Saturday 31 March 2012

Makishi Puzzle Boxes

Way back in the dim and distant mists of time, with the help of Matt D my Makishi connection, I organised for a bunch of local puzzlers to get their hands on some Makishi puzzle boxes … and took the opportunity to get three of them for myself.
Mr Makishi makes a range of puzzle boxes from the 8-move box aimed at beginners up to the 50-move boxes aimed at advanced puzzlers. I opted to get a spread of boxes covering 8, 18 and 50 moves.
The simplest boxes only have moving panels– next up they introduce sliders as well as moving panels and the harder boxes incorporate interaction / interference between panels as well as dead ends and partial moves…the boxes are incredibly reasonably priced and while they may not win many beauty prizes, they are neatly finished and cracking puzzles.
Several puzzlers have already written about their experiences and you can find Brian’s thoughts here, Oli’s over here and Jeff’s over here.
I managed to dispatch with the two simpler boxes in no time at all, in spite of the sides on the 8-move box being rather tight. The 18-move box has a pair of sliders and behaves like a good-mannered Japanese-style puzzle box should. Having completed those quite quickly, I put the 50-move box to one side for a bit in order to spread out the puzzling pleasure… little did I know how futile that little gesture was!
So I came back to it a little while later and laid into it – sides, sliders all moving like poetry in motion, exactly as I wanted them to move, until about twenty moves in when I hit an absolute brick wall! There is literally nowhere to go … so I explore a little – maybe something’s a bit stiff somewhere, try a little finessing – nothing.
OK, I get it – there’s dead end in there. Let’s go back a few moves. Nope.
Maybe I dreamt it? Blast through again and come up against the same immovable object.
Soon enough my attention switches to another toy / puzzle / gizmo, and I leave the 50-move on the “Current work” shelf of the desk – where it stares at me on and off for the next few months. Sure, I occasionally take it down, forget everything I’ve ever tried before and try it afresh – only to find that brick wall every time.
Back in December on Louis’ last visit he even offers to check it out for me – you know, in case there’s actually something wrong with it that renders it locked – so he fiddles around with it and confirms that it all works properly – in fact it’s a really nice and smooth example!
Excellent news – it’s just the puzzler then that’s incompetent!
For the next couple of months I repeat the exercise I’ve tried in the previous few months – sadly with the same result… truly humbled by a simple-looking puzzle box.
When Louis came to stay a couple of weeks ago, I gave in and asked for a hint – at which point the wise man from the east stared into the distance a little and said “Move n” (OK, he put a number in there, not a letter, but I’m not going to make it easy for you!) – which confused me because I was way past that move – “Move n” he repeated, “that’s where you went wrong.” So I went back and I looked, and he was right – I’d wandered into a dead end that had trapped me for many, many months… fantastic!
From there on the box settled into a predictable rhythm that a box with that many moves almost has to have and a little while later it was opening for the first time ever in my hands…
Mr Makishi’s boxes all have a magical screw on the bottom panel that keeps the whole box together and Matt had passed on a warning that the screws shouldn’t be removed (!) … however, with a little encouragement from my Dutch friend, I’d whipped out the screw and removed the panels, baring the little mazes on the sides and they made very interesting viewing – it really gives you a great insight into not only how the boxes themselves are constructed, but also into how the complexity of the movements required is determined by a pair of innocuous little mazes inside the side panels. If you are foolish enough to remove the magical screw, then please take care to replace all the panels in the right place and facing the right way or you will end up with a useless pile of planks!

Tuesday 27 March 2012

One puzzle masquerading as another…

I think I’ve already mentioned a particular example of this sort of beast in my description of a little example of James D’s mischievousness when he fished out a little puzzle from one of his multitude of drawers and asked the group who the entanglement whiz was – we  all pointed to Kevin and he was given a pair of bent nails to separate – when Kevin noticed that they didn’t separate the way he thought they should, James upped the ante by suggesting that we put a stopwatch on Kevin’s performance … a minute or so later James put him out of his misery by pointing out that the head on one of the nails unscrewed and that was the only way to separate the nails…beware of the puzzle that masquerades as another!
On a totally unrelated topic :-)  allow me to present a couple of Roger puzzles:
I picked up a copy of r2d2 from Wil Strijbos at Peter Hajek’s end of year puzzle party and it’s a delightfully simple-looking little puzzle. The solid cast aluminium block has a pair of channels running between opposite corners and intersecting in the centre. One of them has a small ball bearing and the other has a pair of wider sections containing larger ball bearings that effectively throttle the first channel – in fact the shape of those wider sections is such that the small ball will merrily pass unobstructed in one direction but get itself thoroughly stopped when trying to pass in the other direction … and you surmise that you will be trying to move the ball to the other end.
The clear Perspex cover stops you from using any form of direct manipulation, and using something like a magnet introduced externally simply wouldn't be sporting … it’s worth checking that the two hex bolts securing the cover don’t have any other function – they don’t and then it’s probably worth playing with it as though it were a dexterity puzzle for a while – if only to convince yourself that there isn’t a sneaky little trick or that a bit of bumping will see it right.
Then what…
I decided to explore some physics, and managed to chance upon a solution that worked fairly efficiently – except that when I mentioned my solution to Wil, he replied quite quickly that that wasn’t the solution that Roger was expecting – so I went back to the drawing board for a while and couldn’t come up with anything else – but as luck would have it I happened to be down at the Puzzle Museum a couple of weeks later and James helpfully left a copy of the official solution lying around for me (I had no idea such things existed for Rogers!) – and after reading the description, and thinking about it for a while, I think I’m going to stick with my own solution for this puzzle – I think it’s a lot more elegant :-)
Last Saturday I managed to pick up a copy of Alles Roger from a fellow blogging collector (why does that sound vaguely rude?) who was looking to thin out his collection a little – I’ve learnt not to pass up on opportunities to pick up Rogers I don’t already have as they come up for sale so seldom that they’re invariably changing hands for quite a bit on auctions.
Alles Roger has a similar conceptual layout to r2d2 – a path for a small ball bearing that needs to pass through a pair of larger ball bearings in channels that make them obstruct progress in one direction, and an initial little obstacle to pass in the form of another small ball bearing – basically you’re trying the move the small ball from the top right hand corner down to the channel along the bottom.
The first obstacle is trying to get past a small ball bearing in a parallel channel that is shaped and sloped to stop any direct or agricultural attempts at getting past it – but if you examine it carefully and experiment a little with some more subtle moves, you’ll find it can be beaten quite easily – sadly however, the hard bit is yet to come: the two larger balls obstruct the path down to the lower channel in virtually any orientation that might possible lead to the small ball going in the right direction … and applying that little bit of obvious physics is well nigh impossible because of the positioning of the down-channel off to the left …
Back at home after MPP5 I had a wee brainwave and experimented a little and found a fantastic solution – while it might not look particularly elegant and might not be the sort of thing you’d choose to do in front of another puzzler (!) it solves the puzzle, reliably, in seconds, every time – the trick is to think outside the box – WAY outside the box … but then, it’s a Roger!

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Midlands Puzzle Party #5

My latest MPP weekend started in the traditional manner with me at the airport on Friday night to collect the Flying Dutchman, followed by a couple of hours of gentle puzzling and banter at my place before I give up and crash for the night, leaving Louis puzzling furiously in my study.
Things the next morning weren’t quite as traditional since this was the first time that our gathering wasn’t happening at my house, so I actually needed to select some puzzles to take along and pack them in a crate, along with some home-baking, before setting out with Louis in tow for the half-hour drive down the motorway (I really can’t complain – several folks spent four or five times that getting there!) to Warwick.
Nigel had arranged the hire of a large room in his local community centre for the day and by the time Louis and I got there most of the tables had already been hauled out of storage and set up around the perimeter of the room and there were piles of chairs littered around. Louis and I mucked in and helped out with the last couple of tables and set about scattering the chairs about a bit before setting up our offerings for the day’s puzzlement on a bit of table.
Happy puzzler? ... it's hard to tell...
Nigel had laid on drinks and snacks galore, bought a kettle for the room and laid out tea and coffee for everyone (including decaf for Ali!) – I added some shortbread and chocolate things that Gill had baked the night before … and right on cue the puzzlers began assembling. Nigel had thoughtfully put up some small posters pointing the way to the room and made up name tags for everyone so we could put names to the new faces and in turn help them to get to know us.
Apart from the usual gang who’ve been to virtually every single gathering we’ve ever had, we had a bunch of new faces, including a few seriously notable puzzle designers! It was great to have Peter Hajek joins us after I’d been along to his fabulous end of year puzzle party last year – in spite of the train company’s multiple attempts to foil his travel plans to Warwick on the morning. Veteran puzzle designer Sam Cornwell (who I’d met at Peter’s Puzzle Party) came along with his mate Mike Hawthorne, and Lawrence (who’s surname I didn’t catch to my great shame) who’d spotted a reference to the gathering on Oli’s blog, came along on the off-chance that it might be fun. Joe, one of the regulars on the Revomaze forum came along for his first MPP as well – and the rest of the motley crew can probably all consider themselves regulars, more or less. 
Everyone spread out about half a table’s-worth of puzzles they’d brought along for others to have a bash at and we had a prominent table next to the door with our traditional Box o’ Bounty – making sure that everyone knew they could help themselves to anything on the table that they fancied – and given strong hints that I didn’t want to be taking home more than I’d brought … like the last few times where donations significantly exceeded withdrawals! Sam and Mike rather liked the idea and ended up putting a pile of puzzles on the table (including some rather nice Triple Trouble cubes) that all managed to find homes by the afternoon. (Cheers Mike!)
Most folks tended to grab a cup of tea or coffee on the way in, unpack their  treasure and then launch into a relaxed ritual of wandering around, chatting to folk while picking up an unknown puzzle, absent-mindedly fiddling with it under the pretence of solving it, putting it down again and then repeating the entire process.
Sometime around lunchtime knots of people wandered across the road to the local chippy and returned with various combinations of fish, chicken and chips – and judging by the comments, it seemed to go down quite well.
Back in the room, Peter had hauled out a couple of sets of his latest IPP Exchange Puzzle called Z-Shift and set up a couple of chairs either side of his and was animatedly talking folks through the various challenges set by the puzzle. When Peter initially took the puzzle out, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t think it was really going to be my cup of tea – in my defence: this was right after I’d seen a copy of his latest puzzle box design, established it was for sale and pushed myself to the front of that particular queue. 
Z-Shift consists of four identical double-sided Perspex pieces (red on one side and blue on the other) that look like rectangles with a bite taken out of each side at an odd angle, and the way the two colours are joined means they partially overlap at the bites … and there are three little red (or blue) pieces that look like odd-shaped off-cuts. The pieces come with a challenge card that has you building a series of hearts and triangles with different combinations of those pieces … and while I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic to start – once I’d seen how the first set of shapes magically appeared when you laid the pieces down in the right way, I was instantly hooked. 
The target shapes are really unexpected given the shapes in the pieces, some of the time you’re building the outline of a shape, sometimes you’re building the coloured-in shape itself – each of the challenges is totally different and almost all of them are unexpected little surprises … I really enjoyed this puzzle and I was rather glad that Peter had taken the trouble to talk me into / through it! (I’m hoping to pick up a copy from him at some point in the future…)
During the course of the day everyone filled in a copy of Nigel’s icebreaker sheet which he claimed to have nicked from the Rochester Puzzle Picnic guys, but we all reckoned he’d shaped it to favour his collection – seriously, "Most moves on a puzzle box in your collection" and "Most pieces in a puzzle" didn’t come from the guy with the Super-Cubi and a King-Cubi on the way and a Ravensburger monster on the go? – Yeah, sure, pull the other one Nigel! :-) 
As it turned out, everyone mixed perfectly well on their own without the need for an icebreaker anyway, so we didn’t end up doing much with the completed forms – but it might be interesting to pull the answers together at some point…
Sam Cornwell had brought a bunch of his own designs along in prototype form, complete with professional-looking name tags. I’d only come across Sam’s designs once before when I managed to find a copy of his Rescube made by Eric Fuller. A bit more research had uncovered another, In Brackets, which Eric had also made, but the others were all totally new to me – and the breadth of the designs was pretty staggering – from a series of two pin mazes, to burrs, sliding puzzles (including his last IPP Design Competition entry, Tick Box) and even a bunch of designs in development … it was great to be able to play around with some of the designs I hadn’t seen before – there really is a treasure-trove of designs in that collection just waiting for a craftsman to come along and make a few runs.
Mike had a few puzzles set up next door to Sam, including one rather large cube assembly puzzle where a number of the cuts are made across diagonals – I saw many people have a bash at it over the course of the day but only saw it properly assembled once or twice – I for one found the diagonals very disorientating.
I spent quite a while parked in front of Ali’s haul happily playing with the set of Rocky Chiaro bolts he’d brought along … I’ve been thinking of getting some of these for a little while now and I suspect that having the opportunity to actually play with them will have tipped me over the edge and into buy-mode. I managed to solve five out of the six and Ali graciously said that the last one was the one he found hardest. The work on them is really terrific – Rocky clearly knows his way around a machine shop and produces beautiful little puzzles.
I also managed to take a crack at Ali's first puzzle box design after I missed out on playing with it at our Puzzle Museum visit last year. It is a truly fiendish design - elegant in its simplicity, but so well made that it gives absolutely nothing away - in fact for quite some time I was convinced it was a solid piece of wood or that the supposed lid wasn't. For effectively a three-step puzzle box it is an absolute cracker! 
Louis had brought his second puzzle box design along for folks to have a bash at as well - and it surprised quite a few people with it's unusual mechanism ... if he does end up buying the tools he's threatening to, there's a pretty good risk he's going to be producing some pretty confounding devices in the near future.
It was good to see quite a few folks playing on the various Rogers I had on my table, but I suspect that nobody actually managed to solve one on the day that they hadn’t already solved – no doubt someone will chime in if I’m wrong.
When we were packing up at the end of the day there were still piles of biscuits and cans of cold drinks left, we’d hardly put a dent in the tea and coffee supply, yet I for one, felt like I was snacking and drinking coffee or something cold pretty much all day long! Note to Catering: Well done!!
By the time the centre staff came around to lock up after 6pm we’d had a thoroughly good day’s puzzling. 
Thanks to everyone who came along and made it a great day – and especially to Nigel for all his work to get everything organised, set up, catered and running smoothly on the day – fantastic job, mate! Thanks!
The bunch: Adin, Graham, Peter, LouisChris, Oli, Mike, Russ, Nigel, Ali, Rich, Lawrence, me, Sam & Joe

Wednesday 14 March 2012


Tornado was one of the Top Ten vote-getters at last year’s Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition at IPP31 in Berlin. Designed by the formidable team of messrs Houlis, Dyskin, Kanel-Belov, Pasternak and Estrin, it consists of a square wooden frame and four tetrahedrons in a variety of hard woods. The objective is to place the four blocks inside the frame such that they are in a stable “anti-slide” position, i.e. you can pick up the whole lot only by holding the frame and tilting or tipping up the frame doesn’t dislodge the blocks...

The puzzle was made in two sizes – mercifully a larger one was used for the actual competition itself and I think a smaller version was used as an exchange puzzle by a certain notable blogger (and I’m kinda hoping she’ll chip in here and confirm that because I can’t remember where I read that!). When I was over in Eindhoven for the Dutch Cube Day last year, Bernhard Schweitzer happened to haul out a large copy of Tornado as he was setting up on the Saturday afternoon, and it didn’t take very long for a discreet enquiry to be followed by a quick transaction and I added it to the ever growing pile of goodies I took from Bernhard on that trip. 

I’d previously had a bit of a run-in with All For One designed by (just) Houlis & Dyskin which has an offset frame and 4 cubes to capture in the frame – failing miserably to work out how to achieve the necessary stable position – and then spending an hour or two with Louis trying to find a way to achieve the necessary assembly – but struggling, even with an extra pair of hands ... and for the record, Louis was more successful than I was! [In my defence, I did subsequently work out an easier way to assemble things that only required two hands!]

Given my experience on All For One, I was expecting a bit of a dexterity challenge – and I suspect that if I hadn’t found a copy of the larger version, I might still be fiddling furiously trying to find a solution – in the end though, with a bit of thought to where that name might have come from, I came up with a mental picture of how it might just work and then found a relatively simple way of assembling it (using only two hands!) – once the four blocks are ‘locked’ in place, the resulting assembly really is pretty stable and you can handle it by the frame quite comfortably ... of course if you touch a block the whole thing comes flying apart – but it’s a neat solution that fits the name ... so I was happy.
What made me even more chuffed was looking up the solutions (two are given in the competition literature) and realising that my solution wasn’t one of the ones listed ... so now I know there are at least three solutions to the Tornado – all of them achievable without the aid of another pair of hands! 

I wasn’t sure I was really going to enjoy this puzzle, but in the end I actually got quite a decent sense of achievement from finding a ‘new’ solution that’s even simpler than the others in terms of its assembly – at least I think it is... 
Thanks Bernhard.  

Addendum - Comparison shot of the two different sizes for those who asked - never let it be said we don't aim to please! :-) 

Sunday 11 March 2012

Richard Gain’s Superstrings

Richard entered his latest design, Superstrings, in last year’s NobYoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition at IPP31 in Berlin and promptly won a Jury First Prize Award!

After he’d established that none of us at MPP3 were attending IPP31 (none of us move in those lofty circles yet!) he’d teased a couple of folks with a quick shot at one and it seemed to go down pretty well.. I was dashing around keeping people fed and watered so only saw one from a distance that day, and when it duly went and won a First Prize, I knew I’d have to get myself one at some point ... so back in December I got hold of Richard and as luck would have it he had a couple of pre-dyed copies available so I took one off him. 

It arrived in a rather snug clear acrylic box – that I suspect is a golf ball presentation box – but not having seen one of these before, it took me embarrassingly longer than it should have to even open the little box! Having successfully extracted the puzzle, playing commenced...

Superstrings consists of two intertwined pieces that each have four diagonally connected cubies on an open chain – those two bits then interlock so that you end up with a 2*2*2 cube with diagonally matching colours. [If that doesn’t make sense, just look at the pictures – all will become clear!]

Starting out it soon becomes apparent that even though it looks like there’s a huge amount of space in there – those pieces are shaped just the right way to stop you from doing most of the things you’d like to do ... despite that, there is a bit of movement to explore and from the first few moves it looks like this is going to be a nice, well-behaved orthogonal puzzle – a little way in you’ll find the pieces have opened up a bit and given you a bit more room to work with, but there’s no way out – until you notice that in some positions, there’s just enough room to twist one piece past another – UH OH... that’s not a good sign – and then thinking back to the other puzzles that Richard’s designed and produced, it was probably inevitable that there’d be twists and turns involved, wouldn’t there?
Right, so having passed that little test, more experimentation and fumbling along will part the two bits... 

But that’s the easy part – putting them back together again is quite a bit harder – you’ll find quite a few dead ends that seem to have been set up especially for the impatient puzzler wanting to get straight to the final position - you’ll realise the importance of starting in the right place (and the right orientation) and taking the whole path to the end ... you’ll notice that the design of the pieces only just stops you from doing quite a few of the things you’d really like to – cracking design, nicely executed in all the right choice of materials – the Shapeways material has enough give so that the pieces aren’t brittle and prone to breaking, but have more than enough rigidity to stop you from doing things Richard would rather you didn’t. 

Another great little pocket puzzle from Richard Gain. 

You can read Brian’s thoughts over here and  Kevin’s thoughts here – they both seemed to like it too! 

Sunday 4 March 2012

Switch Cube

Back in December I acquired a couple more of Richard Gain’s Microcubology puzzles. I’m a lazy sod so I bought them directly from him so that I could get them already coloured – Richard does a great job dying the pieces different colours and only charges a few quid extra for all his hard work. (I keep thinking that one day he’s going to realise that he’s under charging for all his time and he’s going to put the prices up...)
Switch Cube is one of Richard’s own designs and was one of the first puzzles that he made available in a new, slightly larger, cube structure. The individual little cubies making up the pieces are slightly larger than on his earlier puzzles, as are the holes on the faces – and the net result is that he’s managed to produce a larger puzzle without much extra material – which is important because Shapeways, who produce the pieces, charge by the amount of material used in the manufacturing process – so you end up with a larger puzzle for a similar price. Result! 
The larger pieces feel just as sturdy as the previous smaller ones, but they’re definitely easier to handle at this size – and indeed there’s one little move on this one that is infinitely less fiddly at this size. [Richard’s taken this even further now with his “Open” structures that have even larger holes on the faces, reducing the price even further.]
Right, back to the puzzle at hand – Switch Cube is a 5*5*5 interlocking cube, with a twist! 
Yip, Burr Tools won’t help you here – it might show you where the pieces could fit, but it won’t show you how to get them there! :-)
Starting out with the cube, it’s fairly straightforward to find the first couple of moves – a quick inspection of the faces will tell you what might move in which direction and soon enough you’re off and running – only then you hit a brick wall and there’s a sneaky little move – not unrelated to the name of the puzzle, that you need to apply before proceeding. Having done that, the cube continues to expand in all directions until the first couple of pieces come adrift – and from there on out, the rest will come apart fairly simply.
Putting it back together, or indeed starting from a pile of pieces, is a much larger challenge. Sure, there are a couple of fairly large pieces that narrow down your options for you, and then you can probably work out how the other bits need to be positioned in the final solution, but working out how to get them in there is more than a little tricky – remember there were 11 moves (by my count) before the first sub-assemblies came apart ... and there’s that sneaky little one in the middle that you’re apt to forget about.
Not sure if I prefer the larger size in general or not, but on this particular puzzle, the extra size means that normal-sized people can do everything they might need to without resorting to a tool of some sort, or a passing small child – and anyway, people tend to frown on that sort of thing, don’t they?