It’s a Karakuri Miracle! Holiday Boxes 2020

Karakuri Holiday Boxes 2020

It’s that time of year again: families gathering around blahblahblah……. we know what really matters: Karakuri Holiday Boxes! (If you don’t know about how the holiday boxes work, you can learn more here).

Back Row (Left to Right): Kawashima, Kamei, Kikuchi, Iwahara, Kasho; Front Row: Sugimoto, Kakuda

At the end of a strange year, I felt like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when a big box of smaller boxes containing my new puzzle boxes arrived sometime in mid-December: “Merry Christmas Movie House! Merry Christmas you wonderful Building & Loan!” Merry Christmas Karakuri Puzzle Boxes! Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! Now Kamei! Now Iwahara, Kawashima and Kakuda!

Over the course of the last year, I added more and more of the craftspeople at the KCG until I was on the list for 7 of the 8 boxes (sorry Fumio, I really did mean to add yours as well……). As in the past, I chose to resist the temptation of opening the boxes upon arrival, opting instead to hold out for Christmas morning. My mother-in-law always gets a kick out of seeing them, and it is one of the rare times when I can get my teenage son to look at something I like for a moment or two. Most importantly, the anticipation is fun and this year’s boxes did not disappoint! As is to be expected, all puzzles reflect the brilliant standards of Karakuri puzzles, working smoothly and looking even more striking upon close examination.

Pics of the boxes have been making the rounds on social media, and I wanted to break my too-long blogging hiatus with a review of (most of) this year’s boxes. For those who are not aware, the names of most of the boxes have not yet been released and can be expected in January.

Akio Kamei

Kamei’s box resembles a classic safe (3.5″ x 3″ x 4.5″): four tiny legs beneath an upright, rectangle, complete with notched dial that seems to spin freely. Picking it up, you can hear one or more somethings moving around inside. Kamei’s hanko is on the back of the box; it is pretty clear when you have solved the box and seeing the hanko on its outside helps to confirm that you are not missing anything once it is open. Finding the right approach took a bit of creative cat burgling – of all the boxes, this is the one that gave me the most trouble. I was pretty sure I knew what to do at the outset, at least to some extent, and while it turned out to be correct, executing it still takes a bit of focus. I’ve heard from other puzzles who are similarly confounded by how specifically it works, in some ways feeling similar to other boxes of Kamei’s that rely on mechanisms that make little sense, until they make total sense – while you may yet continue to struggle to understand how the concept is realized, you can at least understand what is happening. Of this year’s boxes, this is the one whose internal layout most confounds me.


Hideaki Kawashima

Kawashima’s box was one of my personal favorites (even if I do feel like there is one small change that could have made it even better in my mind). It is the only puzzle this year to resemble a classic box (albeit a small one at slightly less than 3″). One panel is light colored, calling your attention to what will presumably be your goal. Kawashima may be guiding us a bit here, as it is pretty simple to make initial success, leading you through a few productive steps until you hit a wall hiding a couple added tricks that block you from further progress. Kawashima’s hanko awaits you when you reach the final compartment, after a nice, progressive solution. The box displays well with Iwahara’s 2019 holiday gift: Aquarius Box, which is slightly larger but features a similar aesthetic.


Hiroshi Iwahara

Iwahara’s Drawer (3.5″ x 3.5″ x 2.5″) is the box that offers the most puzzling, with an appearance that resembles this year’s Drawer with a Tree but features puzzling that is quite different. The hanko is important with this puzzle, as I briefly thought I had solved it after finding a fun series of steps to open and close it, before realizing I had not yet seen his mark. Some further exploration led to a happy, second aha as the fun-to-do mechanism is expressed in yet another step. The concept is well-executed, and it is the type of mechanism that I find fun to pick up and solve here and there; I have little doubt that this box will join the ranks of other fidget-friendly karakuri boxes that currently sit on my shelves. The puzzle has the added bonus of smelling particularly good, only increasing its re-solve value.


Osamu Kasho

Kasho’s box features a UFO that spins elliptically above the whimsical crop circles adorning a flattened cube (approx. 2.5″ x 3″). At first glance, I thought it was a safari hat atop a button, which made decidedly less sense. It is pretty clear what to do at first, and opening the box is rather straightforward. However, the brilliance of this puzzle really takes a bit of imagination – this is the box that has perhaps grown on me the most, as I have stepped back to observe the solution and the kind of scene the craftsman was perhaps imagining. Basically, I have come to see that the entire experience encapsulates a story and I hope this is something that has occurred to other puzzlers, because, to me, it is what really makes this unique (happy to share this with anyone who wants to know, but I don’t want to give any spoilers here). There is one particular design detail that I especially like, and which perfectly finished the concept at play in the puzzle’s solution. I had high expectations for his box this year as his was my favorite of 2019; to be honest, I was a bit let down at first but, as I said, this is the puzzle that has most grown on me as I have (I think) gotten into the maker’s head a bit more, discovering the story the puzzle is (I think) intended to tell.

Kasho’s 2020 and 2019 Holiday Boxes

Shou Sugimoto

Once again, I had some wildly incorrect initial impressions, thinking this was an odd-looking snake-train thing (4″ x 1.5″ x 2.25″) whose tongue had fallen out. I don’t know where my mind is sometimes but once I was able to break through my dumbassery, I realized what was what and actually laughed out loud (rolling on the floor with a puzzle seems foolhardy and excessive). Realizing what it is, the way forward is pretty clear while being no less enjoyable for it. This is another fidget-friendly box that should not be overlooked; I think it requires some precise craftsmanship that may bely its playful appearance.


Yasuaki Kikuchi

Kikuchi’s is the only box to directly reference the Christmas season; last year’s box featured a Christmas tree and this year’s box is a stocking (3.25″ x 1.75″ x 4.25″) stuffed full of presents! It is decidedly adorable and has a multi-step solution that is simple but fun and, once again, quite fidget-friendly. Kikuchi is the least prolific of the KCG members and this is the first puzzle of his to make its way into my collection. I didn’t realize it, but he has the most punk of the KCG hankos, eschewing traditional Japanese characters for a more stylized signature.

This could well be upside-down and/or sideways but is pretty cool from any angle.

Yoh Kakuda

Yoh delivers on our animalistic expectations, with an adorable Wombat (3″ x 4″ x 1.75″) that is not only entertaining, but educational! I don’t want to give anything away, but after a couple straightforward steps, you are rewarded with a funny (and perhaps questionably desirable) reward. A conversation about the puzzle led me to google a particular fact about the Wombat, which has led me to be surprised that no other designer (to my knowledge) has taken advantage of this fun mammalian fact. Yoh’s hanko is displayed on the bottom of the puzzle, which led to a bit of confusion in more than one puzzler, as I heard a few folks may have thought they had solved the puzzle prematurely (which is pretty cool, as it features fair more fun than one first figured). Kakuda’s Wombat is adorable and smart, and packs an excellent punchline.


Overall Grade for Holiday Puzzles: Five Sinatras

Now that 2020 is done, we can start gearing up for next year (Fumio, I won’t forget you this time):

Happy New Year my tens of imaginary friends and readers! Thank you for reading and believing my opinion is worth a damn!

2020 was a weird year but oddly enough, it was an excellent year for puzzles – so many new releases from great designers, and great puzzles from new ones. I finally got rid of all those paper things that were cluttering up my puzzle shelves and installed a secret door leading to my puzzle room (well, home office, but you know where my priorities lie).

May 2021 be better generally, that puzzle parties might once more resume (and other social stuff as well…. I guess…. I mostly just care about the puzzle parties).

2020 Grade: A Bishop and a Lawrence (ugh)

Beam Me Up, Freddy! Visitor Q by Frederic Boucher

Visitor Q

Frederic Boucher, 2020, 15 copies (more coming early 2021)

Frederic Boucher makes great packing puzzles (BonBon, Takiyaki, etc.), that are much more challenging than they might appear. He also makes some really unique puzzles with a whimsical and fun twist that make them particularly awesome, puzzles like Anti-Gravity Box and X Cube that are interesting takes on a classic puzzle genre. Visitor Q continues in this tradition (and is, oddly enough, another space-theme-adjacent Boucher puzzle reviewed by me).

Frederic contacted me some time ago to let me know that he would be making a few copies of a Sequential Discovery puzzle: VQ is mostly an interlocking disassembly puzzle that eschews some of the tropes of this classic puzzle genre to carve something of a new path via some fun sd challenges. Pretty much anything Boucher makes, I will happily try – and once I saw the letters “SD” I basically fell over myself saying “yes, please” and “thank you” and “yay!”

Frederic, in his humble and kind manner, expressed that he did not think it was overly complex and hoped that I (and the others fortunate enough to obtain a copy) would nonetheless find it to be fun. Needless to say, fun I did find it indeed.

While the term SD may be thrown around quite a bit these days, VQ comfortably meets the (collaboratively written) Discord-determined definition, which declares such to be puzzles “that take you on a journey through a set of sequential and generally non-repeating steps involving the discovery of hidden mechanisms or devices to reach a final goal.” VQ presents 4 goals that build upon one another as you discover…. things… along the way; I personally prefer to call it SD-lite, a term that I think portrays to the potential puzzler a partial picture that properly predicts appropriate expectations.

“Sequential Discovery” is not technically a puzzle genre and does not appear in the Slocum or Dalgety puzzle classification systems (an excellent classification comparison chart is available on Rob’s Puzzle Page); SD was usually used to describe aspects of some take-apart puzzles that featured multiple challenges, tools, etc. “SD-lite” might be a better fit for an interlocking disassembly puzzle that integrates SD elements into its design. This is not to detract from VQ – quite the opposite: VQ is an adaptation of a classic puzzle genre that represents something unique. (I would similarly describe Jerry McFarland’s Fidget Burr and Burrlephant 3 as SD-lite, interlocking disassembly puzzles; while they are really nothing like VQ, they nonetheless share this unique approach to puzzle design).

VQ is a relatively normal-sized cube of approximately 3″, with a single, one-voxel square hole on each of 4 sides, a three-voxel wide rectangle on a 5th, and two elliptical holes less than one voxel in width on the 6th. The instructions declare that a vortex has come, bringing forth a “visitor from another dimension who wants to be your friend.”

As if I was not already hooked, the instructions include my favorite guidelines, telling us that No hitting, shaking, force or spinning is needed to solve the puzzle. Except what it is provided with the puzzle, no external tools are allowed.”

VQ’s goals are fourfold:

  1. Unlock the vortex.
  2. Manage the visitor through the space warp and release him from the vortex (using only straight moves).
  3. The visitor had a gift for you, but he lost it somewhere during the travel. Find the gift.
  4. Return the gift and the visitor at their places of origin.

The tricky part of talking about a puzzle like this is that the first rule of talking about a puzzle like this is to “not talk about a puzzle like this.” As always, I will do my best to be careful and to only share specifics that are easily and readily discernible from a casual inspection of the puzzle, as well as a general sense of the puzzling experience.

A labeled plastic box contains the puzzle as well as instructions and a laminated strip featuring the name of the puzzle along with some neat, spacy graphics. When you first pick it up, you can see that there are a number of interlocking 3D polyominoes within the frame that are loose enough to make a bit of noise when shaken (lightly) but do not seem to be able to move any further: whatever the “vortex” may be, it is not readily apparent. Peering into the holes, you can see in its center a bright neon green something, seemingly inside some kind of clear casing: the visitor perhaps? Hard to say until we have successfully found the solution to the first challenge and unlocked the vortex in which the figure is initially trapped.

This first step confounded me: I got swept up, trying a series of moves that I thought would for sure lead to some measure of success; this is one of those puzzles that I picked up briefly, after the house was quiet: my wife and son asleep, the dogs tucked away. I did not intend on spending more than a few minutes with it, having looked forward to it since it arrived in the middle of a rather busy afternoon. As with many a fun puzzle, those few minutes grew closer to an hour before I realized that sleep might be a good idea – regardless, I realized that I might need clarification on something before I could expect any success. Frederic responded quickly, his answer waiting in my inbox the next morning (as he is in Japan, it was mid-day for him when I sent the email). As you may have guessed, all of my assumptions about the puzzle were pretty much completely incorrect and what I thought I needed to do was pretty much nothing like what I actually needed to do. Learning I was wrong only made me more intrigued by the puzzle. I had to step back and let go of my assumptions to find something I had missed; once found, I had to open my mind to think critically about what this might mean and what could be done with it. The aha moment that eventually came was probably more satisfying than that which I had previously expected, prompting laughing, some mental finger-wagging, and several repetitions of the newly discovered move(s).

The multiple challenges were well-planned: after working my way through the third goal, the puzzle was probably about as far from its initial state as is possible. This segued perfectly into the fourth and final goal as the puzzle was so jumbled that resetting the puzzle to its initial state took some thought; my spatial reasoning and short-term memory are faulty enough that successfully navigating the pieces back to the beginning was a (fun) puzzle in itself.

I asked Frederic if I could share this puzzle with my imaginary fives of readers, largely as I am advocating for someone to take up the mantle or producing additional copies for public consumption, a prospect that he has said he would welcome. Frederic seems to prefer designing new puzzles rather than producing large quantities of existing ones and I hope that VQ is simple enough that it could be reproduced without too much difficulty by someone with the appropriate skills – of course, it could well be more complicated to produce than I realize. I shared it with someone who is vastly better equipped to determine this and so maybe we will get lucky and see some additional copies down the road. I actually just received word that Frederic will be making more copies in early 2021, so good news! (ed. Great news! Not only did make a few more copies available, but Eric Fuller has decided to produce a run! They may be available with the March 1 update, although this is of course subject to change – you can check for updates on its production here).

If I am being totally honest, owning a really rare puzzle feels good, but it would make me happier if more people got the chance to try the puzzle as I really think others would enjoy it. It is true that it is not overly complex, but what really matters is that it is fun. Fun enough to inspire me to write what turned out to be a heckuva lot of words. Sometimes simple puzzles are so fun that I might prefer them to others that will end up sitting on my shelf for months as I struggle (sometimes seemingly in vain) to find the solution; VQ combines sneaky tricks with entertaining movements to create something unique, resulting in an interlocking disassembly puzzle that would be good without such deviousness and is even better with it.

Fun Grade: 5 Sinatras
(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)

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!

Lucky Number 13

Stickman #13: Chopsticks

Robert Yarger, 2007

Robert Yarger’s 13th puzzle box is as fun as it is pretty. After re-solving it today, it occurred to me that some folks might want to know more about it, and so here I am: telling some folks more about it, in case you might want to know.

This is one of the rare puzzle boxes with a practical use: in addition to being a fun puzzle, it is a case for a lovely pair of chopsticks. Now, I wouldn’t personally carry this around to eat with, because I don’t typically put hard-to-come-by puzzles in my mouth (I don’t put easy-to-come-by puzzles in my mouth either, but you get the point). However, it would be pretty cool to bust these out at dinner, nonchalantly puzzling my way to dinner…. ok perhaps most people would not think this was cool, but those people are probably not reading this, so who cares what they think…

The box is smaller than most of Robert’s puzzles at 10″ x 1″ x 1” and uses puzzle box tricks to solve what is, in some ways, a 4×3 voxel packing puzzle. The steps are wonderfully smooth, and there are some really cool movements that I suppose are spoilery enough that I won’t share them (feel free to ask, though, if you’re curious) – apparently, Robert had been playing with the mechanism and realized it would make for a great puzzle (which it does).

Interestingly, there were two runs of the puzzle, using slightly different woods; the first was in 2007, with the second not too long after, in collaboration with excellent OG puzzle-maker, John Devost (the biggest upgrade: they are no longer lacquered bloodwood, but rather waxed purpleheart and leopardwood (I think), lending them their practical edge).

I got my copy about two years ago: as the first box by Mr. Yarger to come my way, I suppose it may have some added sentimentality, but this is truly a beautiful and fun box. The movements are wonderfully smooth; the puzzling is ingenious, even if not terribly difficult, with the chopsticks themselves integrated into the mechanism. The box feels solid in your hands; while narrow, its overall size is nonetheless substantial. More importantly, it has a look that is memorable, a cool mix of contrasting wood that demands to be picked up and handled. Its shape adds something special to the puzzle, standing apart from other boxes, making you wonder just what is inside (assuming you didn’t already know the name).

Needless to say, if you have a chance to pick up a copy, I do not think that you will be disappointed. And if you ever see me grabbing some sushi, perhaps you’ll get a chance to try it for yourself.

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

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)

When EWE Need a Sheep Alternative to Puzzle Boxes

EWE UFO

Kel Snache, 5.5″ x 5.5″ x 5.5″, 2020

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

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

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

– EWE UFO Back Story (excerpt)

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

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

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

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

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

Escape Hatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Packing it in 3: Pack Hard with a Vengeance

First, there was Packing It In: Pack Hard.

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

Now, it’s time for Vengeance.


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

Squary Packs, Quadro, Snake Pit, Mushkila

Yavuz Demirhan (check out his Etsy store)

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

Squary Packs

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

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

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

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

Quadro

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

Snake Pit

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

Mushkila

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

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

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

Another Day, Not Just Another Drawer

Unlocked Drawer

Kathleen Malcolmson and Perry McDaniel, 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.6″

A few weeks ago, I reached out to a fellow puzzler on the social media site that shall not be named who, so I had heard, might be looking to let go of a few puzzles from his rather immense collection. After a bit of back and forth in which I listed out a number of names of makers and designers whose works are generally a bit difficult to find, he let me know that he did indeed have a couple boxes by none other than Kathleen Malcolmson. I have admired her boxes from afar but never before had the chance to get one (at least not for anything resembling a reasonable price). Not only was this a box made by her, but it was designed in collaboration with another hard-to-obtain designer, Perry McDaniel. The story goes that she had been working on the design for some years, unable to get it just right until Perry chimed in with a needed final touch that would allow her to produce it as envisioned.

Unlocked Drawer is a relatively small box, consisting of just a drawer in a frame. It is beautifully made of contrasting lacewood and primavera, an aesthetic that is pretty consistent across her creations, at least as far as I can tell. Upon receiving it, I quickly found that its secrets were well-hidden: other than a bit of noise to be heard when shaken (presumably the Texas quarter to be found inside), the seams visible from the front do not permit any movement and no other breaks could be seen.

And that’s it! Fabulously frustrating in its simplicity and elegance, it would take me quite a bit of poking prodding pushing and pulling over the course of several days before a genuine aha that startled me with its sudden appearance. I love a moment like this: it is the reason many of us puzzle and we spend quite a bit of time chasing the feeling which is well represented in this little box. Closing it, there remains no indication of the solution, which I of course had to repeat several times since solving solely to revel in its gracefully hidden presence. A close relative of the box (Three-Layered Dovetail) was recently available at a Haubrich Auction, and was claimed by a puzzling French friend of mine, with whom I would not wish to engage in a bidding war – hopefully, I will be able to find a copy of my own, and/or any other Malcolmson boxes (particularly perhaps its predecessor, Locked Drawer, designed by Robert Sandfield). It more than lived up to the hype in its beauty, craftsmanship, and deviousness.

Elegance Grade: 5 Sinatras
Difficulty Grade: 4.5 Sinatras

When is a Drawer not a Drawer? When it’s a Puzzle.

Surprising Drawer

Osamu Kasho, Keyaki (Zelkova), Magnolia, Wenge, 4.6″ x 4.6″ x 4.25″

Each year, the Karakuri Creation Group (KCG) has an Idea Contest, in which people (in Japan) are free to submit box ideas to the master craftspeople, who select a few to be produced and sold via lottery. Contest winners have a tendency to be comparatively simple, while telling a story or portraying something whimsical or odd. Some dork blogger (with a cool name) posted a video and review of last year’s He Can Not Get the Ball!, which backs this claim up (assuming he can be trusted).

This year, I was able to resist buying any of the Contest Winners; although some, including Osamu Kasho’s Surprising Drawers, certainly sounded intriguing, I did not initially succumb to temptation (shocking, I know – but 2020 is shaping up to be an especially expensive puzzling year and some lines must be drawn…. and redrawn…. and then moved back a bit). The KCG descriptions will sometimes contain clues to box solutions, at times to the point of giving too much away, but for Drawers it (mostly) just said: “I tried to express the joy of its movement more than the difficulty. This product might be one that you’ll want to open again and again.” This was a head-scratcher, for sure, but I somehow still managed to resist. On top of this, Kasho is fast becoming one of my preferred KCG members: his Bara Bara Box was my favorite of last year’s holiday gifts and my recently received Ripple Out turned out to be much much cooler than I had honestly thought it would be.

And so I waited. Patiently lurking about the puzzling fora, awaiting the imminent arrival of said boxes to the homes of unsuspecting collectors, whose opinion would soon be sought for the final determination of the satiation of my desire – which is to say, I waited until some people got theirs and asked what they thought of them to see if I should try to get some after all.

Haym H., puzzle designer, collector, and all around good guy, received his in short order and was especially taken by Surprising Drawers (or, at least, I was especially taken by what he said about them – he had good things to say about all the boxes, any of which is likely to be an excellent box). Due to my cyber-stalking of the KCG site, I was well aware that the boxes had not yet sold out (ed. although a couple other contest winners are still available at the time of this writing, all of which have also received praise, Drawers is now sold out), and jumped on it quickly. I had heard enough to know that the puzzle gods must be given their due, and I feared their wrath were they to be ignored (judging from the amount of unsolved puzzles around me, I may be feeling that wrath regardless).

As usual, the box arrived within a matter of days from Hakone. My first impression was that the box is bigger than I had expected. The Idea Contest winners I have had in the past have all been larger than most of their regular counterparts, but for some reason I had not expected this to be quite so massive. The craftsmanship is, as I expect from any KCG box, excellent – the wood feels satiny and solid and the drawers could easily pass as bedroom furniture for a very tiny person. There is a hole approximately the size of a quarter on the bottom of the box, through which a bit of magnolia can be seen and felt. The three drawers have handles made of wenge, whose darkness is a lovely contrast to the lighter Zelkova of which most of the box’s exterior is made. As one would expect from drawers, they all wiggle a bit, each moving independent of the others and feeling as though they should come right open. Of course, they do not….. as that would be, in the words of the Ancient Greeks, hella lame.

If you read any of my posts, you may come to the realization that my passion for puzzles far exceeds my skills with them – which is to say, wrath of the puzzle gods aside, I’m just not all that great at them sometimes. And while this box was said to not be difficult to open, I nonetheless struggled for longer than I should have, missing what now seems obvious and getting caught up in some misdirection stemming from my own assumptions. After wondering if it was broken for longer than I care to admit (a step that should be included in the solution of every good puzzle as surely as angrily resenting one’s decision to buy Ikea furniture should be included in the directions of every Skurpingdhenghenr nightstand sold), I soon found the first step, a relatively simple move that unlocks the solution, allowing me to…….. OMG!!!

I actually LOL’ed as it came open in a shockingly unexpected manner, looking around as if the ghosts of Christmas past might wish to share in my glee. I took the rare step of demanding that my NPSO watch me open it (if she wanted to, please and thank you), and even she thought it was pretty cool. Closing the box took a little bit of thought as the solution seems, in more ways than one, to be physically impossible at first glance. After reflecting for a moment and observing how the pieces work together in such a simple and ingenious manner, designed so as to appear both obvious and impossible at the same time, it was clear how to reset the puzzle. At which point, I immediately opened it again. And then one more time. And several times since then…. and one more just now.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this has quickly become one of my favorite Karakuri and that I am grateful to Haym for sharing his impressions with me (and that there were still copies left!). I just opened it again and it still makes me smile! I may have to delve into the wondrous inner working of wordpress to discover how to write and post pics using spoiler tags; regardless, I will be sure to bring this box with me if and when our regular scheduled puzzle parties resume so that we might all bask in its puzzling glory together.

Originality Grade: 5 Sinatras