Sunday 8 March 2015

Blood, sweat and tears PLUS I'm on Fire!

Yes! You are going to get 2 posts for the price of one today! At least you will if I can write this before Mrs S drags me out of my study to cook dinner! First up, I am going to give a quick resume of how I went about solving one of the most complex twisty puzzles produced this year, Eric Vergo's Pentagram puzzle. After that, I really think I should highlight one of the best new sequential discovery puzzles produced in a long time - The Fire puzzle from Pyro Puzzles designed and produced by the incredible Stephen Miller.

Pentagram - looks innocuous!
Scrambled hell!
Bauhinia dodecahedron
This puzzle was produced by MF8 after Eric Vergo produced it several years earlier using a commercial 3D printing service. It is another dodecahedron in the series which I discussed at length back in May 2014. To reiterate a little, the first dodecahedron was very similar to the 3x3 cube in that it was face turning and could actually be solved using only minor modifications of the cube techniques. Later on the clever designers produced the Starminx 1 which was a corner turning dodecahedron and, similar to the Dino cube, it was a fairly trivial thing to solve using intuition alone. Last year they produced a corner turning dodecahedron where the cuts were curved and cut deeper into the mechanism - this was the infamous Bauhinia dodecahedron which caused so many of us such incredible difficulty. You can see the curved cuts on the picture going from corner to corner tip and the particular challenge with that puzzle was how to get all those tiny star tips into position. Eric's achievement was to make the cut even deeper and instead of going from corner to corner tip, it encroaches into the adjacent face and this produces not only the star tips but also corner pieces which need to be positioned and oriented.

Obviously the the solution of Pentagram shares some processes in common with the Bauhinia but you must remember that I am a puzzler who wakes up each morning with no recollection of what I did yesterday and many times cannot recall my own name!! Yes, I am not terribly bright and it tells you that I have absolutely no recollection of how the Bauhinia was solved - Whilst I solved most of it alone, I did rely heavily on a couple of algorithms from my friend Rline who has the most incredible YouTube channel. I was determined this time to solve this one by myself and this is a quick run through of some techniques I used.

Now a puzzle this complex is never going to be solved by intuition and certainly never going to happen by luck! It is important to explore it carefully - just as we would with any new puzzle that reaches our collection. After all, understanding is absolutely vital! The first thing to do is to make sure you have some notepaper and try some simple sequences like the edge piece series or corner piece series and see what happens. Take notes and always undo what you have done - this is harder than it sounds as every twisty puzzler knows, we often inadvertently scramble a puzzle just during the initial exploration! Luckily a dodecahedron is big enough that you can muck up one half and then just invert it and carry on exploring on the opposite side - I did this during my exploration! Here's the notes I took:

They don't look too enlightening and I wouldn't expect anyone other than me to understand them but I intend to turn these into much better documentation of my solve process! So what does it mean?

The first thing I did is an EPS:

Simple EPS

The end result of a simple 4 corner turns forward and back in sequence - this time it is the corners at 4 O'clock and 8 O'clock on the white face simply cycles these wedges.

If you turn a lower back corner to exchange the one on the far right (white) and then undo that simple sequence then you end up with a corner 3 cycle.

3-cycled corners

3 corners have been rotated in sequence but all other pieces remain in place!

This can be used very nicely with appropriate setup moves.

Here I have done another 4 turn edge piece series but it has been done in the opposite direction. It still cycles 3 wedges but another way and now we have a star tip sitting isolated at the extreme left of the puzzle (also on the right)

Turning the front left corner clockwise isolates that white star tip as can be seen in the picture just to the right.

It is possible now to swap out this isolated tip and undo those isolating moves to allow it to be exchanged with another coloured piece.

In the picture to the left we see that after the isolating sequences are reversed we have the wedges back in place and if they are undone (followed by undoing the isolating moves again) then we are left with a fairly simple (!!!) 14 move sequence which leaves almost the whole puzzle unscathed and just 3 star tips cycled!

Yep! Look at that! A 3 cycle involving JUST the star tips!

Again, using setup moves to manoeuvre the required pieces for swapping into the appropriate places and then carrying out this sequence allows me to rotate individually chosen star tips wherever I want them!

To the right it looks fairly awful - BUT I have just done another EPS - 4 turns of the corners but instead of using 2 corners opposite each other, I have used adjacent corners.

If I rotate the bottom blue corner 2 replace that white composite triangle with one from another face and then undo that EPS then I end up with the swaps shown below:

Not a single isolated piece but here we have swapped around some star tips and also the centres of 3 faces.

This particular sequence, whilst not pure, is useful. It shows me that I can position the centres first and then worry about star tips later!

A similar very simple sequence can be found to allow an impure cycling of the flat triangles on the faces. and at that point we have found all we need to solve the puzzle!

I can hear your jaws dropping! Yep! All that is needed to solve this puzzle in a few simple algorithms!

The initial approach is to use "block building" techniques to build the bottom half of the puzzle by intuition. There is a lot of space to work on a dodecahedron and it is only a matter of a bit of thought to build a pentagram first on one face, then fill in the flat triangles around it and work your way up to the equator of the puzzle. If you find yourself destroying what you have done already then you need to move the required position into a clear area, making the block and move it back. No algorithms are needed and with a bit of practice then it is fairly easy to half solve it.

After that has been done you will find yourself in familiar territory where moves destroy what has gone before (just like on a Rubik cube) and after that we need to utilise the found sequences to focus on particular piece types at a time. My first solve ended up with a single rotated corner - The dreaded parity!! I was unable to overcome this and therefore needed to start again and find a way to avoid producing it. My approach was to ensure that the very first task on the top half of the puzzle was to solve the corners and correct the parity/rotation issue when it couldn't upset any other piece types. After that, I knew that I would scramble the corners again but IF I only used an even number of turns for subsequent algorithms and setups then the corrected parity would be preserved.

My particular sequence was to place the flat triangles, then place the centres (both these algorithms would upset other piece types but they would be dealt with later. Cycling the corner pieces came next and finally I had to cycle the star tips into place. Some of them could be done 2 or 3 at a time if I was lucky! The hardest part for this type of puzzle is that towards the end game one might need a fairly complex set of setup moves which needed to be undone perfectly every time! It was absolutely soul destroying to forget what I had done and inadvertently scramble the puzzle and have to start all over again! This happened to me many times! I shed blood in solving this puzzle too - those star tips and flat triangles are damn sharp and keep catching during turns - I managed to pierce my fingers and thumbs many times and had to put steristrips on the cuts to stop the blood flow at times. Don't let this put you off.

What I have described is exactly what a serious and accomplished twisty puzzler goes through with any new puzzle he gets his hands on - try it yourself, it is VERY rewarding - the elation when you finally finish your last turn is absolutely amazing - it is as good as any Aha! moment I have ever experienced. This learning process is a decent learning curve and quite hard work but if I can do it then so can any of you!

I'm on Fire!

I mentioned on my New additions page that I had picked up a copy of the Fire Puzzle from Steve Miller at the last MPP. I thought I would give my initial impressions now to help you make up your minds whether you should get one. These are a serious investment at £180 plus P&P and the decision is an easy one - should you get it? YES!!!!

Many people from "foreign parts" have baulked at the £45 for postage - but remember that this is for a valuable puzzle and is international express postage - there will be no waiting several weeks for your packages. I have heard that Steve has offered to give cheaper postage if that is a stumbling block - just contact him through the site and he may be able to do a slower and cheaper option for you.

These are beautiful works of art - made from machined aluminium and anodised and then engraved. Enormous attention has been paid to every detail. For an equivalent idea of the quality then think back to the Revomaze puzzles which got so many of us excited and even the Isis series (before they began to have quality control issues).

The whole experience is superb right from opening the box - just look at what you get:

Even the box is perfect!
Now the one thing that might make you pause is that this is not a straightforward mechanical puzzle - it cannot be solved by playing with the "thing" alone. The puzzle comes with a small booklet of clues - they are cryptic so they don't just give you the sequence. You need to understand what these clues mean. AND as if that wasn't enough, all the clues have been altered into gobbledegook using a substitution cipher. Each of the clues uses a different cipher key and must be decrypted first. This particular part of the puzzle did initially put me off as I am rubbish at this sort of thing. BUT it can't be too impossible because a whole lot of people have managed to open their puzzles over the last couple of weeks. Here is what one of the clues looks like - this came from the site so I am not giving much away.

Yep - it is gobbledegook!
To aid me with the deciphering, I have created a spreadsheet with the character set (Alchemy font) and some spreadsheet lookup functions. This makes deciphering a little easier and almost automates it. If anyone wants it and can read Apple's numbers files then I can give you the blank file to help you - NO, I'm not giving you the decrypted clues!

Once the clues are in English then I hope I will have enough understanding to be able to open my puzzle. I'm not very bright and am struggling to decipher clue number 5 so I am a long way off. But, all in all, this is a really good quality and good value puzzle.

BUY IT! You won't regret it! It will be a big contender for my puzzle of the year and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next! Did I not say? The Fire puzzle is just the first in a whole series of fabulous puzzles that are sitting in Steve's evil mind!

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