When the Trains Take Over (Brio play days)

sheldon trainsAs the great Dr. Cooper says ‘Don’t be silly, you love trains!’. All the staff at Fun Junction have train brain this week, we’re going to be doing something a bit different in the next few days in our Perth shop: Brio have lent us a ridiculously large collection of trains and accessories and we’ll be popping it all out in store for kids to have a play. It’s as simple as that, no charge, no pushy sales-pitch just pop your child down with the trains and let them enjoy.

Freight Battery Engine (by Brio) Sturdy battery powered freight train can pull surprisingly well on just one AA battery.

Freight Battery Engine (by Brio) Sturdy battery powered freight train can pull surprisingly well on just one AA battery.

I love the fact that one of the companies we deal with has put together such a genuine and enjoyable experience. They haven’t pushed a rake of cash into a traditional advertising campaign, instead they’ve made a toy range that they’re proud of and they’ve decided to let the general public decide for themselves if Brio trains are any good. As any parent with a child with a train fascination knows Brio is not the cheapest wooden railway system on the planet, in fact I don’t know of any wooden railway products that cost more. That said I’ve found through experience that you really do get what you pay for.

Switching tracks with signal box and signal master. Add extra fuel to the imagination: what will you do with a runaway train!!???

Switching tracks with signal box and signal master. Add extra fuel to the imagination: what will you do with a runaway train!!???

Every wooden railway system is compatible with one another (well every system I’ve come across anyway), there are some that come very close to Brio’s quality level (like BigJigs) and cost a little less and there are others that are a lot cheaper. There’s therefore nothing wrong with shopping around to get bits and pieces from all these different companies to get a nice mix of quality and lower budget. That said I think the great thing about the Brio play day is that it’ll give parents (myself included) a chance to see what a train set made entirely out of Brio-quality pieces will be like. Not only that but because the set gets passed around group to group, shop to shop around the country we’ll all get to see how they do in terms of general wear-and-tear.

brio railwy uk fun junction toy shop scotland perth crieff perthshire

One of the only wooden railway trains that you’ll find that can take passengers, with spaces for two drivers and three passengers (Brio figures), you can get one here.

This is what I love about this event, Brio isn’t forcing an agenda, they’re not pushing a new line by throwing a pile of adverts in the middle of your child’s favorite shows: instead they’re saying ‘Here, we made something that we think is pretty great but you have a play, you decide, is it worth the extra cost to get a train/a piece of track/a station/any other accessory made by us?’ There’s nothing for them to hide behind, if your child plays with the trains and doesn’t like them then no amount of advertising will change that, so Brio has to make sure that what your child is presented with is something pretty awesome. It’s a gamble and takes a lot of bottle for a toy company to do what Brio is doing, but based on my own experience of their products I can’t say I’m all that nervous for them, I think they’ll do just fine.

Have you come across any companies (toy or otherwise) who surprised you like this? Are some companies good enough to do away with traditional advertising or do you think that, without TV ads constantly reminding them, kids will just forget about a toy/brand? I’d also love to hear any experiences you’ve had with Brio (good or bad). As always thank you so much for stopping by, I’m one of these sad people that get’s a bit of a buzz from things like reader counts and comments so it’s always brilliant when someone stops by for a read and it’s even better if you leave a comment. If you’re in the Perth (Scotland) area then pop along to our shop on the 15th, 16th or 17th of May to join in the fun (they’re open from 9:15am till 5;15pm, Cheers, John

UPDATE: Please note our Brio play day has passed but we have every intention of hosting another one soon 🙂

Toy Awesomeness Part 3: Good Branding

hobbit games workshop escape from goblin townHow to make a great toy part 3: Good Branding

As I explained in my last ‘Toy Awesomeness’ post, just because a particular character is ‘in’ just now doesn’t mean it’ll still be popular with kids in six months time. That said, if you pick a tried-and-tested character (think Disney for starters) to hitch your wagon to, the hazards of the whims of children may effect you far less.

hulk avengers legoAs westerners we’re almost born knowing about Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Snow White, etc., they’ve become more than simply characters; they’ve been appropriated as cultural symbols, for want of a better word they are the ‘gods’, ‘goddesses’ and ‘demi-gods’ of our culture. The companies responsible for these kinds of character are fully aware of their clout though, so matching with one of these brands may be expensive/difficult.

That said there are lesser known ‘icons’ who nonetheless seem unable to do wrong such as ‘Bob The Builder’, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, ‘Postman Pat’ etc. Their popularity does ebb and flow more than we see from the true ‘gods’ of the toy shelf but children will still be more willing to chose a toy if it has a character they recognise on it.

For example if Wow toys were (hypothetically) to produce a Postman Pat van I’m almost certain it would outsell all of their other sets. Speaking as a parent I would pick something like that because I trust the quality of Wow and I also identify with the character of Postman Pat.

That said character placement can often look a bit tacked-on, almost as though the company thought their product was slightly sub-standard. In cases like this, instead of fixing the problems with their toy a manufacturer pays for some licensing and sticks a picture of a popular character on it to push sales. There are so many of this kind of toy out there that I hardly feel the need to name and shame, they know who they are.

turtle lair by Lego

The Lego Turtle Lair is available from Fun Junction

lord of the rings riskThe brand and toy combo also has to make sense otherwise kids will just be perplexed (and they won’t want it). Branding and timelessness (quality) have to go hand in hand for it to work or you get stuck with a bit of rubbish with a character your child barely recognises stuck on it. When branding is done right though it can be incredible. Here are some examples of branding done right: Games Workshop’s ‘Hobbit’ set, ‘Lord of The Rings’ Risk, and Lego’s ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Turtle Lair’.

Toy Awesomeness Part 2: Timelessness and Quality

Brio Two-Way Battery Powered Engine red and yellow wooden railway

For this train (and other brilliant wooden railway items) follow this link

How to make a great toy part 2: Timelessness and Quality

Timelessness is hard to build into a toy, it has a lot more to do with how disconnected from popular culture the toy is and vitally how good it is at what it does. Luckily quality is something you can put into a toy. If your toy isn’t linked to a popular show, character, or (as is becoming more common nowadays) a popular app, then it’s important that the toy speaks for itself by being genuinely good at all things it’s supposed to do. For example, if it’s a toy phone it should ring, speak and perhaps even record voices for playback.

wind-up jumping frog, classic and simple, a great toy

wind-up jumping frog, classic and simple, a great toy

Children are pretty forgiving when a toy has a character they know on it; they’ll often overlook a lack of features or features that are less-than-brilliant, solely because they like the character on the toy. But do you really want your toy to be defined by a sticker or other added image, instead of the toy itself, especially when you consider that character brands often (though not always) come and go in popularity. If your toy doesn’t feature a famous character and you manage to get it working as a simple yet extremely playable manner, then you’re in with a chance of timelessness.

Put simply when you detach from branding and simply strive for a solid, robust and extremely fun product you might miss out on the highs associated with linking to a character but you’ll also avoid the lows. For example, the very fact that your toy doesn’t have a ‘Moshi Monster’ (or something else high in the public consciousness at the time) will make it immune to the fortunes of the Moshi Monster brand.

hama beads lions setPlaymobil motorised crane 5254Perfect examples of this kind of toy are: Wooden Railway systems, Hama beads, Playmobil, Wow toys and Games Workshop sets (Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000).

johnny jungle plane by wow toys   warhammer 40k 40,000, ork boyz

What particular toys do you value for their quality/timelessness? Are there any cynics out there who think that everything goes out of style eventually? Feel free to pop a comment in the box below and share your thoughts. And for more toy awesomeness click here. Cheers, John

For your enjoyment here’s some fun with ascending tracks:

Toy Awesomeness Part 1: Multiple Play Levels

game about human biology for five 5, six 6, seven 7 eight 8, nine 9, ten 10, eleven 11, twelve 12 year olds and upHow to make a great toy part 1: Include Multiple levels of play

A key component in any good toy is finding a way to ensure that adding more people will somehow amp up the play. Sometimes this is as simple as adding a player to change (for example) a game/puzzle from a solitaire challenge into a competition. However there are other important ways in which a toy can gain something special by the addition of extra players.

For example, consider how different even a fairly basic colouring book can become when you add a parent (or another older individual). Suddenly the child gets the chance to learn new artistic skills that they may not have tried before, on top of this they’ve gained a contributor that can add features to the picture that the child may not have been able to accomplish themselves (‘Daddy can you put a dragon in flying over the house’).

If a toy lacks this, it becomes more solitary, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with solitary toys it’s just that the toy designer has missed an opportunity. With little to no extra components being added to the physical toy/game/puzzle etc. a whole new playing experience could potentially be opened up by simply paying attention to who else might join in when the toy is being played with, and designing the toy with this in mind.

Perfect Example:Anatomix‘ (pictured at the top of this post), this is a game about the human body by Green Board Games, which has two levels of challenge; the basic game is aimed at kids aged 5 and up but you can also add in a quiz component aimed at taxing the minds of children aged 12 and up.

What toys/games/puzzles have you come across that hit a new level when you add more players? Are there any other features that you think add something special to the playing experience a child has from a toy? As always comments are more than welcome, ether on here or over on my twitter account. Thanks for stopping by at John The Toy Shop Guy, if you’d like to receive future posts in your e-mail inbox you can enter your details in the ‘subscribe’ box to the right of this post.