So Many Choices for Plastic Building Blocks
As a kid, I can remember countless hours spent in the back half of the house, near the rarely used fireplace, raking my hands back and forth through a big, deep box of Legos. My search for just the right piece, the sound of the plastic building blocks scraping and tumbling as hundreds of bricks were mashed around and pushed to and fro, used to drive my father crazy. It was loud. It was annoying. It was also the sound of creation.
I grew up in a time when Lego was not tied up in licensing agreements and realistic models. I remember I had a lunar lander kit, molded primarily in blue bricks. It also had some really cool thruster jet pieces and a bright yellow ladder. At the time, it was awesome and, if I remember right, the ascent module came off just like the real thing. I built that kit once, and eventually took it apart and mixed the pieces in with all the others. I also remember doing a helicopter, again all in blue. I had a motor for this one so that I could make the blades spin. It “flew” all over the house and did rescue missions outside, too. Most of the time I built race cars, airplanes, and houses. Over and over again. We had a nice little brick area in front of the fireplace that I imagined was a racetrack and pushed my little creations round and round. Like most people, I outgrew them. The bricks were eventually given away or sold in a garage sale. Gone for good, or so I thought.
As I head through middle age, I am rediscovering my love for the plastic building blocks. Lego sets, and now their numerous competitors, have gotten much more detailed and realistic in the models they have to offer. Whether it is fantasy or history, the models on offer have enough resemblance to the real thing, coupled with an ease of construction that can not be beaten. Generally, they come in with build times around one hour per 200 pieces. The kits I have built range from 200 to 2000 blocks. There is no painting, no glue, and very little guesswork. Sit down, start building, and a few hours later the project is done. Add in Lego’s competitors and the offerings are much deeper than ever before.
Lego is still king. I have built, by far, more Lego sets than any other brand. The pieces are of high quality. The fit is consistent and just right-never too loose or too tight. The colours are consistent and the instructions are clear. Most importantly, I have never had a missing piece. This high quality does come at a cost, however. Lego sets are, piece for piece, the most expensive sets out there. Lego also does not produce historical military sets as the company seemingly wants to avoid models that depict realistic violence. While you will never find a realistic Lego tank like the Sherman which helped end World War II, you can build the Death Star which, fictionally, destroyed entire planets and their populations.
Personally, I really enjoyed building three of the stellar lego kits that depict the history of space exploration. First is the gigantic Saturn V moon rocket which stands nearly a meter tall, second is the Lunar Lander, which has improved greatly on the original version, and finally, the recently produced model of the International Space Station. Lego does offer a fourth historic space kit, The Women of NASA, which is a much smaller kit. It is a celebration of the women behind the engineering. It’s a great Lego monument to their contributions, but as I am fascinated by the machines, it is not a kit that has crossed my path yet.
Cobi is the company I turn to for historic military models. They have a large line of tanks, aircraft, and ships. Most of them come from the World War II era, but they produce a number of tanks from the modern era as well. The tanks seem scaled nicely for the figures they come with, while the planes seem a bit off, particularly the larger the plane being modeled. The form of each plane is recognizable even if they don’t all adhere to the same scale. Their line of battleships from WWII is impressive because of their size and the fact that for bricks based on squares, they do build up into models that look close to their real life counterparts.
Fit is generally pretty good with Cobi, although you run into the occasional extra tight or extra loose piece. My family and I have built about seven of these kits and have had a missing piece once. Instructions are not quite as clear as Lego, and sometimes their printing makes it hard to tell piece colour apart, as their blacks, greys, and dark greys all look very similar in the booklets. What I often find challenging in the Cobi instructions is the color they use for parts from the previous step. It is very close to the color they use for light grey and always seems to throw me off. Printed colors for black and dark grey are also very similar. When the model is military, this can become an issue as light grey, dark grey, and black pieces are in high quantity.
Cobi also has a line of famous American icons which they produced for the Smithsonian Institution. Here you can find large models like the USS Constitution or smaller ones like the Boeing Starliner. These tend to take some liberties in scale and size, but again, you end up with a reasonable approximation of the real thing.
Finally, I have begun to dabble a bit into some of the “other” brands. These are smaller brands I had not heard of before or, in some cases, don’t seem to come with much branding at all. Going into these, I try to keep my expectations low as you never know what you are getting in terms of quality. My two forays into the unknown have involved Brick Block Army and Dragon Bloks.
A couple of years ago I did a kit from “Brick Block Army” who focus almost exclusively on military block models. Drawing conclusions from one kit may not be fair, but the first impression is that you get what you pay for. These kits are substantially lower in cost, and they ship directly from China in bags. Transit time is measured in weeks to months during which tracking your package may not work. The fit of these bricks can be inconsistent, with some being really tight while others are really loose. This kit also had one piece missing and another completely deformed as it looked like it melted in the extruder. The completed kit looks fine, as I was able to fill in the holes with leftovers from other kits, but it is a bit more fragile than other brands I have built.
Dragon Bloks experience also comes in low at only one which was the CN Tower model. No missing pieces, which is a big bonus, but fit was a challenge on some of the blocks. The translucent blue pieces seemed to have a hard time clicking into the solid colour blocks. As this is the only kit of theirs I have tried, it is impossible to say if this is specific to this kit or it is a common problem. It did have great instructions though, and I enjoyed building the tower. I would get another of these kits in the future.
Overall, none of the plastic building blocks kits have had any issues that would be a deal-breaker keeping me from buying their brand again. Lego suffers from a high price point and limited runs of the best kits, but you know they will fit, the instructions will work, and the product will be high quality. Cobi comes in a close second, with slight fit and instruction book issues. They really are the only game in town if you want to build realistic models of actual historic military vehicles. Dragon Blok is my third choice. With limited options, most of them architectural, the price point is good, but quality consistency may be variable. And finally, Brick Block Army is fourth. If you can wait six to eight weeks for your kit, and you have a good supply of spare parts, just in case, they do offer some unique models. One of these makers will likely have something out there that you can afford and would enjoy building. If you used to love “playing” with building blocks as a kid, give them a try again. There are some really cool kits out there.