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.


  1. Replies
    1. I've set up an eBay search for the Time puzzle but nothing yet!

  2. Very nicely done again, Mike! Fantastic collaboration, Kevin. Anyone out there want to make some cocktails for me?!?

    1. I'd love to visit so you can teach me to make cocktails!

    2. Me too. I can barely make a neat scotch. Really enjoying your blog as well, by the way. Some epic posts of late. Very illuminating.