August 17, 2010

Rochester Puzzle Picnic (Part 6)

After working on Kelly Snache's awesome Lost Weekend puzzle chest, I headed upstairs to try out a few more puzzles. The first one that caught my eye was Robert Yarger's Snowball Box, shown here.

I was surprised that I hadn't noticed it on the shelf earlier, since am always eager to check out Robert's work. The idea is pretty interesting: it is a puzzle box that is held together only by the six wood panels, and it can be completely disassembled. Pretty neat!

It may not look like much in the photo, but the pieces are amazingly precisely cut. The runners are pretty much as thin as you could imagine without being overly brittle. I was quite careful disassembling it for fear of damaging the delicate edges. Check out more photos here, which show it partially disassembled. You probably can't see it in the photo, but the corners look really cool. They twist together with a nice three-fold symmetry.

I think this one took me about 5-10 minutes to open, which is longer than I would have expected of what is essentially a sliding panel box with not many moves. The move sequence is pretty interesting, taking seven moves to fully open the box. I disassembled it completely, but kept track of the pieces so I could be sure of getting it back together, so I'm not sure how hard it would be if the pieces were jumbled. I would imagine it is pretty tricky!

Another one that I couldn't resist trying was Kagen Schaefer's Maze Burr, which I had seen previously during a visit to Brett Kuehner's house. The idea is that there are a number of interchangeable grooved plates on the exterior of the box, whose movements are restricted by the plate below them with a pin sticking up through the groove. The objective is to open the box, and it can be made easier or more difficult depending on the configuration of panels you choose.

The version that I tried at NYPP was made by Tom Lensch and owned by Rob Stegmann. That version has a mechanism that allows you to bypass the lock for easily resetting the puzzle, which is a great idea. This version, a Kagen original, has no such feature, so it ended up being more of an assembly puzzle than a disassembly puzzle: you have to solve it in reverse in order to get the box shut after reconfiguring the panels.

When I first pulled it out, it was open, so I tried to figure out how to close it. I decided that I would re-configure the plates first, to choose a configuration that wouldn't take me forever. I ended up selecting a 20-move configuration, which I hoped wouldn't be too difficult.

I was surprised to find that you actually need to partially disassemble the burr frame (the black wood in the photo) in order to remove all of the plates. This was a bit tricky due to a tight fit from the humidity, but I was able to get it apart.

I had a heck of a time figuring out how the diagrams were oriented. The instructions said it was as if you had cut the box and laid it flat, but I wasn't sure if I was looking at the interior or the exterior of the box. I think it ended up being the exterior, but I'm not sure.

It took me a while, but I was able to solve the 20 move problem after about 20 minutes or so. There were a few dead ends which made it tricky: I really needed to work my  way backwards to figure out the solution. I would imagine the 116 move configuration is next to impossible! This is a very cool puzzle! No wonder it won the Puzzle of the Year in the 2006 Design Competition!

This last puzzle was one that I had my eye on throughout the day: Kagen Schaefer's Snake Box. During the International Puzzle Party, Jeff had found out that this puzzle had a second compartment that he hadn't discovered, so he was quite eager to try it when he returned home. Unfortunately, it was jammed up due to humidity so he was unable to open it.

I also wanted to look for the hidden compartment, so I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn't be able to give this one a try. As it was getting late, I decided that I would ask Jeff if he would mind if I checked to see if the box had loosened up at all. He kindly obliged, and I set my self to the task of opening it, even though I was fairly sure that it would be an impossible task.

Lo and behold, I was able to find the first piece to move! I was quite excited, since I really wanted a chance to solve this one. The mechanism is cool: you actually slide the pieces to change the configuration from the snake configuration above to this checkered configuration. Once it is in the checkered configuration, the box will open.

I'm not sure how he did it, but it is very nicely designed so that you aren't just randomly moving the pieces around, there are specific moves that are possible due to the way the pieces are configured. Usually you are moving two or three pieces that have been joined together as a unit, and sometimes the squares move individually. There are a number of dead ends, but you can't really scramble it, it is more like a maze.

I think I was able to get it open after 10 minutes or so, though the movement was quite tight at spots. Kagen crafts his puzzles to very precise tolerances, so subtle humidity changes can really effect the mechanism. I was quite psyched to get it open, and handed it over to Jeff to see if he could locate the secret compartment.

He spent a while on it, but was unable to find it and handed it back to me. I studied it for a bit and noticed some unusual features that seemed to have something to do with the mechanism for the second compartment, but I wasn't able to make any progress, though I tried for quite a while before giving up.

I recently heard from Jeff that he finally got it open: we had the right idea, but the mechanism was very tight due to the humidity. Still, it is really cool that Kagen managed to figure out how to put a second compartment in there. As you can see from the photo of the puzzle open, it doesn't look like there is any room for another compartment. This photo also shows the wooden hinges that Kagen made for this box. What a great puzzle!

That brings us to the end of an amazing day of puzzling. Here's a photo of the full group of puzzlers. In the top row we have our gracious host, Jeff Aurand, Jim Strayer, Tyler Somer, Tanya Thompson, and Kelly Snache. In the lower row is Peter Wiltshire, Rob Stegmann, yours truly - Brian Pletcher, and Brett Kuehner.

This photo was taken a bit earlier, before some folks left. The rest of us stayed up until about 2:30, working on the puzzles I just wrote about. It just seemed best to end the day with this photo!

There was a bit of puzzling the on Sunday, but mostly I slept in and revisited a few puzzles I had tried before. We did get a chance to see Jeff's amazing new woodworking shop. It was full of sweet power tools and a neat cyclonic dust collection system that you can see on the right here. Man, I'd love to get into woodworking. Someday!

A big thanks to Jeff Aurand for organizing the first Rochester Puzzle Picnic, I'll definitely be back next year! Hope that it continues for many years to come. Also, thanks to everybody who came for their excellent company, it was great meeting/seeing all of you and sharing our love of puzzles!


  1. I guess this wasn't the group photo where you were holding Roxy. Or were you? She's so small one might miss her!


  2. Fantastic - I wish I'd been there!


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