Daniel Konstanski ponders a controversial question… which year was the best for LEGO sets?
I often have to drive several hours to job sites for my non-LEGO-related day job as an engineer, which gives me time to ponder questions. Sometimes the politics or world events of the day command my attention, while other hours are spent trying to work out a problem either from work or home. Then sometimes I ponder the completely trivial – like how many Jedi Knights it would take to defeat the Avengers (my conclusion? 27, and yes I can give you a 20-minute talk on the reasoning) or, as it was this last week, what was the LEGO Group’s best year in terms of overall product portfolio?
Obviously, this is a very subjective question. Everyone’s tastes are different, so what appeals to one may not necessarily float another’s boat. I decided instead to do a quick and dirty test: which years have I acquired the most sets from? There is rarely a popular theme that I don’t collect to some extent, so I reasoned it would give me a fair sense of where to look for excellent years. A quick stop at Brickset turned up a graph displaying the number of sets I own by year. Three years immediately jumped out at me: 2017, 2009 and 1988. What was it about those years that made them apparently so strong?
This column first appeared in Blocks magazine Issue 54. If you take out a subscription to Blocks, the LEGO magazine for fans, you’ll get a free digital subscription that includes every single issue we’ve every published thrown in. Find out more here.
I headed for the most recent first. Clicking in to see what sets I owned quickly revealed why 2017 was showing up so strong. Due to changes in production schedules, we got the bulk of both The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO NINJAGO Movie sets in the same year. Say what you will about the films, the sets were of incredible quality and size, and the minifigure selection was astonishing. Throw in Assembly Square, some decent Technic offerings, the Creator Carousel, a record-breaking UCS Falcon, and an original City subtheme in Jungle, and you have a heck of a year.
My next stop, 2009, did not surprise me. The late 2000s were a cornucopia. The stars aligned to produce a level of value that has not been seen since, as the LEGO Group tried to regain market share with a great selection of new parts, inspired design, and ever-increasing set sizes. If a set from this era has been remade in the years since, it’s almost certainly been smaller. Look no further than 10196 Grand Carousel, which dwarfs its more recent follow-up, 10257 Carousel.
Star Wars was right in the middle of its Clone Wars run in 2009. My personal highlight was 8039 Venator-Class Republic Attack Cruiser. The LEGO Group was also experimenting with ‘big bang’ concepts in the lead up to NINJAGO, and Power Miners was the experiment that year. This is one of the more underappreciated themes in my opinion, and I collected every set. Castle’s Fantasy Era, by far the best version of the theme in a generation and perhaps ever, was at the height of its power with both 10193 Medieval Market Village and 7097 Trolls’ Mountain Fortress, while Indiana Jones, Agents and Pirates were all rounding out the product line. Oh, and did I mention a little train known as the Emerald Night? It was an epic year that saw excellence across the entire swath of products available.
Despite the far fewer number of releases back then, 1988 still notches a fairly impressive resume. It counts Technic’s 8865 Test Car, the early forerunner to the amazing vehicles we are getting today, in its fold. 6085 Black Monarch’s Castle, still highly prized on the aftermarket, came out that year along with Forestmen. A pair of Town’s most iconic sets, 6394 Metro Park & Service Tower – which is still the definitive version of the subject matter, despite its age – and 6395 Victory Lap Raceway, which remains the largest car racing set in the company’s history, graced shelves along with the rare 1490 Town Bank. Finally, you need only attend even a moderately-sized convention to see that Blacktron I, 1989’s Space theme, was a collection worth having.
I will grant that this is not the most scientific of studies, but I would venture many fans who were alive and collecting during these times would agree that the LEGO Group hit high notes at least around these three years. The company was experimenting with interesting concepts or grappling with compelling realities, and it shone forth in the products that were produced.