08 May 2021

LEGO® City interview: the new Road Plates

An earth-shattering change occurred in LEGO® City in 2021: the introduction of brick-built roads, replacing the thin baseplates that have been used for decades. So New Elementary asked The LEGO Group about the development of this new 'element platform', including questions from our lovely Patreon supporters. The answers are a team effort from the LEGO® City team and Element Design. Before anyone asks; we did not ask them about the absence of curved road elements as the team had already stated; "At this point the LEGO® City team does not have a comment on corners."


Where did the idea for reinventing road baseplates come about - is it something that’s been on the LEGO® City team’s collective minds for a long time now, or a bit more recent? 

The idea has been hovering around the project for a number of years. The first time this system of elements was pitched as a concept was more than 10 years ago. 

1060 Road Plates, ©1981 The LEGO Group

What were the disadvantages of the previous road baseplates, moulded using the vacuum-forming process, that led to this change? 

They could only ever appear in the largest of SKUs [sets] due to box sizes in relation to element size. The LEGO® City buildings are built on regular plates which are not easily compatible with the vacuum-formed plates. On top of this, it has always been a challenge that you could not build across a vacuum plate and a normal plate. The new road plates offer greater opportunity and more flexibility for layout and scaling of a Cityscape.  

Why hasn’t this been done sooner, then?

There are always many requests for new elements or element changes, but we need to prioritize what to do. We can unfortunately not do everything. We had the vacuum plates, and those did the job for many years, so it was never a concept-critical element. And due to the long history of these plates, we needed to make this the best possible change and introduce a more versatile system. 

Can you describe the development process of the road plate system for us? For example the stages it went through / how that differed to the usual development process? 

As the new road plates are a part of an element platform, extensive considerations needed to go into the development. For developing an element platform such as the new road plates, more departments are involved than for regular element development. There were a lot of collaborations with different departments ranging from Graphic Design, Model Development to Element Design to name just a few. For this new system we needed to solve connection points, decoration solutions, scalability and modularity.   

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Did you explore any other different sizes for the new plates, and if so what led to settling on the final sizing?  

Indeed, we did explore other options. Considerations that led to the final format were proportions and playability in the context of LEGO® City models, but also versatility and scalability within the LEGO® System.   

What was the greatest challenge in developing the new system? 

Probably figuring out the right connection points and connectors. We explored countless different solutions, before we finally found the optimal one.    


 The road plates are similar to the 2-plate-high elements introduced in Juniors/4+ sets. Were those sets actually intended as a testing ground for whether these could be introduced into LEGO® City? If not, did you learn anything from them that informed the road plates? 

We usually draw upon existing elements for learnings and to extrapolate future uses so indeed we looked at the Juniors/4+ elements to build on insights for baseplate systems for a young target group. This was just one of the many considerations that went into the development.   

Was making the surface texture as smooth as regular tiles a conscious decision? Or is this just a fact of moulding elements thicker than one plate high? 

The polished surface is the standard treatment for almost all our regular bricks and plates. Therefore, the new road plates also have this smooth surface, so they match our standard tile system which it is connected with.   

Why did you decide to go mainly unprinted for the big parts and create the printed 2x4 tile, instead of printing directly on the parts (like the crosswalk one)?  

This is for versatility purposes.   

The 2x6 tile (design ID 69729) first appeared in LEGO® Super Mario™ last year... but was it actually introduced for LEGO® City? 

The 2x6 tile was developed in LEGO® Super Mario and then used in LEGO® City products. When we introduce new elements we try to quickly adapt them across projects to make them more widely available. During the development of the road plate system there were also considerations whether this should be the connecting tile.    

Were the elements designed with additional colours and uses in mind?

As part of our element development process it is standard to consider potential future uses.  

[Editors note: recently released images of 2021 2HY sets show road plate elements have now been recoloured, to portray sand and water!] 

We even love the design of the underside! But was this complex to decide upon? For example, the right number of tubes? What are the diagonal ridges for? 

The team spent some time exploring the optimum number of tubes. We landed at the result you see from considerations regarding clutch when pressing the roadplate onto another element and better location of correct position in case we ever build into the tubeside. The diagonal ridges are a production-related detail. 

Our thanks to the LEGO employees who took time to answer our questions, and to Jordan Paxton for organising this interview. One last note: there has also been a lot of speculation in the community that the new road plates will mean the end of vacuum-formed baseplates. The LEGO Group spoke about this concern earlier in 2021:

The importance of studded baseplates to the AFOL community is well understood in AFOL Engagement. Over the last few days this has been discussed within the team, department and with other stakeholders including Creator. The baseplates are on many of our desks displaying our creations or our minifigure collections. Also, they have continued to play a role in many outbound licensing products like wall mounted minifigure displays. It is hard to make promises about what the future holds for any product, set, theme or element as tomorrow can always present a new challenge or opportunity. What we can share from our conversations is that exiting the studded baseplates is not something we foresee in the near future. For now there are still multiple baseplate products still in production including Classic sets, bricks and pieces and available in LUGBULK. Hopefully this helps ease some concern.

If you're buying sets with road plates, or the individual elements from Bricks & Pieces (6325635, 6329624, 6328358, 6334233, 6329595 and 6331687) then please consider following our affiliate links: UK LEGO Shop | USA LEGO Shop | Australia LEGO Shop, for other countries 'Change Region'. New Elementary may get a commission.

Images by Caz Mockett, except where indicated, from her article analysing the road plates

READ MORE: Interview with Karsten Juel Bunch of LEGO® Element Design & System Governance

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19 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. It seems obvious once pointed out, but I hadn't even considered that impractical box sizes were the reason so few sets came with baseplates. I guess I'll just have to be surprised when we find out where they are going next with this new element platform.

    Aside from that, interview responses no real surprises in the responses from TLG.

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    1. I was fully conscious of this, but I know they also have used 16x32, 16x16, and 8x16 baseplates in sets over the years (there are a lot of other odd sizes, but these three make up the core system when combined with 32x32, and to a lesser extent the 48x48). And that is something that worked, up until they started using 8x16 and 16x16 plates instead of baseplates. That's probably the functional limit on how big a plate they can (or are willing to) produce, while sets like the Modulars really need a single element tying the entire base together. I actually figured the size reduction was the main reason they were introducing these new road plates.

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    2. I'm not sure I agree that "sets like the Modulars really need a single element tying the entire base together". After all, for the first few years of the Modular Buildings series, all the buildings used a pair of 16x32 baseplates as a foundation instead of a single 32x32 baseplate. Likewise, the upper floors of the Modular Buildings have always been built on an assortment of smaller plates rather than one large plate, and yet those upper floors are still just as sturdy as the ground floor.

      And outside of the Modular Buildings, there have been lots of expert-level sets have been built on a foundation of smaller, full-thickness plates, including all of the Winter Village sets, most of the Fairground Collection sets, the Monster Fighters Haunted House, the Temple of Airjitzu, the Simpsons House, Pirates of Barracuda Bay, etc.

      So I think the main reason LEGO has stuck with larger baseplates in the Modular Buildings series instead of switching to 16x16 plates is probably that they need the thinner baseplates to ensure that every building can link together neatly with earlier ones — not that the 32x32 size is strictly necessary from a structural standpoint.

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    3. @Skye Barnick:
      I've never bought nor built any of the Modulars, and when other LUG members include them in our layouts they usually just plunk them down on the table as they are. I'd missed that the pin connections have basically locked them into including regular baseplates with those sets, or face a difficult transition period where they'd have to include both options to kind of wean regular collectors off them.

      But my observation has been that when they build buildings on regular plates, they tailor the designs to work with plates. This means using long plates that will straddle an entire room, creating "T" joints instead of "+" joints, and layering plates to create a single rigid structure.

      For Modulars, the footprint is generally 32x32 for the entire model, including sidewalk. In cases where it's not, it's usually 32 deep and 48 wide, to accommodate an extra half baseplate of width. The floorplans on these buildings are pretty variable, which you can get away with when you're building over a single expanse of baseplate. If they switched to plates, they would always have one of those dreaded "+" joints right in the center. The only two ways of tying that joint together would be to layer the plates, or to always place a sturdy wall over it. The former becomes a problem because, in my own experience, if you try to layer plates that large, you can get some weird geometry problems (I tried building a solid base to a 32x64 building by layering 16x16 and 8x16 plates, and then adding walls made of 1x2 bricks, which resulted in a 1/2 stud offset on the long edge). And if you always try to put a structural wall right over the center joint, it really limits what you can do with the floorplan on the first floor. No, I think Modulars might be the one line that forces them to stick with baseplates in the long term.

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    4. For my part, I've seen a lot more 16x32 (half width) modulars than 48x32 (one-and-a-half width) ones — whether as sets or as MOCs. Specifically, the Market Street, Pet Shop, and Bookshop sets are each made up of two separate 16x32 builds which link together using the standard pin connections on the sides.

      You're correct that using a one-piece or two-piece base tends to involve a lot less planning than one built from several smaller components. But when it comes to expert/adult-level builds like these, I don't think a bit of extra planning like that is really much of an ordeal, especially since it tends to be required of you when designing the upper floors one way or another.

      Consider also that unlike most Modular Buildings, the Monster Fighters Haunted House (https://brickset.com/sets/10228-1/Haunted-House) has no interior walls whatsoever, yet it only took two wedge plates to secure the plates forming its base together at the two points where the walls themselves weren't already taking care of that. Do the same at the "+" joint in a Modular Building, but with parts appropriate to that particular type of building (like a carpet, desk, service counter, display case, or even a large tile like the one used for Fire Brigade's driveway) and you're good to go!

      Depending on your building's interior walls are arranged, you could also swap one of your two rows of 16x16 plates with two 8x16 plates with one 16x16 plate in between — turning the one "+" joint into three "T" joints. Or, as in many of the Modular Building sets that already exist, you could raise all or part of the ground floor, and build additional support structures into the crawlspace.

      With all these options and more at your disposal, I feel like you'd have to be really determined to design a Modular Building in the most fragile way possible for the base end up as weak where its plates join as you're describing.

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  3. The size of the base plates? I did not realize that every LEGO set produced before 1990 did not happen then. They fail to mention that there were 8x16, and 16x32 base plates (among some other dimensions)that did work with the sets and base plates and would not have been super prohibitive to the set or its box size. I also love the classic LEGO CS form letter that is any response to a question about a change: " We care about your comments about . We also care about and we . Unfortunately due to possible changes in we cannot guarantee that will continue to be made". Never mind the issues with NO Curves that they refuse to even comment on, which is laughable. This just smacks of a justification of keep set costs higher when they do not need to be.

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    1. There's zero need for such small baseplates when nowadays 8x16 and 16x16 plates exist and are much more versatile (not only being usable for the "ground" floor but ceilings and the floors of additional stories on taller buildings). The only advantage those small baseplates had was compatibility with other baseplates, a concern that's less and less viable as the vast majority of themes have transitioned to using bases constructed of regular plates.

      Their lack of comment on curves is entirely to be expected, given that Lego policy is to never discuss unannounced future products to avoid giving their competitors an edge in terms of being able to predict future releases.

      Their comment at the end that you describe as a "form letter" is what I would call "well-worded"—it doesn't make guarantees about the long term future, which can be subject to change, but it DOES clarify that there are no existing plans to stop producing and selling baseplates, putting to rest the unfounded rumors that these new road plates were intended as a stepping stone to eliminate baseplates entirely.

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    2. Ah yes very good points but have you considered that change bad and scary?

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    3. Size of baseplates was never really a problem for plain baseplates, but it certainly is for road baseplates. While regular baseplates have been produced in five standard sizes (48x48, 32x32, 16x32, 16x16, and 8x16), and over two dozen irregular sizes (ranging from 6x6 to 50x50), road baseplates only exist in 32x32 sizes. The interview starts out by asking about roadplates specifically, and they said the box sizes limited the range of sets they could be included with. That answer really only applies to road baseplates.

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    4. ^This! The only type of "road baseplate" small enough to be included in the same size boxes as this new road system is the 16x16 baseplate with single-lane driveway (https://brickset.com/parts/design-51595).

      Including a full two-lane road on a baseplate 16 studs wide would require narrowing the lanes to a downright impractical extent, since it'd need at least two rows of studded road margins on either side for roadside details and connections to other baseplates.

      One of the many strengths of this new road system, by comparison, is that it allows for a road, track, or river surface as wide or wider than the plates themselves, while still allowing them to include usable connection points.

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    5. @Skye Barnick:
      Ah, but just because I understand why they came out with this new tiled road system doesn't mean I don't hate it. I can see its value for small city sets, but as a member of what we believe is the most active LUG in the world, they presented as such a threat that we actually bought a bunch of new road baseplates just in case they ended up being retired in the near future.

      For us, a small layout fills nine tables that hold 18 baseplates (32x32). That's 112.5 square feet, or about the size of a small room. Our larger layouts run between 400-500 square feet. Several times in our club history we've had 3-4 layouts set up at the same time. Nobody wants to set those up with these new tile-based roads. We sometimes place roads in the middle of the layout by pushing an entire row from the edge of a table, which wouldn't work if the sidewalks are unattached. If they are, the road sections would be prone to disassembly in storage unless you tied them together with a regular baseplate (which really kills the point of switching roads). The baseplates pack more compactly and weigh less because they're thinner. Buildings that weigh hundreds of pounds, exceed 6' in height, and have to be built in sections for easy transport can glide across our wooden tables where structures built on plates will scrape and snag.

      I recognize that the new tile roads may prove more popular for home layouts that stay together long-term, but for large weekend public shows they'd be a game-killer. I see very limited use in our context. They could be used to make elevation changes (so could baseplates, but these might be more versatile). They can be used for overpasses and parking garages. And for a club that's just getting started, they might not have a choice but to combine both formats just to get complete coverage. MichLUG is not that club, though. We turn 20 later this year, and we've had two other clubs split off of us in that time. As long as they don't retire the road baseplates, I really don't mind if they insist on building up this tile road system, but I'll continue to be a bit nervous about them deciding that maybe they want to switch everything over somewhere down the line.

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    6. I totally understand that there are a lot of challenges this new road system might present for large-scale collaborative displays. However, I don't think those concerns are in any way insurmountable.

      Keep in mind that many AFOL groups have already voluntarily embraced collaborative display standards like HispaLUG's MILS standard, TwinLUG's Micropolis standard, WAMALUG's Pharaoh's Labyrinth standard, RochLUG's Medieval Village Modular System standard, Swebrick's Moduverse standard, LEGO's own Ninjago City standard, etc.

      Pretty much all of these involve higher costs to assemble, greater space demands during transport, and/or more complex setup considerations than MichLUG's preferred standard or others similar to it, but groups adopt these standards because they recognize various strengths and possibilities they offer that standards based around road baseplates would not.

      There are likely many similar advantages that a particular LUG might find for using these new roads or layouts based around them — in fact, the new roads can be integrated with a MILS layout extremely easily, since MILS paved roads are a plate taller than the surrounding terrain by default.

      I guess you haven't heard, but LEGO did in fact retire their road baseplates at the end of last year. Even so, I wouldn't be surprised if some LUGs continue to favor them as the optimum choice for their own layouts. After all, there are still LUGs out there using the classic grey road baseplates with green bike lanes from the 90s, even though those have been discontinued for over two decades! Not to mention the number of LUGs and LTCs — MichLUG included — that still use 9V train tracks instead of switching over to tracks that are still in production.

      So needless to say, I don't think this road system will be any more of a death knell for collaborative displays than any of the various other changes that builders have felt frustrated or challenged by over the past couple decades. Some groups will adapt to the new system. Others will simply persist in using the older system. And groups just starting out will be free to choose whether to use the current style, an older style, or even a custom style for their layouts' roads — a choice that pretty much every LUG is faced with, no matter when they got their start. The AFOL community has never been beholden to the LEGO Group's whims, and I don't see any reason to think this latest curveball would change that.

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    7. @Skye Barnick:
      I'm familiar enough with similar systems to know that those would kill our schedule. The shortest duration of any show we've done was two hours. In the time it takes a most LUGs to unpack and set up one of their displays, just two of us would have been able to pack our cars, drive to that event, set up, display, and tear down our layout, drive home, and unpack our cars. The only reason we can manage 20+ shows per year is because we rarely need even a full day for setup. A few of the shows we do are only one day including setup. The vast majority run the weekend with an early morning setup on Saturday. There are a couple weekend shows where we get access to the venue on Friday for setup, and one Sunday show where we get access on Saturday afternoon. We do a display for Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Home Alone performance and annual holiday concert where we get an evening prior, which usually concludes with a Sunday evening 7pm concert, after which we have to pack up the layout before leaving. We do a display for Detroit Festival of Trees the week of Thanksgiving, where sometimes we can do our setup on Friday, and sometimes we have to wait until Saturday and be done by the time they start prepping the venue for the opening gala at 5pm. And lastly we do a display from mid-November to early January for The Henry Ford Museum which is really the only time we ever display outside of a Brickworld event where we can take two full days to do setup (though we can do it in one if we have to).

      I've seen some of the LUGs that use systems like these at various Brickworld events, and THF is really the only show we do outside of Brickworld events that most of them could handle, just because of how involved the setup is. Many of them don't get much taller than the official Modular buildings, and rarely do they get tall enough that I can't see over the tops of their buildings. By volume most of what they bring is table, followed by the "ground" for their layout, followed by the actual layout that you're there to see. If we're going to be spending 1-2 days doing setup, other members of my LUG have bigger priorities in mind:

      https://brickshelf.com/cgi-bin/gallery.cgi?i=6188558

      We're already looking at going 3rd party to keep running 9v (PF was okay, especially for the guys who like to build steam engines, but PU is barely a step up from RC). If they don't want to make road baseplates, there will be LUGs looking to shed them to offset the cost of switching to this new road system. After that, I don't know. Maybe someone 3rd party starts making their own road baseplates, or maybe we have to bite the bullet and start looking at one of the clone brands that has already copied them. Whatever we end up doing, for sure it won't involve taking an entire day just to set up the ground.

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    8. Thank you for the detailed explanation of the reasons MichLUG is sort of "locked in" to the layout standards they're currently using, but to be honest, it's not something you need to justify to me! It's not as though I'd fault you (or anyone) for sticking to an older system like this, even if it were simply out of personal preference. And truth be told, if I were that heavily invested in traditional road plates, I probably wouldn't want to switch to a different style of road either!

      I have no doubt that third party road baseplates would likely be a decent substitute for LUGs in a similar position to yours. It's safe to say that any patents LEGO might have had on their road baseplates have expired by now, and various clone brands have been producing "standard" baseplates for a while now.

      As such, the main concern that LUGs would need to have regarding third-party substitutions is how well the color quality matches LEGO road baseplates, followed by how well the printed patterns match (though the latter would not be as big a deal for LUGs that are "starting fresh").

      But at the same time, it sounds like it's safe to say that MichLUG is a bit of an exceptional case, and that most LUGs aren't nearly large enough or organized enough to bother exhibiting displays as large at as many events as MichLUG does — particularly events as brief as some of those you're describing.

      I think we're pretty much on the same page at this point. You've made it very clear that the new road system isn't great for your needs or the needs of other builders in your LUG. Conversely, it's a promising option for independent builders (kids and adults alike), or for LUGs with a less demanding event schedule. So please don't think for a minute that I want or expect you to embrace a system that can't meet your needs. I'm just glad you've been able to comment on it so constructively and really consider its strengths and weaknesses for yourself, instead of just dismissing it right off the bat for being different.

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    9. @Skye Barnick:
      If you can't articulate the reasons why you object to something, it's easy to dismiss your objections as irrelevant or unimportant.

      Anyways, I've seen some knock-off baseplates, and the colors weren't a good match. For a fresh start, it would be an option for non-purists. For an established LUG like ours, we'd really have to keep them segregated, using them exclusively or not at all. An exception could probably be made in cases where a really large layout allowed a clear division, say between urban and rural zones.

      For now, I just found out we'll be starting to do shows again in a couple weeks, with the possibility of just barely edging out last year's schedule. Right now I think we have two confirmed, one expected, three likely, and two possible later in the year. Last year we got cut off with only four done by the first weekend of March, and only had one event that wasn't cancelled late in the year.

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  4. I wish they would just pull off the bandage and create new plates to convert existing 32x32 buildings to be compatible with the new roads.

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    1. Now there's a business idea for an enterprising AFOL...

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    2. There already are companies that sell 32x32 plates, but for a purist solution all you need to do is get 5x 16x16 plate and 6x 8x16 plate for every baseplate you want to replace. Make one layer out of 4x 16x16 plates. For the other layer, put the remaining 16x16 right in the center, and add the 8x16 plates around it in a ring. Since the new road system replaces a single baseplate with the equivalent of two layers of plates, this raises the buildings an equivalent amount. You'll have to modify the sidewalks to match, if you're trying to match the Modulars, so this will get very expensive pretty quickly, and you'll be stuck making this adjustment going forward since they don't seem to be planning to render new Modulars incompatible with old Modulars by shifting away from baseplates entirely.

      Alternately, you can also cheat this by just adding a layer of plates under any Modular to shim it up. A baseplate resting on a plate sits at the same height as a plate attached to the top of another plate. This would be a lot cheaper, allowing you to use a random assortment of plates as shims, and wouldn't even require full coverage. You could possibly get by with nine plates of 4x6 size or larger, by placing four at the corners, for on each edge, and one in the center. 4x6 is often available on a PAB wall, plus they tend to be quite a bit cheaper than larger plates.

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