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!