The latest product of LEGO Ideas has arrived, and unlike many of the previous Ideas sets, it’s not a pop-culture reference. LEGO Ideas is the company’s crowdsourcing initiative, and this set was originally designed by LEGO fan Jason Alleman. It is a classic two-axis ball maze familiar to kids and frustrated adults everywhere. We highlighted Jason’s original LEGO Ball Maze way back in 2012, and now almost four years later LEGO Ideas 21305 Maze will hit shelves April 1. The Maze contains 769 pieces for $69.99 USD. LEGO has provided us with an early copy to review, so let’s dig in.
21305 Maze’s 769 pieces put it almost one hundred pieces more than the next largest Ideas set (last year’s Wall-E), so it’s no surprise it comes in a large box. The 15′ x 10′ x 3.5′ box has a hinged lid like most of the rest of the Ideas sets. Inside are eight unnumbered bags, a light-bluish-grey 32×32 baseplate, four loose black 8×16 plates, and of course, the instruction manual. The manual is a hefty 140 page affair. The opening pages outline the set, as well as giving a brief intro to fan creator Jason Alleman.
If you were a fan of LEGO before the 2000’s, you’ll get to experience some nostalgia by dumping all 769 pieces into a giant pile, then furiously searching for pieces as you build. While it’s a minor point of concern, the lack of numbered bags definitely does slow down the construction process, especially since we’ve become so accustomed to any set over a hundred pieces having pre-sorted bags. Nevertheless, the instructions are laid out very clearly. Since most of the set consists of building a roughly symmetrical model on a grey baseplate, the LEGO designers who polished up Jason’s design have done a great job of adding touches of color and strategic brick placements to ensure that it’s always clear which side should be facing you, and where new pieces are to be placed. In fact, some bricks seem to exist solely for the purpose of helping diminish confusion when placing later bricks. This made the build process flow smoothly, and will certainly be of help to younger builders. The main base is a dull build, though, since it consists largely of placing basic bricks on a baseplate.
The two nesting tan rings come next, and each is built independently and then connected into the base. Younger builders may find this section a little difficult to tell some of the pieces apart, since it employs 1×8, 1×10, and 1×12 tan plates, which all look very similar in the manual. There’s also quite a bit of flex in the rings during construction, but once all the pieces are in place, the design is very sturdy. This is helped by some upper and lower brackets connected by tiles on each side of the ring, which serve to lock everything in place.
Once both rings are positioned on the base, it’s on to the building the maze itself. Parts are included for both a minimalist tan-floored and grey-walled design, as well as a more fanciful microscale castle layout. The maze layouts can be switched without reconstructing the entire set, since the maze design is a separate section inserted into the base. The instructions dive directly into building the simple grey-and-tan design, but I wish they would pause here and ask the builder which version of the maze they’d like to build, as I’d have preferred to build the castle first. Building the maze itself, which consists entirely of tiles and basic bricks laid on top of a 24×24 stud expanse of large black plates, is an exercise in patience. Thankfully the manual clarifies and outlines each step’s pieces in red, so it’s always obvious which pieces are being placed in a step. You have to ensure that all the tiles are firmly pressed down, or the balls will get stuck on the edges when navigating the maze. There are only enough tiles and black plates to make one version of the maze layout at a time though, so you’ll give the included brick separator a thorough workout when switching layouts.
The castle layout is definitely the most fun, being both slightly easier to navigate and really fun to look at, with some clever microscale buildings. Jason’s original project included a castle layout, and some of the neat buildings of his design have made it through. Jason’s original design had more detail, but the official version is close enough to still be enjoyable.
Once complete, I felt like the final set should be able to slide into the box for easy storage, and the Maze comes so very close to fitting back in the box. The knobs on one side stick out too far, preventing storing it in the box, and sadly removing the protruding pieces isn’t an option without fully disassembling the model. The model includes a small box for holding the balls which slips into one corner. There’s also a small cube of bricks, and when it and the ball box are placed in opposite corners under the tan rings, they shim the mechanism and keep it from moving. It’s a good way to make the model rigid for portability.
A set like this which creates a functioning toy isn’t as much about the build experience as it is about the play experience, so the real question is: how well does the Maze work? The short answer is: pretty well. As anyone who is familiar with ball mazes will know, the two gears on the sides each control one axis, and by combining the two you can manipulate a ball through the maze. The maze doesn’t just include walls though; it also includes traps (groups of 2×2 bare studs) where the ball will get stuck and you’ll have to start over. Maybe I’m bad at these games, but I found both mazes very difficult to navigate. Of course, you don’t want a ball maze to be too simple; if you can beat it after a try or two, it will quickly lose appeal. After many tries, I will confess that I have yet to successfully fully navigate a maze. I did come tantalizingly close a few times though, so I’m not disappointed. The design is not flawless, however. One issue I’ve already mentioned: all the tiles must be pressed down thoroughly, or the ball will catch. The other larger issue is the ball itself. The game includes four identical balls, each of which are plastic orange LEGO soccer balls. These balls have several divots for injection points and the LEGO name. Far too often I found the balls stopping in the middle of a path with their flat divot side down. Also, because the balls are plastic, they’re very light and have a tendency to bounce unpredictably if rolled vigorously against a wall. LEGO has made steel balls before, and they should have employed them here.
The ultimate value of this set is that it encourages builders to look at LEGO as a way to construct a real world object. Too often many of us — young builders and old hats alike — simply view LEGO as a way to create little spaceships and cars and castles and other incredibly imaginative inventions. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; if you read Brothers Brick often, you’ll know we love those things. But let’s not forget that LEGO can also be a way to create functional objects; things that don’t require imagination to play with. This set can open young people’s eyes to using LEGO to create games and mechanical objects and help them realize that LEGO has something to offer beyond minifig-based themes, without jumping all the way to the complexity of LEGO Technic and Mindstorms/EV3.
Finally though, your enjoyment of the finished product will likely be the same as your enjoyment of ball mazes in general, regardless of their construction material. If you find ball mazes simply a tedious method of proving your own lack of coordination and fine motor skills, there’s not going to be much for you here. The set won’t make a particularly great parts pack, so I’d see little reason to recommend it unless you enjoy the main build. If, however, you do enjoy the puzzle game of hand and eye coordination, this is undoubtedly one of the best ones you’ll be able to get. Once you’ve mastered one maze, simply remove the maze insert and rebuild it with the included pieces — or better yet, go build your own, maybe one with a space or city theme. I do recommend replacing the included balls with something more substantial; marbles would work well.