Pros: A modular castle that you can build to your liking. Lots of fun stuff included.
Cons: Made me want more sets. Hard for younger kids to build. Can fall apart.
I work with a guy who I really admire. Not only am I impressed at the skill with which he does his job, but I'm also impressed with his family and how he is raising his kids. He is one of my favorite people to have child-rearing talks with, and because his children are older than mine I feel that I can learn from his experiences. When I asked what his kids wanted for Christmas this past year, he told me that, for the most part, all they wanted were Imaginext sets to add to their ever-expanding collection. I had seen the sets in stores and advertised on TV, and my son and I both love castles, so I was excited to get some of my co-worker's first-hand experiences with the sets. Even though, at 3½, my son is a bit young, I decided that if I found a set I liked that wasn't too expensive I would go ahead and get him one. When I found Dragomont's Fortress discounted at Target complete with a bonus video and figures, I figured this was my opportunity to experience Imaginext for myself.
The concept behind Imaginext building sets are that you can take the modular plastic pieces and build your building (be it a castle, a fire station, a cave, etc) however you see fit. The set I'm reviewing here is Dragomont's Fortress. Apparently Dragomont is the "bad guy" in this particular castle storyline, so it seems unfair that he has the biggest, coolest castle (by comparison King Bravemore's castle is definitely smaller).
There are far too many pieces for me to try to list them one-by-one, so I'll try to give a general idea of what you get. First off, you get a large base to start building your castle upon. In the center of this base is a circular "lava flow" that your child can rotate using the included crank piece. One of the castle's base-pieces fits nicely over the lava pit, with swinging gates that actually allow figures to "ride" the lava under and into the castle. The building pieces themselves are textured and colored differently, giving some good diversity to the set. You get stone wall pieces, rock formations, cage pieces, and wooden floorboard pieces. There are some curved pieces you can use to make turrets. Some walls have cutouts for windows and doors. There are some decorative pieces too, like mouth-shaped windows with shutters that can be opened and closed, claw-lights, flags, decorative columns, and fiery-looking accent pieces.
There are some pieces that are more action-oriented and fun. The "battle floor" allows you to attach 2 figures to the pegs on the floor, then rotate a wheel at the side to have them move and "fight" against each other. There is a cool-looking doorway made of bones. One floor piece has a trap door. The piece that keeps my son the most entertained has a large decorative dragon's head on the front. A lever in back opens the dragon's mouth. If you install batteries in this piece, the dragon will roar when his mouth is opened, and his eyes & the flaming lights around him on the wall will light up. Above the dragon's head is a little wall piece that forms a bit of a cup. You can load the included plastic "lava pieces" in there (or my son prefers putting a little man up there), and trigger the target mechanism just above the dragon's head to tip the cup and dump the contents down. This is a good piece for putting over the "front door" to the castle (so you can drop lava on anyone trying to enter the castle). The same cup-dumping mechanism also triggers sounds - a boom followed by a somewhat evil sounding laugh.
Along with the building pieces you also get some character pieces and accessories. With this set comes Lord Dragomont himself (a red-skinned lizard-man) and a knight. They are articulated at each shoulder, you can move their legs so they can sit down, and you can move Dragomont's tail. Both have removable helmets/chain mails. There is also a shield, a staff, a sword, and an axe for them to use. There's even a little red lizard (I assume he's Dragomont's pet). My son's favorite figure is the dragon. He's large and red, with black wings and saddle. You can load fire-bolts into his chest that shoot out when a button on his back is pressed. He's articulated at the wings, arms, and legs.
I purchased my castle at Target, where there was an additional bonus box of figures attached to the larger Dragomont's Castle box. In that add-on box were King Bravemore, 2 "good" knights, an eagle (a big Eagle/Roc that can be ridden and shoots firebolts just like Dragomont's dragon) and some various swords, shields, and armor pieces. A 26 minute animated video about Bravemore and Dragomont was also included in the add-on box as well. We haven't really watched it with our son, as we don't really want to emphasize the "bad guy" aspects of this castle too much -- maybe when he gets a little older.
The manufacturer recommends this toy for children ages 4 and up. There are definitely small pieces included that would be a choking hazard to children under the age of 3. One of the wall pieces requires 3 "AA" batteries (not included). There is an on/off switch for the one building piece that requires batteries, but even when left on it switches to "sleep mode" so as to not waste power when not in use.
Our Experiences - Building It:
We were set to move to a new house just a few days after Christmas, and my son did get plenty of other toys, so my original plan was to keep the Imaginext castle in its box until after our move. I should have known better - by Christmas night my son really wanted to play with his castle, so I opened the box and got to work. Luckily for me, there are partitions inside the box, so even as I was putting it together I was making sure I could get everything back in the original box again for the move. I appreciate the fact that the box can be used for storage -- you don't have to destroy the box to get the toy out and the compartments helped keep little pieces from being lost. That being said, if we get a few more of these sets I'll probably switch to storing everything in one big storage bin...
Anyway, I built it the first time according to the instructions. The instructions are mostly graphical and they are in color, so while assembly did take a little while (with most of the time spent looking through everything for the piece that matched the picture) it wasn't difficult for an adult to do (there's no way my 3 year old would have been able to do it, however). I'll guestimate that it took 15-20 minutes to completely assemble. My son played with the character pieces, the "lava flow", and whatever sections I had already finished as I worked to complete the whole thing. He really enjoyed playing with it when it was all done too. Being a new toy, both my husband and I were interested in playing with it as well, so we all sat around for quite a while and really enjoyed it.
I disassembled it and put it neatly back in the box the next day, however I put the instructions in another box (along with the instructions for all of my son's other toys). At the new house my son soon wanted to play with his castle again. I was elsewhere unloading boxes, and husband couldn't find the instructions (and didn't ask me where they were), so he and my boy built the castle however they saw fit. I came in as they were mid-build, and must admit that while my castle was cooler looking and perhaps more fun to play with, theirs was definitely more fun to build. I think their way was healthier. My husband said that originally he was trying to build the castle just by looking at the picture on the box, but he found that impossible (and I would agree - there are sometimes little spacer/hole-aligning pieces that you have to use to give a wall that extra quarter of an inch-or-so to hook up properly with the next piece, and you need to insert floor pieces in-between certain wall pieces for everything to line up correctly). I think he would have had an easier time if he'd built it once according to the instructions. As it is they still had a pretty cool castle even without using all of the pieces, and my son was much more involved in the building process.
Having built the castle to-spec once, I wanted to give it a try without instructions too. A few days later I sat down with my son and we started to build. Without instructions I could certainly see why my husband had trouble, but it didn't take me long to remember how things were supposed to fit together (using the little expander pieces and putting the floor pieces between two stories worth of wall pieces). It can get frustrating to want it to fit a certain way, but the pegs and holes just don't line up like you want them to. I think it is safe to say that the more you build with these sets the more familiar you become with how everything works together, and eventually you will be able to build more impressive structures in less time.
If I had any assembly complaints, one would be that I wish there were more "plain" walls (and floors). We do have fun building the castle without the instructions, but there aren't too many walls that don't have a particular function or oddity, limiting the ways in which they can be used. I'm sure this would be solved by purchasing other Imaginext castles and combining the sets, which I hope to do in the near future.
Our Experiences - Playing With It:
Yes, my son loves it. He likes castles anyway, so this castle's cool features plus the dragon and eagle that shoot fire bolts certainly keep him occupied. He loves taking the dragon and shooting a firebolt to trigger the trap door or the lava above the dragon's head. He also loves triggering the dragon's head sounds on the castle. At 3½ he doesn't exactly "build" with the set yet, but he really enjoys getting Mommy and Daddy to build it for him, and certainly provides input during the building process (when we're not following the instructions).
I've grown accustomed to my son's other castles, so there have been a couple of times when I wanted to move his Imaginext castle and I grabbed it from the top like I would any of his other castles. Of course, rather than picking up the whole castle I would instead get just a sub-section that came off in my hand. From our experience, the castle (when built to the spec) stands up well to my boy's play (remember, he's 3 and none-too gentle), but if you're going to pick it up and move it your best bet is to move it by the base. That being said, some of the "our own creation" castles usually end up being a bit less sturdy and easier to knock down during rough play. My son isn't too rough with the castle - he shoves figures through the doors and windows and activates all of the features, but never runs into its walls or tries knocking it over, so we haven't had many problems with walls falling down or pieces getting knocked off.
We've gotten into a habit of pulling out our Dragomont's Fortress whenever my son asks for it, building a castle we like, leaving it up for a few days, then when my son's interest lessens I'll pack it up and put it back in the toy closet until he asks for it again. Perhaps this is why my son likes it so much -- he forgets about it for a week or a few days, then when he notices the box in the closet again he's all geared up to spend more quality time with it. I appreciate the fact that it is so collapsible and storable, yet so big and fun when it is assembled. His other castles sit out all the time, yet I'd say he plays with this one the most.
+) Modular castle pieces can be used to construct the castle in a variety of ways
+) Nice variety of wall/floor types and textures (wood, stone, bone, jail-bars, etc).
+) Fun figures included
+) Large castle building base has a rotating "lava flow"
+) One floor piece contains a trap door
+) One wall piece has a dragon's head that makes sounds and lights up, as well as a "bucket" piece that can be triggered to fall and drop its contents
+) You can attach figures to the "battle floor" and have them duke it out
+) Winged dragon figure can shoot "fire bolts" from his chest
+) Box has compartments and can be used for storage
+) Plenty of add-on sets are available, but this set has plenty to enjoy on its own
+) You can follow the instructions, or branch out on your own and build it as you see fit
-) It has made me want to go out and buy other Imaginext castles so I can combine the pieces and build bigger, more varied castles.
-) The build and way some pieces fit together do take some getting used to. I highly recommend building it according to the instructions first, just to get the fit-concepts down.
-) With enough rough play, you can knock the castle walls down (particularly when you haven't built it according to the instructions)
-) It can be frustrating when the pieces don't line up or fit together the way you wanted them to
Overall I'm quite pleased with Dragomont's Castle. Right now it is a castle that is fun for my son to play with after Mom or Dad puts it together for him, but as he ages I certainly plan on encouraging him to use his imagination and build it however he sees fit. I would have LOVED a toy like this as a child.