“Look Kids: Big Ben, Parliament,” Juno, Brian & John Had Me Stuck Going in Circles

Big Ben

Design by Brian Young, Junichi Yananose (Juno) & John Moore
Made by Brian Young
Presented by John Moore at the 2014 IPP Exchange
Winner Jury Grand Prize 2015
Papua New Guinean Rosewood, Western Australian Jarrah & Queensland Silver Ash
220mm x 55mm x 55mm

Amazing Puzzle Collaborations: Episode I – A Fan of Ben Is (a true puzzler)

Big Ben has been on my unicorn list for quite some time – years, in fact. When I finally obtained it as part of a rather elaborate trade, I couldn’t bring myself to start working on it right away. First, I just enjoyed seeing it there, ready to solve whenever I felt like it… Then I began to worry: what if all the hype has given me unrealistic expectations? I took it down off the shelf and began working on it… fast forward an hour or two and I had my answer: my expectations were spot on – Big Ben is bad ass.

Standing at about 8.6″, Big Ben towers over many a puzzle and is especially large and complex for an IPP exchange puzzle. From what I have heard, its complexity earned it an atypically high price for an exchange puzzle… a whopping $300! (If you have seen Big Ben sell at auction in the last few years you will understand the irony in this).

Its woods are wonderfully lovely although perhaps a bit rough around the edges, especially as mine had a few micro-scratches here and there. Not that it isn’t the work of a master craftsman… Brian’s work is as impeccable as always and Ben stands up against some of the best-looking puzzles in my collection. And anyway, this was an exchange puzzle, so going up against a Karakuri or another finely crafted puzzle box might not be the fairest comparison.

The goal is neatly engraved at the bottom of the puzzle, along with some well-deserved credits: “Remove Big Ben from the tower and along the way you’ll pick up Queen Elizabeth’s gold crown.” It is worth taking a moment to admire the accuracy of this statement, which overcomes the common misconception that the tower or the clock is itself Ben… but no, it is Elizabeth Tower that stands guard over all the Griswolds trapped beneath; Big Ben is the bell within said tower and we’ve gotta find it!

The clocks begin set at 9 – the final goal of the puzzle is to reset it so that all clocks show the ninth hour. According to what the instructions said, if the clocks are not so set it may not be fully reset, so maybe reset it instead before moving ahead (tbh I don’t know that it will really take away all that much from the solution… it made a great setup for some awesome alliteration though 🤓). I appreciate a puzzle that can quickly signify whether it is in its fully reset state. This is especially the case when there is this much going on under the hood, easily earning it a sequential discovery description atop its take-apart classification.

I also love a puzzle that can rope you in with some early successes only to run you smack into a wall. It sets up a great rhythm, which Ben keeps going throughout the relatively lengthy solve with different sections requiring quite different approaches. I found my way through the early steps mainly through trial & error before finding myself stuck going in circles for quite a while as I tried to make it through what comes next – I may not have become quite as insane as poor Clark, but it was a good and, more importantly, fun challenge. I could be wrong but I seemed to feel a lot of Juno’s influence in this part of the design but, truthfully, I’ve no idea who did what.

My favorite part of the solution comes in its final steps – this is where I believe that Brian’s design style really shines, crafting delightful aha’s into a tricky and satisfying resolution. The reset has its own challenges: reversing some steps is not necessarily such a simple matter. Finally setting the clocks back at 9 as instructed, I smiled at my newly conquered conquest and returned it to my Mr. Puzzle section, which is fittingly and coincidentally close to my Pluredro section.

If only Fay Wray or Jessica Lange were here…

Big Ben was well worth the price of admission, in my sometimes humble opinion. This is a puzzle that almost certainly will not be made again, so if you get a chance to try it, take it… perhaps at a puzzle party down the road 😉

A few landmark puzzles: Big Ben alongside Brian Young’s Louvre & Keith Winegar’s Capitol Politics

Staying Home and Getting Lost: Juno’s Arrow

Arrow (Sliding Block Puzzle)

Juno, 4.5″ x 0.75″, Anegre, Jarrah, American Black Walnut, and Bamboo plywood

Don’t be fooled: not all sliders are created equal, and some keep their biggest secrets hidden within.

If you like sliders, you need to get Arrow. If you like surprisingly challenging, well-made wood puzzles with multiple challenges, a beautiful aesthetic, and excellent tactile feedback, you probably already got Arrow.

And yet, somehow, at the time of this writing there remain about 50 copies of this limited release puzzle available from Pluredro. As with most of Juno’s best works, I am confident these will not be there much longer. I thought perhaps I might try and explain what makes this design so interesting and fun, particularly for those who may be unsure or on the fence.

Most anyone who ate fast food as a child in the 80s has done a sliding tray puzzle at some point – flipping tiles around a small plastic tray to create the image of Hamburglar or Grimace while eating terrible food is certainly in my past. Classic sliding tray puzzles can be pretty basic, especially the classic 9 square design, where you use the one open voxel to move the tiles around to create a picture or move a square from one side to the other or whatever.

But that is most definitely not this……. not at all. Yes, this has nine squares with one open voxel (the puzzle comes with a lovely placeholder), and yes the tiles must be moved around to complete the 9 challenges (mostly depending on where the empty voxel is at the start). But hidden within these tiles is a confusingly simple pattern of pins and grooves that prevents certain squares from moving in certain ways, making this a totally different animal from the simple trays from which it evolved. Each square has grooves along 1.5 sides and a pin on another; the frame itself has grooves on two sides. Very quickly, you learn that not every open voxel can be crossed by every tile, depending on which tiles surround it, and that you will need to find lengthy detours to get around the frequent barriers created when a pin runs out of groove (and with Stella nowhere to be found, you are left to your own puzzling devices to get back said grooves).

Sliders can certainly be great fidget fun – solutions can oftentimes require dozens and dozens of moves to reach; considering the fact that you will almost definitely not manage to only do correct moves with a difficult slider like Arrow, the actual move count can easily be in the hundreds. So stick an old episode of Buffy up on the tv because shirt just got serious.

And this is a big part of the fun – after hours of clicking and clacking this way and that, I started to get an unconscious sense of what could go where: at first, I tried to consciously remember such limitations: e.g. “ok, pieces with a pin on the right won’t be able to travel along the left side of this piece, whereas pieces with a pin on the left can’t travel along the right side of this one…..” This quickly became too cumbersome for my averagely-smarter-than-average mind, and I found myself bumping up against a much more wonderful place of puzzling zen, where I didn’t need to think consciously to sometimes know what could or couldn’t go where.

Sliders are weird because the typical slider could be easily reproduced and solved on paper – you don’t need perfect dimensions or tolerances, just moving stuff around. This is perhaps why most sliders tend to be pretty affordable (including some really great designs: Diniar Namdarian has some excellent, original puzzles in plastic that are generally less than $20). Putting aside the fact that the pins and grooves of Arrow mean that this would be difficult to do with this puzzle, there is another reason why you would prefer wood: the tactile and auditory feedback is seriously meditative. When you get into the groove (pun intended), you can start flitting and flying around, clicking and clacking your way through and around and back again (zenning out while the Scoobies save us from yet another apocalyptic close-call).

Arrow takes an interesting aesthetic approach to its solution, requiring you to make a single light arrow out of the single dark arrow that the puzzle first displays. This requires a total rearranging of the pieces – it is really quite cool how the design has been accomplished, with the negative space around the arrow image slowly becoming the new one. While not strictly necessary to the puzzle itself, it adds an Escher-ish element to the puzzle that only makes it that much cooler to solve.

Initial State & Goal of Main Challenge

Another lovely detail is the lovely step-joinery at the corners of the frame; something Juno tells us was not necessary but just shows the level of quality you get from his work (in case you were not already aware).

The need to go back to go forward is a common occurrence in sliding tray puzzles, but Arrow takes this to another level: like other restricted sliders such as Slide-Blocked Sliding Block by Bill Cutler, Arrow will seemingly bring you close to success only to cruelly and amusingly rip it from your grasp when you realize that you are actually nowhere near done. After several hours working on the puzzle, I found that I had successfully managed to build the new image required; my only remaining issue was that the empty voxel was on the upper left instead of the upper right. Surely a minor issue that could be remedied with little trouble…….. nope. No. NoNoNoNo. Not at all. Until, finally, a few hours later and that pesky empty space had been moved an inch or two to the right: success! huzzah! Happy dance!

Almost there……… and then, a few hours later, the joy at moving a tiny piece of wood a couple inches to the right that only a puzzler might understand.

The listing for Arrow gives plenty of info that I didn’t include here – I mostly wanted to help any who may yet want to know what makes it so gosh-darned awesometastic. The fact that the designer said that “most human beings cannot solve the puzzle without the aid of a computer” has absolutely nothing to do with my wanting to share – my ego obviously has no need for such fluffery! Now then: Please click like and subscribe and share and leave (positive) comments below and tell my Kindergarten Vice Principal she didn’t know what the hell she was talking about!

Grade: Five Sinatras