Star Wars LEGO.

In times gone by I'd react to the news of a Star Wars exclusive or giveaway with (at worst) mild envy if it was likely that I wouldn't be able to get hold of it, or with excitement if I thought I was in with a good shout of snagging it. All that changed, however, when I managed to complete my LEGO Star Wars collection; since then news of the latest Star Wars exclusive has instead generally provoked dismay and resignation, driven by the knowledge that in order to stay up to date I'd have to somehow get hold of the item without bankrupting myself.

I already had a good moan about this a while back (click here to read) but LEGO unfortunately if predictably ignored my pleas for mercy and continue to regularly torment collectors with these Star Wars exclusives. OK, so credit where credit's due - LEGO did at least kill Brickmaster, for which I'm eternally grateful - but with the recent appearance of Darth Maul my periodic headache has returned....

Brickmaster : good riddance...

Except something's changed over the past year or two, and it's something which has significantly eased my pain. That 'something' is the relationships I've built and continue to build with fellow AFOLs, mainly via the Brickset forum and the Brickish Association. Now, rather than having to resort to blind luck, or cough up increasingly extortionate prices on eBay, we work together to help each other out. Not for personal profit, but for mutual benefit, and increasingly for friendship.

This time it's Si that I and a bunch of other AFOLs need to thank for jumping through hoops on a recent trip to LEGOLAND Windsor in order to get each one of us a Darth Maul minifig. These promos are at time of writing commanding eye-watering prices on eBay and Bricklink, and he could easily have made good money selling them on, but he didn't - he's promised them to us. Previously it's been Roland, Patrick and Russell in the U.S. who have sought out and provided items at cost which simply couldn't be found in the U.K.. And on this side of the pond the likes of Andy, Huw, Ian, James, Lucy, Caroline, Wes, Geoff, Mark, Kev and many others have freely shared their bargain buys and tips. Apologies if this is starting to read like an Oscars acceptance speech, but in a world where we seem to live in constant fear of being ripped off, it's been a breath of fresh air dealing with decent, honest people like these, and I can't overstate how much the friendships I've made within the AFOL community have enriched the LEGO hobby for me.

TC-14 - the next Star Wars exclusive... (pic from Wookieepedia)

There's always room for more like-minded people to join the party, so if that's you and you're over 16 then get along to the Brickset forum and dive in....

Wednesday 4 April 2012


Honestly, what was I thinking ? Infrared remote control requires line of sight in order to operate the device - it won't work through walls. So if you place the device that you wish to control, for instance a LEGO train, in a place without line of sight to the controller, say in a long, enclosed section of railway tunnel, then it won't work. Duh.

Above (as with all the pictures, click to enlarge) you can see where I'd got to with my LEGO city layout the last time I blogged about it; eventually the whole loop of track will be fully enclosed, and the plan is to ultimately run an extended 5-car version of Set 7938 Passenger Train on this loop. Problem is that the standard, unmodified train is operated by infrared remote control, so for the majority of its progress around the enclosed loop of track I won't be able to control it. Whoops.... So what to do ? Well it's thankfully not an insurmountable problem, but it has once again necessitated an unplanned excursion into my wallet for what I think is the optimal solution.

For those of you of a more tender age, it's probably time for a quick history lesson. Since the appearance of LEGO trains in the mid-nineteen sixties, the company has utilised a variety of methods for making trains move by themselves. Initially it was 4.5V motors powered by huge on-board battery boxes. Then in the late sixties LEGO introduced a system of 12V motors running on electrified track; this system gave rise to some of the most iconic and revered trains that LEGO have ever produced, not least Set 7740 Inter-City Passenger Train (below).

This 12V system endured for two decades, eventually being phased out in the early nineties when LEGO transitioned to a system of 9V motors running on a different, moulded type of electrified track. This 'era' ran until 2006, and the introduction of the Remote Controlled, or RC, system which reverted to non-electrified track and motors once again powered by on-board battery boxes. Importantly, however, as the name suggests trains could for the first time be controlled remotely without the need for a physical connection between train and operator. The RC system was short-lived, however, giving way to the Power Functions-based system a few years later. This PF system, which is what LEGO currently sells, also employs non-electrified track, motors powered by on-board battery boxes and infra-red remote control which requires line of sight in order to control the train. Bringing things back to the present, it's this PF system which is used by the train I plan to use in my underground track loop, and hence my little problem....

So the solution ? 9V. Despite having been officially phased out by the LEGO company a while ago now, 9V is still probably the standard for AFOL builders of public LEGO train displays. The track is no longer produced by LEGO and is relatively expensive on the secondary market, as are the motors, but critically for me, train control is via a speed regulator attached to a section of track by wires so there's no need for line of sight, nor is there the potential for batteries to run out with the train stuck deep in a section of tunnel.... Talking of public train displays, and the observation that most seem to employ 9V, there's also another possible advantage - when I finally complete my layout and my attention shifts to the question of public display, if I use 9V track then it raises the possibility of linking my layout with that of someone else to produce a much larger collaborative build.

Anyway, once I'd sourced (and paid for....) the required quantity of dark bley 9V track, it took no time at all to replace the existing track in my layout with the 9V alternative and wire it up to a speed regulator. You can see where I've currently got to with my layout in the pictures below (click to enlarge); use of a wired system is certainly messier and less elegant, but it"s a compromise I'm willing to make in this case.

The other thing I needed to do, of course, was to convert my train from PF to 9V. Having previously had few dealings with 9V beyond buying a couple of old 9V sets for my collection, I approached this task with some trepidation. I needn't have worried, however - it was incredibly simple. From the outside, the standard 9V motor seems to be pretty much identical to the PF motor included with Set 7938 Passenger Train, so it was literally a matter of disconnecting the PF motor from the battery, removing it from the train chassis, and attaching the 9V motor in its place. I could have stripped out the PF remote receiver and battery box at this point given they were no longer needed to make the train move, but decided instead to retain the PF components to power and control the front and rear lights of the train instead.

You can see the train running on the newly laid 9V track loop in the (decidedly ropey) video clip below, complete with PF-powered front and rear lights. These are turned off and then back on again about halfway through the clip using the remote control.

So another small step forwards, then - ever onwards !

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