Wednesday 25 July 2012

Hell's Bells

I've found it increasingly difficult to get excited about LEGO's Architecture theme. I admit I was pretty eager at first, picking up the first wave of sets on a visit to the LEGO Brand Store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile and then keeping my fingers tightly crossed on the flight home that the boxes wouldn't get crushed to oblivion in my luggage. Since then, however, my enthusiasm has gradually waned to the point where most of the releases barely seem to register now.

Set 21012 Sydney Opera House : ghastly
To me, there's a distinct feeling of style over substance with this theme. The packaging is extremely slick - elegant, stylish boxes open neatly without the need for minor surgery, and the beautifully put together information booklets further whet the appetite. The models themselves are generally found wanting, however - simplistic and in some cases plain ugly (yes, Set 21012 Sydney Opera House - I'm looking at you...). And even when I can see some aesthetic merit in the sets, such as Set 21005 Fallingwater or Set 21010 Robie House, the thought of the build, and more specifically stacking hundreds of tiny plates or tiles for hours on end, puts me off. And then there's the price - some of these sets have a reputation for being eye-wateringly poor value for money.

All that having been said, I was interested to hear that LEGO were planning to add a version of Big Ben to the Architecture theme, and given that it's a (fairly) local landmark and wasn't too expensive, I decided to pick up a copy when the set appeared at retail.

As usual, the packaging doesn't disappoint. The set sports the trademark swish black box (pictures above and below) and just about my only complaint is how easily the front of the box gets marked - every little scuff and fingerprint shows up on the surface. But if it's OK for Apple then I guess I'll let LEGO off on that one.

Access to the box contents is via a flap on the right side of the box - cut the seals, pull the flap and the front of the box lifts up exposing the contents. A million miles away from the horror of thumb tabs, which is what you normally have to contend with with a set this size. The box contains four sealed bags of parts, two loose black 6 x 10 plates, and a thick, heavy booklet. The booklet, which is I think is best described as 'lush', is sixty pages long and doubles as an information resource and the building instructions. The first few pages consist of photographs interspersed with informative text outlining the history and construction of the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster ('Big Ben' is actually the name of the bell within the tower rather than the tower itself). Appropriately enough for the Architecture theme, a couple of pages are dedicated to two of the architects responsible for the design of the building.

Other notable content includes a page discussing the history of LEGO Architecture sets (they actually go back as far as the 1960's, apparently), scale diagrams of other sets in the theme, and even some thoughts from Rok Kobe, the designer of the set (below), who gives a high-level description of the design process for this model.

The building instructions themselves don't begin until page 14 of the booklet, by which time you're absolutely itching to start building ! A note about the building instructions : one enduring issue for as long as I can remember has been how difficult it can sometimes be to discriminate between the different colours in the building instructions. LEGO has been listening to our complaints, however, and has started to print a thin white outline around all the black pieces. I can confirm that this well and truly nails colour discrimination issues, at least so far as black pieces are concerned, so thank you LEGO ! Another cool thing about the building instructions is the way that little snippets of information are placed between some of the building steps. I never knew, for instance, that the Ayrton Light which sits atop the clock tower was named after A. S. Ayrton, Member of Parliament, and is only lit when Parliament is sitting....

I was intending to take a photograph of some of the more interesting or unusual pieces in this set, but truth be told once I'd looked through the parts listing I decided not to bother as there really aren't that many.... The black 1 x 8 tile with "Big Ben" printed on it that sits on the base of the model is obviously unique to this set, and the dark bluish grey 2 x 2 x 2 quadruple conxex slope which forms the top of the clock tower is only found in one set other than this one. Otherwise it's more a case of quantity over rarity - 57 tan 1 x 1 round bricks, 38 tan 1 x 2 plates, 34 tan 1 x 1 tiles and 32 tan modified 1 x 2 tiles with grille just for starters help to explain why such a small set has such a surprisingly high total parts count of 346. It also means that you know where to look if you're in the market for a tan greebles parts pack....

You can see the finished build above and below. Words that come to mind when I try to describe the building experience are as follows : compact, neat, repetitive, clever, fiddly. Lots of small parts to stack, and those of you as particular as me - you know who you are - will hate having to fight the compulsion to line up every 1 x 1 brick, plate and tile so that it's exactly straight... On the other hand, some genuinely neat building techniques are employed to achieve the final result, and I have to say that the finished model doesn't look half bad. In fact my only real complaint about the design is the way that the clock faces jut out, which doesn't look quite right to me. Otherwise it's an unexpectedly good rendition.

Aside from some distinctly duious designs, a criticism of many sets in the Architecture theme has been value for money; some of the sets have a truly terrible price per piece ratio. That isn't the case for Big Ben, however - 346 pieces for a U.K. RRP of £24.99 isn't too bad, even if the vast majority of those 346 pieces are small. Predictably enough, it's better value in the U.S., where the U.S. RRP of $29.99 equates to less than £19 at current exchange rates.

You can buy this set from LEGO Brand Stores, LEGO Shop@Home and Toys R Us in the U.K.;  in the U.S., you can also buy direct from Amazon. Just the thing to celebrate the 2012 London Olympics - Go Team GB !

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Ancient Treasures

Having focused on a couple of newer sets over the past few weeks, I thought I'd plunder the archives for something older this week. Set 346 House with Car is almost as old as I am, having been released in 1969. I suspect that for most of you that makes it positively ancient....

Set 346 House with Car (picture from Bricklink)
I spotted this set on eBay during a recent episode of eBrowsing and immediately fell in love with it. This is what LEGO buildings looked like when I was a kid - none of your fancy Modulars in those days. I've bid on similar sets in the past and often missed out, but I was delighted to win the auction for a change, and even more delighted when the set arrived in pretty much immaculate condition a few days later.

Just check out the box (above - click to enlarge) - it's more than 40 years old and yet still almost mint. Wonderful ! I don't actually recall seeing this type of box before - a flap opens at the top so that the baseplate can slide inside the full length of the packaging, and the rest of the pieces fit into the removable inner box in the lower half of the packaging. The back of the box (below) features a motley collage of photographs and stylised images; let's just say that LEGO have come a long way since 1969 so far as box art is concerned....

The instruction booklet (below) is so minimalist its almost non-existent; certainly it's just about as far away as you can get from the weighty tomes we have to wade through these days. It's basically just a piece of paper containing six printed panels which folds down into a square, and it manages to condense the construction of the house into just 9 steps, with a further 5 steps for the car. That's 14 building steps for a 177 piece set; you'd probably get that many building steps for a minifigure these days. Well, maybe not, but you hopefully take my point....

This set obviously doesn't contain minifigures, pre-dating as it does even the earliest rudimentary minifigures by a number of years, but it does feature some special pieces which are well worth highlighting. Of particular note are the three trees that you get with the set - a pine tree and two identical oak trees (or fruit trees, if you'd prefer to go with Bricklink rather than Peeron). These are beautiful and intricate - check out the fine detail in the pictures below - and a world away from the crude, stylised tree designs that LEGO started to employ from the early 1970's onwards. They're also painfully fragile, however, and I'm therefore incredibly fortunate that all three trees in the set that I bought are immaculate.

Another piece of note is an Antenna with Side Spokes, not least because most of those in circulation seem to be lacking at least one of the side spokes so it's unusual to see an intact example... Again I was lucky enough to receive an undamaged one, so managed to avoid having to shell out a few quid on a replacement which is what usually happens. Then there's the old-fashioned classic windows, the unique baseplate with rounded corners and printing to indicate where you should start building, and the old-style 'macaroni' 2 x 2 round corner bricks, all of which risk inducing waves of nostalgia among LEGO fans of a certain vintage...

No hand-holding here...
Despite the relative simplicity of the set, the build wasn't as quick and straightforward as I expected, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the instructions; while some of us old-timers might sneer at the amount of hand-holding you get from modern instructions, at least they're generally easy to follow. This is in marked contrast to the instructions above - I twice built the roof of the house incorrectly before finally nailing it at the third attempt because I couldn't actually see which pieces I was supposed to be using. Secondly, the bricks - they're 43 years old, and despite looking in surprisingly good shape for their age they were somewhat temperamental at times; the clutch is significantly diminished with some of the pieces and increased with others, making for an unpredictable building experience. It's not until you build with older pieces like this that you start to realise how much we take the consistent building experience that we get with more modern LEGO bricks for granted.

Minor niggles aside, the finished house and surrounds are a joy -  a perfect example of a simple, classic LEGO build of the late 1960's and early 1970's. I'm sure that much of my enjoyment stems from the undoubted nostalgia factor, but there's also pleasure in the clean lines, the elegantly simple design, and the sheer fact that despite being 43 years old the set looks almost brand new - I wish I was so lucky....

Once the house and garden are finished, all that's left is the car. I'm presuming that LEGO were aiming for a sleek, sporty look when they designed the car in this set, on the basis that the windscreen sits low down directly atop the back wheel.

Almost all of the LEGO cars of my youth looked like this, and as such it can do no wrong in my eyes. Anyone brought up on a diet of modern LEGO vehicles could however be forgiven for thinking that it looks a bit....basic. There's a nice embossed engine grille at the front, though, and it's unusual to find a transparent 2x4 slope in such good condition after 40+ years - most of them become horribly yellowed after even half as long.

As you've no doubt guessed by now, I adore this set. There are unfortunately no examples of this set currently listed on eBay in the U.K. or the U.S. as far as I can see, and I don't even recall ever having seen one prior to spotting the listing for the one above. There are however a few of these sets available on Bricklink, of which a couple have boxes and can be had for as little as 40 Euros. So not outrageously expensive, then, and a delicious slice of classic LEGO if you're so inclined.

Just a brief post-script; having won the eBay auction for the set above, I thought I'd check and see if the seller had any more LEGO for sale. To my delight, he had listed another great-looking set, and by some fluke I managed to win that auction too. The set arrived a couple of days ago (picture below - click to enlarge) and once again it's pretty much immaculate. While I haven't built it yet, the imaginatively-titled Set 345 House with Car (or House with Mini Wheel Car on Bricklink, if you prefer) appears in many respects to be remarkably similar to Set 346, from the style of box to the instructions, not to mention aspects of the model itself including the car which is absolutely identical. Only the style of the house itself differs significantly, seemingly being an early 1970's vision of a 'future' house rather than the more traditional design seen in Set 346, and I'm looking forward to adding it to my vintage street !

Wednesday 11 July 2012

I Want My Mummy !

Here's another posting which falls into the "Better late than never" category.... When I first saw pictures of the Pharaoh's Quest line up many moons ago, Set 7307 Flying Mummy Attack was the early stand-out for me. The plane looked great, the Flying Mummy minifigures looked great, the obelisk looked neat, and I was really looking forward to getting my hands on it.

So I picked up a copy of the set as soon as I was able to get one at a decent discount (old habits generally die hard, however badly I want the set), but in time-honoured tradition I ended up getting stuck into other LEGO-related projects and the set never got built. Until now. Recent heavy discounting of the Pharaoh's Quest theme reminded me that I should really dust it off and get it built before the theme disappears forever (or until the next reboot at least). Admittedly a year late, then, but better late than never....

I do like the Pharaoh's Quest branding, which features a very agreeable colour palette. The front of the box for Set 7307 (above - click to enlarge) focuses on the biplane, which is predominantly a delicious dark red colour. The back of the box gives more prominence to other elements of the set, notably the hieroglyph-laden obelisk and the three minifigures.

Opening the box reveals three bags of parts, a sticker sheet and the instruction booklet. The front of the instruction booklet carries the same image as the front of the box. In addition to the building instructions, the 52-page booket contains an inventory of parts, a nice panoramic view of all the Pharoah's Quest retail sets covering two pages (pics below - click to enlarge) and advertising for the Pharaoh's Quest micro-site. Despite the sets themselves no longer being on sale direct from LEGO, the site is still up at time of writing and provides some back-story to the theme along with games, quizzes, character bios, wallpaper and unlockables, not to mention details about the sets themselves.

My sticker sheet (below) was curled up on itself in time-honoured fashion, although I've tried to flatten it out for the picture as best I could. It's bad enough having to apply stickers in the first place without the stickers themselves seemingly being set to self-destruct mode on top of everything else.... I'm sorry to go on about it, but I think back to some of my old Adventurers sets such as Set 5978 Sphinx Secret Surprise where the hieroglyphs are printed on the pieces and it's a real shame to see how LEGO are now taking short cuts with this kind of thing. Similarly, the roundels on the aircraft's wings would have been printed onto tiles not too long ago rather than stickered.

The complaints pretty much stop on opening the bags however thanks to all the interesting parts in delicious colours....dark red, dark blue, dark orange, tan and dark tan, plus some pearl gold. You can see a selection below (click to enlarge). The dark red 1 x 2 x 1 panel is unique to this set, while the dark red tail and 4 x 3 wedge  without studs only appear in one other set in addition to this one. A number of others such as the dark blue 2 x 2 tile with one stud in the centre, the dark tan 75 degree 2 x 2 x 3 slope and the dark red 4 x 4 corner plate only appear in a handful of other sets. Overall, therefore, a big thumbs-up for the parts.

The set contains three minifigures. Aviator Jake Raines (below) is pretty standard Adventurers fare. His torso features a flying jacket, back-printed with an appropriate logo and the initials 'SMH' which I suspect are probably the initials of the person who designed the set. He has a suitably stubbly, grizzled face which, I was surprised to note, isn't reversible. Jack doesn't appear in any other retail sets, but did make an appearance in the Desert Glider promo polybag (Set 30090) which was given away free with the now-defunct News of the World newspaper last year.

Jack has to face off against two Flying Mummies. These minifigures are intricately detailed and frankly superb in my opinion, featuring printed legs, gold-detailed back-printed torsos, reversible heads, decorated helmets and of course magnificent sculpted wings. The Flying Mummy minifigure is included in three of the Pharaoh's Quest sets including this one, and so impressed was I on seeing it for the first time last year that it was one of my nominations for the "Best Minifigure of 2011" award, although it eventually lost out to Captain Jack Sparrow.

It can't have escaped your notice than LEGO have been quite active on Mummy front over the years, producing a number of variants. You can see three of their most recent efforts below. On the left of the picture we have the Mummy from the third series of Collectible Minifigures and on the right is the Mummy from the 2012 Monster Fighters Set 9462 The Mummy. I love them all - you really can't have too many Mummies - but the spectacularly-decorated Flying Mummy surely represents the high point. The Daddy, if you will. :-)

The Three Amigos...
Once the minifigures are assembled, the next task is to construct the obelisk. The use of dark blue, light and dark tan, dark orange, and pearl gold pieces, together with the hieroglyphs, gives the structure a very exotic and almost authentic feel. You can certainly see this structure fitting very nicely into a Pharaoh's Quest diorama alongside other themed sets.

Obelisk completed, it's time to build Jake's biplane, presumably named "Spirit of Luis" as an homage to Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" which completed the first solo New York to Paris run in 1927. OK, so that was a monoplane, but it's the thought that counts... It was the biplane which initially attracted me to this set and it doesn't disappoint.

Even aside from the lovely dark red colour scheme (can you tell that I love dark red LEGO ?!) the design of the biplane hits the spot for me - compact, chunky and eminently swooshable. I also like the engine and twin machine guns; my only gripe is really the need to apply six stickers in order to add the finishing touch, and if that's the worst I can say about it then you know it must be pretty good.... You can see how all the different elements of the set come together in the picture below.

There's even a rudimentary 'play feature' built in to the set - the biplane features a grab arm on the underside which can be swivelled downwards in flight. This allows Jake to swoop down over the obelisk and grab the precious gem as illustrated below in the instruction manual (click to enlarge).

The overall verdict ? Put simply, it's an excellent set. It was the standout set for me when I saw first pictures of the Pharaoh's Quest theme, and it's robustly lived up to all my expectations.

Sad to say the Pharaoh's Quest theme is now on the way out. No longer available at S@H, on clearance or gone from LEGO Brand Stores and being purged from other stores, its days are numbered. At time of writing, Amazon in the UK and the US still carry some of the sets, and you can check them out here and here respectively. You may even find the Pharaoh's Quest sets at a clearance discount if you look around, although I'd wholeheartedly recommended this particular set even at the original £14.99 / $19.99 MRSP, such is its allure...

Wednesday 4 July 2012

New York, New York

I'm not necessarily a believer in fate, but I do have to admit that sometimes it's hard to ignore. I recently needed to take a trip to New York at very short notice, and given that I'd be spending barely 24 hours in the Big Apple, I didn't figure I'd have time to do anything other than work while I was out there. I'd left the job of choosing and booking my hotel to someone else, so you can imagine my amazement when it turned out that my hotel was literally just a couple of blocks from New York's Rockefeller LEGO store, and that I'd be arriving in Manhattan just in time to pay a quick visit before closing time. Destiny, I'd say....

The store is located in New York's famous Rockefeller Center - the rent must be astronomical - and it was absolutely packed with people. Predictably enough, the clientelle consisted mainly of tourists rather than locals.

Given the store's prime location, it's perhaps understandable that in addition to the expected wide selection of 'standard' LEGO fare available elsewhere there are also a few store exclusives on sale there as well.

I picked up the keyring above during my visit; although assumed by me to be exclusive to the Rockefeller store, I guess it's possible that this keyring might also be available in one of the other four LEGO brand stores in New York State as well - does anyone know ? I've not seen store-specific LEGO keyrings before, although that's perhaps just down to the stores I've visited - "Milton Keynes" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "New York", and I guess there's less demand for souvenirs.... You can see another store-specific item below that I picked up - a magnet set. The figure is glued to the base, unfortunately, in the now-customary fashion.

It's not just exclusive trinkets that are available either; some of you may have read my review (perhaps better described as an assassination...) of Set 40026 Statue of Liberty a couple of months back, and this set is exclusive to the Rockefeller LEGO store. Set 40025 New York Taxi (below) is also a store exclusive, and I just had to grab a couple.... The availability of store-specific sets like these reinforces the Rockefeller store's status as a LEGO flagship as it really can't be very cost-effective to produce sets and only sell them in one place.

While obviously not exclusive to the Rockefeller store, it was still nice to set eyes on the new Lord of the Rings sets while I was there, as at the time of my visit these had yet to appear in the U.K.. Although travelling with hand luggage only, and generally too mean to pay full price for sets, I couldn't resist picking up Set 9469 Gandalf Arrives which is the smallest set in the theme, and I'm pleased to report that it survived the journey back to the U.K. more or less intact.

An image of the Ring to rule them all, sitting snugly on Sauron's finger, forms a prominent part of the Lord of the Rings branding and can be seen on the front of the box (above). A restful scene of Gandalf and Frodo in the Shire lies beneath. For reasons I've never quite grasped, folks in the U.S. get the piece count on the front of the box while us Europeans don't. The back of the box (below) features a number of small vignettes including Frodo playing with fireworks and Gandalf feeding his horse and, um, delivering the mail.

You're supposed to open the box by way of the thumb tab on the rear, but in the interests of neatness I always ignore this, resorting to my usual method of carefully sliding a knife under the flaps of the box on one side and gradually prizing it open. The new horse mould was loose inside the box as were the instructions which were folded in two; the box also contained two sealed bags of parts, inside one of which was a small sealed cardboard sleeve containing Gandalf's cape.

I hate it when the instruction booklet (above) is folded as it's seemingly impossible to ever get it to lie flat thereafter; the front cover is basically the same as the front of the box albeit without all the set information. The 20 building steps are clearly printed over an inobtrusive and elegant watermark consisting of a map of Middle Earth. In addition to the building instructions, the 24 page booklet contains an inventory of parts, an advert for Set 9473 The Mines of Moria, and a useful 2-page spread showing off all the minifigures in the first wave of Lord of the Rings sets (below - click to enlarge).

As usual, I've collected together some of the more interesting parts to be found within the set in the picture below. Pride of place in the rarity stakes this week goes to the dark tan 1 x 2 x 1 panels which are currently unique to this set. This is also the case for the dark tan  2 x 4 wedge plate. The red snake can only be found in one other set, and the reddish brown wagon wheel only appears in two other sets. We'll get to the horse later.

I'm not usually too fussed about minifigures, but as a massive fan of the Lord of the Rings I have to admit I was looking forward to see what LEGO would come up with. This set contains minifig representations of two of the main characters, Frodo and Gandalf.

As befits a Hobbit minifigure, Frodo has short legs, although LEGO unfortunately haven't given him hairy feet to go with them... His simple, back-printed sand green torso and dark brown legs look just perfect, and I love his tousled hair and expressive face.

Frodo's head is back-printed (below), just in case you'd rather he looked nervous rather than cheerful. While I generally prefer to look at a smiling face, I think his pensive look probably better captures his on-screen persona. Overall, I think this minifigure is simple but superb, and I struggle to think how LEGO could have made it any better. Of note, this version of Frodo is unique to the set.

Also unique to this set, Gandalf the Grey is very....well, grey as you might expect. He seriously looks the part with his flowing beard and cape. Once again I think that LEGO have done a great job with his facial expression, so it's a shame that Gandalf's craggy, wizened face is largely hidden beneath his huge hat and big bushy beard. Again, his torso is printed front and back, although the simple back-printing is obviously hidden beneath his cape.

The build itself consists of Gandalf's cart, and you can see it below (click to enlarge). It might be small and simple, but it's elegant and looks just perfect to my eye, stocked up wth fireworks, a carrot for the horse and Gandalf's staff.

Gandalf's horse is worthy of special mention; LEGO have treated us to a brand new horse design this year, and in contrast to what's gone before this new version can be posed on its hind legs (below). The face is nicely printed, and all in all it's an excellent new mould which is being put to good use in the Lord of the Rings sets and which will also surely find its way into other themes in due course.

Put it all together and in my opinion you've got a lovely little set - great minifigures (especially Frodo), the excellent new horse, and a nicely realised cart. Overall it's the perfect introduction to the Lord of the Rings theme and has definitely left me wanting more.

The set has an RRP of $12.99 in the U.S.; I haven't seen final confirmation of the U.K. RRP yet although it's currently showing as £11.99 (and out of stock...) on a couple of U.K. retailer websites. Not exactly stellar value for money, then, but when you consider that its a licensed set with a couple of unique and iconic minifigures, the new horse and a sweetly designed cart, it really isn't too badly priced at all, and I can certainly recommend it to any LEGO fans with even a passing interest in Lord of the Rings.

Buyer beware, however - the U.S. RRP might be $12.99, but the Rockefeller LEGO store has the set on sale for $14.49 plus sales tax, a mark-up of more than 10%... Oh well, I suppose they have to cover the rent somehow...