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Skeleton Tower

by Artemis

It's 30 years since the first Lego Castle set was released, which just goes to show that some things never go out of fashion. Fads like Pokemon, alien conspiracies, and zombies may rise and fall, but knights always endure. Well, that's full plate armour for you.

At the sinister Skeleton Tower, the evil Wizard plots his next move to capture the castle. To defeat the villains and rescue the imprisoned Princess, the brave knight must face the fire-breathing dragon and enter the skull jaw gate.

The current Castle line features a band of heroic knights (dubbed "Crown Knights" by collectors, due to the crown they display on their heraldry), aided by their stalwart dwarven allies, battling hordes of evil skeleton warriors and savage troll raiders. Swap "troll" for "orc" (they're pretty interchangeable) and it's basically Lord of the Rings - elves will be along in the near future, it seems - although the fast-and-loose mythology gives it more the feel of the original Warcraft games, back when they were about real-time strategy rather than replacing social lives with sitting in front of your PC eighteen hours a day. Whatever - it's populist high fantasy fun.

As the descriptive text (cribbed from the website) says, this set includes the titular tower, the evil Wizard (a necromancer, obviously), the irritatingly sexist damsel in distress, a couple of skeletal henchmen, and a bigass dragon, all arrayed against one solitary knight on his armoured steed. Biased towards the bad guys, obviously, but if you assume the knight is the kind of 80th-level uber-paladin they generally are in these kinds of things, I'd say the odds are about even: the skeletons aren't going to be a problem, the dragon is a fair match, and once that's been skewered in its vulnerables the Wizard's probably only going to have time to gasp "It cannot be!" before he gets a sword through his scrawny chest.

The tower is the "building" bit of the set, so let's start there, since that's what Lego's about after all. At 398 pieces (a total including the figures and dragon) it's a reasonable mid-range construct, and measured to the top of its highest tower it's a bit over 11" tall - not immense by any means, but compared to the size of Lego figures (the knight on his horse is still under 3") it's a decently intimidating fortress. The building is composed of three levels: the ground floor includes the jawbridge (™ & © Masters of the Universe) and the entrance corridor, at the back of which hangs the requisite spooky spider web, with its oversized beastie lurking at the center. Level two is the wheel house for the bridge mechanism, and level three is the battlements, including two towers which lean vertiginously out over the edge of the main building's walls.

The ground level is built primarily of pre-fabricated "stony cliff" pieces, large grey 4x10 ones for the sides, and smaller 2x4 "volcano" pieces at the front, cast in translucent orange and painted grey part-way up their height. They look good enough, but I must admit I was disappointed by them - I'm not one of those uber-fierce Lego Nazis who reject any kind of custom pieces, but these parts of the tower, especially the plain grey sides, could easily have been built from basic blocks. I suppose these pre-fab chunks are intended to make large structures easier for young children to build, but I think they may be underestimating their market there - even as a child myself, I valued a Lego set being complex, even if it made it difficult to build.

The jawbridge itself is mounted on two tight bolts - without any other weight on it, it'll easily hold its position even if you tilt up upwards without tightening the chains to hold it. The bony teeth look good, but they also mean that the jaw can never close completely - at the point where the teeth contact the upper works, there's still easily enough room for an enterprising knight to clamber up and get inside, which seems like a bit of a design flaw for a fortress. When opened the front of the jaw can split in two to allow easy access for skeletons and whatnot. For extra decoration there are twin rows of bone spines on either side of the tower - which are a bit fragile, and tend to get knocked out of alignment easily - and some wizardly lightning rising off the glowing lava pieces.

The next level, the wheel house, is built on an 8x12 base, forming a full floor - the ground level is open to whatever surface it's sitting on - and is just open space aside from the winch mechanism. It's a simple design, just a Technic rod with a couple of gears attached to mount the chains on, and connected by an elastic band on the left outside of the tower to a spoked winch. It works well enough, but for one flaw: there's nothing holding the rod in place on the right side of the tower, and since the winch handle has a wider surface for the elastic than the wheel on the rod itself, it tends to drag the whole mechanism sideways as you turn it, which can pull the chains onto the gear teeth and jam the whole thing up. Luckily, this set - as with all Lego sets - includes extras of various small parts, including an extra rod end, so the rod can be fixed in place and then function perfectly smoothly. It's just an odd oversight that that wasn't part of the design to begin with.

The skull "face" of the tower is built flat, and then plugs into the Technic plugs extending from the front of the wheel house, with the chains passing through its eye sockets. It's nothing fancy, but the angles of the skull face are well placed, and despite its obvious Lego nature, it looks nice and skully.

The top level is where most of the action takes place. In the center is the Wizard's gloating pedestal, with a crystal ball situated in front of it. It's just a clear plastic sphere fitted over the top of a pointed 1x1 translucent green cylinder, but since the sphere is purposefully lensed all over its surface it creates quite a neat effect, with the green and silver (clear) colours shifting and merging as you look at it. There's also a little vampire bat to lurk atop the rear wall.

On either side are towers - on the right a low 360° tower containing a rotating catapult with two 1x1 cylinders as ammunition, and also bearing the arm for the prisoner cage, and on the left a taller tower with an open back. All the battlements, on the towers and the main floor, are composed of pre-fab 180° battlement pieces - again, a bit of a disappointment, as there are basic blocks which could be used to build a similar design quite easily. The tall body of the left-side tower is also a single piece, but since it's thinner and has the arched window in its surface it's easier to forgive - you couldn't really make the same thing out of blocks and still have it be hollow enough to fit anyone inside.

The prisoner cage is made of bone, suspended from a chain built into the base of the right-side tower, and hooked over a claw at the end of its arm - the claw's not that big, so the chain can slip off, in which case the cage will just fall against the side of the tower. On the up side, the chain and claw arrangement ensures that (if you take care while putting it together) the hanging cage will always face forwards. Five of the eight bone spires are fixed in place, while the remaining three are open at the top, allowing them to swing down to release the prisoner, who stands securely on a 2x2 plate inside.

Manning (and undeading) this dread fortress are the Wizard and his two skeletal servants. The Wizard is a standard Lego figure, dressed in red with a robe pattern on his front, and a belt with various talismans and whatnots painted onto the hips/legs piece. Over that he's got a two-layered cape, which when attached properly will have the lower part down over his back, while the upper curves up around his head like Dr. Strange's collar - it's the same kind of overlapping hole cape as you find on other Lego figures, but arranging it so that both sets of holes overlap properly is a bit tricky until you spot the knack of it.

The Wizard also gets a grey beard - a collar piece which goes down his front, and also rises up to cover his chin and cheeks - and a large pointy hat. He's got a somewhat insane scowl on his face, and one eye is glowing red - in a fantasy setting like this, where you can generally tell someone's moral stance by how they look, it's pretty plain this isn't a good guy. He's armed with a tall staff, composed of a plain shaft, a double-ended plug piece, and a plug-in claw at the top, in which sits another one of those magical lightning pieces.

The skeletons are custom figures, built of a central torso/hips, with separate arms and legs clipping on, and standard Lego heads painted white with skull faces and glowing red eyes. Like regular figures their feet fit onto any 2x1 plate, and the arms end in standard claw "hands," although since the sides of the torso are slanted inwards and there's no wrist swivel, anything they hold will be tilted over at a slight angle. The set includes a skull-faced shield, a one-piece spiked flail, and a two-piece scythe.

Their captive, the Princess, is a regular Lego figure from the waist up, with a 2x2 brick slanting to a 2x1 top representing her long dress trailing behind her from the waist down. Both torso and skirt have blue fabric contours printed on them, with a gold belt and embroidery, and a white undershirt visible around her neckline. Her head has two faces, one on each side - happy and scared - and her long brunette hair piece, which includes an appropriately medieval braided design at the back, covers the face not in use.

Riding to her rescue (since medieval princesses never do anything for themselves, apparently) is a typical knight in shining armour. His body is a plain black, with grey legs and hands; over his torso he wears a contoured breastplate, with bolts and plates and so on printed onto it, and he's got a one-piece helmet, with a plug-in point for a plume, although unlike the older Castle sets, the current line prefers its knights to be less ornamented, so none is provided. He's got a standard kite shield with the crown emblem on a light and dark blue backing, and is armed with a vac-metallized silver sword. To carry his lazy butt around he's got a white horse, which comes with two-piece barding to cover its head and body with armour and cloth. The set also includes a white 2x1 brick and 2x1 plate, which can be used to fill in the hole in the horse's back where the rider's legs go, in case you want to display the horse sans knight and barding.

And then there's the dragon. Now I've already complained a bit about large pre-fabricated pieces, and when I saw it on the packaging the dragon didn't appeal to me - too ready-made, it seemed. But once I actually saw it for myself and put it together, I changed my tone. It's a bit over 11½" from tail to snout, and it's quite a versatile "figure," with more building-based options than you'd think.

The tail is three pieces, each on a swivel joint to the adjoining piece, so it can be curled this way and that. The arms and legs attach via ratcheted swivelling plugs, and the neck, which is bent in a shallow S-bend for posing, attaches to body and head with a swivel/hinge joint at each end. The upper back of the torso has a 4x2 flat area, where the ratcheted wing hinge joints (standard Lego joint pieces) are attached, and the wings then plug into them; the space between the joints is covered with two plug-in angled bricks representing spines, but could also be left open for a rider to sit on.

The head has an opening jaw, quite a characterful printed design, and five plug-in points in its crest for horns to go in - the set's standard layout is three small black horns in the centre and two long horns on either side, but by co-opting the bone spikes and spines used on the tower, or using extras from other sets if you have them, you can alter the dragon's crest however you want. There's also a little jet of flame which plugs into the lower jaw.

The dragon sums up my experience with the set as a whole, really - I like knights and castles as much as the next guy who's still 8 years old inside, but they're not a huge favourite of mine - not to compare to Space Lego - and at a glance, the pre-fabricated dragon and wall segments seemed to hark back to the dark times of the '90s, when Lego got a bit too enamoured of custom pieces. Really, I only bought it because our annual Horror Month calls for Hallowe'en-based reviews, and that sounded like an excuse to buy some Lego (it's an addiction, really). Bit once you open the set up and see what it's really like, it's a different story - the pre-fab bits could have been avoided in some cases, but regardless of them you get a fun set of Lego with lots of customization options.


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