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:

Deez (boxes are) Nuts

Space Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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