Have you ever thought about building a LEGO set as a social activity? Have you given it a try? Join me as I seek the help of a few friends to put together 71741 Ninjago City Gardens.
In Melbourne, we have spent a little bit of time lockdown over the last 18 months (individual definitions of ‘a little’, and ‘lockdown’ may vary). As such, we have spent quite a lot of time unable to catch up with friends In Real Life™. A couple of weeks ago, we regained the privilege to visit friends in their homes. As such, it has been quite exciting.
But first, let’s go back a few years. I have known Andrew, Kris, Dan and Cameron since school. That takes us back to the mid-eighties. We have all headed in different directions in our lives, but have kept in touch. A few of us are married with kids – and as such, around 15 years ago, we started a regular monthly catchup poker game to… reflect on the responsibilities of fatherhood with a jury of our peers. Exceptionally low stakes: no cash, not even jelly beans. After a while, this regular catchup has evolved in a number of directions: late-night geocaching, escape rooms, board games. My professional life seemed to involve a little more weekend work than the others, but I still keep up with the gang when I can. During our lockdowns, we moved over to the virtual catchup – shared online card games and first-person shooters!
We had intended to start a LEGO® evening activity project during a brief respite from lockdowns back in July. Unfortunately, circumstances on the day, followed by another lockdown cramped our style for the next few months. But now, we are able to catch up again: first, a couple of weeks ago, and again this Saturday past.
The AFOL Engagement team had generously sent me a copy of 71741 Ninjago City Gardens earlier in the year: however, it arrived within hours of the press embargo and there was no way that I was going to get the set built in a timely fashion. I put the build on the back-burner, and as the pace of the year picked up, the back-burner moved further and further from the front of my mind.
And so here we are.
If you have been following the LEGO scene for a little while you would remember that this year we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Ninjago. And you would have probably seen the images of this set: with 5685 pieces, this set is the largest Ninjago Set produced to date. At the time of release, it was the 6th largest set ever, by part count. Subsequent releases in 2021 have pushed it down to ninth place!
On opening the box, there were bags numbered from one to twenty-six, along with three manuals, a poster and three sticker sheets wrapped in a plastic bag. There was another bag containing some additional elements, which would provide a challenge as we moved forward.
On opening the manuals, different sub-builds are highlighted: Bags 1-5 ( the base); Bags 6-10 (Pawn shop, restaurant, Ninjago Fan Flat; Tea Shop; Walkways); Bags 11-12 (Icecream Shop and Noodle store); 13-16 ( Museum; Student flat); 17-18 ( Rooftop Zen garden; Ninja zone); 19-22 ( Hidden Room, Ninja control zone, Satellite Array, and the museum conservatory roof) and finally 23-26: (the temple Island).
We decided to use these arbitrary divisions as a starting point for dividing our duties and getting the build underway.
Now, we all have different experiences with LEGO Building: I’m fairly experienced, and the others have done some building, mainly with their kids, nieces and nephews on and off over the last decade or so. But we all dabbled a little bit back in the 70s and 80s. We set out to allocate different regions based on the clusters described above.
There are 5 of us doing the building and only three instruction manuals: so we took out a couple of tablets and downloaded the instructions – one from LEGO.com, the other using the Building Instructions App – as this set does not support Instructions Plus, the App only gives us a copy of the PDF.
Without a strong foundation, it will all crumble.
Kris started work on the base: this covered bags 1 through 5, and was probably the most critical of the regions to be worked through sequentially. This was probably the most challenging region to work on: each bag builds directly onto the material from the bag before. We take the 32×32 stud baseplate and build onto it with the foundations to the building along two sides of the plate; as well as an underwater layer.
There are a few treasures which we place in the foundations, including this box. Can you read the Ninjago script to see the easter egg included here? (If you cannot read the Ninjago script, don’t worry: a guide is provided in the first book of instructions. You might be able to derive it based on the number of letters, and the fact that there is a picture of a chocolate ninja rabbit in this picture.)
A small, bright green weapons pack is used to provide a few plants, as well as some jade knives hidden in the foundations. Just what they are doing there remains to be seen. There is a small island in the middle of the waterway. We include a small, blossoming bush here. Finally, we build in a tree at the front of the pathway.
Once this base was built we were able to start placing the sub-builds from the subsequent bags in place.
At this point, I would like to mention that many of the stickers in this set are brilliant: beautifully designed, and really add to the quality of the finished model. However, rather than demonstrate how ignorant I may or may not be about Ninjago Lore, I would like to refer you to this spectacular article from Bricknerd, regarding the Stickers of Ninjago City Gardens. Pedro Sequiera takes you on a deep dive, including the translations and easter-eggs to be found in the 66 unique stickers included in the set.
Building up the Old Town
The subsequent bags, 6 to 10, are stand-alone constructions and can be built out of sequence if you have sufficient copies of the instructions (including the Building Instructions App).
While Kris worked through the foundation layer, Cameron started on bags 6 through 10. These bags each contain a self-contained, highly detailed room.
First, we build a pawn shop. There are a number of chests of drawers, along with stacked bookshelves fashioned out of window frames. Stickers placed on the rows of books include replicas of the original NINJAGO Trading cards. A set of brass vintage scales tops off the space.
The floor of the pawnshop features a lift-up trap door, which I suspect will reveal the storage compartment in the basement layer, with its hidden treasures and easter eggs.
I really like the way that the shape of the building is achieved, being slightly trapezoid in nature. The long side of the wall has articulation in its extension, attached to the main wall using Studs Not On Top (SNOT) techniques. This technique is repeated throughout the buildings in this part of the build.
Following on from this pattern, we build up a small food shop, which will sit at the opposite end of the base. It features a small food presentation area as well as an interesting sink. It feels more like a place to collect some takeaway, rather than sit down to have a meal. There is literally room for some food preparation to take place, but not much more.
Ninjago Fan’s Flat: Above the food store is a residential flat, occupied by someone who appears to love their Ninjago! There is a banner flying outside, and a couple of large action figures inside. The bedspread also features a ninja motif. There is a large poster of Ninjago city hanging on one wall – I really like the sticker for this: it presents Ninjago City as a tall, bold colourful place.
The dark red and nougat colour scheme feels somewhat subdued in comparison but is also becomes apparent that this lower part of the city features something akin to Wattle and Daub as a wall material – an older, almost ancient technique.
Finally, the Balcony Tea Shop gives us a place to sit down, and relax. It is the final building in this older style. The wheel disk makes for a wonderful, patterned window. Toothed bars in black make for a nifty closed Venetian style blind. In the meantime, we see some modern plumbing attached to the outside of the building.
With this lower level complete, let’s take a look at how the model comes together with these elements. When we were doing our Team Build, we were unable to put anything together until the base was completed. As such, having each shop as its own ‘block’ was very handy.
Finally, Cam built up the walkway: this forms the roof of the lower city. The signage around the edges is full of Easter eggs: references to old LEGO themes, as well as names and places from around the Ninjago theme.
Moving up, and more modern
The next layer sees a change in the overall style of the architecture. The buildings are a little more modern, and look like they are expecting to see much more foot traffic than those on the lower levels. We passed the duties on bags 11 and 12 to Andrew, who ultimately declared that these steps were absolutely full of really little pieces!
First, he started work on the Ice-cream shop: translating the sign, it becomes obvious that this shop is a homage to the Ice Planet theme of the 1990s, this is another great example of neat parts usage, with lined up cleavers, in black, forming the roof tiles. The shop ultimately takes on a trapezoid shape, with a hinged wall, incorporating an air-conditioning unit. Another great detail is the small verandah over the back door: the roofing tiles appear to be made out of game controller elements. A dropped ice cream, melting into the walkway, along with a flight of stairs to the next level completes the bag.
Bag 12 Waited for the next time we met: This time it is a noodle shop. Again, the floor plan is a trapezoid, incorporating a bay window. Over the door, there is a kneeling mannequin on the verandah, clutching a couple of bowls. The curve of the roofline is produced using 1×1 plates with a clip on top, attached along black sausages, producing a fairly smooth curve.
Initially, Dan started work on bag 13. this made up the floor for the museum which occupies the next level up. Unfortunately, a couple of steps in, we couldn’t locate a 2×14 plate anywhere. (remember at this stage, we have just started the whole process: Bags 1, 6 and 12 are open. Was there a missing part? I had no idea. But to keep Dan building, I offered him bags 17-18 to work on while I searched for the part. Experience tells me that 999 times out of 1000, the missing element in a LEGO Set is more likely to be a result of the builder than the LEGO Group. And then I saw the unmarked polythene bag: it contained a few odd elements, including some longer plates, a red curved roller coaster track and some brown ‘zipline’/vine elements. And there, silently mocking me was the 2×14 plate. I relaxed, took a breath and continued work on the floor.
Life in the the Museum
Bag 14 takes us to create most…but not all… of the walls of the museum: with bright yellowish-orange walls, and turquoise window frames. We start work with the entry to the museum, using a 3 branched element as a turnstile. We tile one length of the floor, along the angled side of a number of alighted wedge plates. Several studs are left visible, to provide a point of attachment for the wall that shall be built using the parts in bag 15, and ultimately attached ‘off-grid’. We add several exhibits to the museum, including a gem under glass. Exposed studs on the external walls provide points of attachment for plates bearing decoration, including a stickered sign, and a model crab. There are a number of rayguns attached to the upper wall in several places in the museum. I am uncertain as to whether they are providing decorative lighting or surveillance cameras. Angled panels provide alcoves including a small dragon, and a cobra model, I presume representing the Venomari and other snakes faced by our heroes.
Bag 15 ( built during our second session)gives us the wall that fits along the outer diagonal edge of the museum floor. Yellowish orange, dark red and jade/teal in colour, there is a gold ring surrounding a leaf on the external wall. This part of the museum features definite downlighting, highlighting a display case, with a windowpane – linked into a treasure chest, in place of a lid – covering a dragon’s head. Finally, on the outside of this wall, we attach a quarter circle of roller coaster track, providing some spectacular signage. The wall simply slots into place, engaging with the exposed studs along the floor.
Bag 16 gives us a student’s flat with bright green and sand-green walls. We have a small portable television made using a 1×3 brick with curved ends and offset studs. A sticker completes the screen. The external walls of the flat are built with the studs facing outwards. Each of these walls features a small planter box with some flowers growing. The flat includes an artist’s easel, as well as a pink umbrella in a stand.
The Upper Layer: Blending the Old and the New
Dan had bags 17- 22 to build. These make up the uppermost layer: We start with a Zen Garden – a traditional temple-like structure, with a table in the centre, and a bonsai growing within. The building has a vault built into its structure, concealing treasures within.
Next, he tackled the tower: At the base of the tower is the Ninja Zone: a retreat for the Ninjago heroes. Outside this room is a larger than life koi suspended from the external wall. On the other side of the room is a sliding fire escape ladder. One of my favourite pieces of detail in the entire build (and that is no easy decision) is the arcade machine in the retreat: it holds a tile with a ninja print, and this is flicked up and down when the controller on the machine is manipulated.
During our final session, Dan also built the Tower, along with the roof of the museum. The tower features a number of large 6×8, 45º roof tiles with a cutout around its base, as well as some brilliant use of these in conjunction with 5×6 hexagonal flags – angled in such a way that they fit the gap between the sloped elements rather nicely. A spire with communications dishes completes the effect, leaving us with a definite feeling of a ‘hi-tech’ modern peak of the building, compared with the ancient, lower levels.
He followed this up with the roof of the museum, an open vista, curved roof, with a dragon skeleton suspended within. I love the way this just slots in between the other buildings on the level:
We can put these all together on the roofs of the lower layer:
Move Over to the Garden Temple Island
In the meantime, I was in a position to start the temple island, which is on a half size baseplate – we build a small island which is paved, before adding the small temple, along with a statue to the memory of Zane. Two small bridges cross to the island, off the grid, adding to the organic feel of the area.
As we all completed our designated areas, we all moved towards different pages, at the end of the second book: this provides the balconies at the end of several walkways and outside several upper-level buildings; the upper layer of the tree; a flying motor scooter, allowing for a quick getaway; Even an Exoforce lookalike robot, built using the Minifigure baby character to form the characteristic form of its head. This robot is far more of a benign character: seeking work in maintenance and repair in Ninjago city! These small builds helped to keep us all occupied as the foundation level was completed.
Finally, we stacked the units together. Overall, we were impressed with the final build: the last hour had been a solid push: we were determined to complete the build, despite continuing a little later than we had intended. It was immensely satisfying.
How did the process go? As a group build, the set worked well, but we definitely needed two evenings to complete the build. Over the course of the weeks, we worked through 5 pizzas, 3 bottles of wine, several pints of Guinness and a variety of local pale ales. To say nothing of several cups of coffee and a couple of blocks of chocolate.
Getting the build done in a hard and fast manner was not a priority for us: Recurrent lockdowns in Melbourne have meant that face to face social occasions have been few and far between over the last year, and a lot of time was spent talking about our lives and loves: things our children were doing, how our partners were going, the effects of lockdowns on our businesses and mental health.
There were a few pitfalls: some elements were not included in the numbered bags: we just forgot about the unnumbered bag at one point, causing a few rapid changes of plans. The other challenge with ’non-linear- building is the small bags of elements: the bright green weapons pack – ultimately portraying jade knives, as well as waterweed; there was also a metallic element pack, which contained a number of elements with strange shapes (it provided a lot of the interesting greebles in the probe droid set from earlier in the year.)
But this set is now built, and I have shared some significant time working together with my friends to build something awesome!
What Worked Well?
This set is extremely well set up to build as a group exercise. There are two aspects that take a little longer than any other section: the base of the main block, and the smaller baseplate with the garden temple. Everything else was well set up to build a bag or two: providing a convenient place to take a break in the build. Putting all of these sections together at the end of the build was immensely satisfying.
While we were taking it easy and took around 2eveningsx5buildersx3hours=30 hours to complete the model, I suspect that a team of experienced builders trying to get it built quickly could probably have it ready in a few hours.
While we have a magnificent building, unless you built a specific part, or paused to show it off at the end of construction you might miss that ‘Aha’ moment as you came across the interesting build techniques.
By dividing up the labour, and having everyone busy for a lot of the time meant that we were not very good at taking progress photos.
The room that we were working in had soft, yellowish light: this did make it occaisionally difficult to discern fine detail in the set. HOWEVER, I am grateful to the Building Experience Team who now ensure that you are unlikely to mix similar elements of similar colours in the same bag. It meant that when I was asked ‘What colour is that?’ I could suggest they seek out the appropriate form of the element, knowing that there would not be any of the same element in a similar colour in the same bag of elements.
What other sets might work?
Some sets are marketed as ‘build together’ – last year’s LEGO City 60271 Main Square, along with the forthcoming 80108 Lunar New Year Traditions – a collection of vignettes depicting aspects of the Lunar New Year Celebrations. But these are the obvious ones. I suspect many modular buildings will work, after a fashion: building a floor each – even better with the book shop, pet shop, or others where there are several businesses/residences side by side.
What about the minifigures?
I have focussed on the build, rather than the minifigures, and this is an epic set. However, there are a lot of minifigures included, as well as some incorporated into the landscape, such as the statue of Zane, and the ‘Wise Old Man’ over the Noodle Shop.
I am sorry for not be taking the time to go into these figures in great detail at this time. The primary goal of this article is to consider the team-building aspects of the set.
The techniques used in this build are incredibly varied. It is full of interesting techniques and really neat parts usage. The design team, led by Markus Rollbüller, have created a build that will intrigue a keen LEGO fan, and test the patience of the inexperienced or impatient. As It came together, I thought ‘What is going on with these colours?’ but the whole model feels quite coherent, despite the variety of colours and building styles in play. As someone who is developing an appreciation of Ninjago, I really enjoyed the build, and feel curious to go back and investigate some of the old stories. I give the overall experience four out of 5. (4/5) Arbitrary Praise Units.
The final result is spectacular. It embraces techniques that are both old and new, and the city develops in this way as we build up. The set is not just a call out to long term fans of Ninjago,but also to people who grew up playing with LEGO sets in the 1990s, when themes such as Model Team, and Rock Raiders, referenced in the signage around the walkway, were at their peak.
Ninjago City Gardens has 5668 pieces and 22 minifigures. It is available from LEGO.com as well as LEGO Brand retail stores, and speciality toy stores. If you are interested in buying yourself a copy, please consider using our Affiliate links: The Rambling Brick might receive a small commission if you click on these links prior to making a purchase:
I’d love to know what you think if this build. Also, have you ever set out to collaborate on. a team build for preexisting sets? What did you use, and how did the process work out for you all? Why not share your comments below, and until next time,