Lego news for the inattentive

The original poster of the MetaFilter Space Lego article I mentioned in passing in the last post didn't explicitly mention something, so I suppose I'd better:

Lego are making Space sets again!

More or less.

(I originally started writing this as another comment on the MetaFilter page, but it turned into a whole big thing so I fluffed it up into this blog post. Regular readers may find this a bit repetitive, but there's got to be something on this blog for people who've just stumbled in, looking worried and trying not to make eye contact with the regulars.)

For many years now, Lego have had space... ish sets, like the Life On Mars and Mars Mission series, and the older UFO line.

Now, though, they've got a new Space Police line, which is very close to being good old-fashioned Space Lego.

The first Space Police sets came out a year or three into my own Lego "Dark Age" (the period of time between when a person gets too old for Lego, and when the same person gets old enough to start playing with it again). They were clearly Space sets, just with a few new pieces and a different colour scheme.

(Lego's most offensive striking current colour scheme is on display in the interestingly-Technical-under-the-skin Power Miners line. Lime green and Day-Glo orange, baby!)

Lego entered their own Dark Age shortly after the first Space Police sets. In the 1990s, they spent a lot of time making sets that were difficult to love, because they had lots of special-purpose pieces. They even made "juniorised" sets that were, in essence, Lego for kids that didn't actually want to play with Lego. Those sets contained many complex single pieces that should have been assembled out of several other pieces - see this post for a particularly egregious example.

They're much better now, though. Lego still have a few licensed lines that us oldies usually don't much care for. Personally, I think almost all of their Star Wars sets look awful; I think Star Wars ships just don't look right in Lego, except in the large scale used in the multi-hundred-dollar flagship sets. And then there are the "Bionicle" action-figures-made-from-Lego that also have little appeal to most adult Lego fans - though the skeletons of Bionicle figures are very Technic-y, with many very useful pieces. Technic itself has changed a lot, though not actually for the worse, if you ask me.

But Lego have also gotten back to their roots, and now make plenty of good old-fashioned sets, large and small, full of general-purpose pieces just like in the old days. (Except the packaging is flimsier, with none of the useful old blow-moulded plastic trays; now it's just a box full of plastic bags of pieces.)

There are now many fantastic midrange sets with only a barely higher percentage of specialised pieces than there were 25 years ago. And there are also sets that could have been sneaked into the 1982 catalogue without looking out of place. Look at the #6192 Pirate Building Set, for instance. Lego has an actual two-piece shark now, which looks hilarious with some frickin' lasers on its head but isn't general-purpose at all. There's nothing it can possibly be except a shark with a few connecting studs. But the Pirate Building Set's shark is a cheerful-looking blocky creature made from several separate pieces, in the old style. (See also that set's catalogue-number-adjacent relatives, the Fire Fighter and Castle Building Sets.)

If that's the kind of Lego you like - or just the kind you want to buy for your kid - then you can ignore the licensed stuff and just get the new-old-style sets. You don't even have to buy sets you don't much want just because they contain pieces you need for the model of your dreams: There's an auction site just for Lego full of enterprising dealers who part out sets and sell the pieces separately. So you can, for instance, buy a few yards of the new chunky track pieces, and the sprockets to drive them, surprisingly cheaply.

I also harbour a great affection for the current "pocket money" sets, that give you just a minifig and a smattering of accessories. A better way to inexpensively start to tease other grown-ups out of their own Dark Ages has not yet been discovered.

There's this cop and his dog, this street trader, this brand-new Space Police officer, this garbage man, this builder, this fireman, this street cleaner (with one of those uncommon rubbery brushes), this kayaker, this God-bearded (Shark!) wizard, this knight, this mailbox robot, this troll, and this little spaceship. (Note that the pre-2009 sets are no longer likely to be available at your local department-store-with-a-Lego-section.)

My absolute favourite, though, is the pirate with a fish on a stick, and an extremely minimalist campfire.

The pirate's opposite number is much better armed, but that brave smile cannot conceal the obvious fact that he's having a lot less fun.

23 Responses to “Lego news for the inattentive”

  1. evilspoons Says:

    I bought 3 of those "5611 Public Works" when they were on sale from Lego Shop@Home... normally sets like that are really bad value for money, but I got them for $2 each.

    Generally I'm buying $10-20 sets and having trouble finding places to put them nowadays.

  2. ImaFish Says:

    I always assumed the Lego started making specialized single purpose sets so the kids would become bored of them. Hot Wheels did the same thing when it started selling specialized single purpose track sets.

    Back when I was a kid I'd play with Lego brand toy building sets for hours and hours. I'd do the same with my Hot Wheels brand toy race tracks. You were only limited by your imagination so you could play and play and play...

    However, what incentive was there for my parents to buy new sets? None.

    Now the Lego and Hot Wheels sections of toy stores are huge with a wide array of sets and price points. The parent will buy a single purpose Lego Star Wars set, the kid will build it, and then he will be bored of it. So the the kid will want a new one. The parent will buy it. Repeat as necessary.

  3. Erik T Says:

    For the record, there's been a two-piece shark (although not that one) for as long as I can remember, back into at least the late 1980s.

  4. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I'm sure all the usual sorts of evil corporate ideas have crossed the minds of Lego executives, and I'm also sure that something along these lines was responsible for their losing of the way for a decade or so.

    The Lego Group, however, is very different from the standard sort of toy corporation, for the simple reason that it's not publicly owned.

    Lego was and is a family company (and yes, the Kirk Christiansen family is doing rather well, thank you), so it's not beholden to the sort of director-and-shareholder oligarchy that steers many, if not all, public companies irrevocably to the Dark Side.

    The Lego Group is a huge corporate amoeba, with most of the weirdness that that entails, but it is at least not infested with the usual sort of lying golden-parachute-seeking fat-cats and minority-shareholder-lawsuit-fearing jobsworths.

    (I think this must have something to do with the Lego Group's coolness with people putting PDF scans of instructions on the Web, making new OSes for the robotics products, manufacturing terrifying weapons for minifig hands, et cetera. This is all exactly the sort of thing that normal public companies self-destructively send their fans lawsuit threats about.)

    I think the disappointing packaging of modern Lego sets is, in this context, a good sign.

    They needed to cut costs to compete with Mega Bloks and the Chinese knockoff bandits. Mega Bloks make a pretty good-quality product that even educated consumers might prefer, and the off-brand Chinese blocks more or less stick together, and cost a lot less than real Lego. So you can't blame a cash-strapped parent whose young kid probably won't know the difference for paying $1.50 for as many pieces as would have cost $5 if they were real Lego. (If you reckon every one of those pieces is likely to end up in the vacuum cleaner, up the kid's nose and in the dog's poo before the year is out, why pay for The Original And Best?)

    So Lego have cut costs, but in the packaging, not in the bricks. The obvious solution would have been to farm out production to the same shitty factories that make the awful knockoff bricks, but place such huge orders that your prices are even lower. Lego has indeed outsourced manufacturing, but to well-controlled factories in places like Singapore, Mexico and the Czech Republic, not to whoever delivered the cheapest quote in the hands of the hottest hookers.

    So Lego bricks are still made from the same tough ABS, and they still have the same precise dimensions. All the Lego grognards can find to complain about these days is stuff you need a Pantone colour chart to fully understand. The boxes may be disposable nowadays, but you can still line up a zillion 1x1 Lego plates and have them come out to exactly the right total length.

    (I remember, but cannot find, a great story about them doing that and getting THE WRONG LENGTH OMG and then discovering a hair stuck between two of the bricks. I hope it isn't an urban legend.)

  5. Daniel Rutter Says:

    For the record, there's been a two-piece shark (although not that one) for as long as I can remember, back into at least the late 1980s.

    You are, of course, exactly right; here's piece one and here's piece two (not to be confused with the freaky minifig shark mask, or the rather ferocious Duplo shark). This earlier two-piece shark featured in this big 1989 set and this little one.

    The big set was notable for being one of those affected by the Great Lego Spring-Loaded Cannon Scandal. It originally came with the Minifig Cannon 2x8 Shooting, but after someone complained about their little darlings possibly having their liver pinned, quivering, to the wall by a plastic Lego cannonball-cylinder the size of a pea, the cannons were replaced with a version that did not present this bowel-emptyingly-terrifying risk.

  6. hubris Says:

    Dan, the time-honoured method of getting back into Lego as an adult is stealthily - by having your own kid. Then you get to keep your love of Lego and your adult dudes-round-the-barbeque cred.

    There, I've said it.

    Now go and make or borrow a crocheted, crystal-loving mountain baby and start growing it to Lego-loving size.

    Sure, the Duplo-period seems to go on for ever, but eventually they get there.

    Just be sure to keep a pair of Lego-from-nose-extraction pliers handy at all times.

  7. RichVR Says:

    Greetings Lego friends. I recently (maybe a few months ago) got two boxes of Legos from storage. I am an American. As kids that's what we called them and while I understand the proper terminology, I just can't call them Lego. To me a single brick (of any kind) is a Lego. Multiple pieces are Legos.

    Please excuse my ignorance.

    My problem, if you care, is that my favorite pieces are all crumbling away. That would be the clear ones. I am saddened by this decay. And furthermore I have no way to replace them.

    Yes I've been to the main Lego site, as well as various used Lego sites. It just seems that my favorite pieces can not be gotten unless I have major cash or a lot of time.

    I wish there was a special place for tiny clear Lego, or larger clear Lego bricks. Perhaps the hive mind can help me.

  8. pompomtom Says:

    Dan, the time-honoured method of getting back into Lego as an adult is stealthily - by having your own kid. Then you get to keep your love of Lego and your adult dudes-round-the-barbeque cred.

    I found a set of wargaming rules for Lego online the other day. I had to forward them on to a mate, because I'm certainly not going to have kids, but he's already got a couple, and I reckon I (or we?) could get him into it...

  9. iworm Says:

    Oh how this takes me back. I just Googled a bit but couldn't find a piccy of my fave Lego set from....a while back. We're talking early/mid 1970s. Saturn V rocket + launch tower. ohmigod I loved that set. All the curvy white bricks for the rocket, with just enough black curvy ones to get the pattern correct. And you *had* to get the black ones in the right place, as per the photo on the box. You just *had* to. Mandatory. Otherwise the God of Lego would come down and smite your mildly autistic, feeble attempts.

    Ah. Memories....

  10. corinoco Says:

    On the subject of Lego instructions, it's worthwhile having a look at some of the older ones.

    I actually prefer the older instructions which were often quite terse, requiring careful study to follow.

    The modern ones that call up a compenents list for each step are way too easy, and the 'saftey instructions' at the front are just laughable. "Don't mix all the pieces together" What? That's half the fun! "Don't use on carpet" we only had carpet when I was a kid. Lime-green shag pile.

    Being able to follow visually terse instructions is a very useful skill in my career (architect - yes, I played with Lego too much as a child) and would probably be useful for anyone who wants to solve problems visually. (and who wouldn't?)

    With modern sets I ignore the 'build-list' at each step and do what I always used to do as a child - spot the new components at each step, and hunt-and-peck them one-at-time, as needed.

    Free-building is also great fun too!

  11. Popup Says:

    Oh how this takes me back. I just Googled a bit but couldn't find a piccy of my fave Lego set from....a while back. We're talking early/mid 1970s. Saturn V rocket + launch tower.

    Sounds like set 358 - Rocket Base. It came out in 1973, well before the 'real' space age of Lego. I never had it myself, but I'm pretty sure that a friend of mine had it.

    Back to the holy war: To me lego end up in the same class as meccano. I would say 'gimme some lego' (or most likely 'give me those lego pieces, i need fourteen green 3x1's now') or 'Mom, have you hoovered up my meccano pieces again?' - Never legos or meccanos. (But then, English isn't my native tongue.)

  12. RichVR Says:

    My favorite version of Lego building was using the small lizards from the Creepy Crawler Thingmaker set as an advanced race of sentient lizards. Then I'd use the large baseplate to make huge spaceships and various structures. I'd enact the Lensmen series from E.E. "Doc" Smith. From first book to last. As well I'd give them pins as swords and create castle sieges.

    My friend Alex and I got into a Melville kick and reenacted Moby Dick. We had a triple deck Pequod with rendering cauldrons for whale blubber.

    These models were huge. Including a system of construction paper sails and thread for lines.

    I was a geek WAY back.

  13. Kagato Says:

    As well I'd give them pins as swords and create castle sieges.

    Pop rivets make excellent Minifig swords.

  14. mayhem Says:

    And the black visored snake-eyes like space minifigs made for excellent ninjas with the aforesaid rivets.

  15. iworm Says:

    Sounds like set 358 - Rocket Base. It came out in 1973, well before the 'real' space age of Lego.

    Popup - I love you!!! Yes yes yes, that's the one. Amazing how the picture brings it back to life. All that stuck in my mind was the rocket itself and the fact that it had a launch tower. The photo brings back the FOUR colours of round peg-things. Awesome. And as well as the black and white curvy bits for the rocket there are the 4 yellow curvy bits too (in the photo they are the splodge at the bottom of the tower)

    But, finest of all, the two aerials!! On the tower and the van (about which I had forgotten) Utterly wrong and ridiculous looking. They clearly came out of the Urban Housing Model 123 set, and look like they should pick up Coronation Street just fine, 405-line, VHF. :-)


  16. KozmoNaut Says:

    The mention of space LEGO brings back memories of some of my favorite sets, the Ice Planet 2002 line.

    I had most of the sets, but my favorites were the 6898 Ice-Sat V and the 6973 Deep Freeze Defender.

    No oddball special parts, just your good old-style creative use of standard pieces. The Deep Freeze Defender in particular has a bunch of cool features: Apart from being a totally awesome spaceship, it has a big rocket with a satellite attached in the the middle part of the front of the ship which opens up into a launch ramp. The rear part with the sliding 'garage' door holds the tiny scooter-like spaceship which has its own little launch ramp that deploys when you open the compartment.

    All of this is awesome enough in itself, but it's got one more trick up its sleeve: It splits into four parts! The two cockpits and the front and back halves of the ship disconnect and reconnect as two separate, smaller spaceships! That feature alone provided me with heaps of inspiration for home-built Voltron-style constructions.

    Also, transparent day-glo orange skis and chainsaws are awesome.

  17. dabrett Says:

    My contribution to the plural debate - "Lego" You could have pieces or bricks of it, but it was always collectively Lego to me.

    My nieces and nephews are now getting to the age where they can play with regular sized Lego without eating it, so I've being giving it to them at every opportunity (guess what they're getting for Christmas?) I've been giving them the tubs so far so they'll have a decent base before getting the more specialised sets.

    My main concern is that there doesn't seem to be anything like the range of small to medium sets that I seem to remember. Most of what I see in the shops are large sets (mostly Star Wars ones) with only a small numbers of medium and smaller sets.

    My second concern is that they'll find MY Lego, which I tell myself I'm hanging onto for when I have children. I really need to bring it back from my mum's place, although Lugnet has got me thinking that it would be cool to recreate those sets for which I lost the instructions over twenty years ago...

  18. Daniel Rutter Says:

    There's actually a decent quantity of current smaller-sized sets, even if you ignore the tiny minifig-plus-accessories pocket-money ones. I agree that there are lots of racing cars and Star Wars sets, and not so many "universal" sets, but I think a lot of stuff in the current City and Creator lineups is pretty flexible. (There are a lot of duplicates in those listings, because of different versions of the same set for Europe and the USA, but there are still a reasonable number of options.)

    The Creator sets are particularly worth a look, I think. In the 2009 lineup there's this aeroplane set, this car set and this bike set that all list for $US20 or less; this $US50-list fire truck has tons of general-purpose pieces.

    (The Peeron Advanced Search is great for this sort of investigation. Here, for instance, is a list of all 2008-or-later sets with a list price of $US15 or lower.)

    Actually finding a good range of Lego in department stores is easier said than done, but Lego's "Shop At Home" online store ought to have most, if not all, of the stuff that's available from any retail outlet in your country, plus special offers and "exclusives". Shop At Home's not a good deal here in Australia - the prices are rather inflated, and delivery is really expensive, presumably because it's all coming from overseas - but it seems to be very popular in the States, where I presume they don't charge you $25 to deliver a $15 set.

  19. fizz Says:

    I hope you're proud of yourself: with all your lego news (and the complicity of a wretched cousin who did not appreciate a lego gift) today I built my first lego model in 25 years (and promptly disassembled it and started again for a variant... :p).

  20. Cranky Franky Says:

    One Spaghetti...

    Many Spaghetties...

  21. fizz Says:

    Well, in italian "spaghetti" is already plural, the single name is "spaghetto"...

  22. tyronomo Says:


    First, for some reason this is blocked at work;
    For the following reason;
    our request was denied because of its content categorization: "Sports/Recreation;For Kids"

    I have the following sets sitting on my work desk in front of me now;
    Knight, Street sweeper, Street chef/vendor, a front loader (7630) and a technic bulldozer.
    Plus a 'fake lego' wizard. He stays as getting his set was the trigger for getting the rest of the sets :D

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