Sunday 7 June 2020

A Puzzling Pot-pourri from Hawaii

A pot-poured of positively perfect puzzles
Yet again in my hour of need, I receive an email from the Mike Desilets, the official PuzzleMad foreign correspondent, offering help with a truly wonderful article. I have been working on a particularly fun and beautiful puzzle for a couple of weeks now but have gotten to a point where I’m rather stuck. I’m currently waiting for inspiration to strike me but with the dirty looks that Mrs S is giving me, it may be her who strikes me instead! I need to stop swearing at puzzles whilst she is watching TV. Without delay I’ll hand you over to Mike for a fascinating romp through a wide range of challenges.

Aloha Kākou Puzzlers,

Today’s Foreign Office installment will be a puzzle pot-pourri. I have a few tightly-focused articles in the works, but none of them seem anxious to finish themselves. Sometimes this stuff becomes actual work and motivation drops off a cliff accordingly (Ed - I know that feeling!). So, in the interest of procrastination, I decided to adopt a more classical blog approach and simply take pictures of stuff I have worked on recently and opine. Less depth, more variety.

We begin where we left off with Hip-flask. In the midst of writing the Hip-flask post, I ordered a copy of Felix’s Titan (in the UK get it here). It was bound to happen. The puzzle is just as advertised: two brass hemi-spheres, inexplicably joined. It is very beautiful, as only a metal sphere can be. This would be a worthwhile purchase even if it were not a puzzle. Having now seen the quality of the interior machining, I really wonder how this can be made so inexpensively, and in the UK no less.

Titan, by Felix Ure.
A nice even patina is developing; no polish necessary.
It didn’t take long to realize that my first impressions of the puzzle, based on various online sources, was correct. This puzzle falls squarely into the mystery-object category. There is an internal mechanism holding the pieces together and something is clearly rolling around inside. The hemispheres rotate past one another freely, until they do not. They also separate slightly, but nothing internal is visible. I tried the standard solutions, followed by non-standard guesses, followed ultimately and inevitably by random shaking, twisting, spinning, and pulling (Ed - now that is my kind of solution method!). After a solid week and a half of this, an hour or two each night in front of the television, I achieved separation. The early solvers were right, it’s a great feeling when it comes apart. By the time it happens, you have basically lost all hope. It’s really quite a pleasant shock. Of course, you shouldn’t pat yourself on the back too much. This is an exercise in patience, not cleverness. For myself personally, if not for the TV multi-tasking, I’m not sure I would have stuck it out. I’m not getting any younger, after all, and I can test my patience in other, more productive ways. That said, I am THRILLED to have opened Titan. The internals are the very definition of beauty. The mechanism is simple, principled, and obviously very effective.

Below is an image of the internals, if you are interested. It does not show everything, and certainly not the critical components. I doubt VERY much that this will help you solve Titan, but out of an exceedance of caution Kevin will put it behind a spoiler button:

B-Lock II - Brass body and steel shackle
Packaged in a beautiful embroidered bag
Nice touch Boaz!
Moving right along, I also had a chance to play with Boaz Feldman’s B-Lock II this week (Ed - I reviewed it in March). This had been on my shopping list for a while, but I always found some reason or other to push it aside in favor of other purchases. I enjoyed B-Lock I (Ed - reviewed here), but hadn’t heard or read much about the new release. Now that I have it, I regret putting it off, and you should not hesitate the way I did (Ed - both are often available direct from Boaz on his Etsy store). This is a really fun puzzle lock and I would even go so far as to say that it is underrated, or at any rate under-appreciated. With the likes of Rainier and Shane producing great stuff, and the legacy of Dan Feldman himself hanging over the sub-field, you can see why this might occur. But B-Lock II doesn’t have any pretensions at that level, and I think Boaz would be the first to admit that. What B-Lock II does have is a high-quality build and a very original and clever mechanism (to me at least, admittedly not a lock expert). I can tell you, without fear, that it has two components, and these must synchronize before the lock will open. One is a common lock ‘gimmick’ and the other is something new (to me).

B-Lock II is not particularly complex, just very crafty and efficient, especially given the limited material provided by an off-the-shelf padlock. After you initially open it, you will not know exactly why unless you study the internals. If you immediately close and reset, it could be a while before you get it open again. For me this puzzle provided a solid half hour of entertainment, which is precisely what I want from a lock in this range. In fact, I think we could do with more locks of this type: affordable, available, fun, and very well crafted. We often get the last two, but not always the first two. Overall, I think it’s a real winner from Boaz and I heartily recommend it. It is worth remembering that Danlock was not invented overnight (Ed - available here and here). With what we have seen from Boaz thus far, I can’t help but think that he is building toward something.

An unlocked lock.
Ok, enough of that. I can only take so much cutting-edge puzzlery (Ed - is that a word?). Time to retreat into the annals of history. Out of respect for my gentle editor, and in light of the possibility that he can write prescriptions (I can indeed!), and would do so for me if I please him sufficiently (not across the I won’t), the remainder of the post shall be not only historical, but also decidedly Anglo-centric.

Bike parts
So let’s look next at a fun little puzzle called “BILD-A-BIKE,” which I gather from the Slocum Collection website originated in the mid-1950s. I imagine it was produced right through the 1960s as well, but I really don’t know and there is not much information available online. BILD-A-BIKE was produced and sold by Chad Valley, a company Kevin is no doubt familiar with (Ed - never heard of it! Have you heard of every small company in the US?). Chad Valley were, at least in the previous mid-century period, a premier English toy company (Ed - I wasn’t born then!). They have a fascinating history which you can find at the Woolworths museum webpage here.

Chad Valley was a toy company, first and foremost, but most every toy company had mechanical puzzles in their product lines at that time. In addition to BILD-A-BIKE, Chad Valley also produced a couple of boxed sets of entanglements, all of the standard sort. They produced a broad range of jigsaw puzzles as well. Otherwise the line was 99% toys and games. Despite a long and honourable history, Chad Valley basically ceased to exist in any meaningful way following their 1978 purchase by Palitoy. The product line was chopped up and sold off and independent production ceased. Subsequent owner Woolworths attempted to revive and capitalise on the Chad Valley name in the late 1980s as part of its ill-fated modernisation programme. During this effort, Chad Valley was reoriented as the face of a line of toys directed to the very young. The brand remains that way today under new owner Argos, virtually unrecognisable from its historical roots.

True enough, although the playing will flake and chip with normal use, a stainless version is needed
For the mechanical puzzle aficionado, BILD-A-BIKE is probably the most interesting Chad Valley product. It is a put-together puzzle in which you quite literally build a bike (or perhaps I should say bild? Check this). The pieces are nickel-plated iron, or maybe steel, I’m not sure. The pieces are “rustless,” as the packaging proclaims, but only to the extent that the nickel plating remains intact. You will probably have to look hard to find a pristine set. If you do find one, and want to keep it that way, then do not BILD-YOUR-BIKE!

As for solving, it is not any great challenge. The wheel/handlebar and wheel/seat connections are a little tricky. It is definitely a challenge to keep the front part assembled as you work on the back, and vice-versa. Dexterity is definitely required. Light force is also required, since the assembled bike is largely held together by tension.

Although obviously targeted at a younger demographic, BILD-A-BIKE is an enjoyable little puzzle for all ages. There is no Ah-ha! element to speak of, but it is very satisfying when the pieces come together and take the shape of a bike. I recommend this puzzle as a cool-down after solving Titan. In the final analysis, BILD-A-BIKE is a charming footnote in English mechanical puzzle history. I humbly suggest that my editor and patron MUST purchase one and also that he MUST give it a prominent place on his shelves. I await photographic proof. (Ed - I’ll see if I can find one)

Ok, time for one more, staying on the English theme. How about a shunting puzzle? I did a post a while back on these. Kind of a rare class, but they always fascinate me. When I came across a copy of Chunnel Trouble? a while back, I snapped it up without a second thought. Chunnel Trouble? (that question mark is going to get tiresome) was made by distinguished, though tragically inactive, English puzzle producer and seller Pentangle. Chunnel Trouble? is a fantastic revival of a classic shunting problem, probably THE classic shunting problem. It also sports a contemporary and quite ingenious design, packaging, and marketing approach. It is, in effect, a nineteenth century puzzle in new clothing.

Chunnel Trouble? Not really. 
Although there is plenty of shunting (or switching) involved with actual Channel Tunnel operations, it likely bears little resemblance to the Chunnel Trouble? layout. Regardless, Chunnel Trouble? is a delightful design. According to the box, the trains can pass each other in 33 moves. The siding looks like it will hold only two cars, if that. This puzzle can alternatively be solved using slips of paper, or whatever objects you prefer (except marbles); you don’t necessarily need to own the actual puzzle. Most shunting puzzles are that way. The physical version looks very well made, possibly in maple, and most definitely in England.

Why do I seem a little cagey in my description? Well, that’s because I have not actually played with, or even touched, this puzzle. It’s a rare occurrence. I cannot play with this puzzle for the simple reason that it is in its original packaging, sealed, untouched, and unspoilt. The Channel Tunnel was constructed between 1988 and 1994. I don’t know the actual date for this puzzle, but it should fall within that range, or close to. Kevin or the MPP chaps will doubtless enlighten me. I do know that it is currently 2020. So given the time gap, whatever it may precisely be, I clearly can never break the seal on this puzzle. I could not bring myself to do it when I first bought it, and after anguished consideration, I’ve decided that I never will. Pristine examples are a sacred trust. Also, given the fact that the puzzle can be ‘played’ any number of other ways, there is really no call to grub it up like a complete barbarian. Instead, I’ll just squirrel this copy away until it is the only unopened Chunnel Trouble? left in the world, the fundamental conceit of the vintage collector.

Instructions to help get you out of Chunnel Trouble.
This English puzzle jig is fun, and I definitely want to leave my editor brimming with tears of nostalgia (Ed - that would only happen if I could remember any of these toys). Here then, is one more. It slots in somewhere between the last two on the temporal plane. It is called Perfect Circle, part of the Waddingtons House of Games Mindbender series from the very late 1960s and early 1970s. There are at least six other puzzles in the series. Perfect Circle was apparently developed by House of Games, a Canadian company, and then licensed and manufactured by storied English game developer and producer John Waddington LTD. “House of Games” was traditionally part of the Waddington moniker, and it seems to have come and gone periodically over the course of the previous century. How it ended up in Canada I’m not sure. In any case, after a long history of service to the game-playing English public, Waddingtons was sold to Hasbro in 1994. I assume it is now no more than a residual-value brand name like Chad Valley. Check out this fun article for a trip down memory lane. If you want to learn about Waddingtons contribution to the war effort, definitely check this out. That must have been quite an A-Ha! moment for the boys.

Perfect Circle.
A low cost, high value puzzle from Waddingtons. 
Back to the puzzle. Perfect Circle requires you to make a perfect circle (is there another kind?) out of 16 variously-cut pieces of colored cardboard. There are four shapes and three colors, as the instructions indicate. This is not the whole story though. There are actually eight distinct pieces, because two of each of the four shapes is a mirror reflection of the other two. They certainly look the same, but they are not interchangeable. This is tremendously important, and starkly apparent, once you try to comply with the matching rule on your as-yet imperfect circle. The rule that makes this puzzle more than a simple geometric assembly is that no two colors may touch side-on-side.

The rule of engagement.
Initially, upon dumping the pieces out, it seems like Perfect Circle might be a hair puller. Soon, though, you realise the importance of symmetry and things begin to accelerate. You will also quickly differentiate the outer pieces with curvature from the inner pieces without. It all starts to come together as you mix and match pieces.

Although finding the solution on first assembly is possible, know that at least two distinct circles can be formed which will never meet the matching rule. I had to work through both of these before I discovered the correct assembly, and actually began to think my puzzle was broken at one point. I had become obsessed with certain circle designs that seemed so beautiful they simply had to be correct. The puzzle fooled me, to its great credit. Yet again I had willfully disremembered the Tungsten Rule of solving: once you establish the theoretical impossibility of a given solution, you MUST move on (Ed - where did that come from?). Anyhow, it was a really fun solve and I highly recommend this modest little puzzle.

Is the circle perfectable?
Kevin, capstone of my arch (Ed - I don’t think I’ve ever been called that before!), I think you can find Perfect Circle for well under a tenner at any given boot fair (Ed - not in this age of social distancing it’s not!!!). Take poor Mrs S out of the house for once in your miserable life- make an afternoon of it. Your ulterior motive need never be known. It will be just between you, me, and 100,000 random blog readers. Whack! Ouch! Ed - Mrs S will not ever go to a boot fair!! She only shops in the finest of retail establishments! I’ll need to look on eBay. 

That’s all for today folks. Hopefully this post was a good change from the usual foreign office material. It was definitely refreshing for me. Ok boss, over to you for the wrap-up...

Wow! What an odyssey! I enjoyed that a lot, thank you, my friend, for a fantastic romp through puzzles old and new, cheap and rather expensive, but all looking quite fun! I am really so grateful to you for taking the time to write for me and the readers and for providing me with some entertainment.  I always look forward to what you produce - it’s always something I’d never have found myself and it makes me think.


  1. It has been years since I have played my Waddington's House of Games puzzles. There are at least two series of six puzzles, but there is some overlap, so not as many as twelve. I will have to bring them back to the table this summer. -Tyler.

    1. Lucky you! I have none of those toys left from my childhood and there are very few available on eBay just now except for a few with rather high prices.