Sunday 31 December 2017

The Gimme LEGO Awards 2017

Welcome to my annual round up of the best and worst of the year from an AFOL perspective. This is the seventh consecutive year that I've published these awards, and I have to confess to approaching the 2017 awards with a mixture of excitement and trepidation as I'm struggling to recall a year which has featured quite so many standout sets in some categories. As ever this is obviously a personal take on the highlights and lowlights, so if you disagree with any of my selections then please feel free to make your case in the comments below....

1. Best Theme

Last year's winner: Ninjago

2017 winner: The LEGO Ninjago Movie

After bagging my 2016 theme of the year award I didn't think that Ninjago managed to maintain the same lofty standards this time round. That however opened the door for a new theme to steal in and grab the crown, and truth be told the LEGO Ninjago Movie theme actually takes the 2017 award by quite a distance. Consisting of a total of 29 retail, magazine and promotional sets, the theme takes full advantage of the varied and vibrant subject matter provided by the movie, serving up a high quality selection of sets for kids and AFOLs alike.

When it comes to any theme the flagship sets will inevitably attract most of the attention, and in the case of the LEGO Ninjago Movie theme the superb 70620 NINJAGO City (above) has certainly taken its share of the plaudits. What's at least as impressive however is the way that the theme manages to serve up a number of excellent sets at a variety of different price points; at the lower end, for instance, 70608 Master Falls (below) features an attractive and detailed structure plus four minifigures for just £24.99/$29.99, and pretty much whatever your budget you'll find a worthy offering.

One aspect of the theme which greatly appealed to me is the focus on mechs, some of which are excellent. 70612 Green Ninja Mech Dragon (below) is both great to look at and packs a ton of playability, while of the more orthodox mechs on offer, 70615 Fire Mech (reviewed by me here) is imposing, stable and eminently posable. As one might expect in an action theme there's a predictable focus on vehicles, but a number of sets feature location-based subject matter so there really is something for everybody.

Aside from the widely-available retail sets the theme also features a mixture of other offerings including some desirable polybags and other assorted promo items to keep collectors on their toes. Overall, when you consider the variety of offerings and consistent quality across the theme, plus the presence of two genuine set of the year contenders in 70620 NINJAGO City and 70618 Destiny's Bounty (below), it made the choice of the LEGO Ninjago Movie as theme of the year pretty straightforward.

Honourable mention: LEGO Ideas. Another theme to serve up a couple of set of the year contenders, namely 21309 NASA Apollo Saturn V and 21310 Old Fishing Store, was LEGO Ideas. That's particularly impressive, given that there were only four releases under the LEGO Ideas banner in 2017. It's probably fair to say that this was a breakout year for Ideas - we've had some excellent releases in previous years, but this was the year that LEGO decided to loosen the shackles and push the boundaries in terms of part counts as well as excellent design.

If I'm honest, I think it's unlikely that Ideas will ever win the Gimme LEGO 'Best Theme' award outright - too many of the projects that get the thumbs up for release are basically licensed fan service in search of a set and they leave me completely cold. If however we continue to get a couple of real gems every year like we have for the past few years then I'll be delighted.

Honourable mention #2: Star Wars. Despite LEGO Star Wars being the catalyst for my return to the LEGO fold a decade ago I've been pretty critical of the LEGO Star Wars theme for some time now. High prices, a profusion of lazy remakes and some dubious design decisions have blighted the LEGO Star Wars theme for as long as I can remember, and despite being a big Star Wars fan I've struggled to retain much enthusiasm for the theme.

I'd be lying if I claimed that all in the LEGO Star Wars garden was suddenly rosy in 2017, but I've certainly found more to like in the selection of sets on offer this year. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the availability of new and interesting subject matter upon which to base sets, but the theme has also featured some genuinely desirable and well-designed sets this year at a variety of price points.

Examples of outrageous pricing unfortunately remain, and the theme continues to be over-dependent on remakes and bloated by too many sets, but I'm finally able to muster some enthusiasm for LEGO Star Wars again, and that's definitely a good sign.

2. Most Disappointing Theme

Last year's 'winner': LEGO Classic

2017 'winner': No outright winner

No one theme stood out in this category, although a few themes perhaps fell slightly below expectations this year. Technic, for instance, was absolutely outstanding in 2016, and with this year being the 40th anniversary of the evergreen theme I would have expected LEGO to pull out all the stops to celebrate; as it turned out, the flagship sets in particular were perhaps not up to the lofty standards set in 2016, and the daddy of them all, 42070 6x6 All Terrain Tow Truck (below), was horribly overpriced to boot.

Also disappointing was the way that Dimensions fizzled out in 2017. I've enjoyed playing the game on XBOX One and collecting the multitude of expansion packs, and having invested so much in the Dimensions experience it felt like a real kick in the teeth when Warner Bros pulled the plug on it just two years into its planned three year run. I've lost count of how many unlikely properties have been immortalised in LEGO as a result of Dimensions - Beetlejuice, Portal and the A-Team to name just three - and the theme will be missed, by me at least.

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

Last year's winner : 10251 Brick Bank

2017 winner: 21310 Old Fishing Store

As mentioned above, 2017 was the year that LEGO Ideas started to push the boundaries in terms of set size. My pick for best non-licensed set was a major beneficiary of this, the sublime Old Fishing Store. I can remember being very impressed with the original concept posted on the Ideas website, but thinking that it unfortunately had no chance of being green-lit by LEGO. My surprise at subsequently learning that the project had in fact been approved after all was matched by my delight at how faithful to the highly detailed original concept the retail set turned out to be.

Most of the past winners of the Gimme LEGO Best Non-Licensed Set award have been Modular buildings, so it's fitting that the Old Fishing Store features incredible levels of detail both inside and out that stand comparison with any of the modulars. While building the set I couldn't believe quite how much time was spent assembling the interior and exterior fixtures and fittings; indeed, such is the level of detail that decorating the interior can get quite fiddly at times and is occasionally frustrating, but it's worth it in the end.

In addition to looking amazing the Old Fishing Store includes a whole host of rare, and in some cases unique, elements. Those builders planning to cannibalise the set for parts can also expect a generous helping of sand green tiles and SNOT bricks to use in their own creations. Even the included minifigures (below) are worthy of mention since they're all unique to the set and a couple of them incorporate new dual-moulded legs and exclusive torso prints.

The Old Fishing Store is one of those rare sets that has remained proudly and prominently on display in my house ever since I finished building it. It was fun to build and looks amazing; if it's a taste of the kind of sets that we can expect from the LEGO Ideas theme in years to come then I for one will be absolutely delighted.

Honourable Mention: 10255 Assembly Square.  If you're going to make a fuss about an anniversary then you need to make sure you don't drop the ball in the process. While the Technic 40th anniversary selection felt a bit underwhelming, no such criticism can be levelled at 10255 Assembly Square which turned out to be a fitting 10th anniversary tribute to LEGO's much-loved Modular building line.

I think it looks wonderful - three attractive, distinct buildings which dovetail beautifully and form the centrepiece of a bustling scene. All the expected Modular tropes such as the appearance of rare colours, ingenious parts usage and extravagant detail both inside and out are present and correct in abundance; my favourite example of clever parts usage is the incorporation of black excavator buckets in the roof of the sand green flower shop. As an added bonus, the standard 32 x 32 Modular footprint has been expanded to 32 x 48 for this set, and even then it's hard to see how anything else could have been crammed in.

Other contenders: 21309 NASA Apollo Saturn V, 17101 Creative Toolbox, 10257 Carousel.

4. Best Licensed Set

Last year's winner: 75827 Firehouse Headquarters

2017 winner: 70620 NINJAGO City

Following in a tradition of unexpected left-field releases established by the likes of MetalBeard's Sea Cow and the Temple of Airjitzu in previous years, 70620 NINJAGO City was announced in June of this year and it frankly blew me away.

I literally shook my head in wonderment at the retina-searing riot of colours and different building styles when I first saw the set 'in the flesh'. Such is the eclectic nature of the design that you'd think it shouldn't work, but it somehow manages to hang together as a cohesive whole and looks amazing. Furthermore, as a consequence of the multitude of different zones shoehorned into the set it must surely be one of the most varied and entertaining builds of recent times; it's at times reminiscent of constructing 10188 Death Star and the experience of building a number of stylistically diverse areas such as the garbage compactor, the prison block and the Emperor's throne room.

As you'd expect from a LEGO Ninjago Movie set 70620 NINJAGO City scores highly from the perspective of playability thanks to the incorporation of countless little vignettes, not to mention a number of interactive mechanisms such as an elevator, a cash machine, a sushi conveyer belt and a crab grill. The set is also replete with rare elements, some of them appearing for the first time, and similar to the Modular buildings there's an impressive array of advanced building techniques in evidence, plus some unexpected and ingenious parts usage.

It always feels a bit odd talking about value for money when discussing a toy costing hundreds of pounds, but at 4,867 elements and retailing for £259.99 / US$299.99 / 299.99€ I have to say that NINJAGO City feels pretty reasonably priced to me. Overall, it's hard to imagine any LEGO fan failing to enjoy building this set, and it's my licensed set of the year by some distance.

Honourable Mention: 75098 BB-8. This set was one of the main reasons that I started to rediscover some love for the LEGO Star Wars theme in 2017. That LEGO found a way to release a decent-looking version of BB-8 and not charge the earth for it was impressive enough, but the fact that the designer also somehow managed to incorporate a number of play features into the build without compromising the appearance means that it's up there as one of my very favourite sets of the year - excellent!

Other contenders: 70618 Destiny's Bounty, 75192 Millennium Falcon

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

Last year's winner: 75098 Assault on Hoth

2017 winner: 10256 Taj Mahal

OK, so a potentially controversial pick here. I know that many will disagree with this award, particularly those who missed out on this set the first time it was released, in which case feel free to have your say in the 'comments' section below if you feel so inclined....

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past few months you'll probably be aware that this set is a re-release of 10189 Taj Mahal which appeared on shelves back in 2008. At 5,922 elements the original Taj Mahal set was at that time the largest set that LEGO had ever released, a crown it proudly held on to until the release of 75192 Millennium Falcon some nine years later. Following its retirement in 2010, the aftermarket price of the original Taj Mahal set rose steadily, with sealed examples eventually selling for thousands of pounds. The set came to be viewed as one of a select group of all-time classics alongside the likes of 10182 Cafe Corner and 10179 Millennium Falcon, and it was one of the sets that helped to fuel the LEGO investment boom.

Given the degree of price speculation you might think that the unexpected re-release of the original Taj Mahal set in a new box would have been roundly welcomed by AFOLs, but picking through the comments of LEGO fans within the various online communities it appears that reaction is definitely split. Many AFOLs who missed out on 10189 Taj Mahal are predictably supportive of the re-release, but others fear that the value of their LEGO collections will decrease as a result of such re-releases, arguing that it's the healthy LEGO resale values which have given them the confidence to build their collections. Others are resentful that, having saved their pennies and eventually accumulated enough to pay the inflated aftermarket prices for the Taj Mahal, they're now seeing others buy an identical re-release for a fraction of what they paid for theirs. I can see some logic in the argument that re-releases such as this would impact the LEGO aftermarket, potentially making AFOLs more cautious about spending the amounts of money that they currently do on big, adult-oriented sets at retail; this would have a knock-on effect on the sale volume of such items, which in turn might make LEGO less likely to release such sets in the future.

For all the arguments above, however, there's a more compelling reason why 10256 Taj Mahal is the most disappointing set of the year and that's the fact that it's first and foremost a massive wasted opportunity. To be frank, the LEGO Taj Mahal, while undeniably huge and imposing, nevertheless falls some way short by recent design standards. The availability of a myriad of new elements since 2008, plus the tendency for set designers to increasingly embrace more advanced building techniques in official releases, presented the opportunity for LEGO to produce a significantly superior version of the set, similar to what they did with 75192 Millennium Falcon earlier this year. Instead LEGO took the easy option and just re-released the old set in a new box, throwing in a brick separator to sweeten the deal. That's just lazy, and I expect better from them. What a shame.

6. Best Minifigure

Last year's winner: Gizmo and Stripe

2017 winner: Rocket Boy

As noted in previous years, the quality of LEGO minifigures is now so high that trying to make an objective judgement of which is best has become next to impossible. The task is further complicated by the sheer number of minifigures released by LEGO in 2017 - a total of 830 according to Brickset, which is the most that LEGO have ever released in a single year. Even though that's a serious motherlode of minifigures to look through, there was one clear standout for me and that was Rocket Boy (below) which was released in May of 2017 as part of the seventeenth series of Collectible Minifigures (CMFs).

I suspect that when it comes to the novelty CMFs such as Rocket Boy, Corn Cob Guy and other guys wearing novelty suits you either love 'em or hate 'em, and I'm firmly in the former camp. I continue to be amazed that despite churning out well over 20 series of CMFs including theme-specific offerings LEGO are still able to come up with fresh, original ideas for further CMFs. Certainly Rocket Boy is a gem, perfectly timed to ride the wave of Classic Space nostalgia that continues to wash over parts of the LEGO fan community. The icing on the cake with this minifigure is something you can't even see in the picture above, namely a Classic Space torso in light bluish grey (image below from Rebrickable) which is unique to the minifigure; with so many LEGO fans building Classic Space MOCs these days this torso is a welcome gift to the community and will I suspect be in high demand.

Honourable Mention: 4-LOMCommander RaggmunkGeneral GargPrincess Leia, Corn Cob Guy 

7. The "Better than Expected" Award

Last year's winner: Elves

2017 winner: LEGO Star Wars.

As previously mentioned, 2017 was the year that I finally started to feel more love for the LEGO Star Wars theme again after way too many years spent turning my nose up at the product line-up and scowling at all the remakes.

Pleasingly, I thought that most of the 2017 System Scale Star Wars sets had something to commend them, although there were admittedly a few dogs rubbing shoulders with them including the baffling 75177 First Order Heavy Scout Walker. I've already waxed lyrical about 75187 BB-8 which was for me the best Star Wars set of the year, and while the two 2017 UCS sets were remakes they both improved on the previous versions enough to make them worthwhile purchases for LEGO Star Wars fans. Furthermore, while I admittedly found it hard to get too excited about the clutch of 2017 Microfighters sets I did think that some of the Buildable Figures were great and was delighted that this particular subtheme took its first step into vehicles with the impressive 75532 Scout Trooper & Speeder Bike set (below).

A decent year for Star Wars sets, then. Here's hoping that the 2018 sets are at least as good....

Honourable mention: The LEGO NINJAGO Movie theme. I didn't have particularly high hopes for the LEGO Ninjago Movie sets. I figured that they'd sell well regardless of their quality thanks to all the free advertising that the movie would provide, and might therefore be a bit "by the numbers". I also wasn't especially enthused by the LEGO Batman movie sets and thought we might get a similarly lukewarm Ninjago Movie selection. As you'll have gathered from my comments above, however, it's fair to say that my doubts were answered in emphatic fashion....

8. Most Welcome LEGO-Related Announcement

Last year's winner: London Leicester Square LEGO Brand Retail Store and pre-opening event

2017 Winner: 60 Years of the LEGO Brick 

OK, so not an announcement as such, although I've been able to sneak the 60th anniversary celebrations into this category by virtue of the recently-announced 40290 60 Years of the LEGO Brick set (below) which will be given away free during 2018 with qualifying purchases at brand stores and

LEGO previously celebrated 50 years of the LEGO brick with the release of two 50 year anniversary retail sets in the form of 5522 Golden Anniversary Set and 10184 Town Plan (below). The latter was a wonderful re-imagining of a classic set, and I'm keeping my fingers tightly crossed that LEGO freshens up a couple more classics to celebrate 60 years of the LEGO brick. Indeed, there's some speculation that there will be a whole series of 60 year anniversary sets, although if true it still remains to be seen whether these sets turn out to be basic brick boxes, remakes of classic sets or something else.

9. Gimme LEGO Reader's Choice Award

Last year's winner: 71040 Disney Castle

2017 winner: You choose!

Think you can do better? OK, you've seen my choices so now it's your turn. At the top of the page on the right of the screen you'll see a selection of LEGO sets which I consider to be some of the best that 2017 had to offer. Please carefully peruse the list and vote for your favourite set of 2017; if your favourite isn't on the list then select 'None of the above' and leave a comment below or send me an e-mail via the contact button letting me know which set you think is the best of 2017. At midnight on 14th January 2018 the poll will close and we'll have our winner.... If you're reading this on a device which isn't displaying the poll as described then click "view web version" at the bottom of the page in order to see the nominations and cast your vote. Thanks for participating!

*Voting has now closed - results coming soon!*

Previous Gimme LEGO Awards: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Lock Box

I'm not sure if it's just me but I get the feeling that there's been a marked increase in the number of non-retail LEGO sets over the past few years, that is to say sets that aren't available for purchase from LEGO brand stores, or the usual LEGO retailers such as TRU, Argos etc.. Examples include the limited edition sets available for purchase at Comic Cons, such as the Dagobah Mini Build from the 2015 San Diego Comic Con, and LEGO employee gifts such as 4002014 LEGO HUB Birds and 4002016 50 Years on Track which theoretically aren't available for purchase at all but which can nevertheless be readily acquired via the likes of Bricklink and eBay. Then there are sets produced for specific companies and organisations; a number of UK cathedrals including Durham and St. Edmundsbury have produced limited edition sets, for example, while the Tropical Marine Centre has released 15 tropical fish models (example below) designed by Bright Bricks which is home to the UK's only LEGO Certified Professional.

One set linked to a specific organisation which has recently received some exposure is 2000451 The Panama Canal, a sizeable set released under the LEGO Education banner which was sold exclusively from the Panama STEM website. As luck would have it, the folks from Panama STEM recently got in touch and were kind enough to send me a copy of the set to review on Gimme LEGO. The set has now arrived, so here we go....

The box is a pretty plain affair, prominently featuring the LEGO education banner front and back plus an 8+ age recommendation. The front of the box (above) is dominated by an image of the completed build, and there are a couple of small panels below hinting at a couple of Technic mechanisms incorporated into the set. There's also a 'Canal de Panama' logo bottom right, alongside which is another logo incorporating the Spanish strapline "Tercer juego de eclusas". This translates as "third set of locks" and is a reference to the expansion of the Panama Canal which was inaugurated in June 2016. The back of the box (below) looks pretty similar to the front, although here the image of the completed build is accompanied by a line-up of five small ship models which are included in the set.  There are also a series of panels illustrating what looks like a LNG carrier traversing the Panama Canal lock system.

Having previously laid my hands on a number of non-retail LEGO sets, I can report that some of them fall quite short in the packaging stakes. Not this one, though - in terms of presentation it has the feel of a typical retail set. The box is sturdy and secured by way of tape seals, while inside the box the elements are sealed in a total of 20 bags, all but two of which are printed with a number from one to five. The box also contains five instruction booklets which are sealed inside a single bag alongside a small sticker (below).

The set includes a single minifigure (below). Despite having an overwhelmingly generic appearance, with no printing on the torso or legs, it's nevertheless exclusive to this set according to Bricklink. That having been said, all the elements making up the minifigure are readily available and have previously featured as a part of numerous other minifigures

You can see a rear view of the minifigure below. Neither the head nor the torso feature any back printing.

The build is split into five stages. Each stage contributes a single module to the final Panama Canal model and has its own instruction booklet complete with a stage-specific inventory of parts. Stage 1 (below) commences with construction of one of the set's five ships, after which attention shifts to the sturdy Technic frame which underpins the first Panama Canal module. The frame sits on a base of reddish brown plates and is built upon with basic light bluish grey and blue bricks and plates before being topped off with blue tiles to represent water and some green plates to represent the banks of the canal. A couple of tan gears are housed in a brick-built structure which projects forward from the main part of the module. The teeth of these gears mesh with some gear racks below; these gear racks are attached to a pair of dark bluish grey lock gates, and when the gears are rotated the lock gates slide forwards and backwards, thus closing or reopening the main waterway.

Subsequent modules follow the same basic formula - a Technic frame is constructed on a base of reddish brown plates, simple Technic mechanisms are bolted on to the frame, and blue tiles and green plates provide some basic surface decoration. In addition to the inclusion of a pair of lock gates which are controlled by the same gear and gear rack mechanism described previously, Stage 2 also incorporates a mechanism which raises and lowers the water level, indicated by 2 x 4 blue tiles. This mechanism is activated by winding the black crank at the front of the module; the crank drives a succession of interlocking gears that ultimately mesh with a pair of gear racks which change the water level . The set's solitary sticker is applied to a white 2 x 4 tile at this stage of the build where it forms the sign you can see perched at the top of the module (below).

Stage 3 of the build involves construction of the third module which you can see below. This is very similar to the second module, featuring the same Technic mechanisms, lock gates and adjustable water level. Its foundations incorporate additional reddish brown elements which raise the module by two bricks in height compared with its predecessor, however, and there's no "Canal de Panama" sign.

Stage 4 of the build involves construction of the fourth canal module (below), an activity which provokes a distinct feeling of deja-vu as module four is markedly similar to modules two and three; it sits a further two bricks higher than module three, and features decoration in the form of a tower on top, but is otherwise basically the same in terms of its reddish brown base, underlying Technic frame and the mechanisms that it incorporates.

And so to Stage 5 and with it some welcome variety. The final module of the canal is assembled during this stage of the build, together with the four remaining vessels. The ships are constructed first, starting with a LNG carrier, followed by a container ship, a cruise liner and finally what looks like a reefer ship; one of the few uncommon elements included in the set makes an appearance at this point, namely a white minifig telescope which has only previously appeared in seven sets in this colour and which forms the masts of the reefer ship.

With all five modules now built all that's left to do is join them together with Technic pins and we're done. Looking at the completed build (below) it's clear that aesthetics have taken a back seat in the design process, with the desire to include functional and robust mechanisms to practically demonstrate the workings of the canal's system of locks understandably taking priority. Certainly the mechanisms make it easy and fun to learn, and the model quickly engaged my 9-year old who enjoyed experimenting with the completed build and now has a solid understanding of the subject matter, so mission accomplished from an educational perspective I guess.

In summary, this is an interesting set by virtue of the subject matter and rarity, and it has obvious educational value. On the downside, the 1,184 elements making up the set, and indeed the set's single minifigure, are very basic and unlikely to make the set appeal much as a parts pack, and it's not a particularly interesting build either on account of the degree of repetition. It also has to be said that the US $249.95 retail price is eye-watering, even if it does include worldwide shipping. In mitigation, 50% of all profits are donated to a non-profit organisation which promotes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in Panama, but the fact remains that unless you're teaching large numbers of kids this set seems like a prohibitively expensive way to impart knowledge.

In practice, any discussion of the set's value may end up being academic as at time of writing the Panama STEM website shows the set as being sold out with no indication of whether they'll get more stock. Given my reservations about the set, however, I don't think that should concern the majority of LEGO fans whose money would probably be better spent elsewhere. Definitely a set for collectors with big budgets and educators only I reckon.

Thanks to Panama STEM for providing Gimme LEGO with a review copy of the set. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Friday 1 September 2017

Retro Space Revisited

I always enjoy building and writing about vintage space sets, and judging by the number of views that my Space Police post got last time out plus the comments on the Gimme Lego Facebook page it seems that I'm not the only one who enjoys wallowing in LEGO Space nostalgia. I've therefore decided to focus on another long-retired LEGO space set today, this time from the M-Tron subtheme.

The M-Tron subtheme of LEGO space consists of a total of eight sets released in 1990 and 1991. In addition to these eight sets, LEGO released instructions for an additional M-Tron model - 6862 Secret Space Voyager - which could be built by combining parts from three of the retail M-Tron sets. All of the M-Tron sets featured a vehicle of some description, and the majority of the sets utilized magnets, a first for LEGO Space I believe. In this review I'll be focusing on 6896 Celestial Forager, a mid-size M-Tron set released in 1990.

Unlike 6897 Rebel Hunter which I reviewed a few weeks back 6896 Celestial Forager is too small to merit a cardboard tray inside the box. As was the case for 6897 a laser grid forms the backdrop to an image of the completed build on the front of the box (above) although this time the grid is purple rather than green. Again similar to 6897 the vehicle is traversing a sandy planet surface, albeit at ground level this time. A price tag from departed UK retailer Woolworths is stuck over the LEGO logo on both the front and back of the box and indicates that the set retailed for £10.49 back in 1990. The back of the box (below) is split into a number of panels featuring alternate builds, and the inclusion of magnets is also highlighted.

The instruction booklet is in fact a thrice-folded A3-sized sheet which is printed on both sides. Although the cover panel (below) predictably shows an image of the completed build, here the vehicle is photographed from behind in contrast to the side-on view to be found on the front of the box. The instructions break the build into 14 principal steps, not including assembly of the minifigure.

The set contains a single minifigure, named by Bricklink as M-Tron with Airtanks. This minifigure has appeared in a total of ten sets, unsurprisingly all from the M-Tron subtheme given the prominent M-Tron logo printed in the middle of the red torso.... In addition to gracing this minifigure, the torso can also be found as a part of two other minifigures. All other components of the minifigure, namely the white legs with black hips, the yellow head printed with a standard grin pattern, the black helmet and airtanks, and the trans-neon green visor, have been widely distributed in many sets.

Below you can see the minifigure from the rear with the helmet removed. There's no printing on the back of the head or the torso.

With the set's single minifigure assembled it's time to build the vehicle. The Celestial Forager consists of front and rear sections joined to each other by a pair of black 2 x 4 hinge plates with male and female articulated joints. There's also an upper bridge joining the front and rear sections, on top of which is a black inverted webbed 6 x 6 dish. The upper bridge features a faintly Heath Robinson-esque mechanism utilising a pair of 2 x 2 turntable plates together with a 1 x 2 Technic brick, a modified 2 x 2 plate with pinholes and 4L Technic axle to ensure that the two sections of the vehicle can still articulate at the hinge with the bridge in place. The front section of the vehicle includes a cockpit which incorporates a red cockpit space nose with printed M-Tron logo; this element has only appeared in a total of three sets including this one. A pair of chainsaw bodies are attached to the nose at an angle, one on either side; each sports a different 1 x 1 tile printed with a button design and a computer display design respectively. Both tiles have appeared in fewer than 10 sets in total. The vehicle's four black hard plastic 35mm x 31mm wheels attach to the chassis via red modified 2 x 2 bricks with pin.

The rear section of the vehicle is basically a trailer upon which a crane is constructed. A pair of black cylindrical magnets anchor the crane at its base. One of my most memorable brushes with LEGO cylindrical magnets was when I built 10030 Imperial Star Destroyer, and since then whenever I encounter them I recall that epic build. One of the magnets clicks into a 2 x 2 magnet holder which comes in a number of varieties; the 'short arm' variety found within this set can only be found in one other set, and the other varieties are only marginally more common. The crane's boom is formed from a 2 x 4 x 5 inclined support stanchion. A further cylindrical magnet is attached at the top of the boom, this time via a red 2 x 3 magnet holder. Cargo is provided in the form of a red 2 x 2 x 2 container; the variant supplied in this set has solid studs and has only ever appeared in five sets in this colour. The container has a printed light grey door which can only be found in seven sets, and inside the container are a pair of trans-neon green 1 x 1 round plates.

The main play feature of the set is the crane. As shown in the picture below, the boom can be lowered by disengaging the pair of magnets at the base of the crane, and the cargo container can be detached by disengaging the magnets at the end of the boom. As previously mentioned, the vehicle can bend in the middle thanks to the inclusion of a hinge.

Although I'd have to say that 6896 Celestial Forager falls some way short of being a "must-have" set, it's nevertheless an interesting step along the road from the earliest LEGO Space sets to present day offerings and it's well worth the £10 plus shipping that I paid for my boxed, complete copy a few years back. While that's admittedly inexpensive by current standards, the set can still be acquired for a relatively modest sum now - at time of writing complete boxed examples are available on Bricklink for as little as £15 plus shipping, which is less than what the set, originally priced at £10.49 back in 1990, would cost now if adjusted for inflation.

Friday 21 July 2017

Alt. Space

There seems to be so much love for Classic Space right now that it can be easy to forget quite how many other Space subthemes LEGO has released over the years. Although I was lucky that my youth coincided with the late 1970's Classic Space sweet spot, I subsequently missed much of the space-related goodness that followed on account of my lengthy LEGO Dark Ages. Ironically enough, it was another space theme - Star Wars - that ended up dragging me out of the darkness, but it turned out that a whole bunch of interesting LEGO Space offerings had come and gone during my absence. I've therefore been on a mission to gradually fill in the gaps ever since.

One of the LEGO Space subthemes that I missed during my lengthy hiatus was Space Police. LEGO released a clutch of Space sets under the Space Police banner in 1989, and I assume that these sets were well-received since the company subsequently decided to follow them up with a number of Space Police 2 sets a few years later. Released in 1992, 6897 Rebel Hunter was the third largest set in the Space Police 2 line up as measured by parts count, and I was delighted to find a boxed, complete example of the set on eBay a few years back which I gratefully snapped up. The front of the box (above) shows the craft flying over a barren planet surface against a backdrop of a blurry starfield and a green laser grid. A price label from sadly-departed UK retailer Woolworths can be seen in the top right corner; allowing for inflation the £13.99 retail price would be the equivalent of £26.57 in today's money according to the Bank of England's Inflation Calculator - decidedly expensive for a set containing just 140 elements and two minifigures. The back of the box (below) highlights a couple of the set's play features as well as showcasing three alternative builds.

The set contents are contained within a white cardboard tray which fits neatly into the outer box. In addition to the set's 140 elements there's a single instruction booklet, the front cover of which you can see below. The instruction booklet comprises just 16 pages from cover to cover; unlike current instruction booklets all the pages are taken up by the building guide, and advertising is conspicuous by its absence.

The back cover of the instruction booklet, which is dominated by a stylised image of the completed build, can be seen below. One of the set's main play features, a portable prison pod, is showcased bottom left together with the set's two minifigures.

Bricklink prosaically names the set's two minifigures as Space Police 2 and Blacktron 2. Space Police 2 can be seen below. This minifigure has appeared in a total of seven sets. The white torso with its green, black and red print is exclusive to this minifigure, while the green legs with white hips have only appeared as a part of two minifigures including this one. The head, which is printed with a red brown fringe and eyebrows plus a black headset, has featured much more widely, appearing as a part of 24 minifigures across almost 50 sets in total. While the black helmet has graced literally hundreds of sets, the retractable trans-green visor has appeared in just 14. This minifigure is provided with an accessory in the form of a white loudhailer which is presumably supposed to represent a blaster.

This minifigure is kitted out with black airtanks which you can see in the image below. These largely obscure the back of the unprinted torso.  The back of the head is also unprinted.

Bad guy Blacktron 2 (below) has appeared in 14 sets across both the Space Police 2 and Blacktron 2 Space subthemes. The white torso with its black and lime Blacktron 2 print has appeared as a part of 3 different minifigures and can be found in a total of 16 sets. All of the other constituent elements making up this minifigure are extremely common, appearing in one hundred sets or more; the head is printed with the classic LEGO standard grin pattern, while the visor is trans-neon green in colour.

Similar to the Space Police 2 minifigure, Blacktron 2 carries a pair of black airtanks. Once again the torso is unprinted, as is the back of the head.

The build proper commences with construction of the portable prison pod (below) with space inside for a single minifigure. The structure incorporates a hinged trans-green 4 x 4 x 4 1/3 windscreen element which is printed with the Space Police 2 logo and which has only ever appeared in three sets.

The prison pod is carried inside an open cargo bay, and this is next to be built. The walls of the cargo bay are made up of a number of hinge brick assemblies, and a couple of black 1 x 2 tiles printed with a red arrow, which can only be found in eight sets, provide some cosmetic embellishment. A trio of black Technic axles form a roof of sorts over the cargo bay, and the reason for this seemingly odd design decision will shortly become clear. The section of the ship between the cargo bay at the rear and the cockpit at the front features a couple of interesting elements that I hadn't seen before, namely a red modified 3 x 3 x 2 facet brick bottom, on top of which is a trans-green modified 3 x 3 x 2 facet brick top. The red facet brick is unique to this set, while the trans-green brick has only ever appeared in a total of three sets including this one.

The lower half of the cockpit consists of a specialised light grey 11 x 4 x 2 2/3 inverted slope element which has only ever appeared in four sets, while the cockpit canopy is made up of a hinged trans-green 10 x 4 x 2 1/3 windscreen element which has only ever appeared in three sets. The cockpit can accommodate a single minifigure with ease and is empty apart from a printed 45 degree 2 x 2 slope which serves as a control panel. The cockpit is flanked by a couple of red 1 x 4 antennae which attach via a combination of modified 1 x 1 plates.

The front and rear bounds of the cargo bay are made up of light grey modified 2 x 4 x 2 bricks with holes on the sides. This useful element can only be found in a total of four sets in this colour, and there are three of these elements in the set. Four black 4 x 4 x 5 stanchions attach to the anti-studs on the sides of the modified 2 x 4 x 2 bricks, and a jet engine is attached to the base of each of the stanchions. You can see the completed Rebel Hunter ship together with both minifigures below.

The ship's cargo bay provides the set's most interesting play feature. As previously described, the cargo bay walls incorporate a number of hinge bricks which enable the walls to flex outwards. When the walls are fully extended, as in the picture above, the prison pod is held firmly in place. When however the walls are flexed outwards the prison pod is released and the back of the ship is pulled forwards; at maximal flexion (below) the rear of the ship is pulled forward by around 50mm. The presence of this mechanism explains the use of Technic axles for the cargo bay roof - as the rear of the ship concertinas forward the axles slide through holes in Technic bricks at the rear of the ship; admittedly the protruding Technic axles look a bit untidy, but it's a price worth paying for the inclusion of a neat play feature.

Overall, it has to be acknowledged that the Rebel Hunter isn't the prettiest LEGO craft that you'll ever see - "quirky" is probably the politest way to describe it. That having been said, I'm a big fan of the colour scheme, and the build also incorporates a number of cool play features, particularly the unusual prison pod release mechanism. Design-wise, inspiration has clearly been taken from earlier Space subthemes, but there's also a nod to the future in the form of an increased reliance on more specialised elements (not least the distinctly POOP-like light grey element making up the lower half of the cockpit) and the inclusion of Technic elements.

When I conclude my reviews of retired sets I'm often reluctantly obliged to report that a complete, boxed example of the set in question will cost you an arm and a leg. On this occasion however I'm pleased to reveal that copies of the set actually seem to be very reasonably priced on Bricklink, with at least one boxed example available for less than £20 at time of writing. Copies of the set also occasionally crop up on eBay which is where I found mine; my complete, boxed copy set me back just £15 plus postage, although that was admittedly a few years ago now. Not a classic, then, but still worth picking up at current prices if you have any interest in LEGO Space I reckon.