Friday, 21 July 2017

Getting more popular - 900k pageviews!

Main blog page

New additions page


This number just crept up on me! I am continually amazed that anyone reads my drivel. Thank you all for your time! Maybe 1 million pageviews bythis time next year?

Sunday, 16 July 2017

One of the Toughest Puzzles I Have Solved

Helix the Burr
Many months ago I was chatting via email with that good friend of mine that I mentioned last week who has been giving me such great advice on which puzzles to buy. He suggested to me that I should hunt around and see if I could obtain a copy of the Helix the Burr Puzzle as he thought it was something really special. I immediately shot off to Bill Cutler's website to have a look at it. Bill had designed it in 1982 - he had been looking for burrs with an interesting structure and sequence to them. It was originally intended to become the Wausau '82 puzzle, however, the design quickly became too complex and it was formally introduced at the Sixth Annual International Puzzle Party at Jerry Slocum's house on April 2, 1983. The first solution was received from Edward Hordern.

At this time Bill had designed it entirely in his head and by real model prototyping. It must have been quite a feat to achieve something like that and is just a small hint at the incredible brain that he must have. His website describes the puzzle as follows:
"This burr features the most interesting disassembly sequence that I have ever created. The name comes from the spiral structure that is created by the 8 pieces surrounding the central 5-piece core."
The original batch of 20 puzzles made by Jerry McFarland was sold between 1990 and 1992 and I am not sure whether Bill ever released another batch (his site suggests that more may be made available in 2017). Brian Young made a batch of 30 of them in 2004 as a Limited edition. Both Bill's and Brian's editions have been long sold out and have been seen at auctions for enormous sums. In 2015 Eric Fuller made a batch of them too (using Maple and Bubinga). He made 40 copies in total and they sold out quickly. I am not sure how I missed out but I suspect I had already spent my budget. Of course after being told how essential the puzzle is, I had been kicking myself. You may notice that the puzzle actually appears on Eric's home page.

Recently Eric has sold off his backlog of spares to free up space and I tried to get one from him then. I put in a fairly decent bid and unfortunately missed out again. I had more or less resigned myself to never getting a copy when another one turned up at the last Cubic auction. I hate auctions with a passion because I never seem to win anything and the couple of times I have done so I got carried away and spent far too much and ended up resenting the puzzle I bought. But the last auction had so much good stuff on it that after lurking for a while and watching a few items that rapidly spiralled out of control, I noticed a copy of Helix the Burr not having too much interest. I put in a last minute bid and was astounded when I won. I was pleased to see that the owner was based in the UK and I wouldn't be caught by the customs men.

After a few days of admiring my purchase I found some time to play and noted that there are 3 or 4 moves that didn't seem to go anywhere. Luckily there is no long dead end. I then noticed the wonderful helical arrangement of the cross pieces and wondered whether they were in that arrangement for a reason? Of course they are! After a couple of days of getting nowhere, I made a big discovery. There is a truly beautiful and very precise helical sequence before the whole puzzle suddenly becomes very loose and spreads apart. This movement scared the bejeezus out of me and I immediately reversed my tracks! After a gulp, I repeated it a few times to check that I knew what I was doing and continued with the search. Despite it all becoming incredibly rickety and looking like it might collapse in a heap, I realised that it was still very stable. This is quite amazing to me and a huge tribute to both designer and craftsman. With everything really loose, I hunted for the next move. And hunted. And hunted! Nope! Nada! Not a thing! I put it back to the beginning and whinged about it to my friend Derek!

Derek asked a pointed question about what I had tried and the result of his questioning led me to a horrible realisation. There is another reason why the puzzle had to be designed in Mr Cutler's head....it was not just the year. Think© about it! This realisation opened up a whole realm of ideas but interestingly not a lot of them were possible. In fact, only one piece was movable and in several ways. I went through them all and of course the very last thing I tried produced something fascinating. After some more interesting helical themed ideas I had a nice pile of wood:

Just look at the notches on that bottom piece!
Looking at the pieces, it can be seen that the notches are made in ½ and ⅓ thicknesses. The central piece is a masterpiece! Now it was time for the reassembly. Gulp! Now, I am NOT terribly bright but I am not completely stupid! A puzzle that cannot be modelled with Burrtools and without a printed solution is not one I am just going to disassemble and pile up the pieces. That would be a recipe for disaster and I already have one burr that has sat in pieces next to me for a couple of years and I don't want another one! So I had taken a very nice sequence of photos with my phone and had actually kept all the pieces in sequence on the table:

All in order and orientation
It was time for the reassembly and after collecting all the pieces up for the obligatory photo on my kitchen granite, I set them all out in the order of the pic above. I started following my disassembly pics in reverse order. I was ready for a huge triumph and a big blog post......and failed! I got to this bit:

Looks easy?
Something was wrong.....the position above and insertion of that piece was impossible! HELP!!! I tried for hours and failed again and again and again. Mrs S was getting fed up and it was time for me to cook. The pieces were gathered up and put away for a later attempt.

Three days later I proved to myself, and am confessing to you all out there in puzzle land, that I am not terribly bright. I had not been able to follow my own pictures! It would appear that I cannot tell the difference between a half height notch and a third height. Let me tell you that in puzzling size really does matter - I had a single piece completely upside down. After 3 days of trying the same thing again and again, I forced myself to start from the beginning. The very first set of 3 pieces can be put together incorrectly but still look ok. However this allows the subsequent moves to continue correctly until this one and you WILL hit a wall. If only I had been clever enough to look carefully or to start at the beginning, it would have saved a whole lot of chest pain and mumbling to myself with the subsequent laser burning stare from she who frightens me to death.

I have now solved it several more times and can now follow my reassembly pictures every time! I haven't dared attempt it without them. I must agree with my puzzling mentor; the Helix the Burr is a fantastic puzzle and well worth adding to your collection.



Sunday, 9 July 2017

I Fail Brian's Challenge

Sonnefeld's Cubed Burr
I have heard about Dic Sonnefeld's Cubed Burr many times over the last 5 or so years but never actually seen one or played with one. I had been told by a few people that it was a terrific puzzle designed without the aid of Burrtools (which many have claimed has lead to the design of hundreds if not thousands of extremely complex puzzles which have nothing of interest except that they have a very high level or very odd shapes). The Cubed Burr consists of nothing more that 3 fairly simple burr sticks in a simple frame and has a relatively low solution level of 9.13.4 moves. Without having seen it and only knowing very little about it, I made no real effort to acquire one. Then a VERY good friend of mine suggested this puzzle to both me and to Brian Menold as something that is not just a good puzzle but one that is ESSENTIAL. When this particular friend gives that sort of advice then both of us sit up and listen. He has been puzzling a very long time and has never been wrong to my knowledge in the advice that he has given me. If he says jump then that is what I do and ask questions later.

Of course, a good craftsman always gets permission to produce a puzzle from the designer and I was luckily able to put Brian in touch with Mr Sonneveld and permission was duly granted. Brian made quite a few copies of the puzzle and, as always, used a wonderful selection of beautiful woods. I was hovering over my keyboard when the email update came in; I was poised and ready!

Apart from being told by my friend that it was a good puzzle (not why) I knew very little about it. I was interested in what Brian wrote:
"Don’t be fooled by number of moves in this one! It is only a 3 piece burr within a box, but these are moves that will really separate the men from the boys. When I was putting these together I couldn’t see how anyone would be able to solve this puzzle without some sort of help. But that is my old feeble mind which finds everything to be a challenge! These are very hard to find, and when available, command some extremely high prices. I wanted to give the cube an interesting look (it deserves it) so I put a little extra work into the construction. There was also more waste than usual. So these definitely belong on every collectors shelf. A really terrific design!"
How could I resist? I immediately ordered the above version - a Zebrawood frame with East Indian Rosewood pieces and 5.7 cm3 in size. They were all stunning but I am a sucker for Zebrawood!

This was the first one that I went to play with when I had a quiet moment one Saturday after they arrived. There is actually very little written about this puzzle on line apart from a few copies that have appeared in previous auction. John Rausch has a single sentence on his site (well worth browsing around if you have never had a look before). In fact knowing that John had said this made it all the more intriguing:
"A three-piece burr is contained within the cube. It is very difficult to disassemble and assemble, requiring rotations and other unnatural acts in addition to the usual burr movements."
Unnatural acts??? Wow! How can anyone resist that? The Puzzlewillbeplayed page says only that rotations are required. My only experience of Sonneveld puzzles was the Knobbly burr (also bought from Brian early in his and my puzzle careers) and also a delightful little copy of his 3 piece burr which also requires rotations:

Lovely little 3 piece burr
Needs rotations to unhook the pieces
Mrs S had gone out one Saturday and I settled down with a lap cat and the Cubed Burr. I started exploring carefully. It is quite a confusing puzzle with a lot of possible moves which can go up blind paths for a little way before stopping dead and then forcing a back track. Not only are there a bunch of linear blind ends but there are also a fair number of rotational blind ends too! I have a very linear brain and trying to keep track of the turns was quite a task. Eventually by pure luck I managed to perform a couple of rotations and after peering inside the hole I had created, I suddenly realised that the first piece would slide out with a simple sequence. YESSS! I am a genius! Errrm, nope - I am not! With the removed piece precariously balanced on the sleeping cat's back, I continued my exploration.

OMG!!! Not only does it require a good number more moves for the next extraction but there are lots and lots of possible linear moves and rotations. I quickly found myself getting lost and resorted to my old trick of moving to and fro in the solution ever more moves to try and keep my recall current. I spent a very happy couple of hours with sleeping cat and puzzle getting nowhere. When I thought I had exhausted every possibility it suddenly occurred to me that I could perform 2 rotations in a different order and this would allow a different direction of turn for the second. AHA! The 2nd and then third piece came out after about 4 hours of puzzling and I even managed to not disturb the cat!

Looks easy? Definitely not!
I am pleased to say that after so many hours moving just a few pieces I was even able to put it back together again! Yay!



So where does the title of my post come from? So far it is just a tale of perseverance and success. Am I a genius? Hell no! Let me tell you a bit about the Chequered board burr:

Chequered Board Burr
The Chequered Board Burr designed by Frans de Vreugd was in the previous update from Brian and as you all know, I am a sucker for board burrs as well as wood (and twisties and disentanglements and sequential discovery puzzles and......) so when Brian released a few new ones then I couldn't resist. He said this about it when they were released:

"As you may have seen me mention on this site, that I love Board Burrs. This is a follow up to Frans’ Tricoloure that I made a while ago. While this one doesn’t have any swapping of positions of pieces it does have two solutions which are equally difficult, both requiring 27 moves to solve. One solution is 2.13.4.5.3 and the other 2.9.8.5.3. Although the checkering of the pieces is decorative, it does provide an indication of the piece placements."
I had previously bought and enjoyed the Tricolore and written about it here. so was delighted when this puzzle looked so similar but had a completely different set of solutions. I opted for the version made from Redheart and Yellowheart with Ziricote splines.

I received it in May this year and promptly began playing with the company of cat and Mrs S. I had a really nice time working through the solution to the assembled puzzle that had arrived and was pleased that it only took me a single evening to be able to both disassemble and reassemble it. The one that had arrived was the easier one with level 2.9.7.5.3 and it is marked out by the fact that the chequering is not quite right as you can see in the picture above. It only took a few seconds to find the first piece removal but after that it's a fun bit of exploration.

Just look at the craftsmanship! I love the splines.
I am not one of the geniuses that can assemble puzzles from scratch (one reason I seldom attempt packing puzzles) so once I had played with the easy assembly for a few evenings, I went to burrtools and "found" the other assembly which does indeed produce the proper chequerboard pattern:

Subtly different - looks much better this way
I left it like that for a few days and then began to attempt the disassembly. It has been sitting on my armchair for nearly 2 months in this assembled state and for the life of me I cannot find the sequence of moves to remove the second piece! If you look at the armchair picture on my New additions twisty update then you will see where it has been - it has caused a pain in my head for weeks and weeks and often a pain in my A if I sit down without remembering it is there. The moves for that second piece removal just seems to be so beautifully hidden that it has eluded me the whole time! Brian has me beaten! I will be keeping it on my armchair until I have solved it and can blame Brian for my backlog of unsolved puzzles - he is causing an obstruction! Thanks mate!!

If you are interested then Brian has a few puzzles left over from recent updates and all are well worth a place in your collection. Go take a look.


Sunday, 2 July 2017

Schism

Schism
A couple of weeks ago whilst bemoaning my falling behind, I showed of a lovely little toy from Eric Fuller's Cubic Dissection called Rift. It was designed by Tim Alkema and consisted of a "mere" 3 piece burr entrapped in a split cubic frame. I liked the puzzle a lot, not for its' complexity, as it wasn't terribly tough but for its' interesting and enjoyable dance of pieces. I also chose it because I am a sucker for a set (I have absolutely adored the NOS puzzles for a similar reason). When Eric released the Rift puzzle he also promised a bigger brother by Tim, the Schism.

In the last update, there were quite a few new toys to choose from and despite everyone thinking that I always buy the lot, I actually can only afford to purchase a few at a time and, of course, Schism was on my list as a "must have". Eric's new packaging is great and this beauty in Ash and Granadillo arrived looking very like it's little brother. This time we have a 6 piece burr in a split frame. They will look absolutely spectacular side by side on display.

Eric said this about it:
Schism is the bigger brother to the popular Rift puzzle released in the last update. The elegantly simple cage interacts with a standard six piece burr in this instance, resulting in a difficult level 7.8.7.4 solution. Again with the unconventional moves...disassembly alone is a challenge. This pair of designs has been super worthwhile and is a must have for any serious puzzler.
I have to say that I do agree with him. It is again, not a hugely tough disassembly (just nicely challenging) but it is a really nice fun sequence with the frame interacting with the pieces during the disassembly.  The puzzle remains stable and does not fall to bits once a couple of pieces are removed and this allows for the possibility of a reassembly by a non genius like me.

Simple pieces - signed and dated as is customary
I am not one of those burr geniuses who can dismantle a puzzle and then scramble the pieces before reassembling from scratch several hours later and I certainly am not a Laurie Brokenshire who has poor Ethel disassemble everything for him so that he just manages the assembly without prior knowledge of the pieces, moves or order. When I take a burr apart, I carefully place the pieces around me (often on the sleeping cat) and am very careful to keep them oriented as they came out and in the correct order. After that I can often carry out the assembly immediately with that help. Lord help me if the cat moves and the pieces fall off! I will then take it apart and put it together again several times until I have learned which pieces go where and can then risk a scramble. This sounds like a bit of an ordeal but to me this is all part of the fun. It gives me several extra hours of fun with a new toy and then I can make the Burrtools file to finish the play off.

The Schism is pretty logical and it only took me 3 or 4 dis/assembly routines before I had it learned and I love it. At the moment I can now quickly take it apart, leave the pieces in a pile for a few hours and come back to it and put it together again with a little bit of deduction. When I finally manage to clear up the shithole that is my study then I hope to put the doo puzzles by Tim together on display.

I am very surprised that it did not sell out immediately as it is quite delightful. I suspect that all you serious puzzlers prefer the much harder puzzlers and are leaving us boys of "very little brain who think of things" to get on and enjoy the simpler more beautiful puzzles like this. If you are thinking of buying a nice little caged burr which is fun for beginners and experienced puzzlers alike then there are quite a few left for sale.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Mike is my saviour - Quik-Sane and Solitaire Chess

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
Last week I bemoaned the fact that I had fallen behind with my puzzling despite still being tempted to buy more and more toys by those pesky craftsmen. That trend continued this week when I received some new toys from Eric Fuller (including one from his auction site which I had been after for quite some time) - I will show them off on my New additions page soon. I've actually had a week of annual leave this week and have only had time to solve just one puzzle during the whole week! Mrs S has forced me to do lots of "maintenance stuff" around the house as well as do a very thorough (and exhausting) clean up of the garden. In fact I am quite surprised that I can move today after spending so many days lifting and bending outside in the blistering heat (it was 38ºC)! I was even able to get up and down to re-grout and reseal my shower this morning! Whenever I seem to be up against a blog-writing wall, my good friend and the official Puzzlemad foreign correspondent, Mike Desilets, springs into action to my rescue with something very different to my usual fare which is always beautifully written and interesting. He has done it again this week - thanks Mike.


Aloha Kākou puzzlers,

I’ve been mulling over this material for a little while now, but when I saw the title of Kevin’s last post, I knew I had to kick it into high gear. “Falling Behind” is not a good feeling in any context, puzzling included. I have fallen so far behind on my own tanglements that I’ve had to take refuge in the warm arms of Amanda’s vintage puzzle collection. Since Kevin can’t partake, being fully two oceans away, I will try to buy him some time with an overly long, rambling post. I trust his next post will be titled “Catching Up.” (Ed - I will do my best)

This installment picks up where the last one left off - in the realm of vintage sliding block puzzles. There is one more of that class that I feel compelled to highlight before taking you off in a completely unexpected direction. So let’s get right to business.

Our fourth vintage slider comes from Amanda’s collection, as you probably guessed, but I intend to get copy for myself very soon. It is the Qwik-Sane puzzle, invented by James R. O’Neil and produced and sold by WFF’N PROOF (WFF = well-formed formula). WFF’N PROOF enjoyed an early peak of popularity in the 1960s and 70s, which is why I put them in the vintage category, but they continue to produce their diverse range of logic-based puzzles and games today (under the care of the Accelerated Learning Foundation). This line has an explicitly intellectual bent. As the Qwik-Sane box informs us, this is “A Topological Puzzle for Thinkers.” The attitude and approach foreshadowed Binary Arts’ early philosophy (and marketing) and has a certain Gardneresque quality to it. WFF’N PROOF was also one of the early advocates of puzzles and logic games for “mental fitness.” Their signature logic game, WFF’N PROOF, claims to improve your IQ by 20 points after three weeks of play! Of course, the marketing of logic games and puzzles for mental fitness has been all the rage over the past few years. This despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence that they provide significant mental benefit. If you’re after mental improvement, then I suggest getting out of your puzzle chair and exercising. You’ll find this article very revealing. But marketing is marketing, and the idea of puzzling as mentally ‘healthful’ has an undeniably intuitive pull. The good people at Thinkfun® have been particularly adept, though certainly not alone, in capitalizing on this fact. Witness their repackaging of several established puzzles into a “Brain Fitness” line that encourages the buyer to “Cross Train Your Brain.” The science was perhaps somewhat equivocal when the line was launched (I’m being generous), but it has become increasingly less so with each new study. It will be interesting to see if profitability trumps intellectual honesty for puzzle manufacturers going forward. Recent legal decisions have slapped down the most egregiously deceptive ‘brain health’ claims (e.g. Lumosity). I can only assume this has industry-wide after-effects.

Qwik-Sane, with custom outer cardboard ‘frame’ by vintage puzzle surgeon Amanda.
Sorry, that was an unplanned digression. A blog goes where it will (Ed - I particularly enjoyed the meander off territory). I should mention that I have no intention of impinging the honour of one of puzzling’s most successful and profitable companies. I actually love Thinkfun’s products and I own a good many of them. Later in this post I will even review one of them (I think I just heard my editor fall out of his chair; this will be another Puzzlemad first, if I’m not mistaken (Ed - OUCH! That hurt!)). But let’s get back to the puzzle at hand, for goodness sake. As mentioned, Qwik-Sane came from the mind of James R. O’Neil. Not much is known about Mr. O’Neil. We do know that he held a number of patents for games, see here and here. And we also know that he invented Qwik-Sane sometime after his retirement from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, probably in the late 1950s or very early 1960s.
Cool vintage literature. Old puzzles are like time-capsules.

WFF’N PROOF offerings (including Qwik-Sane) from an ad in a 1978 issue of Popular Science.
Qwik-Sane rules.
Although Qwik-Sane is in some respects a straightforward slider, it is also somewhat different from the vintage sliders I discussed earlier. The puzzle consists of 9 lettered, one-unit-square blocks (unique except for two Hs), 1 two-unit rectangular block, 1 three-unit rectangular block, 1 square block with an image of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and finally 1 square place-holder block numbered “35.” The 35 block indicates the number of moves (ideally) it takes to solve the puzzle. The starting layout of the puzzle is as shown in the figure. After removing the “35” block, the objective is to transport the “thinker” from the upper right to the lower left (instructions are to remove “35,” put thinker in upper right, then maneuver it to lower left). Unlike many early sliders where the final position for most blocks is arbitrary and only a target block is moved to a required solved position, in Qwik-Sane all the blocks except the two H’s are uniquely marked and have required positions. Not only must your traveling block reach its destination, all the other blocks must be returned to their original positions. I don’t know the sliding block class well enough to know if this is was innovative in the 1960s, but it certainly enhances the solving process and puts the puzzle a cut above most of the other sliders I’ve played with. It bears a certain similarity to the Time puzzle, which I also enjoyed immensely. There is not just a pathway to the solution, but a system of movement to be discovered. Kevin, take note—this is your kind of slider. Think of it as a two-dimensional twisty if that helps. (Ed - You've convinced me! I have been looking out for a copy of the Time puzzle but not found one yet - I have managed to find something similar and modern which I will show off at the end of the post).

With a 35-move shortest solution, Qwik-Sane provides plenty of challenge. I didn’t count my moves, but it couldn’t have been more than 50. That sounds like a lot, but they go by quickly. Fortunately, this layout does not send you down long dead end pathways like some of the more difficult sliders. My approach was to get the thinker to his required spot first, then reconstruct the lettering without disturbing him any more than necessary. There were some set-backs, but it was enjoyable working out the proper moves. This puzzle certainly has replay value. Wait a week and you will probably have to figure it out all over again, though the moves will likely get more ingrained the more you play. Since I have to give this copy of Qwik-Sane back to Amanda, there is no danger of that happening to me.

Qwik-Sane is a great example of mid-century American puzzle design and it seems to have enjoyed a very wide and long-lived distribution. There is even a copy in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. They provide a nice write-up, from which I have drawn liberally. Vintage Qwik-Sane puzzles are widely available on ebay and other second-hand sites, usually very cheaply. I was also shocked and pleased to find, as mentioned above, that Qwik-Sane is still being sold by the original makers. You should probably get your puzzle from the source, unless you prefer true vintage (a real collector would get both). Check out the offerings of the Accelerated Learning Foundation and also read about president, founder, and WFF’N PROOF inventor Layman Allen. It’s a small off-shoot chapter in puzzle history (they are more into games than puzzles, truth be told), but certainly worth knowing about.

A long-lived puzzle that holds up well.



For the second half of the post, we now shift gears to a radically different type of sequential movement puzzle—Vesa Timonen’s Solitaire Chess. Followers of the major puzzle blogs will recognize immediately that I have veered into a corner of puzzle blogdom very competently covered by Gabriel Fernandez’s great blog (Ed - I agree. It's a MUST read blog). Gabriel is the only blogger who consistently reviews the wide array of commercially available, off-the-shelf puzzles available today. When I am in a store agonizing over which Smartgames, Thinkfun, or Brainwright puzzle to buy next (on any given Sunday), I eventually get out my phone and check his reviews. They are invariably well written and informative - in short, a huge help. (Ed - one reason I don't review these is because they do not seem to be easily available in the UK, even on Amazon UK)

Gabriel has, of course, already reviewed Solitaire Chess. So why retread old ground? Well, Gabriel’s review dates to 2012, and while still perfectly serviceable in all respects, Thinkfun has since repackaged and reissued Solitaire Chess as part of their Brain Fitness line which I good-naturedly derided above. This review is meant as a kind of update to Gabriel’s review. Also, you can never have too many perspectives on a classic puzzle. Sure, it’s only been around since 2006, and history will be the final judge, but I have no hesitation dubbing it a “modern” classic.

Vesa Timonen’s Solitaire Chess; Brain Fitness version by Thinkfun.
I’m going to assume you’ve read Gabriel’s review before embarking on this one, so you already know that Solitaire Chess is the invention of Vesa Timonen. No need to go into Vesa’s credentials, we all know them well enough. I will just say, for the record, that he is one of my favorite designers. For his puzzles, of course, but also for his design philosophy. You can find a great interview with Vesa over here which provides some insight into his process and approach. You’ll learn that not only did he invent solitaire chess conceptually, he had to develop the software that generates the many individual puzzle challenges. The whole process took about a year and half. Time well spent I’d say. Even out here in Hawaii I know of three stores within easy driving distance where I can pick up Solitaire Chess. A great design combined with Thinkfun’s extraordinary distribution network, it has become a fantastically successful puzzle, arguably in the league of Nob Yoshigahara’s Rush hour, if I may be so bold.

Let’s review the puzzle just a bit, as a refresher. It’s simple really, like all great puzzles. Solitaire Chess consists of a 4 x 4 unit chess board upon which are arranged a number of standard chess pieces according to a “challenge” layout. Pieces move according to standard chess movement rules. Pawns may only move ‘up’ the board. There is no castling, en passant, or pawn promotion, just basic movement. To solve the layout, one must perform a continuous series of captures until only one piece is remaining. All moves must result in a capture. That’s not too complicated and you can get a good feel for it after just a couple tries. Layouts for the game range from the almost trivial to some true stumpers. Since you’ve already read Gabriel’s review (and its comments section), you know that accomplished puzzler George Bell found the challenges too simple and, well, unchallenging. If you are especially adept at chess (Ed - I am truly awful at chess!), that may well be the case for you. Certainly the beginner and intermediate challenges are not overly tough. However, I found myself well and truly stymied by a number of the expert level layouts. A few of them were multi-session affairs. I think most people will find this puzzle a challenge from mid-level onwards. My own experience was very much in line with Gabriel’s, right down to the solve times. Moreover, I found it to have that indefinable “fun” quality that is the hallmark of most Thinkfun puzzles. In short, I enjoyed Solitaire Chess immensely. I agree wholeheartedly with Gabriel’s assessment that it is “one of the best puzzle/games from Thinkfun and also from the genre.”

A nice warm-up challenge.
Why is this puzzle so brilliant? Well, for starters, because it has almost nothing to do with chess, other than the movement rules. Once you take away the concepts of opposed advancing forces, an opponent intellect, attack, defense, check-mate, ect., you are left with precious little resembling chess. Just the movement rules, now combined with the classic peg solitaire ‘clear the board’ objective. Conceptually, Vesa’s solitaire game could have been designed with any movement rules one wished to concoct. But imagine trying to market a puzzle to the general public with new abstract movement rules for 6 different pieces. A tough sell, I would think. But Solitaire Chess has no such worries. Most people already know the basics of chess, at least in passing. That is to say, ‘most people’ who would peruse a store’s puzzle section. Such puzzle nerds (Puzzlemad editorial staff included) have a high probability of knowing more than a little about chess. (Ed - I know I'm crap!)

It’s no spoiler to note that the knight, with its unique L movement, does the lion’s share of work at the higher levels. The knight’s interaction with the other pieces allow this puzzle to achieve some very challenging configurations. The rooks and bishop’s certainly traverse the board in interesting ways and are not to be underestimated. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the central role of the humble pawn in several of the higher-level layouts, often far in excess of its station. Although the pawn has very limited movement, it has the ability to linger outside of the main action and is consequently difficult to ‘get to.’ You’ll understand when you play. Another surprise was the role that the king and queen play in this puzzle. They figure prominently in the earlier challenges but become increasingly rare at the higher levels. I think this is due to their high latitude of movement. The queen can usually muscle her way through any layout and sweep the board. The king less so, but ultimately its rôle in a solution was simpler for me to intuit. Importantly, the king must be the final piece on the board whenever it is present in a layout.

Something a little more challenging.
Part of the excuse for this review was the reissuance of the puzzle in the years following Gabriel’s initial treatment. At present, you can purchase either the original version or the new Brain Fitness version. I have the latter. You can also download a mobile Solitaire Chess app (iOS UKiOS US, Android) from Thinkfun for $2.99 for play anywhere, anywhen. There seem to have been other apps around, but my quick and dirty google search produced mostly dead links. Although my preference is always for a physical puzzle, it is worth noting that Thinkfun provide 400 electronic challenges for your $2.99 purchase. Buying the physical puzzle will run you $20 US and you get either 60 (original) or 80 (Braintrain) challenges. The superior value of the electronic version is clear. Better yet, just go to the Thinkfun website and play for free! I don’t know how many challenges they provide, but it’s a good option if you are sitting on the fence.

But back to the physical puzzles. This is a mechanical puzzle blog, after all, and I can only push my editor’s patience so much per post (Ed - you've been so good to me that you have a LOT of leeway). Depending on the store you go to, you will see either the original version (as reviewed by Gabriel) or the new Brain Fitness version. The original follows Thinkfun’s early approach (now fading) of providing an entirely self-contained puzzle. The puzzle itself doubles as a box that contains all the pieces and the challenge cards. This is handy and I normally favor this approach. It’s neat and tidy. That said, I must admit that I prefer the Brain Fitness version, which comes in a slick cardboard box that is clearly labeled for an adult audience. No exuberant cartoon characters or exclamation points on this one. The game is played directly on the challenge cards, which are strung on a smoothly turning spiral binder. There are two reasons I like this construction. First, setup is faster. If you’ve played any of these modern multi-challenge puzzles at all, you’ll know that the set-up phase can quickly become a tedious chore. In the original version, you have to slide a card under the transparent play surface and then set up the pieces. Then remove it and begin again, etc. I know it doesn’t sound terrible, but by layout 40 you’ll wish there was a better way. I think the Brain Fitness version is more efficient in this respect - just flip the card and throw down the pieces. The second reason I like it has to do with piece movement, or lack thereof. The plastic play surface of the original has circular indents that hold the chess pieces in position, but also prevent sliding them around. This goes against the grain for anyone who has actually played chess. I prefer my pieces to slide across the board. The hard glossy cardstock challenge cards in the Brain Fitness version provide a great surface. Overall, I prefer the newer version for its ease of play and manipulation. It also has 20 more challenges than the original, so there is that too. Price-wise, they are about the same.

Now that all sounds like a good plug for Thinkfun, and surely they deserve your puzzle dollar, but you actually do not need to pay anything to take a stab at this puzzle. Everyone has access to a chess set (at least in this audience) (Ed - I am ashamed to admit that I don't own a chess set because I am so bad at it and Mrs S doesn't play either) and everyone can make a 4 x 4 grid with paper and pencil. All you are missing, and what Vesa has worked so hard to generate, are the challenges. Luckily for us, Thinkfun at one point offered a set of 40 free solitaire chess challenges. I don’t know when or where this happened, but the internet is forever and the pdf pops up in a number of places around the web. I imagine Thinkfun would prefer to sell puzzles, not give them away. But knowing that the leadership at Thinkfun have a strong relationship with the avocational puzzle community, I believe they won’t begrudge us a little fun at their expense. They are rich beyond all imagination, I assure you. That said, I recommend you click here for the extra challenges before the lawyers, Interpol, and/or Mr Timonen break down Kevin’s door and haul him away (Ed - too late!!! The men in white coats have got me). For those of you like me who are happy to purchase a copy of Thinkfun’s very well-made puzzle, these extra challenges simply provide additional value and fun. With the sole exception of challenge 9F, which is equivalent to Brain Fitness challenge #26, they are all new challenges (I went to the trouble of checking them all for you. Just one of the many services we here at Puzzlemad provide.). They probably come from the 400 challenges in the electronic game, I imagine. I don’t think they come from the original version, but maybe Gabriel or someone can check on that and let us know.

That’s it for this post. Thanks for tuning in and congratulations on making it all the way to the end. Hopefully it was worthwhile and, like all Puzzlemad posts, will help separate you from your money. Happy puzzling!


Thank you so so much Mike. That was a very enjoyable read and may even stimulate me to buy the puzzles, or a chess set or.....having surfed the web for nice chess sets I am very tempted to buy a beautiful Backgammon set - I am a not bad player but only have a small travel set not something of beauty for the living room! Hopefully when I am back at work I will get some time to solve some of my backlog of new puzzles!

In the meantime here is the version of the Time puzzle I got hold of. My version is from Ton Delsing and bought courtesy of Wil Stijbos:

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