Add It Up: Plus Box by Kagen Sound

Plus Box

Kagen Sound
Figured Koa, Mahogany, Holly, and Gabon Ebony (Exterior)
English Sycamore, Tamo, Walnut, Hard Maple, Cocobolo and Baltic Birch Plywood (Interior)
2021, 14 Copies

When a fellow discordian (discordant?) puzzler asks me if I want to borrow a Kagen Sound puzzle, the answer is always a resounding yes! I must overcome my fear of damaging another puzzler’s puzzle when said puzzle is difficult to get your hands on, as with most all of Kagen’s boxes.

Last year Kagen sent out an email about a new puzzle box: Plus Box (you can find Kagen’s description here). Unsurprisingly, due to the limited quantities (only 14 copies made!) and high demand, the boxes went to lottery to determine what lucky few would be able to get a copy. It says something about the appetite of the typical puzzler for Kagen’s work (not to mention the wonderful quality of everything Kagen makes) that a box at a pretty high price point would nonetheless end up with too many puzzlers hoping to get one. Sadly, I was not among the lucky few and watched as the boxes made their way across the world into the hands of 14 lucky puzzlers. (You can also check out my write-up of his Butterfly Box and Tornado Box, the latter made in collaboration with Akio Kamei).

Getting my hands on this beautiful box was a delight – Kagen is a master craftsman (the only non-Japanese Karakuri member, which says a lot) and the quality is readily apparent in the smooth, silky yosegi and seams that are nearly impossible to detect. The box just feels so great, with small details that exemplify the high level of quality, such as the raised lip that offsets the thin ebony line separating the sides of the box from the top yosegi, which is itself made out of more than 1,700 tiny pieces of wood carefully shaved in the traditional manner (apparently this is a variation on typically yosegi called yosegi-zaiku, the added width of the shaving presenting an added challenge for Kagen to master).

And such woods! The outside is mostly made of highly figured koa that smoothly shimmers with fine grain patterns. The top and bottom mix mahogany, holly, and Gabon ebony and inside you will find English sycamore, tamo, walnut, hard maple, cocobolo and Baltic birch plywood. Just…….. gorgeous.

Starting out, it took me a bit to find anything that did anything, the quality of the woodworking hiding its secrets as well as any Karakuri. Eventually I found my way into the solution and I discovered that Kagen designed the box to integrate amazingly satisfying haptic feedback into the main mechanism using “a twist on traditional methods” used in Japanese himitsu-baku (the classic Japanese puzzle box). Needless to say (as if that would stop me), I happily played for an extended period before attempting to progress further. The feel and sound also helps to guide the puzzler through the solution, marking some points of progress with a gratifying click.

The puzzle provides a good challenge but the initial solution was perhaps not too difficult – fun and satisfying, I was able to open it in one extended session. However, this is not the end of the puzzle! There is another challenge after you have opened the box that awaits, which I found to be decidedly more difficult; it takes some critical thinking to deduce what this goal might be, followed by perhaps as much puzzling as for the main goal. Having reached this second solution, I learned that Kagen has made it possible to completely disassemble the box and reassemble in two different configurations for two additional distinct challenges.

As the box is not mine, I did not take advantage of these extra challenges, preferring to carefully reset the puzzle and return it to its bubble-wrapped state (after taking a few pics, of course). Regardless, the fact that Kagen has designed the box in this way again highlights the level of quality of his work – the fact that it is even possible to disassemble, the elegant joints he uses are so precise that you really need not worry about the puzzle suffering as a result – while my shaky hands mean I wouldn’t do it to someone else’s puzzle, I really would not have worried had it been mine. If you have the chance to try the alternate challenges, I’d love to hear about it!

Plus Box is about as pretty as a box can get, with an immensely satisfying mechanism that makes solving it extra fun. Thanks to the kind puzzler that let me borrow it for a bit!


Get Lost: FastMaze by Dan Fast

FastMaze 1

Designed by Dan Fast
Produced by CubicDissection
Aluminum & Brass, 3″ x 1″

I got the chance to try an early copy of one of FastMaze 1 (designed by Dan Fast and produced by CubicDissection), and “fast” is not one of the words I would use to describe it: smooth, yes; fun, certainly; challenging, absolutely; but fast? Nope. Not for me anyway.

Dan has designed many a high level burr, including the relatively recent Stir the Coffee produced by Pelikan; PWBP shows more than 100 puzzles designed by him, a level of prolificacy shared by few others, including the rather iconic Superman and Batman burrs (also produced by Pelikan). FastMaze 1 is one of a series of three new puzzles being produced by the excellent craftspeople at CubicDissection, whose recent equipment expansion allows them to create more affordable challenges that still meet Eric’s extremely high quality demands (perhaps the hallmark of CD creations).

FastMazes 1 – 3 are three-level square mazes in which you must navigate pins in each of the four corners to a hole that will allow them to be removed one at a time; of course, this hole is in a totally different spot on each of the three levels so getting them to line up is no small feat. FastMaze 1 is the “easiest” of the three – I say this with my tongue firmly set into my cheek as its 137 moves is far from easy. Not only is that a lot of moves total, but once you have removed the first piece you still have another 83 moves to go for complete disassembly (the full solution is 54.28.24.28). FastMazes 2 and 3 are levels 160 and 196 respectively (#3 requires 121 moves just for the first piece!). This may sound intimidating but while it is most definitely a challenge, it is by no means unapproachable.

CD has produced the series of 3 puzzles in metal, with super smooth aluminum mazes navigated by four brass pins. The puzzles have been designed to easily come apart, allowing for a simple reset that makes the puzzle much less terrifying. The quality is apparent from the moment you pick it up: the metal is smooth to the touch, the pieces gliding over one another softly and easily. Notches marking the edition of the puzzle have been built into the center of each side, a nice aesthetic detail that helps you maintain control over the puzzle, especially once the levels start getting spread out as you progress through the solution. This happens quickly as the paths block one another unless you are able to have all pins situated such that the maze levels can shift. After a little while, it becomes possible to rotate one or more levels, something that I am still not sure whether it helped or hindered my progress. Apparently, the second of the three designs requires rotations, which I plan on confirming once they all become available. Regardless, the rotations are similarly smooth and, importantly, feel controlled – this is not like a burr that has become unmanageable with pieces rotating against your will. Its size fits perfectly into two hands (or your pocket for easy transport), allowing for easy control even as the pieces spread apart into its various contortionist configurations.

At first, I simply appreciated the construction and fit, the pins refusing to move until sliding smoothly and freely once a path becomes available. I began playing with it just to get to know its movements, finding it has a fun fidget friendly factor as an added bonus (it was also oddly satisfying to pinch one of the pins and swing the puzzle back and forth….. maybe that’s just me lol). It quickly became clear that such an approach was not going to afford me much progress: I was going to have to apply some brain power if I wanted to get anywhere as random fiddling isn’t going to get this little guy apart on its own (eventually, I suppose, but there might be a monkey Shakespeare by the time you get there). The exposed top and bottom levels allow you to work out a lot of where you need to go, but the center layer is largely hidden, confused by the paths above and below it through which you can try to make it out. As you work through the solution, of course, more of this layer is revealed and you must adjust your intentions and goals accordingly. Solving multiple mazes simultaneously with multiple moving restrictions is much more than the sum of its parts: dead ends exist in most any maze but here you must sometimes take advantage of these, working pins somewhere just so you can allow another to move elsewhere before backtracking once again. This makes for a great balance of experimentation and logic in working towards the solution, which will sometimes seem so close only to slide away once more. After finally releasing the first pin, I thought things would open up and become easy but in fact there was still plenty of puzzling left, the logic somewhat simplified but still significant in the strategy required to solve it.

FastMazes 1 -3 were released today, August 29th, 2022, available individually or as a set of three. I found that as soon as I had solved mine I wished I could reach for another, so I will definitely be picking up at least one more (who am I kidding, like my compulsive completionism will allow me to have just 2 of 3…). These are a fun challenge at an affordable price point with no sacrifice of quality (as we expect from our friends at CD), bringing excellent puzzling value to whatever puzzle shelves it will soon grace. You can find FastMaze 1 here and the others here.


Quoth the Puzzle, “Ever-poor” – Rav’n by Ken Snache (w/art by Janice Bell)

Rav’n

Kel Snache (w/artist Janice Bell), 15 copies, 10″ x 13″ x 6″

The line between art and puzzle is oftentimes vague: many a Karakuri’s craftsmanship outweighs its complexity as a puzzle, while challenging, original puzzles may not always be the prettiest. Kel Snache runs the gamut: repurposed tea boxes are fun but a bit rough (which really is part of the charm), whereas EWE UFO and Puzzleduck Pastures are as pretty as they come.

Cue one of his newest releases, Rav’n, a collaboration with artist Janice Bell (who is also contributing to the Dragos boxes). As soon as I saw a pic, my puzzlie senses began tingling: a unique trick-opening puzzle reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe story?! Um, yes please.

Several weeks later and a big box arrived, containing the sizable wooden bird affixed atop three beautifully made wooden books. Bigger than I expected at more than a foot from beak to tail and almost as tall, the bird is a gorgeous black with shimmering purple and blue detailing on its head, eyes, neck and wings and feather carvings throughout; the bird stands one-legged upon the smallest of the three books, their spines crafted with yosegi-like details and “pages” that exploit the wood grain for a fitting look, akin to Bill Sheckel’s book boxes.

The goal of the puzzle is quite unique: open the wings! This originality was almost as enticing as the aesthetic (almost). While not insanely difficult, with around a dozen sd-lite steps it still proved to be a fun challenge for me. Further, the inner spaces behind the wings are adorable in typical Kel fashion. Similarly, the three knobs on the pages of the bottom book are classic Kel and fit wonderfully with the woods used elsewhere.

After ooh’ing and ahh’ing my way around the piece, I showed it off to my wife who was actually impressed, earning it an “oh! that’s really cool” rather than the typical “that’s nice, babe” that the majority of puzzles receive. Admittedly, she is even more of a Poe fan than me, which may contribute to the response, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is just so damn pretty a puzzle!

It was a solid challenge for me, as I managed to solve it in three dedicated sessions; there are some fun mechanisms that, in typical Kel fashion, are at least as aesthetically pleasing as they are tricky. Needless to say, this piece of puzzle art (art puzzle?) earned its place Downstairs, where many of the prettiest and coolest of my collection lurk. It is a great puzzle to show to non-puzzling passersby, who invariably had assumed it could not be a part of that odd collection of wood and metal things this weirdo rather obsessively collects (but hey, who’s judging!).

Kel continues to work his way through the Dragos boxes; check back in a year or so and perhaps I will be able to share my Lovecraftian dragon box with you 😉 Rav’n is, I believe, fully claimed, so obtaining one may be difficult; hopefully these pics will tide you over until you have a chance to visit one being held in captivity for our puzzling pleasure.

Part of my Kel collection: (from left to right) Puzzleduck Pastures, EWE UFO, Rav’n, There Goes Bill & Flor Fina 2

Bananas is bananas.

Bananas

Jon Keegan, 8.5 x 8.5 x 11.5cm, 1.45kg

I was trying to explain to my wife how puzzling can be a mindful experience (she’s a therapist… I’m just cool like that ;-P ) as you may spend an hour or more in near silence, focused on every sound or perceived resistance or reaction to determine just what in the heck is going on, divining patterns from some series of stimuli, some so subtle as to cause concern that it’s just me doing something wrong or hearing or feeling something that isn’t there. But when finally this intense focus bears fruit and you get that aha! midnfulness is out the window with the dopamine hit you’re getting, earned with the eye strain and aching back from contorting yourself to try and look down some tiny hole or shaft.

And what fruit hath been bear-ed? I’m sure you didn’t click on this write-up to read me ramble vaguely about puzzling in general but rather to read me ramble vaguely about Bananas, the new puzzle by Jon Keegan (his follow-up to Jewel Thief). And if the paragraph above ap-peals to you, then your interest in Bananas is anything but bananas (because you see: Bananas is bananas).

Bananas arrives wonderfully: super safely packed with a wooden shipping crate straight off the boat to Skull Island, ready to pack away something wild and dangerous. Cue a cute lego monkey caged by Keegan for our puzzling pleasure. Inside we find the puzzle, along with a metal objectives / story card, an envelope with pics of the internal mechanisms to decipher post-solve and a kindly supplied towel to protect the puzzle (and whatever surface you will be working on.

And as for the puzzle itself: Bananas is trapped in a cage set into the corner of a pretty massive block of metal replete with holes and knobbies and squares and circles to poke and prod and wonder at. Everything does something, of course, although nothing does anything just yet. The ticket in isn’t easy in itself (but you will get to understand it eventually); I struggled there for a bit and passed through with a bit of luck before too long, going on to make good progress before finding myself with a whole bunch of stuff and things to do with no clear path. Examining the puzzle does give you a sense of what is going on, at least in some areas, so I thought I know where I was shooting for, for the moment anyhow.

What follows would be a montage set to an uplifting light rock ballad about overcoming struggles as I proceeded to do what I started this post with, trying to find some magical combination of moves that would see me through to the next section. And eventually: aha! of course, and aha! again, with ever more aha!s big and small throughout the entire puzzle. There are some really great discoveries to be made before you free Bananas… and that’s the really crazy thing because you’ve only just started! The instructions tell you to solve the puzzle in 4 parts:

Bananarama!

I had done 1 and 2 but…. wtf.

So I kept going and going, through multiple additional sections, each with several variously moving bits to contend with. Eventually I sat back with pride, Banana’s snack in hand, admiring the mess of metal that had amassed around me, amidst my super-cool puzzle headgear and pleather dice trays. Such puzzling pride passes quickly though, and it’s time to reset.

The reset is tricky and challenging but not frustrating or overly confusing; I had some concerns about whether I’d be able to piece it all together after having taken a couple weeks to solve it but while it took fully understanding all that had happened to make it all ready to go again, this was not so difficult in reverse. In my typical genius fashion I had to solve and reset multiple sections multiple times due to having reset some part before some other part… I’d say I did it purposely, to better master the puzzle, but really I just do it all the time because I’m a dumbass  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Such dumbassery does have its benefits though: I feel now that I truly get what was happening throughout the puzzle when at first I couldn’t imagine how I ever could. What else can you ask from a puzzle? There is a fair amount of blind struggle but careful and close observation and experimentation will give you guidance, along with some subtle clues to make sense of as you go.

Bananas was released in a limited run of 225 by Jon Keegan and were all claimed (as is fairly typical with a good puzzle) long before this was written – in typical voracious puzzle fashion, we all politely and (seemingly) patiently waited with occasional but regular updates on Jon’s progress and puzzle maturation. I have to admit that I have not actually solved any other puzzle by him! My zealous overuse of multiple emails led to a snafu in which I missed my chance at a Jewel Thief… (meh, whatcha gonna do – from what I’ve heard, while it seems to be an amazing puzzle I’m pretty sure I would still be struggling with the first step lol). I did get a Scarf prototype but want to wait for the updated version coming out down the road (which just means that I haven’t been able to solve it 😉 But Bananas… the more I let it sit after finally solving and resetting I come to appreciate it more and more… quite simply, Bananas is bananas.


Posts, Doors, Drawers & Hooks: Puzzling with Michael Toulouzas

Trinity, Doors & Drawers, Hellas Cube

Designed by Michael Toulouzas
Trinity Made by Pelikan; Bubinga; 3.9″ x 3.9″ x 5.5 “
Doors & Drawers Made by (Old) Pelikan/Toulouzas; Walnut, Light & Dark Oak, Katalox & Bubinga; 4.2″ x 3.7″
Hellas Cube made by (Old) Pelikan; Jatoba & Maple; 5″

Michael Toulouzas may best be known for his sd/take-apart puzzles, such as Toolbox, Vault and Fairy Door (which led in part to Ken Snache’s Puzzleduck Pastures and Tracy Clemons’ Dark Fairy Door), but his interlocking designs are perhaps just as impressive. I thought I would write about three such designs I have had the good fortune to collect and solve this year.


Trinity

Trinity is as beautiful as it is unique: the goal is to wrap three identical pieces around three ornate posts attached to a base. The pieces feature extreme and somewhat odd angles and turns. The frame is crafted from a matching bubinga, a lovely and bright wood choice that highlights this puzzle’s double duty, exemplifying puzzles as art better than most. Between the curves of the lathed columns and the precisely sharp corners of the pieces, the crafting must have been difficult; it is no wonder that Pelikan only made 60 of these beauties but I do truly wonder how they somehow remain available on Puzzlemaster at the time of this writing (if you’re buying, be sure to use the discord affiliate link to PM).

I suppose I shouldn’t really be too surprised they are still available – I personally passed on it repeatedly over the last few years. But it is just so darn pretty, causing me to return to it time and again, contemplating its purchase… after a few more rave reviews from trusted puzzlers (thanks Puzzling Time) I nabbed one on PM before it was too late.

It arrived a bit smaller than I had originally expected (I checked the dimensions when ordering but had always had it in my head as being a bit bigger) but this turns out to be a smart choice. I knew the goal was to wrap the three pieces around and through the frame posts, but was not certain of what this might look like; I knew the configuration would be symmetrical, as I had seen the pics previously but declined to check it after receiving the puzzle. It wasn’t all that hard to find the correct build outside the frame; it follows a somewhat straightforward logic with perhaps not too many incorrect builds realistically possible.

The real puzzle comes when trying to take this configuration and build it around the precisely tight confines of the frame. This took me a while, requiring some puzzling skills that are not my strongest (assuming I actually have some strong ones). Eventually, I found that oh-so-perfect aha move, the pieces suddenly falling into place after fumbling frustratingly around. this puzzle is very much doable, not like some puzzles that make you wish for some extra hands; the size is pretty much perfect and it just takes some patience and logic to discover the winning movements.

And there it is: a cool and fun design so beautifully crafted that it easily earned its place Downstairs, its beauty there to be beheld by non-puzzling people and puzzlers alike.


Doors & Drawers

Doors & Drawers is another Toulouzas design crafted by Pelikan (the knobs and feet were crafted by the designer and highlight his excellent woodworking skills complementing those of Pelikan) and originally sold by Bernhard Schweitzer. D&D is completely different from Trinity but just as unique (perhaps a bit less beautiful, but that’s a big bar to beat). It begins as a take-apart puzzle, featuring three interlocking drawers confoundingly blocked further by some simple packing pieces hidden away in inconveniently devious places.

The puzzle looks like a cube sitting atop a base, raised on four angular feet, doorknobs fitted to drawers on most sides. It features subtly contrasting woods, with a walnut frame offset by light and dark oak pieces, the katalox and bubinga knobs creating a wonderful aesthetic somewhat reminiscent of an Escher drawing.

My copy was a bit tight at first and required a bit of boveda love (once I confirmed that it was, for once, not just my dumbassery) before I could begin solving it. The packing pieces complicate the disassembly of the interlocking pieces, requiring some precise orientations found after numerous false starts. Despite relatively few pieces overall, the design is more than complicated enough to allow for an assembly challenge when left mixed for a matter of weeks; it was really here where I began to fully appreciate the design as I had to reverse engineer the purpose of the off-center knobs – these turned out to be much more than ornamental, their asymmetric locations constricting assembly options and requiring some of that thinking stuff to figure out.

D&D is a fun challenge, blending interlocking assembly with a packing challenge wrapped up in an adorably surreal aesthetic that matches the excellent craftsmanship of multiple master woodworkers.


Hellas Cube

Hellas Cube seems to be a somewhat lesser known design, allowing me to pick it up on PuzzleParadise at an only slightly silly price. At 5″, it is a rather fat 3 x 3 cube, with large, 3 x 3 x 9 voxel pieces. The top and bottom feature a striped design mixed out of contrasting Jatoba and Maple woods, strongly reminiscent of the Greek flag (Hellas is the ancient name for Greece), causing the puzzle to sometimes be referred to as FlagBurr.

Michael has said that he “didn’t have the courage due to the long time and labor to make it.” Well Elijah said after making it that the many meters of sticks used would likely prevent them from making them again. Fortunately, they still took the opportunity to produce the puzzle at the direction of Bernhardt Schweitzer, which may not be as aesthetically pleasing a design as those discussed above but still displays wonderfully; to be fair, that is a very high bar to set and Hellas nonetheless makes for a strong puzzle presence, like a monument looking down on its more petite puzzling siblings.

I began pulling and pushing on the pieces until finding something that did something; the design features one or more hooks on each of the nine pieces, requiring a minimum of two moves to remove each, oftentimes more. The design is further complicated by what I can only describe as a lock that further frustrates disassembly; although this is not an overly hard challenge, it is fun, the process of discerning hook vs. lock making for an interesting puzzling experience.

Reassembly is another significant but doable challenge. The design on the top and bottom of the puzzle becomes essential, making a daunting task surmountable as we can at least put aside three of the pieces to determine which of the other pieces are on the top or bottom of the final assembly. The “lock” is no problem during assembly but its location still takes some thought (particularly if your memory is as terrible as mine); the hooks make for the real assembly challenge, with pieces similar enough to be confusing while allowing for a single, unique solution.


Michael Toulouzas has quickly become one of my favorite designers despite sadly being a challenge to collect due to his rather limited runs and releases – patience is not only a virtue when collecting puzzles, but a necessity should you hope to maintain your sanity amidst the FOMO, bonkers auctions, and ever-increasing rate of puzzle production. Most importantly, I should somewhat soon be the proud and ecstatic owner of his upcoming Xenia table: a puzzle box shaped like an ordinary (albeit shrunken) office fixture is right up my alley so I expect you may be seeing more about it on these pages (should you come looking).


Kagen and Kamei Get Twisted: Tornado Box by Kagen Sound & Akio Kamei

Tornado Box (SP-1)

Akio Kamei & Kagen Sound
Walnut, English Sycamore & Cherry
10cm x 10cm x 10cm
Amazing Puzzle Collaborations: Episode II – Get Back in your Homes (because there’s a tornado coming… not because it sort of rhymes with “Attack of the Clones”)

Hundreds of days ago, in the puzzling days of yore (i.e. 2021), Karakuri announced that they would be releasing a limited run of a new box co-designed/made by Akio Kamei and Kagen Sound. This collaboration was enough to make many a puzzle go bonkers: Kamei is The Godfather of the KCG, its oldest living member and all-around awesome designer & craftsman; Kagen is the only non-Japanese member of the Karakuri Creation Group (KCG) and also an all-around awesome designer & craftsman. Therefore, according to Puzzle Algebra: X + X = 5S, where X is an all-around awesome designer & craftsman and 5S is… well, hopefully you know what that is if you’re reading this.

Tornado Box is a beautifully smooth cube, broken along the center by a carefully crafted imperfect line. It is silky smooth to the touch, its beautiful walnut grain offsetting the two-tone interiors. It is quite a bit lighter than I had expected, particularly for a decent-sized 4″ cube. These two master craftsman collaborated on the design, as the two halves must work together to open both sides.

Kagen crafted the lovely walnut box along with the lighter, sycamore interior, sending it to Kamei to add in the cherry interior on the other side (for more information on the puzzle’s background, check out Boxes & Booze). It is important to note that separating the two halves does not require any puzzling, so showing the interior faces is not a spoiler (it is shown on the original KCG description, which FYI does have a bit of a spoiler in the written description).

Unlike most Karakuri boxes, this was announced as a limited run (other boxes could conceivably be remade at any time, although the majority, of course, are not). Despite a hefty price tag, it unsurprisingly still received more interest than there were boxes, pushing it to a member lottery, which I sadly did not win. I watched from afar as the boxes began arriving in the homes of fellow collectors, a single tear slowly slipping from my eye…

Until, out of the bottomless void that is the interweb, there ascended the kind and caring Vonsch (from the MP Discord), offering to loan it to me! I am constantly amazed by the level of trust and generosity of the MPD and the puzzling community at large. Needless to say, this was a bad idea that earned me one free puzzle box! I hope this can be a good lesson for Vonsch in the future.

Buuuuuuut seriously, I was taken aback by this kind and unsolicited offer, gratefully accepting and asking what I might have to loan in exchange (not that there was a presumed quid pro quo, I just hoped I could return the favor). Soon, there arrived the tell-tale blue box containing a Kamei Karakuri creation and I set to work. If you read these write-ups, you may have noticed that my enthusiasm for puzzles oftentimes surpasses my skill: Tornado, like oh so many others, would take me a pretty darn long time to solve. In my defense, I was even more cautious and obsessively careful than usual – this may have hindered some early progress as I kept asking Vonsch if I could do this or try that. Vonsch took it all in stride, possibly enjoying my ignorant flailing about as I went through idea after idea.

Eventually…. aha! Once more crowned the smartest person in the world, I managed to move small bits of wood that I previously could not move! I stood and shouted at this mere block of wood: “Son of Jor-El, kneel before Zod!” before remembering that not only had I not just escaped from the Phantom Zone, but I had only solved the first half of the puzzle, its solution beautifully hidden, an elegant mechanism that is probably even harder to craft than I realize.

I knew that the solution to the other half of the puzzle somehow relied on having solved the first but I nonetheless would struggle to discover it, continuing to bug Vonsch with my paranoid, high maintenance ruminations. I had some ideas (it happens every now and then) and narrowed them down until developing a fairly clear picture of (more or less) what needed to be done. And so……. aha! I found yet another graceful movement that can likely only be achieved by craftspeople of this caliber. Despite repeating the solution a few more times, I am still not exactly sure how one half works – I mean, I know what to do, I’m just not sure why it works! A nice mystery to think on, sure to be a future conversation that will leave me a little bit smarter (clearly I can use it). In the meantime, Tornado will soon be back with its rightful owner and I will return to failing to solve something else.

You got Cherry on my Sycamore!
You got Sycamore on my Cherry!

“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

Run Away! Run Away! A horse with a warrior by Osamu Kasho (KCG)

A horse with a warrior

Osamu Kasko; Walnut, Mizuki & Wenge; 7″ x 8″ x 3.5″
Warrior Figure by Kobo Alp

Considering my love for Karakuri, the ratio of karakuri: non-karakuri puzzles on this site might seem rather low. KCG was there at the start and ne’er hath my love for them wavered… and yet, it is not always the case that a new karakuri will smack me upside the head with the kind of “must-write-about-me”-ness that the majority of puzzles on this site hath so smacked. My reasoning for selecting puzzles to ramble about is far from scientific: even when I know that one is deserving of all five Sinatras, it probably won’t get the write-up it deserves due to a lack of temporal resources and an ironically over-active lethargy gland.

But sometimes a karakuri box will just not let go, refusing to silence the whispering “duuuuuuuuuuuuude” that is the precursor to any written rambling contained on these virtual pages: Cue March 2022 when the KCG exhibition theme of “Ancient Times” snuck its way into our puzzling hearts and shelves with an intriguing and satisfying slate of new boxes. I unfortunately missed out on Kikuchi’s MOAi as well as Tsuburai’s Ox Car but was very happy with the four I was able to get.

The highlight of the boxes I won from this release is Kasho’s A horse with a warrior: a Trojan horse-themed puzzle box with a few secrets that had even my NPSO laughing. The puzzle consists of a fairly large wooden horse with little windows running along both sides of its body, confirming the Greek homage while perhaps undermining its utility for surreptitiously breaching an enemy’s gates (which I suppose is still more effective than a badger…..If you would like to learn more about the historical significance of the puzzle’s inspiration, check out this excellent 1975 historical treatise). The horse is mounted on a tiered wooden base and features some sd-lite trickery that I found particularly engaging.

I was able to discover the first of its compartments fairly quickly; a couple steps later I had discovered the first laughable moment in the solution (there would be more). I got stuck around here for a while, enjoying the mechanism while attempting to discern the path ahead; I had a pretty clear idea as to where I needed to go but getting there required some experimentation and thought.

I would eventually find my way through the next section, laughing once again upon getting a glimpse of the tiny warrior hiding inside the puzzle (not a spoiler as it is referred to in the description). The hidden figure was crafted by Kobo Alp and adds a touch of whimsy to the puzzle; if you look closely, you may see him before you have finished solving the puzzle (Id.) but you will have to find all the secrets the puzzle holds to be able to poke him in his little wooden face and tell him to get his teeny wooden butt back to Greece faster than you can say “kallisti” (yeah, you better run, tiny wooden person).

Horse has a tricky, multi-step solution that is fun and relatively lengthy, particularly for a Karakuri. I found myself struggling to find my way forward more than once and was delighted by its multiple aha moments and uniquely thematic secrets.

A horse with a warrior has now joined my short list of go-to puzzles to share with any non-puzzling guests or passers-by foolish enough to show even the vaguest curiosity at the siren-songs crowding my puzzle shelves, unknowingly tempting the fates that would lure us ever deeper into the Puzzled seas.


Sun Dial’s Art of Puzzling (UPDATED: Now with more puzzling!)

Sun Dial

Jesse Born & Rob Yarger
Ipe, Katalox & Brass
2.75 lbs, 7″ x 4″
Box 2 in the Voyager Series (Sea Chest, Sun Dial, Alien)
(Ed. A couple weeks after posting this, I discovered that there was still quite a bit of puzzling left after I had thought the puzzle had been solved! See below for more)

Well, the past several weeks have been busy here in the 5S household, getting in the way of my puzzling (much to my dismay). But the wonderfully unrelenting onslaught of new puzzles has only seemed to increase its pace, with several excellent puzzles arriving during this none-too-brief, unplanned hiatus. I realize that this break has not been difficult for you, but fear not: plenty a puzzle ramble awaits you!

And what better puzzle with which to break this devastating dearth of dear old me than Sun Dial, Jesse Born’s follow-up to 2020’s excellent Sea Chest (reviewed by me here); Sun is co-designed with Rob Yarger (a/k/a The Great and Wonderful Stickman) and mostly made by Jesse (Rob did some laminating on the curved side panels, which are constructed of multiple layers of hand-carved veneer crafted by Jesse). Sun Dial is a circular box (?!), painstakingly covered in some rather intricate etchings and distressed in a fashion similar to its elder sibling. Jesse has plans for a third and final entry in the Voyager Series that will presumably share in this aesthetic, crafted to create the impression of a discovered Alien artifact that must be opened to access its other-worldly treasure. What pirates were to Sea Chest, the ancient Aztecs are to Sun Dial, with myriad markings and hidden secrets that invoke this lost world in the psyche of the spelunking (s)puzzler.

Jesse is one of those designers whose puzzles I would happily buy sight unseen (his Secretum Cista is quite probably the coolest puzzle I own). Rob is (of course) another such designer , so when I heard that Rob was designing Sun Dial with Jesse, I began drooling more than Pavlov’s dog at a doorbell store. (Rob was a big big fan of Sea Chest, which is especially high praise from the creator of some of the most insanely awesome puzzles ever to reach us mere mortals). Jesse and Rob went back and forth over a period of months, trading ideas and CAD models as they refined the design that Jesse would ultimately craft (for a more in-depth look at the design process, check out Boxes & Booze’s excellent post).

At a relatively hefty 2 lbs, 12 oz, the 7″ x 4″ Sun Dial is no small box. As part of its intentionally distressed appearance, its aromatic woods appear to have been partially stained, a greenish tint furthering its lost artifact aesthetic. It is shaped something like a flattened donut, with a citrine gem nestled into a piece of wood bridging the top of its center shaft. The outer wall is broken into 6 sections, 4 of which are covered by inset panels that have a noticeable bit of give when reset. The top alludes to the circular calendar of the Aztec civilization, a series of concentric circles and layers surrounding a set of gears that promise to put the mechanical in mechanical puzzling.

Sun Dial vs. Aztec Calendar (12 ft./25 tons, discovered in Mexico City in 1790)

In its reset state, Sun allows for some quality mechanical playtime – I first spent several minutes just playing and giggling at the smoothly tactile movements possible in its initial state. Other than some admittedly puerile fun, this did not immediately lead me anywhere productive; it would take some keen and careful observation before that first aha moment, which soon led me into the puzzling depths that await within.

Over the next few weeks, I would progress in fits and starts; discovering things that must help (while unsure of exactly how) as I pieced together the path through its various compartments. Well-hidden, subtle clues abound, some more important than others in clearing the way forward. Venturing into the puzzle’s interior gave me a sense of adventure, akin to Indiana Jones-ing (Quartermaining?) my way into an ancient temple, replete with treasure and cool discoveries that could be decorative, essential, or both.

I knew I had to be reaching the end when I was surprised by the results of a particular step that I repeated a few times with a goofy grin. Some final details discovered, I held my prize in my hand, admiring how Jesse and Rob managed to bring things full circle, like the cyclical nature of time perceived by the Aztec culture.

(This paragraph was added a few weeks after posting this) OMG! Turns out not only was I not actually finished solving the puzzle, there was quite a bit of puzzling still left! There is one aha that is particularly satisfying and we are left with a sense that more is yet to come…… Once again, Jesse has brought us something great only to add some icing to make it excellent. I found this last section to bring back memories of Sea Chest, which also hid some final secrets that took me a few weeks to discover still laid in wait after I’d thought I had reached the end. Gotta love a puzzle that keeps on giving!

After resetting the puzzle and going through the solution once more (now a few more times!), I followed a QR code printed on the back of the Certificate of Authenticity (signed by both Jesse and Rob) to a short video in which Jesse walks us through the solution. I smiled at a few details whose significance had escaped me and ran back through the solve one more time, appreciating the puzzle’s rhythm and flow.

The puzzle’s mechanics do not rely on blind mechanisms, instead favoring discrete steps that must sometimes be worked out beforehand to properly progress – I suppose it could be possible to cluelessly solve certain sections through experimental trial & error but the design provides ample direction to see you through, if you can slow down and do some of that thinking stuff the kids are all talking about these days. Either way, the mechanics are clear and purposeful, laying out a meandering path to its final treasure.

Jesse decided to increase this run to 400 copies, a big jump from the 100 Sea Chests that had (officially) been produced (let alone the 30 copies of Secretum Cista). I imagine that all 400 will not have trouble finding a home: if a collaboration between two great puzzle box-makers wasn’t enough to convince you, the positive praise that has followed its premiere will probably do the trick. The larger run may help prevent the puzzle from immediately skyrocketing on the secondhand market but I don’t expect too many collectors will want to let this one escape anytime soon (there will always be solvers and flippers, of course, but hopefully the box will remain in the realm of relative reasonableness, for a while at least). While officially sold out, (at the time of writing) the boxes are still being produced in batches and there is a drop-off list for spots that might open up should puzzlers decide to give theirs up, so be sure to swing by Jesse’s site before they’re all gone.



Up, Damned Spot; Up, I say! PLOD by Joe Guarini

PLOD

Jo Guarini

A few months back, I was offered the chance to try a new puzzle by Joe Guarini (@jhoag), designer of Detective Box (and co-designer of some forthcoming designs from PI Puzzles, his puzzle partnership with Ross Feinstein, who is also known as our friendly discord-neighborhood @cryptosutra – they’ve got Bricked Lock coming soon, a 15 step puzzle lock that looks very cool). Obviously, I was happy for the opportunity (this post would otherwise be rather short and pointless, one of which might be strange for this blog) and I soon received a 3.25″ acrylic cube with a black rubber ball roughly the size of a racquetball ball (I debated whether that was redundant before going for it). At the bottom of said ball was a white dot, which must somehow be made to be stably pointing up for the puzzle to be solved.

Picking it up, it was immediately clear that this ball did not want to flip over for longer than a second or two; no matter what I did, the ball would just roll itself back, white dot down. And I did a great many things: I had a whole lot of ideas to try, one of which I thought must lead to a solution (it didn’t). I found myself caught in a feedback loop – that sense of “just one more try” had me staring intently at the uncooperative ball for quite some time, Happy Gilmore-ing that little b@$t@rd as if I could intimidate it into compliance.

The beauty of this puzzle is that it really lends itself to some of that thinking stuff I hear puzzlers talk about. After handling the ball for a while, I had developed some ideas of how it might work. Joe and I were chatting throughout the process, his initial curiosity turning into amusement (and perhaps, I imagine, a bit of pity) as I threw out increasingly strange ideas as to what was going on inside the thing. A few of those ideas might make for a decent puzzle, but none made the puzzle I was holding.

There were a few other puzzlers that had been given a copy to try (at least two of which I know managed to solve it) and Joe had decided that it made sense to use a smaller acrylic cube to contain the ball, and he generously (and sympathetically) sent out another version: same sized ball nestled in a cozier cubic compartment of 2″, same cruel and unyielding white dot laughing at me from below. Aha!, I thought, surely this was a clue as to what tricks could work in this smaller space, surely this would make the solution a bit more in reach for this dim-witted puzzler. Alas, while the first thought might be true, the second was not true enough to allow me to actually solve it unassisted.

As days turned into weeks turned into months (my puzzle passion generally outpaces my skill) and my ideas grew increasingly bizarre, I finally began asking Joe for some rather straightforward guidance; I would like to say that I truly figured it out on my own with just the help of his hints, but in all honesty I think he pretty much had to eventually spoon-feed it to me lol. Regardless, I was finally able to master that damn dot, which now stares upward, the laugher having become the laughee (sure, I stand there laughing maniacally in triumph at my defeated puzzles, so what? I don’t come into your house and judge what you do, do I? After all, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones…. people in glass houses probably shouldn’t throw much of anything, I guess… then again, people who live near people who live in glass houses should maybe try minding their own damn business…).

I turned a ball upside down! Glad I am finally putting all those student loans to good use…

The trick hidden within this seemingly simple puzzle, this ball in a box, is quite ingenious. I can imagine Joe getting the idea and laughing at its devious originality; it is not something that I think would occur to most people as it employs (as far as I know) a truly unique mechanism. Knowing the solution, I was able to solve the puzzle, which is one of its strongest features: a solution that is quite elegant and relatively easily repeated, yet elusive enough that it poses a challenge (to me, at least). The puzzle is so original, in fact, that categorizing it seems like a circularly fruitless enterprise, one that would likely lead to a questionably accurate spoiler, at best, while still being arguably incomplete, if not straight-up wrong.

Joe is still producing these, so find him on Discord if you are interested in trying one (@jhoag). And if you are able to solve it more easily than I, good on you – no need to share such information with me: please remember what I said about glass houses (which is to say, go live in a glass house and throw stones, jerk).

Uniquely Fun Puzzling Grade: Five Sinatras

(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)
It’s oddly addictive