December 21, 2009

Nemesis Factor

This is a great electronic puzzle that I first heard about during my trip to a puzzle dinner down in New York. In fact, the inventor, Ron Dubrens, was there! I wasn't familiar with the puzzle at the time, but the next day when I visited Brett Kuehner's house, Brett showed it to me. I thought it was very cool and asked if they could be purchased any more. He wasn't sure, but he was kind enough to loan me an extra copy that he has! I enjoyed it so much that I bought my own copy from Amazon (so yes they are available).

Nemesis Factor (instruction manual) is an electronic puzzle with 100 different levels that you progress through sequentially. Each puzzle involves interacting with the puzzle in some way. There are five lighted buttons on the front of the puzzle and the solution frequently (but not always!) involves pushing these buttons in the right order and/or at the right time.

Sometimes the buttons play sounds, musical notes, or words. Sometimes the puzzle just says a string of numbers or words and you need to react appropriately. I don't want to give away too much, because discovering the unique interactions yourself is one of the most delightful aspects of the game.

If you find it hard to believe that the designer could have created 100 different puzzles using this system as a base without getting repetitive, don't worry about that! This game definitely keeps you guessing and kept me entertained for quite some time.

In fact, I never really got bored with it: usually I stopped playing because I had to go to sleep or because my poor girlfriend was sick of being neglected in favor of a somewhat annoyingly loud puzzle. A volume control would have been nice!

There were a few spots where I got stumped, and was very thankful for the built-in hint feature. When you push the hint button you are given the first of two hints. If you are still stuck, you can press it again for another hint.

I would suggest not being too shy about using the hints: sometimes the solution is something you would be highly unlikely stumble across on your own (particularly when a new type of interaction is used). Usually these hints are enough to get you going, but on the later levels the hints can be fairly obtuse. Most puzzles took between 1-5 minutes, though some took me 30 minutes or more.

I worked on this puzzle over the course of about two weeks and lost track of how long I spent on it. I think it was definitely above 5 hours, probably closer to 10 to finish all 100 levels. In terms of difficulty, I would say that this puzzle is quite difficult. It is definitely doable, but some of the levels are very tricky.

The puzzle remembers what level you were on when you stopped, and can keep track of up to four players individually (each is associated with one of the colored buttons with the fifth reserved for a 'guest' player). It also keeps track of your cumulative score, which is ten or less for each puzzle. You lose points for taking hints or taking too long to solve the level.

I didn't much care for the points: after struggling for 20 minutes to solve a tricky puzzle it was annoying to be given zero points for my hard work. I guess it does serve as a deterrent from taking unnecessary hints, but it would have been nice if the minimum was 5 points, just so people don't feel too bad.

There wasn't much that I didn't like about this game, though there were a few somewhat annoying design issues. I would have liked to see a volume knob (as I mentioned earlier), though I guess that runs the risk of somebody accidently turning the volume down and not realizing that the sounds are part of the puzzle.

Also, a power button would have been nice: if somebody accidently chooses the wrong player color, they need to wait 2 minutes for the puzzle to auto-shut-off and then turn it back on, which is a bit annoying. You can't even quickly pop the batteries out, since the cover is screwed in place.

Overall, though, this is an awesome puzzle that I'm very happy that I got the chance to play with. Thanks to Brett for loaning it to me!

December 16, 2009

Cast Keyring and Cast Cuby

I picked up a few more Hanayama puzzles at Eureka this past weekend: Cast Cuby and Cast Keyring. I didn't notice this when I first purchased them, but they are both designed by Oskar van Deventer! I really enjoy his puzzles, so this was a happy discovery.

I tried Cast Keyring first on my ride home on the subway: I like to start with the easier of the two so I can accomplish something before getting stuck on a harder one. This one is a level 2 out of 6, so I didn't expect it to be too much of a challenge. Even the simplest Hanayamas can stump you for a bit, though.

This was a nicely made puzzle, it has a similar type of finish to Cast Dolce, which I enjoyed. The weight is fairly good and it has a nice appearance. On the puzzle is inscribed the words "Key Ring." The words are an ambigram: if you turn "Key" upside-down it reads "Ring" and vice versa. This was a nice little touch because it makes it a bit trickier to orient yourself on the puzzle. The ambigram was designed by Scott Kim.

One strategy I like to use with puzzles of this type is to keep one piece in a fixed orientation. This makes it easier to tell which moves I have already done. In this way, I can explore the set of moves much like a maze.

I had a fun time solving this one: there was one unexpected move that I could have taken quite a while to discover, but luckily I stumbled upon it early. I think it took me about 5 minutes to solve, but I think it could have easily taken longer if I had been less lucky.

When I first got this puzzle, it held together fairly well with friction, but now it tends to slide apart (not completely, the actual solution takes several moves). That's fine sitting on my coffee table but would be a bit annoying if I had it in my pocket. Also, one move requires a bit more force than I would have liked to see, but that's not a huge drawback. Overall, a solid puzzle that I think will be a fun one to give to puzzle novices to get them hooked!

After solving Cast Keyring, I moved on to Cast Cuby. This puzzle is essentially a maze: you have to navigate the wedge back and forth between the faces of the cube in order to get it out. There is a nub on one face of the wedge that must line up with a notch on the cube face in order for a move to be possible.

It has a nice movement that is quite unlike any other puzzle I have seen, as is frequently the case with a design by Oskar van Deventer. I don't know where he comes up with all this stuff! If you like this puzzle, you would also enjoy Cast O'Gear (I liked O'Gear a bit better, though both are good).

I played around with this one for a bit on the subway but didn't have much luck. I was trying to be quite systematic and tried to develop a mental map but I ended up going in circles. Once I got home, I just played around with it for a bit and solved it in a few minutes. I think it took me a total of 30 minutes or so (this is a level 3/6).

Robert Stegmann has a great description and solution of this puzzle here (scroll down a bit). He has a map of the solution, but it won't really do you any good just glancing at it. I thought about making a map, but it would have been harder to come up with a notation system and working out a map than it would have been to just solve the puzzle by fiddling, in my opinion.

Still, Rob's analysis points out some interesting design features that make this a well designed maze. Oskar provided the solver with ample opportunities to make a mistake and end up going into a loop or to forget which way you are going and end up going backwards.

George Bell wrote an interesting article on solving puzzles with maps that you can read on his website.

I was a bit unsatisfied with just fiddling with it to solve it, so while shopping with my girlfriend I tried to take a more systematic approach. Working backwards from the finish, I was able to find an easier to reach target state that would lead me to the finish once I was able to reach it. It was easy to get confused just visualizing the moves, but eventually I figured it out and that method ended up working fairly well.

This is definitely one that could have a fair amount of replay value. Once you forget the solution, it could take you a little while to figure it out again. Another great puzzle by Oskar!

December 14, 2009

Blue Revomaze

This Friday I received a Blue Revomaze, courtesy of John Devost from the puzzle library over at renegadepuzzlers.ca. Needless to say, I was quite excited: I had been considering purchasing this puzzle for almost a year, but never made the leap. I was worried that if I liked it, I'd end up really wanting to buy the rest of the series which would get pretty expensive at $120 each. The puzzle library is a great idea: borrow a puzzle from the library, solve it, and send it on to the next person who wants to borrow it.

I had played around with Rob Stegmann's copy of it a bit at Brett's house, but this is a very difficult puzzle and I didn't have nearly as much time as I needed. In fact, I didn't even figure out how to start the damn thing: I was just wandering around in one of the chasms that you can fall into.

Basically, it is a cylindrical maze that you navigate by twisting and pulling the core in and out of the blue sleeve. There is a spring-loaded pin that you navigate through the maze. Unlike your standard maze, thanks to the spring loaded pin, the maze has different heights. Once you fall off of a ledge, you have to return to the beginning to restart the maze.

Think of it as wandering blindfolded around a two story house with holes in the floor. If you fall through the hole, you need to walk back to the bottom of the stairs, climb back up, and start again. Of course, due to the mechanics of it, there aren't really holes...it is more like a crevasse that leads back to the start.

If this sounds completely uninteresting to you, you are right in thinking that this could be a very stupid puzzle if it wasn't well designed. The designer could force you to balance the spring loaded pin across a randomly winding pathway with chasms on both sides, but that would be way too hard. It is very well designed with just the right amount of tricky features.

It took me about 4 hours to solve it, though part of that time was while some friends were over at my place for dinner. Since I wasn't giving it my full attention, I screwed up a lot more than I should have. I got about 90% of the way finished before I had to go to sleep. This puzzle really requires concentration, dexterity, and patience, which I was running out of at 1:00 AM.

I woke up the next day at 8:30 in the morning (which is quite unusual for me on a Saturday), haunted by dreams of Revomaze. I scurried out to the living room in my pajamas and played with it for another 45 minutes or so and reached what appeared to be the end of the maze.

I expected it just to slide open once I reached the end, but there is an additional locking mechanism in place that keeps you from opening it accidentally, since it is easy to loose the small pins. You need to register the puzzle to receive instructions on how to disengage this mechanism, but I didn't have the patience for that (and it is John's puzzle to register, after all). I figured that as a puzzler, I should be able to figure it out. After a bit of fiddling, I was able to get it to open. (Note: be very careful when you open it, the pins are small and will fall out easily.)

It was very cool to see a physical manifestation of the maze that I had spent hours visualizing in my mind. I could see that damn spot that I fell off repeatedly. In addition, seeing the puzzle helped me understand better some of the tricks that the designer, Chris Pitt, used. It really plays nicely on the assumptions you start to make as you solve the puzzle. Very well designed!

I also really liked the way the maze had a fairly linear flow. There were dead ends, but they weren't too deep, so you didn't spend forever exploring and falling into traps just to find out that you were at a dead end. This makes it pretty easy to tell that you're making progress toward the solution, which makes the frustration much easier to bear. In fact, it makes it all the more addicting because it is very exciting when you progress to the next part of the maze. Each time you figure out how to move past a spot where you are stuck, you get a mini-"A ha!" moment (this is the drug that keeps puzzlers addicted).

I would be remiss to mention that the construction of this puzzle is exquisite! It has a very hefty weight to it and is milled out of solid metal, not cast. This makes it a very precisely crafted puzzle that will last forever.

I think my only complaint is that my fingers started to hurt after a while of manipulating this puzzle. You have to grip the hexagonal end of the shaft in order to manipulate it, and due to the tricky nature of the maze, a good grip is necessary. I pinched it between my thumb and the middle segment of my index finger. The joint on my right index finger got a bit sore.

I think the only solution to this would be to have a larger knob for gripping, which would have been nice. In addition, a larger knob would provide more leverage and let you control the pin more precisely (a larger motion of the knob would be required to move the pin and equivalent distance).

Unfortunately, I think this was not done for a number of reasons. It would require that the shaft be machined out of a larger diameter metal rod resulting in more waste and higher cost. Also, it wouldn't look quite as cool if it wasn't symmetrical. The left hand side needs to be small enough to fit through the hole in the shell.

The company does sell a plastic cap that you can push on to help you grip it, but I think I'd still end up squeezing the hell out of it and making my hand sore. I might buy one if I decide to purchase these puzzles for my own collection.

There are four more puzzles in the series, each harder than the last. This one is supposed to be more of a trainer to get you accustomed to how this type of puzzle works. I think the next one is supposed to be quite a bit more tricky! In each one it sounds like there are new elements to discover, such as one-way paths, it isn't just a more complex and frustrating maze.

I had a great time with this puzzle and would highly recommend it! A big thanks to John Devost and his puzzle library for making this review possible!

December 2, 2009

Cast Hook and Cast Medal

Last weekend I headed over to Eureka Puzzles & Games to look for some new puzzles. My girlfriend was away visiting a friend, so I had plenty of time to hang out for a while. When I walked in, I was greeted by a fellow named Mike who remembered me from the mechanical puzzles event that Eureka organized a few months ago. He said that he had been reading my blog, so "Hi Mike!" if you're reading this.

Mike was quite helpful and showed me a number of new puzzles that had arrived recently. There were two interesting puzzles from Hanayama that are actually not part of the Cast Puzzle series. They are part of a new series called Puzzle Gallery.

The first one was called Globe Ball: the goal is to take the puzzle apart and put it back together. It was designed by Vesa Timonen of Finland. It is similar to Vesa's design Tangerine, which won a three way tie for First Prize in the 2008 Puzzle Design Competition. This puzzle has an additional layer which makes it a bit trickier than Tangerine (I think, I haven't actually tried it). I was quite curious as to how it worked and ended up purchasing it.

For the sake of continuity, I'll tell you what I thought about it even though I'm going to continue telling you about my Eureka visit in a moment.

The construction of this puzzle is quite nice for a plastic puzzle. It comes on a black base that helps keep in from rolling away, which I appreciated. The plastics used are quite solid and smooth. This smoothness helps when manipulating the puzzle as well. The design for this puzzle is interesting; there are three layers with a red 'magma' layer as the inner core. I think it took me about five or ten minutes to solve it, but I really enjoyed the mechanics of it. Even once I had completed it, I took it apart and put it back together a few more times just for the fun of it.

I think the only downside to this puzzle is that you are working "blind" in a sense, so there is a bit of guesswork involved, even when you know how to do it. Some may like this because it adds to the difficulty, but it also makes it feel a bit random. Still, I really enjoyed this puzzle and am happy to have it.

Another puzzle that Mike showed me from the same series was called Dual Circle. This one was designed by Oskar Van Deventer and has a very cool mechanism. The object is to scramble the puzzle and return it to its solved state, so it is a twisty puzzle.

Each of the rings can rotate, but when it rotates, it also rotates the wedge of the other ring that is in its center. For example, if you rotate the blue ring clockwise, it would also rotate the wedge of the red ring that is currently in the center of the blue ring. I toyed around with this one for a bit and couldn't solve it, but didn't end up buying it. Maybe in the future! This one also has a nice stand for display.

Mike brought out another puzzle that he thought I might like: it was an assembly puzzle in the shape of pudding! It is named Glass Puzzle - Pudding. This was a display copy that was unpackaged and disassembled, so I couldn't help but give it a try. I had seen this type of puzzle before, where you have to put plastic food into a glass container, but I never really saw the appeal and had never tried one. They seem like they would be quite difficult given the irregular shapes of the pieces.

This one, however, I found to be quite enjoyable since the pieces had nubs and holes that you needed to line up. This made it a bit easier to keep track of what was going on, since there were only a finite number of positions that were possible. Both the top and the base also had nubs and holes. There are three layers, each of which has four pieces.

I worked on this one for maybe 15 or 20 minutes before I solved it. Woo hoo! It was quite satisfying when the last piece clicked into place. It is a nicely made little puzzle with an actual glass container which makes it a bit more classy, I suppose.

I hung out for a while longer and played with a few more puzzles and ended up buying two more Hanayama Cast Puzzles: Cast Hook and Cast Medal.

I worked on Cast Hook on the way home on the subway. It was also designed by Vesa Timonen (the same designer who made Globe Ball). It is a nice little puzzle but is not too challenging (1/6 on Hanayama's difficulty scale). It has a nice appearance with two identical pieces. The sharp angles at the ends of the pieces contrast nicely with the curvy loops on the other end.

It has an interesting movement that releases the pieces, but if you don't get it lined up quite right, the movement is not smooth. I think that it might have been better to use a smoother finish on the metal to keep things from jamming up.

Another cool aspect of this puzzle is that once you find the right movement, it doesn't immediately come apart. The hooks on the end get in your way! There is one more motion required to completely disentangle the pieces, which I thought was a nice touch.

I showed this one around a bit at Thanksgiving and most folks didn't have much trouble with it. Like with many puzzles, this one is actually a bit tougher to get back together than it is to take apart. Not too much so, though.

The other puzzle that I got was Cast Medal. It was designed by James Dalgety after the legend of the Ring and the Salmon, whose image appears on the coat of arms of Glasgow City. This looked like an interesting puzzle, so I was eager to give it a try.

I worked on it for about 30 minutes on the subway, after I finished Cast Hook, but didn't have much luck. When I got home, I continued to work on it, and eventually got it figured out, but the first half of the solution took a lot more force than is normal. I decided to check out the solution to see if I had solved it correctly.

Indeed, I did have the first half of the solution correct, but the gap in the ring was slightly too narrow, so I really had to pull it hard at some points. This was unfortunate, because I probably could have solved it quite a bit faster if this wasn't the case, since I was hesitant to use this much force at first. After using some pliers to open the ring up a bit, it worked much better.

I actually found a different solution to the second half that bypasses most of the holes. It did feel a bit odd when I was doing it, since I thought the holes would be used for something interesting. After seeing the actual solution, it is much more graceful. I like how it is reminiscent of a fish jumping out of the water.

Overall, a nice puzzle, despite my issues with the ring. If you are having trouble, try opening it up very slightly. If you open it up too much you'll just be able to pull it off the edge, so be careful. It wasn't too difficult, many of my family members were able to solve it, so I think the difficulty rating of 2/6 is appropriate.

Not sure what's coming up next, but it is bound to be interesting, so stay tuned!
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