Monday 27 January 2014


Somehow I managed to miss Mike Toulouzas’ Illusion when it was first offered. My mate Chris had picked up a copy and brought it around to one of our show-and-tells - it was clearly a gorgeous puzzle … and he couldn’t say enough good things about it puzzle-wise … so when Mike got in touch at the tail end of last year and offered me a copy, I didn’t give him any time to change his mind or offer it to anyone else.

It duly arrived in Barnt Green during a period of enforced puzzle-hostage-taking as Gill’s got wise to my puzzle-buying around Christmas and now routinely hijacks any parcels addressed to me during December and puts them under the Christmas tree … so shortly after Christmas I got to unwrap this beauty from Greece. 

Saying that Mike has a knack for creating beautiful objects that just happen to be incredible puzzles is a bit like saying English weather is generally lousy! Case in point: today we had about 45 minutes of bright sunshine (we hid indoors, not knowing what it was!), some snow, a serious helping of hail and a shed-load of rain – while the temperature hovered around 4 degrees Celsius. I digress…

Illusion looks a bit like a complicated 12-piece burr with some extra detailing around the centre that makes it look like the burr is projecting out of a cube in the middle. Look a little closer and you’ll spot a few diagonal cuts on the burr pieces and that’s enough to help you realise that this little puzzle is not at all what it first appears to be … and knowing that Mike is a master at odd angles, you’ll realise that this puzzle quickly earns, and definitely requires, huge amounts of respect. 

A bit of a casual fiddle around with this puzzle and you find it’s not going to come apart the way you might have expected … find the right axis and it’ll slide apart neatly, and then, unless you’re handling it rather carefully, it will dismantle itself into six rather oddly shaped pieces … each of which is unique!

It’s pretty easy to get the general idea of how the puzzle is going to go back together again – each of the six pieces has four of the sticks and some elements of the central cube structure, and combing them builds up the cube in the middle … sort of … because there are a bunch of protuberances on each piece which need to have corresponding gaps in their adjacent pieces … which on their own would make for a pretty reasonable challenge … HOWEVER you’ll then find there are multiple assemblies – virtually all of which cannot be solved!

I’ve spent ages with five pieces locked together perfectly, with spaces in exactly the right place for the final piece to be slotted in, but no way of actually getting that last piece into the assembly because the sliding axis that I need to have has somehow been blocked somewhere by a well-fitting, albeit misplaced, piece. 

Then onto another five-piece assembly that stubbornly refuses to admit the final piece even though it’s the perfect shape … until eventually a five-piece assembly arrives with a sliding axis to remove two pieces, add the final piece and slide the two halves together … puzzle-bliss. 

Mike’s taken a well-known puzzle, added several unique Toulouzas touches to it and turned it into an absolute beast! A drop-dead gorgeous beast, but a beast nonetheless! The craftsmanship in there is staggering – each of the six pieces is made up of around 10 individual oddly-shaped bits – glued together supremely accurately with the result that the illusion of twelve sticks piercing a cube is almost perfect. 

Bravo Mike! That is an awesome achievement and a terrific puzzle! Thanks.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Stickman Holiday Lockbox

OK – if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you will have noticed that I’m an unabashed Stickman fan-boy … heck, even Gill’s a huge fan of Rob’s work, and that’s saying something!

So when Nick Baxter’s auction machine swung into action again recently, and it had a few Stickman boxes on it, I paid attention. While I didn’t manage to get most of the things I was trying to acquire, I was successful on one of them, and a rather well-looked-after Stickman Holiday Lockbox arrived in Barnt Green a couple of weeks later. 

First released back in 2005, the Holiday Lockbox was available in either oak or maple. I’m not sure how many maple boxes were produced, but I’ve only ever seen the oak version. With a distinctive red colour, it’s pretty easy to recognise with three big dials on the top of the box and a latch / slider across the front of it. The two ends are decorated with some neat inlay work that definitely add a nice feature, unless you got one of the second batch of these – they didn’t have the inlay work on the ends. [Useless little puzzle-geek-factoid for you.] 

The three dials on the top of the box are used to represent a date and can be set to any date the owner prefers. Opening the box is a simple matter of using a paper template that fits over the dials to set a month (first, smaller dial on the left – it’s American, remember), day and year, and once you’ve set that properly, the slider will move and the lid can be opened. 

Now although it wasn’t meant to be a puzzlebox, you can use the little grey cells, a deft touch and some experimentation to pick the lock and open it without the combination, so I can deem it a puzzle anyway! (As if I needed any excuses to buy another Stickman box!)

I suspect that a lot more of these turned out to be puzzles than Rob may have intended as the booklets with the date templates were shipped inside the boxes and anyone fiddling with the dials before trying the slider would have had their helpful paper template sealed inside the box until they managed to puzzle their way in! I’m sure he didn’t do that intentionally … <GRIN> 

Rob’s rather clever design for the mechanism uses three discs to drive a set of sliders left and right – when they’re in the proper position, they allow the locking slider to move out of the way to enable the lid to be opened. The designs allows two interesting things – firstly, the dials on the top can effectively spin freely, never coming up against a stop and secondly, the left/right sliders can be loosened allowing the owner to set a unique date as the unlock code … cool. 

The implementation also has another little feature that I discovered when I first opened the box – I was using my somewhat non-existent lock picking skills and had successfully opened the box, however when I put the template over the dials, I found that one or two of the dials were in exactly the opposite position to where they should have been – which given the geometry of the mechanism makes sense: there will be two places on the dial where the left/right sliders are in the desired spot… [Another useless little puzzle-geek-factoid for you.]

One more Stickman added to the collection… many more to go! :-)