Wednesday 30 May 2012

Fangs for the Memories...

Ho hum - another day, another set from a theme that I vowed I wouldn't get involved with...

The Ninjago theme has by all accounts been fabulously popular with kids, but it didn't appeal to me at all when I saw pictures of the first wave of sets last year. I was left similarly cold when the sets appeared at retail, and I thought I was safe. Little did I know how some of the sets would grow on me over time, however... Set 2507 Fire Temple turned out to be a beauty, and indeed a spectacular bargain as many U.K. retailers slashed the price earlier this year to 50% of the RRP or even less. I also confess to have snapped up a couple of other first wave Ninjago sets as well, including Set 2509 Earth Dragon Defence.

Set 2507 Fire Temple - stunning.
When I first spied images of the 2012 Ninjago sets I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing - all those bizarre-looking, brightly coloured vehicles looked, to be frank, like a psychedelic nightmare. After the shock had worn off, however, I once again started to spy some sets of interest. My eyes were drawn in particular to Set 9455 Fangpyre Mech (below) which I saw for the first time at AFOLCON a few weeks ago.

I seem to be going through a bit of a 'mech' phase of late, probably triggered by my purchase of Super Heroes Set 6862 Superman Vs Power Armor Lex which is one of my favourite sets of the year so far. I've consequently recently found myself buying up LEGO mechs and robots old and new like they're going out of fashion, including a number of Exo Force sets, Creator Set 4508 Titan XP, and even the Hero Factory-esque Set 4529 Iron Man. Given this, I predictably couldn't resist picking up the Ninjago Fangpyre Mech set; buying it was in fact harder than I expected since it's an Exclusive set here in the UK and I couldn't readily find it anywhere except in LEGO's own stores. I therefore bagged it during LEGO's recent "Spend £50 and get a free Hulk minifigure" promotion, and it arrived a few days ago.

You can see the box above, the lurid green 2012 Ninjago branding working well (!) with the eye-searing lime green of the model itself. On the face of it, one Ninja versus a monstrous snake-faced mech doesn't seem like a very fair fight to me, but I'm sure Ninjago fans will tell me different. The back of the box highlights some of the play features of the set which we'll get to later.

Opening the box revealed 5 bags of LEGO pieces, the smallest containing just one minifigure part. There was also an instruction booklet and a sticker sheet. The instruction booklet (below) was relatively small - only about 5 inches by 6.5 inches - and quite chunky at 79 pages, with a cover very similar to the front of the box.

In addition to the actual building instructions, the instruction booklet is a veritable feast of additional content, if you like that kind of thing... There's advertising for the first wave of 2012 Ninjago sets, a 2-page inventory of parts, an exhortation to "customise your spinners" in 6 languages, cartoony images of Ninjago minifigures, and advertising for the website featuring images of Ninjago vehicles emerging from an iPad, an iPhone and a laptop screen. We also get advertising for LEGO Universe (R.I.P.) and the LEGO club, plus the now-obligatory image of a child shouting "WIN !" on the back cover which is somehow supposed to be an inducement for us all to take a LEGO survey. Not until you change the photo, guys... Finally, I was somewhat taken aback by the double-page spread in the middle of the booklet (below - click to enlarge) which highlights the multiple weapon types that feature in the Ninjago sets. We all know that the LEGO company isn't averse to fantasy violence, but even so a focus on the multitude of available weapons goes beyond what I'd normally expect.

The sticker sheet (below) was floating loose in the box; it was predictably starting to curl, but the stickers themselves were thankfully intact. The purple and red motif on the top right of the sheet is the mech control panel, the other stickers are external decoration. Note the "NAB 11" sticker which will attach to one of the mech's arms and which is derived from the set designer's username in the LEGO online community - I like it when the designers add personal touches like that.

I generally like to highlight a few parts of interest when I'm reviewing a set, and on this occasion it was genuinely hard to know where to start. Man, this set is stuffed full of interesting, unusual and colourful parts, although how excited you are by the selection below (click to enlarge) is I suspect largely dependent on how partial you are to a healthy dose of lime green...

In terms of rarity the standout parts are the 4 x 4 wedge in the middle of the cluster of lime green parts above and the pearl gold wing with pinhole, both of which are unique to this set. The very cool-looking two-tone green spike (actually a modified 1 x 2 plate with angular extension and lime green tip) at the top of the picture has only appeared in one other set to date, which is also the case for the dark green 2 x 1 x 2/3 slope with slots and the lime green 1 x 2 x 2 panel. A number of other parts including the sand green modified 1 x 2 plate with clip on top and the dark purple curved 2 x 2 slope have perhaps featured in just 3 or 4 other sets to date. I assume that the only reason we get the sand green modified 1 x 2 plates in this set is because this part doesn't actually exist in lime green. So lots of interesting pieces not readily found elsewhere, then - nice. And a banana. I'll admit I can't come up with a credible explanation for its presence in this set; maybe Mark Stafford (lego_nabii) who designed this set was just messing with our minds....

The set contains two minifigures, Kendo Cole (a goodie) and Fang-Suei, a snake-faced baddie. Cole's elegant Ninja robes are covered by the armour he's wearing, which is a shame as his armour looks cheap and ugly. Still, you can always remove it.

You can see Cole all tooled-up below. The pearl gold scythe I kind of get, even if it is unfeasibly large. The banana remains a mystery, however - is it for sustenance, or does it have a more sinister purpose ? Even its ownership is shrouded in mystery - the side of the box and publicity shots for the set show it being wielded with intent by Fang-Suei, but it's under the stewardship of Cole in the instruction booklet. Would someone just put me out of my misery and explain what on earth it's doing in this set ? Please ?!

I thought Fang-Suei was a way of arranging objects to bring them in harmony with the environment, but apparently thats feng shui... You can see the snake-faced villain, who has appeared in 3 sets to date including this one, below.

And so to the mech... You start out by building the cockpit of the beast, followed by the legs. The head comes next, and this is an extremely clever build - the sculpting of the head looks fantastic, and the use of vehicle wheel arches to seamlessly form the upper and lower eyelids is particularly cool. When the head is complete and has been attached to the body of the mech it's time to constuct and attach the arms, one of which features a flick-fire missle. Finally the tail, which is the weakest part of the model, is built and attached. Pics below - click to enlarge.

The model has multiple articulation points allowing it to be easily posed. The head lifts and lowers, the body swivels at the waist, the legs articulate at the hip and ankle, the arms articulate at the shoulder and elbow, and the pincers at the end of the arms can grip objects. The tail also articulates, and there's even a frame atop the cockpit which can be raised and lowered.

I have to say I really like this model. It's a good looking mech, particularly the superbly-realised head, it's fun to build utilising some clever building techniques, and it has lots of moving parts and can be easily posed. It's also full of interesting pieces, particularly if you like lime green... OK, so the colour scheme certainly won't be to everybody's taste but I've learned to like it. On the downside, the minifigures aren't particularly interesting, and Cole's armour is a bit rubbish. Also, there are a few stickers to apply. But that's it, really.

Set 9455 Fangpyre Mech is currently available online from LEGO shop@home and from LEGO brand stores.  I also spotted it for sale online at Smyths, and it may well be available in-store too. At £19.99 / $24.99 for 255 pieces it seems reasonable value for money; I even paid RRP for it, which is unlike me... Definitely a thumbs-up for this one.

"Fight, Fight, Fight !" - Lex Luthor and Fang-Suei resolve their differences...

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Home Truths

OK, so we've had Micro and we've had Mini. If you're a LEGO Star Wars fan then you might also have had Midi. Come to think of it, if you're not too fussy about your brand of building bricks then you might have had Mega too. What newer entrants into the world of LEGO might not be aware of, however, is that in the dim and distant past we also had Maxi.

Younger readers might not believe it, but the ubiquitous LEGO Minifigure hasn't always ruled the world. Some of us can remember a time before Minifigures ever existed. And during those dark, distant days, there was another, shorter-lived dynasty, that of the Maxi figures.

Also known as Homemaker figures, these guys, gals and grannies held sway during the mid- to late 1970's and early 1980's before being superceded by the modern Minifigures we all know and love. Set 200 LEGO Family (above) was a popular introduction to the Homemaker figures for many people of my age.

Prior to this, LEGO produced a series of Homemaker sets from 1971 onwards featuring domestic scenes such as a children's room and a kitchen. Early Homemaker sets were, to all intents and purposes, LEGO-built sections of a modular doll's house, albeit with something important missing - the dolls. I don't know whether LEGO always intended to remedy that situation, or whether poor sales and/or feedback from customers indicated that a change in direction was needed - if there are any experts out there then I'd love to know more of the history - but in 1974 the Homemaker sets started to be populated by figures. While predominantly brick-built, these figures featured a selection of brand new parts (below) - torsos, hands, heads and hair - enabling a degree of realism not previously possible with LEGO.

Constituents of a Homemaker Figure (pics from Bricklink)

The realism extended beyond just the appearance - the design of the figures meant that it was possible to rotate the head and move the arms at the shoulders, elbows and wrists. There was also variety - as you can see from the box shot of Set 200 LEGO Family above and the pictures of my LEGO family below, LEGO produced interchangeable heads for the figures with a variety of expressions, facial features (e.g. freckles) and even spectacles. There were also different hair pieces, again interchangeable, and the torsos and arms were available in a variety of colours.

As far as I can make out, LEGO produced around 60 sets between 1974 and 1982 containing one or more of these Homemaker figures. The sets were predominantly domestic scenes, but also included a few vehicles and basic sets. One interesting twist to the formula can be seen in Set 565 Moon Landing (below) which replaced the Homemaker head with blocky brick-built space helmets.

I was surprised how many sets containing Homemaker figures I'd accumulated over the years, and spent a blissful hour or two digging out a few of the sets and building them earlier this week; in addition to the LEGO Family figures above, you can see a couple more examples of my Homemaker family below (click to enlarge).

Set 212 Scooter
Set 265 Bathroom

Truth be told, despite the early success of Homemaker figures, they were an endangered species almost as soon as they were born. Barely a year after they first started to appear in sets, a smaller, simpler type of figure was born. This ancestor of the modern minifigure (below) first started appearing in sets in 1975. Lacking any facial features or poseable arms or hands, these figures must have seemed incredibly rudimentary compared with the Homemaker figures, and it's incredible to believe that they nevertheless set the wheels in motion for the modern phenomenon that is the minifigure.

Early minifigure, from Set 664 TV Crew

Simple they may have been, but some of my favourite childhood sets, such as Set 370 Police Headquarters, featured these early prototypal minifigures. It may be that one of the reasons why these smaller figures ended up ousting the Homemakers is down to scale; a Homemaker-compatible police station, for instance, would have needed to be considerably larger and consequently more expensive than Set 370, and it's likely that the adoption of smaller figures opened up more possibilites in terms of what sets were feasible.

It took only 3 years for the early minifigures to evolve into their modern form, and in 1978, the minifigure credited with being the first of the modern breed appeared in Set 600 Police Car. The rest, as they say, is history, but let's never forget the little people who arguably kickstarted the whole minifigure revolution....

Wednesday 16 May 2012

No Consolation

Sometimes in life you just have to accept that you can't have what you want. Regardless of whether you want a Ferrari but have to make do with a Ford, or you want to visit Barbados but can only afford Benidorm, or you want a chrome C-3PO but can only stretch to a pearl gold one, compromise is where it's at for everyone except perhaps the super rich.

I wrote a while back (read it here) about my quest to track down Set 3450 Statue of Liberty (above) and my inability to get a boxed example at a price I was willing to pay. Nothing's changed on that front. I was therefore intrigued to read on the Brickset Forum that LEGO were releasing another version of this iconic monument, and wondered whether getting hold of this new version might help to ease the pain of missing out on the original. Unfortunately, the set was only going to be made available in the Rockefeller Center LEGO Store in New York City, at least initially, but thanks to the sterling efforts of Brickset Forum members DaddyWhale and Rocao the set was soon winging its way over to the UK.

You can see a picture of the sealed packaging above. OK, so at 39 pieces it was never really going to make up for the absence of Set 3450 Statue of Liberty with its 2882 pieces, but we can dream...

Some of the more interesting pieces in the latest version are shown above. The green 3 x 2 wedge plates have only previously appeared in 5 sets other than this one; their potential for use outside this set is however limited by the fact that they're all left-sided. The green modified 2 x 2 plate with 1 stud has previously only appeared in 8 sets, and as far as I can tell, the unprinted green minifigure head is unique to this set. The green 2 x 2 dish has previously appeared in 10 sets.

The building instructions (below - click to enlarge) are of the single sheet "folds down to a postage stamp" variety and consist of just 11 building steps with no advertisements or other distractions in sight.

The build is predictably short and sweet, and within a few short moments of pouring the pieces out of the bag you have the finished model below. And no, I didn't build it wrong - it really is supposed to look like that, honest....

I wouldn't say I'm one for undue criticism, but this really isn't one of the better likenesses of the Statue of Liberty that you'll ever encounter.... Firstly there's the colour - LEGO well and truly nailed this back in 2000 with Set 3450, using sand green bricks to perfectly capture the colour of the oxidised copper patina covering the actual statue's surface. It's a crying shame therefore that this most recent LEGO version is regular green rather than sand green; I suspect this is because some of the parts don't currently exist in sand green and it wasn't cost effective to make them just for this set. Whatever the reason, regular green just looks wrong. Then there's the design itself.... Where do I start ? To my eyes, the tan plinth is probably the best part of it, with the statue itself looking decidedly bizarre - it looks more like a woman in ceremonial Japanese dress than the intended subject matter.... Even the torch looks wrong, jutting unnecessarily outwards at 45 degrees rather than predominantly upwards. All in all, it's pretty close to what the young and trendy (which I'm not) might describe as an "epic fail".

So in case you hadn't already realised, I'm afraid this one doesn't exactly hit the mark. My wife thinks it's quite cute, which given her artistic tendencies and generally good taste I really can't understand, but for me it's a decidedly poor rendition. It certainly doesn't ease the pain of missing out on Set 3450, that's for sure. All is not lost, however - I do at least have the lovely Collectable Minifigure version (below) to keep me company !

My lack of enthusiasm for Set 40026 Statue of Liberty notwithstanding, thanks again to DaddyWhale and Rocao in the U.S. for getting hold of the set for me and sending it over to the UK - cheers, guys !

Wednesday 9 May 2012

United in Manchester

There's no shortage of excellent LEGO-related events to attend in the UK and the rest of Europe, but until recently we've never had a U.S.-style LEGO conference complete with a programme of presentations, keynotes and workshops. AFOLCON finally brought this U.S.-style format to the UK in 2011, and I was determined to attend this year having missed out last time on account of work commitments. And so it was that after work last Wednesday I grabbed some dinner, kissed my family goodbye and set out on the three-and-a-half hour drive to Manchester. Despite not arriving until almost 11 p.m., it was gratifying to find the hotel bar still packed with a motley crew of AFOLs, most of whom were members of the Brickish Association, Brickset or both.

There were a few sore heads at breakfast the next morning, but hangovers were (mostly) forgotten amidst a sense of anticipation at the event to come. After breakfast we made our way over to Event City to register. This venue is located at the edge of the absolutely enormous Trafford Centre shopping mall, a few minutes away from Manchester United's Old Trafford football stadium. The registration process was efficient, and in addition to the obligatory event bag, lanyard and agenda we all received a kilo of random LEGO elements in a ziplock bag - a nice touch. After loading up with tea and coffee and greeting our fellow attendees we passed through the cavernous exhibition hall and into the meeting room. At around 10 a.m., AFOLCON organiser Warren Elsmore welcomed the attendees, and we were off.

The first speaker was Mark Stafford, already a renowned and prolific MOCcer prior to being taken on by the LEGO company as a set designer in 2006. He has an impressive portfolio of sets under his belt spanning a  number of themes including Space Police, Atlantis, Alien Conquest and Ninjago, and was coincidentally the designer of my favourite set of last year, Set 7066 Earth Defense HQ. Mark's talk focused on the development of the Ninjago theme, and more specifically the design of the sets making up Year Two of this popular theme. To illustrate his points, he'd brought along a number of prototypes which gave a fascinating insight into the evolution of some of the sets, including a few which won't be on the shelves until the Summer - click images below to enlarge.

Samurai Mech - a Summer 2012 release
Fangpyre Mech prototype...
....and Fangpyre Mech final
Ninjago prototypes and boxes
Ninjago Snake Train Concept

When I first saw the agenda I thought the gaps between the presentations would be too long, but in fact they were a masterstroke, allowing attendees to quiz the presenters 'offline', catch up with each other, build with their kilo of LEGO, and remain well-refreshed. Next up was Alex Bidolak from the Manchester LEGO Discovery Centre (LDC). In his talk entitled "From Postie to Brickie" he described how he'd gone from being a postman to securing his perfect job, that of a Master Model Builder at the LDC which he described as "an indoor LEGOLAND". While he's undoubtedly a talented builder, I suspect that his infectious enthusiasm and passion for LEGO were at least as important in getting the job over around 200 other applicants.

After a surprisingly good lunch, attendees were treated to a talk by Thursday's keynote speaker, LEGO Executive Vice President of Markets and Products Mads Nipper. For me, this session was perhaps the highlight of AFOLCON. Mads was an excellent, polished and passionate speaker who had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand after his disarming admission that he had been a member of the LEGO board that had presided over the company's brush with oblivion in 2003. He described the reasons for the company's difficulties - effectively the core business losing its way coupled with attempts to expand their way out of trouble - prior to explaning how a focus on LEGO's core strengths plus some substantial cost-cutting had saved the business and helped to set it on course for the fabulous success that it's currently experiencing. His fascinating wide-ranging talk, aided by a minimum of slides, no script and no need for a microphone, culminated in a lengthy Q & A session where he was questioned by attendees on a huge variety of subjects. I left the session confident that if the rest of the LEGO board is even half as impressive as Mads then the company is seemingly in good hands.

Day one finished up with a fairly brief and somewhat dry talk on quality in the LEGO group from Bjarke Schonwandt, Senior Manager Consumer Perceived Quality. The session really sprang to life during the long Q & A which followed, however, with attendees grilling Bjarke on multiple quality-related topics which he did a pretty good job of answering I thought. Topics included the longevity of stickers, colour discrimination in instruction leaflets, variability in the colour of elements, the mistreatment of boxes by certain retailers and the quality of Chinese-manufactured elements to name just a few. I left the session hoping that someone had recorded this Q & A in particular as it dealt with many of the questions that I see on the various LEGO forums every day.

That evening I grabbed dinner in the Trafford Centre with some of the Brickset Posse. The plan was for AFOLCON attendees to meet at an amusement arcade in the mall to do some bowling, play some video games and carry on the chat, but predictably enough most people headed straight to a nearby bar instead, prior to retiring to their respective hotel bars for more socialising....

Day two of AFOLCON kicked off with a talk from Adam Vaughan, a fellow Brit who's been working for LEGO as a designer since 2006. Adam is one of those responsible for the development of the Friends theme, and he talked us through a number of design choices they'd made along the way, not least the controversial decision to ditch the traditional minifigure in favour of the new minidolls. Another very lively Q & A session ensued, with Adam striving manfully to avoid letting slip any confidential information about future sets in the face of persuasive questioning ! As some of you will recall, I was initially very unsure about the Friends theme (see here for details...) prior to being somewhat won over (more here) and it was thus fitting that I was able to help to build some of the Summer 2012 Friends sets between AFOLCON sessions for display in the exhibition hall (pictures below - click to enlarge).

Friends Camper Van, coming Summer 2012

                                  Friends Mini-Dolls - check out the little lady bottom left.....
Friends Riding Stables, coming Summer 2012

Next on the agenda was Ed Diment, chairman of the Brickish Association, partner at Bright Bricks and one of my AFOLCON hotel drinking buddies.... Some of you may remember the spectacular LEGO Christmas tree which was erected in London's St. Pancras Station last Christmas. Ed and Bright Bricks founder Duncan Titmarsh were responsible for that amazing feat of LEGO engineering, and Ed talked us through the process of designing, building and installing the tree during his session. Over 600,000 bricks were used in its construction, and you can see a picture below. Despite the herculanean effort required to build the tree itself, it was sobering to discover that the majority of their time was in fact spent securing the necessary permissions from multiple agencies to actually install it....

After Ed's session came Friday's keynote from Tormod Askildsen, LEGO's head of Community Development. Tormod's well known within the AFOL community, having worked with AFOLs for many years now. He introduced us to his family (alas only via Powerpoint) and the LEGO Community Team, before sharing his likes (AFOL events, great MOCs) and dislikes (websites posting images festooned with 'LEGO confidential' stamps) and going on to provide a regional breakdown of the global LEGO fan community from the perspective of the number of LUGs, their membership, and the events they put on. I was surprised to learn that there are LUGs recognised by LEGO which only have a few members, while some of the Asian LUGs have memberships which run into thousands. Quite a lot of time, both during his talk and during the Q & A which followed, was focused on information leaks. Tormod acknowledged that leaks, for instance of confidential images, were certainly LEGOs fault, but that the company would nevertheless continue to ask websites to remove confidential images, and take further action, e.g. contact ISPs, if this wasn't done.

The final session of the day was a panel discussion which seemed to consist of a cast of thousands - most of the speakers, plus Jan Beyer (LEGO Community Operations Manager), Megan Rothrock (freelance toy designer who worked on LEGO Universe amongst other things) and Carl Greatrix (LEGO Model Designer at Travellers Tales), lined up to have questions fired at them. To be honest, it felt like attendees had exhausted their supply of more challenging questions during previous sessions as the Q & A was shorter than I expected and there were no particularly noteworthy revelations that I can recall....

Prior to wrapping up the formal AFOLCON proceedings by giving thanks to the presenters and attendees, Warren Elsmore shared a few announcements including the 1st June 2012 release date for the LEGO Batman 2 game and the reveal of a lovely new set also due for release on 1st June - Set 10226 Sopwith Camel - together with a minature version - Set 40049 Sopwith Camel - to be given away as a promo item during the summer.

Set 10226 Sopwith Camel

Video - Jamie Berard talks about Set 10226 Sopwith Camel

Set 40049 Mini Sopwith Camel

During the two days of AFOLCON, staff from the nearby Liverpool LEGO Brand Store had been feverishly constructing a "pop-up" store at Event City in preparation for The LEGO Show, the public portion of the event which kicked off the day after AFOLCON finished. The store opened for business on the Friday afternoon, allowing AFOLCON attendees early access. A 10% discount for AFOLCON attendees, coupled with LEGO's "May the 4th be with you" promotion, meant that the store did some healthy business. Newly-launched Set 10225 UCS R2-D2 was a particularly popular purchase, with attendees receiving a free TC-14 minifigure, mini TIE fighter and R2-D2 poster with Star Wars purchases over £50.

AFOLCON attendees - doing their bit to help UK economic recovery....
As a final bonus, AFOLCON attendees were given private, out-of-hours access to the Manchester LDC on the Friday evening where they got to see Miniland and participate in some of the rides and activities for free, not to mention avail themselves of another shopping opportunity... Miniland (below - click to enlarge) was small but perfectly formed; what it lacked it sheer size it made up for with a day/night cycle and some neat lighting.

Miniland Blackpool Tower by day...

....and by night.

Saturday morning heralded the start of the LEGO Show. Many AFOLCON attendees stayed on to exhibit their MOCs, help out with the show, buy LEGO from the many traders in attendance, check out the displays of others, or all of the above. It would take a blog posting all of its own to give the LEGO Show the attention it deserves; suffice to say here that the quality of MOCs was incredibly high, with my personal highlights being some of Mark Stafford's space MOCs, the latest UCS creation (a speeder bike) from Pete Brookdale (Cavegod), a massive collection of marvellous Neo Classic Space models from Peter Reid (Legoloverman) and a number of lovely creations from Yvonne Doyle ({YVD}) including her Friends Classroom (below - click to enlarge)

Mark Stafford's work-in-progress Alien Defence HQ on Steroids...

                Yvonne Doyle's Friends Classroom
Peter Reid's Exo Suit - vote for it on Cuusoo...

So in summary, a great few days. I'm loathe to spend time away from my family these days unless it's necessary for my job, but I'm pleased I took the decision to do so on this occasion. The AFOLCON sessions were of a uniformly high standard - kudos to Warren for pulling together such an excellent programme - and the LEGO Show was extremely enjoyable. But most of all it was an absolute pleasure to spend a few days eating, drinking, breathing, talking and building LEGO with fellow AFOLs pretty much 24/7. Be it Rodney who came all the way from Zimbabwe to attend, the Brickset Posse, Brickish Association folks or members of other LUGs, thanks to you all for making the hobby so much more than 'just' building with plastic bricks - you guys are great !