Sun Dial’s Art of Puzzling

Sun Dial

Jesse Born & Rob Yarger
Ipe, Katalox & Brass
2.75 lbs, 7″ x 4″
Box 2 in the Voyager Series (Sea Chest, Sun Dial, Alien)

Well, the past several weeks have been busy here in the 5S household, getting in the way of my puzzling (much to my dismay). But the wonderfully unrelenting onslaught of new puzzles has only seemed to increase its pace, with several excellent puzzles arriving during this none-too-brief, unplanned hiatus. I realize that this break has not been difficult for you, but fear not: plenty a puzzle ramble awaits you!

And what better puzzle with which to break this devastating dearth of dear old me than Sun Dial, Jesse Born’s follow-up to 2020’s excellent Sea Chest (reviewed by me here); Sun is co-designed with Rob Yarger (a/k/a The Great and Wonderful Stickman) and mostly made by Jesse (Rob did some laminating on the curved side panels, which are constructed of multiple layers of hand-carved veneer crafted by Jesse). Sun Dial is a circular box (?!), painstakingly covered in some rather intricate etchings and distressed in a fashion similar to its elder sibling. Jesse has plans for a third and final entry in the Voyager Series that will presumably share in this aesthetic, crafted to create the impression of a discovered Alien artifact that must be opened to access its other-worldly treasure. What pirates were to Sea Chest, the ancient Aztecs are to Sun Dial, with myriad markings and hidden secrets that invoke this lost world in the psyche of the spelunking (s)puzzler.

Jesse is one of those designers whose puzzles I would happily buy sight unseen (his Secretum Cista is quite probably the coolest puzzle I own). Rob is (of course) another such designer , so when I heard that Rob was designing Sun Dial with Jesse, I began drooling more than Pavlov’s dog at a doorbell store. (Rob was a big big fan of Sea Chest, which is especially high praise from the creator of some of the most insanely awesome puzzles ever to reach us mere mortals). Jesse and Rob went back and forth over a period of months, trading ideas and CAD models as they refined the design that Jesse would ultimately craft (for a more in-depth look at the design process, check out Boxes & Booze’s excellent post).

At a relatively hefty 2 lbs, 12 oz, the 7″ x 4″ Sun Dial is no small box. As part of its intentionally distressed appearance, its aromatic woods appear to have been partially stained, a greenish tint furthering its lost artifact aesthetic. It is shaped something like a flattened donut, with a citrine gem nestled into a piece of wood bridging the top of its center shaft. The outer wall is broken into 6 sections, 4 of which are covered by inset panels that have a noticeable bit of give when reset. The top alludes to the circular calendar of the Aztec civilization, a series of concentric circles and layers surrounding a set of gears that promise to put the mechanical in mechanical puzzling.

Sun Dial vs. Aztec Calendar (12 ft./25 tons, discovered in Mexico City in 1790)

In its reset state, Sun allows for some quality mechanical playtime – I first spent several minutes just playing and giggling at the smoothly tactile movements possible in its initial state. Other than some admittedly puerile fun, this did not immediately lead me anywhere productive; it would take some keen and careful observation before that first aha moment, which soon led me into the puzzling depths that await within.

Over the next few weeks, I would progress in fits and starts; discovering things that must help (while unsure of exactly how) as I pieced together the path through its various compartments. Well-hidden, subtle clues abound, some more important than others in clearing the way forward. Venturing into the puzzle’s interior gave me a sense of adventure, akin to Indiana Jones-ing (Quartermaining?) my way into an ancient temple, replete with treasure and cool discoveries that could be decorative, essential, or both.

I knew I had to be reaching the end when I was surprised by the results of a particular step that I repeated a few times with a goofy grin. Some final details discovered, I held my prize in my hand, admiring how Jesse and Rob managed to bring things full circle, like the cyclical nature of time perceived by the Aztec culture.

After resetting the puzzle and going through the solution once more, I followed a QR code printed on the back of the Certificate of Authenticity (signed by both Jesse and Rob) to a short video in which Jesse walks us through the solution. I smiled at a few details whose significance had escaped me and ran back through the solve one more time, appreciating the puzzle’s rhythm and flow.

The puzzle’s mechanics do not rely on blind mechanisms, instead favoring discrete steps that must sometimes be worked out beforehand to properly progress – I suppose it could be possible to cluelessly solve certain sections through experimental trial & error but the design provides ample direction to see you through, if you can slow down and do some of that thinking stuff the kids are all talking about these days. Either way, the mechanics are clear and purposeful, laying out a meandering path to its final treasure.

Jesse decided to increase this run to 400 copies, a big jump from the 100 Sea Chests that had (officially) been produced (let alone the 30 copies of Secretum Cista). I imagine that all 400 will not have trouble finding a home: if a collaboration between two great puzzle box-makers wasn’t enough to convince you, the positive praise that has followed its premiere will probably do the trick. The larger run may help prevent the puzzle from immediately skyrocketing on the secondhand market but I don’t expect too many collectors will want to let this one escape anytime soon (there will always be solvers and flippers, of course, but hopefully the box will remain in the realm of relative reasonableness, for a while at least). While officially sold out, (at the time of writing) the boxes are still being produced in batches and there is a drop-off list for spots that might open up should puzzlers decide to give theirs up, so be sure to swing by Jesse’s site before they’re all gone.



Stuck on Stickman: One Hand Puzzlebox (#35)

One Hand Puzzlebox (Stickman #35)

Robert Yarger, walnut & various exotic woods, 6″ x 3″ x 3″ (160 copies)

One of the best things to happen to a puzzler is to open an email from a great designer and unexpectedly learn that not only have they produced a new puzzle, but that you can get a copy! I knew Rob was working on a new puzzle (pretty sure this is pretty much always the case), but had not known the what or the when. And so it was with a hearty “yes please!” that the box was ordered. Within a week, it arrived at my door: work was cast aside, chores forgotten (which I guess isn’t really all that unique), dogs and cat ignored (I don’t think the cat noticed), mail cast aside, wife…… politely informed that I would like a few minutes, if that’s ok, and so the box was opened and the villagers rejoiced (yayyy).

But you likely care little for my inner life (rude) and instead want to know about the dang puzzle.

(note: all the information below is limited to what is included in the puzzle’s original description and instructions, including the shapes of the pieces which was shown in the accompanying photo; the rest is my personal puzzling experience and is very unlikely to spoil the experience for others)

One Hand Puzzlebox is is based on a concept by puzzler Asher Simon, and is Robert Yarger’s “tribute to the genera of packing puzzles.” Burrtools is unlikely to be of much use, however, as the pieces are oddly shaped, magnets strewn about, seemingly haphazardly but of course we know that is not the case.

The box is 6″ x 3″ x 3″ and is made of a walnut that feels and looks great (which is not surprising, considering its pedigree); my pics really do not do it justice. The lid will only slide in one direction (I might prefer it to slide NKOTB-style, but hey, I don’t judge); sliding it back, you find a compartment approximately half the length of the box before the lid stops, unable to move any further. Exotic woods of various shapes and sizes fill the cubed space (albeit with some gaps present, if i remember correctly – I have yet to find the original configuration ;-). In the center, a piece shaped sort of like a Mayan temple pops up, begging to be pulled. Rob refers to this as a “grenade pin,” which is a pretty accurate description considering what happens next.

As Rob wrote in his description, the pieces will “flip around like a transformer robot” upon being removed; the mini-explosion of pieces that have been straining for release is super satisfying and more than a little intimidating. These are not the typical voxels of a packing puzzle and the apparent randomness of the shapes indicates the difficulty of getting them back in.

The puzzle’s name stems from the recommended method of using one hand to place the pieces “back into the compartment, one at a time, and in a particular order.” The description goes on to say that “combined pieces [will] have to slide around with a satisfying ‘snap into place feel’ to fit the others in.” A minimum of 18 steps later (if you can do it in 18 steps your first time you shall be exalted and known throughout the puzzling world for your giant brain), you will have re-inserted the pieces, thereby unlocking the second compartment (neat!).

Rob rates the puzzle as “‘very difficult’ to solve correctly” and from the hours I have spent on it thus far, I’d say that is a conservative description, if anything. I will readily admit that I am not so great at packing puzzles: my spatial reasoning falls far short of my ability think critically (which is itself eclipsed by my ability to ramble far beyond what is necessary or likely even desired).

I have spent a good amount of time on this puzzle already, and have not lost interest – even really great puzzles that pose a challenge big enough to require multiple sessions generally tend to join the rest of my “in progress” (read: unsolved) puzzles well before this point. This only goes to show the extent to which the struggle to solve is legitimately fun. I can burn out on some packing puzzles after a while, feeling like I am going in circles and need to set it aside to later return with fresh eyes; but One Hand offers so many new and interesting and strange and unlikely combinations and configurations that I find myself stuck in a Civilization feedback loop (named after one of my first all-night gaming sessions from grade school, the lure of “just one more turn” causing hours to go by before we noticed the sun coming up). I have found partial assemblies that I think must be correct, only to be cast aside as I see no way that the rest can fit; attractions and repulsions of magnets alternately helping and hurting my progression, as I wonder whether they are there to help or to mislead (or, more likely, both).

Suffice it to say, when (if) I do eventually find the perfect positioning of pieces that puts me on track to unlocking the box’s second compartment, the happiest of happy dances will undoubtedly ensue as I try to follow Rob’s intended method, using one hand to place them in piece by piece, until I can slide that lid back all the way, allowing me to proudly share my achievement with my not particularly interested wife (“look! look! I moved this piece of wood a couple inches that way!!!”), and bask in the glory of my success. And the villagers shall once more rejoice (yayy).

…and then I will remember that I need to find the original combination to reset the box.

The puzzling value on this one is quite high and is already filled with smaller aha moments as I find my way closer to that final Aha! moment (hopefully, eventually…. maybe); I will also admit that I have spent more than a little time attempting to construct a robot – the pieces just demand to be experimented and played with, the time spent helping me to get to know the pieces and see how they might eventually combine in that one, perfect arrangement.

Grade: Five Sinatras


Lucky Number 13

Stickman #13: Chopsticks

Robert Yarger, 2007

Robert Yarger’s 13th puzzle box is as fun as it is pretty. After re-solving it today, it occurred to me that some folks might want to know more about it, and so here I am: telling some folks more about it, in case you might want to know.

This is one of the rare puzzle boxes with a practical use: in addition to being a fun puzzle, it is a case for a lovely pair of chopsticks. Now, I wouldn’t personally carry this around to eat with, because I don’t typically put hard-to-come-by puzzles in my mouth (I don’t put easy-to-come-by puzzles in my mouth either, but you get the point). However, it would be pretty cool to bust these out at dinner, nonchalantly puzzling my way to dinner…. ok perhaps most people would not think this was cool, but those people are probably not reading this, so who cares what they think…

The box is smaller than most of Robert’s puzzles at 10″ x 1″ x 1” and uses puzzle box tricks to solve what is, in some ways, a 4×3 voxel packing puzzle. The steps are wonderfully smooth, and there are some really cool movements that I suppose are spoilery enough that I won’t share them (feel free to ask, though, if you’re curious) – apparently, Robert had been playing with the mechanism and realized it would make for a great puzzle (which it does).

Interestingly, there were two runs of the puzzle, using slightly different woods; the first was in 2007, with the second not too long after, in collaboration with excellent OG puzzle-maker, John Devost (the biggest upgrade: they are no longer lacquered bloodwood, but rather waxed purpleheart and leopardwood (I think), lending them their practical edge).

I got my copy about two years ago: as the first box by Mr. Yarger to come my way, I suppose it may have some added sentimentality, but this is truly a beautiful and fun box. The movements are wonderfully smooth; the puzzling is ingenious, even if not terribly difficult, with the chopsticks themselves integrated into the mechanism. The box feels solid in your hands; while narrow, its overall size is nonetheless substantial. More importantly, it has a look that is memorable, a cool mix of contrasting wood that demands to be picked up and handled. Its shape adds something special to the puzzle, standing apart from other boxes, making you wonder just what is inside (assuming you didn’t already know the name).

Needless to say, if you have a chance to pick up a copy, I do not think that you will be disappointed. And if you ever see me grabbing some sushi, perhaps you’ll get a chance to try it for yourself.

The 13th Stickman puzzle is a totally unique and oddly practical box, with a lovely mix of woods and chopsticks so perfectly balanced that I am tempted to use them; normally, I wouldn’t seriously consider it, but I suppose I can make an exception for Hiroshi Iwahara’s Sushi…
My Stickman logo has unfortunately faded a bit due to numerous and frequent solves – the box nonetheless works perfectly.

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras