Sunday 27 October 2019

Hours and Hours of Hourglass

Jin Hoo Ahn’s Hourglass aka The Transformer. A true test of skill and determination.
I have had a week of annual leave and you would expect that I might have spent this time, solving puzzles and getting a backlog of stuff to write about. You might have thought that, and I might have hoped that but "she who cannot stand a man to seem to be idle" had other ideas! Sob! There was DIY to be done...lots of it. She allowed me a little time 3 or 4 days of the week to go to the gym so as not to commit the cardinal sin of getting fat (If I get fat then I'm out - it was "for better or worse" NOT fatter or thinner! Gulp! Luckily for me, in my week of need, my good friend Mike fulfilled his duties as PuzzleMad foreign correspondent and produced a wonderful article for us. He actually solved a puzzle that I have been working on for months and months without success and maybe this will motivate me to try again.

I'll hand you over to Mike...

Aloha Kakou Puzzlers,

I’m not sure if I have enough for a full post today (Ed - it's all they're going to get!), but I wanted to at least say a few words about Hanayama’s Cast Hourglass while the triumph is fresh in my mind. Yes, that’s correct, I finally managed to solve it. And a proper solve to boot. I can now deconstruct and reconstruct hourglass consistently, but this little puzzle was very far from easy. In fact, I believe only a small fraction of the Hourglasses that fly off the shelf will ever be solved (Ed - I know! SOB!). In this post, I want to relate my experience and thoughts in the hopes that it will help some poor soul out there to stick with it to the joyful end.

A note for purist solvers: This post contains images of Hourglass in various transformed states. Personally, I don’t think this will help you much at all. If, however, you want the joy of pure discovery, then perhaps come back after you’ve achieved greater intimacy with your puzzle. 

I received Cast Hourglass as a birthday gift from my lovely daughter back in late January (Ed - if she buys you puzzles then no reason to sell her into slavery or sacrifice her and sell her organs!), and it took me until late September to solve it—about an eight-month effort. There were very long gaps with no work done, but I like to count it as an eight-month solve nonetheless. Those long gaps were necessary to regroup and gather strength. The solving process wore me down that much, and I think the puzzle should get credit for that. As you might have gathered from my concluding note the last time we were together, I enjoyed hourglass despite the struggle and intense frustration.

It folds up nice and snug...
even after many hours of hard use.
Although I relish critiquing Hanayama’s puzzle ratings (a guilty pleasure), I think they definitely got it right with the hourglass. It is a solid level 6, and then some. It ranks up there with the toughest of that level such as Quartet and Enigma (Ed - for some reason I didn't find that one very tough but I DID really struggle with the Vortex). It's hard to say, but it could very well take top honours. I believe Quartet held this dubious honour previously (according to my informal survey). Has it been superseded?

Hourglass’ high difficulty is due in part to the numerous major transformations that are required. There are at least three I think, depending on how you count them, which is actually quite high considering that the puzzle transforms to a completely different state each time. You need to learn a whole new set of dynamics at each change. As usual, there are false assemblies and pathways within and between these states. It is really easy to get off-track at first and there are many points at which you will not know whether you are going forward or backwards. As my intrepid editor has discovered, some false paths (combined with, let's be honest, overly aggressive action) can lead to complete lock-up. Puzzle lock-up is, bar none, the single most mortifying and demoralizing outcome that a puzzler can achieve (SOB again!). Especially so for those of us who should know better. For the uninitiated, it is completely normal to fantasize about buying a new copy and starting over. In all honesty, I don’t think this would be a high puzzle crime. The PuzzleMad code of ethics is silent on the matter (Ed - I have no intrinsic aversion to this approach apart from I am too mean to buy two copies for fear of having TWO locked up puzzles!). I confess that starting over with a pristine Vortex crosses my mind almost daily. But I would encourage you to work with your original. Locked puzzles can always be unlocked. The problem is mental more than anything. We are just not at our level-headed best after we jam a puzzle. Putting it down for a while and coming back fresh is the best idea (Ed - I have...repeatedly). 

This puzzle is far too jangly for Mrs S; be careful boss! (Whack! Ouch!)
Aside from complete lock-up, Hourglass is also susceptible to false constructions that are very hard to reverse. There were multiple occasions during my solve where it took me well over an hour just to reverse back to a previous state. Maddening to say the least (Ed - That's where I am now). This is why I think Hourglass will remain unsolved for most casual puzzlers. An hour of intensive work to actually solve a puzzle is frankly too much for most of the population. An hour of intensive work (during which time you are mostly making no observable progress) simply to backtrack, repeated multiple times, is just beyond the pale. This is, incidentally, why sensible people avoid string entanglements like the plague (Ed - I never claimed on this blog to be sensible!). So here I will give you a hint, which I don’t think can be at all interpreted as a spoiler. Its a common piece of advice, but I want to assure you that it applies to this puzzle. If you are trying things that seem like they are leading in any way to lock-up or even subtle use of force, you are off-track. Go no further. Hourglass is a very smooth puzzle (generally). Everything works smoothly (generally). If you feel that you might be trying too hard on a pathway, you very likely are! Personally, I think it takes a few hours with hourglass just to get the feel of the movements. It took me at least that long before I felt comfortable and could move around at will between a few of the states. Cast Trinity was like that too, but Hourglass is on another level entirely. You’ll know when it starts to get comfortable, and by that point, you should have made at least a couple important discoveries. Hardcore puzzlers will probably be hooked by that point. 

It does this.
The complexity in getting Hourglass disassembled means that you are very likely to get it apart without knowing exactly how you did it. The way the pieces unlink is brilliant and I don’t think one could reasonably deduce it simply by studying the pieces, I sure couldn't. The initial unlink, and thus also the final relink during reassembly, is quite tricky and has a fine tolerance. It's pretty damn frustrating actually. Especially because you will probably have to go through it numerous times before getting your piece configuration correct. This linkage is the reason for the “generally” qualification above. This is the one spot where being on the right track will take you frighteningly close to lock-up territory.

Reassembly is a real challenge, in case you haven't gathered. I studied the pieces before taking them all apart, but I underestimated the number of ways the pieces could be reassembled. There are actually some interesting ways you can link the pieces other than the correct process. I thought perhaps these might provide a shortcut. A costly error, as it turned out.

And it does this. Close to the end, but not as close as you think.
So reassembly is a whole new challenge. In my eight-month journey, fully two-thirds of the time was spent on reassembly. A significant chunk in the middle involved, embarrassingly, trying to achieve the wrong end-state. For some reason, I was convinced that all the smooth sides were pointing outwards in the final construction. This is not possible! I think I assumed the Hanayama and hourglass stamps would naturally be on the exterior and charged ahead on that basis. So much time had passed from when I had seen it assembled that I couldn't even remember the original state. I eventually looked at the picture on the box and changed my approach. 

At the end of my long journey, I have come to really love the Cast Hourglass. As with so many great Hanayama designs, I cannot fathom how someone can come up with a puzzle like this. My highest compliments and thanks to designer Jin Hoo Ahn for this puzzle. Crafting a very difficult, yet still compelling and enjoyable, puzzle is a rare accomplishment. A very difficult puzzle needs to occasionally remind the solver that it is indeed solvable and to provide some sense of progress, however small, through little triumphs along the way. I think Hourglass hits the mark. That said, this puzzle is obviously not for everyone. If you have something better to do with eight months of your life, that is probably a good thing. (Ed - hahaha! I have done very little else for the last 9 years!)

Two sets of two pieces.
Jin Hoo Ahn has proven himself yet again to be an outstandingly talented designer. His Hanayama-produced efforts such as G&G and Padlock (Cassette) are highly regarded (G&G reviewed here and Padlock here). Padlock, interestingly, has some meta-level similarity with Hourglass in the way it moves through distinct states, each with their own dynamics, ending in a tricky final release. You definitely get your money’s worth with this type of puzzle. The experience is similar to sequential discovery but without the tools.

Final Analysis: If you don’t have Hourglass yet, go get it. It's a great and required puzzle. There is nothing else quite like it. But take your time and maintain a Zen composure throughout if at all possible. This is a marathon of a solve and you need to treat it as such. Stretch, hydrate, and for God’s sake don’t ever look at the clock. 

Ok Kevin, did I do it? Is this a full post? Either way, time to return this ship to its Captain...

Thank you so much, Mike! You have proven yourself to be a supreme puzzler! Not only have you solved some of the most difficult puzzles out there but you have shown yourself to be truly tenacious - I thought I was the only one who continues for months or even years on a single puzzle! I look forward to more fascinating insights from you when you are ready to write for me again.

Now I need to solve a few puzzles myself - I am back to work on Monday and I think it will be a nice rest compared to all the chores and DIY that I was forced to do!


  1. I had a horrible time as well with this puzzle!! Probably took a good eight or nine hours to take apart, but then I didn't pay enough attention to what was happening during that process. I put it back together nearly correct, but took one false turn about a third of the way in.

    I regretted whatever that turn was for what seemed like the next millennium.

    I got lost down what seemed like an infinite amount of possible states, and none of them leading to a solved puzzle or back to disassembly. For the next many weeks I languished in this state, unable to get the pieces apart or advance it to completion. Finally, after hours and hours and hours, I got it back apart.

    And then I went to YouTube.

    Yes, I'm sad to say I failed on this one. In my opinion it's the hardest Hanayama has created to this day, due to the sheer amount of false trails you can wander down.

    My hat is off to you Jin Hoo Ahn, what an incredible design!

    Noah P.

  2. I just finished disassembly in 1.5 hours. I am waiting until tomorrow night to put back together for the new year lol

    1. Well done! My own copy remains locked up and unsolved. I’ve given up on it!

  3. i need help because my puzzle is in a position like on picture 4 and i dont know what to do. If you still know pls help me. My gmail is Pls i really need help.

    1. I’m afraid that this review was by our foreign correspondent. My copy of this puzzle remains unsolved after years. I’m sure there will be YouTube videos showing it to you.