Monday 31 May 2021

Jack’s Tippenary Mystery Tour

A few years ago Jack Krijnen created a truly awesome sequential discovery puzzle in the shape of Jack-in-the-Box - I was a huge fan, so the when I picked up on the merest suggestion that he might just be working on another puzzle box, I made sure my he knew I was dead keen!

A few weeks ago I got the email to let me know that it was ready and a few days later I was opening the packaging and looking forward to another puzzling journey into the unknown. It’s a really handsome maple box with some very neat mahogany trim – name proudly laser-etched in the centre and some inviting-looking rods teasing you on the top of the box… and they seem to be repeated around the base of the box, but those ones seems even less keen to move than the ones on the top.

I spent quite a while trying to get into the box at first… I outed myself at our last VMPP for the fact that I’d made virtually no progress whatsoever in the first couple of weeks – some sympathised and told me the first set of locks was quite tricky… Jack just smiled and looked like the proud puzzle-maker he ought to be.  A few days after that Nigel got in touch and I shared what I’d ben doing and he seemed puzzled at my lack of progress as he reckoned another possibility should be “available” at that stage – only it wasn’t – and I’d been exploring some seriously wild and whacky ideas of what I might need to do next: I’d heard something occasionally moving around inside and I’d convinced myself that that sound, and the name were a suggestion that there was a hidden n-ary mechanism inside that needed blind manipulation, so I was trying to make that work… (Yup, that’s how far down the rabbit hole I’d gone…)

Nigel kindly encouraged me to try something that I’d tried may times before with no success, and so I kept going until I finally found the merest trace of a hint of the tiniest bit of movement – so I doubled down and even though my hands hurt, I executed that move… and it was lovely – but I hadn’t expected what came next at all…

The next puzzle took me ages of proper pen-and-paper puzzling to try and come up with a strategy for solving it… and then the penny dropped and I found the link I’d been missing, and I had to smile at Jack’s lovely sense of whimsy – I really LOVE that second puzzle!

Passing that brings up an old friend and I had a lovely time wandering through a familiar path knowing that there’d be another challenge still waiting for me…

…and of course there was – finally finding what I’d been expecting to make an appearance since the very beginning of my long journey – like seeing an old friend after being in lock-down – it was nestled there waiting for me… only it wasn’t – it was an imposter – well disguised, but an imposter nevertheless – yet far from feeling cheated, this actually provided another new adventure…

This one really keeps on giving – when you think you’re finished, this one keeps on giving and giving until you finally find Jack’s Extra Challenge – complete that one and you can call this puzzle properly solved.

Once again, I find myself writing about a puzzling journey where I can’t talk about the steps along the way as each one is such a wonderful surprise that I’d hate to rob anyone of the sheer joy of discovering each new layer beneath as you gently unwrap this puzzling onion… this one really surprises you a number of times as you work through to the final challenge – I can’t think of another puzzle that does it as beautifully and as plentifully.

Jack – it’s a masterpiece.

[After I’d finished wending my way through it the first time, I contacted Jack about the stiffness that we discovered had resulted from some super-unseasonal low humidity in the UK – definitely not the sort of thing I’d ever expected or experienced in the past – lack of humidity or precipitation is not something we’re known for in the UK! Jack insisted on fettling it for free and the first lock is now silky smooth and ready for visiting puzzlers to enjoy to the full – thank you, Jack!]


Monday 24 May 2021

Late to the party…

For one reason or another, I wasn’t a huge fan of Felix Ure’s Titan puzzle – probably to do with my spidey senses not being finely tuned enough – and I allowed that to get in the way of my picking up a copy of Hip Flask when it first came out… but then I heard some good things about it and I decided I should really have a copy in the hoard, so I ordered a copy from Crux Puzzles… which duly arrived a couple of days later.

The puzzle does a pretty good impression of an actual hip flask and the lid moves around a bit and even comes out a bit every now and then. You’re told that the aim is the remove the lid completely… which sounds like an eminently sensible thing to do to a hip flask.

There’s a hole in the bottom of the flask, and a few big fat pins that occasionally tease you on the top, and something hiding in the side evidenced by the end of a screw lurking just below the surface. And that’s it. 

There’s nothing else to see…

So time to get a-fiddlin’ – after a bit of said fiddling’ you’ll find that the lid will begin to emerge, and then you’ll find yourself exactly back where you started again… and there’s a definite dense of déjà vu from around the thirtieth time you repeat that cycle!

However, if you stop and Think (c) and plan your way forward, you will surely be rewarded.

At one point on that journey you may well find yourself rewarded with a tool, although it does seem rather useless… so you may as well push forward… it’s when you get rewarded with your second tool that things get really interesting... and at this point you’re probably beginning to smell potential victory – only this puzzle has the last laugh and definitively slams the door in your face, so to speak.

I really love the final element on this puzzle – it’s definitely one of those puzzles that works well against some puzzler’s mindsets – like mine!

Monday 17 May 2021

Cubic Octahedron

Anyone who’s vaguely interested in puzzles and 3D printing will be aware of the massive contribution that Aaron Siegel has made through his development of tools and techniques for making 3D printed puzzles that much more accessible. He’s not only developed some brilliant tools for helping puzzlers get their puzzles prepped for printing without support, he’s also been publishing print files for a huge variety of puzzles already in the public domain, bringing stacks of them to the attention of folks who might not otherwise have come across them…

One such puzzle is Christoph Lohe’s Cubic Octahedron which Steve Ali printed off a spare copy for me – thanks (again)!

Mine arrived as a bag of bits from the lads (probably the best way to ship it to avoid the spindly pieces possibly getting broken) so I had an extra little challenge to make sure I’d assembled the pieces properly. Once I discovered letters marking the various joints and realised there was only one orientation for the connectors to join up, I was pretty confident I was connecting the pieces up the right way… although at this point, I didn’t know what the puzzle was so had no idea what the pieces should look like – it added a little extra frisson.

With the pieces built my mind immediately went to a relative of Coffin’s Three-Piece Block – I knew there was a slightly larger four-piece version (I'm sure I have one in wood from John Devost - probably even blogged about it!) but I didn’t think the pieces were familiar so I just started trying to build something vaguely coherent… starting with a couple of pieces to see how they could be combined and when I found something that looked promising, try and introduce a third piece and so on…

I had (quite!) a few false starts (even to the point of wondering if I'd assembled things properly!) before finding something that looked promising – and at this stage I should point out that the whole premise of having these pieces where the joints are all quarter-face and offset makes for a deliciously confounding puzzle – we all know just how confusing Coffin’s Three-Piece Block is with just three, smaller pieces. This one adds a piece and they’re bigger…

Right about now I came to realise that Christoph has added a wonderful twist to this genre – Coffin’s originals are serial assembly puzzles – you had to insert the pieces in the correct order but when you got to the end, you simply inserted the last piece… Christoph doesn’t let you do that here… he makes you work some more, even after you’ve worked out where all the pieces need to be and what their relative orientations are – that extra little kick in the pants right at the end really makes this one stand out for me.

It's a great combination of confusing and puzzling!

Sunday 9 May 2021

Brass Monkey Four

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be given a prototype copy of Brass Monkey Four in a little care package from Ali and Steve (along with a whole bunch of 3D printed puzzling goodness – but that’s another blog altogether!).

The lads were pretty sure they had it all sussed and they were keen to inflict it on a tame puzzler, so I got to have an early play with it.

Big grin time.

This one looks more or less just like all of the others in the series – look closely at the ends and you can tell them apart, but a casual glance might let you think there were a bunch of identical puzzles on the shelf…

The first one was a pretty standard burr – just nice and big and heavy. Number Two was different. Number Three, it turned out, could bite and grew a bit of a reputation for requiring a little respect – definitely the mark of a good puzzle.

…and Number Four – well, let’s just say that we left plain old burrs behind a long time ago! This one has a delightful subtlety that may well elude the most motivated of puzzlers for quite a while – but when you do find the first little figurative thread to start tugging gently on, it provides the loveliest of “A-Ha!” moments…

…but the smiles keep growing as you wander through the solution, for wander you must – and if you aren’t smiling broadly by the time you solve this puzzle, there’s most certainly something wrong with you.

The lads have put something special into this puzzle, and then disguised it to look just like all the other puzzles in the series so far… that takes a holy trinity of cunning and craftsmanship and fine engineering.

This one’s definitely my favourite in the series – there’s enough challenge to feel that you’ve earned the solution, but not so much that you feel you want it all over and done with – this is one you want to savour and solve and re-solve… it’s excellent!

After I’d solved it the lads pointed something out to me on the prototype that seriously wouldn’t have bothered 99.9% of the puzzlers out there, but the lads are perfectionists, so they were tweaking the design again to make sure it was absolutely rock solid in anyone’s hands… and now it’s ready for everyone – over here.

Get one.

You will thank me.

Saturday 8 May 2021

Basket redux

After spending a goodly while solving Akaki’s Picnic Baskets over the Easter weekend, a few more have arrived to keep me amused.

First off, Eric Fuller made up a mini set of picnic baskets with pieces for Egg, Sandwich and Wine. The basket is beautifully made in Zebrawood, with a floating Maple bottom, and as you’d expect from the wood-meister, the tolerances are sublime – so sublime in fact that I made a rather embarrassing discovery.

When the puzzle arrived, I set about assembling the three different challenges, assuming that, as I’d already solved these in the 3D printed versions that Ali and Steve had sent over, this would be a walk in the park… and indeed Egg and Sandwich were relatively straight-forward after I’d managed to summon up the appropriate little grey cells and spotted some vaguely memorable combinations of pieces.

Sub-consciously I’d left Wine for last because that one had given me so much trouble the last time around. Fortunately all of that effort had left the solution well-ingrained in my mind so I stepped through the process smiling a little smugly as I went – until I got to the last piece, which didn’t quite behave the way I was expecting it to – I was pretty certain I remembered how that final piece went in, and it just wouldn’t on this copy…

At this point I start thinking that there are three possible reasons for this:

  1. I’ve misremembered something along the way – UNLIKELY given the pain it extracted on the first solve – it took me ages!
  2. Eric’s got his tolerances wrong – see above – deemed IMPOSSIBLE.
  3. I’ve cooked the solution on the 3D printed copy by unwittingly flexing something… bugger!

OK, so go back to basics – first of all establish whether there’s an alternate possible layout of the pieces… and rather swiftly deduce that there isn’t… so turn attention to orientation and order of insertion… and promptly spend almost as much time again on trying to come up with a different way of putting those same pieces into the same basket… but I do manage to find a very different approach to the one I was pursuing, and there’s (another) excellent little “A-Ha!” when I finally click.

Akaki’s Wine Basket definitely kicked my butt.

Next up is another pair of 3D printed baskets courtesy of Steve and Ali – thanks Lads!!

Nachos was a set of pieces designed by William Hu after playing with Akaki’s Picnic pieces and feeling like he could up the ante a little, and perhaps give Akaki a bit of a challenge in his own backyard. (I may well be making some of that up!)

The pieces on Nachos stand out from all the previous pieces because some of them have diagonal-cut half cubes, which is interesting…

Finding a potentially viable assembly isn’t too challenging – but finding a way to get the pieces inside the basket, is. I found myself going through several cycles of “Hang on. Perhaps there IS another assembly because they definitely won’t get in there in this assembly,” only to end up back where I’d started just trying even harder to find a way to get those pieces inside the basket.

It's definitely worth asking yourself why those pieces are shaped that way… for some of them the answer will already be obvious, but it was while thinking about the others that I found a promising vein of ore to mine… and the eventual little dance of the pieces inside the basket is really interesting, and rather rewarding.

Peppermint Basket is Akaki’s mic-dropping response to Nachos. This one pares back the problem to three simple pieces – sure there might be some half-cubes in there – but three pieces?! With that few pieces, there really aren’t a lot of ways that you can build something that will fit in a 3*3*3 space with a complete top surface. You could literally count them on one hand, really easily, even if you’re a clumsy woodworker!

Given the restrictions you’ve got from the pieces, there are some obvious moves that sort of present themselves, even though they’re rather novel and you probably won’t have seen them before… which sort of took care of two pieces for me and I knew where the third one needed to be, I just couldn’t see how the heck to get it there.

I am embarrassed to admit that I did wonder at one point whether the “rule” about the top surface being complete might not be required for this one, but thought that someone would surely have mentioned that if it had been the case… so I persist.

And I come back to it several times over the course of many days… until I find something almost inelegant that opens up a new line of attack, and that’s the breakthrough I need… 

Peppermint is definitely the pièce de résistance – solve that one and you can call yourself a proper puzzler!