The humble 2×4 brick.
If any element over the years has been used to represent the concept of the LEGO® system of play, this is it.
One of the original elements in the LEGO brick parts palette, it is the first piece that springs to mind when many of us think of LEGO® Bricks. The favourite element of many large scale builders, if you have enough of them, you can build almost anything! It is one of those pieces that brings memories flooding back to those of us raised on basic sets back in the early to mid 1970’s. Before the advent of the minifigure, this brick was the cornerstone of LEGO construction, being a significant component of the Basic/ Universal Construction Sets that were commonly played with in this era. While allowing an incredibly versatile method of construction, there is no doubt that that they contributed significantly to the chunky aesthetic that is associated with LEGO® design and construction in my childhood. When your parents say “In my day, it was just bricks,” this is what they are talking about.
“My favourite LEGO® Element? 2×4 brick by far!” – Ryan McNaught, LEGO Certified Professional
Many Adult Fans of LEGO will recognise the patent drawings submitted by Gottfried Kirk Christiansen all those years ago. People with a passing knowledge of contemporary parts will recognise that this design has changed to incorporate lateral struts next to the central tube. People of a more contemplative nature will tell you that this changeover occurred around 1995, and the brick has now appeared in 41 colours. The hard core trivia buffs amongst you will know that six 2×4 bricks can be put together in 915,103,765 ways. While this brick is no doubt one of the most important in LEGO® lore, does it still hold the same level of importance as it once did?
Danger: Childhood Anecdotes Ahead:
When I was a boy and we rode dinosaurs to school (as my teenagers like to describe the start of any of my stories…), our LEGO collection was made up predominantly of parts accumulated from Basic building sets. This was after the Town Plan had run its course, but before the rise of LEGOLAND sets, which started to bring masses of small scale vehicles and houses to our living rooms, in conjunction with the early, fixed limbed minifigures. Other sets in this era came with HomeMaker figures as part of the set… But thats another story for another day.
These basic sets contained a variety of bricks and plates, as well as a few wheels and sloped bricks.
With a bit of imagination, this brick based construction could achieve almost anything, as the box of set number 8 would suggest. But perhaps these models were not as sturdy as the models seen on boxes of today, which have been vetted multiple times to ensure that connections do not put stress on the studs, and that the models won’t spontaneously disintegrate following a liberal application of childhood enthusiasm.
It’s funny: the inability of a model to stay together in the face of a seven year old, over excited, after drinking one too many glasses of red cordial in an afternoon was often the first step towards the spark of creativity. Once a construction falls apart, the pieces can then go on to be reused, free of guilt: part of a new creation. In those days the colour palette was rather limited: red, yellow, blue, black, white, green and transparent clear. And all could be rapidly reused, except that one brick that would fall off and land on the floor, hidden amongst the shagpile of the carpet until our parents walked passed after the lights were turned off. Then that brick would attack, but the screams were probably not quite as loud as we remember them to be.
This resulted in a specific appearance of many LEGO® models of that era. A certain blockiness, reminiscent of early video game graphics. Coming from a time when video games hadn’t progressed much beyond ‘Pong.’ And then, once computer games developed 8 bit graphics, mini figures appeared, and a whole new form of construction developed. And then the greebly pieces arrived. This was the era of the rise of the 3.18mm bar and associated attachments. Megaphones, walkie-talkies, jet engines, car doors, grilles, shovels, swords, brooms, ray guns and other detailed pieces came to cover the floors and attack parents’ feet from their children’s bedroom floors across the 80’s and 90’s.
When we look at LEGO models today, the resolution and level of detail continues to increase, as is the case with computer graphics, and many of the games we play, both in terms of gameplay and design. But more on this later.
Has the 2×4 Brick Really Gone Away?
There is no doubt that the 2×4 brick remains an important LEGO® brick, but it appears in official sets far less commonly than it once did. I looked at some of the basic sets from 1973, and then compared the number of 2×4 bricks as a proportion of the total part count of the set. The numbers have been calculated from the rebrickable.com database. Part count and set inventory has been taken from brickset.com’s database. In this era, the basic sets would consist of around 30% 2×4 bricks. In a set of 350 pieces, there would be around 125 2×4’s. Often with over 20 in most colours
I have then gone on to extract theme wide data for new sets, released in the first wave of 2017 releases.
When we look at the themes released this year, we see that the outside Minecraft and Classic themes, the number of 2×4 bricks appearing is negligible. Remember, the information presented is across the ENTIRE theme. The LEGO® Batman™ Movie may have the next highest number of 2×4 bricks, but that is across 13 sets, and a total of 6599 pieces.
Across all themes, it should come as no surprise that Minecraft sets contain the highest proportion of 2×4 bricks: the brick like aesthetic suits the use of these components. The classic sets come a distant second, with 4% of bricks across the theme being 2×4’s. (remember however that four of these sets – the color creative boxes – only contain one 2×4 each) Then, it depends how we look. The biggest theme in the first half of the year was the LEGO® Batman™ Movie, with 6599 pieces overall: 29 of these pieces are of interest to us today. This comes to 0.44% in this theme. Friends however has 21 4×2 bricks across the theme of 16 sets/3190 bricks, coming to 0.66% 2x4s overall. Juniors achieves 17 over around 771 pieces(2.2%).
With the exception of Juniors, Classic and Minecraft themes, the majority of sets contain a relatively negligible number of 2x4s.
And this brings us back to Minecraft:
In the late noughties, Minecraft happened. Presenting players with a world where they could build anything they wished, in a gigantic sandbox, and the basic unit of construction is a cube. Graphics took on a basic look – the cubes were identifiable by the the patterns printed on their sides, but were decidedly chunky in the landscape. Creatures were introduced- some friendly (or delicious), others hostile. It became an opportunity for friends to build constructions with each other, in their virtual worlds, and interact with each other. Different environments, with different colour schemes, as well as different dimensions were developed. Comparisons were made between this new fangled game, and LEGO (as the grownups remembered it).
It was only a matter of time before LEGO and Minecraft crashed together. The first commercially released set was introduced through the Cuusoo program: the forerunner to LEGO® Ideas. Three microscale sets evolved into an ongoing theme, with twenty one regular sets announced, as well as two direct to consumer and a few packs of minifigures with alternate skins. [Please note: for the sake of the argument, please ignore the 1960’s town plan sets, where the level of detail was significantly enhanced by the use of moulded signs, cars and trees.]
The blocky aesthetic of Minecraft is strongly reminiscent of early 1970’s Basic Sets: Just how close was the experience? And how much would contemporary building techniques contribute to the quality of the experience?
8-bit graphics were yet to enter popular culture in 1973, but the building aesthetic in Basic Set 8-3 certainly prompts that image. It is apparent that this style may well have gone on to influence the Minecraft design style.
I have not given the Minecraft sets a lot of attention in my life, until now. They always appeared relatively overpriced to me for the size of set. However, on revisiting this, the proportion of parts which are bricks and blocks of significant size( that is 2xn elements) makes them a well priced parts pack, especially if tiles or bricks in the colour scheme of the set are of use to you. Which brings me to our next diversion…
21131: The Ice Spikes
And so, this week I came to open my first Minecraft Set: 21131 The Ice Spikes. This set has 454 parts and retails for $AUD69.99 (£44.99; $USD39.99; €49.99).
The first thing that is apparent as I removed the 4 polythene bags from the box is that the elements are very similar to the old school creative sets: Mostly bricks and plates, but some other parts including plates with clips, tiles with studs, ladders and tiles are there too. Bag one contains the figures and creatures. The Minecraft figures have the same cuboid features as seen in the computer game, as well as relatively pixelated tools such as a spade or sword… They look a little strange at first to me, as a relative novice to the World of Minecraft.
The build is relatively simple, consisting of a base, and locations for several ice towers – in medium blue bricks with bright light blue tiles to highlight the tops. The towers are constructed in modules, designed to be easily added to or removed from ‘docking sites’ where the square offset tiles reduce the number of binding points for attaching the tower components.
A snowman stands at the opening of a snow cave, ready to change into an ice golem at a second’s notice. This play feature is ingenious, and really effective, unless you try to reverse the conversion.
The ‘binding sites’ for the tower elements make it easy to rearrange their structure, promoting creative play with chunky LEGO® Elements again. As well as a good number of 2×4 bricks, there are plenty of 2×2, 2×6 and 2×10 bricks involved in the construction. The colour palette captures the concept of the snowscape nicely, with a bedroom safe from any marauding creatures at ground level.
As far as figures and creatures are concerned, we have Steve, our hero: equipped with a pickaxe, as well as armour and a sword. There is our snowman, and also a brick built Snow Golem. The head of the Golem is held in place by a tile with a large stud, like that used for minifigure necks. We also have a cow and a spider. Construction of the cow is minimalist, with room for Steve to sit on board if desired. There is also a spider, who’s purpose is unknown to me.
Compared with other sets I have put together recently, this set is certainly chunkier in its appearance. With scarcely a single stud width brick in use, the blocky aspect of the game is well captured. With forty five 2×4 bricks, of which 23 are medium blue, as well as a number of other 2xn bricks, this seems to be a good way to accumulate bricks in this size especially if they are available in colors that appeal to you.
The different Minecraft sets typically have two or three predominant colours in each set, but with reasonable variation between sets. However, not all colours are represented. One of the appealing aspects of the older basic sets is that there was a relatively large number of elements in single colors. This is an area where I find Minecraft sets hold greater appeal to me than the Classic Creative Builders Box. While those sets also have a diverse range of elements, the sheer number of colours represented tends to mean that the actual number of elements in a single colour is quite limited. A review will follow before too long, I am sure.
I have a project in mind that will use the the medium blue, as well as the offset tiles. Many other parts will be useful for me. I find the character design a little odd, but it feels less creepy than when I see actual people wearing Minecraft masks. The ancillary creatures and characters are appealing. I enjoyed the build, although it is relatively simple. This simplicity is appealing in its own right, be it for the sake of childhood nostalgia, or just being able to get it done quickly. While predominantly chunky, the little details like the torches, the ladders, and the library make the layout feel a little more thoughtful.
I find the use of Minecraft, as a licensed theme, a little odd as a choice of vehicle to preserve the legacy of the venerable 2×4 LEGO® brick. The juxtaposition of the construction inspired computer game with LEGO®bricks is fitting, allowing both virtual and physical play around the theme. I suspect this will not be my last Minecraft set: the combination of large plates as well as 2xn bricks makes them very useful parts packs. The play feature – transforming the snowman to Golem – I found amusing, and any form of LEGO that actively encourages rearranging things from the way described in the instruction fair warms my soul. I won’t keep it built up, but that’s not why I picked it up. I award it 3.5/5 Arbitrary Praise Units.
In conclusion: the 2×4 brick is not as predominant an element as it was years ago, but it remains versatile, and they form a key component of the LEGO® Minecraft theme. I continue to enjoy the presence of 2×4 bricks in the play bin when I visit conventions and shows – I’m sure they will continue to maintain their iconic status in the world or LEGO® Design.