In this job, you spend a lot of the time at the end of the year in a retrospective frame of mind, reconsidering everything that’s crossed your desk. What are the highlights, the lowlights, and the memorable moments? We’ve covered a lot of that in our Alternate Game Awards and in our more serious GOTY write-ups – but obviously, my life isn’t just video games.
Regular VG247 readers will know that I’m a big old Lego nerd, and I’ve treated the occasions when Lego has crossed over with video games with glee – it’s two of my loves colliding in ways that are often exciting, or just simply fun. This has been a good year for that, too, with Lego Sonic making a barnstorming debut, Mario sets continuing, and a glorious Pac-Man Arcade which I adore. There was also a great Lego video game in the form of Lego 2K Drive. So: all-in-all, a solid year.
It’s been a good year for Lego in general. I’ve enjoyed a great number of non-gaming sets this year – including a great Indiana Jones diorama, a wonderful space tribute from fan-designed range Lego Ideas, and the fabulous Viking Settlement that really scratched an itch of mine that was established through beloved castle and pirates sets in my childhood.
One set does stand above all others for me this year, though – and quelle surprise, it’s Lego’s latest modular building, set 10326, the Natural History Museum.
The funny thing about this being the best set of the year is that we’re only meant to get one modular building a year. But in 2023, we got two, as Lego moved the schedule up – these sets that previously used to arrive in January will now arrive every December. This is the second modular of the year after the Jazz club, then – but in terms of quality and value, it’s absolutely number one.
If you’re unfamiliar with the range, what I refer to as ‘modulars’ are basically a casual name for Lego City buildings for grown-ups. Now categorized as part of Lego’s black-boxed “Adults Welcome” range, Lego has released modular buildings yearly since 2007. The buildings live up to the modular moniker in two ways: first of all, each set is made up of different ‘modules’ which compromise different floors or sections of a street-facing building, complete with interiors and cute storytelling details. Second, and most important, the buildings form a flexible city street, with connections built in to attach them together to create street or block formations. The buildings can be arranged in any order you like, creating a custom street scene.
By releasing one set a year (and retiring older ones at a similar rate), Lego always keeps a small street’s worth of modular buildings in production at any one time. It’s created a range of high-end, high-price, large-scale sets that actually have a truly collectible element. Full disclosure – I’ve been a goblin for these models for a while, and I can see 12 of them, including a few custom-designed ones, from the very desk where I write this article.
Anyway, with that explanation and disclosure in mind, let me just briefly heap praise on the 2023/4 modular, the Natural History Museum. Long story short: it’s wonderful.
Featuring a wider footprint that has only been used in a few sets before this, you’ve got a lovely building with a historical air to it – a museum spread across two floors with great big vaulted ceilings. From a design perspective, you can see shades of Britain’s Natural History Museum and other world-famous institutions. Within you’ll find a range of exhibits, plus a tiny rooftop office where the museum’s curator is meant to be undertaking his research.
The centerpiece of the museum is a gorgeous brick-built dinosaur skeleton, which stretches across both floors as a main attraction. Elsewhere, there’s wonderful easter eggs – like history exhibitions that nod to the castle and pirate sets of old, and a little room that looks to the stars, with mini model rockets and a fabulous but tiny model of the solar system.
As is par for the course with this range the set is filled with tiny details that delight, plus fascinating parts usage and building techniques that make it a Lego nerd’s dream. Lego only keeps a limited number of bricks and pieces in production at any given time, and each in a limited range of colors – so designers both fan and official have to make clever use of available parts to craft their worlds. In this set, a favorite touch of mine is the curled-up whip, usually found in Indiana Jones sets, which here forms part of the shape of an ammonite fossil. It’s just bloody clever.
For me, the modular buildings often represent a cross-section of the best of ‘grown-up’ Lego. That is to say, they’re beautiful-looking enough that an adult can have them on a shelf in their study without any major degree of embarrassment – but also, they’re thoughtfully built and presented. Building techniques will leave you slack-jawed, or better still leave your brain abuzz with ideas for your own custom builds.
With that said, the modulars rarely are top of my best-of-the-year lists for Lego, simply because they’re a known quantity. Usually some surprise ends up taking all the marbles. 2022’s modular came behind things like an astonishing Lighthouse, a giant Bowser, and an incredible Castle throwback. 2023 had just as many lovely surprises – but the Natural History Museum still stands above them all.
And now, the wait begins for 2024’s modular building. Might it be a hospital at last? Pop that on my 2024 most anticipated list, right next to Dragon’s Dogma 2 and FF7 Rebirth…