While this little blog will quite likely always be primarily focused on LEGO, there’s of course no harm in looking out at other shores. That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of articles looking at some alternate brick-based systems and how they compare to LEGO. This will be limited by how I get my hands on this stuff due to things like limited financials and availability of some products, so I won’t claim to spread ultimate wisdom here. regardless, I will try to do this as comprehensively and objectively as I can in the hopes it may be of use to some people at least. The first will be a multipart series on Mega Brands‘ Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx.
I like LEGO a lot and as is evident from the articles on this blog, as a male adult of a certain age I don’t even stay away from themes like Friends and Ninjago, weird as this may be to some. However, this doesn’t cover up the fact that after a while it gets a bit one-sided and stale no matter how many sets you buy. Eventually things become repetitive and you start to feel like you’ve seen the same a hundred times already. This feeling is further amplified by lack of differentiation across different series and many sets being quite similar, after all. For instance you could build a Friends vehicle one day and the next day one from the City series and you can’t help the impression that you’ve done the same steps before and only the coloration of the model is different.
Additionally I always feel like something is missing and to me that are some “serious” products for adults. By that I mean something that provides a grittier, darker take and at the same time a certain sense of heightened realism. Now in theory that latter thing could be Star Wars, but as it is, this particular series in itself is more than just a bit frustrating. For my taste those sets get infantilised and simplified way too much, often to a point where the original design is barely recognizable anymore. Everything is made to look harmless and playable, ultimately totally undermining the role the vehicles and set pieces play in the movies. I also find it infinitely hard to relate to things like Star Wars Rebels simply because it is a kids-oriented series with its own flaws and limitations. Throwing sets on the market based on this doesn’t do anything for me because I don’t know how they relate.
One could of course argue that the UCS sets should fill that void, but this doesn’t solve the issue, either. There are simply not enough of them, they are quite expensive and sometimes they are just remakes of previously existing sets, ultimately leading to that same dead-end of one day owning everything there is to own. I also feel that the limitations (specifically the non-existence of some specific elements for more advanced building techniques) in LEGO‘s parts repository don’t allow to provide the level of realism that I would expect from such a model.
You may ask: What about the other series? Personally I feel that those don’t cut it any longer, either. A good example for this is Technic. It’s almost tragic that a highly anticipated model like the Forest Harvester (42080) turned out as a flimsy, barely realistic toy. At the same time LEGO have made sets like the Bugatti Chiron (42083) so expensive, it puts them out of reach for many users. Not that this would particularly affect me – I never had much interest in it to begin with, but surely it’s a factor to consider. Similar observations can be made for Ninjago, City etc.. All too often I simply don’t find anything that would interest me thematically or that would be within my financial options.
All that has made me crave for some variation on the menu and Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx seems to fit that bill quite nicely, for a while at least. It’s not even that I would particularly consider myself a militarist (despite having had a keen interest in military aviation all my life), it’s really just that I wanted something fresh and explore something new (to me, anyway), be that different building techniques, differently looking models or for that matter just something cool-looking I can put on my limited shelf space.
Beyond my personal reasons what always bothers me is, that when it comes to LEGO‘s competitors, there is unfortunately rarely such a thing as an open discussion on the subject in certain communities. There’s a lot of false info being thrown around, the legal side of things being misinterpreted and ultimately often just plain badmouthing of LEGO‘s competitors. By crafting this series of articles I’m hoping to at least provide a somewhat broader view on the technical side of things and whether some of those alleged deficiencies and shortcomings even hold true.
A lot of the aforementioned issues come down to how present and prominent a brand is in a given market. You can’t form an educated opinion when you don’t even have the opportunity to obtain a specific product. Sadly, Mattel/ Mega are indeed not doing a great job here, especially beyond their home turf in the US and Canada.
Barring the occasional special promo run at some bigger store chains (with a limited selection of sets specifically ordered for these sales in limited numbers) there is no official, continuous distribution here in Germany for instance, so in order to even find sets you have to rely on small dealers on eBay or Amazon Marketplace that import these models on their own head. That being the case, you can spend hours searching for a model or to be more precise, any model.
Often it’s a case of “take it or leave it” since you don’t have any real choice. You may get lucky and find exactly the model you had set your sights on, but most of the time it will end up buying whatever comes up within your planned budget and roughly set parameters. You wanted a spaceship? Be thankful you got that tank that is missing from your collection, too!
So for what it’s worth: The buying experience is terrible due to Mega/ Mattel (seemingly?)not making any effort to proactively promote and distribute their products in these parts here. This short assessment doesn’t even cover exclusive/ limited/ special editions that only ever were available e.g. through the now deceased Toys’R’Us‘ US branch. You’d have to be a millionaire to even get your hands on some of those models when buying them from a collector.
There’s also a bit of a chicken vs. egg problem in that with such unreliable delivery chain and LEGO‘s predominance on certain markets purchase managers of big store chains/ online stores won’t be too inclined to sacrifice much (virtual) shelf space for presentation of Mega Construx/ Mega Bloks. As a result, those get even less attention from the wider public and you end up in this perfect causality loop where you can’t tell whether the sets sell badly because they’re not being advertised enough or if there’s no point in marketing them more aggressively because you don’t know how they will sell. Go, figure!
Unfortunately gauging this aspect is a bit of a paradox in itself, given the conditions. Due to the unstable influx of fresh product there is no statistically reliable way for me to measure exact market prices. Everything is skewed and biased by the demand (or lack thereof) in a very limited market. Basing this on the official suggested retail prices e.g. for the US market is not much help, either, as even there the actual street prices seem to fluctuate quite a bit. The way the situation presents itself is essentially as follows:
There are affordable or even cheap sets, some of which are simply unattractive and thus tend to be around for a long time because not many people buy them. On the other hand there appear to be sets that are so high in demand that prices explode to crazy proportions, making them unattainable to a lot of users. This includes the already mentioned rare and exclusive items, generally seems to apply to larger sets with high parts counts somehow (possibly due to limited numbers being produced of those) and just as well sets that are apparently very well-designed and realistic, providing a very exact rendition of e.g. a vehicle in a game and thus appealing to collectors of paraphernalia around those games just as much as to the brick modeller.
There’s a lot of grey areas as well where you sometimes don’t know what to make of the whole affair. Sets that you feel would be rare and expensive are readily available in relatively large numbers and then at the same time the set next to it may be the whole opposite – it should be cheap and quite common, yet for reasons one can hardly understand it costs twice as much. That is to say the pricing often seems illogical and widely uneven.
In fairness, though, when compared directly to LEGO prices, Mega fare quite well. Most sets come in at around 30 percent cheaper than comparable LEGO sets with their base price right out of the gate and interestingly enough, the bigger the sets get in terms of parts count and actual physical size of the resulting model, the more favorable this ratio becomes. A 2000 pieces model for slightly above a hundred Euros? That’s something I have never heard of in the LEGO world even if you give credit to the fact that e.g. the Modular Buildings come pretty close to that with their parts numbers and standard pricing around 150 Euros. In any case, it’s all circumstantial of course due to the limitations I explained.
Themes and Subjects
Inherently the themes dealt with by LEGO‘s competitors (amongst other things)must of course be different and provide the necessary variation and diversion from the regular menu or else there wouldn’t be much point to it, would it? Exactly!
I’ve already hinted on the militaria side of things. Yes it is exactly what it sounds like – tanks, aircraft, helicopters, cannons, armored vehicles. Mega provide those primarily as licensed tie-ins to video game series like Call of Duty, Halo and Destiny. The sets themselves are not necessarily consistent in what specific edition of a game they represent (nor the factions within the games’ stories), so you might get a fictional futuristic vehicle from Modern Warfare one day and then the other day a WW II set harkening back to an earlier entry of the Call of Duty series. Naturally, whenever there is a new edition of one of those games you will also get topical sets specifically aiming to recreate scenarios from those latest incarnations.
Since I don’t play any of these games I can’t tell you more than which vehicles and stuff I like, but far be it from me to judge how realistic they are. For me it comes down to a certain level of elegance most of the time, so I tend to prefer aerial vehicles/ spaceships, anyway, though there certainly wouldn’t be anything wrong with a nice Humvee, a tank or similar.
The games are further complemented by a bit of the Assasin’s Creed and World of Warcraft, though it seems those series weren’t very successful and thus rather limited in terms of the number of sets or the sizes of the sets themselves. On and off there are additional sporadic issues of smaller model series. From Alien to the Terminator movies there have been a few of them, but they are so limited, I haven’t really bothered to research their history that much and from what I can gather, it’s probably nothing that would interest me that much, anyway.
There is another kind of sets completely opposite those “dark” subjects and those include for instance some Star Trek, Pokémon or the Despicable Me/ Minions movies. While it wasn’t my original intention to ever get some of those sets, being that colorful & fluffy is what LEGO has in abundance already, I’ve come to appreciate some of those models since. They are different enough to still warrant a look and on a selective basis can truly add to your collection.
In all of this the recurring them is that most sets are based on licensed themes, which begs the question whether there are actually original, own creations. That’s a question that could again be answered with a firm “Maybe?!”. The fact of the matter is that there are series like American Girl, the basic brick sets or the collector-oriented ProBuilder, but they are very sparsely populated with not many new sets coming out. In the past ProBuilder also used to be very military-centric just as well, so there was a bit of redundancy and oversaturation on those subjects. Currently there only are a handful of announcements on the Mega Construx website, so clearly things are only moving very slowly.
Many people within the Mega communities perceive this as ongoing friction and hiccups of integration in the Mattel conglomerate and it’s uncertain if and when this will ever smooth out again. It seems when everything was just called Mega Bloks they had a good run but ever since the started separating the product lines (and presumably teams) into the kids-oriented Mega Bloks and the more advanced Mega Construx there have been more than just a few bumps in the road. One can only hope that this situation will improve soon.
An aspect one mustn’t underestimate is that the choice of subjects and availability is also driven by Mega‘s own flavor of minifigures. Unlike LEGO minifigures they are much more “toy soldiers” in the traditional sense and due to the differences warrant a deeper look in one of the follow-up articles to this one.
Introductory articles are of course always a bit ponderous and long-winded, so congratulations if you’ve made it to the end even if you just glossed over my writing. I promise the next article will be much more interesting as we are going to get to the meat of it all and will evaluate things like parts quality, specific building techniques, potential issues and caveats and a million other details, including tons of pictures to illustrate those points. So keep an eye out when the next part pops up here…