Monday 19 August 2013

Spoiled for Choice

It seems to me that one consequence of LEGO's stellar market performance over the past few years has been an explosion of new books addressing pretty much every LEGO-related niche you can imagine. Sure, for as long as I can remember there's been a steady trickle of rudimentary fluff aimed at LEGO's target demographic of 5 to 9 year-old boys, but my perception is that as LEGO has grown in popularity there's definitely been more for the older LEGO fan to get their teeth into. As an example, I'm currently reading Brick by Brick which is unashamedly for grown-ups and chronicles the rise, fall and rise of the LEGO company - review to follow on Gimme LEGO in due course - and I previously read and reviewed Sariel's Technic Builder's Guide which was excellent (although certainly not for the faint-hearted). No Starch Press, who published the Technic book, have a number of other LEGO-related releases in the pipeline over the next few months, all of which seem to be AFOL-friendly to at least some extent. The first of these, Amazing Vehicles, dropped into my letter box a week or two back.

Amazing Vehicles is the work of Nathanael Kuipers, formerly a product developer for the LEGO company and the designer of a number of Technic Sets including 8261 Rally Truck and 8292 Cherry Picker, and Mattia Zamboni, a 3D computer graphic artist. The book features ten sets of building instructions for a variety of vehicles, graded according to building difficulty, and all buildable from a common parts palette. Conveniently, all the parts needed to build the models can be found in one relatively inexpensive set - Set 5867 Super Speedster (below) - although the downside is that the set is retired and hasn't been available at retail for some time now.

When I was a boy, I can remember owning a number of books which were filled to bursting with building instructions; they were a source of constant wonderment and I used them so much that they literally disintegrated over time. Wonderful though they were, however, I don't remember the quality of the designs being quite up to the high standard of those filling the pages of Amazing Vehicles - as you can see from the summary of designs below (click to enlarge) they're really rather good.... So good, in fact, that I was moved to try and build some of them.

Unfortunately, my best laid plans were seemingly thwarted, or at least postponed, by the realisation that my copy of the Super Speedster set was buried at the bottom of a cupboard and thus temporarily inaccessible. My young son was not so easily discouraged, however; having taken a keen interest in the book from the moment it arrived, he was adamant that he was going to build model number 6 Historic Racer using parts from his own sets, and I was to be his parts monkey. It was soon evident that my boy didn't have the necessary parts to build the model in the 'correct' colours, however, so we were looking at a BOLOCs scenario. My models haven't been BOLOCs since I was knee high to a grasshopper, but needs must, so I dutifully started to dig out the necessary parts from a large pile of semi-deconstructed sets including Set 6860 The Batcavea couple of Dino sets and Set 9473 The Mines of Moria, amongst others.

Once I'd located the pieces that were needed, construction proceeded at a reasonable pace; the building instructions are nicely realised, clearly printed and generally easy to follow, although because the build utilises some advanced building techniques (including extensive use of SNOT), I had to step in and help out on a few occasions. Eventually we were done, and you can see the finished result below (click pictures to enlarge).

Although I'm not sure that the riot of random colours does the model any favours, it was an interesting build, and as you can hopefully see, the actual design is pretty decent. It's a tad fragile and won't stand up to extended robust play, but I suppose that when it falls apart we'll then have the perfect excuse to attempt some of the other models....

If I'm being honest, of all the LEGO-related books slated for release over the upcoming months, this was one that I wasn't particularly excited about. Turns out that I was pleasantly surprised, however. The book is nicely printed and feels like a quality product, the models showcased are of a uniformly good standard, the building instructions are generally easy to follow, and the premise of basing a book of building instructions on the parts available from just one small, fairly inexpensive set is I think an excellent one. If there's a downside it's that the set concerned is no longer available at retail, but unless this book creates a massive buzz and drives aftermarket prices of the Super Speedster up to ridiculous levels, it should still be possible to pick up the set from a reseller at a pretty low cost; as things currently stand you can pick up the set for as little as £15 plus shipping in Europe and $35 in the USA via Bricklink, and you'll probably be able to find it for less on eBay if you're patient. Failing that, if you already have some of the necessary parts then you can pick up the rest via Bricklink (the Super Speedster parts inventory can be found here).

In summary, if you like the look of the models featured within the book then I reckon it's well worth picking up a copy of Amazing Vehicles, particularly if you already have the super Speedsters set. The book has an MRSP of £13.99 / $19.95 which seems a tad expensive to me, although it'll no doubt be available at a discount from Amazon et al before long (links are provided below if you wish to order). I note that there's also a second volume of the book available featuring 10 more designs, all of which can again be built from the Super Speedster parts palette; having enjoyed the first book it's pretty likely that I'll check that one out too.

Thanks to No Starch Press for sending me a copy of Amazing Vehicles to review.


Monday 5 August 2013

Ready for Launch

When a call went out on the Brickish Association forum a few months back asking if there were any AFOL bloggers interested in attending the official LEGO Galaxy Squad launch I replied like a shot. The Galaxy Squad theme is the latest in a long and often illustrious line of LEGO Space themes, most of which I've eagerly embraced; given this, plus my enthusiasm for the launch venue - the UK's National Space Centre (NSC) in Leicester - it was a total no brainer. It did briefly occur to me to wonder why LEGO was hosting a launch event well over 6 months after the first wave of Galaxy Squad sets had first appeared at retail, but I wasn't complaining....

A formal invitation (above) and itinerary duly arrived, and so it was that last Saturday I saddled up for the trek to the East Midlands with my reluctant wife and excited son in tow. I was already pretty familiar with the NSC (below) - the Brickish Association have exhibited there for the past few years (see for example here and here) and it's a friendly and interesting venue where I've always felt at home.

On arrival, attendees were ushered into the spacious Shuttle Suite and treated to tea, coffee and pastries. The attendees were I assume journalists and bloggers, accompanied by assorted family members; I didn't recognise anybody there apart from Richard Hayes, fellow AFOL and the webmaster over at Brick Fanatics. As you can see from the picture below (click to enlarge), the Shuttle Suite was set up with a number of circular tables, a couple of large projection screens and a smattering of LEGO banners to brand the event; each table featured a different Galaxy Squad set which someone had already had the pleasure of building.

Elyssa from Norton, LEGO's PR Agency, formally kicked things off at around 10.30 a.m.. She welcomed attendees and told us what was planned for the day prior to showing a brief introductory Galaxy Squad video and then letting us loose on the demo sets. The kids (and a few of the adults) had a great time playing with the sets; I was already pretty familiar with most of the Galaxy Squad sets, but one thing that hadn't really sunk in prior to my extensive play test was how many of the models are designed to be split into a couple of separate and self-contained play elements, generally a flying machine of some description and a land-based vehicle or structure. This alone confers substantial play value, and that's before you consider the variety of other play features built into the sets, be it the excellent motion-induced movement of the legs on Set 70708 Hive Crawler (shown below with Set 70707 CLS-89 Eradicator Mech - click to enlarge), the grasping pincers at the front of Set 70706 Crater Creeper, and the almost ubiquitous opening cockpits, flick-fire missiles and spring-loaded catapult-type weapons. While we were demoing the models a series of brief Galaxy Squad-themed videos were playing in the background on a loop on the projection screens; I subsequently discovered that these videos are all available on the Galaxy Squad micro-site, and you can see them here if you're interested.

On arrival the kids had been given a well-stuffed goody bag containing a couple of Galaxy Squad polys, an NSC-branded soft toy and other bits and pieces. I was pleased to see my youngster immediately dive into the polys and build them unaided, starting with Set 30230 Mini Mech shown below.

Once attendees had had their fill of the demo sets they were free to roam the NSC. In addition to the usual space-related attractions at the venue, a number of Galaxy Squad-related activities had been laid on for NSC visitors, enabling the general public to join in the fun. An area was set aside for free-building with loose elements from Galaxy Squad sets, and some of the best creations were on show. Visitors could also participate in the construction of a Galaxy Squad-related mosaic (below), and DJ's from local radio station GEM 106 were broadcasting live from the venue and ran a "guess the build" competition for kids with Galaxy Squad polys for the winners.

Galaxy Squad Mosaic - Work in Progress....
Galaxy Squad launch invitees retired to the Shuttle Suite at 1 pm for lunch; unfortunately, on the way to the buffet, my boy spotted some laptops running a Galaxy Squad online game and we spent the next half an hour or more trying to extricate him.... Once we'd prised him away from the laptop and fed ourselves it was time to listen to Duncan Titmarsh, the UK's only Certified LEGO Professional, give a talk about what it's like to build LEGO models for a living. Duncan, the founding director of Bright Bricks, a fellow member of the Brickish Association and a renowned builder, talked about some of the projects he's undertaken, including his stupendous 35-foot high Christmas tree at London's St. Pancras Station and a half scale working model of a Rolls Royce aircraft engine. After Duncan's talk the audience spent around 15 minutes firing questions at him, such as what he'd love to be asked to build ("a full-sized London bus"), what are his favourite LEGO themes ("Creator because they contain lots of parts, and Galaxy Squad and Friends because of all the interesting colours"), and whether building models for a living diminishes the pleasure he gets from LEGO ("No - it's still fun").

After Duncan's talk, my family and I briefly popped into the NSC shop to grab a few souvenirs (they have some seriously neat holographic postcards in there....), said our goodbyes and then headed off back down South.

My NSC holographic postcard, except you'll just have to imagine the 3D effect....
In truth, the 'unveiling' of the Galaxy Squad sets was a bit of an anticlimax for me since they've been on the market for months already and I already own some of them. Certainly the timing of the event seemed a bit odd, although I suppose the much-later-than-average launch of the Galaxy Squad theme in the UK might have something to do with it, and I also suspect that the majority of attendees weren't AFOLs and thus may not have been previously aware of the theme. Regardless of all that, it was really good to be able to see the whole range of sets at close quarters and give them a thorough hands-on playtest with the help of my youngster. I was already a fan of the theme before the event, and now my son's a fan of it too....

I've not previously attended many of these press events so it was an interesting experience; thanks to Elyssa for the invitation to attend, and thanks also to NSC for being great hosts as usual.