Friday 25 September 2020

Virtual Midlands Puzzle Party

[Apologies for the rubbish quality of the pics in this post - they're virtually all captures from my video recording of the sessions.]

COVID-19 has well and truly played havoc with our well-planned puzzle party timetable – not only has it forced the postponement of our International Puzzle Party, but it’s also caused the cancellation of not one, but two Midlands Puzzle Parties. Things were getting dire. It’d been months since we’d seen one another and enjoyed one another’s “encouragement” and I was missing my mates… so we mooted the idea of a virtual MPP and a fair few people thought that might be a fun idea… so we set about organising something that would mean there’d be something for everyone around the puzzling time zones to participate in.

Nick offered to draw up a custom puzzle hunt for the day, Frank chipped in a couple of print-cut-and-solve puzzles, Ali came up with a fun puzzle challenge that we were sure that everyone would be able to join in on, I pulled together a somewhat-puzzle-based quiz from some of the games a bunch of us have been playing on Sunday evenings, the guys produced a few scavenger hunts, and I arranged a couple of video tours that I thought would interest pretty much every puzzler I knew. We decided that we’d hold the first VMPP on the next planned MPP date and then planned out three two-hour sessions, each with a “main event” and a few supporting acts to keep the gang amused. I deliberately spaced the three sessions out during the day so that we could include folks from Australia and the US in some of the sessions without them having to get up or stay up until silly o’clock… although several of our US  friends ended up joining pretty much every session anyway – starting at very-stupid-o’clock in the morning for most of them!

The first session kicked off at 9am UK-time and we ran through the rough order of events and Nick introduced the puzzle hunt that he’d cooked up for us – it’s over at if you’re also interested… and at the same page, there’s a small collection of print-and-solve puzzles from Markus Gotz, Kohfuh Satoh (thanks Kohfuh!!) and our own Frank, for you to have a bash at. I really liked all the folding puzzles and heartily recommend them – and they’re there for free! What’s not to like.

Nick’s puzzle hunt consisted of three chapters themed to our MPP hero-on-the-run, Chico Banan, with a final meta chapter to be released after the afternoon session. Having play-tested the hunt during the week before, I was seriously encouraging folks to team up and have a go at it with some friends! (And ask for hints if you get stuck… I know, blasphemy!) The puzzle hunt and the answer-checking / leader board are still up at the URL above – have a go if you haven’t already tried – it will make use of your mechanical puzzle knowledge and test the little grey cells.

After the introduction of all the puzzles and the hunt, we ran a short scavenger hunt with points awarded pseudo-randomly in expert fashion by Big-Steve – there were several steward’s enquiries and the scoring of the random entry of a sock will probably enter MPP-lore – that none-too-contentious act did result in people being encouraged to take part in the subsequent scavenger hunts on the grounds that by not yet taking part, they were already beating Shane and his sock.

The main event in the morning session was Brian and Sue Young giving us a guided tour of Brian’s Puzzle Room, the floodlit giant puzzles in the garden (courtesy of the floodlights especially rigged-up for the tour!) and then Brian’s workshop and order processing stations. <There’s a YouTube video of the morning session over here.> It was lovely to see the very first puzzle Brian ever got: a wire heart & stirrup puzzle that his grandad had made for him while down the mine he was working in, and then to see Brian presenting his favourite three (or four!) puzzles. It was really special hearing the story behind Big Ben produced for his friend John’s only ever exchange – it obviously still means such a lot to Brian that he was able to do that for John.

Heading down to the workshop they stopped to show us the full-sized Telephone Box puzzle, the gigantic Big Burr at the bottom of the garden and the massive chicken disentanglement, before heading into the workshop itself and working progressively around all the different processing stations, with Brian stopping to show us how he makes his jigs and sets up the processes to make sure that he can design out any chances of error in the process. (He’s clever, that man!)

Brian gave us a sneak peak at his latest sequential discovery puzzle still in development and then settled down for a Q&A session, where Tomas was quick on the draw to ask about the progress on Brian’s ’66 Mustang (spoiler: not a lot – he’s been too busy making puzzles for the past twenty years!). We also got a little peak at the ’48 Ford that’s also on the list for some improvements.

Brian fielded all manner of questions about his approach to designing puzzles, his opinions on expensive table saw accessories and how the shop-side of things runs… it was wonderful being allowed in behind the curtain, as it were, with Brian and Sue being wonderful hosts and tour-guides – thanks guys!!

The afternoon session kicked off at 1pm after an hour or two to recharge, grab some lunch and get the final few things organised for the next session. Big-Steve gave us a catch-up on the scavenger hunt leader board, reminding everyone who’d just joined for the day that they were all in front of Shane already thanks to his -1 for the random sock picture.

We ran a short Soma Cube Challenge that Ali had dreamed up for us for a bit of a laugh: we described a series of challenges and the first few puzzlers to complete the challenge got points… normally points would mean prizes, this time they did not, they were in fact pretty pointless, but it did make for some good laughs along the way. It also resulted in quite a number of folks playing along with exactly the same Soma Cubes: the original versions in rosewood made in Denmark for Parker Brothers.

After the excitement of the Soma Challenge, Steve Canfield took us on a tour of his Puzzle Library, showing us shelf upon shelf of wonderfully collectible puzzle Boxes and beautifully crafted mechanical puzzles. By popular demand the tour took a bit of a detour at the end to travel via the magical (and also puzzling!) cabinet of Booze – the other important part of Steve’s regular blog posts. <There’s a YouTube video of the afternoon session over here.>

George and Roxanne were the main attraction in the afternoon session taking us on the full walking tour of the Puzzle Palace – starting outside and then heading in between the floating shelves of mini Berrocals (stunning idea, George!) before embarking on a room-by-room tour with Rox talking about the contents along the way. Room after jaw-dropping room of puzzles seemed to just keep coming with several parts of the collection being absolutely magnificent on their own – like the endless shelves of exchange puzzles and the - quite literally complete – collection of the Berrocal multiples.

Rox is clearly really passionate about the collection and seems to love nothing more than to share it with others! Including taking us up into the loft that serves as even more puzzle storage and display area, and the beginnings of a printer farm for George.

Popping out of the loft into the garage was the cue for Rox to hand over to George for a tour of his workshops, with George showing us around the big machinery in the garage (including several demos along the way) before heading inside to the 3D printing lab with all manner of printers set up for a variety of different tasks, ready and waiting. 

George and Rox then sportingly answered all our questions about the puzzles and about the 3D printers they’d chosen for George’s new farm – thanks guys – it was super being able to hang out with you in the Puzzle Palace.

Before breaking for the afternoon, we issued a big scavenger hunt challenge for everyone to have a bash at during the break until the afternoon session, and we released the final chapter in the Chico Banan puzzle hunt – and at this stage I think there was only one team on the leader board, although they’d managed to break it and had had to enter themselves three times in order to record their completion of the first three chapters. (But we won’t remind Taus and Rod that they broke it, promise!) ;-)

We had a good few hours between the afternoon and evening sessions so a couple of teams managed to get themselves onto the leader board and even finish off the final chapter in the Banan saga – it’s somewhat epic and the final meta is an absolute joy to solve – well worth the effort IMHO… and if you want to have a go at it, feel free to ask for clues if you get stuck…

At the start of the evening session Big-Steve gave us a quick round up of the scavenger hunt scores (Yup, Shane was still safely behind even those who hadn’t bothered to take part!) before we headed into the Pu(B)zzle Quiz – the evening’s “main event” – styled after a classic British pub quiz, we had a lot of puzzle-related questions not-so-cunningly woven in among some standard trivia-fare. We started out with a relatively simple round of True/False before heading into the eponymous Cheese or Train Station round (you had to be there!). The next round was the heavily puzzle-related “Soma Chanted Evening” round with trivia questions about the classic puzzle and a West End musical. Several rounds of Puzzle Links led up to the eagerly-awaited IcoNick Movie Scenes round before we broke for an intermission and a final round blitz scavenger hunt...with Big-Steve taking care of all the scoring again. 

The second half had more of the same, along with a round of Spot the IPP logo (harder than it sounds!). We tested their artistic talents with a round where we asked them to draw the flags of some of our IPP and MPP friends – where we learned that puzzlers do not make good sketchers of flags! The second round of IcoNick Movie Scenes may have left some images indelibly seared into some puzzlers’ minds – sorry about that!

Amusingly, as I sit writing up this blog post a couple of weeks later, I cannot even remember who got the top score on the quiz or on the scavenger hunts, but I do remember very vividly having a lot of laughs along the way… and that made all the schlepp of getting everything set up, massively worthwhile… and judging by some of the comments afterwards, I wasn’t the only one who had a good time that day, so I guess we should do this again sometime… maybe even on the date we’d planned for the next real-world MPP.

[Thanks to all the folks who helped out behind the scenes to get things organised, contributed to the quiz and all the other games we lined up, and generally provided encouragement. See you in November...]

Links to the videos: 

Afternoon session:

Morning session:


Saturday 19 September 2020

CORVI 2020

I often find myself calling my mate Chinny a bit of a nutter – in a good way of course. He’s one of those guys whose laughter will instantly brighten up a room-full of puzzlers deep in concentration and the boy has skillz – man does he have skillz! And when those skillz, and that sense of humour combine, quite often something magical appears.

Chinny is also the sort of guy that, when life gives him lemons, he makes lemonade – damn good lemonade! So when 2020 threw COVID-19 at us, Chinny saw that as puzzle fodder, and cooked up a puzzle that might just pass as a slightly scaled-up model of the COVID-19 virus – and presented us with CORVI 2020… his entry in this year’s Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.

A few copies of this puzzle have appeared on various puzzle auctions over the last month or two and I managed to snaffle a copy (along with some more Chinny awesome-ness – but that’s another blog post well off into the future!) and after a slightly longer than usual wander over to Blighty, I finally got a shot of the Chin-meister’s sense of humour.

Of course it also comes with a handsome stand, complete with a trapped ring around the base with virtually no play between the dished sides and the perfectly round, well-trapped ring – because Chinny hates to waste any of the wood that gets cut off when he’s turning a project… and speaking of wood – my virus is made of some rather nicely marbled Mulberry wood – this is definitely my first puzzle made out of Mulberry!

The puzzle itself is a generously-sized sphere, perfectly pitted about the entire surface, with about 30 golf tees giving it the characteristic spiky COVID-19 look. Looking carefully at the sphere you’ll spot a dividing line and you might surmise that you’re going to need to open this virus up at some point.

Examining the tees a little you’ll discover that most of them just pull out… and some don’t … and several have perfectly functioning whistles cut into them (it’s a Chinny thing: there’s usually a whistle somewhere in his playful designs!). Some of the tees are special and require a bit more thought and you might even need to engage actual puzzle-solving mode at this point.

To be honest, removing the golf tees isn’t even the appetiser in this fully-balanced meal! You will need to find out what’s stopping you from opening this virus up, and be warned, there are several steps in that process… but if you persist you are rewarded by the rather ominous ticking countdown and the sound of an explosion as you catch sight of death himself staring right back at you goading you into doing something you shouldn’t.

This is classic Chinny: it may not levitate (for long) or indeed make breakfast, but it provides you with several whistles and a darn good laugh when you open the thing up.

Closing it all up again is reasonably straight forward once you've seen the insides, but then there is the small matter of reinserting all of the golf tees so that the colours are symmetric and no colour is repeated in any of the pentagons on the surface of the virus.

Definitely a worthy new puzzle in the canon-of-the-Chin-meister – guaranteed to put a smile on your face! 

Thanks for giving us a reason to laugh at that blimming virus, Chinny!

Saturday 12 September 2020

Juno’s Coin Case

Junichi Yananose has designed many fearsomely tough puzzles over the past decade. He’s mastered orthogonal board burrs and taken them to extremes. He’s produced some wonderfully non-orthogonal structures that can reduce grown men to tears. And he’s designed and produced some of the very best sequential discovery puzzles out there… so when he announced the release of his Coin Case and described it as the simplest puzzle box he’s ever designed, I was intrigued.

I joined the slightly disorderly queue when it was released and managed to get my order in after things calmed down a little (there was quite a lot of anticipation so the web-store got somewhat hammered and couldn’t handle it elegantly) and waited patiently for the little box to wend its way over to Blighty.

Juno’s done a lovely job of making it look smashing, with a nice selection of woods giving you lots of visual clues to examine. At first glance it looks a little like an oversized version of the Psycho Matchboxes of old, and that may well point you in a particular direction – which might not be useful!

There aren’t a lot of “steps” to opening this box, but it has an interesting twist on an old idea that will make it interesting for puzzlers, while at the same time not making it too hard for muggles to crack without getting frustrated and losing interest. The mechanism is pretty robust and it’s definitely one that you’ll feel very comfortable handing around to folks who don’t necessarily appreciate the finer things about carefully crafted mechanical puzzles – and that’s not to say this one isn’t very well-crafted – just that its also been designed with enthusiastic and potentially inexperienced solvers in mind. 
Definitely one to have handy for sharing with people who haven’t yet been hooked by the lure of solving mechanical puzzles… and there’s still a bunch of them available over at Pluredro.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Yin Yang

My personal favourite from the latest release of puzzles from the lads at the Pelikan Workshop was Yin Yang from the mind of Volker Latussek.

You have a handsome cherry and maple box and a set of six dark wenge pieces, each of which consists of a flat 3*2 part with an extra 1*2 bit attached to it somewhere. Now, even without any instructions, it’s pretty clear on this puzzle that you need to inveigle the pieces inside the box without breaking anything along the way.  Doing that will make it clear where the name comes from – the top of the box will look like a slightly blocky Yin Yang symbol…

I quite like this design because it straddles the difficulty level rather neatly – not too many pieces, and not many different ways to build the required 4*4*3 shape that needs to be inside the box… in fact there are very few ways of assembling such a block – which to my mind makes this a little simpler as a puzzle because it means bashing through far fewer potential assemblies to see which ones won’t fit inside the box. (That bit usually takes me the absolute longest!)

Think(c)ing about things will also tell you how some of the pieces must be orientated and that really helps cut down the assemblies to start with… combine those two things, and some deductions about how the last piece(s) need to go
into the box and you’ll find you don’t need to bash through an awful lot of potential assemblies at all.

Finding the exact way to handle said inveigling will cause a little bit of head-scratching, but again, some Think(c)ing is well rewarded.

I reckon this one provides a nice challenge and a pretty decent reward of an “A-Ha!” moment without having to wade through too much slogging – as long as you’re prepared to Think(c) a little.