September 27, 2010

Gordian Knot Puzzle Box

I recently purchased Robert "Stickman" Yarger's latest work, Gordian Knot Puzzle Box (Stickman #22). Robert is one of my favorite puzzle box craftsmen, but this is the first of his Stickman series that I have purchased. You can see photos and descriptions of Robert's amazing work at Jim Strayer's Puzzling Art Gallery.

I was intrigued by Robert's description of Gordian Knot:
The Stickman Gordian Knot Puzzlebox is comprised of a random latticework of over 130 intricately cut and intertwining exotic wood pieces.  The puzzle requires a minimum of at least 36 various steps of sliding, disassembling and reassembling puzzle parts within the box in order to reach its single hidden compartment. The puzzle measures 3 x 3 x 3, and is limited in edition to only 28 handcrafted pieces.
I was particularly intrigued by his statement that it would require "disassembling and reassembling puzzle parts" to solve the puzzle. This seemed to suggest that some kind of tools would be discovered, which I always enjoy in a puzzle. I could hardly wait to give it a try!

I had it delivered to my office, but unfortunately it arrived on Saturday when there was nobody to sign for it and had to wait until it was delivered again on Monday. It arrived on Monday around lunchtime, so I spent my lunch trying to figure it out.

As I unpackaged it, I marveled at the precision with which it was crafted. The box is only 3 inches square, with the pieces crafted out of 1/4 inch stock. The pieces have been milled into a number of interesting interweaving shapes, with the smallest thickness at 1/16th of an inch.

Its appearance is somewhat similar to the metal puzzles made by GarE Maxton. Unlike Maxton's work, which typically has a smooth exterior, this puzzle has a lot of concave nooks and crannies. I had a great time with The Labyrinth by GarE at the Rochester Puzzle Picnic, so I was hoping for a similarly enjoyable experience here.

It is crafted out of a ton of different woods: maple, wenge, mahogany, leopardwood, yellowheart, paduk, montechello, bloodwood, bass, and poplar. The menagerie of different colors gives it a chaotic look that is quite disorienting and leaves your eye no place to rest.

After admiring it for a bit, I set my self upon solving it! I turned the puzzle over in my hands trying to find a logical place to start, but couldn't find anything. I randomly started wiggling pieces to try to figure out what moved. Some pieces would move slightly, presumably part of the solution later, but not the starting point. I tried to figure out what pieces these pieces could be interacting with in order to hopefully follow the path back to the beginning, but that also proved fruitless since the interactions were so complex.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the correct piece and pushed it in the correct direction. A satisfying "click" was my reward as it slid to the end of its path. Ok, so that was the first move out of 36! Now that I found the first move, I was able to progress more rapidly, since I could hone my search in on the pieces that could be effected by the last piece that moved. That sounds straightforward, but sometimes a piece would unlock multiple other pieces, which made it more difficult to understand where to go next.

After about seven steps I came to a dead end: none of the pieces near the last piece that I had moved would move. I was quite puzzled for a while, as I retraced my steps trying to figure out where to go next. After some more random searching, I found about five new moves but again hit what seemed to be a dead end!

I studied the way the pieces had moved so far, and was able to logically determine that a certain piece would move in a particular way. I worked my way backwards a few steps from there and discovered the step that I had been missing. It is was pretty tricky, very nicely designed!

Since I had been studying the pieces fairly closely to determine this next step, I was able to progress through the next bit fairly quickly. There is another interesting trick along the way, but I had discovered it earlier so it didn't slow me down much.

I knew that I was getting close to the end, but I got stuck for one last time right near the end. There was one more sneaky little move that took me a while to figure out. The final move is quite clever, though I can't really go into any detail on it. It is very cool though!

At last, I had it open! It took me about 30 minutes to solve it, which was perfect for me. I was a bit puzzled at a few points, but I was able to overcome each challenge without getting too frustrated. I think most puzzlers will take somewhere in the 30-60 minute range. I think non-puzzlers would find this to be quite difficult, but enjoyable.

One thing that I haven't mentioned is the "disassembling and reassembling puzzle parts" that Robert mentioned. I deliberately excluded this from the description of my solving experience, since I didn't want to give too much away about this part. This part of the puzzle is indeed quite clever, though I didn't find it too tricky to figure out. The reassembly part is not entirely necessary, but it makes one step a bit easier.

I didn't find it too tough to close the box, it probably took me about 5-10 minutes the first time. I had a pretty good understanding of how it worked since I'd just taken it apart. Still, it is possible to get tripped up and forget which pieces must be moved first.

I had such a good time with this box that I proceeded to re-solve it several more times. To give you an idea of the length of the solution, even now that I have the hang of it, it takes me about a minute to open. Closing it takes about the same about of time.

Overall, this is a really awesome puzzle, though there were a few areas where I thought it could have been improved. The craftsmanship is very good but not quite perfect. A number of the joints have small gaps, but this is not surprising since the box is very complex. There was one spot where a piece needed to be lifted a bit to make it slide over an small ledge. One piece sort of flops out of place in an unintended way, which could tempt the solver to pry it up.

It is quite tempting to use your fingernails to help slide the pieces in a puzzle like this, and I'll admit that I resorted to it a few times. In the solution booklet, Robert actually has pointed out suggested spots to stick your fingernail. I tried solving it again without using my nails at all, and it is indeed possible, though tricky at spots. However, when I first solved it, it was hard to tell if a piece was stuck or if I just wasn't able to supply enough force by friction alone. Because of this, I'll be a bit more cautious letting folks try this one out, since it would be easy to accidentally damage it this way.

The solution sequence is really quite ingenious, it is quite surprising the way some of the pieces are related and definitely keeps you guessing. I'm quite happy with this puzzle and very glad that I splurged a bit and bought one. Robert Yarger is always coming up with interesting new boxes, and this one is certainly no exception. I can't wait to see what he'll come up with next!


  1. Brian,

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. Welcome to the Stickman Collector's Club! Beware, once you are sucked in it, you'll never get out!!

    2. Really? You solved it already? Dude. I found three moves and got stuck. In my defense, I've had half a bottle of wine and two other new acquisitions to distract me.

    3. Excellent review. Keep up the good work!

  2. Okay that's it...I'm going to check my mailbox again!

    Excellent blog ;)

  3. Hah, thanks Jeff! Glad you liked the review! I'm definitely hooked and already looking forward to what's coming next. Good luck with the solving!

    Thanks John! Hope it arrives soon! You must be quite eager to check it out for yourself!

  4. Took me far longer to solve than 30 minutes...
    I was stuck at several points, but actually finishing it is so cool. One of the most satisfying puzzle-box opens I have had...

  5. This is already my favorite Stickman puzzle (but I have only tried two others), I had a lot of fun solving it! It is not terribly difficult as there are not a lot of dead ends, but it is a lot of fun searching for the next move.


Please don't post spoilers! Thanks for commenting!

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