September 27, 2010

Gordian Knot Puzzle Box

I recently purchased Robert "Stickman" Yarger's latest work, Gordian Knot Puzzle Box (Stickman #22). Robert is one of my favorite puzzle box craftsmen, but this is the first of his Stickman series that I have purchased. You can see photos and descriptions of Robert's amazing work at Jim Strayer's Puzzling Art Gallery.

I was intrigued by Robert's description of Gordian Knot:
The Stickman Gordian Knot Puzzlebox is comprised of a random latticework of over 130 intricately cut and intertwining exotic wood pieces.  The puzzle requires a minimum of at least 36 various steps of sliding, disassembling and reassembling puzzle parts within the box in order to reach its single hidden compartment. The puzzle measures 3 x 3 x 3, and is limited in edition to only 28 handcrafted pieces.
I was particularly intrigued by his statement that it would require "disassembling and reassembling puzzle parts" to solve the puzzle. This seemed to suggest that some kind of tools would be discovered, which I always enjoy in a puzzle. I could hardly wait to give it a try!

I had it delivered to my office, but unfortunately it arrived on Saturday when there was nobody to sign for it and had to wait until it was delivered again on Monday. It arrived on Monday around lunchtime, so I spent my lunch trying to figure it out.

As I unpackaged it, I marveled at the precision with which it was crafted. The box is only 3 inches square, with the pieces crafted out of 1/4 inch stock. The pieces have been milled into a number of interesting interweaving shapes, with the smallest thickness at 1/16th of an inch.

Its appearance is somewhat similar to the metal puzzles made by GarE Maxton. Unlike Maxton's work, which typically has a smooth exterior, this puzzle has a lot of concave nooks and crannies. I had a great time with The Labyrinth by GarE at the Rochester Puzzle Picnic, so I was hoping for a similarly enjoyable experience here.

It is crafted out of a ton of different woods: maple, wenge, mahogany, leopardwood, yellowheart, paduk, montechello, bloodwood, bass, and poplar. The menagerie of different colors gives it a chaotic look that is quite disorienting and leaves your eye no place to rest.

After admiring it for a bit, I set my self upon solving it! I turned the puzzle over in my hands trying to find a logical place to start, but couldn't find anything. I randomly started wiggling pieces to try to figure out what moved. Some pieces would move slightly, presumably part of the solution later, but not the starting point. I tried to figure out what pieces these pieces could be interacting with in order to hopefully follow the path back to the beginning, but that also proved fruitless since the interactions were so complex.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the correct piece and pushed it in the correct direction. A satisfying "click" was my reward as it slid to the end of its path. Ok, so that was the first move out of 36! Now that I found the first move, I was able to progress more rapidly, since I could hone my search in on the pieces that could be effected by the last piece that moved. That sounds straightforward, but sometimes a piece would unlock multiple other pieces, which made it more difficult to understand where to go next.

After about seven steps I came to a dead end: none of the pieces near the last piece that I had moved would move. I was quite puzzled for a while, as I retraced my steps trying to figure out where to go next. After some more random searching, I found about five new moves but again hit what seemed to be a dead end!

I studied the way the pieces had moved so far, and was able to logically determine that a certain piece would move in a particular way. I worked my way backwards a few steps from there and discovered the step that I had been missing. It is was pretty tricky, very nicely designed!

Since I had been studying the pieces fairly closely to determine this next step, I was able to progress through the next bit fairly quickly. There is another interesting trick along the way, but I had discovered it earlier so it didn't slow me down much.

I knew that I was getting close to the end, but I got stuck for one last time right near the end. There was one more sneaky little move that took me a while to figure out. The final move is quite clever, though I can't really go into any detail on it. It is very cool though!

At last, I had it open! It took me about 30 minutes to solve it, which was perfect for me. I was a bit puzzled at a few points, but I was able to overcome each challenge without getting too frustrated. I think most puzzlers will take somewhere in the 30-60 minute range. I think non-puzzlers would find this to be quite difficult, but enjoyable.

One thing that I haven't mentioned is the "disassembling and reassembling puzzle parts" that Robert mentioned. I deliberately excluded this from the description of my solving experience, since I didn't want to give too much away about this part. This part of the puzzle is indeed quite clever, though I didn't find it too tricky to figure out. The reassembly part is not entirely necessary, but it makes one step a bit easier.

I didn't find it too tough to close the box, it probably took me about 5-10 minutes the first time. I had a pretty good understanding of how it worked since I'd just taken it apart. Still, it is possible to get tripped up and forget which pieces must be moved first.

I had such a good time with this box that I proceeded to re-solve it several more times. To give you an idea of the length of the solution, even now that I have the hang of it, it takes me about a minute to open. Closing it takes about the same about of time.

Overall, this is a really awesome puzzle, though there were a few areas where I thought it could have been improved. The craftsmanship is very good but not quite perfect. A number of the joints have small gaps, but this is not surprising since the box is very complex. There was one spot where a piece needed to be lifted a bit to make it slide over an small ledge. One piece sort of flops out of place in an unintended way, which could tempt the solver to pry it up.

It is quite tempting to use your fingernails to help slide the pieces in a puzzle like this, and I'll admit that I resorted to it a few times. In the solution booklet, Robert actually has pointed out suggested spots to stick your fingernail. I tried solving it again without using my nails at all, and it is indeed possible, though tricky at spots. However, when I first solved it, it was hard to tell if a piece was stuck or if I just wasn't able to supply enough force by friction alone. Because of this, I'll be a bit more cautious letting folks try this one out, since it would be easy to accidentally damage it this way.

The solution sequence is really quite ingenious, it is quite surprising the way some of the pieces are related and definitely keeps you guessing. I'm quite happy with this puzzle and very glad that I splurged a bit and bought one. Robert Yarger is always coming up with interesting new boxes, and this one is certainly no exception. I can't wait to see what he'll come up with next!

September 20, 2010

Zig Zag Knot

When I was at the Rochester Puzzle Picnic, Tanya Thompson of ThinkFun was kind enough to give me a copy of one of their newest puzzles: Zig-Zag Knot. Thanks Tanya!

This puzzle is following on the success of Gordian's Knot after Gordian's Knot showed that a difficult burr could indeed be successful. Designed by Ronald Kint-Bruynseels, Zig-Zag Knot is a unique variation on the classic board burr. Rather than having flat pieces like a board burr, the pieces are shaped like Z's with the ends bent. This complicates the interactions between the pieces, since the shapes tend to interfere with each other.

It took me about 20 minutes to get it apart, though the first time I did it I used a rotational move to remove one of the pieces. This is not necessary and shortcuts the solution somewhat. Removing the first piece is probably the biggest challenge in the disassembly, I thought the second piece followed rather easily.

It is at this point that you can use a rotational move to easily remove the third piece, and for a while I was at a loss for the 'real' way to do it. Eventually I figured it out, but it took me a while to discover it. Once you have the third piece out, the rest comes apart quite easily.

I kept pretty good track of the pieces as I was taking it apart, since it was sure to be a real pain to put back together if the pieces got scrambled. Fortunately this enabled me to put it back together fairly quickly. Considering the amount of time I spent with it, I think even if I jumbled up the pieces I would remember what colors went where, which is the downside to having the pieces be multi-colored (though it looks nice!)

The solution sequence for this burr is 37 steps long, with the beginning being the most interesting and difficult part. There are plenty of dead ends that make it a challenging and interesting puzzle. It really makes you think about how the pieces interact in order to find the solution. It could take quite a while if you are just fiddling with it idly, since it would be pretty difficult to identify the correct path by chance.

The solution booklet is pretty clever: you can read through it from front to back to disassemble it, then you can turn it over and read it backwards to re-assemble it. I didn't try to follow it through the whole way, but they seem quite clearly written in case you get stuck.

Another nice feature is that the pieces have little marks on them so you can gauge how far you are moving the pieces. This is quite helpful for lining the pieces up, since it would be hard to tell otherwise.

I think the only downside to the puzzle for me is that one rotational move. It was almost a challenge to keep the pieces from rotating while I tried to find the correct solution: once I got two pieces out there was plenty of room for rotations. Still, this is not a big issue because the most interesting part of the puzzle comes at the beginning.

Overall, Zig Zag Knot is another great puzzle by ThinkFun! I am always happy to see interesting and challenging puzzles like this reach a wider market.

September 14, 2010

Cast H&H

Well, it has been quite a while since I've written about Hanayama's Cast Puzzle series! This series of puzzles was actually what ignited my interest in puzzling, and I've blogged quite a bit about it. I mentioned this to Teddy Sakamoto of Hanayama during the Founder's Reception at IPP 30, and he was kind enough to give me a copy of one of their latest puzzles: Cast H&H. Thanks Teddy!

Unlike most of the puzzles I got at IPP, I actually tried this one right away. I was quite eager to see what it was like, and how long it would take me to solve it. Would it take minutes or hours?

This puzzle was designed by Oskar van Deventer, and like many of his puzzles is like a maze. It consists of two pieces that rotate in an interesting manner, and the goal is to separate them.

I really like the simplicity of two-piece puzzles, since they need to be fairly clever to stay challenging. This one is quite similar to Cast Keyring. In Cast Keyring, the pieces are sort of C-shaped, with an opening on only one end. Cast H&H, as you would expect, has two pieces that are shaped like the letter H. It is very nicely made, with a great shiny silver finish and a good weight in your hand.

It is hard to recall, but I think I spent a good 30 minutes on this one at IPP and didn't have any luck with it. When I got home and revisited it, I was able to figure it out in maybe 20 minutes or so. Sometimes with these maze-type puzzles, a certain move just doesn't occur to you. When you finally find it, there's a nice feeling of "Ah hah! I haven't seen this before!"

There are a number of ways that this puzzle moves, one of which is particularly interesting and different from Cast Keyring. One issue that I had with this puzzle was that it is possible to force some moves that should not be possible. This allows you to shortcut the solution path somewhat, but is not a huge problem. Just try to avoid it if you want to get the full effect.

Sometimes it was hard to line the pieces up just right to execute a move, but I got better at that with practice. I would revisit what I thought was a dead end only to find that I could actually proceed.

I found it to be just as difficult to return it to its starting configuration as it was to take it apart in the first place. The move sequence is pretty long, so it is easy to forget exactly what you did when taking it apart. I think it took me a good 20 minutes to get it back together. Even after solving it once, I enjoyed solving it a few more times until I felt like I really mastered it.

Overall, an excellent puzzle by Oskar!

September 13, 2010

Sushi Puzzle Box

During our recent trip to the International Puzzle Party in Japan, my fabulous girlfriend, Kellian, was kind enough to purchase a puzzle box for me. She had been exploring the Hakone area while I was puzzling, and she came across a nice hotel that also happened to sell some Karakuri Creation Group boxes. I was quite thrilled that she selected a box my one of my favorite craftsmen, Hiroshi Iwahara!

I didn't try to solve it while we were in Japan, as was the case with most of the puzzles I got while we were there. When we got home, this was one of the first ones I tried!

It is beautifully finished and has a great appearance: I think this one will really stand out in my collection due to its unusual look. The wood is beautifully finished, and I really like the woods selected for the pieces of sushi. These nice photos are from Izumia, though they are currently out of stock on Karakuri Sushi.

This puzzle actually consists of two compartments, one in each piece of sushi. Iwahara's hint in the description is to think about "how to eat" and "how to hold" them. I started with the one on the right, which is not attached to the base.

I had a pretty good guess for how this one would work, but it still took me a good 10-15 minutes to figure out just how to open it. One panel was a bit tight and required a bit of wiggling to open up, which I think delayed me a bit. These puzzles are quite sensitive to humidity, so this is frequently the culprit. I really liked the solution, since, as the hint implies, it is quite related to sushi.

The second piece of sushi on the left is attached to the base. It took me a similar amount of time to figure this one out, about 10-15 minutes. It is sort of like a type of trick I had seen before, though a bit different. I think most will find this to be quite difficult. I have shown it to a number of people, and they have all required some encouragement in the right direction.

I think the only downside to this puzzle is the tight fit on the first piece of sushi. I'm not sure if they're all like that, but it is the case with mine. Other than that, I thought that the solutions were clever and the craftsmanship is superb!

Thanks again to Kellian for the lovely puzzle box!

September 9, 2010

Mochalov Cube and Lennox Burr

I borrowed a number of puzzles from John Devost a while ago, and for some reason I hadn't written about these yet, so it is about time!

Mochalov Cube is an interesting interlocking puzzle that was designed by Leonid Mochalov and made by the Pelikan workshop. It has quite an unusual shape, and leaves you wondering how it might work. This copy is very nicely crafted, with a smooth finish and a perfect fit.

Getting it apart isn't too tricky, but it may take a few minutes. It actually disassembles into 18 pieces, though 12 of them are identical and it is easy to tell where they go. The core of it is made up of 6 pieces that hook together in an interesting manner. It is held together by a key piece.

Getting it back together wasn't too hard, since I kept track of how the pieces came apart. Emboldened, I took it apart and scrambled the pieces. Since I had an idea of how they went together, this wasn't too tricky. It wasn't too hard to identify what pieces went where since it has a fairly logical pattern.

I think I could have done without the 12 identical pieces, they are more decorative than anything and don't really improve the difficulty. Still, it is a cool puzzle that I had a good time with!

Lennox Burr is a pretty tricky 9 piece burr designed by Wenzel Hieke and also made by they Pelikan workshop. It is non-trivial to disassemble, with a number of dead ends that make it pretty confusing. It is nicely crafted out of three different types of wood.There are two different types of pieces, 6 of one and 3 of another, which I think gives this puzzle a nice symmetry.

You would think that having so many identical pieces would make it easy to assemble, but this is far from the case! Since there are 9 pieces to deal with, I found it pretty tricky to keep track of what is going on and spent several nights trying to reassemble it. Eventually I resorted to looking at the solution for this one to get it back together. Definitely a challenge!

Thanks again to John for loaning me these great puzzles!

September 8, 2010

CMC Puzzles

The last group of puzzles that Jeff loaned to me were a series of puzzles made by CMC Puzzles in Germany. Jeff had written about each of them on his website, so I was interested in trying them out to see how I liked them. Note that all the photos are taken by Jeff.

They are all fairly inexpenve, ranging from 10 to 20 euros, which is a great price range. Here's a direct link to the section ef the CMC website that contains this category of puzzles. They are under the Technikspiele category.

This first one is Beziehungskiste, which is falsely attributed to Stewart Coffin on CMC's website. I believe that this mechanism was invented by Alan Boardman, though I have also seen a similar mechanism in other puzzle boxes. Jeff also notes this in his blog entry about this puzzle. Since I had seen the trick before, it only took a minute or two to solve.

The name means "relationship crate" though the name doesn't seem to have an obvious relationship to the mechanism. Perhaps it has additional meaning in German beyond what can be gathered from Google Translate.

It is made with a laser cutter out of plywood, the finishing is pretty rough and the fit is a bit loose. For the price, this is not unreasonable, but compared to Bits and Pieces, who also produce puzzle boxes in this price range, I prefer the natural wood used by Bits and Pieces.

Rather than purchase this, I would suggest Small Box #2 from the Karakuri Creation Group. The mechanism isn't identical, but the way of solving it is. It is much cleaner and better crafted for only slightly more money, though shipping is included.

This next one is called Bee Box. It has an octagonal shape, which I first thought was related to the bee theme, but then I realized that honey combs are hexagonal, not octagonal. Oh well! The engraving on the top is cute.

The construction quality is similar to Relationship Box: pretty loose, not particularly well finished. There are scorch marks from the laser that you can see in the photo, which looks a bit sloppy.

This puzzle has the unfortunate problem of solving itself during transit. As Jeff mentioned, it arrived solved when he got it. I initially thought that it just wasn't locked properly, but when I received it it was also unlocked! Upon inspection, I don't think the mechanism will typically be able to stay locked during shipping.

As such, if you purchase this puzzle, upon receiving it, you should give it to somebody else to re-lock it, so you can have the enjoyment of solving it. Unfortunately, I don't think it comes with instructions, so this person should be mechanically inclined so they can figure out what needs to be done. If I had done this, I think it would have taken about ten or twenty minutes to solve, but it is hard to tell. You may be tempted to use an external tool for this one, but as Jeff noted in the comments, this is not necessary!

This puzzle box is called Maple Chest, and has a nice little maple leaf on the top. The fit is slightly better on this, though the finish is a bit rough. There was some scorching on the inside of the back panel that you can see in the photo.

Similar to Jeff's experience, I was able to open this one reliably, but I'm not sure if I had the correct solution. The mechanism is not visible when the box is open, so it is hard to tell.

This could probably be opened by jiggling it around randomly enough, but my solution involved an external tool and is not particularly clever. It took me a few minutes to figure this out. I think I have a fairly good understanding of what the mechanism is like, and that is the only solution that I could figure out. I'd be interested to know if there is a better one, but I doubt it.

This box, named Mini Crate, is actually the one that took me the longest to solve, probably about 10 minutes. This was a bit surprising, since, as Jeff notes, it has the same mechanism as another puzzle box that we have both tried.

The construction and finish are similar to the other boxes. There is a slight scorch mark on the lower right of the lid. This one is quite a bit smaller than the other boxes, which makes sense given the name.

I would sugest purchasing Fake Box by the Karakuri Creation Group instead: it has the same mechanism and is much nicer looking.

The last puzzle is Bolt, also by CMC puzzles. It is pretty small, about two inches long. Unlike the other puzzles, this is not a box. The goal is to remove the metal bolt from the wooden stick.

Since this one was pretty small, the number of ways that it could work seemed fairly limited. I tried a few of the usual things that I try, and none of them worked. After studying it for a bit, I was able to figure out the solution.

It is pretty clever, and I like the compact size. It would be a good one to carry in your pocket or something, but it is a bit difficult to give to non-puzzlers. I think most will find this to be quite difficult! I think this is my favorite of these five puzzles.

Overall, I was not very impressed by the puzzle boxes from CMC, but they have a number of other types of puzzles that look pretty interesting. I would just steer clear of these particular puzzle boxes, but I enjoyed Bolt and would recommend it.

A big thanks again to Jeff for loaning me all of these puzzles! They are back in California with Jeff now, along with a number of the puzzle I recently picked up while in Japan, so you can look forward to his posts about those on soon.

September 7, 2010

Gold Coast Parking Meter

Another puzzle that I borrowed from Jeff of was the Gold Coast Parking Meter by Brian Young. I was pretty close to buying this one at IPP, but managed to restrain myself and didn't end up purchasing it. I was quite happy that I was able to get the chance to give it a try!

Here's Jeff's photo of it, and you can read his blog entry here. It is still for sale on Brian Young's website Mr. Puzzle, where you can read quite a bit about it. The goal is to get the coin to drop into the meter and reassemble the puzzle with the coin inside.

It was Brian Young's exchange puzzle for the 2007 International Puzzle Party in Gold Coast, Australia. As such, this was quite an appropriate exchange present. Here's an amusing excerpt from his site:
Meter Maids were first seen in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast in 1965 to try to help beat the bad image created by the installation of parking meters. Gorgeous girls in gold bikinis fed coins into expired parking meters to prevent tourists from being fined, causing quite a controversy at the time.
The puzzle is constructed out of Yellow Leichhardt for the meter, whose yellow wood was chosen to match the color of parking meters in the Gold Coast. The stand is made out of Mackay Cedar. Overall, it has a nice appearance and it stands about 6 inches tall.

Jeff warned me that the stand wasn't part of the puzzle,  since it had accidently come off while he was trying to solve it. When I first examined it, there were some features that looked like part of the mechanism, so I focused on those. After a minute or two, I figured out the first step, but I got stuck there for a while and took a break.

When I returned to it, I tried a few different things, none of which ended up working. Finally, I came up with an idea that ended up being correct. It is pretty clever! After finishing this step, the coin dropped inside, but I needed to figure out how to put it back together.

In Brian's description of the puzzle, he mentions that reassembling it is a different puzzle than taking it apart. I didn't really find this to be the case, since there isn't anything new that you discover along the way. Strictly speaking, the steps are a bit different, but I thought it was pretty obvious once you saw the mechanism.

Still, I don't think this detracts from a great puzzle. It is very simple mechanically, but it is quite difficult to solve. Overall, I really liked it! Thanks again to Jeff for loaning it to me.

September 3, 2010

Dovetail Jewel Box and Banded Dovetails

The two puzzles that I borrowed from Jeff that stumped me for the longest were Sandfield's Dovetail Jewel Box and Sandfield's Banded Dovetails. Sandfield's Dovetail Jewel Box was designed by Robert Sandfield and made by Perry McDaniel. As far as I know, it is the last of the exchange puzzles made by Perry for the Sandfield brothers, and it is a doozy! Check out Jeff's site for his post about this puzzle.

As you can see from this lovely photo by Jeff, it comes with a key, and has a keyhole on the front. There is a dovetail on the front as well, which is persistant theme both Robert and Norman Sandfield's exchange puzzles. On the back is a metal hinge. As with all of Perry's work, it is exquisitely crafted with a nice finish and just the right fit.

The really clever thing about this puzzle is the sheer number of red herrings that were included. This is was quite amusing, since I kept discovering something that must be the solution (since I had tried everything else), but it turned out to be a red herring.

This one took me several hours to solve across several days, but I think some will find it a bit easier. For some reason my mind did not think to explore a particular possibility for quite a while. I had the right idea, but I just wasn't going about it in the right manner. Eventually, after carefully inspecting it, I was able to rule out all but one option, which was the solution!

This is a really great puzzle, but to appreciate it fully it helps to be familiar with the other boxes in the series. The solution given is quite amusing, since it actually takes you through each of the red herrings: "Try X. Notice that X has nothing to do with the solution. Disregard X."  Funny stuff!

Jewel Box is confusing due to all of the red herrings, since there are many ways to approach it, but Banded Dovetails is tricky because it gives you absolutely nothing to work with. Check out Jeff's post about it here.

At first inspection, it is completely fused together and nothing will budge. It is beautifully crafted by Kathleen Malcolmson and designed by Perry McDaniel as Robert Sandfield's Exchange puzzle in 2008.

I worked on this one for quite a while, again employing all of the familiar tricks that are common in these dovetail puzzles. However, I did not have much luck. Eventually, I stumbled across the solution which is quite elegant in its simplicity. They could have easily made it a bit tougher, but I think this was just right: it is quite difficult as it is! Another very nice puzzle!

September 1, 2010

Terra I and Navigator Box

These are two fairly similar boxes that I borrowed from Jeff of I had a general idea of how they worked, each has a little magnetic disc on the top, but I was curious how they differed. Both were made by Heartwood Creations. They do not sell directly to the public, but you can purchase them from Cleverwood for $55 each.

First I tried Terra I, shown here in a photo by Jeff. It is well crafted, with a very nice finish. I like the choices of contrasting woods used and the curved corners. The lid has a little bit of play, but is firmly locked.

You'll immediately notice that the button on the top is just attached magnetically. I had a general idea of how this would work, so it didn't take very long to figure out the solution, maybe a few minutes.

The mechanism itself I found to be a bit finicky: I had the right idea, but you really need to do it just right for it to unlock. I didn't mind this, since it probably would have been too easy otherwise.

I'd say that this one is moderately difficult. With a good understanding of how to approach this type of puzzle, it may not be too hard, but puzzle novices may find it to be fairly challenging.

Next I tried Navigator Box, which has a more unique shape with bowed edges. It has a similar coloring and uses the rounded corners like Terra I.

The mechanism to this one is similar, but it is not nearly as straightforward. This one took me a good 5-10 minutes to figure out. I was a bit confused as to why it wasn't working like I expected, but eventually I figured out the solution. The trick is OK, but not as clever as I was hoping.

This one is definitely more challenging, but still doable in a reasonable amount of time. Overall, a pretty cool box!

These two boxes are similar to Walk of the Ladybug by Tatuo Miyamoto that I tried during my trip to the Rochester Puzzle Picnic. This puzzle has a similar mechanism, but it is even more challenging and interesting. Still, you can't beat the price of the Heartwood boxes. The Miyamoto box sold for $245, but is well worth it.

Thanks again to Jeff for loaning me these boxes! There are more to come, so stay tuned!