Monday 30 September 2013

Conjuring Conundrum – the making of…

After having assisted Wil Strijbos in the Edward Hordern Puzzle Exchange at my first IPP, I’d pretty much made up my mind that I wanted to participate in the exchange myself, so on the bus on the way to the National Cryptographic Museum I asked Wil for some advice and his first suggestion was that I chat to our friend Louis Coolen about possibly designing a puzzle…

Shortly after getting back home, I floated the idea to Louis and he was pretty keen and said that he had a couple of ideas he wanted to work on… and that he might be able to do something.  On his next MPP-visit he arrived with a prototype of what would turn out to be the main locking mechanism built into a small aluminium briefcase.  Fairly early on in the process we’d settled on using the aluminium briefcases as the vehicle for these puzzles knowing that we could source them reasonably cheaply from the Far East and knowing that would take a lot of pressure off the manufacturing process (i.e. we wouldn’t have to make up a hundred boxes!).

The first prototype had the guts of the mechanism mocked up in wood using a rubber band, some Geomag bits and a drinking straw! Heath Robinson it might be, but it worked and showed us that the main concept would be feasible… in short the case would open a bit and let you see some of the insides, but it would not be able to open fully, until you defeated the locking mechanism.

Noticing that there was a reasonable amount of space still available in the case, I made some suggestions for a fabulously complicated lock that would prevent the case from being opened at all – Louis duly mocked one of those up and built it into a prototype and brought it over on his next visit – but we soon abandoned it as there was so little feedback and the mechanism was too hard to fathom…

Having settled on the basic design of the locking mechanism, Louis then taught himself to use Google SketchUp and set about producing a three dimensional model of it suitable for printing by Shapeways. He’d sensibly tried a couple of variations in the print run so he was able to try various alternatives in a single batch … and over the next couple of months the designs were tweaked until the mechanism itself had just enough strength where it was needed and not much additional material – then he made it look good by adding some wording into (and onto) some of the bits and it started to look rather jolly professional. 

Somewhere during that refinement process, I came up with a means of adding another little layer to the puzzle by putting something inside the case to provide an extra little challenge (some laser-cut shapes to make up a target, unspecified, shape). True to form, my first idea was so darn complicated that we abandoned it after I tried it out on Louis and even though he knew what he was trying to do, he couldn’t make it work… so we reverted to a far simpler challenge and this time Louis not only found the intended solution, he also came up with some interesting alternative constructions … and some suggestions for tweaking the pieces a bit to add a soupçon more subterfuge. 

In the interim we’d sourced some clear tubing to house the wands and came up with a reasonably efficient way of turning large quantities of Neodymium magnets into magic wands – my least favourite part of the jobs I ended up doing on the project – although I still think I got the easier parts of the project!

Having an open mechanism inside the case meant that the mechanism would need to be shielded from the laser-cut bits somehow, lest they wander into the mechanism and either jam it entirely, or more worryingly for us, assist the puzzler in opening the lock!  And so it came to pass that Gill got roped in to provide 150 tiny drawstring bags, with the tiniest Neodymium magnets you’ve ever seen carefully sewn into their seams. [Don’t ask…] 

Once we’d finalised the laser-cut shapes for the secondary puzzle, Louis lined up Peter Knoppers of Buttonius to do all of our laser-cutting. Peter provided a small sample run and once we’d confirmed the sizing and shapes he duly produced the rest of the run – including putting each set of pieces individually into plastic bags – which made my life heaps simpler – thanks Peter!  

Louis sourced a supplier for some black mini-briefcases via eBay and once they’d arrived he noticed that the spacing on some of the features of the case was ever so slightly different so he made some final adjustments to the printed bits before placing the main order with Shapeways… who by this stage have got to know Louis and have been asking how the various prototypes have worked out – awesome customer service for a company that must deal with thousands of customers!

Around this time we go through an important rite of passage for any potential exchange puzzle: review by the committee to ensure that the puzzle is “good enough” (my words, not theirs) and hasn’t been commercially available previously… I write up some stuff and attach some pics that Louis has taken, being careful not to spoil any of the puzzle-elements as I’m pretty sure that more of the committee will be in the exchange and I don’t want to give them any clues… you know, so as not to spoil their fun!  The committee lets me know that the puzzle is approved in pretty short order so we’re off…

With a couple of months to go until IPP33, Louis has a pile of black mini-briefcases, a box of clear tubes  and a few bags of printed bits from Shapeways and I have piles of magic wands, stacks of bags of acrylic bits and a steadily growing pile of little drawstring bags. 

Louis and Mieke spend many a late night over the next few months selectively cutting the lining out of the cases and gluing in bits of locking mechanism and the clear tubes – with the last of the IPP-bound batch literally being finished on their UK holiday just before I leave for IPP. 

I become reasonably adept at putting the acrylic bits in their drawstring bags (they need to be packed in carefully to get them into two layers or they’ll get in the way…), testing the glue joints, affixing stickers to the case and box and then packing them all up in their original bags and boxes… until I have a hundred of them to take along to Japan – mostly for the exchange, but also as gifts for some old friends and some new IPPers (I blame Peter & Ginda! ;-) ). 

The puzzle goes down really well during the exchange and folks all say kind things about the puzzle (so we know it looks good!). Later on I spot a couple of folks trying to open them and doing exactly what we wanted them to – all of it useless! At dinner the next evening I spot some people puzzling away on them and I don’t spot anyone opening one… this is going well… 

I’d agreed with Wil Strijbos up front that he was going to get a bunch of them to flog and I give him the first few of those on Sunday for the puzzle party – and while he doesn’t get rid of them all, he’s still keen for some more… 

After IPP Louis takes charge of the entire manufacturing process and assembles the remaining 35 puzzles and passes them onto Wil … so if you want one, he’s the man to speak to, as I literally only have my own copy left now… (not counting a set of prototypes that lead up to the final design). 

What’s it like as a puzzle? Well we’ve had some good feedback, and Wil says he likes it … we tried various incarnations on the patient folks at various MPPs, and they mostly liked it. My own description at IPP was that it was a puzzle of two halves – Louis designed one half (and it’s awesome!) and I designed one half (and it’s naff!) and once you’ve finished the puzzle, you’ll know which bit Louis designed! :-) 

…if you do have a bash at one and you manage to come up with some interesting constructions for the second bit, please let me have a pic of the results – I’ve started collecting pics of almost- or indeed not-solutions  - so far Peter’s is the best not-a-solution although George’s were pretty ingenious in their interpretation of the challenge! 

Thanks Louis for all your hard work on this – I really appreciate it!! And to our better halves, Mieke and Gill, who got dragged in as well – thank you too… :-) 

Now, about next year…

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Tricklock T8

I’ve been a fan of Rainer Popp’s Tricklocks for a while now, so the initial rumours of a new puzzle were cause for a little celebration. Enthusiastic comments from someone who’s seen a prototype adds to the anticipation. Speculation on a possible release date seems to be settling down to coincide with a Lock Collectors’ meeting and then someone spots an update on Rainer’s website with pictures of the impending T8, and it looks absolutely FAB!

It’s an unusual shape, looking like a lowercase “d” and in a bit of a departure from his usual materials, this puzzle is mainly stainless steel. The pictures didn’t really tell you much – there appeared to be a couple of small buttons on the main shaft and something sticking out of the end of the shaft that looked “interesting” (read: probably worth exploring when you get your paws on one!). 

Knowing that Wil Strijbos would have some in stock, I’d asked him to reserve one for me and let me know when they were available, so I was quite surprised and rather delighted, when one appeared on my breakfast table shortly after MPP12. [Don’t ask, I won’t tell!]

The T8 is a proper, heavy lock – there is no chance of jimmying it or opening it any other way than the one that Rainer intended. In common with the T3 – my favourite Tricklock, this lock too has no key and is totally self-contained. The shiny stainless steel shackle protrudes through the main shaft on the one side and locks securely into the shaft at the other side. Rainer’s customary logo along with the locks ‘T8’ designation appear on the one end of the shaft and the other end has an interesting little brass knob protruding from the end of the steel shaft – which in turn has a small sprung button poking out of the end of it. 

After dispensing with my croissants and orange juice, I begin to fiddle around with it, finding one or two interesting little things to do, and then nothing … at which point Louis mentions that it took him a while to solve his copy and all hope of solving it any time soon evaporates! 

I spend a while fiddling around and I’m pretty certain that I understand the first few steps thoroughly, but cannot for the life of me see where to go next…

I put it aside for a while and switch to something else while I wait for inspiration to strike … it’s a lonely wait!

I end up spending a couple of hours getting nowhere spread over a couple of days. My theories and experiments become more and more obtuse until I’m experimenting trying some theories that would be totally out of place on a quality puzzle such as this one – but I’m running out of ideas… 

Eventually I spot something unusual happening while I’m idly fiddling with it and that leads me onto an entirely new avenue of discovery – and I have it open for the first time in two days… but even when it’s open, it doesn’t give you any further clues to the locking mechanism – in fact it’s the lack of clues that provides a clue… ! 

A few more minutes of experimentation and I’ve worked out how to lock and unlock it efficiently – and it’s an excellent puzzle. The mechanism isn’t widely used and is so well disguised that it should take you a while to recognise the signs and work out how to get around it … an excellent addition to Rainer’s series of puzzle locks. 

As I’m writing this I suspect that Rainer is sold out but that there may still be a few of them available for sale at Grand-Illusions  I don’t think they’ll last long though….

Thursday 19 September 2013


The weekend starts for me on Friday evening when James Dalgety arrives for dinner armed with chocolates, wine and an orchid. We decide not to eat the orchid and instead go with Gill’s idea of Chicken Teriyaki – and that turns out to be a good choice, no that the orchid wouldn’t have been as delicious, I’m sure. I introduce James to my little collection and he makes some complimentary comments before suggesting that it’s clearly large enough and I should probably stop buying puzzles now. Realising this is clearly an early sign of withdrawal symptoms, I begin shoving some puzzles in his hand once I’ve established that there are one or two that he hasn’t yet played with … normal service resumes.

At about 9:30pm we adjourn to the airport to collect Louis and he walks into the arrivals hall about a minute after we get there – a personal record in timing it just right prompted by BHX’s exorbitant short term parking pricing past the first ten minutes. Back at Barnt Green we dose up on coffee and tea and end up in the cave puzzling until some of us give up at half past midnight, leaving Louis to conquer a few more before he called it a night.

Next morning we all have a leisurely breakfast before heading across to Nigel’s place in Warwick for the first few hours of MPP as our usual venue isn’t available until midday. Nigel’s in full-on host-mode offering everyone coffee and croissants and making sure that everyone’s having a superb time. I manage to get rid of pretty much all of the puzzles I’ve brought back from Japan for various people and folks seem chuffed with their pressies … my work here is done – now I too can become a puzzler for the rest of the day!

James has brought along an impressive collection of cylindrical hidden maze puzzles (including some he didn’t realise he had!) – all of them pre-dating Revomazes – the original impetus behind us starting up the MPP. He's also brought along a partially assembled Coffin-original called Iso-Prism (aka #101-A)  that he challenges us to reassemble properly. Despite a convincing sales pitch, he doesn't get any takers on the Iso-Prism - at least not for the first few hours, then some idiot has a go at it ... but more on that later.

We spend a couple of hours at Nigel's until he rounds us up and shoos us out so that we can walk (or drive!) the hundred-odd metres down the road to our usual hangout, The Gap. We all manage to get there without mishap, and soon enough have the hall strewn with chairs, and tables laden with puzzles - all is good in the land.

There follows many hours of happy puzzling... :-)

It was great to meet Stephen Miller that we'd "met" via FaceBook - he'd brought along a serious collection of Sonic Games/Sonic Warp/whatever-the-company-is-called-at-the-moment's puzzles on a very handsome self-made stand. Turns out Stephen is an absolute whizz at whipping things up and has had a hand in designing (OK, he designed!) some rather current, desirable puzzles! He also enjoys blowing up watermelons in his backyard - so what's not to like about the guy?! One thing I particularly enjoyed hearing about was some real-world adventure / puzzle trails he's run in the past, and hopefully will run again in the future...

Adin had brought along his Lego ternary puzzle and it received a lot of interest - and generated even more interest when it pitched up on FaceBook and Jez (come back, we miss you!) duly mocked up a set of instructions for building one, and a parts list for anyone wanting to build their own - nice one Adin!

I'd taken along every single puzzle I brought back from IPP33 with me and there was a steady trickle of folks taking one or two across to the puzzling tables to have a bash at them over the course of the afternoon...good to see them getting some more exercise! (The puzzlers, that is...)

One of the classic memories of the afternoon was seeing four grown men playing on the floor - with one of George Bell's exploding balls... they'd had a go at Chinny's big ball - Ze RD - and disassembled and reassembled that one and then wanted to get George's ball apart, but casual spinning on the floor just wasn't enough... so they formed a circle and took turns spinning the heck out of it! 

When they'd tried that for about ten minutes they decided that they couldn't get enough spin on exactly the right axis and decided they needed to resort to rolling it on the axis at high speed - from one end of the hall to the other... Oli played goalie at the one end  and Steve and Chris resorted to using a mattress to stop it at the other end... after many enthusiastic passes the ball finally let go and they were chuffed - especially to find the crystal dice hidden inside - everything survived the ordeal and it was soon reassembled and returned to the pile ... with a couple of grins that you might expect from a group of kids who've just had a great game on the playground.

Satomi and Scott joined us along with their son for the afternoon, and as usual she had a wonderful selection of interesting goodies, including a couple of rather neat looking burrs that I didn't bother even trying to resist. 

Several folks had a bash at Brian Young's Kumiki Airlines and pretty much all of them succeeded - WAY QUICKER than I had! Frank's collection of impossible bottles drew many admiring remarks and might just have spurred some folks on to trying their own hand at making one or two of them, with a little encouragement from Frank...

At some point during the afternoon, I decided that someone needed to have a bash at James' Iso-Prism, so I hauled it out. It was pretty easy taking it apart (after James had confirmed that he would happily take it home in bits) and James talked me through the high level strategy of reassembling it - I listened carefully and decided that I was seriously out of my depth here, but I'd better have a bash having taken the darn thing apart. 

I separated them into sets of pieces and then began trying to fit them all together - hitting dead ends several times and having to backtrack - and every now and then losing track of which pieces had come from which set and having to start all over again. After a while the pieces started to make sense and Ali leant over and made a really helpful suggestion - and from there on it was just a case of getting the assembly order right - it took a few more goes at trying different orders until I spotted a bit of symmetry that I'd been ignoring in the assembly process and then things literally fell into place - and it felt absolutely brilliant to put the final three key pieces into their allotted spots. [Oh yeah, and in case you're wondering, those stickers might have made sense to someone once, but I couldn't work out their meaning before, during or after solving it.]

One of the fun things we try and do every now and then is gather a bunch of puzzles together from our group for a family portrait - this time it was KCubes from Kim Klobucher - we managed eight ... not bad given how difficult they are to get hold of...

Louis and I headed back to my place sometime after eight and sat down to some more puzzling after having a couple of pizzas ... this time I didn't come close to staying awake until after midnight so I left Louis in the cave puzzling away - and the next morning there was a neat row of solved puzzles waiting as proof ... including a solved Ball in Cylinder II from Jerry Loo - which I still haven't been able to solve! [I haven't forgotten about it Jerry - promise - it's just still got me beaten - cue another blogger to tell me how thick I am!]

...a couple more hour's puzzling on Sunday morning before I dropped Louis at the airport for his trek back to Eindhoven - a great end to another weekend's puzzling.