Tuesday, June 5, 2012

AFOL Classifications

An engineer by profession my area of specialty is water resources which, in laymen's terms, means I design water and sewer systems.  The other day as I was working through some calculations involving microbial growth in a waste water treatment plant I encountered the scientific names and classifications of several different types of microorganisms.  This reminded me of the obligatory unit that all of us who endured high school biology went through which sought to give us an overview of the monumentally complex system of categorizing the different types of living things on the planet that the scientific world has developed.  Words like "genus" and "species" that I had not considered in years spontaneously emerged from some deep forgotten memory banks. 

On my drive home, with classification still on m mind, I began to think about the AFOL community and what categories those of us who comprise it would get put into should some scientist seek to map the genus-Lego-obsessed.  To be sure within the community there are a variety of different "species" if you will, made up of people who enjoy certain distinct aspects of the Lego habit.  Overarching I think there would be three major groups, call them species, that all of us fall into:

This first species is made up of those whose primary interest is collecting.  What they collect may vary (classic space, poly bags, castle, etc.) but ultimately what they are after is not so much building original creations but having the most complete and thorough collection possible.  They do very little original building but require a ridiculous amount of pages on Brickset to catalogue their entire collection.  These are the people who pay exorbitant prices on EBay to get that unopened set and then never open it (a concept I must confess I cannot grasp).  The displays these people can put together with their collections are truly awe inspiring. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Collectors are the MOCers.  For these people sets are merely a way to acquire the parts they need for original creations.  There are some amazing talented (and I would venture bank account drained!) people in this species that keep the sellers on Bricklink in business.  These people posses thousands of bricks that they craft into breathtaking original creations. 

This last species is squarely between the two extremes and it is the one I fall into.  We hybrids dabble in a bit of both.  We love boosting our collection's size but also get great pleasure out of making our own creations.  However, the sentiment jack of all trades master of none applies.  I have a big collection, but not compared to the die hard collectors.  I make some cool stuff, but can't hold a candle too many of the MOCers out there.  So my collection is not that noticeable on Brickset and though I am a frequent customer on Bricklink no seller is going to out of their way to solicit my business. 

Obviously within each of these larger categories are a thousand little ones.  Almost no collector, for example, tries to collect every theme.  Each theme (and many sub themes) has its die hards who have crazy collections in that area but next to nothing in others.  Star Wars, trains, mini-figures and classic space seem to command the most die hards but almost every other theme has a loyal group of passionate collectors too.

MOCers too fall into numerous categories.  Some do sci-fi, others focus on mecha, still others do modular buildings, castles or some other structure.  Some are passionate about little details, others go simply for size.  Many model scenes or vehicles from movies or popular culture while others rely solely on their own imaginations.  There are even professional artists who use Lego as their medium.       

And finally us hybrids break into a bunch of categories too.  I myself love trying to make my own sets.  I don't do big creations (though I have in the past) but I substantially enjoy trying to create detailed and complete worlds whether by populating it with sets or with original creations.  The result is a collection of original works intermixed with official sets.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lego Themes a History - Part II

In my last entry I reviewed the history of the 4 themes which are considered the original "core" of Lego's product line.  In the last 15 years there has been an incredible amount of branching out in Lego's product line from these initial primary categories (Technic and Duplo are considered alternative product lines so I am not including them in this discussion).  Lego has ventured into the depths of the sea, into the world of licensing, dug deep beneath the earth and invented whole new categories of toys.  In this entry I am going to briefly review the history of the 5 longest lasting Lego themes other than the core 4.

Star Wars
Clocking in at 13 years and counting Star Wars has eclipsed Pirate and is well on its way to toppling Space and Castle for a place in the top three of longest running themes. 

The original X-Wing Fighter set from 1999
Fueled by the fandom of adults, the resurgence of interest in kids spawned by the prequels and television series as well as just generally appealing models, the Star Wars line has been phenomenally successful.  It has spawned new pieces, building techniques and price points.  The success of minifigure based sets within the Star Wars theme heavily influenced the shift towards "minifigurecentric" products that now dominate Lego's product line.  The theme has now settled into the general pattern of the core 4 with the revamping of sets every 3-6 years (in town you see it with police stations etc. and now we see it with all the classic ships: Millennium Falcons, X-Wings, etc.).  With the recent announcement that the license has been extended for another 10 years it is a safe bet that we will be seeing sets from the galaxy far far away for long long time.

Second to Star Wars in terms of longevity is the Bionicle line.  These toys were the first in a new genre dubbed by Lego as "constraction" (construction + action).  Relying heavily on Technic type pieces this theme was fueled by an original storyline. 

The original group of Toas from the first Bionicle product line
Bolstering sales during a very weak time in the company's history Bionicle is credited with almost singlehandedly saving Lego from a takeover.  No longer in production (and replaced by the far inferior Hero Factory line) these sets are a niche favorite with AFOL's and one of the defining childhood toys for a whole generation of kids. 

Harry Potter
Though not continuous in its run, Harry Potter has been around almost as long as Star Wars.

The original Hogwart's Castle from 2001
It was Lego's second foray into the world of licensing and is responsible for temporarily displacing castle for a time.  Sets now range across all of the books/movies though with the final installment of the movie franchise having come and gone I am guessing that this theme is now gone for good. 

Before the Indiana Jones license Lego filled the swashbuckling archeologist niche with an original character: Jonny Thunder. 

2003's Dragon Fortress, from the last of the original Adventurer's subthemes
Eventually spanning 4 sub-themes (5 if you count the Pharaoh's Quest theme from last year as a re-boot, which I do), including desert, jungle, dino island and orient.

Originating in the early 90s the Aquazone theme was one of the first major deviations from the core four.  Originally pitting two opposing faction against one another (Aquasharks and Aquanauts) the theme went on to include an additional 3 sub themes (Aquaraiders I, Hydronauts and Stingrays) before being discontinued. 

The massive Neptune Discovery Lab, the Aquanaut's undersea base
Lego made additional forays into the ocean depths with the Divers theme and Mission Deep Sea which was part of the Alpha Team series.  Aquazone was officially rebooted a couple of years ago with Aquaraiders II which saw man face off agains giant sea creatures.  The theme was, however, short lived and no new installments have come out in the last few years. 

Overall the branching out from the core 4 has been, by and large, fantastic.  Lego's product line has included some truly spectacular themes as a result of that deviation and the company has been the better because of it.  Certain themes like the Wild West and Bionicle have achieved revered status and there are many who lament their discontinuation even to this day.  There have definitely been some colossal failures (my older readers will remember Galidor *shudder*) but the good has definitely outweighed the bad!     

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lego Themes: A History - Part 1

My younger readers (really anyone under the age of 18 which is, other than AFOLs, Lego's entire market...) will have a hard time imagining this but when I came onto the Lego scene in 1987 there were only 3, yes 3, themes within the Lego system line.  Town, Castle and Space. 

Within each of those there were some sub themes that would ring bells for a modern audience (such as coast guard and space police) but if you wanted something outside the town, castle or space motifs you were up a creek without a paddle.  In 1989 the Pirate theme was added and those four comprise what is generally known as the 4 core themes.

Of those 4 only town (though its name has changed through the years) has had an uninterrupted run until now.  Here is a brief history of each of those 4 themes. 

Pirate was the first of the core 4 to go, disappearing in the late 90s for no apparent reason (though I am guessing it was diminishing sales due to the decrease in set quality). 

6280 Armada Flagship from 1996.  The rainbow of colors and boring
construction helped make this the least profitable pirate product line.
It was brought back for a brief run in 2009 but no sets other than the original wave were released (with the exception of the ultimatel collector's Imperial Flagship, thank you Lego for that parting gift!) which means sales were not high enough to warrant them.  We also got a brief reprieve with the Pirate of the Caribbean sets from last year but as the movie was a dud and there have been no additional sets I am guessing that Pirate has once again been deep sixed and we won't be seeing any new sets for awhile.  I must confess that this baffles me.  In my mind Pirates are some of the most fun sets in Lego's  product line.  The only explanation I have for them not taking with the modern audience is that kids would rather play with licensed themes and figures than not, meaning that Pirates don't rise high enough on the priority list to top Star Wars or one of the other licensed themes based on a popular movie or TV show.  It is a shame, a real shame.  My kids, however, will be more than set.  I have all 12 Lego Pirate ships and a variety of other supporting locations not to mention all the Islanders.  It is a fond hope of mine that the high seas will be a very busy place in my household a few years from now!

AFOLs differ in their opinions of when it started but all will agree that the quality of Lego Space diminished in the 90s.  Where exactly the slide started is debated.  I personally hold the opinion that the Exploriens in 1996 were the last great Space sub theme.  Regardless the Insectizoids of 1998 were the last of the original Space themes until the recent Space Police 3 theme from a couple of years ago.

The very mediocre Insectizoid sub theme marked the end of an era. 
I picked this set up for $12 and still almost felt ripped off
That latest Space Police Theme marked the return of an original space story line and set of characters after a decade long hiatus prompted by Lego's first foray, in 1999, into the licensing world with Star Wars.  Bowing to the established characters form a galaxy far far away the Lego Space theme does as of late appear to be making a resurgence as Space Police 3 had 2 waves in successive years and was followed by the Alien Conquest theme.  Whether the market is ready or not has yet to be seen.  Nothing new is slated for release this year within the genre and the license with Lucasfilm was extended another 10 years...              

Castle outlasted Space by a mere 2 years before being felled by the second most lucrative Lego license to date: Harry Potter.  Released to coincide with the first several movies the Harry Potter theme with its medieval architecture was deemed to close a product to the traditional Castle theme and it was suspended over fears of one cannibalizing the other's sales. 

The original Hogwart's Castle.  The coming of succesive renditions of
the famous wizard's school displaced tradional castle sets for a time.
Its return was further delayed by the Vikings theme but Castle returned with a vengeance in the form of the Fantasy Era sets in 2007.  The theme has maintained its resurgence in the form of the Kingdoms sets although, as no new ones were released this year, its future is in doubt.  It may become another victim of the licensing trend. 

The one theme that has endured (although its name has changed multiple times from Town to City Center to World City and now just City) is this one.  Its quality level has risen and fallen but it has been a bench mark for decades now. 

In my next post I will look at the themes other than the core 4 that have had the longest runs.    

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Rule of Awesome

I love the new Dino theme that Lego released this year.  Not just because the sets are decent (though they are pretty good).  Not because the dinosaurs are the best ever produced (though they are).  And not just because of the incredible playability available in pretty much every set.  No what I love most of all is the complete lack of pretense.  What do I mean?  Let me elaborate.

Lego has made 3 previous forays into the world of dinosaurs.  The first was the Dino Island line of sets from the Adventurers theme back in 2000.  The storyline for that series borrowed from the Lost World hypothesis made famous by Michael Chrichton in his book of the same name: somewhere there is an as of yet unexplored place where animals thought to be extinct have survived undetected until now!  Probable?  Not so much but certainly plausible. 

5987 Dino Research Headquarters from 2000
Next came the Jurassic Park III sets which were part of the studios theme.  This was a straight up license and drew directly from the Jurassic Park storyline to explain how humans were facing dinosaurs in a perilous quest for survival. 

1371 Spinosaurus Attack from 2001
Finally there was the Dino 2010 theme from 2005.  The premise here was that some sort of radioactive accident had unleashed a hoard of mutant beasts, most notably ferocious dinosaurs!  This was in keeping with the zombie/apocalypse-from-science-gone-wrong-motif which has been popular for the last decade (think of movies such as I Am Legend).  A super thin explanation?  Absolutely; but it works and fit with the cultural pattern of the time.

7298 Dino Air Tracker from 2005
What I love about this most recent installment in the man versus dino category is that Lego has dropped all attempts at coming up with a reason for how or why man suddenly finds himself in the presence of fully grown long extinct creatures.  All pretense is gone, they give us no story, no explanation, just awesome sets where men fight dinosaurs. 

5884 Raptor Chase from 2012
And they can get away with this because of the rule of awesome.  What is that?  Simple.  It is the concept that so long as a given thing is awesome it needs no explanation.  This is a major force in our culture right now.  The most recent large scale example I have seen of this idea is the soon to be released movie Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  I saw a preview for this last week.  Perhaps the movie will give more background but the 3 minute preview gave zero explanation for how one of America’s greatest leaders had an entire previous life, hitherto unknown, in which he slew all manner of satanic beasts.  The idea is that the movie makers don’t need to explain because, for enough viewers (though I must confess I am not one of them…), the concept of Old Abe fighting vampires in his top hat is so awesome that their need for a rational explanation will be suspended.  Lego is employing the exact same logic here: man versus dinosaurs is so intrinsically awesome that there need be no explanation for how it is possible, the fact that it exists is enough.  And I must confess it’s true.  When I first saw these sets I immediately said “I want those”.  I needed no storyline, no explanation; they were just so cool that they immediately won me over.   I highly recommend these sets!              

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


My collection just passed a major milestone, the 300 set mark.  While that number does not compete with some of the truly mind boggling collections one can find on Brickset.com (where do those people get the money for all that Lego??!!!) it does probably place me above the average Lego enthusiast if for no other reason than that I have been collecting for almost 3 decades now!

Some enthusiast collect a certain them or type of set.  Commonly known as “completists”, these collectors focus their energy and pocket books on securing every set within a theme, genre or other category.  Star Wars and Classic Space are two themes that I have found have more completists than others.  There are also poly-bag completists (that one baffles me…) and a whole range of others in the Bionicle and Technic themes.  There are a couple of sub-themes that I have the complete product line (Ice Planet, Extreme Team, Islander and M-Tron) and I also have every official Lego Pirate ship.  However, my collection is much more in keeping with what I call an open collection.  I range far and wide securing enough sets to have what I deem would be a satisfactory play experience in any given theme or subtheme that catches my eye.  In almost no part of my collection will you find a lone set from a theme or subtheme (there are a couple exceptions but they are all small).  Due to my age I have a large number of sets from the 4 core themes (Pirate, Space, Castle and Town/City) but have also acquired liberal amounts of entries from the later more diverse themes (large helpings of Aquazone, Star Wars, Adventurers and more recently Exo-Force and Power Miners). 

As I am an engineer I could not help but run some quick statistics.  I started collecting when I was three years old so I have averaged 12 sets per year (doesn’t sound nearly as impressive when put that way!).  According to Brickset.com I have spent over $7,000.00 on Legos (though it is likely far less as I inherited many sets, got others as gifts and recently have sourced all the parts for sets at a cost far less than MSRP).  Including a rough estimate of my excess bricks (which probably almost equal my regular collection in piece count) I have about 143,000 individual parts.  I have sets in 32 Major Themes and 76 Subthemes.  My favorite year is apparently 1996 (which I consider smack in the middle of Lego’s Golden Age) as I have 22 sets from that year (Wild West, Exploriens and Pirates made that happen).  Every year from 1986 onward is represented in my collection.  Overall my collection is in fairly good shape, almost no lost or broken pieces though some of my hinges are getting pretty worn.               

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Tale of Two Fortresses

I recently had the pleasure of acquiring two different yet similar Lego sets: 2006’s 7709 Sentai Defense Headquarters from the Exo-Force theme and 2012’s 5887 Dino Defense HQ from the new Dino theme.

7709 Sentai Defense Headquarters

5887 Dino Defense HQ

Both sets are, in their own right, full of similarities.  Each consists of 4 walls enclosing an open courtyard.  The two side walls on each fortress are mirror images of each other with the front consisting of a large gate.  Each one also includes a variety of supporting cast members of both vehicles and figures.  Although inflation impacts it slightly they also cost the same each clocking in at the $100 mark.  But when you look at them side by side the differences could not be greater.

The most obvious difference is the piece count, the Sentai fortress comes in at nearly double the amount of pieces: over 1400 to the Dino fortress’ 800+.  The second is the size.  I am not exaggerating to when I say that the Dino Defense HQ can fit inside the Sentai’s courtyard.  The walls of the Sentai fortress are tall enough to legitimately impede the non-flying mecha included with the set while the walls of the Dino Defense HQ look like the T-Rex could have stepped over them to get inside as he is pictured on the front of the box.  How in the world could these sets have cost the same amount?  The answer can be found in Lego’s history, specifically the 2004 fiasco.

Most people do not know that Lego nearly collapsed in 2004.  Years of mediocre product did a serious number on the company’s pocketbook and in fiscal year 2004 they posted their biggest loss in history.  The sharks were circling the family owned company, most notably toy giant Mattel (the thought of Mattel owning Lego sends a shudder through every true fan!).  So Lego went back to the basics focusing all their efforts on their core products.  They also had something to prove so sets got big, very big (I have never seen a set which required more floor area outside of the train and monorail genre than the Sentai Headquarters) and the piece counts got large, very large.  Lego had to recapture the market and they opted for the go big or go home approach.  The focus shifted in the last couple of years to realism.  Those dinos (of which the HQ set includes three) are highly detailed, multi-colored pieces that required new molds and colors.  Realistic, but not cheap to produce.  Size was traded for detail.  Each has value in its own right and I am a big fan of both of these sets.  The playability alone for each of them is incredible.  I highly recommend either of these sets.         

Monday, March 12, 2012

Taking The Plunge

My wonderful mother-in-law was kind enough this past Christmas to endow me with the perfect present: a gift card to the Lego Store.  On a recent business trip that took me to a hotel a mere few blocks from the Glendale AZ Lego Store I had the opportunity to put it to good use.  As I checked out I was informed that contrary to my memory the card had more money on it than I thought by $3.00.  This I concluded was the perfect time to see what the big deal was with these collectable minifigures.  I walked over to the display and selected one at random to add to my purchase. 

As I walked out of the store my thoughts were optimistic.  Maybe I have been wrong, maybe there is something to these collectible minifigures.  Did a delightful surprise wait for me beneath that packaging which would prove my doubts wrong and usher me into the minifigure fan club?  Overflowing with glass half full thoughts I tore into the packaging there in the parking lot not wanting to delay my advent into this new world of loving minifigures a second longer. 

Off came the packing and into my lap fell 7 pieces.  A torso, legs, head, hat, stand and two objects, one for each hand.  That was it.  Three dollars for 7 pieces.  These were my first thoughts.  "Ok" I said "maybe the magic starts when you put it together."  Perhaps that is the case for others but for me the disappointment just continued.  Now I will grant that I did not get one of the more exciting figures, I ended up with 8827 Surgeon, and that it falls far short of say the Genie or Classic Alien figures on the coolness factor. 

However, my confusion over the appeal continued as I surveyed the small poster included with my figure that displayed the other offerings from Series 6.  While I will grant that the specific details of say the face or the clothing is unique, with the exception of the Minotaur and Lady Liberty I have something similar to every one of these figures in my collection.  Bandit?  Got tons of those in my Wild West collection. 

Bandit from Series 6
Flatfoot Thompson from the Wild West Series, I think I have 6 of him. 
What is the big difference?
Robot? Syprius and the Exploriens had those years ago.  Alien?  We have had two rounds of Mars Mission that had aliens not to mention the old UFO series.  Skater Girl, Mechanic, Butcher?  Check, check and check.  At least with my Surgeon I can add her to my Hospital set from the 80s, though that set came with a doctor that could, with a minuscule bit of imagination, have been a surgeon. 

My question then remains the same: what is the appeal of these figures?  They are, in parts per dollar, the most expensive sets of all time checking it at almost 50 cents per piece.  While labeled exclusive in almost every case Lego has released something similar in regular sets through the years (cowboys, indians, extreme sports, soldiers, spacemen, and I could go on) and all the special elements are inevitably incorporated into other sets (the "exclusive" injector that my minifigure is holding is the tranquilizer dart in all the new Dion sets).  And beyond the sets themselves the minifigure craze they have started has bled over into every other Lego theme where now the figures are more important than the sets.  I have seen numerous statements about the upcoming Marvel line that people care little to nothing about the sets but will get every last one of them so as to acquire the figures.  The message to Lego?  The market will continue to buy mediocre sets so long as they contain special figures.  That is inevitably going to come back to bite us!