Sitting with Cista: The Secretum Cista Puzzle Chest Experience (without Spoilers)

Secretum Cista

Jesse Born, 30 copies, 55 lbs., 13.5” x 20.5” x 11.5”

Well, I had my fun making my introduction to the Cista – a minute or two of video does a better job of showing how pretty the chest is; that and its back is more than enough to whet your appetite.

So I figured I would talk about how it is as a puzzle experience – I am of course not going to spoil anything, but I will also describe some of what it does in its fully reset position (which I assure you isn’t much).

In case you haven’t guessed, the box does not actually emit a bright glow accompanied by the sounds of the heavens and glory (my film degree affords me the ability to produce such amazing movie magic) – it also required a signature at delivery, which was not shown in my otherwise completely accurate depiction of its arrival.

Once I had ooh-ed and aah-ed enough for the time being, I set about exploring. I had already determined that all drawers were locked, except for the circular one in the center, which opens freely (although perhaps not completely) as seen in the vid. This drawer is dark and cylindrical, with a number of squares running down its length, contrasting wood (purpleheart?) filling it partway, which can be seen as it rotates more or less freely. Other than that, no drawers will open, but many do feel unique; some have more give than others, or there may be other differences you can sense with just a bit of a tug on the handle.

The back is behind a glass door (with a neat magnet-based lock) but while you can see quite a bit of the inner workings of the chest, casual observation does not provide any clear spoilers. However, after a fairly thorough, albeit somewhat cursory, exploration of the chest overall, it becomes pretty clear where to begin. With a bit of time and patience, I begin to have some initial success, which leads to further discoveries, which then eventually leads to forking paths with suspect dead ends. I’ve made it through about 1/3 of the chest (which definitely seems to be getting progressively more difficult), and I have had to backtrack to go in a different direction, or maybe do something again but in a different way for a different result.

Looking at the pictures, I had come up with a few ideas for things that would be likely to produce results. I don’t know if this was by design, but Jesse managed to use all of these ideas in the first few drawers; it feels like he wanted to get rid of these early on and the chest ramps up in difficulty following these initial successes. And even these ideas are integrated into larger, more complex mechanisms the integrate or conceal tools or other aspects that interconnect these comparatively simple steps into the larger whole. It does not feel like you are taking on isolated puzzles; so far, 7 of the 8 drawers I have solved relate directly to the solution of at least one other drawer in some way (and of course, it is entirely possible that the 8th does as well).

Interior of Drawers (top four rows in order – all drawers in a row share the same woods)

This is sequential discovery in all its finery – SD is a term that we love to use, as it is a favorite among many of us puzzlers (for good reason); some puzzles have SD elements as part of a lock or other take-apart (many of which are absolutely fantastic puzzles that can be as good as or better as any other puzzle you can bring to the table) – fewer, though, have SD running through its veins (I’m thinking of puzzles like Slammed Car, Turtle Trip, Dark Fairy Door, Puzzleduck Pastures, Rex Rossano Perez’s coin release puzzles, Where’s My Hammer?, Three Wise Bolts, and so on).

As I proceed through the puzzles, I have already found several tools and have had to go back to go forward. My progress so far has been made over the course of several days; steps have been discovered by me in fits and starts, requiring equal parts exploration, experimentation, and exposition (daaaaaamn that’s some fine alliteration). Jesse’s workmanship is amazing and any cosmetic imperfections are entirely insignificant and endearingly inevitable in a handmade chest. In fact, the chest has been deemed fit for public consumption and has not been banished upstairs to my office (although I do plan on bringing it up once solved as the humidity os more closely controlled there).

I am currently at a wall – I’ve unlocked 8 drawers and am now good and stuck. There are some things that I know do something somehow, but damned if I know what. Which is perfect – I am confident that it will continue to confuse and create contentment as I consider the controlled consequences and considerable options concealed by the content-creating craftsman’s contemplation of a cunningly convoluted puzzle (wow that alliteration got way out of con-trol).

I reached out to Jesse (who is always quick to respond to offer assistance or clarification if sought) and he gave me permission to shoot a solution vid. I generally don’t make (or watch) such content because I have learned that you may well get your hands on a puzzle you thought was unattainable, but considering the fact that the 30 people who have a copy of the chest are likely to carry 55 lbs. of puzzle to a puzzle party, I may yet put something together showing what I’ve managed to figure out so far.

Overall Grade: The illustrious and rarely awarded Presley

“[D]espite the justified reliance on the Sinatra as the coolness quotient upon which said methodology is based, there must simultaneously exist an indicator to be used should a commodity’s value be calculated such that the Sinatra be rendered insufficient; in this event, the Presley is the more apparent and precise control to represent the coolness being commodified insofar as it exists in excess of the standardized Sinatra metric.”

Quantified Cool, John Maynard Keynes, 
Chairman of the World Bank Commission, 1944

When is a Drawer not a Drawer? When it’s a Puzzle.

Surprising Drawer

Osamu Kasho, Keyaki (Zelkova), Magnolia, Wenge, 4.6″ x 4.6″ x 4.25″

Each year, the Karakuri Creation Group (KCG) has an Idea Contest, in which people (in Japan) are free to submit box ideas to the master craftspeople, who select a few to be produced and sold via lottery. Contest winners have a tendency to be comparatively simple, while telling a story or portraying something whimsical or odd. Some dork blogger (with a cool name) posted a video and review of last year’s He Can Not Get the Ball!, which backs this claim up (assuming he can be trusted).

This year, I was able to resist buying any of the Contest Winners; although some, including Osamu Kasho’s Surprising Drawers, certainly sounded intriguing, I did not initially succumb to temptation (shocking, I know – but 2020 is shaping up to be an especially expensive puzzling year and some lines must be drawn…. and redrawn…. and then moved back a bit). The KCG descriptions will sometimes contain clues to box solutions, at times to the point of giving too much away, but for Drawers it (mostly) just said: “I tried to express the joy of its movement more than the difficulty. This product might be one that you’ll want to open again and again.” This was a head-scratcher, for sure, but I somehow still managed to resist. On top of this, Kasho is fast becoming one of my preferred KCG members: his Bara Bara Box was my favorite of last year’s holiday gifts and my recently received Ripple Out turned out to be much much cooler than I had honestly thought it would be.

And so I waited. Patiently lurking about the puzzling fora, awaiting the imminent arrival of said boxes to the homes of unsuspecting collectors, whose opinion would soon be sought for the final determination of the satiation of my desire – which is to say, I waited until some people got theirs and asked what they thought of them to see if I should try to get some after all.

Haym H., puzzle designer, collector, and all around good guy, received his in short order and was especially taken by Surprising Drawers (or, at least, I was especially taken by what he said about them – he had good things to say about all the boxes, any of which is likely to be an excellent box). Due to my cyber-stalking of the KCG site, I was well aware that the boxes had not yet sold out (ed. although a couple other contest winners are still available at the time of this writing, all of which have also received praise, Drawers is now sold out), and jumped on it quickly. I had heard enough to know that the puzzle gods must be given their due, and I feared their wrath were they to be ignored (judging from the amount of unsolved puzzles around me, I may be feeling that wrath regardless).

As usual, the box arrived within a matter of days from Hakone. My first impression was that the box is bigger than I had expected. The Idea Contest winners I have had in the past have all been larger than most of their regular counterparts, but for some reason I had not expected this to be quite so massive. The craftsmanship is, as I expect from any KCG box, excellent – the wood feels satiny and solid and the drawers could easily pass as bedroom furniture for a very tiny person. There is a hole approximately the size of a quarter on the bottom of the box, through which a bit of magnolia can be seen and felt. The three drawers have handles made of wenge, whose darkness is a lovely contrast to the lighter Zelkova of which most of the box’s exterior is made. As one would expect from drawers, they all wiggle a bit, each moving independent of the others and feeling as though they should come right open. Of course, they do not….. as that would be, in the words of the Ancient Greeks, hella lame.

If you read any of my posts, you may come to the realization that my passion for puzzles far exceeds my skills with them – which is to say, wrath of the puzzle gods aside, I’m just not all that great at them sometimes. And while this box was said to not be difficult to open, I nonetheless struggled for longer than I should have, missing what now seems obvious and getting caught up in some misdirection stemming from my own assumptions. After wondering if it was broken for longer than I care to admit (a step that should be included in the solution of every good puzzle as surely as angrily resenting one’s decision to buy Ikea furniture should be included in the directions of every Skurpingdhenghenr nightstand sold), I soon found the first step, a relatively simple move that unlocks the solution, allowing me to…….. OMG!!!

I actually LOL’ed as it came open in a shockingly unexpected manner, looking around as if the ghosts of Christmas past might wish to share in my glee. I took the rare of step of demanding that my NPSO watch me open it (if she wanted to), and even she thought it was pretty cool. Closing the box took a little bit of thought as the solution seems, in more ways than one, to be physically impossible at first glance. After reflecting for a moment and observing how the pieces work together in such a simple and ingenious manner, designed so as to appear both obvious and impossible at the same time, it was clear how to reset the puzzle. At which point, I immediately opened it again. And then one more time. And several times since then…. and one more just now.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this has quickly become one of my favorite Karakuri and that I am grateful to Haym for sharing his impressions with me (and that there were still copies left!). I just opened it again and it still makes me smile! I may have to delve into the wondrous inner working of wordpress to discover how to write and post pics using spoiler tags; regardless, I will be sure to bring this box with me if and when our regular scheduled puzzle parties resume so that we might all bask in its puzzling glory together.

Originality Grade: 5 Sinatras

Deez (boxes are) Nuts

Space Case

Dee Dixon, Canarywood and Bloodwood, 5.5″ x 4.25″ x 2.25″

Dee Dixon burst onto the puzzle scene in 2019, and his 4th box, Space Case, is set to be released on CubicDissection in August. He made a huge splash with Where’s My Hammer? (WMH), a great puzzle box that has been pretty much loved by everyone who has gotten their hands on one, and proved he was no one-hit-wonder with his follow-up box, Blinded II.

I am fortunate enough to have an early (Etsy) copy of both WMH and Blinded, the woods or designs of which are a bit different from what was ultimately released on CD (WMH in particular had a few more rectangular bits of exotic wood on top and were made out of different woods for a unique, semi-custom appearance). Fortunately, their amply attractive aesthetics could well accommodate the slight concessions made for the sake of getting them into the hands of more puzzlers.

Dee’s first box, Slideways, was made in 2019 – there are not many established makers who can come out with four solid puzzle box designs in less than two years. With this kind of prolificity, it makes sense that he was able to start working on puzzles full-time, much to our collective benefit. There were only 8 copies of Slideways released (one of which sits happily among its siblings on my shelf) – it is a beautiful box, purple with some asymmetric strips of yellow wood (canarywood, maybe?) on top. While the simplest of his designs (just 2 or 3 steps), the concept is well-executed and shows Dee’s nascent puzzle-designing chops.

WMH is an especially excellent puzzle: it has plenty of misdirection, tools, and a tempo that I love to find in a box, with some relatively quick success at first, followed by fits and starts until you have found everything there is to find at which point you must actually think before you can hope to solve! The last step took me a few weeks of letting my subconscious work on it before I awoke one morning and somehow just knew the solution (admittedly following some conversations about it that had helped me eliminate some wrong moves) – I went upstairs, grabbed it, and bam! it worked! Super satisfying and very fun to re-solve. All in all one of my favorite puzzles boxes (although it does have one middle step that uses a mechanism I don’t love and may cause some puzzlers to need a nudge to find).

Blinded II is another excellent and attractive box and shares some similarities with WMH: there are misdirections that left me spinning my wheels for longer than I’d care to admit. With the first two or three steps finally found, it was not too much longer until I worked out the last half of the solution.

However, this is (supposed to be) about his newest release, Space Case, a canarywood box with a bloodwood figure on three of its sides: an alien head, a rocket, and a flying saucer with a tractor beam. Some of these figures will move off the bat; I don’t think I am giving anything away by saying that some will spin freely….. at first (in fact, this is the state in which I believe you can know it is fully reset).

I managed to get an early copy prior to its upcoming release – it is a 10-12 step puzzle box that requires close and careful observation to solve. You will need to develop an understanding of what is happening inside before you will have much hope of opening it.

Trial and error will help at first – if you’re not paying attention you may start to think that this is a blind solve but there is plenty of feedback inside and outside the box to let you know when things are happening. It quickly becomes apparent that manically shaking the box isn’t going to get it open. Instead, with some patience and focus, you will begin to get a picture of what is happening, helping you to build up a mental blueprint of each successive step until you can finally get it open.

Once open you will be rewarded with some clarity and it may yet take several resets to fully grok how it all works. This only adds to the fun as you can continue to work on the puzzle even after opening it – the full solution means making sure that each step is understood in detail, allowing you to open it quickly thereafter. Space is quite different from his previous boxes and highlights Dee’s ability to approach a puzzle box in different ways – while it is different in its mechanisms, it still features the practical attention to detail that makes his puzzles work reliably. As with all his designs, it has a wonderful aesthetic, using contrasting woods to create an excellent look. It also adds a bit of whimsy and fun to your collection that looks great on display.

I should add that I have the pleasure of possessing a copy of a metal prototype of Space Case (I pun – it has the Metallica “M” etched into its wonderfully dark wood). As it remains unsolved, I am not yet certain as to how it differs from the final version – I am not sure of whatever steps diverge from its improved offspring, but as a completist I’m grateful to have lucked out to get it from a fellow puzzler.

I look forward to whatever Dee comes up with next – we are fortunate that the appetite we puzzlers share has allowed him to eschew his workaday life to focus on what is really important: giving me more puzzles (us, I meant us: giving US more puzzles).

Space Case Difficulty Grade: Four Sinatras
Complete Oeuvre Grade: Five Sinatras

You Deserve a Brake Today…

Snack Brake from Daniel Alterman (DanielScottWoodworks on Etsy) hit the puzzling scene from out of nowhere. It helped that Chris Ramsay did a vid on it (you know, the guy who somehow manages to solve IMPOSSIBLE puzzles all the time – somewhat counter-intuitive, but I digress) – buy mostly, it is just a unique looking puzzle, with a fun design that just makes it stand out from the crowd.

First off, it’s fun to have a puzzle box (which I’d say this is, more than anything else, at least) with a bit of a story: it’s a vending machine, and you got to get your snack out, right? But alas no coin slot! What shall I do? Well, it took me quite a while to figure out how to get my wooden snacks to drop down to the vending slot. Even then, more surprises await, a welcome double solve!

Snack Brake is a pretty big piece – it weighs a good amount, and comes with a plastic viewing window on the front, behind which you can see your wooden snack, colorful tubes extending upwards; the panel is locked and you can see a key in a little vial on the same shelf as your snack.

The whole thing is pretty colorful, and has a good, nostalgic and playful feel to it; especially when you plug it in and use the handy remote to, that’s right, light up the back! Puzzle Party over heeere!

Like I said, the puzzle has some good challenges – the opening sequence of moves was something I’ve never seen before. I especially appreciated (eventually) getting a good look at the build, which was even more original than I’d thought.

It’s also rare to have a puzzle with some electronics built in, and it made for a nice aesthetic addition to my collection.

Finally, Dan is a super nice guy – easy to get in touch with, and happy to provide some direction or just chat about the experience. He has since released his Toasted puzzle, which also looks fun and keeps with the theme of eating one’s wooden puzzle solutions, and who doesn’t love the thematic consistency of tongue splinters!

Seriously though, I think Dan is someone to watch, as he brings something of an outsider mindset to his puzzles, leading to mechanisms and themes that are unexpected and deviate significantly from many other emerging works.

Make sure to follow his shop on Etsy as his puzzles seem to fly off the cyber shelf…. maybe I shouldn’t say that as it only means more competition, but he’s just that nice! Besides, Ramsay may have already driven one or two more people than this blog.

Packing It In 2: Pack Harder

While Gretel remained unsolved (the first time), I became aware of how many excellent packing puzzles there are out there – and, unsurprisingly, Cubic Dissection held several excellent examples of my newfound delight.

I decided to take a few steps back, opting for a couple “easier” packers; mostly, I think, so I could show myself that, yes, I am actually capable of putting things into something else.

Pin Block Case is wonderfully made, as one would expect from anything from CubicDissection, with perfect dimensions that allow its pieces to juuuuust fit. True, it is not perhaps as challenging as some of its noteworthy cousins, but it does not change the fact that the solution is elegant and satisfying. Designed by Hajime Katsumoto, CubicDissection had released it as a part of their (unfortunately discontinued) Artisan series.

It is a pretty straightforward puzzle: 4 blocks with small metal pins on one side and a slot running down another must fit into a cube with one corner open. This is made much more difficult by the fact that the slots do not run the length of the block; the perfect fit into the cube creates a challenge in fitting them in despite the pins’ best efforts to the contrary.

I think that this is an excellent introduction to packing puzzles, and to wood puzzling generally; it shows how something that seems simple is not necessarily easy. What’s more, trial and error may help you to see what not to do, but the solution is best found by stepping back and, well, thinking.

Suddenly, the necessary angles and orders became clear, and they slipped in perfectly and elegantly, as though I should have known all along that is how they were meant to go. And an excellent final detail: unlike many packing puzzles, Pin Block may be displayed and shared solved without spoiling anything – all one sees are 4, apparently plain, same-sized blocks resting comfortably behind the quarter cut hole. Removing them offers the same challenge in reverse, although it should of course first be approached unsolved, as with packing puzzles generally.

Not being the most difficult puzzle is an attribute of this lovely piece; the satisfaction of the graceful solve is not lost in such relative simplicity, quickly adding packing puzzles to my addiction while putting a happily stupid grin on my face.

Packing It In: Pack Hard

I’m sure they’ll all go right back in – yeah, sure they will….

First off, I’ve decided to dispense with some of the bells and whistles to my posts, as I’ve found it prevents me from sitting down and writing. And I know my one (imaginary) follower is just salivating for more of my puzzling narratives.

Recently I began exploring packing puzzles; as one who had come to puzzles with a fascination with boxes and locks, the elusive, hidden “trick” being the main attraction, packing initially seemed a bit…. meh.

Once again, I was quite wrong! I began with Baumegger’s Gretel, quickly becoming disappointed I had not also bought her brother at the same time. First off, it is a truly lovely puzzle. The various woods are smooth and the colors play wonderfully with one another. Perhaps my favorite detail is the tiny nub at the top that secures the clear, acrylic cover (assuming you can solve it of course).

Stephen was easy to contact and talk with, and the puzzle arrived soon. For such a small, straightforward task, this thing was HARD. Maybe it is the ancient Tetris player within, but I took to it immediately. Solving it would take much longer, and in the meantime I would go on to collect several more packing puzzles.

Eventually, it just…. worked. Such satisfaction. I gleefully showed my wife, who glanced briefly over (“that’s nice, babe”), before returning her attention to the show I’d forgotten we were way supposed to be watching. My focus was all on my perfectly packed puzzle, grinning proudly (me, not the puzzle). My little cover slipped on, perfectly held in place, and off she went to join my small collection of solved packing puzzles.

Fast forward a couple weeks, and I was taking a pic to show a fellow puzzler how pretty she is: hold on…. I can’t take the pic of it solved lest too much be revealed. I’ll just dump it out; surely I can repack it, no prob.

Yes, it remains unsolved. Yes, I swear it was packed. Yes, she got moved back to her evil, unfriendly and unsolved cousins. Maybe she’s mad I didnt get her brother? Well, guess I have no choice. What’s one more puzzle? Right, it’s just one. One never hurt…… Sigh……

Ballin’

Multiball

Eric Fuller, CubicDissection, 2019
Sold Out
  • Puzzle Details:
    • Puzzle Box: 2 Steps
    • Woods: Ash, Wenge, Walnut
    • Number Made: 99 (signed and dated)
  • Dimensions:
    • Overall Size: 3″ Cube

It is almost immediately apparent upon holding Eric Fuller’s what one must do in order to open it: get the stainless steel ball bearings out of the way so the panel can slide out. Easy, right? If you are familiar with Fuller’s work, you should know the answer to that already.

The panel moves slightly, showing you enough of a gap to confirm that this is the way out, and a plastic window teases you with a view of the obstacles rolling in your way. This is part of the fun of Multiball – as you turn it this way and that, first carefully, then perhaps more abruptly, then veeerrrrry slowly, then all these repeated with the box inverted, sideways, and diagonal, then perched upon one’s open palm while you perform your most graceful whirling dervish, and then clenched tightly in your fist while you glare at it scanners-style. All to no avail.

I rather quickly figured out how to will the first ball bearing out of the way, slipping sneakily into some secret recess, then the second soon after, only to have them burst back in, after having gone just a bit too far, like a drunk Uncle regaling your family with Dad’s early sexual escapades over thanksgiving dinner. Rinse and repeat: one ball, two ball, do the hokey pokey and shake it all about, ok there goes the third again, and…. and…. annnnnnnd…… damnit.

After hours of this, the noise of the ball bearings earning quite a few annoyed glances from my wife as we Netflix away our evening, suddenly: it opens! Can you believe it?! Check it out, it’s open! (“that’s nice, babe.”) Yeah, all I did was…. was….. waaaaasssss…. damnit. Still waiting on figuring out what exactly I did right. But I did see that the internal compartment was sizable, maybe not loaf of bread sizable, but more than big enough to fit your Uncle’s next white chip.

The box is beautiful, dark and light woods focusing your eyes on its window, inside of which you can manage to see just enough mirrored mechanisms to further frustrate, but not enough to know for sure what exactly you are looking at – maybe I will have a better sense once I manage to open it…. again.

Grade: Four Sinatras