January 28, 2010


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of trying one of Jerry McFarland's newest creations, Pinwheel, designed by Bram Cohen. John Devost recently added it to the puzzle library over at RenegadePuzzlers.ca and was kind enough to loan it to me.

As you can see, it is a beautiful looking puzzle. It has gone through several design iterations by Bram, which you can read about on the Pinwheel section of Jerry's page. A smaller, laser cut version of this puzzle was used as Bram's exchange puzzle for IPP29.

The version I tried did not have the contrasting woods laminated together like in this picture (all photos are by Jerry). Rather, alternating pieces were made completely out of light or dark woods (I think cherry and walnut), which gives it a striking appearance.
It is made of six identical and quite oddly shaped pieces. I was surprised that it was a bit of a challenge to take it apart. I knew it was a coordinate motion puzzle and just assumed that all the pieces would slide apart fairly easily. Not so! Some manipulation is required before the pieces will slide apart.

It took me a minute or two to figure it out, but I could imagine that it could potentially take quite a bit longer. I just had an instinct about what to do, and it turned out to be correct. My girlfriend was pretty stumped by it, so it is definitely not a trivial puzzle. She also really liked the appearance.

Even after solving it, I had a great time just playing around with the pieces, taking it apart, and putting it back together. There are two dead-ends that you can reach while trying to disassemble it, though I didn't hit these during my attempt to solve it, my girlfriend did.

I think one of the coolest things about this puzzle is the way it was constructed. Jerry machined each piece out of a solid block of wood using a CNC milling machine. How cool is that? I wish I had one and knew how to use it!

Overall, this is a great puzzle that I would recommend. Jerry hasn't set a price yet, but when he does, you can contact him to buy it [Update: the price is $225]. I'll be bringing it down to the New York Puzzle Party in February so other folks can check it out.

Thanks to John Devost for making this review possible! Coming up next, I'll be reviewing some puzzle boxes I got from Bits and Pieces.

January 27, 2010

John Devost Hex Stick Puzzles

Back in November on the RenegadePuzzlers.ca forum, I was engaging in a lively debate about whether or not Robert "Stickman" Yarger should consider having one of his designs mass produced by Bits and Pieces. Being a cheapskate, I was advocating that he should in order to allow more people to appreciate his brilliant designs. Of course, the opposing point of view is that the quality of their puzzles is quite terrible, and it would be unfortunate to butcher such a nice design.

John Devost was commenting on the sloppy precision of their version of Stewart Coffin's Four Color Hexsticks, which they sold under the name Starbust Puzzle. As you can see from the picture (and as John pointed out), the gaps are quite large.

I replied that for $10 this was fine with me, but John said not waste my money on it and offered to loan me his copy of Four Color Hexsticks as well as three other hex-stock puzzles he had built! Well, of course this was an offer that I couldn't refuse!

When I received them, I decided to try Four Color Hexsticks first. This puzzle is described here in Stewart Coffin's book The Puzzling World of Polyhedral Dissections (online for free here). There are two types of pieces in this twelve-piece puzzle: nine with two notches and three with three notches. These pieces can be assembled into an interlocking structure in three different ways.

As Coffin notes, when constructed out of four different colors of wood such that the three notch pieces are all the same color, two of the three solutions can have an interesting color symmetry. In the first solution the colors are rotationally symmetrical and in the second solution pieces of the same color are parallel.

I had a lot of fun playing around with this puzzle and the craftsmanship is superb. It is made out of Benge, Wenge, Purpleheart, and Lacewood and looks gorgeous (photo by John). John Devost has a "triple-buffing" process that gives the pieces a great shine and durability. The fit was perfect! I could definitely see how the Bits and Pieces version could make you shudder when you are striving for this level of perfection!

As a puzzle, this is great because the three solutions are of varying levels of difficulty. The first one I found without too much trouble. It was the first thing I could think of to try and it ended up working.

The second solution was a bit more difficult, but due to Coffin's note about the pieces of the same color being parallel in this solution, it was quite a bit easier than I think it would have been otherwise. The third solution eluded me for a little while, but after playing with the other puzzles that John sent me, I was able to figure it out as well. Overall, a fun puzzle!

The next one I tried was Gamex, which John said was one of the easier of the four. It was made out of wenge, which is a beautiful dark wood (photo by John). It is a Bill Cutler design.

I didn't find it too challenging after having done Four Color Hexsticks: the pieces are quite similar with one minor difference that restricts it to only one solution. Unlike Four Color Hexsticks, Gamex has no redundant notches, so the final assembly is solid.

Next, I attempted Hextasy which is a design by Ronald Kint-Bruynseels. I was a bit confused by this one at first, since the prior two puzzles came apart into twelve notched sticks I assumed that the pieces must have gotten stuck together accidently.

I tried to pull them apart for a bit before I realized that they were supposed to be glued together (I'm sure John is cringing reading this). Oops! Fortunately they were very well glued!

It is a nice looking puzzle made out of African Avodire and comes apart into six pieces (photo by John). There are three pairs of identical pieces. Interestingly, all of the twelve sticks that make up the pieces are identical. One pair contains just one stick each, one pair contains two sticks each, and one pair contains three sticks each. A very elegant design!

I didn't have too much trouble solving this one, and ended up discovering two solutions that are slightly different. I think it took me about 10-15 minutes, but I was getting the hang of these puzzles due to my experience with Four-color Hexsticks and Gamex. As Ronald said, this puzzle is a "demonstration of the fact that the good old familiar puzzles still have some things hidden inside."  This was his 2009 entry into the Puzzle Design Competition.

Finally, I attempted the hardest of the bunch, Hectix Revisited, by Bill Cutler. It is made out of lacewood and like all of these puzzles made by John, the construction and fit is superb! (photo by John)

Since I wanted to solve this difficult puzzle with no additional information, I had my girlfriend disassemble it for me. It indeed quite difficult and was designed to be so! Bill mentions on his website that he looked for a set of pieces that would satisfy the following conditions:
  1. Use as many different pieces as possible
  2. Only one solution
  3. Many assemblies
  4. As difficult to disassemble as possible
Of these conditions, I think #1 and #2 were the biggest factors in making it difficult, since there were so many different options for the placement of a given piece, only one of which was correct.

I played around with this one for many hours, probably approaching 10 or so. I kept going around in circles and couldn't figure out what to do with one piece that was particularly tricky to place. (I just noticed now that this is the same piece that makes up all of the pieces in Hextasy, I wish I had noticed this before!) I had a hypothesis for how it needed to assemble, but I couldn't quite figure it out.

Eventually I yielded and asked John for a hint. When giving me the hint, John mentioned that he and Stewart Coffin also needed a hint from Bill, so I didn't feel too bad. After getting the hint, I could see that I was pretty close. Due to the many hours I had already spent on it I was able to finish it up in about 10 minutes with this additional info. Phew! It was quite a relief to finally have this one back together.

Of the four, I think Hectix Revisited was my favorite. Four-color Hexsticks is a close second, I really like the multiple solutions, but it doesn't come together quite as nicely because there are three redundant notches in the design to facilitate the multiple solutions. Hectix Revisited has exactly as many notches as are necessary, which gives it a snugness that I liked. Plus, it was a real challenge!

A big thanks to John Devost for loaning me these puzzles, I had a great time with them. He is an excellent craftsman!

January 20, 2010

Bronze Revomaze

I was able to give the Bronze Revomaze a try thanks to John Devost's puzzle library over at RenegadePuzzlers.ca. This is the third puzzle in a series of five. Check out my blog entry about the Blue Revomaze for more information about this series of puzzles. I also have a review of my experience with the Green Revomaze.

This one turned out to be a real beast, as I expected (and hoped!) The folks on the Revomaze forum say that this puzzle takes the concept to a whole different level, and they were right. I spent probably close to 10 hours working on this one, which is more than double what the previous two took.

At first, I was going along at a fairly good clip and exploring the various paths at the beginning of the puzzle. The first thing that struck me is that this one is the first in the series that isn't simple to reset. There is a trap near the beginning that is a bit of a challenge to get out of. After a while, I understood that tricky area fairly well, but couldn't figure out how to proceed. It seemed like every possible avenue had been explored, and I was just coming up with dead ends.

After being stuck for a few hours, I perused the Revomaze forums a bit and saw that people who were having trouble were told to look for a hint hidden on the website. Since I was stuck for a while, I decided to see if I could find the hint. I was able to find it without too much trouble and I was quite delighted by what it implied: the Bronze really is a tricky puzzle!

With this hint in hand, I was able to figure out how to proceed, but almost immediately afterwards I got stuck again! Everything I tried ended in a trap, so I gave up for the night and went to bed.

The next morning, I was able to find the way forward (it is quite sneaky!) and progressed quite a bit further. After making some more progress, I again got stuck at a very tricky spot near the end and needed to take a break for a while. Later that day, I worked on it again and was finally able to figure out what was going on and solve the damn thing.

Phew! As far as puzzles go, this one is a real marathon: I felt completely exhausted and satisfied when I finally finished it. The first two are very hard, but are possible with enough effort. This one I think many people will find too difficult and quit. I am a bit concerned/intimidated as to how difficult the Silver and Gold will be! I have heard that people are spending 50+ hours on the Silver one, so it is sure to be an incredible challenge.

In conclusion, I'd say that the Bronze is my favorite of the bunch so far. It is more clever and less frustrating than Green. Even though it is probably too difficult for many people, it is quite ingenious and well designed. Definitely try one of the earlier ones before you tackle this, or you'll end up chucking it through a window.

I love how these puzzles really play on your assumptions and make you think outside the box to come up with a solution. That, and they transport your focus into this unseen world within the Revomaze where you gradually develop an understanding of how the puzzle is laid out. I still haven't written down any maps for these: I find that I end up travelling through the maze so many times that I develop a pretty clear mental picture of it. It is quite an experience!

A big thanks to John Devost for making this series of reviews possible!

To read another review of the Bronze Revomaze, check out Oli's blog entry here.

January 16, 2010

My Puzzle Nemesis Vanquished!

Well those of you who have been following my blog for a while will know that I have been struggling with Dick Hess's Yak for about a year now. In fact, I wrote about it way back in my fifth blog entry (I am up to #70 now)! I bought it from Eureka on the recommendation of David, the owner, back in December of 2008. He warned me that it was quite difficult, but I figured I could handle it.

It turns out that I could not handle it, and I worked on this damn puzzle on-and-off for a year. I even bought other Dick Hess puzzles of the same variety in the hopes that they would give me some insight: first The Whale (left) in September 2009 and then Brontosaurus (below) in January 2010.

Well thanks to solving these two puzzles, I was finally able to solve The Yak! And it was every bit as satisfying as I hoped it would be. The solution is very tricky due to the many futile things that you can do while trying to solve it. I kept thinking I was discovering a key move that would help, but then it would lead to a dead end.

They are all nicely crafted puzzles: The Yak that held up very well to the many hours I spent working on it. The wire is a nice gauge that resists forcing but is still light and elegant. The finish still has a great shine to it.

While The Yak is an awesome puzzle, I'd definitely suggest trying out The Wale and/or Brontosaurus before trying this one. Even though Brontosaurus is rated a 10/10 difficulty, the same as the Yak, I found it to be quite a bit easier. I think The Whale took me about 30 minutes and Brontosaurus took me about 45 minutes.

The Whale helped me understand what the pre-solve state of this group of puzzles looked like, since there weren't very many options for how to proceed other than to discover it. This helped focus my attention and is why this puzzle is a bit easier than the others. Still, I think most people would find this fairly challenging. I wish the key move was slightly easier to execute on this one: I felt like I needed a very small amount of force at one point, but I may have not been lining it up quite right.

The Brontosaurus is quite similar to The Whale and now that I know how to solve it, I am surprised at how long it took me to figure it out. The move is not that tricky once you've done The Whale. Perhaps I wasn't focused enough or in the right frame of mind at first.

All three are related to a topological construct named Borromean Rings, where three rings are linked together but removing any one ring will unlink the remaining two. When you look at each of these three puzzles, you will notice that none of the pieces are actually linked directly: each component is linked completely around another component, much like this diagram.

This, at least for me, made these puzzles quite confounding at first. They seem to thwart you at every turn until you think logically about how to approach them. I would highly recommend all of them!

Well this entry is a little out of order: there are a few items in my backlog at the moment, but I was so thrilled to have finished it that I wanted to write it while I was still in the moment. Woo hoo!

January 13, 2010

Bird In The Nest and Mini Secret Box

Two of the puzzles I got for Christmas from my parents were Bird In The Nest and Mini Secret Box from Bits and Pieces. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Bird In The Nest is a puzzle by Vladimir Krasnoukhov and James Dalgety that was an entry in the 2007 Puzzle Design Competition at the International Puzzle Party. I really didn't know what to expect from this puzzle, because it was unlike anything I had seen before. The object is to free the bird from the nest.

I fiddled around with this for a while before I started to understand how the pieces were interacting. Eventually I was able to remove the bird, but I continued and took the rest of the puzzle apart and tried to put it back together. In all, I think it took me about 10-20 minutes to solve this one.

However, due to the imprecision of the construction, the pieces that should be identical are not actually interchangeable. If you don't put the pieces back where they came from, the seams can look pretty ugly, and it also makes it more obvious which pieces of wood are connected.

Despite this, I was overall quite satisfied with the quality of this puzzle, though the beak of the bird is quite fragile and was chipped a bit. I would just suggest keeping careful track of the locations of the pieces when you disassemble it, and perhaps numbering them to avoid confusion. That said, trying to figure out which piece goes where is a puzzle in itself, even though it wasn't intended to be!

For the price, this is a nice little puzzle! I had a good time with it as did the other folks that I have showed it to. Due to the somewhat fragile nature of the edges of the pieces, I would be hesitant to have folks who might be careless play with it unsupervised.

Mini Secret Box was designed by Doug Engel. I put this one on my 'wish list' because Jeff Chiou mentioned that it was simple but clever and that his wife really likes it. Plus, it is quite inexpensive!

The quality of this puzzle is fairly good, though I found the mechanism to be a bit stiff. When I was solving it, I wasn't sure if I was breaking it. This feeling was common among folks that I showed it to at Christmas.

This one took me maybe 1-2 minutes to solve, and the folks that I have shown it to only took a few minutes to solve it as well. This is a bit too simple for my taste, but it is a good starter puzzle to show to people who don't have much patience.

Still, the price is great and the solution is clever, so I would still recommend this puzzle. Just don't expect it to keep you busy for too long!

January 7, 2010

2009 Karakuri Club Christmas Presents

The Karakuri Creation Group is a group of puzzle box craftsmen and craftswomen who are producing some of the most interesting puzzle box designs you can find. They have an interesting business model where you can pay an annual membership fee of $120 that allows you to purchase KCG boxes at a discount and receive a free Christmas present from the craftsman of your choice. In addition, you can buy extra presents for $100 each, which is a great deal considering the high quality of KCG's boxes.

These are new designs that haven't previously been released to the public, no you have no idea what you're going to get, which is kind of fun. It is also an interesting model for the craftsmen to work in, because they have the freedom to design what they want with the preorders already in place. Of course, you can also buy directly from them without a membership.

I got three boxes this year and had them shipped to my office, since I was concerned that they might be stolen from in front of my apartment. When they arrived, I told myself that I was going to pace myself and only solve one per day.

When they arrived, I took them all out of their packaging so I could admire them. The first box that I examined was a cute little anteater by Yoko Kakuda (I had requested Ninomiya but they ran out). When I looked at it, I immediately thought to myself "man, I'm going to be really disappointed if all you have to do is ________," and sure enough that was the solution.  Oh well!

It does have a nice appearance and is very solidly built. I showed it to my girlfriend and some family members, and most of them spent about 2-3 minutes figuring it out. This surprised me, since I had immediately discovered the solution, so perhaps it isn't as easy as I thought! One aspect that I like is that box pops open when you solve it, which is kind of a nice surprise when you figure out how to do it.

The next one that I unpacked was Irregular Twin Box by Akio Kamei (picture by Jeffrey Aurand). It looks very similar to Confetto Box, which was Hiroshi Iwahara's gift last year, so I was optimistic that this would be a fun box to solve. Still, I told myself that I would wait until tomorrow to attempt it, so I set it on my desk and went back to work.

After a few moments, I thought that I would just try to slide one of the panels a bit to see if I could get anything to move. After a minute or so of fiddling, I had a pretty good idea of how the mechanism worked, but I stopped myself before completely opening the box and went back to work. A few moments later, I couldn't resist and finished opening it.

In all, it probably only took me about 2-3 minutes to solve, but the mechanism is very cool! I was quite impressed. As you would expect from Kamei, the construction is flawless and the wood has a very nice appearance. I tried this one out with my family and they also found it fairly easy, but were also very impressed by the mechanism.

The last box that I unpacked was Four Direction Drawers by Hiroshi Iwahara (picture by Jeffrey Aurand). Like the name implies, there are four drawers, one on each side of the box. There was a card that came with the puzzle saying that the objective is to open all four drawers completely.

The woods that he selected make for a very nice looking box. He alternates between light and dark wood for each level, uses a reddish wood for the drawer faces and an almost black wood for the drawer pulls. (Sorry, I can't identify wood types yet). Because of its design, it doesn't really have a front, which would make it great for a coffee table or a desk.

Again, trying to exercise restraint, I told myself that I would just fiddle with it a little bit, but I ended up discovering part of the mechanism. I stopped myself for a while, but ended up working on it again a few minutes later. After about 5-10 minutes, I had solved it, which was quite satisfying. The mechanism is very cool!

This one has a number of moves, unlike the other two, which I found more satisfying since it took a bit longer. It is also quite a bit more difficult than the other two. I tried it out on some family members over Christmas, and it took some of them 20-30 minutes to figure it out.

This one is definitely my favorite of the three, though Kamei's is a close second! Overall, I was quite satisfied with my purchases and will plan to get more next year. I do wish that the first two were a bit more challenging, but the craftsmanship was superb. Kamei's and Iwahara's boxes had very clever mechanisms as well.

January 4, 2010

Green Revomaze

I got a chance to try out the Green Revomaze, courtesy of John Devost's puzzle library over at RenegadePuzzlers.ca. This is the second puzzle in the series of five. Check out my blog entry about the Blue Revomaze for more information about this series of puzzles.

The Green Revomaze is a bit harder than the Blue version, and incorporates an interesting feature that took me a little while to overcome. I explored the beginning of the maze for a while, but it seems like no matter where I went there was a trap! I was stuck at this point for a while until I discovered the way to proceed. Like with the Blue Revomaze, I had this revelation right after I woke up: perhaps I do my best puzzling early in the morning!

I found the next part of this maze to be somewhat less enjoyable: remember in my previous entry when I mentioned that it would be really annoying if you needed to cross a long winding bridge with traps on both sides? Well, there is one in this puzzle. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying this since you can't really help but notice it while solving it (there is no a-ha moment), but let me know if you feel differently.

Interestingly, this wasn't quite as annoying as I had anticipated: you can sort of feel when you are about to fall off if you move very slowly, so that helped me quite a bit. Still, it is not a feat that I could reproduce 100% of the time. Perhaps with practice I could get good at it, but even now I'd probably succeed much less than 50% of the time. I really hope that the next puzzles in the series aren't like this, because is could be extremely difficult/annoying!

Overall, though, I would say that this is a solid puzzle that is worth getting. In terms of difficulty, this is quite a challenging puzzle: it took me about 3-4 hours to solve it. Some folks who prefer shorter solve times may be put off by the long solve times in this series, but so far I have really enjoyed these puzzles. Since you have a sense of progress when you succeed in exploring further than you were previously able to, these puzzles grip my attention quite a bit more than many others.

I look forward to seeing what the Bronze will be like. I read that the Blue is like a trainer to build your understanding of how these puzzes work, the Green has a few tricks thrown in to build upon Blue, and the Bronze is really a whole new evolution of this type of puzzle. I agree with most people's advice that you should try the Blue before the Green, but it isn't necessary. The Blue is a bit more straightforward than the Green, but it is still a definite challenge worth trying to conquor.

In my previous post I had complained a bit about how my hand got sore when playing with these puzzles, and I think I experienced less of it this time around now that my hand is getting stronger and more accustomed to navigating a Revomaze. I find that I am most productive when I work in sessions of 30-60 minutes. Much more than that and the fatigue causes me to make mistakes, which is very frustrating and counterproductive.

Sorry I have been a bit slow on the updates recently: my computer's hard drive failed and I have been busy restoring things, and I've also been pretty busy over the holidays. Lots more reviews coming up: some hexagonal puzzles from John Devost (once I finish solving them...), my three Karakuri Club Christmas presents, and a few presents I got from my family from Bits and Pieces.
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