On the Year that Was

With 2016 drawing to a close and 2017 about to begin, I decided to take a look back at 2016 and spotlight the best (or most significant) blog post of each month.  Some months — July, quite notably — were more difficult that others; there were a few months, like March and August, where I only posted two or three times in the month.

There you have it, the year that was 2016.

An Angel Tree Package for the Office

As the company has done for a number of years, a Christmas tree was put up in the lobby and, a few days after Thanksgiving, Angel Tree stockings were hung.

I had decided long ago to participate in the Angel Tree program this year and, when I was passing by the lobby area on other business and saw they were up, I stopped and spent a few minutes deciding upon which one to pick.

I chose, similarly to last year, a boy, eight years-old.  I signed my name to a sign-up sheet on the front desk, and, with a spring in my step, back to work I went.

There wasn’t any guidance with the stockings as there were with the Angel Tree tags a few years ago.  Those tags indicated ideas for toys and clothing sizes.  I had to operate blindly, but I was fine with that.  You see, I already had a half-dozen items at home for my Angel Tree recipient.  I wouldn’t say I had a plan for the recipient, per se, but I knew this was something I wanted to do, and since I knew it was something I wanted to do I saw no reason not to start buying items.  And if there had been guidance, the recipient was still going to receive the things I had bought.

I didn’t have a budget.  Instead, I was going to buy strategically.  Like last year, I was going to do a box of stuff.  If I was out at a store and I saw something that intrigued me, I would buy it.  In October, then, I started buying items here and there, so by the time the stockings were hung on the tree I had a box of stuff ready to wrap.

That was my strategy, then, and when I was done the recipient would receive a wrapped box, he would unwrap it to find the box was filled with more wrapped boxes, and he would then unwrap another half-dozen interesting things.  An eight year-old, receiving an Angel Tree package from the Salvation Army, probably wouldn’t be looking at the brightest Christmas. Every little bit helps.

With the Angel Tree gifts due at the office on Monday morning, Wednesday night after work I sat down and started wrapping.  I gathered up the wrapping paper out of my coat closet — most of it Peanuts related — and found my Scotch tape.  plugged in my Christmas tree, and queued up Christmas-themed episodes of The Thistle & Shamrock to really get the festive spirit going.  Time to go to work. :)

This is a complete overview of the items I had on hand:

For those who wonder about these things, the part of my living room bookshelf you can see holds part of my Beatles library.  (There are more Beatles books in my bedroom.  And my dining room.  I have Beatles books everywhere.) From the left, there’s Philip Norman’s Shout!, then Mark Hertsgaard’s A Day in the Life, and next to it is Bob Spitz’s biography of the Beatles.  Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In is on that shelf, as is Ray Coleman’s Lennon.  The missing book (seven spots over from the left) is Ian McDonald’s Revolution in the Head Third Edition as that’s presently in my bedroom; I was rereading the entries on “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” recently due to the 15th-anniversary of George Harrison’s death.

Let’s take a look at the items individually, and I will muse upon them as I go.

First up, a Rey puzzle based on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Rey puzzle

I also had a Finn puzzle.  The Rey and Finn puzzles were actually the last two items I bought for the package.

Finn puzzle

One of the first items I bought was an Australian collection of Peanuts comic strips.  I found this at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, and it was all of two dollars.  “This is nice,” I thought, and I thought it would make a good Angel Tree gift.

Peanuts collection

Also found at Ollie’s, but not on the same trip, nor the same Ollie’s, was this Matchbox-esque car!  They had all of these baseball die-cast cars, and I couldn’t find any for any team I liked.  If I wanted the Phildelphia Phillies or the Texas Rangers or the Miami Marlins or the Houston Astros, they had plenty of those.  Cubs or Nationals?  Heaven forfend!  But they also had this 2012 World Series car.  “Why not?” I said.  “Kids love Matchbox cars.”  And yes, I’m well aware that this one is by Lionel, not Matchbox. :)

World Series Lionel car

Next up, a coloring book!  I picked this up on the same Ollie’s trip where I picked up the Peanuts collection.

Justice League coloring book

Coloring books require crayons!  This was one of the last items I bought.  I picked these up at the 5 Below across the street from Diamond’s offices.


While I was at 5 Below, I also picked up this Spider-Man action figure.  Kids love Spider-Man, and kids love action figures. :)

Spider-Man action figure

A DVD!  This is the Babar movie from a few years ago.  (Come to think of it, I’m surprised there hasn’t been a live-action Babar movie along the lines of the recent Paddington Bear.) When I was young, I loved Babar, so this was an easy choice.  I think it was three dollars at Big Lots.

Babar movie

Kids need stuff to build with, and I was intrigued by this Mega Bloks set.  This also came from Ollie’s, and it was the most expensive item in the box (at seven dollars).  I got this at the same time as the World Series Lionel die-cast car.

Mega Bloks Jeep

And we need a book!

Also from the Ollie’s trip where I get the Mega Bloks set, I found a book on baseball for young readers — Michelle Green’s A Strong Right Arm, a biography of Negro League pitcher Mamie Johnson, a woman who played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1950s.  I read it after I bought it — it’s not very long and it’s written for young readers — and I quite enjoyed it.  The book talks about growing up in the segregated South in the 1940s, discovering one’s talents, and pursuing one’s dreams.  Though I don’t know who is receiving the book, I saw important messages in the book for everyone.

A Strong Right Arm

And with that, my wrapping was done!

Oh, I still had the Sega All-Stars die-cast of Tails, but I had no idea how to wrap that due to the shape of the package and, as I would soon discover, I wouldn’t have had room for it in the box.

Pile of presents

Then I selected a Christmas card out of my collection and began to pen a letter from Santa Claus.

This is something I’ve done with the two Angel Tree packages I’ve done.  I was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas, and the first two I did were quite elaborate.  They weren’t illustrated like Tolkien’s — I’m a shite artist — but I spent time talking about what life was like for Santa Claus.

For this card I wrote about how the elves were loading the toys in the sleigh, how the gnomes were making the final pre-flight checks, and how Mrs. Claus was shoving Santa out the door.  Christmas, after all, is the one time of year he gets him out of the house. :)

The card written, I filled the Diamond shipping box, used a little bit of filler paper, taped it up, and wrapped.

Wrapped box

Again, for people who care about such things, the bookshelf to the right is my graphic novels bookshelf.  It’s largely alphabetical, and you can see my Hellboy and Invisibles collection at the top (there’s a Batman shelf above it), Lucifer and The Maxx on the next shelf, and my Sandman boxed set below that.  On the bookshelf to the left, there are Doctor Who books visible at the top (with a shelf of Sherlock Holmes books above that), Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books (in their Dark Horse editions) and Michael Moorcock’s Elric books (in their Del Rey trade paperback editions of a few years ago) on the shelf below that, and Fantagraphics’ Peanuts Every Sunday collections and my Harry Potter collection, with a selection of Panini’s Doctor Who collections in between.

I didn’t keep track of what I spent, but it was right around thirty dollars.

I killed one roll of wrapping paper.  I had bought a new roll just in case — Peanuts, unsurprisngly — then never used it.  The roll of Scotch tape was much diminished when I was finished.  And I limited myself to a single bottle of Highland Brewing‘s Oatmeal Porter as I wrapped.

Satisfied with my work, I sat on my couch and listened to Archie Fisher talk about Christmas in Glasgow on The Thistle & Shamrock.

Thursday morning I took the package into the office and dropped it off with Human Resources.  I had done my duty, I had brightened a stranger’s Christmas (or would, two weeks hence), and I could get on with the business of sending my publications to press.

Publishing.  It is merciless with its deadlines. :)

Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Castle Clash

On occasion, I’ve bought non-LEGO building sets.

Hasbro’s line, KRE-O, has produced some interesting — and very nice — Transformers and Star Trek sets that I’ve enjoyed building.  Character Options’ Doctor Who sets were very nice and felt very LEGO-like.  MegaBloks has made World of WarCraft and Halo sets that, while conceptually nice, weren’t fun to build.  And the less said about the Best Lock Stargate SG-1 sets, the better.

Recently, I picked up a set at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, the True Legends Castle Clash.


I’d never heard of True Legends before.  It’s an in-house line for Toys R Us — Toys R Us can be abbreviated as “TRU,” which gives you True, hence “True Legends” — made by the K-NEX.

K-NEX made Beatles LEGO-esque mini-figures, which I bought at Target a few years ago, as well as a LEGO-esque set based on Yellow Submarine.  I have the Yellow Submarine set, but have not yet built it.

I saw the castle set at Ollie’s back when I was shopping for the Angel Tree package and was intrigued by it, but I didn’t pick it up then.  I went back a few weeks ago, to look around, and picked up a couple of books — a biography of Woodrow Wilson, Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, a book on a 30-day/30-city baseball road trip — and saw they still had the set in stock.  Since I like castles, and it wasn’t that expensive, just thirty dollars, I decided to give it a shot.

I’ve never built a K-NEX set before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Inside the box, it looks like LEGO — bags of bricks, instruction booklet, sticker sheet.  In short, it’s what you’d expect.


The instruction booklet looks like a LEGO instruction booklet.


The bricks look like LEGO, with some slight variation, namely holes through the bricks between the studs.


Up-close, the bricks look especially LEGO-like, right down to some sort of writing (which I couldn’t make out) atop the studs.


How did the bricks feel?  They felt very solid.  The bricks had a heft to them.  They were smooth like LEGO.  They snapped together like LEGO.  Building with these never felt wrong in the way that buidling with MegaBloks or Best Lock did.  I’d rank them on par with LEGO, just above Character Options and KRE-O.

I set to work.  After about ten steps, I had a castle that looked like this.


I’ve built LEGO castles in my time, and building Castle Clash was different.  The LEGO castles I’ve built have had specialized wall pieces.  This set built the walls layer by layer.  The gray bricks, usually 2×4, but sometimes 2×2, had slightly rounded corners, so I stacked them the castle’s walls had the look of a castle built from hewn stone.  Also, because the bricks used were 2x2s or 2x4s, the walls had an impressive stability to them.

The castle gate proved to be a little problematic; it had a tendency to come apart while the base of the walls were still under construction.  Once the arch was completed, however, the gate ceased to be a problem; suddenly, the gate had the stability it needed to hold together.


As I continued to build, I was impressed with how… substantial this set felt.  The base itself had a large footprint, then there were two internal staircases, and then I started to build the two towers over the castle gate.

You reach a point where you can say to yourself, “You know, that’s a pretty impressive castle.”


And then, you keep going.  There’s another level to build. :)


Eventually, I would tear the castle back down to this point and rebuild it in a different direction, but that’s to come later.


There’s another level to the tower to build, and before too long, I was done.


From the rear, this is what the finished castle looks like.


Done, right?


As I did with the KRE-O Enterprise, I felt the need to tinker.

I felt that what the castle needed was a crosswalk bridging the two towers overlooking the gate.  I had extra gray bricks — the set also has instructions for a blacksmith’s furnace, and I hadn’t built that — and it seemed to me that between those bricks and the bricks I’d gain from tearing down the towers’ inner walls, I’d have what I needed to build the walkway and fortified wall between them.

Here, then, was my first attempt.


There was nothing wrong with it.  It looked great.  I didn’t feel it was right, though.  For one thing, it was too high.

Remember how I said I was going to tear the model down and rebuild?  That’s what I did.  The reason for stripping the model down as far as I did?  I needed the 2x8s at that particular level.  Basically, I wanted the crosswalk at the same level as the upper layer of the towers, and I was going to need the 2x8s for things like supports and, naturally, the crosswalk wall itself.

I’m not sure how I ended up doing what I did, but it made sense to me.  There were pillars and crenelation and the idea of the walls was restored; now there was a walkway between them.  What I came up with felt right.


From behind, the upper towers and the walkway between them looks like this.


The result is something that I’m really satisfied with.  It looks like something out of a Brothers Hildebrandt Lord of the Rings calendar.  I was pleased with the standard Castle Clash build, and I’m really happy with the modification I made, though I no longer have the pieces necessary to build the furnace as they went into supports and walls and such.

For right now, the set is sitting on my dining room table, along with the pieces for the set’s siege ladders, which I’ve not yet built, either.  (I may put those pieces in a baggie for some later date.  I don’t see the necessity for the siege ladders.)

While the castle itself is impressive and substantial, the set’s mini-figures are borderline terrible.  It’s difficult to put anything in their hands, and they look creepy.  (While the patent on LEGO bricks has expired, the patent on LEGO’s mini-figures has not expired, so makers of off-brand LEGO keep having to reinvent the wheel, some more successfully than others.) I may ignore the K-NEX mini-figures altogether and simply dig out some LEGO Castle mini-figures.

Overall, I’m very happy with this set.  It has over 1,300 pieces, construction wasn’t difficult, and the finished product (even without the modification I made) is a solid piece of work.  If you need an inexpensive LEGO-like castle option, K-NEX’s True Legends Castle Clash is worth taking a look at.

The Itch to Build

In my closet there’s an ammunition crate, painted red.

It’s where I keep my LEGO bricks.

There are LEGO bricks in that crate that are older than some of my coworkers.  No, I’m not kidding.  There are some LEGO boat pieces (that float on water) that I know date from the late 1970s, and I have coworkers who were born in the 1980s.  I can’t be 100% certain, In my KRE-O/LEGO Enterprise, which sits on my bookshelf at the office, but I’m sure there are a few pieces older than my coworkers.  (Note: The images at that link don’t work.  I need to fix them.)

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of LEGO in that crate.

I really should do something with them.  I should build with them; I haven’t really dug into the box in a year.  I still have a couple of LEGO Lord of the Rings sets to build, to say nothing of a few KRE-O Star Trek sets and the K’Nex Beatles Yellow Submarine set.

Once upon a time, I’d have said, “It’s not LEGO, so it must be crap.”  Then I started working with non-LEGO bricks, and I discovered there’s some quality out there like KRE-O and Character Building.  (There’s also crap, like Best Lock’s Stargate SG-1 sets.) I liked Hasbro’s KRE-O Transformers sets; in some respects, they “feel” more authentic in my hands than the LEGO Alien Conquest sets did.  (On the other hand, Hasbro’s older Transformers Built-to-Rule sets were crap.)

This Saturday is “Bricks and Baseball Night” with the Harrisburg Senators: “The Senators will be wearing special Lego themed jerseys presented by PSECU.”  Of course I’m going to be there.  I love that jersey.  All the primary colors.  The right typeface for the team name.

I need to get back to building.  The reason I don’t is a lack of space.  I’d want to build something and put it on display, but I don’t have the space to do that in my apartment.

LEGO building is an expensive and space-consuming hobby. :)

Topic taken from The Daily Post‘s “Toy Story” prompt.

Building the KRE-O Enterprise

Last summer, to tie in with Star Trek Into Darkness, Hasbro released several Star Trek-themed KRE-O sets.  KRE-O is Hasbro’s LEGO-compatible building set series, and they’ve released Transformers, Battleship, and zombie-themed sets in addition to Star Trek.

I’ve built some of the Transformers sets, and I’ve liked them.  The bricks may be a little slicker (in a tactile sense) than LEGO’s bricks, but they snap together and apart cleanly and, when finished, it looks like something built with LEGO.  (Much better than Hasbro’s earlier “Built to Rule” Transformers sets which, frankly, were god-awful.)

I’ve had all four miniature ship sets, but I’d only built the USS Kelvin.  This morning, while eating breakfast and drinking coffee, I built the Enterprise.

Here’s how it looked.


It went together quickly, and the result looks okay.  But just okay.  Because, unfortunately, it doesn’t look a lot like the Enterprise.

Let’s take a look from another angle.


There’s no neck.  There’s a weird catamaran thing going on with the engineering hull that looks like it belongs on Captain Picard’s Enterprise.  And the nacelles are mounted at the front to the pylons.

Fortunately, I have a box filled with old LEGO pieces, and I was certain that I could make the KRE-O Enterprise look more like it should.

And here’s what I came up with.


I found four flat 1×2 white pieces.  Two were affixed to the nacelles in the place where the pylons would mount.  Then, I attached the nacelles to the pylons one stud back of the front.  The other two flat 1×2 white pieces went under the catamaran-like structure to make the engineering hull look a little more substatial.

And as you can see from that angle, I rebuilt the Enterprise‘s neck.

Here’s a better angle.


Except for the two 30% slope gray pieces, the neck is now 100% LEGO.

I found two flat 2×2 white pieces, and I mounted them atop a flat 2×3 white piece.  Then I found a sloping gray piece of unknown provenance, and that became the rear of the neck.  I removed the KRE-O 2×4 flat white piece that was the neck and rebuilt the neck as you see here.

I put it all together, and it looked better than what it was.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the saucer was too small.  And, really, the nacelles should have caps.

Back to the LEGO box!

First, the nacelles.

I removed the 1×2 white flat pieces I had added to the nacelles and replaced them with 1x3s.  Then, I added flat yellow 1x1s and capped them with the 1×1 translucent blues that came in the set.

Second, the engineering hull.

I wanted to move the nacelle pylons back.  There’s now a 2×6 flat white and 3 additional 1×2 white flats.  One of the white 1x2s went behind the 1×2 translucent blue, then the nacelle pylons, and this was topped with the 2×6.  Then, to finish off the engineering hull, two 1×2 whites were stacked and affixed to the 2×6’s overhang.

Finally, the saucer.

It’s now wider by one stud, and it required a great deal of experimentation.  I found 2 1×6 white flats and 2 1×3 white flats.  Treating these as though they were 1x9s, they intersected at the 5th stud, then 1×4 whites were added above and below to make a stable structure 2 levels thick.

The four quadrants of the saucer where fitted around this central structure.  And, on the bottom, I made a 5×5 square using flat white 1x4s to brace the saucer and hold it together.

To attach dishes to top and bottom, 1x2s with a single stud in the middle were used for the one below. For the one above, a flat 2×3 was affixed roughly to the center of the saucer, a single 1×1 stud was attached to that in the exact center of the saucer, and the dish was attached to that.

Fourth, the neck had to be reworked.  It was made one layer higher, a translucent yellow brick was added as impuluse engines, and the top level of the saucer was made of two 1x2s with a single stud so that the saucer could attach to it.

This was the result.


If you ever wanted to know if you can mix and match LEGO and KRE-O, the answer is yes.  You can do so with impunity.  The Enterprise is now roughly 40% to 45% LEGO parts, partly from additions, partly from subtractions.  Other than age and grime (some of the LEGO bricks are very likely thirty to thirty-five years old — and they look it), you can’t really tell the difference.

In conclusion, with a little thought and some modification, the KRE-O Enterprise can look more like Matt Jeffries’ design than it does out of the package. :)

Building a Stargate Almost-But-Not-Quite-LEGO Set

Yesterday I went to Big Lots.  It wasn’t the reason I went out — I needed to go to Kohl’s to buy a new pair of shoes for work, as the pair of shoes I had was utterly blown out — and since Big Lots is in the same area as Kohl’s I made a stop.

The main thing I wanted from Big Lots was a loaf pan.  But they had also started to get in Christmas merchandise, and I wanted to see what they had.  They had a small selection of Christmas coffee, they had a large display of panettones, they had Christmas baking goods, they had Christmas plates and mugs.  They had Christmas gift sets, and they had wrapping paper and ornaments.  And they had toys.  Lots of toys.

And then I saw it.  Stargate SG-1 almost-LEGO from a company called Best-Lock.  “That’s interesting!” I said to myself.  I had no idea that anyone had licensed Stargate for building block toys; it’s a dead property these days, and I couldn’t imagine there would be much, if any, demand for Stargate merchandise.  Nonetheless, I was intrigued; I have friends who love Stargate and who love building things, and I thought perhaps it would make a fun Christmas present.  It wasn’t expensive, just fifteen dollars, so I went ahead and picked the set up.

Then I had an attack of sense.  Would I want to give something to a friend that was possibly junk?  I decided to build it myself.  If it turned out to be something worthwhile, I could buy another.  And if it turned out to be something awful, I could warn friends and loved ones against this product.

Inside the box, it looks exactly like LEGO.  The bricks are in little baggies, there are instruction sheets and stickers.  So far, so good.


Up close, the pieces look LEGO-like.  More LEGO-like than Hasbro’s KRE-O, not as LEGO-like as Character Building.  At a glance, without really touching them, Best-Lock’s bricks seemed close to Mega Bloks.


Then came the real test — building.  There were four instruction sheets — Horus statue, all-terrain vehicle, obelisk, fighter.  I chose one at random, so random that I was surprised to discover that I was building the Horus statue.  And here the similarity to LEGO ended.

These pieces did not fit together well at all.  Brick did not snap cleanly on brick.  Bricks stacked on top of one another did not make a straight build.  And because the bricks didn’t snap together cleanly, it could become very difficult to build onto something already built.  This would become a frequent problem.


This is the base and legs of the Horus statue.  It may not be obvious from this photo, but these legs were not lining up.


Eventually, I would have to rebuild the legs of the statue.  Why?  Because they broke apart when I tried to build the statue’s torso.


See the sand colored slanted piece at the top?  Trying to lock that into place caused the whole thing to break apart.


Horus is done.  Affixing the headdress pieces caused a number of things to break off.  And you probably can’t tell, but Horus has eye stickers.  The reason you can’t tell is the eye stickers are clear with black markings on them, and they go on a black piece.  Brilliant design there!

I gave up for the night after building the obelisk.  There’s nothing to speak of there; it’s a ten piece thing that snaps together tolerably well, though it’s not exactly straight.  Getting the stickers on was probably the toughest thing.

This is the sight my coffee and I faced in the morning.


The all-terrain vehicle looked staightforward, but it wasn’t.  The exhaust assembly was a pain to build; oddly, it looked simple on paper, but I had to remove it from the vehicle and assemble it, then reattach it.  There are some pieces with studs on the sides that would break off if I handled the partly constructed vehicle in any way.


Oh, and one of the pieces for the vehicle’s seats was missing.  I hoped that it would turn up, process of elimination style, as I built the fighter, but it never did.  Nor was that the only critical piece missing from the box.


The vehicle was tricky, even when finished, for the antennas kept falling through the clips that held them.  Nonetheless, it was done, and that left only the fighter left to build.

And that would get off to a poor start, because right in step one I was missing a critical piece.


Missing — one of the female wing-mount pieces. (I’m using “female” in the computer sense; it’s a piece that something snaps into.  The matching piece that would snap into it is the “male” piece.) Close to the camera you can see one female piece. On the opposite side there are two.  Just as I had with the piece for the ATV, I hoped by process of elimination that I would find the piece, that I had simply overlooked it.  I had not.


The fighter was generally a frustrating thing to build.  It was flat piece on top of flat piece, and they didn’t lock together smoothly.  I had to disassemble part of the of the model to get the canopy into place.  The “engine” behind the canopy was interesting to build, but it was also fragile.  Also, the instructions have you put the laser cannons on early, but they kept breaking off due to handling, and later I would move them slightly because where the instructions indicated to affix them led to them breaking off constantly.


I’m used to LEGO sets having extra pieces, but this was a bit absurd. There’s no sign of the missing ATV seat or the female wing mount piece.  There are, curiously, two extra male wing mount pieces.

Here it is, all done, though I would shortly rebuild the wing mounts on the fighter so that each side had only a single female-to-male joint.


My final thoughts?

Stay away.  Stay far, far away.

Let me say upfront that I’m impressed that there’s a company that was willing to license a dead property like Stargate SG-1 and keep it out in front of consumers.

However, no matter how much you love Stargate SG-1, in my opinion this set isn’t your time, your effort, your money, or your sanity.  If it’s what you want, nothing I say is going to keep you from buying it, but at least you’ll buy it knowing the set’s flaws.  If you’re given this as a present, smile kindly and know that your loved one’s heart was in the right place.  The instructions are clear, but the pieces they go with are frustrating to work with, and missing pieces, especially critical missing pieces, are a no-no.

Not recommended.

On the Cost of LEGO and New Worlds to Explore

A few days ago on All Things Considered, NPR’s Planet Money wanted to know, “Why are Legos (sic) so expensive?”

The segment compared LEGO to MegaBloks.  While Mega’s products are less expensive, their annual global sales are only about 10 percent of LEGO’s.  The segment pointed to several factors — better manufacturing techniques for LEGO, better licenses, overall brand perception.

I tend to agree with this analysis.  MegaBloks pieces feel different than LEGO blocks, LEGO’s licenses are more mainstream than Mega’s and hit more interests, LEGO is licensed out into other markets (apparel, video games) beyond the building blocks.  When you have a market that’s dominated by one major player, it’s difficult for new players to carve out their niche.  Also, I think that the off-brand manufacturers (and there are more than just Mega) have realistic views about their sales potential with their product mix.  Given all that, LEGO can (and will) charge what they want for their products because the market will bear it.

I admit, I’m not a big fan of MegaBloks — I find the pieces difficult to assemble, and the instructions are occasionally cryptic — but I really like some other off-brand construction blocks.  Hasbro’s KRE-O sets are fantastic (I have several of the Transformers sets, and I’m looking forward to their Star Trek sets).  And I think Character Options’ Doctor Who Character Building Sets are the most LEGO-like non-LEGO on the market.

One niche that an off-brand manufacturer could fill that isn’t being served would be with generic sets.  Okay, there are still LEGO City sets, so if you want police cars or airports you can find them.  And the LEGO Castle line continues.  But when I was growing up there were generic Space sets.  Now it seems that Star Wars has filled that niche from LEGO.  Sometimes, though, you really want spacesuits and lunar landers and lunar rovers and Martian explorers.

Steampunk/Victoriana would be another niche that someone could fill.  I could imagine a Sherlock Holmes theme.  (Heck, even though it’s more modern, I could imagine a Sherlock theme from Character Options.) A steampunk space theme would be awesome — Wellsian Martian walkers, Vernean space capsules, space ships out of Edison’s Conquest of Mars.

Competitors exploiting these niches wouldn’t make LEGO less expensive, but that would give LEGO and off-brand builders new worlds to explore and play in. :)

On Excitement for the LEGO Lord of the Rings Video Game

Though its existence has been known for weeks, today it became official with a press release and a trailer — later this year, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and TT Games will be releasing LEGO Lord of the Rings, a video game that transports J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story of good’s struggle against the forces of evil into a world of colorful plastic bricks.

Let’s look at the trailer:

Oh, that’s amazing.  Oh, that’s awesome.

I was curious, most of all, to see what the LEGO Balrog would look like.  And then to see it belch&#8253 Yes, the LEGO video game humor is one-hundred percent intact. :)

The sets for LEGO Lord of the Rings are out; I saw them at Toys R Us two weeks ago, but I’ve yet to pick any of them up.  It’s not for a lack of desire.  It’s really down to money.  That’s what everything comes down to, sadly. :-/

In any case, on a brighter note, let’s take a look at the press release that announces the game:

Explore Middle-earth in an epic and thrilling LEGO videogame adventure for the entire family! Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, TT Games and The LEGO Group today announced LEGO ® The Lord of the Rings™, the latest addition to the wildly successful LEGO videogame series that brings to life the legendary fantasy saga by J.R.R. Tolkien.  The game will be available for the Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, PlayStation®3 system, the Wii™ system, the Nintendo DS™ hand-held system, the Nintendo 3DS™ hand-held system, PlayStation ® Vita system and PC in Autumn 2012.

LEGO The Lord of the Rings is based on The Lord of the Rings motion picture trilogy and follows the original storylines of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  Now the entire family can team up in pairs as adorable LEGO The Lord the Rings minifigures to experience countless dangers, solve riddles and battle formidable foes on their journey to Mount Doom.

“We are huge aficionados of The Lord of the Rings franchise and are incredibly excited to put our special LEGO family-friendly touch on this classic fantasy adventure,” said Tom Stone, Managing Director, TT Games. “We’ve taken what fans are familiar with and love about The Lord of the Rings films and combined it with the playful LEGO style, which makes the story and gameplay accessible to gamers of all ages.”

LEGO The Lord of the Rings takes players along on the adventures of Frodo Baggins and his unlikely fellowship as they set out on a perilous journey to destroy The One Ring and save Middle-earth.  Kids, tweens, teens and parents can traverse the Misty Mountains, explore the Mines of Moria, knock on the Black Gate of Mordor, and partake in epic battles with Orcs, Uruk-hai, the Balrog and other fearsome foes while harnessing the humour and imagination of LEGO gameplay to solve puzzles and explore Middle-earth.  Players will take on the form of their favourite members of the fellowship – Frodo the Hobbit, Aragorn the Ranger, Gandalf the Wizard, Legolas the Elf, Gimli the Dwarf, Boromir a Man of Gondor, and Frodo’s Hobbit friends Sam, Merry and Pippin – as they relive the most momentous events from the films.

Developed by TT Games, the LEGO The Lord of the Rings further expands on the partnership between LEGO and Warner Brothers, who recently launched the brand new LEGO® The Lord of the Rings toy collection. The line includes seven construction sets, such as The Battle of Helms Deep!

For more information, please visit: http://thelordoftherings.LEGO.com.

Though the press release gives my inner editor hives — I see places where and semi-colons and commas are desperately needed, and I think Middle-Earth is properly spelled with two capital letters — and I’ve little doubt that Tolkien would be appalled at its very existence, I am utterly and unexpressably excited for this game.

I hope the LEGO Lord of the Rings sets sell well.  I’m curious to see what the LEGO Hobbit sets will recreate and look like, and I’m hopeful for “expanded universe” LEGO Lord of the Rings sets based on, perhaps, Lord of the Rings Online or Lord of the Rings: War in the NorthSilmarillion sets are certainly out, and I’ve no expectation at all of sets based on The Last Ringbearer (though I suppose some of the Mega Bloks World of WarCraft sets would be reasonable facsimiles). ;)

As for the game, hopefully it won’t take me six years and five months to finish the game to my satisfaction as it did with LEGO Star Wars.  Hopefully.  Of course, I’ve not yet finished Lord of the Rings: War in the North yet, either; I’ve become stuck at the siege of the Dwarven fortress of Nordinbad.  Perhaps I’ll return to that this weekend…

One final thought.

Belching Balrogs! :)

On LEGO Lord of the Rings

Today, I frightened my cubicle neighbor.

I’d come into the office, and I walked into the middle of a conversation he was having with another writer in the Bullpen.  “I bet,” said my cubicle neighbor, “that you can’t jump up and down for joy.”

So without taking off my coat, without unslinging the BPRD bag I carry my notebooks in, I began jumping up and joy with joy.  “LEGO Lord of the Rings!” I cried.  “They announced it today!  LEGO Lord of the Rings!”

To say that my cubicle neighbor was shocked was an understatement.  Jumping up and down for joy was totally worth it, if only for that.

Yes, LEGO is making Lord of the Rings sets.  Yes, they’re coming out this summer.  Yes, I’m going to start socking away money from now until June to collect them all. :)

Here’s the official press release:

BILLUND, Denmark and BURBANK, Calif., Dec. 16, 2011 — Warner Bros. Consumer Products and The LEGO Group announced today a partnership that awards the world’s leading construction toy brand exclusive rights to develop build-and-play construction sets based on The Lord of the Rings™ trilogy and the two films based on The Hobbit™.  The multi-year licensing agreement grants access to the library of characters, settings, and stories for The Lord of the Rings property, as well as films The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again.  LEGO® The Lord of the Rings construction sets are slated for a rolling global launch beginning in June 2012 in the United States, with LEGO The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey scheduled for later in the year.

“Only LEGO, with their expertise in the construction category, is capable of doing justice to the incredibly imaginative environments depicted in the world of The Lord of the Rings and the two films based on The Hobbit,” said Karen McTier, executive vice president, domestic licensing and worldwide marketing, Warner Bros. Consumer Products. “These films give life to amazing worlds and characters and we are thrilled to bring fans these products that deliver an imaginative play experience befitting of these beloved properties.” 

The LEGO The Lord of the Rings collection will translate into LEGO form the epic locations, scenes and characters of Middle-earth as depicted in all three films, including The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

In late 2012, LEGO The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will give fans of all ages a chance to build and play out the fantastical story and new characters of the legendary Middle-earth adventures depicted in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson, slated to premiere December 14, 2012.

“Our collaboration with Warner Bros. Consumer Products has delivered numerous worldwide successes in the construction toy aisle with lines like LEGO HARRY POTTER and LEGO BATMAN, introducing us to loyal audiences who love great stories, strong characters and the toys that they inspire,” said Jill Wilfert, vice president, licensing and entertainment for The LEGO Group. “It’s particularly exciting to now be able to create sets based on the fantasy worlds and characters from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the two films based on The Hobbit, not only because we know they will foster collectability and creative play, but also because these are two properties that our fans have been asking us to create for years.”

Information about the sets and collectible minifigures from both collections will be unveiled at a later date at TheLordoftheRings.LEGO.com.

About The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again
From Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson comes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of two films adapting the enduringly popular masterpiece The Hobbit.  The second film will be The Hobbit: There and Back Again.  Both films are set in Middle-earth 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, which Jackson and his filmmaking team brought to the big screen in the blockbuster trilogy that culminated with the Oscar®-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be released beginning December 14, 2012.  The second film, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is slated for release the following year, beginning December 13, 2013.

Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Grey, the character he played in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Martin Freeman in the central role of Bilbo Baggins.  Also reprising their roles from “The Lord of the Rings” movies are: Cate Blanchett as Galadriel; Ian Holm as the elder Bilbo; Christopher Lee as Saruman; Hugo Weaving as Elrond; Elijah Wood as Frodo; Orlando Bloom as Legolas; and Andy Serkis as Gollum.  The ensemble cast also includes (in alphabetical order) Richard Armitage, John Bell, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Barry Humphries, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Evangeline Lilly, Sylvester McCoy, Bret McKenzie, Graham McTavish, Mike Mizrahi, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Lee Pace, Mikael Persbrandt, Conan Stevens, Ken Stott, Jeffrey Thomas, and Aidan Turner.

The screenplays for both The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again are by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson.  Jackson is also producing the films, together with Fran Walsh and Carolynne Cunningham.  The executive producers are Alan Horn, Ken Kamins, Toby Emmerich and Zane Weiner, with Boyens serving as co-producer.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again are being co-produced by New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. with New Line managing production.

Warner Bros Pictures will be handling theatrical distribution for most of the world and MGM will handle all international television licensing and theatrical distribution for certain international territories for the films.

About The LEGO Group
The LEGO Group is a privately held, family-owned company, based in Billund, Denmark. It was founded in 1932 and today the group is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of play materials for children, employing approximately 9,000 people globally. The LEGO Group is committed to the development of children’s creative and imaginative abilities. LEGO products can be purchased in more than 130 countries.

LEGO and the LEGO logo are trademarks of The LEGO Group.  © 2011 The LEGO Group.

About Warner Bros. Consumer Products
Warner Bros. Consumer Products, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, is one of the leading licensing and retail merchandising organizations in the world.

WB SHIELD: ™ & © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

About Middle-earth Enterprises
The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises is the holder of worldwide motion picture, legitimate stage, merchandising, and other rights in the literary works of  J.R.R. Tolkien including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  SZC has been producing and licensing films, stage productions and merchandise based on the Tolkien works for more than 30 years.  Its headquarters are located in Berkeley, California and its Middle-earth Enterprises’ website may be found at www.middleearth.com.

© New Line Productions, Inc. All rights reserved. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the names of the characters, items, events and places therein are trademarks of The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises under license to New Line Productions, Inc.

© New Line Productions, Inc. All rights reserved. The Hobbit: THERE AND BACK AGAIN and the names of the characters, items, events and places therein are trademarks of The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises under license to New Line Productions, Inc.

© 2011 New Line Productions, Inc.  All rights reserved.  The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and the names of the characters, items, events and places therein are trademarks of The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises under license to New Line Productions, Inc.

We needs it, Precious!

Now, how long until WB Games announces the LEGO Lord of the Rings game for the Xbox 360…? :)

On the KRE-O Transformers Sets

Yesterday afternoon, a couple of us from work went to Target on our lunch break. While wandering around the store, I found myself back in the Toys section, looking at the LEGO sets they had.

And there I saw the KRE-O Transformers sets.

Hasbro has created a LEGO-compatible building system called KRE-O, and they’ve done about a dozen sets based on Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  There are big sets, and there are also two smaller sets, of about 80 bricks each, of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee.  Since those smaller sets were just $7.99 each, I bought both Optimus and Bumblebee, and since I didn’t have a lot crying out for attention yesterday afternoon, I built both of the sets.

kreo-transformersThese sets felt very LEGO-like.  A few years ago, I’d bought some of the Transformers: Built to Rule sets, which were largely pre-constructed.  KRE-O, but contrast, builds the Transformers out of generally recognizable LEGO-like bricks.  In fact, I’d say that these KRE-O sets are more like traditional LEGO than some of the LEGO Star Wars sets (which tend to have a lot of specialized, pre-molded pieces).

There are some differences between KRE-O and LEGO.  The KRE-O bricks have slightly different studs than LEGO bricks; some are hollowed out, some aren’t, and of course the bricks don’t say “KRE-O” atop each of the studs. :) The KRE-O bricks also feel a little more plastic-y than LEGO bricks.  But they look like LEGO, they go together like LEGO, and the Transformers models, when finished, look like something that LEGO might’ve made.

I set Optimus Prime and Bumblebee up on my desk with the Doctor Who Character Building minifigs.  When I get the TARDIS set, I think I’ll set the Transformers, the TARDIS, and maybe even the LEGO Alien Tripod up together in a kind of multi-franchise throwdown. :)

Seeing Optimus Prime and the eleventh Doctor together made me long for a crossover between Doctor Who and Transformers.  Yes, as much as I want IDW PUblishing to do a Star Trek/Who crossover, I’d be just as happy with a Who/Transformers crossover.

The story almost writes itself.  Galvatron wants to deliver a killing blow to the Autobots, so he forges an alliance with the Daleks so that they can conquer Earth together.  But what Galvatron doesn’t realize is that the Daleks won’t honor the alliance once their goals are achieved.  In spite of the valiant efforts of the Doctor and the Rodimus Prime, the Decepticon/Dalek alliance reaches the brink of total conquest, and as Galvatron nearly achieves his defeat of the Autobots, the Daleks turn on him and his fellow Decepticons.  To save themselves the Decepticons will have to set aside their differences with the Autobots and join forces with the Autobots to defeat the greater threat the Daleks pose.  It’s a little unbalanced thus far, but otherwise it’s a workable outline.

If you like Transformers and you like LEGO, the KRE-O sets are nice.  At least, the small ones are.  Maybe I’ll have to buy and build one of the bigger ones.

Autobots, roll out!