2,000 True Fans: Making Chess cool for kids using Star Wars LEGO

“If you are one in a million, then there are 3600 of you on the internet”

The title of this essay is a riff on Kevin Kelley’s classic essay. What follows is an account of applying the 1,000 fans model to a specific design challenge.

Toy Break reviews the LEGO Ideas Star Wars Travel Chess Set

I. Prototype

It was a chilly Pennsylvania night. I was trudging home from work to catch a bus back to Philadelphia at the King of Prussia mall.

My commute back was always enlivened by the fact that the mall had a LEGO store and I would drop in to browse the current selection while waiting for the bus to show up.

That particular night at the LEGO store I was thinking of a gift for my son’s sixth birthday the next week. But I wanted to come up with a meaningful gift, not just buy him a ready-made toy set. What if I hacked LEGO to make my son a Star Wars Chess set?

I set about calculating the minimal bricks and figures that would not break my bank account and bought them there and then. That night at home I put together this initial setup for the Rebels:

and the Imperials:

The sides were all messed up and the pawns did not match but my son was very happy when he received his birthday present! He started to evince interest in learning the rules of Chess and we played our first games. He always won them of course:)

II. Project

Around the same time LEGO had launched Ideas, it’s take on crowd-sourced innovation in the manner of Kickstarter. On a lark I submitted my Star Wars Chess project to LEGO Ideas. Nothing much happened at first. But then a few bold souls started to support the project and provided me with feedback in the comments section. I made periodic refinements and came up with a nicer lineup:

All was well.My son started playing Star Wars Chess with his friends and gained street cred at school. Mission accomplished!

III. Pivot

Meanwhile, the LEGO Ideas project was chugging along, slowly gathering supporters. But it was already not unique. I needed to differentiate the project, and fast. Luckily, the LEGO Battle of Hoth gameset came out just then, containing a bevy of Star Wars microfigures:

I calculated that a 16x16 LEGO baseplate would be perfect for creating the chessboard using the studded plates that came with the Battle of Hoth gameset. Looking up the list of sets using the baseplate, I stumbled upon the LEGO Tic-Tac-Toe box. I knew instantly that this was the perfect pivot for the project! We tested out an initial version:

And it all came together into this box:

The clincher was finding the Dejarik hologameboard tile as a decorative element referencing the famous Wookiee scene from the original movie. Some box art was also in order:

And a Vine:

So the project was now stable. I included open-source instructions in the description so anyone could make their own set now if they so wished, regardless of the project achieving final production. The official LEGO comment upon reaching 1,000 supporters was quite encouraging:

IV. People

Now to the hard part. Getting people to support the project.

I found that Reddit was great for making images go viral on Imgur.

Likewise, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr and Vine all helped raise awareness. And writeups are nice.

But the conversion rate to supporters from all these channels was minimal. Internal conversions from LEGO Ideas generated the most support. Only committed people will convert!

The LEGO Ideas support process was a bit daunting but acted as a natural filter for true fans, ensuring loyalty and quality. The project was on course to get to 10,000 supporters eventually (it reached 2974 supporters before expiring due to a one year limit) but the first 1,000 were the most critical. Value your fans and always remember to thank them. Patience and persistence pay off!

V. Perspective

Design does not happen in a vacuum. Chess has a particularly long and colorful history of design experimentation:

Travel Chess Sets are an interesting design category by themselves, something I discovered only in retrospect.

Marcel Duchamp’s 1943 Portable Chess Set is inspiring:

So is the Space Chess Set flown by the Soviets:

Star War Chess Sets have their own artful history:

A software game version was also made:

But Brandon Griffith’s awesome LEGO Star Wars Chess sets takes the cake:

For my part, I was happy to continue this tradition in a portable, affordable package: