All’s Well that Solves Well: Abraham’s Well by Brian Young

Abraham’s Well

Brian Young (Mr Puzzle), 4.75″ x 3.3″ x 3.1″, .93 lbs,

Brian Young of Mr Puzzle has designed some of the best, most sought-after take-apart puzzles out there: sd classics like Three Wise Bolts (reviewed by me :-), Ages, Louvre, Big Ben (with John Moore and Juno), Katie Koala…… just like the beat, the list goes on. So when he announced sometime last year that he had a new design forthcoming, puzzlers planet-wide perked up like Pavlov’s pup post-bell. Brian made the particular choice to pump up production, promising the most puzzlers possible the opportunity to purchase the piece without putting precious puzzle money towards potentially prohibitive prices. TL: he is making 500 copies so prices won’t get bonkers overnight (enough that there are still some available at Mr Puzzle at the time of this writing). Abe’s Well (AW) has led to a mass of creativity and shared discovery that I find to be as fascinating as it is unique and makes this one the most interesting puzzles I’ve seen in a while.

AW is a smallish but heavy (almost 1lb) wooden well, with a brass bucket frame atop it (idk if that is what it is called, but some brief googling didn’t give me anything, so I’m going with that). You can see a metal rod passing through the top of the frame (which spins freely) and a string hangs down into the well itself, which is made of a closed cylinder of brass set into the wooden box. There are also four pointy metal bits (nails?) poking up out of the wooden box at its four corners.

Brian tells us in the original description that the puzzle can be separated into 23 separate parts(!), which is more than a little intriguing to your typical sd fan. “No bashing… and no brute strength are needed,” so figuring out what can be a tool and how to use it will be a major part of the puzzle.

Of course, you cannot simply take the puzzle apart into these individual pieces; at the start, there doesn’t seem to be much to do. I tried a number of things that either did nothing or did a bit of something that didn’t help me, until I found something that might. I realized that there was some good puzzling to be done early on, as I worked to get things where they needed to go and get my toolbox (aka pile of bits) sorted.

This phase is fun and tricky: the separate elements are combined into something fairly novel, although perhaps not mindblowingly original (that comes later) – it makes a great appetizer to the main course. After a while, I was able to work my way through to where I believed I knew what I needed to do next and had a whole bunch of stuff to do it with… but no idea how! And this is where the awesomeness really kicks in.

There is a unique openness to this middle phase of the design that has led to a diversity of approaches (and diverging opinions over what follows the rules and what deviates from them), prompting discussion and the discovery and development of diverse designs that delight an open puzzled mind (and may dismay those puzzlers who prefer a more strict design) – all in a way that I believe has never been done before (and may have surprised its designer as much as anyone). ‘That step’ ensures that AW stands out as something truly new and will assuredly go down in puzzle history, even if some puzzlers take issue with it.

While my take on the matter is perhaps clear, I do not mean to deride those puzzlers who didn’t particularly enjoy ‘that step’ (wrong though they may be 😉 ) I absolutely appreciate a puzzle with a singularly defined approach to each step and believe that there is also plenty of room to appreciate the type of puzzle sandbox AW creates.

But lets not get too caught up in philosophical discussions of design modalities and keep in mind that although ‘that step’ does constitute a substantial part of the puzzle experience, it is but one step in a larger journey. If the puzzle’s novelty was the only thing that really impressed me about it, I wouldn’t be compelled to do a write-up of it, let alone enjoy it on my own as much as I did. The simple truth is that not only is ‘that step’ unique, it is pretty darn challenging – I don’t want it to sound like there are so many ways to accomplish this step that it is easy to do…. not at all: I struggled for quite a while to find something that worked… and then longer to find something that I felt wasn’t cheating at least a little… and then even longer to admit myself that I was sorta still cheating and that I may as well give into temptation (a skill I’ve honed over the years) and start perusing the several spoiler-tagged pics of creative approaches other puzzlers have come up with.

Needless to say, they were pretty much all much cooler (and more consistent with the rules) than what I had done – rather than be disappointed in my failure as a puzzler and as a human being (another skill I’ve honed over the years), I enjoyed the experience of trying out some of the other methods that had been shared. I was impressed and amused by some pretty wacky approaches, some similar or small variations upon mine or others, and some really out there…

While playing around with ‘that step,’ I had also been looking around for what might come next; the description tells us that the ultimate goal is to find a pewter token that is “uniquely Australian,” and I not only hadn’t found anything, but didn’t really see where anything could be hiding. I did notice a few things that had yet to reach their full potential (according to their parents, at least), and it was now time to move on in earnest (knowhutimean?).

Oddly enough, I think I got stuck at this point more than at any other point in the puzzle! I hobbited there and back and around again before finally requesting some pretty specific nudges (possibly more like shoves) in the direction of what I needed, only to realize that in all my wandering about (walkabouting?), I’d passed right by it numerous times. After admiring my own stupidity (yet another skill I’ve honed over time), I found what I needed and knew just what to do. The result surprised me and got a good laugh, a final aha that was a great cherry on top of an excellent puzzle sundae.

The description leaves the true significance of the token as a bit of a puzzle on its own; the object itself is recognizably Aussie but it took a bit of googling to understand its specific connection to the puzzle, a fascinating story that conceptually ties them together nicely and is just plain interesting (I found a great article about it and confirmed its relevance with Brian, if you’re curious to know more and your google button is broken).

Abraham’s Well is as challenging as it is original, and is a unique sd puzzle experience well worth your time. This is perhaps the first (and only) puzzle, that had me continuing to explore a step after having “solved” it, seeking a better approach and exploring those developed by others. While it may not meet everyone’s expectations, I would assert that perhaps it is only because it challenges them; this wonderfully exemplifies the idea that puzzle design is art, as the viewer finds meaning beyond the intent of the creator (who humbly states that claiming he foresaw the creativity ‘that step’ would engender would be “giving [him] way too much credit for thinking that far ahead”).

So solve it the best you can and then try to do better; and when you’re done, seek out some other puzzlers’ solutions to try; if you need to, challenge yourself to reconsider some assumptions over how a puzzle might be experienced. Remember: we’re here to have fun.


Originality / Fun Grade: Five Sinatras

Rabbit Season! Duck Season! Rabbit Season! Duck Season!… Dagnabbit Dabbits Done Did Invaded

Dabbit Invasion

Tye Stahly and Haym Hirsh, Nothing Yet Designs, 20 x 16 x 12mm (inc. jail), Acrylic,

We knew it was coming. We knew it would be big and heavy and made of acrylic. We knew it would involve dabbits (invading). We knew it would be a big, complicated take-apart sd puzzle box-like thing that would involve a packing design by Haym Hirsch – the end result is even bigger and complicateder than I’d anticipated.

Dabbit Invasion is the newest puzzle by Tye Stahly of Nothing Yet Designs (with Haym Hirsh providing the design for the final packing puzzle). Tye came on the puzzling scene with a strong start, his Pair O’ Dice receiving properly positive praise for its entertaining sd trickery. He kept busy over the ensuing months, bringing us some great designs that were otherwise far too difficult to get: unique packing puzzles from Haym and Frederic Boucher, among others.

If you don’t know what a dabbit is, you will when you see one. Neither duck nor rabbit and yet both at the same time, the optical illusion dates back to the 19th century; I learned this from the puzzle’s backstory, which also warns us that the dabbits have already invaded, sneakily spreading out while we foolishly did nothing. We are tasked with finding and jailing all ten dabbits and their two eggs before resetting the puzzle.

Duck + Rabbit = Dabbit

I was lucky enough to have the chance to buy an early copy and was kindly offered the chance to choose my titular colors (future copies will use set colors) and I chose red and yellow to match my copy of POD (which was designed to best match the dice from Catan, because I’m cool like that). The puzzle’s name is prominently displayed in a font and style reminiscent of Mars Attacks and 50’s B-film fare (just so you don’t confuse it with another giant acrylic puzzle box with a removable cage trapped in a frame by a combination lock).

It came packaged extremely well and is heavy, feeling dense and solid. The jail is in a locked frame attached to the top with magnets and there is a piece of laser cut wood with the story and instructions engraved onto both sides, setting the stage and giving us our favorite rules (no banging, spinning or excessive force, etc). Tye graciously gives us a bit of a head start with a single dabbit already jailed; otherwise, there is no clear indication of how or where to begin. There are a couple things that seem like they will probably do something at some point, but a cursory examination of the puzzle did not give me any immediate ideas of how to proceed.

I began coming up with theories (which were mostly wrong) and proceeded to go down a pretty deep and mostly fruitless rabbit hole (dabbit hole?). I sought a nudge from Tye (obviously this was only because I wanted to be able to provide feedback as an early tester…. obviously… ahem), and this gave me an idea, which gave me an aha, which had me laughing and kicking myself as it hit me: things fell into place, and I was able to make some progress, doing and finding things for a bit until I hit another wall, and then another, and another, and so on.

Tye has clearly put a lot of thought into carefully walking the line between keeping things hidden but not buried, challenging but not impossible. Dabbit has a great rhythm: there are plenty of stops and starts, allowing you to make good progress and multiple discoveries as you work your way through a number of varied and interconnected puzzle genres and mechanisms. Very little of it came easily, and all of it felt totally fair. It is the kind of puzzle that surely has something for everyone, and keeps things flowing between sections; the disparate puzzles are linked, meshing well and smoothly, and in such a way as to keep the puzzler hooked, even when stuck.

By spreading the dabbits and eggs throughout the puzzle, it keeps you engaged in the story throughout the solve, reminding you that your progress is building towards something and keeping you in the story by sprinkling the thematic rewards for your successes along the way in preparation for the final puzzle.

The multiple puzzle types had me smiling and scowling, concentrating and contemplating, discovering some great aha’s, needing to think and plan or unearthing tricks through exploration and experimentation as my pile of dabbits grew. I got stuck several times, needing to step back and rethink some assumptions, or to try various random things in the hopes of figuring out what was next. This is most definitely a puzzle that delights in the joy of discovery, which may not always follow a clear path.

Eventually, I knew I had completely solved the box as I had collected all ten dabbits and the two rectangular eggs – the last of these was particularly tricky for me and led to a strong, final aha: a fun finale to an excellent puzzle box. My glorious revelry was soon cut short when I remembered that I was by no means done solving the puzzle. As I moved on to the culminating packing puzzle, I quickly realized that packing them into the jail was, in the words of Hannibal as he and his elephant stared at the mountains before them: “freakin’ hard.”

If you’ve done some of Haym’s many designs, you’re aware that he knows how to design a fun packing challenge: Dabbit’s packing puzzle is a particularly difficult design. Before even attempting to pack them into the jail, I spent a few mostly fruitless hours trying (and failing) to find the correct build outside the cage, getting soooo close to finding the right configuration (but always a voxel or two off). I probably would have ended up stuck at this stage for an embarrassingly long period of time but I really did want to give Tye some feedback (and, perhaps more importantly, I wanted to jail those darn dabbits before it was too late). So Tye provided a partial burrtools image to assist (don’t judge: people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones… or anything really… then again, people who live near people in glass houses should really try and respect their privacy instead of judging them for what they do at home).

Eventually, I found a workable build and set about trying to solve the puzzle; I found that I benefited more from some logical thinking rather than just random packing and pokery (always a sign of a good packing puzzle). After some examination, I figured out the basics of how to approach it, did some of that thinking stuff, planned my approach, and eventually got there. Success! Glory! Happy Dance!

But the puzzling doesn’t stop there! We have been told that to truly solve this, one must reset it completely. Oftentimes, this “just” means going through the solve backwards – yes, this can sometimes be quite tricky (POD comes to mind), but you usually won’t find puzzling that is unique to the reset. I was therefore pleased to find that even after solving the puzzle, I had to figure some things out that I’d not realized would require such figuring-outness; there are a few mini-puzzles and steps that come only as you go about getting back to the puzzle’s original state, steps that are only tricky in reverse. Eventually everything was all nice and reset, the dabbits once more frozen in invasion formation, awaiting the Return of the Puzzler.

I ran back through the solution and reset (“ran” is an exaggeration, I “slowly progressed” is probably more accurate) while writing out some feedback for Tye, and marveled at how much fun he has packed in. He clearly spent a lot of time planning and tweaking this puzzle, which feels like nothing less than a labor of love from someone who excels at executing an excellent idea into existence, whether his own or someone else’s.

I’m not sure how many of these will be made, so be sure to keep an eye out; Tye will likely release a few batches of them and is unlikely to return to such a complicated, time-intensive design.

I definitely recommend fighting off the Invasion, but if you somehow don’t like sequential discovery puzzling involving a variety of distinct puzzle types brought together into an interconnected, cohesive puzzle box with a unique reset, there is the possibility that he may one day release the packing puzzle as a standalone (likely with the fun theme removed). It may not be as rewarding as when you earned the right to pack by working to get there, but you’ll still find solid ahas and a cool packing puzzle. And at least you’ll have cheated your way there even more than I did 😉

Grade: Five Sinatras

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

Twisted: Box of the Celts by Matt M.

Box of the Celts

Matt M., Numbskull Puzzles, 5″ x 5″, PLA

Matt M. (FroodLoops on Discord & Reddit) teased an sd puzzle box on discord about a year ago – I’d been fortunate enough to see it right away (ok, “obsessive enough” might be more accurate) and politely began harassing him with the occasional friendly poke to make sure I was still on the list (yes, I may have forgotten whether I’d asked – in my defense, I believe that the design changed significantly at some point along the way and pretty much became an entirely new puzzle).

Anyhoo, a few weeks ago I got word that the puzzles would soon start rolling out; a couple weeks later and there it was: bigger and heavier than expected at about 18 oz. (Matt had forewarned of some significant puzzling being inbound, and I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised and more than a little impressed). Big and green, Box of the Celts is a cylindrical printed sd puzzle box that integrates a number of different puzzling types in ways that are, I believe, wholly unique. It managed to expand some of my puzzling horizons while posing a significant challenge, not to mention a helluva lot of fun and puzzling value.

This is the type of puzzle that just begs to be finished – it took me several hours over the course of a few days to make it through (with perhaps a nudge or three along the way). It has a great rhythm: several puzzling phases, each with distinct and varied puzzle mechanics that link and overlap through the transitions, all posing multiple challenges with legit aha’s to be discovered in order to progress.

These are a few of my favorite rules…

As I mentioned, this is a plastic print of a puzzle and I want to be clear that it is a quality plastic print of a puzzle. The print does not skimp in any way, with high density and layer height. I am sure this means a lot of time in the build process but it pays off (the biggest piece alone apparently takes about 36 hrs to print!).

Not only is there a lot going on in there, but there are some elements that were downright impressive in Matt’s ability to safely produce the needed parts in plastic: strong enough to comfortably withstand what needs to be done, sometimes to my surprise as the nature of some aspects would seem to pose a significant challenge to the maker – at no point did I actually need to worry as the print is dense and feels more than solid, and even the parts that seemed like they might be flimsy due to their comparatively slight appearance turned out to be quite strong.

At many points along the way I was also impressed by some of the nuanced design elements that were included – honestly, there are some small but signifcant choices that I found to be pretty sophisticated, especially considering this is his first design (afaik). I know some came as a result of play-testing, but still…. some small additions ensured that even the most challenging parts kept from ever feeling unfair or annoying (assuming you’re paying attention – I definitely spent some time hitting walls before realizing I’d missed a clue).

The first phase could easily be a standalone puzzle in itself and helped me to appreciate a type of puzzling I don’t have much experience with; I got lost on this early part for quite some time, thinking I’d be making progress only to end up in the same place (or backwards). It took a bit of thought and planning to make it out and was super satisfying along the way – lots of little ahas just in this first section of the puzzle.

Having made it through this section, I futzed around through a transition to the next: each phase has its own challenge(s), with at least one or two really great steps in each that lead to quality ahas. It feels like he started with a few broad ideas and kept falling onto more comparatively smaller ideas and found ways to integrate them organically. It packs in a lot of puzzling without ever feeling like there are any extraneous steps that are there just to stick something in (which I think is something that even a lot of really good puzzles may sometimes have).

The next phase proved to give me a LOT of trouble, to some extent physically but mostly because it is just really tricky. Eventually, I found a few things that helped as I struggled to find my way through this challenging section, oftentimes progressing and exposing more information, only to realize I would need to regroup and backtrack in order to go forward. Some is due to the mechanism itself and some due to the way information is provided bit by bit, cycling through trial & error and observable data.

Finally, I got through this section and could just feel that the puzzle was almost over: while the most difficult parts were behind me, the last section still proved tricky, the puzzle playing with some assumptions that required more thought and observation to recognize and overcome, with the puzzle once again including some subtle design elements that give you just enough info to avoid blindly flailing about. Finally, I discovered something that clearly told me I had reached the end of the twisted, puzzling journey and I basked in the glory of my brilliance 😉

After some moments of satisfied appreciation, I began the process of rebuilding and resetting the puzzle. By now, I had accrued quite a lot of plastic bits and bobs and the puzzle was more than a little lighter than when I had first begun. However, it was clear what went where, despite several days having passed since I had started working on it. This is not to say that it was always easy to go back – some parts were basically just as challenging in reverse, although having made it through once I was able to make comparatively short work of it (key word: comparatively). To me, this just speaks to the substantial puzzling value afforded by this novel creation, as the reset proved almost as satisfying as the solve.

Overall, the puzzle has phases that can be done while watching tv with an npso, fidgeting and wandering about, but then some parts must be done with full focus and close observation, the puzzle goggles having made several appearances to keep progressing.

So, yeah, Box of the Celts: get ’em while (when) you can. I am not sure how many there will be, so if you like what you read, I’d suggest reaching out sooner rather than later – as a great(?) puzzle parody songwriter once wrote: “the list is long, I want on, cyber-stalking you, now it’s on.”

For now I think a discord or Reddit DM is the primary way to find him: FroodLoops, you can also now email him: numbskullpuzzles at gmail.


Grade: Five Sinatras

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

Waiting to Take You Away: The Tippenary Mystery Tour by Jack Krijnen

The Tippenary Mystery Tour

Jack Krijnen, 30 copies, 4.5″ x 5″ x 5.3″

Lalalalalalalalalalalaaaaaa…… The Tippenary Mystery Tour is coming to take you away… coming to take you away, take you awaaaaaaaaay!

I have been politely and patiently cyberstalking Jack Krijnen for some time now, particularly after learning that he had begun working on his second puzzle box; after some months of his newest creation being teased, I was happily surprised to get an email from him with the chance to get a copy of this new, limited box release of 30 copies. Needless to say, my answer was a resounding “yes, please!” and the package was soon on its way across land and sea and into my eager, puzzling hands.

TTMT is a truly fun and unique puzzling experience: the only negative is that it is so hard to talk about it without giving anything away as you are initially able to see only a very small portion of the puzzling the box ultimately contains. Jack described it by saying that it is “sequential (puzzle) discovery, it is riddle solving, it is n-ary, and in the end there is a challenge waiting.” This is, of course, all perfectly accurate, but the unique, genre-blending nature of its multi-tiered puzzle experience is hard to communicate; if only there were a puzzler capable of speaking at length without communicating much of anything at all.perhaps someone with a good (?) sense of humor and an arbitrary rating system….

The box is pretty sizable, and Jack puts the majority of its interior space to use. Looking at pics, you can discern how to first approach its initial puzzle, and such discernment is likely to yield results; however, the puzzle is going to subtly play with expectations before granting progress and this was true for me from the start. I’d soon descended deeper into the box, arriving at its next challenge, which is a really fun blend of riddling and multiple puzzle types that makes for a very original challenge.

There were several ways to approach this next section, and all of them were going to require some good, old-fashioned thinking (and more than a little note-taking) to make sense of it. Figuring out what means what and what needs to happen is only half the fun, as execution is at least as challenging. I’d found that while some of my puzzling had been correct, there were some things I had missed; going back to the drawing board, I’d found that I had been correct about one part, but for the wrong reason – it took more notes and thinking to make sense of this before I could re-execute a modified version of my puzzling plan and find I had successfully navigated through this next level of the puzzle. Some of my initial deductive leaps had paid off, but needed to be further corroborated by straight puzzling to break through this section.

The next section wasn’t too difficult for me, mostly as it is a puzzle type with which I have a decent amount of experience and knew how to tackle. Having passed through, I momentarily thought that I had completed the puzzle, having discovered….. something cool. However, after puzzling in circles for a time, I realized that the box is hiding even more interesting puzzle trickery! I spent quite a bit of time here, going around and around, wondering if I had missed anything and what it could have been, before semi-stumbling into a laugh out loud aha that had me figuring out yet another puzzling secret, which would lead me to yet another puzzling secret or two before I would finally have solved the box in its entirety. After several great puzzling moments, this finale was surprising and ensured that a really cool and original puzzle was something absolutely memorable and unique.

While the first rule of TTMT may well be to not talk about TTMT, I must say that it wonderfully manages to bring together so many different types of puzzles into one, cohesive whole: the various puzzles and challenges are distinct but interconnected and it almost feels like being taken on a tour of the various types of challenges mechanical puzzling can offer, wrapped up in a pretty box of maple and mahogany. The box connects well with some of Jack’s past work, which links past and present in a cool way; as someone who is still in his first decade of legit puzzling, this was a really nice feeling: he created the ability for us to connect to some puzzling history in a direct and tangible way that provides the box with a greater context, which I appreciated and enjoyed. Now if I could only get my hands on a Jack in the Box…….. 😉


Overall Grade: Five Sinatras


“I want to say one word to you, just one word: Plastics”

Tree Box, Cocktail, and Football Match

Diniar Namdarian

After seeing some of his puzzles floating around the net, I reached out to Diniar Namdarian and, some weeks later, a box arrived, bringing me plenty of plastic puzzling. Even better, Diniar included a few extra pocket puzzles for some extra fun.

I was not sure what to expect, but the sheer variety of puzzles, some classic, some surprisingly unique, has given me hours and hours of entertainment, ranging from fidgety fun that didn’t need too much dedicated attention, and as much frustrated focus as any puzzle can offer.


Tree Box

Tree Box is a combination slider / take-apart box, consisting of a pretty brown and black bonsai design atop a yellow box. Unlike some sliders, this starts in its proper arrangement; the challenge, of course, is to first open the box and to then reset the tree (the latter part containing the hardest part of the challenge).

The pieces have a tongue and groove on its edges, keeping them firmly in place (except one piece, which Diniar made the excellent design decision of keeping as the same color rather than an empty spacer). It is no trick to find this piece, and once you do you set about finding your way clear to get the pieces out, granting you access to the box beneath.

Of course, the tongue and groove edges keep you locked in and you must start messing up that pretty tree to find a way to properly remove a piece. The build is excellent – the pieces are not going anywhere until and unless you find the intended way of doing so.

I highly recommend mixing the pieces up once you’ve removed them; I let it sit for a day to allow my terrible memory to work for me, and came back to it clueless as to how I ever got them out.

It is NOT a trivial matter to get these pieces back in, at least not in a way that will then allow you to get the tree back in its original condition. The shapes and sizes of the pieces brilliantly prevent you from getting all pieces in just anywhere; it takes some thought to find the seemingly single arrangement of pieces that will allow you to successfully replace and rebuild.

This was an excellent and very unique challenge. Not a good place to hide anything you may need quick access to, but the box is plenty big if you wanted to hide a surprise for someone. It’s also confusing enough that you could certainly replay it, but don’t expect multiple challenges as with many of Diniar’s puzzles.


Cocktail

Cocktail is another wonderfully unique puzzle. I think of it as a reverse hedgehog: you must get a single ice cube into your drink by finding the correct orientation of three turning panels with partially overlapping polygons cut into their centers. The ice cube, as one would expect, is cut in seemingly random and certainly complex angles that make this a challenging task.

Trial and error may afford you success, and the fantastic fidget factor will allow you to be entertained while doing so, but without some luck it is unlikely to be anytime soon. Instead, it is beneficial to spend a bit of time examining your options to decide which orientations of the cube are most likely to afford you success.

Once again, the design feels intentional – these angles are not haphazard but made so as to minimize the window of success – I suspect there is only one possible way of getting the cube in, and, once found, force is unnecessary.

As with any good hedgehog, finding that one perfect angle is so satisfying. Here it is even more satisfying as you had to find multiple, overlapping angles of perfection before the cube slides right in.

The cage comes apart easily, allowing you to examine what worked and appreciate the solution, before resetting the puzzle for another go. An excellent twist that made me enjoy a type of puzzle that’s generally not at the top of my list.


Football Match

The last puzzle from Mr. Namdarian that I will share is more of a classic slider, but it carries a few novel additions that make it particularly enjoyable. I am currently about halfway through the 22 challenges, which range from 50 to 100+ move solutions, and I am still enjoying myself.

The puzzle is not overly large, about 18 voxels, including 2 spacer squares. The goal (sorry, couldn’t resist), is to get the “ball,” a white half-sphere disc, to go from one goal to the other, each located on either side of a narrow rectangle.

Interestingly, you do not just slide the ball through, as in a maze, Instead, there is one piece with a cutout on the right that must grab the ball and then “pass” it to a single piece with a cutout on its left, that can then carry it to the other goal.

For added difficulty, the cutouts are not centered, causing you to need to find a way to have your players pass by the goal vertically, before they can catch or release the ball.

The challenges definitely range in difficulty and ramp up quite well (except for one of the early ones, that I still cannot find my way through); the minimum required moves steadily increasing as you work your way through the challenges.

Once again, Diniar has taken a classic puzzle and made it especially interesting by adding his unique take on the medium. As an added benefit, as with most of his sliders, it comes with a top, allowing you to bring this one on the go and try and make it through one more challenge.


Grade: Four Sinatras

Puzzle Parrrrrr-ty: Sea Chest by Jesse Born

Sea Chest

Jesse Born, 2020,
Wenge, Holly, Katalox, Bocote, Mahogany, Bloodwood and Copper

Avast ye mine puzzlers, thar be fine puzzlin’ on the horizon for those that be wantin’ of it… Dragons there may be, but the risk be worth takin’ for such a fine piece o’ work as this here box!

Captain Woodbeard of the Puzzler’s Revenge

A few days ago I got notice from Jesse that my copy of Sea Chest was ready – as one of the first to be lucky enough to get on the list, I soon received what is number 6 of an overall release of 100 copies. Sea Chest is the first in the three-box “Voyager” series; the next (named SunDial) has apparently been mostly designed (in collaboration with a certain other amazing puzzle designer), and I expect we shall learn more in a few months, once the other 94 Sea Chests have all made it to their various X-marks-the-spots. The third and final box in the series is named Alien and is fittingly otherwise unidentified.

Here There Be Puzzlin’

My copy arrived quickly, as is typically the case when crossing the state or two between me and Jesse’s workshop. I dug through the brown wrapping paper as I unearthed my newest acquisition. The box is a great size: about 8″ x 4.5″ x 3.5″ and somewhere between Slammed Car and SDBBM (or First Box and Pachinko) in weight, making it feel good and solid in your hands.

The box is both meticulously detailed and delightfully distressed: the top is a precise carving of two ships at sea, while the back features a medallion that rotates in a frame that appears to have been worn down in its time buried underground. Copper handles are affixed to the sides and a copper compass rose adorns its front. On either side of the compass/medallion, there are a total of 4 wooden pistons that pass through the body of the box. These are quite amazing when examined closely: the red wood moving in and out of the darker frame as they are pushed and pulled, held together with wooden pins at their base. There’s an unexpected feature to the bar that connects the pistons passing through the box, with gilded numbers appearing and disappearing as the pistons are moved.

Every aspect of the box is thematically consistent, down to the ample serifs used to make the numbers recognizable to the puzzle pirate inside all of us. Numerous details adorn the design, some surely there to serve as clues, implying that perhaps this puzzle is both treasure map and chest in one (as I’ve not yet solved it, this may well not be the case – just speculating here, so no spoilers my seafaring friend). It even comes with a folded sheet of “parchment”, with a wax seal identifying it as the solution.

The overall look is pretty awesome – the pistons remind me of the rows of oars of an ancient ship, emerging from port and starboard as your crew struggles to make your way to your final destination. While I do not think we will see sirens or cyclops on this journey, the Argonauts on board may yet be waiting a while to reach dryland as the solution is most definitely not obvious (to me, anyway).

Which leads us to why we are really on this journey: the puzzling. First off, it is not entirely clear what our destination will be – I know the puzzle will open, but my initial assumptions on where and how may well be incorrect. I have already had a great aha moment and have made additional discoveries that tell me what likely needs to happen, without showing me how how to actually do it. This is that type of box where the journey is at least as good as the destination, allowing me to be in no great hurry to get there. I couldn’t wait to solve this before sharing it, as it is just too darn pretty.

Captain SPH Sits Atop His Treasure

Jesse has once again produced a puzzle that is both striking and fun: Sea Chest has a thematically distressed aesthetic that seamlessly blends potential clues and red herrings with meticulously designed details, hiding whatever puzzling intricacies lay buried within.

(Past reviews of Jesse’s Jack in the Box and Secretum Cista)
Sealed Solution Sheet and Certificate of Authenticity

Captain’s Grade: Ye Olde 5 Sinatras


Check out Jesse’s Website and his Facebook page!

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)

Puzzling by the Dashboard Light

Pair O’Dice

Tye Stahly, 3D Printed 2.5″ Cubes (2), Sequential Discovery

Recently, I was fortunate enough to solve an early edition of Tye Stahly’s excellent puzzle debut, Pair O’ Dice (hereinafter POD), kindly custom-crafted in red and yellow in a nod to one of my favorite board games (future copies will likely be a classic white with black pips). POD consists of two 2.5″ plastic dice, their pips featuring either a square, circle, or dollar sign, seemingly at random. The dice are linked together by a (removable) metal loop on which hangs the instructions along with a very cool title design by none other than Jared Petersen (Etsy’s CoreMods, creator of Unstable Eggs (reviewed by me here) as well as a number of other, excellent puzzles).

From the complexity and fun of the puzzle, you would not know that this is Tye’s first design; he has clearly poured a lot of time and energy into it, taking pride in his work and displaying the kind of connection to his design that any artist will recognize, that mixture of pride and anxiety in seeing something personal, something over which you have stressed and sweat, going out into the world to be judged by those for whom it was intended.

And I have to say: I really liked it. Despite how seriously he may take his work, his sense of humor nonetheless keeps things light, pervading the experience, which manages to exude more than a little playfulness (as evidenced by the slightly silly and thoroughly thematic instructions).

These must have taken quite a bit of time to print and build as they contain a large number of parts. The build quality is quite good – I didn’t find anything to be wonky or to do anything but what was intended (except for one now-fixed design issue that Tye discovered before I did, quickly sending out an entire replacement die before I had even realized there might be a problem – he even added in a free puzzle, which just shows his respect for puzzlers getting a copy from him).

The puzzling is even better, solidly falling into the much lauded sequential discovery category. I found the experience and difficulty to be somewhat akin to Juno’s Ring Case (albeit quite a bit longer): first, there are a good amount of pieces and tools that you are able to discover relatively quickly, amassing a considerable pile of stuff while causing you to wonder whether you will be able to keep a clear sense of what you will need to do to reset it properly (which is great as this will only add to the experience with resetting becoming a bit of its own challenge). Second, while some phases of the puzzle are not crazy difficult, nor are they simple and, perhaps more importantly, all are quite a bit of fun; significantly, there are a couple parts that had me stuck for quite a while, with one being particularly sneaky. Next, it follows a path that is mostly linear but feels like you have meandered far and wide to come back to a point of focus. Finally, POD also features two main challenges (which makes sense, considering there are two dice): first you must find the tiny dice, followed by a hidden coin.

These separate challenges also serve as a clear indication of when you have solved each die, quite helpfully providing some clarity and helping prevent you from getting lost as you move through the puzzle’s controlled chaos. Although you don’t know which die is which when starting out, the design does a good job of focusing you where you need to be, with plenty of misdirection to keep you on your toes (particularly challenging when you hit a nice wall midway through the puzzle, which hid perhaps my favorite of several aha moments).

Tye will be releasing more copies of POD; it is not clear yet whether these will be a limited run or not, and if you are interested you should reach out soon lest they all be gone (there is most assuredly a list already). The price is representative of the design’s complexity and the significant amount of puzzling it contains and is not at all unreasonable. You can reach him by emailing Thinkingfin@gmail.com (you may already know him by this same name if you frequent some of our online puzzler haunts). He is also planning on opening an Etsy store (this link may still work once the store is open).

Hopefully, you will get a chance to experience Pair O’ Dice; I am already psyched to see whatever he will come up with next – I anticipate it taking some time, as he put a lot of time into this design and I expect there will be a good number of puzzlers wanting one, but I also know he is not the type to let his mind sit idle. Regardless, good puzzles come to those who wait…


Fun and Challenging Debut Grade: Four and a Half Sinatras

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

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)