Sunday, 23 June 2019

Rotating on a GalacTIC scale

GalacTIC designed by Andrew Crowell and beautifully made by Brian Menold
I have not really managed to do an awful lot of puzzling recently - a lot going on at home and at work - life just gets in the way. I am working on the Trauma operating list all day today and this one puzzle was all that I managed to write about for you - in fact, it is all that I have managed to solve and fully understand this week. Hopefully, things will settle down and I will have something good for you next week.

Brian Menold (aka the Published Professor of Wood) recently released another batch from the fevered mind of Andrew Crowell. The world of the TIC (Turning Interlocking Cube) was, until recently a fairly stable one about which Bernhard had managed to publish a series of 3 articles encompassing the whole lot. Along comes Andrew and we are up to our eyeballs in TICs and Bernhard's articles need a major update. When Brian releases new stuff, I pay attention, they are well made of beautiful wood and he always chooses the right difficulty level and always chooses puzzles that will be fun.

The GalacTIC was sent out assembled (different to the others released the same day) and here is what he wrote about it:
"This is one of Andrew's few designs that he recommends as a disassembly puzzle. It is easy to see why when you see that the last piece takes 19 moves and many rotations to remove!! I found myself actually wondering if all of this was necessary when I was assembling these! I will say that the first few moves are rather easy, then things get interesting. And good luck getting it back together. Moves - with 10 Rotations"
How could anyone resist that? I know of at least one genius/sucker for punishment who asked for it to be sent out disassembled! I am not very bright and not very good at assembly puzzles and just went with the flow.

It is a lovely little puzzle (it is classic Menold in its' look) and nice to see that Brian has added some half-lap joints for strength as well as a brass pin for the most complex joint. The wood choices are a delight and this will look great on display.

I started with this shortly after the delivery arrived and spent a good few evenings on it and have to say that I am really glad that this was sent out assembled - there is no way on earth I would have managed it from pieces without first having taken it apart. The first 3 pieces come out fairly easily without rotations. It has been pretty humid here in good old "Blighty" for the last few weeks i.e. it has poured pretty much continuously for days! This has meant that the puzzles are a little tight and it took a bit of doing to find which pieces would move at all at first. After those first 3 pieces are removed then it starts to get interesting - we begin to need turns and then another piece comes out. At this point, with the last 3 pieces in place, I began to took me a whole evening just to release the next piece! Now just an "easy" matter of disentangling the last 2 pieces - one is a nice open frame and then the other is a relatively small solid piece with "sticky-out" bits. How hard can it be?

OMG!! The separation of the last 2 pieces took me over a week! There are so many turns that I began to get dizzy! It is rotation on a GalacTIC scale! Not only are there very specific and often hard to find rotations (one is really tough) but also there are blind endings after some rotations requiring backtracking! I got lost and in a panic a few times! After that week of toil I had my pieces:

GalacTIC pieces
Next, I did my usual (with some trepidation) and scrambled the pieces and set them aside for a night. I went back to the assembly challenge the following evening and had an absolute ball trying to reassemble it! Luckily after so much time on the disassembly, I knew the order for the pieces to be inserted and went straight to the difficult challenge of those first 2 pieces. Only one insertion position is possible but after that...hell! That was a struggle. A good 90 minutes of pain and swearing and I had it done. Phew!

This is an absolutely stunning design! I really do not know how Andrew does it - his mind is completely warped (I am sure that Mrs Crowell will vouch for that!) I am very grateful to Brian for bringing these marvellous puzzles to life for us and hope that more will be coming in the future. In my future, I see an attempt at assembling another batch of TICs that are taunting me in my puzzles to be solved pile! I just need some time!

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Packing with Purpose

Box Rebellion
This post follows a little discussion I had with my friend Dave Holt (of the Metagrobologist) who has an absolute fixation on packing puzzles...the more complex the better! He had shown off a picture of one of his recent acquisitions from Tom Lensch, the CRUMB/Melting Block puzzle designed by Bill Cutler and John Rausch.

Dave's CRUMB puzzle
The CRUMB consists of a full set of 28 lettered pieces shown above in their larger storage box with one non-lettered piece as a small spacer to fill the box. There is also a standard box to work on all of the many puzzle challenges and a 3 sided 'corner' box with dimensions of the bottom, sides and depth of the box (created to avoid 'in and out' attempts (as called by Bill and John) which eliminates reaching in and out and easier to slide pieces around). There are 76 doubly-unique solutions to the packing ranging from the 10/11 piece CRUMB (which is relatively easy) to several 13/14 piece ones, which are very difficult to solve manually. Whilst I really appreciate the beauty of the craftsmanship and the incredible variety of puzzling provided by this amazing multi-puzzle, I commented that I am not a huge fan of packing puzzles with so many pieces in them as there is far too much random trial and error and not enough deduction in the solution process. A wonderful and far more eloquent follow up comment from George Syriaque stated it beautifully:
"The issue is that ‘figuring out where the pieces should go’ requires far more effort than ‘figuring out how to get them there’"
This sums me up with packing puzzles entirely. I did eventually solve and review the Melting block a long time ago but have seldom attempted such a complex packing challenge since. I definitely prefer my packing puzzles to be about getting the pieces into position rather than finding where they should go - this sort of follows on from my love of interlocking puzzles. One example of this is the Box Rebellion pictured at the top of the post.

I was very proud to get a copy of the Box Rebellion puzzle (Coffin #195) from Tom Lensch quite recently. Tom had made a bunch after some discussion with my friend John Rausch who had reminisced that the 4L puzzle had been getting a lot of attention recently and that he had exchanged Stewart Coffin's Box Rebellion (#195) at IPP24 in Tokyo which had a number of similarities. I had absolutely adored the 4L puzzle back in 2016 and would always seek out something similar if it came up for sale. By the way, if you don't yet have a copy of 4L then get one NOW - Eric has them for sale here - they are an ESSENTIAL purchase.

John's original exchange puzzle had been made by Walt Hoppe. Like 4L, it has 4 L-shaped pieces that must fit into a restricted-entry box. Unlike the 4L, the acrylic top is not fixed in place, it can slide back and forth 5/32" (Lord, why can't the US embrace the present and the future and go Metric?),  which is enough to allow an L piece to fit on one end, and enough for one cube of an L piece to raise up on the other. Unlike 4L, the L pieces for this puzzle are made from three cubes.

Tom's lovely version is made with a Walnut box (complete with small finger sized holes in the ends to allow manipulation inside and an oddly shaped acrylic top which has a little movement to it. The 4 L shaped pieces are beautifully made from Yellowheart. The premise is very simple and with only a little thought, it is obvious how the pieces are to be positioned in the box. Getting them there is another thing altogether. If you have done the 4L before then you will not be overly troubled by this one because the thought processes are similar. But it still takes a bit of planning and a fun little struggle with moving the pieces around using just the little holes and gravity.

Very clever - I will be storing it unpacked though, to allow torture of colleagues at work
If you have never solved 4L then this is will be a much greater challenge but still possible without spending weeks on it and it may be a nice work out for when 4L finally comes your way.

Next up os another packing puzzle with very few pieces and a placement challenge:

Petit Ring
Of course, I cannot buy just one simple little packing puzzle from Tom and have it shipped 1000s of miles! He also offered me the opportunity to buy one of Osanori Yamamoto's latest designs, Petit Ring. Made from the same woods as the Box Rebellion it is another "simple" packing puzzle with just 3 relatively simple pieces to be put into a 3x3x2 box with oddly restrictive but wide open holes in opposite corners of the top and bottom. The fact that there are holes in both sides gives an idea that this is going to be quite a challenge. Again, it is more interlocking puzzle than packing and I love the challenge. It looks at first that the holes are wide open and that this will be easy but that diagonal half voxel is a real problem - the end result of it is that the entry holes are L shaped which is seriously restrictive.

These 3 pieces do not completely fill the cavity of the box but I assumed that the final result should have the entry holes completely filled and any gaps are concealed inside. The similarity to Pack 012 (also by Osanori) and the false solution to that one made me quite wary. There are a few ways that the pieces can slot together in a 3x3x2 shape and it is a fun challenge to work out which of those are physically possible to get inside the box.

I came up with a very promising way to put the pieces together quite quickly and then moved the puzzle to the box packing part and quickly ran into trouble. The larger shape will only go into the box in a few orientations and needs a lot of manoeuvring space to get it in. As soon as the other pieces are introduced that manoeuvring space disappears very quickly. After a bit of thought, getting 2 pieces in is achieved and then the final challenge is how to get that final piece inside. I could find 2 possible orientations for it but it was terribly blocked. Changes to the entry order were no help and I struggled with it for a few evenings.

Eventually, I had a thought© which is an unusual event for me but as is more common, that thought had an error! Many of Osanori's puzzles have very ingenious rotations in them and I wondered whether that was required for the Petit ring? The tolerances in Tom's craftsmanship are fabulous and rotations are almost impossible. After another evening of experimentation I had finally achieved the final puzzle state:

Solved it! This photo was taken after a rotation
I was really pleased with myself for solving it and then I had a look at the page on PuzzleWillBePlayed only to see that I had solved it but in the incorrect way. It states that there are 72 assemblies of which only one is achievable and, crucially, it makes no mention of the need for rotations. Now Ishino san is very meticulous in his maintenance of the pwbp pages...if a solution needs rotations in the solution then it is always described (have a look at the listing for Osanori's Galette puzzle here - it clearly states that rotations are required).

The lack of this mention forced me to go back to my puzzle and spend another few hours on it. Finally, I got it! That is a wonderful design - not really one for trial and error but requiring planning and thought©.

If you have a copy of Petit Ring then your challenge is now to solve it both ways. Can you find the correct solution and then do it all over again with rotations? It is brilliant and I cannot wait to get more of his fabulous "low number of pieces" designs.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

An Extension to my Advice for Twisty Puzzlers

The Mo Fang/Qiyi 4 Leaf Clover Plus Cube

4 Leaf Clover Plus
4 Leaf Clover Plus movements
One of my all-time most popular blog posts is one that I am most proud of - it is my advice to twisty puzzle beginners post which I published way back in 2012. It is what I send to puzzlers who have taken time to work out how to solve a basic 3x3 and 4x4 Rubik type cube and want to know what path to take next. It is in no way a didactic set of instructions, I just walk through what many of the options are and discuss why one might want to go that route. I suspect that I should probably redo that post in the light of more recent developments in the Twisty world.

I still stick my initial advice that the first tentative steps beyond basic cubes should probably be the shape modifications to get your head around pieces that "don't look right" and then move on to the other geometries like Megaminx (dodecahedron) and Pyraminx (tetrahedron) but after those, there is a sudden increase in options which can be chosen between...for example the cuboids and those with alternative piece movements like the Dino cube (Shallow cut corner turn), Rex cube (Deep cut corner turn), Skewb (Very deep cut corner turn) and Curvy Copter (Edge turn) - each of these can also be multiple layers too.

Today's puzzle that I am reviewing is definitely not a basic puzzle for a novice but is a really nice example of a recently appeared new group of puzzles on the market. I am not sure what to call this group - maybe it could be called the "Combo puzzles"? These are puzzles which are effectively a combination of 2 different basic puzzles into one with 2 different turning mechanisms combined. I already reviewed one such puzzle, the Grilles II cube which is a combination of a standard 3x3 cube and a shallow cut Master (4x4) Dino cube:

3x3 turns and 2-level deep corner turns
The solving process for this was great fun and my main criticism of this puzzle was that the mechanism was quite unstable and had a tendency to explode into rather a lot of pieces if you were not extremely careful how you rotated it. If you want a copy of this (recommended if you have patience) from PuzzleMaster or HKNowstore.

These combination puzzles really intrigue me - there is a whole lot more scrambling possible with these than the individual base puzzles and then you have the probability that you can get into positions that are completely impossible with each. The approach to solving could be to try something totally unique and find your own commutators to shift pieces around or to try to reduce to one or other of the base puzzles and then solve that. The fun part of this is that there is a distinct possibility that the reduction can introduce parities where a piece has been reformed in an impossible position for the base puzzle - for example in the Grilles II it is possible to be left with a single turned corner which a 3x3 can never achieve. Resolving these parity situations can be one of the most fun parts of these puzzles.

There have not been very many puzzles with combined mechanisms released yet. The 3x3 Curvy Copter by MF8 is one that I have not bought because it was reputed to be so unstable as to be almost unusable

The puzzle I am specifically discussing today is the Mo Fang/Qiyi 4 Leaf Clover Plus cube (available from PuzzleMaster here, HKNowstore here, and UK Puzzlestore here) which is a combination of the wonderful edge turning of a deeper cut Curvy Copter and a 2x2 face turning Rubik cube. I originally got mine from Calvin's HKNowstore and they mistakenly sent me the plain 4 Leaf Clover Cube (no plus) which is just a deeper cut Curvy Copter but no face turns. It was a nice puzzle and fun to play with but not a new challenge. They were very good about sending me out the correct one I ordered with the next order that I placed with them.

I bought the Stickerless version which has the advantage of the Curvy Copter corners to be solved hidden inside the puzzle:

You can see the hidden corners sunk inside - an extra challenge is to solve these too even though they are not externally visible.

The puzzle turns fantastically well and is a joy to scramble. All the usual moves are possible including the jumbling moves that are the fun part of the curvy copter - jumbling to you non-twisty puzzlers or novices is the ability to take a piece out of its' orbit by partially turning an edge and combining it with another edge turn (all edge turners have jumbling as part of their abilities).

Back right is a face turn
Front left is a trio of moves ending a jumbled puzzle. 

After an initial fiddle about I just went for it! I usually spend time working out techniques and maybe a few algorithms but this time I figured I had enough background to these puzzles:

Fully scrambled, it looks quite fearsome!
So how would you approach such a puzzle? For me, the obvious thing to do was to return it to a cube shape and then solve the base 2x2 first which effectively reduces the puzzle to a plain 4 Leaf Clover/Curvy Copter Cube which should be solvable in the standard fashion (unless there were any Parities introduced).

Returning the Curvy Copter to cube shape can be a horrific experience as it gets very blocked but in this particular puzzle the 2x2 moves are unimpeded and using these it is a simple matter to move the edges into the right positions so that the jumbled pieces sticking out can be made flat again. Next step for me was to reduce the multicoloured edges - in the picture above there is a blue/white edge combined with a red/yellow edge at the front. Pairing up the edges is initially pretty easy and done purely with intuition. Having done one face of edges, I moved to the next layer up and this simple too - getting confident now! The next layer up the sides also wasn't too bad with only a little bit of fiddling about. The final face of that was quite a challenge! The first solve I went through, it just happened to work out that they were all just in place or on opposite faces of where they needed to be and I was lulled into a false sense of security. My second and all subsequent attempts at this puzzle have been a humungous challenge with edges in all sorts of places. It requires all sorts of moving 2x2 cubes about and rotating cubies and edges to finally get them back to either in place or opposite to where they should be. I have done this 7 or 8 times now and I can always do it but it is always a huge challenge which requires quite a bit of planning and moving pieces around.

Who would have thought that the toughest part of this puzzle would have been the 2x2 cube part? It is a brilliant challenge which I have yet to find a definitive sequence for. Maybe a better puzzler than me can manage it more quickly?

Having reduced the puzzle back to cube-shape and then recreated all the edges, the Curvy Copter solve process is exactly the same as normal. You have the choice whether to solve the hidden internal corners last or whether to solve them as you go like the usual CC puzzle - each choice has its own special challenges.

This is an absolutely brilliant puzzle and I can heartily recommend it to all twisty puzzlers who want to go beyond the basic cubes. It should probably be step 4 in your journey - I would recommend learning the basic cubes, then the shape mods and then the alternative turning puzzles before jumping on these. The progression is wonderful.

I think I will need to think about obtaining the Curvy Copter 3x3 to add another combo twisty to my collection.

Coming sometime in the future will be a review of a terribly fearsome puzzle - the Skewby Copter Plus:

Holy shit!
Curvy Copter edge turn AND a Skewb turn 
This beast is a fearsome thing - it is a Curvy Copter PLUS (described in this article) which can swap out the centres and the corners as part of the jumbling process combined with a Skewb (deep cut corner turner). So far I have been too frightened to do any more than turn this thing!

If you are a puzzler who is hesitating over getting into twisty puzzles then don't! Do it! The learning process is quite steep at first but there is plenty of help out there and then once you have developed an arsenal of basic techniques then you are off and running. These puzzles are hugely challenging, have high repeatability and are pretty reasonably priced until you branch out into the hand made mods. Try it, you will probably like it...a LOT!

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Thinking Outside the Box? Not Always That Helpful!

Or Laszlo Does It Again!
A TIC, a Packing Puzzle and a Dexterity Puzzle All in One!

Rollercoaster by Laszlo Kmolnar
Very nicely made by Brian Young
My friend Laszlo Kmolnar is one of the best puzzle designers around today. This blog is littered with posts gushing about his wonderful puzzles and he has made my top ten of the year with a few of his wonderful designs and I suspect that this one will make it to that exalted list at the end of 2019. Let me say up front that this is AN ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL PURCHASE! Before you read on, you MUST go and buy a copy from Brian and Sue Young's MrPuzzle site - it is available in 4 different kinds of wood:

  • Blush Alder - This is a hardwood with a pinkish brown colour. It weighs lighter than the heaviest wood like Jarrah. 
  • Saffron Heart - This wood grows in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The wood has a distinct yellow tinge to it.
  • Jarrah - A dense and heavy wood grown mostly in Western Australia this wood varies from light to much darker red in colour.
  • Black Wattle - A lovely brown wood that mostly has darker streaks in it.

I think that mine is Jarrah and there is the 67 x 67 x 67mm perspex box. I bought my copy from Wil Strijbos when he was visiting the UK for a Midlands Puzzle Party and he may have a few copies left if you are ordering something from him anyway. When bought from Brian it apparently comes with the solution - mine from Wil did not! I try never to look at a solution and if you do buy from Brian then throw the leaflet away! DO NOT be tempted by it - you DON'T need it! This fabulous puzzle is only $19US as I write and so an absolute bargain.

As you can see it consists of just 3 oddly shaped pieces of wood which must be placed completely within the 3x3x3 box with no piece protruding out. The box is rigid, does not dismantle and has a single 1x1x1 hole in a corner to allow the pieces to be placed inside. Don't dismiss this simply because the box is perspex - it has been beautifully made too and actually looks lovely in itself.

Very clear - box and instructions
On the MrPuzzle site, it also says to solve without putting your fingers inside! OMG!
A simple puzzle I can hear you claim? Only put 3 pieces in a regular box? That must be pretty easy! Hell! No! This little bastard kept me busy for 6 months! There is a lot more to the solving of this puzzle than you might think which is why I am so overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Brian Menold made a copy last year with a wooden box that I think must have been almost impossible to solve - the inability to see through the walls of the box will have made this immeasurably harder. This puzzle was an entry in the IPP design competition last year (2018) where it missed out on a prize (I suspect this will have been because of the sheer number of amazing designs that were entered).

New to puzzling - look at that smile!
I have carried the puzzle with me everywhere for 6 months and only just solved it last week! Many many people have been consumed by it and all have failed. They don't let me loose in the Day surgery suite very often but every single time I go down there, I am immediately asked to hand it over and the nursing staff spend a whole day playing with it. I love watching the annoyed looks on the surgeons face as the pieces clunk about in and out of the box! It drives them mad hearing the nurses have some fun. I have given it to a few of my anaesthetic trainees to keep them occupied whilst I write my chart or prescribe the post-op medications. The premise of this is so simple that no-one can resist the temptation - even a new trainee who has never tried puzzling before.

In general, I am not a huge fan of packing puzzles because there seems to be too much random trial and error during the solution process. The Rollercoaster, on the other hand, will never be solved by random movement. It requires thought© and purposeful movement with a decent amount of dexterity to solve this - no chance that you will manage it by accident. Not only is it a packing puzzle, but it is also a dexterity puzzle as well as a wonderful Turning Interlocking Cube (TIC) too. Yep! As if that weren't requires rotational moves too. Brian and Laszlo are going to force you to make rotational moves of pieces through a small hole and barely within reach. Yay! Bastards! 😂

The first of the Aha! moments occurs early on when you realise part of the order in which the pieces must be placed in the cube, then another Aha! moment arrives as you work out the specific orientation that the large piece requires when inserted. Having made what you feel is good headway with discoveries, then you hit a wall! I did! Many many times.

Time to "think© outside the box"? I thought so too - this is often helpful for these puzzles but remember that Laszlo has a history of making "out of the box" thoughts unhelpful! Obviously, a 3x3x3 cube has 27 voxels inside but this puzzle has pieces with only 15 voxels which means there will be lots of empty space inside when it is complete. This also means that there are dozens and dozens of ways that the pieces can be fitted into a 3x3x3 shape when you do not have the constraints of the walls and the single hole to work through. After a month or two of thinking outside the box and not really getting anywhere plus allowing everyone who wanted to try it a good while to play/fail, I went back to thinking inside the box...that didn't help much either!

Another difficulty with this is that the 2 small pieces look very similar and when you think© that you have an idea, by the time you have made a first move or two, you are completely confused about which piece should be where and oriented in which direction. I took to drawing weird little stick diagrams on pieces of paper that I would leave lying around. At this point, you have a real idea of what to do (or so you think) and then you find that the little buggers move around in the box completely of their own volition and nothing you can do will keep them where you want them! So, you cannot work out what to do, cannot keep track of which piece is which and then cannot control where they go whilst in the box.......Aaaargh!!! This is AWESOME!

Having described what sounds like a nightmare, you have to realise that all this contributes to something that needs yet more Aha! moments. The first 2 or 3 are not enough! I continued to get nowhere and increased my frustration very frequently when the pieces would spontaneously rotate whilst I was trying to manipulate them within the box and frequently I would find myself unable to advance any further and then couldn't pull the bloody pieces out again......Aaaargh!!! Again! I must have come close to a heart attack on several occasions.

Last week I attended a rather good Anaesthesia conference and, as I usually do, took a few toys to play with on the train and in my hotel room in an evening. I failed every time but on the train home where I met one of my orthopaedic surgical colleagues by coincidence, I threatened him with it and when he started to cry (I tortured him for a year when he was a trainee!), I let him off and played myself. Much to the bemusement of a young lad further up the train, I had my final Aha! moment during that journey and managed this:

Yes - it can be done - this picture is of no help to you whatsoever!
The elated feeling lasted for days! Interestingly, the challenge does not end there! Disassembling it is still tough as the pieces rotate and block you without you being aware of what has happened and then eventually when you do take it apart, it is still damn tough to redo the puzzle. After another 5 or 6 solves, I had got to the point where I have worked out the quickest and most efficient method of packing the pieces inside. Phew! The next challenge (which is incredibly tough is to do the whole thing without sticking your finger inside the box! It can be done but be prepared to lose a lot of hair in the process! Yet another challenge - is there no end to them?

When I told Derek (the genius) about my eventual solution, he was rather impressed - at that point, he told me that it was a really difficult puzzle that he had solved with the aid of Burrtools. I have to admit that with the rotations involved, it had never occurred to me to even try using that miraculous program.

This puzzle is simply awesome! It should definitely be in any serious puzzler's collection and everyone should take some real time to actually think© and come up with the solution. There are quite a lot of Aha! moments to find and the final feeling of success is amazing! Don't be tempted by Burrtools - just solve it...even if it takes 6 months!

It is still available from Brian and Sue and maybe Wil still has a few copies - go and buy it. You will see why it will be rather high up my top ten of this year.

I think I need a rest now! Maybe something easy like a twisty puzzle?


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