Monday, August 29, 2011

Good... But Just Too Expensive

2507 Fire Temple
The Chronicler's Rating - 3/5
Price ~ $120.00
Year Released - 2011

I must confess that I am conflicted in attempting to write a review for this set.  The Fire Temple has a lot to recommend it.  First off, it is unique in that no set like it has ever been produced, I struggle to think of almost anything to compare it to.  The building itself is interesting and has an excellent assortment of pieces in good colors.  Furthermore it has great cross over, it can be the Fire Temple, or a training ground for ninjas, or a home in a China Town district in a city, or the mysterious mountain shrine where the pirate crew finally finds the treasure (or gets eaten by a dragon while trying).  In summary across the board it meets many of the criteria of an excellent set.  So what is my hesitation?  One word: price. 

I am pretty forgiving of Lego’s new pricing.  With the economy being what it is and the shift to more detailed and “collectible” minifigures Lego’s production costs have gone up.  Even with all that though I cannot quite get myself to stomach the price tag on this set.  That hesitation is compounded by the fact that the cost puts it nearly at the same price point as the modular buildings Lego has been releasing in the last few years.  Right now I can get, for a mere $30 more, 10211 Grand Emporium. 

That set, beyond being absolutely breathtaking, is completely built out on all four sides (unlike the Fire Temple which is essentially a fa├žade), has approximately 1000 more pieces and contains a completely finished out interior (unlike the Fire Temple which is, for all practical purposes, empty).  What is the cause of that discrepancy?  The Fire Temple includes a variety of very specialized elements and minifigures which are costly to produce while the Grand Emporium’s parts and figures are far more basic.  The end result is that this set just does not feel like you are getting enough for your money. 

The Ninjago theme is, as I have written about extensively on past set reviews, meant to be both a play set and a game.  With the special spinners and cards which are included in many of the sets (which are now packaged to look more like action figures in many cases) your kids can either play pretend or compete with each other in an actual game.  The Fire Temple is 100% play set so if your kid is primarily interested in the game play aspect of this theme there is no need to fork over the extravagant amount of money it will take to get it.  If, however, playing with the ninjas and acting out stories is their main interest this set, despite its price, will make an excellent addition to their collection. 

While this set looks really cool I would recommend that you think long and hard before you spend your money on it.  The first question to consider is: do you like Ninjago for the game aspect or the play aspect?  If your primary interest is in collecting spinners and competing with friends then this set will not do much for you as it includes none of those components.  If the dragon is what appeals to you, the one included with this set is almost exactly the same as the one from the, much cheaper, 2260 Ice Dragon Attack.   

If you have read any of my other reviews you know that I will forgive just about anything if a set has good playability.  Unfortunately the playability of this one does not quite get high enough marks to overcome the price tag.  If you really want it, then get it, I don’t think you will be disappointed.  If, however, you are more into the game aspect of Ninjago or are wishy washy about whether or not you really want this one I would avoid. 

Happy Building,
The Lego Chronicler

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What Is Up With Lego's Pricing? - Part 2

As I have rebuilt I have seen how dramatically Lego's product line has changed in even the last 10 years (not to mention the last 30!).  Look at the following two pictures, the first of which is the original Sith Infiltrator model from the first Episode 1 collection released concurrent with the movie in 1999 and the second is the most recent incarnation from this month (again July 2011 in the event that you are reading this well after the fact).

Side by side the first model looks like a bad joke, an ugly step sister or a maniacal scientist's inhumane experiment.  Lego enthusiasts will use words like "blocky" or "non-streamlined" but no matter what term you use to describe it the fact of the matter is that the earlier version is far far inferior.  Why?  I can describe it in one word: realism. 

Lego opened a pandora's box when they dove headfirst into the world of licensing with the original Star Wars collection in 1999.  Whereas before Lego had always invented their worlds from scratch, they now had to depict vehicles, buildings and locations that people had seen in vivid, movie magic detail.  No one had seen an M-Tron or a ship from Ice Planet (for my younger readers those are some space subthemes from the very early 90s) so we had to accept whatever vision Lego presented to us.  As a result Lego was free to manufacture only a few new types of pieces from year to year while the vast majority of sets could be constructed of the exact same pieces from theme to theme with Lego simply changing the colors that they loaded into the injection machines.  The original pirate ship (1989's Black Seas Barracuda), aside from its hull pieces, cannons and windows (the few new pieces), is constructed of exactly the same pieces you see in its contemporary castle and space sets, just in different colors. 

1989's Black Seas Barracuda

1988's Black Monarch's Castle

1989's Mission Commander
But with Star Wars and the flood of franchises that have followed (Harry Potter, Prince of Persia, Speed Racer, etc.) Lego has had to change their entire paradigm. In the old themes Lego created new products by releasing new subthemes. In the space genre for example you got a new "team" each year which would look completely different than its predecessor.  Look at the following pictures.  The first is from the Ice Planet theme and the second is from the Space Police II theme.

Only a year separated these two themes yet they look completely different despite being made up of many of the exact same pieces.  What was the advantage of this to Lego?  Simple: making the majority of all their sets out of the same repertoire of pieces year after year kept manufacturing costs to a minimum.  New pieces mean thousands of new molds which cost money to produce.  When only a few new pieces were created a year these costs were kept to a minimum.  The price we paid was unrealistic construction and sets that are, by today's standards, crude.  But the benefit was that $30.00 could buy a set that now costs $70.00 (the respective costs of those two Sith Infiltrators I mentioned earlier). 

Licensing has created a paradigm shift.  When creating all their worlds from scratch Lego has infinite possibilities, new sets and themes are only a good idea away.  But with licensing the designers are bound by the world already created for them, the only way to keep up a successful theme (like Star Wars) for more than the few years it takes to cycle through all the well known vehicles and locations available is to release multiple versions of the same thing.  How do you keep up interest?  Well the market (us) has spoken and we have told them, it is the same word I mentioned earlier: realism.  Each successive offering must be more realistic than the last.  First it was the ships and buildings, then the minifigures and now it is both.  Lego has listened to us and given us exactly what we said we wanted, realism.  The price we pay is first the licensing fees and secondly the cost to make all the molds for those realistic pieces, from Luke Skywalker's custom hair to a modular roof.  At first it was just the licensed themes but the same philosophy has now bled out into every corner of the product line.  Before a set's primary draw was its size and complexity.  Now its realism and minifigures are meant to entice the buyers.  It has been out with the big and crude and in with the small and exquisitely detailed.  Old sets had lots of big pieces, new sets have lots of little ones.  Old sets had massive baseplates to make them bigger and taller, new ones are built on a ring of 2x8 plates.  Old sets required say a repertoire of 5000 pieces and 1000 molding machines to make all of them, now it takes 10,000 pieces (and the money it took to make all their molds) and 3000 molding machines (which have to be purchased and maintained).  Old minifigures were a crudely painted guy with at best a beard, new minifigures have custom faces, torsos painted on the front and back, exclusive headgear, accessories and more.  I am sure you are getting the picture.    

Is this a good shift?  Well the market seems to indicate yes.  Lego is doing well corporately and there is a huge demand for the exclusive minifigures and other pieces that are coming in the new sets.  This was driven home for me in a recent Bricklink purchase in which I acquired 7189 Mill Village Raid for $30.00, over 50% off, just because I was willing to buy it without the figures and animals it came with.  That means that someone who purchased it at the full $70.00 was able to make enough on 6 figures and several animals to make it worth his while to offload 95% of the set's contents for less than half of what he paid.   That tells me that, like the new prices or not, we asked for this paradigm shift.

Are Legos more expensive now than they were even 5 years ago?  Without a doubt yes but there is a reason for it, and I do not think that reason is corporate greed.  I think that we asked Lego to make their products a certain way and that is exactly what they have done.  We can't have our cake and eat it too unfortunately!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What Is Up With Lego's Pricing? - Part 1

I have heard this question or some version of it a lot lately.  From the mother buying the birthday present in the store, to the kid whose allowance is not enough to get the set they want to the collector bemoaning how their monthly "Lego budget" (yes some of us as adults have line items in our budgets for Legos) just doesn't go as far as it used to; everyone is lamenting this change.

Recent events have given me a unique perspective on this question.  Lately I have been working on rebuilding all my Lego sets in preparation for my children to start playing with them in a few years.  They are too young now but with as many sets as I have to resurrect after having been disassembled for well over 15 years I figured I better start early.  I'll write more on that process in a later entry.  In the course of doing that I have seen, in quick succession, sets from a variety of times and places in Lego's history over the past 30 years.  And for me, what I have seen has answered the question of what is up with Lego's pricing. 

Look at the following two pictures.  The first is of the 2004 version of the Millennium Falcon and the second is this most recent version released just this month (July 2011).

Ok so what do we see in these pictures?  In short that nothing much is different between these two sets.  They are constructed in very similar manners, share many identical pieces and have almost exactly the same interiors (you can't see that in these pictures but it is true).  The latter does have approximately 250 more pieces but they are all very small; for all practical purposes these are exactly the same model with only a few minor cosmetic differences.  There is however, one major difference: cost.  The 2006 version cost $100.00 which felt very reasonable for the model that you got, this latest version?  $140.00. 

Another great example is the last two castles, 2007's King's Castle Siege and 2010's King's Castle.  These two sets cost exactly the same price ($100.00) and have almost identical piece counts but it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to see that the 2010 fortress is far smaller than its predecessor from a mere 3 years ago. 

Many look at discrepancies like these (I could go on for pages listing examples from every theme) and decry Lego for gouging.  "Those evil corporate profit mongers and their bottom lines are the cause of this!" cries the indignant collector as he painfully forks over a wad of cash for a single set that would have bought him two just a few years ago.  Is this what has happened?  Has a company that has long been marked by its fairness and goodness in the marketplace finally fallen to the monster of corporate  greed and profit at all costs?  I thought so but then I started rebuilding and, almost against my will, my opinion changed.  Lego sets are more expensive but it isn't corporate profits that are driving it.  What is driving it is a monumental paradigm shift which I shall describe in my next entry. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

My Top 5 Most Dissappointing Sets...

Thinking the other day about my 5 most favorite sets led me to also think about the flipside: the sets which have been the most disappointing.  By no means does a disappointment mean the set is not enjoyed but the following are sets that, for one reason or another, did not quite live up to the expectations I had going into the acquisition.  

6991 Monorail Transport Base – 1994

The set that is absolutely at the top of this list for me is the Monorail and I will say upfront that it is not entirely the set itself which is at fault.  Today Lego sets over $100 are common and there are multiple sets that stretch toward the $250 mark and beyond.  But back in the early 90s this was very rare.  A $100 set was super expensive and anything more than that was unheard of.  So this set’s price tag of well north of $150 made it absolutely out of reach and therefore the unattainable dream of most of us young collectors who were kids at the time.  The impossibility of ever owning this set gave it a mystique.  So when my little brother won a Lego contest and was awarded with $1000 gift certificate to Lego shop at home and impossibility became reality the monorail did not live up to the hype.  Its primary shortfall is the amount of track.  In order for this to really be a fun set it needs about 6x the track it comes with.  Unlike Lego trains, however, additional track is very hard to come by.  Since Lego spent all their production money on the track pieces there is almost no detail within the two base buildings so the set feels incomplete as well.  Still had many happy hours with this set but it definitely fell short of expectations, unrealistically high as they may have been.

6280 Armada Flagship – 1996

I can describe the downfall of this set in 3 words: too many colors. Having read several books on maritime history and ships I recognize that there is some historical accuracy in a ship being painted in this multi-colored pallet, but on a Lego set it just looks gaudy.  This was the first ship in my fleet and as such its paltry size, lack of an enclosed rear cabin and single cannon added insult to injury on top of its ugliness.  I have tried very hard to like it since then and have attempted multiple times to modify it into something that is pleasing to the eye but have failed on every try.  My wife, with her artist’s eye, was able to come closer than I ever have but even her best efforts failed to make it a truly appealing ship. 

6977 Arachnoid Star Base – 1998

This set was saved from being an abysmal disappointment due to the fact that I picked it up, still sealed in its original box, on eBay for a mere $12.  Had I paid full price for it or even anything more than about $35 I would have felt completely ripped off.  This set includes almost every special element that was produced in 1999 and as such the excessive production costs had to be offset by a price tag which is just too high for what you get.  Sometimes unique elements make a set so awesome that the high price can be swallowed but not in this case.  Too small, too many colors, ugly construction, too few figures and tiny wheels add up to a set that is just lame and ugly.    

7259 ARC-170 Fighter – 2005

In the movies this ship is a foreshadowing of the iconic X-Wing Fighter.  As every Lego version of the X-Wing has been excellent I built this set for the first time with anticipation of holding a similarly outstanding model when I was done.  This turned out, however, to not be the case.  Undermined by being too long and poorly connected to the body of the ship the wings of this ship literally droop.  Those albatross wings also make it a very cumbersome size.  Decent figures and parts but very hard to do anything with because of poor design. 

7189 Mill Village Raid – 2011

Much like the Arachnoid Star Base I would have felt very taken advantage of had I paid full price for this set.  As described in a previous entry I purchased this set brand new, minus the figures and animals, for %60 off MSRP.  Don’t get me wrong this is a great set, well constructed with great pieces.  I hope that Lego makes many more peasant themed sets.  The problem is that this set is wholly swallowed up by Legos new paradigm of sets being more expensive due to containing exclusive figures and pieces (in this set’s case the new animals) that are meant to be as much of the draw as the set itself.  As great as the set is I would feel ripped off had I paid the full $70, the figures and animals just are not worth that much to me.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Top 5 Sets...

The other day I was asked what my top five favorite sets in my collection were.  The following were my choices. 

6769 Fort Legoredo – 1996

When this set came out the internet was still in its infancy and I don’t think Lego even had a website yet.  Back then you found out about new sets and themes when the Lego catalogue came at the beginning of the year or in the little fold outs that used to come with sets.  I remember, vividly, the first time I saw a picture of this set in a copy of the Lego Club Magazine (called Mania Magazine back then).  My little heart just about stopped.  I wanted it bad.  The problem was so did every other 8-12 year old boy that year.  Come Christmas 1996 you could not find this set on any store shelf to save your life.  God bless my mother, she searched high and low to make my Christmas dream come true eventually driving over 100 miles to a Wal-Mart that agreed to hold it for her.  Her efforts were not in vain.  This set saw more use by me and my siblings than any other bar none.  To this day I do not think that any set in any theme has equaled its excellence.  It is huge, has incredible pieces, and above all endless playability.  It saw years of use and never got old.  As far as I am concerned Fort Legoredo is as close to a perfect set as Lego has ever gotten. 

6285 Black Seas Barracuda – 1989

Although Fort Legoredo is my favorite set that I own my favorite genre is the large Lego sailing ships.  Lego is a fantastic medium for scaling down vehicles and buildings into toys but I feel it is especially well suited for ships.   I now have 5 ships in my collection (and will make it 6 when the Black Pearl comes out later this year) but of those the Black Seas Barracuda edges out the rest to claim the top spot, mostly because of nostalgia.  Back in 1989 when this set was released I was only 5 years old and my parents could not justify spending the amount of money it cost, especially on someone as young as me.  I might after all lose interest in Legos the next year or something (I feel we have put that question to rest; over 25 years and counting…).  But oh how I wanted it!  When it was released as a Lego legend in 2001 my mom sent it to me as a birthday present and it proudly sat on a corner of my desk through 4 years of school.  Since that time it has been joined by both the Imperial Flagship and Queen Anne’s Revenge (which I modified to what I feel is near perfection, see this earlier post) but the Barracuda remains my favorite due to our long history together.  It did after all see me through 8 semesters of engineering studies!  

6195 Neptune Discovery Lab (Aquanaut Station) – 1995

This set is second only to Fort Legoredo in terms of hours played with.  It entered the collection at the height of my years of playing with Legos (as opposed to later years when I switched to modeling and collecting) and was the crown jewel of my Aquazone collection.  My most distinctive memory pertaining to this set was the disappointment I felt waking up Christmas morning and seeing no box under the tree that was large enough to contain it.  My spirits were restored though when a small package produced a treasure map leading me to its hiding place elsewhere in the house.  I loved the Aquazone theme and spent many happy hours defending this base from Aquashark attacks.  It is also the only underwater base that Lego has made any effort to enclose.  The large specialty door pieces on the front are balanced by two large windows on the back which you cannot see very easily in the picture.  With two baseplates, the working conveyor belt and the large crane this set is truly an undersea treasure (bad pun completely intended).     

5988 Pharaoh’s Forbidden Ruins/Temple of Anubis – 1998

The story of this set starts a lot like Fort Legoredo’s.  We were returning from a Christmas with out of town relatives and ended up stopping at a mall for dinner (food courts in malls were my dad’s solution to all of us wanting different things to eat when traveling, kudos for the good idea dad).  As it was the time of year when the new sets hit shelves I swung through a toy store, was confronted with this set and immediately knew I had to have it.  Acquiring it turned out to be easier and faster than I thought it would be because days later we were informed that my little brother was one of 10 worldwide winners in Lego’s Christmas contest that year and his prize was a $1000 gift certificate to Lego shop at home.  My parents allotted a portion of that prize to both me and my sister and this was the second set I got (after the monorail which I had wanted for years but ended up not liking all that much unfortunately).  It did not disappoint.  Many hours of happy Indiana Jones style play were had with this set at the sunset of my “playing with Lego” years.  Very glad this one made it into the collection.   

7094 King’s Castle Siege – 2007

The inclusion of this set is more for the idea that it represents as I have never actually played with it having only added it to the collection a year ago.  Growing up I faced a dual dilemma: Christmas coming around only once a year and my allowance being of such a miniscule amount so as to actually teach me about responsible budgeting.  As the tradition of Christmas was established several millennia before I was born and my parents maintained their crusade to teach me responsible spending throughout my childhood I was unable to alter my circumstances and therefore did not acquire all the Legos I wanted from year to year.  The Castle theme, more than any other, never quite made the cutoff and as a result almost all of the sets from that genre that I possessed up until a few years ago were inherited and that satisfied me for the most part.  However, there was one I regretted missing for years: Royal Knight’s Castle from 1995.  As the years went by Lego released many more castles and then for a time replaced the whole theme with Harry Potter but none of the offerings ever, in my mind, lived up to bar which had been set by that stately set.  Then came the King’s Castle Siege and for the first time I saw a fortress that was on par with that 1995 benchmark.  Not wanting to miss another opportunity (and potentially have to wait an additional 12 years!) I added this set to fill the hole which had for so long been empty for lack of a truly great castle.  I was not disappointed.     

A few of my other favorites in no particular order: 

10184 Town Plan – 2008

I was thrilled with this set because it brought an incredibly rich level of detail to my town.  To date this is the only cinema and town hall ever produced by Lego and the retro gas station is fantastic.  It adds a sense of completeness to my town layout that is very satisfying. 

All My Sailing Ships – Various Years
Currently the fleet stands at 5.  Sailing with the Barracuda is the Armada Flagship, Brickbeard’s Bounty, Imperial Flagship and Queen Anne’s Revenge.

6975 Alien Avenger – 1997

I loved this ship as kid.  Heavily armed, swooshable and just all around menacing in appearance this was my favorite capital ship.

6396 International Jetport – 1990

Hailing from the days when Lego airports included runway baseplates this set was the centerpiece of my Lego city as a kid. 

6766 Rapid River Village – 1997

The largest of the Indian sets which followed the initial wave of Wild West offerings.  My brother and I combined it with his copy of Boulder Cliff Canyon for the ultimate Indian village.  

6380 Emergency Treatment Center – 1987

Lego has produced only two hospital sets to date and I was fortunate enough to have one of them.  This was one of my first sets and saw a lot of use treating casualties from my numerous daring adventure stories.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Finally, Another Capital Ship!

7964 Republic Frigate
The Chronicler's Rating - 4/5
Price ~ $120.00
Year Released - 2011

I must confess that I had a good laugh when the first incarnation of this set (7665 Republic Cruiser from 2007) came out, "how many seconds of screen time does that have?  Maybe 10?  And isn't most of that it blowing up?".  But the joke turned out to be on me. 

The original 2007 version
That set was one of the first of what has become a whole pantheon of the, how shall I say it... more obscure Star Wars ships made into Lego form.  Since 2007 that original model has been locked in close competition with such sets as 8096 Palpatine's Shuttle, 8036 Separatist Shuttle, 6205 V-Wing Fighter, 10195 Republic Dropship With AT-OT Walker and many others for the apparently very prestigious title of "set-that-has-the-least-amount-of-screen-time-in-any-of-the-6-movies.  Competition for this title is incredibly fierce.  All joking aside Lego has seriously produced sets of ships that have so little screen time I have never been able to find them in any of the movies. 

Now my more observant readers will be quick to point out that this set, although a reincarnation of 7665, is actually a depiction of that craft as it appears in the Clone Wars TV Series (which I have never watched, I am not that big of a Star Wars fan).  And my observant readers would be right.  In comparison to its predecessor this set benefits from two major improvements: better parts and better colors.  Star Wars has spawned numerous new pieces and between 2006 and now a lot of parts have been created which this set takes advantage of to more realistically depict the graceful curves and shapes of the ship as seen on screen.  I am guessing the TV show also includes a different paint job as this ship is grey as opposed to its predecessor.

The main reason that your kid will probably want this set is the figures as Lego has continued their trend of placing exclusive minifigures in each of the new Star Wars sets (in this case Yoda and 2 other Jedi that I do not recognize).  I personally do not think that exclusive figures alone are reason to get a set (most kids will differ with me on that point, to each their own) but the good news is that in this case the set itself is excellent so it is a win all around although it is a little pricy due to those figures. 

An absolutely vital part of any space collection, Star Wars or otherwise, is the capital ship, or if you can manage it, several capital ships.  Yes swooping dogfights pitting your different fighters against one another is fun but sooner or later your stories are going to need to include those fighters in a desperate all out battle against a large, heavily armed and heavily shielded capital ship.  Before Star Wars every subtheme of Space (Ice Planet, Space Police II, Exploriens, UFO, etc.) had a large spaceship so capital ships were fairly easy to get. 

Ice Plant's Deep Freeze Defender
Space Police II's Galactic Mediator
Explorien's Explorien Starship
UFO's Alien Avenger
It is hard to depict the capital ships seen in Star Wars in Lego form due to their size.  The two glorious exceptions have been 6211 Imperial Star Destroyer from 2006, and 8039 Republic Attack Cruiser from 2009 which have both employed the "scale down technique".

2006's Imperial Star Destroyer

2009's Republic Attack Cruiser
 As you can see the chance to get a good Star Wars capital ship has been few and far between.  Although technically not a capital ship in the films or show this set can fill that role in your collection.  For the price this is a great opportunity to get a set that can do that!

While not the most prominent or well known ship in the Star Wars universe this set presents the potential buyer with a unique opportunity: to obtain a ship which can legitimately be used as a capital ship in their collection.  With an excellent assortment of pieces in good colors and some exclusive minifigures for those who are into that, this set is an excellent choice that I would highly recommend. 

Happy Building
The Lego Chronicler