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)

Jerry Does It Again (and Again): Quadlock I & Burrlephant 3

Quadlock I & Burrlephant 3

Jerry McFarland

By now, you may have heard about the awesomeness that is Jerry McFarland’s Fidget Burr (you can check out my review here); since enjoying the pleasure of solving Fidget Burr, I have had the good fortune of obtaining and solving two more of Jerry’s puzzles: the older Quadlock I and the quite new Burrlephant 3. Both are excellent puzzles, offering unique takes on burrs by adding take-apart / trick box-type elements to the mix, with perhaps a dash of sequential discovery.

Quadlock 1

Quadlock 1 is a squashed cube made of 19 individual burr sticks, originally made by Jerry in 1992, and remade in 2008 and 2011 (possibly again since then). It is a 4 x 4 x 3 “cube” that measures 3.5″ x 2.6″ (after 2011, Jerry began making a slightly smaller version). It is made of Walnut, Mahogany, and Maple, although there are some versions made of alternate, exotic woods, as well. I have two copies of this excellent and quite challenging puzzle, which only goes to show that I truly think it is a great puzzle: they are both copies of the earlier, larger versions (one has the serial number “14 JM 94” and the other copy has “10 JM 92” – I am not certain if this means that they are from 1994 and 1992 but I will update once I ask Jerry about it).

If you have solved interlocking puzzles, you will know that many feature some sort of key piece, which must be discovered and moved before you can hope to progress. Quadlock 1 takes this a few steps further, with four pieces that work together to form a lock, preventing any further movement. After fumbling for some time, I found that it is better to approach this almost as I would an attempt at lock-picking, as I was better able to conceptualize how I might find my way past. As you are working on these early steps, you have no indication of what it might lead to: the other pieces permit no movement, whatsoever, forcing you to add some tension in various places as you struggle to find the correct movements and configuration of the four locking pieces (again, as one might a lock). You are unlikely to succeed early on without some amount of close observation, finding the correct moves step by step rather than all at once. It has only been a few weeks since I solved the puzzle for the second time, and I am already confused as to how I can repeat the process, showing the puzzle’s excellent replayability.

Once you find your way past this first wall, you are rewarded with some interesting movements, opening the puzzle up enough to permit the removal of some pieces. You are not done, of course, as you must now discover steps necessary to fully disassemble the puzzle, although you have now successfully navigated the main challenge. From this point, you will still need to think and explore as some of the next steps are certainly non-trivial, albeit perhaps not as difficult as the opening sequence of moves. Having found these next steps, the puzzle comes apart in a way that is conceptually similar to Fidget Burr, while consisting of totally different arrangements; at this point, disassembling it completely is pretty straightforward, leaving you with a nice pile of lumber.

My first time through, I chose to let the pieces sit for a day or two before returning to it for reassembly. I was able to reassemble the puzzle (mostly) without the assistance of burrtools or the instructions Jerry provided with the puzzle. His instructions are quite welcome, as they provide clear assistance without actually showing you specific the moves (as with burrtools); it will tell you which pieces need to be manipulated but leave it to you to find how this must be done (which at times is certainly not totally straightforward).

There were a couple particularly tricky aspects to reassembly – the main locks were actually not so difficult in reverse, but I found a couple steps midway that had me turned around, requiring more than a little Ikea-style mid-process disassembly; the pieces have enough non-uniformity to create the need for careful observation lest you find yourself painted into a corner.

I found this puzzle to be an excellent interlocking burr cube (squashed or otherwise) – the addition of a “trick” locking mechanism making it especially fun. I hope to eventually collect Quadlocks III and IV (II was essentially a 23-piece version of I, and very few copies were made, so my completist urges are that much more likely to go unfulfilled).

Burrlephant 3

I am clearly a fan of Jerry’s work – I have pieces he made for Bill Cutler that show his skills as a craftsman, and his own designs blow me away. Burrlephant 3 is another example of Jerry’s ingenuity as a puzzle designer, with multiple trick phases belying its playful exterior. First off, it is important to distinguish this from Don Closterman’s Elephant puzzle; I’ve not done that puzzle, but it appears to be a kumiki-like 3D assembly, and, as such, is nothing like Burrlephant in anything other than a cursory look at its appearance. Closterman’s Elephant could be an amazing puzzle, I’ve no idea, but I am mostly sure that it does not contain the mechanics of Jerry’s that separates his puzzles from most interlocking burrs.

Burrlephant 3, in case you’ve not noticed, looks like an Elephant, complete with trunk, tusks, eyes, and big ole ears. It is an interlocking figure, comprised of 27 interlocking pieces of Jatoba, Bloodwood, Bubinga, and Ebony, as well as a few additional magnets and metal pins. Not counting its ears or tusks, it is a sizable 4.4″ x 5.5″ x 2.2″, making it significantly larger than Quadlock 1 or Fidget Burr.

When I started working on it, I quickly found that there looks like there is at least one aspect that appears similar to Fidget Burr, which a halfway close inspection of the photos will show; however, the mechanisms are not at all similar: Fidget Burr has an easily accessible button that leads to instant action, whereas Burrlephant requires much more exploration to make any sort of progress. You are able to find some movement quickly, but this does not appear to do anything helpful.

Burrlephant 3 essentially consists of 4 challenges, some requiring several steps to complete. Only after solving the fourth challenge, which rewards you with the key piece containing the serial number, are you are able to fully disassemble the puzzle into its 29 distinct parts. The puzzle succeeded at misdirecting my focus for some time, before I was able to fall upon the first challenge, decidedly the easiest of the four as trial and error will most likely get you there before too long. The second challenge requires some thought, and develops a better understanding of certain aspects of the puzzle, before leaving you with a few pieces in your hands and no idea how to proceed.

This third challenge is my favorite and is the one on which I spent the most time (mostly doing the same few things over and over while incredulously shaking my head and wondering it it was broken – spoiler: it wasn’t). You must first use what you know about the puzzle to determine what needs to happen next before you can hope to do anything else. Once you have considered the what, the how is going to take even more thought; trial and error will help to eliminate your options, but I found I was only able to find my way through by engaging in some good old critical thinking. Having found the solution, I am impressed by how simple and elegant it is to do despite having been so difficult to figure out. This part of the puzzle is pretty ingenious and relies on some precise designing and craftsmanship to accomplish. I actually repeated the step a few times, just because it made me happy – always a sign of a good puzzle.

At this point, it is fairly clear what you need to do for the fourth challenge; accomplishing this task is a bit tricky, and I was able to figure it out before too long, some trial and error pointing me in the right direction and leading me to the removal of the key piece. Having removed most of the tricky parts of the puzzle in overcoming the various challenges, complete disassembly is now fairly straightforward.

The puzzle comes with Jerry’s description and solution, in text and pictures, and Jerry has again labelled some of the pieces to aid in reassembly; he stepped it up a bit from Fidget Burr, etching them into a few pieces that could easily get mixed up otherwise. Sitting back and looking at the rather enormous spread of pieces before me, I nonetheless felt confident that I would be able to reassemble it without too much frustration; there is one part that is a bit tricky, due to the necessary placement of some magnets, but a bit of dexterity gets me through, allowing me to return to reassembling the main challenges of the puzzle.

Overall, Burrlephant 3 is an excellent and super-fun burr puzzle with elements of sequential discovery and take-apart trickery that earns it the right to stand apart from other puzzles, unique in its cross-genre design and its slick and playful appearance. In many ways I prefer its quiet, contemplative rhythm to Fidget Burr’s in-your-face action; either way, it is just another example of Jerry’s craftsman-informed ingenuousness, which has me craving his next creation.

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

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

Dr. PinkLady, or How I Learned to Stop Fidgeting and Solve the Burr

Fidget Burr (a/k/a Dollar Burr, a/k/a Chin Burr)

Jerry McFarland, 3.28″ x 3.28″ x 2.92″

Recently, I was lucky enough to get a copy of Jerry McFarland’s Fidget Burr (not to be confused with the puzzle of the same name designed by Tim Alkema and recently produced by Eric. Fuller of CubicDissection). It has quickly become one of my all-time favorite puzzles, with an extremely original design replete with fun and challenging nuances.

First off, the puzzle is beautiful, consisting of 23 wood pieces crafted from walnut, maple, mahogany, and bloodwood (with the keypiece possibly made in a different exotic wood, such as Bubinga, Santos Rosewood or Cocobolo), for a interestingly contrasting aesthetic. It feels soft, presumably waxed into a delightful sheen that allows the puzzle to stand out, adding to the temptation to play and fidget beyond one’s attempts at finding the solution.

But what really makes it stand out is the addition of 22 magnets integrated into the puzzle, adding layers of novelty, difficulty, and stability that makes it stand out from its (still excellent) burr cube brethren. And last but not least, a Lego minifig can be seen, trapped within a window on one piece of the puzzle’s frame, lending the puzzle a hint of puzzle box / take-apart puzzling.

NOTE: The following paragraph reveals details of the puzzle’s first move – I feel comfortable writing about it as this has been blogged about before and is not really a hidden feature of the puzzle, but for those purists out there who want to know absolutely nothing about a puzzle, I thought I would give you fair warning – it has been formatted to make it easy enough to skip:

iIt is readily apparent which piece offers the first move (being the only piece that can move) and, when you press it, you are rewarded with a chain of clacking, automatic movements as 4 pieces are released, magnets forcing them out. This chain will most certainly be repeated again and again, both in the search of its solution, as well as the sheer entertainment value.

Following this first step, I immediately hit a wall. Fortunately, this first step is more than fun enough to play with absent any further progress. However, after numerous attempts at exploring possibilities through trial and error, I explored that other method of puzzle solving: thought. With this, I was able to narrow down the possible next steps, more quickly finding my way past this wall. Soon, it is possible to remove some pieces of the puzzle.

However, this is not the end as one must deal with some (possibly less difficult, but still non-trivial) additional steps, revealing the reason for at least one of the puzzle’s aliases. As you continue through the puzzle, you find a number of added details, magnets, chamfers, clips, and pins that really show off Jerry’s expertise, as they allow for a more consistent and stable puzzling experience (these are detailed in the included instructions in a series of notes, which would be spoilers if shared). One such detail does double duty, causing me several minutes of confusion as I lost all momentum just as I thought I was about to free my Pink Lady. Moving past this, the lovely lady can be freed (and even her window frame reveals evidence of Jerry’s thoughtful and precise approach to puzzle-making, as it is designed in such a way as to make her intended orientation obvious when looking to cruelly force her back into her wooden prison).

The key piece has the puzzle’s “signature,” the maker’s initials, year of creation, and serial number etched into perfectly matched frames (as seen above).

Note that this picture is also no spoiler, as Jerry designed the puzzle such that one can view the signature without having solved the puzzle – yet another unique detail that demands appreciation.

Reassembly is not overly difficult: Jerry has thoughtfully marked some of the pieces to aid with the proper orientation, allowing you to reassemble the puzzle with pleasure rather than frustration. Burrtools is unnecessary, good considering my strong suspicion that it would not provide much (or perhaps any) assistance.

As mentioned, the puzzle comes with instructions and notes: 5 pages that includes solution descriptions assembly instructions with pictures and illustrations, as well as the aforementioned notes and a general explanation of the puzzle (the latter being graciously printed on the first page to avoid any accidental and unwanted spoilers).

Fidget Burr will be entered in the 2020 IPP40 Design competition, where I would be surprised if it did not earn some significant recognition. While 2020 seems it will be a banner year for puzzling, Fidget Burr will no doubt be amongst its top designs; it is certainly amongst my puzzle favorites overall (assuming my judgment is at all reliable), not least considering its atypical replay value.