LEGO® City Missions: Building Creative Confidence [RoundTable and Review]

Back in the early days of LEGO® minifigures, the majority of sets that we had to play had a modest part count, and could be pulled apart and rebuilt in less than an hour: there was plenty of source material for alternative builds, either from the suggestions on the back of the box, or using an ideas book, such as #6000 – which documented the adventures of Mary and Bill, initially in a Town-based adventure, but takes a detour through the worlds of Classic Space and Castle…

Sets were built, played with and rebuilt. Hardly anything was kept together for a significant amount of time.

Flash forward 40 years, and the way some kids play seems to have changed: sets become display pieces in some households, gathering dust until the owner enters their dark ages, before moving on to sell them on the secondary market.

In part, I can understand this: sets have become a bit more sophisticated over the years: more pieces, more complicated building techniques, and we have already invested a couple of hours in building the core model. I encountered some examples of this recently as I worked on the new Creator 3in1 sets – Viking Ship and Midgard Serpent, as well as the DownTown Noodle Shop: pulling these sets apart and building the alternative models took up to 2 hours, depending on the models.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t just me. When attending expos, it is not uncommon to come across visitors who ‘just’ build sets, but don’t feel that they are ‘clever enough’ to build their own models. Perhaps these people are needing to develop some Creative Confidence: take some time to nuture that creative spark with is inherent to everybody.

It is to develop this innate creative confidence that drove the team behind the new LEGO City Missions during the product development. I have had a chance to look at a couple of the sets, and also to talk to Lillie Talbot and Mikkel Lee from the Creative Play Lab of LEGO Group: they make part of the team behind this new product line which promises that you get to ‘Use Story to build, not instructions.

The Creative Play lab represents a skunkworks within a secret bunker, deep in the bowels of Billund, where ideas may be developed and followed up without the pressure of producing sets for any given theme. Lillie is a Design Strategist, who always worked in product innovation and really understanding the user and coming up with experiences that are relevant for them. She has previously worked on the LEGO Art theme. Mikkel Lee is the Story lead with the Creative Play Lab. He comes from a background in children’s animation. and is experienced in bringing Stories and Play together.

This meeting was facilitated by members of the AFOL Engagement team, and they provided some sets for review purposes.

ENTER LEGO City Missions: Developing Creative Confidence

How did the process for LEGO City Missions Begin?

Mikkel Lee: “We see with LEGO that we were really good at using story for entertainment and communication. And I saw that that maybe was another way that story could also be used and that was for more directly facilitating play, and then I thought,” Okay, what is the most important play that I could think of for Lego?” And I thought that must be creative play. I asked Lillie, because she’s an expert in that field, if is it possible for story to facilitate creative play? And she said, “Yeah, let’s look into that!”

Lillie Talbot: We got to get a bit of time to just kind of kick around ideas and see what comes from it and kind of ask these sorts of questions. And so Michael’s hypothesis about “can story do more for creative play,” plus really seeing that creativity is such a human thing, right? We’re all creative: It’s inherent, it’s inside of us. But we know that as we get older, it’s so easy to forget that and to lose that. To build that creative confidence, you have to start when you’re young. And so if we can get that for kids, if we can help them realize their confidence as early as possible, they’re going to just bring that within the rest of their lives.

The cover page from Galaxy Rift. Accessed from https://www.lego.com/en-us/campaigns/freebuild-chronicles/galaxy-rift June 3 2022

It turns out that this process has been in development for over 7 years. You might still find earlier iterations of the project on LEGO.com, in a section called the Freebuilder Chronicles: Galaxy Rift. In this iteration kids would engage with a story, using their own bricks in an exciting space adventure – along the way they built and improved their spaceship, explored strange new worlds, and returned home. The engagement was seen to be positive, but the story just used pictures and text, so it taught the team the value of adding animation, and a defined range of bricks to improve the level of engagement.

As development moved forward, they took 19 stories to the LEGO City Team. Three of them made it into further development.

Which Brings Us to LEGO City Missions

The LEGO City Mission sets each come in a box with a flip-top lid: the perfect place to put the parts that are not currently in use -“The playing is never really finished,” Lillie explained. Inside are the bags containing your elements, as well as a single A4 page, with a QR code, which links to the product within the LEGO Building Instructions App (BI-App). Alternatively, you can browse the set catalogue, and access the interactive missions directly.

The LEGO City Missions sets utilise the LEGO Building Instructions App to deliver an interactive experience while the model is built. I will acknowledge my concern with the concept of providing a model with digital instructions only. Not so much for the format itself – I actually quite enjoy working from the Instructions App: being able to manipulate a model in three-dimensional space, and zoom in is quite useful.

I do, however, worry about a future where some children might not be able to enjoy LEGO sets due to socioeconomic reasons – lack of access to the technology, as well as simple ‘tech failure’ such as low batteries, poor WiFi and the like. And so it was with a degree of trepidation that I moved forward to look at these sets. But more on this later.

There is a brief delay while you wait for the mission to load.

In developing the Missions Experiences, The Creative Play Lab team found the BI team more than willing to develop ways for adding the new functionality to the app: incorporating animated material, images of bricks and ‘ideas buttons,’ This, in conjunction with having various media assets shared by the LEGO City Adventures’ animation studio, available for use in each story.

Each adventure begins with an animated segment, featuring characters from LEGO City Adventures series, setting up the background to the story.

Then we take a break from the episode: As a participant in the story, you select your (real life toy) mini figure using a variety of elements supplied in bag 1 – including wigs or headwear. An infinite supply of wigs was not really possible for the set design, but a couple of hats/helmets or similar give your sig fig the chance to take on a variety of looks: hopefully, you can identify with one of them.

After you select your Minifigure, you build the base vehicle, be it a shuttle, a wildlife rescue truck, or police boat. As the story proceeds, you add new features, or modify it according to the story’s requirements: however, there are no specific instructions for these modifications. But there are plenty of suggestions for the changes you can make- found by touching on bright red ‘inspiration buttons’ – just ideas, suggestions, NOT Instructions, as the characters frequently remind us. The characters also give us an introduction to the Brick Separator.

As the story evolves, we get some more characters introduced: some on-screen, some in our builds. Some missions are quick, while others might take a bit longer. But nothing is firmly defined, as far as how much work should go into it. Some kids might just add a couple of bricks for a mission, while others might take an hour or more to get it right. Some might rush through it, others might draw out a mission per day. As such, the team have worked to keep that play as open as possible. Lillie explained: ”We just want that kid to get that pride moment” – that moment where they have created something that they are proud of, and brings them joy.

At the end of each build, we are encouraged to play with our models as they develop. I would be lying if I were to suggest that I didn’t spend more than a few minutes zooming and swooshing the vehicles around. I may or may not have made Pew Pew noises, even when not appropriate in their current context.

Sometimes we are given clues to what we should be looking to build in the lead up to a ‘gather your bricks’ and ‘be creative and build your way’ screens. Otherwise, at the end of these screens, we get our inspiration buttons, which helped to make some aspects clearer to me. The developers did talk about the way that kids just seemed to pick up these cues a little more readily than adults do.

Each of the Mission sets incorporates some established characters, from LEGO City Adventures – Chief Wheeler, Duke Detain, Jessica Sharpe, Westbrook, and Lieutenant Rivera all spring to mind. However, Duke Detain is the only named character from the show represented in Minifigure form – perhaps he is the most famous from the series. Mikkel spoke about how important it was to maintain the tone set in LEGO City Adventures, so the team involved John Colton Berry in writing dialogue for the characters. As one of the creators of LEGO City Adventures and showrunner on the first season, he was truly able to bring an authentic voice to the characters in the animated segments.

As we work through the eight missions for each set, the story unfolds. There is some prescribed building, while other aspects of the story are designed to be built in response to the prompts. The plot in each story takes a few twists and turns, ultimately to resolve – destinations reached, wrongdoers righted and so forth.

And several times per mission, you get the chance to do some building, and then play with what you have built. I would recommend you work through the missions at least once, as the story certainly enhances the building tasks, and vice versa.

Let’s take a closer look at the 60354 Mars Spacecraft Exploration Missions set.

60354 Mars Spacecraft Exploration Missions

On the whole, I found the story for each set to be fun and engaging. I personally found that I related to the Mars Spacecraft Exploration Missions in a more profound way than the others. Perhaps my recent posts might provide an explanation in part… Let’s take a look at this set, and see what it might have to offer.

As we go through the story, I will do my best to minimise spoilers – but some might sneak through.

The first thing you notice with these sets is the return to flip-top lids: You are not required to use all of the elements included in the box in the build: as such the Play is never really finished. Rearrange, rebuild, pull apart. Inside are five bags and a sheet of paper, with some QR Codes.

As we start the mission, we meet Lt. Rivera, who explains that we are currently a backup astronaut for the Mars Mission, and it is time to suit up.

We have the chance to build our astronaut using the white EVA suits released earlier this year, or the blue flight suits. Male or Female, helmeted or hair. And choose the accessory of your choice.

The Next Mission takes us to build our space shuttle. As the missions evolve along the way, it will get bigger wings, better thrusters, develop ways to avoid getting smashed up by comets and more. I don’t want to give away the entire plot. That said, the problem-solving exercises for these problems serves to augment the story.

Looking at Bag 2, we see many elements common to LEGO Spaceship construction in recent years: inverse sloped elements, wedge plates, jets, and cockpits. In fact, there are so many black and yellow elements here, I was left wondering almost wonder if we are heading towards a Blacktron and Futuron renaissance…

As you play through the story we have some good voice acting, as well as inspirational background music, including the music from the defunct MMO LEGO Universe, as you build your models. It really adds to the experience, and having it play while you are building really helps you to feel immersed in the story.

It doesn’t take long for us to get moved up the list to join the flight team.

Of course, this is a pretty basic launch vehicle, and as we travel, we need to enhance it. I have already added extra engines, but there is more to come. We get radar dishes, tailplanes, camera elements, solar panels and more. Opening this bag felt like a trip back to the 80s but with a contemporary twist: clips and bar elements

Are you looking for some extra inspiration? Check-out the idea boxes associated with each building task:

And so we further enhance our vehicle, as well as build a robot familiar.

In this particular set, the building phases are accompanied by music from LEGO Universe: a suitably spacey and inspirational suite of music that really sets the scene for the adventure.

Finally, we approach our destination, but not before we encounter a couple of comets…

In a moment of editorial inattention, I failed to take a photo of the contents of bag 4. It gave us the elements to build the comets, as well as a large collection of ’mixel’ ball joints, and more. I shall take a photo of all the elements a little later…

Finally, we approach Mars. The final bag of elements brings us the necessary elements to install landing gear on our ship, as well as a small amount of landscape on which to install our (printed) flag. The Mars Mission emblem is very similar to that seen on the Moon mission sets this year, except we have an orange planet, rather than a blue moon.

I’ll have to admit, this took me back to Saturday Morning Cartoons.

All in all, I found working through the missions to be fun and engaging, while at the same time, I probably don’t meet the target demographic (6+).

But, I can see that playing the missions again with all the elements at hand, and a better idea of where you are heading might see you become more confident in how you go about building the model.

Ultimately, we have 3 minifigures and a robot dog 0-JO. Their are two unnamed figures – intended to be the POV character, used by the person playing with the set, as well as Lt. Jamie, who is the pilot on the mission. As we play the episode, we meet a couple of characters who, while we may or may not have met them by name along the way, have appeared in LEGO City Space sets in some shape or form over the years.

Lt Rivera appeared in this year’s Lunar Space Station 60349, and acts as a guide here, while Dr Wexler appeared as a launch director in 2019 (Set 60229). If only we had the white coat and awesome Space Branded branded coffee cup he has today!

As you go through the builds, there are no active prompts to document your adventures (compared with Galactic Rift, where you are encouraged to take a photo of everything you build), but the Team hope to see lots of images cropping up on LEGO Life based on builds from LEGO City Missions.

But there are two problems I see with this set, and indeed the LEGO City Missions concept in general: and that is the ’always connected’ paradigm that is required. There is no helpful pdf to guide you through the base build or set the challenges with each bag.

In order to work through the missions, the builder needs access to a phone or tablet AND an active internet connection. Unfortunately, there is no capacity to store the mission on your device, in case you are wishing to minimise mobile data use while on holiday, or areas with poor access. Worse still, if you do not have access to a compatible device at all, then the instructions and mission are just not accessible. I suspect someone will upload every mission to Youtube in due course, but this is not quite in the spirit of the exercise.

I asked the development team about this particular aspect, and I am not sure that I am happy with the presumption that ’every kid has access to a tablet these days’ paradigm. As for the issue of poor connection, or dying batteries….

I think one of the things that we’ve seen is that digital and devices is such a natural part of kids’ and families’ lives. So there’s an expectation; an instinctiveness to interacting with digital [technology] that people are just used to: they’re used to the WiFi going down so, “I can’t stream that show “or the … the battery dying. So, when working with that device only has certain [battery power] I’m always plugged in when I’m using it. So I think that we see enough of that, that that we’re able to support a play experience like this, that’s really facilitated and enabled by what digital can do.”

Of course, there are some aspects that are enhanced greatly through a digital solution, compared to, publishing the adventure as a book: Lillie Talbott highlighted the fact that, in this case, the experience is available in more languages than it might have been on paper. Delivering the story through animation does make the story front and centre, although the same argument could have been made for the Fabuland Instructions, and the way they delivered Story as a way to guide play and construction. To say nothing of my personal favourite, the 6000 Ideas Book.

I really appreciated the fact that, compared with recent Digital play experiences such as Hidden Side and VIDIYO, LEGO City Missions has NO DEPENDENCE on Augmented reality. Because of this, it is ready to run on older hardware. And unlike those platforms, it encourages rebuilding of the core model as the story progresses.

Is this the Ultimate LEGO Space Starter Set in 2022?

Maybe! Ten year old me was very excited playing with this set. Starting with the flip-top box to hold your bricks, the joy kicked in early. It comes with so many elements that were essential for Classic Space, although some have been updated for the 2020s:

With wedge plates, cockpits, jets, truncated cones, radar dishes and levers as well as tailplanes and a grabber arm, my nostalgic interest was piqued, while the metal detector and SNOT camera element complete the scene. Of course, there are 2×2 sloped bricks with printed screens as well as the coffee cup, a fishing net and a banana!

There are also some… less spacey elements: regular plates, some grey and tan elements as well as sparkly transparent blue flame/water spray elements.

Ultimately, I found I was able to construct a variety of spacecraft simultaneously. I felt a little frustrated that there were insufficient black or yellow elements to complete a proper Blacktron Scout Craft. These spacecraft came together relatively quickly and were built only using elements included in the set.

But in the end, regardless of how you feel about digital instructions, this is an awesome box of parts.

Digital storytelling provides inspiration for how you might improve, or modify a core spaceship – scanners, defences, wings, jets, and landing-gear. And there are more than enough elements to provide for an enjoyable free-building experience. Of course, there are some small wheel elements included, allowing the quick creation of a small rover, should it take your fancy.

What about the other Mission sets? I have taken a quick look at the Water Detective mission, and it turns out to be another space set…complete with Vibrant Yellow Trim!

In Summary

Things I liked:Things I did not like
Great Parts for space buildsDependent on an App, with no printed instructions beyond a QR code. No pdf of building instructions available
NO StickersA little on the pricey side.
The Building Instructions App is not dependent on Top End hardware.
Engaging Story
Killer Soundtrack!

Overall, I found the Mars Spacecraft Exploration Missions to be more engaging than I expected. Sure it felt like I was taking part in a kid’s cartoon, but I guess I was.

The building challenges could be simple or complicated, depending on how you wanted to take them. I was glad to play it with the sound on, as I found the accompanying music to be quite inspirational.

Finally, the box provided a great mix of parts for getting going with Space Builds. By encouraging the building, adding features and changing them over, this set (and the missions in general) have the potential to help a generation to develop their Creative Confidence.

There are NO stickers in this set: all element decorations are printed!

I find that I feel conflicted about the dependence on the Building Instructions App for this set: I cannot deny that it works well and that the interactive aspect of the set would be lost, were it to be relegated to a book. Explanations were clear, instructions legible (although I am sometimes perplexed when I attempt to identify some of the colours identified in pdf form.) and the story was engaging, and the associated build experience was enjoyable. HOWEVER: I do feel that if I just fast-forwarded through the story, and went straight to the bits using the standard building instructions, then I would have found the whole building experience pretty lack-lustre. [I was about to include a screen-shot here, but my phone’s battery died, demonstrating my intrinsic concern!]

I am also of a generation where printed instructions are always ‘just there.’ I fear I am going to have to come to terms with the new world order, where printed instructions may well become a thing of the past. I do feel this is unfair to those who do not have the resources to be able to reliably access online instructions, but there does not appear to be a simple solution coming up for it.

I may not be the target demographic, but I believe it should still be appealing to younger viewers/builders. While the online instructions were good, as were the linking animated sections, the fact that there is no paper option left me feeling concerned about how parents, who are attempting to rationalise their children’s screentime, might feel about watching a cartoon, with interactive segments. The main build itself is a good core for a spaceship, but not really satisfying in its own right: at least we have the opportunity to enhance it! And that is the point.

Overall, I give this set a score of 3.5 Arbitrary Praise Units out of 5. It’s a solid box of Space parts, but at $AUD50, it feels a little overpriced. If you can get it for less than RRP, it is certainly worth considering. While the Creative play Lab team have been able to leverage the Building Instructions App to provide a fun, engaging experience, the absence of an ‘internet free’ contingency leaves me feeling a little disappointed.

If you are interested in purchasing this set, please consider the affiliate links below: this set is now available from LEGO.com. The Rambling Brick might receive a small commission from any sales generated.

What do you think of the LEGO City Missions concept? A great way to nourish Creative Confidence? Or unnecessary Screentime? Do you think this could be a good space starter set? Leave your comments below and until next time…

Play Well!

Thanks to the LEGO Group for sending over the LEGO City Missions sets for review, and to the AFOL Engagement Team for coordinating the Round Table discussion. All opinions expressed are my own.

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