Saturday, 31 December 2011

Fancy Heart Attack

Fancy Heart Attack is a brand new puzzle from Mike Toulouzas, designer and maker of the Judge’s Gavel which won a Jury’s First Prize award at this year’s Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.

Mike described Fancy Heart Attack as a 7-piece serially-interlocking rhombic dodecahedron. Each piece slides out in a single axis and the construction locks itself neatly together as you go, with the final key piece keeping everything secure.
The first I saw of this puzzle was a heads-up email from John Devost that he had just put a couple of copies of a new Toulouzas puzzle on Paradise on a buy-out basis – the email came through just as I was turning off my i-Thingy for the night, but my curiosity got the better of me so I went back through to the study and fired up the PC – by the time I got the site up, one of the two available puzzles had already gone – so I had a quick look around and decided to buy the second one.
The next morning, a couple of things became apparent: firstly, my puzzling mate Chris from down the road had bought the other one (so two puzzles made in Greece, put up for sale on a Canadian web-site on a Thursday night are sold to two English puzzlers who live half-an-hour from one another – what are the odds!?), secondly it turns out that there’s been a bit of a communications glitch and Mike was only hoping to sell one of them. He’d made three of them, one was already on its way to a collector leaving one for Mike’s own collection and one for sale – so Chris and I then both end up offering to let Mike keep one, but he decides that he’ll ship both of them out and keep one from the next run – nice bloke, eh?
About a week later, Postie drops a package from Greece on the doorstep and rings the doorbell before wandering off (‘cos that’s what he does). One very well wrapped Fancy Heart Attack is cushioned in the box and I’m itching to start fiddling around with it. Sod’s Law dictates that I’m a bit tied up for the next couple of days, and the little bit of random prodding and tugging makes absolutely ZERO progress.
A few days later I have a bit more time to myself and take a decent crack at the zebra wood and sugar maple puzzle. I know there’s supposed to be a key piece from Mike’s description, but it takes me an age to actually find it – turns out it has an odd shape, so I feel (only) slightly less dim. Having removed the first piece, things should progress fairly simply, shouldn’t they? Yeah right!
OK so having taken out the key-piece which was locking the puzzle together, there are only so many places where, having dispensed with that piece, you now have some new degrees of freedom for removing the next piece – but this is where the beauty of Mike’s design comes into it’s own – because of the geometry and the angles between planes, there are quite a few options – some of which are far from obvious given the odd shape you’re working with at this point. When you do find the next move, it is silky smooth – as long as you’re moving things in exactly the right plane – try tugging it in slightly the wrong direction and it yields absolutely no clues as to its position. That second piece is probably my favourite in the puzzle – it’s beautifully camouflaged, very unusual.
At this point you’ve more than likely got the hang of things and know more or less where to look and how to explore the possibilities … so progress speeds up a bit – until you’re left with seven rather oddly-shaped pieces in a pile – with Mike’s trademark handwritten inscription on an inner piece showing the name and date of birth of the puzzle with his signature.
Reassembly will be a significantly larger challenge should you scramble the bits and not remember what you did in the first phase … thankfully I was paying attention and managed not to scramble the order of the bits … you could probably deduce the positions of most of the pieces from the usual central feature in puzzles using this geometry (or at least the ones I’ve seen so far – and no doubt someone will now use that against me if such a puzzle doesn’t already exist!). The pieces go back together in a marvellously satisfying manner – silky smooth again – building up a successively more and more solid rhombic dodecahedron as you go, until feeding in the key piece that literally locks it all together in a solid, complete little masterpiece.
Mike doesn’t usually make that many copies of his designs, but he has promised that he’s going to make some more of these in the future – keep an eye out, they are terrific!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Unhappy Childhood

I’ve commented on the fact that only a bunch of puzzlers could talk about being Coffin collectors without being accused of being rather macabre, and I suppose there’s something similar to be said of someone who tells everyone he’s looking forward to an Unhappy Childhood...but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit...
One of the puzzlers I’ve ‘met’ (in the virtual sense) through a couple of puzzle forums is a real ace at solving puzzles – Neil generally calls himself The Juggler (and I have visions of him as some sort of superhero or arch-villain with a set of juggling balls at hand to either mend the universe or face off against Batman – although I suspect it may be more grounded in a down-to-earth enjoyment of throwing things around) and is one of very few people in the world to have solved a Silver Revomaze.
A few months ago his puzzling journey took an interesting twist when he started considering the idea of making some puzzles of his own – and rather ambitiously he set out to build himself a Matrioshka. Now that first foray into puzzle-making might not have been particularly successful, but the planets had well and truly aligned by this stage, and a short while later he was visiting a local puzzle maker extraordinaire by the name of Scott Peterson – and if you’ve read about my Rosebud and Cluster Busters you’ll know he’s an incredible craftsman.
Neil filmed a couple of great videos in and around Scott’s wood shop and spent a while picking up some tips, and then he made the mistake of mentioning on one of the forums that he’d been playing around with some ideas for his own puzzle box – one of the big names in puzzle boxes (he’s shy, so let’s refer to him as Stick-guy) chimed in with some serious encouragement and a challenge or two, then a few collectors piped up and asked if he’d make one for them, and before he knew it, he’d pretty much committed himself to making puzzles ... and this seems to have taken him by surprise – in fact he changed his sig from then on to refer to himself as “A very humbled puzzler.” [Spoiler – he shouldn’t be! He’s good!]  
In the following month he turned his hand to building some of Coffin’s cubes for himself – and even glued them together in situ, so that he’d have the joy of having to solve them once the glue had set [given the ones he attempted, I wonder if he ever thought “Hang on, I must have glued the wrong bits together. This thing won’t come apart!] ... once he’d got himself comfortable with making little cubies, he then set about making something a little more serious – and progressed to the Unhappy Childhood, aka Coffin #41.
I’d already told him that I’d love to be able to buy a copy of the first puzzle he makes a run of, and this was it – he posted a couple of teaser pics during the process and commented on the fact that he’d come up with a nice idea for the tray, but didn’t post any pics of that until he was ready ... and it is lovely! A couple of weeks later he dropped me an email to say mine was on its way...
[It would be remiss not to mention that while all that was going on, Neil had a bit of a moment with a table saw, with the latter doing a pretty decent job of trying to remove one of the former’s thumbs! – He had it put back together again and had it splinted up, but that hasn’t dented his enthusiasm for making his own puzzles or indeed slowed him down at all.]
My Unhappy Childhood arrived rather well packed and quite quickly – which given the season, was quite a pleasant surprise!
I’ll cut to the chase right away - It’s a beautiful piece of work – the cubes are made from maple and rosewood and the tray is made of some gorgeous figured myrtle burl – with a checker-board floor(!). The myrtle burl is really full of character and the detail in the grain is phenomenal, especially when it shimmers when the light catches it just right – and if you look at the tray, you’ll see that one of the corners has a bit missing from a knot in the wood – and Neil’s incorporated that “imperfection” into the side and made it a stand-out feature – nice work, buddy – and thanks for keeping that bit of character in there and not being tempted to saw it off – he has smoothed off all the rough edges around that knot so there’s no chance of nicking anything on it.
Now who would choose to make the floor of a box out of laminated slices of cubies – you’d have to be really proud of your craft to even consider something like that – but it’s a beautiful touch that balances the puzzle off rather neatly.
Inside the tray, Neil’s signed it as “The Juggler”, given it it’s shorthand name (STC #41) and numbered this as #2/12 ... he’s kept #1 for himself (which seems only fair!), but it does suggest that there are going to be a few more of these around – now I know that a few of those will have been spoken for by nutty collectors like myself, but I have heard that a couple of them might be coming to a certain popular puzzle auction site near you in the not-too-distant future... keep an eye out for them – they’re great!
Neil supplied the puzzle with a neatly printed, numbered certificate that includes an extract from Stewart Coffin’s description of the puzzle and some details of the different puzzles possible ... using these pieces, coloured in this way, there is a single solution that provides a proper checker-board pattern on both sides – if you ignore the colouring, there are 19 000-odd solutions to pack them into the tray. 
While Neil and I were swapping emails about shipping the puzzle, nice guy that he is, he asked me how I’d like it shipped (i.e. solved, apart, or together but unsolved) and idiot puzzler that I am, I went for the latter ... now having received it and played around with it, I have developed a huge amount of respect for this puzzle, and have in fact not managed to come up with a sensible strategy for solving it – all my observations about mirrored pairs  and dissimilar pieces have got me absolutely nowhere ... it is a cracking puzzle, but then it’s a well-trodden Coffin design, so it would be, wouldn’t it?
Neil’s version is superb – and I’m rather chuffed that I’ve managed to con him into letting me purchase one – thanks Neil ... hope the thumb heals soon and that you continue to enjoy making beautiful puzzles for a very long time. 
Cheers mate! 

[Oh, and in case you're wondering how I managed to take pictures of a solved puzzle when I've already told you I couldn't solve it ... let's just say my good friend Andreas Rover helped out a bit! :-) ]

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Quiz

....a bit of fun, if you'd like... 

I think there are 50 recognisable puzzles in the pic below. How many can you spot? No prizes - just the inevitable adulation that will spontaneously erupt from your fellow metagrobologists when I list the names of those who got them all ... or at least quite a few of them. 

[I suspect that most of them have featured in my blog at some point, although they may not have been pictured.]

If you do want to email me your answers, my email address is my first name dot surname at the gmail dot com domain ... and my surname's 'walker' if you didn't know. [ ... and if you list them left to right in rows as far as possible that will help... ]
Merry Christmas to all, 
and may your 2012 be very puzzling indeed!

Click for larger version

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Puzzle Museum Visit – Part 2

Right, so we left off where we’d all congregated back in the puzzle room having acquired a cuppa along the way (Thanks Lindsey!) – down to the serious work of the day!

In the week running up to the visit, James had sent us an email asking if anyone could bring a couple of Stickmen (post #15) and any “recent exotic American boxes” for him to play with. Good thing he did that as I suspect most of us wouldn’t have bothered taking any puzzles along on the grounds that we wouldn’t want to embarrass ourselves by taking along something only to discover that James has several even better versions in his collection already ... however, given the specific request – Chris took along his Try-Knot, I tossed my Grandfather Clock, Little Game Hunter and Perpetual Hinge box in a crate, along with Phil Tomlinson’s Always Empty Box, Eric Fuller’s Triple Locked Box and Kagen Shaefer’s Diamond Box – not sure if they should be classed as exotic, but pretty sure they were recent and American! Ali brought a couple of recent Bill Cutler purchases and Nigel had his lovely muku Super-Cubi. 

When we’d arrived in the morning, we had added our offerings to those already on the altar, err, puzzle table – and I couldn’t help but notice a couple of rather exotic looking puzzles on the table already ... right in the centre there was an enormous entanglement puzzle that I think I recognise as one of James’ own designs from his Pentangle days called the Devil’s Halo and next to it was a gorgeous Packing Crate – one of Ninomiya’s! (One of several Ninomiya’s that came out to play during the afternoon, as it turned out.) 

Nigel & Immaginario Lunare, Louis & Twin Box
Things rapidly degenerated into typical MPP mode with most folks picking up a puzzle and trying to solve it while having a bit of a chat with those around. Every now and then someone would need some encouragement and some wag would provide a nudge in the right direction, usually disguised as some form of insult!

We introduced James to the Always Empty Box and were relieved when he didn’t open it straight-away – in fact it kept him out for a little while and when he did find the “strange” move it seemed to put a grin on his face ... it’s nice when you can do that to someone who seems to have virtually every puzzle known to man – and also great to see someone still enjoying the discovery of something new when they might have been expected to have become a wee bit jaded with all of those puzzles in their collection already. 

On our tour we’d collected a number of Eric Fuller boxes and several people enjoyed playing with the 51 Pound Box, generating a fair amount of discussion about how those bits in there would actually behave the way they do. A really clever idea built into a very handsome little box. 

There were copies of the Tier Box and the 16-Move box – both of which managed to keep me out – although Ali and Chris both managed to open them and gave me a very satisfied, knowing grin after they had, that made me think that they’d both generated a tremendous amount of respect for those little boxes, so I didn’t feel too stupid at not solving them (yet). 

Eric’s Hinged Box became a bit of a favourite around the table during the course of the day – it looks really plain without any of the usual complications of a puzzle box ... a careful examination will show what looks like a pair of sliders but they don’t go anywhere – finding what you can do then leads you on a little journey of discovery that provides a couple of delightful little surprises for people who’ve seen quite a few puzzle boxes before – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that they’re probably designed to confuse puzzlers – and succeed! Opening that box is a delight. 

Louis spent a while on the Beaulid Box and managed to crack it, properly, which impressed pretty much everyone who’d seen it. I’d spent a couple of minutes playing around with it and got the sliders to make some noise, but got absolutely nowhere ... in the car on the way home that evening Louis was describing how he’d solved it and I’m not at all surprised that I got nowhere on it... nor am I surprised at the fearsome reputation that mechanism has earned – Eric Fuller – you’re a bad man!

At some point Lindsey announced that Mr Baker the local butcher (yip!) had delivered lunch and it was ready – so we dragged ourselves away from our puzzles and into the kitchen to help ourselves to a fantastic spread of cold meats, pies, salmon and cream cheese, bread and cheeses – wonderful lunch – with plenty left over for those of us making a pig of ourselves and laying into seconds! 

After lunch we slipped happily back into puzzle-mode. James fiddled around with the Little Game Hunter a bit - started the Hephalump-dismantling process before getting pulled away to something more pressing, whereupon Louis thoroughly dismantled it and reassembled it entirely unassisted – the man is a puzzle-cracking machine!

Nigel offered James a look at his Super-Cubi and he duly made appreciative noises about the muku before owning up to having one of his own which he subsequently brought out. James asked Nigel about opening them and Nigel then lapsed in clickety- clack mode and proceeded to open his rather quickly - but while that was going on James looks on in respect, goes next door and grabs a puzzle mate to come in and have a look at this and the two of them are pretty much in awe as Nigel blasts through the 324-move opening sequence ... later Nigel has a go on James' Super-Cubi and he's clearly making heavy weather of it before James admits that it's only been opened a few times and is still rather stiff - no wonder their reaction at seeing Nigel running through the sequence on his copy - he must have opened and closed his hundreds of times by now so the mechanism is nice and slick.

Helen asked James if he had a standard Japanese puzzle box that she could have a go at – she’s had plenty of fun with Chris' more unusual Japanese boxes but hadn’t seen a traditional box with sliders and moving panels ... so James wanders off to a cabinet and comes back with a lovely little box and says “Here’s a nice little Ninomiya for you to play with” – I will lay money that you wouldn’t get that sort of offer in many other places – but it goes back to what I was saying in the first part of this post – James seems to delight in showing people new things and having them enjoy playing with the puzzles – even if they happen to be rare puzzles made by super-craftsmen.  

One of the boxes I really wanted to have a go at was Kagen Shaefer's Snake Box, so James hauled it out of the cabinet and presented me with it. A little fiddling found the right bits to move and soon enough I'd transformed the pattern and opened the rather beautifully made box -  I was halfway through closing it up again and taking a bit of strain getting the tiles to slide properly when James asked me if I'd found the second compartment - err, No - which is ironic, because a little earlier I'd done exactly the same thing to him on my Diamond Box! OK, back things up a bit and open the box again and then find the cunning little secret compartment that is cleverly hidden in the lining - very cute - this time I borrow one of James' rubber thumb tips to slide the tiles and that makes easy work of it...

During the course of the afternoon James kept dipping into the Kamei drawers and bringing out something interesting ... at one point I was handed a rather heavy dark wood Kamei card case and thankfully I managed to engage my brain before I totally embarrassed myself, grinned and asked if it was what I thought it was? James was dead-pan, and asked me what I thought it was, so I told him and only then did he break out in a smile and confirm it ... closer examination of it shows just what a wizard Master Kamei really is with wood – the illusion is perfect!

A while later James gave me a flat box with a lid on it – removing the lid presents you with the tray which, unhelpfully, has a recessed lid inside it – there’s clearly a slot in one of the sides, but the tray’s lid refuses to slide through it ... I remember having seen something like this before on another Kamei box so I try the same trick and nothing happens – which confuses me a bit (yeah, yeah!) – until a short while later when Oli sits down next to me (he’d been sitting across the room on the floor working on some other Kamei’s at the time) and he has a similar looking box and lid in his hands, except mine’s a light wood and his is black – a small light turns on in the dim recesses of the mind – a quick fiddle around and we open the boxes ... at which point I tell Mister Dalgety "That was mean!" He protests that he’s James, not Mister Dalgety and I reaffirm that when he does that to me, he’ll be Mister Dalgety! [If you haven’t worked it out – they’re a pair of Kamei Library Boxes – James gave me one and Oli one – while we were on opposite sides of the room ... and they need to be solved together! Sneaky so-and-so... :-) ]
We broke for afternoon tea which included scones with jam and clotted cream (we were in Devon after all) courtesy of the butcher (yip!) and a Tangram cake that Gill had rustled up the night before – I know I’m biased but I thought it looked great – and the locals seemed to like the idea – and that made it all worthwhile!

You sure?
After tea, James asked if anyone wanted to have a go on the Bad Radio – most of us knew what to expect, but James (the younger – this is going to get complicated!) hadn’t heard about it before so he was volunteered – and I’m guessing he smelt a rat right about now ... 

James (the elder) explained to those of us too young to remember valve radios that they’d often go on the blink, requiring a bit of a shake (and while demonstrating several metallic thingie’s can be heard flying around inside) but when that doesn’t work, they need a bit of a bash, at which point he placed it on the shelf and asked James (the younger) if he would mind being of assistance. 

James looked a bit quizzical at this point and clarified that he was being asked to hit the puzzle – yip – looking a bit concerned he clenches a fist and looks at James the elder one last time with an “Are you really sure about this?”-look – yip ... so James wallops it and to the delight of the assembled masses, the front of the radio flies off taking half of the metallic-y innards with it – hoots of laughter all around – even from James the radio-basher at that point ... what a fun box!

James (the elder) asked if we’d like to have a go at opening his exquisitely carved antique Scannavinni puzzle cabinet from 1870 – and Chris and Louis offered to take one for the team (basically none of us could get there faster than they did!). James demonstrated the first move which has half of the right-hand side of the cabinet pull open like a drawer – only thing is you couldn’t spot any clues that there was a drawer there if your life depended on it – the carving is still that perfect nearly 150 years later. 

At that point James stepped back and threw in some helpful suggestions from time to time. I’m probably going to miss out a step or two, but the main opening sequence is something like this:

-       Reach into drawer on right, feel for suspended string and tug on it
-       Drawer on upper right is released and opens (you wouldn’t have found it!)
-       Remove key from left drawer, unlock front panel that then tilts down
-       Marvel at the beautiful carved building and door for a while
-       Move the capstone to release central drawer
-       Move decorative pieces on sides to release pair of doors each side revealing 6 drawers (containing James’ secret stash of novelty pens!)
-       Two more hidden drawers open below those as well.
-       Open central door by manipulating door panels themselves, door flaps downward
-       Safe pulls forward on rails, manipulate lever and handle to open safe compartment...

Believe it or not, there are another two major compartments, but they require access to the back (and the cabinet was up against a wall at the time...) and some heavy lifting, so we let them keep their secrets.

Hopefully you can tell from the pictures that there are hundreds of interesting little things scattered around the puzzle room – one of them won’t show up that well in the pics and it’s worth pointing out ... everyone’s seen a Three Card Burr before, but James’ copy spins gently on a levitating platform above a mirror on one of his puzzle cabinets... neat, understated, and utterly mind-blowing!

Toward the end of the afternoon James offered us two choices: would we like to have a team challenge or see a truly handsome puzzle chest – so we did the only honourable thing and just said “yes, please, both, sir”. 

Gents travel chest
The handsome puzzle chest turned out to be from the 1800’s and took the form of a gentleman’s travelling chest. Made in the most beautifully polished wood, it still rests inside its original leather outer case. Unlocking it with the correct key, the front panel folds down and the lid opens upward to reveal a fantastic collection of silver and glassware – everything the travelling gentleman in the 1800’s might require – from brushes to razors, leather strop to bottles – all still beautifully preserved (apart from the bottles being empty). Ostensibly this was just a travel kit for a gentleman, but if you know what you’re doing, there are multiple hidden compartments for storing important paperwork, jewellery and one’s gold coins ... in fact James proceeded to show us the first document compartment that actually still held the original dispatch note from the manufacturers to the very first owner! Then followed a series of hidden drawers released by pushing in just the right spot on the satin lining, and those in turn had further hidden compartments under and around them... staggeringly beautiful and perfectly preserved. 

The team challenge took the form of a large cabinet (The Birthday Cabinet – because it was given to James as a birthday present) with no apparent way in. The cabinet itself was made as a project by a particular craftsman in order to demonstrate his skills to gain entry to a guild. (Having seen the cabinet, I’m guessing they welcomed him in!) We were told that there were ten words hidden around the cabinet that would describe what it was, who made it and when ... gauntlet duly tossed, we stepped up to the plate – to mix a few metaphors and span a few centuries! 

Four of us took turns dismantling the box and it’s bits... getting the front panel off after someone spotted something interesting on the feet – which shows the insides of a beautifully made stationery cabinet with little drawers and storage compartments. 

Since we were on a mission we proceeded to remove and the drawers and storage bins systematically, finding about half of the hidden words without too much trouble – but then we hit a brick wall ... knowing that we were only about half way through, we’d run out of things to dismantle – until we noticed – probably after a suggestion from James, that there may be a false bottom or two – and boy were there – the drawers looked identical, yet some of them had false bottoms on them with a secret word sandwiched in between. Some of the bins had strange mechanisms to keep you out – but eventually we’d tracked down all of our words to confirm who made it, when and what it was... reassembling took almost as long as opening it up and we had to backtrack once or twice to get one of the bins working properly again – a nice fun team puzzle – big enough for four or five folks to work on it at the same time and enjoy solving something together. 

James gave me what he described as an interesting burr to play with during the course of the afternoon – it looked a bit like the mutant love child of a spider and a six piece burr and I cannot remember it’s name for the life of me, but think it may have been one of Oskar’s designs. As soon as I started playing with it, I realised this was no ordinary burr – for one thing, it clearly required co ordinate motion to disassemble, which is unusual for burrs, methinks ... I rather gingerly squeezed and moved the bits apart slowly until they were just hanging on, and in my mind there were three or four pieces to this thing... sucking up a wee bit more courage I pushed a little further and one piece came out – except it was a lot smaller than I was expecting – then another let go, and another,  and at that point I just started laughing and let go and watched as twelve identical spindly pieces ended up in a pile on the table – the clattering of the wood falling made a couple of people look up to see the utter despair behind my laughter – there was absolutely no way that thing is going back together again by my fair hands! I did try for a while, and James even offered some advice (“I think you need to build four assemblies of three pieces each and then put them together in a co ordinate motion” – Thanks!) – but that was the one puzzle I left in bits that day – to be honest, I’m amazed it was the only one... but ashamed that I’ve left James with what I suspect will be an awful job of reassembly – unless of course he has a sneaky jig hidden somewhere! :-)

Louis and I both managed to conquer the Foshee Skeleton Lock that had bested both of us at Wil's place - that puzzle is fantastic - several layers of sequential discovery and really getting a smile on your face when you think to yourself "I wish I had a ..." only to find one turn up a few moves later... must try and find one of those for my collection.
I don’t think we disgraced ourselves on the whole, and by the time we left even Percy had warmed to us and was happy to accept a bit of a cuddle - Percy and Lilly are the Dalgety hounds - Lilly is the extrovert who desperately wants to say hello to everyone, in spite of her currently recovering from a dislocated shoulder. 

To our wonderful hosts for the day, James and Lindsey – a huge THANK YOU for a really mind-blowing day ... it literally was a privilege – thanks for sharing your home with the mob from the Midlands for the day – if you’re ever up this way I’d love to repay your hospitality ...

Photo courtesy of James Dalgety.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Midlands Mob descends on Puzzle Museum - Part 1

Warning: This post contains more than the usual sickening degree of superlatives and gushing language. I won’t be able to help myself.
You have been warned – proceed at own risk. 

Through a short series of fortunate events, James Dalgety invited a bunch of us Midlands puzzlers down to his Puzzle Museum last Saturday. Numbers had to be limited (it turned out he already had a house-full on top of us bunch descending for the day!) so in the end, eight of us made the pilgrimage south to Devon. Nigel took Louis (who’d flown across from Eindhoven for the occasion) and I from Birmingham, with Chris and Helen heading down from Cheltenham and James, Ali and Oli heading across from London-ish. 

Wil Strijbos had tipped us off that he’d be visiting James at the time, so we managed to time our arrival between James’ eminently sensible Not-Before-Nine rule (I have to say that, Gill operates a similar rule in our house on weekends!) and Wil’s 10:30 departure to catch a train back toward the Strijbos Collection. 

James on tour...
It seemed that some folks had not only used the opportunity to meet Wil for the first time, but also to exchange some cash for a puzzle or two – most notably Chris’ purchase of a Romantic Cake Box – which he then passed around all of us to have a go on while trying hard not to look at it himself so as to save that pleasure for later – it’s a really cute little box with a fairly unusual opening mechanism – I’ll bet he likes it! [Turns out he does.. :-) ]

Wil left a copy of his new aluminium cylinder (Aluminium Washer Cylinder) behind for us to play with as well – he’d given it to Oli at the Camden bash during the course of the week and Oli returned it on the Saturday morning still unopened – during the course of the day a few of us took a crack at it and got absolutely nowhere – it is very different to his first Aluminium Cylinder. In fact Louis was asked to take it home to Wil, so he spent most of the two hour drive home playing with it, as did I the next morning, and neither of us made any headway at all … keep an eye out for that one…

After Wil had left and we were sort of settling down (well as much as you can with that many incredible toys around to be played with!) James asked if we’d like a quick tour of the collection – and as Oli was the only person who’d been before, the rest of us duly joined the tour … well the “quick tour” lasted 2 hours, even though we skipped several entire sections because James knew we weren’t particularly interested in them. 

The tour started with a quick overview of the first section of the massive collection of puzzle jugs, then onto a 400 year-old compound printing block stool – admittedly not a puzzle in it’s own right, however its survival to today was sealed by the fact that it was found to be a fun children’s puzzle, and was discovered in a nursery being used as such in 1913… that pretty much sets the tone for the collection’s importance…
Louis, Nigel & James

From there the tour worked it’s way around the room, taking us through the gorgeous custom made cabinets taking up half the walls in the room … the glass-fronted cabinets only show a small proportion of the treasures these cabinets hold – the doors below open to give access to a set of drawers, each of which is literally jammed to the gills with puzzles in their original boxes. 

The first couple of cabinets contain Japanese Puzzle boxes – including a huge number of house shaped boxes – the sort of ones you only see in really old books about the Japanese puzzles boxes of old. The next cabinet fast forwards a bit into reasonably modern times with a jaw-dropping collection of Berrocal sculptures – and that sentence on it’s own would probably set this puzzle collection apart from almost every other collection in the world – but there’s more. In fact on a couple of tables at the other end of the room there are another bunch of them – including what look to the untrained (i.e. my!) eye like a few duplicates.
Berrocal Bits

While he’s chatting about being an agent for the Berrocals, James points out the one exception to one of his house-rules – the rule is that you’re only allowed to leave a single puzzle unsolved or partly solved per visit – James breaks that rule for the Berrocals because he enjoys solving them so much himself, and that gives him an extra excuse to have a little play … there can’t be many places in the world you can go where your host says that if there’s time he really enjoys hosting Berrocal assembly races – everyone sits around the table with a copy of a puzzle and then races to assemble it properly … that was a pretty mind-boggling concept given the dizzying prices they change hands for these days – and yet the offer’s there! (We didn’t get around to trying it that day – maybe next time … in fact on the day, none of us plucked up the courage to have a go at one of them – perhaps we’d all heard how long Oli had spent reassembling one on his G4G visit.)

One of the next cabinets contains a complete collection of Stewart Coffin originals and James enjoys telling the story that the great puzzle designer himself heard that the collection was missing a few originals, so he sent copies of those over and would only accept a token payment in return – what a gent!
Boardman Puzzling Pyramid

At one point James brought out a pyramid of tiny little ring boxes - each of which contained one of Allan Boardman's incredible little micro-puzzles - he challenged one of us to assemble one of them that had become disassembled - a simple little standard six piece star - the only snag being that it was about 3  millimetres across - none of us volunteered - and strangely James didn't appear surprised at that.

The tour continued around the cabinets with a nod to a vast collection of Arjeu assemblies, twisty puzzles and some pretty unusual-looking, and dare I say rare, Japanese puzzle boxes – including a rather Bad Radio – which we’ll come back to a bit later... the drawers below that cabinet were jammed with the largest collection of Kamei boxes I’ve seen (on the web, in books or in real life) – Oli spent several happy hours in the afternoon systematically working his way through the ones he hadn’t seen yet. 
Oli in Puzzle Heaven

We must have spent the best part of an hour working our way around the first room, before we ventured off upstairs for the second part of the tour – there’s a wall of puzzle jugs next to the stairs up to the second room and we started on those with James passing around a Greedy/Thrift cup while he told us the story behind it – he’d bought it at an antique fair for a reasonable price and had been told it was Chinese and a few hundred years old. At this point we started being a bit more careful in inspecting it and passing it around – but when he told us he’d subsequently taken it to a specialist who’d dated it at twelfth century, it was carefully given back to him before we managed to destroy a little piece of history ... but that little interaction really summed up James’ approach to the collection – it’s there to be enjoyed and appreciated – not kept behind glass cabinets and merely looked at...

Next along the wall were a series of drawers with antique puzzles – including several sets of Hoffmann puzzle collections – all still in their original boxes and piles of additional copies of the puzzles most of us are only likely to see in books like Edward Hordern’s Hoffmann’s Puzzles Old and New.

Further along the wall a couple of us recognised a set of Eric Fuller’s Wunder puzzles and commented that some of us had them as well – Chris mentioned the picture of the original one in the Slocum / Botermans book and within seconds James had dived into a drawer and fished out two different versions of the original and a folded sheet of paper with pictures of the original three mechanisms – Chris and Louis then proceeded to open them before we moved onto the next chest of drawers and ...

... a mind-blowing collection of impossible bottles, mostly by Harry Eng. There were one or two dotted around the tops of some of the cabinets, and an entire drawer-full of them – from “simple” deck in a bottle, to three decks in a bottle, a pile of coins which James playfully offered to tip out on someone’s expectant upturned palm before we realised that all of them were too large to get through the mouth, a loaded deck in a bottle (great little nod to the magicians!), several balls in a bottle, many of Harry’s famous knots and even a coach and horses in a bottle. 

Keychain Puzzles Galore!
Several drawers down the other side of the room are devoted to an enormous (complete) collection of keychain puzzles – all still with their original card packaging – but available for a play nonetheless. 

On the way down to the third room I spotted a pile of boxes that really put a smile on my face – stacked next to the staircase was a bunch of Stickmen including a Holiday Lockbox, a Magic Tile Lockbox, a #2 Box, a #3 Gear Box , a #5 Takeapart aka Borg Box, a #11 Fulcrum Box, a #12 Cross Box and a #15 Sliding Tile Box ... I suspect that there may have been more there, and looking at some of my pics, there may even have been a second row in some places ... given my current attraction to Stickmen boxes, it was rather nice to see a whole bunch of them there together ...

Downstairs the room is jammed with bookcases and the sort of chests of drawers that you expect to find in a museum – only these ones are jammed with yet more puzzles and games. We didn’t spend a lot of time on those as James had already established that none of us was particularly intrigued by dexterity puzzles – although we were treated to some exceptionally well preserved ball bearing dexterity puzzles over a hundred years old.
Stickman Stash

The book collection down there would probably make a number of libraries sick with envy – there were copies of literally every puzzle book you can imagine along with a pretty incredible collection of old scientific and games books... you could lose yourself in there for months and still find new things to explore.

All along the “quick tour” we were all collecting puzzles to play with – James pointed out a couple of interesting puzzles boxes along the way (we’d told him beforehand that most of us particularly enjoyed puzzle boxes) and by the time we headed back up to the main puzzle room, we were clutching a variety of Eric Fuller boxes between us, and Louis and I had managed to pick out a Gary Foshee Skeleton Lock that had defeated us at Wil’s place earlier this year.

Throughout the tour James was not only showing us incredible little bits of puzzling history, but telling us stories about how the puzzles came about, or their historical significance (quite a few of the puzzles were made to promote particular political parties or philosophies) and he really brought the collection alive – positioning it not just as a pretty incredible collection of puzzles, but also as a significant historical collection.

...the end of the tour saw us head back to the puzzle room for some serious puzzling...

To be continued...

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Nemesis: Monster Packing Puzzles and Big Burrs

Recently I’ve bought a few puzzles that I never expect to solve. 
That’s probably fair, but hear me out…
The first one is a packing puzzle that came from a recent auction – it’s a copy of Parcel Post made by John Devost in June 2008. It was sitting there looking rather unloved with nobody bidding on it, so I bought it. It’s a really beautiful piece of work – the pieces are made from walnut and the tray is made in padauk with maple slipfeathers. The tolerances between the pieces when they’re packed in the tray properly are incredibly fine – there is virtually no wiggle room at all, yet the pieces literally just drop into place – perfect!
The Parcel Post design has been around for ages (one source quotes “early 1900’s”), although the mists of time appear to have obscured the original designer’s name. The puzzle contains eighteen rectangular pieces to be placed inside a shallow tray. Pretty soon after you start playing with this puzzle, you’ll work out that there will be three layers of pieces in the solution, but that unless some of the pieces are arranged vertically across layers, you’re not going to get very far … and that little twist makes this an absolute killer puzzle in my books. I’ve spent a fair amount of time fiddling around with it and it has beaten me every time. There are too many pieces that could fit vertically and too many ways of almost making up three layers of bits with suitable gaps in them for the vertical pieces – I’m satisfied that I’m beaten, but it looks great in the collection, so it’s going to stay.

So that’s my first nemesis… (By the way, what is the plural of nemesis?) 

The other two puzzles that are likely to defeat me forever are fairly recent acquisitions. They are Big Burrs by literally any definition – first off, they are eighteen-piece burrs, the smaller of the two has pieces that are 12 centimetres long and the larger’s pieces are 15 centimetres in length. They’re called Tiros and Lange Wapper 14 respectively – both creations of Alfons Eyckmans’ fertile mind – although these are both variants of the original design with variations added by Guillaume Largounez to eliminate the alternative assemblies. The puzzles were made by Maurice Vigouroux and they came via a slightly circuitous route via Guillaume through my puzzling mate Chris – the Puzzle-Place guy. They are pretty unique as these burrs aren’t often manufactured (they present a couple of manufacturing challenges like blind corners and weak elbows that a lot of folks might avoid – but Maurice handles them with apparent ease – and some hand-chiselling and dowel reinforcement if you’re interested). They’re beautifully finished, including some decorative finishing around the edges of the pieces so that when properly assembled, the bevelling matches – and provides a unique solution – nice touch Guillaume! Take a look at Chris’ ‘special’ copy over here – it is simply gorgeous! 
The ‘easier’ of the two, Lange Wapper 14 was shipped disassembled as an assembly challenge – chance would be a fine thing! The complete solution requires 70 moves – removing the first piece from a completed burr takes 14 moves, and the next two pieces take another 21 and 15 moves respectively – now can you see why I think it’s a monster?! “Assembly challenge” may be a little bit of an understatement!
Tiros, mercifully was shipped assembled (and it may well stay largely that way forever! – Nah, at some point I’m going to take it apart just so that I can say I have!). This particular monster requires 150 (!!) moves to release the first piece(!) and I think it currently holds the record for burr level on a standard 18-piece burr – a further 36 moves dispatch the remaining pieces to a pile on the desk.
These burrs are lovely, and given their pedigree, I’m very chuffed to have been able to add them to the pile o’ puzzles I try hard not to call a “collection”. But do I stand a hope in heck in of ever working out how to take them apart and put them together again (without the use of Master Röver’s software) – I very much doubt it …
So there you are, three of my current nemeses, or nemesi if you prefer, to answer my own question…

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ich bin ein Bärliner

I met Marcel Gillen at the Dutch Cube Day and he spent a while talking me through all his past IPP exchange puzzles – I’d managed to acquire one in the past (his Belgian Chocolates from IPP 22 in Antwerp). He spent a fair chunk of that explaining the background behind his exchange puzzle from this year (Ich bin ein Bärliner) that referred back to JFK’s 1963 speech in Berlin – the speech was pilloried in the press at the time by explaining that the great man had effectively declared himself to be a jam doughnut rather than showing solidarity with the good citizens of Berlin. [It seems that serious scholars have decided that wasn’t in fact the case and he had been aligning himself with the people and not the pastries after all, but I guess the papers know a good story when they see it and why let the facts get in the way of that?!]

Anyhow, Marcel’s packing puzzle (remember, I’m rubbish at packing puzzles!) has a jam-filled doughnut-shaped tray, nine little red bears (from Berlin’s flag and to remind the English speakers that the Berliners pronounce their city-hood as “bear-liners” - see Marcel, I was listening!) and a little rectangle representing the jam (use your imagination!). The puzzle comes with two challenges: first, pack the nine bears into the tray, second, pack all nine bears plus the jam into the jam doughnut …

Let’s look at this one a bit closer – the bears’ shapes are pretty strange – and working out how they can intersect efficiently is hard enough – but trying to do that in the confines of an oval tray with constantly changing outside angles is a nightmare! Something that might work perfectly on one area of the arc will be awfully inefficient (or impossible!) a bit further around – yet somehow I managed to find a way of squashing the nine bears into the tray in my first few days of playing with it. To be honest, the shock of doing that caught me by surprise and I frantically scrabbled around trying to find the other bear that must have fallen into my lap – only to count the ones in the tray and admit to myself that I’d actually managed to solve the first challenge … however trying to free up just a tiny little bit of extra space for that little jam-thingy is something else entirely.

That particular mission kept me annoyed amused for several evenings in short bursts - until I managed to stumble across a set of combinations that came tantalisingly close - and then with a little bit of fine-tuning, actually worked!

Gotcha Gillen - but you had me going for quite a while there!
(Thanks, it was fun...)