Tye Stahly, 3D Printed 2.5″ Cubes (2), Sequential Discovery
Recently, I was fortunate enough to solve an early edition of Tye Stahly’s excellent puzzle debut, Pair O’ Dice (hereinafter POD), kindly custom-crafted in red and yellow in a nod to one of my favorite board games (future copies will likely be a classic white with black pips). POD consists of two 2.5″ plastic dice, their pips featuring either a square, circle, or dollar sign, seemingly at random. The dice are linked together by a (removable) metal loop on which hangs the instructions along with a very cool title design by none other than Jared Petersen (Etsy’s CoreMods, creator of Unstable Eggs (reviewed by me here) as well as a number of other, excellent puzzles).
From the complexity and fun of the puzzle, you would not know that this is Tye’s first design; he has clearly poured a lot of time and energy into it, taking pride in his work and displaying the kind of connection to his design that any artist will recognize, that mixture of pride and anxiety in seeing something personal, something over which you have stressed and sweat, going out into the world to be judged by those for whom it was intended.
And I have to say: I really liked it. Despite how seriously he may take his work, his sense of humor nonetheless keeps things light, pervading the experience, which manages to exude more than a little playfulness (as evidenced by the slightly silly and thoroughly thematic instructions).
These must have taken quite a bit of time to print and build as they contain a large number of parts. The build quality is quite good – I didn’t find anything to be wonky or to do anything but what was intended (except for one now-fixed design issue that Tye discovered before I did, quickly sending out an entire replacement die before I had even realized there might be a problem – he even added in a free puzzle, which just shows his respect for puzzlers getting a copy from him).
The puzzling is even better, solidly falling into the much lauded sequential discovery category. I found the experience and difficulty to be somewhat akin to Juno’s Ring Case (albeit quite a bit longer): first, there are a good amount of pieces and tools that you are able to discover relatively quickly, amassing a considerable pile of stuff while causing you to wonder whether you will be able to keep a clear sense of what you will need to do to reset it properly (which is great as this will only add to the experience with resetting becoming a bit of its own challenge). Second, while some phases of the puzzle are not crazy difficult, nor are they simple and, perhaps more importantly, all are quite a bit of fun; significantly, there are a couple parts that had me stuck for quite a while, with one being particularly sneaky. Next, it follows a path that is mostly linear but feels like you have meandered far and wide to come back to a point of focus. Finally, POD also features two main challenges (which makes sense, considering there are two dice): first you must find the tiny dice, followed by a hidden coin.
These separate challenges also serve as a clear indication of when you have solved each die, quite helpfully providing some clarity and helping prevent you from getting lost as you move through the puzzle’s controlled chaos. Although you don’t know which die is which when starting out, the design does a good job of focusing you where you need to be, with plenty of misdirection to keep you on your toes (particularly challenging when you hit a nice wall midway through the puzzle, which hid perhaps my favorite of several aha moments).
Tye will be releasing more copies of POD; it is not clear yet whether these will be a limited run or not, and if you are interested you should reach out soon lest they all be gone (there is most assuredly a list already). The price is representative of the design’s complexity and the significant amount of puzzling it contains and is not at all unreasonable. You can reach him by emailing Thinkingfin@gmail.com (you may already know him by this same name if you frequent some of our online puzzler haunts). He is also planning on opening an Etsy store (this link may still work once the store is open).
Hopefully, you will get a chance to experience Pair O’ Dice; I am already psyched to see whatever he will come up with next – I anticipate it taking some time, as he put a lot of time into this design and I expect there will be a good number of puzzlers wanting one, but I also know he is not the type to let his mind sit idle. Regardless, good puzzles come to those who wait…
Fun and Challenging Debut Grade: Four and a Half Sinatras
Shiro Tajima, 2016, Monarch Birch, Black Walnut and Japanese Cherry, 4” x 4” x 4”
Shiro Tajima was creating puzzle boxes with the Karakuri Group until a few years ago; his Hermit Crab and Goblet boxes are probably the most recognized of his boxes, as they have been produced in larger numbers. I reviewed his Uroboros box a few months ago (with one of the few solution vids I’ve done, as it was requested by a fellow puzzler). Kakoi is quite different, not only from Uroboros but from any box I’ve seen or done.
Kakoi consistently gets listed in community polls as being among puzzlers’ favorite boxes; in fact, it won the 2017 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition Jury Grand Prize, which is basically a long way of saying it’s a damn good puzzle. The only reason it likely doesn’t get an even better showing is simply due to its rarity.
It is a bit bigger than your typical Karakuri box and eschews the traditional panels for a look that is anything but traditional (or a panel). Your first impulse is pretty clear from looking at it and it does in fact lead to some success, or at least it seems to: this is one of those puzzles where movement early on doesn’t necessarily give you much info on how to proceed from there. While I have chosen not to post pics that display these early movements, a simple search will let you see some slight spoilers for said steps.
After futzing with it for a while, essentially just poking the same few things back and forth, I began to get a sense of what might be possible and started experimenting. This is one of those puzzles where things have to be juuuust right before you’re able to proceed, and it’s not so easy to see what that is until things are, in fact, just right, a tautological conundrum that helps to build the aha into something truly satisfactory.
One you find that perfect setting and the move it permits, the main movement is quite elegant and unique. Having accomplished this, it doesn’t take much to find the final steps, allowing you to access a total of four(!) hidden compartments.
Opening the compartments makes the puzzle impossible to close and it is pretty easy to get turned around such that knowing how to close it and actually doing so are not quite the same thing, at least for a few moments. This forces you to really look at how everything works together to first prevent and then permit the main movement. Once again you need to find the exact right arrangement before you can reverse the main step; when closing it you can really appreciate the close tolerances, a bit of a vacuum is even created, with the displaced air acting as excellent evidence of this precision.
Resetting the box is quite satisfying: enough so that Kakoi is among the puzzles that I have a tendency to re-solve most frequently. There is something about that main movement that I find to be so pleasant to do; the fine adjustments never seem to get easier, such that a moment of confusion feels inevitable with each run-through.
Shiro Tajima’s Kakoi is an excellent example of the uniqueness of Karakuri boxes; its aesthetic and movement stand apart from other boxes and offer an elegant and fun solution that relies on high levels of precision that others might sometimes struggle to obtain. If you happen to see this one available somewhere, I’d recommend considering it – it certainly sits comfortably amongst my favorite Karakuri.
Art Deco Clock Box, Book Puzzle Box (Volumes 1, 3, & 4)
Bill Sheckels (blackdogpuzzleworks on Etsy) has been making custom, fine furniture since the 70’s and it shows in the amazing craftsmanship of his puzzles. I had seen some of his work around and when I saw his Art Deco Clock Box I quickly reached out to see if any of his boxes might be available. Since that time, I have happily collected a few pieces and look forward to growing my library of book boxes (so my bookshelves will actually get to hold some books….. sort of).
When I first got in contact with Bill, he had recently sold the last of 25 copies of his Art Deco Box and offered the Artist Proof copy at a discount; the only difference is that the back panel juts out a couple mm from the back (it is otherwise the same in terms of aesthetics and mechanics) and so I jumped at the chance. I love the idea of a puzzle clock and was quite pleased to be able to get a copy. The puzzle is a good size: 9.5″ x 2″ x 6″, and looks absolutely great on the shelf. In fact, its beautiful, dark wood and lovely Art Deco style was sufficient to earn it a place Downstairs, where only the most worthy of puzzles are permitted. Sitting down to work on it, it took me a while to find anything that did anything; I was eventually pleasantly surprised to find that the 5 or 6 steps required to access the hidden compartment included some elements of sequential discovery. The solution is tricky but not overly difficult and uses a couple steps that I, at least, have not seen used anywhere else. Aside from it being beautiful and a cool puzzle, I just love having a functional object that is also secretly a puzzle box – I can’t help but smile to myself almost daily as I walk through the Living Room. A puzzle box with an actual function is an oddly rare concept, and this is an elegant and attractive example of such a concept.
Around the same time, he had copies of the third volume of his book boxes available. He generally offers multiple wood options, and I was lucky enough to get my first choice: Figured Makore with a Walnut spine, Ash pages, and Cherry inlay. The pictures really do not do it justice: it is a gorgeous piece, the two-tone spine contrasting wonderfully with the figured front and back; the ash is carefully cut so that the natural wood grains mimic paper quite well, and the overall look is simultaneously artistic and convincing. It is a decent sized box at 6″ x 1.5″ x 7.25″ and is certainly an excellent example of woodworking, but how is it as a puzzle? It was hard enough that the solution eluded me for quite some time: the drawer is unlocked in one step and then another is required to open it. Although I would not say that it was overly difficult, I do enjoy the final unlocking and opening of the hidden drawer. As an added bonus, I was quite pleased to find a copy of his Three Piece Dilemma (available on Etsy) inside; this consists of three different flat shapes that must somehow be combined into the shape of a kite and a triangle – both challenges are much harder than one would think, although this kind of spatial reasoning is far from being my strong suit.
A couple months later, I heard from Bill that he was remaking his original Book Box in 6 different woods; I acted quickly but even still my first choice (Walnut Burl) was gone. Fortunately, all of the options were beautiful, and I got my second choice: a two-toned Bubinga frame using a black spine to set off the reddish-brown covers, the light-colored wood “pages” again featuring natural grain to subtly mimic the pages of the book. This box is significantly larger, coming in at 9″ x 1.75″ x 7.5″. I was able to solve this one a bit quicker, primarily as it has some features in common with another puzzle I had recently solved. The mechanics also share some similarities with the Art Deco Clock Box: a similar nod to sequential discovery albeit with fewer steps. The compartment is accessed in a pretty unique way for a book box, with some unexpected moves that I found quite enjoyable. Overall, I enjoyed the mechanics more than Vol. 3, although Vol. 3’s figured covers are hard to beat.
Flashforward a few more months, and Bill emails to say that he has designed a fourth book box: obviously, I jump on it quickly, managing to get my preferred wood choice: Figured Bubinga with a Walnut spine, Red Oak pages, and a Bubinga inlay. Although it shares the primary wood with the previous book box, it looks significantly different: the figuring makes the covers have ample texture that contrasts nicely with the more minimalist (and larger) original Book Box. Its spine features matching Bubinga in a few asymmetric rectangular shapes that help to create its rather convincing bookish appearance. It is a bit smaller than Vol. 3 at 5.5″ x 1.3″ x 5.5″. I’d like to tell you about the puzzling but, to be honest, I have still not managed to solve it! I have figured out a couple things without making any actual progress. I count this as being a good thing, obviously, as I will continue to pick it up and spend some time futzing with it until I can find my way through to the solution. I am guessing that it features a drawer, similar to the third Book Box, but this assumption could certainly prove to be incorrect.
Basically, Bill’s Book Boxes are absolutely beautiful: they feel solid and smooth and his 40+ years of fine woodworking is quite clear from the moment you see them. Book Boxes have a tendency to not be the most difficult of puzzles, but these are not what I would call easy – both the craftsmanship and the clever mechanisms are more than enough for me to hope to see him remake the second Book Box (because completism runs strong in me), as well as future designs. The Clock Box will continue to play its double role as an actual clock, amusing me with the secret it contains unbeknownst to passersby (who probably wouldn’t really care, but it’s still fun for me), although once the secret door to my puzzle room (slash home office) is done, I plan on keeping it there rather than downstairs (likely alongside its Book Box brethren).
Bill has several puzzles available on his Etsy store; the boxes tend to sell out before they have a chance to make it there, although I believe some copies of the Art Deco Clock Boxes were sold there at some point. However, he sells a number of interlocking, burr, and packing puzzles that are of equal craftsmanship and good price points; the selection changes over time, so be sure to favorite the store as something you like will likely pop up before too long.
Bill has submitted some very cool puzzles to IPP competitions over the years, none of which have I had the pleasure of solving, something that I hope to someday remedy. His Caged Coin and Packed Pyramid are of particular interest to me, and I hope to find them at auction one day (ideally at a reasonable price), or perhaps remade and available at his store (hint hint). Until then, I will continue to keep an eye out for Bill’s Book Boxes, which share a common aesthetic while managing to be quite unique from one another, both in terms of style and mechanics.
Kel Snache has yet again made a puzzle that is not only challenging, but also wildly unique and fun. Last year’s Puzzleduck Pastures was awesome and he has further outdone himself with a puzzle that is even more complex and satisfyingly silly than was helping Lil’ Miss Fairy Pants unlock her door. Kel has created a backstory about four sheep determined to make a break for it (and one forced to come along): the intrepid Captain Fran, and her crew of Fern, Flo, Fanni and the sheep-napped Wee Fae. The story is told in facebook posts (reproduced in 13 pages alongside pictures of his progress taken over the course of several months): the “Fluffy Five” have built a ship and we have the rare opportunity to explore it, if we can find our way inside.
EWE UFO is not quite a puzzle box – as Kel says, it is “disguised to look like one [but] there is no internal space to store tiny objects de jour.” It would be more accurate to describe it as a sequential discovery take-apart puzzle, as it will ultimately break down into 23 separate pieces after successfully navigating 32 steps (plus an additional four steps to fully disassemble it), revealing tools and red herrings along the way. The craftsmanship is excellent, with a build quality that feels like it will stay strong over time and aesthetic details that add to the sense of wonder that the puzzle brings.
EWE is a cube made of a variety of woods that seems to float a few cm above whatever surface it is on, due to the placement of the escape hatch on the bottom. All four sides are identical, except for a little acrylic portholes giving us a view of the sheep crew as they cook pizza, take a bath, extinguish a fire, and look back at us with X-Ray glasses; all except for Wee Fae, desperately reaching up to us as we look down the fifth porthole on top of the ship. Our goal: “Be the noble hero and join the quest to remove Wee Fae from the top of the craft. She just wants to go home before the others resume their zoom into space.”
Some of the portholes spin freely, while others do not. Other than this, there appears to be no way in or out. As we work out way through “six sides of play,” we must navigate through (as it says in the instructions) “a Trap Door, A Guillotine and a Four Finger Force Field,” before we can do a bit of post-solution disassembly for a “full visual tour of the Inner Core.”
The instructions at the front of a 14-page packet, which also includes detailed solution steps with accompanying pictures), informs us that there is no need for tapping and no tricky magnets. You will instead enjoy a journey through diverse mehanical mechanisms that meanders along an otherwise linear path to success. Steps build upon one another; pieces removed may serve multiple purposes or none at all; things sometimes move only to confuse us; and our assumptions will be used against us.
Throughout the puzzle, we find pieces and mechanisms that are so instantly recognizable as being from Kel; while the puzzle is totally original and quite different from any other piece of his that I have had the pleasure of working on, it also manages to have an aesthetic and method that is uniquely his.
The rhythm is exactly what I love in a puzzle: I am pulled into the experience with some early success, which pays off with some tools and moving parts that provide unknown opportunities to do…. something (maybe). From there, I hit a series of walls as I proceed through the puzzle, steps discovered in fits and starts, forcing me to backtrack and explore and question what I’ve done and what I am trying to do. Things that seem like they must do something, actually do nothing (nothing useful anyway); other things that seem to fade into the background, end up being essential to my continued progress.
After a few hours spread out over several days, I manage to remove the top porthole, liberating Wee Fae from her wooden, spacefaring prison, and finding Kel’s snake mark burned into the piece. The open porthole, as indicated in the instructions, allows me to peer into the internal mechanisms at the core of the puzzle (with the aid of a flashlight). The “further disassembly” referred to earlier, essentially consists of removing the four brass nuts in the top corners of the puzzle, allowing me to lift it off, exposing the “Inner Core,” and showing the copy’s edition number (mine is #12/17).
At this point, I was able to slide the central cube out, allowing me to see how all the varied mechanisms fit together. While not exactly a fusion drive, there is a lot going on in there! Mostly wooden pieces (with a few metal parts) are stacked and organized, with sufficient room to allow for the movement necessary to solve it. I went through the steps again, watching the internal machinations of the puzzle and appreciating it all the more for it. Reassembly was mostly straightforward, a matter of following the steps backwards. I was proudly admiring my brilliance until I noticed a piece that I had somehow left out – so I was treated to another run through the majority of the puzzle, until I found where it should go, acting as another lock on an otherwise locked piece, yet another step along the way.
From the wacky story, to the beautiful craftsmanship and complex mechanisms, and, finally, to the eventual full disassembly and exposure of the puzzle’s inner workings, EWE UFO stands among the best puzzles I have had the pleasure of working on: it is playful without being easy, challenging without being impossible, tricky without being annoying, and very unique.
(SPOILERS: click here to see some pics of the puzzle totally disassembled, including the outside and inside of the inner core, where the majority of the puzzling occurs)
(scroll down for the puzzle box reviews if you do not want to hear my partially-informed mini-history lesson)
Why Puzzle Boxes?
“Solving the IMPOSSIBLE COFFEE CUP Box!”
“Opening the AMAZING ANTIQUE RADIO Puzzle!”
There is a reason these lures work, and it is not just the excessive use of capitalization and exclamation: to most, if not all, of us self-proclaimed puzzlers, the seemingly inaccessible compartment is a silent promise, a tacit seduction through the placid excitement of discovery, the inevitable and elusive “a-ha” both its premise and its resolution. It is the youthful desire to reach the cupboard within which lie cookies, the ancient drive to see beyond where there be dragons, the adolescent fascination with spy-craft and Goonie gadgetry, the absurd adult illusion of control and reason. Regardless of who or what we are, of what we have or where we come from, the Solution has become the mature repose that awaits us if only we can understand How It Works, if we can grok the secret simplicity lying behind an elegantly explicit deception, if we can build the mechanical bridges that lead us there.
To put it plainly: puzzle boxes are cool.
And just as the history of the modern puzzle box can be traced to Japan, so too can many of the coolest be found there, from a collective of Japanese artisans known as the Karakuri Creation Group (KCG): their works are beautifully made, with exquisite craftsmanship belying their ingenious mechanisms, ranging from whimsical and playful, to challenging and mystifying.
Several years ago, as I was obsessively compiling Pinterest tomes of hidden rooms and secret passageways, I stumbled upon somewhat similar clickbait to that mentioned above; the screamingly bothersome caps ignored, my eyes fell upon the exquisite woods of objects, some clearly shaped like a box, others far from it, all of which promised the recently ranted poetry of puzzling. My inner Indiana awakened, my submerged Data drawn from the depths (the spelunking child, not the cyborg), until what was a shallow swim into other people’s excessive home improvement projects became a deep dive into a previously unknown world of challenges and frustrations: I was forever Puzzled.
One of the best decisions I have made, a list which is rather depressingly short, was to avoid solution vids early on; in a rare feat of self-control and precognitive consideration, I rightly held off in the hopes that some of these might one day make their way into my hands. Many and most have yet to do so, but the wait is surely worth it if only for those few that have or will because, for me, puzzling will forever be inextricably linked with Karakuri. Not just because they were some of the first I found, and not just because they are the direct evolution of the bulk of the puzzle box’s history, but simply because they are, to once again emphasize perhaps the most important takeaway of this rather rambly article, forking cool.
(please know that any mistakes, should they exist, are mine alone)
The Samurai of Edo Japan could not guarantee safe passage for all those making their way along the well-worn roads between Tokyo and Osaka. As horses drew their precious belongings through the Hakone mountains, merchants, nobility and commoners alike feared the presence of the Highwaymen preying upon unwary travelers seeking safe passage through the embrace of Mt. Fuji.
Inspired by the diverse variety of trees in the region, artisans responded to this need for secrecy by applying the ingenuity of the neo-Confucianist intellectual rigor alive at the time. Newly developed architectural principles used to enable buildings to withstand the frequent earthquakes of the country were scaled down and integrated into small, personal items. In the middle of the 19th Century, markets began to sell Shikake-Bako, or trick boxes, where workers could hide valuable tools and property in compartments hidden within otherwise ordinary boxes and small, Tansu chests. The novelty of the Shikake-Bako reached the ears of merchants and nobility and, eventually, Japan’s newly developed leisure class turned its hungry gaze upon them, leading to the development of increasingly difficult mechanisms. In the 1870’s, Takagoro Okawa (and others) began integrating the Yosegi marquetry and Zougan art popular at the time, creating the Himitsu-Bako, or personal secret box. These traditional puzzle boxes use a series of sliding panels to unlock one or more compartments and continue to be produced today.
Fast forward a century or so, and the KCG is created, helping to evolve the traditional puzzle box into the post-modern era, bringing craftsmen and women together to make ever more unique and tricky mechanisms, pushing the definition of what constitutes a “box” and playing upon the assumptions we make when thinking of the comparative simplicity of the traditional Himitsu-Bako’s sliding panels. The word Karakuri, literally mechanism, was the term used to describe the mechanical automatons that date as far back as the 17th Century; the word is now synonymous with the mechanical puzzle box and has helped birth the strange and wonderful works of makers across the globe.
The KCG has grown to include 10 Japanese craftsmen and women (as well as six “friends,” including a single non-Japanese puzzle-maker, the talented Kagen Sound). These creators all bring their own unique style and perspective to puzzle-box-making, continuing to challenge our assumptions and experiences, crafting boxes that range from whimsical pieces solved with a single, sometimes somewhat simple, yet oftentimes elusive, step, to boxes using challenging and mystifying mechanisms that unlock multiple compartments, some requiring hundreds of steps to fully solve.
To me, as to many puzzlers, Karakuri constitute many of the most sought-after puzzle boxes, among the unicorniest of unicorns; and yet, from time to time, I will hear a puzzler or two express doubt that their boxes can be challenging or unique when they “just” use moving panels. I hear this and think that the same could be said for burrs, which “just” use sticks with pieces missing. I am fully aware of the fact that, at one time, I wondered what was so interesting about packing puzzles, when it is a matter of “just” putting these into that. To such a skeptic, I can say with certainty that it is only a matter of finding the right box by the right craftsman to make you into a believer.
Karakuri are not “just” anything: even at their least compelling, they are beautiful examples of woodworking, even if only relying on one or two simple, yet elegant, movements to open. Starting from this foundation, their boxes grow ever more complex and unique, integrating concepts derived from physics and math, utilizing complex woodworking skills to challenge puzzlers with magnets and dead ends, using our own assumptions against us. They are continuously evolving the craft with new concepts and principles, pushing the puzzle-maker to break new ground and, when they have run out of ground, to meticulously make more so that it, too, can be broken.
It seems like every day someone new is not asking me about the boxes made by the Karakuri Creation Group: Which small box is best? What are the New Secret Boxes (NSB)? Are these worth getting? Who are you talking to? Is anyone actually still reading this? Well, it is about time that someone sit down and talk about the different boxes – and, if I have learned anything over the last 40+ years, it is that I am someone, so why not be that someone.
I will start by clarifying that while the boxes I am reviewing here are based on the designs of the KCG members (Kamei more than any other), they are not actually made by them – they are instead crafted by apprentices under the direction and oversight of KCG members (afaik). This allows them to be produced more regularly while still maintaining the high quality we expect from KCG creations – as they are not limited releases, they are easier to find and cheaper to buy, making them an excellent introduction to the KCG. Hopefully, this guide will help you to determine which of these creations you are interested in. I am not going to give away any solutions and will focus on the puzzling experience; I will walk carefully so as to reveal as little as possible and err on the side of caution:
Small Boxes 1 – 8:
Small Box 1 (walnut & magnolia, 47mm, 3 steps): Excellent introduction to modern Japanese puzzle boxes, as it uses a modern take on somewhat traditional movements. Once you find the first, well-hidden step, the next steps have a way of going against your assumptions. It still amazes me how difficult it can be to find something that will move, whether by touch or by sight.
Small Box 2 (cherry & magnolia, 42mm x 47mm x 60mm, 2 steps): Another great box, the first step is quite different from Small Box 1, and hides itself well. You will need a different approach to be able to make progress, although the second step is a bit straightforward. Some may find it a bit similar to a box made by a well-known American puzzle-maker.
Small Box 3 (walnut & magnolia, 42mm x 47mm x 60mm, 3 steps): Also great, its well-hidden start is followed by an unexpected second move that requires some out of the box thinking. Somewhat similar to Small Box 1, while taking you along a very different path.
Small Box 4 (zelkova, 48mm, x 42mm, 1 step): Based on Akio Kamei’s Box with a Ribbon (P-27, 1996), this relies on a mechanism that is rather unloved by many puzzlers. Nonetheless, it is well-executed and quite satisfying when done correctly. Unlike boxes 1-3, it is not solidly smooth all the way around, and resembles a box within a box from the bottom.
(scroll down to see a pic of the bottom of the box)
Small Box 5 (maple, 48mm, x 42mm, 2-3 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s Cosmox (M-17, 1990), this is the only small box that makes noise due to some (intentionally) loose internal parts. Its mechanism is quite different from the rest of the series and is a good example of how some boxes must be experimented with a bit to fully understand how it works, even after it has been solved. From the bottom, it resembles a box within a box (similar to 4).
(scroll down to see a pic of the bottom of the box)
Small Box 6 (walnut, 47mm x 42mm, 2 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s Top Box 1 (M-5-1, 1983), this uses a mechanism that is perhaps even more maligned than that used in box 4. Nonetheless, its walnut construction is quite lovely. From the bottom, it resembles a box within a box (similar to 4 & 5).
(scroll down to see a pic of the bottom of the box)
Small Box 7 (cherry & magnolia, 50mm x 40mm, 3 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s Small Box 3 (M-24-3, 2002), this was the first Karakuri box I got and is still perhaps my favorite of the small box series. Its first step is a great example of how a puzzle box can hide something right in front of you. The final step is rather unexpected and is simultaneously unique and common.
Small Box 8 (zelkova & walnut, 58mm, 2 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s 3D Box (K-20, 1996), this is otherwise known as “the small box that looks totally different from the other small boxes.” Unsurprisingly, its solution is quite different from the rest of the series; as you may have guessed, the burr-like sticks must be manipulated in coordination in order to find and open its hidden compartment. This is definitely one of the best of the series and unfortunately does not seem to be remade as often (at the time of this writing, it is available at Mr. Puzzle).
Cube Boxes 1-4:
Cube Box 1 (zelkova, maple & katsura, 60mm, 3 steps): The Cube Boxes are perhaps a bit less diverse and more consistent than the small boxes, incorporating visual clues into fun solutions that are somewhat more traditional. Box 1 is an excellent example of the close tolerances KCG can create, with the final step moving so smoothly as to be almost vacuum-sealed (mine actually makes a nice “pop” sound when it opens).
Cube Box 2 (wenge, maple & katsura, 60mm, 5 steps): Similar to Cube 1, this also has satisfyingly close tolerances. The solution is a bit more complex as the steps must follow a more defined path.
Cube Box 3 (walnut, maple & katsura, 60mm, 2 steps): This solution is quite different from the rest of the series, with a final state that I find to be aesthetically pleasing. This is one of my favorites of the series, as I find it oddly pleasurable to open and close.
Cube Box 4 (chanchin, maple & katsura, 60mm, 4 steps): This is probably my favorite of the series: the first steps are similar to Cube 1 but the final step is pretty neat, taking an approach to accessing the internal compartment that is different from the rest of the series. The final state is kind of cool and the final movement itself is fairly counter-intuitive.
New Secret Boxes 1-4:
Unlike the series described above, the New Secret Boxes all share similar solutions: the difference is one of complexity: the first box has 6 steps, the second has 12 steps, the third has 18 steps, and the fourth has 32 steps (note that each requires that many steps to open and then again to close, albeit in reverse order). These are perhaps the closest to traditional boxes, except that all six panels move (as opposed to only four panels in traditional boxes). Boxes 1-3 are more or less straightforward, following a fairly direct route from start to end. Box 4 is significantly more complicated, its moves following a binary pattern that must be discovered and which has been described by many as being a fun challenge (full disclosure: I have not actually tried it). The boxes are all the same size (80mm) and share an aesthetic, with the number of stripes on its exterior indicating which of the series it is. All are well made and the interior allows you to see the types of complex wood cuts that are needed to create the sliding panels on which the puzzle is based.
Standalones: Double Box, Trick Door, and Expansion
Double Box (cherry & walnut, 4 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s Double Box (M-47, 2016), this uses a simplified version of the mechanism used in the classic Pentagon Box (M-8, orig. 1984); like Pentagon, it features a lid that can be freely removed (no tricks). Although it is not particularly complex, it is an example of how Karakuri boxes can be playful, messing with our ideas of what defines a box. While this is not one of my favorite KCG creations, I appreciate how you must use something generally intended to close a box in order to open it (or, as Kamei said in his description of Pentagon, “When you cover the lid, you can open the box. But when you take off the lid, you can close the box”).
(scroll down to see pics of Double Box without the removable lid)
Trick Door (walnut, 1 step): This recreates a full-size trick door that stands at the entrance to the Karakuri museum in Hakone; a digital version was used to access the old Karakuri website. It can take an embarrassingly long time to figure out the way to open the door, particularly for those unaccustomed to trick boxes. It is a classic example of using our expectations against us. It is not only fun, but great to hand to non-puzzlers, as it is sure to elicit in them the famed self-smacking of foreheads once shown the simple solution they likely failed to find.
Expansion (maple, zelkova, walnut & black cherry, 4 steps): I saved the best for last! This 2020 release is based on Akio Kamei’s Expansion I (M-44-1, 2012), which is the first of a series of expansion boxes with different mechanisms based on the same concept. First, this is a beautiful box; I generally prefer darker woods, but the contrasting colors used are striking. More importantly, the main step is just plain fun – the first time I did it, I actually giggled – I have Kamei’s Expansion IV and, honestly, I may enjoy this one even more! Beyond that first step, the solution takes an interesting step or two before you can find and open the hidden compartment; it is possible to go back and forth on the first step without finding the direction you need to take. While not necessarily difficult, it has an added layer of complexity that adds more depth to the box, as the puzzle forces you to look more closely to better understand it before you can fully solve it. This is still available (at the time of this writing).
Hopefully this post will help someone decide whether or not they want to try Karakuri puzzles and orient them towards those boxes that might be more to their liking. I wanted to write something that could be especially helpful to newer puzzlers and, to that end, this (already too long) post would not be complete without a bit about club membership: the KCG site can be confusing and I have heard a lot of misunderstanding about how membership works and why one would join. To me, joining is a no-brainer: you will never get KCG member-made boxes at a better price and it is super fun to get some surprises come the holidays.
Each year, the active Karakuri members (currently all but Miyamoto and Ninomiya) create a puzzle box for the holidays; we do not know what it is until it arrives. Puzzlers try to maintain a strict post-no-pictures rule until after the holidays, as some of us like to leave them unopened for a surprise come present-time (assuming you’re into that). As an added mini-puzzle, we do not even know which member made what until a month or so later, so it can be fun trying to guess which box is from which maker – this is sometimes obvious, but oftentimes not (unless you check the maker’s hanko, which is their Japanese “signature” found once you have fully solved the puzzle, particularly helpful if a box has more than one compartment).
There is an annual fee of 12,500 yen (approx. $120), which gets you a box from a single member of your choosing. Some of the boxes may be available after the holidays have passed, but many will never be made again. You can also add boxes from other members for an additional 10,000 yen (approx. $95). The first year there is an additional one-time fee of 6,250 yen (approx. $60); new members receive a copy of the “Karakuri Art Works” book with high quality pictures and descriptions of all Karakuri creations since 1999 in English and Japanese; it will come with supplementary pages for works created after 2017 (additional annual supplements are sent to members once the holidays have passed). This one-time fee is basically the cost of the book, which retails for 5,625 yen (approx. $50).
In addition, membership includes free shipping (worldwide, afaik) on all purchases; amazingly, their boxes will usually be delivered to the US only 2 or 3 days after ordering (even now, amidst Covid, it generally takes less than a week). Perhaps more importantly, membership grants you access to the lotteries for new releases, which come out a few times a year and are generally more complex than the holiday boxes. As they are limited releases (many will never be made again), there is oftentimes more demand than supply; the lottery allows members to order one or more of the new boxes, with payment to be automatically processed if and when they win the lottery (no, these are not free boxes – you are winning the chance to buy them). If there are any copies left over, they will be made publicly available.
As you can probably tell, I love Karakuri boxes. As a collector, their beauty and elegance amazes me and I enjoy re-solving them: sometimes I may not remember exactly how to solve it, but more often I know how it works and am just enjoying the mechanisms. Some puzzlers are less inclined to collect, and are primarily Solvers – to them, Karakuri may not always be satisfying. While some Karakuri are certainly challenging, some Solvers may balk at what they see as poor time per $ puzzling value; you can certainly find less expensive puzzles that will sometimes take longer to solve (Hanamayas are a great example). However, some of the “easiest” Karakuri rely on truly amazing and inspired tricks that will delight most any puzzle fan, even if it doesn’t take hours to figure out. Regardless, I think that everyone will recognize that Karakuri boxes are of amazing quality, their value found not only as puzzles but as works of art. Hopefully this post may have helped the one or two people who actually made it all the way to the end to decide whether or which works appeal to their puzzling sensibilities – if not, it was probably a terrible use of my time, which could therefore have been better spent trying to finally finish solving Turtle Trip, Wishing Well, or Secretum Cista, or even doing that other thing, what’s it called… the thing that actually makes money so I can buy puzzles and keep my family living indoors… you know what I mean. Word? No, thats not it…. Ummmm… work! Yeah, that.
Perplex Puzzles, Stainless Steel, Aluminum, and Brass, 3.5″ x 3″ x 3″, Currently Available
Recently, a puzzling friend of mine sent a pic of a metal puzzle box that had my puzzling parts tingling: Wishing Well is a new (currently available) puzzle from Perplex Puzzles; while seemingly a newcomer to the mechanical puzzle scene (afaik), the creator is a machinist with 39 years experience and the impeccable craftsmanship of the puzzle is definitely consistent with this expertise. At first glance, it seems somewhat similar to Will Strijbos’s First Box: it is a blue metal cube, with a cylindrical protrusion on its top. However, it is a bit bigger and significantly heavier than that puzzling classic; its blue surface is ceramic-coated “for long life,” and it has a number of holes and nubs and such located around its periphery.
Perhaps more importantly, this puzzle boasts an approximate number of 50 steps to solve(!) – this is made even more sweet by its instructions, informing us that there are no magnets, no need to spin or shake, and no smacking or excessive force needed. Described as “sequential mechanical,” after spending time with it, it most definitely falls squarely into the sequential discovery sub-genre of take-apart puzzles: it contains an “intricate assembly” of various metal parts that have been “precision machined on both CNC and conventional machines.” Presumably, this requires a lot of time and effort to make (a fact belied by its significant price tag); I took a bit of a leap of faith and bought it (who am I kidding – a brand new 50 step, SD puzzle box?! yes, please). As stated on the website, these are made in small batches: “[d]ue to the extremely close tolerances and tight fits, they are individually fit and assembled.” Yet again, music to my puzzling soul.
Made in the US, it arrived in just a couple days, arriving in a heavy wood crate with a dozen or so screws around its edges. This was obviously extremely cool and had me anticipating the puzzling experience all the more. Opening the crate, I found a wooden case with a metal clasp taking up about half its interior. Inside this unassuming (not a puzzle) box, lay Wishing Well, comfortably nestled in the foam-lined interior. Lifting it out of its perfectly-sized hole, the first thing I noticed is that it is heavy. Like really heavy. I mean, noticeably heavier than Pachinko, let alone First Box. Its ceramic coating feels smooth and softer than most metal puzzles had led me to expect, and the two-stage, two-toned protrusion on top immediately grabs my eye: a two inch metal circle (aluminum, presumably) topped by a one inch brass circle with what appears to be a brass ball nestled within. The primary directive has been etched into the surface of the box, just above the circles: “Recover the Coin from the Bottom of the” (and then, curving around the bottom of the circle) “Wishing Well.” There is something so practical about it that I like – almost like coming across an odd-looking lock box deep inside the guts of a factory.
Inside its wooden case were two folded sheets of paper: one were the instructions (see below), which included several points in addition to those listed above, instructing the puzzler to not only recover the coin, but to reassemble it completely before it can be considered solved. But the unassuming line that mechanical puzzlers will be likely to find most intriguing sits somewhere in the middle: “Disassembly and removal of the coin can be accomplished easily when taking the proper steps in the proper order.” Wunderbar! This is a puzzle that seems to follow a series of discrete steps – rather than vague movements blending into one another, I have found a tool-based mechanical progression that is by no means easy.
In addition to the instructions, there is a hint sheet – after spending a significant amount of time on the puzzle, I peeked at it, almost as much out of curiosity for the sheet’s contents as for the hint itself. Included hints are not a common occurrence with puzzles for some reason (many don’t even show up with instructions), and I found this to add to my enjoyment of the puzzle, especially as the hunts themselves are conceptual and do not really spoil anything: there are a couple quotes that provide as vague a nudge as any esoteric comment from a fellow puzzler might, as well as (wait for it) a crossword puzzle! Apparently, by solving the crossword, you can then put the words into the order provided to reveal an additional hint. The quotes were not anything particularly helpful – an experienced puzzler is likely to find them to be advice that is generally good to keep in mind when approaching a new, complicated take-apart puzzle, but I appreciate the vague nudges (and I think it is especially welcome to include something for those that may be relatively new to the puzzling world). I have not yet done the crossword, which I suspect may contain something a bit more concrete.
Along with the wooden case, there is a manila letter-sized envelope labelled “Solution.” Because of how heavy it is, I had to open it and at least peek in the top; careful not to reveal any of the actual content, I was able to see that it contains 10 laminated pages with printed text and pictures(!) – pretty awesome and likely quite thorough.
Finally, on to the puzzling experience. As I mentioned, I have not yet solved it fully (I suspect it will cause me to flounder and flail about for quite a while, which should come as no surprise if you know me at all); at this point, I have progressed through about dozen steps and I can confidently say that this thing is badass. As claimed, when you find a step, it is clearly a step; and yet, it is oftentimes totally unclear what to do – it seems like there is so much that you should be able to do, and yet at any given time it may take a while to find anything that you actually are able to do. The visible holes and nubs hide tools and inner working that change in nature as I work my way along – what did little, now does much; what was sticking out, is now sticking in; things move and potential pathways begin to open up, moving the puzzle along at a decent pace until I get to a point where I find myself yet again going in circles, able to do several things, but unsure which to do or in what way or order. Do I need to do this before I do that? Should this go here or should that go there? I am gathering intel on what lies inside the box, details emerging as I discover ways to make this or that happen. Each piece moves perfectly; this is a puzzle clearly made by an expert in the craft that knows how to get metal to do what he wants. Unlike some puzzles I have done, it does not feel like round pegs are being forced into square holes, where you are unsure whether you should do this or that – while it is by no means always clear what to do, I have found it very clear what not to do; this puzzle hides but it does not cheat.
I will end by saying this: it is very clear that this took a lot of thought to design and a lot of effort to make. The puzzling is very enjoyable, with well-concealed, discrete steps that incorporate tools and non-obvious movements that keep me interested and excited as I struggle to find my way through to the next wall. Perplex’s product page features a “Coming Soon” sign beneath Wishing Well; the new puzzle is named Turn, Turn, Turn and comes in at a slightly lower price tag. If it is anything like Wishing Well, the price is likely to be well worth it. I don’t know whether Perplex will continue to make Wishing Well after the new puzzle has been released, but I assume that once the puzzling world gets wind of these, they may start disappearing, so start saving or selling your solved stuff because this thing is seriously fun.
Craftsmanship: Five Sinatras
(No Terence Trent D’Arby jokes were made during the writing of this blog… until now)
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 bestowed 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
It’s here! Jesse Born‘s beautiful Puzzle Chest, Secretum Cista, arrived this week and it is amazing!
Check out this video showing the arrival and unboxing of this mighty chest – featuring several woods, including Wenge, Paduak, Purpleheart, Katalox, Figured Mango, and more, this chest consists of 18 drawers that hide an interconnected series of SD puzzles. This is basically like getting a big chest filled with puzzle boxes!
Stay Tuned for more posts as I continue to explore this excellent piece of puzzle wizardry!
Overall Grade: One Presley (!!!)
Regarding the exchange rate of quantified cool: The Tiger Man Elvis is of course the pinnacle of cool – too out of reach to justify common usage. And we try not to speak of the lesser quantifications (the Davis, Martin, Lawford, and (shudder) the Bishop).
Kathleen Malcolmson and Perry McDaniel, 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.6″
A few weeks ago, I reached out to a fellow puzzler on the social media site that shall not be named who, so I had heard, might be looking to let go of a few puzzles from his rather immense collection. After a bit of back and forth in which I listed out a number of names of makers and designers whose works are generally a bit difficult to find, he let me know that he did indeed have a couple boxes by none other than Kathleen Malcolmson. I have admired her boxes from afar but never before had the chance to get one (at least not for anything resembling a reasonable price). Not only was this a box made by her, but it was designed in collaboration with another hard-to-obtain designer, Perry McDaniel. The story goes that she had been working on the design for some years, unable to get it just right until Perry chimed in with a needed final touch that would allow her to produce it as envisioned.
Unlocked Drawer is a relatively small box, consisting of just a drawer in a frame. It is beautifully made of contrasting lacewood and primavera, an aesthetic that is pretty consistent across her creations, at least as far as I can tell. Upon receiving it, I quickly found that its secrets were well-hidden: other than a bit of noise to be heard when shaken (presumably the Texas quarter to be found inside), the seams visible from the front do not permit any movement and no other breaks could be seen.
And that’s it! Fabulously frustrating in its simplicity and elegance, it would take me quite a bit of poking prodding pushing and pulling over the course of several days before a genuine aha that startled me with its sudden appearance. I love a moment like this: it is the reason many of us puzzle and we spend quite a bit of time chasing the feeling which is well represented in this little box. Closing it, there remains no indication of the solution, which I of course had to repeat several times since solving solely to revel in its gracefully hidden presence. A close relative of the box (Three-Layered Dovetail) was recently available at a Haubrich Auction, and was claimed by a puzzling French friend of mine, with whom I would not wish to engage in a bidding war – hopefully, I will be able to find a copy of my own, and/or any other Malcolmson boxes (particularly perhaps its predecessor, Locked Drawer, designed by Robert Sandfield). It more than lived up to the hype in its beauty, craftsmanship, and deviousness.
Eric Fuller, Figured Quartersawn Sapele 3″ x 4″ x 1.45″ Box, 2.45″ x 1.25″ x 0.75″ Key 133 Copies
I have a tendency to write about puzzles that may not be easy to obtain – I enjoy reading about such pieces, that I might live vicariously through the vague reminiscences of puzzlers more fortunate than I, adding to my ever-expanding list of unicorns and future lost auctions.
This is also due to the simple fact that great puzzles sell quickly. In a bout of good fortune, Eric Fuller’s Lock Box will again be available in limited quantities on CubicDissection.com in late July (2020). Personally, I need only hear Eric Fuller + Puzzle Box to anxiously wait to give him my money, but if you are unsure, my suggestion is: buy it. If you cannot afford it (at $450 it ain’t cheap), sell some other puzzles and then buy it. In the unlikely event you do not like it, there will be plenty of people happy to take it off your hands; I believe it is destined to be yet another unicorn with auction prices that get bonkers fast.
At first glance, we have a key and a box with a keyhole; so far we have more to go on than the T12 initially shows. Unsurprisingly, after dutifully inserting the key (because you’ve got to try, right?), you will find it will not get you very far. And that’s it.
Before too long, I had my first aha. Followed by a few more. Followed by a wall. And more wall. Then another aha. More wall. Aha. Wall. Wall. Think, plan, take notes. Wall. Aha? Hm, no: Wall……… and here I am: a pretty good understanding of the wall I am facing, with no idea how to get past it. I have made good progress, with the end somewhere in sight and I can confidently say this will be very satisfying when that final aha has been found.
The puzzle has so many of the things I love in a box (some of which I will not say): things that look they should work that don’t; a bit of progress that may not come right away, but before too long; a series of stops and gos, extending the pleasure of solving across a spread of mini-solves; the ability to make progress during my first, focused session; the inability to fully solve it during that same session; the need for both trial and error as well as actual thinking; pretty, pretty wood; and while it has some similarities with other great puzzles, it is mostly very unique.
Everything works well and consistently, which is always nice (and is not always the case even with some excellent puzzles). And did I say that it is pretty? The instructions do warn that this will not stand up to humidity well – we are advised to keep it between 40% and 60% lest it be ruined (!), so some folks may be facing a dilemma (I’m looking at you my Hawaiian puzzling friends).
I expect that the final step (or steps) will be something quite different from what has worked thus far: this is something many of Eric’s puzzles feature; were it not the case, I probably would have found it (them?) already, after all. It took me a while to determine how to get to my current stopping point reliably and with full comprehension but this final wall may be staring me in the face for some time.
But man, this reminds me of why I love puzzle boxes.