A Journey With Off-Brand LEGO

As a child, some of my fondest memories involve LEGO. Even today, I still find a way to get my hands on certain sets and a massive number of minifigures; the figures due to being awesome bits of geekery in a small package, while the sets for giving me something to do (and there’s something very Zen about building LEGO).

Sadly, LEGO isn’t cheap. Some of the figures can only be acquired in a single set, and sometimes that set is a few hundred dollars. The Hulkbuster, which consists of 248 peices (with three minifigs and a big Hulk figure) is a $30 set. Most sets run, on average, about 10-15 cents for each piece, so it’s not bad until you get into bigger sets. . .or until you are working with a lot of figures.

In my quest to expand my collection of minifigures (especially for franchises I can use for tabletop games, like Marvel and Star Wars), and to have figures to put on my mug, I started to hit ebay and, in turn, got to enter the wonderful world of off-brand LEGO.

My kind of heaven!
My kind of heaven!

==Off-Brand?==

Okay, let me explain: LEGO’s patent on their parts ran out in the 80’s, so anyone can make their own brick-based toys. If you were a fan of LEGO and were handed Mega Bloks, Kre-O, or Sluban sets as a kid, you’ve worked with an off-brand.

Various companies in China are cutting in on the action and have been making their own brands of these building toys, including their own designs, imitations of what already exists, or items inspired by what already exists.

Trust me, it’s not as uncommon as you think. Most of these companies just can’t get a solid foothold in America or other Western countries due to the hold LEGO has.

==Why Bother?==

In my case, there are a few reasons to bother.

First, as I mentioned, I have a build-on brick mug. It’s a fun thing and makes for a great conversation starter at work (I work in a public library). Sadly, putting real minifigures on it is a risk, as there are a number of children here who have threatened to steal my mug and/or steal the figures.

This wouldn’t be a big deal if my minifigures were still in production. Once a set goes out of production, the prices begin to fly.

Note the "Trending" section.
Note the “Trending” section.

Most of my figures are from the 80’s and 90’s, with some recent additions from Star Wars (starting in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and scattered to today) and Marvel (because who really hated the Avengers, eh?). If one of them walks off, I’m looking at a large chunk of change to replace just ONE figure, as they aren’t being made any longer.

Second, which ties into the first: Cost.

Buying a complete set of LEGO can be costly. As I mentioned before, the Hulkbuster is $30 for 258 pieces. Some of these off-brands can be acquires for about half of the price, sometimes even lower. How is that a bad deal if you are looking for parts?

Not only that, but many of them make imitations of figures that already exist, sometimes as a close duplicate, other times as a variant (more on that later). You can find these figures for between $1-$10 depending on where you look, and if you buy entire lines of figures, you can get them even cheaper.

A small price comparison: get two whole sets of Avengers 2 minifigs vs a single Black Widow.
A small price comparison: get two whole sets of Avengers 2 offbrand minifigs vs a single Black Widow.

With such a low price point, it’s hard for me to pass up, especially when I’m looking at potential theft.

One note that another blogger mentions is the price of limited run LEGO figures from events. If you wanted to get your hands on a Revan (polybag), you’re looking at a $40 drop, but you can purchase an off-brand set with Revan for about $15. Want a Bizarro figure that was only available at San Diego Comic Con in limited quantities? I hope you have $400 sitting around, as that’s what you’ll be paying for it.

My third and final point: variants and unreleased figures. For example, I’ve been an Iron Man fan since the animated series in the 90s, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the new Iron Man films. I was really hoping to see more of the suits released in LEGO form, but sadly we only got to see the Mark 6 & 7 (Avengers 1), Mark 17 “Heartbreaker” (Iron Man 3), Mark 43 “Prodical Son” (Iron Man 3), Mark 44 and Mark 46 (Avengers 2), and the Mark 45 (Hulkbuster). There was also a single figure released for SDCC, and there will be a special edition Mark 33 Silver Centurion for pre-orders of LEGO Marvel Avengers.

In total, we have seen nine Iron Man figures.

From a few of the companies in China, we have something closer to 35 different suits.

My current "House Party" protocol. There is ONE real LEGO piece here, adn that's the custom Blue Steel figure up front.
My first shot of my”House Party” protocol, including War Machine and Iron Patriot.
There is ONE real LEGO piece here, and that’s the custom Blue Steel figure up front. I have since received anther custom figure, and my four real suits are elsewhere.

Normally, if you wanted a custom figure, you either have to do it yourself or pay an arm and a leg for it from an artist (somewhere around $20-$40 per figure; trust me, I’ve checked, and I have a few on order for special occasions). Buying these versions can be as cheap as $1, so again, price point win.

In my own collection, I have a Galactus with insanely long legs, the large number of Iron Man figures, and a number of other comic book characters that were not released by LEGO (as well as a few that were, and many as versions that weren’t released). Great to have when the Summer Reading theme is heroes!

Comparing the Malaysia variant of the SY Galactus to a real Hawkeye. I think he needs a bigger bow.
Comparing the Malaysia variant of the SY Galactus to a real Hawkeye.
I think he needs a bigger bow.

==So How Do They Compare?==

I’m glad you asked!

First, everything is still ABS plastic, so it’s almost identical to LEGO. Some companies do better than others, of course, but for the most part, the plastic quality is pretty close.

Second, the printing on minifigures is decent…depending on the brand. Some brands do a horrible job, while others do pretty well.

LEGO to the left, off-brand to the right (either SY, LeLe, or LEBQ). Different figures, but the faces are the big giveaway here.
LEGO to the left, off-brand to the right (either SY, LeLe, or LEBQ).
Different figures, but the faces are the big giveaway here.

Sometimes, the differences are negligible and tough to spot. For example, when comparing some of my Iron Man figures, I’ve realized that the printout on the off-brand tends to be a bit larger, as though the details are magnified.

A comparison of LEGO (left) and two other brands.
A comparison of LEGO (left) and two other brands. Note  the minor color differences and the slightly larger print on the other two.

For my purposes, it’s not bad. If you’re a major collector, it’s not so nice.

==How Do I Spot a Fake?==

I’ve been handing a real and a fake figure to my wife and my colleagues to ask if they can spot the difference, and some of the responses are priceless.

If you are looking at ordering figures online, then you’ll want to know what the figure actually looks like before you order. For example, I have a bootleg Jek-14 from an off-brand (not sure which company; I’m willing to bet LeLe). After it arrived, I was able to look at it in better detail, and realized that it’s easy to spot the fake: the transparent arm is on the wrong side.

Can you spot the fake? Real LEGO is on the right. The devil's in the details. Really.
Can you spot the fake?
Real LEGO is on the right.
The devil’s in the details. Really.

Not only is it on the wrong side, but it’s the wrong color (cloudy in the real, clear in the fake), and there’s another important detail missing: the real version has printing on the arm.

Resources from LEGO, like Brickipedia, are wonderful for this, and will tell you exactly what your minifigure should look like.

Another thing to check for is the print quality. Here’s an example, this time with Captain Rex.

Real Rex is on the left, fake is on the right. They even did a bad job printing the face.
Real Rex is on the left, fake is on the right. They even did a bad job printing the face.

Granted, they weren’t exactly the same (the bootleg Rex was based off of the later designs with soft pauldrons for the ARC troopers and printed legs), but the helmet shouldn’t have changed. If you look closely, the print is off. You’ll also notice that the real version has the option of attachments (and it should have attachments), while the fake one does not (seriously: no attachment point).

Also remember that the printing on a real figure tends to be smaller, while the printing on the fakes tend to be bigger. They may also miss something, like the lines of the toes on the Hulk.

Speaking of the Hulk, knowing which version of the figure you are looking at is key. For example, here are three versions of The Hulk.

Can you spot the real one?
Can you spot the real one?

When looking at figures, the most important thing you need to know is the version you are looking for and looking at. This version is from Age of Ultron, meaning the Hulk should have spiky hair and his pants should have a red line with a red Avengers A logo. They also should be fitted and not torn (which was the case with his older versions).

Knowing the version, you can now look at the details. The one on the right is a different color with flat, non-spiky hair (which was used in the previous Hulk figures). The pants are also torn, another nod to the older versions.

The one in the middle is also a bootleg. Note that the toes are not painted and the pants are torn. Additionally, this one is an odd figure, as normally the Hulk only has his arms that can be removed; this figure actually has a detachable head.

The real figure is on the left. I’ll let you view the details there.

Another thing to look out for online is seeing the word “Clone” or the phrase “Lego Compatible” anywhere (unless you are a buying a Clone Trooper). This coupled with a low price normally means you’re looking at a fake.

What if you are out and about and you want to know if the figures are bootlegs? There’s a trick to that as well!

LEGO is notorious for marking EVERYTHING with their logo. Older figures only had certain spots, but newer ones have been expanding on that.

Regardless of generation, if you remove the head and look at the neck connector, you should see a LEGO logo. If you pull the legs off, there should be two studs/nubs (some brands use different connectors; dead giveaway there), with the LEGO logo somewhere in the middle.

With the more recent figures, the bottoms of the feet also have the LEGO logo. I think this is within the past few years, as my earlier figures prior to 2010 don’t have that.

If you have an eye for detail, or a real figure to compare to, here’s a few more hints: the shoulder area is rounded on LEGO, the arms are a bit thinner, the printing is always even, the arms are securely in sockets, and the figures aren’t going to fall apart accidentally.

Compare. Slightly different generations of print jobs, but you should be able to spot the fake. (Hint: it's on the left)
Compare. Slightly different generations of print jobs, but you should be able to spot the fake.
(Hint: it’s on the left)

==Which Brands Are Good?==

Like most things in life, off-brands are a mixed bag. Yes, you are getting something for cheap, but you may be losing quality. There are a few off-brands of LEGO that are horrible: the printing is low quality, the plastic breaks easily, or the item itself is just not worth it. Others are pretty good, and have fooled my wife and colleagues many times.

For my collection, I stick with Sheng Yuan (SY) and Decool. They make some of the best looking copies and some great looking original figures, and the price isn’t bad. To date, I’ve only purchased two actual sets from SY (haven’t found one from Decool that I really wanted yet), and the bricks are decent, albeit a bit loose for one set.

Besides, who else will give you Ghost Rider? This is from a set by SY.
Besides, who else will give you Ghost Rider?
This is from a set by SY.

Out of all of the figures I’ve purchases from these sets, I’ve only had one printing issue and quality issue from their recent, non-Star Wars collection (for some reason, companies suck at making Star Wars figures). Considering I’ve purchased more than a hundred figures between these two to date, I think that’s a pretty good range!

I’ve purchased on set of “Elephant” or JX brand minifigures before, and I was impressed by what came in. I am planning on purchasing more of their figures in the future should they release anything cool. There hasn’t been a building set released by them as far as I am aware.

Half of the Iron Man inspired set. Amusing idea and quality figures for the price.
Half of the Iron Man inspired set. Amusing idea and quality figures for the price.

Duo Le Pin, or DLP, makes some nice quality minifigures, but tend to be very difficult to find. Again, no building sets, but you can find some really interesting figures here (like an entire Iron Man set).

One of two DLP figures I kept (the other is deep in the armor I put together). They have some amazing details, and they normally (but not always) have an armored version of the head that matches the body.
One of two DLP figures I kept (the other is deep in the armor I put together). They have some amazing details, and they normally (but not always) have an armored version of the head that matches the body.

LeLe is a mixed bag from my experience. The bricks work well, but the connectors are horrible (my Hulkbuster from them was showing soon-to-be stress breaks in the plastic after building), making anything more than the basics a worthless bit of plastic. The figures are also badly printed, and the accessories don’t fit properly. If you want true, bad bootlegs, this is the company to turn to, as I don’t think they have made anything original.

My only experience with LEBQ was with Star Wars, and the quality was truly horrendous. Avoid at all costs.

By far, the biggest letdown in this collection is a company called Dargo. While they make some really interesting figures (and supposedly they are making a Doctor Fate this year), the plastic quality is pure crap; hands break easily, incorrect pieces are added (like two left legs), etc.

There are a few others that I haven’t even attempted to look into yet, and I may not even bother as I have a nice collection so far.

Remember, as these companies are based in China and sell cheap products, you’re really taking a gamble when you buy them. Yes, there are some great figures to snipe, and you can get a bunch of bricks for cheap, but is quality worth the price?

I’ll be doing two review posts in the future, so stay tuned and make your own decisions about what is worth it and what isn’t!

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