Lucky Number 13

Stickman #13: Chopsticks

Robert Yarger, 2007

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.

The 13th Stickman puzzle is a totally unique and oddly practical box, with a lovely mix of woods and chopsticks so perfectly balanced that I am tempted to use them; normally, I wouldn’t seriously consider it, but I suppose I can make an exception for Hiroshi Iwahara’s Sushi…
My Stickman logo has unfortunately faded a bit due to numerous and frequent solves – the box nonetheless works perfectly.
Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

A Box, a Burr, and a Ball walk into a bar…

Burr Puzzle (with Yosegi ball inside)

Yoshiyuki Ninomiya, 2013
Burr 116×116×116 ㎜
        Box 140×140×142 ㎜
Walnut, Senn (Castor Aralia), Yosegi

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)

Jerry Does It Again (and Again): Quadlock I & Burrlephant 3

Quadlock I & Burrlephant 3

Jerry McFarland

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

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).

Burrlephant 3

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.

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)

I couldn’t think of a witty title for this post but the box is still super cool.

Kakoi

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.

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)

Time to Read

Art Deco Clock Box, Book Puzzle Box (Volumes 1, 3, & 4)

Bill Sheckels

Bill Sheckels (blackdogpuzzleworks on Etsy) has been making custom, fine furniture since the 70’s and it shows in the amazing craftsmanship of his puzzles. I had seen some of his work around and when I saw his Art Deco Clock Box I quickly reached out to see if any of his boxes might be available. Since that time, I have happily collected a few pieces and look forward to growing my library of book boxes (so my bookshelves will actually get to hold some books….. sort of).

When I first got in contact with Bill, he had recently sold the last of 25 copies of his Art Deco Box and offered the Artist Proof copy at a discount; the only difference is that the back panel juts out a couple mm from the back (it is otherwise the same in terms of aesthetics and mechanics) and so I jumped at the chance. I love the idea of a puzzle clock and was quite pleased to be able to get a copy. The puzzle is a good size: 9.5″ x 2″ x 6″, and looks absolutely great on the shelf. In fact, its beautiful, dark wood and lovely Art Deco style was sufficient to earn it a place Downstairs, where only the most worthy of puzzles are permitted. Sitting down to work on it, it took me a while to find anything that did anything; I was eventually pleasantly surprised to find that the 5 or 6 steps required to access the hidden compartment included some elements of sequential discovery. The solution is tricky but not overly difficult and uses a couple steps that I, at least, have not seen used anywhere else. Aside from it being beautiful and a cool puzzle, I just love having a functional object that is also secretly a puzzle box – I can’t help but smile to myself almost daily as I walk through the Living Room. A puzzle box with an actual function is an oddly rare concept, and this is an elegant and attractive example of such a concept.

Around the same time, he had copies of the third volume of his book boxes available. He generally offers multiple wood options, and I was lucky enough to get my first choice: Figured Makore with a Walnut spine, Ash pages, and Cherry inlay. The pictures really do not do it justice: it is a gorgeous piece, the two-tone spine contrasting wonderfully with the figured front and back; the ash is carefully cut so that the natural wood grains mimic paper quite well, and the overall look is simultaneously artistic and convincing. It is a decent sized box at 6″ x 1.5″ x 7.25″ and is certainly an excellent example of woodworking, but how is it as a puzzle? It was hard enough that the solution eluded me for quite some time: the drawer is unlocked in one step and then another is required to open it. Although I would not say that it was overly difficult, I do enjoy the final unlocking and opening of the hidden drawer. As an added bonus, I was quite pleased to find a copy of his Three Piece Dilemma (available on Etsy) inside; this consists of three different flat shapes that must somehow be combined into the shape of a kite and a triangle – both challenges are much harder than one would think, although this kind of spatial reasoning is far from being my strong suit.

A couple months later, I heard from Bill that he was remaking his original Book Box in 6 different woods; I acted quickly but even still my first choice (Walnut Burl) was gone. Fortunately, all of the options were beautiful, and I got my second choice: a two-toned Bubinga frame using a black spine to set off the reddish-brown covers, the light-colored wood “pages” again featuring natural grain to subtly mimic the pages of the book. This box is significantly larger, coming in at 9″ x 1.75″ x 7.5″. I was able to solve this one a bit quicker, primarily as it has some features in common with another puzzle I had recently solved. The mechanics also share some similarities with the Art Deco Clock Box: a similar nod to sequential discovery albeit with fewer steps. The compartment is accessed in a pretty unique way for a book box, with some unexpected moves that I found quite enjoyable. Overall, I enjoyed the mechanics more than Vol. 3, although Vol. 3’s figured covers are hard to beat.

Flashforward a few more months, and Bill emails to say that he has designed a fourth book box: obviously, I jump on it quickly, managing to get my preferred wood choice: Figured Bubinga with a Walnut spine, Red Oak pages, and a Bubinga inlay. Although it shares the primary wood with the previous book box, it looks significantly different: the figuring makes the covers have ample texture that contrasts nicely with the more minimalist (and larger) original Book Box. Its spine features matching Bubinga in a few asymmetric rectangular shapes that help to create its rather convincing bookish appearance. It is a bit smaller than Vol. 3 at 5.5″ x 1.3″ x 5.5″. I’d like to tell you about the puzzling but, to be honest, I have still not managed to solve it! I have figured out a couple things without making any actual progress. I count this as being a good thing, obviously, as I will continue to pick it up and spend some time futzing with it until I can find my way through to the solution. I am guessing that it features a drawer, similar to the third Book Box, but this assumption could certainly prove to be incorrect.

Basically, Bill’s Book Boxes are absolutely beautiful: they feel solid and smooth and his 40+ years of fine woodworking is quite clear from the moment you see them. Book Boxes have a tendency to not be the most difficult of puzzles, but these are not what I would call easy – both the craftsmanship and the clever mechanisms are more than enough for me to hope to see him remake the second Book Box (because completism runs strong in me), as well as future designs. The Clock Box will continue to play its double role as an actual clock, amusing me with the secret it contains unbeknownst to passersby (who probably wouldn’t really care, but it’s still fun for me), although once the secret door to my puzzle room (slash home office) is done, I plan on keeping it there rather than downstairs (likely alongside its Book Box brethren).

Bill has several puzzles available on his Etsy store; the boxes tend to sell out before they have a chance to make it there, although I believe some copies of the Art Deco Clock Boxes were sold there at some point. However, he sells a number of interlocking, burr, and packing puzzles that are of equal craftsmanship and good price points; the selection changes over time, so be sure to favorite the store as something you like will likely pop up before too long.

Bill has submitted some very cool puzzles to IPP competitions over the years, none of which have I had the pleasure of solving, something that I hope to someday remedy. His Caged Coin and Packed Pyramid are of particular interest to me, and I hope to find them at auction one day (ideally at a reasonable price), or perhaps remade and available at his store (hint hint). Until then, I will continue to keep an eye out for Bill’s Book Boxes, which share a common aesthetic while managing to be quite unique from one another, both in terms of style and mechanics.

Craftsmanship Grade: 5 Sinatras

When EWE Need a Sheep Alternative to Puzzle Boxes

EWE UFO

Kel Snache, 5.5″ x 5.5″ x 5.5″, 2020

“In what can only be described as a freaky fluffy encounter of the 5th kind, an apparent rag tag group of crafty and clever ewe’s mellifluously stormed the gates of Area 51. Witnesses say they saw what must have been their larcenous leader take command of not one, but 17 super secret flying machines!

As [we] have come to understand things from [the Captain’s] view, they don’t all enjoy being shorn. So apparently a small group hell bent herbivores decided to tell the freaky farmer to ram it, and ran!

Somehow, whether it be the grindage grazing or the foreseeable fact that they don’t have pockets, but they lost any comprehensible clue as to what they were. [We are] afraid that you all will have to sort your way through their retrofitting of this ubiquitous UFO…”

– EWE UFO Back Story (excerpt)

Kel Snache has yet again made a puzzle that is not only challenging, but also wildly unique and fun. Last year’s Puzzleduck Pastures was awesome and he has further outdone himself with a puzzle that is even more complex and satisfyingly silly than was helping Lil’ Miss Fairy Pants unlock her door. Kel has created a backstory about four sheep determined to make a break for it (and one forced to come along): the intrepid Captain Fran, and her crew of Fern, Flo, Fanni and the sheep-napped Wee Fae. The story is told in facebook posts (reproduced in 13 pages alongside pictures of his progress taken over the course of several months): the “Fluffy Five” have built a ship and we have the rare opportunity to explore it, if we can find our way inside.

EWE UFO is not quite a puzzle box – as Kel says, it is “disguised to look like one [but] there is no internal space to store tiny objects de jour.” It would be more accurate to describe it as a sequential discovery take-apart puzzle, as it will ultimately break down into 23 separate pieces after successfully navigating 32 steps (plus an additional four steps to fully disassemble it), revealing tools and red herrings along the way. The craftsmanship is excellent, with a build quality that feels like it will stay strong over time and aesthetic details that add to the sense of wonder that the puzzle brings.

EWE is a cube made of a variety of woods that seems to float a few cm above whatever surface it is on, due to the placement of the escape hatch on the bottom. All four sides are identical, except for a little acrylic portholes giving us a view of the sheep crew as they cook pizza, take a bath, extinguish a fire, and look back at us with X-Ray glasses; all except for Wee Fae, desperately reaching up to us as we look down the fifth porthole on top of the ship. Our goal: “Be the noble hero and join the quest to remove Wee Fae from the top of the craft. She just wants to go home before the others resume their zoom into space.”

Some of the portholes spin freely, while others do not. Other than this, there appears to be no way in or out. As we work out way through “six sides of play,” we must navigate through (as it says in the instructions) “a Trap Door, A Guillotine and a Four Finger Force Field,” before we can do a bit of post-solution disassembly for a “full visual tour of the Inner Core.”

The instructions at the front of a 14-page packet, which also includes detailed solution steps with accompanying pictures), informs us that there is no need for tapping and no tricky magnets. You will instead enjoy a journey through diverse mehanical mechanisms that meanders along an otherwise linear path to success. Steps build upon one another; pieces removed may serve multiple purposes or none at all; things sometimes move only to confuse us; and our assumptions will be used against us.

Escape Hatch

Throughout the puzzle, we find pieces and mechanisms that are so instantly recognizable as being from Kel; while the puzzle is totally original and quite different from any other piece of his that I have had the pleasure of working on, it also manages to have an aesthetic and method that is uniquely his.

The rhythm is exactly what I love in a puzzle: I am pulled into the experience with some early success, which pays off with some tools and moving parts that provide unknown opportunities to do…. something (maybe). From there, I hit a series of walls as I proceed through the puzzle, steps discovered in fits and starts, forcing me to backtrack and explore and question what I’ve done and what I am trying to do. Things that seem like they must do something, actually do nothing (nothing useful anyway); other things that seem to fade into the background, end up being essential to my continued progress.

After a few hours spread out over several days, I manage to remove the top porthole, liberating Wee Fae from her wooden, spacefaring prison, and finding Kel’s snake mark burned into the piece. The open porthole, as indicated in the instructions, allows me to peer into the internal mechanisms at the core of the puzzle (with the aid of a flashlight). The “further disassembly” referred to earlier, essentially consists of removing the four brass nuts in the top corners of the puzzle, allowing me to lift it off, exposing the “Inner Core,” and showing the copy’s edition number (mine is #12/17).

At this point, I was able to slide the central cube out, allowing me to see how all the varied mechanisms fit together. While not exactly a fusion drive, there is a lot going on in there! Mostly wooden pieces (with a few metal parts) are stacked and organized, with sufficient room to allow for the movement necessary to solve it. I went through the steps again, watching the internal machinations of the puzzle and appreciating it all the more for it. Reassembly was mostly straightforward, a matter of following the steps backwards. I was proudly admiring my brilliance until I noticed a piece that I had somehow left out – so I was treated to another run through the majority of the puzzle, until I found where it should go, acting as another lock on an otherwise locked piece, yet another step along the way.

From the wacky story, to the beautiful craftsmanship and complex mechanisms, and, finally, to the eventual full disassembly and exposure of the puzzle’s inner workings, EWE UFO stands among the best puzzles I have had the pleasure of working on: it is playful without being easy, challenging without being impossible, tricky without being annoying, and very unique.

(SPOILERS: click here to see some pics of the puzzle totally disassembled, including the outside and inside of the inner core, where the majority of the puzzling occurs)
Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

Three Little Bolts from School are We…

Three Wise Bolts

Mr. Puzzle, 5″ x 1.5″ x 1.25″, 330 copies made (2018)

There is nothing better than a super-timely puzzle post about something available or coming up soon….. this is not that.

I have been wanting to write about Three Wise Bolts for some time; after re-solving it recently, I remembered what a fun and original puzzle it is and the puzzling muse once again struck:

Three Wise Bolts is a 2018 release from Brian Young at Mr. Puzzle. At the time, my collection was somewhat subdued – I didn’t have much of a budget for puzzles nor did I know as much about what was out there. But something about this puzzle struck a chord with me and I jumped on it. With 330 copies made, it is much more common than many limited releases; the fact that they are not seen being sold at auction as often as many other puzzles released in much smaller quantities should tell you something.

Three Wise Bolts is a take-apart puzzle; most decidedly not a box as there is no internal space to be accessed. The purpose is quite simply to remove the three bolts spaced evenly along a horizontal block, thee Mr. Puzzle logo etched into its front. It also falls quite comfortably into the sequential discovery sub-category, as the puzzle experience has you discovering tools as you journey towards finally removing all three bolts and taking apart the frame that splits into two pieces.

You can see from the bottom that the bolts are different sizes; their complexity also differs considerably, with the puzzle bringing you along a linear journey to its eventual solution. They all spin freely (until they don’t) and small holes are found low on either side of the frame. The tops of two bolts also have a small cavity etched into its side. As with many Mr. Puzzle creations, you must think really creatively about what might be usable and how it might be used. It starts out fairly easily, winning you an early success by removing the first bolt, as you learn a bit about how the puzzle works and what is going on inside. Then the difficulty begins to scale up, with the third bolt being particularly tricky, forcing you to think hard on what might be possible using the tools at your disposal; trial and error may not get you all the way there, and you may need to step back and try that whole thinking thing.

Resetting is just a matter of reversing the steps until you are back at the start. Having first solved this puzzle some time ago, re-solving was almost a new experience; I had forgotten enough about what needed to be done that the a-ha moment, while a bit subdued, was nonetheless still quite satisfying.

Mr. Puzzle offers many great puzzles in addition to Brian’s personal creations and is the only place to get his releases without resorting to auctions or fellow puzzlers. He has a new puzzle coming up that is said to be sequential discovery in the spirit of Big Ben or the Louvre, two pieces with excellent reputations (neither of which I have had the pleasure of solving). And, in a welcome and rare twist, they have said that this will not be as limited a release, in the hopes of ensuring that everyone who wants one will be able to get one – so no setting alarms and hoping the puzzle doesn’t disappear from your cart while you are checking out. Apparently, he is now in the prototype phase and we shouldn’t expect it to become available until mid-2021. So, if you haven’t already, be sure to sign up for their blog – they won’t bombard your inbox and you will be sure to know more about it as we get closer to release.

Originality: 5 Sinatras
Difficulty: Four Sinatras

Sitting with Cista: The Secretum Cista Puzzle Chest Experience (without Spoilers)

Secretum Cista

Jesse Born, 30 copies, 55 lbs., 13.5” x 20.5” x 11.5”

Well, I had my fun making my introduction to the Cista – a minute or two of video does a better job of showing how pretty the chest is; that and its back is more than enough to whet your appetite.

So I figured I would talk about how it is as a puzzle experience – I am of course not going to spoil anything, but I will also describe some of what it does in its fully reset position (which I assure you isn’t much).

In case you haven’t guessed, the box does not actually emit a bright glow accompanied by the sounds of the heavens and glory (my film degree affords me the ability to produce such amazing movie magic) – it also required a signature at delivery, which was not shown in my otherwise completely accurate depiction of its arrival.

Once I had ooh-ed and aah-ed enough for the time being, I set about exploring. I had already determined that all drawers were locked, except for the circular one in the center, which opens freely (although perhaps not completely) as seen in the vid. This drawer is dark and cylindrical, with a number of squares running down its length, contrasting wood (purpleheart?) filling it partway, which can be seen as it rotates more or less freely. Other than that, no drawers will open, but many do feel unique; some have more give than others, or there may be other differences you can sense with just a bit of a tug on the handle.

The back is behind a glass door (with a neat magnet-based lock) but while you can see quite a bit of the inner workings of the chest, casual observation does not provide any clear spoilers. However, after a fairly thorough, albeit somewhat cursory, exploration of the chest overall, it becomes pretty clear where to begin. With a bit of time and patience, I begin to have some initial success, which leads to further discoveries, which then eventually leads to forking paths with suspect dead ends. I’ve made it through about 1/3 of the chest (which definitely seems to be getting progressively more difficult), and I have had to backtrack to go in a different direction, or maybe do something again but in a different way for a different result.

Looking at the pictures, I had come up with a few ideas for things that would be likely to produce results. I don’t know if this was by design, but Jesse managed to use all of these ideas in the first few drawers; it feels like he wanted to get rid of these early on and the chest ramps up in difficulty following these initial successes. And even these ideas are integrated into larger, more complex mechanisms the integrate or conceal tools or other aspects that interconnect these comparatively simple steps into the larger whole. It does not feel like you are taking on isolated puzzles; so far, 7 of the 8 drawers I have solved relate directly to the solution of at least one other drawer in some way (and of course, it is entirely possible that the 8th does as well).

Interior of Drawers (top four rows in order – all drawers in a row share the same woods)

This is sequential discovery in all its finery – SD is a term that we love to use, as it is a favorite among many of us puzzlers (for good reason); some puzzles have SD elements as part of a lock or other take-apart (many of which are absolutely fantastic puzzles that can be as good as or better as any other puzzle you can bring to the table) – fewer, though, have SD running through its veins (I’m thinking of puzzles like Slammed Car, Turtle Trip, Dark Fairy Door, Puzzleduck Pastures, Rex Rossano Perez’s coin release puzzles, Where’s My Hammer?, Three Wise Bolts, and so on).

As I proceed through the puzzles, I have already found several tools and have had to go back to go forward. My progress so far has been made over the course of several days; steps have been discovered by me in fits and starts, requiring equal parts exploration, experimentation, and exposition (daaaaaamn that’s some fine alliteration). Jesse’s workmanship is amazing and any cosmetic imperfections are entirely insignificant and endearingly inevitable in a handmade chest. In fact, the chest has been deemed fit for public consumption and has not been banished upstairs to my office (although I do plan on bringing it up once solved as the humidity os more closely controlled there).

I am currently at a wall – I’ve unlocked 8 drawers and am now good and stuck. There are some things that I know do something somehow, but damned if I know what. Which is perfect – I am confident that it will continue to confuse and create contentment as I consider the controlled consequences and considerable options concealed by the content-creating craftsman’s contemplation of a cunningly convoluted puzzle (wow that alliteration got way out of con-trol).

I reached out to Jesse (who is always quick to respond to offer assistance or clarification if sought) and he gave me permission to shoot a solution vid. I generally don’t make (or watch) such content because I have learned that you may well get your hands on a puzzle you thought was unattainable, but considering the fact that the 30 people who have a copy of the chest are likely to carry 55 lbs. of puzzle to a puzzle party, I may yet put something together showing what I’ve managed to figure out so far.

Overall Grade: The illustrious and rarely bestowed Presley

“[D]espite the justified reliance on the Sinatra as the coolness quotient upon which said methodology is based, there must simultaneously exist an indicator to be used should a commodity’s value be calculated such that the Sinatra be rendered insufficient; in this event, the Presley is the more apparent and precise control to represent the coolness being commodified insofar as it exists in excess of the standardized Sinatra metric.”

Quantified Cool, John Maynard Keynes, 
Chairman of the World Bank Commission, 1944

Holy Forking Shirt – is that Chest made of 18 Puzzle Drawers?!

Secretum Cista

Jesse Born, 13.5″ x 20.5″ x 11.5″

It’s here! Jesse Born‘s beautiful Puzzle Chest, Secretum Cista, arrived this week and it is amazing!

Check out this video showing the arrival and unboxing of this mighty chest – featuring several woods, including Wenge, Paduak, Purpleheart, Katalox, Figured Mango, and more, this chest consists of 18 drawers that hide an interconnected series of SD puzzles. This is basically like getting a big chest filled with puzzle boxes!

Stay Tuned for more posts as I continue to explore this excellent piece of puzzle wizardry!

Overall Grade: One Presley (!!!)

Regarding the exchange rate of quantified cool: The Tiger Man Elvis is of course the pinnacle of cool – too out of reach to justify common usage. And we try not to speak of the lesser quantifications (the Davis, Martin, Lawford, and (shudder) the Bishop).

Packing it in 3: Pack Hard with a Vengeance

First, there was Packing It In: Pack Hard.

Then. there was Packing It In 2: Pack Harder.

Now, it’s time for Vengeance.


(The order of these posts do not indicate relative levels of difficulty. Please puzzle accordingly).

Squary Packs, Quadro, Snake Pit, Mushkila

Yavuz Demirhan (check out his Etsy store)

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of puzzles out there. A lot. Within the various subgenres of mechanical puzzle-dom, therein lies nearly infinite possibilities – who would have thought that even “just” a 4×4 cube could contain so many possibilities as to continuously bring us more TICs and Somas and so on…

Squary Packs

Some puzzles push out into their own territory, their movements and solution sitting somewhere amidst or between those that already exist. Yavuz Demirhan’s Squary Pack series is a great example of such a design: they are 2D/3D packing sliders that require you to navigate four dual-leveled pieces through a restricted one-piece-size opening at the center of the space to cover the bottom of the square box. The pieces are all flat-bottomed, with various voxels of different dimensions further complicating the solution, requiring you to slide your pieces around as you attempt to find a way to insert whichever piece needs to go in last; some of the series are further encumbered by blocks affixed to the box. You need to get all pieces in with the blocks facing up and you will find varying degrees of difficulty identifying where and when in the dance of pieces you can insert the final pieces.

The result can be quite tricky and is most definitely fun. I initially got #2 and 4 (knowing as I did that I would almost certainly end up wishing I had just gotten them all – my recent delivery of #1, 5, 7, and 8 shows I was most definitely right in thinking I had been wrong). My first impression was that they are quite attractive looking puzzles: his work is always wonderful looking and these are no exception. Dark wenge boxes with a reddish sappeli for those with blocks attached, which cover one of the two levels and protrude above the acrylic top for half that height. The pieces match the boxes with the same wenge contrasted by light ash blocks atop them. On the bottom of the box he has his logo/initials engraved above the name and # of the puzzle. Interestingly, they range considerably in the square’s dimensions (while all sharing a height of 3.5 cm): 1 & 2 are 7.5 cm, 3-5 are 9.5 cm, 6 is 11.5 cm, and 7 & 8 are 13.5 cm (ranging in price for a reasonable $30 – $50 depending on size). I’m happy to say that Yavuz is designing additional Packs, extending the series to (at least, I believe) 15.

Sitting down with the Packs, it took a minute to orient myself to what exactly I needed to do – initially, I solved my first two incorrectly by placing one of the pieces upside down (which was itself a non-trivial solve). I later learned that this was not correct and proceeded to attempt to (re)solve them correctly. It is necessary to find a way to get three of the pieces into the Pack such that there remains room for the 4th to be inserted and slid into the existing space – oftentimes requiring that the remaining pieces dance around before this becomes possible. This is complicated further in those Packs that contain internal pieces blocking the way. Each solution is unique and while these puzzles share a pleasantly consistent aesthetic, they are quite diverse. They range in difficulty: all the feedback I have heard from our fellow puzzlers has been most definitely positive, although some have felt that a couple of them were a bit easy. Regardless, I found them all to be challenging, with some being quite difficult (particularly #2 & 4). The coming versions are apparently a further step up in difficulty, and I look forward to getting them once available.

Yavuz has been making puzzles for a while and has a LOT more interlocking and packing puzzle designs out there (he has a few hundred on PWBP); while he produces his own works from time to time, it is not at all uncommon to find his works included in the puzzle releases of others (including one design set to come out in this week’s CubicDissection release). While I have a few of his designs that were made by other puzzle-makers, I also have the pleasure of owning a few more that he made himself – also 3D packing puzzles with restricted openings. His work is all wonderfully precise, using quality woods that look and feel great.

Quadro

Quadro is a small-ish puzzle whose wooden box and acrylic top share an aesthetic with the Squary Packs (the puzzle’s name also etched into the bottom). It consists of 6 identical squares that must fill a rectangular box – while not interlocking, the solution will require a rather delicate dance to allow you the chance to drop that last block in with the satisfaction the comes with finally filling this up with those. This is one of those puzzles that is more complicated than it looks without being something insurmountable – I still managed to go in circles for quite a while, even asking other puzzlers if perhaps there was a “trick” that I was missing. Eventually I actually stopped and tried that thinking thing I’ve heard so much about, soon managing to find the right moves (leaving me wondering how I had managed to do everything but the one thing that would work).

Snake Pit

Snake Pit eschews the acrylic top for an attractive mix of light and dark woods with an opening that runs the length of the puzzle and is 1/2 as wide, leaving one voxel on either side. There are 4 pairs of mirrored pieces that must find their way inside for a fun solution that was just the right level of difficulty for me.

Mushkila

Mushkila is my newest acquisition, having received it along with my second order of Squary Packs. It uses a beautiful mix of woods with lovely grain patterns that play nicely with the mix of red and dark and light brown. Interestingly, the opening is not a regular shape: it runs the length of the box (similar to Snake Pit) to allow the single rectangular piece to go in and also adds a square cut-out to allow the five angled pieces to go in at any orientation. This gives it a bit of a deco look, which meshes well with his choice of woods. I have yet to solve it, but having spent a little bit of time on it, it is clearly a non-trivial solution that should provide a fun solve while looking great on my shelf.

All of these packing puzzles share a simplicity and elegance, both in terms of their aesthetic as well as their movement – I highly recommend following Yavuz’s Etsy page as I know that any time Yavuz has something available, I will happily say “yes, please” to whatever it is, sight unseen

Fun Grade: 5 Sinatras
Difficulty Grade: 3 to 4 Sinatras