Looking back in…?

…Frustration? Anger? Bliss? All of them? End-of-Year summaries are a difficult thing and where LEGO is concerned, I sure have a bag of mixed feelings. So how was this year? Good? Bad? Terrible? Awesome? The answer is likely: “All of the above.”, so let me explain.

Personally I’m not that unhappy within the restrictions that I have to work within, anyway, meaning smaller, not too expensive sets. There indeed have been a number of good sets like my favorite Deep Sea Creatures (31088), a couple of excellent LEGO Friends sets that for once forewent the kitsch in favor of more palatable realism, a few surprising Star Wars models and even some of the The LEGO Movie 2 stuff was quite good. I also got a bit into Harry Potter and the new Hidden Side series also was surprisingly good.

On the other hand there has been a lot of frustratingly bad stuff in the same series I mentioned just as well. On top of that LEGO keep screwing around with Ideas by “improving” the sets in the opposite direction and over-optimizing them and this year has ruined Technic for me for good. Aside from the big and expensive showy models there is not much left there that would pique my interest. The smaller models are often just an embarrassment with their flimsy engineering. If that wasn’t enough, there’s that thing with a still barely functioning Control+/ PoweredUp system that gets stuffed into boxes with no rhyme or reason and makes models unnecessarily expensive for very limited return value.

On that note and on a more generic level I feel that the rift between relatively costly sets and the lower end is also growing. There’s definitely a dichotomy between pretty well-executed, large but expensive sets and many relatively lackluster packages in other price ranges. In addition it seems that LEGO are just trying too hard too see what they can get away with. There’s no way around it: Many sets feel unjustly overpriced and if it wasn’t for the magic powers of a free market regulating itself, i.e. discounts being available, this would be one heck of an expensive hobby/ special interest.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem LEGO haven’t learned that lesson yet and as the first previews for 2020 indicate, we’re in for another round of sets where you wonder how they even arrived at some of the rather ridiculous prices. That in itself could be considered a statement and what bugs me about the whole matter that they just don’t seem to care. In fact a lot of this customer squeezing has a somewhat desperate undertone and one can’t help but feel that things aren’t as rosy as the company will have you believe. Now it’s of course pure speculation, but there are some signs that things didn’t go their way this year.

First, of course The LEGO Movie 2 was an epic fail. In Hollywood movie terms it was a bomb and didn’t break even, which in turn of course affected sales of the sets associated with the film. A second wave was only rolled out reluctantly in August and just before Christmas all the remaining sets were shoved out in a sale with crazy discounts. That and just at the same time Warner Bros. not extending their deal and the development shifting over to Universal. Cynically one could say that a tainted property was dumped at a different outlet in the hopes of producing tons of cheap movies.

Another big bummer also right in time for the end of the year is of course the acquisition of Bricklink. This also fits the pattern of a company perhaps not doing so great trying to control the market. No matter what, it’s just bad for the AFOL community at large and repercussions are already felt only a few weeks after the announcements with major changes to sales policies affecting what can be found on there.

All things considered this may not have been an outright terrible year, but some of what has happened just feels unsavory and a few things have been set in motion that just don’t feel right. So far it also doesn’t seem that we will be off to a good start in 2020 and that is just as much reason for concern. There will still be plenty to buy and to cover on this very blog and I’m more than certain that just like this year we will get some more announcements every now and then, but overall excitement on my end is limited for the time being…

January Wood Chopping

My already somewhat low activity in recent weeks had been further impaired by having caught a pretty nasty cold and pulmonary infection, so I’m pretty late with this month’s updates on the latest magazines.

Funny enough Blue Ocean, who publish these mags in our region also contributed to the mess by delaying the LEGO City magazine by one week. They kept printing December 10th as the announcement date in every of their mags, yet it only arrived this Tuesday the 17th. One can only speculate what went wrong. A botched print run? Those little bags not delivered in time from the LEGO factory? Who knows! I’d sure be interested to find out one of these days.

LEGO Magazine, City, January 2020, Cover

The LEGO City issue focuses on wood chopping which at this point of course could be interpreted as a sign of things to come once people start slicing up their Christmas tree after the festive season. The parts coming with the magazine are very much standard fare and similar to what came with the mini version of the forest tractor last year with some minor variations on the theme in terms of colors used and the prints on the figure. The feet are in Sand Blue, BTW, they were just printed excessively blue-ish so the colors look very different.

The City magazine continues to deliver with a satisfying mix of activities for your kids and a well done comic, so not much to complain about. The posters are okay, though I still wish they would use panels from the comics instead of those CG-generated versions. There’s just a specific charme to classically drawn stuff and the color contrast is better.

LEGO Magazine, Hidden Side, December 2019, Cover

The Hidden Side mag came out earlier and I’m only mentioning it for completeness, but somehow I feel that it just isn’t gaining traction. I played that fun trick last month, so I’m not going to do it again already, but can you spot what might be wrong with the cover? Yepp, it’s yet again Jack front and center for a third time in a row. Calling it repetitive and boring would be stating the obvious. It’s not helped by the extra being Parker of all things. I haven’t even bough all sets yet, but already have amassed a graveyard of the ever same figures. This only goes to show how named characters can quickly back you in a corner…

Hidden Ghosts, Visible Disappointment

It’s that time of year where we’re hit with news about soon-to-be-released new LEGO sets basically every day and while I don’t consider my little blog a news site and try not to flood it with the nonsensical trivialities of LEGO‘s marketing, I feel I need to say a few words on yesterday’s reveal of the first wave of 2020 Hidden Side sets (images and info here for instance) simply because I like the series it so much. That is, until now. And there’s the rub.

If you care to look at the images via the link or your very own favorite news page (they all have them, of course), you might feel a sense of being let down like I did. Compared to the first wave, the second outing sure feels underwhelming. It’s unimaginative, to say the least, and all too obviously some models have been stripped down to the bare minimum again, making their subject barely recognizable. The latter category is most notably presented by the Newbury Subway Station (70430). It’s tunnel and quay are literally just two-brick deep facades. The Lighthouse of Darkness (70431) doesn’t fare much better with it looking like a scaffolding structure with some panels shimmied on.

Finally there’s the so-called Ghost Fair (70432), which to me feels like a rehash of the all too similar Unikitty set from two years ago or for that matter any of the roller-coaster-ish sets, be that the Creator 3in1 pirate-themed version or the one in the Friends boardwalk fun fair. Point in case: They may be relatively large in terms of area they occupy, but without a wealth of extra parts to build additional attractions and landscapes around them the literally look like someone just dumped some old rusty railway tracks in the middle of nowhere. It’s one of those things where I tend to think “Why even bother if you’re not willing to go the full mile?”.

The rest is just as unimpressive. Given that we already have a pick-up truck by ways of El Fuego’s Stunt Truck (70421) there was no reason to already revisit the topic with Jack’s Beach Buggy (70428). Conversely, even now as I’m writing this, there’s still the air show plane from the Friends series available as is the Creator 3in1 stunt plane. Aside from specifics like color scheme and figures there is literally no good excuse for El Fuego’s Stunt Airplane (70429) to even exist at this point.

The only halfway original set it turns out will be the Hidden Side Portal (70427). Not so much because it would be extraordinary in design or construction, but it appears to introduce a new spin on the theme and possibly a new play mechanic for the associated game. All that said, of course I’m still going to get at least some of the sets to scavenge them for parts. After all, there are several unique re-colors for some pieces that weren’t available before. Still, I’m not going to jump at it and will take my time until I get a good price so the economics add up.

That’s also going to be true for the new Speed Champion sets (images here) as well, I’m afraid. For unfathomable reasons LEGO decided that it would be a good idea to bring out more dual sets featuring two cars at the same time and along with the switch from 6 studs wide to 8 studs making the models larger and requiring a few more pieces plus a general price hike this turns what should be good fodder for spontaneous casual into a genuine investment. I dare say that this isn’t a smart move and as some have pointed out it indeed feels like they are trying to dump unattractive secondary models on customers that only want that other hot one. We have to see how that works out…

October Dèja-Vu?

As I keep on chewing through some of the Hidden Side sets, a new issue of the companion magazine has just arrived, so let’s have a look.

LEGO Magazine, Hidden Side, November 2019, Cover

See something in the images below? Yepp, the cover is almost identical, a few minor differences notwithstanding. This had me confused at first until I checked the included minifigure. As hinted at last time it represents a version of the pizza guy also included in the Shrimp Shack Attack (70422) set. That’s good in that in its regular form it perfectly fits into an ordinary City scenario just as well. At the same time it’s a bit boring because it is way to unspecific and mundane for the ghostly world of Newbury.

LEGO Magazine, Hidden Side, November 2019, Cover LEGO Magazine, Hidden Side, October 2019, Cover

The rest of the magazine is very much in line with what you know from the other LEGO comics. What rubs me the wrong way, though, is that you can clearly see that a lot of effort has gone into some of the graphics. According to hearsay some illustrators labored over this for the last five years to prepare enough content for at least that long a publishing cycle as well, it seems. Yet it barely seems to pay off due to the individual panels being cropped and overlaid on top of each other in rather odd ways, obscuring large parts of some images.

Overall it is my impression that the mag has quite a way to go before reaching a certain level of quality. It likely doesn’t really help that for the next issue they are including the umpteenth Parker. L. Jackson figure. I really wish there was something a bit more exclusive as incentive to actually buy the mag regularly…

Graveyard Double Shift – Graveyard Mystery (70420) and The Rise of Voldemort (75965)

With Halloween imminent, I figured it might be a good idea to focus on reviewing some spooky-themed sets by ways of being built around graveyards – or sections of them at least. This includes the Graveyard Mystery (70420) from Hidden Side and The Rise of Voldemort (75965) from the Harry Potter line of LEGO sets.

LEGO Hidden Side, Graveyard Mystery (70420), Box

As you know, I’m quite a fan of Hidden Side – the sets are done well enough and to boot also very affordable because LEGO are pushing them so aggressively and there are discounts at every corner. This makes it easy enough to add them to the menu even if you are on a budget. The Graveyard Mystery can be had for as little as 20 Euro, which to me seems just about the right price. The full 30 Euro feels a bit out of proportion for what amounts to a rather slim model, on the other hand, and I’m not sure if I had picked it up then.

LEGO Hidden Side, Graveyard Mystery (70420), Overview

The set comes with the standard Parker and Jack figures along with Spencer, the ghostly dog. On the other side of the spectrum there’s a skeleton and the groundskeeper/ gardener, the latter of which is essentially the only really interesting bit in that department as with his overalls and all he could also be interesting for other uses e.g. in a City play scene.

LEGO Hidden Side, Graveyard Mystery (70420), Overview, Everything Closed

Being designed with the Augmented Reality app intended to be used with these sets in mind, the graveyard/ cemetery is kind of a panoramic arrangement, so that most parts are visible all the time and the camera can capture the entire scene. The layout in and of itself however is more or less a towel strip walkway with a linear progression. You enter through the gate, pass by a bunch of graves and then arrive at the angry tree with the keeper’s little storage shed underneath.

LEGO Hidden Side, Graveyard Mystery (70420), Overview, Markers Exposed

Since I don’t have the app, I can’t enlighten you about the specific meanings of the colors in the game, but there sure are a lot once you open up the respective areas and expose the insides and undersides of some elements. In fact I believe even the big green slope on the central grave may have some bearing even with the lids still down. The problem is of course that without the fancies of a mobile device the play options are ultimately limited. You can barely hide a minifigure in the central grave and even placing someone inside the little shed is finnicky. Doing a hide & seek  and guessing in which grave someone is hiding would not pose much of a challenge.

LEGO Hidden Side, Graveyard Mystery (70420), Overview, Back Side

A stand-out piece is naturally the angry tree with its “face” and “arms” being clearly recognizable. From what I’ve seen of the game it doesn’t seem to do much, though, and is merely whipping around. That is presumably not really useful. the same could be said for the mechanism on the real model in a sense. While I can appreciate the facial expression changing and the arms going up it still feels gimmicky. This is once more a case where a static, more detailed and more refined tree would have been preferable over such a very limited action feature IMO.

LEGO Hidden Side, Graveyard Mystery (70420), Angry Tree, Front Side

On the bright side, the set is full of pieces in very usable “natural” colors ranging from the various browns and grays to Olive Green. Nice to see that LEGO still can do such sensible stuff without them going bonkers or some higher-up instructing a designer to include bricks in crazy colors only to clear out the left-overs from previous production runs of other sets. There are no particularly unique or rare parts in this set, however. Thus there would be little point in getting this set for anything but buildings or indeed landscaping and cemetery building.

LEGO Hidden Side, Graveyard Mystery (70420), Angry Tree, Back Side

A small shortcoming, if you want to call it that, is the unattractive back side. Even with the emphasis on the panoramic effect it wouldn’t have hurt to have a few details here or at least the floor plates extend beyond the graves’ rear edges. To me it really feels like they chopped it off a bit too harshly.

LEGO Hidden Side, Graveyard Mystery (70420), Gate

After my experiences with the Hidden Side side I kept having this weird idea running in my head that perhaps one day I might want to build a larger custom graveyard, perhaps with a small chapel and crypt, so naturally I stumbled upon The Rise of Voldemort from the Harry Potter movies.

LEGO Harry Potter, The Rise of Voldemort (75965), Box

The point is not so much that I would be a particular fan of the series – quite opposite, as now 15 years later I look at these films and wonder how I could ever have been so foolish to buy the DVDs – but regardless, they are not without merit in terms of production design and at least some of the less WTF?-ish story elements. I know, I seriously need to read the books one day for a fair comparison.

LEGO Harry Potter, The Rise of Voldemort (75965), Overview

Anyway, on of the key things that also made me consider this set is that when doing churches, graveyards and similar you have a need for some specific extras, that being large numbers of grey minifigure elements and decorative bits and bobs for the slabs/ grave stones. Lo and behold, this set comes with a fully formed angelic figure in Dark Bluish Grey, which of course is twisted into representing the Grim Reaper and there’s also a frog in that same color.

LEGO Harry Potter, The Rise of Voldemort (75965), Figures

What also made the decision to buy this set easier is the consistent color usage compared to the first set. This means that you can easily mix & match and expand the ground thanks to the Dark Tan being used in conjunction with the same contrast colors for other elements. Or in simple words: You can buy multiple sets of both models and need not worry that intermingling parts would result in odd color combinations.

LEGO Harry Potter, The Rise of Voldemort (75965), Grave Closed

The set represents that scene where Harry Potter gets accidentally transported to an alternate place during the Trimagic Tournament in The Goblet of Fire, to witness the resurrection of He who must not be named, so there are all the figures relevant present. Personally I don’t care that much for them and for my taste in the context of the set there are simply way too many minifigures. In a sense it feels overcrowded due to the smallness of the available play are vs. the number of figures. That’s in my view also the biggest shortcoming of this set.

LEGO Harry Potter, The Rise of Voldemort (75965), Grave Open

One of the side-effects of this lack of space is that it doesn’t really capture the mood of the scene. There is no sense of dread and feeling lost because everything is crammed together. This also isn’t helped by the simple construction with only a central part in the middle and the small side extensions clipped on with hinges. This inevitably limits the options for disguising some gaps and open areas, which painfully becomes obvious with the insides of the grave. It just looks extremely shallow and indeed a figure doesn’t even fit into it without the lid remaining ajar.

LEGO Harry Potter, The Rise of Voldemort (75965), Grave, Front Right View

LEGO Harry Potter, The Rise of Voldemort (75965), Grave, Back Right View

At the end of the day both sets have their flaws and issues, with the Hidden Side Graveyard Mystery at least offering a better value for money, however, due to being larger to begin with. I guess the ultimate test would really come once you actually start combining things, possibly based on multiple such sets, to build a more elaborate cemetery. The irony is of course once more that basically all the ingredients are already there, but LEGO trimmed away to many things in the interest of being “economical” to make either of the sets genuinely great. As a consolation, both sets are very affordable at least, so it would not be impossible to grab a bunch of them and make your dream project a reality, assuming you, too, have a thing for graveyards…

When I’m on my Downeaster Alexa – Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419)

Borrowing that famous line from Billy Joel‘s song, it’s time we have a look at what is indeed a fishing boat – of sorts – the Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419) from LEGO‘s new Hidden Side series.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Box

I have no specific relation or affiliation to fishing other than enjoying being near the sea and in particular remembering those small fishing boats during my rehab at the Baltic Sea a few years ago. I’m totally intolerant/ allergic to seafood even and could throw up at the mere thought of the smell, but as you well know, I like oceanic creatures and some of the things relating to it. That’s why this set pushed a few buttons with me in a good way and I just had to get it eventually.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Overview

I also liked that the set represents a fresh idea overall, not just specifically to Hidden Side, but also in the broader sense in the overall LEGO portfolio. There have been any number of “fishing boats” over the years, but most of them were bigger trawlers or yachts. Getting a small cutter therefore seems like a missing piece of the puzzle is finally filled.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Figures

The minifigures are pretty much your standard fare (within Hidden Side) with Jack Davids and Parker L. Jackson making an appearance again as well as Spencer, the ghostly dog. The emphasis therefore has to be on Captain Jonas and Jonas Jr. and what can I say? They are some of the most interesting figures I’ve seen included in a set in a while. It’s not so much that they are super-special, but they are nicely done and have a generic appeal for anything to do with ships or the goings-on in a harbor or ship yard.

The key to this is of course the Bright Light Orange color representing the oilskin/ vinyl clothing or as we call it here in Germany “Friesennerz” as an in-joke to this being a fisherman’s finest everyday Sunday gown. The figures also come with the typical hat with the large rolled up rim hat and the knit wool cap, respectively, so in my world this counts as capturing the essence of these brave seafarers to the point, if in a stereotypical way. My only regret is the lack of opacity on Jonas Jr.‘s printed flap, which kinda ruins the illusion of the bib overalls.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Captain Jonas possessed LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Captain Jonas regular

Captain Jonas can be built in both a possessed and a regular form. Once possessed he turns into some sort of pirate ghost with tentacles coming out of his back and a glowing green sword. It doesn’t really add much for me, given that you can’t really do much with the boat itself to transform it accordingly. more on that further down. I suppose it’s okay, though.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Crocodile

Interestingly, the set comes with an albino crocodile. For a high seas them that is a bit of an odd choice even if in the play fiction the boat is thrown ashore/ stranded on a reef. The alligator would have kinda made more sense in the Riverside Houseboat (31093) from earlier this year. Still, nice to have one, regardless, given that there haven’t been that many crocodiles/ gators using this mold in recent years no matter the color.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Boat, Left Front View

Rather than relying on dedicated ship hull parts, the boat is built from more generalized standard pieces. This makes it easier to re-use them in other projects. You can of course argue endlessly whether using a large airplane underside part for the ship’s bow is really that much different, but in my opinion for such a shell in Dark Blue it’s easier to find alternate uses than say for a Coral colored large hull piece like on the LEGO Friends Rescue Mission Boat (41381). Your mileage may vary, naturally.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Boat, Left Aft View

It’s particularly noteworthy that, while it is part of a series aimed at kids and teenagers, the color choices are very restrained and even conservative. No wacky Orange or Dark Pink, it’s all in subdued natural colors like Reddish Brown, Dark  Brown and so on, nicely complemented by some bits in White, Black and Sand Green. The latter is always good to have and maybe one day even that bonnet piece used for the roof might come in handy.

People have said that this model would be perfect to go with the Old Fishing Store (21310) in the LEGO Ideas series from a few years ago. I well remember how I wished this set actually had a boat and would have rejoiced at the inclusion of what we have here, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not that easy, though not impossible, either. The truth is that in terms of scale even this relatively small boat would still be too large next to the building. There are comparison photos on the web that confirm this, should you care to look yourself. You will have to put in some work to make it more suitable, most notably cutting down the height of the wheel house at the cost of no longer being able to fit a minifigure in there.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Boat, Right View

Overall, though, the boat holds up nicely and includes everything you would expect with the exception of a hoist. That would really be more only serious concern, as even those small boats usually have some sort of crane to assist with reeling in the fishing nets or help with offloading the cargo at the port. Also notice the blank white discs. They are of course meant to be live saver rings where I just didn’t use the stickers. Thinking about it, if you don’t use those, it would be probably better to just leave them off entirely and replace the bricks with sideways studs they are attached to with smooth ones.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Rocks regular

Since it is meant to be a wrecked/ stranded boat there inevitably has to be something it actually crashes on and to that end the set contains parts to build a bit of rock face with some greenery tacked on. Once again I’m pleased by the color choices with lot’s of Dark Brown, Dark Green and Olive elements in addition to the ones in grey tones.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Rocks possessed

Now for a bit of a disappointment: Eagle-eyed viewers (or even your myopic granny) will clearly notice some pink/ magenta tentacles emanating from the waters surrounding the rocky island, which I interpret as some sort of octopus tentacles ripping the boat in half. You guessed it – they are nowhere to be found or even hinted at in the actual set. Respect to the graphics artist’s imagination going wild, but in this particular case it really feels like cheating and embellishing the packaging a bit too much. True, nowhere does it actually show those tentacles even on the photos on the back side of the box, but I was still hoping. It would have been quite cool and added another level of gameplay possibilities outside of the AR app.

LEGO Hidden Side, Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419), Rocks with Boat

On the whole there is a lot to like and since it’s basically sold around 20 Euro everywhere (despite an MSRP of 30 Euro) there is little reason to hold back on a purchase. Even if you don’t particularly like the subject, you can make good use of some of the parts and get at least one or two nice minifigures out of it plus with a little bit of effort it could still become a nice model on the shelf next to that Old Fishing Store

Ghostly October Apparition

As I was writing just a few days ago, I quite like LEGO‘s new Hidden Side series (minus the interactive features, of course), so I was wondering whether it would at least get some special issues in magazine form. Lo and behold, it looks like it’s even going to get a regular bi-monthly publishing cycle for the next two years at least. So let’s see what the first issue has in store.

LEGO Magazine, Hidden Side, October 2019, Cover

First, let me be clear about one thing: While the main protagonists are supposed in their early teenage years, i.e. early puberty, I don’t think the magazines will do anything for this target demographic or appeal to them specifically. To me this whole concept seems like some people in their mid-forties decided to be zeitgeist-y and in a corporate meeting came up with something that they think younger people might consider hip. It always feels a bit embarrassing and ingratiating.

Why is this important? Well of course the magazine can’t stay away from giving everyone a short biography. I’d rather they would not and left it open to everyone’s imagination what specific age the figures are. It’s already bad enough that they all are explicitly named. You know, LEGO are always beating about the bush on fostering creativity like e.g. with this week’s launch of their Rebuild the World campaign, but at the end of they day they way too often try to lock people into specific play scenarios. Arguably, with this being also being tied into their digital games some of that is inevitable, but it still rubs me the wrong way.

With all that said, the magazine isn’t half bad. It comes with a version of the Jack Davids figure that also is included in pretty much almost every single one of the buyable sets. I couldn’t say that I needed the umpteenth iteration to stash away in my boxes, but if e.g. you only got the Newbury Juice Bar (40336) as a freebie while buying other stuff at the LEGO store, this is a good complementary figure to get you started. The rest of the magazine follows very much the same pattern familiar from the Star Wars and City versions.

The comic is drawn nicely, but not least of all due to that odd age thing doesn’t quite click with me. But perhaps I’m really getting too old and stay away from all this new-fangled social media stuff too much. The poster has the artworks of the commercial sets all munched together on one side and while this provides a clearer look at some of the pieces, I still wish they’d tackle this one at a time. It seems a bit of a waste to come up with the designs and then print them so barely recognizable over and over again.

Overall it’s okay for a first issue, though I hope they will amp it up quite a bit in future mags. The next one due in November is going to include the pizza shirt dude from the Shrimp Shack Attack (70422) set with an alternate “possessed” head and hair piece, so that’s at least a tiny step up already. In the long run I would like to see something a bit more exclusive, however.