Lego Mech-Battles: The Crucible of Gameplay

I didn’t have any Lego growing up. No, this is not some confession as to justify bitterness or a obsession with reviving childhood. I know it sounds like something you’d tell a psychiatrist, but I actually was content with my Kinex and my Nintendo. Lego was a novelty for me when visiting relatives or friends. Something I was familiar with, but by no means proficient. And so it follows that the first time I got into a Lego Mech-Battle, I had my 11-year old buns handed to me on a plastic platter.

Lego Mech-Battles are not an official thing, so if you never heard of them, don’t worry. In fact, I’m not even sure if that’s what we called it. But my friends and I used to build robots out of a shared wealth of Lego and then make them battle. Not a pretend battle, like you might have with action figures. No, the only way these robots ‘took damage’ was by having their bricks physically beaten off them.

Though we controlled the robots, the actual contact of the hits had to be done lego a lego. It wasn’t a free-for-all either, instead we took turns to do ‘moves’ on each others’ robot. We were very civil in this regard, like the musket men or duelists of old. The first robot to be reduced to a clump of less than five bricks was declared the loser.

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Our mechs looked nothing like this… don’t kids today get the coolest toys?.


My friends were all Lego-proficient, their creations sturdy and functional. The knew how to construct a solid core, build and reinforce limbs, design offensively or defensively, and also how to ensure the final product looked totally badass. My method in building was flawed. I would begin with a concept, like a giant spider robot. Then, I would build it: a little ball with 8 spindly legs and wee teeth for offence.

If it looked enough like my vision, then I would begin working with practicality in mind – attempt to bolster and sharpen a robot which was already innately weak. Unsurprisingly, my spider did not fare well. His legs busted off one by one. Sometimes he took damage during his own turn: a mandible jab gone horribly wrong. After a few rounds his thorax shattered, and my creation was trounced.

I then tried building robots that looked like theirs, but could only mimic the overall shape. The intricacies of the internal structure remained secret. And so my robotic ersatz were afflicted with long planes of weakness within their seeming bulk, which would split open in the face of my opponent’s fierce blows. Again, defeat was had. The way not to build robots was slowly being revealed. But eventually we stopped playing Mech-Battles altogether and I never did win any duels.

This is not meant to be a sob-story or nostalgic indulgence. Instead I want to highlight the way that games act as a proving ground for knowledge and skill. If all we had done was build robots and play pretend with them, then my fragile spider would have been just as competent as their finest warriors.

And while there is a place for cool-looking yet fragile creations, it is only when we compete with or assign purpose to our creations that we can begin to see how to improve them. The ‘mech-battles’ were a crucible for well-built robots. By forcing them to destroy each other, we learnt how best to rebuild them.

Did you play any similar games? Or have you learnt anything in a similar way?

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3 thoughts on “Lego Mech-Battles: The Crucible of Gameplay

  1. Alex

    This puts me in mind of character creation in many RPGs. More often than not, the character you want to build is not the best possible choice. Perhaps you want to max out intelligence, but the game contains too much combat to make that a feasible choice. Perhaps you have found some new pauldrons that almost double your armor value…but they are hot pink. Do you compromise your characters cool looks to optimize stats as hard as possible?

    How about trading card games? I remember when I first started playing Magic The Gathering, my friends and I used all the cards we thought were “cool”. However, as our decks became stronger and stronger, we were forced to tuck away our favorites and use the cards that were “the best”. The decks almost begin to feel soulless.

    Is this a problem? Some people love experimenting with character possibilities, trying to establish a new metagame in which they are in the lead. Some love copying the builds others have created, so they can experience being the “best”. But others experience a kind of dissonance, because the fantastic character they have dreamed up turns out to be not fantastic at all. Should there be separate games made to tailor to each of these personalities? Or is there a way to satisfy them all in the same game?

    Reply
  2. zanderwarren Post author

    Well, first I think it depends on whether the game is online or not. For single-player experiences I think it’s okay to include a large variety of skills and items that are not by any means the best. People can play their character imperfectly just for the fun of it. Some of the best times I’ve had playing Fallout or Dark Souls were when I decided to wear silly armor or employ a ridiculous strategy.

    But when games are multi-player it gets a bit more tricky, Playing imperfectly is much less fun when it causes you to constantly lose or be made fun of. Diablo 3 tried to fix this with the dye system, which made how your character looks independent of how badass they were. But it still doesn’t fix people all conforming to the same ‘best’ skill-sets, strategies and equipment.

    This can be negated by having the game complex enough that there is no “best equipment”, only things good or bad for certain situations. Unfortunately this doesn’t jive well with the current trend of micro-transactions and real-money auctions. ‘Ultimate’ items are what drive the market. Or in the realm of MTG, new cards could be made more balanced with older sets, but power creep forces people to spend money to catch up.

    Some MMOs probably have a great balance of meta-gaming and fantasy, but that’s really not my area of expertise. The way I’d tackle this problem is to not care about how good my character/deck is. Play with friends, try ridiculous strategies and builds, and have a heck-load of fun.

    Reply
  3. Chase

    There really aren’t a lot of unique builds to be tried in Diablo 3 — one thing I loved about Diablo 2 (classic) is that there were so many possibilities, and that you could mess around with gear to make a truly unique character. Hardcore in Diablo III? Forget about it — you have to have certain abilities on your bar or you’re dead, bar none.

    That said, I find it hilarious that your mech-robots could move with enough force to actually damage one another. My brother had a robot lego like 15 years ago, and it’s mechanics weren’t exactly… forceful or fast. But experimenting for the win — theorising new things is always the most fun. Maybe your spider robot was reduced to a mere rainbow-coloured splatter on the floor, but tis not the point, for thru it’s life it was true in spirit, and stout even despite loss!

    Reply

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