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

No, I Don’t Think He is Dead

He Can Not Get the Ball!

Yoh Kakuda and Yasuaki Kikuchi

He Can Not Get the Ball! is a winner of the 11th Annual Karakuri Idea Contest. This box was built by Yoh Kakuda and Yasuaki Kikuchi out of oak and cherry, based on an original idea by Masaki Ohnishi,

The puzzle depicts a moment in which most people have found themselves on at least one occasion – arm stretched out under a dresser, cheek pressed to the floor, face turned so you can get as far in as possible, fingers just brushing the elusive item, still just a bit too far out of reach. Fortunately, the artisans have left us an unattached baseball bat and broom to help us in our quest.

Perhaps the best detail in this puzzle is the tiny baseball that can be seen deep under the dresser – but only if you get your eyes level with the bottom of the dresser. This “hidden” feature really makes this puzzle for me, as it puts the puzzler in the place of the child.

You will notice that the child’s eyes are X’ed out. I am not sure why this is, except perhaps to imply that this poor child died while struggling to regain his lost ball. A tragic end to a common situation. But while we may be too late to save this tiny wooden person, we can at least get his ball! Well, no, actually we can’t…… but we can open his dresser! This is, after all, a puzzle box, albeit a rather simple one.

As with many Karakuri (but certainly not all), the solution is rather straightforward, fitting thematically into the concept of the puzzle, easily deduced from the situation being depicted. However, this collector’s piece is exquisitely made and is surprisingly fun to solve.

The video features the solution following a short spoiler break. As with my last post, this may not be a puzzle that will appeal to a pure solver, but it is one that looks wonderful in my collection – if you are a collector, I definitely recommend getting one of these, if you have the chance.

The Tail of the Uroboros Puzzle Box

Uroboros

Shiro Tajima

Check out the Uroboros box from Shiro Tajima of the Karakuri Creation Group, made in 2012. This is my first video that includes me solving the puzzle.

It is not an overly difficult box, but it has a couple tricky-ish steps that utilize some cool movements. As with many Karakuri boxes, the beauty of the piece itself is as important as the mechanisms, and this box does not disappoint.

The video includes a spoiler break halfway through, so if you do not want to see me solve it, make sure to close it out at the break.

I went back and forth on whether I should post videos of my solving puzzles – I generally do not watch solves unless it is a box I have already solved. Early on, I watched some videos of puzzles I thought I might never get, only to find myself with the opportunity to get it or to solve it. However, if you are purely a Solver focused on puzzling time per $ spent, then this may not be something that will appeal to you.

For collectors out there, on the other hand, this is a really nice box, and a welcome addition to my own collection.

The Uroboros is a snake that is forever eating its own tail – it is a symbol of regeneration and renewal that dates back to Ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Ancient Greeks and, eventually, the Gnostics and alchemists. Tajima made this when he was doing a series of puzzles to reflect the Chinese Zodiac – this was made ahead of 2013, the Year of the Snake, following up on his Dragon Wing box.

Hope you enjoy the video!

You Deserve a Brake Today…

Snack Brake from Daniel Alterman (DanielScottWoodworks on Etsy) hit the puzzling scene from out of nowhere. It helped that Chris Ramsay did a vid on it (you know, the guy who somehow manages to solve IMPOSSIBLE puzzles all the time – somewhat counter-intuitive, but I digress) – buy mostly, it is just a unique looking puzzle, with a fun design that just makes it stand out from the crowd.

First off, it’s fun to have a puzzle box (which I’d say this is, more than anything else, at least) with a bit of a story: it’s a vending machine, and you got to get your snack out, right? But alas no coin slot! What shall I do? Well, it took me quite a while to figure out how to get my wooden snacks to drop down to the vending slot. Even then, more surprises await, a welcome double solve!

Snack Brake is a pretty big piece – it weighs a good amount, and comes with a plastic viewing window on the front, behind which you can see your wooden snack, colorful tubes extending upwards; the panel is locked and you can see a key in a little vial on the same shelf as your snack.

The whole thing is pretty colorful, and has a good, nostalgic and playful feel to it; especially when you plug it in and use the handy remote to, that’s right, light up the back! Puzzle Party over heeere!

Like I said, the puzzle has some good challenges – the opening sequence of moves was something I’ve never seen before. I especially appreciated (eventually) getting a good look at the build, which was even more original than I’d thought.

It’s also rare to have a puzzle with some electronics built in, and it made for a nice aesthetic addition to my collection.

Finally, Dan is a super nice guy – easy to get in touch with, and happy to provide some direction or just chat about the experience. He has since released his Toasted puzzle, which also looks fun and keeps with the theme of eating one’s wooden puzzle solutions, and who doesn’t love the thematic consistency of tongue splinters!

Seriously though, I think Dan is someone to watch, as he brings something of an outsider mindset to his puzzles, leading to mechanisms and themes that are unexpected and deviate significantly from many other emerging works.

Make sure to follow his shop on Etsy as his puzzles seem to fly off the cyber shelf…. maybe I shouldn’t say that as it only means more competition, but he’s just that nice! Besides, Ramsay may have already driven one or two more people than this blog.

Packing It In 2: Pack Harder

While Gretel remained unsolved (the first time), I became aware of how many excellent packing puzzles there are out there – and, unsurprisingly, Cubic Dissection held several excellent examples of my newfound delight.

I decided to take a few steps back, opting for a couple “easier” packers; mostly, I think, so I could show myself that, yes, I am actually capable of putting things into something else.

Pin Block Case is wonderfully made, as one would expect from anything from CubicDissection, with perfect dimensions that allow its pieces to juuuuust fit. True, it is not perhaps as challenging as some of its noteworthy cousins, but it does not change the fact that the solution is elegant and satisfying. Designed by Hajime Katsumoto, CubicDissection had released it as a part of their (unfortunately discontinued) Artisan series.

It is a pretty straightforward puzzle: 4 blocks with small metal pins on one side and a slot running down another must fit into a cube with one corner open. This is made much more difficult by the fact that the slots do not run the length of the block; the perfect fit into the cube creates a challenge in fitting them in despite the pins’ best efforts to the contrary.

I think that this is an excellent introduction to packing puzzles, and to wood puzzling generally; it shows how something that seems simple is not necessarily easy. What’s more, trial and error may help you to see what not to do, but the solution is best found by stepping back and, well, thinking.

Suddenly, the necessary angles and orders became clear, and they slipped in perfectly and elegantly, as though I should have known all along that is how they were meant to go. And an excellent final detail: unlike many packing puzzles, Pin Block may be displayed and shared solved without spoiling anything – all one sees are 4, apparently plain, same-sized blocks resting comfortably behind the quarter cut hole. Removing them offers the same challenge in reverse, although it should of course first be approached unsolved, as with packing puzzles generally.

Not being the most difficult puzzle is an attribute of this lovely piece; the satisfaction of the graceful solve is not lost in such relative simplicity, quickly adding packing puzzles to my addiction while putting a happily stupid grin on my face.

Packing It In: Pack Hard

I’m sure they’ll all go right back in – yeah, sure they will….

First off, I’ve decided to dispense with some of the bells and whistles to my posts, as I’ve found it prevents me from sitting down and writing. And I know my one (imaginary) follower is just salivating for more of my puzzling narratives.

Recently I began exploring packing puzzles; as one who had come to puzzles with a fascination with boxes and locks, the elusive, hidden “trick” being the main attraction, packing initially seemed a bit…. meh.

Once again, I was quite wrong! I began with Baumegger’s Gretel, quickly becoming disappointed I had not also bought her brother at the same time. First off, it is a truly lovely puzzle. The various woods are smooth and the colors play wonderfully with one another. Perhaps my favorite detail is the tiny nub at the top that secures the clear, acrylic cover (assuming you can solve it of course).

Stephen was easy to contact and talk with, and the puzzle arrived soon. For such a small, straightforward task, this thing was HARD. Maybe it is the ancient Tetris player within, but I took to it immediately. Solving it would take much longer, and in the meantime I would go on to collect several more packing puzzles.

Eventually, it just…. worked. Such satisfaction. I gleefully showed my wife, who glanced briefly over (“that’s nice, babe”), before returning her attention to the show I’d forgotten we were way supposed to be watching. My focus was all on my perfectly packed puzzle, grinning proudly (me, not the puzzle). My little cover slipped on, perfectly held in place, and off she went to join my small collection of solved packing puzzles.

Fast forward a couple weeks, and I was taking a pic to show a fellow puzzler how pretty she is: hold on…. I can’t take the pic of it solved lest too much be revealed. I’ll just dump it out; surely I can repack it, no prob.

Yes, it remains unsolved. Yes, I swear it was packed. Yes, she got moved back to her evil, unfriendly and unsolved cousins. Maybe she’s mad I didnt get her brother? Well, guess I have no choice. What’s one more puzzle? Right, it’s just one. One never hurt…… Sigh……

Cards go in the Box. Box goes on the Shelf. Puzzles are on the Shelf. My Puzzles.

Jack in the Box,

Jesse Born, 2019 (Sold Out)

A few months ago, I received the Jack in the Box puzzle from Jesse Born. Jack is a cool concept, blending puzzle boxes with one of my other favorite collectibles, playing cards! The box allows most decks of cards to sit snugly within, allowing only the slightest feel of movement when holding the unsolved puzzle.

It arrived unsolved (duh) and the quality was immediately apparent: the wood is smooth and feels solid and weighty in your hands. The Yosegi design on the top is excellent; except for four seams that are part of the design, the breaks are not immediately noticeable by eye or hand – a difficult achievement, I am sure, and I think it is as good as any Karakuri I have.

With some inspection it becomes relatively clear where the opening will be; I could figure out where the final step would likely take place, but that was it. Nothing moves, nothing slides… like some of my favorite puzzles, it is essentially a Wonka factory (“nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out”).

I find it very satisfying to get a solid puzzle with no clear first step. It can of course be fun to know how to start a new puzzle before hitting a wall, but there is something about a puzzle with no indication of how one should begin. I tried all the usual stuff (spinning it, holding it at different angles, sneaking up on it to catch it unawares, etc.), before putting it back on its shelf to glare derisively at me.

I may have done this a couple more times than I like to admit; with some exceptions, I do not typically manage to solve a good puzzle right away, although I suppose this is changing as my puzzling experience levels up. I am probably just trying to make myself feel better by implying that it was before I became the esteemed Solver that I am today. Of course, that is about as likely as my inability to solve a new puzzle actually being due to the always suspected, rarely existent design defect that we oftentimes seek to blame when nothing else seems to work (typically, this occurs a few minutes before being solved, for maximum shaming effect).

Eventually I hit upon that first move, which I find to be a very satisfying move to make even now, months later. After that, it is not a hard path to find the next 4 steps before it opens. Inside, Jesse included a classic red Bicycle deck. I replaced the deck with my Red Labyrinth Cards from King’s Wild; thematic consistency is fun, and what is better to find tucked away inside a puzzle but another puzzle?

Jack in the Box is an excellent addition to my collection, and one that looks great while serving as an ambassador between these two great nations (the world-weary puzzle boxes and the upstart playing cards, like an extra-nerdy West Side Story without the singing, dancing, or blatant Romeo and Juliet rip-off….. and if it was made out of wood, metal, and paper and was sitting on my shelf…).

Jesse is currently working on the wonderfully elaborate Secretum Cista puzzle chest, which will be crazy cool, I am sure, and will be worth not much less than my entire current collection does, but he was kind enough to allow me to pay over time while he works. I will most assuredly share this with the 2 imaginary people reading this (thanks Bob Dobbs and Zaphod! I couldn’t do it without you).

I am telling myself that I will blog on here more frequently, but I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t be trusted, so we’ll see.

Grade: Four Sinatras