There’s an alternative world to Lego that few people have heard of. And no, we don’t mean Megablox or what-have-you, but instead a teeny-tiny alternative world: The miniscule world of Nanoblock, and its legions of knock-offs. Titchy blocks, a fraction of the size of Lego, but just as much fun to build, and one hell of a lot cheaper.
I love Lego. By which I mean, I love the process of putting Lego builds together. The process of following the instructions, step by step, methodically clicking the bricks as directed. The more bricks, the happier I am. Right up until I look at my bank balance.
I get why Lego is so expensive: capitalism. And nice instruction booklets. Because what you’re actually buying, beyond that pamphlet, is a pile of mass-produced plastic. Lego has managed to carve such a deep niche in the market that even an ever-growing number of license-wielding rivals hasn’t stopped it from charging $US700 for a toy boat. Don’t get me wrong—I want that toy boat. But I could never justify spending a month’s mortgage on one. But what if I could get something similar for $US3.59?
Let’s get into this. There’s Lego, and then there’s tiny Lego. This concept began in 2008 when the Japanese Kawada Toy Company created Nanoblock. They are functionally identical to Lego, but for being an eighth of the size. Copyrights uninfringed! Then, most likely in response to just how difficult it is to buy Nanoblock outside of Japan, Chinese knock-offs began to appear at a fraction of the price. And that’s where we find me, sitting at the dining table, clicking together miniscule plastic blocks in a zen-like bliss.
The process of building Nanoblock, or its many knock-offs, is much the same as Lego, but for the extra fiddliness. It’s hard to get your head around how small these bricks are until you hold one, then even further emphasized when you go back to regular Lego and it feels like holding a cinder block. But once you’re used to it, and this happens very quickly, it unlocks a world of building happiness that’s just so much less expensive.
Because they’re so miniature, they don’t possess anything like the strength of a Lego build, so they generally require designs that are built in layers, rather than with more free-floating sections. (Trust me, if you see a design that involves dangling pieces, avoid.) However, the biggest difference in the experience lies in the instructions. They are, invariably, far worse than the Danish behemoth’s. Presented layer by layer, they’re often (appropriately) so tiny that the only way to follow them is to take a photo on your phone, then zoom in. And with Chinese versions, it’s not unusual to encounter mistakes.
And yet, even with all this, these bitty bricks are my happy place. I sit there with the pile of spilled bricks, the dodgy instructions, and a pair of tweezers for when blocks fall inside the build. They afford me the pleasure of Lego building, at a fraction of the price, and taking up a fraction of the space. It’s bonsai building. Literally, if you prefer.
Today, Nanoblocks are somewhat easier to pick up internationally, which is a joyful thing. (Back when I started that wasn’t the case, and we’ll get into the morality of the knock-offs in a bit.) But what you need to know right now is that Nanoblock aren’t some fly-by-night dodgy product, but rather a significant and established brand, to the degree that it has a licensing deal with Pokémon. Heck, it once teamed up with McDonald’s.
Nanoblock grabbed larger attention in 2010 with the release of the Neuschwanstein Castle, a replication of the German palace in 5,800 bricks, that went on to win awards in Japan. Since then, the product has exploded in popularity within Japan, and last month released sets based on Kirby, new Pokémon including Tyranitar, and a 1,440-brick set for one of the world’s largest cruise ships, Asuka II. (Next month it’s releasing this extraordinary 620-piece Mewtwo!)
And yet, getting hold of most of the range remains incredibly difficult. While a trip to Amazon will find you a pleasing selection of the official builds (including the mini-Sonic characters, a whole lot of Dragon Ball Z, and this lone, lovely official Peanuts set), it’s not a fraction of what’s released by Kawada in Japan. The same is true for any resellers you can find, and of course the prices are enormously inflated.
Which is where China steps in. As with…well, every product on the planet, if there’s an official Nanoblock set of something, there will be any number of Chinese knock-offs, easily available on all your favorite Chinese international retailers. Some have become so established they have a brand identity of their own, as with Loz.
Loz gives absolutely no shits, smothering their astonishing range with copyrighted logos like Nintendo’s lawyers don’t even exist. Their 1,590-block Super Mario just goes ahead and puts an official “SUPER MARIO” logo on the box. Or how about a giant Snorlax? And just to prove no fucks are given, here’s Elsa from Frozen. The company purports to be based in Germany, with a factory in China, but I’ve been able to find no evidence of any business registered in Germany called “Loz,” other than an agricultural firm. (We’ve contacted Loz to ask for evidence of their German status, and indeed to ask if they ever seek official licenses.)
The other thing to know about Loz’s products, and indeed those of any number of others selling similar or identical items, is that they’re fine! They’re pretty good, in fact! Instructions are a factor worse than Nanoblock’s, which are in turn a factor worse than Lego’s, but that is very much the price you don’t pay for these. Oftentimes you’ll find booklets that don’t even tell you which selection of bricks you need for a given stage, meaning you’re left meticulously studying the microscopic images to work out which new brick you failed to add three steps ago. But honestly, that’s part of the fun for me.
Oh, and the maddest thing about these sets is that the less official you get, the more spare pieces you receive. It’s like the factory just scoops up a large handful from a bucket of parts and dumps it in every box. Of maybe 50 different sets I’ve built over the years, two have come with a piece or two missing. However, all of them have had so many extra pieces that I now have a container crammed full of them. And, this large tub has always had one of the pieces missing from those couple of errant sets.
But is this OK? Buying dodgy knock-offs of brand-name products isn’t exactly a celebrated action. Yet, it’s important to emphasize that it’s entirely legal. This stuff is all over Temu and AliExpress, let alone Amazon and eBay, and you’re perfectly within your rights to buy it. The seller might be in some dodgy area, not least the brazen copyright infringement of some more established off-brand brands, but operating in the Wild East that is China’s lawless terrain, no one’s ever going to (be able to) do anything about it.
I would far prefer to buy Nanoblock’s products, partly because it just feels more comfortable buying stuff you know has licensed the characters it’s selling, but more importantly, they’re just better made. But for the most part, I can’t! Also, it’s pretty hard to get too worked up about a company copying Kawada’s idea of copying Lego…
There’s another reason to step into the dingier world of the off-off-brand bizarro-land that lies on the Chinese retail sites: Some of it is so weird. Take, for instance, this one I ordered last night.
Yup, it’s the classic “1450pcs Flying Whale Astronaut Building Blocks, Assemble Astronaut Ornaments, Gift, Christmas Gift, Children’s Toy, Gift For Girl Adult, Home Toys Decoration.” Because which Girl Adult doesn’t want a gift that is an astronaut in bunny ears riding a blue whale covered in stars? Maybe it’s based on a popular thing in Japan about which I know nothing? I really hope not, because there’s so much more joy in it being just utterly ridiculous.
I also have this on my wishlist. “The Great Wave Micro Building Blocks Set For Aldult Kanagawa Surfs Waves Home Decor Model Toys Building Kit -2296Pcs” is based on the classic woodblock by Katsushika Hokusai, recreated in 3D, and I’m an Aldult who desperately wants to build it. There’s no Kawada Nanoblock version of this, no “official” version I can find anywhere. Versions of it appear on reseller sites like Temu, Walmart, and Amazon, often under the illusory brand of “YKO,” but there doesn’t appear to be a more official origin.
You can see how deep this hole goes. But it’s a lovely hole to be in—one where I’ve built the Taj Mahal for $US13, all manner of off-brand Pokémon for $US4 a character, and when the mail arrives this week, will be putting together a crying goose emerging from a banana skin.
To emphasize the opening point, about how this scratches my Lego itch without emptying my bank balance, look at that Taj Mahal. Here’s Lego’s official version of that set, with 2,022 pieces, and a price tag of $US120. Here’s Nanoblock’s official version, with 2,210 pieces, for around $US70. And here’s the dOvOb (another good off-brand brand) version, with 4,000 pieces, for $US40. Twice as many blocks to build, for a third of the price of the original Lego box.
Of those three, the Lego one looks…fine, the Nanoblock’s version is dreadful, and the knock-off dOvOb build looks fantastic! Oh, and they’re exactly the same size.
I long for a day when Nanoblocks are internationally widely available in all their glory, and I’d be happy to pay a premium for the superior build, and more than anything, the superior instructions. But this isn’t that day, and I cannot express how grateful I am for those knock-off-of-knock-offs that have given me comfort and calm during the last tumultuous decade. Hours of relaxing, methodical building for small change is no small deal.
I encourage you to venture into these peculiar shores, not least when picking up the more bizarre items that don’t even have official versions to begin with. Let alone that these are affordable for those who simply cannot justify spending the kinds of dollars Lego demands. Be prepared for crappy instructions, and the small chance of a missing piece amongst the tidal wave of extras, and there’s so much contentment to be found in this tiny little world.
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