Sunday 27 August 2017

Packing with Purpose

The highly sought after Caramel Box
The "Master" of the Metagrobologist website (currently under reconstruction), Dave Holt will be most delighted to read this post. He is an educationalist who has a special interest in teaching people who are "educationally challenged" and he often uses packing puzzles in his classes to encourage thought and perseverance. Whilst I understand this use, I personally find that these puzzles often don't "do it" for me. In fact, after all these years of by talking drivel on this site, most of you should well know that I don't really enjoy or collect packing puzzles. In fact I have only ever sold 2 puzzles from my collection and they were from that category.  However, I do have a few in my collection and I still buy the occasional one. You might well ask why after that preamble......the reason that one is bought is either that it is truly gorgeous with very lovely woods or unusual materials or that there is something truly special in the solution process. I usually take advice on this matter from my friends; especially Allard or Louis who have such an in depth knowledge of all things puzzling that if they say something is worthwhile then I sit up and listen. This post is about a few recent packing puzzles that fulfilled these criteria.

The puzzle at the top of the post is the Caramel box which was entered in the 2014 Nob Yoshigahara design competition at the London IPP and was recognised in the top 10 vote getters category. I have a vague memory of playing with it in the design room and marvelling at how beautiful it was and how unusual it was to have a box to be packed made of painted tin. Being rubbish at packing puzzles I completely failed to solve it but enjoyed the tactile nature and craftsmanship of it. Lots of people were very enthusiastic about it at the time and when they were sold in a Japanese store they sold out very very quickly. After Allard and Jerry reviewed it with glowing reports of thought processes rather than random trial and error, I decided that I ought to get a copy and play myself - I failed that too. Over the intervening 3 years I have tried to get a copy a few times and each time lost the auction. I had more or less given up. I was not the only person who was really after a copy (I could hear the wails of woe from Dave whenever one sold and it wasn't to him.

On Facebook just before the 2017 IPP began, it was announced that there would be a few copies for sale and a bunch of us jumped in and asked to reserve them. I don't actually think that any of us expected that they would be put them aside but on the Puzzle party day (Sunday) we all duly queued at a table and they were sold to a select few. I was a little late getting to there (I had been straight out to visit Bernhard who had put aside some turning interlocking cubes for me) and it was only after Oli told me that he had managed to get a Caramel box, that I scurried over to join the quite long queue. After my name badge was recognised I triumphantly received a little package labeled with a name. "My precioussssss!", at last I had a copy and it is as beautiful as I remember. The box has a nice weight to it (made from metal) and the pieces are slotted inside and poking out the top. Opening the package the instructions say that I need to place the Teak pieces in first and after that redo the puzzle with the Pau Rosa.

How hard can it be? The shape required is a 3x3x2 cuboid and there are only 3 pieces to be placed at a time. Ahem! This is definitely not a breeze! I started off trying to make the shape outside the box and then attempt to put them inside and discovered that there are quite a few assemblies but the vast majority won't fit! In fact due to the single blocked corner, I discovered that for many of my assemblies I was unable even to put the first piece in the box. OMG! I am not very bright! After a short while I abandoned that approach and actually used Allard's patent pending approach of using "thought" - wow that really hurt me. Now I remembered why this was raved about by so many puzzlers. It is NOT about trial and error at all (although that approach will do it eventually), it is about taking note of how the 3 different shapes can interact with each other and particularly how they interact with the closed corner of the box. Once the restrictions are noted then a combined method of making shapes outside the box and also inside was used. After about 20 minutes I had packed the Teak pieces inside.

My friend Nigel had also managed to get one (I think that most of us original MPP members had tried and succeeded in getting a copy) and had started solving it shortly afterwards. I remember him announcing that he had solved the Teak challenge but the Pau Rosa was proving tougher. I admired my Teak assembly for a while before embarking on the next assembly. One of the pieces of this one was quite simple but the other 2 were fairly complex (within a 2x2x3 shape) and they were extremely restricted in how to get them inside the box. I worked on this for an hour with no joy and ended up having to stop to prepare dinner. Whilst cooking I continued to think about and periodically return to the puzzle. It's a wonder I didn't burn anything and receive the laser burning stare from Mrs S (who was already really quite horrified at the sheer number of puzzles that had arrived home with me from Paris). The second challenge really required a good bit of thought and planning. It was with huge relief that after an hour and a half I finally slid the pieces in place. Now this is my type of packing puzzle - it looks lovely, has an unusual material and not too many pieces. Most importantly it is NOT about trial and error. The correct way to solve it begins with a few trials before moving on to thought/planning with what you have learned and solving it deliberately. I am not sure whether any more will be made but if you do ever see a copy of this up for sale, don't hesitate, just buy it!

Stand by cube 1
Stand by cube 2
Stand by cube 3
As I worked my way around the IPP tables, I came across Gregory Benedetti selling a few of his wares. I have reviewed quite a few of his puzzle designs over the years and the stand out feature is that they are always a fantastic challenge and have something truly special to them. The 3 Stand by cubes had been sold over a period on Puzzle Paradise and I kept hesitating to buy them because of my prejudice against packing puzzles (stupid boy!). Eventually I decided to obtain a copy after Allard's glowing review but I had run out of money for a while and then they sold out on Paradise before I recouped my reserve. It was with great delight that I was able to meet Greg after so many years and real pleasure that he had a copy of each of the 3 cubes to buy. Money was exchanged and some chunks of wood landed in my suitcase. Number one is made from Sapelle, Number two is Beech and the final version is Oak with all three sharing a "rustic" looking (Greg's description not mine) tray made from Pine. Each of the puzzles was handed over with a partly made 3x3 cube assembled and a 1x1x2 piece outside. Obviously the aim is to pack the last piece in. How hard can it be? Ahem!!!!

Stand by cube 1 pieces
After my success with the caramel box, a few days later I decided to use my new found packing puzzle powers on these. I disassembled the first one and started packing away. The first thing to notice is that there is a piece that has been glued in place and forms a fixed part of the solution. I had thought that with one piece fixed in place this would make the assembly quite easy - just assemble a 3x3 cube with that shape cut out. BUT the thing that makes these a challenge is that the tray has a lip on the side which limits the way the pieces can be slid in and out of place. Still, it's just a 3x3, it can't be that tough. Can it? Blush! On my first attempt at number 1 I couldn't get the big complex piece into the tray in any way at all other than how it came out! What was going on? Am I really that bad? was my Caramel success just a fluke? I am glad to say that I was just being dim! The L shaped piece was still locked inside under the trapped shape and I hadn't noticed. Being not very bright and forgetting Allard's words, I had forgotten that the pieces to be packed were each one cubie longer than the last (i.e. they have 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 cubies). Once I had removed that L piece then I started assembling shapes outside of the tray. There seems to be quite a number of assemblies but to my chagrin none of them would assemble within the restrictions of the tray. Yet again this was going to require me to Think© and my poor ickle bwain was still hurting. Mrs S was upset again when I started to talk to myself and even more so when I began to swear. To my great surprise this was a really big challenge and the first cube took me nearly an hour!

OMG! That nearly killed me!
Stand by cube 2 pieces
It was time to go straight onto number 2 after the first one and I was really hoping that my practice and the fact that the tray had a couple of large cutouts in it, would make life a little easier. WRONG!!! I had been really careful to make sure this time that I had taken all the pieces out. I tried the same approach as before with trying to assemble outside the tray but thinking about the limitations placed by the tray. With this one there is a 2 unit gap on opposite sides of the tray - this MUST be for a reason surely? After another 45 minutes of swearing I realised that Greg had been mean - there might just be a red herring! Sneaky man. The Aha moment is truly delicious!

Even more of a challenge despite the gaps in the tray
At this point I had to rest before she who has the strength of Sauron (complete with the laser burning stare - see photo below) was getting fed up with my noise and had stuff for me to do.

Mrs S was looking at me with disfavour!
Can you imagine what the rest of her must be like? Whack! Ouch! 
In the end I rested my weary bwain and worked on some brownie points for a few days before going back to the final Stand by cube. The pieces were moved and assembled for the photo and I set to:

Again a sequence of sizes
This one had a particularly complex piece captive in the tray and I spent much more time looking at methods of putting the complex pieces inside before working on cube assemblies. All three of these puzzles are actually a mixture of a packing puzzle as well as a 3D assembly puzzle and this is actually why they are so much fun. It may be that I will have to modify my decision making process. Maybe I cannot do 2D tray packing puzzles but the 3D ones that are also a significant part assembly are more to my taste? Only time will tell and I will HAVE to buy a whole lot more to test this hypothesis. Whack! Ouch! Sorry dear, I will try to have more self control. Despite all my previous practice, this one was a tremendous challenge and again took me over an hour.

Wow! What a fabulous sequence of challenges.
At the moment there are no more of these up for sale but hopefully Greg might consider making some more. The final challenge given to me by Greg was to work out the significance of his mark on the base. I have failed this challenge - it means nothing to me:

What does this mean?
I do apologise for being so late to this cube party. I have had one person email me recently complaining that all I seem to do is rub peoples' noses in the puzzles that they cannot have. This is definitely NOT my aim. I do try to review puzzles that are currently available but sometimes I am late or delayed and in the end you may just have to try and get them at auction. It is not my intention to upset anyone. If you don't like what I do then please don't read my pages and get upset/jealous. Try and remember that this is all supposed to be a bit of fun - I am a grown man playing with toys - it is supposed to be taken with a fairly hefty dose of humour!

Next I move on to this gorgeous monstrosity:

Straight4ward from Brian Menold 
I had bought the Straight4ward puzzle, designed by Laszlo Kmolnar and made by Brian Menold quite a long time ago. It was clearly a packing puzzle so why had I bought it? First of all, I have to try and support Brian who has made puzzle construction his full time job and also just look at is absolutely gorgeous. This copy is made with a Bocote box and beautiful Bloodwood pieces (made from single-unit cubes). It immediately meets my puzzle purchase criteria. I also read Brian's description:
"Laszlo’s been at it again! Another very challenging packing puzzle from,in my opinion, one of the best at designing them! After production on these was almost complete, another solution was discovered with a rotation, however I felt that even with this added solution, this was an extremely difficult puzzle. The restricted opening alone, provides enough of a challenge for me! Try first to find the one solution without a rotation, then test yourself to find the rotation."
How can anyone resist that? I have to agree that Laszlo is one of the greatest puzzle designers and I am proud that I am considered a friend of his. He actually doesn't think he is particularly talented but time and time again he produces something truly wondrous. There is always something just special about his designs. The ones that I bought from Brian previously have been a tremendous challenge and are a favourite part of my collection. When it arrived I couldn't resist and I set to immediately. The pieces are all of the possible tetromino shapes and they need to be formed into a 4x4x2 shape within the box but just like the Caramel box there is a blockage at the entrance to the box and also a restricted opening. But it cannot possibly be that tough can it? (are you noticing a trend here?)

4x4x2 shape to get inside a box - easy peasy? Sob!
I bought this quite a few months ago and have failed to solve it until last night! It is this success that triggered this blog post. As is usual, I began by making the shape outside the box before attempting to place it inside and realised that just making the shape was not that simple. Maybe there were only a few ways to make the 4x4x2 and it was just a matter of working out which could be assembled through the hole? Within a few minutes I discovered that the restricted opening had an ENORMOUS effect on the assembly. The non-planar shapes could not be slid through the restricted entrance easily except with very specific orientation. I determined that I needed to produce a shape with all the non-planar shapes oriented in a certain way. That couldn't be very hard I was sure. Doh!!! After 4 months of failure I decided to put the pieces into Burrtools to see how many assemblies there are - I didn't think there could be very many assemblies. WRONG! I sat back from my computer after BT spat out an awful number at me - there are 695 ways to make that shape excluding rotations and mirror assemblies. OMG! Was I going to have to cheat? I knew that the puzzle could be completely solved by BT but I really didn't want to use it to find my solution.

I carried on working on it every few evenings whilst Mrs S and I were watching TV. It is a bit difficult assembling shapes with 2 cats on my lap so I balanced my iPad on the cat and worked on the puzzle flat on the iPad. Every time the cat would turn or yawn or stretch he would cause all the pieces to slide off onto my lap or the chair and put a stop to the solving. At one point he grabbed a piece and ran off with it. I was at it for months! I was beginning to think that Laszlo and Brian had beaten me. But last night I had a breakthrough. I worked in reverse and thought about which piece or pieces could go into the puzzle last and also keep the orientation of the bent pieces. Suddenly I had everything arranged in a way that at least the entry into the box wasn't blocked by either orientation of the piece with respect to the orifice or the previous pieces preventing subsequent entry. I was sure that I had it worked out and only needed to physically get the pieces placed. Next we have a bit of a dexterity puzzle - the pieces are quite slidy and tend to rotate in the box as you try to place them.

There was a fair bit of effing and blinding getting me a glare from the eye of Sauron. Then it got worse because I had to shake it about like a rattle many times to start again. Finally she nearly murdered me after I shouted aloud when I achieved this:

OMG! That was tough.
How should I store it?
After taking my photos today I have stored the pieces outside the box but have taken a pic of the solution. I did check with Burrtools and there is indeed only one linear solution. It would appear that there is another solution that has a rotation but I honestly don't think that I am up to searching for it. Laszlo nearly killed me with this packing puzzle - he is still one of the very best designers I know!

Are you talented at packing puzzles? Do you have a secret methodology? If so do let me know as I still really struggle because thinking© doesn't come naturally to me. I really don't know how Allard does it.

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