When EWE Need a Sheep Alternative to Puzzle Boxes


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

Dr. PinkLady, or How I Learned to Stop Fidgeting and Solve the Burr

Fidget Burr (a/k/a Dollar Burr, a/k/a Chin Burr)

Jerry McFarland, 3.28″ x 3.28″ x 2.92″

Recently, I was lucky enough to get a copy of Jerry McFarland’s Fidget Burr (not to be confused with the puzzle of the same name designed by Tim Alkema and recently produced by Eric. Fuller of CubicDissection). It has quickly become one of my all-time favorite puzzles, with an extremely original design replete with fun and challenging nuances.

First off, the puzzle is beautiful, consisting of 23 wood pieces crafted from walnut, maple, mahogany, and bloodwood (with the keypiece possibly made in a different exotic wood, such as Bubinga, Santos Rosewood or Cocobolo), for a interestingly contrasting aesthetic. It feels soft, presumably waxed into a delightful sheen that allows the puzzle to stand out, adding to the temptation to play and fidget beyond one’s attempts at finding the solution.

But what really makes it stand out is the addition of 22 magnets integrated into the puzzle, adding layers of novelty, difficulty, and stability that makes it stand out from its (still excellent) burr cube brethren. And last but not least, a Lego minifig can be seen, trapped within a window on one piece of the puzzle’s frame, lending the puzzle a hint of puzzle box / take-apart puzzling.

NOTE: The following paragraph reveals details of the puzzle’s first move – I feel comfortable writing about it as this has been blogged about before and is not really a hidden feature of the puzzle, but for those purists out there who want to know absolutely nothing about a puzzle, I thought I would give you fair warning – it has been formatted to make it easy enough to skip:

iIt is readily apparent which piece offers the first move (being the only piece that can move) and, when you press it, you are rewarded with a chain of clacking, automatic movements as 4 pieces are released, magnets forcing them out. This chain will most certainly be repeated again and again, both in the search of its solution, as well as the sheer entertainment value.

Following this first step, I immediately hit a wall. Fortunately, this first step is more than fun enough to play with absent any further progress. However, after numerous attempts at exploring possibilities through trial and error, I explored that other method of puzzle solving: thought. With this, I was able to narrow down the possible next steps, more quickly finding my way past this wall. Soon, it is possible to remove some pieces of the puzzle.

However, this is not the end as one must deal with some (possibly less difficult, but still non-trivial) additional steps, revealing the reason for at least one of the puzzle’s aliases. As you continue through the puzzle, you find a number of added details, magnets, chamfers, clips, and pins that really show off Jerry’s expertise, as they allow for a more consistent and stable puzzling experience (these are detailed in the included instructions in a series of notes, which would be spoilers if shared). One such detail does double duty, causing me several minutes of confusion as I lost all momentum just as I thought I was about to free my Pink Lady. Moving past this, the lovely lady can be freed (and even her window frame reveals evidence of Jerry’s thoughtful and precise approach to puzzle-making, as it is designed in such a way as to make her intended orientation obvious when looking to cruelly force her back into her wooden prison).

The key piece has the puzzle’s “signature,” the maker’s initials, year of creation, and serial number etched into perfectly matched frames (as seen above).

Note that this picture is also no spoiler, as Jerry designed the puzzle such that one can view the signature without having solved the puzzle – yet another unique detail that demands appreciation.

Reassembly is not overly difficult: Jerry has thoughtfully marked some of the pieces to aid with the proper orientation, allowing you to reassemble the puzzle with pleasure rather than frustration. Burrtools is unnecessary, good considering my strong suspicion that it would not provide much (or perhaps any) assistance.

As mentioned, the puzzle comes with instructions and notes: 5 pages that includes solution descriptions assembly instructions with pictures and illustrations, as well as the aforementioned notes and a general explanation of the puzzle (the latter being graciously printed on the first page to avoid any accidental and unwanted spoilers).

Fidget Burr will be entered in the 2020 IPP40 Design competition, where I would be surprised if it did not earn some significant recognition. While 2020 seems it will be a banner year for puzzling, Fidget Burr will no doubt be amongst its top designs; it is certainly amongst my puzzle favorites overall (assuming my judgment is at all reliable), not least considering its atypical replay value.

Pushing All the Right Buttons

Push Button Burr

Designed by Ken Irvine
Built by Tom Lensch

Let me start by saying that, historically, I am not particularly good at interlocking solids. It is only in the last few months that I have begun to expand my puzzling horizons beyond boxes, SD and locks. My first burrs had me running to fellow puzzlers that I have inter-met for burrtools files (thanks MrMark!). I at least felt vindicated by Mr. Eyckman congratulating me for having “solved” his puzzles when I returned to him, tail between my legs, for help reassembling a couple of his pieces (even worse: these were some of his simpler ones!).

I feel no shame in saying this – at least no more than general. I say it to provide some context to my imaginary readers…

Not so long ago, I ordered a few puzzles from Tom Lensch – if you do not know who he is, look him up and buy whatever he will sell you. They came quickly (and were packed amazingly well!). One of my new acquisitions was Push Button Burr, an interlocking burr cube (a puzzle-fluid identity). Designed by Ken Irvine and built by Mr. Lensch, it arrived, much to my initial dismay, unassembled!

Me of little faith, I looked at the pieces and thought that I may as well crawl into the dark hole of failure in which my meaner puzzles prowl. I had read of the joy of disassembling this puzzle – I thought that perhaps I would be able to reassemble it (with the help of some tiny colored stickers and a roll or super skinny post-it tape) after I finished taking it apart.

But when my package arrived with several more balls of bubble wrap than expected, I realized that my assumption did not match that of the master Mr. Lensch who puts interlocking burr cubes together for breakfast.

Instead of a solid cube with little brown buttons, I had a few twisted crazy pieces of varying strange Seussian shapes, and five identical brown sort-of Z’s. What to do? Do I first work on some of the other puzzles that had arrived? No! Do I immediately give up and ask for the solution? Maybe! Do I stare at it stupidly for longer than I care to admit? Probably!

But if I were to assemble it based on instructions, I would kill the fun of disassembly (this works better the other way). So you know what I did? I did another puzzle.

Later, after getting myself in the right mindspace by failing to solve something else, I sat down with my dysmorphic cube pieces and figure I will at least try before probably failing.

And try I did – it took me a while, but I was able to build the frame; it made more sense to me than many such spatially demanding puzzles do – perhaps the disorder saw something in me and decided to give me a break. Eventually, however, build it I did! I was pretty satisfied with myself, until I remembered the five buttons still sitting there outside my almost-cube. The nature of this puzzle is such that it looked close to finished – absent a few holes (10 if you have not guessed), the cube was complete.

Now here is one of the things that makes this such a great puzzle: building it had required trial and error, memory, and, yes, a bit of thought. But getting these buttons in? Well, that is going to take a lot of thought! Not my strong suit, but let’s see if any of those brain cells survived my adolescence.

And so I thought before trialing. And then I thought some more after erroring. Slowly, a dance began to form. These would require a very specific order, back and forth, cube and button, button and cube; the cage was there but must be rebuilt with its prisoners present. And, eventually, I saw it: the right order, in the right way, and piece after piece slid into place, leaving my buttons ready to be pushed (unpushed?).

Declaring myself the smartest man in the world (or at least the room), I gleefully showed by wife, who, true to herself, didn’t really care but did afford me a brief “That’s nice, dear, now shut up” look. But I was too busy admiring my utter and complete brilliance: clearly it goes Albert Einstein, David Byrne, me, and then whoever invented the pop tart.

After doing my happy dance for an acceptable amount of time, I proceeded to do it for an uncomfortably longer time. I went to discord and bragged about something so many others can do more easily than I. And then I went back to push buttons and let the dance play out in reverse, appreciating the creativity it took to design this mashup and the skill that went into making it.

High on my own utter and complete genius, I went back to Stumbling Blocks and was quickly and absolutely humbled.

Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

Grade: Four and a Half Sinatras

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……

Eggs-celling at Eggs-cellence

Unstable Eggs

CoreMods, 2019 (Available on Etsy)

First, I would like to officially state that I solemnly swear not to make any more eggs-hausting puns (…starting now).

I think I should start by saying that these are the first 3D-printed puzzles I have bought; I think many of us assume that only wood and metal-workers can bring quality fun to us puzzlers, or at least I think maybe I did. However, I am far from disappointed with the colorful assortment of trickiness that arrived today, the noise of small things shaking around betraying its contents. In fact, I think the 3D print may be a benefit in this particular case (and not just in terms of helping to keep the cost within the bounds of reason).

My initial reaction was to smile; the whimsical font on the front of a half-dozen cardboard egg crate was a good start. Opening the box, there is a sticker warning me not to expose the eggs to magnets – a good precaution to know considering the plethora of magnets hiding within the puzzles on my shelves. Thanks for the heads up.

The eggs are all brightly colored and they bear the marks of their pedigree; CoreMods tells us on his Etsy page that we should expect the texture of 3D printed materials. Honestly, I can’t really see these being made any other way: I like the weight of them and the sound comes through clearly, essential should I have any hope of ever getting these bad boys to stand at attention. The movement of whatever mechanisms hide within can be felt and heard through the 3D mold. Further, it provides for a good texture with which to grip the eggs. Perhaps most significant is the fact that, in trying to solve them, they will definitely be rolling around, sliding, dancing, and generally making merry upon my desk; I would hate to watch a wooden puzzle of this ilk go spinning around my desk. The 3D print allows me not to worry about rocking and rolling and just generally experimenting with movements that may (and so far mostly don’t) work..

The purpose / goal of these eggs, if not already apparent, is to get the eggs to stand up. Unlike Weebles, these definitely wobble and fall down. I had been wondering how many different things one could put into an egg to make such a concept difficult, without them feeling repetitive or boring. The answer is at least 6. Judging from the fact that the sticker says this is Series 1, I suspect CoreMods knows of even more.

I had also been thinking of some obvious (to me) moves that might solve such a puzzle; I worried that I would get 6 centrifugal pieces of plastic with which I would be done in a moment. This is (thankfully) NOT what I got: of the 6, I was able to get 1 to stand up with any amount of ease (admittedly using one of the methods I expected to find, the rest of which have yet to bear any fruit… or yolk, perhaps – not a pun, mind you…).

Whatever is going on inside of these guys is unclear, but I can tell that they will all require different approaches; the noise and feel of each individual egg allows me to begin to develop an image of diverse mechanisms waiting to be solved.

And, at the end of the day, that is really what this is about: we want to find a puzzle we have never seen before, executed in a new way, which is uniquely solvable. I feel that this is what I got (and at a very reasonable price, I might add – another benefit of the 3D printed puzzle). Although this may not be true for everyone, I have not seen puzzles with this same goal (I may have heard of a couple, but this is certainly not a common puzzle-type). It is a combination of dexterity and the type of lateral thinking required to open a puzzle box, as one works to understand what is happening through trial and error (and error and error) and keen observation (again, this is where the 3D form comes in handy).

Suffice it to say that I am very happy with what I got – CoreMods has come up with a novel concept that displays with fun and humor, while requiring more than a little head-scratching to make progress. Which means I will be ordering his Screwball as soon as I have all my little eggs standing in a row (so it may be a while).

Update: a couple months later and…. I did it! I got them all to stand! Well. Not bronze, of course. I mean that ones impossible. But the others just began making sense to me, for the most part. I still not 100% clear what’s going on inside of purple, but if I can ever get bronze to stabilize, I’d told myself is crack open the included solution sheets that CoreMods has said contains images of what lies within. Maybe I’ll actually get to take a look one day and see how closely my understanding matches the reality.

Grade: Four Sinatras

Updated Update: Bronze! Wow. I’m genuinely surprised I got it lol. I immediately grabbed the solutions and, as suspected, I was still way off on purple (bronze is much more complicated and a very cool mechanism that I’d probably never have dreamed up). The other four were very close to what I pictured, having built up a mental model over weeks of light shaking, ear pressed to the teeny plastic eggs, mouth screwed up in concentration (I may have looked like a crazy person, but who cares? I got my eggs to stand!). It was very satisfying to compare this schematic to the reality, and even more satisfying to get these guys to stand. I didn’t dare touch my desk for a day for fear of falling, but now I’m able to get them all to reliably stand with a bit of practice. Well, maybe not bronze. Not yet, at least.