Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lame Movie Scene = Lame Set

4183 The Mill
The Chronicler's Rating - 2/5
Price ~ $40.00
Year Released - 2011

In the case of Star Wars it is so easy.  With 6 movies, a tv series and a host of video games and other material from the expanded universe Lego has an almost endless pool of material to draw from in order to create new and exciting sets.  From locations to vehicles there are a lot of options.  This is not the case however in some of the other franchises Lego has ventured into.  I saw it first in a few of the Indiana Jones sets that just left you saying "um I recognize that is an accurate recreation of a scene from the movie but... it is kind of lame". The Mill is such a set. 

Once you create the ships and a few of the more famous locales like the Fountain of Youth and the Isla de la Muerta (which Lego has done) the pirates franchise doesn't
have a lot of other noteworthy locations to turn into sets.  The problem with this set is that it is hard to imagine anything to really use it for.  Lego has released an actual mill set in the Kingdoms theme (7189 Mill Village Raid) that has a working windmill which operates the mill equipment in the building so I can't even say that this set would work in a medieval setting as an actual mill because there is a much better offering concurrently available.  This set has no equipment inside other than the bell and the wheel is built not to grind grain but detach so the young builder can recreate that ridiculous scene from the movie which tried to be funny but to most was just lame.  The fact that this set is recreating such a lame scene does not help it much. 

This set is not designed to create great play possibilities, it is designed to recreate a scene in which the primary appeal was witty dialogue and a ridiculous set of circumstances.  In my opinion the movie failed on both those counts but even if it had succeeded that is very difficult to recreate into a satisfying Lego set.  The result is a set I would advise you to avoid.  If your child is interested in the mill aspect of this set for a medieval story head over to the Kingdoms section of the store and pick up 7189 Mill Village Raid as it is a much better set. 

On every front I would advise you to spend your money on a different set.  The pieces on this set can be found in almost any castle set, the figures are available in other sets (or will be soon) and the play possibilities with The Mill are so limited that I think it will quickly bore you.

for the most part Lego has done an excellent job of making great sets from the Pirate's franchise.  Unfortunately, with The Mill they were undermined by the fact that this is not the greatest scene and therefore the need to adhere to movie accuracy resulted in a lame set.  Spend your money elsewhere.

Happy Building
The Lego Chronicler

Monday, June 20, 2011

What Makes a Great Lego Set?

I am asked this question on a regular basis.  Part of the answer is subjective, what appeals to one person does not necessarily appeal to someone else; the old adage of one man's trash is another man's treasure holds true here.  There are, however, some common characteristics that most of the sets considered great by Lego enthusiasts share.  These are the same characteristics that I try to use in my reviews to evaluate a set's merits and demerits.  They are as follows:

As I have said in many reviews, playability out trumps all.  A set may have horrid pieces, be too expensive and be ugly as can be, but if it has great playability I will forgive it almost anything else.  The reason for this is that ultimately Legos are meant to be played with and if they meet that requirement then they have fulfilled their mission.  Playability is defined as how simple it is for a set to spawn original play.  A set with good playability will require almost no imagination to use and keep using.  A set with poor playability will be difficult to play with after a month or so because all of the options for stories that are easy to imagine it being a part of will have been exhausted.  A set that still spawns original play a year after it's purchase has good playability. 

One of sets with the greatest playability of all time (in my opinion) is 1996’s Fort Legoredo.  Its size, detail and setting make it a natural for hours and hours of play.  I quite literally played with this set for hours a week for several years. 

A recent set that serves as an example of poor playability is 8092 Landspeeder from 2010.  After you re-create the famous “These are not the droids your are looking for scene” exactly what are you going to do with this unarmed, non-flying, people mover? 

Great as a collector’s item but in terms of a set to play with, not so much.

After playability comes the pieces.  In much the same way that a set with bad parts can be excused if it has great playability so a set with mediocre playability can be forgiven if it has great parts.  Inevitably sets get disassembled (some kids never put the sets together at all!) and when they do you want the part selection to be good so that original creations can be made with ease.  Good sets have pieces that are small to medium in size (modular pieces such as specialized roofs are bad because they can only be used for their intended purpose and not for anything else) in primarily basic colors (black, white, gray, yellow, blue, brown, tan, green or red).  Sets with primarily modular pieces or funky colors (orange, purple, lime green, or beige) should be avoided because they will be very limiting when they are incorporated into original creations.

An example from this year of a set with great pieces is 7066 Earth Defense HQ.  All the pieces on this set are small (no modular pieces), in excellent basic colors and are all very useful.

A set with an example of horrible pieces is 2006’s Piraka Stronghold.  This set is from the short lived (thankfully!) Bionicle playsets theme. 

Exactly what are you going to do with all those specialized pieces once you get bored with this set?  Sure that big mask piece is cool but what would you use it for? 

Crossover is an often overlooked characteristic that can be very important.  Crossover refers to a sets ability to appear in stories set in different themes.  My most often used example of a set with good crossover is a medieval blacksmith's shop.  That set can be used in its intended setting (castle) but will also look right at home in a dock town being raided by pirates or as part of a historical district in a modern city.  This ability to easily jump from theme to theme will add substantial play hours to a set thereby increasing it's value.

One of the sets with the most incredible crossover that I have seen is 10193 Medieval Market Village. 

This set would fit in almost any of Lego’s themes.  It could be a harbor town for pirates to raid, a historical district in a city, it could even be a technologically backward settlement in a space setting. 

I put less emphasis on this than other collectors for the following reason, some pieces take more plastic to produce and they are worth it (boat hulls and castle walls are good examples).  Likewise, Lego will sometimes try to hide the fact that a set is not that good by inundating it with small pieces to boost the piece count.  A recent example of this is 4645 Harbor which is significantly smaller and less complete than any previous harbor offering.  This seems counterintuitive since the price and piece count are roughly similar until you see what Lego did which was boost the piece count by making the harbor a grain harbor and including a bunch of small cylinders to represent grain. 

Each of those pieces boosts the count while adding nothing of substance to the set.  In the reverse some sets have smaller piece counts but they are really good pieces which make up for it.  So I would recommend that you be conscious of the piece count (the rule of thumb is that a set with 10 pieces for every dollar is a good value) but don't rely on it. 

Last but certainly not least is price.  This one is pretty self explanatory, some sets are just not good value.  More than any of the other characteristics this one is a judgement call because certain sets are worth more to one person than another.  If you want the set and are willing to pay what Lego is asking then go for it.  Trust your gut, I have bought several sets that I didn't have a good feeling about as it related to the value I thought I would get for how much I was paying, and that gut feeling has never been wrong; I have always been disappointed.  The biggest example of this for me was 6991 Monorail Transport Base from 1994. 

This set is captivating due to its size and uniqueness, but it is actually cumbersome to play with and does not come with enough track to really make anything cool with it.  Conversely I have bought sets that have been critically hated by other enthusiasts that I had a good feeling about and have never been disappointed.  One of the main examples of this was 6975 Alien Avenger from 1997. 

This set breaks a lot of the rules (big pieces, low piece count, not the greatest colors) but it was a blast to play with. 

There are exceptions to all of these but as general rules of thumb these characteristics can serve as excellent guides as you navigate the numerous offerings Lego has out there. 

Happy Building
The Lego Chronicler 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Falls Far Short...

4644 Marina
The Chronicler's Rating - 2/5
Price ~ $50.00
Year Released - 2011

The last true marina set was 1994's Sail and Fly Marina and for those of us who can remember that set this one, unfortunately, looks downright spartan by comparison.  In the City theme especially Lego has, over the past several years, reached back into its own history and drawn inspiration from some of the great sets of the past.  Many of the recent sets that have done this have been able to capture the magic and masterpiece of their predecessors (the last two police stations and last two fire stations are prime examples as is this years Queen Anne's Revenge).  Unfortunately, 4644 Marina fell far short of its inspiration. 

On paper these two sets have pretty much the same components, docks, a restaurant and sea going craft.  But the older set, in every respect, did each one of those so much better that this set looks incomplete by comparison.  Everything about this set feels shortchanged, the dock is pitifully small (Lego made it look bigger by adding the bridge so it would be longer but it's an illusion), the boat (it's really a raft) is small and essentially just one big piece and the restaurant and "life guard stand" are built like facades as opposed to actual structures.  Contrast that with the Sail and Fly Marina which had 2 gorgeous speed boats (comprised of no large pieces) as well as a small motor boat and a (beautiful) seaplane all with separate berths on a huge dock which was flanked by an enclosed restaurant and boat repair yard complete with crane for lifting the speedboats out of the water. 

There is nothing in this set that your child cannot build with pieces I am certain they have in their collections.  Nothing about the construction of this is difficult and none of the pieces are rare.  Considering the price tag there is really no reason to get this set unless your child has requested it specifically and even then I would suggest you try to talk them out of it.      

Marinas are a blast and I would highly recommend that you get one for your collection, just not this one.  The pieces on this set are not very good and for the price you pay you don't get very many of them.  Furthermore you can easily make something as good as this set on your own with pieces from your collection.  Spend your money on some of the cool boat sets that have recently been released and build your own marina. 

The Sail and Fly Marina set the bar very high for this type of set.  Even factoring in the fact that this set is not meant to be a recreation of that masterpiece and taking into account the more expensive production costs Lego is facing this set still falls way short.  With as many other great sets as are currently available right now I would encourage you to spend your money elsewhere.

Happy Building
The Lego Chronicler

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Undermined by Price

4194 Whitecap Bay
The Chronicler's Rating - 3/5
Price ~ $80.00
Year Released - 2011

In the last few years Lego has undergone a subtle yet undeniable shift.  In comparison to just a few years ago the would be buyer's dollars just do not go as as far as they used to.  With rising manufacturing costs, more and more themes requiring licensing fees and straight up general economics this shift was somewhat inevitable but that does not make it an easy pill to swallow.  Lego has tried to mask this fact by increasing the piece count of sets dramatically over that same timeframe but those pieces are small (which is the point, they add far less plastic to the production cost than their counterparts from years past) and don't add a lot of bulk to sets.  On some sets it is less noticeable than others but Whitecap Bay is, unfortunately, not one of them. 

The large price tag on this set is truly a tragedy for two main reasons.  First this is a fabulous set and secondly it is without precedent in Lego's history, never before has there been a lighthouse set in a Pirate theme.  The play possibilities of this set are extraordinary.  You can play along the story lines of the movie (this is after all a recreation of a scene from the latest film), it can easily be incorporated into an existing pirate collection, or it could be a historical lighthouse in the harbor of a modern city.  With great colors, excellent construction and architectural details I really like this set.  The only problem is price. 

Even if value is not one of your major considerations in buying a Lego set for your child or grandchild it is hard to look at this set and not think "they want HOW much???".  As great as it is, once built, it is hard to believe that it cost so much.  Because of how little I feel you are getting for your money on this set I would recommend that, unless your child has their heart set on it or are huge fans of the latest Pirates movie, you look elsewhere.  The smaller sets for more money phenomenon has not hit all sets and themes equally, it is still possible to get more for your dollar (a good place to look is in the non-licensed themes such as City, Ninjago or Castle).  Another option is to get 4183 The Mill which is cheaper and could be easily modified into something resembling Whitecap Bay with a few pieces from your child's collection.  If, however, you can absorb the price, and your child loves the Pirates movie or pirate Legos in general then I would highly recommend this set to you. 

This is a great Lego set.  Whether you are looking to add to existing pirate collection or start a new one this set would make a great addition.  They only thing you need to think about is whether or not you want it enough to spend this much money on it.  Lego sets like this can easily turn onto disappointments if you are expecting it to be huge and then find that it is not as big as you thought.  Get this if you have thought about it and still want it otherwise I would spend your money on something that gets you better pieces for the money. 

This set is without precedent in the history of Lego Pirates (both the recent theme based on the movie and the long running Pirate theme that preceded it).  Beyond being the first historical lighthouse set ever produced there have only been 2 other lighthouses of any type in the modern era of Legos (6414 Dolphin Point from the Paradisa theme from the early 90s and 5770 Lighthouse Island from the Creator theme this year) so this set is truly in elite and unique company.  Not only that but it has excellent play value along with great construction and pieces.   Its only weakness is price and that weakness is, unfortunately, quite looming.  If you can stomach the price get this set but if you cannot and must look elsewhere I don't blame you. 

Happy Building
The Lego Chronicler