February 25, 2010

New York Puzzle Party (Part 2)

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

After a long night of puzzling, we got up at around 7:30 to head over to the actual New York Puzzle Party. It started around 9:30, and we wanted to get there a bit early so we could get a good seat. Thanks to Brett's GPS, we found the location without any trouble: it was held in a classroom of Trevor Day School.

We headed upstairs and found the room, where we saw Tom Cutrofello, who organized the event, as well as geometric sculptor George Hart and David Leschinsky from Eureka Puzzles and Games, my favorite Boston-area puzzle shop. Saul Bobroff, Tim Udall, and Chris Morgan had also come down from Boston. There were a bunch of people I hadn't met before, including Tim Rowett of Grand Illusions, Stewart Lamle of WizdomZone, Tanya Thompson of ThinkFun, Daniel Deschamps, Stan Leeb, and Ken Irvine.

Ken had actually heard of NYPP through my blog and ended up coming, so it was quite cool to meet him. It was kind of neat to introduce myself and have people say "Oh! I've seen your blog!" Tanya and Daniel recognized me from it as well, how cool is that?

I also met Jeffrey Aurand, who I had been introduced to by Matt Dawson, I think. We had been corresponding a bit over the last few months, so it was great to meet him in person.

Folks brought a variety of puzzles to show or to sell. Here's a picture of Brett and Rob with some of the items they brought. I didn't have anything to sell, but I brought Pagoda Puzzle Box and Pinwheel to see if I could drum up some sales for Matt or Jerry.

Only one person was able to solve the Pagoda box, though quite a few folks played around with it: it was Devin from Eureka who had come down with David. Nobody had any luck with Pinwheel either, but many people remarked that it was a very cool puzzle. Here's a picture of Daniel Deschamps from Montreal giving it a try.

After a bit of socializing and checking out the various puzzles people had brought, the presentations started. After Tom welcomed everybody and talked for a little while, Rob gave a presentation about the Instant Insanity puzzle family. This is a puzzle that consists of a number of blocks (usually four) with different colors or symbols on them, and the object is to arrange them in a row so that the faces are all different colors. Check out Rob's Puzzle Page for more info.

He talked about the history of the puzzle, which actually dates all the way back before 1900. It had all sorts of incarnations, but was popularized by Franz Armbruster in 1966 when it was mass produced by Parker Brothers.

Next, he talked about a graphical solution method for this puzzle that involves looking at the cubes and drawing a graph of interconnected nodes to represent the puzzle. By examining this graph, you can fairly easily determine a solution for any puzzle of this type. It was quite an interesting presentation, even though this puzzle doesn't appeal much to me personally.

After Rob's presentation, there was a great presentation by an architect, Eric Clough, who talked about an amazing apartment he and his firm had created. It was being renovated for a family with children, so they decided, as a surprise, to fill the house with a whole series of interesting puzzles to solve. There were cyphers on the radiator covers, secret compartments in the credenza, and all sorts of other interesting things. The coolest thing was that they were all tied together by a book, a fictional narrative that guided the children through discovering the different puzzles that were hidden in the apartment. I can't really do it justice here, so check out this article for more info.

After this presentation, we headed out to lunch, where I ate with Saul, David, and Devin at a diner nearby. I had some apple cinnamon french toast that was pretty tasty.

When we got back, folks were milling around looking at the different puzzles people had brought. Tanya from ThinkFun had brought a few puzzles that were new to their Aha! series of puzzles: Star Burst, a classic three-piece burr; Straight Arrow, a sliding puzzle based on Iwahiro's Rectangular Jam; and Blockout, a plastic version of Bill Cutler's Blockhead.

I was particularly psyched to see Blockout [This puzzle since been renamed to Square Fit], since it is a very cool puzzle and is available for a very good price. I had seen a different version of it several months ago and I think it took me 30-45 minutes to figure out, which was quite surprising since it looks pretty easy.

The object is to get the four pieces into the box, but the pieces are cut at an angle and interfere with each other. The solution is quite clever! Tanya was kind enough to give me the copy she brought, which was quite nice of her. Thanks Tanya! I'm looking forward to stumping my friends with this one.

Jeff Aurand brought a few puzzle boxes for me to try, since he knows I love boxes. From left to right: a box by Allan Boardman, Hoop by Shiro Tajima, and A Chance Meeting by Tatuo Miyamoto.

I started out with the box by Allan, which was magnificently crafted. Click on the picture and you can see the tiny little box-joints that join the corners of the box. Allan specializes in tiny puzzles (he's a microxylometagrobologist), so it is no surprise that he can craft these tiny details with the utmost precision.

The mechanism was similar to one I had seen in the Karakuri small box series, but even though I had seen this type of trick before, it was a surprise when I discovered it. Overall, a very cool box!

Next, I tried A Chance Meeting by Miyamoto. I had seen photos of this puzzle before and was quite intrigued. The top is a false lid that comes off immediately. Once it is removed, you can see a clover shape that is made up of heart shapes that are similar to the one on the lid.

This one took me longer than I expected: the solution had a bit of a twist that I did not expect, but eventually I discovered it. I think it took me about 10-15 minutes. It is a very cool puzzle!

Finally, I tried Hoop by Shiro Tajima. I was really looking forward to this one because Jeff said this was one of his favorite boxes. Sure enough, it was absolutely awesome! The really sneaky thing about this one is that you keep thinking that you're making progress, only to find that you're stuck. After finding the first move, it seems like the top is about to come off, but you have only just begun!

I think this one took me a good 20-30 minutes to solve. It has a very unique mechanism that is unlike any other box I have seen before. I'm definitely happy that I got the chance to try this one. Thanks Jeff!

After the lunch break, there were a few more presentations: Betsy Carter spoke about her book The Puzzle King about her great uncle who popularized the jigsaw puzzle, someone demonstrated a Rubik's cube-solving robot they had constructed, George Hart talked about what he's been working on, and Tom Cutrofello gave an exhaustive presentation of the various iPhone puzzle apps he's found.

Sorry for the quick treatment of the lectures, but I was a bit more focused on the puzzles. So, back to that:

Tim Udall had brought his collection of puzzle knives, which was really cool since I had never even heard of this category of puzzles before. I like knives (I have a small collection) and I like puzzles so this was a sure winner with me.

Most of the knives were tricky to open, and one was tricky to close. I don't think any of them were actually intended as puzzles, rather they just had a fairly hard to discover locking mechanism. A lot of knives have locking mechanisms to keep them from opening or closing when you don't want them to, these were just harder to discover than usual.

One in particular stumped me for a while: it looked like a normal knife, but the blade did not rotate out in the way you would have expected it to. Very cool stuff! I'm sorry I didn't get any pictures of them.

Tim brought another interesting puzzle called Magic Billet Box (careful, the video on the site is a spoiler). It is a very nicely constructed machined aluminum puzzle box. There are two versions of this puzzle, and Tim had the harder one.

I worked on this one for a while and didn't have much luck. Unfortunately, I saw Tim showing the solution to somebody, so I'm not sure how much longer this one would have taken me. The solution is fairly novel. You can order this puzzle with all sorts of different designs on the outside too.

Stan Leeb brought a tray packing puzzle that he had been working on in hopes that somebody could tell him the name of the designer. [Update: this puzzle was designed and made by Vladimir Krasnoukhov] I told him I didn't know, but he let me try solving it. I worked on it for about 5 minutes before discovering the solution. Stan was surprised to see that it was different than the solution that he had found, so he took a picture of it to remember.

It is a neat little tray puzzle that is reminiscent of Stewart Coffin's designs that require some out-of-the-box thinking. It also makes a nice pattern when it is complete, though yone wouldn't want to store it that way since it would give away the solution. I also liked that it has room for the extra piece in the frame.

Georg Hart brought a bunch of his 3D printed puzzles. This time he had some interesting torus-shaped puzzles. The one on the left is only two pieces, so it isn't too hard to solve. The one on the right is a little trickier with four pieces.

Here's another picture of some puzzles that were for sale. I'm not sure of the name of the craftsman [Update: this is the work of Henry Stroudt of Maine], but they are quite nicely made with contrasting woods laminated together to create an interesting effect. Brett purchased one of the trucks: the object is to pack the blocks in the back of the truck. A neat looking puzzle!

There were a few puzzles for sale, but nothing that really caught my eye. I did end up buying two puzzles from Rick Eason: Keyhole Cube and eL Perch.

Keyhole Cube consists of eight cubes that have various combinations of screws and keyholes in them. The object is to assemble the eight cubes into a 2x2x2 cube.

I didn't solve this one during my trip, but have solved it since I got back. I think it took me about 20-30 minutes. Once I thought I had solved it, I checked his website only to discover that you were supposed to solve it without using any twisting movements. Back to the drawing board! After a few more minutes I found a proper solution. Cool puzzle!

eL Perch is an interesting concept: the idea is to not only form a 3x3x3 cube from the pieces, but to form it in such a way so that it will balance on the perch without any pieces sliding off.

There are three solutions, and it took me about 30 minutes to find one of them. It was fun thinking about how to make the best use of the support that is available from the perch. The photo shows a solution that won't work: the last piece is not supported by anything and will slide off when placed.

Both puzzles are nicely finished and well crafted. I think he still has some available: you can get his email address from his website if you'd like to purchase one.

That brings us to the end of NYPP, but the fun didn't stop there. After the party we all headed out for dinner at a place called the Popover Cafe, which was quite tasty. I'm not quite as good at summarizing conversation as I am at talking about puzzles, so I'll leave that part to your imagination.

After dinner, we headed back to Brett's house and worked on a few more puzzles before heading to bed. What a day! And more puzzle fun to come the next day. Stay tuned!

February 15, 2010

New York Puzzle Party (Part 1)

This weekend I went down to New York City for the New York Puzzle Party. It is a yearly event organized by Tom Cutrofello, the mechanical puzzle correspondent for Games magazine. I was really looking forward to this event, since it would be a great chance to check out some puzzles I hadn't seen and to meet other puzzle people. Best of all, I would be staying at Brett Kuehner's house where I would have have plenty of time to try some of the puzzles in his great collection! I met Brett back in the fall during the puzzle dinner in New York that he organized.

I headed straight from work to Brett's place in New Jersey, and arrived at around 9:00 after a tiring but uneventful. Rob Stegmann of Rob's Puzzle Page was staying there as well, and was there when I arrived. Shortly after I got there, Rick Eason arrived, having driven all the way from Maine.

We sat around in Brett's living room for a bit and played around with some puzzles. The first one that I tried was this puzzle by Brett's brother. It was a one-of-a-kind puzzle that Brett had posted pictures of, so I couldn't wait to take a look at it.

It looked like a solid block of wood with a square rod passing through it. One end of the rod has a pin going through it. There are four holes drilled in the center of each of the other faces. The puzzle had a nice weight to it, and the finish and details were superb! Definitely a top-notch puzzle.

Brett told me that it didn't require hitting or spinning, so I did the only other thing I could think of doing to a box with holes in it (Brett said it was ok). I tried this action in every way I could think of, and didn't have much luck. I worked on it again on Saturday and Sunday, but this one had me stumped! Definitely one I would like to spend more time with at some point.

Next up, I was thrilled to get a chance to try Fulcrum Box (AKA Stickman #11) by Robert Yarger. I had seen pictures of this one before, and thought that it would be a fun box to try. Only 35 copies were made, so it is quite cool that Brett has one.

My first impression was that it was much smaller than I anticipated. With all those complex mechanics, I expected it to be pretty large, but as you can see in the picture it is fairly small. Still, the appearance is quite striking and makes you wonder how in the world it works. The craftsmanship was good, with a nice fit and finish.

I played around with it a bit, and actually found it to be fairly challenging, which was surprising since I had heard that it wasn't very difficult. I got the first compartment open after a bit of fiddling, but the second one was a bit more stubborn. I think it took me about a half hour to get the whole thing open.

Even though the mechanism is visible, it is still pretty tricky to figure out what is going on, partly because of the complexity and partly because I wasn't sure what was fixed and what could move. I think it is brilliant to have a box with a completely visible mechanism like this, yet still have it be a challenge. Very cool!

After trying these two puzzles, Brett busted out his Karakuri collection. First up, I tried Maze5+2steps by Hiroyuki Oka. This was his 2009 Christmas present, and has a clean, simple appearance. As you can expect with all of the Karakuri Club boxes, the fit and finish is extraordinary.

There are two compartments to this box, one of which is quite small and flat, small enough for a business card. It is very easy to find this first one, but finding the other one requires navigating a fairly tricky keyway. Overall I didn't find this one to be too difficult, I think it took me a few minutes.

The cool thing about this one is that you can easily discover the first compartment, but you could spend quite a bit more time finding the second one. The trick, however, is a fairly common trick that I had seen before, which is why it didn't take too long. For somebody not familiar with trick boxes, this could potentially take a while.

Next, I tried Two Steps of Drawers by Hideto Satou, his 2008 Christmas present. This is a nice looking little puzzle with two compartments.

There is one step required to open the first drawer, and one step to open the second drawer. I didn't find either of them to be particularly challenging and solved it in about a minute. Not my favorite due to its simplicity and I didn't find the moves to be particularly novel. Still, a nice little box that is well constructed.

After that, I tried Chip by Hiroyuki Oka, his 2007 Christmas present. This is a nice little box with an simple but interesting inlay on the outside. The "Chip" on the top is made out of several pieces of wood laminated together.

I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that there is a magnet in the chip, since it is immediately obvious once you touch it. I really liked this aspect of the puzzle, since he gives you a tool to help you discover how the box might open.

This little hint makes what might be a very difficult box for a non-puzzler to solve somewhat more managable, which I thought was nice. Plus, it makes for a more self-contained experience. The mechanism is not particularly novel, but I liked the presentation and it is very well constructed.

Here's a picture of Rob trying out Pinwheel by Bram Cohen and made by Jerry McFarland. I think I underestimated the difficulty of this puzzle in my initial review: sometimes the right move just strikes you, and it happened to strike me right away on this one. A lot of the serious puzzlers I showed it to this weekend had a tough time with it. I think the only person who got it apart was Rick Eason and he gave up on getting it back together.

Next in the Karakuri box lineup, I tried Moneybox by Hideto Satou. It is a nice looking box with a little coin slot and a colorful inlay. It came with the following warning: "Please don't use paper moneys and light coins. If you use them, some trouble will happen."

Well, after a warning like that, the solution seemed fairly obvious. It didn't appear to be working at first, but eventually I was able to get the box to open after a bit of fiddling. The solution to this one is a cool idea for a puzzle box: I believe that Akio Kamei's Money Bank operates with a similar theme, though the mechanism is different. This one wasn't too hard, but it had a cool mechanism and is quite well constructed.

This next box, Covered Type Secret Box by Yoshiyuki Ninomiya, is a great box. The geometric inlay on the outside is quite striking, and it is amazingly well constructed. It is just as you would expect from an 80-year-old master of the puzzle box craft.

Three sides have the inlay (the back right side in the picture is also inlaid) and three sides do not (the bottom and back left are not). This was a fairly tricky box to solve, but it does provide a hint to the observant puzzler. Because of this, I think this was one of my favorites of the Karakuri boxes that I tried that evening.

Brett knew that I also liked Perry McDaniel's work, so he also brought out Marbled Walnut Sheet Cake by Perry McDaniel. The craftsmanship, of course, is superb: it had a nice smooth finish with perfect joints.

I like his cake-themed puzzles, they have a lightheartedness that I enjoy. On the box he lists the nutritional contents: plenty of fiber and a little bit of iron! This one is quite difficult, requiring several moves to open.

I have played around with a bunch of puzzles similar to this, so I think it only took me about ten minutes to get it open and shut, but I was unable to get it to open and shut reliably. I'm not sure if it was me or the puzzle! Still, a cool box that was quite a challenge. If you're not familiar with this type of puzzle, it could take you quite a while!

Well, at this point it was about 1:00AM and everybody was getting pretty tired. Plus, we had to get up around 7:30 tomorrow to get to NYPP on time, so we decided to head to bed. What an awesome night, and I'm sure there would be tons of puzzling goodness to come!

A big thanks to Brett for hosting us at his house and letting me try out these great puzzles, it made for a great weekend of puzzling! More to come about the rest of the weekend.

February 7, 2010

Stewart Coffin Visit

Today was the day that I got to visit the home of world famous puzzle designer and craftsman, Stewart Coffin! Stewart is a legend in the puzzle community, so I was thrilled when John Devost offered to introduce me to him. He only lives about 30 minutes away from me in Andover, MA, which is the town where I grew up.

When I arrived, I was greeted by his wife Mary waving at me through the window. I was welcomed by Stewart at the door where I shook his hand and I introduced myself. After taking off my coat, we all sat down at the kitchen table where I set down the box of puzzles that I had brought.

First, I pulled out three hexstick puzzles that I had borrowed from John, since I thought Stewart would get a kick out of seeing John's excellent work reproducing his design, Four-Color Hexsticks, as well as some variations, Hextasy and Hectix Revisited.

He played around a bit with each of them and was quite impressed by John's attention to detail. He loved the fine detail on the beveled ends of the pieces. After taking Hectix Revisited apart somewhat and putting it back together, he disassembled Hextasy to see the different pieces.

While he was looking at these puzzles, Stuart told me about about how he 3M mass produced Hectix many years ago. They had no trouble casting the parts very quickly, but the union labor to assemble the puzzles was costing them a fortune! He told them to send the parts to him and paid a bunch of kids 2 cents a puzzle to assemble them, which wasn't too bad for those days.

He proudly told me that one of his daughters could assemble four of them per minute, and got so good at it that she could do it by touch alone. In fact, he once did a live show on public access TV about puzzles and she assembled it with a blindfold on!

Next, I took out Bram Cohen's Pinwheel, made by Jerry McFarland. Mary was quite amused by this one and remarked that it was a nice looking puzzle. Stewart also seemed quite impressed by its appearance. He fiddled around with it for a little while, but confessed that he wasn't much of a solver, so I offered to show him the solution. He chuckled as it slid apart and marvelled at the intricate pieces. I explained as much as I could about the CNC process Jerry used to craft them.

As I was putting it back together, Stewart went over to his shelves and pulled out a few puzzles that he thought I might find interesting. First, he brought out a beautiful copy of Jupiter, designed by Stewart and made by Bart Buie. Mary told me how if you spun it in the air it would go flying apart, but that Stewart didn't let her do it because it took him a while to get it back together.

He carefully slid it apart and disassembled it far enough that I could see what one of the pieces looked like. Very cool! It would have been fun to take it apart, but I didn't want to risk leaving it in disarray, so we put it back together again.

As we were doing this, he told me about how he used to sell puzzles at crafts fairs, and that this design used to be the centerpiece of his booth. He used to show people how you could throw it up in the air to fling the pieces apart and told the audience that if anybody could put it back together, they could have it. The adults were reluctant to try, since they don't want to risk failure, and it is a tricky puzzle! The children didn't have much luck either.

Sometimes he would plant one of his daughters in the audience, and she would come up, assemble it quickly, and then walk off with it. I'm sure that was quite amusing for everybody involved. When I hear about him selling at crafts fairs, it always makes me hopeful that I'll find some brilliant puzzle craftsman at a craft show, but unfortunately I haven't seen one yet! Can you imagine running into a booth with such amazing puzzles?

Stewart also told me that Jupiter was quite difficult to glue together, and he actually needed a machinist friend of his to help make a jig to glue it together! Quite a process, eh? Here's a picture of me and Stuart, with him holding Jupiter. As you can see, it is a pretty large puzzle.

Next, I played around a bit with a puzzle he named Cruiser (#167 in his design numbering system), since he enjoys taking it on cruises to stump folks.

This one is deceptively tricky, since the right angles of the pieces don't fit into the corners, as you would expect. Even with this hint, I didn't have much luck with this one. I worked on it for a while and Mary chuckled each time I put a right angle in a corner and reminded me that it wouldn't work.

Eventually, I conceded defeat and he showed me where the first piece went. With that hint, it still took me a minute or two to finished it. I need more practice on these tray packing puzzles: they look so simple that it makes you feel foolish not to solve them quicker, but they can be pretty tough!

Speaking of tough packing puzzles, I also tried Four Fit (#217), which I also had a tough time with. Fortunately, before I started he told me that Martin Gardener (another big name in the puzzle world) concluded that it was impossible, so I didn't feel quite as bad. Unfortunately, I didn't remember to get a picture of this one, so this picture is of Tom Lensch's version (photo by Tom Lensch).

I ended up giving up on this one as well, since it didn't seem like I was going to be able to figure it out any time soon. (It is tricky making conversation and solving at the same time!) The solution is quite tricky: I think it could have taken me many days to figure this one out!

Another one that he showed me was design #242. It comes as is shown in the picture, and the goal is to figure out what to do with the extra pieces. It looked hard enough to get it to the state it was currently in, so I didn't have the guts to completely disassemble this one. It looks like an interesting puzzle though!

While I was working on this, Stewart played around with 4-Play by Bill Cutler, which I recently picked up from Eureka for John. He wasn't too interested in the 4 dimensional aspect of this puzzle, but he worked for quite a while on the 3 dimensional problem. If you are baffled by the 4D/3D thing, I'll be doing an entry on this puzzle at some point with more details.

After he got tired of working on this one, I showed him Cast Marble by Bram Cohen, which I thought he might enjoy since it is an interesting dissection. He got a real kick out of how this one came apart and laughed out loud when I showed it to him. An entry about this puzzle will be coming soon as well.

Finally, the part I'm sure many of you were waiting for: I took a bunch of pictures of the various puzzles he had on display. There are some very cool puzzles that I'm sure you'll recognize. Help me identify them in the comments if you'd like, and I'll add some captions to the pictures!

After taking a look at his collection, I pulled out Frand's Mind Bender from my box of puzzles, just to show him some of the work I had done. Of course, it isn't really a mechanical puzzle, but I think he still thought it was pretty neat.

Well, that's about it! I had a great time and I hope Stuart did as well. It was really an honor to meet a man who has contributed so much to the puzzle community. A big thanks to Stuart and Mary for welcoming me into their home, and thanks to John Devost for introducing us. I hope to return again soon!