The best and worst toys hitting shelves this year

Gadgette goes to the Toy Fair

This week I went to the 63rd annual Toy Fair in London to see the latest and greatest toys being shown off by creators and suppliers. From cuddly toys to tech-laden drones, I played with as many as I could. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.

The UK toy industry uses the annual Toy Fair to announce industry statistics and list the top-selling products of the previous year. I was told the UK toy industry grew 5.9% in 2015, making it the largest in Europe. According to The NPD Group, the UK toy industry is valued at £3.2 billion. I was amazed to discover that on average 38 toys were purchased per child in 2015! Sales were helped considerably by film franchises such as Minions, Avengers, Jurassic World, and Star Wars. I couldn’t move for Star Wars toys at the Fair but the no. 1 franchise in 2015 was Disney’s Frozen, which is proving to be endlessly popular. Lego had a great 2015 and their Minifigures were the top-selling toy in the UK market. They also occupied 3rd and 10th place with Elsa’s Sparkling Ice Castle and the Millennium Falcon, respectively.

The highs

Nostalgia! Lots of toys and franchises from my childhood seem to be making comebacks. I met the Teletubbies, saw new Thunderbirds toys, came 1st in new Scalextric, nearly broke a K’NEX Ferris wheel, and even found a Stretch Armstrong! For all the new toys available, true classics are still selling well. The crowds seemed pleased by Danger Mouse and Noddy toys. Many of the classics featured modern updates, such as the new Scalextric set that now works with your tablet or smartphone.

It’s no secret I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I was delighted to find Force Awakens toys everywhere I looked. Like other Disney franchises, the latest Star Wars film was being licensed by every type of toy manufacturer you could think of. I saw a plush Darth Vader, a Millennium Falcon drone, an interactive BB-8, and countless card and board games based on the franchise. It was upsetting that there weren’t many Rey toys available but how about this life-size Lego model? WANT. Sadly it wasn’t for sale and there wasn’t an opportune time for me to make a break with it either.

Ignoring Star Wars, drones were the next most common sight at Toy Fair 2016. The drone stalls were spaced apart throughout the venue, presumably to reduce the risk of air-space incidents. Drones ranged from the basic toys costing tens of pounds to hardcore hobbyist models upwards of £1000. I constantly found myself ducking and dodging as drones were demoed. There weren’t many children at the fair when I visited as it was a press day, but the few kids I did see were just as awestruck by the drones as by seeing their favourite characters elsewhere in the fair.

The best drone? Some might say it was one of the horrifically expensive machines that were faster, flew higher, and lasted longer than others. Personally I was most impressed by the wonderful and affordable Micro Drone 3.0. A very knowledgeable woman named Anita showed off the Indiegogo-funded drone and its many killer features. What stood out to me was that it was modular and could be upgraded without buying a whole new drone. If you have a 3D printer, you can even attach outer modules to customise the appearance of the drone! It’s capable of Wi-Fi transfer of images taken using the on-board HD camera, you can attach new batteries magnetically, and the company provides Google Cardboard for a VR experience while flying the drone. They even had a traditional double-stick remote for piloting the drone if you don’t want to use a smartphone.

I tried many new games at Toy Fair 2016 and enjoyed rediscovering classics from my childhood. Some champagne was available, courtesy of Bananagrams celebrating its 10th anniversary! Crowds were flocking to see updated versions of their favourite classic board games, but it was a relative newcomer that took my eye. Ephemeris is a board game and quiz inspired by astronomy. I was pulled to the stall by space imagery and the lovely Freda Dusnic won me over with her passion for astronomy and education. Ephemeris is a strategy game that revolves around planetary orbits. Larger planets orbit slower than the small, inner planets and this introduces the strategy. One way to play the game involves getting 5 planets into the constellations that you have in your hand. Another way involves a deck of quiz cards, which I think makes this a brilliant board game for kids. I was worried when the first question was alarmingly easy, but the next question was about temperatures of specific planets! I love a good educational game and this was easily my favourite at the fair because space.

The lows

It’s hard not to enjoy yourself at a toy fair. I was there hoping to find some neat tech products but kept distracting myself with games and cuteness. For the most part it was cheerful and relaxing but there were disappointing moments. Every once in a while I found myself internally screaming “let toys be toys.” As predicted we had toy sets for girls that teaches them how to clean the house, and sets for boys that teaches them the best way to destroy a tank with a missile. There was a Technokit hovercraft toy that was described by Interplay as being “great for fathers and children.” Sorry to any mums out there that like hovercrafts!

One of the main characters (if not the main character) in the new Star Wars film is Rey. The internet has already been buzzing about the lack of Rey toys on shelves so I knew not to expect much at the toy fair. I was still shocked. Everywhere I looked I saw Star Wars; every toy manufacturer had products based on Finn or Kylo Ren but never Rey. I can’t remember seeing Rey at all during the fair except for the impressive model at the Lego stall. It makes no sense. Official responses have claimed that Rey toys would be spoilers for the film but that’s absurd. We’ve been seeing Rey for months in trailers before seeing the film. There’s nothing revealing about Rey with her staff and BB-8. It just makes me sad.

Almost as sad as this budget BB-8. Oh dear.

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Main image © Jennifer Harrison