If you’re a dedicated LEGO fan, there’s a good chance you already use BrickLink.com to buy LEGO sets and individual elements. Now the 19-year-old marketplace has a new way of capturing the hearts and wallets of AFOLs (aka Adult Fans of LEGO). Announced last year, it’s called the BrickLink AFOL Designer Program, or ADP. With it, BrickLink is bringing a handful of fan-designed kits to market via a crowd-sourcing initiative. In many ways ADP resembles The LEGO Company’s own Ideas platform, but besides boasting larger payouts to designers, ADP also promises that the final sets will be virtually unaltered from the submitted designs. After a review period, 16 designs were first made available for a pre-ordering process with a minimum threshold of pre-orders before BrickLink would actually publish the kit. It’s a similar process to the way Kickstarter projects require a funding goal to be met. 13 of the designs met that goal and the largest model, Löwenstein Castle by builder Raziel Regulus, skyrocketed in popularity resulting in all 2,500 copies completely selling out during the pre-order phase. BrickLink has provided us an early review copy of the set, so let’s see how this fan-built model stacks up. Löwenstein Castle has 2,015 pieces and a $199.99 USD sticker price, though it is now sold out.
While the BrickLink ADP sets are not official LEGO sets and will not bear the LEGO logo, the sets do have The LEGO Company’s blessing. The AFOL Designer Program was initiated in affiliation with LEGO to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the LEGO brick, and each box will feature the official 60th-anniversary logo. The LEGO Company has also worked with BrickLink to provide elements explicitly for the sets. This is unlike any other aftermarket sets, which have always relied on pieces sourced out of regular LEGO sets (and consequently, those sets have a much higher price).
The box and contents
Because our set is an early review copy, BrickLink had not yet completed work on the packaging and our parts were mailed in a simple cardboard box with prototype instructions (they’ve since announced what the final packaging will look like). So I’ll forego our usual examinations of the packaging and focus instead on the parts. BrickLink says the final set will have machine-sealed bags and a high-quality bound instruction manual.
The parts sorting method, however, is mostly finalized, and it’s a novel approach. The elements are grouped into five sets of numbered bags, with each of the individual bags within the groups holding a different size of element, roughly according to element weight. So for instance, group 1 bags are sorted as tiny, small, medium, and large elements. Of course, with just five sets of bags, each group still contains around 400 elements, so you’ll still be scrabbling a bit to find the elements you want, but it’s not too bad once you get in the swing of it.
With just a few more than 2,000 pieces (the maximum a submitted model was allowed), this is a hefty set. What’s immediately obvious is that the color palette is considerably more muted than that of a traditional LEGO set. Official LEGO sets intentionally conceal bright, vivid elements internally, primarily to make instructions easier to follow. Löwenstein Castle, however, is designed as a MOC, and like many builders, the designer used a seamless palette throughout (with one notable exception of some red bricks that I’ll address later).
The instructions themselves are quite good–my, what a long way aftermarket instructions have come. These have no doubt been massaged a bit from the visually excellent but tedious piece-by-piece steps that BrickLink’s Studio software auto-generates, and they’re largely clear and easy to follow, with the elements used shown in a callout box, and the new pieces highlighted on the model. It does pay to give extra attention to the instructions in a few areas, since there aren’t any guides for the length of the long Technic bricks or axles (and numerous lengths are used). It’s a little throwback to the old days when it paid to count the studs on bricks before attaching them. The instructions do address a few areas of color confusion, but they do so inconsistently, so you may find yourself returning to make a correction. For example, they distinguish between 1×1 round plates in pearl dark silver and dark grey, but only on the step where pearl dark grey is called for, and not on the previous steps that used dark grey. These minor difficulties won’t hinder any moderately experienced builders.
The castle is built modularly, with the gatehouse up first, straddling a variety of large plates in green, dark tan, and dark blue. The gatehouse incorporates a working portcullis, along with a chicken coop and various details such as stacked logs. The most striking thing so far is how much the overall colors of the model feel like an official set. The mix of greys, tans, and sand blue are mostly in brick-size elements scattered somewhat randomly, and that trend continues through the build. This means you won’t find much of the crazy stonework detailing that’s popular lately in the LEGO castle-building scene, and instead, it looks a lot like an official LEGO set. Whether that continuity with official sets is a pro or a con entirely depends on what you’re looking for in a non-LEGO-branded set.
With a bit of more intricate detailing on the round turret for the gatehouse, this mini-module is complete. At this stage, the castle appears to be roughly minifigure scale, though with some slightly stylized details. The scale becomes murkier as we move on, though.
Next up is the castle’s footprint, a mix of large plates. Here’s the first tell that this build isn’t from the desks of designers in Billund, as plates and tiles overlap and overhang in ways that official sets rarely do. The discrepancy is a difficult thing to put your finger on, but for instance, in the picture below, leaving the large dark grey 6×6 tile overhanging both sides is something I’d never expect in a LEGO set. It’s not inherently bad (and causes no issues in the completed model as far as I can tell) but it is fascinating to build a model that doesn’t use LEGO’s assembly language. It seems logical that all models start looking like this one, whether on a LEGO model designer’s desk or a fan’s, but LEGO’s notoriously rigorous refinement process tunes and optimizes the designs to eliminate these awkward constructions.
A handful of BURPs held together with Technic bricks make up the raised hill upon which the castle sits. There are also multiple areas that are rather difficult to fully press down due to the awkward construction of large subassemblies which are attached all at once, but once it’s locked in it’s rather sturdy.
A few large plates laid over the hill and we have a grassy courtyard, and at last, a few details. There’s a little well down in front (which actually has a hole through to the cave beneath) and something no LEGO castle has yet featured: a toilet set into the wall. It’s eventually covered with a door that opens toward the wall, making looking inside rather difficult once everything’s assembled. Ideally, the door would be hinged on the left instead.
The finished base has two large gaps where the keep and tower will eventually slot into place.
Now we set aside the castle base and start on a new piece, the keep. The keep is built on an angled set of plates atop scaffolding of red bricks. And scaffolding really is the correct term, as the red bricks (the only unusually colored ones in the set) are removed once the keep is complete and set aside. While some official LEGO sets use temporary scaffolding bricks, I’ve never before encountered a set that includes a dozen elements purely to aid construction. For instance, the Creator Expert Ford Mustang’s scaffolding elements are recycled into its NOS cannister. Again, this isn’t a bad thing: after all, more bricks are always good.
The multi-story keep structure is then built onto this foundation. The keep houses a dining hall and entryway on the lower level and a bedroom on the upper, with a cauldron balanced above the entryway. There are lots of details, and they’re an interesting mix of minifigure scale and something smaller that seems about perfect for LEGO microfigures. For instance, there’s no way the enclosed staircase behind the dining hall could be considered minifigure scale, but it’s a lovely little detail.
The completed keep looks fantastic, and could almost stand as a model on its own. The roofs can be removed to provide access to the upper areas of both sections.
Here I encountered a few things that run directly counter to my AFOL-builder tendencies. First, pieces with unnecessary hollow spaces beneath. No doubt designer Raziel Regulus did this to save part count against the 2,000-piece max, but it still rubs me the wrong way. The good news is that if you’re reading this, you surely have a handful of 1×1 plates laying around with which to fix them. However, the lack of a second clip on the door hinge seems like a straightforward error rather than a conscious omission.
The tower is a self-contained unit with three interior floors plus the roof, and there are a few minor details sprinkled in. The circular outside of the tower is painstakingly created with dozens of interlocking curved slopes, and the final result is excellent and a true example of better detailing than we’re likely to ever see in an official set.
The finished model
With all the modules complete, the tower and keep slot into the base, the gatehouse clips onto the front, and the castle stands proudly. The way the tower’s plates-out base clicks into place is particularly satisfying, and a really great piece of engineering.
The top of the flag on the tower is about 14.5 inches tall, and the castle itself is around a foot wide and only slightly less in depth, so the model is larger than it seems at first glance.
The layout is nicely asymmetrical, with an organic design that’s far more accurate than most official LEGO castles.
The gatehouse portcullis raises with a gear and locks into place at each step. Lifting the Technic axle next to the gear slams the gate shut. The mechanism is all brick-built, with no purpose-designed rail elements, so it can take a bit of finessing to achieve smooth operation. I found it to be great when it worked, but ultimately a little finicky and prone to catching. I do find it annoying that the gatehouse only attaches to the castle with a single clip on one side; it cannot be picked up together with the model.
The drawbridge to the keep experiences no such difficulties, though. It’s a marvelously simple mechanism that works flawlessly.
Behind the gatehouse, there’s a small courtyard with a barn for the three included chickens, though it’s hard to access with the gatehouse in place.
Around back, the castle is presented in cross-section and it looks excellent with lots of dark cubbyholes.
Most of the castle’s details are accessible via their openings here. Ultimately, these spaces are not as detailed as I’d expect from an official set at this price point, but given the cleverness in other areas of the build, I think that’s largely to blame on the limited palette of parts ADP designs had to work with, and Raziel Regulus has done well with what was available.
There’s a bit of scenery around the edges, including a few small trees and lots of plants. The whole castle is altogether pretty sturdy and easy to move in two pieces (the gatehouse plus the main castle), but there are lots of little pieces of rockwork or flora that come off easily if you’re not careful where you hold it.
Each BrickLink ADP set will also include a unique, exclusive element, but BrickLink is keeping the specifics under wraps for now, as our early copy did not include this special element. It’s clear that this piece will be purely a bonus element, though, and not integrated into the model.
Back to the topic of working with what was available: nowhere is this more evident than with the minifigures. ADP designs were limited to using only a certain selection of parts, which was basically the parts LEGO currently has in production minus anything obviously from a licensed theme. Since LEGO currently does not have a castle theme, castle-specific pieces were few and far between, especially when it comes to minifigures. Löwenstein Castle includes three minifigures: a queen, a knight, and a squire–or a knight and his family, according to the official description.
I don’t know whether any LEGO shields were available to the designer, but this brick-built version is a pretty great alternative (it also appears on the keep). The knight gets both a flared helmet and a hairpiece to go along with his sword, while Mrs. Knight has a crown and an apple. Both minifigures have completely unprinted torsos, and Mrs. Knight has a plain dress slope while the knight has plain flat silver legs. Knight Jr. has a bow and quiver, and a slightly anachronistic shirt with pockets. Frankly, they all feel like an afterthought. It’s clear that the minifigures are the weakest link in the castle, and appropriately detailed minifigures (or microfigures!) would have made this set a lot better.
Conclusion and recommendation
Löwenstein is a small town in Germany, and it did, in fact, have a castle (that was destroyed in 1634), but Raziel Regulus’ Löwenstein Castle is not based on any one specific castle. Instead, the designer wanted to capture the essence of an accurate medieval castle on a small footprint, and it does that well. In many ways the set feels like a hybrid between an official LEGO set and a MOC, but ultimately the experience is most akin to an official set that’s lacking final polishing touches. It’s an excellent design, but it is precisely because it is such a great model that the few weaknesses stand out. It just needs that last 10 percent of care and refinement to really take it over the top and trade blows with an official set. While BrickLink says they consider the AFOL Designer Program to be a success, they haven’t decided yet if they will run it again. If they do it a second time, it would behoove them to spend more time polishing the sets. It’s true that one of the key selling points of the program is to let the fans actually be the designers, rather than merely concept artists (like LEGO Ideas), but BrickLink has told me they made a few small changes to the model during discussions with the builder (through which the part count increased from 2,000 to 2,015). More time spent on this can only help the program. In particular, as I’ve already addressed, some of the weaker areas of the model appear to be an element availability issue, and likely the only solution is more fine-tuning to work around that limitation.
My few quibbles aside, Löwenstein Castle is a fantastic set, and were it still available I’d recommend buying it. It captures the look and feel of an authentic castle better than any official LEGO castle set, and does so at a great price point. This ability to address subjects that might not sell as a traditional LEGO set is ADP’s greatest strength, especially because they can do it as a reasonable price unlike other aftermarket kit designers. And even those who bought this set purely as a parts pack won’t be disappointed (though I can’t imagine they’re many). Sadly, Löwenstein Castle is already sold out, and as far as we know BrickLink has no plans to produce more. Raziel Regulus has said that he’s creating expansions to the castle and plans to sell instructions for them via his ReBrickable account.
The rest of the AFOL Designer Program sets are available for purchase starting today, with subjects ranging from saloons to fire engines to chess boards. BrickLink will be shipping the orders starting next month, with fulfillment extending into late summer.
BrickLink sent The Brothers Brick an early copy of this set for review. Providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.
Check out the full gallery of review images below.