Last year, a Kickstarter was done for something a little different than the usual: accessory parts that are LEGO-compatible. Designed by Matt Asanuma, these parts were chess pieces that could be used as LEGO elements, and after a month, the program was funded. Things did not go as well as hoped, though, and the sets were delayed in production and delivery. Now, the sets are being delivered and BrickJournal got a few as well as some mini Army soldiers!
There is a review here, but before we get to that, BrickJournal did an interview with Matt to find out about him and his work.
BrickJournal: What do you do in real life – I looked at your About page on FB, and you have had some cool gigs!
Matthew Asanuma: I’ve had the privilege to work in many creative fields in my life, from screen printing in high school, to being a temporary model builder at LEGOLand, to building studio-scale replicas of Star Trek Enterprises and Battlestar Galacticas. For nearly the past decade, I’ve studied computer animation and video game development, and I’ve been fortunate to develop visual effects for a lot of amazing video game projects.
What got you into LEGO building?
I think I would have to attribute my passion for LEGO to my big-sister Mariann. She probably introduced me to LEGO before I could crawl. I genuinely cannot remember a time in my childhood from when I didn’t know what LEGO was.
What was the thing that inspired you to think about a minifigure chess set?
As a kid, I would watch the movie, “Where the Toys Come From” all the time. I think partly from that I’ve just always been interested in manufacturing processes like plastic injection casting. I’ve always wanted to make my own products and learn how to get an injection-cast product made. As I thought more seriously about what I could do, the idea of brick-like products was always at the forefront. Ultimately, a lot of factors went into the decision to make chess pieces. I wanted to make something that hadn’t been done before. For me it had to be something small because every inch of space on a mold is valuable real estate, and I wanted the space to try a lot of things. The design had to be something that I could easily engineer to have multiple uses for building – chess’ geometric shapes by default lend themselves to this. I also wanted something that made sense as a set and as a result made sense to make as a single color together. To top it all off, it had to be something I was interested in so that regardless of success, I could feel fulfilled from the process. Chess wasn’t really the initial idea. Instead, I started with my known constraints and sought out ideas that would fit within them.
How long did it take you to design the parts?
I definitely spent a good few months of my free-time iterating on the proportions, aesthetics and overall utility. It was important for me that every part had as many connective functions as possible without betraying the design heritage of the classic Staunton chess set.
How did your idea get to Kickstarter – was it a suggestion or were you planning from the beginning?
I’ve been backing Kickstarter campaigns since 2013, and I’ve worked on and ran my own campaigns since 2016. I’ve been inspired by colleagues who have made sustainable businesses for themselves through the platform, and I have always seen crowdfunding as a way I can support my creative endeavors now with the hope that they will support my family in the future.
How did the Kickstarter go?
I am so grateful for the level of support we received, and the campaign itself went great. That being said it’s apparent now that I was not aware of a number of things, and I would be the first to admit that many things could have been done better. For me the most valuable thing I’ve gained through the process is this mountain of experience and knowledge that I can apply moving forward.
We know how long it took to produce the sets – what were the challenges you expected and the ones that were unanticipated?
Setting aside for a moment the pandemic and its many ripple effects, I think the greatest challenge was producing the mold. Thankfully, I had anticipated a lot of things specific to Kickstarter from past campaign experience (A bit of advice for anyone who wants to run a Kickstarter campaign, start small – learning the ropes of Kickstarter can be a bit of a hurdle in and of itself). Coming back to the mold, though, and more specifically a mold for high-tolerance parts – I knew that I should pad for extra time to really dial in the mold. I did not foresee just how long it would take to achieve the quality and fit that I wanted. It turns out that these “simple” geometric chess parts that had multiple connection points actually compounded that time because every dimension was up to high scrutiny. Often, I can be a bit of a perfectionist with my projects, and I have to sometimes remind myself that “perfect is the enemy of the good”. However, for an item like this that really demands perfection within a few hundredths of a millimeter to be mechanically viable, I knew I had to really give it all the time it needed despite the delays it would cause.
What led to the add-on chess sets – the 3D chess sets and the other kits?
It may sound strange, but I never wanted these pieces to be thought of as “chess” pieces. My hope was to instill the idea that these are building bricks that just happen to look like chess pieces. My whole design ethos for them was ‘function first’. I felt that since it would be unreasonable to make a truly ‘minifig-scale’ chess set (a board is 4 times the width of a person after all) it made more sense to me to market them as bricks. I was looking at them with a very builder-centric perspective. As I shared them with friends, family and colleagues, however, I realized that there would be much wider appeal to an assortment of people who just thought they were cute as a mini/travel chess set, so I knew I had to include board kits that could satisfy them as well.
You also presented other items as adding, such as Meeples and army men. How did those come about?
As any serial creator can attest to, there’s never just one idea. As I’m working on fulfilling one idea, I’m always on the lookout for means by which I can efficiently fulfill other ideas and I’m also just passively soaking up inspiration for future ideas. I honestly cannot help myself, and I often have to make sure my wife is sitting down before I start spouting off my next big thing. I had been working on various CAD designs for months before I settled in on the chess pieces. In fact, I had even been running various financial estimates on manufacturing, shipping, funding milestones and whatnot on various product ideas up till then. When it came to actually cutting the mold for the chess pieces, I knew there would be unused space in it. It’s like buying a 6-bedroom house and only ever using one room. I couldn’t waste that space after having paid the most significant amount on the mold blank itself. It only made sense to put in other designs I could that would kind of fit with the colors I wanted to make.
What has been the feedback from your backs now that the sets are shipping?
So far positive! I just hope we don’t disappoint anyone.
Will all of this be available online for purchase?
Definitely! We hope to have a website up and running soon.
Do you have any plans for future sets or parts?
While the website is our number one priority, I have high hopes to produce a number of really fun and useful parts in the future.
BrickJournal will announce his website when it opens!
Review: Brick Mini Chess Pieces
I was first introduced to the mini chess pieces before the Kickstarter to get feedback. My first impressions were tempered by me not being a chess player. This was a rather silly point to start critiquing, but it also allowed me to look at the other potentials of the parts. I made some comments then about making the parts more LEGO compatible, and left it at that. Back then the idea had potential, but what would make the set take off (to me) would be the other possibilities of the parts in building.
Fast-forward over a year later. A small package shows up in my mail box, and in it are are the chess pieces, four colors worth!
I also got an additional bag of elements, but first, the chess parts. To be honest, i really didn’t know what color to pick for my stretch goal sets, so dark red and blue were the choices. For the photos, I used the white pieces. The pieces can be held by minifigures – all but the rook can be clipped to the minifigure hand, while the rook fits on top of the hand.
Here’s some closeup looks at the pieces:
The parts are injection molded, and very shiny. The clutch of the parts to a stud is good, as they stay securely, but are not difficult to remove. You get a full set of pieces, plus an extra king and extra queen – this is a nice touch.
In playing with the parts, there are a lot of design consideration in each piece. While the parts can be stuck on a stud, they also can hold bars and sometimes themselves.
With the black chess parts, architectural elements can be made.
What’s really nice about this is that you get a nice assortment of parts – 8 pawns, 2 rooks, 2, knights, 2 bishops, 2 kings and 2 queens! This ‘starter set’ can do quite a bit, and this is just with architectural builds. You can see more possibilities on the Kickstarter page. For these elements, chess is only the beginning, and I am looking forward to the other builds that will come about because of these.
The other bag was a surprise that Matt added – a mini set of purple army men! These were made as add-ons to the Kickstarter, but I wasn’t to get them. I should have.
Whereas the chess set needs a chess board to play, the army men can just be played with, and I did!
The full set has 11 elements in all, and are too much to play with. I mean heck, I made a tank for them…
I’ll be getting more troops and in different colors when Matt’s site goes live!
Matt’s site isn’t ready yet, but it will be soon! When it launches, BrickJournal will send out information!