Mega Bloks Dragons

Today's guest review is from Lawrence Horsburgh, better known to many of you on the boards as simply 'L'.  Lawrence is a unique product for us this time - Mega Bloks!  The new line is Dragons and, well, I'll let 'L' tell you all about it...

I never thought that my interest in toys would end up so broad that I would be excited about a Mega Bloks product, but there you are, life takes strange turns sometimes. Mega Bloks, for those who don’t know, is a Canadian company that makes Lego-style bricks that are somewhat cheaper than Lego. The plastic they use is thinner, the locking mechanism is looser -- they just don’t “look as good,” in ways I can’t quite pin down.

Mega Bloks has just launched a new line called “Dragons” Although it is tempting to compare the sets to the Lego Castle (and Harry Potter) sets, it’s not quite accurate. They are more of a cross between Lego and Playmobil, as I’ll explain in a moment. The “Dragons” line revolves around the war between two groups (Valherrans and Warfangs) and each set gives you more soldiers and battlefield elements to play out the war. Right now, there are two varieties of “War Chests,” tin boxes with three knights per box (plus assorted weapons, and enough building blocks to make a small fort). The next step up is the $10 “Dragon Slayer” set which comes with a knight, a dragon, some siege equipment, and a few building pieces. The next set is the “Battle Gate,” which gives you (for $20) a dragon, some knights, more building pieces and bases, and a large electronic stone arch. The set I’m reviewing is the $30 “Sorcerer’s Lair” set, details below. Finally, though I haven’t seen it in stores, is the $50 “Warrior Fortress” set which comes with just about everything, and a lot of it (including two dragons, one blue and one red). 

Packaging - ****
Mega Bloks normally gives us extremely bland boxes, with a straightforward photo of the assembled model against a single color backdrop. This time, they’ve changed their approach. There are full-scale battles going on in every cover, and in the larger sets, this is quite a scene. The top of the package is textured like dragon scales, with the logo written in fiery letters. It’s an eye-catching design, something I noticed from across the store in the Lego section. The logo is large and attractive, and the photos highlight what the sets include in a dramatic way. Children who like fantasy will WANT these when they see them.

Sculpting - ***
For a set like this, there are really several ways to evaluate the sculpt.  First, there is the technical aspect.  Does it “work” as a construction set – is it easy to build, is it stable, is it easy to take apart?  Well, kinda.  The pieces don’t lock together as tightly, or as automatically, as with Lego.  They feel a bit loose, and it’s sometimes difficult to “snap” them in place.  It’s just a cheaper design.  Even stranger, the larger pieces frequently are not covered in pegs.  These limits the building possibilities, and that’s a shame. 

The second way to evaluate the sculpt is just as one always does, aesthetically.  Here, Mega Bloks does quite well.  The dragon is only a small step down from the dragons of the “Dragonheart” line from a few years back – the basic design is the same, the articulation is the same, and the sculpt is extremely similar.  It’s a big dragon, about 7” long, with standard articulation at the shoulders and hips, and an opening mouth.  The scales are all sculpted on, the wings have sculpted bones and arms, there are teeth and claws and horns. 

The green base plates are not smooth plastic, but have bumps and ridges unevenly, suggesting grass or moors or uneven ground.  The side of the bases is rough and jagged, suggesting a cliff face.  This is important, for when the plates are stacked, it ends up looking like a rugged cliff, effectively.  Some of the building bricks are smooth, like Lego pieces, but some are textured like stone, and the sculpting on the window pieces is just intricate enough to be memorable.  There are even frescos of dragons on some of the wall pieces.  Two of the pieces are long, thin dragon (or vulture, it’s hard to tell) gargoyles, which can be clipped onto any wall to wonderful effect.  It’s well done.  Plus, there are the little details, like the metal plates and bolts on the catapult, or the nails on the ladder, or (my favorite) the fact that each banner is a different mold, not simply a repaint.  The Valherran one stresses their weapon of choice, the axe, while the Warfang one is more spear-like.  Attention to detail like that runs throughout the set – like in the decorative elements, the potions, spell book, a tree, a ring of stones and some removable “fire,” various torches (also with removable fire), and an opening iron grate door with a dragon head sculpted in its center.  The fire is all done very well, clear plastic painted yellow and red.  Perhaps the “cutest” touch is that the directions come in a scroll that unfolds, and on the back of one of the pages is a full color poster of most of the line.

The figures are similar to Lego in design, though a little larger (and more triangular, with small waists and huge broad shoulders).  They  have sculpted details in their armor, chains and straps and emblems and horns, and are extremely three-dimensional, unlike Lego figs.  Unfortunately, they are all the SAME knight, with a different head.  If you only have a small collection, that’s not a problem.  If you want an army, it’s also fine, and the line is clearly designed to be a battle game for large armies.  Not to mention that, since this is a Lego clone, you could always swap SOME parts with Lego figs for more variety (see pic).  But it is a shame not to have anything other than knights to use – wizards, rogues, dwarves, elves, centaurs, griffons, the possibilities with fantasy are endless, and there is only one variety of figure here.   

That said, it does remind me of an especially well done Playmobil set.  These are not McFarlane dioramas, they are not like the Mage Knight castle pieces or the play sets 21st Century Toys has made for the XD line.  They remain plastic-y and toy-like.  They aren’t models.  They look nice, but let’s not get carried away.  Because the pieces are all large, and there are fewer building pieces, it looks less complex and detailed than a similar-sized Lego set.

Articulation - **
How can a play set be articulated?  Well, I’m including two things here:  first, the articulation of the figures themselves, and second the “rebuild” factor of a Lego-styled construction set.  The figures are just like Lego figures without the articulation in the wrists.  Their legs are removable, but I haven’t tried swapping heads. 

The construction feature is unique.  If you are a Lego fan, this is not quite what you want.  There are very few “building” bricks, and what there is have major problems.  There are basic gray rectangular bricks, the hallmark of the Lego world, and then there are specialty pieces:  rocks, walls, corners, window pieces, and crenellations.  Unfortunately, the corner pieces and the window pieces are meant to go together, and fit together across a diagonal, so the seam between them makes a “V.”  Every window piece, then, ends at a diagonal, and cannot be combined with regular bricks or wall pieces.  Similarly, every corner ends at a diagonal, and cannot be combined with regular bricks or wall pieces (see the pics if this is not quite clear).  In the end, it’s not clear why they bothered to make separate pieces at all, since there is only one way to combine them – they may as well have just made half-squares and left it at that.  With such a small variety of bricks, even if you had 10 of each set in the line, there is a limit to what you can build.  There just is not much THERE.

It’s clear from the design of the set, though, that it is not meant to be a Lego-styled set.  It more resembles the castles made by Playmobil, though it is far more detailed than anything I’ve seen by them.  It’s certainly a major improvement over the dismal Lord of the Rings Lego-rip-offs from Playmates, which were overpriced, made use of  poor electronic features, and included figures that were done in an entirely wrong style (too realistic to be Lego figures, too simplistic to be action figures).

There is one way in which “Dragons” really stands out, though:  the bases.  Lego has three varieties of base for its fans:  no base, flat base, and raised plate base.   Many sets, especially recent sets (Harry Potter, the Lego Studios monsters) do not provide a base.  Some sets have flat square green bases.  Others have raised plates of various shapes, usually with a recess in the middle, some steps in the corner, sometimes a ramp.  That’s it.  There is no way to really make Lego valleys, mountains, hills, cliffs, without buying LOTS of green bricks, or maybe if you are daring, green and brown.  And it would not look THAT great, when done.  With the Dragons line, there are various shaped bases, some long and flat, others smaller and higher, that are not simple rectangles, but built to “lock together” (see pictures).  They fit together in various ways, and then can be locked together by building on them.  The smaller bases can be placed on the larger ones, either to lock them together, or to create a hill, or a valley, or a cliff face.  The real “rebuild” potential of these sets consists, not in the fortresses (which will be somewhat uniform in design) but in the landmasses.  If you were to buy just the Battle Gate, Sorcerer’s Lair, and Warrior Fortress, you would have enough base plates for a wide variety of battlefields, each different from the last and visually impressive.   This feature is what really grabbed me, at first, about the Dragons line, and what drew me to it.

One final comment about this aspect of the toy:  some people have pointed out in message boards that the distinctive ink wash and textured sculpt on the pieces makes them incompatible with Lego sets.  The figures may work, but the building pieces are too unique, they would stand out and look bad mixed in with the non-painted, smooth plastic of Lego bricks.  This may be true – even using the gargoyles or just the crenellated pieces might look awkward in an otherwise entirely-Lego castle.  Still, there is a lot of potential re-use in this set:  the figures and dragon and horse, the torches, the campfire, the banners, the catapult, the runic monolith, and most importantly the bases, could all be used with Lego and not look awkward. 

Play Features - ****
First of all, there is of course the dragon.  It’s not the best dragon in the world, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend getting these sets just for the dragons, but it is nice.  A button on the saddle triggers the wing-flapping, and even nicer, if you place a “magic stone” on the dragon’s harness, the dragon eyes light up.  There’s a red bulb that illuminates the eyes, and when you open the mouth, there is a faint red glow coming through.  Very evocative of “fire-breathing,” and it looks great in a dark room.  Finally, the dragon has a magnet in one claw, so it can snatch various knights, who all have some metal in their chests. 

There is also a catapult (there are other siege weapons  in other sets) which is quite nice, with working wheels and a working arm, plus four soft “rocks” to throw.  There is a trapdoor in one of the base plates – complete with a lever to operate it, which is a bit clumsy and does not have the smooth flow of a Lego trapdoor, but is effective all the same. 

The centerpiece of the set is the great stone monolith.  It’s got two “teeth,” and there are runes carved into it.  When the “magic orb” is taken from the dragon and placed between the stones, three of the runes glow red – it’s a bright bulb, it can be seen clearly even in daylight.  When the runes themselves are pushed in a particular order (great attention to detail!) the top of the taller stone slowly opens up to reveal a hidden chamber, in which anything can be placed if it fits – it’s designed to hold a scepter, with vaguely Arthurian implications.  (“Strange runic stones distributing magic scepters is no basis for a system of government!”) 

The set also comes with 10 knights, five from each army, plus a battle standard for each (army, that is), and enough weapons and shields for everyone.  There are no swords in the Dragons line, oddly enough, unless you count the sculpted swords on the backs of the Valherran soldiers.  The Valherrans fight with spears and glaives of various sorts, giant pole arms with axes and spikes; the Warfangs have hammers, maces, and clubs of various nasty sorts. 

All of this results in endless play potential.  The dragon gate opens to the dark chambers of the Sorcerer’s Lair, in which we find spell books and magic potions.  The Valherran lieutenant arrives on horseback with his demands, his standard bearer at his side, while Vorlod, ruler of the Warfangs, watches in contempt (yes, the knights all have names, and are clearly identified on the box).  The Warfang king is dropped by a trapdoor into his own dungeons, while the Valherrans arrive on the dragon Stoneburner (yes, the dragons all have names as well).  The two armies clash on the hillside, the catapult wearing down the resistance of those who man the battlements, as the sorcerer attempts to solve the riddle of the monolith and its runic inscriptions.

Value - (with apologies to Dr. Evil):  one BILLLYYYON stars
Well, the base plate design intrigued me, the play features impressed me, but it’s the price that makes me rave.  $30 for the Sorcerer’s Lair is just a steal.  10 knights, a horse, a dragon, a working catapult, plus a fortress with a gate, a trapdoor, torches, banners, and a field of battle out front, it’s just astonishing what they’ve packed in.  The Lego Studios Scary Laboratory, recently released, cost $50 and included only 5 figures, no base, and far fewer features, and was much smaller.  This set is one of the largest sets in the Dragons line, and costs what a medium-to-small Lego set would cost.  The tins, meanwhile would cost $5 at Newbury Comics (a local Boston music-and-oddities place) if they were EMPTY!  $50 for the Warrior Fortress strikes me as a tad high, if only because the building pieces are so limited one doesn’t really benefit much from such a large set.   Still, it’s hard to knock a line in today’s market that gives you so much for so little – tons of action features, electronics, figures, a big honkin’ dragon, all for what most of us are used to paying for something very small (the only comparison I can imagine is the recent Muppet Labs set, which is also an astonishingly good buy).

Overall - ****
It’s difficult to assign a low overall rating to a set that gives you so MUCH for so little money.  At the same time, this is one of those “niche market” things – it’s really only going to appeal to a select number of toy fans, because it’s not quite an action figure, not quite a building set, and just in general it’s a very unique item.

However, if this is your cup of tea, it’s exceptionally well executed.  The pieces all look good, they lend themselves to a small degree of imaginative reconstruction, and the set includes more extras and features than any set I’ve seen in years.  I’d have been quite impressed without the dragon, the catapult, the electronics – but with them, it’s a fantastic item.  There are a few places where improvements could be made:  there could be more building bricks, those that are included could be designed in a more flexible way, the bases and floors could have more pegs on them, the stud-and-slot locking mechanism could be tighter and smoother.  But even Lego fans who prefer more useful building pieces will find a ton of useful items in this set for a small expense -- at $30, it’s difficult to mind these issues, especially when you are distracted by the pretty lights, moving parts, rugged valleys, and the armies massing on your borders…..

Figure from the collection of Lawrence Horsburgh.

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