Piratepalooza: Celebrating the Innovations Introduced by LEGO Pirates.

Today, September 19, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. To celebrate, I thought we might take a look at some of the innovations that we have seen introduced into LEGO through the original Pirates Theme.

As you may already know, LEGO Pirates turn 30 in 2019. Having made their debut in 1989, the Pirates sets certainly have a place in the hearts of AFOLs of a certain age. With obvious factions, great play features and rapid assembly, I can understand the appeal they might have to any child at the time of release.

While some of the features introduced in Pirates have been well observed by the LEGO Group over the years, others have been less thoroughly pointed out. So I thought we might take a look at some of these today.


When the first pirates sets were announced in 1989, there were a few obvious things, to even casual observers: faces were no longer limited to the classic smiley – unless they belonged to the governor’s regiment! Men had bears, moustaches and stubble. We even see the arrival of the first woman’s face print, with lipstick and hair.

Torso prints prior to this time might have involved a simple multicolour logotype design, or lines marking details such as pockets, collar and buttons. So, the multiple color prints, depicting the design of the pirates clothing was pretty special at the time. Now we would consider it the standard for virtually any Minifigure. Following on from that, we also see the first torso with a waist printed on, as well as a defined cleavage, thus the first specifically female minifigure torso..

In the meantime, Captain Redbeard (also referred to as Roger in some catalogs), featured the first printed hat; the first wooden leg and the first hook-for-a-hand. Combine this with the first dual colour printed head, and the first name, it becomes apparent that he is just full of firsts.

Other Minifigure accessories first appeared in this range included rifles, pistols and backpacks.

Of course, the graphic designers have not stopped there: in the Collectable minifigures series, as well as more recent waves of pirate sets, the artwork has received an update…

Flora and Fauna

Now, the standard LEGO Trees and Foliage had been available for a number of years in 1989. But the Caribbean Island setting of the Pirates theme provided an opportunity to develop the Palm Tree: Incorporating a base, trunk element as well as a topper for the leaves to bind to. (and to say nothing of the leaves them selves). The larger leaves first appeared in the initial range of pirates sets, while a smaller leaf was introduced in 1994 and was featured in the Islanders sets that year, as well as Paradisa sets.

Prior to the release of pirates, the only LEGO Animal available at minifigure scale was a horse, mainly used in the Knights/ Castle theme.

But with the release of pirates, this changed: in 1989 we also saw the release of the Monkey, shark, and two types of parrot. Five years later, in the 2004 Pirates/Islander sets, we saw our first crocodile.

Specific function elements.

Prior to the arrival of LEGO Pirates, lego sets had a very specific look: angles were limited, and typically defined only by sloped bricks. The colour palette had expanded over the previous decade with the introduction of minifigures – particularly space, and castle, as well as fabuland. We now saw the colour palette expanded beyond red, blue, yellow, black and white. Greys and brown had been added, and building started to evolve beyond the simple angles seen in wedge plates and sloped bricks.

The arrival of the 1×1 plate with vertical clip was one element that allowed this intrinsic LEGO Aesthetic to be modified. Attaching initially to the ‘rigging’ elements, they allowed a greater range of angles to be achieved. As such, we started to move away from the Blocky, pixelated aesthetic, and towards one where more angles were apparent. The introduction of cloth in the sails also gave us less rigid lines in the model that would be created with bricks. The new foliage (palm tree) elements were interesting in the way that they provided a downwards slope, as well as the angled edges.

There had been a few elements of specific use prior to the arrival of pirates: the excavator scoop in LEGOLand sets (the precursors to classic Town); airplane tail fins, and some other interesting angles, featured in angled supports – often seen in classic Space.

But we also found elements which challenged the previous aesthetic. The rowboat may have previously looked similar in Fabuland, however that did fit in with the nature of the aesthetic intended for preschool children transitioning from DUPLO. The Pirates row-boat was narrower – only measuring 4 studs across internally compared with the 6 studs of the Fabuland rowboat. Having built-in rowlocks felt a little contrived, but reduced the need for another element. Clips front and back allowed it to be used either for a row boat or sailing vessel with the addition of a mast.

The tapering rigging elements, 27 x 5, introduced and almost natural angle, and the flexibility of the element itself allowed it to bend under its own weight, taking on the natural shape of the rigging when in place.

The steps seen in grey in Forbidden Island had previously been seen in yellow in Fabuland sets. Ultimately, they did not have great appeal for designers: I presume in part because of their size, but also because the proportions would have been quite strange with regard to stair height and the size of a minifigure. This element only appeared in 7 sets, in four colours

The modern LEGO staircase. first released in 1996, this element is far more ‘in system’ than the previously used staircase.

Next, we can consider the mast – multi part, and tapering on the way up, the junction between these elements does not readily fit in with ‘The System.’ With limited connections along the way, their shape feels quite unlike normalLEGO – only the bottom connection, and sparingly placed studs along the way make you feel that this is the ‘real thing’.

The rope bridge, wide enough for single file minifigures, simulates the way in which a rope bridge would sag in the middle, with its constantly shifting angles: this element certainly minimised the use of horizontal lines. I do find it odd that this element did not really feature any studs, to ensure the figures remained in place. In more recent times, we have seen ‘brick built’ rope bridges, in sets such as 70608 Master Falls.

Finally, we can consider the hull elements: large bricks designed to be placed end to end to create the shape of a sailing ship: up to four bricks high, with curved inverse sloped, front and rear. Once this element was created, it became easier to introduce smaller elements, with clearly defined curves to be introduced. These elements paved has very definite purposes, and paved the way for the introduction of Parts that could otherwise be made Out of Other Parts (POOP) – including the Big Ugly Rock Pieces which arrived a few years later.

The introduction of LEGO Pirates brought organic landscapes, as well as sailing ships into the subject matter for LEGO sets at a time when the style was a predominantly blocky aesthetic. The elements introduced allowed more realistic shapes to exist, but at the expense of a general purpose.

There is no doubt that some of these elements perhaps sparked the ‘beginning of the end’ for the childhood design style that many of us who grew up in the 70’s and early 80’s remember, and perhaps lamented the most when we came out of our dark ages. How many people to you hear say ‘It’s not like it was when I was a kid. All these special purpose parts.’

Pirates placed the emphasis on relatively rapid building of large sets, at the expense of brick built elements. Employing this philosophy resulted in the loss of the blocky feel many of us remember from our childhoods, but resulted in a move towards more realistic builds, and perhaps it inspired fans to start working towards brick building more detailed models. It also allowed play to focus on the story telling, rather than the building.

Some of these special purpose elements have now been superseded by ‘brick built’ techniques in some examples – such as the rope bridge, others by a more ‘LEGO Like’ element – such as the stairs, while some have undergone relatively little change in form, such as the mast and rigging.

What do you think about the contribution of pirates to the development of the current LEGO design style, and elements that were introduced? A way to enhance play, or a move away from a brick built philosophy? Why not leave your comments below.

I will be continuing a casual review of a couple of pirates sets over the next few weeks – don’t forget to follow the Rambling Brick for updates, and occasional provocative rants. And until next time…

Play Well.

3 thoughts on “Piratepalooza: Celebrating the Innovations Introduced by LEGO Pirates.

  1. Hi ramblingbrick, here are some typos I could notice during my reading:

    ¶ 1 l.3 Men had bearDs

    Flora and fauna:
    ¶ 1 l.5 and to say nothing of the leaves theMSelves

    ¶ 3 l.2 in the -199-4 Pirates/Islander sets

    Specific function elements:
    ¶ 4 l.1 elements THAT challenged the previous aesthetic

    ¶ 9 l.4/5 introduce smaller elements, with clearly defined curves (TO BE INTRODUCED)

    ¶ 9 l.5 These elements HAD very definite purposes, and paved…

    ¶ 11 l.4 How many people Do you hear (YOU say / SAYING)

    Apart from that, really interesting, and I keep an eye out for the next Pirates reviews! (btw, I really like the ones from TrikBrix on the vintage Pirates line, on YouTube, do you know them?)

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