Recommended Buy: LEGO Heroica Game

For the first time since having kids I had a solid Toys R’ Us win on Saturday, and it’s this:

BACKSTORY: My five-year-old and I go to the same dentist. Because I’m an adult man and skipped going to the dentist for about a half decade when I had no dental insurance, my visits to the dentist are persuasively unpleasant (i.e., Guess who had six cavities and a 1.5 hour deep clean after his first return-visit to the dentist? Guess who flosses daily–or more–now?) But, this is a cunning dentist who works his *ass* off to make sure that kids *love* going to the dentist. In addition to the cheap-plastic-from-China toy bin and a big ole goody bag of flossers and colorful cartoon toothbrushes and *krazy flavvvvorz-funtime adventure toothpaste!!!* and whatever, he also gives every cavity-free child a $10 gift card to Toys R’ Us–which represents a huge portion of my son’s annual income. Coupled with his $1 per week allowance (he feeds the pets) and occasional boons on birthdays and holidays, he periodically has a fair amount of buying power–provided he goes to Toys R’ Us (which itself is sort of a *grrrrrr* situation but, you know, I’m not gonna look a gift-card in the mouth).
After many delays (we’ve got a new baby), the boy and I finally made it out to the store on Saturday. He had long planned to purchase “Sensei Wu” from LEGO’s Ninjago line. I *hate* this line, because it is a totally rip-off: The Ninjago packages are basically a fighting-tops/Pokemon hybrid, cost $15-ish, and include one (1) specialized LEGO minifig that stands on one (1) weighted dreidel and can hold his many little specialized (and easily lost) swords. There’s nothing to build, and they aren’t fun to play with, but they have excellent marketing (including trade-style comic books my son reads over and over and over), and all the kids talk about them, and thus all the kids want them–so goes the world.
Fortunately, my local Toys R’ Us was out of Sensei Wu (suck it, Sensei Wu!) Our 5yo brave-faced it, but was clearly bummed as he wandered the aisles looking for a stray Wu tucked among the Technics sets and Space Police (or whatever they call that line). Then, while looking for breast-pump parts, I stumbled across an ill-situated end-cap of LEGO games marked down 30%.

I’m on record as being more than a little disappointed in the LEGO corporate trajectory–with its growing reliance on marketing tie-ins, uselessly hyper-specialized bricks, gendering, and violence-based problem solving–but I *love* the games they’ve been producing. As build kits they’re at least moderately entertaining, and the games themselves are balanced and playable by a *wide* age-range. A few weeks ago we’d been introduced to these LEGO games at my sister’s house, where my 10-year-old nephew, 5-year-old son, 66-year-old mother, and I all happily played MINOTAURUS–and were evenly matched. CREATIONARY is likewise a delight (and, thank Gott in Himmel, bounced the curséd Candy Land from the mix).

Not only do these have the cachet of being for older kids, but my son has also recently gotten into D&D (in the form of DnDish–more on that in a future post), which made HEROICA: CAVERNS OF NATHUZ an especially easy sell. The HEROICA series (which includes four games, all under the same rule set, which can either be played independently or linked together into one epic campaign) is basically a boiled-down version of the movement/combat system from the old red-boxed Basic Dungeons & Dragons box from the 1980s.

The rules are simple enough that a precocious 5-year-old can grasp them (although the game is marketed for 7+), but complicated enough that it preserves that *lots can happen* and *many monkeywrenches* feel of dice-based RPGs. There isn’t really a narrative built-in–or mandated–but it’s easy to add a narrative layer (and, in our situation, kind of inevitable).
So, for the price of one goddamn Ninjago dude my kid got an entire game that he spent a happy hour *building*, and we then spent an enjoyable half-hour playing as a family (wife and new baby even enjoyed it, and neither of them are paper-and-pencil RPG people), and are already inventing new rules and scenarios for.
Plus Toys R’ Us actually had the breast-pump parts and organic diapers I needed. Critical hit!

My 5yo and I finally built a LEGO microscale Millennium Falcon

Using the instructions I posted a few weeks back (Snip, Burn, Solder Blog: Make a LEGO Millennium Falcon Ornament) and the idiosyncratic mélange of decades-old hand-me-down LEGO we have on hand, my 5-year-old and I built this wicked-awesome Millennium Falcon (or, as he calls it, “the Peregrine Falcon,” because his grounding in the natural sciences sadly exceeds his grounding in American popular mythology. This is my fault, and I bear the full burden of our familial shame).
Pictured here in flight with guns blazing (the boy loves lasers):

And here in dry-dock with microfig Han and Chewie conferring about what the crap is wrong with the damn hyperdrive:

Non-Denominational Holiday Gift Guide: LEGO for Grown-ups

I’m going to take it as given that if you’re interested in LEGO and you’re reading a blog mostly composed of swears, nerd-news, and left-wing propaganda, then you probably already *have* a big bin (or eight) of LEGO kicking around. So, I’m not advising you purchase *any* specific LEGO sets. (Also, the current generation of LEGO sets raise my hackles: They’re too conspicuously branded, too solution-via-force oriented, have too many specialized bricks, and are skewed too old for my kid; if he wants to play with guns, he can come shooting with us. Since he’s afraid of the racket of *real* guns, he shouldn’t be playing with fake guns. QED)
You’ve got plenty of bricks, poindexters; it’s time to meditate on new and interesting things to do with them.

This book comes at the top of my list because it is *gorgeous.* This is a big, thick, heavy coffee-table book full of great photos and short articles on every corner of the sprawling, weird LEGO universe (from official corporate history to rogue postmodern art projects). It’s a hardback with glossy, heavy paper stock and interesting internal layout–it’s an art book, perfect for the brainiac LEGO lover serving you nog or spinning your dreidel. As an added bonus, those lil articles aren’t all historical trivia or fluff: the authors, John Baichtal and Joe Meno, tackle the issue of LEGO ethnicity head-on (i.e., the fact that the LEGOverse seems to have roughly two gals and four black guys in residence, and the dark skinned folks are either whirling lightsabers or kicking balls), as well as the persistent problem LEGO has in connecting with girls, despite the fact that *from the start* the toy was aimed at being non-gender-specific. Baichtal/Meno also hit some of my favorite LEGO art projects (including Zbigniew Libera’s LEGO concentration camp sets, which are a big part of what brought LEGO back into my forebrain in college), and introduced me to some really lovely new stuff. If you’re looking for a horizon-broadening nostalgia trip gift, this is your go-to LEGO book.

BADASS LEGO GUNS is exactly what it sounds like: build instructions for five incredibly badass working guns (!!!). Martin Hüdepohl’s book perfectly blends the nostalgia of spending an afternoon working through one of those wordless LEGO schematics with the specifically adult thrill of building something that can *really hurt* whoever is standing at the wrong end of its barrel. The designs themselves are really great: intricate, showcasing advanced building techniques (often called “SNOT,” that’s “studs-not-on-top,” builds in the adult-fans-of-LEGO–or “AFoL”–community), with really innovative firing mechanism and ammo designs. But, be warned: Unless you have an absolute crap-ton of Technic bricks, you probably aren’t going to be able to build the more impressively complex models (like the WARBEAST pictured on the cover). I have a big bin of mixed LEGO (mostly from the 1980s), and was able to squeeze out the first gun (a nifty lil rubber-band shooter called the PARABELLA) with only a few substitutions. Also, the more advanced guns call for modding some bricks (sanding them down, glueing several together into permanent sub-structures, etc.) At least in the edition I’ve got, a few pages were misprinted (including some of the parts lists, which was especially annoying to discover mid-build). These have since been corrected, and the new pages are posted in the publisher’s website.

If BADASS LEGO GUNS has you primed to rediscover your LEGO itch, then you really, really wanna check out THE UNOFFICIAL LEGO BUILDER’S GUIDE. At 300+ pages, this book is an *exhaustive* treatment of all of the structural and design possibilities (both practical and theoretical) offered by the LEGO System. There are a few specific projects buried in this tome, but they aren’t in traditional wordless LEGO “build instruction” format; these are chatty narrative walk-thrus, discussing design decisions and options, and really laying out the underlying mental framework that an adult LEGO builder applies to a project (in contrast to that free-range improvisational building that kids do with LEGO). The book, as a whole, is wordy and a good read, in addition to being a great reference resource. I know that sounds kinda silly–a LEGO reference book–but if you’re grown-up and getting into LEGO, you pretty quickly find yourself with questions like “OK, what they hell is the accepted nomenclature for that two-stud-hole skinny-slopey brick with the sorta scratchy textured angle part?” (Answer: As pg. 257 teaches us, this is a “2×1 45 degree slope brick”; it’s part #3040 and was first introduced in 1979.)

If you’re of voting age and just now making the big jump back into LEGO, you’re going stumble into the incredibly geeky LEGO-CAD software underground sooner or later. Yes, that’s computer-aided design software specifically for designing LEGO projects, and even producing your own LEGO-style build instructions. The entry-level on this is LEGO’s own LEGO Digital Designer software. This is free (!), dead-simple to use, can automatically generated rudimentary build instructions, and will even connect with the LEGO website and order all the bricks you need for your custom design (no shock there). Bonus: It makes a satisfying *click* sound when you connect bricks. But it’s also frustratingly limited software, and it won’t be long before you’re hankering for something more, something *way too much more*. Welcome to the brain-bendingly confusing world of LDraw!
On the up-side, you can do *anything* with the suites of free software this community has developed: Make photorealistic LEGO tableaux! Make spot-on LEGO-style build instructions! Make strictly physically impossible LEGO ships! Make up your own LEGO bricks and use them in models! Make LEGO minifigs do it in deeply disturbing Bible-themed porno shoots of your own devising! But this software is a far cry from the stupid-easy software LEGO has on their website; most of these programs are built on full-bore vector-based CAD software (e.g., the most popular LEGO ray-tracing software is actually built off of the 3D rendering software used by rocket scientists). Some of the software (like Bricksmith for Mac OS, which I *love*) is GUI and user-friendly and very approachable. Most of it is crazy opaque, with documentation that is equally obtuse and often simply incorrect. You need a good guide, and VIRTUAL LEGO FOR WINDOWS is it. The writing is crisp and clear, the book well organized, and authors Tim Courtney, Ahui Herrera, and Steve Bliss walk you through all of the software you need to build projects, render them, and produce great images and build instructions. You can really do *stunning* work with this powerful software, and Courtney/Herrera/Bliss totally bring that into reach for LEGO-CAD newbies. I’m a Mac-user, and still found this book *really* useful. Some of the software isn’t great on Mac but most of the actual nuts-and-bolts info translates. E.g., they favor MLCad as their LEGO editor, while I think Bricksmith is *much* slicker for Mac users. Similarly, they go into great depth with POV-ray, which doesn’t load on modern Mac OSes at all. But, MegaPOV (which they only treat lightly) works fine on Macs, and most of the details carry over, since MegaPOV is basically just a wrapper for running POV-ray. (Aside: I’ll be writing up a brief “Virtual LEGO on Mac” post over at the Snip, Burn, Solder Blog soonishly, which should help connect the dots for Mac users working with this book).
(DISCLOSURE: These titles are all from my publisher, No Starch Press, who sent me review copies of a mess of LEGO books; these are the stand-outs from the crop, in my humble. I was not otherwise compensated–except for that I got a mess of free books/ebooks.)

LEGOs in Spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

collectSPACE – news – “LEGO figures flying on NASA Jupiter probe”

They have launched aboard the space shuttle, visited the space station, and flown to Mars. Now, three more “very special” LEGO figurines are set to fly to Jupiter with NASA’s Juno spacecraft.
The specially-constructed LEGO Minifigures are of the Roman god Jupiter, his wife Juno, and “father of science” Galileo Galilei. The LEGO crew’s mission is part of the Bricks in Space project, the joint outreach and educational program developed as part of the collaboration between NASA and the LEGO Group to inspire children to explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

If you’re wondering why they look so classical and funky, explains:

The trio resemble the typical small toys that LEGO sells, but are made out of metal.
“They are basically the size of the normal LEGO figures which you will see, but they are made out of aluminum, very special aluminum and they have been prepared in a very special way,” [Scott] Bolton [principal investigator for the Juno mission and space science and engineering director at the Southwestern Research Institute in San Antonio] said. “They are made out of a special space-grade aluminum. They have gone through all the testing to make sure that they fit on our spacecraft in a way that is like our other science instruments.”

In other words, those are the most over-engineered LEGO minifigs you’ll ever see, kids.
(photo credit)

Behold the LEGO ukulele

Brickley’s Words — Blog Archive — Ukulele out of LEGO bricks?
And it’s playable–although, interestingly, only in a really cocky low tuning. The builder indicates that, on earlier designs, the bridge popped off well before he’d tuned the root to C, which is why he went with this slightly unconventional (although rad as hell) tailpiece-style saddle. Very cool, and much more playable (and far more mellifluous) than the infamous LEGO harpsichord.
I *love* these tuning gears, incidentally. Since a uke C isn’t all that tight, I wonder if the final tuning is more a result of the bridge/saddle, or the tuning machines.
(via the CRAFT blog)