Sunday, 28 May 2017

Bounty from the Midlands

Yesterday I attended the 26th Midlands puzzle party and caught up on puzzling, gossiping and the general teasing that always occurs when the bunch of us get together. Someone actually was hoping to meet the present Mrs S which I thought was particularly brave of them! They couldn't believe that I got away with what I write about her most weeks. I informed them that she never reads my drivel and that they were welcome to take her off my hands whenever they wanted! She even comes with her own shoe and handbag collection.

Having spent so much time puzzling yesterday, I feel that I ought to spend a little time with "the frightening one" today and will postpone the post I was planning on until next weekend. Instead here is a little summary of my purchases from the MPP.

The two highlights of the meetup was getting to see Laurie Brokenshire and Ethel again who was looking rather well considering all he has been through recently and also getting to meet the most famous puzzle pusher in the world, Wil Strijbos. I did purchase a few things from him (how could I resist?) the most important of which was his newest creation, the Revenge lock aka the Wanderer. Here's what he said about it:

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Christoph's Burrlock is Amazing!

Burrlock E
The last update from Eric (aka the Doctor of wood) on Cubic Dissection caught me a bit by surprise - not the timing but the sheer number of absolutely ESSENTIAL purchases! I try (for financial reasons and to prevent discord with she who frightens the living Bejeezus out of me) to keep the number of puzzles arriving at once down as much as possible because I have sort of run out of space and she is getting fed up with the mess!!! Things are so bad that my desk is currently strewn with puzzles that I don't have anywhere to put away! Here's a quick snap:

Lord help me! Where am I going to put these?
When Eric did open his store I absolutely HAD to buy 4 puzzles - the voices told me to and they drowned out the buzzing disapproval from Mrs S. One of the puzzles that I really couldn't resist was the Burrlock E by Christoph Lohe - he makes absolutely fantastic designs that are not hugely high in level or enormously difficult but are just plain fun to play with and solve. He seems to pay special attention to the playability. I reviewed his Mimicry puzzle from Jakub's New Pelikan Workshop puzzles here - it was not a tremendously high level but was a fabulous challenge and great fun to solve. The Closed box was also a fantastic puzzle also produced by Jakub. So not only do I lurve the puzzles designed by Christoph, I also really like burrs that have an interesting shape - this one in the shape (and with the function) of a padlock particularly appealed to me. I had also enjoyed the Padlock burr from Eric and designed by Tim Alkema, so how could I possibly resist another one?

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Has the Snake Turned me to the Dark Side?

Carousel Puzzle
This post will be a bit shorter than normal - I've had a central heating engineer here most of the day as our heating packed in. This means that I'm starting late. I was contacted by Kelly Snache (aka Kel Snake) a few weeks ago. He was touting his wares and knew how much I loved beautiful wood. He was right and I immediately collapsed and sent some PayPal. It is even nicer in real life than the photos show. It is also really quite large - at 13x22.5x12.8cm. Mrs S was immediately horrified: "where is it going to go?" I actually don't have a proper answer to that just now as a major reorganisation to create space is required for all my latest puzzles (most of the ones from this year).

I resolved that this puzzle was allowed because it was really a sequential discovery puzzle with a cavity but many of my puzzle friends seem to be unconvinced.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Even a Visit to Aaron's Dentist is Fun!

No one likes the Dentist......except me!
Back in March I showed off some new wire puzzles from Aaron King (aka Wang Yulong) and I have been working on them on and off ever since. I have of course been sidetracked by a few wooden things in the meantime and unfortunately work has got in the way quite a lot. I have managed to solve a few of them and am stuck on most of the others - I actually think that Aaron might well be the most talented disentanglement puzzler in the world. A friend of mine who knows him quite well has told me that he can solve almost all of these puzzles entirely in his head which is absolutely amazing.

Aaron doesn't sell his puzzles direct to us, the usual place to get them is via the Felix puzzle store in China. I have dealt with them quite a few times over the last year or so and have had a very good experience each time. The puzzles I am showing here are not yet available on the store but hopefully will be available soon. The ones that are on sale were reviewed by me here and are simply brilliant. Also for a peek at possible future puzzles have a look at Goetz' page (date 2017-04-28) for some more which includes some wonderful looking and very advanced N-ary puzzles which I hope I will also manage to buy in the near future.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

New Hanayamas - Fun, Not Too Tough But Far TOO Small

Cast Shift

Hanayama Cast Shift - these are really hard to photograph!
My friend Hendrik runs the store (well worth a look around as he has a lot of very interesting stuff for sale) and announced on Facebook a few days before the German Cube Day that he would have a few of the latest Hanayama puzzles for sale at the meeting and also for sale by post to interested parties. He only had a limited number and seeing as my usual puzzle outlets (PuzzleMaster, and Hanayama UK) and had not received any of these latest ones in stock, I immediately sent him a PM and placed an order. About a week later they arrived in the post and I immediately tore into them. I have not seen the European or American packaging for any of the last puzzles as mine have all had the Japanese boxes. As I discussed back in August Hanayama has changed the name on the box to Huzzle which I am reliably informed by a Japanese speaking friend (Taroh) that there is a perfectly good reason for it:
はずす: "huh-zu-su" means 'to take apart' in Japanese, and puzzle is written ぱずる (pronounced "puh-zu-ru"). Hanayama combined the two words together to make up a portmanteau that describes a puzzle you take apart.
The most recent one is the Cast Shift which I actually think should be called the Cast Hashtag because that's exactly what it looks like. It consists of 4 nice shiny chrome board burr pieces which are interlocked alternating up and down with the name and the Hanayama copyright on the pieces. The puzzle is 4 x 4 x 3.5 cm and a very nice heft. The packaging states that it is level 3 out of their scale of 1 to 6 which should make it a small challenge but not terribly tough. I personally would put it at a level 2.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Challenged by Cubes from Johan and Brian

3 Piece Burr Cube 50

3 Piece Burr Cube 50
On the stand
This puzzle, called the Three Piece Burr Cube 50 was designed by my friend Frank Potts so I knew straight away that it would be good. The very fine craftsmanship was by another good friend Johan Heyns who has made quite a few puzzles for me over the last few years and every single one has been beautiful and a really fun challenge (a good few have been in my top 10 each year). Johan has opened his own on-line store selling puzzles and beautifully turned pens - you should definitely add the store to your list of puzzle links. This particular "cube" was one of his recent offerings and is a very reasonable price at $55. This for a 7 piece puzzle 85mm across each side and very attractively made from Mansonia and Yellowwood (indigenous to South Africa). Of course, it wouldn't be a puzzle from Johan if it didn't come with a stand and it will be going into my dining room display of Heyn's puzzles.

This puzzle immediately took my attention because it is just the right difficulty level and also because it is 2 puzzles in one. The cube itself can be disassembled with a level of (totalling 50 and hence the 50 in the name) which is perfect and then the central 3 board burrs can be assembled into a cross with a stunning level of 24.3 - how could anyone resist?

I started on it in my customary armchair complete with cat and TV on in the background and discovered a few moves quickly which were rather interesting and led to the removal of the first of the corner pieces. I wondered whether it was going to be too easy. I backtracked to the beginning and started again. Yes that first piece was quite easy but......the next piece definitely wasn't! I fact I stumbled around for the whole evening without being able to find the correct sequence. Now I was really pleased - I did want a challenge after all. It took me another whole evening before I finally found the route to the next piece. There is a very well hidden move amongst that 12 and I really struggled to find it. The aha! moment was wonderful. I did think that it would get much simpler after the second piece was removed but again I was stumped for a while. There are only a further 5 moves and my dimness showed through as it took me an hour to find them. Removing the last of the corner pieces should have been really simple but it required a lot of setting up to open a space for the piece to come out. This time I was able to plan my sequence but still got stuck for a while. At this point there are just 3 board burr pieces left intertwined and interestingly it requires another 15 moves to separate the first one and yes I seriously struggled! It took a whole extra evening! I could have done it quicker as there is a rotational exit for one of them but it doesn't happen by accident. After 3 whole evenings of work (Mrs S said that this was a 4 'Plug face' out of 5 puzzle.

4 identical corner pieces and some fabulous board burrs which aren't as fragile as they look
Usually I would scramble the pieces and leave them for a while before attempting the reassembly but I had an excuse to keep on playing - I had to assemble the 3 board burr. The level looks pretty tough but the experience of working through the cube does help. I managed to assemble the board burr reasonably easily and marveled at the stability when assembled:

Attractive without the corner pieces
Finally it was time to reassemble the cube and the moves during the disassembly caught me out again. I really struggled to find the sequences and for a while contemplated Burrtools. At that time, however, the cat was far too comfortable to let me get up and go to the study to enter the shapes into that wonderful program. I forced myself to keep working on it and after a fourth evening actually managed to put it all back together. This puzzle is really really good - just the right difficulty level that you don't need to use BT to solve but still tough enough to keep you challenged. Johan made a dozen of these and at the moment there are still a few left. There has also been a recent new offering which i have not tried yet but looks lovely.

Whilst I am focussing on Johan, let me show you one of his coordinate motion puzzles which I bought at the same time. This puzzle is the Exploding star - a beautiful 3 piece coordinate motion puzzle again complete with a stand. It's not particularly difficult compared to the 4 layer co-mo that I reviewed here and which is available in nested form here but it is well worth showing off:

Almost every Heyns puzzle has a stand

Side 1
Side 2

T Cube

T Cube
In Brian Menold's last update he released a whole lot of fabulous toys for us. The cream of the crop for me was the Tronc commun 3 which I reviewed last month but I couldn't resist another one from him. I love board burrs and have bought almost all of those that he has produced but I also love framed burrs. This time around my eye was drawn to something that looked quite simple - the T burr designed by another friend, Yavuz Demirhan, who has recently been recognised for his skill with a short film that was aired on Aljazeera TV Turkey. This particular one caught my eye because it was framed and also so beautiful having been constructed from Red Palm and Bloodwood.

It looks pretty straightforward with simple pieces and a level of just 9.3.2. Brian said this about it:
"I had to make this design because I thought that a simple frame with no obstructions and three identical pieces that simply had a perpendicular piece added to the end could not be that difficult. Well it did take me a bit of time to assemble these, as I tried the first 2 without cheating (something I rarely do for time sake) I was surprised that it took me so long to get them together. Now, it is not a very difficult puzzle for most of you, but it will give the beginner a run for his money!"
How could a puzzler resist? Last week I played with it and did realise how simple the pieces were - they are literally just T's. There is a lot of movement in the puzzle and after a couple of moves it does become very loose and flops about. I got quite lost during the disassembly and am pretty certain that it came apart by accident after an inadvertent rotational move or two. In pieces the simplistic beauty really shows:

Just look at that wood! Stunning!
After this I immediately tried to reassemble it. No need to scramble as all the pieces are the same and no need to wait because I really had no idea how I had got it apart. It is only 3 simple pieces so how hard could it be? OMG! I'm either really not terribly bright or this is quite a challenge. I couldn't put it back together! A whole evening of effing and blinding got me nowhere! Brian seems to think that this is not difficult for most of us puzzlers but I think he is forgetting how much experience he has developed over the years. This may be simple for some of the burr geniuses out there but for us mere mortals, this is a very nice challenge. The following day I managed to assemble it by working it out step by step. I still struggle to solve it now despite having done it 4 or 5 times - I've not memorised the solution and have to work it out from scratch each time which still proves to be a challenge!

Brian is updating his site with new puzzles today (April 23rd) so be sure to have a look at what he has available and don't forget to visit Johan's site for some of his beautiful work.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Vintage Sliding Puzzles

Blast from the past. A few classic sliding block puzzles of the early to mid-1900s.
As enjoyable today as when they were "new."
I am very grateful yet again to Mike Desilets, the PuzzleMad foreign correspondent for helping me out with yet another fantastic and very "different" puzzle review/discussion this week. I have had a really busy week and have had almost no time to solve anything or formulate an article. I have managed to produce a video showing off the algorithm I found for the 3x3 Mixup Ultimate cube that I highlighted last week and also showing off my solution to it and how it is mostly intuition. Have a look at my YouTube channel later tonight to see the new video. I cannot be sure when it will be up as I have suddenly discovered that my 10 year old iMac will take 5 hours or longer to process a 720p video and that's before any uploading is performed! If this video lark is going to take off then I might just need a new computer! I'll hand you over to Mike now... 

Aloha Kākou readers,
Today's installment will take us to a realm rarely visited at Puzzlemad, or most other blogs for that matter, that of the so-called "vintage" puzzle. What exactly is a vintage puzzle? Great question. (Ed - I agree! Please enlighten us) My cheekiest answer is that it's any puzzle that comes up when you use the search term "vintage" on Ebay. That's a fair enough definition and perfectly functional. Another possible definition is any out-of-production puzzle that cannot yet be marketed (or priced) as an antique, but for whatever reason has acquired a resurgent desirability, usually among a small but enthusiastic group. Yet another way to think of it, and the way I actually prefer, is the three-generation rule. That is to say, a vintage item is anything ranging in time from your grandparent's youth to your own youth. That's a nice big span and I think it agrees with the other two definitions. But the term is by its nature vague and ill-defined, perhaps especially so in our field. It seems to include all puzzles from the early part of the twentieth century—the 1920s minimally—right through to the 1970s.

Thanks to my friend Amanda, I have recently played with (and purchased) a few vintage puzzles of the sliding block variety. Sliding block puzzles are still the rage in some circles and development of the form continues unabated. Fellow blogger Jerry Loo has put out some fascinating new designs, and has also recently reviewed some particularly eye-catching sliders from Serhiy Grabarchuk here & here. The field is vigorous and if you have time you should check out the many original (and challenging from the looks of it) designs of the modern master - Abe Minoru. But that all said, most of these new puzzles are quite hard to come by. The average puzzle guy, like you or I for example, living nowhere near a major metropolitan area that hosts cool puzzle parties, will most likely never get to play with them. That's just the breaks.

Now don't get despondent. The purpose of this post is to convince you that you can have quite a lot of fun with sliders of the vintage variety. These older puzzles were apparently massively produced in their heyday, to the extent that they are very much available even today. Equally significant, they are very, very reasonably priced. Add to that the fact that every one of them has a period story to tell, and then add to that the fact that they represent a wide diversity of approaches to the sliding block concept. Put it all together and you have something special. So lets get to it.

Ma's Puzzle, a classic slider with much to recommend it. 
First up is Ma's Puzzle. Those in the know might wonder why I don't start with "Dad's Puzzle" which preceded Ma's and is arguably the most widespread and persistent of the vintage sliders. Well, I guess I was just more taken with Ma's design. From the picture above you might be able to guess why. In terms of construction, this puzzle, like many from the period, is a humble affair. No exotic Bubinga here. The pieces are pine, probably scraps of trim. These are puzzles for the masses. In many cases the early sliders were produced as marketing handouts for completely unrelated companies (a very time-honored practice in puzzledom). The Ma's Puzzle was produced by The Standard Trailer Co. Those same folks put out the earlier, and highly popular, Dad's Puzzle as well. Ma's is the sequel.

In terms of play, I had a good time with Ma's. The number of moves, while not small, does not come off as onerous during play. I recall two instances where I was seriously stumped and had to backtrack significantly. It's no walk in the park, that's for sure. However, anyone can solve it with diligence and a little time. In many ways, it's the perfect puzzle for plain old, straight-up enjoyment. Replay value, as you might guess, is high. It's unlikely you are going to remember the path, although studying those sticky spots might quicken your time significantly. Personally, I'm not interested in making an analytical study of it. I'd rather just play and enjoy. That's not an approach I take to all puzzles, but for certain types like sliders and peg solitaire, I just don't want to get into it.

Ma's Puzzle in the solved state. Ma and her boy are reunited.
But I will get analytical about why I am attracted to this puzzle. It's not simply the fun of the solve. Many sliders have an equivalent level of play enjoyment. Ma's Puzzle sucks me in with its design concept and its historical associations, which actually are also quite historical in a sense. Ma's Puzzle comes directly out of the era of the Great Depression, still the greatest of all economic depressions. This was a time of massive dislocation and uncertainty. Ma's puzzler taps into the anxiety of the period, and into the mother-son relationship more broadly. Go back and read the slider pieces. They are a laundry list of a mother's worst fears and concerns for her boy, surely heightened by the challenges of the Great Depression: No Work, Danger, Broke, Worry, Trouble, Ill, Homesick.  It's very touching to me on a deeply emotional level, and if I think about it too much I actually get teary-eyed (Ed - you're a sap!). I am very sure that my own mother experienced every one of these fears for me when I launched myself into the world. But a young man doesn't think to see the world from a mother's perspective. That only comes much later. So this puzzle is not just a process of maneuvering blocks to an end state, its navigating a son through all the dangers of the outside world back to his mother's loving arms. You can't look at the solved state, with the two L-shaped pieces joined, and not believe that Ma and Boy are embracing. As you search around the vintage slider world you'll come across many clever labeling themes and schemes, but none surpass Ma’s Puzzle for raw humanity. It’s an example of how design concept can elevate an otherwise ‘mechanical’ challenge to something more meaningful.

Here is the solution. Good grief!
In the interest of completeness, here is the solution, as written by The Standard Trailer Co. It’s about 61 moves or so, depending on how you count them. If you’ve ever tried to follow a written solution path for a slider, let me warn you, its highly unsatisfying. I don’t even know that there is a point in doing it, to be perfectly honest. You clearly must follow a burr solution to get your burr back together and on the shelf, but a slider? Very tedious.

Line up the Quinties! The name says it all.
Next we have "Line up the Quinties"! This is a fun little puzzle. It’s not terrible challenging and would be a good starter for someone new to sliding block puzzles. For the hard-core burrists and cubers that frequent this blog it will likely be too trivial. For the rest of you, I highly recommend it. Like Ma’s Puzzle, Quinties exceeds its mechanical limitations with a great concept and an interesting story. It’s the easiest of the sliders I have played, but still somehow remains one of my favourites.

Construction-wise, Quinties is a huge step up from the advertising-quality sliders like Ma’s. This puzzle was produced by the Embossing Company using their patented wood embossing technique. I won’t bore you with the details of the process or the history of the company, since you can Google it and get all the info you need from the source (and you should, it’s interesting). I can safely say that if you decide to get into vintage sliders, you will become fast friends with Embossing Company products. They are invariable well made, durable, and attractive. And they also seem to have had excellent taste in puzzles.

Rules for Quinties.
The objective of Quinties is to go from a starting state to a finished state, as you probably guessed. In the finished state, all five "Quinties" are in a row across the middle of the puzzle. All the pieces are rectilinear–simple squares or rectangles. The rectangular pieces obviously have the most restricted movement and occur on two different orientations. All movements are linear, no rotation. There isn’t room to twist anyway. 

The Quinties, all lined up. Very cute.
So you’ve lined up the Quinties. But what the heck is a Quintie anyway? Well, it happens to be the five quintuplets known as the Dionne Quintuplets born in Canada in 1934. Notice the baby heads on the blocks? Those are the Dionne girls. Again, I won’t detail the story here, but go to the Wikipedia page and have a read. The main thing to understand is that before our modern era of fertility enhancement, anything more than twins was very exceptional, and quintuplets were largely unheard of. The Dionne girls were the first quintuplets to all survive infancy. The whole thing quickly became a bit of a circus, however, with long-lasting effects on the girls. Here is a quote from Wikipedia that I think sums it up:
"Approximately 6,000 people per day visited the observation gallery that surrounded the outdoor playground to view the Dionne sisters. Ample parking was provided and almost 3,000,000 people walked through the gallery between 1936 and 1943. Oliva Dionne ran a souvenir shop and a concession store opposite the nursery and the area acquired the name "Quintland". The souvenirs, picturing the five sisters, included autographs and framed photographs, spoons, cups, plates, plaques, candy bars, books, postcards and dolls. Oliva also sold stones from the Dionne farm that were supposed to have a magical power of fertility."
The Quinties puzzle was yet another aspect of Quintie-mania, and thankfully probably the least offensive aspect. It is fun to play and, despite low difficulty, I think replay value is actually high. Interestingly, the literature that comes with the puzzle claims (somewhat disingenuously) that the record for solving is "46 seconds or 46 moves." I think that is slow for a record for this puzzle and 46 moves is way too high. No doubt it’s just hype to motivate the puzzler.  Essentially, you don’t buy Quinties for the high challenge level. You buy it for its more intangible qualities, if they attract you. For collectors, it’s a fantastic piece of puzzle history.  

The Time Puzzle, a real classic. Innovative, fun, and "solvable."
Finally, saving my favourite for last, we have the venerable Time Puzzle. This is another great offering from the Embossing Company. Anyone, even those not particularly taken with sliders, should have this puzzle in their collection, or at least give it a play. It’s a stand-out. Of the above puzzles, and half a dozen other sliders I have played recently, the Time Puzzle is far and away my favourite. To my beloved editor especially, I encourage you to get this puzzle. I think you will greatly enjoy it. (Ed - beloved? Blush! I will be sure to try and track down a copy)

Now, the Time Puzzle is not like the previous puzzles, which have a simple start and finish state within an open field of blocks. Movement in the Time Puzzle is restricted by the outer boundary of the box, but also by the two stationary black center pieces. Those central pieces are within an underlying inset that you can’t see in the picture. They are fixed. What you discover immediately when you start playing is that this forces you to perform a circular clockwise or counterclockwise movement of pieces. That’s very interesting, and it gives the puzzle a more "systematic" quality, if you will (Ed - Now I'm interested!). Now notice that the upper left and lower right corners have a four-block section. This is where you have the clearance to make decisive movements and adjustments. Figuring out the parameters and dynamics of these two aspects is really the fun of "solving" this puzzle. Unlike a more traditional slider where you are basically stumbling around trying to make progress, this puzzle has something to teach you, and there are true Aha! moments to be had during the process—several of them. 

Not the best quality image, but you get the idea. Start at the original position
and move sequentially through all nine problems, one to the next.
The other aspect of the puzzle that makes it a stand-out is that it is set up to be progressive. There is an original position and nine problems to solve sequentially. Once you solve Problem 1, you move directly to solving Problem 2, and so on. Pretty neat idea and so much better than resetting the board every time. I spent a couple hours one evening and went through all nine problems. They are not all the same and many introduce new subproblems to be solved, building on what you have learned from previous problems. It’s a fun learning process and is very accessible. Solving each problem gives you a feeling of accomplishment, which is just enough to launch you onto the next problem. It’s hard to stop once you get a few under your belt. 

This is Problem 4. By this point, you’re hooked.
As with the above puzzles, the Time Puzzle is very well conceived. The time theme, the clock-like movement of the pieces, the roman numerals, it all works very well and enhances the puzzle above and beyond its mechanics, which are fantastic anyway.  The Time Puzzle gets my highest recommendation on all counts.

So that is the end of our brief tour of a few well-known vintage sliding block puzzles. As far as availability, well, they are widely available. There is a seemingly endless stream of all three of these puzzles on Ebay and even Etsy sometimes; enough for everyone. I would caution you not to overpay for these puzzles. As noted in the beginning, these are not antiques and, despite what sellers may claim, there are a hell of a lot of them out there on the market. If you want a nice pristine example for your collection, just be patient. Even the best copies are not exorbitant. Sometimes they are a steal, in fact. And be sure to get a copy that has all the literature and that doesn’t have a ripped box. The packaging is a functional part of the puzzle. However, if you are not picky and just want to have a play, then you can get one of the poorer condition examples extremely cheap. I do that regularly.

I had a couple more I wanted to get to, but "time" has run short. Maybe on another day. I also need to dig more deeply into Amanda’s collection. I see a lot of ebay-esque packages with home-spun wrapping coming through the door of our office every day. I think she is holding out on me. (Ed - she needs to contact me for an alternative place to have these puzzles arrive!)

Thank you so much Mike! I am eternally grateful! I, and all our readers really look forward to future articles from you. If anyone else feels up to writing a guest blog post then please contact me and we will see what we can do. I am happy to edit the text if English is not your first language.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Yet Another Twisty Candidate for my Puzzle Top Ten!

The Lim-cube 3x3 Mixup Ultimate
I can hear the non twisty puzzlers out there groaning! I really ought to see someone about those voices I keep hearing! Another year locked up in the padded cell with the special comfortable jacket again! Yes! It's another twisty puzzle review and story! I make no real apology for this as I am always going to try and convince you general puzzlers out there to have a try! It isn't all about teenage boys with nothing better to do in their lives than to practice the same thing over and over and over again until it can be done in seconds. For me the beauty of the twisty puzzle is NOT learning lots of algorithms and practicing. I just use the few things that I know and have learned in creative ways. Very occasionally I have to design an algorithm but I'm not very good at that and so I often am forced to use Allard's copyrighted Think© technique and find ways around something new. The challenge is tremendous and the Aha! moments are worth the effort. I am very proud of the fact that I probably only know 8 or 10 algorithms and just use those. If you are interested in this puzzle then I got mine from Martin's Puzzlestore but PuzzleMaster stock it here.

Dreidel 3x3
So what is special about this cube? It looks like a sort of deformed 3x3 cube with some rather suspicious extra cuts but no way to move them. It is a new design from the incredibly creative Guan Yang and has been mass produced and marketed by the relative newcomer, Lim cubes who produced one of my favourite puzzles of last year, the Dreidel 3x3 which I loved so much that I rated it as number 4 in my 2015 top ten. If you don't have it then stop reading this blog and go and buy it immediately (Puzzlemaster has it if you are in North America). Lim cubes seems to specialise in puzzles with extreme complexity but despite that with very high quality. I am staggered at how well these puzzles turn. Just like the Dreidel 3x3, the Mixup Ultimate is mostly solved by intuition and of course being able to solve a basic 3x3. There is only one very simple algorithm that is required.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

2 Great Challenges From Stephane and Pelikan


Tribord by Stéphane Chomine
Having shown off the upcoming pair of puzzles on his Facebook page, my great friend Jakub contacted me to ask whether I wanted to buy them and have a look before he makes them generally available to puzzlers on his store. Of course I have never been able to say no to Jakub and after a bit of PayPal across Europe I received a couple of stunning looking wooden beauties designed by the incredibly talented Stéphane Chomine who seems to have restarted publishing his designs on Ishino's site.

I started off with the Tribord which consists of just 3 burr sticks in a rectangular frame. This puzzle will be available from Jakub in 2 different versions and I chose the one with Wenge, Maple and Mahogany (I think) because I cannot resist dark contrasting woods. The other version is equally stunning though. The construction is simply stunning and finished perfectly with contrasting slipfeathers and the smooth curved white beveling makes it just so tactile. This puzzle has a relatively low difficulty level of 17.3.4 and is therefore suitable for all puzzlers including beginners to burrs. However it is not a trivial solve and there is a particular feature that any experienced burr solver will appreciate when seen - it certainly sets this puzzle apart from other similar ones I have written about or own.

There's something unusual about one of the pieces
It's a nice logical sequence and it is perfectly feasible to reassemble it from scratch after scrambling the pieces. I have kept it next to my puzzling chair for the last week and when I have been struggling with something else I have taken to playing with the Tribord to soothe my troubled brain. A lovely puzzle well worth adding to your collection.

Big Quadrox

Big Quadrox
Next up is the Big Quadrox (also designed by Stéphane) and very different in design and construction. I reviewed the (small) Quadrox puzzle made by the amazing Brian Menold (Wood Wonders) way back in July 2015 and really appreciated the rather beautiful and quite large puzzle. I said this about it:
It is a level framed burr and is interesting because the frame is incomplete but still manages to make the solution far from trivial. A combination of picking pieces up and using gravity to move others will help you solve it. Scrambling the resultant pieces again leaves you with a nice reassembly challenge which is eminently possible for anyone with a bit of burr experience. 
The version by Jakub and Jaroslav's New Pelikan Workshop is a good bit smaller and the fine workmanship that has gone into it is immediately apparent with the contrasting woods. Like the smaller Quadrox, the frame is incomplete meaning that almost everything is visible but the pieces infuriatingly won't come out easily despite such large gaps. The lovely thin planks of the frame are Cherry which have been nicely reinforced with Mahogany and then the joints strengthened with contrasting Wenge dowels. The 4 burr sticks are beautiful Wenge, Padauk, Purpleheart and Acacia.

Mrs S says I look like this when puzzling!
Again the puzzler needs some serious thought and exploration to find their way through the level solution. It still needs gravity and a little dexterity to move through it and in retrospect I would have to admit that the solution is really fairly logical. BUT your rather dim puzzle blogger here got completely stuck after 14 moves. I knew what I had to achieve but, for the life of me, I could not seem to find the specific move that would allow the path to continue. I went back and forth for days and days prompting Mrs S to make a lot of fun of me! She kept looking at the faces I was making whilst muttering profanities to myself and likened me to "Plug" from the classic British comic, The Beano. She even offered (very kindly) to write a guest post for this blog detailing all the varied faces made by your faithful blogger during his puzzling travails - something that may happen but only after I edit it very carefully. There is NO WAY she is going to be allowed to run amok in my website without supervision!

After 4 evenings of toil I suddenly found the move and proceeded through the remaining 14 moves to take out the first piece - phew! The removal of the next 2 pieces is far from trivial. Even though you can see inside where all the notches and blocks are, it was still a good 20 to 30 minutes more work for me! I had my 4 sticks and the glorious details of the frame were revealed:

The pieces are actually quite simple but when put together are a really nice challenge!
Having spent so long on the disassembly, I decided I would just scramble the pieces and leave them a while before attempting the reassembly. Interestingly, this was less difficult than expected and I had it back together in just 15 minutes with great relief. As is usual, I tend to solve these puzzles multiple times before putting them back in my display and to my utter horror, I kept getting stuck at the 15th move. Only after solving it the fifth time did I finally manage to set up enough muscle memory that I was able to do it each time at will. This, to me, makes the Big Quadrox a superb puzzle - one of my favourites of the year so far.

Anyone who bought the original Quadrox should definitely add this more difficult version to their collection. Any burr enthusiast will definitely want to buy this - they will love the solution. There isn't a huge amount of dancing around with the various pieces but they all interact in very interesting ways. I intend to be playing with this for a while yet.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Hey Bud! It's Time to Be N-ary

The title of this blog post is a little play on words to introduce a couple of puzzles I have played with over the last month or so. Late last year a few of the guys who got to go to the Dutch Puzzle Party managed to come back (as usual) with lots of new toys and the B-Nary puzzle by Jean-Claude Constantin particularly caught my eye. Several people were very enthusiastic about it but unfortunately there were none left for me! Sob! It was a particularly big birthday for me when the DPP was on and I could not attend - I could not risk the wrath of she who must be feared and obeyed. I did ask Mr Strijbos about obtaining a copy of the B-Nary puzzle and he worked his magic on JCC. My copy arrived about 4 weeks ago.

I love these puzzles! Not only are they N-ary puzzles based on Gray code but they also smell nice - I lurve the laser burnt wood smell that arises when you open the package. This puzzle may be called B-Nary because of the shape (B on the front and N-A-R-Y etched on the sliders) but I discovered straight away that there are 3 positions for each of the sliders and hence it is not binary, it is ternary as confirmed by Goetz' list.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Even More Turning Madness!

Tronc Commun 3
At the beginning of January I waxed lyrical about a wonderful design by Gregory Benedetti which had been made by Brian Menold, the Tronc Commun 4 was what I consider to be the very best "Turning Interlocking Cube" ever designed. When Brian announced a new update was imminent I had an inkling that there might be another in the series available. I spent a fair amount of time hitting the refresh button on my browser to load and reload his site. His service provider was having problems at the time and it took a while before anything was showing up. Luckily I got there pretty quickly and picked up a beautiful cube - Tronc Commun 3 made from Wenge and Zebrawood.

My parcel then got held up by British customs and I was tortured by reports from my friend Ali who had also picked up a copy and thought it was fabulous. I had actually solved it in the past when Bernhard had made me a prototype version from Maple which was fun but functional. As is usual, I have forgotten absolutely everything about it apart from that I own it and that it was good and having gotten a copy of number 4 from Brian I really did have to get the number 3 in exotic woods as well - after all it is a collection and you cannot have too much wood!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

A Twisty Candidate for My Top Ten of the Year

Oskar's Crazy Comet
Last week I wrote at the end of my post that I was working on the Crazy Comet which had been mass produced by Lan Lan. My copy had been bought from my friend Marty but is also available from the various Chinese vendors if you live closer to them. I was originally attracted to it because it had quite a similarity to the Bermuda Megaminx puzzle series that I have begun to work through. However when I got my copy I realised straight away that whilst they are dodecahedra (like the Bermudaminxes) and also have some diamond centres that is where the similarities end. The Bermudaminxes ultimately require you to find a way to carry out at least a partial Megaminx solve where possible and this requires a few pentahedral centres. The Megaminx solve is actually pretty easy as it is effectively the same process as a standard 3x3 cube.

So having realised that the puzzle was neither Bermuda like or Megaminx like, I was a bit stumped. After that I was tempted to just scramble it and throw caution to the wind but after reading on Facebook that someone had tried a simple block building approach which was what I would have to do and had failed when they got to the top half. It was time to THINK© which was not something I am particularly good at. It took a while but I had an epiphany quite early on....the temptation with this puzzle is to orient it like the picture above BUT that's not the best way to look at it:

Curvy copter (an old pic)
A better way to look at the comet
Looking at the comet each face on the top is equivalent to an edge of the copter

Sunday, 5 March 2017

More Stupendous Pelikan Success

Involute Ball
I would appear to have been extremely successful in my reviewing process! As I write, all the puzzles apart from one on the Pelikan puzzle website are sold out apart from the Trirods ball (also well worth purchasing). After my last review all the rest went very quickly - well done to Jakub and Jaroslav for such a tremendous success. I have been asked for my thoughts on the last few that I bought from their recent batch and have just now managed to find time.

Involute ball and Brian Menold's wonderful cube version
Convolution ball
Starting with the Involute ball, Stewart Coffin designed the involute cube as an improvement of the original convolution cube and it became another of my favourite puzzle designs. Of course Pelikan made a delightful spherical version of Convolution cube which I adore and keep on show in my living room – I even have permission from Mrs S because it is so beautiful. When Jakub gave me a copy of the involute ball as a Christmas gift I was absolutely delighted! The woods are beautiful and the wood turning is perfect. The disassembly is just like the original cube and a wonderful sequence which can prove to be quite a challenge if you are new to interlocking wooden puzzles due to the combined coordinate motion and rotational move that is required (I have had some correspondence from a relative newcomer who got stuck which required me to make a video to help him).

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Graduating from the New Old School

The final 3 in the New Old School Series
In the UK secondary school starts at age 11 and continues through 7 years to age 18 depending on whether one continues to A level. Needless to say I went "all the way" with my education and with Gregory Benedetti's New Old School Puzzles I again had to go all the way through all 7 of them until I could say that I have graduated!

Eric produced the first four at the beginning of last year and with their very special coordinate moves hidden inside what looked like normal 6 piece burrs I just couldn't resist them at all and bought them immediately. I even said to "she who must be lied to" at that time that:
"These are something TOTALLY NEW! They might be a completely new puzzle category."
The first 4 made my top ten of 2016 and I was very worried at the time that Eric did not think at that time last year that he could possibly produce the final 3 in the series because the stick shapes were so crazy. A large number of us encouraged him to have a try and after he had seen some 3D printed versions he decided to give it a go. I am delighted to have a fabulous series of 7 apparently innocuous 6 piece burrs with a helluva bite to them:

Don't look like much do they? Apart from the beautiful wood they are marvelous puzzles.
When the update to his site went live, I had placed my order within a couple of minutes! The price was a little higher than expected but we had been warned that might be the case due to the huge amount of work involved. Needless to say I didn't hesitate but it did stop me buying any of the other wonderful toys he had produced.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The 'Paradox' Desert Island Puzzle Choice

and a Crazy Challenge from SuperAntonioVivaldi

Oli's twisty puzzles - for a non-twisty puzzler he sure does have a good collection of them!
This might be a little less coherent than normal - yesterday was a rather busy day in the Sheffield operating theatres and emergency room - after a very long and very bloody day I was so whizzy that sleep eluded me for a large part of last night! Plus of course it is not easy to write about twisty puzzles.

All you non-twisty puzzlers DON'T run away - whilst this post is about twisties it will still be of interest to you and may cause you to rethink your aversion. Keep reading!

Followers of Oli's Facebook page were offered a very interesting question a few weeks ago and I think that I had a perfect answer to it. For someone who claims not to be able to solve twisty puzzles, Oli has a pretty decent sized collection and either he never scrambles them or he actually is a closet twisty solver. The question he asked of us puzzlers was:
"If you can only choose one from the above selection then what would it be?"
You can see in the picture there are some rather lovely puzzles with varying shapes and difficulties and many would expect me to choose one of the more abstract (if that's the right word) designs. Now as a bit of a mad twisty freak (along with the general madness of my puzzle collecting), I already had pretty much all of the puzzles on Oli's shelves. I therefore altered my interpretation slightly to say which of those puzzles I would choose as one not to miss out on or which of those twisty puzzles would be my 'Desert Island Puzzle'? My choice.... nothing fancy, nothing oddly shaped, nothing with circles etc. I chose the standard 4x4 Rubik cube. Yep! With all those to choose from I went back to a standard cube. BUT I will try to convince you that with a bit of thought this can be made into a much more interesting puzzle.

My standard 4x4 - years old and on it's 3rd set of stickers
In my workbag I carry a 4x4 with me pretty much at all times - you can see from the state of it that it has had a fair bit of wear and tear. I bought it quite early on in my puzzling career and I have replaced the stickers a couple of times already. In fact I am so fed up with the state of it that I have decided to replace this cube with a nice shiny new one... this time a stickerless one so I never have to worry about the state of it again (I already have a stickerless Dayan Zhanchi with me most of the time). After a nice on line chat with my friend Marty (owner of  The Puzzle Store UK) in which he gave me some advice, I have placed an order for a nice new stickerless 4x4 and also decided to get a stickerless 6x6 too (to replace the 6x6 gift from Yvette that I unfortunately broke a year ago).

No stickers to chip and peal
I'm so pleased these are now possible
The voices are back again and I can hear you muttering to yourselves:
"why would he choose a 4x4 out of all the puzzles available? Look at all the puzzles in his collection and all the other twisties he owns!"
It's true......I might just have a few twisties:

Stuffed in a cupboard really tight! Over 100
Blush! The hand made and 3D printed ones are on display
You are right to question my sanity but not because of this. I may be considered mad when you think about the shear amount my hobby has cost me and the fights I have had with Mrs S but choosing a 4x4 as my desert island puzzle is actually a really good idea. Firstly I was only supposed to choose from the photo posted by Oli but even if I was to choose from my own puzzle collection it would remain the same. Why not the standard 3x3? I do love it and carry it with me all the time but I now prefer even order puzzles for the extra challenge provided by the parities (I discussed how parities are a thing to be revelled in here and here) and also just having a bigger cube adds the dimension of having to pair up pieces. I dont really need a massive puzzle - I do enjoy my 10x10 but it is not particularly portable and quite hard on the hands and wrists after a while. A 4x4 or 6x6 is much more manageable.

If you are on a desert island you will want a puzzle that is repeatable as you may be there a very long time. My wooden puzzles (burrs, packing puzzles, puzzles that happen to have a cavity) are all very lovely but by and large they solve just one way and once done there is no further puzzling challenge to them. What is more, there are a few burrs that absolutely frighten me to death and confuse me terribly - some have been played with and are in a configuration that I am unable to advance from and am unable to return to the beginning. It could be argued that these would provide a nice big long challenge but my experience is that after a while my frustration gets the better of me and I have to leave it alone. I personally never seem to get bored solving a standard cube - every scramble is slightly different.

This puzzle is trapped in this position!
Not only is repeatability important in terms of every scramble being different but also it is even better if there are multiple different challenges possible within that same puzzle and here the 4x4 really excels.

A standard reduction to a 3x3
Notice the large centres and completed double edges?
The usual way that a new twisty puzzler learns a 4x4 is to carry out a reduction technique.and the usual method is to reduce the 4x4 to an oddly shaped 3x3 with giant centres and edges and after that solve that 3x3. The parity comes about if one of the edge reductions has produced an edge in a conformation that is not possible had it been a standard 3x3 scramble. The challenge is to unmake that edge and remake it the other way around without ruining all your other pieces. There are a few algorithms for it but for me I always fall back on SuperAntonioVivaldi's Redbull algorithm which once done a few thousand times becomes second nature (I am much too old and cannot remember any other method).

First layer is intuitive
Second layer is F2L plus a bit
Third layer like the second
The commonest way to solve a 3x3 is to solve it layer by layer (beginner's method or more complex speedsolving approach) and I did wonder whether a 4x4 could be solved in the same way. This would be challenge number two. It is less arduous than reduction and the first part is really pretty simple. Using basic intuition and a modification of the F2L method for edges the first 3 layers are a pleasant task. At this point it does become a tremendous challenge - the top layer fix requires all the parts of the basic 4x4 cube to be done with almost no freedom to move. I love it!!! It does not require a lot of algorithms - the basics would be the flipping 2 edges method just like one would for a standard 3x3 and then maybe that a cuboid type adjacent  corner swap using 2 enlarged corners might be useful.

Just swapping 2 expanded corners will fix the edges

Looking at the pic above the back right edge is a complete red and yellow pair whilst the other 3 edges are mixed up. If I swap the 2x2x1 layer at the front with the 2x2x1 at the right then this will pair up all the other edge pieces et Voila! Sometimes they cannot be placed in that way and the very simple staple technique that is used frequently in other places... a commutator very similar to the corner piece series which SuperAntonioVivaldi calls the Swinging U algorithm.

A simple commutator (8 moves) cycles 3 edge pieces
When you have all of these under your belt (none are particularly tough individually to learn) then the best bit is that they need to be put together using a whole lot of strategy and thought. It is huge fun and a great challenge that involves more thought than simple algorithm learning. Basically you are using the same extended set of relatively easy techniques in rather wonderful ways. I have said many times before that I am too old to learn lots of new algorithms - I have learned a few basic ones and now can use them creatively with thought, planning and strategy which is what puzzling is all about.

I can tell you're all exhausted now but the delights of the 4x4 cube are still not complete. Another hugely fun approach is to solve the puzzle by reduction to a 2x2. Huh? No! It's not silly - the basic method is to reduce to a 3x3  but the parity is caused when an edge is recreated the wrong way around. If you don't recreate edges then no parity! The aim is to create eight little 2x2 blocks. This of course goes back to the time when CubeTwist produced their wonderful AI cube:

AI Cube - a 4x4 divided into an odd 2x2
A 4x4 reduced to a 2x2
Gr_cubed' AI megamorphinx
The giant cubes need to be moved to the bottom row and then the 2x2 blocks will need to be manipulated using only centre cut moves vertically and the top slice is the only single face that can turn. I seriously struggled with this concept for a very long time and my ability to solve it was very hit and miss until my acquisition of a tetrahedral modification of this forced me to reevaluate the approach or leave a puzzle unsolved on my shelf forever. After watching the video from SuperAntonioVivaldi in which he explains his approach to making a commutator for this tetrahedron, I was finally able to understand it and now my AI knowledge is complete. The AI solve of the 4x4 is definitely a real challenge for all puzzlers and very much to be recommended.

Finally an alternative to the AI solve is still to reduce into a 2x2 form but to carry out the AI component whilst ignoring the centres. This entails forming the frames of the upper 2x2 blocks and then solving the centres last. The idea sounds awful until you realise that the method used by any 4x4 puzzler to assemble the last 2 centres during a standard solution (before the edges are reduced) uses a simple method (the swinging U) to 3 cycle pieces without destroying anything else.

The bottom is solved but only the edges and corners of the top are reduced
This approach to the 4x4 can be used with other even order puzzles - the Master Kilominx is an even order dodecahedral puzzle which has the same possibilities - the parity caused by edge reduction is a fairly horrendous thing to reduce as there is no equivalent of the RedBull algorithm. Part of a challenge a long time ago was to find a parity free solution. This was the equivalent of reducing the Master kilominx to a Flowerminx (the 2x2 dodecahedral equivalent) and again proved to be a wonderful diversion.

I am also starting to drool - when Marty sends me the new 6x6, I can see that there are many many different reduction possibilities to keep me amused (even more than the 4x4) and I plan to add this to my increasingly heavy work bag to keep me busy and remind my surgical and anaesthetic colleagues that I am truly crackers! I couldn't choose the 6x6 as my choice from Oli's collection because he doesnt have one - it may be that it would end up as my desert island puzzle that isn't from Oli.

The crazy 4x4 v2 is amazing
even if it looks impossible!
Finally just to finish off and expand the theme of alternative approaches, my amazing friend Jon (aka SuperAntonioVivaldi) set a test or 2 for his subscribers regarding alternative reductions of even more complex puzzles - he set a wonderful pair of challenges (here and here) for a tremendous puzzle, the Crazy 4x4v2 (PuzzlestoreUK or PuzzleMaster). It is a real fun and beautifully made puzzle that all serious twisty puzzlers should own and solve - I reviewed it here many years ago. Basically the idea is to solve this 4x4 variant using a layer by layer approach and also try to solve it as an AI cube (just as we did for the standard 4x4).

I have spent the last month working on this and OMG! What a challenge! I have pretty much managed most of it - there is one aspect of the layer by layer that I struggle with and the AI proved a heroic task but I got there eventually! It would not be a terribly exciting blog post for most of you to describe the trials and tribulations of this but let me just say in the theme of alternative solve methods this one proved fantastic! To all you twisty it! Try it! You won't be disappointed.

Let me know below whether you try any of these puzzles and approaches and what you think?


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