Good things come to those that wait, they say, and indeed the LEGO Creator 3in1 Pirate Ship (31109) could be considered a nice reward for those who appreciate its qualities and can muster the patience.
A Clarification: Barracuda Bay vs. Pirate Ship
Full disclosure: I’m anything but an “old salt” and don’t particularly care for anything that has to do with pirates or that old-timey exploration of the oceans with sail ships. I enjoy some films, but that’s about it. Still, I simply like nice and interesting LEGO sets, so even I got jazzed when last year the Pirates of Barracuda Bay proposal was chosen as a winner on LEGO Ideas. I was really looking forward to the set – that is the way it was originally designed. Unfortunately all that hope was in vain.
LEGO completely screwed things up and instead of taking this as an opportunity to revive the theme with well-designed contemporary sets, all they could think of is pandering to people who wanted to relive their nostalgia for the 1990s when allegedly everything was better in the LEGO universe (which of course is utter nonsense). As a result we got what we got: Something that is almost a full remake of the 1989 Black Seas Barracuda (6285). Yes, it’s been modernized in some areas and yes, it has some extra stuff thrown in, but ultimately I was completely turned off by how it turned out from the ugly retro packaging and color scheme to the many, many large specific molds being used instead of building things up from separate smaller elements.
On the other hand only a few weeks after the announcement the regular sets for the first half of 2020 were announced and lo and behold, they had another sail ship in the Creator 3in1 series with a pirate-y twist and that appealed much more to my tastes. It only would take some time to actually get my hands on it.
The Price was right (at last)
I got my box thanks to Amazon‘s Prime Day after having had my eyes on it for a while. In my little world I have to be very cost-conscious and therefore always patiently bide my time until the price is right, but when it only cost around 55 Euro it became a no-brainer. Pardon the language, but that’s really ridiculously cheap for a set of this size and complexity and makes around 4 Cent per part at overall 1260 parts. In fairness however, even the original MSRP of 99 Euro isn’t that outrageous and makes for an 8 Cent average per piece, which in this day and age is a good value in the LEGO world, especially once you consider that while there are many small elements, there’s also quite a few large ones, making for a healthy mix that gives you the impression that the price of the set is fair and justified.
Now things would be fine and dandy, but lately I seem to have a bit of bad luck with Amazon using inadequate and poor packaging, so my box arrived quite mangled despite being packed inside another box, which was also damaged. This went as far as the seals being broken and one of the sides being torn open and I was almost ready to open a customer support case and request an immediate replacement. I was seriously frustrated, but decided to give this a try after all, as I knew that all the hoopla with the substitution not only was extra work on my end, but simply didn’t sit well with my environmental consciousness, even more so knowing that Amazon would most likely simply trash the damaged product and it would end up in a blast furnace instead of repackaging it and selling as B grade. Still, I was on the verge and in my world that means a lot.
The package is filled to the brim as you would expect from a set with this parts count. The bulk of the pieces thankfully indeed goes towards building the ship, with only a handful of extras being included, all of which have some thematic relation to the ship itself. Others may prefer it differently, but I quite like that I didn’t have to chew endless side builds like it’s common with many Friends and Star Wars sets or as it was even the case with the Camper Van (31108). It makes the whole experience a lot more satisfying and doesn’t give you that ugly feeling that a set may have intentionally padded out/ fluffed up with pointless extras just to justify an increase in price.
Minifigures and Extras
A pirate ship needs its crew and as you would expect, we get a bunch of them, but a very tiny bunch at that. Only a captain, an “officer” and one sailor plus a skeleton really isn’t that much and all things considered perhaps really not enough. This set could have easily done with five, seven or nine minifigures, as effectively you can’t even man the two cannons let alone actually have sailors climbing the masts and going about their daily business.
The figures themselves are done well enough and I’m sure many people who actually bought the Pirates of Barracuda Bay (21322) will buy this set just to get them in addition or take them off your hands for a good price, if you feel so inclined. The regular blue torsos aren’t necessarily my favorite color as it always kinda looks like worker stuff and historically it would probably be more correct if they were Dark Blue or Black. I’m also slightly bothered by the prints being a bit transparent and the colors not popping enough therefore. This becomes very apparent with the sailor’s tank top next to the officer’s stripe undershirt.
One point of criticism that has to be spelled out is the inclusion of only two cannons when even in its default configuration the model already has provision for four positions (two on either side) and a “real” version of such a ship would have even more. It’s not the end of the world, but once again makes you feel that some higher-up in the chain at LEGO was cutting corners when approving this.
On a small side note, the barrel in Reddish Brown is the first in my collection (I have several ones in Dark Brown and other colors), which surprised me somewhat, but when I sifted through the respective Bricklink page it dawned on me that LEGO actually hadn’t done this item in this color for almost eight years, so it was not much of a surprise, given that I only even got into the hobby much later and never had one of those older sets.
As you know from my blathering on about it and one of my MOCs I have an innate, yet strangely inexplicable love for creatures of the deep, even though the real experience would scare the heck out of me most likely. That’s why I just like the inclusion of yet another shark and I have to say this little build is excellent despite only consistent of a handful of pieces! It hits all the right beats with the creature being cute, yet having believable proportions and I even kept it around. It’s smiling at me from the shelf next to my computer as I’m writing this article.
The Ship at large
While for a LEGO set the ship is pretty large and with its style pretends it would be an imperial war ship, large exploration cruiser or some such thing, I think it’s actually more of a small barge or galley cruising near the coast lines only a few days at a time. Of course there are simply limitations how large you can build stuff with bricks to begin with plus the rise cost associated with adding more pieces, so naturally this is more of a compromise in the sense of capturing the overall feeling and spirit instead of portraying any exact original. That doesn’t exclude that some such ship existed, but I wouldn’t know about that.
Regardless of it’s “smallness” the model is quite a chunky affair if you’re not used to building such relatively large sets. It will of course be small fires to the more wealthy that buy and build those UCS level sets for 300 Euro and more regularly. You can guess in which camp I fall, both financially as well as how much space I have in my flat to actually keep such large models around. 😉 With this model (or any sail ship for that matter) in particular the height quickly becomes an issue with almost 40 cm. The length mustn’t be underestimated, either, as it’s also more than 45 cm.
As you can see, the sails are built from pieces and not made from vinyl foil or cloth, which if you look around on the Internet is one of the most divisive aspects of this model. It makes sense when you consider that some of those parts would be used for the alternate builds, but understandably it looks rather heavy and inelegant. As an side effect this also affects the masts, which tend to feel very “bendy” under the extra weight.
This is one of those situations where I understand that they wanted to keep the logic and integrity of the 3in1 series with everything actually being built from bricks, but similar to my regrets/ complaints about the lack of actual molded animals in the series, I feel that they could have thrown in real cloth pieces here, even if they were just optional. it would have elevated the model and I think most people wouldn’t have minded those extra three Euro it might have cost.
A similar point could be made about the “wire” elements, where especially the ones along the middle of the ship don’t look quite convincing. Perhaps including some threaded yarn would have been better. I’m at least glad, though, that they didn’t do a Friends on this one where those items always seem to come only in Lavender. On that note – one of the positive things about this set is that it actually gives you a wealth of elements in “sensible” colors such as Reddish Brown and Red.
While most of them are not new or exclusive, you will be hard-pressed to find some of them in such large quantities elsewhere like the large arc/ bow pieces, which are now complemented by their smaller brothers that actually are available in this color for the first time. Combined with a good number of Black pieces and even some more rare Pearl Gold ones like the 1 x 1 plates that could offer incentive enough to get the set just as a parts source.
The Captain’s Cabin
Pretty much the only significant build outside the ship’s hull itself is the captain’s cabin, also representing the aft deck. This is a clever little piece of engineering as quite some effort was made to capture the angled faces while still making sure that everything closes up properly. It uses different hinge types, tiles for a smooth surface and several small elements of stoppers. The genius here is that it feels all organic and not too obviously aimed at making the mechanics work. Still, of course I can’t deny that some of those things would be even easier and incidentally also more robust if LEGO actually got over themselves and introduced slopes with studs on the angled faces like e.g. Mega Construx uses them.
The interior does the trick if you hang on to that story of this being only for short journeys (but it still lacks a bunk bed at least then), but otherwise feels pretty barren. Granted, there isn’t too much space inside, but i feel that there still would have been room enough to add a few extras here and there, be that a small shelf with some bottles, more map tiles, perhaps even a small sextant, compass and telescope. It definitely doesn’t feel like the captain was ready to take to the seas on short notice and everything was left unprepared.
Not “Deck”-ed out
I already mentioned my grievances about the cannons, so here we are having a look at the actual mid-ship section. Externally it captures all the typical trappings such as the blinds on the gun ports, the layered structure of the hull’s planks as well as the various transition to the rear and front “houses” using slopes and a few decorative elements.
The insides on the other hand are just an empty hole, which looks even worse if you don’t install any of the cannons. This typically is the busiest part of the ship with ammunition depots, storage compartments and accommodations for the crew, but nothing of the sort is present, making this rather lame. My point here specifically is that they could have included some extra barrels and bottles, possibly some hammocks, but at the very least they could have included a central table with some stools and food elements so a feasting scene could be set up.
In my view this would also have added a bit of extra play value, more than the cannons even, perhaps. Not to stretch this out ad nauseam, but in light of this also the shortness of firing power becomes even more visible. There would have been plenty of room to have smaller guns on poles on the upper deck, some rifle stands or something like that that would be readily at hand for close-up fights.
This also extends to the front bow deck, where yet another small cannon could have been set up for self defense or a harpoon for occasional hunting of larger fish. the bow also gives away the game, as it looks a bit too stubby and rounded for an actual ship. Don’t get me wrong – it’s more than adequate, but it should have been possible to make this a bit more pointed using curved slopes and not arcs. I also wouldn’t have minded the figurehead being entirely gold.
Building is Fun (or is it)?
One thing you should prepare yourself for is that the building process can stretch out quite a bit and is not always fun. After starting out quickly with some large plates and inverted slopes on the first layer of the central section you soon move on to some finicky procedures involving lots of small elements or building individual small modules using cool, but somewhat tedious and confusing SNOT techniques.
For instance many of the underpinnings of the arc sections used on the front and aft contours do not consist of large bricks but rather staggered arrays of plates to make things look angled. This can get at times pretty long in the tooth and feel like you are not making any progress. The same is true for the many 1 x 1 elements used everywhere to add decorations. That is to say you need to take your time and if you tend to lose concentration quickly may want to build this in multiple sessions. Even I totally underestimated this factor and spent almost five hours on what i expected would be finished in three (I’m a slow builder, so that was already generous with safety margin).
Structurally you can’t do much wrong, as due to the modular nature and those segments being held together with pins and overlapping plates/ tiles interlocking with brackets and regular studs, the main hull is extremely stable. This also forces you to obey a certain build order, as you need to complete some of the models first before being able to move on. If you have someone to help you these steps can even and split up among different people, but only up to a certain point.
Spatial orientation is also facilitated by the internals using a color coding system with Yellow and Blue designating the front and aft connection points and Red and Green signalling that port vs. starboard thing almost like on real ships. Thankfully none of that peeks through when viewed from the outside, so the overall beauty of the model isn’t spoiled.
I very much enjoyed this set within the few criticisms I have laid out despite totally not being the naval type. To me it’s easily the best LEGO set of the year: It’s reasonably large and complex, but not excessively crazy like those expensive 3000 and more pieces sets, has some interesting building techniques, nice and useful parts and just looks good when finished. Getting there is not always the most pleasurable ride, but perfectly manageable even if you’re not super experienced. You just need to take a calm and meditative approach and not be in a rush.
In addition, though I haven’t actually built them yet, the B and C alternate models also seem nice and tie in with the pirate/ treasure hunt theme with a skull island and a port tavern, so you could find yourself buying three sets eventually and still getting something new and useful out of it. That doesn’t happen every day and with special sales happening left and right at this time of the year you have a real chance of making this work even if you have a limited budget. I definitely recommend trying to buy at least one set and giving it a whirl. In this crazy time it will make a nice distraction from the bad things happening around us.