Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Variga - Introduction

If you've ever watched Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, you may remember that red-and-white ship that you only see for a couple of minutes at the start of the movie, the one that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn travel on and that gets blown up in the hangar of the Trade Federation battleship. That little, insignificant ship, the Radiant VII (the only ships used by any major character in the movies that get less screentime are the Sith Infiltrator used by Darth Maul, also in Episode I, and Yoda's little rocket pod, on Kashyyyk in Episode III), has long been my favorite spaceship design of all time, and more than one personal project has featured variants of that ship. is a website that serves as a bare-bones hosting website for images, documents, and files pertaining to Lego and clone brands. It allows people to upload images and certain kinds of other files to its database, display them in folders under their account, and use keyword searches to search its database. That's about it.

About two years ago, I was on a mini-building craze. I wanted to build a very, very small model of the Radiant VII, and I wanted to see if anyone else had done that and how they had done it, to get ideas for my own work. Instead, I found this:

Once I had picked my jaw up off the floor, I was ecstatic. The Bricklink gallery included photos of some of the internal structure of this model; I had everything I needed to start building my own. Thus began a project of three or four months. In my spare time, I worked to reverse-engineer the design by the French AFOL whose online name is Anio. I also made some modifications, working toward a favorite variation on the design, and the result is the Variga.

Then, a week or so after the end of spring semester at college, I decided to launch a major project for the summer. I would build the Variga, using real Lego's. It would require the purchase of over 1,300 bricks.

About 5 days ago, I received the (hopefully) last two pieces in the mail. It's taken a couple of months more than I expected, but soon, I'll be building this model. Watch for updates!

Happy building!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lego Lingo - The DSS and STAMP's

If you've ever handled a Lego set from a theme other than Creator or BIONICLE, you've almost certainly seen some of the stickers Lego prints to decorate their sets. Lego's Space and Adventure-themed non-licensed sets and their licensed Star Wars, Marvel Superheroes, and DC Superheroes sets are especially likely to have lots of stickers.

Because stickers look so goofy when they aren't on straight, they aren't the most kid-friendly component of any given Lego set. And most AFOL's like printed pieces more than stickers because (a.) stickers can peel off when scuffed around the edges, and (b.) evidently, a lot of AFOL's are a bunch of butterfingers and can't get stickers on straight to save their lives.

Hence the acronym DSS, which stands for "Dreaded Sticker Sheet." Some people have been known to substitute something rather less polite for dreaded in the above acronym. This acronym refers, of course, to the fact that Lego prints its stickers on one or, rarely, two, sheets of sticker surface. Historically they've just been left loose in the box, and as often as not been folded, scuffed badly, or otherwise damaged by the time the box is opened. That has changed some in recent years, however.

Recently, Lego has started packing the instruction manuals for their sets costing over $100, and some that cost less, in plastic folders with a cardboard backer, which keeps the instruction manual from getting bent or having its binding disintegrate. These little packages also hold the sticker sheets, for obvious reasons.

If stickers are such a nuisance, why doesn't Lego just quick making them and switch to all printed parts, like they do with minifigure components? Good question. The answer has to do with manufacturing overhead and the near-collapse of Lego a few years ago.

At the time, the manufacturing departments of the company were complaining loudly about all the new parts they kept being asked to make, because it kept driving their costs higher. Essentially, every Lego plant produces many different shapes and colors of parts, and each time the shape or color is changed the whole line has to be stopped so that the color of plastic can be changed or so that molds can be swapped out. This results in a lot of downtime and sometimes wasted materials, and the more kinds of parts the factories need to produce, the more waste and downtime is incurred and the more expensive the whole business becomes.

The designers resisted calls to simplify their work, claiming that they needed these new elements they were calling for. The manufacturers won the dispute quite handily by showing management some of the new minifigures they were being asked to produce for various sets. The model designers had been designing minifig models of themselves. This illustrated the point rather well, and although the elevated manufacturing costs alone were hardly the entirety of Lego's troubles, the problem was quickly dealt with by adding new standards and oversight to the implementation of "changes."

Every theme, and the company as a whole, has a strict limit on the "changes" that can be implemented in any given year. A "change" is any component that is different, either in shape, color, or printing, from the pieces produced by Lego at that time. Given the choice, a designer would generally rather use the available changes to introduce new parts or colors, unless a given printed part is likely to be useful for more than one set or used in very large numbers, or is one of a few parts that Lego never applies stickers to (the minifig head component is an example of one that has never to my knowledge had a sticker applied to it in an official set). So, instead of producing lots of nice printed parts, the designers, tend to incorporate more stickers to get the fine details they want.

Just about the only thing that annoys an AFOL more than a missing or broken piece in a brand-new set is a sticker that attaches to more than one Lego element. These despicable objects are called STAMP's, which stands for "STickers Across Multiple Parts." You'll find these on old 9-volt Lego Trains, occasional City sets from a least 5 years ago and sometimes on really old Space sets. They are fairly often cut into pieces with craft knives into several smaller stickers, so that you don't have to worry about the STAMP coming off when the model is taken apart and the bricks to which it is attached aren't being held in place next to each other.

Thankfully, there aren't many STAMP's around any more. The backlash from these has been great enough that Lego has found other ways to get around the problem without resorting to those nasty, big pieces of adhesive-coated plastic.

Happy building!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tools of the Trade - Eurobricks

It's been a week and a half since I wrote a blog post. That's way longer than I'd like, and I apologize. BUT there is a reason. Or at least an excuse.

So, once you've built something impressive, you will want to share it with other Lego fans. Trust me, you will. And I've found that the best way to do that is by posting on Eurobricks. is an AFOL forum. It is divided into several subforums based on themes and types of building. Eurobricks profiles are free and consist essentially of an email address, username, and password. And once you have a profile like this, you can start posting immediately. Once you have ten posts, you can start deeplinking images, and things really start to open up.

Not only is Eurobricks a great place to share you Lego creations, it's also home to a host of Lego contests. Three of the most active subforums are the Technic forum, dedicated to the Lego Technic building system and the motors and gadgets that interact with it; the Historical Themes forum, focusing on the several medieval themes Lego has released since 1978; and the Lego Star Wars forum, devoted to the highly popular licensed Star Wars theme. Technic hosts frequent stand-alone challenges, while Historical hosts a years-old contest called Guilds of Historica and Star Wars hosts a year-old contest called Shadows of Nar Eurbrikka. Both of these last consist of a series of smaller contests for those who have signed up and joined teams. Since I'm not a castle-builder, I don't compete in Guilds of Historica, but I'm a very active player in Shadows of Nar Eurbrikka, or SoNE as it's commonly abbreviated, so that's what I'll describe to you.

The name of the contests is a parody of a comic book series set in the time between Episode V and Episode VI, titled "Shadows of Empire." Eurobricks members choose whether to join the Empire or the Rebellion, starting as a basic infantry grunt or fighter jock, and climb through the ranks as they gain experience points. Experience points, or XP, are earned by building for episodes or by building freebuilds.

Episodes generally run for a month. That is, a thread with the rules of the episode is opened on a given day, and about a month later is the final deadline for entries. Until that deadline, all entries in the episode are considered works in progress and can be freely altered. Once the deadline hits, the secret SoNE judges and the contest administrators swing into action. Some contests have unusual scoring rules, but normally, this is what happens: Each build is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "Minifig on a Plate" (a Lego plate, not a dinner plate), 5 being "An Average Build," and 10 being "Flawless Concept and Execution." For most builds, this is it; the score they received is the total score for that build. But the top five builds on each team are sent to the second round of scoring, where they receive as many as 10 additional points for concept, 25 for execution, and 5 for presentation; those additional points are added to their first-round score and the total is divided by two to give their final score. The highest possible score under these rules is 25 points.

When all the builds have been scored, the final scores of all the Imperial builds and Rebel builds are totaled, and the team with the highest total score wins the episode. A week or two after that, the next episode is released, and it all starts over again. There are some changes in the air with regard to that scoring system, though, namely the removal of the second round of scoring. It tends to dump huge numbers of XP on the very best builders, causing them to rocket through the ranks far ahead of the less skillful builders and those who don't have quite so much excessive time on their hands.

Scoring episodes generally takes about a month, and in that time you have the opportunity to build freebuilds. Technically these can be built at any time, but they are usually done during the wait for episode scores because that's when people aren't obsessing over their episode builds. Freebuilds have no rules other that they can not excessively violate Star Wars or SoNE canon and continuity and they must focus on your Lego character at some point in his or her life. They are scored much like Episode builds, but have of course no second round and are scored on a scale of 1 to 5 rather than 1 to 10. Usually during the first week of an episode, scores are handed down for all the freebuilds posted since the last time this was done, so sometimes thirty or more freebuilds are scored at once. To keep people from manufacturing XP with lots and lots of simple (or elaborate, for that matter) freebuilds, players are limited to 4 scored freebuilds between one episode deadline and the next. They are allowed to build as many unscored freebuilds as they like, however.

So what's the goal of all this? Well, there's collecting XP, for one thing. Final scores of episodes and freebuilds are given to their builders in the form of XP. Higher levels of XP buys you some building and concept privileges in the form of rank. An Imperial moves from line service to the Imperial Survey Corps at 10 XP, to the Imperial Security Bureau at 25 XP, to his or her choice of the Shadowtroopers, Storm Commandos, or Dark Troopers (all various forms of commando troops) at 50 XP, to the Imperial Department of Military Research at 100 XP. The higher your rank, the more cinematically capable your character is allowed to be, and the more options you have as to how to fulfill the demands of an episode. For instance, a TIE pilot with 0 XP is basically limited to flying his fighter to combat the Rebels, or maybe flying a transport to drop Imperial ground forces into a combat zone, while a IDMR officer with 100 XP can do that, or he could do just about anything else that would help the Imperial forces, including directing the battle from the bridge of a Star Destroyer! The corresponding ranks for the Rebellion, in case you wondered, are line service, Alliance Support Services, Alliance Intelligence, SpecForce/SpecOps, Army/Starfighter Command.

Another benefit, or cost, of XP is that is can change what you are required to accomplish during an episode. In the most recent episode, Episode VI: Bounty Hunter Hunt, the more XP you have, the more separate builds you are allowed to make. There have been discussions of making completely different requirements for high-ranking builders during an episode. We'll see what comes of that.

The other main motivations, aside from XP are victory for your team and recognition from other builders. Very rarely are there prizes to the winning builders or teams.

What does all this have to do with my prolonged absence? Well, a new episode was released Saturday night, and in this episode speed is of the essence. So, I spent Sunday and Monday building and taking pictures to get my work out as soon as possible. Now that that's done, though, I have a lot of material on my computer, just about ready for a review of an official set, so I'll be back soon with more material for your perusal. Until then, happy building!

P.S. Here are the links to my two builds so far this episode. Normally only 1 build is allowed per builder per episode, but the rules are different for this particular episode. "Oh, the Uniform!" and "Shot the Messenger" are two of three that I'm allowed to build; the third will come much later.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Lego Digital Designer

So I've just had a really great idea for a Lego model. (Actually, I haven't, but we'll pretend I have so I can get this blog post started.) It's a huge model, with hundreds of parts. I'm not sure what all of those parts will be, or what colors they will be in. Maybe I don't even have all the parts I need. What can I do?

Well, I could just give up on the project, but that's not the point of this blog post. So instead I have to try to build the model. With a model this big, it could take hours or days, or even weeks or months, to finish, even if I do have all the parts I need. And if I don't, I might spend a hundred dollars or more on parts before I get it right, and at least half of the parts I bought wouldn't be any use to the project.

Yuck. And over several years as a Lego hobbyist, just imagine how much time and money would be wasted on trial-and-error.

But this is the twenty-first century, and - surprise! There's an app for that. Well, a computer program, anyway; I don't know if it's available for smartphones. It's called Lego Digital Designer, or LDD for short, and it's a Lego fan's dream come true, unless you really like working with BIONICLE's, in which case it isn't really much help. But more on that later.

Basically, Lego Digital Designer is a computer program that allows you to build virtual models out of virtual bricks. It started out as one half of the old LEGO Factory service. LEGO Factory allowed you to upload models built with LDD to the Lego website, then buy those models as custom sets. They cost a pretty penny, and ultimately that brought about the downfall of LEGO Factory. The service was discontinued as part of a series of steps taken in the nineties to keep LEGO from going bankrupt (but that's a story for another day). But LDD stayed around, and LEGO Factory was key to making it what it is today.

LDD, which is a free-download program available online from Lego's website, has three modes: Basic, Extended, and Mindstorms. Basic is stocked with an inventory of the bricks currently produced by Lego in their proper colors, albeit with some limitations so far as minifigures and other printed parts are concerned. This setting most plainly reflects how the original LDD functioned: Lego put limits on what parts you could use in which colors and with which prints in an attempt to keep overhead on the Factory service down. Extended essentially takes all the parts in Basic and makes them available in all colors. I really don't know what Mindstorms is for. I would assume it has something to do with the Mindstorms line of Lego robotics sets, which uses some different Lego-compatible sensors, motors, and computer chips to build 100% Lego robots.

Just about every piece every made by Lego is available in Extended mode, with one notable exception. The Bionicle line of a few years ago is virtually unrepresented in the LDD inventory. Why? I have no idea. Maybe Lego just hasn't gotten around to updating LDD with those parts - every few months they update the program with more pieces. But regardless, you can build just about anything with LDD.

So, if I want to work out my great model idea (Remember that idea? That one that I didn't really have but we're pretending I did?) without spending a fortune and an age by testing my idea in real bricks, I can build it with virtual bricks, than take that virtual model apart to find out what parts I need to build a physical model. And once I've corralled the parts, LDD has an instruction generator that can figure out (and pretty quickly) how you should put your model together. Well, maybe should is a bit strong. Could, perhaps? The problem is that, while it's entirely possible to build something exactly according to LDD's instructions, it can get it bit strange since the program sometimes has you put down a piece hanging out in space, a long, long way from anything to connect to. Eventually something will connect to it, but in the meantime it just hangs around out there. As a result, the instructions, while usable, are a bit of a brain-bender.

For the low-budget Lego fan, there are some other things that can be done with LDD. Pov-Ray is a program that renders virtual three-dimensional models to create realistic-looking pictures of them, and there is a free LDD-to-Pov-Ray converter that takes your LDD file and converts it to something Pov-Ray can work on. If your model has transparent parts, the process can get a bit lengthy and involved, but the results can be really quite stunning. There are quite a few high-profile Lego builders who work almost exclusively in LDD, and someday when I can't come up with anything better to post about I'll share some of their work.

Happy building!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lego Lingo: AFOL's and ALE's and ALH's, Oh My!

Before we dive into the bricks, I'd like to take some time to introduce you all to some of the acronyms, slang, jargon, and terms used by Lego fans.

So, who are those fans, anyway? Why, AFOL's , ALE's, and ALH's, of course! Isn't it obvious?

Well, actually, it really isn't. Hence this post.

Basically, Lego fans can be divided into two categories based on age: children and adults. Because of the age difference, what a typical child wants from a Lego set tends to be rather different from what an adult wants from a Lego set. The most widely-used set of acronyms for Lego users is based off of this age separation. AFOL stands for "Adult Fan Of Lego," and KFOL stands for "Kid Fan Of Lego."

To those two categories, some people at a third, TFOL or "Teen Fan OLego." This is used to acknowledge that fact that kids who are older than 10 or so have a third distinct set of expectations from their Lego's. Trouble is, the upper limit of "teen" isn't really clear. Does it stop at 18, when the Lego fan is legally an adult? Or does it stop when they are no longer teenage; that is, once they turn twenty? For instance, I'm nineteen as of today, but I'm competing in Lego competitions with adults, building slightly ahead of the curve. Which am I, teen or adult? So, while I acknowledge the usefulness of the teen designation, it's just too vague for me, so I don't really use it myself.

Some builders take their hobby very seriously. They don't like to be called "fans," which does sound a bit undignified. But what they do call themselves tends to vary based on what they like to build. People who work with Lego train layouts, town layouts, and the like tend to prefer ALH, for "Adult Lego Hobbyist." Pretty much everybody else uses tends to use ALE, for "Adult Lego Enthusiast." There are also a few who appreciate the pun on the alcoholic beverage and use the acronym for that reason.

Personally, I like the ring of ALE better, but I generally use AFOL instead. Why? Because almost all the major organizations of Lego users (trust me, such groups do exist, and eventually I'll write about them, too) use AFOL. So if I want to be sure people will know what I'm talking about, I need to use AFOL myself.

Happy building!

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Hello all, and welcome to the Headlight Brick, a blog about Lego, Lego pieces, and the Lego hobby. Here I'll be posting design techniques, definitions of common Lego acronyms, reviews of official sets, and anything else Lego that crosses my desk.

For this first post, though, I'd like to go into a brief bit of detail about who I am and why I'm still playing with plastic bricks when there's so much that I really should get done. I am the eldest son in a very large family, attending college with a major in accounting. I'm a lifelong geek and proud of the title, and I'm a self-taught musician.

As for the Lego's, our family bought a lot of the bulk brick-buckets and basic sets as toys for the kids when I was growing up, and as the years went by Lego's were a favorite birthday and Christmas gift. The BIONICLE theme gets special credit for keeping Lego's on my radar for many years, but it was the need to visualize the ships in a science-fiction writing project that really brought me back to Lego in a serious way. In the last year, I have become fully involved in the Lego community and an avid builder and collector, and a determined student of the various techniques and methods used by Lego builders worldwide.

At the moment, I am deeply invested in the various iterations of Lego's Space themes, ranging from one of the Classic Space sets from the eighties, to the little known but pioneering theme Spyrius from the mid-nineties, to the current Lego Space offering, Galaxy Squad. I prefer to build in the colors Dark Red, Dark Bluish Gray (also known as New Dark Gray), and Black. I still own several BIONICLE's, and I have a few Lego Star Wars sets and a couple of little-used but much-loved Lego Trains.

I will attempt to update this blog once or twice a week, or as often as I can compose a post. Happy building!

I'm the guy behind glass.