Greetings, valued readers. It’s your resident loon, Chris Hoffmann here. Keith is absent at the moment (something about a SHIP?) so until he gets back I’m throwing you all a bone with an article on my experiences at BrickFair Virginia. What’s that, you say? BrickFair was over a month ago? Er, never mind that. Let’s just embrace the tardiness and I’ll take you back to Japan Brickfest and last year’s Brickworld along the way. Hopefully it’ll provide some context to those convention photos you’ve already forgotten about or ignored.
This is a sequel of sorts to Ted’s inaugural Brickworld 2017 article and will include a bit of autobiography. Like Ted, I was a con virgin until Brickworld 2016, and we were both solicited by none other than friend of the blog Simon Liu. As regulars to the Manifesto already know by now, Simon assured Ted that organizing a collaboration six weeks before convention wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and then coaxed me to join in the fun shortly thereafter. Flash forward another year and guess who talked me into a flight from Japan to Virginia for BrickFair?
Simon has a knack for this sort of thing, particularly with getting some of the younger talent to come out of their shells, see the bigger picture, and meet people in person at their first con. My roommate from this year’s festivities imagines Simon with a fishing lure, enticing and reeling in anyone who catches his eye. It’s a high-level social skill I wish more of us had, and the community owes a lot to the guy for it, more than is obvious from his public work alone. I’m no Simon, but hopefully this article will have a similar effect on some of you reading.
If this sounds like I’m sucking up to the guy, then you’d be right! I kind of screwed him and everyone else over this year at Simon Draft, but more on that later.
Hold up, did you say Japan?
Yes. I moved to Japan for work shortly after Brickworld 2016 and was fortunate enough to find the only international LUG in the country a doable hour and a half train ride away. We’re the main organizers of Japan Brickfest, which recently became the third official Lego “fan weekend,” joining Skærbæk in Denmark and Paredes de Coura in Portugal. It sounds big and important on paper, but really it’s just a standard con with slightly more support and representation from TLG.
The company has been trying to reach out to the Asian market and, as small as our group is, the show we put on is still the biggest horse in the race with 270 builders from 11 different countries this year. From what I’ve gathered from my fellow LUG members, there just aren’t that many Lego-specific conventions in the Pacific region, leaving fans to piggyback on the larger video game and comic cons. There are good people trying to change that, but for the time being JBF is the place to meet cool cats like Lu Sim, Benjamin Cheh Ming Hann, and all those silent Flickr profiles you didn’t know were from Asia.
Side note: Some fans regard our corporate overlords as gods and go crazy whenever they meet one of them at a convention. Me? I’m indifferent. Lego artists are Lego artists and marketing goons are marketing goons, regardless of who signs their paycheck. The ones who work for Lego aren’t worth climbing over hundreds of bodies to get a few words in with when there’s plenty of others standing right next to you. Just be politely wary of the more “aspy” con-goers, whose social skills include vacuous staring, rattling off part numbers from memory, and generally derailing conversations.
Now, being conditioned by my experiences in America, I anticipated a certain amount of leeway with regard to convention shenanigans. But what seemed like an innocuous joke to me at the time involving obvious tampering with competition votes was rather lost on the genteel otaku from the land of the rising sun. Everything seemed fine until I caught wind of angry messages sent to the LUG’s email account—never expect the average Japanese person to give feedback about things like this out in the open.
Another thing that can dampen the con experience in Japan is that it’s only gonna last the weekend. The harsh work culture here and in much of Asia makes taking time off impractical at best, meaning you’ll never see the five-day conventions we’re used to in the west. Every day is a public day and this naturally means less time to meet people and hang out, which sucks since that’s the main draw of going to a convention in the first place. My few passing interactions with other builders were all too familiar: “Oh hey, I recognize this,” “This technique here is pretty cool,” etc. Nothing substantial as there wasn’t room to dig deeper.
I don’t mean to bash Japan Brickfest. As I said before, JBF is currently one of the best places to meet AFOL from that corner of the world and I’m proud to be a part of that. It really feels more like a festival than a convention, right down to a courtyard with local food carts and live music. So it’s got a unique vibe from what you’re probably used to.
I’m sure much of my experience at JBF was colored by constantly being on staff. I’m not big on activities at cons because they interfere with valuable hangout time, so having a full schedule of them isn’t my ideal. Even after convention hours, there was hardly any downtime since we’d finish late, exhausted, and have to be on early the next morning. It didn’t help that we were short a few people, but I have a newfound respect for anyone who volunteers to help run these things. As a regular attendee, I can see the event being more worthwhile if you play it right. Lu Sim has recorded that perspective on his blog, which is probably the best you’re gonna find in English.
“Maybe things will be better in Chicago”
I’m generally pretty good at staving off homesickness, but after Japan Brickfest 2017 I began to miss my first con experience back at Brickworld Chicago 2016. I regularly mentioned to my fellow LUG members how amazing it was to be able to drink and chat in the convention hall all night long across the better part of a week. But there was an unscalable wall called the Japanese school year blocking me from going back over. So at the end of BW 2016, during the long goodbye, I was left wondering when if ever I would see the friends I made there again.
BrickFair Virginia 2017 was entertained as a possibility and slowly crept its way into reality over the next few months. In the end, I’m glad it was BFVA this year instead of Brickworld. Brickworld is a mere week after Japan Brickfest and I was creatively exhausted after helping with a sizable medieval collab for my LUG’s display, which I was admittedly halfhearted about. This was all in between trying (and failing) to finish builds on time for the Lego Speederbike Contest and the Real World +200 Starfighter Contest—plus admin for the latter. But the two month gap between JBF and BFVA afforded me enough time to recover and finish up some non-LUG projects I was more interested in but too burned out to work on before. BFVA became a point to look forward to, unlike JBF where the pressure was on to finish stuff for the collab. Many of the same faces from Brickworld 2016 were back at BFVA 2017, in what now feels like my second true con experience.
The second time around
I hate to get too grandiose here, but going to your first con is a transformative process. You will put faces to names from the online community and get to know people beyond your shared love of the brick. Flickr handles quickly crumble away to reveal real people behind all those builds you’ve been admiring. You may have interacted with some of them online from time to time, but that’s nothing compared to the convention, which is multiple straight days of sharing food, drink, and company. Some of these people will become your genuine friends by the end of it. It’s to the point that I feel like there’s a pre-con and a post-con version of myself as an AFOL, especially since I only communicated with other AFOLs online beforehand and hadn’t so much as joined a LUG.
Ted said in his Brickworld article that “you’ll always remember your first time,” but things only get better from there. Now that you’ve already passed the asshole test, you don’t have to deal with that awkward introductory phase again. And you’ll get acquainted even faster with new people through the ones you met last time. Before you know it, Simon has “blind date” roomed you with Sean Mayo, who then introduces you to Dan Rubin and Blake Foster. And wait, Red Spacecat is here?!
If you’re lucky you can graduate from those cramped 2-bed hotel rooms and live the suite life. While it may not compare to Brickworld’s most outstanding feature of keeping the display space open all night, it does have its own cozy charm that lends itself to more intimate conversations. Sean Mayo will talk your ear off if you let him, and boy am I glad I did at BFVA this year. In the best of these alcohol-fueled convention chats, there’s so much to say and respond to that on your way to saying your piece you lose half of it, then promise yourself when you’re sober to pick up where you left off the next day, the next meal out, the next convention. But there’s never enough time.
Eventually the whole ordeal becomes a juggling act; you only have so much time to divide among all the people you want to mingle with. Simon is an ace at this; because of how far his reach is, he’ll bounce around the convention center like a pinball catching up with his mass of acquaintances. Try to catch him yourself so you can get in on laser tag or a Star Wars-themed escape room with a bunch of other spacers. Of course, there’s always events run by the convention organizers, but schedules are lame and I’d rather wander about and do my own thing with whatever kindred spirits I bump into. Shout-outs to Micah Beideman the table-jumping baby-flipper and his dad for bringing more tabletop games than MOCs this year.
My boy, you’ve been drafted
By far one of the best “extracurricular activities” you can get in on is Simon Draft. Simon Draft is an ancient ritual dating as far back as AD 2015. I won’t get into all the gritty details here, but it’s like a normal parts draft except first pick rights are decided by building skills with the draft parts in question.
Having failed to appease Kaiser Liu in this feat of strength at Brickworld 2016, I was determined to redeem myself at BrickFair 2017. And I did… by copying what I saw win last year with a quirky Mixel character build (and a fittingly Japanese influence). The strategy made me feel kind of dirty, but I can’t argue with the results.
We had to leave the convention hall shortly after, so the actual sorting and drafting would have to wait till the next day. But I overslept and got chewed out for not showing up until right before the draft, too late to help with sorting. Let this be a lesson that you should carry your own weight, whether you’re part of a collab, trying to escape the Death Star, or perhaps even doing something as vital as sorting Lego.
So I forfeited my first pick rights and was sentenced by a jury of my peers to pick a number from a bag like everyone else… only to draw number one anyway.
Take that, bitches! I’ll never learn my lesson! I made off with some of the best parts in the draft, in particular some that Simon had his eyes set on. I’ll brag about them here because I know he’s reading.
I’m neither proud nor sorry for what happened.
The big picture
Come to think of it, that photo of my Simon Draft build with the alcohol in the background is a perfect summation of BFVA. There’s some mysterious creative mojo about the place that just compels people to build— moreso than at other cons, I’m told. I mentioned earlier that I was creatively burnt out after Japan Brickfest, but the complete opposite happened at BFVA, where the inspiration hit again and again as I discovered new and spectacular models and panned for gold in the vendors’ unsorted bins. And I’m happy to still be riding that high a month later.
The most extreme example of this building fever came from David Hansel Gabe Umland. Having recently come home from New Zealand, he wasn’t planning on going to BrickFair and didn’t have any MOCs to show for it. But—big surprise—Simon convinced him to pack up some Lego and make the drive down to Virginia. So he ended up building this impromptu beauty right in the convention hall with a little help from his friends and some minty fresh parts courtesy of Simon. Oh, and did I mention he got a frigging award for it?
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned a lot of individual MOCs in this post. If I have, it’s because there’s a story behind them. And this is the real point of going to a con, and where most convention recap stories fall short. Ted touched on this already in his Brickworld article, but I’ll repackage it in a novel way like any good sequel should. People mistakenly believe that you’re supposed to bring MOCs to display or show off (or perhaps for that old vice of gettin’ the prize), but the MOCs are really there as conversation pieces. It’s not about the show; it’s about the music. Gabe’s build is a perfect example. The dude didn’t have any MOCs to bring and didn’t care. He just showed up to hang out. And with that attitude he created something valuable. There’s the MOC itself, of course, the physical ABS parts arranged just so. But that’s secondary to the immaterial connections behind the MOC.
To all you lurkers out there, I speak from experience. I found the online community on MOCPages sometime in 2005 and didn’t share any of my MOCs publicly until 2013. I was another 3 years a con virgin and now I regret not joining in the fun sooner. So don’t be afraid to pop that con cherry. The first time might be a bit awkward or disappointing depending on who you’re with, but don’t let that deter you. There’s good times to be had if you take a chance and put yourself out there. You control the action.