Sunday 29 January 2012

Havana’s Box #1 aka “The Chris”

I only had one Eric Fuller box in my little collection, and it was a sod! (To be honest, that was literally why I bought it!) – then I went down to visit James Dalgety’s Puzzle museum and got introduced to quite a few more of them – and they all kicked my butt too! So when Eric announced he had a new box for sale I dived right in … in fact it got me out of bed early to make sure that I didn’t lose out on getting one!

Havana’s Box #1 is going to be the first in a series of cigar-sized boxes created in honour of Eric’s local cigar bar – it turns out that he’s a bit of a cigar aficionado and happily admits that that’s his favourite way to unwind after a heavy day in the workshop. Each of the boxes will be named after someone from the cigar bar and the first in the series is therefore “The Chris”, named after the club’s doorman.
Eric promised that the series would get increasingly difficult and described the first one as “fairly easy” – but given some of the things he’s come up with, who knows what that really means!
The box is pretty much exactly the size you’d expect a single-cigar box to be … although I should point out that that’s coming from someone who knows absolutely nothing about cigars at all! The box is made of a fine-grained dark hardwood called Sapele and has some Wenge veneer on the two main faces of the box to make it look pretty. (It succeeds!)
Examining the box you’ll quickly spot a bit of movement in the two main panels, but other than hinting at the fact that you might want to find a way to get them to slide, they don’t do an awful lot. There are no obvious sliders or keys, so this definitely isn’t anything like a standard Japanese style puzzle box, but then we know that Eric is far more inventive than that!
Playing around with it for a while I found something unexpected happened. [It probably says a lot about my puzzle-solving skills that most of my solves rely on stumbling across things I wasn’t expecting! Very few have resulted from deduction, logic or any form of scientific approach…] Fiddling around with the unexpected thing, led to half-opening the box, showing the prize – a Free Havana cigar – waiting to be liberated … and cunningly, the box is just the right size so that only having it half-open means that you cannot extract the contents without ruining them… a nice touch.
Fiddling around a little more and the box opens completely, allowing the cigar out …victory!
The locking mechanism is indeed fairly simple and Eric’s done a lovely job of building it into the two ends of the box rather elegantly – hiding the mechanism entirely except for a little peek when it’s opened. Having said it’s fairly simple, it is a bit unusual and I’ve seen very seasoned puzzlers spend a little while trying an awful lot of things before finding the right attack. There’s also a neat little variation that is beautifully hidden and if you don’t find that little feature, it’s going to keep you out for a long time!
If this is the first and simplest in the series, it’s bound to be a great little set of puzzle boxes…looking forward to the next one now…

If you'd like to see what some other folks think about it, take a look at Rox's blog over here,and Brian's over here.

Friday 27 January 2012

Ambigram Burr

Q: When is a burr not a burr?
A: When it’s an Ambigram Burr.
The Ambigram Burr was one of Gregory Benedetti’s entries in the Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition in Berlin last year. While it didn’t win an award, it was popular among the voters, being one of the top vote-getters that didn’t win an award.
This puzzle is a bit of an enigma, and indeed, I’m going to be forced to split this blog post in two to avoid telling anyone anything they might not want to hear – because it’s impossible to really talk about the puzzle without including any spoilers.

I first stumbled across the Ambigram Burr on the Renegades forum, and it sounded intriguing – being described as tricky in spite of it’s relatively low burr move count – and everyone who’d seen one and had a play with it seemed to rave about it (that in itself cause for serious consideration!).
So when I was over in Eindhoven at the Dutch Cube Day, and Bernhard Schweitzer had a couple available for sale, I had a closer look. Expertly manufactured by the New Pelikan Workshop, it looks like a rather well-made 6-piece board burr with the shoulders of each joint reinforced with dowels. The boards are made in three distinctive colours (wenge, padauk and robinia) and make for a very handsome puzzle.
Bernhard was on top form, entertaining us with a story of a particular puzzler who managed to rip his copy apart because he was so convinced that it had to move in a particular way that he just kept piling on more and more pressure until the inevitable happened. Interestingly Bernhard was demonstrating the solution and that seemed  to help the sales process, which is probably unusual for a puzzle.
Gregory’s design is really unusual and the Pelikan guys’ work does a fantastic job of disguising certain aspects of the puzzle – making this a really excellent puzzler’s puzzle…
Now if you want to read some more, follow the link, but be warned: there be massive spoilers ahead – so don’t go there if you’re going to get one for yourself and want to enjoy the ‘discovery’…

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Kugellager 7

Kugellager 7 came quite highly recommended by my mate Louis whose wife had surprised him with one as a Christmas present. I already had a copy of its smaller brother, so when Wil offered them for sale soon afterwards, I knew I had to add one to the collection.
Although the family resemblance is impossible to miss, it is the implementation between the two that differs slightly. Whereas the first one is true to its name and uses actual ball bearings [Kugellager = ball bearing] to move between the levels, the bigger brother opts for short screw studs (they look a bit like large rivets that screw together) but retains the family name, modified with a clue to the higher order of this version – 7 as opposed to 5 levels.
 Somewhere in the middle
When mentioning the original Kugellager over here, I pointed to a paper by Goetz Schwandtner that covered the theoretical background to the puzzles by reference to things like Gray Codes and the like – and one of the really interesting things in the paper was a graph of the increasing complexity (read number of steps) against the level of the puzzle. Well that paper has already been updated to include a reference to the emergence of the bigger brother … for reference, the original was a level 5 puzzle and the newer, bigger badder brother is a level 7 puzzle – and the original had a pretty hefty 1250 moves from start position to end – whereas the level 7 version requires a slightly larger 4802.
Working your way through the solution is pretty straight-forward, if not a bit hypnotic and it definitely has an element of therapy in it. Moving the slider in and out while alternately tilting the puzzle forward and back to allow the pieces to move up and down between levels becomes almost second nature after a while. It probably says a lot about my OCD that I can’t leave it half-done, and actually found wandering through and then back again, quite amusing – what still intrigues me is my total inability to tell from looking at the current position how far away from either the start or the end position a particular point is – often when I think I’m getting somewhere, attention will fairly quickly switch to something I wasn’t expecting and end up making me feel like I’m going in reverse – and yes, I know that’s possible, but I think I’m still heading in the right overall direction. Promise.
The end
It’s a fun puzzle to play around with – but there’s one little piece of advice that might be useful – it’s worth spending a little time treating those screw studs with a bit of thread-lock or some plumbers’ tape to stop them working loose while you’re wandering backwards and forwards. I’ve found that a couple of mine tend to work themselves loose during the 4800-odd moves in each direction.

Addendum: Goetz has added a great page to his web-site that shows all of his n-ary puzzles over here.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Revomaze Extreme Orange

Way back in the mists of time there was a competition to design a new Revomaze puzzle. The competition was open to pretty much anyone who’d solved at least one of the puzzles in the range (so that you know how they work, essentially) and quite a few folks took up the challenge and submitted a design or two.
I think it’s fair to say that not all folks who are able to solve puzzles would necessarily make half-decent puzzle designers – and in fact a couple of the entries were delightful in their total disregard for any need to actually be capable of being manufactured, dismissing their little impossibilities with a casual remark intended to pass across any responsibility for implementing these features to Chris Pitt, the originator of the puzzles and runner-of-the-competition – “Place anti-matter device here facing left/right” – not quite, but you get the general idea.
Chris gave feedback on the entries he was receiving from time to time and at one stage let it be known that there was a definite favourite in the pile. The eventual winner was judged by a bunch of Revomaze-junkies, or serious puzzlers as I expect they’d prefer to be known, and the result was totally unanimous, albeit not the entry that Chris had thought was the front-runner.
Having selected the winner there was the inevitable delay while the design was ‘improved’ (read: made even harder!) and the manufacturing logistics were sorted out and then about a year after we’d all signed up for one, the Orange Revomazes began arriving through the mail.
Designed by Mark (mark76 on the forums) who’s previously been noted in dispatches for making mini and micro Revomaze puzzles and even giving some of them to arbitrary puzzle bloggers [Thanks mate], the Orange design seriously shows off not only his incredible skills with some fairly simple (his words) PC design software, but also his creativity in coming up with a puzzle that actually tells a story along the way as it winds through six or seven distinct phases of the solution. Having opened mine and reading some of he back-story that Mark’s published on the forum, I can see why it was the unanimous choice of the puzzlers choosing the winner.
My Orange puzzle arrived during December at just about the same time as the family descended for Christmas and I took some time off work to spend with them – so it took a week or so before I had even taken it out the box, and then several more weeks until I had actually found much time to work on it – and I have to say that I rather enjoyed getting back into the old routine of measuring and mapping and trialling and erroring. This is a genuine old-school Revomaze – and a good mechanical puzzle – everything is there in your hands and lovers of the earlier Revomazes will definitely enjoy this one as well.
On the outside, it looks just like any other Revomaze, with the colour of the sleeve being the only nod to what’s inside. Once you drop into the maze for the first time, you’ll know it’s different – there are traps everywhere, and negotiating a path around them is quite a tricky task, with several spots that will stop any agricultural attempts at solving it, futile. Wind your way through the first two parts (the village and the forest) and you find yourself confronted by “the guard” – and getting past him can take quite a while, especially since Chris tweaked something in there to make it’s behaviour rather unusual, until you work out how to control it properly – then it behaves rather well (and seeing that little piece of evil for the first time is a real eye-opener!).
Past the guard and you eventually get to storm the castle, only to find yourself locked in there in a little feature that makes the Bronze swimming pool seem like a child’s inflatable paddling pool by comparison. Once you’re out of the castle and have negotiated the moat, there’s another chat with the less than friendly guard (and if anything he’s even grumpier now!) before winding your way to the exit and freedom – and an open maze with the chance to look at what the heck’s going on in there…
Mark has used the space incredibly well and re-uses bits in an almost impossible fashion. The guard is a masterpiece of evil and I’m not surprised that it manages to keep people at bay for hours / days at a time. I suspect that given the opportunity to test the puzzle a bit more before they wound up production and unleashed it on the public desperate for another Revomaze, a couple of potential short-cuts (including one that I made use of) could have been designed out, creating an even more phenomenal puzzle – as it stands it’s a great puzzle though and probably has been rightly characterised as somewhere between the Bronze and the Silver Revomaze in terms of complexity.
Definitely not a puzzle for the faint-hearted or the casually interested puzzler – you either get totally sucked-in and respect this puzzle, or you fail miserably – your choice!
Fantastic design Mark! You definitely hit the sweet-spot of a puzzle that demands concentration without making one that requires months of slogging. Thanks mate – and by the way, my hands still hurt!

Sunday 15 January 2012

Strijbos’ Prague Special

Wil Strijbos handed me a little something special to add to my collection at Peter Hajek’s EPP. It looks like a standard Dino-in-a-Cage puzzle – in fact it looks remarkably like the one that Bruce gave me a little while ago – except that some wag has gone and introduced a Japanese puzzle box into the cage as well, and marked it out as something special with the words “Special Edition Prague 2008” across the top of the cage.

A quick glance at the puzzle makes me ask Wil my first dumb question “Is it a puzzle, or an impossible object?” – sometimes it’s wise to ask Wil these things, sometimes it isn’t – because he has a wicked sense of humour! This time however he appears almost hurt by the question … as if he’d do something like give me an impossible object and let me think it was a puzzle … I mean, if!
Wil just smiles and says that it’s a puzzle – something he came up with between IPP in Japan and in Prague – something to bring the two events together in puzzle form, as it were. The standard Hedgehog-in-a-Cage puzzle has been well known in the Czech Republic since the 1940’s when it was popularised in a widely-read comic (how many puzzles can you say that about?!). Although the puzzle originated in the USA, I think it’s fair to say that it’s been pretty much adopted by the Czechs and it has become one of the most recognisable Czech puzzles around today – although Vinco is certainly doing a fantastic job of mounting a challenge to that.
Right, back to the puzzle – the standard Dino-in-a-Cage is a neat little challenge, presenting you with an object seemingly too big to get out between the bars of the cage, and yet, with a bit of manipulation of the dino, you can do exactly that – and you’ll find that there’s just enough wiggle room to let you do that … then Strijbos goes and puts a Japanese puzzle box in there as well … and it’s pretty clear that you can’t magically make the box any smaller – hence my first line of enquiry about impossible objects.
The next thought that strikes me is that Wil’s the sort of bloke who’s rather adept at making one puzzle that masquerades as another – so I start feeling my way around the bars of the cage trying to identify any play in there that might just hint at a removable bar or three – Wil just smiles knowingly at me and says nothing – and I get the impression I’m doing exactly the right thing (from a puzzle-designer’s perspective) and exactly the wrong thing (from a puzzle-solver’s perspective) at the same time. Suffice it to say that I get absolutely nowhere that afternoon and pack it away in my rucksack for later solving…
…which turns out to be back at home the next afternoon. This puzzle really gives you all the main ingredients of a great puzzle in my books: you start with something that looks impossible, you find a couple of avenues to explore and play around for a little while, develop one or more of those ideas and then stumble across something (your approach may well be more scientific and less reliant on luck than mine!) and have one almighty “A-Ha!” moment and then complete the solution.
For me the “A-Ha!” moment came when I stumbled across something I wasn’t really expecting and realised what he’s done – it’s still anything but trivial once you’ve realised that, and in fact there are a few really tricky bits to follow – not least of which is just the standard get-the-dino-out-the-cage bit.
Working out how to get those two items back in there is an interesting little challenge too, especially if you aren’t absolutely methodical in taking them out – and that would probably have spoilt half the fun, eh?
Wil’s taken a fairly good puzzle and made it great by adding the extra dimension – definitely a puzzler’s puzzle and a wonderful addition to my little collection of Strijbos originals … thanks Wil!

Friday 13 January 2012

Strijbos' Washer Cylinder

Wil Strijbos’ first cylinder puzzle (known simply as Aluminium Cylinder) is the stuff of legends. Beautifully made, elegant in its simplicity and downright mean as a puzzle! It looks lovely in its stark minimalism, the hole at the bottom teases far more than it provides useful feedback and the mechanism ensures that you cannot solve it by accident – it’s been around for years and remains a classic.

Wil’s been busy working on a partner for the Aluminium Cylinder and unleashed a prototype of the Washer Cylinder on some unsuspecting puzzlers on his trip to the UK in mid-December … he left it with Oli after the Camden Lock Puzzle Meet on a Wednesday, and when we all met up on the Saturday at James Dalgety’s Puzzle Museum, it was still locked. Several folks had a bash at it at James’ place and got nowhere and then Louis was tasked with taking it back to the Netherlands, and solving it en route… and I’ve already mentioned that he spent most of the drive back up from Devon playing with it, I spent several hours on it the next morning and we both got nowhere … this puzzle is clearly going to pick up where the first one left off. 

A week or so later Wil announced that he had some of them available and quite a few of us signed up for one – mine arrived just before Christmas and found its way under the tree, suitably wrapped.
Unwrapping it on Christmas Day I found it well packaged along with a couple of puzzles I’d ordered and a big red ‘EASY’ button with a note attached to it. If you haven’t spotted them at Staples, these buttons look like the sort of button you might find on a shop counter and they say “EASY” across the top in big, bold letters – and when you press the button, a calm, assured voice says “That was easy!” – the note attached to the button’s packaging says “Allard, because you are number ONE (my serial number on the puzzle) you get this button. Only press on it when you've solved the Washer Cylinder. NOT BEFORE PLEASE - HAVE GREAT FUN. Best regards, Wil” – Gee thanks, Wil!
Suffice it to say that the button wasn’t (legally) pressed for quite some time!
OK, the Washer Cylinder looks pretty similar to its elder brother on the outside: it’s a small aluminium cylinder with a cap locked in place, somehow. There’s a serial number on the cap, but no markings on the body, unlike the earlier puzzle. The cap spins very freely, in either direction, and in any orientation – which gives some clues to the evil within. On the bottom of the body there is a small hole through which an aluminium post is visible, and there is a washer trapped on that post – now all of that takes you seconds to establish – and that’s more or less where the discovery phase of solving this puzzle stops, for quite some time!
For what it’s worth, the prototype had a 5 Yen coin in the base instead of a trapped washer – so the little stalk wasn’t there on the prototype … and that doesn’t change the puzzle, in case you’re interested…
Right, first line of attack is to try all the things that were helpful on the Aluminium Cylinder … just to confirm they don’t work here …
Yip, confirmed!       
Next I tried all manner of spinning. Spinning the base, spinning the cap, spinning the whole puzzle in all the distinct planes I could imagine – not very useful either …
I tried tapping (even bashing!) it in a number of different places and orientations and that didn’t seem to accomplish much either … and yes, I even tried blowing and sucking through the hole in the bottom and all I discovered was that tolerances on this thing are incredible.
If any of that description sounds like a planned, orchestrated piece of analysis, I should probably apologise – that took place over a couple of days, in sporadic bursts and on a rather random basis – I did have the occasional lapse into a more scientific approach where I’d systematically try each of the current best guesses through all of the orientations I could readily discern, but mostly it was a pretty random attack that lasted hours spread over days – this was good puzzling value per pound!
At one point I noticed that things started behaving a little differently and I’d been so used to not getting any feedback at all that it gave me a fright – so I emailed a mate who’d opened his already to ask if this was a good sign or a bad one (if I was breaking the thing I thought I should probably stop early on!) – turned out the sign was a good one and I managed to progress things and open the cylinder – and immediately launched for the button to alert the rest of the household to my success – Ben and Jerry merely snored a little louder – that was anything but ‘EASY’.
It turned out that I’d opened it using an “alternative method” – my phrase for “the wrong way” – and when I examined the internals I found that one bit wasn’t quite able to do its thing properly – so I sorted that out and it is now a real joy of a puzzle that opens perfectly every single time. The mechanism is subtle and thoroughly disguised – it’s impossible to solve it by accident and there are virtually no external clues to what’s keeping the cap on the cylinder. I literally found the internal stuff astounding – the quality of the work in there is tremendous.
I know that I’ve already said that I think the Aluminium Cylinder is a classic puzzle, but I actually like this one even more. When the mechanism is working sweetly, it is an absolute delight.
Wil, your Washer Cylinder is a worthy successor to the Aluminium Cylinder – you should definitely be proud of this one!
…anyone else out there hoping that this family continues to grow?

Wil’s words of wisdom: Wil was quite concerned about my puzzle not behaving itself properly from the start and he’s been looking into one or two other little niggles that some of the others have had with their puzzles and he’s suggested that when you open the puzzle, that you please consider not totally dismantling the internals altogether (trust me, it’ll make sense!) because you risk introducing small particles into a space that’s not particularly tolerant of small particles and it will frustrate you – and in fact may make your puzzle exceedingly difficult to re-solve … if you decide you ignore that advice, then please accept some of mine – make very sure that there aren’t any stray bits (or even potentially stray bits) around in there – again, it should make sense when you’re in there. The tolerances are incredibly fine and any little bits in the wrong place will stop things working properly…

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Peter Hajek’s End-of-Year Puzzle Party (EPP)

The first time I heard about Peter’s EPPs was when I picked up a copy of a colour booklet called “The Best Puzzle Finds of the Year 2009 / 2010” from Wil Strijbos back in October. It’s a soft cover 60-odd page booklet documenting a collection of puzzlists presenting their best three puzzle finds of the year – with quite of few of them attending the EPP at Peter’s house at the end of 2009 and 2010 to share their finds with others.  I was delighted to have come across the booklet as it contained several puzzles I recognised, some that I already have, and a number on a wish list for “one day when I grow up!”- all of them described by people who were enthusiastic about them and considered them one of their three best puzzle finds of the year. What better recommendation could you wish for? 

Wil in action
A little while later, Peter sent out an invitation on Nobnet for contributions to this year’s selection, and also invited anyone who’d be in London at the end of December to come along – I decided this was way too good an offer to refuse, so set about choosing my 3 three puzzle finds of the year to email off to Peter – and made some enquiries about going along on the day ... Peter was really encouraging and as it turned out, Gill and I were going to be in London that day to see some friends from South Africa who were over on holiday, so I made arrangements to attend. 

I was one of the first to arrive on the day – not counting Wil and Joop who were staying there – but pretty soon the place was filled with puzzlists wandering around peering at the crates of puzzles for trade / sale, chatting about our nominated puzzles and picking up and playing with the odd puzzle dotted around the Hajek house. 

David Singmaster with his prized find
Peter played the perfect host and made sure that everyone had been introduced and given something to drink before allowing us to mingle and get to know one another for a while ... given that Wil was the only person there that I’d already met, I ended up meeting a bunch of new puzzle-fiends, and a couple of magicians (Peter doesn’t discriminate!). One of the gents I met comes from just down the road from me – and it turns out is a rather accomplished designer of puzzles – although to my shame I only discovered that afterwards – hopefully I’ll be able to convince Sam Cornwell to come along to one or two of our MPPs in the near future – I know there are a few people who’d like to meet him!

Peter always manages to arrange for a lecture or a performance of some sort during the afternoon – in 2009 and 2010 there were a couple of magic performances and lectures from Laurie Brokenshire, William Houston and Angelo Carbone. This year Peter had lined up artist Patrick Hughes to talk about his mind-blowing perspective-mangling art. I hadn’t come across Patrick’s work before so did a little Googling beforehand and read up a little but it didn’t really prepare me for what I was about to experience – Patrick had brought along one of his works (“Volumes” 6/7 from memory) and had it displayed up at the front of the room – he gave a wonderfully self-effacing talk for someone who was clearly a very gifted artist from where I was sitting and talked about how he found art that challenged your perception or your assumptions really interesting, mentioning a couple of pieces of others’ art in his own collection to illustrate his points – then he turned his attention to the piece he’d brought along and started describing some aspects that,  to be honest, didn’t make a lot of sense to me given where I’d been sitting (toward the back of the room). He’d been talking about how the piece seems to move in unusual ways when you moved across it and that this was partly the result of your brain trying to make sense of something that didn’t really make sense because of how it had been painted – he’d illustrated the concepts earlier by talking about the Ames Window but I was having difficulty linking those ideas with the painting I was looking at, or rather from where I was looking at it. 
Patrick Hughes

At the end of his talk, Patrick encouraged us all to experiment with his painting and when I wandered up close it made sense all of a sudden! What I was looking at wasn’t a flat painting, it was a painting on a series of projections where the painting had been given a forced perspective – some of which were right (i.e. exaggerated) and some of which were wrong – so as you looked at the painting your brain tried (unsuccessfully in my case!) to make sense of what it was seeing, forcing one interpretation on it – which was fine, until you moved – up or down or left or right – then the combination of forced perspective and actual projections caused things to move in a way that your brain wasn’t expecting, helpfully (!) your brain then tries to compensate and tells you that the things in the picture must actually be moving around in a rather strange way ... a very spooky effect indeed! Several times later that afternoon there’d be three or four of us standing in front of that piece swaying sideways or bobbing up and down and remarking about how weird it was. Patrick is clearly a master of perception and knows just how to toy with it to create some really disturbing effects – and I’m glad that I’ve been introduced to his work – not sure I’m ever going to be able to add any of it to my collection, but privileged to have been exposed to it by the man himself. 

After Patrick’s talk and a brief break, we each took turns to present our three best puzzle (or magic!) finds of the year ... we took turns alphabetically and managed to tie ourselves in knots once or twice and promptly rearranged the alphabet but managed to get all of our turns taken in the end. 

I’d nominated Brian Young’s Opening Bat, Robert Yarger’s Little Game Hunter and Coffin’s Rosebud made by Scott Peterson as my three puzzle finds for the year: 
  • Opening Bat because it is an epic puzzle that keeps you going for ages and then rewards you superbly at the end when you solve the final part of the puzzle,
  • Little Game Hunter because I managed to get one straight from Rob after starting a small collection of Stickmen earlier in the year and getting yards and yards of advice and encouragement from Rob while I was finishing off my DIY Chopstick box and the Grandfather Clock – I love his puzzles because they’re all so entirely different and each presents a unique challenge,
  • Rosebud because it’s an iconic Coffin design and it was both my first puzzle from Scott Peterson and my first taste of Coffin’s unusual geometry – both of which will hopefully stay with me for quite some time!
It turns out that someone else at the EPP (Steve Nicholls) had also nominated the Opening Bat, and in fact, so had 6 other people who’d provided email submissions – making it the runaway best pick of the year with a total of 8 nominations! The previous record for multiple nominations (shared by the Stickman Gordian Knot Box and Oskar’s Gear Cube) was four nominations, back in 2010. Peter reckons the record is likely to stand for a while – I reckon it reflects what an incredible creation Brian came up with...

After the presentations Peter and Katja provided a tremendous spread for dinner that kept us going for ages before we inevitably lapsed into more puzzle chat, bartering and outright buying. 

At one point Peter called me to join a couple of others who wanted to see his puzzle room upstairs – there were a couple of us who hadn’t see the puzzle room before and the first puzzle turned out to be how to get into the puzzle room! The door appeared to be locked, with a keyhole on the side where you’d normally expect it, and a handle not quite where you’d expect it – helpfully there was a key supplied, unfortunately it was rather well attached to a chain on a hook in the middle of the door, and wouldn’t you know it, the chain was too short to allow it into the keyhole ... and it kept us out until Peter helped us out and showed us in ... WOW! The puzzle room houses an absolutely stunning collection, most of it beautifully displayed in glass-fronted cabinets ... from a number of early Stickmen, through the genesis of the Karakuri Group, via an exceptional collection of Kamei’s and onto an impressive set of Coffins, key-chain puzzles a-plenty (even though most of them are in the cabinets of drawers) and best of all (for me at any rate) a collection of Trevor Wood boxes, including Takashima’s Tantalizing Temple in pride of place ... lovely.

Back downstairs Tim Rowett did the rounds dishing out Christmas presents to everyone and telling stories about each of the little goodies he was handing out and somehow didn’t seem to tire of telling them – everyone got the same treatment whether you were first in line or last...

Slowly the numbers dwindled and we were hit by a sudden realisation that we’d missed the opportunity to take a group photo before folks started leaving, so we ended up with a slightly depleted group photo – maybe next year we’ll be more vigilant... 

While things wound down, we naturally found ourselves gravitating toward the study where everyone managed to find something interesting to play with or discuss – me, I found a recent little Mike Toulouzas creation that I hadn’t seen in the flesh before and enjoyed solving it for the first time – and I managed to do it quietly, unlike the majority of the folks at the last IPP who seemed to make quite a racket playing with it judging by Brian P’s account.  I can see why it won a Jury First Prize award though...

In the intervening weeks Peter has been beavering away and has already sent us all  (including those who emailed their selections) a soft copy of the booklet – complete with write-ups and photos – he is incredibly efficient ... as well as a tremendous host!

Thanks to Peter and Katja for opening up your home to a bunch of puzzlists, including a number of unknown quantities like myself who came along for the first time, for making us all feel at home and giving us a great day (and night’s) entertainment – your hospitality was supreme! 

And finally thanks to Patrick for introducing me to your work and opening my eyes to seeing perspective differently – I’m not sure I’m ever going to get over that... :-)

Saturday 7 January 2012

Pieces of Eight

One of the things I really appreciate about a lot of Stuart Coffin’s designs is that they start from an interesting point of departure, then develop a few themes before settling on a particular puzzle design – if you read his book Geometric Puzzle Design you’ll find a lot of examples where he’ll start with a particular set of pieces, restrict them somehow and then use the resulting items to develop a puzzle.
I think Pieces of Eight is one of Stewart Coffin’s classic puzzle designs and it starts from a beautifully simple premise that Coffin develops in chapter 22 "Theme and Variations", and then turns into a wonderful little puzzle.
Pieces of Eight starts with a simple dissection of a cube into two identical C-shaped pieces. Two of those C-shaped pieces can then be joined together in eight possible configurations that will allow the cubes to be completed by joining on another C-shape – omitting rotations or reflections. That’s interesting - but then Coffin notes that those eight pieces can then be assembled into a 2*2*2 cube – that’s a puzzle! In fact he poses a number of assembly challenges for the reader using those pieces including a 2*2*1, 2*3*1 and some step formations.
My copy came from a recent auction that saw Eric Fuller reducing his stash of his own puzzles a bit – so I was able to purchase an unusual copy of this puzzle with the pieces made in Bocote. The assembled pieces fit neatly inside a cherry box signed and dated on the base by Eric. Tipping the pieces out leaves a 2*2*2 cube on the desk – the fit on the pieces is rather good so the cube holds together very nicely – and the finish is so darn good that when it’s assembled, it’s pretty darn hard to find any visual clues as to where the pieces separate – so the only way to attack it is to feel your way around the edges, tugging gently in different directions until you find a bit that can be released. Disassembly is reasonably trivial once you identify your first bit to tug free, and the resulting bits are interesting to look at as they’re all different (you were paying attention at the beginning of this post, weren’t you!).
Assembly on the other hand is anything but trivial! I can vouch for the fact hat there are stacks of ways of snookering yourself right at the death – everything goes together brilliantly only to leave you with a piece that will only fit at right angles to the rest of the cube, or worse still, leaves you with a set of misaligned holes.
Pieces of Eight has been around for ages – and I think it’s rightly earned its place as one of the classics – and I rather like my copy from Eric’s collection…

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Yet more puzzling-generosity

Over the past year quite a few folks have presented me with various bits and bobs and I’ve commented on some of them in past blog entries already, but there are a bunch that I haven’t already mentioned and I really would like to – so here’s my way of saying thanks: 
A couple of months ago I had an email from Jane Kostick to say that they’d sent a few of their bronze stars across to an English magazine for a photo shoot and when they were due to be returned she’d requested that they be redirected to me. A few days later I received the package. Jane refused to accept anything for any of the stars and asked me to accept them as thanks for saying some nice things about her work – so I got a 14” bronze six-axis star for my collection – the picture above shows my previous sixteen axis star nestling in the arms of this new monster ... Thanks Jane and John Kostick.
Wil Strijbos has a habit of tossing little extras into my orders every now and then. One of the really cute extras was a copy of “Der Mond” (or “The Moon”) – it’s a little tray puzzle in the shape of a crescent moon, but the pieces are cut in such a way that they can also be used to form a cross – which is pretty cool as in the one shape all of the outside edges are curved and in the other, they’re all straight – quite clever ... it’s one of those sort of dissections that you imagine has been around for ages and I expected to find it in Hoffmann’s, but didn’t ... Thanks Wil.
Ages ago Nigel was showing me a copy of his Pentangle Vertigo burr – if memory serves we were in the coffee shop at my office – I’d got one or two pieces out and decided to stop there as the shapes were a little unusual and I didn’t want to embarrass myself totally among all my colleagues. A while later he presented me with a copy, because he knew I still didn’t have one and he thought I’d enjoy it ... nice bloke, eh? Cheers mate.
Out of the blue I get a package in the post – and (believe it or not!) I wasn’t actually expecting anything at the time – opening the package there’s a copy of Laurie Brokenshire’s exchange puzzle from IPP31 called Bi-CycLe and a short note from my puzzling mate Ali as a small token of appreciation for hosting MPPs and such – rather kind of him I thought, and it is a cracking little Vinco puzzle. You start out with a pair of ungainly identical bits, each consisting of a sort  of L-shape protruding through a triangle, and you’re told to make a stable solid with 5 planes of symmetry – with no idea of what that shape might look like ... spending some time with them and experimenting produces a rather amazing little A-HA! moment when the pieces interlock properly and produce a very regular, stable object with the required symmetrical planes – a lovely little surprise! Thanks Ali!
When we visited James Dalgety’s puzzle museum, James gave each of us one of his recent IPP Exchange Puzzles and I was lucky enough to get a copy of Mind the Gap, his exchange puzzle from 2008. 
Mind the Gap was a Stewart Coffin design that he didn’t seem to think much of, in fact James recalls him dismissing it with the phrase “It’s just a load of junk!” – actually IMHO it’s a rather neat little puzzle. It consists of a 3*3*3 (sort-of) cube – except that it has waves along two axes – giving you a darn confusing puzzle – you have 9 L-shaped pieces to make up this cube and the only instruction is that there shouldn’t be any internal voids - hence the name, geddit? You’ll soon realise that the angles in the different axes aren’t quite the same – and that results in a nice challenge – I think it’s anything but a load of junk, but who am I to disagree with arguably one of the greatest puzzle designers ever?
A while back I obtained a couple of monster burrs that came via a slightly circuitous route from the guys who were in the process of setting up a web shop selling (of all things) fine wooden puzzles – particularly unusual and higher order burrs. The web shop is now up and running successfully as Arteludes (crank up Google translate if your French is as rubbish as mine!) and carries some rather unusual burrs –many (if not all) of them handmade by Maurice Vigouroux – and I’ve already told you that I think his work is smashing! Anyhow, those nice folks tossed in a 6-wood copy of their little Diagonal Star for no apparent reason – thanks Guillaume!
I’ve mentioned my mate Louis from Eindhoven a few times already on this blog. Now Louis has an uncanny knack for finding puzzle bargains on eBay, but every now and then his knack comes up against an unwillingness to ship anywhere outside of the UK, and when that happens, he sometimes gets things shipped to my place and then either picks them up on his next visit or I post them over. In the last batch of puzzles there was a Magna Cube, which should have struck me as odd because there’s already one in Louis’ puzzle cabinet back home, so when he arrived on his last visit, he promptly gave it to me as a thank you for putting him up for the weekend – as he knew I didn’t have one and thought I’d like one – what a gent! Magna Cube is a fairly simple looking 3*3*3 cube consisting of 8 pieces – three of them are made up of 4 cubies and then there are five elbow-shaped 3-cubies, except, as you might expect from the name, each piece has magnets strategically placed around them so that there is only one correct assembly that has all of the magnets attracting one another so that the cube can stand supported by a corner on its stand. (This one took me far longer than it should have for such a relatively simple puzzle...)
Last weekend I went down to London to attend Peter Hajek’s end-of-year puzzle party, or EPP (don’t worry, I’ll be writing about that in due course!) and a couple of folks insisted on giving me more puzzles. The first of them was Wil Strijbos who was in town visiting Peter and attending the EPP. Wil was furiously apologetic because he’d put a Christmas gift into the packages he’d sent to a couple of my puzzling mates when we all placed our most recent round of orders, but he’d forgotten to put one in mine, so here was something to make up for that – instead of a canary in a cage, he presented me with an Owl in a Cage. I guess this should be classed as a simple hedgehog puzzle, but I swear that the cage seems smaller and the bird seems larger than the others I’ve seen – great example of the genre and some nice detailing on the bird – thanks Wil! [Wil also gave me another gift – a Prague Special Edition – but I’m intending to write about that one on it’s own ... you’ll see why...]
Tim Rowett (he of Grand Illusions fame) was wandering around dishing out all manner of Christmas fare including some humorous postcards, copies of his latest catalogue and free puzzles including a copy of the Elusive E puzzle and Four times Four Equals Twenty – a design by one James Dalgety. I’ve already written at length about the entertainment that the Elusive E has provided us in the past so I won’t bore you with all that again, but the other puzzle is a great little poser! You’re provided with four triangles in four different colours and instructed to build a stable icosahedron and you’re helpfully even given a picture of one – there are two challenges, with the second involving a colour matching challenge thrown in for good measure ... of course it’s not just going to be a simple construction challenge, and you’ve hopefully already worked out why that is...
When I got home from London the next morning there was a parcel on the doorstep from another of my puzzling friends, Bruce ... he’d recently received an order from Bernhard Schweitzer and he’d bought a couple of copies of Willem van der Poel’s IPP24 Exchange Puzzle, The Grandfather of 6*6*6, one of which he’d sent to me as a gift. Willem van der Poel had designed the first 6*6*6 burr back in 1954 in his head and then used this exchange puzzle as a means of celebrating its 50th anniversary and telling a bit of the story behind it. As burrs go, it’s small – but nicely made and rather historical – thanks Bruce, I love it!
Also in that box was a copy of Ronald Kint-Bruynseels’ packing puzzle called Gregory Pack as a gift from Bernhard himself. I’d spotted this series of very cleverly named packing puzzles on Ishino’s site a while back. [Some of the others are Al Packino, Lauren Packall, Kim Nopack, Pack Nicholson and Sam Packinpah.] Gregory Pack consists of a box with two 2 cubie obstructions and 12 angled 5-cubie pieces, 10 of which are left-handed and the other 2 are right-handed. Seems simple enough, but I can vouch for the fact that it’s a pretty serious challenge ... even getting the pieces out of the box is non-trivial, in fact the first time I tried to unpack it, I wrongly assumed that some of the pieces had swollen and that was what was stopping them from coming out – actually it was just the combination of the shapes and those odd little protrusions getting in the way but it took me a while to realise that ... really interesting packing puzzle that looks like it should be a lot simpler than it really is – disarmingly simple pieces and not many obstructions... but! Thanks Bernhard, and Get well soon!

Puzzlers really are a great bunch, who are not only generous in giving but  also go out of their way to offer support, time and encouragement. So, to my fellow metagrobologists - my sincere thanks for your generosity and kindness.
Here's to another fun puzzling year...

Sunday 1 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy 2012 folks!

Thanks to those of you who submitted your guesses to my Christmas Quiz - hope you had some fun ... Well Done to Chris who correctly identified 48 out of 50 puzzles (!) - and I'll admit that one of them that he didn't get was a very obscure one! 

If you want a copy of the answers, drop me an email and I'll send them to you. 

I found quite a few wonderful new puzzles under the Christmas tree this year - partly because Gill intercepted all my puzzle shipments during the weeks running up to Christmas and partly thanks to the Karakuri Club's Christmas presents arriving just days before Christmas. 

As a result my desk is currently piled high with books to be read, puzzles to be played with, solved, photographed and (for my favourites) blogged. 

Happy days...