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