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.


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