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.
Congratulations to the Hunt Winners and everyone who made it to the end!
I am so sincerely happy that the puzzle hunt went well! People played and I tried to give nudges here and there since some intended connections may have been a bit far – ultimately, several people made it to the end and I think there was some amount of fun to be had. I am grateful to each of you who tried it and appreciate all the feedback I have received. There were a few bumps early on that are great lessons for the future, as I ironed out some website issues and fixed a typo in the Hunt itself. For the most part, the Hunt went very well – while writing it, I learned that it is easy to make a Hunt that no one can solve, and much harder to make one people will be challenged by while being able to actually solve it (and hopefully have some amount of fun). I know that my reliance on US pop culture may have somewhat favored US-icans, but, well, we write what we know ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I wrote it so that hopefully anyone would be able to track the answers down, once you had an idea what you were looking for.
Growing up, I got to participate in some of the city-wide Puzzle Hunts in Miami (the Tropic Hunt has been an annual puzzle hunt originally written by Dave Barry – in the 80s, my family did some of the early, county-wide Hunts as well as neighborhood-focused ones that came after – more info about the Tropic Hunt here). In recent years, I have struggled to solve some excellent Hunts (usually in teams with others more capable than me), attempting to take on MIT and other excellent hunts! There is a Discord group dedicated to such Hunts, so if you are interested in joining, let me know and I can send you an invite if you need.
This year, I created a pseudonymous account for Discord, super-sneakily asserting that I was “Not an Old Member of this Group.” Somehow, many people saw through this sophisticated ruse. I posted the Hunt (in the form of a pdf) on the Discord Mechanical Puzzle group and the aforementioned Puzzle Hunt group, claiming I had found it online (mostly facetiously as it was pretty clear I had not); if you would like to give it a shot before reading the walkthrough you can find the content of that pdf here.
The Hunt consisted of the pdf, which contained clues that led you to a “hidden” page on my website; this contained further clues to help people deduce the puzzle and codeword needed to win. Throughout, there were clues as to when and where to contact me with the solution. I thought it might be cool to provide a walkthrough of the hunt, in the event that someone might care to take a look:
Puzzle Hunt Sheet:
Para 1: This refers to the song Opposites Attract by Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat: Paula has been a Judge on American Idol or the Voice (or something like that); Song of the South is a Disney movie that mixed live action and animation, as in the music video for Opposites Attract; and, Hokey Pokey / “forward and back” because the song’s dance is vaguely reminiscent (e.g. “2 steps forward, 2 steps back”). “Parts” is in italics to help indicate that you will want to find the opposite of the italicized parts of the story (3rd paragraph of the Hunt). The last sentence of this paragraph is to help you know what to do once you have deciphered the meaning of the story (we will come back to this).
Para 2: This is primarily referring to me (crooner, ten blue eyes (Frank was known as Ol’ Blue Eyes), baritone) – the hunt was posted by me under a different name so the connection to me was not immediately apparent. You will notice that some letters are bolded: www dot com; it also says that they should “follow me home.” This means that once you have figured out solution to the story, you will have something to enter as part of my blog’s address: fivesinatras.com/——–.
Story: The story consists of five sentences; each sentence gives you a different movie franchise. “How many and when” + the hunt’s name (Mr, Mrs, etc = title & “order”) means that you will need to know how many movies in each series and then order them based on which came first. I will include each clue as well the explanation.
Story Clue 1: On the day after the saddest night on tv, an athletic killer stalked the halls of a hotel’s most popular floor.
Friday the 13th (12 movies, 1980):
The opposite of saddest night is “happiest day,” referring you to the tv show Happy Days, whose theme song tells you that Saturday is, in fact, the aforementioned happiest day. “After” is in italics, directing you to its opposite (“before”) and so: Friday.
Many hotels (in the US anyway) skip the 13th floor due to superstition.
Story Clue 2: Down in the steam tunnels, a killer who reminded me of a topiary gardener I like to call Edward Burton, his face wrinkled with fear, pointed with every finger on his right hand at the teens who spent their day dreaming.
Nightmare on Elm Street (9 movies, 1984):
Freddy lived in the steam tunnels with a burned (wrinkled) face, and knives (points) on the fingers of his right hand, focusing his ire on teens.
Edward Burton the topiary gardener refers to Edward Scissorhands by Tim Burton (whose hands were also tipped with blades).
“Day dreaming” is in italics, its opposite leading you to “nightmare.”
Story Clue 3: Meanwhile, it was either a wild-eyed scientist, or a kid, that showed up asking about that book, the one called something like Nothing Loud off the Eastern…. well, I suppose by now the moment has passed.
Back to the Future (3 movies, 1985):
The start of this sentence contains a direct quote from the second movie (“it was either a wild-eyed scientist……… asking about that book”).
The opposite of Nothing Loud off the Eastern…. refers to the book All Quiet on the Western Front; the opposite of the missing word, “Front,” is “Back”.
Opposite of “passed” (pronounced “past”) is “future.”
Story Clue 4: Later that night, a tall hearse driver dropped his poking ball when there appeared before him something real and tangible.
Phantasm (5 movies, 1979):
The killer in the Phantasm movies is known as the Tall Man; he drives a hearse and kills with flying balls from which blades emerge.
“Something real and tangible” would be the opposite of a “phantasm.”
Story Clue 5: It must have been Christmas, because my friend was once again trapped inside, building kids’ toys, held hostage but feeling grateful that, all in all, the way he got to live was pretty easy.
Die Hard (5 movies, 1988):
This may be the easiest one, but it is probably my favorite clue in the story:
The first two movies take place on Christmas.
“Trapped inside, building….. held hostage” refers to the plot of the first movie.
“Live” and “easy” are in italics = “die” and “hard.”
When you arrange the number of movies in each franchise into chronological order (based on the year the first movie was released) you get: 512935. Go to fivesinatras.com/512935 and you get to the Hunt page. Unfortunately, WordPress automatically added the page to my site’s menu and so it could be found with a bit of sleuthing during the first few days. I also heard that the address might autofill on some browsers (but at least you would need to know how it began). Good lessons for me.
Hunt Sheet Poem (scroll down for solution)
Poem: The poem at the bottom of the Hunt Sheet tells you what to do once you have solved the puzzle. First you must decipher the codeword on the website and let me know via DM/PM (these letters are bolded). “Hostile place” is a hint for discord, where you can find me (@fivesinatras). Finally, the last sentence tells you that there is a holiday within one week of New Year’s. The sentence is in Spanish because Three Kings’ Day is a holiday commonly celebrated in Spain (and Cuba, among other Spanish countries); it is on January 6, which is when you were meant to tell me the codeword and the puzzle via Discord DM (I accepted anyone who let me know the date, word, and puzzle regardless of when they let me know, although most of them still followed up on the 6th, which is awesome).
Puzzle: Having found the webpage you will find a picture of the puzzle that must be identified; there is a second photo of the back of the puzzle at the bottom of the page. I added a second prize but this did not need to be identified. There are also a few hints in the poem itself: “Dam” instead of “damn,” “Klass” instead of “class,” “sea, birds” as the puzzle was made by Pelikan, and “having fun” because it is named “Party.” The puzzle is: Party, designed by Klass Jan Damstra and produced by Jakub Dvorak of Pelikan Puzzles.
Webpage Poem (scroll down for solution)
Poem: The poem is intended to lead you to four numbers, which must be added/subtracted to give you a final number:
“Tommy’s friend Jenny” refers to the song “Jenny” by Tommy Tutone, which famously gives us Jenny’s phone number: 867-5309.
“7 pieces of pie” refers to the first 7 digits of pi; “spotless” as you need to remove the decimal: 3141592.
The spy is James Bond (007), who stands backwards to become: 700.
The last bit refers to the song When I’m Sixty-Four, from the Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:
“Birthday greetings and wine” is a quote from the song;
Four bugs = the Beatles
Military Band (Sgt.) that sneezes (Pepper) and cries (Lonely).
It says to “give” the pieces of pie, so you are subtracting this from Jenny’s number. You then add the backwards spy and the beatles:
8675309 – 3141592 + 700 + 64 = 5534481
You now use a basic substitution cypher (A1B2) to get: EECDDHA
The poem then tells you to replace the “first part” (the letter “E”) with “what some say at sea” (a pirate’s favorite letter is…..?) = RECDDHA
The letters can now rearrange to: CHEDDAR.
The rhyme scheme is also a clue (“sea” and “these” rhyme with “cheese”). Also, the Hunt’s title refers to a snack (“Comidita”).
DM me on January 6 on Discord
Party by Klass Jan Damstra
The winners were entered into a lottery to win Party. I also added a second prize, an approved print of Rob Yarger’s Snowflake by Pyrigan Puzzles (which comes disassembled, as figuring out how to build the puzzle box is especially fun), partially as I felt bad for the couple of issues early on and also because I had earmarked it for Secret Santa before figuring out that the intended recipient already had a copy (I guess that is a hint for my Santee).
Again, I am so happy folks had fun with this – any questions or feedback are more than welcome!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
By now, you may have heard about the awesomeness that is Jerry McFarland’s Fidget Burr (you can check out my review here); since enjoying the pleasure of solving Fidget Burr, I have had the good fortune of obtaining and solving two more of Jerry’s puzzles: the older Quadlock I and the quite new Burrlephant 3. Both are excellent puzzles, offering unique takes on burrs by adding take-apart / trick box-type elements to the mix, with perhaps a dash of sequential discovery.
Quadlock 1 is a squashed cube made of 19 individual burr sticks, originally made by Jerry in 1992, and remade in 2008 and 2011 (possibly again since then). It is a 4 x 4 x 3 “cube” that measures 3.5″ x 2.6″ (after 2011, Jerry began making a slightly smaller version). It is made of Walnut, Mahogany, and Maple, although there are some versions made of alternate, exotic woods, as well. I have two copies of this excellent and quite challenging puzzle, which only goes to show that I truly think it is a great puzzle: they are both copies of the earlier, larger versions (one has the serial number “14 JM 94” and the other copy has “10 JM 92” – I am not certain if this means that they are from 1994 and 1992 but I will update once I ask Jerry about it).
If you have solved interlocking puzzles, you will know that many feature some sort of key piece, which must be discovered and moved before you can hope to progress. Quadlock 1 takes this a few steps further, with four pieces that work together to form a lock, preventing any further movement. After fumbling for some time, I found that it is better to approach this almost as I would an attempt at lock-picking, as I was better able to conceptualize how I might find my way past. As you are working on these early steps, you have no indication of what it might lead to: the other pieces permit no movement, whatsoever, forcing you to add some tension in various places as you struggle to find the correct movements and configuration of the four locking pieces (again, as one might a lock). You are unlikely to succeed early on without some amount of close observation, finding the correct moves step by step rather than all at once. It has only been a few weeks since I solved the puzzle for the second time, and I am already confused as to how I can repeat the process, showing the puzzle’s excellent replayability.
Once you find your way past this first wall, you are rewarded with some interesting movements, opening the puzzle up enough to permit the removal of some pieces. You are not done, of course, as you must now discover steps necessary to fully disassemble the puzzle, although you have now successfully navigated the main challenge. From this point, you will still need to think and explore as some of the next steps are certainly non-trivial, albeit perhaps not as difficult as the opening sequence of moves. Having found these next steps, the puzzle comes apart in a way that is conceptually similar to Fidget Burr, while consisting of totally different arrangements; at this point, disassembling it completely is pretty straightforward, leaving you with a nice pile of lumber.
My first time through, I chose to let the pieces sit for a day or two before returning to it for reassembly. I was able to reassemble the puzzle (mostly) without the assistance of burrtools or the instructions Jerry provided with the puzzle. His instructions are quite welcome, as they provide clear assistance without actually showing you specific the moves (as with burrtools); it will tell you which pieces need to be manipulated but leave it to you to find how this must be done (which at times is certainly not totally straightforward).
There were a couple particularly tricky aspects to reassembly – the main locks were actually not so difficult in reverse, but I found a couple steps midway that had me turned around, requiring more than a little Ikea-style mid-process disassembly; the pieces have enough non-uniformity to create the need for careful observation lest you find yourself painted into a corner.
I found this puzzle to be an excellent interlocking burr cube (squashed or otherwise) – the addition of a “trick” locking mechanism making it especially fun. I hope to eventually collect Quadlocks III and IV (II was essentially a 23-piece version of I, and very few copies were made, so my completist urges are that much more likely to go unfulfilled).
I am clearly a fan of Jerry’s work – I have pieces he made for Bill Cutler that show his skills as a craftsman, and his own designs blow me away. Burrlephant 3 is another example of Jerry’s ingenuity as a puzzle designer, with multiple trick phases belying its playful exterior. First off, it is important to distinguish this from Don Closterman’s Elephant puzzle; I’ve not done that puzzle, but it appears to be a kumiki-like 3D assembly, and, as such, is nothing like Burrlephant in anything other than a cursory look at its appearance. Closterman’s Elephant could be an amazing puzzle, I’ve no idea, but I am mostly sure that it does not contain the mechanics of Jerry’s that separates his puzzles from most interlocking burrs.
Burrlephant 3, in case you’ve not noticed, looks like an Elephant, complete with trunk, tusks, eyes, and big ole ears. It is an interlocking figure, comprised of 27 interlocking pieces of Jatoba, Bloodwood, Bubinga, and Ebony, as well as a few additional magnets and metal pins. Not counting its ears or tusks, it is a sizable 4.4″ x 5.5″ x 2.2″, making it significantly larger than Quadlock 1 or Fidget Burr.
When I started working on it, I quickly found that there looks like there is at least one aspect that appears similar to Fidget Burr, which a halfway close inspection of the photos will show; however, the mechanisms are not at all similar: Fidget Burr has an easily accessible button that leads to instant action, whereas Burrlephant requires much more exploration to make any sort of progress. You are able to find some movement quickly, but this does not appear to do anything helpful.
Burrlephant 3 essentially consists of 4 challenges, some requiring several steps to complete. Only after solving the fourth challenge, which rewards you with the key piece containing the serial number, are you are able to fully disassemble the puzzle into its 29 distinct parts. The puzzle succeeded at misdirecting my focus for some time, before I was able to fall upon the first challenge, decidedly the easiest of the four as trial and error will most likely get you there before too long. The second challenge requires some thought, and develops a better understanding of certain aspects of the puzzle, before leaving you with a few pieces in your hands and no idea how to proceed.
This third challenge is my favorite and is the one on which I spent the most time (mostly doing the same few things over and over while incredulously shaking my head and wondering it it was broken – spoiler: it wasn’t). You must first use what you know about the puzzle to determine what needs to happen next before you can hope to do anything else. Once you have considered the what, the how is going to take even more thought; trial and error will help to eliminate your options, but I found I was only able to find my way through by engaging in some good old critical thinking. Having found the solution, I am impressed by how simple and elegant it is to do despite having been so difficult to figure out. This part of the puzzle is pretty ingenious and relies on some precise designing and craftsmanship to accomplish. I actually repeated the step a few times, just because it made me happy – always a sign of a good puzzle.
At this point, it is fairly clear what you need to do for the fourth challenge; accomplishing this task is a bit tricky, and I was able to figure it out before too long, some trial and error pointing me in the right direction and leading me to the removal of the key piece. Having removed most of the tricky parts of the puzzle in overcoming the various challenges, complete disassembly is now fairly straightforward.
The puzzle comes with Jerry’s description and solution, in text and pictures, and Jerry has again labelled some of the pieces to aid in reassembly; he stepped it up a bit from Fidget Burr, etching them into a few pieces that could easily get mixed up otherwise. Sitting back and looking at the rather enormous spread of pieces before me, I nonetheless felt confident that I would be able to reassemble it without too much frustration; there is one part that is a bit tricky, due to the necessary placement of some magnets, but a bit of dexterity gets me through, allowing me to return to reassembling the main challenges of the puzzle.
Overall, Burrlephant 3 is an excellent and super-fun burr puzzle with elements of sequential discovery and take-apart trickery that earns it the right to stand apart from other puzzles, unique in its cross-genre design and its slick and playful appearance. In many ways I prefer its quiet, contemplative rhythm to Fidget Burr’s in-your-face action; either way, it is just another example of Jerry’s craftsman-informed ingenuousness, which has me craving his next creation.
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.