The Unofficial LEGO Minifigure Catalog book review
The official Brickset review of The Unofficial LEGO Minifigure Catalog by Christoph Bartneck, ISBN 978-14635118974.
It’s not every day that a book aimed squarely at adult fans of LEGO is published, so when word of a new one surfaces it generates considerable excitement in the community.
This was the case recently when a website popped up with details about The Unofficial LEGO Minifigure Catalog – the ultimate guide for minifigure collectors and enthusiasts. When the site was brought to my attention I contacted the author and requested a copy for review, and it’s now in my possession.
It’s been produced by Christoph Bartneck who, according to the book’s preface, used to work for LEGO but is now living in New Zealand and working at the University of Canterbury, in robotics. He describes himself as a ‘LEGO fan dedicated to the beauty of Minifigures’
The book claims to contain high-quality photographs of virtually every minifig ever made, from the birth of the ‘armless’ ones in 1975 right up to those found in 2010 sets. That’s a lot of photos – some 3600 of them – so it’s a big book.
However, the book goes further than just presenting photos. It offers a new means of identifying minifigs using a taxonomy of LEGO themes and a brand new nomenclature for numbering them. “What’s wrong with BrickLink’s minifig numbering system?” I can hear you asking: actually there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it, it is useful for uniquely identifying figures for trading purposes but it can be a bit random and numbers tend to get allocated on a ‘first come first served’ basis without any real thought about the best way to use them. So, if offers nothing to the collector or cataloguer of minifigs.
Having a scientific background has obviously helped Christoph come up with something more useful. He has devised a system to number minifigs (I’ll call them numbers from now on, although they also contain letters) based on their position in the taxonomy, the year they were released, and a unique serial number. Numbers therefore contain useful information about the figure and can also be used to identify figures with similar attributes, such as those released in the same year or that belong to the same subtheme as the one in question.
Here’s what the numbers look like. They are divided into five parts:
- The h,m,l sections denote the theme, based on the new taxonomy
- y denotes the year in which the figure was first released
- s denotes a serial nmber
The theme taxonomy is described in the book and also on the website, so I won’t repeat it here. It looks as if a lot of thought has gone into it but I suspect there will be arguments to be had about some of the classifications. One of the more controversial aspects of it is the top-level split between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’. Christmas and thus Santa figures are in the ‘non-fiction’ section. Is that right? J
Here are some examples of the numbers:
- his.pir.isl.1994.03: Historic/Pirates/Islander, released in 1994, serial number 3.
- lic.stw.456.2008.07: Licenced/Star Wars/Ep. 4/5/6, released in 2008, serial number 7.
I felt it was important to highlight this numbering because it is an important aspect of the work under review. Now let’s turn our attention to the book itself.
Size-wise it’s about 20x 25cm, so larger than the LEGO Collector book, and about 400 pages long. It’s divided into three sections: introduction, the catalogue of images, and indexes.
In the introduction Cristoph provides a brief history of the minifigure and describes the taxonomy and nomenclature used in the book. He even gives a nod to the high-quality minifigs photos available at Brickset, which is nice :-)
The bulk of the book is of course the 3600-odd photos that make up the catalogue. They are presented sixteen to a page and are reproduced 1:1, i.e. they are the same size as the minifigs themselves. The photography is excellent and there is a high degree of consistency which results in a very attractive presentation. Minifigs with white parts have been photographed on a grey background while those without have been done against white. Although this has led to some inconsistency it was probably sensible given the difficulty in photographing white figs against white backgrounds, as I well know.
One thing I noticed was that the figures’ hands, heads and hats have not always been straightened: this is something that I get very obsessive about when I photograph them! Nevertheless, these are the highest quality photos of minifigs you’ll find outside of Dorling Kindersley books and Brickset’s minifig galleries.
The figure’s number is given underneath each image, along with (thank goodness) the equivalent BrickLink number and the number of pieces that make up the figure, which I felt was a bit superfluous: we can see how many there are from the photo.
The last section contains four indexes:
- A list of all the images in the book, giving page number, BrickLink number for the figure’s head and a list of sets it’s appeared in. I do not know for sure but I suspect this has been gathered from BrickLink and other online sources.
- A cross-reference between BrickLink number and book numbers, in BrickLink number order. This also gives page number so is a handy way to find what you’re looking for if you know BrickLink numbers.
- A listing of every minifig, in year order, again with page numbers.
- Finally, a highlight of the book: a photograph of every minifig head together with a list of the minifigs that uses it. This really is excellent and the first time anything like it has appeared anywhere, online or off.
So what do I think of it and should you buy it?
This really is a very ambitious piece of work, not only to take thousands of photographs but also to come up with a new numbering system. Christoph should be applauded for undertaking it and delivering an excellent end product. I can’t really criticise or find fault in it at all.
However, one thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the price. A book such as this is never going to be a best seller given its limited potential audience so you can expect it to command a premium. Finding a publisher for it is also likely to be an issue.
So, at the time of writing, the book is available from CreateSpace for $89 and will be listed at Amazon in the next few days. It’s printed on-demand, which means that you order it and Christoph gets a copy printed for you. An advantage of this is that the book can be under constant revision and you’ll receive the latest version.
At that price I have to admit that unless you’re a hard-core minifig collector, the book may not be so attractive. But Christoph (and I for that matter) is hoping that this first edition is a success so as to encourage him to keep it updated and to continue to pursue getting it accepted by a publisher.
Price notwithstanding, if you are a minifig collector, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to you. Dorling Kindersley minifig books may look glossier and be cheaper but they are nowhere near as complete as this. It’s the definitive, ultimate, minifig reference work available in book form and a great companion to the LEGO Collector book.
Bottom line: if you can afford it, buy it. You won’t regret it. If you're still not convinced, you can find out more about the book at the official website: http://www.minifigure.org.
Wait, there’s more…
Another thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that Christoph is also planning an iOS version for iPad/iPod/iPhone users which I suspect will be somewhat cheaper than the paper version. It does not take much imagination to see that this should be stunning and arguably more useful than the book.
Clearly a body of work such as this could, and should, have an impact on the online LEGO community and I have already had initial discussions with Christoph about how we can work together to achieve this. Several possible outcomes are
- Brickset displays the book’s nomenclature alongside BrickLink’s and acts as an index into the book.
- The iOS app integrates with Brickset’s web services to enable your minifig collection details to be shown in it.
It’s early days of course, but watch this space. If you have any ideas about this, then do get in touch.
Huw Millington, 13th July 2011.