Sunday, September 24, 2017

Dungeon Dressing

The key to sustainably using Lego bricks as terrain in a D&D game is to keep things simple and flexible. Resist the temptation to make grand impressive builds, and do not try to copy all of the beautiful Lego builds you see online. The things that I use most often tend to be simple builds that can be used as 'dungeon dressing' in a lot of situations, like a wall shrine or a pit trap,

a bed, table, chair, and fireplace,

terrain pieces with hidden compartments,

a ladder down to a lower dungeon level, a shelf full of magical items,

a brazier, a throne,

a feast table, a rack of kegs,

a council table,

or just a basic a table and chairs.

Individually, these little builds may seem boring or simple. But when you have tubs full of them,

you can make entire dungeons full of fun and interesting encounters in a hurry.

I often find that the best additions to my dungeon dressing tub are the little terrain pieces with play features from the lower-cost Lego sets. For example, Fire Dragon's Lava Cave has both a sliding-lava-waterfall terrain piece and a terrain piece that transforms a pool from green water to clear water. I removed the latter from its green base and made a dungeon dressing piece that can be put anywhere.

This treasure chest statue on top of a chain-activated trapdoor comes from the Oasis Ambush set from the old Adventurer's line.

Many modern sets have excellent little terrain pieces with well-designed play features. Use them for inspiration, or download the instructions and make copies of them from the pieces in your collection, or just buy them, build them, and keep them in a tub to use for your games.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Nexo Shields

Here's an easy trick to greatly expand the shield options for minis: When you attach a bar plate to the back of a Nexo power shield, you get a lot of interesting pseudo-heraldric shield designs that portray the 'shield strapped to a forearm and held over the chest' look better than the normal shields.

I have a lot of these pieces because I bought several Nexo ultimates and battle suit figs on clearance. I bought them for the minis and parts, not realizing at first that the shields could be so useful.

These shields also look good when attached to the back of a character with a neck bracket with back stud:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Enlighten Bricks: Lord of Sky

'Lord of Sky' was the second set I ordered along with the Blacksmith Shop:

Its package had the same length and width as the blacksmith shop, which allowed for efficient shipping:

Its instruction book has the same page size as the larger sets. This was a pleasant surprise. I am used to Lego sets in the $10-$20 range having small instruction books that inevitably get bent up in the box. It was nice to have a large flat booklet with a smaller set.

The set has two bags, each with one minifig and its mount. The first one is the elf and parts for the hippogriff.

The build was easy and fun. Putting the pieces together felt just like putting Lego pieces together, with the single exception of the trans-yellow disk on the neck, which was a different kind of plastic and hard to connect. It was a better build experience and piece quality than the earlier two Enlighten sets I ordered. This is probably some combination of Enlighten brick quality getting better over time, and the pieces being smaller. Off-brand bricks usually work better when they are smaller, because there is less opportunity for the lower tolerances to make things harder to fit.

The mixel-style ball joints feel very much like the Lego kind, with similar fit and strength. The front legs will sometimes pop out if you try to move them the wrong way, which is partly the result of the design. They chose to mimic the appearance of a deer's front legs instead of maximizing poseability. The back legs feel just like moving around the legs of a dragon from the Elves line.

The click hinges have more variability. Some are a little harder to move, which means that when you try to move the joint and do not hold it right, sometimes a piece will fall off instead of the joint moving. Others move more easily then Lego click hinges. Still, they never had any problem holding complex poses in these models.

Overall the hippogriff is very well-designed and looks great, like a cross between a deer and a giant eagle. There were two little flaws in the design that I needed to fix, however. The wings could not flap down because they collided with the hind legs, but it was an easy adjustment to move them a stud forward where they could flap freely. I also needed to remove one of the back slopes so the rider could sit down:

This was actually a nice bit of nostalgia. When I was younger, Lego sets were less well-designed, so there were obvious fixes that I could make after building them. Now, it is very rare for this to happen, which actually makes them a little less fun.

Bag 2 is the knight and griffin:

This was another good build. As with the hippogriff, the design uses modern building techniques and parts like click hinges, ball joints, rods and clips, and technic axle connections. The only thing that told me that I was not making a Lego-designed creature was the use of a part that Lego does not have: a plate with studs on each side. This part, which Mega Bloks has been using for years, allows you to do things that you cannot with only Lego. I like how Enlighten combines Lego and Mega Bloks parts to make their unique designs.

The griffin head is a unique molded piece that connects with a larger ball joint that is not the same size as the larger Lego ball joints. When I made the Crocodile, I thought this joint was unique to Enlighten, but later I found that Mega Bloks uses that size connection.

The griffin wings are truly impressive. They are made from a thick printed plastic, and are the same size as the wings from the Morro Dragon. I am not used to getting such a large wing or sail piece in a smaller set, but the proportions are actually right for the build.

Despite the overall solidity, there was one important part of the griffin build that suffered from low part quality. The 1x2 brick with technic axle connector did not grip to the axle, which meant that the head popped off very easily. When I replaced this with a Lego brick from my connection, it worked fine. The Enlighten brick will not hold any axle and is only useful for greebling.

Aside from that, I might have been making a very well-designed fan creation with Lego bricks, a few of which were older or somewhat worn out. Of the three Enlighten sets I have tried, this one is definitely the best value and the one I recommend the most. Its minifigures may not be as unique or impressive, but the parts and designs are better. For $12, you will get two fantasy creatures, both of which are as good as the main attraction of a $20 Lego set:

Both models have stood up to at least two evenings of poseing, fiddling, moving around, and otherwise being used as an alternative to a fidget cube while I do other things. I am confident that I can pack them into a bin and take them to games without them falling apart.

Enlighten has become a serious competitor to Lego. Their pieces are almost as good, and a lot cheaper. Their instruction books are actually better. They are producing a full range of good original designs. I'll be watching them to see what else they make.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Enlighten Bricks: Blacksmith Shop

Enlighten recently added sets from their War of Glory line to their Amazon store at good prices (just a couple dollars more than the lowest price on ebay or aliexpress). Because I was impressed by an earlier Enlighten purchase, and because this new series is perfect for traditional-fantasy RPGs, I ordered two sets, one of which was the Blacksmith Shop:

The order arrived ten days after I ordered it. Both sets came in a bubble-wrapped package.

As with Lego sets and the crocodile, the set comes in numbered sequential bags:

The first bag has all the minifigs, and the pieces for the rolling driller cart. The minifig hands come separate; you have to put them in the arms. There was a spare of each kind; I got three flesh-colored ones and five yellow ones. This turned out to be necessary, as one of the dwarf hands would not hold accessories.

One of the main things that interested me about this set was getting two dwarves with short moving legs. As far as I can tell, these short legs are unique to War of Glory minis.

The legs, with real Lego legs on the left, and the two dwarves and elf in this set on the right:

The gap between the legs and hip is smaller than it was in the minifigs in the crocodile set. The two dwarf legs in this set are also different, which suggests that the gap is due to some kind of variability and will be different from figure to figure. As before, the gap creates instability, and makes the figures feel less robust than Lego minis. I am more careful when using them, because I do not want to break them.

The dwarf beards did not fit right when I put them on the torso and later added the head. But when I pressed the head into the beard first, it fit snugly, with the printed mustache lining up with the molded beard, and then I could add that assembly to the torso. The beard is difficult to remove from the head; it might become necessary to trim the inside of the beard slightly to fix this.

The gold-horned helmets are painted, very precisely. I had been hoping for something like the viking helmets with attachment holes and separate horn pieces, but these are still very nice. As far as I can tell, they are an original mold. The quality is very good. They come off the head a bit too easily, but I prefer that to the typical off-brand helmets, which stick too tightly on the head.

The white tiger is very nice. The tail, neck, and jaw all move.

The quality is pretty good, but not as good as Lego. The two halves were not fully joined; I had to press them together. It is a bit difficult to place the tiger on a studded baseplate. It is also a bit difficult to place a minifig in the saddle, especially with the wobbly minifig hips making me not want to press them down hard. Also, the saddle, which is a standard Lego horse saddle piece, is a bit too tall for this figure.

Similarly, the other bricks in this set are almost, but not quite, Lego-quality. The only pieces with mold flashing that needed trimming were the control sticks, which would not move fully in their socket until I trimmed off the excess plastic.

There was one exception. The gold cones in the numbered bag would not form a solid connection with the technic axle, which meant that the big gold drill would not stay on. However, the set came with an extra little bag with gold cones that did fit snugly. The company must have realized the problem, and added the better cones to make it work.

Aside from that, there were no surprises or parts that did not fit.

Bags 2 and 3 had the blacksmith shop build. The quality and ease of build were almost like a Lego set. The hood over the furnace collapsed once as I was building it, because the fit was not quite good enough to hold when I pressed down too hard. And the round black piece often comes off the furnace door when I open it, because its one-pin connection is not snug enough.

There was also a pleasant surprise: an extra gray wall piece in bag 2.

After I built the shop, I modified it to be more modular and portable, replaced the anachronistic molten-steel channel with a mill race for an overshot water wheel, and used leftover pieces to make a little dungeon room:

This set is fewer bricks than the crocodile, but it is a better value for running a fantasy RPG. The two flexible dwarf legs are going to see a lot of use. The elf and riding tiger are also perfect for a druid or ranger PC, and the blacksmith shop is an entire adventure site with good interaction, play features, and equipable loot. Even with the lower piece quality, it is a great value for $20.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Terrain: Modular Hills

I travel on the subway to play D&D, so everything I use for a session has to fit in my backpack. This means that all of the terrain has to fit in a bin, and be robust enough to survive transit.

After a bit of experimentation, I figured out a way to fit a lot of 3-D terrain pieces into one bin. The key is to make it modular, with straight and corner segments that connect with a double-pin brick:

The straight segments are basically an offset five-high stack of bricks with a plate on the bottom to hold the pin connector. They have no base, allowing them to stack. The double-pin connection to the corner pieces is what keeps them up. It is not super-secure, but it can hold up minis and small terrain pieces in play.

The corners are put on an angled base rather than a square one, which lets them pack more easily in the bin.

I also made a couple of 120-degree connectors to allow more natural and rounded terrain.

This system lets you fit a full tabletop of hilly terrain inside a single bin. The 16x16 baseplate on the hill segment represents a more gentle slope, while the rest are steeper hills:

When using this setup, any people on the top of the hill rather than the slope can be placed on the table behind the hill. Basically, you are treating the slopes like contour lines on a map.

Basically any pile of bricks or slopes can be turned into these modular hills. I used a lot of camo-green Mega Bloks, because they inevitably accumulate when I buy big bins of bricks from thrift stores.

I used large bricks for the top, because the top bricks are most vulnerable to getting knocked off in transit. If the top is smaller bricks, they will often fall off. This design is robust, even given the lower quality of off-brand bricks.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Enlighten Bricks: Crocodile


Despite this blog's title, I am not a Lego purist. I will gladly get Halo, Assassin's Creed, or Monster High Mega Bloks when they show up in a clearance rack; the figures make nice enemies and the blocks are just fine for building walls and structures, even if the quality is not good enough for brick-built monsters.

I have not and never will buy the clone sets that are just cheap copies of Lego sets. I will not support intellectual property theft. However, the 'Enlighten Bricks' company is not just a clone brand. They have their own set designs and their own minifigures, many of which are perfect for a fantasy RPG:

Most of the Enlighten Bricks sets are only available from ebay or Chinese websites, and people who buy them report that they take weeks to arrive and about a third of them never show up. However, Enlighten also has an Amazon store, with a few of their sets fulfilled by Amazon. Most of these cost significantly more than they do on ebay, but there was one, Fury Crocodile, that was cheaper and looked good, so I decided to try it out.


The set arrived on schedule, like most fulfilled-by-Amazon deliveries. As the site stated, it came without a box in a bubble-wrap envelope. Inside the envelope was the set and instruction booklet, wrapped securely in another layer of bubble wrap. The set comes in four numbered bags, designed to be opened and built sequentially, like modern Lego sets.

 Also like Lego sets, smaller pieces come in little bags inside the bigger numbered one. Here is bag #1:

The set came with Enlighten's own design of brick separator. I sometimes used it in construction to help press little bricks into place when they did not fit easily.


The minifigs come with the hands separate, you have to put them in the arms in yourself. On one of them, an arm popped out when I first tried to push in the hand. I was able to reattach it easily. The arms seem to fit fine for most uses, although they would probably pop out if a child played with them. I actually like this fit better than the hard-to-remove Lego arms; it makes it easier to swap them out for character customization.

The three assembled minifigs:

The biggest flaw in Enlighten minis is the gap between the legs and hip. This gap is noticeable, it makes the people look less real, and it makes the legs wobble in a way that feels insecure. It makes the Enlighten figs slightly taller than Lego figures.

Enlighten legs are compatible with Lego hips. You can move the leg over to a Lego fig, with about as much force as it takes to switch out Lego legs, and it fits well. There is no gap, although the movement is a bit looser than Lego legs. So the difference is the mold that Enlighten uses for the hip.

Aside from that, the figures are great. The quality is good, the paint is good, and the art design is great. These minis, despite their hip gap, will be a good addition to my collection.

Brick Quality and New Pieces

The biggest concern with off-brand bricks is the quality. Overall, I was very impressed. The bricks are obviously not as good are Lego, but they are at least as good as the collector-series Mega Bloks. The fit is sometimes a bit tighter than Lego, but overall they fit well and are easy to assemble. Most of the time they have a 'click' that feels almost exactly like Lego, although there are a few times they do not.

There are two types of pieces. Some have blank studs, and others have 'ENLI' printed on each one. The printed ones are noticeably better quality; they have obviously upgraded molds but are still using up the old ones to save money.

A couple of bricks had visible mold flashing, and occasionally I would have to trim this off with a knife for a good fit. In most cases it was easy to remove, coming right off without leaving a mark.

However, several of the the claw pieces had mold problems that made it impossible to fit them where they needed to go, and required quite a bit of knife work to scrape down.

The set has several pieces I have never seen Lego use. One is a Mega Bloks piece, and another is an interesting sliding mechanism.

These tube pieces, fitting over a stud, are interesting. They are designed to securely connect a stud upside down. I have never seen them before, and I like them, even if their very tight fit makes them hard to remove.

The set uses two sizes of ball-and-socket joints. Each piece is a mold unique to Enlighten. There is a larger joint, used for the body connections, that is almost the size of the large Lego ball-and-socket joint but not compatible. The joint used for the feet is their own size, about halfway between a Mixel ball joint and the larger ones. It has good range of movement and a decent ability to hold a pose.

The sticker sheet is like a Mega Bloks sticker sheet. They went on fine and stayed put.

Set Design and Instructions

The instruction booklet is very good, better than Mega Bloks. It was easy to follow. Blocks from previous steps are faded out, which is nice. Lego used to do that, but then they stopped for some reason. The number of pieces added per step is more than most modern Lego sets, as are the number of steps printed per page. They are about equivalent to what Lego instructions were like when I was growing up. I prefer this, it always annoys me to see a whole page of an instruction booklet spent on adding just a couple of bricks.

The design of the set is good, competently using studs-out techniques and Technic-style pieces.

Overall, it felt more like putting together a Chima vehicle than an off-brand set. The build progressed easily for the most part. However, the looser tolerances meant that I sometimes had trouble attaching a larger subassembly onto the main build.

Bag 1 was the minifigs and crocodile head. Here is the build before opening bag 2. Note the extra tooth, the only spare piece in the whole set.

As with Mega Bloks, the design is very piece-dense. Lego designers are masters of using a small number of pieces to make something that is larger. Compared to a Lego build, this set has a lot of pieces and detail for its size, making it feel more like a fan creation. It also feels very solid and hefty when completed.

Opening Bag 2:

Bag 2 in progress. Notice the sliding pieces. I did not know what they were for.

At the end of bag 2, the build surprised me with an excellent play feature:

I had no idea this was coming, I assumed that the jaw required manual posing. This is a nice trick, one that I have not seen Lego or anyone else use. Enlighten clearly has creative designers that are working to build fun things from scratch.

However, the jaw mechanism is not that robust; it often comes apart in play. A better design would lock it in place with some sideways-stud building, or at least a few more connection points. 

Opening bag 3:

In bag 3, the instructions call for an illegal connection. It is a sign that they do not really understand things like Lego designers do, but also a sign that they are being creative and not just copying.

 Opening bag 4:

And the completed model:

The model has lots of joints and is very poseable. This is not apparent on a flat tabletop, because the bricks on top restrict freedom of movement, but becomes apparent when you put it on irregular terrain like the back of a couch.

In general, it is solid and fun to play with. Nothing falls apart, aside from the occasional disconnection if you snap the jaws a lot.


I am very glad that I got this set. It surpassed my expectations; the piece quality is good and the set is well-designed. It cost $20 but it looks and feels like $40-$50 Lego set. It compares favorably to Ninjago dragons and Chima vehicles, and the minifigs are a great addition to my PC creation tackle box.

I would not buy it for a child who was used to Lego, because children hate the feeling of getting something 'strange' or 'inferior', but it is perfect for a teen or adult hobbyist who wants decent cheap bricks and/or more variety to their minifig collection.

Enlighten has become a respectable off-brand, comparable to Mega Bloks. You can see from looking through their catalog that they have very interesting original designs, and that they are producing a lot of themes that Lego is not currently selling. I will be buying more, especially if they put more sets in their Amazon store.