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 awarded 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

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


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