January 26, 2012

Cast Donuts

Well, I finally got my hands on the latest Hanayama Cast Puzzle, Cast Donuts! My favorite puzzle store in the Boston area, Eureka Puzzles & Games, had them in stock briefly a month ago, but I moved too slowly and they sold out before I could get down there. Fortunately, they restocked recently so I called up to have them hold one for me, and I headed down there as soon as I could. David Leschinsky, the owner of Eureka, was there, and it was great getting a chance to speak with him.

Cast Donuts is a really cool looking puzzle: two donuts are linked together, and the goal is to separate them. You'll quickly see that each donut is made out of two pieces, making for four total pieces. This puzzle was designed by Vesa Timonen, the same designer who designed Cast LoopCast Hook, and Cast Square.

I played around with this one a bit on the subway ride home, and felt like I had a pretty good handle on how it worked. I thought I knew how it needed to come apart, now it was just a matter of getting things lined up correctly. In this way, it is similar to Cast Marble and Cast Rattle.

One downside to this puzzle is that you sort of need to pry the pieces apart a bit to see what is going on inside during this exploration phase (as well as when you're trying to get things lined up correctly). This got a bit tiresome, so it may have been nice if there were small marks on the outside to help you out. I'm not sure if that upside would have been worth the downside of marking up such a pretty puzzle though!

As it turns out, getting the pieces in the correct position was quite a bit trickier than I anticipated. At any moment, I figured I'd get it right, and it would come popping apart, but no luck! Eventually, I was able to get the darker pieces apart, but I managed to do so without getting the lighter-colored pieces apart. Since each darker half ends up being 3/4 of a circle, they both were still attached to the lighter donut! It turns out that this was an unintended "solution" if you use a bit too much force.

After a bit more fiddling, I was able to get the lighter donut to come apart as intended, which is quite cool movement. Seeing how it was intended to work, I really liked this one, though it loses some marks in my book for not preventing that accidental forcing better.

I'd say that the difficulty rating of this one is just about right. It took me about 30 minutes to solve it, but it could easily take less time if you happen to either be luckier or smarter about the alignment of the pieces. Oli and Kevin have both written about it (here and here, respectively), and they both made fairly short work of it.  I'd have known to avoid forcing it if I had read their entries, but I wanted to try solving it without any prior information.

Overall, Cast Donuts is a great new puzzle by Vesa Timonen! It looks beautiful, feels nice in your hand, and has an interesting solution. What more could you ask for?

January 5, 2012

M-Box

Recently, Jeff Chiou of MagicPuzzles.org was kind enough to loan me a few of his puzzles, one of which was M-Box by Hideaki Kawashima of the Karakuri Creation Group. Check out Jeff's review here.

This particular box was made available by lottery a few months ago (November, I think), which means that if you're interested in purchasing the box, you can enter your name in a drawing, and if you win you get to purchase the box.  This is the Karakuri's way of addressing the problem of too much demand for some of the boxes with limited availability. I was tempted to enter the drawing for this one, since it was pretty reasonably priced, but I think I forgot about it!

The panels of this box are arranged in what I'll refer to as the Cubi-style that was developed originally by Akio Kamei (I think). They have a nice brick pattern that has been cut into the surface of each panel.

Sometimes it can be tough to find out what the first move is on a puzzle box, but in this box, every panel moves! The vexing part is that after you let go, the panels spring back into their original position. Pretty puzzling! First I tried one hypothesis about how to open it, and that didn't work out, but in the process I discovered something that led me to the correct solution. I think it probably took me about 5-10 minutes, but this one could easily have had me going around in circles for quite some time, had I not had that flash of inspiration.

The solution itself is quite good, I like how it is fairly logical if you spend a little while understanding the box. One neat thing about the mechanism is that the springing was implemented with a combination of springs and magnets. I can definitely hear a spring in there, but when I open it up, I see magnets causing the springing action for at least one of the panels. It is pretty neat how you can't feel the difference.

Some may not like the springing-back aspect, but I found it enjoyable. Just watch out that it doesn't spring out of your hands! Overall, I really enjoyed this one!

January 4, 2012

2011 Karakuri Club Christmas Presents (Part 3)

This next Karakuri Club Christmas present was created by Tatsuo Miyamoto. His works tend to be mechanically quite unique, which is why I kept him on my list from last year. This puzzle box appears to be some kind of an water pump, oil pump, or something.

The horizontal bar teeters back and forth, and is attached to the two arms that go into the box. There is also a handle on the front that tilts from side to side. The note inside the package recommends playing with this puzzle on a table.

I was a bit stumped by this one at first, but came up with an idea for how it may work and ended up being correct. I think it could have quite easily have gone the other direction, and ended up circling around fruitlessly for a while testing incorrect theories. In all, it probably took me less than 5 minutes, but I think it could easily take quite a bit longer.

The solution is decent, but will probably be more appealing once I'm more clear on what this contraption is supposed to represent. It may be a device used in Japan which we're not familiar with here.

I tried for quite a while to find a second compartment, since there is definitely room for one. I did find something, but I'm not quite satisfied that it is correct. Once the solutions are published, we'll see if I was on the right track or simply chasing my tail. Contact me if you have this puzzle and would like to discuss.

Overall, a good puzzle. Some may not like the hidden nature of the mechanism, but I felt like there were enough clues to point you in the correct direction. Not my favorite of this year's puzzles, but still a good  puzzle box. It will be even better if there's a second compartment that I've missed!

Finally, we have a puzzle by Shiro Tajima that folks were eagerly anticipating. In 2009 he did a Tiger, and in 2010 he did a Rabbit, so this year we were expecting a Dragon (based on the Chinese zodiac) and weren't disappointed. Indeed it was a dragon, but somewhat abstractly so. I found the appearance of his previous two Christmas gifts to be more striking.

The first step took me a little while to find, but isn't too tricky and is pretty fun. After that, I had some trouble figuring out where to go next. There was one obvious thing to do, but that didn't quite work. After five minutes or so, it did open up, but I was unable to reproduce the result reliably. With a bit of fiddling, I could get it to open fairly quickly, but not 100% reliably. I shrugged it off and just figured the mechanism was fluky. However, when I was revisiting the puzzle a bit later, I found a way to get it to work 100% reliably, so I guess I was just not quite doing it correctly before. Still, I'd consider that a bit of a negative to the way the mechanism was implemented.

Closing it up can actually be a bit tricky if you haven't quite gotten the hang of how to get it to work reliably, but once you've got things in the right position, it closes smoothly. Folks may be tempted to force it at this point, but no force is required and could definitely cause some damage.

Overall, I think this is a good puzzle, though it has a few shortfalls. Still, I'm very glad to have purchased it in the hopes that Tajima continues this Chinese Zodiac series! Next year we can hope for a snake.

Neil wrote a blog entry about this puzzle as well, so check that out if you'd like to read more, but there are a few semi-spoilers.

That concludes my series of posts on the 2011 Karakuri Club Christmas Presents. Overall, I think Kawashima's box is my favorite, followed by Kamei, but the rest were quite good as well! I'm already looking forward to next year!

January 3, 2012

2011 Karakuri Club Christmas Presents (Part 2)

Up next in my series of posts about the 2011 Karakuri Club Christmas Presents, Akio Kamei. Kamei has been making puzzle boxes for quite a while and founded the Karakuri Creation Group, so it is always interesting to see what he comes up with! This year's puzzle was a real treat, I really enjoyed it.

It has a fairly simple exterior appearance, with grooves around all of the edges to make it a bit harder to tell what is going on. The first move isn't too hard to find, but you quickly realize that you're going to need to put your thinking cap on to solve this one. You could idly fiddle with it and figure it out eventually, but it is more likely that you'll just end up at a dead end and be confused.

After a bit of thinking, I figured out what needed to be done and solved this one in about five minutes. However, I like that I had to think about the mechanics of it for a bit. I think most folks should be able to solve this one in a reasonable amount of time (10-20 minutes), if they stick with it.

There are a few downsides to this puzzle, however: the movement was a bit stiff at times. This, combined with the width of the side panels resulted in a few scratches when I gave this to somebody else to play with. For less cautious puzzlers, it is easy to lose your grip and nick the finish with a fingernail, so I'll be warning people about that in the future. Still, that didn't detract much from an otherwise very good puzzle box. Overall, I'm quite pleased with it! This is one of my favorites this year.

Next up, my favorite box of the 2011 Christmas presents is by Hideaki Kawashima. I really enjoyed his Snake Cube last year, so was quite interested when I saw that this puzzle has a similar appearance.

Each side of this box has two panels, sometimes one dark panel and one light panel and sometimes all one color. It has a nice rotational symmetry to it.

It is relatively easy to find the first move and progress along quite nicely for a while. In fact, I got to the point where I thought that I must be done, but nothing would open! Quite puzzling indeed. After a bit of thought and trying things out, I figured it out! It cleverly takes advantage of a natural human tendency when playing with puzzles like this, which I loved. I think it took me a good 15 minutes, definitely longer than any of the others, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.

Non-puzzlers who I gave this to were pretty stumped, and it is a tough one to give hints on without giving it away entirely. Definitely more of a puzzlers puzzle, or something to give to a non-puzzler friend who is particularly adept. No real complaints about this puzzle, definitely check it out if you have the chance!

January 2, 2012

2011 Karakuri Club Christmas Presents (Part 1)

Christmas is my favorite time of year, most of all because it is the time of year when the Karakuri Creation Group releases this year's "Christmas Presents".  From January through June, Karakuri Club members can pre-order puzzles from their favorite Karakuri craftsmen, without knowing what the puzzle will be. This makes a nice little surprise each year!

Last year I ordered six (part 1, part 2, part 3), and that seemed like a pretty good number so I did it again this year. This year I got boxes from Hoshino, Iwahara, Kamei, Kawashima, Miyamoto, and Tajima, and was overall quite pleased with all of them! As usual, some are better than others, but none were disappointing. I'll review them in a three-part series over the next few days.

This first box was designed and made by Kyoko Hoshino, who usually incorporates fabric into her work. I added her this year because her work has been fairly interesting, and I like the idea of using different mediums in puzzle boxes. I was particularly impressed by her Wrapping Box puzzle from 2009, which consisted of a puzzle box that was permanently sealed enclosed in a fabric bag.

This year's puzzle is a simple box with a lid. On the lid is a padded fabric panel with a button in the middle. It uses a simple but satisfying mechanism that has been used before, but I particularly liked the way she used it here and incorporated the fabric. It is simple, even non-puzzlers are able to solve it in a few minutes, but there is a nice A-ha! moment that makes it enjoyable. When showing folks my boxes from this year, this is the one that I'll be starting them off with.

Some may not like this one due to its simplicity and the use of a fairly common mechanism, but I liked the execution, and the craftsmanship is very good. I'll definitely be looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next year.

Next up is one of my favorite puzzle box craftsmen, Hiroshi Iwahara. This year's box from Iwahara is quite similar to his Secret Base box from 2007. The appearance is quite nice, with laminated wood pieces on the top, and it has a nice heft to it.

The beginning and ending of the solution are the same as Secret Base, which was a bit disappointing. The one move than makes it different I found to be a bit fiddly, and furthermore is something I generally would discourage folks from doing with my puzzle boxes. As such, when I was showing it to people, I had to keep an eye on them and encourage them where appropriate, because many would not take the correct action for fear of damaging the puzzle.

Since I was familiar with Secret Base, this only took me a minute or two to solve, however folks who haven't seen Secret Base will find it a bit harder, though probably still solve it in under 10 minutes. As always, the craftsmanship is first-rate, but I wasn't thrilled with this one as a puzzle since it is so similar to another puzzle in my collection. Secret Base is an awesome puzzle, so it would be hard to do better with a puzzle along the same lines.
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