Sunday, 17 January 2021

My Intellect Is Not Big Enough For...

 This Most KongTastic of Puzzles

The Kong Puzzle
This post is going to be a cathartic admission of guilt/failure and I apologise to those of you who expect more of me. Way back in August I participated in the TwoBrassMonkeys' Kickstarter campaign for a chunk of extremely heavy metal. It arrived in October, beautifully presented in a small aluminium briefcase and recalling my abject failure playing with the prototype at the MPP in February I was determined that this would not beat me. They called this the Kong Puzzle and the last few are still available direct from them here.

I took my photos of the pieces and Mrs S hovered around with threatening comments about what painful or even fatal violence she would perform upon my person if I was to drop any piece of this and damage any of 1) the granite work surface, b) a kitchen tile or iii) the glass kitchen table we eat at and which I occasionally puzzle at if there are two many pieces to play with on an armchair. She did say that it was perfectly acceptable for me to drop things on my toes and break them! She is so considerate.

It is even more gorgeous outside the case
I did wonder for a while whether having a violent Scottish woman muttering dark imprecations at me was going to put me off in my puzzling prowess and I am tempted to blame everything on her. But let's face all know that I am a bear of very little brain and am generally quite rubbish at puzzling. Especially assembly puzzling (and packing puzzling and sequential movement puzzling and coordinate movement puzzling and...)

Meanwhile, my difficulty in solving this was rapidly made into a humiliation when quite a lot of my puzzle friends on Facebook quite promptly showed off their completed assemblies leaving me feeling ever more inadequate. I had my photo of the final shape and was all set to work it out. I counted notches and whilst this did sort of assist me a little in my understanding of piece placement (only a little bit), it did not really help me find moves to use. There is no key piece which means that the final move will need to be an insertion of a multi-piece assembly (?2 ??3 pieces or even more).

After Shane showed off that he had assembled it I redoubled my efforts! Shane is well known as a lock genius and a great woodworker but he is not well known for having a long attention span. To me this meant that Shane must have solved this in under an hour! Ok we are talking Shane here...probably under 30 minutes 15 minutes! There must be a system to it! I tried and tried to find a method nad persistently came up blank. Mrs S was very relieved to be proved correct in that I am completely blank. Another couple of weeks of play whenever I had some time was not helpful and I resorted to Burrtools only to realise that I couldn't work out how to program the cylindrical rods into it. I'd better put it away for a while to preserve the tattered remnants of my sanity.

More recently, whilst perusing Big Steve and Ali's website, I came across a page which I had not seen before - hints and solutions. I had a look and was gratified to see that they had typed up some hints without completely giving it away. I printed the hints off and when I went to look at them properly had a frustrating time reading text typed backwards complete with a reverse font (that really forces you to concentrate). I went through the clues one at a time in order not to give myself too much away at once. Erm, I needn't have worried about that - the first few clues can barely even be called clues and after that they don't really add an awful lot more. Still stumped!

Their final clue was a photo showing which are the 3 horizontal long sticks and their orientation. I was more than a little peeved to realise that all my earlier trials had not used any of those sticks in any of those positions. Sigh - I am so bad at assembly puzzles. I picked out the correct 3 and then tried to rearrange the others into place. I'd like to say that I managed to work the positions out but none of you would believe me and I don't blame you. I made lots of shapes that looked promising but certainly were rather difficult to hold in position whilst I added new pieces and always at the end had 2 or 3 sticks impossible to place. Several more hours of attempts and a rather hair raising near miss at breaking a tile and I was no closer.

I simply have no idea how to go about this sort of assembly puzzle! I can make a little progress by thinking about numbers of notches but then I am left with a huge amount of trial and error which I cannot keep track of. The pieces all are extremely similar and after 5 or 6 assemblies I lose track of what I have tried in which orientation. Yesterday evening I was reaching the end of my tether and finding the whole process no longer enjoyable - I was also running out of time to solve something for the blog today (I am sure that you understand that puzzling is something I struggle to find much time for at the moment). 

To my eternal shame, I had to click on their final link with step by step instructions of how to assemble the Kong. Even following said instructions proved rather tough in my weakened, frazzled state but finally after several months I had something to put away on display! Mrs S watched agitatedly as I moved it to the granite to take a photo:

Eternal proof of my shame!
It does look gorgeous on display which is just as well because the chances of me ever dismantling it are very low.

If any of you can tell me what I can do to find ways to assemble this sort of thing then I would be very grateful. I just don't even know how to go about it! I can assemble many 6 piece burrs but seriously struggle with them when they get to slightly higher assembly levels (in fact I have so far completely failed to assemble Brian Young's Mega Six burr - the hardest 6 piece burr ever designed)

Well! I can't do this one either!

I look forward to hearing from you all with your tales of success to make me feel even more useless and also expect lots of information on how to go about solving these sorts of puzzle with simple step by step techniques.

Stay safe out there everyone! It is really quite bad in most Western nations just now - infection rates are incredibly high with hospitals approaching breaking point (mine included) - now is not a good time to get seriously ill.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Having Hex helped Me With My Plexus!

It appears that the only way that I can have Hex and keep it up is to use rubber bands. Allard had to remind me how to have Hex by myself as it had not occurred to me that I could support my rod(s) without female assistance and when Mrs S refused to help me have Hex and I read about Allard's fancy threesome with Gil and Derek as well as a rubber (band) I had a hunt around my house for rubber bands of my own. We don't have rubber bands in the house because the cats absolutely love them and as soon as your back is turned they chew through them and then swallow them whole. Whilst this sounds very funny, it really gets unpleasant when they reach the opposite end of said cat and they then get the zoomies with elasticated poops hanging out! It's especially bad if they romp across my pillow whilst I am asleep and something rather yucky bonks me on the head! Hence, after just one morning of zoomies, there are no rubber bands around!

When doing my annual rummage through my excessively heavy work bag to try and lighten my load, I find a very heavy set of metal chunks from the TwoBrassMonkeys! It was the Nova Plexus puzzles in Brass and Steel that I have singularly failed to solve so far. I had bought these way back in September 2019 and after a couple of months of concerted effort to assemble these beauties, I had totally failed and had given up. They had accompanied me to work for a year without managing to be assembled.

I had bought mine directly from Big Steve and Ali but they are also available from PuzzleMaster if you live in the Americas. They arrived very nicely packaged in a box with a useful (and highly inappropriate bag for a senior doctor to carry around in a hospital):

Nicely boxed complete with carrying bags
It was this very monkey pouch that had been with me for over a year. The extra item that had been supplied but not pictured was a couple of large zip bags filled with Loom bands. Whilst I had never joined the craze to create pretty things from Loom bags as I am a 50something year old bloke and not a 10 year old girl, I had tried all sorts of techniques to use these Loom bands to hold the pieces of the Nova plexus in place whilst I had attempted what I figured was a correct assembly. I even tried multiple bands per rod intersection but no, it still kept falling to bits as I attempted to insert extra pieces.

The Loom bands were my salvation when it came to assembling the coordinate motion Hex puzzle, Bish, Bash, Bosch. Mrs S was not going to have Hex with me and going solo was going to need assistance. Apart from getting stuck inside the intersections/notches and preventing the final part of the coordinate assembly, they proved very helpful and I finally had my trio of Hex assemblies for my Best of 2020 post:

Thank you for the Loom bands Steve!
Whilst my little pile of bands were being eyed by one of my pussy boys and I had a couple of days off over Xmas, I realised that maybe I should make one last ditch attempt at putting these bloody things together. Boxing day turned out to be rather full of swear words but I made some progress. I was almost there when someone made a bid to eat a pile of the bands and it all fell in a heap in my lap. Sooo close!

After pushing the hungry cat away, I tried again and finally after 15 months I had it...the brass version was assembled and stable (even without the Loom bands) - Yay! Flushed with success I fetched the stainless steel version. I had thought I would put that one together in the mirror image of the first but just couldn't seem to manage it! In the end, after another couple of hours of swearing and repeatedly having to fend off a cat with a rubber fetish, I went back to trying the same way around. 

There was something different about the Steel version - it was MUCH tougher than the brass one despite being identical. I would always get to the very last step of trying to get it clicked together and stable when it would always crash into a heap. Had I gotten a faulty set? Knowing Steve and Ali's stringent standards, there was no way that would be the case - it must be me being crap!

Finally after 15 months!
I really need to make them a mirror pair
I kept at it for another 2 days and at last have my pair of Nova plexii assembled together. There is definitely something about the Steel one that makes it particularly tough. Maybe it is that it is that bit less flexible than the brass version? I have no intention of taking them apart again although before I put them away on display, I do have a hankering to disassemble one to make it a mirror version. Gulp! Maybe not!

Next I need to spend a few more hours with the Kong puzzle - so far I have singularly failed to find an assembly for that as well. The mini briefcase is taking up a lot of space on my desk and needs to be cleared away. There is no way that I am going to carry that around at work! It weighs 4Lbs and might permanently damage my shoulder! Here goes!

Stay safe out there guys! Things are now absolutely horrendous in the UK NHS just now with huge numbers of Covid cases being admitted to hospital and requiring either CPAP or ventilation just now. For the first time we are being forced to cancel urgent cancer surgery in many hospitals because the critical care beds are not available post op to look after people who have had major major surgery. I cannot remember in my 30 years as a doctor it ever having been this bad. It is much much worse than any winter Flu surge and we are seeing people in their 20s and 30s with no pre-existing conditions requiring ventilatory support (once you are on a vent then that will be you for at least a month). If you possibly can - stay at home! You don't want to catch this and you don't want to give it to your parents or grandparents! Hopefully in the USA, now that the Orange prick is going to be ousted, the American public will have a decent set of policies and approach to mitigating the dreadful problems they have had there with this virus.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Happy New Year - My Top Ten(ish) of 2020

Dear Lord! What am I going to do with this?
Happy New Year to you all! 2021 already! Doesn't time fly when you are having fun? Oops, sorry...doesn't time fly when you are (pick whichever combination applies):

a) working your arse off
b) scared shitless
c) sick as a dog
d) trapped at home
e) all of the above

Yes, it has been a bloody awful year for us all! My thoughts go out to those who have been (or continue to be) very sick and those who have lost friends and loved ones to this cursed virus. I really do hope that 2021 is a better one for you all (in fact for all of humanity). This last year has taught us all the value of life, the need to prepare for the worst as well as how to keep each other sane or stably insane (yes, I am aware that I am at the wrong end of that spectrum). the puzzling community has carried on as if nothing was happening, buying puzzles and tantalising each other with the new toys that we bought. Many things had to move online but still were fun for everyone who managed to attend. I never made it to any of the online meetings due to my stupid work schedule but hopefully, before long, face to face meetings will be reinstated. My second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is was booked for 6th January (our idiot government has abandoned the science and cancelled it for 3 months). I hope that you all get vaccinated soon and can get out and about again without fear of infection or passing it on to your nearest and dearest.

Enough melancholy - you're not here for that! How was my puzzling year? According to Mrs S, it was much better than I deserved and indeed, I did acquire quite a large number of new toys and even solved a few despite not actually having a lot of time to myself. Every year Peter Hajek asks a bunch of influential puzzlers for their top 3 "acquisitions" of the year for the booklet to go with his End of year Puzzle Party (EPP) and this always triggers me to think about what I have to be grateful for in the preceding 12 months. As is my routine (it must be a routine as this is my 8th year of this), I am going to show off my top ten(ish) puzzles of the year but they are different to Peter's request as mine are not necessarily acquired this year...they are puzzles that I solved this year. I add a little commentary and display my inability to make any real decision - hence top ten(ish).

As a new feature which I am kinda hoping becomes a yearly regular event, the PuzzleMad saviour/foreign correspondent has sent me his top puzzle of the year - over to you Mike...

Foreign Office - Vintage Puzzle of the (yester) Year

THINK dissected cube, produced by Chadwick-Miller, made in Japan, ©1968
I call this THINK because it is in capital letters on the side and there is nothing else that looks like a name on the box or instructions. This is one of my favorite finds this year. It’s a very interesting dissection which explodes (gently) into 10 individual pieces (9 shown in picture, 1 remaining internal). 

That looks absolutely fabulous
It comes with a handy little push-pull tool which is pretty much required. This is a very delicate puzzle made from a light, dry, and brittle wood. Definitely don’t pass this one to non-puzzle friends. It’s a reasonable challenge, confusing at first, but quite logical once you get into it. Part of the fun is trying to figure out the cut sequence to make such a thing. This would be a great candidate for reproduction in hardwood or precision metal. (Ed - I absolutely love it! Another one to add to my eBay search list

And finally we are there - it's been a long year!
Here are my own fudged sort of top 10 puzzles of the year:

Almost there...

Triangle cube 3
Triangle ring 3
I am terrible at packing puzzles but when Osanori Yamamoto does a packing puzzle then it is so much more than just stuffing a huge number of similar pieces into a box. He has simple small boxes with specially shaped pieces to fit through constrained but simple entrance holes. This turns them from a "stuffing" 'em in puzzle to almost a zen-like interlocking burr sequence. When you combine Osanori-san with Jakub and Jaroslav's incredible craftsmanship, then you have a truly winning combination. The fact that these have been pipped at the post for the top 10 shows how damned good the others must have been. These are still available from PuzzleMaster (Pentaring, Triangle cube 3 and Triangle ring 3 (or direct from Pelikan)
Yin yang
Yin yang pieces
I couldn't leave out Dr Volker Latussek's contributions to my year! His packing puzzles are on the other end of the packing spectrum to Osanori-san but they are also NOT stuffing 'em in puzzles. They also have something special about them. My favourite of the year was the Yin yang (closely followed by Santa all produced by Pelikan puzzles. These are still in stock at PuzzleMaster - Yin yang & Santa.

On to the top ten (sort of):  

11) Ansel from Puzzled Wolf

11? Yes, I know! Top ten my ass/arse! But how could I possibly cut this one out? Ansel is a wonderful debut to the puzzling world by Brandon Wolf (aka Puzzled Wolf). It is a fabulous themed sequential discovery puzzle made from laser cut wood with some extra pieces inside. It took me quite a while to work out and required me to map what I thought was inside the interior before I could fully understand what was going on. Simply genius and hopefully just the beginning of a brilliant future puzzle designing career.

10) Lock puzzles from 2 new designers

I couldn't take either of these out of my top ten(ish)/eleven so I decided to put them both in. It's my website so I will do whatever I want with it!

Lock Out

Lock Out by Andrew Coles was first seen at an MPP and I didn't get a chance to play there. When it was released commercially I jumped at the chance to buy and was delighted at the quality of the puzzle even if I couldn't solve it. It took me nearly 2 months of play to finally open it and the Aha! moment was terrific. I cannot wait to see what Andrew produces in the future.

Titan's Treasure Lock
This fabulous sequential discovery puzzle lock had me stumped for quite a while (I had to ask my puzzling guru, Shane for help with it) and absolutely adored the final sequence. Sashko sells this puzzle on his Etsy store and it is well worth your hard earned cash. In most years this would be much higher in my list giving an indication of how good a year we had for puzzles at least.

9) Packing puzzles by Alexander Magyarics

Super Magnetic
Alexander teamed up with both Brian Menold and Pelikan to release a few absolutely amazing packing puzzles. Just like with the Osanori Yamamoto puzzles, they are based on a very simple premise...a simple box with a small number of relatively simple but not uniform shaped pieces to fit inside. The difference is that the entry holes into the puzzle are really very restricted adding a huge extra dimension to the solving process. They are amazingly compulsive to solve and just beautifully brought to life by these two amazing craftsmen. I cannot choose one favourite so will show off 4 that I particularly loved.
These are still available from PuzzleMaster - Super Magnetic, Hydrant and Pincers.

8) Popplock T12

Popplock T12

Every single time Rainer Popp produces a puzzle lock, I buy it without hesitation despite the cost and absolutely adore finding the puzzling sequence to open these masterpieces in brass and steel. I wondered whether he could possibly match the T11 for complexity and fun. It's not quite as epically amazing as the T11 but is actually more approachable for the solver - it is still an incredible puzzle and one that I actually managed to solve without assistance. If you drop any of these it will break your foot or your floor but don't let that deter you from trying to get hold of a copy. 

7) Alligator by Stephan Baumegger and Pelikan

Look at the cross-section

Designed by Stephan Baumegger and beautifully made by my friends Jakub and Jaroslav at Pelikan puzzles, Alligator is one of my favourite types of has a hidden piece inside (you really cannot help but giggle at the lovely alligator figure) and is a 6 piece burr based on a 3x3 grid in the y-z plane. This is the 5th of these I own and I adore the fun maze like properties of the solve. Still in stock at PuzzleMaster.

6) Ring Case by Juno

Ring Case
A year never goes by without Juno making it into my top  puzzles of the year.

Yes, I am not into boxes in general even if I do enjoy playing with them and I have to sheepishly admit that this will be the second (or third...or even fourth) box in my top ten(ish) for 2020. Really though, the common denominator is not the box it is the other part of the description - sequential discovery and even more important the designer and craftsman...Junichi Yananose. I adored this for its simplicity of design and yet also has an incredible fun sequence of moves including a very nice unexpected final stage. Just lovely. Plus, who can resist any box when it has bread inside?

5) Lock Box by Eric Fuller

Lock Box - how on earth can this be down at number 5?
OMG! Another box! This one doesn't look much like a box. It is beautifully made by eric Fuller and is yet again, actually - a sequential discovery puzzle. This will have been many people's puzzle of the year - you cannot beat craftsmanship by Eric and the puzzling process here is absolutely amazing but, unbelievably, there are even better puzzles for me this year. This was pretty tough and I did need a little nudge from Derek to reach the end but this did not detract at all from my experience. It is so gorgeous that it has stayed on display in my living room and Mrs S has not complained.

4) Caged Cube and other rotational challenges

Caged Cube 1 & 2
When Andrew Crowell designs something new, a whole lot of us sit up and pay attention. He is the master of the Turning Interlocking Cube (TIC) but has also branched out into Rotational Interlocking Plate (RIP) puzzles. My favourite of the year stands head and shoulders above the rest for the sheer fun of the challenge as well as the stunning beauty of the end result produced by Brian Menold. Caged Cubes 1&2 are TICs with the added fun of needing to be assembled inside a wooden frame. Number 1 took me ages, is currently assembled on display and I cannot for the life of me take it apart again. I keep going back to it and getting nowhere! One day I will need to ask for a solution!

Whilst I am discussing these I should also mention PedanTIC (also made by Brian) which took me weeks to assemble and BioTIC made by Eric which was a hellishly tough challenge and most enjoyable. I am very poor at assembly puzzles but these seem to be just a perfect challenge for me and my very small brain. I seem to be struggling with the RIPs - the freedom of movement possible in all of them is just making it impossible for me to find the assemblies. I will keep trying and who knows, maybe in a year or so I will be writing about one here?

3) Burrlephant by Jerry McFarland

I cannot resist anything produced by Jerry and when he created something stunningly beautiful in the shape of an elephant which reminded me of my late mother, I was overwhelmed. It is also a terrific fun puzzle. It has multiple locking mechanisms and is a lovely fun little challenge. It isn't the toughest of the puzzles from Jerry and doesn't have any automatically solving sections like the Burrnova 2D and 3D but it is immediately obvious as a McFarland puzzle and is gorgeous.

No spoiler here - even in pieces it is stunning!
It looks so good that Mrs S has actually put it on display on our mantlepiece!

2) The Joy of Hex Set by Ali and Steve

The Joy of Hex - how much innuendo can a puzzle have?
I had been urging Steve to create and sell a 3D printed hexagonal burr set complete with a list of puzzle challenges after showing off a big pile of plastic pieces at the one and only in person MPP of the year and he outdid my wildest expectations by joining forces with Ali to create a solid brass version complete with a wonderful book full of innuendo. Simply amazing hours and hours of fun. I have only had time to have old fashioned Missionary position Hex but it was very satisfying and quite a 'relief' when it all slipped in place smoothly. Mrs S even joined in with the spirit of things by laughing at all the SHex jokes doing the rounds (primarily by me). Like all of the TwoBrassMonkeys' work this has been beautifully made with even the display/storage boxes being perfect. I am eternally grateful for the friendship from the pair of them and also the sheer time and effort they put into making perfection (even if I cannot solve them all). I cannot wait to see what they produce next.

Aaargh! Do not have oral Hex with Big Steve!

I did wonder whether I might have to do some photoshop trickery to show you the next photo but last night I had a fun time with a bunch of Loom bands and a very shaky hand (I'd sobered up!) and managed to get the incredibly tough Bish, Bash, Bosch coordinate assembly puzzle assembled without any aid from Mrs S.

Yessss! That was a whole lotta fun - just another 27 designs to try.
I also have to mention that burr sets are one of my favourite things in the puzzling world - I did manage to add another two of these wondrous beauties to my collection and have some fun with them last year as well:

Phoenix burr set by Jack Krijnen
DDD burr set by Eric, Daryl and Bryan

1) SDBB Master by Juno

SDBB Master from Junichi Yananose
This masterpiece is the culmination of Juno's sequence of Sequential Discovery Burred Boxes and I was lucky enough to get hold of a copy. It was about time that Juno won the top slot with one of these - the original reached the number two slot in the top 10ish of 2018 and the follow up board burr version was also number two last year. A combination of 6-piece burr with tools to find and cavities to open made it a brilliant challenge and I have seen from the draft EPP booklet that it is number one for many other puzzlers. The release of this one nearly killed Juno's website and I suspect the experience may prevent him producing any more. 

I am so pleased that I now have the complete set.
Congratulations Juno (and Yukari - he could not possibly do all he does without her support), you totally deserve this grand prize this year. I cannot wait to see what you produce in 2021 (I seem to have missed out on your latest batch of puzzles already).

Do you agree with my top 10? If you have any different thoughts then please comment below or even use my Contact page to tell me how wrong I am. I look forward to your thoughts.

Usually, I try and show off some photos of the "State of the Union/Collection" but at this moment in time (as you can see from the photo at the very top of the post), my study has relapsed into being a huge shithole again with puzzles, books and papers everywhere. I will, no doubt, be forced to tidy up again before long and then I will endeavour to update my collection photos.

Take care everyone, stay safe and here's hoping 2021 is a fabulous year for us all.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Plant Cycle

Yet again, I am so so grateful to my wonderful foreign correspondent Mike Desilets for coming to my rescue and producing an absolutely fabulous blog post for us all. I seem to have failed to solve anything this last week or so and have been concentrating on compiling my annual top 10(ish) for the year. Just when I need it most Mike springs into action - I don't even have to ask him as he just seems to know when I need his help. Over to you mate...

Aloha kākou puzzlers,

This week’s PuzzleMad Sunday Edition (the thick one with all the adverts) (Ed - thick one? You sound like Mrs S!) comes to you from the Hawaii Foreign Office, by way of Florida, where I sit in a motel room awaiting COVID test results prior to a visit with my pre-existing parents (Ed - why are your parents pre-existing?). Infection is only a remote possibility, but I spare no inconvenience for family. The whole situation has left me with nothing but time, and how better to use perfectly good time than by talking about great puzzles.

This week I am thrilled to present a recent and quite-hard-to-get-hold-of puzzle by designer Christian Cormier - Plant Cycle. This post has actually been overtaken by events, as Christian has just released his latest puzzle, Billiards. But we will ignore that inconvenient truth for the nonce. 

This is not the first coverage of Plant Cycle. Fivesinatras has already provided the community with a great (and timelier) review which you can find over here. Fivesinatras is spot on and I basically agree with everything he has to say on the matter. But of course, you can’t get too many takes on cool mechanical puzzles, and Christian’s Plant Cycle is both cool and mechanical. 

Plant Cycle is one hefty puzzle.
Plant Cycle is one of a growing number of truly MASSIVE puzzles, joining the ranks of the recent Popplocks and the unrelenting stream of toe-breaking, floor-denting puzzles from the pan-hexual duo at TwoBrassMonkeys. I couldn’t be happier with this trend, other than the fact that it has made me poorer of purse (Ed - me too!). This class of puzzle will do great damage to your account over a very short span of time. They may even force you to make hard choices, especially if you also collect box and burr (Ed - yes, I may have to trade Mrs S in for a line of credit on puzzles...Whack! Ouch!). This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, as any veteran collector (of anything) will tell you. Completionism is a harsh mistress, serving a frustratingly elusive form of satisfaction. It’s just my opinion of course, but I believe the average puzzle bloke should thoughtfully channel this urge. After all, it is the overall quality of your puzzle collection, by your own self-concocted standard, that is important. Budgetary limits force one to think deliberately about motivations, objectives, and which puzzles are likely to bring the most long-term pleasure. Fiscal realities can be an incentive to focus yourself and increase your puzzling happiness. With focus, the stress associated with “missing out” on so many cool puzzles is greatly reduced (but not gone). This advice goes well beyond puzzles, of course. Alternatively, you can just get a second or third job, like my nocturnal friend Kevin. But then when are you going to solve? It’s a true conundrum, like my nocturnal friend Kevin (Ed - do you mean me? If only I was nocturnal...then I could have time to solve some puzzles. Unfortunately I am just insomniac but not usefully so).

Keys down.
But let’s say, optimistically, that you do have money to burn, and furthermore that you love massive metal door-stopper puzzles that are fun, interesting, and unique. Well in that case, good reader, you should have purchased one of the 50 Plant Cycles manufactured by Christian a few years back. Being somewhat of a puzzle hermit, and not knowing a Cormier from a Cormorant, I completely missed it myself. My abiding disdain for Facebook did NOT help. As it happens, a huge portion of the puzzle community is active on Facebook. Dr Kevin Sadler, my oldest and best friend, boon companion, Tom Sawyer to my Huck Finn (Ed - are you after something?), has kept this information from me and will never be forgiven (Ed - but haven't you read this blog for the last few years? I constantly mention the FB community!).

Seed and sprout
Happily, a copy eventually crossed my path. I bought it without any foreknowledge, or forethought for that matter. It really is a beast, weighing in at just under a case of Spam (a traditional Hawaiian unit of measure) (Ed - a whole case? Or a can?). As you can see, it has a nicely rounded triangular outline, no sharp edges, and is quite comfortable to hold. The steel plate construction is the first thing you notice; a technique not often seen. This gives a nice texture to the exterior and provides visual interest. Upon closer inspection, you notice some gear-looking components on each of the three corners; obviously something to pay attention to. There is also a teeny tiny hole on each side. The instructions don’t indicate what this is, but I’ll tell you anyway: it’s an access hole for the rest tool. It’s not part of the solving process. The bottom is featureless, brushed stainless. The top is where the real action is. Plant Cycle sports three keys, each embedded into the guts of the puzzle in its own private keyhole. The top of each key has a plant-related cut-out. Per the theme of the puzzle, the cut-outs represent three stylized stages of a flowering plant’s life cycle: seed, seedling, and flower. Nicely done. The keys are clearly hand fabricated, which adds very much to their charm.

I interrupt myself here to point out that Plant Cycle does have an antecedent - Father and Son Dueling Keys. I don’t have that puzzle, and likely never will. As I understand it, Plant Cycle builds on that smaller two-key puzzle, so perhaps I don’t really need it after all. That said, if anyone has one, I am in the market!

Father and Son Dueling Keys.
The goal of Plant Cycle, if you have not already guessed, is to remove all of the keys from the stainless body. They all have lots of play, and will turn this way and that, and also will shift up and down, with some manipulation. It isn’t at all clear what is holding the keys in, but with proper turning and navigation, they will all rise up tantalizingly, and one looks like it should pop out at any second. Alas, they are not going to come out by random fiddling. In fact, I can tell you for certain, you will never get any individual key out by simple jiggering. You will have to start thinking about what you are looking at, and also perhaps about the theme of the puzzle. “Plant Cycle” is a useful clue, and not just a pretty name. 

As far as they go with normal manipulation.
Almost there!
With some further key-wise exploration, you should make a certain discovery about the internals. If exploited properly, that will get you pretty far. This is actually quite a huge step. Once you figure this out, and make some connections, you should be able to release your first key. What a great feeling! Making progress is a huge relief. At this point, one key out, I started to feel that Plant Cycle was going to be a great puzzle. There was something very systematic going on inside, and I felt that despite working “blind”, I could make some logical deductions based on feedback from the internals. It was also clear at this point that getting the other keys out was not going to be as simple as doing the same thing for each key. All the parts were related somehow. One might even say there was a “cycle” involved. 

Once you get the keys out, they can be reinserted by largely the reverse process. This should not be too tough since, by now, you understand the internals much better. Still, since you are working blind, it will take a little work and is definitely non-trivial. If you somehow manage, beyond all odds, to release all three keys without understanding what you were doing, then it will probably take you quite some time to return them, if ever you do. A little tool is provided to expedite the reset process. This makes it a little faster, but as mentioned on the instructions, it’s not required. 

Instructions and reset tool.
Honestly, that’s about all I can tell you, and even that might be too much for some. I can add this: I would classify Plant Cycle loosely as sequential discovery. No, a hex wrench won’t pop out of a hidden compartment, but the solving process is very much sequential, and the keys can be thought of as tools that you need to learn how to use to make progress. There are distinct stages of discovery and learning with this puzzle which make it very enjoyable. It is also an interesting twist on the puzzle lock; an inverse lock, if you will. There is no hasp and the keys themselves are “locked” within the body. Possibly not a conceptual first (consult your local metagrobologist), but I would wager it’s a very strong contender for most advanced application. And most massive. (Ed - How does it compare in mass to one of the last 2 Popplocks - The T11 was ginormous!)

Kevin, this little detail looks important.
Overall, I enjoyed Plant Cycle very much. This is not an insanely tough puzzle, and I don’t think that was Christian’s goal in creating it. It is instead a reasonably difficult puzzle with a solution that requires exploration, discovery, thought, and ultimately an understanding of the internal mechanics. Also, and of supreme importance to me personally, it is something new. Plant Cycle gave me a new and different solving experience, which is really what this whole thing is all about. For that I thank Christian. I am also more excited than ever to try out Billiards, which looks to be a completely different puzzle. Perfect!
Now for the fun part. As Kevin and I try tell you, time after time, PuzzleMad is a Full Service Blog (Ed - actually Mike, only you say that but if you provide the service then I'll ride with you) - Designer interviews are among the very many services we offer, and whenever we think a designer will return our emails, we try to score one. Admittedly, I am now straining to come up with clever new questions (and probably failing). Be that as it may, Christian was kind enough to entertain my long-winded, circuitous questions, and hopefully his concise and to the point answers will educate and interest you. Here we go: 
MD:  Ok, let’s get warmed up with some soft ball questions. What can you tell us about your puzzling past? As in, how did you come upon this strange hobby, how long have you been involved, and what made you pursue it in such a very serious way?
CC:  A friend had some basic puzzles that I was solving way too fast in their opinion, then he gave me my first big puzzle that was bronze Revomaze...I’ve been hooked ever since for the last 10 years and tried various kinds of puzzle but I always go back to metal! 
As soon as I started I wanted to create a puzzle that would be my creation - the only criteria I had was to do something new.

MD:  If you’ve read any previous PuzzleMad designer interviews, then I’m sure this next question will be no surprise. PuzzleMad bylaws mandate that I ask you, Chris, what are some of your favorite puzzles and also puzzle designers? (I actually really enjoy hearing the answers to this)  (Ed - I didn't know we had bylaws but I'm interested in this too)
CC:  William Strijbos, Jon Keegan, TwoBrassMonkeys...all those and many others have very various designs that are unique to them.

MD:  Keegan! You’re right. I have to get on that guy’s list. Plant Cycle is a positively “mechanical” puzzle, in the truest and best sense. Do you have an engineering or other technical background, by any chance?  
CC:  No but I’m an electro-mechanic and I know my way around big machinery. 

MD:  Designer creative process is always a mystery to me (obviously). Assuming you do not formulate your puzzles sitting in the lotus position atop a mountain peak, how DO you work? Does it involve psychedelics, or just whole lot of graph paper? (Both answers are acceptable)
CC:  If I found an idea I write on paper, draw on paper, think of the challenge to overcome to create it, then I get help from family and friends to translate to computer and prototype. 

MD:  I need family and friends like that! So what stages do you go through moving from initial concept to functional puzzle? Was there ever a point at which Plant Cycle felt like it might not be operational, or for that matter, feasible to produce?
CC:  MANY times I had to change plans, for example I had to redo the gears and gear plates of plant cycle to make it work . . . and also had to change things in Father & Son and Billard a few times.

MD:  Plant Cycle is constructed of 18 stacked stainless-steel plates. The lamination technique is fairly uncommon. The only recent puzzles I can think of that take this approach are (of course) Rainier’s T10 and Abhishek Ruikar’s Mimosa (and Rex Perez’s coin releasers too, now that I think about it). Was this the only practical way to make this puzzle? Did you consider other approaches?
CC:  I knew I could make it work and have something different and didn’t want to go 3D-printed since metal is just my thing.
MD:  Many metal puzzles involve a high degree of precision between working parts. Metal lends itself to such precision in ways that wood and plastics usually do not. Plant Cycle, however, does not seem to require fine tolerances, by and large. I imagine this will be good for puzzle durability and longevity. Was it intentional, or simply a natural requirement of the mechanics?
CC:  It’s intentional. Laser cutting stainless can only be 0.005-inch precise and when stacking layers the tolerances add up. Plastic is just a fragile media and could be easily broken by can force mine all you want you won’t break it by hands. 

MD:  It was very kind of you to include a reset tool, even though as you note in the instructions, it is not at all necessary. What made you decide to go ahead and include the reset shortcut? And did it mean altering the design in order to include this feature?
CC:  Although not necessary, there is a chance you could end up in a bad sequence that would lock the puzzle if the tool wasn’t there. I think it adds something interesting too for sharing and resetting. 
Tiny hole.
MD: It sure came in handy when I was taking pictures. One of the other things I liked about Plant Cycle was that I was able to solve it. An expensive puzzle presents a dilemma for the solver. You want it to be a challenge worthy of the cost, but at the same time you don’t want it to sit on the shelf laughing at you for years on end (Ed - oh Lord I have a few of those!). Plant Cycle hit it about right, in my estimation. How much thought did you give difficulty level? 
CC:  I always try to put myself in the solver state of mind and share it with friends and gather feedback. If I think it’s good, I go into production...I’m not really a guy who worries too much in life. 

MD:  THAT is the correct answer, and Kevin and I should follow your lead (But not until after this post)(Ed - if only I could!). Plant Cycle presents a very slick and unfussy exterior; nary a screw or fastener to be seen. If it is not a trade secret, how in the world do the plates hold together? 
CC:  Each plate has 3 holes in each for alignment and 3 precise pins go through all, then each end of each pin is welded - then the puzzle is pressed by 25,000lbs to close gaps and the welds are ground to disappear. (Ed - OMG!
Top plate.
MD:  Now I get the big machinery part! Grind the welds, of course, why didn’t I think of that? Chris, I have to tell you, I love those keys. The cut-outs are fantastic, and they really drive the theme of the puzzle home in no uncertain terms. At what stage in development did you settle on the grand “Plant Cycle” theme, and how soon after did the cut-out idea follow?
CC:  I create puzzle mechanics first then I think of a theme that would work with it.

MD:  Well, it’s hard to pull off great mechanics AND great theme, but I think you nailed it. Spot-welding those 150 keys obviously had to be done by hand. I don’t suppose you are a welder? If not, how hard was it to find a machine shop that could do the kind of work you needed done?  
CC:  My uncle Raymond has his own shop and it was him that made it possible for me to do my creation and he still does a lot with me for puzzle making.

MD:  Regrettably, but quite predictably, I missed out on your maiden puzzle - Father and Son Dueling Keys, the predecessor to Plant Cycle. I understand from your website (or Facebook, can’t remember) that Plant Cycle builds on that earlier puzzle. Can you share any lessons learned from your first effort that you were able to apply to Plant Cycle?
CC:  Solvers of my first design really had mixed feelings about it. Some thought it was too easy, too loose, not finished to their liking, but others found it exceptional. I work hard to listen to reviews (bad reviews also give me lots to think about, so I like them too).

MD:  I’m in the exceptional camp, no question; I wouldn’t change a thing. But looking ahead, I know you are getting ready to produce your third puzzle, Billiard. It looks like a move in a different direction, and a very tantalizing one at that. What can you tell us about Billiard? 
CC:  I’m not ready to produce, I finished producing 100 of them. It’s a very precise and fine-tuned piece of work that I hope will please my customers, both on precision/design/puzzle. It’s also harder than the previous design 
Goal:  Find the  🎱
Type: Sequential Discovery with 2 stages to complete, rising in difficulty from step one to last. Use tools and logic to unlock and solve.
Made of: Hard anodized aluminum, all CNC. 
Production Run: Limited to 100, all numbered from 1/100 to 100/100. 
Billiard, needless to say.
MD:  I think Kevin just swallowed his face mask (Ed - I inhaled it! Unfortunately this was out of my price range when it was released.). This looks and sounds great, I can’t wait! Finally, Kevin and I (and possibly Felix Ure) would like to order tungsten versions of Plant Cycle. Can do?Billiard? (Ed - Mike, you seem to have a fixation on Tungsten!)
CC:  I’m not redoing old design, I want to move onto different designs . . . each of my designs have particularities that are hard to do so when I can move to another project I’m always happy...I also know nothing about tungsten.

MD:  That’s fine, because neither do Kevin or I, just that its heavy. Any final thoughts?
CC:  My puzzles will stay limited: Father and Son Dueling Keys limited to 30 (sold out); Plant Cycle will stay limited to 50 (sold out); Billard will stay limited to 100 (sold out). People also have to understand that I’m only 38 years old, I got two kids and a full time job, and until I retire from my day job in 15 years, I’ll keep making new puzzles if I get new ideas but will keep the limit low...100 is my max and not sure I would make more of a future design (Ed - I'm impressed that you can retire at 53!).
Thanks for all the interest you placed in my creations.
Christian Cormier

Thanks Christian! That was great. I print these interviews out and store them with the puzzles, for a permanent record, so I really value your time and effort (and all past interviewees, you guys too!). Kevin, I, and the entire PuzzleMad readership appreciate it VERY much indeed. If I manage to solve Billiard, you may be hearing from the PuzzleMad Foreign Office, Hawaii Branch, once again. Prepare yourself! (Ed - erm, there is only the one foreign correspondent - I have singularly failed to find anyone who can/will write for the site).

Alright Kevin, time to wrap this beautiful Sunday up with your trademark words of wisdom and encouragement. Also, I forgive you for that Facebook thing from earlier 😊. 

Water it every day

Thank you so much Mike and Christian! That was an amazing article. I am very grateful for the work you put in to make something so interesting and somehow it's always a topic that I know almost nothing about. I have never managed to get hold of any of Christian's puzzles due to either timing or finance. I hope to play with one at an MPP next year if/when this bloody awful pandemic is over. Things had started to improve here in most of the country but has just recently taken a turn for the worst - I expect a new national lockdown to begin very soon in the New Year. No rest for me though as I still have to work and am now desperately looking back to choose my best puzzles of 2020 for next weekend. If you have any suggestions then please let me know.


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