Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Launching LEGO Pirates

A classic LEGO theme used to amuse year on year in the 1990s, until it took a twelve year break. There were three clear launches for LEGO Pirates, which show how LEGO can do something well and how LEGO can do something… less well. In the spirit of hoping that someone deep in the basement of LEGO headquarters is busy designing the next LEGO Pirates line, here’s a look back at the launches over the years…

Launch: 1989
It’s fascinating to look back at the original LEGO Pirates launch in 1989, and realise that not all that much has changed in how LEGO launches a big line. Whilst the modern market research techniques that drove Ninjago’s design and execution may not have been available, clearly a lot of thought and time went into the planning and launch strategy. Like a modern LEGO line, every price point was accounted for and the idea of competing factions, fighting over something specific was included (the Pirates and soldiers competed for the treasure).
A great example of the aggressive marketing for Pirates can be found in the Summer 1989 edition of Bricks n Pieces, the fan club magazine [scan available here, thanks to Classic Pirates].

The 1989 launch was clearly a success, as it began what was at the time a new ‘evergreen’ line for LEGO (An evergreen line is one which continues year on year, rather than a occasional line such as the underwater based or dinosaur based themes). The mixture of different sized, mostly extremely well designed sets and compelling characters undoubtedly contributed to the success of this theme. It also shows that a theme needs long-term design and planning to achieve this. The amount of new elements that were being introduced here, the novelty of the range of new mini-fig faces (which were probably as controversial at the time as fleshie faces), show that LEGO were fully behind this line. Sharks, monkeys, compasses, cutlasses, rifles, cannons… the list goes on, all new and developed to create a fully immersive line.

The LEGO Pirates theme then continued happily enough in the same style, making incremental changes to keep it fresh but nothing revolutionary. Red soldiers were introduced, the Islanders were added, but the Pirates still existed and the soldiers still hung out in similar kinds of buildings. There were some stand out sets, some mediocre sets and the occasional misfire. What was maintained was a regular large Pirate ship and location, and a regular smaller Soldiers’ ship and large location.

It seems by 1995, however, something had gone wrong. Only three new sets were released that year, and despite Imperial Outpost (6263) and Skull Island (6279) both being nice looking and playable sets, sales had presumably dropped. Because Pirates was about to be have a make-over.

Re-launch: 1996

The line was not re-launched in the sense that it went away, all old stock was flushed out, and it returned. It was re-launched in the sense that in 1996 the Pirates received new faces, new torsos, changed colours and a new faction of soldiers to face. The new soldiers, the Imperial Armada, were clearly based on the Spanish Armada and featured new headgear, new decoration and a new colour scheme. This was a significant difference compared to when the blue soldiers simply changed colour to red but keeping the same design. But other new elements were few and far between.

Clearly this was supposed to be a significant change in the line, and had TV advertising support. So why did this not meet with continued success? A few sets were released in 1997, but didn’t stay on shelves were long and the line then disappeared for twelve years.

Part of the problem with this re-launch was that although the cannons got new colours, the Pirates got a few new torsos, the detailed, long term design work that had been done ready for 1989 was clearly not done here. Somewhere it was obviously decided that the line had to change to be based around shipwrecks, and make the whole thing look more battle-worn. Maybe this was based on solid market research. But it made for some awfully designed sets. Sets like Shipwreck Island (6292) didn’t look like a decent, stylised ship wreck, rather just a mess. Red Beard Runner (6289) was infinitely less attractive than its predecessors. There was nothing wrong with the damaged sails, it made it at least different to the previous ships, but it should have at least looked good in its own right. For all I know the Armada Flagship (6280) is a very accurate design, but it looks infinitely less attractive than the Imperial Flagship (6271). There was also no new large island set.

All in all, it was as if the designers were not given the necessary time to re-launch Pirates. It wasn’t done well, and seemed to provide the inspiration for the 4 Juniors version of the Pirates line.

Re-launch: 2009

Thankfully, in 2009, LEGO knew how to introduce a line again. Unfortunately, Pirates wasn’t planned to return long term, it was planned to be a one-year, one wave deal like other themes (although this made it a surprising theme to get an Advent Calendar {6299}).

This time, the theme had taken classic design work from the traditional Pirates theme and updated it for a modern LEGO audience. Captain Brickbeard clearly takes his inspiration from the classic Captain Roger mini-figure. Likewise, the soldiers are close cousins to their 1992 predecessors, but with added details and new expressions. Classic elements were updated or re-coloured with the latest LEGO palette, and new elements were introduced. But ultimately, sets like Solider’s Fort (6242) look at home next to the traditional sets.

All of the necessary price points were met and variety included… a raft, an island, a fort and a flagship were present. It really showed that with the proper thought and some well (or at least reasonably well) designed sets, LEGO Pirates could still be a compelling theme. This selection was infinitely more attractive than the messy 1996 designs.

Anecdotal accounts suggest that the line did well, and wasn’t a disappointment for LEGO. It seems that it didn’t set sales on fire, but it wasn’t supposed to, being a low tier line for LEGO that year (the TV advertising that year was mainly thrown at Power Miners). It is a shame that a second year of sets didn’t happen, as the range seemed a great starting point.
So what next for LEGO Pirates? That is the subject of debate among fans, and no doubt a speculative article that I will have great fun writing at some point. But at least it sounds like we won’t have to wait for another twelve years - this was the last we heard on the topic from Steve Witt at the LEGO Community Team back in 2009 [source: Eurobricks].

Just so you know, Pirates isn't gone its on hiatus like every other line that isn't one of our primary themes: CASTLE, SPACE, and CITY

Pirates isn't going away, its just not going to be a constant theme. Its going to phase in and out just like every other theme that isn't one of those three. Everyone is freaking out just a bit too much on this one and I just wanted to reassure you guys that pirates isn't disappearing. Just taking a break


So let’s hope that at LEGO right now, the next Pirates launch is being planned with care and thought, so that we get another range of sets to complement our existing ones… and if we’re really lucky, more than one year‘s worth…


  1. Nice article... I dropped out of Pirates between 1994 and 2009 so wasn't very familiar with the Armada era until now.

    I'm hoping that instead of completely 'relaunching' the line again, they just resume where they left off in 2009. They can bring all the parts that were made for POTC:

    * Bottles
    * New coins
    * Gold ingots
    * Scabbard
    * Musketeer hat
    * Bones of various size
    * Ponytail hair
    * Globe
    * New soldier torso prints compatible with non-fleshies
    * Various printed hats
    * New mermaid tail
    * Buckets

    That's not counting things that were created for other themes, like the livestock from the Mill Village Raid. I already use all of these pieces to enhance my Pirate theme, but it nothing would give me greater pleasure than for Lego to do the same thing.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I am the same, I have a couple of the Armada era sets but that's where I have some collecting to do.

    I agree, it's a shame that for some reason it can take LEGO a while to share elements between themes for some reason. POTC has treated us to some great new pieces.