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!


Keep on Puzzlin’ w/ Stickman’s Keep Locked

Keep Locked (Stickman #36)

Rob Yarger, 52 copies, 7″ x 6″ x 6″

Dude. I seriously love this puzzle.

You probably know of Rob Yarger a/k/a Stickman and if you don’t, head over to the Google and do the Googling because you are missing out (check out one of my go-to videos to show non-puzzlers the coolness of puzzling: the amazing Wisteria Cabinet he made with Craig Thibodeau). Rob is a master woodworker and a downright deviously cool puzzle-maker. I have a few of his boxes and have been fortunate enough to try (and even solve in the case of one or two) some of his puzzles at the Puzzle Palace (while it was still in FL). However, most of his puzzles sit at the top of my unicorn list (something in which I am hardly unique): Checkmate, Lighthouse, Burl Tile…. the list goes on and on. And his (comparatively) more easily obtained puzzles such as One-Hand and Chopsticks are still totally badass bonkers (he also helped Jesse Born create the wonderful Sun Dial).

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to get Keep Locked and gratefully responded: “yes please.” Fast forward several weeks and it arrived! Keep Locked is essentially a castle with locks attached to the four towers of the battlement; each lock uses different woods, focusing on one primary species with several others integrated for smaller details – I believe that they are Leopardwood, Maple, Purpleheart, & Yellowheart. One features the Stickman logo, which is also displayed on the back of the castle, opposite from the metal lion above a portcullis and door on the front. The roof of each tower matches the neighboring lock. The castle is itself constructed of several more woods (I am not sure how many different woods are used, but it has to be around ten by my layperson’s count). As with any of Rob’s puzzles, it is wonderfully made, the quality readily apparent from afar but even more so when you start with the puzzling.

And as pretty as it is, the puzzling is better. While the ultimate goal is unclear (as it is a puzzlebox there must be some hidden compartment but we are not told where… although I had my suspicions I’ve learned to be careful. Starting out, it seems pretty clear that each of the four locks must be removed and, man, there is enough puzzling there to sate my puzzle thirst, sequential discovery abounds and one must question every assumption as Rob is able to hide mechanisms in plain sight almost as easily as he can hide them. If you have solved the lock he used on his Pirate Wallet (and reproduced on its own by Eric Fuller of CubicDissection), you have an idea as to how much puzzling he can fit into a 2″ by 3.5″ lock.

After finding nothing more than a few small things, I knew this siege might well be a war of attrition, therefore staring intently at the box while assuring it that I would deprive it of food and water until it gave up its secrets. The castle seemed indifferent to such threats and I therefore constructed a catapult with which to launch a Trojan Hamster until realizing that this was insane and went back to the staring. This proved equally ineffective and I returned to my poking and prodding until I began finding…. things that did things! Huzzah! The townspeople rejoiced! After an hour or two of puzzling, I had managed to remove some locks and determine that I had no idea what to do next.

I will admit that I asked my wife to confirm a couple things in the solution for me, nudging me in the right direction (the copies are only just rolling out, so hints from other puzzlers were still pretty sparse). The nudge having been nudged, I got through some more sections of the puzzle before, you guessed it, hitting another wall. I simply could not see what else I needed to do and left the box for a couple days to allow my subconscious to go to work. Lo and behold, I had an idea, realizing I hadn’t tried something and, huzzah once more! Further rejoicing by the imaginary townspeople! I had found…. things that did other things! All this occurred in little fits and starts over the course of a week or so, interminable wall after wall confounding me in between as I explored the significant extent of puzzling hidden within.

The certainty of my brilliance faded as I realized that I, once again, had no idea what to do. Fast forward a few more days of staring and, wait a sec, is that…? OMG of course! More progress ensued until, finally, I was pretty sure I was at the end but…. wtf dude. There must be something wrong. This is obviously supposed to do this and it’s not. Another wife check and she confirmed something she learned long ago in the 17 years we have been together: I am an idiot. Rob’s subtle sneakiness had worked its magic and a small nudge afforded me the aha! I needed. Uh…. no it didn’t. Yes, I had found a cool thing but, no, I was not done. I found my way to this last step after a bit longer and happily discovered the compartment that had eluded me. I basked in my glory and reversed course to reset everything. By this time my horrible memory had allowed to forget a few details, giving me a bit more fun re-solving the locks that I’d reset previously for safe-keeping.

Keep Locked is one of the best puzzles I have tried in a while, which is saying a lot considering how many great puzzles have been rolling out this year. It will most definitely not be going anywhere – I will consume the rest of my puzzles and pets (not necessarily in that order) before admitting defeat in any war of attrition levied at me (and the townspeople were happy).


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.


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

Loss, Blindness, Death, Anger…. and now Menace (the new Puzzle Box by Dee Dixon)

Menace

Dee Dixon, 5.25″ x 3.5″ x 2.5″ (available in Black Limba & Quarter or Flat Sawn Shedua)

It has been an eventful last few years: I lost my hammer, went blind, felt my way through the darkness of space, fell through a portal, went blind again, suffered being haunted, and survived the Walt-acalpyse……. all this only to have Dee send me something truly menacing. Needless to say (not that this ever stops me), I have gratefully enjoyed every moment of it as DEDwood Crafts has consistently produced some of the best puzzle boxes to grace my shelves.

Flat Sawn Shedua in the Front & Black Limba in the Back

Following up on Angry Walter is no small thing: it has received consistently positive praise from puzzle box enthusiasts new and old (here is my post on that beaut of a box). And yet Dee has managed to keep putting out beautiful, challenging boxes since WMH appeared just a few, long years ago. So it should not surprise anyone to hear that his newest box once again succeeds at bringing us a fun in a pretty package.

Menace uses a single wood to create a clean, sleek aesthetic that may be his prettiest box since the totally different, asymmetrically complex style of WMH. I first got a prototype in Shedua that is just gorgeous in its apparent simplicity: no protrusions, buttons or panels… just a locked lid inset into the top with a small hole to one side. Picking it up, there is no clear indication as to how one can begin to open it and I spent quite a bit of time searching for whatever first step Dee had designed.

I began developing some assumptions (quite likely as Dee intended) that would (unsurprisingly) prove incorrect, something that I would repeat a few more times before I would discover the box’s final secret. After discovering a well-hidden aha, Dee teases you with the idea that you may have already solved the puzzle; of course, this turns out to be well before the puzzle has actually been solved (which you would know if you had actually read the brief instructions….. duh). The puzzle’s length is more or less consistent with the majority of his boxes but fell into the trap of thinking I had reached the end before realizing I had not: the instructions tell us that we must find some sort of prize and, since no such prize had been found, clearly I was not yet done.

Experimentation will only get you so far with this one – I had to take a step back and rethink what I was doing and what I was trying to do, questioning my assumptions and trying to look at the box in a new way to see what else I might be able to do. With a good aha, I realized something and began following that trail to eventual success. The final compartment is pretty ingenious and most definitely sneaky – not what I had been expecting, which is always a welcome finale to any puzzle.

The prototype’s “prize” was not really all that much of a prize lol (perhaps more of a placeholder) – not that I needed the added incentive, but this did help me to justify my “need” for a copy of the final puzzle (in a different wood, of course – I’m not (totally) crazy). I had been out of town for a while and had not solved the box in long enough that I already found I had forgotten which of my many assumptions had proven incorrect! I know that I don’t generally make claims to brilliance on (or off) these virtual pages but this was a bit ridiculous (and perhaps not the greatest thing for my on-again, off-again relationship with confidence). Fortunately, it did mean that I got to repeat an aha or two, albeit it with more a sense of relief at not being a complete idiot than at the typical puzzle-solving feeling that I was the greatest mind of all time for having made a piece of wood move a few inches that way.

The prototype and final are mostly identical – Dee did tweak one thing that makes the solution’s finale a bit more difficult to do. In doing so, some of my methods worked against me – I found that the slight change makes that last bit require a better understanding of what I am trying to do, forcing me to approach the puzzle more carefully, looking back at some hints I had previously missed before I would get that final aha (enough reworking that I did indeed feel a brief bit of brilliance before coming back to reality.

The final surprise legitimately made me laugh out loud – Dee has given us another taste of his humor as in some previous boxes (Spirit and the original run of WMH, in particular). I re-solved the box several more times to marvel both at my mastery and the design…. not to mention to grin a few more times at that last laugh.

Menace will be available July 2, 2022, on the DEDwood Crafts site. It may not last long but I suspect Dee may do another run or two before moving on to whatever the next bit of fun he has planned for us.


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.



It’s A(nother) Karakuri Miracle! Holiday Boxes 2021

Karakuri Holiday Boxes 2021

Following up on last year’s post about the 2020 Karakuri holiday boxes, I figured I’d make a thing of it and do it again for 2021. (If you don’t know about the Karakuri holiday boxes and membership, you can learn more here).

Clockwise from back left: Kakuda, Kikuchi, Iwahara, Kasho; Kawashima, Kamei, Sugimoto
Center: Kasho

Getting my box of boxes in mid-December was a cause for bittersweet celebration; I knew it was destined to sit unopened for a couple more weeks until X-Mas, when I would see each of the 7 boxes for the first time. Having not yet learned my lesson, I hoped that it might spark the teeniest bit of interest in my 15 year-old son (it did not); it did, however, continue to develop the interest of my 81 year-old Cuban mother-in-law lol (she thinks they’re super cool, which of course they are).

If you did not sign up for one or more of the boxes, maybe this will help you decide which are worth going after this year – as always, they will pop up here and there on the puzzle auctions, typically growing in value the further from December we get until, seemingly suddenly several seasons hence, they sometimes start selling for obscene sums. And for good reason: if you have yet to learn this life lesson, Karakuri boxes are cool… I know I will be getting another round of 7 come Xmas 2022.

And now: on to the show (in alphabetical order by maker’s first name):

Akio Kamei – Pile of Disks 3

Unofficially known as the Egg McMuffin, Kamei’s newest creation consists of 5 circular layers of maple, zelkova and rosewood, laid out symmetrically. As the third in a series, this Pile of Disks is leaner than its siblings at 80mm x 30mm, his hanko displayed in the center of one side. Surprisingly, this ended up being one of the last two I wiould manage to solve – I had thought that the solution was somewhat obvious but it nonetheless took me an embarrassing amount of time over several days of fidgeting with it in front of the tv, growing increasingly certain that there was “something wrong with it.” As is typical when such a thought comes to the mind of a puzzler, there was not, I am just an idiot (probably not a surprise to anyone who reads these rambles). While the basic mechanisms were what I had thought, there was a small but essential nuance that had to yet to slap me in the head. I had begun to think that the solution was annoyingly precise but, in fact, it is quite elegant, with a final touch that gave me a welcome smile after how hard a time it had given me. Having opened it, I did it several more times, shaking my head at my own ineptitude and smiling at the subtle design choices that are the difference between trivial and tricky.

Kamei’s 2017 & 2019 – 2021 Holiday Boxes: Reverse Drawer, 8 Burr Box, Safe & Pile of Disks 3

Hideaki Kawashima – Moonlit Night

Following up on 2020’s Moon, Kawashima continues his lunar legacy in honor of the two lunar eclipses seen in Japan (and elsewhere) in 2021 (there is a circle on each side of the box). Its size of 72mm x 75mm, along with the colors of the magnolia, walnut and zelkova, lets it sit well with some of his other!similar boxes, most particularly its predecessor. While I did not have too much difficulty with this box, I did manage to go in circles for a bit before an aha let me find what I’d been missing. The maker’s hanko is hidden in one of its two compartments (presumably one for each eclipse). Despite not being too hard, I like the theme and idea: it is cool to be able to see what the maker was thinking and feel the connection he was going for. Holiday boxes arrive without names or descriptions, which have only recently been shipped out to participating members; these gave me a better appreciation for this box in particular, with an aesthetic that captures the concept rather brilliantly.

Kawashima’s 2019 – 2021 Holiday Boxes: Bars Box IV, Moon & Moonlit Night (I rather foolishly let go of my copy of 2018’s BB2)

Hiroshi Iwahara – Fluctuation Box

One of the cooler looking boxes of this year’s holiday haul, Fluctuation has a springy, tactile feel that makes it fidget friendly and rather fun to solve. Somewhat unique in the nature of its trickiness, the box may take a bit of practice to master. The alternating layers of maple and chanchin look great inside the contrasting top and bottom of walnut and (something? – I may have confused some of these but I think I have it correct) and a little knob adorns the top.

At 160mm x 170mm x 66mm, it is the largest of this year’s boxes and is a development of Iwahara’s 2006 holiday box, Covered Chimney, with which it shares a similar aesthetic.

Iwahara’s 2018 – 2021 Holiday Boxes (clockwise from top left): Bean Bag Drawer 3 (Cat’s Bel), Box with Five Trees, Aquarius Box (small), Fluctuation Box & Line Symmetric Traps

Osamu Kasho – Little Shark

Little Shark might be my favorite of the year, both adorable and the most difficult for me to solve! Its diminutive size of 80mm x 115mm x 45mm did not stop it from taking me weeks of picking it up and trying the same couple of things over and over before I finally did something a bit differently than (I think) I had tried before, earning me the biggest aha of the holiday. It is always a pleasure to get the kind of laugh-out-loud Karakuri moment that compels me to share my glee with my not-particularly-interested wife (who allows for a quick “that’s nice, babe” before turning back to whatever show was trying to distract me from my puzzling).

Knowing the solution, I can fully appreciate the excellent craftsmanship that hides it (one of the main reasons I absolutely love the KCG. It is also adorable, the walnut, magnolia and dogwood maintaining a consistency with Kasho’s Whale boxes: Whale, Baby Whale and Whale Type I, but with evil shark eyes contrasting cutely with the friendly, rounded eyes of the whales.

(cool hanko!)

Kasho’s 2019 – 2021 Holiday Boxes: Bara Bara, Something or Nothing and Little Shark (Bara Bara is actually the Philosopher version released last year – I reluctantly traded my Snowman version)

Shou Sugimoto – Reversible Box

Sugimoto’s box is another of this year’s personal (and probably public) favorites, with a unique solution that sees the box becoming more beautiful as you progress, an interesting design choice that demands repeat play. These changes are surprising and have me tempted to leave the box in mid-solve for display (my spoiler sensitivities are of course too strong to permit this, allowing for a resistance to temptation rarely exhibited by my life choices).

It is a bit smaller than most Karakuri boxes at 59mm x 97mm and compensates with a beautiful use of maple, chanchin, magnolia, wenge and Japanese torreya, some of which you may notice is not visible in its reset state. When first working on it, there was an initial worry that the solution was just painfully obvious, with early progress that turned out to be a bit misleading, functioning instead as a segue into a beautiful sequence that leads into the final steps (the last of which eluded me for a bit, partly due to my desire to repeat the middle steps and partly as it is well-hidden). The final step shows the precision with which KCG boxes are pretty much always made. His hanko is inside and is one of the cooler marks used by KCG members, a more stylized use of Japanese characters.

Sugimoto’s 2020 & 2021 Holiday Boxes: Nail Clippers & Reversible Box (I unfortunately traded my copy of 2019’s Kracker)

Yasuaki Kikuchi – Well, well, well, Where has buddy gone?!

Winning this year’s “Oddly Long and Confusing Title” Award, Kikuchi has made something that is pretty much as hilarious a Karakuri box as I have ever seen. The solution is not short but neither is it particularly difficult; the real awesome-sauciness of this box comes after it has been opened, where you find something whose purpose is not immediately apparent until you step back and look at the opened box with new eyes. I soon saw the purpose of this discovered trinket and full-on guffawed at the result of its use. I don’t mean to be so cagey about this but it would of course be a massive spoiler to say anything further.

Kikuchi’s 2020 & 2021 Holiday Boxes: Christmas Boots & Well, well, well, Where has buddy gone?!s I e

The holiday theme is once again on full display, with Santa’s sled leading you deeper into the Christmas canon in a comically consistent manner. It is an adorably sized 61mm x 110mm x 68 and, as with Sugimoto’s box, some of the woods used are not immediately apparent; its cherry (?) outside hiding some dogwood and walnut once solved.


Yoh Kakuda – Boxing Kangaroo

What kind of Karakuri Christmas could it be be without a cute Kakuda creation like Kangaroo? It is adorable and amusing, with a design that is sure to make you smile. Despite perhaps being a bit predictable, I enjoyed the solve and felt compelled to repeat one particular step several times as Kakuda once again does a great job of integrating thematic elements into the box. Kangaroo is a good-sized 63mm x 110mm x 121mm, with padauk boxing gloves contrasting nicely with the cherry used for the majority of the puzzle (with an adorable magnolia nose). I noticed that the maker’s mark has changed a bit, with added english letters that stand apart from the more traditional hankos used by most other KCG members (and is pretty cool imo). Now I’ve just got to see how it fares against a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot.

(I unfortunately traded my copies of Wombat & Tunnel Maker from 2019 & 2020, so no comparison pic)


And that’s 2021!

I’m already looking forward to whatever boxes KCG will produce in 2022 – time to renew my membership!


Overall Grade for Holiday Puzzles: Five Sinatras