Monday 20 January 2014

"And the Gimme LEGO Readers' Choice Award for Best Set of 2013 goes to...."

.....Set 10236 Ewok Village !

Man, that was close - I guessed that there probably wouldn't be a runaway winner this time round, but never dreamed how tight voting would turn out to be. The competition developed into a two-horse race from early on, with Set 10236 Ewok Village slugging it out with Set 10237 Tower of Orthanc for the lead and everything else left behind eating their dust. In the end it was the Ewok Village which prevailed by 16 votes, but only after a hell of a fight. Voting was open for 10 days, and until the final day the Tower of Orthanc was in pole position. With about 12 hours to go the two sets were literally neck and neck having polled exactly the same number of votes, and the lead then swapped between the two sets on multiple occasions until the last hour or so when the Ewok Village finally got its nose in front and held on to the lead, finally pipping Orthanc to the post. Competition was fueled by a couple of front page postings on Brickset by Huw (most recently here) together with some decent banter in the comments which followed.

Final standings are shown below. Both the Ewok Village and the Tower of Orthanc polled around a third of the total votes each, leaving the rest of the nominees to squabble over the remaining third of the votes between them. My non-licenced set of the year, Set 10232 Palace Cinema, came a respectable third in the rankings but only actually got 8% of the vote, and everything else got less than 5%. I was pleased to see Set 70500 Kai's Fire Mech and Set 70709 Galactic Titan get a few votes each - both are relatively unheralded sets which I really liked and can highly recommend. Most people who voted seemed content with the choice of sets on offer, with only 20 votes (less than 2% of the total) nominating an alternative; there were a couple of impassioned arguments for Set 10234 Sydney Opera House, and a few others such as Set 21103 DeLorean Time Machine and Set 70008 Gorzan's Gorilla Striker got a mention, but none attracted enough support to gatecrash the party.
Thanks in no small part to the generous publicity provided by Brickset, well over 1,000 people voted this time. That's a very respectable turnout IMHO, and in fact the total of 1,076 votes placed was almost double the number placed in last year's readers' poll. Despite the decent turnout, however, it's worth noting that only around 14% of visitors to Gimme LEGO during the period that the poll was live actually voted; that's an increased percentage compared to last year, but still a modest proportion of visitors to the site.

As well as taking home the Gimme LEGO Readers' award, the Ewok Village was also the winner of the Best Licenced Set award in the 2013 Gimme LEGO Awards, and if you need a gushing reminder of why it's such a great set then check out my awards posting here where I wax lyrical about it.... The designer of the set was LEGO employee Marcos Bessa, and you can see him talking about his wonderful creation in the video clip below; if the clip isn't showing on your device then you can check out the video on YouTube by clicking here. Congratulations for designing the winning set, Marcos, and thanks !

So farewell to 2013, then, and welcome to 2014. The year has already started with a bang, not least thanks to the imperious Set 10243 Parisian Restaurant, and I can't wait to see what else LEGO have in store for us....

Thanks for reading, and sincere thanks also to those who took the time to vote in the Readers' Award poll.

Monday 6 January 2014

The Gimme LEGO Awards 2013

Yes, yes - I know the 2013 awards are a bit late; I would normally have hoped to have published them before now, but the series of postings about my Ghostbusters MOCs pushed this post back a couple of weeks. Anyway, better late than never, I'm delighted to present my annual Gimme LEGO Awards for the best and worst of the LEGO year just gone. All entirely subjective and unscientific, of course, so please feel free to leave a comment if you violently disagree (or indeed agree...) with any of my selections.

1. Best theme

Last year's winner : Monster Fighters

2013 winner : Creator, including Creator Expert

LEGO themes come and go, but Creator is eternal. Well, since 2001 at least. For me, LEGO's Creator theme is the eternal bridesmaid, inevitably in the shadow of the latest glitzy licensed offering, and with a correspondingly modest marketing budget to boot. Even the Creator theme art, taken from LEGO's S@H website, is a bit plain. But the thing is, the Creator theme consistently delivers - as I previously noted here and here, the Creator theme invariably features a number of sets every year that I really want to get. Think of it as the quirky girl in the movie who's best friends with the hero, but he's only got eyes for the cheerleader; eventually the penny drops, the cheerleader is revealed to be not all that, and the hero finally realises that his true love has been staring him in the face from the beginning. Well, that's Creator I reckon....

An obvious attraction of the basic sets in the theme is their longevity and value for money - effectively three sets in one, and yet retailing at a relatively low price point compared with sets of a comparable size within other themes. The lack of specialized elements in the sets also arguably makes them particularly useful as parts packs for building your own creations. What the sets don't generally get much credit for is the actual designs, though - the inexpensive Fierce Flyer set above immediately caught my eye when I first spied the 2013 Creator line up - a nice primary model, and the alternate builds aren't bad either. I'm also a fan of Set 31011 Aviation Adventures (below), although IMHO there actually isn't a bad set in the 2013 Creator line up.

The icing on the cake in 2013 was the addition of some of LEGO's biggest and most complex models to the Creator theme under the banner of Creator Expert; now in addition to the virtues extolled above, Creator is also the home of LEGO's beloved modular buildings, such as Set 10232 Palace Cinema (below) and a number of other gems such as Set 10233 Horizon Express, Set 10235 Winter Village Market and Set 10234 Sydney Opera House. Add to that the arrival of LEGO's latest and possibly greatest modular building, the Parisian Restaurant, on the 1st January 2014, and it looks like Creator might be difficult to shift from the top spot next year as well.

Honourable mention : The Lone Ranger - The Lone Ranger film might have bombed at the box office, but that's in no way a reflection of LEGO's efforts with their Lone Ranger theme. I wasn't expecting much when the sets were announced, most likely just a sprinkling of by-the-numbers sets for what would most likely be a one-and-done theme, but I admit I was badly mistaken. Six retail sets, all of them decent, and a couple - Set 79108 Stagecoach Escape  and Set 79111 Constitution Train Chase - were frankly excellent. It wasn't just the set design either - some of the minifigures were outstanding. Well done to LEGO, then, who more than kept up their part of the bargain, even if the movie was a disappointment.

Honourable mention #2 : Galaxy Squad - The latest in a long line of non-licensed LEGO space themes, Galaxy Squad picked up the baton from previous favourite Alien Conquest in offering some great-looking sci-fi themed models which were literally packed with clever design touches and neat play features. The alien species was a particular highlight of the theme for me. I strongly suspect that sales were handicapped by a lack of marketing push, however, which makes me nervous that one of these days LEGO won't bother with an unlicensed space theme.

2. Most Disappointing Theme

Last year's 'winner' : Cars

2013 'winner' : Superheroes

If in January 2013 you'd told me that I'd be hanging the gong for most disappointing theme of 2013 around the neck of the DC and Marvel Superheroes themes then I'd probably have laughed in your face. Back then I'd just reviewed Set 10937 Arkham Asylum Breakout over at Brickset and given it a ringing endorsement. To say that what's been released since doesn't maintain those high standards is a massive understatement, however. For me, it's provided a perfect example of everything that's wrong with licensed themes, namely weak, lazy models which feel like they're only there to provide an excuse for LEGO to release a bunch of themed minifigures. Yes, I get it that minifigures are big business, but according to LEGO's own senior management the company's mission is to "Inspire and Develop the Builders of Tomorrow", and I'd wager that it's unlikely to do that by bundling a bunch of minifigures with mediocre models and charging a premium for the privilege. Very disappointing.

(Dis)honourable mention : Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Another theme where the actual sets seemed to come a distant second to the minifigures in terms of priorities. When the license was announced, a generation of TMNT fans cheered, and who could resist those minifigures ? Once the elation had died down, however, I for one was left scratching my head at the actual sets. One of them, Set 79104 The Shellraiser Street Chase, supposedly even had to be temporarily withdrawn as it kept falling apart, and most of them just looked like an incoherent afterthought. Let's hope that the next wave of sets is an improvement on the last....

3. The "Medieval Market Village" award for Best Non-Licensed Set

Last year's winner : Set 10228 Haunted House

2013 winner : Set 10232 Palace Cinema

While I don't think there were any non-licensed sets in 2013 to rival the splendour of last year's wonderful winner (the Monster Fighters Haunted House) there were certainly a number of worthy contenders for the 2013 award. After much thought (not to mention some serious pressure from my other half, for whom there was absolutely no doubt what the winner should be) Set 10232 Palace Cinema got the nod.

As a member of an extremely exclusive club, namely LEGO's beloved series of modular buildings, the Palace Cinema had a lot to live up to, and in most respects it didn't disappoint. It was the attention to detail which immediately won me over - the humorous film posters adorning the outer walls, the interior details such as the concession stand and screening room, the limo complete with movie star and paparazzo, and the terracotta-style roof tiles for starters. I'm also a big fan of the quirky stylings of the building itself which obviously brings to mind the world famous Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, location of many a world premiere. As you'd expect from a modular, the set is full of clever little touches, not to mention a myriad of interesting elements.

If I have a criticism of the set, it's perhaps that it feels a little insubstantial against some of the other recent modulars, for instance Set 10224 Town Hall, but for me at least that's more than compensated for by the overall quality of the set. In the final analysis, my immediate reaction when I first saw the advance publicity photos was one of excitement, and I wasn't disappointed when the set eventually arrived - a worthy winner IMHO.

Honourable Mention : Set 10233 Horizon Express. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when LEGO released Set 10194 Emerald Night in 2009, and I wasn't alone; it was a cause for genuine sadness when the set was retired at the end of 2011. LEGO then gave us Set 10219 Maersk Train, an interesting, authentic but ultimately workmanlike offering, to supplement the less realistic City trains which were also available at the time. When the Maersk Train departed in late 2012 I kept my fingers tightly crossed that LEGO would quickly replace it with another adult-oriented train, and my prayers were thankfully answered when the Horizon Express was released at the beginning of 2013. OK, so it doesn't necessarily take your breath away like Emerald Night did, but it's still a cracker. A TGV by any other name, it looks great, and it's packed with neat details, starting with the black and white brick-built logo on the side of the locomotive. LEGO kept the cost down by not including the elements needed to motorise it, but it's easy to remedy this should you decide to do so. In summary, it looks great, it's an interesting build, and it's decent value for money - it only missed out on top spot by a whisker.

Other contenders : Set 70709 Galactic Titan, Set 70500 Kai's Fire Mech, Set 60026 Town Square, Set 41015 Dolphin Cruiser, Set 10234 Sydney Opera House

4. Best Licensed Set

Last year's winner : Set 79003 An Unexpected Gathering

2013 winner : Set 10236 Ewok Village

In contrast to the award for best non-licensed set I was spoiled for choice this year in this category - we've had some absolutely stunning licensed sets to choose from - but for me the Ewok Village stands above all the rest, both literally and metaphorically.

Sometimes it seems that I spend half my time moaning about LEGO's Star Wars theme on the pages of Gimme LEGO. As a huge Star Wars fan who was dragged out of my LEGO Dark Ages by the release of Set 10188 Death Star, I've watched with dismay as the Star Wars cash cow has been milked by way of a profusion of lazy remakes and unimaginative designs. It's therefore fair to say that I was absolutely amazed when I first spied the Ewok Village.

First and foremost, I think it was an astonishingly brave decision by LEGO to release it at all - a huge, expensive set which is effectively just a couple of big trees embellished with a bunch of minifigures sounds absolutely crazy, to be honest. Questions about how well it's performed at retail aside, the designer has I think done a beautiful job with the set. Once again it's the myriad of little details that delights - similar to the aforementioned Death Star play set, multiple familiar little vignettes play out across the model; Han roasting over an open fire (above), logs ready and waiting to crush a passing AT-ST (below), Threepio being carried aloft by the Ewoks, and many more - they're all there for fans to enjoy.

I've at times been highly critical of LEGO's tendency to prioritise minifigures over the actual set designs, and nowhere has this been more in evidence over the past few years than in the Star Wars theme. I can however happily live with the inclusion of seventeen minifigures in this set given the quality of the set that they accompany. The minifigures themselves are predictably impressive - the outstanding quality of recent Star Wars minifigures is certainly not in doubt - but in this case they enhance the set rather than provide a substitute for it.

As an offering to fans of the Star Wars Original Trilogy, the Ewok Village is a wonderful and timely reminder that LEGO is still willing to take commercial risks in order to give their fans incredible products, and for that I'm genuinely thankful. A superb set.

Honourable Mention : Set 10237 Tower of Orthanc. 

Having delighted Lord of the Rings (LotR) fans by securing the licence, I think it's fair to say that LEGO have in the main done justice to the theme with some excellent sets; lest we forget, the LotR theme won the "Better than Expected" award in last year's Gimme LEGO Awards. So how have LEGO followed that up in 2013 ? By releasing a second wave of great sets, that's how. While many of The Hobbit sets have left me a bit cold, I have no such reservations about the 2013 LotR offerings, the pinnacle of which is the amazing Tower of Orthanc. I have to admit I never saw it coming - 2359 pieces puts the set firmly in UCS territory size-wise, and indeed the level of detail in the model wouldn't disgrace a UCS set either. Like the Ewok Village I think this was a brave release - that's a big old lump of black for the average LEGO fan to digest - but for fans of LotR like myself it's wonderful. It's not just a pretty face, either - look behind the detailed, imposing facade and a multitude of different rooms are revealed, each with its own nod to the subject material. Any other year this excellent set might well have finished top of the pile, it's that good.

Other contenders : Set 10937 Arkham Asylum Breakout, Set 79108 Stagecoach Escape, Set 79111 Constitution Train Chase, Set 10240 Red Five X-wing Starfighter, Set 79008 Pirate Ship Ambush

5. The "Phantom Menace" Award for Most Disappointing Set

Last year's winner : Set 21012 Sydney Opera House

2013 winner : Set 76008 Iron Man vs. The Mandarin: Ultimate Showdown 

Set 76008 Iron Man vs. The Mandarin: Ultimate Showdown

Regardless of what the Iron Man 3 branding on the front of the box might suggest, to say that this set is only loosely based on the Iron Man 3 movie would be a gross understatement. Yes, it features minifigs of Iron Man and the Mandarin, but the build itself bears no relation to the movie at all, consisting of a random vehicle vaguely resembling an armoured car with a flamethrower bolted on to the roof. It looks like something that a 6 year old could (and probably would) have designed, and even aside from the complete lack of relevance to the subject matter it's a piss poor model in its own right. Some will argue that LEGO sometimes have to design these licensed sets before all the details of the film are known, but frankly that's not our problem as consumers; it'd surely be better just to pull these mediocre tie-ins from the release schedule when it becomes clear that they're irrelevant, particularly when they're so awful....

(Dis)honourable mention : Set 76006 Iron Man: Extremis Sea Port Battle. The second of a Superheroes dismal double-whammy in this category, the Extremis Sea Port Battle comes a close second to its ghastly brethren above. Once again the model bears no relation to the movie, and once again the design is weak, albeit not quite as risible as the vehicle in Set 76008. The set also features a more interesting selection of minifigures, so overall it's slightly less rubbish than Set 76008. Slightly.

(Dis)honourable mention 2 : Mr Gold. I'm sure you all know the story by now: following the launch of the Collectible Minifigures in 2010, huge numbers of LEGO fans around the globe strove to accumulate a complete collection. By early 2013, LEGO had released nine series of Collectible Minifigures, each consisting of sixteen different minifigs, plus a further set of nine Team GB minifigures, all of which collectors avidly snapped up. That's 153 different minifigures in total. And then later in 2013, LEGO decided to include an ultra-rare 'Mr. Gold' chase figure in Series 10 of the Collectible Minifigures, thus consigning huge numbers of completists to either hand over a genuine king's ransom to gleeful eBay scalpers, or else just accept that the collection they'd lovingly cultivated over the previous three years would never again be complete. Thanks a bunch, LEGO.

6. Best Minifigure

Last year's winner : Queen Amidala

2013 winner : Tonto

Just prior to the retail release of the Lone Ranger sets I was lucky enough to get an early peek at Set 79108 Stagecoach Escape and I was blown away by the quality of some of the minifigures. Of Tonto (above) I wrote "From my perspective, every part of him, from his printed legs, front and back-printed torso and head with it’s alternate expression, is outstanding, with the highlight being his amazing hair and head dress, topped off with a black bird.". Those words still ring true nearly a year later. I'm therefore delighted to hand Tonto the gong for best minifigure this year; while other Lone Ranger minifigures such Red Harrington also deserve praise, Tonto wins by a head.

Honourable Mention : Gingerbread Man. How do they do it ? Honestly, notwithstanding my critical comments above about LEGO's unpopular and divisive Mr. Gold stunt, you do have to hand it to them - after 11 full series of Collectible Minifigures (CMFs) they still seem to be able to come up with the goods. The Gingerbread Man was my pick of Series 11, and indeed one of my favourites since LEGO started pumping out the CMFs. I can't wait to see what's in store in Series 12 and beyond....

Other contenders : Legends of Chima (overall mini figure quality across the theme)

7. The "Better than Expected" Award

Last year's winner : Lord of the Rings

2013 winner : The Lone Ranger theme

Given my comments about the Lone Ranger theme in a couple of the previous award categories, I guess you probably saw this one coming.... When I learned that LEGO would be producing sets based on the 2013 Lone Ranger movie I wasn't particularly fussed, figuring that I'd almost certainly pass on them. I never watched the Lone Ranger TV series as a kid, I had little to no interest in the movie, and I half expected some uninspiring and over-priced movie tie-ins which would sink without trace. As previously stated, however, what we actually got were some genuinely excellent sets, both in terms of the set design and the minifigures. As previously stated, a couple of the sets were among the strongest licensed sets of the year in my opinion. Early discounting of the sets at retail suggests that sales weren't strong, unfortunately, probably as a result of the movie's failure at the box office. The team that designed the sets will almost certainly never read this, but I nevertheless hope that they're aware what a good job they did, and that future licenses are as thoughtfully handled.

8. Most Welcome LEGO-Related Announcement

Last year's winner : Watford LEGO Brand Store

2013 Winner : Peter Reid's Exo Suit to be the next Cuusoo Set

Having given my "Most Welcome Announcement" gong to something with personal significance last year, I'm afraid I'm going to have to do exactly the same thing this year as well..... Exo Suit designer Pete Reid (Legoloverman) is a friend and a fellow Brickish Association member, and I was absolutely delighted when his Exo Suit design garnered 10,000 votes on Cuusoo and was subsequently greenlit by LEGO to go into production. Finally a Cuusoo release that I'm genuinely excited about, and let's hope that LEGO do the final model justice.... Well done, Pete !

Honourable mention : December 2013 update of Cuusoo guidelines. And not before time.... Cuusoo gives LEGO fans the opportunity to upload their original designs and get those designs made into official LEGO sets, providing of course that those designs prove to be sufficiently popular and meet certain criteria. It's grown in leaps and bounds since its inception in 2008, but that growth in popularity has made it increasingly difficult to wade through all the derivative, me-too designs and obscure, limited-interest proposals clogging up the site. A few weeks back Cuusoo updated its Guidelines, House Rules, and Terms of Service, however, and I was pleased to note that the updates will help to address some of the problems. Non brick-built construction projects are now explicitly out of scope, so no more apps, branded items or other tat, and also out of scope are all the interminable battlepack-type projects, uber niche-interest company or team logos, and projects that don't use authentic LEGO parts. All we need now is a way of limiting the thousands of derivative ideas based on licensed properties, particularly those featuring I.P.s where LEGO have already rejected previous proposals, and maybe a few more 'hidden gems' might be uncovered. We can hope....

9. Gimme LEGO Reader's Choice Award

Last year's winner : Set 10228 Haunted House

2013 winner : over to you....

Yep - this is your chance to have your say. I've come up with a list of what I consider to be twelve of the best sets of 2012. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to choose your favourite from the list on the top right of the page. If your pick of the year isn't on the list then click 'None of the above' and leave a comment or send me a message via the contact button above the list letting me know which set you think should top the pile. Cast your votes - one person, one vote - and at midnight on 16th January the poll will close and we'll have our winner.... If you're on a smartphone or similar and can't see the poll then click "view web version" at the bottom of the page in order to see the nominations and cast your vote.

*Update* Voting has now closed. Click here to see the results !

Previous Gimme LEGO Awards : 2012, 2011