Learned # 49: Brick by Brick

In which we dive into the world of non-Lego Lego.

Toys R Us has managed to survive in Japan, for the moment at least, and the one near my house has a nice, big Lego section full of all the different levels. There’s Duplo for the toddlers, and expert level for the AFOLs*, and there’s Marvel and Star Wars and Anna and Elsa and all the other branded content, too. And then there are all the non-Lego building kits on a much smaller shelf over in the corner.

I had known about some of them - I’ve got a couple of Nanoblock kits knocking about a drawer in my office, somewhere. And I knew about Megaconstrux, mainly because they’ve managed to acquire the American Girl license, but mixed in amongst these familiar non-Lego brands was one I hadn’t seen before, Banbao, and they had Snoopy.

My initial reaction was disappointment: why couldn’t Lego have gotten the Peanuts license? Later, reflecting on it, I started to wonder why my default assumption was that if a construction toy was not Lego it wasn’t worth buying. So, I did what I do - I started researching everything I could about Lego and its competitors…

In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: Blocking Out

  • What We’re Reading: Only What’s Necessary

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Ali, Ali, Alibaba

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Rishi Deep on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

Blocking Out

Compatibility and quality are easy targets in the "building toy" game. Lego has taken great pains over the years to make sure that their toys would last through the decades. You can take a kit manufactured in the 60s (assuming you could get your hands on one) and use its pieces with a kid manufactured today and be assured that you would have no problems getting the pieces to link together. Once you change companies, those guarantees go away.

As I became an adult, and then a parent, and started to exert economic influence** , I found I had a bit of snobbery around what I would and wouldn't buy - Lego was fine. Lego was great. Other kits, not so much. And not for any reason I could really define, just that they...weren't Lego. I ended up with a few kits from different non-Lego brands anyway and had my suspicions confirmed.

Nanoblocks Tokyo Tower. Godzilla for scale.

Nanoblocks are very popular in Japan. And they’re actually pretty good kits. It’s just that they’re, well, nano. My middle-aged eyes and fingers struggle to put the kits together. Then again, Nanoblocks has recently begun selling branded tweezers (along with assembly mats and glue) so maybe it’s not just me.

The other brand I spent the most time with was Megaconstrux. My daughter recently received an American Girl gymnastics figure and set, which I ‘helped’ her assemble. It’s a well-designed kit, but far flimsier than the Lego I’m used to. One or two pieces were stubborn in their fitting and I may (or may not, no self-incrimination!) have bent them when pushing them into final position.

But those are two well-known, respected brands (Megaconstrux is owned by Mattel) which take care to respect other companies intellectual property. Maybe that’s the key point. I’m familiar with at least two knock-off brands, Leipin and Enlighten, who make exact clones of Lego kits. I won’t link them, but they’re pretty easy to find on the internet; without going into the full politics of the situation, I don’t wish to support companies who profit off of piracy.

The official Lego VW Bug set.

To be clear, the piracy is in copying the instructions and design of a kit, not the bricks themselves. In fact, there are several small companies making Lego-compatible bricks and kits for a variety of reasons that are well worth supporting, or at least remaining neutral-toward as market forces to their thing. One of the better examples is BrickArms, who make modern weaponry that are compatible with Lego and other building toy figures; Lego will not make modern weaponry and so, seeing a market opportunity, founder Will Chapman began making parts for his son first, and then built a company around it. Nothing wrong with that.

And that becomes the problem. Wikipedia lists over a dozen “Lego clones,” some of which are more clone-like than others; whenever I see a new building toy, I wonder how good the quality is, whether it’s compatible with Lego, and whether it’s an original product. The first two points are not necessarily deal-breakers. The third one is.

Which brings us back to Banbao. I had never heard of the company, but I like Snoopy and some of the kits looked fun. So:

Will I buy? I don’t know. There is a limit to how many different lines of building bricks I want cluttering up my house and, while I love Snoopy, it’s always been because of the strips not the merchandising. Time will tell, but for now, I think I’ll stick with Lego.

*Adult Fans Of Lego - it’s a thing.

**Shopping. With my own money.

What We’re Reading:

Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts

by Chip Kidd

For any Peanuts fan, this book is like getting a glimpse behind the curtain. Not only does it show how Schulz worked, but it shows the massive cultural impact Snoopy and the gang have had over the years.

From my (2016) review on Wink Books:

The attention to detail and care that has gone into curating this book is obvious, considerable, and welcome. Special effort is made to not only display the various pieces of ephemera but to provide context for them. It’s easy to get lost in little stories and minutia detailing phenomena from a time gone by; I’ve been through the book several times now, each time going down one rabbit hole or another, becoming fascinated by some aspect or another of the Peanuts story that began (and sometimes ended) well before I was born.

Said aspects are fascinating (the production process), interesting (the board games and braille books), weird (the vinyl dolls), and, of course, just a little heartbreaking (the final strip), and served well by the top notch production values and curation. But I’m biased.

The title comes from Schulz himself, who referred to his cartooning style as keeping only what’s necessary. The designers of the book have equated this to simple, which is beautiful and eye-catching. But necessary can also mean everything: every line needed to show the characters’ feelings and reactions, every word needed to express the artist’s vision, every single thing needed to show why we still need Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and Lucy now, and for many years to come.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Ali, Ali, Alibaba

Alibaba is a

Chinese multinational conglomerate specializing in e-commerce, retail, Internet and technology. Founded April 4, 1999, the company provides consumer-to-consumer (C2C), business-to-consumer (B2C),and business-to-business (B2B) sales services via web portals, as well as electronic payment services, shopping search engines and cloud computing services.

Yeah, they sell stuff. And they do a lot of it on their Ali Express website. Here are some fun things I found while searching for Lego:

(Caveat: Some of the things I’m linking here may not be legit. I didn’t have time to run down every single seller name; some sellers seem to have no website other than Ali Express, so…)

And…that’s all. The list was originally going to be much longer, but as I realized that more and more sets I had thought were small brand originals were actually clones of medium range brands I didn’t know, I decided to stop listing them. So.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.