Connecting the Dots

It’s that time of the year where there’s all those fancy toy trade shows, first in London, currently in Nuremberg and soon in Tokyo, and of course that’s ample opportunity for LEGO to give some new products a grand roll-out and drip-feed embargoed info to journalists and dealers on others.

LEGO Dots is in the first category and after lots guessing we now finally know what it is. Yes, comparisons to Clikits from fifteen years ago feel appropriate and that’s where I have a problem. Seeing that that other product didn’t last long and barely made an impression on anyone, I’m willing to bet that this will be history repeating itself and two years down the line it will more or less quietly disappear again. There are a few things that rub me the wrong way.

First, with this stuff LEGO more or less are competing with hundreds of similar products in what I like to call “trashy kids craft”. You know, things like Aquabeads, whatever is the latest variation on self-adhesive rhinestones or the long-forgotten loom silicone rings. There’s a new hot thing every half year and the shortness of the hype cycles is only outdone by songs on the radio. To me it just doesn’t feel like that this is a market they should even be in. It just isn’t very exclusive or high-profile, things which LEGO otherwise keeps touting.

Second, and perhaps an even bigger problem, is that the concept will likely wear out quickly. The number of patterns you can produce with a given number of pieces is ultimately finite. Well, technically it isn’t, but I don’t imagine the kids this is targeted at to go out of their way to go too crazy on this and change their bracelets, pen holders and so on every day, especially with something as finicky as those tiny 1×1 tiles. It gets tedious rather quickly.

Third, for me as a MOC builder having some of those elements in new colors is a nice thing and I’ll definitely buy a couple of sets for my parts stock, but how far can you take that? After a short while you’ll have so much of this stuff floating around, you just don’t know what to do with those buckets of pizza-corner tiles in colors you’ll never use. You may not even be able to sell them with profit because everyone will suffer the same issue. On the bright side of course this means that we likely won’t have to worry about supplies for the next decade.

As it stands, to me this seems a weird move, after all. I had a gut feeling right from the start that LEGO Dots might be a product of limited relevance to me, but somehow they managed to disappoint even my low expectations. I’ll take the pieces for what they are worth, yes, but overall my feeling remains that LEGO should better invest in other things than trying to come up with such ephemeral products just to cash in on an artificially created short-lived hype bubble…

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…

Risen or Fallen?

Since it’s kinda relevant to LEGO, even if only tangentially, I figured I’ll sneak in my review of the latest Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker here. I won’t obsess about the sets too much, as the involvement of the various vehicles is rather minor, after all, but more on that later.

Going into the movie I did not have a particularly predetermined opinion. Of course I already had read and watched some written and video reviews and knew how potentially unsatisfying it could be, but suffice it to say the movie is not nearly as bad as those negative reviews make it sound in my opinion. Sure, it’s not without issues and has a lot of lapses in logic even by Star Wars standards with all its canon-vs. non-canon mess created when Disney took over and declared a lot of the old lore no longer valid, but it’s still enjoyable and, which I guess is important, structured well enough so even a casual fan like me can follow the story.

There’s no denying that the film is overstuffed, which contributes a lot to the inconsistencies and jumps. Now it would be unfair to totally bash Rian Johnson for The Last Jedi, as it sure has a few good moments, but the fact of the matter remains that it didn’t do much to progress the overall story arc and was to busy turning everything on its head when it didn’t need to. Had it not squandered so much valuable time with pointless story points, it most definitely would have been easier to tie up everything in episode IX without it feeling rushed.

Personally I was a bit miffed by the many, many unnecessary small cameos and guest appearances, too. It seemed everybody & their mum wanted to get one last moment on screen for bragging rights or was brought in as fan service, yet very few of those moments carried much meaning, either. It didn’t help that they also introduced several new characters that had to get their due as well. Arguably some of them were planted as seeds for spin-off movies to explore their past or send them on their own adventures, but still… It felt unnecessary.

The overall story isn’t anywhere as dramatic as the trailers made everyone think and Disney once more have proven that they are the masters of deceptive trailers, with many of the shots used in the trailers not being what you may have thought or more or less being pretty unimportant in the film itself. That goes for instance for the Knights of Ren who ultimately act as just another hunting party chasing the heroes, the much touted Sith Troopers, who are barely actually seen in the film but just as well applies to the secret fleet. The final battle is not even close as impressive or innovative as e.g. some stuff in Rogue One.

Probably owing to the overall forced nature of the script, the acting is quite terrible at times. Much was made of Palpatine‘s return, but to be honest, his appearances feel like extracts from some cheap B-movie. It’s just so over the top, at least I could never take it seriously. Similarly, a lot of dialog felt like it had been ripped from a textbook on what not to do in writing school. Some of it was extremely cheesy and the less Poe Dameron we get, the better. I’m sure it’s not Oscar Isaac‘s fault, but this is as one-dimensional as it gets. At least the interactions between Kylo Ren and Rey were pretty good. I even liked the idea of them actually physically sharing the world when communicating through the force.

The comedic elements felt a bit out of place. I didn’t mind Babu Frik, but the “hairdryer on a wheel”, D-O, really didn’t have to fill the “yet another cutesy robot” niche. Him having of course important info on where to find Palpatine‘s secret hideout was a bit too convenient. Likewise, the whole plot with C3-PO built around the same premise of deciphering Sith glyphs didn’t make too much sense. It also seemed to me they didn’t quite know what to do with BB-8 as well this time.

Visually the movie is of course pretty impressive, but these days with even Open Source 3D programs like Blender offering an unprecedented level of realism one can take that pretty much for granted, even more so on a 200 million dollar budget.My favorites include the ocean simulation on the planet where the Death Star crashed, which made me almost seasick, as well as some other environmental stuff. The space battles left me pretty underwhelmed and just felt too static. You know, those Star Destroyers lined up like ducks in a shooting gallery was perhaps not that believable, after all.

On that note: Of the vehicles you can buy as LEGO sets only a handful get notable screen time those being Kylo Ren‘s TIE Fighter, Poe Dameron‘s X-Wing and of course the Millennium Falcon. Most others have “blink and you’ll miss it” moments, are disguised and/ or can only be partially seen for the majority of the time or like the new Sith TIE Fighter with the triangular panels only appear as background filler. That makes it at times nearly impossible to judge the validity of LEGO‘s representation of these items and you’ll likely have to wait for one of those tie-in art books to come out.

So what’s the verdict? As much as the movie is riddled with flaws and shortcomings I still enjoyed it. However, there can be no denying that it could have been so much better. My biggest gripe is that JJ Abrams seems to indeed have been focused too much on pleasing a certain type of fans and it shows how things have been bent into place. It’s just too obvious that many characters didn’t need to be there and it’s equally apparent how some of the new characters along with open-ended story threads for existing ones were planted for future movies.

After all, most of the actors are quite young and there’s nothing speaking against another Rey-centered trilogy ten years down the line, as much as Disney may proclaim they have no plans for it currently. Mark my words – they’ll do it because passing up such an opportunity to make more cash would be stupid. Who knows, by that time we probably all have dissected The Rise of Skywalker and watched it a million times and the speculation game will start all over again…

Not so hyper-active, but still…

As the year quickly nears its end, I figured I better start summing up my activities that so far have slipped under the radar and not been mentioned here for reasons such as obeying deadlines, working out details behind the scenes and not prematurely publishing stuff. All of that is now out of the way and I can share what little activities I have done.

Of course my output pales in comparison to others. I have no issues admitting that. Too many other things going on like making myself unpopular with posting way too much on blogs and forums (not just LEGO-related), dealing with my health issues and way too many other hobbies/ interests. However, occasionally I find myself particularly enticed and highly motivated to get my lazy ass up when there is stuff to win, not least because when there is sets to be had that under regular circumstances would be hard for me to buy due to limited finances. My Ornithoraptor entry for the respective LEGO Ideas contest didn’t go anywhere, but I don’t give up that quickly, so let’s see how I fared elsewhere.

2019 Contest Entry "Beyond the Brick Merchandise Graphic Design"

Early in the summer I participated in the Beyond the Brick merchandise design contest. Since they didn’t stipulate any specific rules of course this could be interpreted in a million ways and as someone who built plastic model planes in his youth and always admired the box art I thought I’d try to do something that might evoke a similar vibe with a “plane” zooming by a brick “mountain” peeking out of the clouds. I spent a few afternoons on this in Adobe Illustrator, but of course it’s merely a first draft. Looking at it now even I realize what’s wrong with it and definitely would approach it differently for a final design.

2019 Contest Entry "Star Wars"

Oddly enough somehow people seem to think that everybody has time during summer and so quickly after that design challenge the publishers of the LEGO Star Wars magazine, Blue Ocean, which of course you are familiar with when reading this blog regularly, launched a celebratory competition to honor their 50th issue. The only requirement was to build your favorite Star Wars scene with the grand prize being an UCS Millenium Falcon (75192). That sounds cool on paper, but the result was a major kick in the balls, to be honest.

To say that the contest was an utter debacle would be putting it mildly. After pre-selecting ten entries user were supposed to rate the ultimate winner on Facebook and that caused an uproar of outrage. The reason why is pretty straightforward: The people in charge seemed too busy to keep up the pretense that their magazine would only be read by kids of a certain age and so they picked a bunch of builds that matched that demographic. I have no problem with that, but this was an open contest and by all means the best model should have won, regardless of age. Worse still, many users commenting reported from their own kids, nices, grand children etc. that they had seen way better builds from them.

The end of the story? After all the negative backlash nobody ever since  heard again of the contest. I’m sure they were planning on drumming this up big in the magazine itself as well as other channels, but it really turned into a PR disaster that I’m sure everyone just wants to forget this embarrassment. I’m not even sure if any of the group of ten actually ever were picked as a winner and received their prize. I can only hope they learned their lesson and next time come up with clearer rules or multiple tiers/ categories to avoid such a mess.

2019 Contest Entry "(E)Island Holiday"

Finally, and to end this on a positive note, I did succeed in a contest and even made it to the number one spot with my “(E)Island Holiday”. That’s of course a bit of German/ English word play and would translate to “Ice- (Is-)land Holiday” in a very crude fashion. Again this was once more in the midst of the summer and there were no restrictions, so for me at least it was quite a challenge to even get it finished while struggling with the heat wave and sweating like an ox.

I didn’t particularly expect to win, but the idea of a toppled-over ice cone had been in my head for a while and this was the perfect opportunity to turn it into a model. Only after the first reactions began to praise it for it’s originality, I got a little nervous and began to hope for more. In the end it’s of course just another summer-y beach scene like so many other submissions, but I suppose that little twist makes all the difference. In any case, I’m glad it worked out…

 

Bricklink gets busted, or does it?

After that robbery in the Dresden Green Vault was all the news yesterday (I do live in beautiful Saxony, after all), today another kind of shockwave ripples through LEGO communities all over the world. Yepp, LEGO just officially acquired Bricklink. First reactions are mostly negative, as this could have far-reaching repercussions for the secondary/ second-hand LEGO sets and pieces market. Of course it’s hard to predict how this will pan out, but here are some thoughts on this.

First let’s begin with the positive side – Bricklink could become LEGO‘s new Bricks & Pieces outlet. Anyone who has ever tried to order separate pieces from the online shop will no doubt have mixed feelings about it. My personal experiences are just bad. I basically gave up on it because it never seems to work and is overall just not worth the trouble. The basic drill usually goes something like that:

You spend forever sifting through seemingly random lists of parts since of course, unlike LEGO seem to think, nobody knows the design numbers by heart to be able to use the search function. This gets even worse if you jump across parts from different sets. In such a case the software may just go belly up if you are trying to order unavailable parts, sends you back to the shop’s start page and resets the entire shopping cart, so it’s empty and you have to start over from scratch. Even if you are lucky and none of this happens you could still be thwarted when the hand-over from the separate sub-shop to the big parent shop where your payment is actually handled doesn’t work. See the problem?

So with all that in mind, a new shop would be a godsend even if Bricklink itself is more or less pretty crooked and atrocious not just from a web design standpoint. It could be cool if LEGO officially supplied dealers on there with bulk shipments of parts, leading to better overall availability and perhaps better prices. The pertinent question, though, is “Will they or won’t they?” and that’s where things get dicy.

Just like some large sellers could benefit from such a move, others that have been chugging along with small shops or specialized in specific items might fall between the cracks and just give up. They may not be able to have competitive pricing, they may have to take down not officially endorsed stuff like custom parts that collides with LEGO‘s overarching policies, they may simply run out of supplies when LEGO has too much control over everything and their sometimes a bit shady supply chains collapse. Which is getting me to a point.

The thing that really gives me a tummy ache is the level of control this move give’s LEGO on the whole. While so far it seems they have no concrete plans to change too much on Bricklink right away, they could always do so at a whim and at a moments notice. They could enforce whatever rules they see fit and by sheer power of numbers dictate prices, product availability and a few other things. Again, at this point it’s all speculation and maybe because I got burned by some big corporations in my life I’m all to wary and paranoid about such matters, but it is a point of concern…

“Weep for the future, Na’Toth!”

I’m always one to sneak in a quote from my favorite sci-fi series of all time, Babylon 5, but sadly the melancholic undertones and the literal meaning of that particular one ring all too true for LEGO‘s first half year line-up for 2020, it seems.

I shared a few thoughts on Hidden Side and Speed Champions already a few days ago and now that images of the sets for City, Creator 3in1, Friends, Ninjago, Star Wars and Technic have been released, I feel like I’m stuck in a “WTF?” loop. The blunt and short version would be that about 70% of the sets are garbage, 20% are kinda okay and there’s only about 10% of sets that I would consider reasonably good. As if that weren’t enough, the ratings aren’t even consistent with what you would likely think, knowing my preferences and tastes.

Personally I’m most disappointed by the Friends sets. Why? To me they feel like a definite step back. This year was quite good with the water rescue theme and an equally sea life inspired fun fair theme, including the occasional interesting crossover of both worlds. Most notably everything was a bit toned down to the point of being almost realistic in terms of colors used. There were sets like the Heartlake City Restaurant (41379) that took this so far they would almost qualify as Creator 3in1 or Expert Modular Buildings with only hints of the typical Friends-related colors giving them away.

Unfortunately it seems this will be no longer the case and it’s back to wacky color combinations, overall flamboyancy and gaudiness plus non-realistic construction of e.g. vehicles. Aside from a few new pieces and recolors there is little to find there that would attract me. I even almost broke into loud laughter at the ridiculousness of the new hair salon looking way too familiar for comfort. To say it would be a rip-off of the one from three years ago would be stretching the truth a bit too hard, but the similarities are to apparent to dismiss.

Ninjago this time around doesn’t do much for me. The new cyber space theme with all the neon transparent colors and overall sharp-edged, aggressive design looks a tad too much like Nexo Knights reloaded. That doesn’t mean I might not buy one or two of the smaller sets just to check them out and get a few extra parts, but I think I’ll mostly pass. The last two years I bought a few sets and I guess that will have to do for now until another Shuricopter or similar comes along to tingle my taste buds.

The same is no doubt going to happen to City – I will try to get the animals in some form, but overall it’s probably fair to say that I don’t care much for the umpteenth re-tread of the police and fire patrol topics. They may be unavoidable standards for every new generation of four-year-olds every year, but on the whole it’s getting a bit stale. I’m also flabbergasted by the insane pricing. I would have loved to have children in my life, but seeing this I’m almost glad I don’t have to put up with my little tykes pestering me over those expensive toys.

Star Wars in a weird and wonderful way this time around isn’t the worst of the lot. Okay, it’s still all very much “been there, done that” and “more of the same”, but I find it oddly palatable. The new Poe Dameron X-Wing in its orange/ white livery with the huge rounded intakes looks pretty imposing and attractive to my eyes. If you already have the current one and the black one before it than this will make a nice third one to add to your line-up.

The smaller, figure-centric sets look okay, too, and, which I find pretty important, are not priced outrageously like e.g. the notorious Snoke’s Throne Room (75216). My favorite set of them all, though, has to be the Microfighter one with the Bantha. Similar to this year’s one with the Dewback it ticks all the boxes with me and I can’t help it. I just have to have it. In fact chances are this is one of the few sets I might buy more than once. It’s just too cute!

In the Creator 3in1 series of course the new building stands out. It’s nice to see LEGO having revived this tradition and the new toy store looks tasteful enough. It just looks awfully small even compared to the pet shop from earlier this year, so I’m not sure if it’s actually worth 50 Euro. This may be a case for waiting for the right discount to come along. Other than that I have set my sights on the set with the Dark Red dragon, though in actuality somehow the alternate scorpion build is what fascinates me most. Beyond that what I said earlier applies – I may pick up some of the other packages if I feel like it, but have no immediate urgent plans.

finally let’s talk about the debacle that is Technic. Yupp, you heard me right. Once again I think they are totally ruining the series. Once you subtract the “big” models like the Liebherr excavator or the Land Rover, you are pretty much left with what can only qualify weak shadows of great sets like the Claas Xerion and similar from only three years ago. In this short time the series has really been run into the ground and now only exists down in the dumps. Even their lame attempt at being funny by creating a super mini version of the aforementioned Xerion somehow misfires. At least I didn’t get that satisfied grin when you hit the punch line in a joke…

Here’s the thing: If you are a complete newbie to the series you are going to love the smaller models. The beach buggy isn’t half bad and neither are the pull-back drag racer and racing truck. Even the stunt show combo thing will go down well with kids. I also like the idea of actually floating boat parts. Sure, they’re too large for your bathtub swim, but will be fun during the summer in the pool. However, after all those sets clearly aimed at the younger audiences there is this terrible, terrible gap of nothing.

Some would call it “Models that define what Technic is supposed to represent.”, but that is perhaps a bit too grandiose. Still, one can’t deny that something is missing and this feeling will not be alleviated by the yellow crane, which itself might leave some unsatisfied due to it’s somewhat simple construction. On the bright side at least it brings back the yellow no. 5/ 6 panels (among other parts) and I’m sure people will buy this set in masses just to repair/ rebuild/ rebrick older sets where this was used.

Still, none of that can cover up the fact that the set itself is not the most attractive. Given the circumstances, this sure wouldn’t lure me into LEGO these days. In fact most of these Technic sets represent what has deterred me from even picking up the hobby for ages – crude, unsophisticated and toy-ish looking models. I know I sound like an old grandpa harping on about the better days, but that’s just how I feel.

So where does all of that leave us? If I were to make it sound positive in a very sarcastic way I would say that I can save lots of money, at least in the price ranges that are attainable for me. That’s good because of course I’m always on a tight budget, but at the same time also just sad. You know, at the end of the day I sometimes don’t know what’s more frustrating about being into LEGO: Not having enough money to buy the sets you actually want or standing in the aisles and wondering what to buy because the available choices are bad. With this cycle I’m definitely going to experience the latter a lot once I have exhausted the “good” options…

 

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…