October 27, 2010

Newton's Egg by Stephen Chin

This puzzle was Stephen Chin's exchange puzzle at IPP30 in Japan. I had seen photos of Stephen's work before, but this was the first that I have had the pleasure of trying.

The goal is to open the egg, and the hint is that it is based on Newton's three laws of motion. This particular copy is made out of Huon Pine, which gives it a nice aroma. I was intrigued by the hint and decided to buy a copy.

When I got it, it arrived it a plastic tube and was wrapped in a kid's sock. It also included a tippe top made out of colored pencils that had been glued together and turned on a lathe! This is one of Stephen's 'signature' techniques. It also included the captured ring stand you seen in the photo on the right. The ring can't come off the stand because the diameter is too small, so it is sort of an impossible object. Of course, he achieves this by carving both the stand and the ring out of a single piece of wood. Stephen is a master of the lathe!

It is quite nicely crafted, with a smooth finish. At first, it looks completely impenetrable. I had no luck just trying to take it apart, so I figured there must be a locking mechanism of some sort. I immediately noticed that there is a rather pronounced rattling when I shook it, so I thought it might have some kind of gravity mechanism.

When I actually figured it out about 10-15 minutes later, I was quite surprised at the simplicy and cleverness of the mechanism! It is simple enough that I would have thought it had been done before, but I'd never seen anything like it. Additionally, it could not have been possible if it weren't for Stephen's excellent craftsmanship. It is a fun one to open, I find myself going back to it now and then just for kicks. Once you know the trick, it isn't hard to do, but folks could struggle with this for a little while their first time.

Overall, this is a great puzzle and I'm glad that I got it. I look forward to seeing what Stephen will come up with next year!

October 25, 2010

TenPlate Puzzle

As I mentioned in the Part 5 of my series of posts about the 2010 Rochester Puzzle Picnic, Jeff Aurand gave a talk about writing a computer program to solve all TenPlate puzzles. At the end of his talk, he had a drawing for a copy of this puzzle, and I won one!

I hadn't had a chance to work on it until now, and I was curious to see how difficult it would be to solve manually. In this photo by Jeff you can see it in one of its solved positions. There are a number of solutions to it, though Jeff would have remind me how many.

The puzzle consists of ten flat pieces. There are five notches, each of which can either be tall or short. Each piece has a different combination of notches. They can be arranged as shown above to create a cube.

This puzzle was designed and made by Jean-Claude Constantin and was Luc De Smet's exchange puzzle at IPP28 in Prague. It is nicely laser cut with what appears to be a veneer of some sort, which gives it a pretty good finish for a laser cut puzzle.

I worked on it for about 20 minutes before dinner one night. My strategy was to just guess at the location of a particular piece, and try to find a combination of the other pieces that would work. When a particular arrangement wouldn't work, I'd rearrange a piece or two in hopes of remedying the issue without screwing something else up. I hoped that I had picked a location that would work for that first piece! Unfortunately I ran out of time that night and had to return to it the next day.

The next day I had a bit more time, and again continued down the same path that I started the previous day. After about 30 more minutes, I was cursing the fact that the last piece wasn't going to fit yet again. However, upon closer inspection, I noticed that it would! I was quite satisfied as the last piece slid into place.

The one thing that bugged me about this puzzle was the difficulty in lining up the pieces. Since they are fairly long, it is hard to get them quite lined up so that the grooves slide together. On more than one occasion, I would be lifting the puzzle up and wiggling pieces trying to figure out why it wouldn't slide together, only to have another piece fall out of place.

Also, it is a bit of a dexterity problem to try to get a piece out of the bottom layer without everything falling apart. I ended up just taking off most of the top layer before messing with the bottom layer, since that was usually safer.

A similar puzzle that avoids these issues is StabPuzzle by Logika Spiele. Logically it is the same idea, but physically the pieces are different. This particular puzzle is a bit simpler since it only has 8 pieces rather than 10, but the same idea could be adapted to this 10-piece puzzle. While it may be easier to manipulate, it doesn't look quite as cool as TenPlate or stay together as well.

Rob Stegmann's website has quite a bit of information on this group of puzzles, which he calls Crossed Sticks puzzles. He even wrote a solver that could solve variations of this puzzle up to 5x5. Pretty cool!

Overall, a nice little puzzle. I would say that it is fairly difficult, you'll need to be either lucky or patient when solving this one. Thanks again to Jeff for giving it to me!

October 21, 2010

Boxed In by Random Netzley

I recently had the pleasure of trying the latest puzzle box by craftsman Random Netzley of Random Woodworking. It is named "Boxed In" and Random is currently working on a limited run of 8 of these boxes. You can preorder from his website for $300 each. He was kind enough to loan me a copy to review!

As you can see from the photo, it is a striking box. I really liked the use of contrasting wood and it has a nice smooth finish. Its appearance is reminiscent of a framed burr, which made me curious as to how it might operate. Also, Random hinted that the name had something to do with the solution. It is fairly large for a puzzle box at 5“ long, 4.5" high, and 4.5" wide, which I thought was actually a good size for this design.

When I first tried to open the box, it seemed completely impervious. Everything seemed pretty locked down, but eventually I discovered what I thought might be the lid. Unfortunately, that didn't do me much good since it wouldn't budge!

After examining the box a bit more, I discovered the first move, which is fairly unusual. Once I found that, the rest followed fairly logically. There are a total of 3 moves before the box can be opened. The move that actually unlocks the box has a satisfying feeling as you feel it unlock.

After solving it, I could understand better how the name relates to the solution, and it is quite unusual. It isn't something that would help you solve it. This box has a rather novel locking mechinism which I haven't seen before. Pretty clever!

Overall, I think it took me about 5 minutes to solve, and it had a nice "Ah hah!" moment when I found the first move. The only negative that I can think of is that some of the details are not quite "perfect", but you'd have to study it closely to notice. However, as I mentioned before, it looks great!

I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more puzzle boxes from Random, he does very nice work and, if this box is any indication, has some interesting ideas as well! Check out the gallery on his website for more photos of both regular boxes and puzzle boxes by Random.

October 17, 2010

Silver Revomaze

The Silver Revomaze is the fourth puzzle in a series of five increasingly difficult puzzles. Check out my entries about Blue, Green, and Bronze if you'd like to read more about these puzzles. If you're not familiar with them, the entry on Blue is a good place to start so you know the basics of how they work.  Thanks to John Devost for loaning me this puzzle!

I have been working on the Silver Revomaze since March of this year, and only just solved it now. I didn't keep track, but I think it took somewhere in the range of 40-60 hours for me to complete it, which I think makes it the hardest puzzle I've had the pleasure of solving so far! This puzzle is definitely not for the faint of heart, it will take a ridiculous amount of patience.

Along with incorporating the feature that was introduced in Bronze, this Revomaze also features gravity pins, so the orientation that you're holding the puzzle in matters! This is noted on the website, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything by mentioning it. These don't turn out to be too much of a problem once you figure out how to deal with them.

After working on it briefly, I discovered a very unusual feature: there was a canyon that obstructed my path that goes all the way around the maze! Based on my understanding of the way these puzzles work, it seemed impossible for this to be true, since it doesn't seem like there could be any way to get across.

I was completely baffled! After being stumped for days, I set it aside for a few weeks. After this break, I approached it again with renewed vigor and finally was able to cross the canyon! I think it took me a good 25 hours or so just to make it past this part. I wasn't entirely sure what I had done, but I was across the canyon and didn't look back.

As soon as I started to make progress, I was immediately stuck again. The second phase of this puzzle is referred to as the swamp. It is an area that you can enter and wander around in, but it appears that there is no way to exit it other than the way that you came in. Quite baffling!

Again, I was completely stuck for days and couldn't figure out how to proceed, so I set it aside again. It became really frustrating to try the same thing over again for hours without thinking of anything new to try. Hopefully with some time, I would have some kind of inspiration.

A puzzler friend of mine Derek Bosch had solved this puzzle a while ago, and every time I would chat with him, he'd ask me how Silver was going. Usually, my reply was that I hadn't really spent much time on it recently, but I got sick of giving that answer and decided to give it another shot. After all, Derek had solved it, so I should be able to solve it as well with enough time!

I finally started putting some time into this puzzle again, and started to make what felt like progress, though I wasn't really moving forward. I was just starting to really think about the puzzle again and what my options could be. Finally, with some encouragement from Derek, I had the flash of inspiration that turned out to be the solution to the swamp!

Unfortunately, the flash of insight is only half the battle: actually implementing the solution would be really difficult, if I was correct. It turned out that I was indeed correct, and indeed it was really difficult. I can't really say any more about it without giving anything away, but suffice it to say that it is pretty insane. I was surprised that it was even possible!

Even after I had figured out what I needed to do, it took me a few more days to actually execute it correctly. Finally, a few days ago, I was able to get to the other side of the swamp! I could finally see that I was really close to the end, but I couldn't quite make it!

After a few more hours of frustration, I finally had figured it out how to get to the end. Phew! I was so excited that I called Kellian and posted on Facebook. As of the time that I'm writing this, it looks like only 27 people have solved the Silver Revomaze so far, though the list may not be entirely up to date. I don't actually own this puzzle, so I can't get on the opening order list, but here's a photo to prove that I did it!

Once I got it solved, I very carefully took it apart. Derek had warned me that it is easy to lose some of the small pieces, so I was quite careful. It was pretty stunning to see how it was actually constructed, the picture I had in my mind's eye was spot-on for certain features, but completely off for others. It is beautifully crafted and excellently designed.

One big downside to this puzzle, in my opinion, is that if you don't put it back together just right, it may end up locked forever! Because of this, I was very careful putting it back together. I didn't want to be responsible for turning John's puzzle into a very expensive paper weight.

Overall, I would say that this is a superb puzzle, but sadly only a small group of persistent solvers will be able to fully appreciate it since it is so absurdly difficult. There were a few aspects of the design that I would change somewhat, but overall it was very well done. I am quite intimidated to see what the Gold Revomaze will bring! It is sure to be packed full of even more tricky features.

Thanks again to John for loaning me this puzzle, and Derek for his encouragement! It feels pretty awesome to finally conquer this beast!