Beam Me Up, Freddy! Visitor Q by Frederic Boucher

Visitor Q

Frederic Boucher, 2020, 15 copies (more coming early 2021)

Frederic Boucher makes great packing puzzles (BonBon, Takiyaki, etc.), that are much more challenging than they might appear. He also makes some really unique puzzles with a whimsical and fun twist that make them particularly awesome, puzzles like Anti-Gravity Box and X Cube that are interesting takes on a classic puzzle genre. Visitor Q continues in this tradition (and is, oddly enough, another space-theme-adjacent Boucher puzzle reviewed by me).

Frederic contacted me some time ago to let me know that he would be making a few copies of a Sequential Discovery puzzle: VQ is mostly an interlocking disassembly puzzle that eschews some of the tropes of this classic puzzle genre to carve something of a new path via some fun sd challenges. Pretty much anything Boucher makes, I will happily try – and once I saw the letters “SD” I basically fell over myself saying “yes, please” and “thank you” and “yay!”

Frederic, in his humble and kind manner, expressed that he did not think it was overly complex and hoped that I (and the others fortunate enough to obtain a copy) would nonetheless find it to be fun. Needless to say, fun I did find it indeed.

While the term SD may be thrown around quite a bit these days, VQ comfortably meets the (collaboratively written) Discord-determined definition, which declares such to be puzzles “that take you on a journey through a set of sequential and generally non-repeating steps involving the discovery of hidden mechanisms or devices to reach a final goal.” VQ presents 4 goals that build upon one another as you discover…. things… along the way; I personally prefer to call it SD-lite, a term that I think portrays to the potential puzzler a partial picture that properly predicts appropriate expectations.

“Sequential Discovery” is not technically a puzzle genre and does not appear in the Slocum or Dalgety puzzle classification systems (an excellent classification comparison chart is available on Rob’s Puzzle Page); SD was usually used to describe aspects of some take-apart puzzles that featured multiple challenges, tools, etc. “SD-lite” might be a better fit for an interlocking disassembly puzzle that integrates SD elements into its design. This is not to detract from VQ – quite the opposite: VQ is an adaptation of a classic puzzle genre that represents something unique. (I would similarly describe Jerry McFarland’s Fidget Burr and Burrlephant 3 as SD-lite, interlocking disassembly puzzles; while they are really nothing like VQ, they nonetheless share this unique approach to puzzle design).

VQ is a relatively normal-sized cube of approximately 3″, with a single, one-voxel square hole on each of 4 sides, a three-voxel wide rectangle on a 5th, and two elliptical holes less than one voxel in width on the 6th. The instructions declare that a vortex has come, bringing forth a “visitor from another dimension who wants to be your friend.”

As if I was not already hooked, the instructions include my favorite guidelines, telling us that No hitting, shaking, force or spinning is needed to solve the puzzle. Except what it is provided with the puzzle, no external tools are allowed.”

VQ’s goals are fourfold:

  1. Unlock the vortex.
  2. Manage the visitor through the space warp and release him from the vortex (using only straight moves).
  3. The visitor had a gift for you, but he lost it somewhere during the travel. Find the gift.
  4. Return the gift and the visitor at their places of origin.

The tricky part of talking about a puzzle like this is that the first rule of talking about a puzzle like this is to “not talk about a puzzle like this.” As always, I will do my best to be careful and to only share specifics that are easily and readily discernible from a casual inspection of the puzzle, as well as a general sense of the puzzling experience.

A labeled plastic box contains the puzzle as well as instructions and a laminated strip featuring the name of the puzzle along with some neat, spacy graphics. When you first pick it up, you can see that there are a number of interlocking 3D polyominoes within the frame that are loose enough to make a bit of noise when shaken (lightly) but do not seem to be able to move any further: whatever the “vortex” may be, it is not readily apparent. Peering into the holes, you can see in its center a bright neon green something, seemingly inside some kind of clear casing: the visitor perhaps? Hard to say until we have successfully found the solution to the first challenge and unlocked the vortex in which the figure is initially trapped.

This first step confounded me: I got swept up, trying a series of moves that I thought would for sure lead to some measure of success; this is one of those puzzles that I picked up briefly, after the house was quiet: my wife and son asleep, the dogs tucked away. I did not intend on spending more than a few minutes with it, having looked forward to it since it arrived in the middle of a rather busy afternoon. As with many a fun puzzle, those few minutes grew closer to an hour before I realized that sleep might be a good idea – regardless, I realized that I might need clarification on something before I could expect any success. Frederic responded quickly, his answer waiting in my inbox the next morning (as he is in Japan, it was mid-day for him when I sent the email). As you may have guessed, all of my assumptions about the puzzle were pretty much completely incorrect and what I thought I needed to do was pretty much nothing like what I actually needed to do. Learning I was wrong only made me more intrigued by the puzzle. I had to step back and let go of my assumptions to find something I had missed; once found, I had to open my mind to think critically about what this might mean and what could be done with it. The aha moment that eventually came was probably more satisfying than that which I had previously expected, prompting laughing, some mental finger-wagging, and several repetitions of the newly discovered move(s).

The multiple challenges were well-planned: after working my way through the third goal, the puzzle was probably about as far from its initial state as is possible. This segued perfectly into the fourth and final goal as the puzzle was so jumbled that resetting the puzzle to its initial state took some thought; my spatial reasoning and short-term memory are faulty enough that successfully navigating the pieces back to the beginning was a (fun) puzzle in itself.

I asked Frederic if I could share this puzzle with my imaginary fives of readers, largely as I am advocating for someone to take up the mantle or producing additional copies for public consumption, a prospect that he has said he would welcome. Frederic seems to prefer designing new puzzles rather than producing large quantities of existing ones and I hope that VQ is simple enough that it could be reproduced without too much difficulty by someone with the appropriate skills – of course, it could well be more complicated to produce than I realize. I shared it with someone who is vastly better equipped to determine this and so maybe we will get lucky and see some additional copies down the road. I actually just received word that Frederic will be making more copies in early 2021, so good news! (ed. Great news! Not only did make a few more copies available, but Eric Fuller has decided to produce a run! They may be available with the March 1 update, although this is of course subject to change – you can check for updates on its production here).

If I am being totally honest, owning a really rare puzzle feels good, but it would make me happier if more people got the chance to try the puzzle as I really think others would enjoy it. It is true that it is not overly complex, but what really matters is that it is fun. Fun enough to inspire me to write what turned out to be a heckuva lot of words. Sometimes simple puzzles are so fun that I might prefer them to others that will end up sitting on my shelf for months as I struggle (sometimes seemingly in vain) to find the solution; VQ combines sneaky tricks with entertaining movements to create something unique, resulting in an interlocking disassembly puzzle that would be good without such deviousness and is even better with it.

Fun Grade: 5 Sinatras
(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)

Puzzle Oddity

Anti-Gravity Box

Frederic Boucher, 3D Packing Puzzle, 2.25″ x 2.25″ x 1.5″

A few months ago, I wrote to Frederic in the hopes that he might happen to have a few puzzles that were seemingly unavailable. Most were, but he did happen to have a last copy of Anti-Gravity Box, which I happily requested, along with a few other new puzzles that he had on hand.

I have solved several of Frederic’s puzzles in the past – 3D and 2D packing puzzles that offer a serious challenge, comparable to pieces by MINE or Osanori Yamamoto, featuring elements such as interlocking elements and restricted openings.

Anti-Gravity, however, adds new mechanics by introducing a number of magnets into the mix. This makes for a unique and novel puzzling experience; it is no longer “just” about finding a way to get the pieces into their frame, as the magnets throw one’s general approach out the window.

The box is a 3×2 voxel frame that features a removable, acrylic top, allowing you to easily reset the puzzle and view your progress. The box has two, single voxel openings at 90 degrees to one another; both are in the middle of the bottom level, allowing you to enter each axis, but offering no room for angles of any kind. You must fill it with 6 identical rectangular 3×1 blocks; 2 have two magnets on one side, 3 have magnets on one end, and one block has none.

There are rules, of course: you need to place it on a flat surface and you are not meant to pick it up or tilt it (of course, you may hold it while you insert other pieces); you cannot poke your finger into either of the openings to push the pieces; it goes without saying that you cannot just lift off the top and place them in. The removable top is a kind addition, as it avoids the need to struggle to remove pieces when you have eventually found you had made a mistake. The puzzle arrived with the pieces stacked neatly inside. It is kind of cool to have a puzzle so confident in its structure, that it can come fully solved without having spoiled anything.

While by no means simple, neither is it an overly difficult puzzle – in my experience, one of his other packing puzzles was more challenge than I could meet (I am admittedly not so great at packing or interlocking puzzles generally – my interest far exceeds my ability when it comes to these types of puzzles).

More importantly, this is a very fun puzzle, and one with which trial and error will not get you very far; knowing the pieces you can eventually figure your way through it.. After spending a few minutes playing with it, experimenting to get to know the pieces and what they can and can’t easily do, I had to stop and think. This led to the first big aha moment of a series of such moments, leading to the full solution. Each step is its own planned approach, each piece requires forethought once a workable order has been determined. Apparently, this has two approaches that lead to similar solutions; I have found one and will undoubtedly spend some more time to find the second.

TL;DR: Anti-Gravity Box by Frederic Boucher is an original approach to a 3D packing puzzle, with magnetic pieces needing to be stacked using entries that allow for little margin of error. While not Boucher’s hardest puzzle, each move must be planned and purposeful through thoughtful approach and not just trial and error. It features a convenient removable top to reset after you inevitably make a mistake, and is so confident in its own puzzling, that it can arrive solved without lessening its challenge.

Originality: 4 and a Half Sinatras

Difficulty: 3 and a Half Sinatras

Instructions Included