Sunday, 26 April 2015

Review: Bricks Issue 1

Earlier this week, the first issues of Bricks and Bricks Culture arrived in the post. I'd ordered the first issue of each so I could decide if either was worth subscribing to. There's been some controversy surrounding the new magazines since basically the entire team behind the almost-as-new Blocks magazine had upped ship to make the new titles. I bought issues 1-3 of Blocks and wasn't impressed enough to consider subscribing, but maybe the new titles will be different.

First up for review is Bricks, which seems to be going for more or less the same sort of content as Blocks. The writing team for Bricks' first issue is almost exactly the same as it was for Issue 1 of Blocks, so it'll be interesting to see how different these two magazines are.

Bricks Issue 1
Price: £4.99 (print or digital, print version comes with digital copy)
Pages: 124

Advert pages: 12 (all relevant, mostly for exhibitions, custom figs or Bricks itself)
Size: 270 x 206 mm

Bricks is perfect bound, which means it has a flat spine. This is nice for displaying the magazine on a shelf (because you can see what it is and which issue from the side) but not so good for reading because the magazine won't stay open by itself when laid on a surface. It also means that the pages don't open fully, so any photos that stretch across both pages are partially obscured by the fold. This immediately differentiates it from Blocks, which is saddle stitched (i.e. bound by staples). I think saddle stitching is ultimately the better option for a magazine like this where looking at large photos is an integral part of the appeal, but I can't deny that the perfect binding on Bricks makes it feel more like a quality product that belongs on a bookshelf.

The layout and general presentation is excellent. The photo quality is maybe slightly lower than Blocks. I don't know if this impression is partly due to Blocks having a glossy finish and Bricks a matt one. In any case, it's only really noticeable if you put them side by side, and the photo quality of Bricks is great nonetheless.

The content is, on the whole, pretty good, with a nice mix of interviews, reviews and other features. I've picked out some of the best and worst articles below. This issue's theme was motion, which meant quite a few articles dedicated to cars, which I have little to no interest in. However, since plenty of people do like cars, it'd be unfair to criticise this decision too much. Next issue promises to be dinosaur themed, which is more up my alley.
Apart from some instructions for small builds, there isn't really anything in the way of articles about building. Plenty about MOCs, but not much about actually building them, whereas the early issues of Blocks followed some of the team's building projects and had articles on SNOT building and the like. Since Bricks' strapline is 'the essential guide to building, buying and collecting Lego products', this is slightly odd, but I only noticed the absence after flicking through Blocks for this review and not while I was actually reading Bricks the first time.

Favourite article(s):
Probably both of the Bricks Masterclass articles, which each showcased a single MOC and interviewed its creator. Both had plenty of photos with interesting questions and answers. I also enjoyed the similar feature on Carl Greatrix and his models. My one criticism of all three articles is that they didn't give links to the builders' flickr pages (or their flickr handles, or some way of finding them online).

Other articles I liked:

  • Beyond the brick: I wouldn't have expected to like an article on Lego merchandise and accessories, but this was actually a really nice selection of stuff. If they can keep finding at least one thing as unique and interesting as the Lego patent art prints every month this could become an unexpected (and expensive!) highlight.
  • Bricks in motion: An interview with Ed Diment of Bright Bricks about their Bricks in Motion exhibition. Well presented with lots of photos of the models.

  • Reviews: All three (the Helicarrier, Technic Record Breaker, and Wookiee Gunship) were good, with the Helicarrier review a particular highlight due to the extra effort put into the Avengers themed layout. Immediately following the three articles marked as reviews was an article called 'Out of the box', which I think is supposed to be a regular feature looking at play features of sets but didn't seem that different from a normal review.
  • A Friendly Introduction: An nice introduction to the controversies surrounding Friends, and I'm excited to see coverage of the minidoll lines, which tend not to get too much attention from the usual suspects online. Not personally keen on the effect applied to some of the images, but your view may vary.
  • Lego Star Wars in 100 Scenes: What I thought would be a review of a book I have no interest in was cleverly used as an opportunity to sneak in some mini reviews of Star Wars sets. A nice surprise.
  • Shipwreck sets: A feature that asks someone which set they'd want if stranded on a desert island. Not necessarily the same question as which is your favourite set, though Lego's Kim Ellekjaer Thomsen seems to have just chosen his favourite. I'd personally go for one that offered the most possibilities for making other stuff to stave off boredom for as long as possible, but it will be interesting to see how different people interpret the question. A great idea for a recurring feature.

Articles I didn't like:

  • Bricks solutions: A feature in which the team solves Lego issues they've found on forums could have legs, but this issue's article on extending the Detective's Office upwards was let down by the nonsensical graph where 380 mm is apparently the same height as 350 mm and both are shorter than 360 mm! Weird.
  • Lego in the fast lane: An interview with Le Mans driver Oliver Webb. Lego relevance was added by giving him a Technic model of the type of car he drives and getting his opinions, but too much of the article was about driving for my tastes. If you're at all interested in racing I imagine you'd feel differently.

  • Start your engines: Or, as it looks at first glance: 'Start you engines'. The r of your is absorbed into the fold in the centre - if the magazine is going to continue with perfect binding, the team has to take care not to lose things in the centre like they have here (this also affects the otherwise good article 'Top Ten Lego Tie-Ins', unless there's such a thing as a 'Tie-n'). The fact that the photo of each model was rarely on the same page as the text discussing it was irritating, and the extensive coverage the sets received on Brickset made it less interesting to read Huw and Chris writing about them again.

Worst article:
The set matrix: Pure filler. It's a graph of some 2015 sets plotted as piece count against price. Supposedly the sets the team loves, it would have made more sense to me as the sets featured in this issue, with the graph slowly filling up over the year. Quite why 2011's Super Star Destroyer was on there is beyond me. I'm also not sure of the point of plotting piece count against price: the relationship is hardly surprising. Price or piece count against what the team thinks of it would be more worthwhile. The cherry on top is that the arrow labelling the price axis is the wrong way around, continuing this issue's graph crimes (given the content of this blog so far, you may be unsurprised to learn I'm fussy about graphs).

In general much better than Blocks, which was pretty poor in the issues I've read. This though, from an advert for Bricks itself, is frankly laughable:

Digital edition:
Is, at the time of writing, pretty terrible. It's just online images of the pages (i.e. no searchable text, no downloadable pdf) and you can't even turn pages with the keyboard - you have to click the corner of each page to turn and then wait 3-5 seconds for the next page to load. Also fun, at least on Chrome, is that there doesn't seem to be any way to zoom, and manually zooming the page doesn't have any effect, So if you actually want to read any of the text it appears you have to save each page as an image separately, then zoom in using a photo editing program. Just checked Internet Explorer and the same is true there. Now I'm really upset because I had to intentionally use Internet Explorer, and it didn't even help.

Let's just get this out of the way first: charging any money for the digital edition in its current state, let alone the same price as the print edition, is outrageous. I would not recommend paying for the digital version until improvements have been made (I'll update this section if and when that happens).

The print edition is pretty good though. I enjoyed reading it and don't regret spending a fiver on it for a second. I'd say it's better than Blocks Issue 1, but since it's almost exactly the same team, this is hardly surprising as they had all the benefit of their experience on Blocks when making Bricks. It would be more meaningful to compare a new issue of Blocks and I'll be looking for a copy to do just that.

The other comparison worth making is with the wealth of Lego content that can be found online. Why pay a fiver for a magazine if everything in it can be found online for free? I'd say Bricks does pretty well out of this comparison, with the interviews in particular being a good example of the sort of thing you don't find much of online. It's something the team needs to be careful of though - the large amount of space given to Huw and Chris' views on the Speed Champions sets was a bit of a misstep in my opinion, given that they'd already covered them in detail on Brickset. In contrast, despite Chris having reviewed the Helicarrier on Brickset already. the lavish production of his review in Bricks made it one of the highlights of the magazine for me. This shows how presentation is one of the benefits of a magazine, and the team needs to take full advantage of it to set themselves apart from online offerings.

In summary, the magazine is pretty good but I think I'll buy a few more issues individually before committing to a subscription. If you're on the fence about trying it, I'd definitely recommend giving it a go, but I'll be happy to answer any specific questions you have. Stay tuned for a review of the first issue of sister publication Bricks Culture.

Friday, 3 April 2015

It was all basic bricks in my day: part three

Well, that took longer than expected. You've waited long enough, so I'll dive straight into the results with a minimum of introduction. On the assumption that any part that appears in sets from multiple themes can't be particularly specialised I've defined a specialised part here as one that has appeared in less than 25% of Bricklink's categories. At the time I started collecting data, this was 28 categories, so a specialised part is one that has appeared in less than 28 categories.

Here's the graph of the average proportion of a set's part that are specialised each year/decade:

Or, if you prefer, a graph of the proportion of sets each year that contain  more than 50% specialised parts:

Conclusion: Sets these days are not full of overly specialised parts - they're pretty much the least specialised they've ever been!

Update: I wouldn't pay too much attention to the startlingly high results for the 50's and 60's since, for reasons explained in the updates and comments below, they are known to be erroneously inflated to some degree. I'm in the process of trying to fix this.

The bad years of the late 90's and early 2000's, when specialised parts supposedly proliferated wildly, are clearly visible on the second graph, but they're perhaps not as bad as you might have expected. On the averages graph, they don't seem that bad at all. I guess we tend to focus on the worst examples from those years, without acknowledging that the majority of sets weren't that bad.

What you can clearly see on both graphs, beginning around 2006, is the effect of stricter controls on set designers' use of specialised parts. In David Robertson's book, Brick by Brick, he says:
"As a result [of the new rules], on average, at least 70 percent of every LEGO set, whether it's a LEGO City box or a new play theme such as Ninjago, is now made up of standard, universal bricks."
Lo and behold, by 2007 the averages graph is below the 30% mark and has stubbornly stayed there ever since.*

So that's what I found. Let me know what you think in the comments, or carry on reading to find out the details of the data collection, including some known flaws.

In my next post, which will follow shortly, I'll be breaking the data down by themes and looking at things like whether licensed sets are more specialised than non-licensed.


Update: Another flaw, which I just noticed as a result of the very first comment, is that older versions of basic bricks end up counting as specialised because they were phased out before having the chance to appear in lots of themes. I think this accounts for the unusually high proportions of specialised bricks and sets in the 50's and 60's. Luckily, since Bricklink appears to have labelled these older versions in a consistent way ('[item #]old'), this should be reasonably simple to fix.
To some extent this error actually cancels out some of the error from double counting counterparts mentioned below, since in sets where less common older bricks appear as counterparts, they will be cancelled out by the more common versions. 
In my last post, you may remember that I found the proportion of basic bricks and plates has fallen over time (in a limited sample of sets). That may seem completely at odds with the results in this post, and may partially be explained by older versions of basic bricks counting as specialised. But I think it's mostly because the definition of specialised in this post is closer to the AFOL's definition ('can't be used for anything else') rather than the traditionalist's definition ('isn't a cuboid brick or rectangular plate').

All data was collected from Bricklink using a web scraping program I wrote in Python. I'm happy to share the code, but be warned that it isn't pretty. A lot of the flaws below could probably be fixed with smarter web scraping, but I'm not willing to spend huge amounts of time figuring it out in the near future. If anyone reading is good at Python and/or web-scraping and would be willing to help out, let me know, and I'll make the code public so we can all work together on improving it.

The data is not weighted by the number of each part in the set. So if a set contains one specialised part and fifty 2x4 bricks, it still counts as 50% specialised. To be honest, I did this because it made the data scraping easier. I'm happy to discuss how this will have affected the results in the comments, but if you want it done differently you'll have to help me rewrite the code!

I removed all sets that Bricklink puts in the Duplo category, as well as any set with Duplo in its name (this catches educational Duplo sets and the like). While Duplo bricks are compatible with normal Lego bricks, they never show up in any Lego sets, so Duplo sets always come out as 100% specialised and skew the data. Contrast with Technic, which shows up in normal Lego sets all the time.

I also excluded any set with less than 10 types of part, to get rid of the majority of little promo sets and advent calendar builds etc.

The parts counted are anything in a set's Bricklink inventory that Bricklink defines as a part. Which is to say any part whose catalogue entry has a URL including P=[part number]. This excludes minifigs (deliberately) but unfortunately doesn't exclude stickers or counterparts. Again this is something that I found too complicated to fix, and since stickers and counterparts rarely make up a huge proportion of a set's parts, it hopefully doesn't affect the data too much.

One final flaw I only spotted after digging into the data for my next post is that if a part appears twice in the same set in multiple colours then it will count once for every colour. So if a set has 20 different types of part and 3 of them are the same specialised part in 3 different colours then, assuming no other specialised parts or colour variations, the proportion will be 3/22, rather than the 1/20 I'd prefer. I don't think it will have made any difference to the overall trends however.

I think that's all that needs mentioning - if you want more details, just ask.

* Amazing, right? I randomly chose 25% of categories as the threshold and it just turned out that this squared very nicely with recent averages being below 30% specialised. I definitely didn't try out a few different thresholds on a sample of recent sets until I found one that placed the average just below 30%. No siree!