May 26, 2010

Cast Square and Bamboo Soma

Hanayama - Cast Square Puzzle - Level 10 Minda BogglingYesterday I stopped by Eureka to pick up a new puzzle by Hanayama, Cast Square designed by Vesa Timonen of Finland. I was eager to give it a try, since they haven't come out with a new difficult puzzle in this series in a while. This one was rated 6 out of 6, so I was hoping that it would be a good challenge.

It has a great weight to it and I really like the appearance. The contrast between the gold and silver is nice; I like it when they use a shiny finish like this.

The motion of the puzzle is also quite nice: the pieces slide apart in an interesting 4-piece coordinate motion. However, they stop short of coming completely apart, so the puzzle is to get them apart and back together.

I tried a number of things, but couldn't get beyond just sliding the pieces apart and together. After about 5-10 minutes, I discovered something that helped me figure out how to get it apart.

Unfortunately, it turned out that this puzzle was vulnerable to my "shake-the-hell-out-of-it" approach. I don't really consider that a spoiler, because that is not the correct solution. So if you want to get the maximum difficulty of this puzzle, don't just try to pull it apart while shaking it. After inspecting the pieces, I was able to see what the correct solution was, so I'm not sure how much longer it would take to figure it out the proper way to do it.

Interestingly, depending on how you reassemble it, the solution is different, which is quite an interesting feature. However, once you have disassembled it once and seen how it works, finding the additional solutions is only moderately challenging.

Overall, a decent puzzle, but you can solve it by doing one of the first things frustrated people do: just shake it around randomly until it comes apart. It would be much more interesting if it was designed in a way that makes this not work, which would also make it much more difficult.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I found a series of bamboo puzzles produced under the name "EcoGame" at Urban Outfitters. In the comments, Roland Koch noted that in the photo I posted of the full lineup, the Soma cube looked quite similar to his 2002 IPP Design Competition entry, Soma Summarum, but with a slightly different objective.

In Soma Summarum, the objective is to create the pattern shown here. An interesting variation on the classic Soma.

In the bamboo version, this was obviously impossible, but Roland thought that perhaps the objective had been changed to make the layers appear all the way around the puzzle.

I was curious if this was indeed the case, so decided to pick this puzzle up while I was at Eureka as well.

As soon as I got it out of the packaging and looked at the pieces, I thought it was pretty clear that this objective would not be possible. I fiddled with it for a few minutes to confirm my suspicion, and tried it out in BurrTools just to be safe. Oh well!

It looks like the striped pattern is more just for esthetics than as part of the puzzle. Here is the full set of pieces:

Still, it is actually a fairly nice Soma cube: the finish is pretty good, the striped pattern is interesting, and the pieces fit together very well. I'll probably find one of the many websites that has shapes that you can make from these pieces and have a grand ol' puzzling time with them.

May 24, 2010

Alcatraz Revisited

ALCATRAZ The Metal PuzzleAs I was heading out of my apartment on Sunday to go to a picnic, I happened to glance at a package by the front door of the building. I wasn't expecting anything, but you never know! And much to my surprise, it was addressed to me. I opened it up, and discovered a copy of Alcatraz! It turns out, Brett Kuehner read my blog entry about failing to solve it at the Museum of Science, and sent be a copy as a birthday present! Thanks Brett!

When I got to the subway stop, I opened up the package and tried to solve it again. I felt like I was on the right track before, so I tried a few of the things I had tried before. However, since it was mine, I tried using a bit more force than before, and that ended up working! (Note: By force, I don't mean just pushing the ball through the bars, that would surely damage the puzzle.)

I brought it to the picnic and stumped a few folks with it. One knew the solution already, but he knew not to give it away. Another figured it out after a little while with some hints. I found that often people tried the right action, but they just didn't do it quite right.

You can read more about this puzzle and how it was invented on the designer's website: It was designed by Brian McDermott, a magician, as part of his act. After he magically removed the ball from the cage, he would pass it around to the audience to inspect. It proved so popular that he decided to sell it as a puzzle. According to his website, over 700,000 copies have been sold! At $13 each that's not too shabby!

It has a nice solid construction with black molded plastic cage, solid brass bars, and a solid steel ball. The steel ball gives it a nice weight. It has a simple appearance but also looks impossible to the untrained eye, which I think may be part of the reason for its success.

My one complaint about this puzzle would be the amount of force required. However, if it was modified to require less force it would be quite a bit easier, which probably isn't desirable. I'll bet the reason this one is so popular is because it has the ability to stump folks for a very long time!

Overall, a neat puzzle, but not something I would subject my non-puzzling friends to again, since it is quite difficult. Puzzlers, on the other hand, have probably seen this mechanism in other applications if they enjoy this type of puzzle. Check out Oli's review of Alcatraz here.

Thanks again to Brett for the puzzle!

May 19, 2010

Wausau '82

As I mentioned in my post a few weeks ago, when I last visited Eureka I was eyeing a copy of Bill Cutler's Wausau '82. This last Sunday when I was going out to dinner with my parents for my birthday (my birthday is actually today), my they surprised me with it for my birthday present! Thanks Mom and Dad!

As I mentioned before, I had been eyeing this puzzle at auction way back in February of 2009. Bill Cutler says on his website that it was one of his favorite designs (and Bill knows burrs!), so I knew this was going to be a good one. I was quite curious to see what the "lock-picking technique" he described involved.

It was made by Jerry McFarland, so the craftsmanship is superb. The fit is perfect, not too tight or too loose. It has a nice smooth finish and is crafted out of cherry, walnut, and maple.

When I got home, I started working on it right away. Like when I first tried it at Eureka, I got stuck in a cycle of dead-ends and couldn't figure out how to proceed for about 10 minutes. Eventually, I discovered the technique that Bill mentioned. I was a bit surprised that I hadn't noticed it before, since it is similar to techniques I have seen in other puzzles. However, Jerry has implemented an additional mechanism that ensures that you can't stumble upon the solution accidentally.

The tricky part is getting out the first piece, after that, the rest of it comes apart quite easily. At first, I started to keep track of where the pieces came from, but I decided not to be a sissy and scrambled the pieces. I figured it wouldn't be too hard, since the different axes are different colors.

It definitely wasn't easy, but it was doable. I think I got it back together in about 15 minutes. It took me a while to figure out what went where, but the organization is fairly logical. Some of the pieces are identical, which makes the task somewhat easier as well. It was a bit tricky figuring out what order I had to put the pieces in, since they tend to get in each other's way.

Overall I really liked this puzzle. The disassembly was clever: the unobservant puzzler could end up going in circles for a while. I also really liked that this one wasn't a complete nightmare to put back together: I don't like to have to keep track of how it comes apart or risk spending weeks trying to reassemble it (or using BurrTools). Thanks to my parents!

May 18, 2010

Puzzles at the Museum of Science

A few months ago, when visiting the Museum of Science in Boston on a Saturday, I encountered an area of the museum where folks were playing with mechanical puzzles. Needless to say, I was delighted and stuck around until the museum closed. Last weekend, I made another visit and did a better job of documenting it!

The puzzle exhibit has been run by a volunteer named Barry Kort for over 20 years! Every Saturday he brings in an assortment of puzzles from his collection and sets them out on a bar with stools for folks to play with. This picture is from 10 years ago so things look a bit different, I didn't think to take my own.

Barry brings sturdy puzzles that can take the abuse of thousands of folks beating upon them. He has a variety of different types from assembly, to disassembly, interlocking, hidden mechanism, and disentanglement.

The first one that struck my interest was this metal disassembly puzzle. I'm not sure of the name of it, but I'm guessing it was something from Bits and Pieces a long time ago. [UPDATE: This is Prison Block from Bits and Pieces.]

It consists of a rectangular black piece with a rotating purple knob on the top. The black piece is seemingly too large to fit through the hole in the silver base. The puzzle is to remove it.

I was quickly drawn to this one because it looked so simple: it made me curious what the solution could be. It took me about 15 minutes to figure it out. I would say that it is easy/moderately difficult to puzzlers, but might prove pretty tricky for a non-puzzler. The solution is based on a common principle in hidden mechanism puzzles.

The next one I tried out was Arrow Case (a.k.a. Packing Arrows) from Bits and Pieces. It is a design by the prolific designer of tray packing puzzles, Dai Nagata. This design won a first place award in the 2001 Puzzle Design Competition at IPP21.

The construction and finish is quite nice, though this copy was quite worn. The pieces had a nice weight to them.

I thought this one was going to take me a while, since frequently the solution to these types of puzzles is quite un-intuitive. However, this one was pretty logical. I think it took me about 5 minutes to  figure it out. Overall, a nice little puzzle!

Barry had a few of this type of puzzle: I tried Houses and Factories next. It is a design by Dick Hess that was also produced by Bits and Pieces.

In this one, they give you a little spot to store the last piece, which I liked. Similar to Packing Arrows, the pieces had a nice weight and finish to them.

Of course, the idea is to get all of the pieces into the square frame on the left of the tray. There are two identical houses and three factories. Two of the factories have a smokestack on the right, and one has it on the left.

It would be quite easy without the chimneys and smokestacks: they have a tendency to get in the way. At one point, I found a solution that required flipping one of the pieces, but that was illegal because the pieces are only decorated on one side. After a few more minutes of fiddling, I figured it out. This one took me about 10 minutes, a bit longer than the other one. It is a nice little puzzle!

Next up, I took a crack at Oskar's Blocks, a design by Oskar van Deventer. Somebody had taken it apart and wasn't able to get it back together, so I decided to take a crack at it since disassembly is pretty trivial.

It has a nice kind of pinwheel shape when you get it together. It took me about a minute to get back together, but that's probably due to my experience with this type of puzzle. It is a nice little design, though a bit simple for my taste.

A woman had been working on Free the Key for a while and was able to get the disk off, but didn't have the patience to get it back to the beginning, so I decided to give it a try.

This one took a bit of fiddling, but eventually I got it back to the start after a few minutes. For the sake of completeness I took it off and put it back on again.

Like many other puzzles, you can think of this as a maze. The key is to have a good awareness of what you have tried so you can avoid going in circles or repeatedly running into the same dead end.

Overall, a sturdy little puzzle, but I didn't much care for the finish. It was a bit dull, I would have liked a nice shiny finish for this one, but that's not a big deal. I've seen them new, and they look similar so it wasn't due to wear.

Next up, I tried Satan's Stirrup, the very first original design produced in 1985 by Tucker-Jones House, makers of The Tavern Puzzle® Collection.

This one is a level 4 out of 8, so not too tricky. I think it only took me a minute or so to solve. Not too hard, but it might keep a non-puzzler occupied for a little while. Still, a nice puzzle that will definitely hold up to some abuse.

Alcatraz PuzzleThe one puzzle that completely stumped me during this visit was the classic Alcatraz Puzzle. Believe it or not I don't own it and I have never solved this puzzle, which is quite surprising since hidden mechanism puzzles are one of my favorite types.

I worked on this one for a good 20 minutes, but didn't have much luck. I whacked it, spun it, and shook the hell out of it, but nothing seemed to quite do the trick. I'm thinking I had the right idea, but didn't quite get the technique correct. Oh well, I'll have to revisit this one another day!

One of the coolest things about this exhibit is getting to watch everybody else working on their puzzles. I'm always curious to see how different people approach problems, how much frustration they'll tolerate, and who can figure out what. It seems to really come down to confidence: if folks go into it thinking that they'll fail, the usually won't! Puzzle solving takes the confidence to know that if you keep at it for long enough, eventually you will succeed.

As the museum was about to close in 10 minutes and Barry was starting to pack up things that folks weren't working on, I noticed that Internal Combustion was disassembled and decided to try to put it back together. This type of puzzle is called a framed burr: there are four notched rods that go through the outer frame.

I had done this one before: it is moderately tricky to get it apart, so I kept all the pieces in the correct orientation for easy re-assembly. In this case, the pieces were all scrambled.

Using some logic and trial and error, I was able to figure out the correct locations and orientations for the pieces. Just as they were making the final announcement that folks needed to head out, I slid the last piece into place. Phew! That was pretty exciting! I hate leaving a puzzle unsolved.

Next time, per Barry's request, I'll bring some of the more durable puzzles from my collection. I find it quite unfortunate that a lot of them just sit around unused once I've solved them, so I'd love the chance to see other people enjoy them. Thanks to Barry for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon!

May 6, 2010

Mirrorkal Escher and Digits in a Box

I stopped by Eureka recently and checked out some of the new puzzles they just got in. David Leschinsky, the owner of the store, was there, which was nice because he pointed out all the interesting new puzzles they got. I was particularly excited to see some of the new Vinco puzzles.

His 2010 collection has quite a different appearance from his usual puzzles: they are quite nicely finished and some have interesting, rounded shapes. The rounded tetrahedrons look particularly cool. David had a Tetrahedron that had been disassembled, so I got to try putting it back together. It is a four piece coordinate motion puzzle, and I didn't find it too difficult.

I was also quite curious to try out Dual Tetra-hedron, which has quite an interesting appearance. It is also a four piece coordinate motion puzzle. This one was already assembled, so the challenge was to figure out how to get it apart.

After a bit of wiggling, I figured out how to do it, though I didn't disassemble it fully. I didn't study it, but I'm guessing that the mechanism of Tetrahedron and Dual Tetrahedron is quite similar.

I thought about purchasing one, since they are quite cool looking, but they were a bit rich for my blood ($95 and $135 respectively).I liked them, but not quite that much!

Another cool puzzle that I saw was Wausau '82 by Bill Cutler and made by Jerry McFarland. I had eyed this puzzle before on an online auction. I had read that this burr was one of Bill's favorite designs and involved a lock-picking technique. Since I used to pick locks, that sounded pretty interesting and I had been wanting to give this puzzle a try.

I played around with it a bit, but kept going in circles. It is just as well, since I'm sure that it would take a while to put it back together as well! I'd definitely consider getting this one at some point, but didn't end up going for it on this visit. It looks like the one copy at Eureka has sold now, but I think you can still buy them directly from Bill.

Well, enough about the puzzles I didn't end up buying: I did end up buying two. One that caught my eye was a puzzle called Mirrorkal Escher designed by Ivan Moscovich. There are nine cubes, each of which contains a mirror. Two adjacent faces of the cube are clear, and the other four faces have part of an image on them. The frame that holds the cubes also has parts of the images along the outside.

The objective is to arrange the cubes in such a way so that one of five possible Escher prints can be seen. Pretty cool idea, eh? I like Escher, so this was a winner with me. I fiddled with it a bit at the store, enough to tell that it wasn't entirely trivial, so I decided to buy it.

It is an interesting puzzle to solve, you need to use logic to figure out how to position the cubes. It isn't as easy as it sounds, because there are seemingly multiple correct positions for individual cubes. For example, the center piece of the image can be reflected from the edge of the cube to the north, south, east and west of it. However, if you go down the wrong path, you'll end up unable to complete the image with the remaining pieces.

It took me about 15-20 minutes to solve the first one, and each subsequent one took a bit less time as I started to get the hang of it. For $20, I got a good amount of enjoyment out of it. It isn't too difficult to give to non-puzzling folks, which is nice too. My girlfriend enjoyed it as well, and she doesn't typically have the patience for puzzles.

One thing that bugged me about it is the fact that the cubes appear to scratch fairly easily. The display model at Eureka was pretty scratched up, and I noticed that mine started to get scratched a bit as soon as I started fiddling with it. Oh well! At least it is cheap.

The second puzzle I got was another one I had seen online before, Digits in a Box by Eric Harsh-barger. It was his entry in the 2007 Puzzle Design Competition at the International Puzzle Party. The idea is to fit the digits 0-9 in a 5x5x5 unit box.

I really liked the appearance of this puzzle: the box is clear plastic, and the pieces are made out different colored acrylic that has (presumably) been laser cut. The colors chosen are quite nice: blue, pink, lime green, orange, ruby red, purple, teal, gray, white, and brown.

The original competition entry was made out of machined aluminum for the pieces and wood for the box and cost $200. The plastic version is only $15, now that is more my style!

As a puzzle, it is quite tricky: there are quite a few pieces that are dissimilar, which makes it fairly challenging. It took me quite a while to figure it out, but eventually I got it. Using BurrTools, I found that there are 4239 solutions. Many of them are just slight variations on the same idea, but there are still a lot of different solutions.

I have a really hard time figuring out additional solutions once I already know one. Once I know a solution, it feels like the pieces have to go that specific way. I'll have to spend more time working on this one and see if I can figure more out!

Overall, this is a great puzzle! You can get the plastic version from Eureka or from, who appears to be producing them. I think the only downside is the difficulty, but there is definitely plenty of re-playability, particularly if you have a bad memory! Initially it seems impossible, but as you play around with the pieces you start to understand how they interact and can fit together.

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