Thursday 31 March 2016

Snake Box

Kagen Sound (nee Schaefer) makes beautiful puzzle boxes… very beautiful puzzle boxes. They tend to inhabit that lovely intersection between puzzle-space and works of art, and they tend to be investment pieces, not impulse purchases – at least they are for this humble puzzle-scribbler…

So finding one for sale privately is a cause for celebration. 
Celebration and piggy-bank raiding – it had to be done!

The first time I saw one of these in the flesh was on a visit to James Dalgety’s several years ago… I spotted it in a cabinet and asked if I might have a go at it… and then spent a while happily manoeuvring the little tiles around the lid to open the box… satisfied that I’d done that, I admired the innards for a little while (equally beautiful!) and then proceeded to lock it up, returning the tiles to their original pattern…

As I was virtually done, James glanced up from across the table and nonchalantly asked if I’d found the second compartment… of course I hadn’t, so it was all the back again to get the box open once more in order to investigate the alleged second compartment… of course there was one, delightfully camouflaged by some rather wonderful wood-working skills…

Flash forward a few years, and if someone offers me a copy of Kagen’s Snake Box at a reasonable price I’m hardly going to turn it down… it arrived a couple of weeks ago – just in time for me to take it along to MPPXXi… where several folks seemed to enjoy playing with it.

A few days later I found the time to enjoy it myself, and it’s every bit as good as I remember it… sure, some sliding tiles are a bit sticky from time to time, but the general rule is that if things all look lined up and they won’t move the way you want them to, then there’s a darn good reason… keeping things neatly lined up definitely makes things behave better. Most of the tiles are joined in sets of two or three tiles with the odd singleton thrown in here and there for good measure…

Finding the first set of tiles to move isn’t trivial as the edges are obscured so you can’t easily find where the gap is to move the first tiles into… in its unsolved state, the tiles make a neat repeating snake-shaped pattern and your goal is to rearrange the tiles (not entirely trivial) into a checkerboard pattern, which once complete, will release the locking mechanism and allow the box to open, as if by magic!

The locking mechanism is rather cunning, with the combination of sets of tiles forcing you to complete the whole pattern before you can move the critical pieces that unlock the lid – very elegant!

…and that second compartment?

Yip – wonderfully simple, beautifully camouflaged and if there wasn’t a coin rattling around in there (I couldn’t help myself!) you’d easily overlook the fact that there was a second compartment!

Monday 21 March 2016

Kamei Small Box 1

I chanced upon a copy of this lovely little 1999 Kamei creation recently while I was at a little puzzle gathering near London… a friend had it for sale and after trying unsuccessfully for a while to open it, I asked for the price and a deal was struck…

I spent a bit more time trying to open it and made very little headway – I thought I’d found something interesting and then couldn’t make up my mind if the rattling inside was part of the mechanism or just a noise-maker inserted to 
confuse puzzlers.

Make no mistake – I was confused by it! I was pretty sure I’d deduced the subtelties of what I was trying to do, but for the life of me, I couldn’t actually get it to do anything…

Oli duly had a bash and a few minutes later there was a broadening grin on his face and he quickly hid what he’d been doing from me… convinced himself he’d fully solved it and then gave it back all locked up again – Thanks mate!

I explored some more and tried a little more insistently on what I had been trying to do – to be rewarded with a little movement – some encouragement from Oli and soon enough I was in…

This box is really unusual in its mechanism – and it’s small – less than 5cm on a side – the locking mechanism is SO beautifully disguised that you could very easily overlook it for absolutely ages… yet a mere three moves opens the box and there’s a lot of space inside it…

Classic Kamei – beautifully made in rosewood – it’s definitely stood the test of time!

Sunday 13 March 2016

Edelweiss Puzzlebox (aka Stickman #28)

I feel very guilty about not writing about this box yet… I’ve had it for months, played with, solved it, enjoyed it, but not yet blogged about it… I am sorry.

Let me rectify that now…

Just before I left sunny UK for a cruise up Alaska and a trip to Canada, with some puzzling thrown in for good measure, I received an email from Robert Yarger offering me a copy of his latest Puzzlebox – a collaboration with William Waite. You’ll know me well enough by now to know that I don’t turn down invitations like that, so I winged some Paypal across to Rob and then had to do something really hard: I asked him not to sip it for three weeks so that there would be no chance of the package rocking up while I was out of the country enjoying beavertails. 
Rob duly shipped it over just after I got back from IPP35 and it didn’t take long to arrive.

Quite a few of Rob’s previous puzzlebox designs have incorporated a nod to another genus of puzzle, like his Lighthouse incorporating elements from Hoffmann threaded puzzles, kumiki puzzles in The Little Game Hunter, automata in his Checkmate Box and sliding tile puzzles in the aptly-named Sliding Tile Box.

The Edelweiss Puzzlebox incorporates a neat tray-packing puzzle designed by William Waite to provide the locking mechanism. At the start of the puzzle you have the pieces neatly packed in their place on one side of the box… with the box very securely locked. On the opposite side there are some similarly shaped bits forming a trivial tray-packing puzzle – unfortunately those bits won’t unlock the puzzle!

Your goal now is to pack the first set of pieces into the two trays, one on either side of the box – get it right and you’ll release one side of the box and gain access to its secret compartment… as long as you open them in the right order – else you get nowhere at all!

Find the right assembly and you’re presented with either a patchwork of little Swiss flowers (hence the puzzle’s name) or a blanket of snowflakes – slot them into place in the appropriate tray and you’ll hear a set of satisfying little clicks as the magnetic locks all slide into place and allow their compartment to open.

Open it all up and you have to admire the elegance of the implementation of this locking mechanism – the tray packing puzzle needs to be properly solved and the two trays need to be solved in the right order – and the mechanics behind enforcing those rules is wonderfully simple - a really clever design.

My favourite thing about the Edelweiss Puzzlebox? It arrives in a solved position but you’re forced to scramble it and re-solve it before you can open the first compartment! … and opening the second compartment can be done with a flourish if you’re so inclined.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Karakuri Christmas 2015

…a little(!) late, but here’s my customary post on my Karakuri Christmas gifts from last year…

Their timing was pretty spot-on this year, with my package of Christmas goodies from Japan just clearing customs in time for Christmas… which meant there was Japanese puzzle box goodness under the Christmas tree alongside the Stickman-goodness that I’ve already told you about.

This year I ordered gifts from six artists… making me formally a creature of habit! 

Let’s start with easily the cutest among my selection, Osamu Kasho’s Panda – instantly recognisable as the sad-faced panda, this one is going to be a firm favourite in the cute-stakes. While not hugely challenging, I have seen grown puzzlers spend more than a couple of minutes finding the first move on this little cutie… which makes it officially a puzzle and not just a curiosity in my books! And you gotta love that face…

Next up is Tatsuo Miyamoto’s Book – again not a super-complex puzzle, although it requires twice as many steps as the Panda, but this one’s execution is really terrific. The choice of woods and the use of grain is really excellent – so not only does the cover and spine look like it should, but the grain on the sides gives the impression of a book’s pages as well – and the puzzle mechanism incorporates elements that you’d expect from a book-shaped puzzle… I rather like it!

Kamei produced a variation on his well-known theme with his Box with a Ribbon III – it really looks the part and there’s a lovely little bit of subterfuge with a nod back to previous incarnations as well… I enjoyed the solving experience but have had one or two folks mention that their copies tended to solve themselves, which might provide a bit of a disappointment… mine has just the right amount of tolerance to let you find things reasonably easily without any chance of it spontaneously opening. 

Mr Monkey from Shiro Tajima is a super cool-looking puzzle – when it starts it looks like a monkey’s head on a little stand… manipulating that stand turns it into a pair of shades for the now super-chilled simian. 
It’s hard not to smile at him… once again the ape’s best features have been turned into the means of opening this little puzzle box and it is a rather interesting sequence of moves – quite unlike anything else I’ve come across before…

Hideaki Kawashima’s Twin 3 is another extension on a design theme – this time taking things to a whole other plane… finding the first move on this puzzle is interesting… after the first move they sort of get a little more predictable, for a while, then they veer off in altogether another direction entirely… and rest assured, when you think you’ve found it all, you probably haven’t… this one has a lot of secrets to give up.

Finally in my bunch was Bean Bag Drawer 2 from Hiroshi Iwahara – building on last year’s Bean Bag Drawer. This one looks a bit like a playground bruiser – and fiddling around with the obvious interesting bits yields a pretty simple means of getting the drawer half open… but getting it fully open and gaining access to the second secret compartment is you real mission… you’ll need to pay quite a lot of attention to those locking mechanisms and establish just how and why they sometimes behave a little differently and then learn how to exploit that for good… a very satisfying puzzle to (eventually!) solve... easily the hardest solve in the bunch!

As usual I was pretty chuffed with this (OK, last) year’s selection – a couple of really interesting tough puzzles and some really nice puzzles that I might not have given a second look had I been forced to choose them from a line-up in a web-shop – but all thoroughly nice puzzles that I won’t be letting go of any time soon…

The Karakuri Club membership is still a cracking deal for picking up some interesting Japanese puzzle boxes… as long as you don’t mind being surprised by what you get as you only get to select the craftsmen and have no idea what they’re going to produce until your presents arrive, hopefully just before Christmas… go on, spoil yourself! :-)