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 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 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!

November 30, 2009

More Bits and Pieces Puzzle Boxes

Despite my earlier experience with Bits and Pieces not having very good quality products, I was happy with the way they handled my issues and decided to place another order with them. I got six boxes: Secret Chamber, The Elegant Kamei Bow Box, Secret Rectangle Box, Eclipse Box, One Panel Treasure Chest, and Secret Enigma Box. Most of them were on sale, so they were even cheaper than usual!

Of these boxes, Secret Chamber was probably my favorite and the most challenging. It is based on a design by Jean Claude Constantin and made out of walnut and pine. I like the appearance with the decorative inlaid stripes along the outside. The knobs are quite inviting and make you wonder what they could do.

This box makes quite a racket when you tilt it back and forth and the lid will lift somewhat but not all the way off. I fiddled with this one for about an hour before I finally solved it. Unfortunately, it just sort of opened: I didn't find the 'right' solution. However, upon inspecting the mechanism I thought it was quite clever. It is based on a familiar principle, but with an added touch.

I brought all of these boxes to Thanksgiving and was surprised that somebody actually figured this one out. She had the same experience that I did though: it just opened after some fairly random rattling, though I did give her a hint that probably made her rattling more effective.

Unfortunately, somebody twisted one of the knobs a bit too hard and damaged the mechanism somewhat. I don't blame B&P for this though, I think it was a case of overly aggressive solving. No worries: a bit of glue should have it working good as new. Overall, I would say that this is a fun little box and is a good deal for the money.

The Elegant Kamei Bow Box is also quite cool. It looks pretty good with the light beech wood box contrasting with the dark bow. The inlays on the corners are a nice touch too. It was designed by Akio Kamei of the Karakuri Creation Group.

This one didn't take me too long to figure out, maybe five minutes or so, but it is a nice little box. There are two compartments that are released as solve the puzzle. I think it took a total of 8 moves to open it completely. My family enjoyed this one as well at Thanksgiving and didn't find it overly challenging. The hardest part for most people was closing it back up. If you don't follow the correct sequence, you can hit a dead end. I think most observant puzzlers won't have trouble with it though.

I was concerned that the bow might be fragile and easily ripped off, but it stood up quite well to a number of people playing around with it. This one is about twice as expensive as the others, but I think it is still a good value for the money.

Secret Rectangle Box was designed by Bob Janus and made out of beech and rosewood. It is quite small, about 3 inches long and one inch tall, but packs a nice little trick. It is also quite inexpensive, which is a good thing.

This one only took me a minute or so to solve, but I still found it enjoyable. It is fairly well made and it was pretty challenging to non-puzzlers without being too difficult. Most folks were able to get it open in about five or ten minutes.

At the price, I think it is a good deal. If it was much more expensive I would probably be annoyed that it didn't keep me busy for longer, but I can't really complain about a puzzle that they're selling for $10 (and I got it on sale  for $7). Not really a must-have, but a cute little box to add to your collection. [At the moment, it doesn't look like it is on their website anymore, so I have linked to the Google cache of the product page.]

Eclipse Secret Box is a nice looking box with a fairly simple mechanism. Some might find the fact that the box is painted in some areas objectionable, but the finish is smooth and it gives it a nice contemporary look. It is sturdily made and has a felt-lined interior, which would make it a decent hiding place for some jewelry.

The solution is one that I have seen before (on a site that indiscriminately shows pictures of boxes in open positions), so I think it is probably a 'classic' design since I was unable to find the name of the designer. It didn't take me long to solve it, but the movements were nice and smooth and the overall construction of the box was quite good for a mass-produced box. Since the solution is fairly simple, it wouldn't be a bad place to store something that you want to access fairly regularly.

My family had a fairly easy time with this one. Though some who were less good at puzzles were stumped for a few minutes, most were able to open it in under a minute. I think the low price, sturdy construction, and nice appearance would be enough for me to recommend this one, but don't expect it to be particularly novel or challenging.

One Panel Treasure Chest was pretty disappointing. The appearance is decent but not great and it has a light and flimsy feel. Unlike what you would expect from the photo and the description ("maybe the included set of keys will help"), the keys were actually locked inside the box. I worked on it for about ten minutes before I decided to have my girlfriend take a look at the solution to make sure that the keys were actually supposed to be inside the box.

She confirmed that they shouldn't be needed, and I asked her if she could open it. She tried for a few minutes, and didn't have any luck. Uh oh! I took a look to see what the solution was, and sure enough it didn't work! I kept trying harder, afraid that I was going to break the box, but eventually it broke free. It was stuck shut!

Now that it wasn't stuck shut, I could see that it was a ridiculously easy box. One might accidently open it when just picking it up! I showed it to some family members at Thanksgiving, and they all found it far too easy. "Oh, that's it?" was the common reply. Don't waste your money on this one! Even at the low price, it is pretty worthless. It is a shame, because the idea isn't bad. Bits and Pieces could have improved this box quite a bit by adding magnets so that a firmer hand was required to open it.

The last one, Secret Enigma Box, was probably the most disappointing since it looked quite cool in the pictures and had a neat name. Its appearance was indeed decent when it arrived, though some of the metal inlays on the corners were marred. What was really disappointing was that there was nothing particularly enigmatic about this box. In fact, the top compartment opens immediately, there is no lock! There is a secret drawer that one might overlook, but unlocking it is quite trivial. I didn't even bother bringing this one to Thanksgiving because it was so dull. Oh well!

In all, I was fairly happy with my order: none of the puzzles were broken (though one was a bit stuck), and four out of the six I thought were good value for the money. Two were duds, but at least they were cheap duds! I'll definitely continue to buy boxes from B&P, because they're quite reasonably priced. Let me know what you think of any of the currently available ones that I haven't mentioned so far!

Next up, I'll write about a recent trip to Eureka where I got a few new Hanayama puzzles.

November 24, 2009

Puzzles from Brett

As I mentioned in my last post, Brett Kuehner very kindly gave me several puzzles when I visited his house. I have been playing around with them for the last week or so and enjoyed them very much.

The first one I tried when I got home was the Super Floppy Cube. This is a 3x1x1 twisty puzzle where you rotate the edges. Unlike a normal Floppy Cube where you can only rotate the edges 180°, on the Super Floppy Cube you can rotate an edge 90°. This enables it to form a number of interesting shapes, as you can see in the picture.

This puzzle was designed by Katsuhiko Okamoto and won the 2009 Puzzle of the Year Award (Puzzlers' Award and Jury Grand Prize) at Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition at the International Puzzle Party.

I should mention that this puzzle is actually not licensed by Okamoto, it is a knockoff made in China, which is unfortunate. Currently, legitimate versions are not for sale, though they will be produced in 2010. Brett is planning to purchase the official version when it is available, since he knows it will be of high quality and support Okamoto's continued innovation.

The mechanism of this puzzle is quite fascinating. It seems almost impossible the way that a corner cube can seemingly attach itself to any edge cube. It is a fun toy just to play around with.

As a puzzle, it is actually quite easy. Due to the fact that you can rotate an edge 90°, you can move all the corners away from an edge and rotate that edge independently. This makes it pretty easy to solve, since (at least for me) orienting the edge cubes properly is the main challenge. Even an inexperienced puzzler should have a pretty easy time with this one, which I actually think is great. It would be a good introduction to this type of puzzle without being overwhelming. You can make it a bit more challenging by not permitting yourself to use the single-edge-twist move.

A puzzle designer named Richard Gain has set up a shop, microcubology, at, a website that allows you to upload 3D models that are printed and mailed to you. In his shop, as you may guess from the name, he has a number of tiny interlocking cube puzzles. Interlocking means that the puzzle will not fall apart easily (unlike a soma cube). Since Shapeways charges based on volume (literally the volume of the model printed), these tiny cubes are quite reasonably priced. Brett gave me three of Richard Gain's puzzles: World's Smallest Puzzle Cube, Primary Gain, and Happiness Cube #20.

As you can see from the photo, World's Smallest Puzzle Cube is very small (7.5 mm across). Of course, you could make one smaller, but this is probably about as small as you would want to go to have a puzzle you don't need tweezers to assemble.

This puzzle is about as complex as you can probably get with a 3x3x3 interlocking cube, but I didn't find it too challenging. Still, it was a lot of fun playing around with such a tiny puzzle. Once I got the hang of putting it together I tried doing it with my eyes shut, it wasn't too bad! Overall, a great puzzle for the money: only $2 since it is so tiny!

Primary Gain is a bit trickier with four fairly complex pieces. It forms into a cube that could contain 8 of the tiny cubes above, to give you a sense of the size. This is still quite small at 1.6 cm per side.

This one didn't take me very long, but I enjoyed solving it. One of the pieces is pretty large and the other pieces are pretty irregularly shaped, so each of the other pieces can only really fit with the large piece in one way. I liked this, because it really cuts down on the trial and error involved.

The tricky part is getting all the pieces together at once, since they tend to get in each others' way. It takes three moves to remove the first piece, two moves to remove the second piece, and three moves to remove the third piece. This is a great little interlocking cube and the first one that Richard Gain designed (hence the name).

Happiness Cube #20 was designed by Sekoguchi Yukiyasu and reproduced by Richard Gain under a profit-sharing agreement. This one is really tough: according to Richard it is currently the most difficult cube in his collection. Well, I like a challenge!

There are six pieces, and it takes 30 moves to completely assemble it. I started out just playing around with it, trying to figure out where the different pieces go. Much like Primary Gain, since the pieces are very irregularly shaped it wasn't too hard to figure out where they went. This step took me about 15-20 minutes. The hard part is figuring out how to get them together since it takes so many moves.

I found that it wasn't too difficult to get all but one piece into place, so I did that and then imagined how the last piece would interact with the other pieces if it was present. I restricted myself to only moves that would be valid if the final piece was present. This helped me get a better understanding of how the pieces interacted.

Next, I removed a different piece and follow the same procedure. Eventually, this enabled me to discover which piece is the last to be added to the cube (and how to add it), which is usually the hardest step in this type of puzzle. Whew, what a sense of accomplishment! I think it took me over an hour, so I was quite elated when I finally solved it.

Not content to leave well enough alone, I disassembled it and assembled it a few more times to really get a good idea of how it worked. This is definitely a very cool puzzle and totally worth it for the money, only $16! Check one out if you think you can handle a high-level interlocking puzzle.

Overall, I was quite surprised by how playable these puzzles were given their size. That said, I have fairly sharp eyes and dexterous fingers, so your enjoyment of them may vary. I like the way these cubes look like something out of a science fiction movie. It seems like they should be capable of powering my time machine or something.

The fifth puzzle Brett gave me was called Triadenspass by Logika. The idea is to fit the three pieces into the hexagonal base. This looks fairly easy at first, but it is actually fairly challenging due to the irregular edges of the pieces and the base.

Each piece can be rotated and flipped for a total of four orientations. It can fit in any of these four orientations into any of the six corners of the hexagon for a total of 24 possible location/orientation combinations for the first piece.

It is easy to just try all of these combinations, but a bit tricky to keep track of which you have tried since the pieces have no identifying marks. Also, more than one of the 24 location/orientation combinations works, so you then have to see if you can get the next piece in (which can fit 8 ways).

I'm not sure how most people approach this type of puzzle, but that's how I usually do it: brute force! Still, it was a fun little puzzle to solve. I think it took me about 10-15 minutes.

This puzzle is flat and has a cover, which is nice, so it is good to take with you on the go. Also, Logika makes their puzzles out of recycled plastics, which is a good thing.

The last puzzle that I tried was Caramel Cube Puzzle by Hanayama. While it might appear that the challenge is just to fit the caramel-colored blocks in the clear box, the actual objective is to pack them into the box such that when you shake the box, the pieces do not slide around. What is even more interesting is that you can accomplish this feat using all 15 blocks or only using 14, 13, or 12! I love puzzles with more than one challenge, since it keeps me busy puzzling for longer.

This puzzle was designed by William Strijbos of The Netherlands and won second place in the 1994 Hikimi Puzzle Competition under the name Anti-Slide (the photo on this page is a spoiler for one of  the 14 block solutions).

I was able to find the 15 and 14 block solutions without too much trouble: there are a number of different solutions that work. However the 13 and 12 block solutions have eluded me for the several days that I have been working on it. There is only one solution to the 13 block puzzle so that one will be particularly tricky to find. I'm going to keep working on this one! [Update: I found a 12 block solution! Woo hoo!]

You may be wondering about Nemesis Factor, which I mentioned that Brett loaned to me, but I'm still working on that one and will post it in its own entry.

Once again, a big thanks to Brett Kuehner for all the nifty puzzles. I had a great time working on them!

If any of you out in internet-land feel like loaning me a puzzle that you would like me to review, I'd be happy to do so. Just contact me! I still have some in my queue, but I'll be running out in a little while, depending on how productive I am.

Next up, I'll be writing about a bunch of Bits and Pieces boxes that I got. I had much better luck than last time!

November 23, 2009

Visit to Brett's House (Part 5)

Check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Another puzzle that I was excited to see was Secret Base by Hiroshi Iwahara of the Karakuri Creation Group. He also designed Acorn Box and Confetto box, which I mentioned in Part 3 and 4, respectively. Secret Base was one of the first place winners in the 2008 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition at the International Puzzle Party.

As you can see from the photo, this box looks great with a number of colorful and exotic woods. It is made from shiuri cherry, oak, zebra wood, rengas, keyaki (zelkova), and ancient katura. Each is finished beautifully and has a great depth.

I found the Iwahara's description to be pretty amusing:
The craftsman [Iwahara] often watched TV robot animation. When a bad enemy destroys the town and the peace of the people, the shutter of a secret base that is hidden under the ground opens and a robot of the justice comes out to save the peace. It was an exciting scene. The shutter is the motif of this work. There are two spaces inside.
What an interesting source of inspiration! It just goes to show that there are ideas for puzzles all around you, if you have an eye for it.

As Iwahara mentions, there are two compartments to this puzzle. The first is relatively easy to find, though the mechanism is very cool. If you'd like to see what it looks like open, check out the Karakuri section of Rob's Puzzle Page, scroll down to The Karakuri Club Christmas 2007, and click the button to open the boxes.

After the first compartment is open, you need to search for the second one. This one is a bit trickier which I think really makes this a great puzzle. Iwahara could have stopped after creating the unique mechanism for the first compartment, but the additional compartment gives it that extra bit of difficulty that I liked.

Next I decided to try Dona Dona by Shiro Tajima, since it has such an unusual appearance. I had seen it before on the Karakuri website and was curious as to how it worked.

One cool thing about this box is that it has a music box inside. You can wind it up by twisting the cow's head. To start playing the music, you pull the front and the back of the cow apart slightly. The music Dona Dona by Sholom Secunda plays while the cow's head turns slowly. Cute, eh?

Well that's not really the puzzle: the goal is to find the hidden compartment inside. I worked on this one for a little while but didn't have much luck. Brett and Rob ended up giving me the solution on this one because it required an excessive amount of force. Even knowing the solution, it was quite a challenge to get it open. I think Tajima could have used much less powerful magnets here. The puzzle itself is pretty cool, but this detail really ruins it.

At this point, we had been at Brett's house for almost five hours, so we needed to start thinking about hitting the road since I was hoping to visit a friend in Connecticut on the drive home. The last puzzle I attempted was Dovetail Jewel Box, which was Robert Sandfield's exchange gift at the 2003 International Puzzle Party. This was the last in the Sandfield's dovetail series, which I talked about a lot in this post.

As the last puzzle in the series, this one is quite clever. There a bunch of red herrings that play off of the different tricks that were used in the dovetail series: five of them, in fact! I kept thinking I was discovering something that might work, but it ended up being a red herring. Brett read me the first part of the solution, which was quite funny: it pretty much listed all the steps that I had tried and tells you to try them and then ignore them.

Eventually I did discover what I think is the first move, but unfortunately after about a half hour I didn't get any farther than that. As with many of the puzzles in this series, this is a pretty tricky. Hopefully I will have some time to attempt it again.

Well, my time at Brett's was coming to a close, so we started to get ready to leave. As we were leaving, Brett gave me six (!) puzzles: three small cube puzzles by Richard Gain, a packing puzzle by Logika, a packing puzzle by Hanayama, and a super floppy cube! I was beside myself with gratitude, these would surely give me many hours of puzzling enjoyment as well as new material for my blog. I'll be writing about the fun I had with these puzzles in an upcoming entry. Thanks Brett!

Brett also loaned me an extra copy he had of Nemesis Factor, the electronic puzzle invented by Ron Dubrens, who we met at the puzzle dinner the previous night. I was really excited about this, because it sounded like a very interesting puzzle. This one would definitely keep me busy for a while. I joked that I was going to have Kellian hold it while I was driving so I could work on it on the drive back. (Unfortunately, she didn't let me!)

Thanks again to Brett Kuehner for inviting me to his house and letting me play with all those great puzzles, as well as the puzzles he gave to me. Also a big thanks to Rob Stegmann for bringing a ton of interesting puzzles from his collection. I was completely thrilled by the whole experience and was literally grinning during the whole ride home. What an awesome trip!

November 20, 2009

Visit to Brett's House (Part 4)

Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

I'm going to lead off today's post with one of my favorite puzzles that I saw on this trip: Chopstick Box (a.k.a. Stickman #13) by Robert Yarger. I was really thrilled when Brett brought this out because I had never seen any of Yarger's incredible work in person.

Brett had the purpleheart and leapordwood version, which I thought looked amazing. The craftsmanship on this box is superb with no visible seams on the sliders. Even when I knew which piece moved, it was hard to detect any type of seam, incredible!

I solved this one fairly quickly, but what is amazing about this puzzle is the mechanism. Since the solution is fairly simple I'm going to describe the mechanism in some detail here. I won't give the solution precisely, but it might spoil it a bit for you if you try it in the future. Highlight the text below to continue reading, otherwise just be content to know that it is very cool:

There are two chopsticks contained in the box and a small hole on one end. You can see the first chopstick, but it won't budge when you shake the box. When you find the first move, the first chopstick pops out magnetically, which is quite amusing. I did this move a few times just for the fun of it. The second chopstick is magnetically attached to the other side of the box. When you locate the second move (which is a bit of a challenge due to the great craftsmanship), it jumps across the box to the other magnet with a 'click.' This magnetic transfer is very neat.

Overall, an awesome puzzle and it sold for only $125 when originally released! Man, I wish I was collecting puzzles back then. Approximately twenty-four copies of this box were produced.

I was also very excited to finally get to see a box by Kim Klobucher of Kcube Designs. His boxes are very unique looking with interesting woods and metal inlays, as you can see from the photo. Check his website for more pictures, mine is a bit blurry.

As far as I know, all of his boxes use a similar mechanism that relies on pins and grooves. Kim makes boxes with hundreds of moves, but I think the version that Brett had was about twenty or so. Personally, I think that's probably plenty. While I've never tried a box with hundreds of moves, I would imagine that it gets somewhat tedious and repetitive after a point, but I'll reserve judgment until I give it one a try.

I worked on this one for five or ten minutes and found the first few moves, but then I got stuck. I wish I could have spent a bit longer with this one, because I would imagine that it is doable within a reasonable amount of time. However, there were about 10 Karakuri boxes waiting for me, so I decided to move on. I definitely would like to purchase one of Kim's boxes in the future though.

The next puzzle I decided to try was Karakuri Cube Box #2, since I had #1, #3, and #4 (blog entry) and was curious about how #2 compared. If you're not familiar with this series, all of the boxes look the same, but with different colored woods. It is very cool to see how many different mechanisms they can pack into boxes that look the same.

I really ended up liking #2, though it only took me a few minutes to solve it, the mechanism was nice. I liked how it is sequential unlike the other boxes in the series, where the moves do not need to be performed in a specific order. This makes it a bit more challenging to find the first move, which I liked. I think this also makes it one of the harder puzzles in the series.

Of course, coming from the Karakuri Creation Group, the craftsmanship is superb. The fit was perfect, not too tight and not too loose. Overall, a solid buy for the price.

Rob suggested that I try Brett's copy of Confetto Box by Hiroshi Iwahara next, since he thought that I would enjoy it. This box won an honorable mention in the 2009 International Puzzle Party Design Competition

It is a fairly simple looking box, but the wood has a beautiful depth to it. I liked the way that the corners came together into a sort of spiral as well. Since all the sides look identical, it was quite easy to get confused and turned around.

Here is Iwahara's description:
There are two compartments inside. The two lids are opposite each other. As you slide the four plates, the two lids can open. The first plate is quite easy to open, but you'll have to think about the second one!
I started playing around with it; the movement was nice and smooth. After playing around with it for a little while, I discovered a very unique movement that I thought might be the key to finding one of the compartments. Eventually I was able to release one of the lids to reveal a compartment with a moon symbol. I'm not sure if this is the 'hard' one, but I think that it might be because the moves required were fairly unusual.

Unfortunately, when I tried to put the box back together to find the other compartment, I couldn't get it to close up completely. I find a puzzle that won't return to its starting state to be much harder to put down than a puzzle I can't solve to begin with, so I worked on this for the better part of a half hour, probably, with no luck. I felt quite bad since I hate leaving a puzzle like this, but Brett was very nice about it. Sorry, Brett!

Despite this difficulty, this was another one of my favorite boxes during this visit. I liked the fact that there were two compartments, and enjoyed the tricky move to reach one of them. It is a very nice box!

To be continued tomorrow!

Update: Check out Part 5!

November 19, 2009

Visit to Brett's House (Part 3)

Check out Part 1 and Part 2.

After lunch, we went back to the puzzles. Here is another shot of the puzzles Rob brought. One puzzle that I didn't mention earlier was Revomaze, which is the blue cylinder in the bottom left of the photo.

I had been tempted to buy one of these for quite a while. They are fairly expensive at about $120 each, but from what I have heard they are very cool puzzles. It is a hidden maze puzzle where you are trying to navigate a maze that is hidden inside the cylinder. It is tough though, because it is possible to 'fall off' the maze and then have to return to the start.

This is really one of those puzzles that you need to experience to fully understand, which is part of why I had never bought one before. Another reason is that there are five different types (not counting the limited edition ones), so once I get one I'm probably going to end up buying the whole set, which is a lot of money.

Still, it was a very cool puzzle. The weight of it is quite nice and the mechanism is very smooth and sturdy feeling. I played around with it for a bit, but even the easiest one is supposed to be quite difficult so I didn't have much hope of solving it. I definitely want one, but there are so many other puzzles I'd like to buy, it is hard to decide which!

Revomaze will be releasing plastic versions of these puzzles for much less, which is quite tempting. Early reviews are quite favorable, so I may just hold out for these. Unfortunately, they are not identical to the metal versions, but it sounds like they may be close enough that it is worth it to save some money. We'll see!

While I was puzzling away, my girlfriend was working on a few assembly puzzles that Rob had given her to try, since she tends to be better with assembly puzzles, but unfortunately she wasn't having much luck. To be fair, they were pretty tricky!

Brett and Rob decided that if she was having trouble with these assembly puzzles, perhaps she should try the one piece packing puzzle by Simon Nightingale. All you have to do is put the cube into the box, so how hard could it be? She took it from Rob and tried to place the piece into the box, but it just jumped back out again, much to her surprise. We all had a good chuckle at this.

A little while later, Brett's son Kai came by and Kellian showed him the puzzle in disgust, saying how she couldn't even solve this one piece packing puzzle. She handed it to him and he solved it immediately, placing the piece directly into the box without any trouble at all. Of course, Kellian was quite surprised and amused by this, and we all laughed about it for quite a while. The timing was perfect!

Just in case you're not familiar with this puzzle, there are magnets both in the box and in the cube. Unless you know the solution, the cube will pop back up due to magnetic repulsion. This clever puzzle won the 2001 Puzzlers' Award at the International Puzzle Party Design Competition. Bits and Pieces made a replica of it that was pretty inexpensive, but it is no longer available.

At around this time, Brett started to bring out some of his collection. I had no idea what to expect, but I was thrilled when he brought out box after box of amazing puzzle boxes! I should have know he was a puzzle box nut, because Matt Dawson was the one who introduced me to him.

I started out with Acorn Box, by Hiroshi Iwahara of the Karakuri Creation Group. It was very nicely crafted with a cute little acorn on the top. I had seen this puzzle before on the Karakuri website and was interested to give it a try since Iwahara's description was intriguing:
This box opens with only one move. The cover rattles. But, the cover doesn't open even when you pull it up or turn any points of the box. It was unveiled at an exhibition that was held in Feb. 2008 by the craftsman and Mr. Ninomiya. At the exhibition, a customer who experienced Karakuri for the first time opened it very quickly, but a veteran of puzzles needed 30 minutes. This caused a lot of laughter!
This sounded interesting, because it means that the solution was probably something that is atypical for a puzzle box, so a puzzle box expert might not expect it, but was something that one might try to do if you weren't familiar with puzzle boxes. I wondered which category I fit into at this point!

I played around with it for a bit, and as Iwahara mentions, the lid rattles like it is loose, but doesn't come off. This was nice because it sort of draws you in since it feels like it is almost ready to open. This is in contrast to many boxes which appear quite impenetrable at first.

After a few minutes I figured out the trick: it is indeed pretty simple but I was quite surprised and amused when I found it. Kellian also gave it a try and was able to figure it out after a few minutes. Not too challenging, but a nice little box! It is currently available on the Karakuri website for $55 (including S&H!) which I think is a pretty good deal.

Next I decided to attempt Portable Pen Puzzle Box by Eric Fuller. I was dazzled by the beautiful wood used on the lid and thought that it might not be too challenging given its size. The box contains a pen made by John Devost.

The first few moves were simple enough, the typical way that a sliding panel puzzle box works. However, then I got stuck! I thought that the mechanism probably involved whacking the box in some manner, but I didn't want to whack it too hard because I could hear the pen bouncing around and didn't want to damage it. I would imagine that Eric probably thought of this, but it still made me nervous so I ended up giving up on this one. I hate giving up, especially when I feel like I'm close, but there were so many other puzzles to try.

So many puzzles to write about...continued tomorrow!

Update: Check out Part 4!

November 18, 2009

Visit to Brett's House (Part 2)

Check out Part 1 if you're just joining us.

Among the puzzles that Rob Stegmann brought over to Brett's was his collection of trick bolts, which Rob says are one of his favorite groups of puzzles. Rob has found a nice wooden book box that he uses to house part of his collection: he cut foam to fit the interior and keep the bolts from clanging around.

I had seen these on his website before and always thought that they would be interesting. The concept seems so simple, but he has over twenty five of them, most of which have different mechanisms!  I was quite eager to see how they worked, so I decided to tackle a few of these next.

As you can see from the photo, there were a ton of them, so Rob was kind enough to suggest a few of his favorites that weren't going to stump me for the rest of the day. I started off with One-L-Nut by Rocky Chiaro. He hand-machines each of these out of solid brass, which I love. As far as I'm concerned, there are few things more badass than machining puzzles out of metal. I would love to learn how to do this. Here is Rob's complete collection of Rocky's Trick Bolts:

One-L-Nut wasn't too difficult, but it was a nice little puzzle that was very well made (far left in above photo). The goal is to remove the nut from the bolt, but when you try to turn it it doesn't come off. Next I tried Dub-L-Nut (2nd from the left), which was quite a bit trickier. You can see it disassembled on the left, but I don't think it'll do you much good! I am quite amazed at the precision with which Rocky produces these puzzles. Very nice work!

I tried One-Wa-Sure next (third from the left), which was also quite cool. This one was about the same difficulty as One-L-Nut. I was starting to get the hang of these, so I figured it out pretty quickly. I would have loved to work my way through his whole collection, but many other puzzles awaited, so I decided to move on.

The next puzzle that I attempted was "Irmo" Box designed and made by Eric Fuller. It was one of the First Prize winners in the 2008 International Puzzle Party Design Competition, so I had seen this box many times before online and always wanted to give it a try. Jerry Slocum confirmed that this mechanism is completely unique, so I was very curious to see how it worked.

First off, Irmo Box is beautifully crafted. The wood has a great depth and color to it, and it is nicely accented by the light inlays on the edges. On the bottom, there is an inscription that would probably have helped me out a bit if I could figure out what it said. The font was a bit hard to read and with so many other puzzles to try, I didn't take the time to decipher it.

I futilely tried all the usual things that one would try when working on a puzzle box, but I wasn't optimistic because the mechanism is supposed to be different than anything else I've seen. I did discover a few moves, but was unable to make any progress. Rob kindly offered to show me how it worked, but I declined. Hopefully one day I will have the chance to solve this one for real!

Another puzzle that I knew I had to try was Kagen Schaefer's Maze Burr. This puzzle won the both the Puzzler's Award and the Grand Prize in the 2006 IPP Design Competition. It was quite exciting that I got the opportunity to give it a try! This is another puzzle that I have drooled over for quite a while.

The cool thing about this box is that the movement of each face of the cube is controlled by the 'runes' carved on the plates on the outside. After taking the box apart, you can rearrange the plates in a ton of different ways to make a new puzzle with a different solution.

Another very cool thing about this puzzle is that the black frame completely disassembles, so it is both a burr and a box in some sense. Definitely check out Kagen's site for more info and pictures of this puzzle. Very cool!

Ok, enough raving, on to my experience with the puzzle. I had a great time trying to figure this one out. Rob said that it was currently configured in its default configuration. I shifted the panels around and started to figure out how the different pieces interacted. Before seeing it, I didn't really understand the mechanics of how the panels slid, so it was great being able to try it firsthand.

I think it took me about 15 or 20 minutes, but I was able to remove one of the rune panels and open the box, which was quite satisfying. It is very well made and definitely a joy to work on. My only gripe is that the fit was a bit loose: this made it easy to accidentally make a move (or undo a move you just made), because the panels could slide under their own weight. Overall, though, this is an awesome puzzle that I would buy in a minute if it was ever on sale for a reasonable price (fat chance).

I think it was about at this time that Brett was kind enough to whip up some lunch for us, which was great. I was barely able to tear myself away from the puzzles, but I figured I could use the brain fuel!

Continued tomorrow!

Update: Check out Part 3!