Add It Up: Plus Box by Kagen Sound

Plus Box

Kagen Sound
Figured Koa, Mahogany, Holly, and Gabon Ebony (Exterior)
English Sycamore, Tamo, Walnut, Hard Maple, Cocobolo and Baltic Birch Plywood (Interior)
2021, 14 Copies

When a fellow discordian (discordant?) puzzler asks me if I want to borrow a Kagen Sound puzzle, the answer is always a resounding yes! I must overcome my fear of damaging another puzzler’s puzzle when said puzzle is difficult to get your hands on, as with most all of Kagen’s boxes.

Last year Kagen sent out an email about a new puzzle box: Plus Box (you can find Kagen’s description here). Unsurprisingly, due to the limited quantities (only 14 copies made!) and high demand, the boxes went to lottery to determine what lucky few would be able to get a copy. It says something about the appetite of the typical puzzler for Kagen’s work (not to mention the wonderful quality of everything Kagen makes) that a box at a pretty high price point would nonetheless end up with too many puzzlers hoping to get one. Sadly, I was not among the lucky few and watched as the boxes made their way across the world into the hands of 14 lucky puzzlers. (You can also check out my write-up of his Butterfly Box and Tornado Box, the latter made in collaboration with Akio Kamei).

Getting my hands on this beautiful box was a delight – Kagen is a master craftsman (the only non-Japanese Karakuri member, which says a lot) and the quality is readily apparent in the smooth, silky yosegi and seams that are nearly impossible to detect. The box just feels so great, with small details that exemplify the high level of quality, such as the raised lip that offsets the thin ebony line separating the sides of the box from the top yosegi, which is itself made out of more than 1,700 tiny pieces of wood carefully shaved in the traditional manner (apparently this is a variation on typically yosegi called yosegi-zaiku, the added width of the shaving presenting an added challenge for Kagen to master).

And such woods! The outside is mostly made of highly figured koa that smoothly shimmers with fine grain patterns. The top and bottom mix mahogany, holly, and Gabon ebony and inside you will find English sycamore, tamo, walnut, hard maple, cocobolo and Baltic birch plywood. Just…….. gorgeous.

Starting out, it took me a bit to find anything that did anything, the quality of the woodworking hiding its secrets as well as any Karakuri. Eventually I found my way into the solution and I discovered that Kagen designed the box to integrate amazingly satisfying haptic feedback into the main mechanism using “a twist on traditional methods” used in Japanese himitsu-baku (the classic Japanese puzzle box). Needless to say (as if that would stop me), I happily played for an extended period before attempting to progress further. The feel and sound also helps to guide the puzzler through the solution, marking some points of progress with a gratifying click.

The puzzle provides a good challenge but the initial solution was perhaps not too difficult – fun and satisfying, I was able to open it in one extended session. However, this is not the end of the puzzle! There is another challenge after you have opened the box that awaits, which I found to be decidedly more difficult; it takes some critical thinking to deduce what this goal might be, followed by perhaps as much puzzling as for the main goal. Having reached this second solution, I learned that Kagen has made it possible to completely disassemble the box and reassemble in two different configurations for two additional distinct challenges.

As the box is not mine, I did not take advantage of these extra challenges, preferring to carefully reset the puzzle and return it to its bubble-wrapped state (after taking a few pics, of course). Regardless, the fact that Kagen has designed the box in this way again highlights the level of quality of his work – the fact that it is even possible to disassemble, the elegant joints he uses are so precise that you really need not worry about the puzzle suffering as a result – while my shaky hands mean I wouldn’t do it to someone else’s puzzle, I really would not have worried had it been mine. If you have the chance to try the alternate challenges, I’d love to hear about it!

Plus Box is about as pretty as a box can get, with an immensely satisfying mechanism that makes solving it extra fun. Thanks to the kind puzzler that let me borrow it for a bit!

Kagen and Kamei Get Twisted: Tornado Box by Kagen Sound & Akio Kamei

Tornado Box (SP-1)

Akio Kamei & Kagen Sound
Walnut, English Sycamore & Cherry
10cm x 10cm x 10cm
Amazing Puzzle Collaborations: Episode II – Get Back in your Homes (because there’s a tornado coming… not because it sort of rhymes with “Attack of the Clones”)

Hundreds of days ago, in the puzzling days of yore (i.e. 2021), Karakuri announced that they would be releasing a limited run of a new box co-designed/made by Akio Kamei and Kagen Sound. This collaboration was enough to make many a puzzle go bonkers: Kamei is The Godfather of the KCG, its oldest living member and all-around awesome designer & craftsman; Kagen is the only non-Japanese member of the Karakuri Creation Group (KCG) and also an all-around awesome designer & craftsman. Therefore, according to Puzzle Algebra: X + X = 5S, where X is an all-around awesome designer & craftsman and 5S is… well, hopefully you know what that is if you’re reading this.

Tornado Box is a beautifully smooth cube, broken along the center by a carefully crafted imperfect line. It is silky smooth to the touch, its beautiful walnut grain offsetting the two-tone interiors. It is quite a bit lighter than I had expected, particularly for a decent-sized 4″ cube. These two master craftsman collaborated on the design, as the two halves must work together to open both sides.

Kagen crafted the lovely walnut box along with the lighter, sycamore interior, sending it to Kamei to add in the cherry interior on the other side (for more information on the puzzle’s background, check out Boxes & Booze). It is important to note that separating the two halves does not require any puzzling, so showing the interior faces is not a spoiler (it is shown on the original KCG description, which FYI does have a bit of a spoiler in the written description).

Unlike most Karakuri boxes, this was announced as a limited run (other boxes could conceivably be remade at any time, although the majority, of course, are not). Despite a hefty price tag, it unsurprisingly still received more interest than there were boxes, pushing it to a member lottery, which I sadly did not win. I watched from afar as the boxes began arriving in the homes of fellow collectors, a single tear slowly slipping from my eye…

Until, out of the bottomless void that is the interweb, there ascended the kind and caring Vonsch (from the MP Discord), offering to loan it to me! I am constantly amazed by the level of trust and generosity of the MPD and the puzzling community at large. Needless to say, this was a bad idea that earned me one free puzzle box! I hope this can be a good lesson for Vonsch in the future.

Buuuuuuut seriously, I was taken aback by this kind and unsolicited offer, gratefully accepting and asking what I might have to loan in exchange (not that there was a presumed quid pro quo, I just hoped I could return the favor). Soon, there arrived the tell-tale blue box containing a Kamei Karakuri creation and I set to work. If you read these write-ups, you may have noticed that my enthusiasm for puzzles oftentimes surpasses my skill: Tornado, like oh so many others, would take me a pretty darn long time to solve. In my defense, I was even more cautious and obsessively careful than usual – this may have hindered some early progress as I kept asking Vonsch if I could do this or try that. Vonsch took it all in stride, possibly enjoying my ignorant flailing about as I went through idea after idea.

Eventually…. aha! Once more crowned the smartest person in the world, I managed to move small bits of wood that I previously could not move! I stood and shouted at this mere block of wood: “Son of Jor-El, kneel before Zod!” before remembering that not only had I not just escaped from the Phantom Zone, but I had only solved the first half of the puzzle, its solution beautifully hidden, an elegant mechanism that is probably even harder to craft than I realize.

I knew that the solution to the other half of the puzzle somehow relied on having solved the first but I nonetheless would struggle to discover it, continuing to bug Vonsch with my paranoid, high maintenance ruminations. I had some ideas (it happens every now and then) and narrowed them down until developing a fairly clear picture of (more or less) what needed to be done. And so……. aha! I found yet another graceful movement that can likely only be achieved by craftspeople of this caliber. Despite repeating the solution a few more times, I am still not exactly sure how one half works – I mean, I know what to do, I’m just not sure why it works! A nice mystery to think on, sure to be a future conversation that will leave me a little bit smarter (clearly I can use it). In the meantime, Tornado will soon be back with its rightful owner and I will return to failing to solve something else.

You got Cherry on my Sycamore!
You got Sycamore on my Cherry!

Butter’d and Fly’d: Butterfly Box by Kagen Sound

Butterfly Box

Kagen Sound, 98 copies, 23cm x 8cm
Bastogne Walnut, Quilted Pacific Maple, Madone, Wenge, Baltic Birch, Cocobolo, Paulowina, Alaskan and Western Red Cedar

It isn’t long before most tyro puzzle box aficionados will hear the name Kagen Sound. It will likely be much longer before said boxer can get their hands on one; the box abecedarian may then be an octogenarian but will nonetheless reach their arthritic hands towards their new acquisition with gleeful gratitude.

Overly (and unnecessarily) multi-syllabic ruminations aside, when I got an email from Kagen saying that my name had made it to the top of his list for the newly released Butterfly Box, this quadragenarian was more than happy to take a copy off his hands.

Butterfly Box is the third and final entry in his Lotus Trilogy, following the Caterpillar and Lotus Boxes some years prior. The series is an evolution of earlier puzzle projects and took him nine years to complete. All three boxes have certain similarities: each has eight concentric rings atop a hexagonal box, the narrow rings featuring a number of lines cross-crossing this way and that, a chaotic tease of its potential symmetries. Turning the various rings, you create and abandon all sorts of pretty shapes and patterns, searching for those that will offer you access to the four compartments contained within its base.

I had wondered how much of a challenge this could really be, and was happily surprised to learn that the answer is: a whole heckuva lot (to put it science-y); in fact, I still haven’t opened all of the compartments!

Each of the earlier entries in the series culminated in a final drawer that contained a partial hint to this final puzzle; these hints combhine to provide the Butterfly puzzler with some much-needed guidance in getting started. Kagen kindly includes a quality booklet that includes a pic of the combined hint from the previous boxes. The hint was most certainly welcome, as it seems as though the potential patterns presented atop this beautiful box is bordering on a crap-ton (I should really start using lay terms here).

This is a large source of my surprise: I had foolishly thought that finding the right patterns would be cake; it is instead bananas. With eight concentric rings containing numerous and varied lines going this way and that, it only take a few degrees in either direction for one or more rings to create entirely new patterns, some subtly and some significantly different, the majority of which will permit no progress.

Significant and Subtle differences allow for a LOT of variation: some patterns are immediately recognizable as being extremely distinct, others (such as those above) are more nuanced

Finding the correct ring placements isn’t quite all you need to do; some subtle requirements throughout the solution add another level of complexity to this Search for the Elusive Pattern(s). Kagen comes once more to the rescue with hints to be discovered as you progress, some well-hidden, others more obvious, but all crafted in unique ways that further highlight Kagen’s skills as a craftsman. And there are other surprises hidden with, reserved for those watchful puzzlers able to find their way through to the end.

Instead of being a beautiful breeze, blowing briefly by, Butterfly had become a devilishly deep and drawn out dive into an undoubtedly deep design – all brought together in an absolutely beautiful hex-box, perfect for collectors and solvers alike. Of course, in addition to its aesthetic attraction, its substantial size of 23cm x 8cm presents it as a perfectly prominent piece of any puzzle collection.

And surpassing this surprisingly challenging series of discoveries is the look and feel of the box, which is just freakin’ awesome sauce (scientificaliciously speaking, once again). All three boxes in the series are made of different types of walnut and maple, showing off the aesthetic range these woods offer, with an array of woods that have such different tones and figuring as to seem to be wholly different species: Butterfly pairs Bastogne Walnut with a lovely Quilted Maple, for elegantly contrasting woods with a buttery feel. And the patterns themselves are skillfully comprised of four layers of thin veneer made of Wenge and Madrone inset into each of the concentric rings, with Baltic Birch in between. Such a high level of skill is what earned Kagen the honor of being the only non-Japanese crasftperson to be a member of the Karakuri Creation Group.

An interesting note about Bastogne Walnut: this is an “accidental” tree that occurs in about 1% of walnut trees, resulting from a cross-pollination of European and US species. Bastogne trees are sterile, which contributes to their rarity as they cannot reproduce.

Butterfly Box puts Kagen’s fantastic skills as both a craftsman and a puzzle designer on full display, using subtle differences in woods to maximum effect and relying on expert methods to produce a box that is deceptively complex in multiple and unexpected ways and beautiful in all the right ones.

Excellence Grade: Five Sinatras

(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)