Saturday 30 April 2011

Coffin’s Grand Pin-Hole Cross

OK, so we seem to have a bit of a theme going here, let’s not disappoint ... on to Coffin’s Grand Pin-Hole Cross ... 

This was the ultimate incarnation of Coffin’s Design #20 – The Pin-Hole Puzzle. Essentially the Pin-Hole Puzzle is a set of building blocks (think big boys' Tinkertoys!)  in a specific number of shapes: the Elbow (the left hand piece), the Pin and the Bar (in the centre) and the Cross (on the right hand side of the base). There are also a number of joints (picture an elbow with a bar attached to the unpinned end) for joining bits together. 

This one is made of Queensland Blackbean and came from Mr Puzzle. It formed part of his Limited Edition run from 2007 – and as at the time of writing, he had one left ... 

Seeing the dimensions of the puzzle on the web-site is one thing – seeing the pile of wood on your dining room table is another thing entirely! This puzzle is big, and heavy, and I now understand why Sue suggested that she ship my order in two parts – if nothing else, it saved me having to contribute to my postman’s disability benefits! The web-site says it comes assembled, but again Sue suggested that shipping it flat-packed might be a better idea – this results in receiving a pretty large lump o’ lumber – but that lump is infinitely easier to handle, secure and ship... good call Sue!

Right, so the lump o' lumber duly arrived on the morning of the MPP2 and it lay in the dining room table all day, and no-one made a serious attempt at constructing anything all day – not a good sign, as these as some of the best puzzlers I know ... what have I let myself in for? Brian’s web-site passes on the following helpful advice: ‘If you're worried about taking the Grand Cross apart Stewart offers the advice that "by persisting with the simpler figures you can gradually become familiar with the more difficult tasks".’  Hoo-boy!

During the course of the week I started fiddling around with some of the bits, and discovered that, given free reign with the bits, it’s not too challenging to make up a single cube ... however it’s pretty clear that you’ve been given just enough bits to complete the Grand Cross (picture a central cube with a cube coming off each face) ... literally, just enough... so this will require a little thought ...

OK, brain is engaged and we establish reasonably quickly that there are only really two ways to build a cube with the limitations imposed by the pieces we have – handily confirmed by Burr Tools. (For a laugh I also asked Burr Tools to solve the Grand Cross, giving it all the bits in the right quantities ... however, when it went away and thought for a little while and duly announced that it should have the solution within the next 18 years! I had flashes of Deep Thought spinning away for eons to proudly come up with “42”. So having eliminated that as an avenue of last resort – I really don’t have that sort of patience! – I had to rely on the mk. 1 noggin – Uh oh!)

Right, so notice that there are just enough joints to build the entire central cube of them, handily providing something to build all the outlying cubes onto ... spend a little time analysing the pieces you have and working out what you need inside the inner cube and what you want on the arms (so you don’t find yourself building 6 cubes then realising you have the wrong bits left for the last one) and then get to it ... I started by building the central cube as a framework for the rest of the pieces, and then worked my way around the outlying cubes – one of them needed a bit of thought as there’s a sticky-outy-bit that sort-of stops you from building the cube the way you might like to ... but the old mk. 1 manages to see a way around that and has it all together in just a little while...

The resulting construction is impressive, it really has presence!

[But if you don’t like the shape, Brian provides a card with a bunch of other constructions to try your hand at ... I like the Grand Cross, just the way it is...]

Coffin Involute Cube

Unlike the previous puzzle, I had managed to find out a little about this one before I ordered it from Kayleb’s Corner. Bernhard Schweitzer helpfully has a short write up in his Puzzlewood Gallery here and the Metagrobology wiki lists it as Stewart Coffin’s design #214. 
From the description it sounded like it would be a challenging little puzzle, being a development of his well known Convolution Cube, that had itself brought a new twist to an old topic. This one was made chiefly of maple and has dark wood corner cubes – that’s got to help, right? 

OK, so first off there’s a coded clue in the description of the puzzle that suggests that Burr Tools isn’t going to be a whole lot of use ... Great! There goes the main tool in my attack! But I can take it apart without help, can’t I?

Good news – this one starts out a lot easier than the Seven Block – there’s a reasonably easy to find key piece that comes out relatively easily, which logically releases  some bits to slide across and disengage – so far so good...

Then me hits the usual little brick wall – and I spent a while staring at half a cube with one floppy piece moving around all over the place, but refusing to come free ... so a couple of times I rebuild it and try something different, reckoning that this is a blind alley or a red herring designed to lead the unwary puzzler astray ... and this little 4*4*4 cube is making me feel rather unwary!

OK so we go backwards and forwards on that track a couple of times, trying without much luck to find any other alternative moves – nada! And again this thing feels like the rest of the cube could well be glued together (but I’ve learnt my lesson on that one: Coffin wouldn’t do that, he’s too much of a gent!). 

Having convinced myself there are no alternatives to what I’ve already discovered, I concentrate on what I can do from there, apply a couple of the little grey cells and deduce (thanks Father William of Ockham!) what should happen, and it jolly does – this little A-HA! moment is terrific! Right, so you know there’s a twist in the tail, but that twist is beautifully disguised and requires things to be done just-so ... and when they are, a little magic happens ... and the rest of the pieces will allow themselves to be teased slowly apart... 

Putting it back together is easy if you keep the pieces all nicely lined up (see previous comments about second- rate puzzler!) – but actually those coloured corner cubes are quite useful ... and if you’re really stuck, you can always use Burr Tools (can you tell I’m a big fan?!) – of course it’ll quite rightly tell you there’s only a single assembly, but that, sadly, there are no solutions ... ! :-0

[...yes, I've kept the key piece out of shot again just to confuse you!] 

I’m quite new to Mr Coffin’s designs, but I’m already a big fan! Thank you sir!

Friday 29 April 2011

Stewart Coffin Seven Block

One of the puzzles in the box from Kayleb’s Corner was a Stewart Coffin Seven Block puzzle. I hadn’t been able to find out anything about it in a brief search on the web before I ordered it and it’s always hard to tell what you’re in for when you get an unknown cube assembly / disassembly puzzle like this. I was hoping that I wouldn’t be disappointed, but the Coffin moniker should have been all the reassurance I needed...
The puzzle came in a cute little decorative box with no particular markings on it, and the puzzle itself is a reasonably non-descript 4*4*4 cube made of maple. There’s a little white sticker with the words ”Stewart Coffin Seven Block “ on one side, but other than that, it looks just like a simple cube construction. So you take it out of the box carefully, just so that it doesn’t fall apart (Yeah, right! Little did I know...) and start looking at the cube – no obvious easy ways in, no pieces trying to make a bid for freedom yet – looks nice. 

OK, so it didn’t fall apart – good start ... so let’s find a way in – start pushing and pulling at the most likely candidates, hmm, not much give at all ... OK let’s try some of the edges – nope, nothing there. Corners? Nope. Opposite corners? Nope ... Hmmm ... Ah!! I know, friction along the faces in many directions – maybe it’s one of those co-ordinated motion cubes ... 6 faces later, nope, not that either ... Retreats to think while placing the puzzle back in the box...

Thinks ... for a while ... comes back to it a while later (not quite so careful about taking it out the box this time!) and tries a few new theories – none of which do anything at all ... 

Hmmm, maybe it’s one of those in-jokes, you know the ones where the pieces are all actually glued together? Given how little movement there is between the pieces, this could actually be feasible! Puts it away to think some more ... and laugh at the fact that I was worried about it falling apart or not presenting much of a challenge!
A couple of sessions later I finally manage to work out how the key piece works, and it’s brilliant! 

It keeps its secrets incredibly well hidden, and even once released, the rest of the cube is slow to give up its secrets – it’s like peeling and onion until you eventually have the seven pieces apart – ah, so that’s where it gets its name from. [Yes dear eagle-eyed reader, there is a piece missing from that picture - the key-piece, just to make it a little more interesting for you...]

While I was writing up this post I got hold of Georges to ask him about the puzzle and it turns out it came from Bernhard Schweitzer and there’s a short write-up in Bernhard’s Puzzlewood Gallery.

It’s a cracking cube puzzle...

Late addendum: I had to smile when I noticed this... I'd used my favourite search engine when I was trying to find out about this puzzle, and turned up not a lot... so I had to smile when I noticed that one of the traffic sources for for my blog was in fact a Google search for "stewart coffin seven block" - and this is now the first page you get when you search for that... which just goes to show that not enough people have been writing about this puzzle on the web!

Sunday 24 April 2011

Oli’s DIY Soma cubes

At our get-together last weekend, Oli gave me a set of his soma dice, and I was quite touched by the gift. They’re his first go at producing his own puzzles and you can read about his adventures in making his first puzzles on his blog over here.  
This set uses the standard soma pieces and incorporates the dice rather nicely – so each side has a symmetrical colouring from the dice themselves and shows a single number on all dice making up the face – making a dice of die, or a die of dice? I know, a big dice made up of smaller ones!

Right, so when Oli gave them to me, he gave me a question at the same time: did I think the dice element (i.e. needing to get the faces lined up) made the puzzle easier or harder? And this is where I could use your opinions, dear readers ... because I’m conflicted: I find that the way I naturally set about solving this puzzle is to work out likely outside edges for each piece, narrow that down a bit (there are one or two that won’t really work), then build one side, then add a layer and then top it off, paying attention to the numbers as you progress ... which is totally different to how you’d solve any other (blank) soma cube – but I find it quite straight-forward and simple this way (please remember my earlier comments about being a second-rate puzzler!!). 

So the conflicting bit for me is this – I think I find it easier to build it up from the numbers (and I don’t ever end up with a wrong-shaped piece at the end, but my brain tells me that by adding constraints to the faces, through colouring and numbers, reduces the degrees of freedom you have significantly (i.e. the total number of potential solutions reduces, a lot) so it must be harder... or is it just that the brain compensates for the constraints and uses them accordingly?

I dunno ... do you? Thoughts on a postcard to the usual address, or you can add a comment down below...

Thanks Oli – for a very thoughtful gift.

A very puzzling Easter...

Sometimes the planets align and deliver a really special treat – I kinda feel they did that to me over the past week ... I’d lined up a week’s holiday between Easter and the royal wedding and I’d been looking forward to it for some time. 

Now in the previous post, I’d mentioned that last Saturday I’d received two packages of puzzles – one contained a special TRIGO cube from Mike Toulouzas and the other had a few goodies from Mr Puzzle – that’s Louis on the right poring over the Siamese Locked Nest, Pinhole Grand Cross (needs some assembly), a Flying Puzzle and an All for One

On Tuesday I received a little package from Scott Peterson with a couple of Coffins (only on a puzzle blog would that be both socially acceptable and make sense!) – a Super Nova and a Rosebud ... you’ll be hearing a lot more about those!

Then on Thursday I got home from work to find four packages waiting for me... one from Stickman-central with a Moving Tile Box from the latest round on Paradise, one from Matt Dawson with a Pagoda #3, a package of little goodies (mainly IPP puzzles) from Kayleb’s Puzzle Corner that happened to include a Mr Puzzle Russian 13 limited edition from 2002, a couple of Coffin cubes and William’s Wonder and then another big box from Australia – this one had a Windmill Burr and an Opening Bat in it... my desk looks a bit of a mess at the moment... J

... The Opening Bat is almost in pieces (no, it’s in pieces, just not enough pieces yet...), the Windmill Burr’s looking rather odd-shaped, but still in one piece, the Moving Tile Box is open (and closed and open and closed and open...) and  a couple of the IPP puzzles have been out and about... and I still have so much more to play with...

I’m really looking forward to my week off...

Tuesday 19 April 2011


Saturday saw the second gathering of puzzlers under the Midlands Puzzle Party banner. Once again Louis took the prize for the furthest travelled (he flew in from Holland for the weekend, again!  Thanks for my Svetnashki Louis.)  Oli and Ali came from the other side of London somewhere and Karl joined us from the other end of Birmingham. We met at my place for an afternoon of puzzling (and caffeine) and then we all decamped to a pub near the NEC for the evening, where we were joined by the hard-working crowd from the Revomaze stand (for yet more puzzling). 

Everyone brought what they had in the afternoon and it was noticeable that quite a few folks had been spending a bit on puzzles since our last get together. As luck would have it I’d received a few nice bits from Mr Puzzle that morning, so I just left them out for everyone to play with – my new Stickmen were all out for everyone to have a go on and most people fiddled around a little, although I suspect that Oli was the only one who had any real success on them during the MPP – Louis made sure he polished off all of them during the weekend at my place, so he probably bagged the most Stick-scalps over the course of the weekend. 

Oli had brought along his Sandfield Salt and Pepper cellars for me to play with, but sadly I was too thick to do any more than play with the magnets a bit – essentially I got nowhere, but I got to see firsthand how brilliant these little guys look – Perry McDaniel really is a wizard at fine trick dovetails.

There was a lovely selection of Vinco’s on display with most folks taking a turn at opening and closing them and watching the mesmerising interplay of exploding bits and elegant co-ordinated motion. I spent a while fiddling with Roger’s Propeller (not much joy there either!) although I did have a wee bit more joy confirming that my solution for Roger’s R2D2 did in fact work ... although I failed miserably on Alles Roger. 

A couple of Wil Strijbos’ puzzle bottles kept a few folks quiet for a good while... and if I can work out how to get the chain locked inside the bottle again (without using a pencil, ahem!) I’ll be a happy man!

One of the puzzles I was keen to inflict on as many people as possible was Jerry McFarland’s (imminent) Burrcube#1 – I wanted to see how widely it was enjoyed and how long people took to solve it so that I could give Jerry some more feedback on his new design – most folks had a go at it and everyone seemed to think it was a nice little puzzle, so here’s hoping that he starts producing them and does a series of them...

Before we decamped to the pub to meet the rest of our number, Oli very kindly gave me a set of his Oli-original Soma Dice as a thank you for hosting the day. [He doesn’t realise that I offer to host it so that I don’t have to travel miles cross-country!] I got my own back by handily having a set of Robert Yarger’s sci-fi books autographed for the guys who were attending the MPP, and they seemed to like the fact that they got a Stickman book along with the chance to play with some Stickman boxes. (Thanks Gilly, that was a cool idea!) 

Decamping to the pub was deemed a good idea because this MPP happened to coincide with the Gadget Show Live where Chris Pitt had a Revomaze stand that most of us spent a while at over the course of the weekend... Louis and I met up there on Friday and spent a few hours chatting to folks about puzzles in general and Revomazes in particular, while Nigel and Chris (not-the-Pitt) spent several whole days helping out on the stand... how they coped I don’t know – I was just about hoarse after a couple of hours ... 

Anyway, by meeting up at the pub, we could see the guys from the stand without them having to go too far out of their way from the NEC – unfortunately I hadn’t checked out the pub properly beforehand and booked a table, as a result we could sit outside with drinks (thankfully the weather was rather kind!) but we couldn’t get anything to eat. (Sorry guys!) A couple of times during the evening, someone would ask if we were going to get some food somewhere else, but there were too many puzzles around for them to be taken seriously and we ended up staying there for the evening.

We ended up with a pretty different set of puzzles at the pub, mainly due to the new influx of GSL-types, so there were a bunch of Constantin puzzles and a couple of rather interesting packing puzzles ... I’d taken my copy of Coffin’s Four Fit and Oskar’s Two Piece Packing puzzle along – everybody loved the latter and everybody hated the former. (Because they couldn’t solve it, not because it’s not a nice puzzle, he hastened to add!)

One of the highlights for me was being asked by Mark (he of Mark76 fame on the Revomaze forums) to hand Chris Pitt a small gift at the MPP. Mark has been enjoying his Revomazes so much, that he decided he needed to make a key ring-sized version (he collects key ring puzzles) ... so he got himself set up with a lathe and a mill, learnt some new skills and proceeded to produce the tiniest Revomazes known to man – when he posted his pics on the Revomaze forums there was quite a lot of excitement (and more than a couple of offers to buy them!) – so when Mark got in touch the week before MPP2 and asked if I’d mind handing them to Chris as a gift from him, I jumped at the chance... long story short:  Royal Mail got them safely down to my place – I put them in the light tent and took a couple of nice pics of them (and couldn’t resist having a little bit of a play with them – you should have seen the smile on my face when it went click as I fell into a trap!) before boxing them up and eventually handing them to Chris at the pub that evening ... I think he was impressed by what Mark has done, and his face was an absolute picture when he started playing with the larger one and promptly found the first trap ... gotcha! Payback time! Plenty of folks managed to have a go on them and without fail, they were impressed by what a bloke with a lathe and a mill has taught himself to do on such a tiny scale – nice work Mark! (and thanks for making me a part of it all ...)

While we were at the pub (before we realised that we wouldn’t be able to get any food!) Nigel gave me a Pentangle Vertigo burr as a thank you ... thank you, mate. 

One of the other great little features of the MPP was the Box o’ Bounty, donated by a puzzling friend who couldn’t even be with us, but wanted some of his old puzzles to go to a good home... at the first MPP, folks were a bit shy and we had quite a few things left over in BoB, this time they got into the spirit of things and there was a healthy redistribution of puzzles, making sure that they generated even more enjoyment! Thank you mystery donor of the Box o’ Bounty – it went down well! (... and in the interests of full disclosure - I liberated a couple of twisty puzzles and have added them to my sparse collection of twisty puzzles...) 

I suspect that a couple of take-out joints between Barston and Warwick / London saw a couple of ragged, smiling puzzlers seeking out some food late that evening... Louis and I discovered that at that hour of the night, the only place near my house still open for business was the local Chinese take-out. [Duck and crispy shredded beef, respectively, before another puzzling session at the dining room table ended a great day...]

(Thanks Louis for the pics.)

Monday 11 April 2011

Popplock T3

I first came across Rainer Popp’s puzzle locks through Grand Illusions – they looked good and solid and sounded like they made pretty good puzzles ... once I’d bought one of them (a T2), I’ve kind of had to buy each one that Rainer’s made since then, unfortunately I wasn’t one of the lucky folks who managed to get hold of the very first lock Rainer made (T1) – by all accounts a legendary puzzle lock that won’t be made ever again because it was simply too complicated! (If anyone ever needed any more of a reason to want to try and get hold of one after hearing that, then I haven’t heard of it!) 

From what I’ve read, Rainer uses a friend’s machine shop after hours to make his wares, so his production runs will be reasonably modest, however they’re all being precision-made by a bloke who understands not only good puzzles, but also how to craft them from lumps of metal – they’re not only really unusual good-looking locks, but they’re excellent puzzles as well!

So far my collection of Popplocks runs from T2 to T5 – each one is totally unique both in terms of mechanism and in terms of looks – and this one, T3, is my favourite.  It’s a simple puzzle that stands on its own and will hold its own against most comers.  

It looks a little unusual for a padlock, not least because it doesn’t appear to have a key or a slot for one – it does have a disk shaped piece in the middle of the lock that you can push, pull and rotate, sometimes ... the hasp seems to be a very solid chunk of steel that projects through one side of the lock itself – with a small locking bar along the bottom to (presumably) stop it from coming all the way out when the lock is opened ... so far so good ...

Right, so start playing around with it and work out why sometimes you can turn that dial, and sometimes you can’t, and what that means to you – then enjoy the brick wall that Rainer throws at you for quite some time until you notice something so subtle it’s almost criminal! 

Remember I said that these things were precision- made? That little step in there is just so well disguised that it’ll keep most puzzlers locked out for days ... release the doo-hickey and the lock Popps open :-) – in total there are probably only two or three real ‘moves’ to opening a T3, but I guarantee it’ll amuse you for quite some time trying to find what you need to do ... masterfully hidden, clever design, lovely puzzle!

[ ...and in answer to Kevin's question, 
albeit three weeks later,         
yes it does clean up... :-)  ]

Variations on a theme...

I came across the purple puzzle on a visit to Hamley’s in London years ago ... it had the usual colourful Thinkfun packaging, but what caught my eye was the tagline on the box: “The world’s most difficult 4-piece jigsaw” – and yeah, verily, it looked just like a simple 4-piece jigsaw puzzle inside the box ... but how can you resist a challenge like that? It was only a few quid, so I picked one up...

Open the packaging and things got ‘interesting’ – there are indeed 4 simple looking jigsaw pieces, except they don’t seem to come apart – they seem rather more joined up than they really should be, until you notice that the edges aren’t particularly square, which results in them forming a bit of a spiral – in fact, just enough of a spiral to stop you from getting the darn pieces apart ... Hmmm, nice ... 

OK, so as puzzles go, it’s not going to stop a hardened puzzler for very long, but it’s cute, and it’ll entertain non-puzzlers for a while – in fact it’s one of my old favourites for giving someone to fiddle with if they look a bit intimidated by some of the more complicated looking puzzles – who can resist a 4-piece jigsaw, after all? 

Cool thing is that they seem to pop up all over the place – in different materials – I found the wooden one online recently and couldn’t resist adding it to the hoard and the Hanayama Cast Spiral takes the same concept to another plane altogether ... not just by adding an extra piece and changing the shapes, but being made from cast metal, the tolerances are pretty fine and you need to get things just so before making your move – as a result, your chances of fluking a solution are reasonably small.

... a couple of variations on an interesting theme...

Sunday 10 April 2011


This was another of my Cubic Dissection finds. It’s a Tom Jolly design made by Eric Fuller from curly maple. 

It’s made up of two pieces in a 4*4*4 cube shape, interlocked, but with plenty of space in there. The object is to separate the two pieces and put them back together again.  Without using any force, i.e. if it doesn’t feel like that will work, it won’t - STOP. 

When you first start playing around with the Tangler, there’s plenty to do ... and usually with this sort of puzzle, wandering around aimlessly will teach you a bit about what you can and can’t do, and even sometimes see you solving it ... or not!
It’s a delightfully simple looking puzzle, with no moving parts and clearly those two bits of wood must be able to come apart – he didn’t build it like that, surely! [Although the latter might become quite a popular theory after some further exploration.]

There’s a bit of a twist to this puzzle, and it’ll probably not surprise you to find that building it in burr tools will confirm that the eventual assembly is indeed made up of the two parts that you have in your hands, but sadly, it’s not possible to assemble them ... (!)

Solving this one requires some out-the-box thinking and knowing where and when to apply it, as the amount of movement available means there is plenty of scope for blind alleys and dead ends. 

So far everyone who’s played with this one has enjoyed it ... so it must be good!

Double Squared, a.k.a. Black or White

When I received my first order from Sloyd, there was a little note in the box saying “Free gifts from our own series. Very different types of puzzles. Hope you’ll enjoy them!” along with a couple of additional puzzles – one of which was Vesa Timonen and Tomas Lindén’s Double Squared

I’d spotted it as one of the entries to the 2010 IPP Puzzle Design Competition and wasn’t sure if it would be my cup of tea or not, but since I’d just been given one, it would be rude not to play around with it at least a little, right?
So the goal sounds reasonably simple: make square of white or black (OK brown!) – your choice. There’s another version that says “Arrange the six pieces (without any support) to make a white (or black) square.”  There may be a subtle difference in there, and it might be useful, or it may be a total red herring, you’ll need to work that out yourself. 

It consists of six pieces of doubled up birch – light on one side and dark on the other – putting them together in the obvious manner produces an odd coloured piece left behind, or alternatively, the right coloured piece that’s the wrong shape.  OK, so it is a puzzle after all ... so you start experimenting with other concoctions for making squares – but every time you end up with an odd shaped or coloured piece left behind ... 

Hmmm ...

It turns out that the pieces are helpfully provided with what I’d call (probably incorrectly – see the ensuing comments section below in due course!) a parity problem – there’s always one wrong shaped or coloured piece, and the only way to get around that is to get rather creative!

The eventual solution is a real killer – you’re not going to stumble across this one by accident. It’s definitely worthy of an entry into the Puzzle Design Competition.

Thanks Sloyd for the freebie!

[I need to add a little note about Sloyd’s own range of wooden puzzles – they’re not expensive and rather nicely made – all in light woods – birch and the like, and they come very cleverly packaged – the card backing and hanger includes a separately stapled solution sheet – so it’s there if you want it, but you have to make a conscious effort to open it – very clever! – and yes I did...]


(I may have mentioned this before, and I’ll certainly keep saying it in the future... but ...) I really like puzzles that look like they must be stupidly simple, and then totally blow your mind ... Blockhead by Bill Cutler is definitely one of those puzzles. 

It’s a packing puzzle that consists of a walnut frame and four square cherry wood blocks sitting neatly, even squarely, in the frame. Right this’ll be tough then! So you tip the blocks out of the frame and then put them back in, at which point you notice that things weren’t quite as they seemed when the bits were in the frame ... in fact, those neat square blocks now look anything but square! 


OK, so the obvious thing is to examine the blocks and work out how they might fit together, and thankfully, there are several ways, or so it seems ... until you try and do that inside that innocuous looking frame – it’s really straight-forward to get any three blocks into that frame, but the last one will never go in – and it has to, they were in there when you got it, and they simply tipped out ...

It’s a lovely, simple looking puzzle that will keep folks entertained for quite some time – once you work out the trick to getting that final piece in, you realise there’s a lot of subtlety to those simple looking blocks – John Devost has done a lovely job of making these for Bill – the frame is beautifully finished and the blocks ‘work’ really well – totally innocuous one minute and fiendish the next.

When I enquired about buying this from Bill, he tried to dissuade me from buying the lovely wooden one on the grounds that the cheaper plastic version, that he had a couple left of, actually had better fitting pieces ... so I did what any hoarder would do in my position and asked for one of each – Bill’s a jolly good salesman, I suspect! 

And he was absolutely right, the fit on the plastic version is a lot tighter, but John D’s wooden version just looks the business!

Gold Coast Parking Meter

This was Brian Young’s Exchange Puzzle at the Gold Coast IPP in 2007 – modelled after the distinctive golden coloured parking meters installed along the Gold Coast in the 1960’s. There’s a lovely story on Brian’s web site about bikini-clad ladies causing a bit of a stir feeding expired meters along the Gold Cost to stop tourists from getting parking fines. For some reason when Brian used a suitably attired young lady as his assistant to hand out puzzles at the exchange, it went down rather well.

As a sequential discovery puzzle, it looks pretty unusual – you don’t generally come across puzzles shaped like parking meters very often for one thing, and for another, the object is to get the money (a 10 cent piece in this case) into the puzzle ... the coin projects out of a slot a bit and it clearly won’t just get pushed in, so you need to explore a bit.

There’s a reasonably obvious place to start: there are a couple of tell-tale signs on the sides of some moving blocks, but they seem stuck pretty solid at first ... so you explore a few more things – and at this point it might be wise to point out to any rather ham-fisted wannabe puzzlers that the base and stand do not come apart and breaking them off will not help you solve the puzzle ... and yes, I’ve had to warn one or two folks – some of my mates can be way more enthusiastic than clever ... and I guess that probably says a bit about me as well!

Right, so the base won’t help, and unless you have enormous fingernails, you’re not going to prise out the pins holding the dial in place (and that wouldn’t be a good idea either) – so you go back to working on the sides – and applying a little brain power will release a couple of blocks – but that coin is still stuck in place and a lot of fiddling, and using what you’ve found will get you past the next hurdle – which will let you put in the coin into the meter and then put it all back together again. 

[And then you can reverse the process to reset the puzzle again ... because handing a parking meter to the next person and asking them to take the coin out of it, would just be wrong!] 

The mechanism itself isn’t overly complicated, but it’s beautifully disguised and very nicely executed ... and Brian’s added a couple of his favourite little tricks to slow you down along the way. It’s one of those puzzles that puts a smile on your face.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

A burr is a burr is a burr, or not!

Bill Cutler’s Wausau Burrs
Right, so everyone knows that Bill knows burrs – his research into 6 piece burrs is legendary and probably forms the basis of mainstream burr-knowledge and notation in use today. Bill’s used a number of the burrs resulting from his exhaustive research  as the basis for some lovely puzzles, adding the odd twist here and there (“Would sir like ball bearings in that?”) and letting some of them stand on their own (Computer’s Choice?). At some point during this work, Bill decided to try something a little different – and this led to the Wausau series of burrs.

From the outset, you can tell these little guys are different: for a start, each of the major axes has an unusual or even a different number of pieces, in fact across the series, you’ll find anything between 3 and 8 sticks in a plane. (OK, except 5 & 7 – you won’t find one with 5 or 7 sticks in a plane … now stop being picky!) 

Not content with just having different shaped burrs, Bill also designed the mechanisms to be ‘interesting’ – so every now and then, one of them will move in a totally unexpected way – in fact quite often, prodding and pulling in ‘the usual way’ won’t get you anywhere … I like puzzles that catch you out by making you assume you ‘know’ something … then sneak up behind you and yell ”BOO!”. Most of the Wausau’s has a “BOO!” in there somewhere.
There are four in the series – numbered ’81 through ’84 (‘cos they were designed in the early 80’s).

Wausau 81: 4*4*4

The first in the Wausau series has a different pattern of 4 sticks on each plane! It looks different ... fiddling around with it quickly reinforces that ... it only takes a few moves to remove the first piece, however there are a number of false starts and little blind alleys that will keep ham-fisted puzzlers at bay for ages. Bill described this one politely as being “non-trivial to take apart”. 

Wausau 82: 3*4*6
There is one that’s often known as the lock-picking one because there’s a bit in the solution where you find yourself effectively trying to “pick a lock” using the pieces in one of the planes as a set of mortises while trying to slide some in an intersecting plane out. The amount of movement is again, unexpected, and will keep overly enthusiastic puzzlers occupied needlessly for hours. Once the lock’s been picked, it’s a pretty straight-forward disassembly… this was Cutler’s favourite of the Wausau series. 


Wausau 83: 4*4*6
Bill Cutler describes this as the best puzzle of the Wausau series – it takes 11 moves to release the first piece and involves a little to-ing-and-fro-ing along the way – there’s plenty of movement when you first start out, not all of it’s useful, however...


Wausau 84: 3*4*8
This was the last one I received and is an absolute delight – there are a few pseudo-standard burr moves and then you seem to hit a brick wall –prodding and pulling in “the usual way” will get you absolutely nowhere, so you need to start trying more unusual moves – and I have to say that the one that finally does it is a really unusual – almost magical movement. From there on out, it’s a simple matter of removing a piece or two at a time – reassembly on the other hand is quite tricky – mainly because of that funky move, that means you need to get things lined up a bit funky before it all locks together nicely … easily my favourite of the series. 

[In case you’re wondering about the different styles in the photographs – I got ’82 and’83 from Mr Puzzle, so you can see Brian’s signature finishing on the ends of the sticks; and then ’81 and ’84 came from Bill, manufactured by Jerry McFarland – and that’s his polishing on the ends ... sorry, I know it’s a mismatched set ... let’s call it eclectic and be done with it!]

Monday 4 April 2011

Oskar’s Paperclips

If memory serves, this was the second item I ordered from Cubic Dissections – it looked lovely in the pictures on the site and they had some in stock. Any questions?

The box duly arrived from the US and on opening the package my heart absolutely sank when I noticed a couple of bits of loose wood – thinking the worst: the damn postal service has broken my new puzzle, I investigate further – but everything looks fine … then I realised that Eric has stacked the three pieces and placed two sticks between the outsides of the three paperclips, simultaneously joining them together so that they won’t move around in transit and turning the three potentially fragile pieces into a single, solid unit…bright boy that Fuller! The packaging had done its job perfectly and the puzzle was in pristine shape. And the pieces aren’t fragile as you might expect from a structure with relatively small joints and long arms.

First impressions really count and this puzzle looks gorgeous. The attention to detail on the paperclips is incredible – the splines across each joint in a contrasting wood not only look smashing, but really strengthen the weakest part of each piece. Each paperclip is slightly different in terms of size and orientation and they’re made in three woods. The fit between the clips is spot-on and a little experimentation quickly establishes what the end-state will need to be in order to get all three paperclips properly interlocked at their centre.

I suppose the right thing to do is to think of them as forming a really large, loose three piece burr – but I’m rubbish at burrs, so I just fiddled with them – sometimes I’d get reasonably close to the end-state only to realise that I’d totally locked myself out of getting the last piece into the right place… after a couple of weeks of on-and-off experimentation, I finally relented and asked Eric for a copy of the solution (in fairness, Eric’s description says: “At 14 moves, finding the solution to this work of art is no trivial task either. It is a very confusing and difficult puzzle to solve.”) … thus confirming earlier references to second class puzzler!

This example was made by Eric Fuller in 2010 and uses Bocote, Jacaranda Pardo and Grenadilla wood with Holly splines, and yes, it’s an Oskar van Deventer design – his name seems to pop up quite a bit in my little collection – not sure if that says anything about my tastes in puzzles or his prodigious ability to design interesting puzzles … yeah, it’s probably all of the above!

Sunday 3 April 2011

Jerry McFarland’s Burrcube #1

A couple of weeks back I plucked up the courage to drop a few leading lights in the puzzling community an email asking them whether they had any puzzles in stock – one of those was Jerry McFarland ... I’d come across his web-site some time ago and had marvelled at some the equipment that Jerry has in his workshop – clearly he’s serious about making stunning puzzles. 

As luck would have it, Jerry didn’t have the puzzles I was after (and in fairness that’s what his web-site was saying too, but I asked anyway!) but he mentioned that he was putting together a new puzzle of his own design and asked if I’d be interested.

Jerry’s Burrcube#1 (because it’s a burr, in a cube, the first one, and there may be more along ...) is described as a 3*3*3 cube in a box that’s made up of 15 pieces – it sounded interesting and he was offering it at a jolly good price because he was interested in some feedback ... I couldn’t turn down an offer like that!

About a week later a box arrived from Jerry containing a Lovely Burr (I’ll get to that one when I’ve worked out how the heck to get it apart!), a nicely made 5 sided cube and a bag of bits ... object of the Burrcube#1 is to decant bag of bits into box ... but there’s effectively only one way to do that, and the photo that Jerry had of the completed puzzle in the cube deliberately shows you the least useful side ... nice guy, that Jerry!

Usual disclaimer – I’d already told Jerry that I wasn’t the world’s best burr solver and that I wasn’t a big fan of packing problems that relied on brute force – when I said that, he added that someone called Cutler  (yes, HIM!) had played around with the first prototype and enjoyed it and solved it using analysis ... so I'm thinking I’m going to enjoy this...

First off, the bits are all beautifully made – just like everything else that I’ve seen from Jerry. When I initially said that I’d like one, Jerry was a bit apologetic that he hadn’t knocked up any boxes yet, so I got the impression that he was going to knock up something quickly on his table saw - the initial pics I saw had a ply box – which at the price point wasn’t out of place! I certainly wasn’t expecting a beautifully finished walnut box with Jerry’s initials stamped on the bottom along with the serial number 002 ... the inside bits are made in cherry, maple and walnut and are all finished beautifully and fit perfectly. There are a couple of unusual shapes in there. 

You’ll recognise a number of similar pieces and they’ll help you come up with the guts of the solution, and from there it’s really a bit of experimentation to find the right combinations of bits. Thankfully there aren’t any curve-balls like some burrs, where you end up holding the last piece with no apparent means of getting it into the remaining assembly! Right up to the end, you can go backwards and forwards and add in bits...

All in all, it is a lovely little puzzle – it took about 20 minutes of gentle playing and experimentation to find a solution and it shows some lovely patterns on the sides as a result of the three different woods – as I said, the most boring one is the one that Jerry’s using to display the puzzle so as to give you as few clues as possible to the solution...

After I’d solved it, I dropped Jerry a note with some thoughts and some encouragement to develop it into a small series of increasing complexity ... and then we traded emails on how he could give the puzzler even fewer clues to the solution while still giving a genuine photo of the puzzle. [He dismissed my suggestion of making an alternate set of bits in the wrong colours and using a photo of that one’s solution as being too mean ...] – swapping a couple of different coloured pieces that share the same shape might just fit the bill, and give a less symmetrical, but still rather pleasing solution... 
If he does start selling them, please encourage him to make some more and expand on his ideas... the world doesn’t have enough puzzles yet... :-) 

Six-piece burrs … Dipping my toes in a new pool.

 I’ve always been scared of burrs. There. I’ve said it. In public. In front of a bunch of people who can now consider me a second class puzzler… (Which in fairness is probably about right! But in my defence, I am enthusiastic!)

So for most of the past 4 or 5 years (i.e. most of my puzzling life) I’ve avoided burrs – sure I’d played with the odd burr when I stumbled across it from time to time (although I never inhaled, m’lord) but I’d never really tried to understand them and get to grips with them. I’d certainly come across some pretty incredible, analytical web-sites dedicated to all things burr, but my prejudices won out…until about a year ago, when I decided that I needed to face my fears and “get into” burrs, so I did what every self respecting puzzler does, and bought handfuls of them…most of them from Mr Puzzle, and a really useful burr set from Philos.

This is a really simple, plain vanilla 6-piece burr. It’s sort of the dummies guide to burrs. That’s why I started there. Baby-steps, baby-steps. It arrives disassembled, look at the pieces and you can see how the different pieces can slot together. Notice the key piece (that solid plank without any notches) – that one’s going in last, so you need an assembly that looks almost like a completed burr, with a single hole right through the middle that you can slot the key piece into.
Like I said, this one’s a simple design, so it lets you just assemble the first five pieces without much bother and slide in the last piece. That’s not so bad…maybe I’ll give these burr things a bash after all.

Philos 151 Burr set
Next up is a set of 20 individual burr pieces – most of them different, with a couple of duplicates … but this set will enable you to build 151 different burrs (ignoring rotations). It comes with a list of pieces that will each build into a six piece burr, starting with reasonably straight forward assemblies and ending with some slightly less trivial examples. To me this is the equivalent of a burr skills-building exercise – start at the beginning of the list, select the 6 pieces and build a burr. Cross it off the list, repeat, until end, go! This little set is tremendous value at about EUR 20 (I got mine from “Toys for all” in Germany – it literally gave me hours of fun playing with different burrs and learning to ‘see’ different assemblies. The first few use a key piece and are quite straight forward, then you start using just notched pieces and by the end you’re having to introduce pieces sequentially and manipulate the whole assembly in order to get things into their final shape. Spending a few hours with this set helped me get past my mental block about burrs.

Taking it to extremes
I got a Mega Six from Mr Puzzle because it claimed to be the daddy as far as six-piece burrs go. [Okay, technically it claims: “The puzzle is incredibly more complicated than the commonly known six piece puzzle”]  This was derived from one of the designs that Bill Cutler’s seminal research on burrs uncovered as having the deepest level for a six piece burr (i.e. most moves to remove the first piece). It takes a monumental 10 moves (including some multiple piece moves) to remove the first piece from the assembled burr. Theoretically there are twenty assemblies for this set of pieces, practically speaking only one is feasible – I’m guessing because most puzzlers only have two hands and have to obey the law of gravity, most of the time!
Solving it, i.e. reassembling it without the assistance of a solution sheet, is quite simply beyond me – the movements are that complex that even if you can work out which pieces lie where in the solved state, working back and establishing what would have to move where to allow the assembly, is simply beyond me (see, second class puzzler!). Having said that, using a set of Brian’s really clear instructions make it possible, but it remains an exercise in dexterity and concentration – mine had a set of masking tape numbers on each piece to make following the instructions easier for ages, and it was still fiddly and confusing. 

It’s a tough burr – tougher than me! But I’m a puzzler, so I have to have one – and who knows, maybe one day I’ll be good enough to be able to work it out for myself!

I’m still a bit of a klutz when it comes to solving burrs – I spent about three-quarters of an hour at Chris’ place on Saturday playing with one of Wil Strijbos’ aluminium burrs – most of that trying to figure out how to put one piece back in after I’d inadvertently turned the rest of the puzzle upside down, and I only noticed that when Chris pointed it out to me. I still have a lot to learn! But I’m trying…

Further resources
I’ve found these resources incredibly useful:
Rob Stegmann’s page on Interlocking puzzles – with heaps of burr-stuff
Burr Tools - this free software is incredible! It lets you define all sorts of problems and then works out how to solve them.