Thursday, 12 March 2015


 Sorry, it’s been a little quiet around here recently – you see I’ve been spending quite a lot of time on another puzzling-related project that has literally been soaking up all the spare time I’ve had recently. That’s meant I haven’t been able to spend much time puzzling, let alone blogging about puzzling…

I did manage to make an exception for one puzzle about a week or two back, and it’s definitely worth telling you about.
My mate Steve’s been teasing us at MPPs for ages with mock-ups and prototypes of a new puzzle that he was calling Fire – the 3D-printed conical prototype looked interesting but it was hard to tell what it would be like as a puzzle because one of the crucial bits wasn’t in there – so it didn’t work as a puzzle when we saw it.
Over the course of the next few months there were updates from time to time about aluminium prototypes, discussions with Chinese manufacturers, experiments with corrosive substances and laser etching and then eventually toward the end of last year news that things were coming to a head and that Fire was about to be born…
Just after New Year I saw Steve at Peter Hajek’s EPP and he had a few copies available so I took one off him and then promptly left it in its box on a shelf for a couple of months. (I know, I know – sacrilege – I ought to be ashamed, but I did start out by telling you how little time I’ve had for puzzling recently!)
It stayed on the shelf until my mate Ali mentioned at our last MPP that he thought I’d like it… now I trust Ali’s judgement implicitly on important matters like this, so decided that I would need to get over my aversion to solving encrypted clues, take it out of it’s lovely box and do something with it!
I’ve never been a huge fan of solving encrypted clues for mechanical puzzles, but Steve had mentioned that without solving the clues, there is no way you’d be able to solve the mechanical puzzle… so with his warning and Ali’s recommendation, there was only one thing to do: break open the little booklet that comes with Fire and set about decoding the clues…
The clues are encrypted using a strange font of alchemy symbols that Steve had used in our Nuclear Bunker puzzle hunt last year – and by the end of that day, most of us were reading that font like they were standard characters… it didn’t take long for it all to come flooding back. The first clue was pretty straight-forward – apart from using a weird font, it wasn’t really encrypted… great – translating fonts isn’t too tough so I feel slightly less intimidated at dealing with the clues…
That doesn’t last very long as writing out the next clue in a more standard font results in absolute gibberish… as do all the rest of them… so some further work is required – and over the course of a couple of evenings I spend a few hours decrypting them and writing up a set of notes… some of which are rather intriguing – and if my theories on what some of them mean are anywhere near right, this is going to be a really interesting puzzle…
They are. And it is.
A couple of the clues suggest you do something to the puzzle that is a little unusual and it all fits in rather well with Steve’s warning that without solving the clues, you will never be able to solve the puzzle… I do raise an eyebrow  and wonder if my interpretation is right, but there are enough confirmers in there to prompt me to have a bash at it… so on a Friday night I start playing with it and once I get things going, it’s starts doing all sorts of weird things – things that work one minute don’t work the next, and I know I’m starting to get somewhere…
Next morning I pick up things again and manage to make some pretty major progress – and I’m delighted – but I’m not prepared for what happens next – a lovely little piece of theatre presents an entirely new set of challenges – I’m back to solving encrypted clues again but this time things are a little more efficient so I blast through them and set about trying to implement them…
This time I’m rewarded with an open puzzle and some treasure inside in the form of a neat little plastic token with a QR code on it…
Ali was spot on – it’s a terrific puzzle and I’m rather glad that he nudged me into picking it up and getting over my prejudices.
Steve’s website includes a few meta-puzzles and additional challenges and a forum to discuss your experiences with other puzzlers who are struggling with the same things you are and some closed areas for those who’ve solved their puzzles and want to chat about the solutions.
If you’re thoroughly averse to solving encrypted clues, then Steve will sell you a key to decrypting them, but not until after he’s tried hard to convince you not to buy them and to solve them yourself.
It’s great to see a new series of puzzles like this starting out with a bang – if the rest of the elemental series are anything like as good as this one, I’ll be supporting Steve all the way through the journey. The quality of the puzzle is brilliant – everything behaves as it should (although you might not believe that at first!) and the presentation / packaging has been well thought out and beautifully executed.
Nice one Steve!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

MPP 17

MPP17 was finally planned for Valentine’s Day 2015 after an all-too-long gap since MPP16. (Personally, I blame the organiser!) Invitations were duly sent out on FaceBook and pretty quickly it became apparent that we’d have a goodly number of folks rocking up at Puzzling Times HQ … well I guess it serves me right for not getting another venue organised in time!

Our international visitors began arriving the night before, with the entire Coolen clan and a puzzle salesman from Venlo arriving on my doorstep at about 9 o’clock on the Friday evening, having left from Eindhoven earlier that afternoon. After a bit of a chat and a quick catch up, the kids were put to bed and the puzzlers ended up in the cave playing with new toys.(I know, I know - hard to believe, eh?)

Louis had brought over a prototype of a new puzzle that had me perplexed for quite a while – in the end I managed to fluke it open and closed again without understanding how it worked at all… when he subsequently talked me through it I was surprised at the elegance of it… now if we can find a way to reduce the chances of idiots like me fluking it, we’re definitely onto something!

A little gift from Wil
Wil had brought over a few little interesting goodies for me that he’d managed to find here and there and I was delighted to add a couple of beautiful objects to the little hoard in the cave… particularly a Tom Lensch copy of Oskar’s Wanderer and a lovely (rather larger than I’d imagined!) Coffin original. I left the two of them puzzling when I crashed for the night, and then we caught up again in the morning.

I collected Dave from the station at about 09:30 and over the next hour or so the house gradually filled as more and more puzzlers from various parts of the countryside descended. Wil set up shop on the dining room table and there was a steady stream of puzzlers poring over the treasures in his crates throughout the day.

By the time Simon Nightingale arrived, the dining room table was pretty much jam-packed with boxes and crates, so his boxes of swaps were relegated to the hallway, where several very happy puzzlers found many wondrous treasures including several original Coffin burr exchange puzzles that I was a little too slow off the mark to snag for myself. Once again Simon asked everyone who was taking stuff out of his boxes to donate whatever they thought was reasonable to charity – his son Joe is running the London marathon to raise money for St Mungo’s later this year – a really worthwhile cause if you’d like to add your support / encouragement.

Satomi managed to come for the best part of the morning and brought some new Japanese puzzles, including a great little pair of free-the-coin puzzles from Mine that had only just been released in Japan.

Virtually everyone who was driving in from further afield ended up getting caught in some horrendous traffic jams on a number of motorways – with Oli and Kirsty taking the prize for the worst delay of the day – topping out at around 6 hours … such is the magnetism of the MPP! (or Cadbury World, which was where they were heading the following day…)

It was great to have a couple of new faces join us – I’ve already mentioned Dave who’d just been a name on FaceBook to most of us until this MPP, Angela that some of us met at IPP in London for the first time, Mike, one of the Camden regulars, and Ant and DecLee, the two guys behind NG Puzzles and Loki, their first design.

Wil was on top form during the day with a couple of magical effects presented in the form of a puzzle – with the aim of working out how the effect worked … he must have performed one of them at least ten times to a variety of groups of people – most of whom managed to distil the relevant critical details and deduce the principles behind the trick.

Donald brought a pile of gingerbread pentominoes
Lunch was a fairly relaxed affair of bread and cheese with cold meats and salad that seemed to go down reasonably well… and I think most people managed to find enough to eat – the quantity of cake and biscuits left over at the end of the day suggested that people had enough to eat.

One of the definite highlights of the afternoon was the group solve of Nick Baxter’s IPP17 Host Gift. Nick had been in touch a couple of weeks before MPP17 and suggested that it might be fun for the folks at MPP17 to play with the IPP17 Host Gift – I agreed rather readily and he shipped his rather precious puzzle across the pond for us to play with…

When I asked him whether he was supplying the solution he asked what on earth I’d want that for, and then told me there wasn’t one anyway! Thankfully it arrived a week or two before MPP17 so I had plenty of time to get it sorted in my own mind before trying it in a group… the host gift is in the shape of a San Francisco Cable Car with four shiny passengers secured in place. Your goal is to remove all four passengers… and along the way you will discover all manner of rather interesting tools and techniques to allow progress.

I herded all the interested puzzlists into the dining room and presented them with the cable car to many sounds of approval – a couple of them began to examine things a little and with a bit of encouragement they started postulating  a line of attack – with a little more encouragement they set off on the path toward the solution … while I kept an eye on things, they pretty much had it all sussed and didn’t need a lot of guidance at all, in fact the only guidance I really ended up giving them was suggesting that they delay some experiments until a better tool came along.

I had a great time watching their faces whenever a new part of the puzzle was opened and a set of new tools would emerge – sometimes it was obvious what the tools would be for although every now and then it was just the real lateral thinkers spotting the links… Gary Foshee did an amazing job of hiding a pile of useful tools around the puzzle with hardly any of them visible at the start of the solution. There are a couple of absolute gems in there in terms of tools – one I won’t mention and one I will: when have you ever found a DIY corkscrew in a puzzle that you needed to assemble and use in order to proceed?! Brilliant!

Chris took stacks of pictures all the way through the group-solve and then spent a while arranging all the respective bits and pieces for an appropriate shot of the solved puzzle at the end… of course reassembling is a simple matter of reversing your steps, carefully, so that you don’t find yourself without the tools you need to lock up the rest of the steps… a decidedly non-trivial problem given the sheer number of steps involved in the complete solution – there was a lot of discussion along the way but they actually managed to not have to back-track in their reassembly – which is more than I can say for my first attempt!

Thanks Nick – that was brilliant!

Rich Gain had brought a bunch of his printed puzzles along and at one point hosted a team challenge where two teams of three were each given a set of multi-coloured burrs to disassemble and then reassemble as three burrs each in a single colour… as you might expect they weren’t exactly trivial burrs to start with and there was a healthy rivalry between the two teams sitting across the table from one another all trying to learn as much from their own team and the others’ progress without giving anything away – Chris’ team finished first, but everyone seemed to enjoy the contest.

Simon had brought a shed-load of wooden cubies (and wedges) for Donald to play with and he ended up spending a while constructing a puzzle to taunt me with… it’s still in its solved configuration held together with rubber bands inside a Ziploc bag as I’ve been too afraid to let it loose yet…

 A fair number of folks began drifting homewards (avoiding the motorways!) at around 6pm, but a hardened core hung around for some fish suppers from the village chippy – I eventually managed to hoof the last ones out at around 10pm… a long day’s puzzling!

The next day gill and I took the visitors to Stratford for a wander around the town centre and a visit to the MAD Museum – we spent about an hour and a half in there and all of the kids (yes that includes, Wil, Louis and I!) had a thoroughly brilliant time! Well worth a visit if you’re every anywhere near Stratford!

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

7-Piece Nightmare

Everyone’s favourite Greek puzzle maker, Mike Toulouzas, recently put a copy of his 7-Piece Nightmare puzzle up for sale. He’d made a short run of them and had a spare copy or two and I was delighted to be able to snag one of them. 

7-Piece Nightmare was one of Mike’s entries in the 2005 Puzzle Design Competition in Helsinki. 

As you might expect from the name, there are seven pieces to be packed inside a neat little box with a lid on it. The pieces all consist of a number of half-squares glued together in a variety of configurations, so that in total you have three layers of 4 squares on each layer. Two of the pieces have triangles in three layers, with the remaining pieces spanning two layers each. The shapes are pretty funky and take a bit of getting used to…

Mike has alternated the colours of the triangles on the top and bottom so that you end up with either a chequerboard pattern or a windmill pattern on the faces (Iroko and Eucalyptus woods) … and the central layer is all a single colour. 

Mike describes the puzzle as surprisingly difficult – and with only seven pieces, it is rather tricky! 

I’m still not sure whether knowing that one side of the completed assembly is a chequerboard and the other has a windmill pattern actually helps or not – at the start of the solve, pretty much any piece could form part of either of those patterns, and it’s only after experimenting and wandering down a blind alley or two that you’re able to deduce the orientations of one or two key pieces. 

The search-space is dramatically reduced once you’ve got a few of the pieces together, but it’s still a long way from a trivial task to slot the final pieces together – the combinations he’s chosen seem to be particularly confusing (at least to this amateur puzzler!) and several times I’ve found myself only one or two pieces form the final solution and still not at all certain that I’m on the right track. 

As you’d expect from Mike’s work, the fit and finish is superb – the detailing on the box is stunning, from the decorative inlays around the corners to the detailing on the top of the handle on the lid. 

A beautiful object that also happens to be a great puzzle – it may only have 7 pieces, but I’ll wager it’ll give any puzzler a decent challenge – and if you don’t simply enjoy playing with the wonderful handiwork then there’s something wrong with you! :-)