I'm a big fan of LEGO, but I'm not a fan of construction sets made by anyone else. Despite having a genuine interest in a number of licensed properties owned by some of LEGO's competitors, I don't buy non-LEGO construction sets. This isn't just snobbery on my part - on the occasions when I've spent hands-on time with non-LEGO construction sets, I've been distinctly underwhelmed on a number of levels - the elements have had a low quality look and feel to them and don't tend to align particularly well with each other, clutch can be highly variable, building instructions can be hard to follow, set designs are often uninspiring.... I could go on, but as this post isn't actually supposed to be a hatchet job I'll stop there; suffice to say that to date I haven't been impressed with the competition and have therefore given it a wide berth.
A mixture of curiosity and nostalgia recently got the better of me, though. A beloved brand from my youth - Airfix - have recently launched a line of what appear to be LEGO-inspired 'Quick Build' sets. Since the early 1950's, Airfix have been purveyors of scale plastic model kits, but in a drastic departure from their usual staple of models which need to be glued and painted, these Quick Build models "piece together using push-fit construction technology, are pre-coloured, come with a display stand and decorative stickers" and "make for fantastic playable models that can interact with the major toy brick brands". Hmmm - "major toy brick brands", eh - who can they possibly be referring to...? Throwing caution to the wind I placed an order for a few of the sets including the iconic Supermarine Spitfire below, took a deep breath and dived in....
The box is made from fairly thin cardboard and seems more fragile than that of a typical LEGO set. It's not sealed, instead being kept closed by a thin cardboard tab. The back of the box (below - click to enlarge) shows an exploded view of the model, which provides an early clue that this is no ordinary Airfix model. We're also furnished with some technical specifications of the Spitfire.
Opening the box reveals a single sealed bag of parts, a sheet of decals and a double-sided sheet of A4 which serves as building guide, decal application guide and advertising for the current full range of Airfix Quick Build models. Unlike the Airfix kits of my youth, the decals (below - click to enlarge) aren't of the water-slide variety - they're actually stickers akin to those you might expect to find in a LEGO set. They're of reasonable quality, and any LEGO aircraft builders out there could do a lot worse than use these stickers for their own creations....
The building instructions are squeezed onto a single A4 page (below) which breaks the construction process into just ten steps. Completed sections of the build are given a washed-out appearance in the building instructions to distinguish them from the parts about to be added. Colour reproduction isn't great - the olive green parts look black, or at best a very dark green, in the instructions.
Guidance on placement of the stickers gets its own dedicated section on the back of the building instructions. The stickers are numbered, and their placement is clearly indicated (below).
Currently, the Quick Build range consists of a total of 6 sets (below - click to enlarge); presumably this modest initial offering will serve to test the water, with more sets to follow if the first six sell. Next to build after the Spitfire has to be the Messerschmitt I reckon....
You can see a selection of parts from the set below (click picture to enlarge). A few of the elements, namely the red plates on the right of the picture, are highly similar to standard LEGO plates, and indeed fit very snugly to their LEGO counterparts and have an acceptable level of clutch. Other elements, notably the brown and olive green parts in the picture, are a most peculiar hybrid of construction set and jigsaw puzzle. This is a necessity in order to create the ingenious camouflage effect, but it renders the parts effectively useless for other creations.
You can see a comparison between some of the Airfix elements and a selection of LEGO elements in similar colours - dark tan, olive green and red - below (click to enlarge). In each case, the Airfix element is on the left.
At only 34 pieces the Spitfire isn't a lengthy build, although it takes longer than it should on account of the confusing building instructions - at times it's a real challenge to figure out which of the parts you're supposed to be placing, and indeed exactly what that part is supposed to attach to. There's an art to producing clear and intuitive building instructions for construction sets, and no doubt there's a steep learning curve associated with developing them; this is I think an area for Airfix to improve upon.
The build itself is an odd experience - a mixture of the familiar and the surreal. As an example, Stage 3 of the building instructions shown earlier involves stacking some red plates, which is just about as straightforward as it gets, while Stage 1 is more like doing a jigsaw puzzle and using studs to anchor the jigsaw pieces in place. I was pleasantly surprised by how well most of the pieces align with each other - notably better than my other non-LEGO construction experiences to date. Also, as previously indicated, the level of clutch, which frequently lets down non-LEGO construction sets, is in general reasonably good.
I think the finished model (below - click pictures to enlarge) looks excellent, especially when posed on the supplied stand which holds the model at a slight tilt; the resemblance to the subject matter is such that it's actually quite hard to spot that it's a construction set at all. It's also eminently swooshable, as my family can confirm.... The 5+ age rating is interesting - I found the set more challenging to construct than a LEGO set with a similar number of pieces and age rating, and I wonder how many 5-year olds Airfix have actually tested the building experience on ?
To sum up, my latest brush with a non-LEGO construction set was a far more pleasant experience than I expected, culminating in a finished model which I think looks genuinely impressive. The parts fit together pretty well, the clutch is more than adequate, and the overall impression is definitely good. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised, seeing as Airfix have after all been making plastic kits for well over half a century now so they should have a fairly good idea about precision moulding. I guess however that my suboptimal experiences of other non-LEGO construction sets have given me low expectations.
What didn't I like ? Well, the packaging is pretty flimsy - I ordered four different sets, and despite them being shipped in an outer box surrounded by polystyrene pellets, three of them were still a bit squashed on arrival. The instructions are mediocre - poor colour reproduction, confusing and hard to follow. I hate that the stickers cover multiple parts (STAMPs) although to be fair I don't see an alternative in this case, short of not attaching stickers at all which would badly compromise the authenticity of the model. And many of the parts themselves are so highly specialised and tailored to the set that they would be useless for anything else (although that's not the case for the more 'generic' parts, nor for the display stand which as you can see in the picture below is eminently LEGO-compatible).
Overall I'd have to give the Spitfire a big thumbs up - at £9.99 it's decent value for money, the build is interesting if brief, and the end result is impressive. I now can't wait to get started on the Messerschmitt, which speaks for itself.
I see this new line of Airfix Quick Build sets as complementing the LEGO portfolio rather than competing with it. With a few notable exceptions, LEGO don't do military aircraft, and even if they did, LEGO don't generally strive for the level of realism that Airfix are aiming for. Furthermore, despite the stated 5+ age range on the front of the box, I get the impression that the Quick Build sets may appeal to a demographic which is older than LEGO's traditional core target audience. Speaking as an AFOL, I reckon that the Quick Build sets are definitely worth checking out if you have an interest in the subject matter.