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Harry Potter and the Recommended Age Lie

A while back, my wife came home from Costco with something off the list—no shock there, as that's a feature of any Costco trip. What she came home with, though, was a bit of a surprise: A 3D model of the Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle and Astronomy Tower complex.

This thing was surprisingly inexpensive, at only $27 (on sale for $20 when she bought it). I let it sit for a couple weeks, then decided to put it togther—how bad could it be, I figured, with a target age of eight years old? And only four to six hours to assemble? (That's not just Costco's estimate, it's on the back of the box, too.)

As it turns out, it could be bad, really bad. It was still a fun project, but both "four to six hours" and "eight years old is fine" are complete fabrications.

Here's how it turned out…

First off, this is not a puzzle, it's a model—more akin to a LEGO™ set than a jigsaw puzzle. It's also not something you can take apart when done, and share with someone else, because it's not designed to be reused, which is a shame.

However, It's a nicely made model, given the limitations of the foam core medium in making rounded shapes. But having now built it, I can say with some authority that it is not a four to six hour project, nor do I think it's something an eight year old would get any enjoyment out of.

For those who aren't familiar with foam core models, their pieces come on sheets, laser cut so they're almost but not quite detached. Each piece is numbered, and construction is similar to building LEGO™ (or IKEA): You look at a diagram-filled construction book, and connect the numbered pieces as shown in the diagrams.

Despite what I'm about to write, I did enjoy putting this model together. But I wish I'd gone in with more realistic expectations that it wasn't a four to six hour project, and that it wasn't really a simple thing that any eight-year-old could put together. If you intend to build it, here's what I found frustrating, along with some tips to help minimize those frustrations.

The frustrations

Punching out, again and again and again

The foam core pieces connect via a series of tabs and slots…and every single one of the slots must be punched out—they're pre-cut, but not all the way through. You also have to punch out doors and windows, and other assorted items. For this Harry potter set, the final collection of detritus was massive…

The model has 428 pieces, but I'd estimate there's at least five times that many bits that have to be punched out—entire rows of arched openings, various windows, and of course, all the tab slots. Read on for my assembly tips for a time (and finger!) saver on the punch-out steps.

You don't build it this way, but I imagine it'd take at least a couple of hours to just free each piece and punch out all of the punchable things.

Tabs go into slots, except when they don't

When putting together a square building, the tab-in-slot system works perfectly well. But when building rounded items, or things that require tab insertions on two different surfaces, or that have to turn corners, frustrations ensue. The two most-frustrating things to build in this model were the towers and spires and, oddly, the landscaping around the base.

Most of the model's rounded spires are built in a similar manner: Create a small internal structure that features tabs at various locations, then wrap the spire around the structure, locking to the tabs. A similar process is used for the rounded tower bodies, which are then joined (sometimes early on in the process, sometimes near the end).

For large towers, like the one at left in the above image, this system works pretty well. But as the towers get smaller, so do the tabs, which makes it tougher to hook the two together—the spires on the smaller towers in the above image were all frustrating to put together.

But worse than towers and spires—though thankfully not very common—was the landscaping around the base of Hogwart's Castle—the left-side structure in the above image. Here's a close-up of the peninsula at the bottom left corner:

There are tabs that go in the vertical wall, as well as in the base, plus the piece folds to turn around the corner. Getting this one part in took me close to 10 minutes—I'd get the vertical tabs in, and the horizontal tabs would pop up. Or vice-versa. Or I'd think I'd done it, only to look down and see a random few tabs popped out.

Luckily there weren't many pieces like this, and the base for the Astronomy Tower is completely different—it's a built-up structure with relatively simple straight landscape pieces. But after doing a couple of these on the Hogwart's side, my vocabulary was veering into words a typical eight-year-old shouldn't be speaking.

The instructions aren't always clear

While the diagrams are clear and the parts are always well labeled, sometimes it's not clear in what order you should put stuff together. Consider this step…

Two tiny parts, 163 and 175, are shown being inserted into slots in 187, and arrows show the piece sliding into cut-outs in 141. But those two tiny parts also connect to part 176, as indicated by the tabs on the right side of each part—and you have to make this connection first, otherwise there's no way to do so if you've already slid the larger parts into part 141. The instructions don't even show the connection, much less the order in which it needs to be made.

If this were a puzzle—which, despite its name, it is not—this would be considered part of the challenge, I guess. But as a model to be built, bits like this were just frustrating.

Shredded tabs

If, when trying to interpret an unclear instruction as above, you wind up having to remove and reinsert tabs into slots a lot, it's quite possible that the tab starts to fray, and then it simply will not go into the slot. This means that this model is probably not suitable for sharing with someone else after you're done with it—the odds of all the tabs being usable for the next person are quite low.

But before you get to sharing, you have to figure out how to deal with a tab that won't go into a slot. See the tips section for alternatives I used.

Tips to minimize frustration

Here are some of the things I did to minimize my frustrations while building the model:

  • Clear tape is your friend. Whether it's due to a frayed tab, poor design, a build error, or something else, you'll eventually find something that just won't stay together. I kept a roll of Scotch tape handy for such situations; it's nearly invisible when applied, and saved me much aggravation. I will also admit to—more than once—just cutting a recalcitrant tab off and taping the troublesome piece in place.
  • Use a small flathead screwdriver to punch out the slots, etc.. This was a huge timesaver; I used the largest "jewelers screwdriver" we had, and it was small enough to handle the tiniest punch outs, yet still made short work of the larger ones. And it puts less stress on the pieces than trying to use a fingernail.
  • Use a bin to collect the punch out trash. If you don't, you'll find bits of foam core everywhere for the next few months.
  • Keep a pair of needlenose pliers handy. I used these on a few spots where I could see some of the tab, but couldn't quite get it to push through the slot. I'd grab the end (gently) and pull it all the way in.
  • Remember there's almost nowhere you can push against. It might be tempting to find a spot opposite the piece your'e trying to connect, to push back against. Nope, don't do it. Unless you can push against the back of the very piece you're working, you'll just dislodge something else.

Even with these tips, you may find the model frustrating to assemble—I know my wife was entertained by my creative use of language during the construction process.

Overall, I was happy with how the model came out—it looks good, and it's quite large—roughly 2.5' x 2' when the two sections are connected. But I think I probably spent closer to 15 hours working on this, a far cry from four to six.

I also remember what our kids were like at eight years old, and I can't imagine either one of them having the patience to put this thing together—I think a more realistic target age is probably 12 and up, though I think there are many frustrations to be found for those of any age. I know I found my fair share!

1 thought on “Harry Potter and the Recommended Age Lie”

  1. We also were tricked by the packaging of this product and it ended up beating my wife and me. We gave it to our niece, ostensibly because she is a huge Harry Potter fan, but really it was to get it out of our house.

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