Inaccurate Monikers and Inappropriate Sobriquets: Blah Box by Eric Fuller

Blah Box

Eric Fuller, Zebrawood and Maple, 2.875″ x 2.875″ x 4.25″

When Eric Fuller (of CubicDissection for any puzzling noobs out there) was working on his DDD Burr Set, he had initially planned on the pieces being stored in a puzzle box, akin to the Penultimate Burr Box Set whose instructions were hidden away inside a locked compartment. Obviously, this would have been super cool, but Eric decided to separate these two ideas into separate puzzles to keep costs down, especially with some complex boxes set to come out later this year with appropriately higher price tags.

The DDD Burr Set is an excellent piece of craftsmanship; the box is so well constructed that it took some searching for many of us to open it, despite it lacking any kind of puzzle mechanism. Fortunately for us, Eric did not eschew the box ideas he had developed. The perceived “failure” led him to name the box as he did, using nomenclature that is not at all indicative of the excellent puzzling offered by Blah Box but is instead intended to capture the maker’s disappointment with keeping such trickery out of DDD.

I would easily put it among the best of Eric’s boxes that I have had the pleasure of solving. And yet, for some odd reason, I feel that Blah has kind of slipped under the radar, not garnering the attention and adulation that it most definitely deserves. There was a bit of an issue early on, with Eric issuing a semi-sort-of-recall (essentially consisting of providing a replacement piece that would help avoid an “unintended solution path” found by some early solvers). Fortunately, I had been unable to find the first step before the announcement, so I was able to wait before proceeding. Once the replacement piece arrived, my wife was able to follow the video instruction to reset the puzzle in just a few minutes – as a true NPSO, this helps show that the change was relatively straightforward. I say all this as I wonder if this contributed to Blah’s somewhat quiet release.

Blah Box is a beautiful puzzle, offered in multiple wood options (Iroko/Holly and Black Limba/Maple, in addition to the Zebrawood/Maple of my copy). It is a decent size, taller and a bit narrower than Improved Cam and Topless. The lighter ends set off the lovely frame, two holes of various diameters located on one side and one more on one end of the box. With a bit of inspection, you can find a single seam; pulling on it affords no success, as nothing seems to move or do anything at all anywhere on the box. As with many of his boxes, some rattling can be heard inside the puzzle (which may or may not indicate much of anything – Eric loves to mess with us puzzlers’ expectations, and I have learned to take nothing for granted when approaching his boxes).

As alluded to above, the first step took me quite a long time; this is one of those puzzles that starts at a seemingly insurmountable wall, requiring ample exploration and trial and error before you can find the precise step that works perfectly and wonderfully once you have found it and is seemingly non-existent otherwise. Finding it is an absolutely excellent aha moment and I have found it to be super satisfying to repeat, a fidget-friendly move if ever there was one.

After oohing and aahing over the first step, I proceeded to seek out any avenues that it may have opened up; the step seems to lead you somewhere, but you will instead hit another wall as your reward. It didn’t take me as long to surmount this next obstacle and I was rewarded with another aha moment – two in a row would be enough to make this a great box and yet there is still ample puzzling left before success can be claimed. 

I was able to move through the remaining steps without as much trouble as the first two, but they were no less satisfying for it. Seemingly obvious moves led to confused head-scratching before I would notice something I had overlooked or realize this might also do that and that might get me to there… 

As a true sd box, the steps flow fantastically along, sweeping you up in a rhythm that builds from its early struggles into a nice, smooth conclusion that includes another solid aha or two before you can open the box. The puzzle teases you a bit before letting you finish, a bit of tantric puzzle play to make the end that much more satisfying. 

Blah Box really is a fun puzzle – while not as difficult (or perhaps as original) as Lock Box (at least in some ways), it might just be more fun, perhaps even more so than the excellent Lift and Nope Boxes (and certainly more complex than these, which were intended to be more wallet-friendly); it is certainly on par with both. Blah is playful and highlights Eric’s devious tendency to confront our assumptions in ways that are as hidden as they are obvious. The sd elements are integral to the puzzle, and necessarily flow from the mechanisms that must be discovered and overcome before sweet, sweet success might be claimed.

Blah was sold in two waves and several copies are being offered in the current CDM; as with many CD puzzles, a few were held back to be listed at one penny. If you have not obtained a copy, I highly recommend duking it out with some other hopefuls as this is a super fun solve and an essential addition to any Fuller box collection.


Overall Grade: Four and a Half Sinatras (Five for fun and Four for difficulty)

Email me at: quantifiedcool (at) fivesinatras (dot) com

You can also find me on Discord @fivesinatras or Reddit @fivesinatras23

Gateway to Puzzledom: Dee’s Portal to SD Fun

Portal

Dee Dixon, Mahogany body, Peruvian Walnut top, Cherry knobs with Wenge Center, 3″ x 6.25″ x 5.5″

Dee done doggone did it again, with the upcoming release of his fifth puzzle box to much anticipated fanfare and excitement (check out my reviews of his earlier boxes here). I had the good fortune to be a tester, receiving a copy that represents a (likely) final prototype of its puzzle mechanisms, although some changes may yet be in store (including a possible fourth knob of unknown purpose). Dee has had a bit of trouble settling on a name, prompting me to suggest the name “Indecisive” (get it? In-Dee-Cisive? Cue the ensuing of hilarity.) However, in the end the puzzle’s aesthetic earned it the probably more appropriate name “Portal.”

Dee has an excellent track record of puzzles that look great while presenting a solid, fun challenge. Space Case was perhaps his most difficult release, and this newest creation moves away from some of Space’s more blind aspects, providing ample direction and feedback from start to finish while preserving some of the best aspects of such semi-hidden mechanisms. The box’s aesthetic shares some similarities with Space Case, featuring shapes on its sides whose possible purpose must be determined. However, its puzzling is quite different and, I think, more playful, even if perhaps posing somewhat less of a challenge (than Space) – this is not at all to say the puzzle is easy, especially when just getting started may confound the average puzzle aspirant. While Where’s My Hammer? will always win warm fuzzies and a special place in my puzzled soul, Portal features some really cool design details that had me smiling appreciatively after I reached the end and realized the nature of the path he takes us on; the puzzle gives WMH a run for its money in the opinion of this humble puzzler, landing in the middle of his puzzles in terms of difficulty and towards the top for fun.

The box starts with a wall that can take quite a while to overcome; it took me longer than I may care to admit to find that first step (other testers I’ve spoken with had similar experiences), and when I did, I had an excellent aha moment: that kind of slap yourself in the head while laughing at the designer’s deviousness that makes me want to repeat a step a few times before moving on. The box does a great job of funneling you through the puzzle’s mostly logical progression through to the end. The puzzling rewards both exploration and careful consideration and is fun from start to finish; it feels like more of a return to the discrete steps of WMH in some ways, while evolving aspects of Space Case with a clear sense of progress and direction as you proceed through a mix of sd trickery and internal obstacles.

Looking closely, you will notice that the puzzle introduces a touch of color, with a bit of blue acrylic peeking out of the small hole at its front; Dee has said the final puzzles may feature different color options. The final version will feature different woods: a Maple body with a Cherry top and Cherry knobs with a Wenge center; it will also be a bit narrower, at about 3″ x 6″ x 4″. Some prototypes featured differing knob layouts, and the final version may well feature a layout somewhat different from mine, including the aforementioned fourth knob.

After solving and resetting the puzzle a couple times, I realized just how fun and unique the path Dee laid out really is – while I can’t say too much without spoiling anything, I could see Dee laughing at us poor puzzling folk as he makes us travel a meandering path to its end; opening the box reveals some rather unexpected mechanisms and resetting the puzzle made it clear to me that this puzzle comes with a sense of humor, betraying our expectations in a delightful and fun way that I think most puzzlers will appreciate.

Portal is both tricky and fun and is an excellent addition to Dee’s already excellent oeuvre – Portal should be available on CubicDissection sometime in its April 2021 release.


Grade: Four and a Half Sinatras


Poll:

It’s a Karakuri Miracle! Holiday Boxes 2020

Karakuri Holiday Boxes 2020

It’s that time of year again: families gathering around blahblahblah……. we know what really matters: Karakuri Holiday Boxes! (If you don’t know about how the holiday boxes work, you can learn more here).

Back Row (Left to Right): Kawashima, Kamei, Kikuchi, Iwahara, Kasho; Front Row: Sugimoto, Kakuda

At the end of a strange year, I felt like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when a big box of smaller boxes containing my new puzzle boxes arrived sometime in mid-December: “Merry Christmas Movie House! Merry Christmas you wonderful Building & Loan!” Merry Christmas Karakuri Puzzle Boxes! Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! Now Kamei! Now Iwahara, Kawashima and Kakuda!

Over the course of the last year, I added more and more of the craftspeople at the KCG until I was on the list for 7 of the 8 boxes (sorry Fumio, I really did mean to add yours as well……). As in the past, I chose to resist the temptation of opening the boxes upon arrival, opting instead to hold out for Christmas morning. My mother-in-law always gets a kick out of seeing them, and it is one of the rare times when I can get my teenage son to look at something I like for a moment or two. Most importantly, the anticipation is fun and this year’s boxes did not disappoint! As is to be expected, all puzzles reflect the brilliant standards of Karakuri puzzles, working smoothly and looking even more striking upon close examination.

Pics of the boxes have been making the rounds on social media, and I wanted to break my too-long blogging hiatus with a review of (most of) this year’s boxes. For those who are not aware, the names of most of the boxes have not yet been released and can be expected in January.

Akio Kamei

Kamei’s box resembles a classic safe (3.5″ x 3″ x 4.5″): four tiny legs beneath an upright, rectangle, complete with notched dial that seems to spin freely. Picking it up, you can hear one or more somethings moving around inside. Kamei’s hanko is on the back of the box; it is pretty clear when you have solved the box and seeing the hanko on its outside helps to confirm that you are not missing anything once it is open. Finding the right approach took a bit of creative cat burgling – of all the boxes, this is the one that gave me the most trouble. I was pretty sure I knew what to do at the outset, at least to some extent, and while it turned out to be correct, executing it still takes a bit of focus. I’ve heard from other puzzles who are similarly confounded by how specifically it works, in some ways feeling similar to other boxes of Kamei’s that rely on mechanisms that make little sense, until they make total sense – while you may yet continue to struggle to understand how the concept is realized, you can at least understand what is happening. Of this year’s boxes, this is the one whose internal layout most confounds me.


Hideaki Kawashima

Kawashima’s box was one of my personal favorites (even if I do feel like there is one small change that could have made it even better in my mind). It is the only puzzle this year to resemble a classic box (albeit a small one at slightly less than 3″). One panel is light colored, calling your attention to what will presumably be your goal. Kawashima may be guiding us a bit here, as it is pretty simple to make initial success, leading you through a few productive steps until you hit a wall hiding a couple added tricks that block you from further progress. Kawashima’s hanko awaits you when you reach the final compartment, after a nice, progressive solution. The box displays well with Iwahara’s 2019 holiday gift: Aquarius Box, which is slightly larger but features a similar aesthetic.


Hiroshi Iwahara

Iwahara’s Drawer (3.5″ x 3.5″ x 2.5″) is the box that offers the most puzzling, with an appearance that resembles this year’s Drawer with a Tree but features puzzling that is quite different. The hanko is important with this puzzle, as I briefly thought I had solved it after finding a fun series of steps to open and close it, before realizing I had not yet seen his mark. Some further exploration led to a happy, second aha as the fun-to-do mechanism is expressed in yet another step. The concept is well-executed, and it is the type of mechanism that I find fun to pick up and solve here and there; I have little doubt that this box will join the ranks of other fidget-friendly karakuri boxes that currently sit on my shelves. The puzzle has the added bonus of smelling particularly good, only increasing its re-solve value.


Osamu Kasho

Kasho’s box features a UFO that spins elliptically above the whimsical crop circles adorning a flattened cube (approx. 2.5″ x 3″). At first glance, I thought it was a safari hat atop a button, which made decidedly less sense. It is pretty clear what to do at first, and opening the box is rather straightforward. However, the brilliance of this puzzle really takes a bit of imagination – this is the box that has perhaps grown on me the most, as I have stepped back to observe the solution and the kind of scene the craftsman was perhaps imagining. Basically, I have come to see that the entire experience encapsulates a story and I hope this is something that has occurred to other puzzlers, because, to me, it is what really makes this unique (happy to share this with anyone who wants to know, but I don’t want to give any spoilers here). There is one particular design detail that I especially like, and which perfectly finished the concept at play in the puzzle’s solution. I had high expectations for his box this year as his was my favorite of 2019; to be honest, I was a bit let down at first but, as I said, this is the puzzle that has most grown on me as I have (I think) gotten into the maker’s head a bit more, discovering the story the puzzle is (I think) intended to tell.

Kasho’s 2020 and 2019 Holiday Boxes

Shou Sugimoto

Once again, I had some wildly incorrect initial impressions, thinking this was an odd-looking snake-train thing (4″ x 1.5″ x 2.25″) whose tongue had fallen out. I don’t know where my mind is sometimes but once I was able to break through my dumbassery, I realized what was what and actually laughed out loud (rolling on the floor with a puzzle seems foolhardy and excessive). Realizing what it is, the way forward is pretty clear while being no less enjoyable for it. This is another fidget-friendly box that should not be overlooked; I think it requires some precise craftsmanship that may bely its playful appearance.


Yasuaki Kikuchi

Kikuchi’s is the only box to directly reference the Christmas season; last year’s box featured a Christmas tree and this year’s box is a stocking (3.25″ x 1.75″ x 4.25″) stuffed full of presents! It is decidedly adorable and has a multi-step solution that is simple but fun and, once again, quite fidget-friendly. Kikuchi is the least prolific of the KCG members and this is the first puzzle of his to make its way into my collection. I didn’t realize it, but he has the most punk of the KCG hankos, eschewing traditional Japanese characters for a more stylized signature.

This could well be upside-down and/or sideways but is pretty cool from any angle.

Yoh Kakuda

Yoh delivers on our animalistic expectations, with an adorable Wombat (3″ x 4″ x 1.75″) that is not only entertaining, but educational! I don’t want to give anything away, but after a couple straightforward steps, you are rewarded with a funny (and perhaps questionably desirable) reward. A conversation about the puzzle led me to google a particular fact about the Wombat, which has led me to be surprised that no other designer (to my knowledge) has taken advantage of this fun mammalian fact. Yoh’s hanko is displayed on the bottom of the puzzle, which led to a bit of confusion in more than one puzzler, as I heard a few folks may have thought they had solved the puzzle prematurely (which is pretty cool, as it features fair more fun than one first figured). Kakuda’s Wombat is adorable and smart, and packs an excellent punchline.


Overall Grade for Holiday Puzzles: Five Sinatras

Now that 2020 is done, we can start gearing up for next year (Fumio, I won’t forget you this time):

Happy New Year my tens of imaginary friends and readers! Thank you for reading and believing my opinion is worth a damn!

2020 was a weird year but oddly enough, it was an excellent year for puzzles – so many new releases from great designers, and great puzzles from new ones. I finally got rid of all those paper things that were cluttering up my puzzle shelves and installed a secret door leading to my puzzle room (well, home office, but you know where my priorities lie).

May 2021 be better generally, that puzzle parties might once more resume (and other social stuff as well…. I guess…. I mostly just care about the puzzle parties).

2020 Grade: A Bishop and a Lawrence (ugh)

It’s Electric! Boogie Woogie Woogie: Detective Box by Joe Guarini

Detective Box

Joe Guarini, 2020

Just a few days ago, some fellow puzzlers and I were discussing how there are not many puzzles that truly integrate electronics into their puzzling; there are a few great puzzles that feature electronics (I’m looking at you Turtle Trip and Snack Brake), but not necessarily as a part of the solution itself. This, however, is no longer the case: Detective Box wonderfully integrates electronic elements into the puzzling, creating a imaginatively unique and fun experience that I think of as an SD escape-room-in-a-puzzle-box.

Detective Box is a seemingly unassuming 3″ x 3″ x 1.5″ metal lock box with a four number dial-lock on its face. The back shows four small holes, one of which belies its electrical nature by giving you a peek at some red wires that can be seen inside. Along with the box, there is an instruction sheet which includes our favorite rules, “no banging” and “no spinning”, along with “no gravity required” and a surprising early indicator of the puzzle’s distinctive nature, “no external tools except….” The instructions go on to explain that our goal is, essentially, to open the box and then “???…” Opening the box, we are told, requires that we “follow the clue” written on an accompanying letter and “find the box’s signal” (?!). Ultimately, the solution is not just to open the box, but to solve what is inside it (the aforementioned “???”).

After reading these instructions, I was extremely intrigued: its strange goals and reference to “a computer for your detective research” had me wholly hooked.

There is also a letter accompanying the puzzle, which gets you started (as per the instructions) and helps set the stage for the puzzle’s theme (which carefully and vaguely alludes, more or less indirectly, but probably not in any right-infringing way, to a certain flying-mammal-loving detective). The letter features a clue that will lead you to your computer (this is stated in the instructions, so no spoiler) – and, at that point, I was pretty clueless. The site does…. things…. but what could that have to do with the box? After spinning my computer availed me nothing (oddly enough), so began the electro-mechanical puzzling! After a couple cool aha moments, I managed to find the code needed to open the box. But this is by no means the end of the puzzle! Not at all – it is just the beginning.

I want to be careful not to give away too much: this really is a puzzling experience like no other I have ever had and one which I would not want to ruin. Suffice it to say that inside the box are some more electrical components that must somehow be used to solve a cypher, which will then lead you to the ultimate solution. Along the way, you will find a few more great aha moments, before you reach the puzzle’s end.

Joe clearly has some skills that are being put on display here – the functionality of its various electrical components must require a working knowledge of….. stuff….. that he is putting to good use. Although it was not necessarily an overly difficult box (for me, anyway), it is, even more importantly, a really really fun one. Sometimes puzzles seem to forego a full focus on facilitating fun in favor of bang-your-head-against-the-wall levels of difficulty (which can also be fun, of course, but sort of scratches a different itch than this novel, entertaining experience).

I am quite happy to have had the opportunity to try this puzzle out – Joe will be making them available for sale relatively soon and will likely be selling them directly, so keep an eye out on your favorite online puzzling haunt (i.e. Discord and Reddit). If you’re on Discord, he is @JHoag – you may want to hit him up with ye old LIST!!! emoji.

Originality Grade: 5 Sinatras
(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)


Puzzle Parrrrrr-ty: Sea Chest by Jesse Born

Sea Chest

Jesse Born, 2020,
Wenge, Holly, Katalox, Bocote, Mahogany, Bloodwood and Copper

Avast ye mine puzzlers, thar be fine puzzlin’ on the horizon for those that be wantin’ of it… Dragons there may be, but the risk be worth takin’ for such a fine piece o’ work as this here box!

Captain Woodbeard of the Puzzler’s Revenge

A few days ago I got notice from Jesse that my copy of Sea Chest was ready – as one of the first to be lucky enough to get on the list, I soon received what is number 6 of an overall release of 100 copies. Sea Chest is the first in the three-box “Voyager” series; the next (named SunDial) has apparently been mostly designed (in collaboration with a certain other amazing puzzle designer), and I expect we shall learn more in a few months, once the other 94 Sea Chests have all made it to their various X-marks-the-spots. The third and final box in the series is named Alien and is fittingly otherwise unidentified.

Here There Be Puzzlin’

My copy arrived quickly, as is typically the case when crossing the state or two between me and Jesse’s workshop. I dug through the brown wrapping paper as I unearthed my newest acquisition. The box is a great size: about 8″ x 4.5″ x 3.5″ and somewhere between Slammed Car and SDBBM (or First Box and Pachinko) in weight, making it feel good and solid in your hands.

The box is both meticulously detailed and delightfully distressed: the top is a precise carving of two ships at sea, while the back features a medallion that rotates in a frame that appears to have been worn down in its time buried underground. Copper handles are affixed to the sides and a copper compass rose adorns its front. On either side of the compass/medallion, there are a total of 4 wooden pistons that pass through the body of the box. These are quite amazing when examined closely: the red wood moving in and out of the darker frame as they are pushed and pulled, held together with wooden pins at their base. There’s an unexpected feature to the bar that connects the pistons passing through the box, with gilded numbers appearing and disappearing as the pistons are moved.

Every aspect of the box is thematically consistent, down to the ample serifs used to make the numbers recognizable to the puzzle pirate inside all of us. Numerous details adorn the design, some surely there to serve as clues, implying that perhaps this puzzle is both treasure map and chest in one (as I’ve not yet solved it, this may well not be the case – just speculating here, so no spoilers my seafaring friend). It even comes with a folded sheet of “parchment”, with a wax seal identifying it as the solution.

The overall look is pretty awesome – the pistons remind me of the rows of oars of an ancient ship, emerging from port and starboard as your crew struggles to make your way to your final destination. While I do not think we will see sirens or cyclops on this journey, the Argonauts on board may yet be waiting a while to reach dryland as the solution is most definitely not obvious (to me, anyway).

Which leads us to why we are really on this journey: the puzzling. First off, it is not entirely clear what our destination will be – I know the puzzle will open, but my initial assumptions on where and how may well be incorrect. I have already had a great aha moment and have made additional discoveries that tell me what likely needs to happen, without showing me how how to actually do it. This is that type of box where the journey is at least as good as the destination, allowing me to be in no great hurry to get there. I couldn’t wait to solve this before sharing it, as it is just too darn pretty.

Captain SPH Sits Atop His Treasure

Jesse has once again produced a puzzle that is both striking and fun: Sea Chest has a thematically distressed aesthetic that seamlessly blends potential clues and red herrings with meticulously designed details, hiding whatever puzzling intricacies lay buried within.

(Past reviews of Jesse’s Jack in the Box and Secretum Cista)
Sealed Solution Sheet and Certificate of Authenticity
Captain’s Grade: Ye Olde 5 Sinatras


Check out Jesse’s Website and his Facebook page!

Lucky Number 13

Stickman #13: Chopsticks

Robert Yarger, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 13th Stickman puzzle is a totally unique and oddly practical box, with a lovely mix of woods and chopsticks so perfectly balanced that I am tempted to use them; normally, I wouldn’t seriously consider it, but I suppose I can make an exception for Hiroshi Iwahara’s Sushi…
My Stickman logo has unfortunately faded a bit due to numerous and frequent solves – the box nonetheless works perfectly.
Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

A Box, a Burr, and a Ball walk into a bar…

Burr Puzzle (with Yosegi ball inside)

Yoshiyuki Ninomiya, 2013
Burr 116×116×116 ㎜
        Box 140×140×142 ㎜
Walnut, Senn (Castor Aralia), Yosegi

In case you’re not aware, Ninomiya’s boxes are awesome. While he unfortunately was not as prolific a creator as others at the Karakuri Group (I wrote more about the Group here, if you’re interested), he still managed to make some of the most beautiful boxes produced by them (which is saying a lot). Even more unfortunately, he is not producing puzzles anymore; other than the occasional yosegi bookmark (which are great), I am not aware that he is making anything else (which is rather unsurprising as he is now 91 years old and has pretty much retired after about 75 years as a woodworker).

Recently, I managed to acquire one of his last Karakuri creations – a piece that I have been hoping to see for some time now. The appropriately named “Burr puzzle (with Yosegi ball inside)” includes one of very few burrs released by the Karakuri Group, which in and of itself makes it pretty cool. However, Karakuri are puzzle box-makers, and so, sure enough, the burr is trapped inside a puzzle box! That’s cool, too. If it ended there, I’d be happy with the puzzle. But Ninomiya adds a nice touch, adding a yosegi ball trapped inside the burr, which is of course trapped inside the box (which is now kept on my shelf).

The puzzle is quite large: the box is about 5.75″ and the twelve-piece burr is about 4.5″ (the ball is about 2″). This was the first thing I noticed, followed quickly by the excellent (and expected) workmanship. This is the 4th Ninomiya box I’ve acquired (alongside a few bookmarks) and the quality of his work continues to blow me away.

The box has circular windows on each of its 4 sides, allowing you to see the center of the burr with the ball held inside, perfectly placed for said perspective to be possible. Atop the box, there is a short, wooden hashtag (a/k/a tic-tac-toe or ye olde number sign), comprised of contrasting woods and featuring a small yosegi square (delightfully tipped on a corner to offset the square center of the symbol in which it sits). The piece is able to spin and its dimensions clearly establish that it was designed to allow the burr to sit atop it, the outer squares placed at the exact dimensions of the four pillars of the burr; the spin allows you to view all sides of the burr, which is, again, pretty darn cool. This allows all aspects of the puzzle to be seen clearly when kept on the display platform (as I prefer to keep it).

The box isn’t overly difficult, with 3 or 4 steps to open; I found the burr to be quite original (although admittedly my experience with burrs is lacking when compared to many other puzzlers) and challenging enough to be fun but not so hard as to be frustrating. It has some unexpected moves to disassemble, and reassembly requires just the right amount of dexterity, focusing more on good old logic to get you back together. The ball is made with Japanese marquetry, with four “slices” of alternating woods, which brings the overall aesthetic together nicely, combining the light wood of the box with the dark wood of the burr. And of course, the ball also complicates reassembly of the burr, which must largely be constructed around it. Both the box and the burr feature Ninomiya’s hanko.

I’m quite pleased to have been fortunate enough to obtain a copy of this puzzle and have not been at all disappointed in finally getting my hands on one of my (admittedly many) Karakuri unicorns… now if I could just get a copy of my most unicorny of Ninomiya unicorns: Desk Diary (he said, blatantly promoting his own self-interest in the hopes that one of his fives of readers has a line on a copy).

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

(no hamsters were hurt in the making of this post)

Puzzling by the Dashboard Light

Pair O’Dice

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

I couldn’t think of a witty title for this post but the box is still super cool.

Kakoi

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.

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

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

Time to Read

Art Deco Clock Box, Book Puzzle Box (Volumes 1, 3, & 4)

Bill Sheckels

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.

Craftsmanship Grade: 5 Sinatras