Sunday 1 September 2019

A Tale of Two Puzzles

Damn! He's always in such gorgeous places whilst I am in dreary England!
As always, Mike Desilets is my saviour! The PuzzleMad foreign correspondent drops me a line with a wonderful article just as I need one. I have actually solved a few puzzles recently and do mean to write about them soon but work keeps me busy, Mrs S keeps me doing DIY and after a trip to Birmingham yesterday for the 39th MPP, I cannot spend too much time today on the 'puter without risking the wrath of Khan Mrs S! Mike has a review of a puzzle that I have not managed to get hold of yet as well as one that I previously discussed. I'll hand you over to his capable hands/keyboard now - take it away, my friend:

Talofa puzzlers,

This foreign office edition comes to you direct from beautiful American Samoa (Ed - sigh!). Before we get started, a general announcement: if there is anyone on Tutuila reading this and wants to get together to talk puzzles, find me at Sadie’s until Sept 8th. I brought some toys, of course, and a modest puzzle party is therefore possible. (Ed - do let me know if anyone joins you?)

Now for the content. As it happens, yet again, this is not the article I originally intending to submit to PuzzleMad. I had something else brewing (and nearly complete) but was waylaid by some intractable math issues (Ed - it should be Maths for Mathematics). That put me off my mark and the original article now seems to be growing long legs. In the meantime, my experience with Hanayama’s pair of newly released Vesa Timonen-designed puzzles compelled me to write this alternative post. These puzzles are, of course, Cast UFO and Cast Slider. Although they have not been on the market very long, avid puzzlers among the readership likely have hands-on experience with them already. Perhaps you have solved them, or perhaps you’ve just done due diligence research in anticipation of the inevitable purchase (Ed Mrs S is not happy with this plan at the moment!). If you are at all serious about this pastime, then you certainly need to have both these puzzles. If, on the other hand, you are just testing the waters, then the words below may possibly help you along your path.

A word of caution. This article contains minor spoilage on UFO. I think, however, that it only repeats spoilage previously committed in Kevin’s original post on the topic. I, therefore, consider myself absolved and refer all negative commentators to my charming and indulgent editor (Ed - I'll back you up!). If you want to enjoy untainted puzzling, as I always do, then I suggest you stop here for now and come back at the appropriate time.

Part of the reason I thought this material would be post-worthy was the very fact of two puzzles being released back-to-back by the same designer. Although the puzzles could not be more different in terms of design, the timing of their release naturally invites comparison. So let’s begin with UFO. Kevin covered UFO previously, so I apologize (yet again) for any redundancy. As you might expect, my thoughts align pretty well with those of my treasured editor (Ed - treasured? WOW - Blush!).

I think no one will argue that UFO has beautiful aesthetics. It is very nicely symmetrical, except in one aspect, and could not better represent its namesake (there were other options, of course, and I would like to have been in the Hamayama board room during the heated naming debates, dodging the hurled teacups and balled-up graph paper flying between the “UFO” and “Saturn” contingents).  UFO consists of a four-part ball encaged within a two-part discoidal outer shell.  The puzzle is instantly attractive and a joy to fondle. The fact that it is a Vesa Timonen design is also a huge draw for many of us. Mr Timonen has fully 10 Hanayama designs under his belt (I’ve read) and remains one of my very favourite designers. Needless to say, expectations were high for this puzzle.

Cast UFO sighted in Samoa.
Now, UFO was rated by Hanayama at a Level 4 difficulty. This usually bodes well in my book. My top picks from Hanayama are usually in the 3 to 5 range. There is a lot of variability within that range, clearly, and if you’ve learned nothing else from Kevin and my efforts, it is that puzzle difficulty ratings are approximations. Especially so in the Hanayama world. And lest ye forget, difficulty ratings are part and parcel of puzzle marketing. Please don’t be naïve (or cynical) on this count, my friends. But anyway, a Hanayama Level 4 to me almost always means happy puzzling.

Unfortunately, dear reader, this is about where the good times end. I engaged with UFO intensively over a period of a week and a half, including some very lengthy sessions. I think like nearly every other person, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the “first” and most obvious solution path - that which teasingly suggests the two halves will somehow slide apart (Ed - yep, me too). Given the number of possible orientations and alignments of the four internal pieces, there is quite a lot to explore here. At some point, though, doubt creeps in. It was at this point that I went to read what Kevin had to say on the matter. Consulting my editor’s work is a bit of a cheat on my part, and uncharacteristic of me actually (Ed - it's nice to know that at least someone pays attention to my drivel), but the idea of continuing to working for hours and days on a false path was just too much to take. So in light of his review, I stopped working on path one and tried some other things. I found another interesting possibility and worked on that for another very extended period. This turned out to be closely related to the actual solution, but it was never going to happen the way I was doing it.

You won’t see it like this until you’ve done some work.
This went on for a long time. At a certain point in every hard solve, I become irrationally convinced that my puzzle is broken. Against all odds, I have somehow received the one-in-a-million copy with incorrect tolerances. The only remedy for this psychosis is to recall that EVERY Hanayama puzzle was hand-assembled in a Chinese factory. Hence, it WILL come apart. Obviously, I have tattooed this insight onto my forearm, Memento-style. Otherwise, I would have fallen down a very dark hole by now, spending all of my free time writing angry missives to innocent puzzle designers. This observation also makes you realize, if you think about it, that there are a handful of Chinese factory workers who are absolute, unparalleled experts at assembling very complex puzzles like Cast Quartet, etcetera. 

My second gambit didn't pay off, and I may or may not have broken a fingernail in the process. By this point, I had run out of ideas and was reduced to random acts of demi-violence (Ed demi? is that smaller or greater than semi?), the last resort of the nearly-defeated puzzler. Nothing was happening and after significant prying, shaking, and spinning of the internals, I did the unthinkable and went for the solution. This is a very rare thing for me, as my shelf of unsolved puzzles will attest. I still refuse to look up the damnable and grotesque Cast Vortex, several years in and am currently astride an ultra-marathon solving effort with Cast Hourglass (Ed - me too!). My time on Hourglass dwarfs anything I have done on my last dozen puzzles (combined), but I will never, in my lifetime, so much a glance sideways at its solution. 

Cast Eyeball
So what is the difference with UFO? Why did it defeat me where so few others (and zero Hanayamas) have to date? Well, the steamy, doleful tropical environment may have affected my morale, that is true. But ultimately I think I became convinced that my only remaining chance at solving it was dumb luck. I was not going to deduce the mechanism, that was clear. I don’t honestly know how anyone could. Like my esteemed editor before me, I leered into UFO’s most private crevices in search of a clue. I saw what you all saw, and it really didn't mean much to me. The internal pieces were clearly not identical. But converting that into a mental model of the interior? I was at a loss. At the end of the process, having tried the things that the puzzle allows one to do, I felt I had arrived at the uncharted shores of the black box. This is not my preferred style of puzzling (generally - there are notable exceptions). I don’t really know what people are saying when they claim to have “solved” a completely hidden mechanism puzzle. They mean that they have gotten it apart, of course, but... so what? If your concept of puzzling is to shake a puzzle around until your random movement releases the lock, then I have good news for you. It gets much better! Now let me be clear, I don’t necessarily group Vesa’s puzzle into that category. But that is where the puzzle brought me mentally. I think it also had something to do with the disconnect between the Level 4 rating and my Level 6 effort, the use (by design or otherwise) of teaser non-solutions, and just generally everything I know about previous designs by the great Finn. The simple fact is that Cast UFO is perfectly calculated to unwind a man. I believe others have shared this experience. 

Now, good readers, understand that your dutiful foreign correspondent has a very full queue of puzzles to solve, study, and just possibly write about (Ed - I am looking forward to receiving copious articles very shortly! 😈). Some times you have to do what you have to do. That is no excuse, and I am not proud of my actions, but I beg your indulgence this once. You can be sure that I will complete some form of puzzle penance in the near future. Some good deed or other - I’ll think of something.

Having the solution in hand, or in mind as it were, I eventually managed to get the pieces separated. The tolerances, for a cast puzzle, are very tight and it took a significant amount of work to get the first piece out. Everything has to be just so, in the extreme. Even with precise placement, the action can be difficult to induce. Over time this gets easier, as always. (Ed - not for me - this is not one of my favourite Hanayama puzzles of recent times)

Having now seen the internals, I can certainly appreciate the brilliance of the mechanism. This is an ingenious design and I struggle to understand how Vesa can come up with such things. It really is a fascinating object and I’ve enjoyed taking it apart and reassembling a couple of times. But in the final analysis, as you may have gathered, I did not actually enjoy UFO as a puzzle. It is certainly not a Level 4 puzzle, and I think it would be wrongheaded in the extreme to knowingly give it to any youth or non-puzzler as a gift. Unfortunately, many well-meaning parents will buy UFO for their kids, possibly putting many young people off mechanical puzzles altogether. I doubt this was Hanayama’s intention, and it makes me seriously question the intensity and/or quality of their product testing program. There should be no mystery in gauging puzzle difficulty. It's a statistical question, at the base of it, and susceptible to good estimation. All you really need to do is collect data from a random sample of solvers. The impression given by many of Hanayama’s ratings, however, is of a consensus arrived at by a small group of professional puzzlers/designers who are perhaps too close to UFO for the task. I don’t know this to be the case, and my preemptive apologies to the very good people at Hanayama, but I can’t think of any other way to explain UFO’s rating.

Were UFO to be reclassified upward, it would at least be more accurate for the consumer. But I still would not have found it enjoyable. The rating is actually a minor matter. It is the aforementioned limitation of the solving process that is critical. Notice that most Level 6 puzzles, by and large, involve complete transparency. Hiding the mechanics is only one road to difficulty, after all, and in my opinion, makes it much harder to craft a “fair” and fun puzzle.

Cast Slider - unslid
Enter now Cast Slider, the very latest Hanayama release. My experience with slider could not be more different from UFO. Slider, as you surely know by now, boasts only three component pieces. When assembled, the two “sliders” move smoothly past one another until stopped by their respective pins. The movement is really very dramatic and at full extension, the puzzle seems barely articulated, held loosely but securely by the centre piece and its two symmetrical slots. 

The radical dynamic action of the puzzle makes it a real pleasure to manipulate and is in stark contrast to the compact and somewhat inaccessible UFO, which is not unpleasurable itself, just differently so. While the kernel of UFO is securely encaged, and thus problematic, Slider seems like something that should come apart in short order, if not immediately, of its own volition. As an object, it comes off as a little more puzzling, to me anyway. I can see everything, but I still don’t understand it.

Once you try to solve Slider you’ll find that it is no simple matter to disengage the pieces. I think this took me about 30 minutes, off and on, to get apart. Several nearby acquaintances, all of them too smart for their own good, never managed it. For me, it was extremely enjoyable and gratifying. Where UFO brings you to your wits end through sheer intransigence, Slider sets up a reasonable challenge, brings you to the point of consternation, then pays you off handsomely. The fact that Slider is so gangly and capable of several different configurations helps mightily in maintaining a puzzler's interest. UFO, the fixed object, defies exploration, excepting the false path of course, which is only rubbing salt in the wound.  Slider is completely transparent. There is nothing hidden and its mechanics are plain for all to inspect. Yet still, it confounds. UFO, as mentioned, keeps things very close to the vest. You can’t see how its constructed, which means you don’t know how to get in to see how its constructed, which means... 

Cast Slider, practising contortionist.
Among all its other good qualities, Slider presents you with both a take-apart and a put-together challenge. It is almost assured that you will struggle to get it back together, at least at first. Reassembly is not trivial in the least. I think if one were handed this as a pure put-together, it would be very tough, probably more so than as a take-apart. Replay value is also initially quite high. My second-time solve still took a fair effort. The third was faster, and so on. UFO, once the secrets of the ingenious mechanism are revealed, is no longer puzzling to disassemble or reassemble. Fiddly as hell, yes, but not really puzzling.  

Finally, Slider has the advantage of being a good social puzzle. It is fun to pass around, catches peoples interest, and can be solved within the period of an average social gathering. Fun for all ages! UFO, don’t even try it. I’m guessing it would be a real party killer. That’s not a ding against UFO; there are countless outstanding puzzles that shouldn't be foisted on non-puzzling friends. It's just an observation for the record and a word to the wise.

Cast Slider dismantled.
If you are somehow unsure where I stand by now, let me sum up. I found Slider to be thoroughly enjoyable on all levels. It is an essentially flawless design and among the best I have seen recently. As far as I can tell, it is completely unique and original in the extreme. I have not come across anything like it in my travels. That really says something. Over the years we’ve come to expect this level of originality from Vesa Timonen to the extent that perhaps we even take it for granted. But it is not at all easy to be truly original in puzzle design, especially in the few-piece take apart category. There are many good designers out there, professional and amateur alike, but Vesa is a “great” designer in my book. History will decide, I suppose, but I’ve already made up my mind. 

UFO, despite the aspects that I personally find flawed, is also a supremely original design and a fascinating object to study, if not solve. It is yet another testament to Vesa’s abilities, by comparison, to which, no one would argue, the PuzzleMad staff are double-dyed dolts. (Ed - "double-dyed dolts??? Not sure what that means but it sounds like a good description of me!)

To wrap up, what we have from Hanayama and Vesa Timonen is a study in contrasts. UFO and Slider are painfully dissimilar in almost every respect. The only place they approach one another is in apparent difficulty rating, being just a single increment apart. Again, that should tell you something about the value of difficulty ratings. Even when accurate, they are often just an ordinal proxy measure for “solving time required.” More important attributes like cleverness, ingenuity, personal enjoyment, replay value, sociability, etc., will remain unknown. But perhaps that’s for the best. Those are the things we discover during our work.

Finally, let me conclude further with a quick note on Cast Hourglass. I know this puzzle has caused a good deal of suffering out there, but for those of you still in the throes of solving, I strongly encourage you to keep at it and push through the pain. The puzzle is extremely difficult, no doubt, but it is also supremely rational and therefore within your grasp. Disassembly is a huge challenge and reassembly doubly so. But there is nothing hidden, so there is also no excuse. A little old-fashioned THINKing will serve you well, whereas tinkering around aimlessly will get you nowhere. I am not yet home on reassembly but am so close I can taste it. Tremendous thought and persistence need on this one, but rewards to match. Good luck. (Ed - I am hopelessly lost!)

Ok Kevin, get us out of here so we can enjoy the rest of the weekend...

Wow! What a great article! I really must get hold of a copy of the slider - I had a quick fiddle at the MPP and that (along with your article) made me very determined to buy a copy for my own use. Thank you so much, Mike, you always seem to bail me out at just the right time! Good luck with the Hourglass and I look forward to your maths-based article soon!

One side-effect of a visit to the MPP where I foolishly agreed to bring along my Happiness cubes again for the guys to enjoy was that at the end of the day the puzzling swines left me with a bag of UNhappiness! They had dismantled all 5 cubes and left them mixed in a pile and the bunch of packing puzzles from Tom Lensch, Pelikan, Brian Menold and Johan Heyns had all their pieces hidden amongst each other. Aaargh!!!

Nooooooooo! Not again!

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