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.

Sunday 20 December 2020

A Packing Aha! Moment

Oleo 10
I have heard on FB that a whole lot of you are having lots of Hex courtesy of Ali and Big Steve and whilst a few of you are having trouble getting it up or keeping it up and a few more are struggling to put it in the correct hole, you all seem to be having a lot of fun. Luckily the risk of unwanted pregnancy is very low and accidentally catching a hexually transmitted disease is unheard of. My experience at home is that it is also very good for decreasing viral transmission as it improves social distancing (Mrs S is not interested in going anywhere near me and my extra demands for Hex). I have heard that the lovely Gil has helped Allard have some very dramatic complex Hex and formed a threesome with Derek - I am very very envious.

I am working again this weekend unfortunately so a short review for you today. Lucky for me PuzzleMaster has helped provide something special to show you.

I am very aware that almost all of my blog posts tend to be about very expensive and often hard to get puzzles and this does make me feel slightly guilty as not everyone can afford those puzzles or can get there in time before they are sold out (I saw that Eric's latest production that I was interested in sold out in less than 3 minutes whilst I was at work). Luckily for me, PuzzleMaster contacted me with an offer to let me have a copy of the latest design by Yuu Asaka to review. I have previously reviewed the incredible Jigsaw 29 by Yuu-san and absolutely loved it after overcoming a few mind-boggling struggles. I also bought and solved the Jigsaw 19 direct from him and loved that as well. I am not a huge fan of plastic and acrylic puzzles in general because they lack the soul and beauty that I normally go for but there is something very special about these puzzles that really attracts me. I have been meaning to try and get hold of copies of his other packing puzzles for over a year now but not yet gotten around to it. I saw this first on Facebook when Mine was showing it off and hoping to make it available for a bunch of puzzlers and a day or so later it appeared on the PuzzleMaster site

The Oleo 10 is one of Yuu-san's classic tray packing puzzles - this one consists of 10 pieces to fit in the 12 x 10 cm tray. There are long thin 4 black rectangles which fill the tray perfectly and 6 bright red (happy) circles to fit into the cutouts in the rectangles. Usually packing puzzles with lots of pieces are extremely difficult but this design actually looks simple at first sight. Simple??? Silly boy! I thought so initially...just line up the rectangles in the correct order to get enough holes to fill with all 6 circles. Yes, well erm...maybe not quite that simple.

There never seems to be 6 complete holes!
I fiddled with this when it arrived before having to cook dinner and even managed to get Mrs S ever so slightly interested (I think that she was just relieved that I wasn't pestering her for Hex again) and after a minute of play she gave up in disgust. After dinner we sat down for some TV and I worked on it with some help from one of the cats (not actually very helpful as he wouldn't lie still and kept knocking pieces out of my hands). 

After about an hour I came to the conclusion that I was doing it wrong (just like when I have Hex!) and I had to have a little think© - normally a painful thing for me. This time I had a sudden realisation that there was a very clever little trick I could try and this might produce something interesting. Another 5 minutes and it was solved - very clever! This is not a hugely tough puzzle - PuzzleMaster rate it as an 8 on their 5 to 10 scale and I might be tempted to say 7½. Despite the low difficulty level this is a wonderful little challenge and well worth adding to any puzzler's collection. After you have solved it, you really need to hand this to the non-puzzlers in your lives as it will keep them occupied for a little while but not be impossible for them to solve with a little thought. Just right as a belated Xmas present maybe? 

I really need to get the rest of Yuu-san's puzzles quite soon - there is just something so compulsive about them.

I hope that you all have a lovely Christmas - try to stay safe out there. Whilst it is not nice to avoid seeing your family and friends at this time of year (or any time), you really do not want to spread this awful virus around and possibly be responsible for the deaths of your nearest and dearest. Please try to stay at home and not mix with others outside your households. We can see that things have taken a turn for the worst throughout Europe - things are getting really tough in my own hospital now and I hate to think how bad it will be whilst at work when this post publishes on the Sunday afternoon. The US catastrophe continues on its' horrific path. Hospitals everywhere are filling up and quite soon we will be forced to turn people away at the doors despite being very ill and elective admissions will need to stop making cancer and cardiovascular outcomes worse. Just stay home and look after yourselves...please!

Sunday 13 December 2020

Mrs S Rolls Her Eyes At Me

When I Ask Her For SHex

The Joy of Hex!
There are many of us of a certain age who vividly remember as a child when our parents bought something they were very secretive about and late at night when we were supposed to be asleep, we could hear lots of giggling going on downstairs as they perused a new book that was taking the world by storm. Yes, if you were alive in the early to mid 1970's there was a "certain book" that all but the religious nuts bought (it spent over a year in the top 5 best seller list) and us kids were all aware of it but not allowed to have a look. Just think of what I could have learned at age 6 from it.

Stunning boxes inside -
perfect for a high end Hex Toy
I was astounded to learn that Big Steve and Ali (the co-owners of TwoBrassMonkeys) had been practicing safe Hex together and were ready to release the fruits of their Hexual Hexperimentation to the puzzling world and beyond. It should not have been that big of a surprise since at the last MPP I was able to attend in person (back in February) we had all played with a prototype version of this creation - Steve had 3D printed a huge set of Hexagonal burr pieces. Allard described a bunch of us having a very enthusiastic coordinate motion group Hex here. I did not realise that after joining in with this deviant Hexperiment that the fruits of their labour would be quite so glorious.

Every single aspect of this puzzle set has been beautifully produced to create a Hexstatic Hexperience. The Two brass monkeys have created a Hexagonal burr set in brass (yes I have yet another Burr set to go with those mentioned last week) with fantastic packaging, a Joy of Hex book and even a Hex aid for those unable to have keep it up alone or without a helpful Hex partner to assist them. It is always possible that you might need to buy one of those little blue pills that are being advertised by email all the time or maybe you might need help from the puzzling Urologist, Steve C with his array of unspeakably painful devices to help you with your Hexual organs. Personally, I think having solo Hex, can still be fun with a nice piece of 3D printed plastic to help you and avoiding chemical or surgical assistance. I am 3 long paragraphs in and still not shown you their masterpiece, so here it is:

This is the full Hex kit. This allows you to try many many Hexual positions if you are strong enough.
Their site is selling either 3 individual Hex challenges or a beautiful Hex kit which adds an extra 5 pieces along with a Hex manual and the Hex aid. Needless to say, I wanted the full Hexual experience and bought the kit. Each hex piece is milled from solid brass and is 6cm (2.36") long making an assembled puzzle weigh in at about 840g (1.8Lbs). The whole kit gave our delivery man quite a shock at a Hexcessive 3.8kg (8.5lbs) of Hexy fun.

Even the book cover is reminiscent of the naughty book from last century - they have the lettering completely correct and inside is a wonderful fore-play-word from Dr Eric Shun. The book is printed on heavy card, spiral bound with Hex pictures too - I suggest that, like happened to me many years ago, you definitely shouldn't let your children see this book and these Hex toys.

I have been working far far too hard recently and not had much chance to play at all (yesterday, when I could have been having Hex with my lovely wife, I was forced to spend 10 hours writing our on-call rotas instead which was far less fun). This morning, however, I decided to start at the beginning and have try the most basic Hexual position, the Missionary. I am terrible at assembly of puzzles but this one really is solvable alone. I asked Mrs S to hold it upright for me but she said that she had a headache and did not want Hex just now (I guess that just after breakfast is not the most opportune time). Luckily the Hex aid is really useful and keeps things upright as long as you need:

A very nicely made Hex aid
Keeping things up
You still need a certain amount of Hexpertise
I set to work playing with the 12 pieces - for all these puzzles they need to be placed in sets of 3 in four different Hexual orientationsand it is great fun to play with yourself until it goes just so. Like all good Hex, it's pretty clear when you have got it right and the end result is just so satisfying:

Despite the lack of help from Mrs S I have satisfactorily had Hex!
Having completed this one, I will need to brace myself to try and have Hex with my friend Derek! The computing groundwork for this Hextravaganza was performed by Derek who analysed the possible pieces using Burrtools and a VERY VERY powerful computer (I guess that cyber Hex is better with a machine that has lots of RAM?) and he has a Hex challenge named after him - Bish Bash Bosch which apparently requires co-ordinate motion. The description seems to say that I might need 6 hands. My medical degree tells me that will need a third person and I am absolutely certain that Mrs S will not participate in a threesome with Derek or anyone else...particularly me! I do worry that I will be unable to complete this puzzle but I will give it a good try.

After that there are another 28 challenges in the book for me to try and then many thousands more if my back and brain are up to it! Whatever you do when you get to the end of the book, do NOT look at the rear cover page - the sight might put you off Hex for life! Don't press that spoiler button!! Just DON'T do it! I cannot be held responsible if you do - the sight of Big Steve might ruin you.

I guess images like that is what the internet is best for!

Go and get your copies of the Joy of Hex at their site whilst it's still available

Stay safe out there, it's still pretty dangerous as we are in the second wave and the USA is sort of in a third wave with massive numbers of people getting sick. The vaccines are just around the corner and all my research into them points to the fact that they are safe and effective - so much so that I felt able to accept my first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Wednesday. 

Sunday 6 December 2020

Did I Need Yet Another New Burr Set?

That will be a definite.....YES! 

DDD Burr set box
DDD Burr set interior and pieces
First of all, before I start my usual drivel, let me advertise my friend Steve's new blog home - Boxes and Booze has moved from Blogger to Squarespace and he now has his very own domain name and a gorgeous new site hosted at Like a lot of us who have been forced to use the awful new Blogger post editor from Google and hate it, Steve has sought an alternative that is less dreadful and seems to have found it. Unlike a lot of us, he has actually got off his arse and done the work to move platforms. Go over there, bookmark the site and enjoy his particular brand of puzzling alcoholic fun. Now if only I had the courage to attempt to migrate nearly 10 years of blogging across....

On to today's subject matter. Yes, it's yet another burr set! Did I need another one? Mrs S definitely asked that when it turned up - of course I would never let her know when it went up for sale. I NEVER let her know when I am actually in the process of buying new toys, that sort of thing is on a strictly "need to know basis" and she doesn't. The only thing she needs to know is when to answer the door to the postman, UPSman, FedExman, Yodelman etc. Sorry dear... Whack! Ouch! Oops! 

How many do I have? Shuffles feet, looks down sheepishly. Then runs upstairs to get them and take a lovely photograph:

Erm, I seem to have 6 of them.
I appear to be rather addicted to sets of puzzles - with all of these I have enough challenges to last me a lifetime but still I never say no to more of them. Whack! Ouch! The latest addition to my collection which I have only just begun to play with is the DDD burr set from Eric Fuller in a collaboration with by Darryl Adams and Bryan Turner. It was described as:

"In the 1970s, Bill Cutler published a complete summary of the solid 6-piece burrs that could be formed from “notchable” pieces. He presented a set of 42 pieces that would make all 314 solid, notchable puzzles. I wanted a smaller set. One that was easy to make (notchable) and also allows enough interesting puzzles to guide a user through puzzles of increasing difficulty. I call this set “DDD” for “Darryl’s Dense Dozen” (or to my kids, “Dad’s Dense Dozen”). The set is “dense” in that it makes a lot of puzzles:

There are 24 solid puzzles 

There are 530 total puzzles (the additional 506 have empty hidden holes)

There are 42 puzzles with only one solution"

Whilst I already have the pieces separately that are in this set, I really wanted a very small portable set and also thought it would be nice to have a metal set of burr sticks so that I needn't be worried about damage. They produced a brass set with a gorgeous Leopardwood box and a slightly cheaper Aluminium set with a Padauk box which I chose to prove to Mrs S that I didn't always buy the most expensive puzzles I could find Whack! Ouch! Plus, I have already bought quite a few Brass puzzles from Big Steve and Ali and am spending some time polishing them as I like my puzzles shiny rather than patinated. Oh yes, have you bought the Kong puzzle? If you haven't then you should get a copy before they sell out as they only made a few extras after their Kickstarter campaign finished.

Yet again, because of my workload I did not manage much puzzling time (I cannot wait until the whole population is vaccinated and we can work more normally) but did keep trying in desperation to have something to write about. I failed to solve the rest of the puzzles that had been left from last week's blog post and then singularly failed to solve any of the incredibly complex Grenade puzzles from Aaron Wang and needed to have some success in my life. Out came the DDD burr set and a few challenges which I was able to solve and which kept me happy for one more week.

Beautiful construction and really lovely aluminium burr sticks
I am usually terrible at assembly puzzles but for some reason, I was able to spend a few happy evenings dropping pieces on my cat's head and not disturbing him too much because the aluminium is quite light and the pieces are nice and small. So far I have only solved the puzzles that use the solid key piece (which is probably why I was successful) and have found it really quite relaxing - a change from the usual bwain-bending stuff I usually go for.

Hooray! I finally solved something!
This success may not continue as I work my way through the rest of the puzzles on the lid and the others in the pdf that Eric has supplied but I am happy that something has gone right for once.

Now, are you interested in Hex? I know that I am! If you are a certain age (like me) then you will remember a certain book from your childhood that your parents would definitely NOT let you read. I know I wasn't allowed to look at it - my parents let me drink alcohol instead! Big Steve and Ali (along with the genius that is Derek Bosch) have created a burr set with a difference that will take you back to those heady days of trying to sneak around and look at something you weren't supposed to. Yes, They have created a burr set based on hexagonal pieces - it's on the way to me as I type and Mrs S is really not impressed that it is large and weighs 3.8Kg (8.5Lbs). I plan on letting her loose and doing her worst to Steve and Ali when she next gets to meet them again.

Big brass Hex-set on its way to me.
Whack! Ouch! Sorry dear.
If you also need an extra and very different burr set then you probably should visit Twobrassmonkeys and buy a copy before they sell out.

Keep safe everyone - it is still very dangerous out there...especially if you are in the USA.

Sunday 29 November 2020

Plastic Puzzles From Hanayama...

They make me anxious but are still fantastic...

Lucky Cube

Double Cube
Not had much time for play recently after my Pelikan puzzle solving marathon whilst I had some annual leave - Now I am back at work, I have barely touched a puzzle.

I suspect that many of you will have never even heard of these before and yet they are made by Hanayama puzzles. They are not seen very often and I don't think they have been put up for sale outside of Japan. I was captivated when my friend Nigel (the very originator of the Midlands Puzzle Party) posted a few pictures of these last year on his FB page and asked whether anyone had solved one of the last challenges in the book. I had never seen one and asked a question or two and Nigel was very encouraging about them - he even went as far as to say that one was a candidate for his best of the year choice. Nigel is a highly skilled solver and very much a connoisseur. If he says to get something then I really do sit up and pay attention. In fact, he is pretty much responsible for my 25th wedding anniversary present - he put me in contact with someone to help me acquire my grail puzzle - the Berrocal Goliath sculpture. Duly motivated to try them, I found someone selling these in Japan and got in touch - after an exchange of Yen, they were whisked across the planet and arrived Chez moi where I delightedly unpacked, photographed and started to play...

The instructions on the back are not terribly helpful - to this day, I still have no idea what they say:

Does anyone know what this means?
Despite not understanding the instructions I took the puzzles out of the packaging and looked at the booklets that came with them hoping for some more information...Nope! But despite this it does seem quite clear what to do - make the drawn shapes out of the pieces inside. Easy? Nope!

These really are quite pretty to look at and wonderfully tactile. Then I got stuck! (what did you expect?) It would appear that they are really REALLY difficult. Not only are they tough to solve but they are also quite difficult to describe - I have them classified as a sequential movement puzzle in my catalogue but others might call them assembly puzzles. Each of these is a pair of complex plastic structures with shapes that are connected together along an edge. This edge allows them to be flipped and folded into lots of interesting shapes and as there is a pair of them in each box then for some of the challenges the pair needs to be interlocked with each other to make more complex shapes.

Lucky Cube looks like a Hashimoto cube
Really complex pieces
These things make absolutely fabulous worry beads as they fold in and out of themselves. After you have made a few flexes, it is quite hard even to get them to fit back together. There are 30 challenges in the booklet and I have so far only managed about 15 of them. They are even highly repeatable (unlike most Hanayama puzzles) because once you have solved a challenge and moved on it is still just as hard to do it a second time. Here is one of the easy first challenges:

Even this took me a few minutes to work out
Some of the more difficult challenges have a Japanese description which I would love to understand as it may help me work out what to do

The bottom of the right page looks fearsome and maybe the text might help?
My real favourite of these two puzzles is the Double cube which looks a lot simpler in construction with many less faces to the pieces but somehow this does not necessarily make it a significantly easier puzzle:

Double cube - easier than Lucky cube? Not for me!
There are only 14 challenges in the booklet and yet after more than a year with this puzzle I have only solved half of them. It is really really tough.

An easy challenge
Challenge 2 - I couldn't solve again today
Just imagine how tough it is creating these:

So why do they make me anxious? I am terrified of breaking a hinge. They do seem pretty robust and I have spent many many hours twisting and turning without causing any harm but still I am frightened. Also for some reason just trying to solve these puzzles and failing after 15 - 20 minutes, I seem to get anxious. This is not something that happens with other puzzles but somehow is a problem with these and forces me to put them down after a limited amount of fiddling time. Despite this they are great and I cannot recommend them any more highly. Thanks Nigel for the heads up on something I would never normally have gone for.

What I really need is a way to translate the boxes and booklet text into English - any volunteers out there?

If you get a chance to buy these then don't hesitate...just buy - they are fabulous. In fact they are so good that they are candidates for my top puzzles of the year.

Keep safe out there everyone.

Sunday 22 November 2020

Just in Time For...

Sunday to Post an Article or For You to Buy Xmas Presents

Upcoming puzzles from the New Pelikan Workshop
I have had a few days off work this week which proved to be very welcome. An odd time to take leave you might think but I had to take my allowed leave before December or lose it completely so here we are...Late November, miserable weather and a pandemic meaning nowhere to go. Luckily for me, Jakub let me buy advance copies of his upcoming releases to play with just at the right time.

"Which ones would you like me to write about?" I asked. 
"All of them." he said.
GULP! The pressure was on.

The five puzzles this time are stunning as you would expect and a very nice set of challenges. Whack Ouch! Mrs S was really not very happy with me or Jakub as I spent several hours a day this last week "wasting my time with toys" and not doing anything useful around the house. I, on the other hand, have had a very restful few days desperately trying to solve these in time for today's blog post. The pressure is really on as I don't want to delay Jakub's business and most importantly don't want to be responsible for delaying you getting your hands on these wonderful new challenges.

Castle by Christoph Lohe

This puzzle is the only burr in the upcoming release. It is absolutely stunning made from American Walnut and Cherry - it even has turrets and small windows in the walls. There are 4 burr sticks to be removed from the Walnut frame. It is a classic design by Christoph Lohe who over the years has designed many many burrs with absolutely fascinating shapes and a wonderful move sequence that you discover by careful exploration and deduction. Each movement reveals one or more options for further travel and some very nice clever moves that give a great Aha! feeling when found. The sequence is actually very logical and not too difficult - this would actually be suitable as a caged burr for beginners. Having removed the pieces then it is perfectly possible to scramble them, leave it for a while to try and forget the sequence and then try to work out the reassembly from scratch. That part took me quite a while but even a numbskull like me could manage it.

Four beautifully made sticks to fit inside the frame

Santa by Dr Volker Latussek

Dr Latussek must have a mind like a steel vice! I have no idea how he keeps coming up with these amazing packing puzzles! I have so far completely failed to solve the final one in the Euklid series (for Nick) and then I receive another beautiful challenge. This consists of a 5x5x5 box beautifully made from purpleheart with 12 Acacia pieces to be fitted inside flush with the top surface. There are 2 different types of pieces and each of which consists of 10 voxels. This means that there will be some holes inside but not very many. I am terrible at this sort of puzzle because I just don't know the right way to think - I tend to make lots of random attempts which as you will appreciate seldom gets a puzzler very far.

The random positioning did reveal a few interesting ideas and whilst I was muttering to myself about it, Mrs S suggested I "shut up and get on with it without disturbing her". She could not understand why I was struggling but refused to try it for herself. In trying to explain the difficulty I realised that the best approach to this puzzle is to work out how best to distribute the holes and then find a way that would enable this. Even knowing that crucial fact does not actually help a whole lot. After a little thinking© I noticed something and tried something new. OMG YES! That was really clever. This is a very approachable puzzle and well worth adding to your collection. Now I really must get back to Euklid for Nick! A very minor spoiler is hidden behind the button - only press it if you aren't bothered by a minor giveaway.

Super Magnetic by Alexander Magyarics

Super Magnetic
I have to say up front that I am totally addicted to Alexander's designs! There is something truly special about them. He has taken the type of puzzle designed by Osanori Yamamoto (see below) and added a whole new dimension of fun to them. This consists of an Acacia box which has a plus shaped opening on the top and a minus shaped opening on the opposite side and 4 rather interesting but fairly simple shapes (made from Wenge) to be placed inside such that the opening is completely covered. 

Straight away it becomes clear that there are some serious constraints preventing the pieces being placed inside easily. The big piece requires 4 moves to place it inside and the presence of the other pieces inside will seriously hamper this but placing it first almost completely blocks the entry for the other pieces. OK...time to think© yet again! I thunk quite a lot about this and did it "outside of the box" yet still it didn't help much. With my pea-sized bwain hurting quite a lot, I tried a systematic approach - there are only a few ways that 2 of the pieces can be arranged inside so how can the others be arranged around them? This process did actually help me a lot but still left me with a few options to go to trial and error. 

After 4-6 hours, I finally got it - the Aha! moment was ecstatic and then I tried to put the pieces inside only to realise that there is another dimension to this wonderful puzzle! It takes quite a bit of dexterity to actually make your planned solution work. Fingers won't fit inside easily alongside the pieces and they need to be slid around by gravity all whilst preventing rotational moves which can block things. At one point I had a horrible feeling I had it all jammed up but finally managed to get to the solution. 

I cannot believe how difficult that was!!
Undoing the solution was just as much of a challenge as putting it all inside. This was wonderful!

Triple 4 by Osanori Yamamoto

Triple 4
Oh yes! I love it when Jakub brings out more of these. Osanori is the master of the "simple" packing puzzle. Simple because it is just a small volume to be packed (and often not even fully packed) and often with pretty large entry holes to get the pieces through plus a hole in the opposite side to allow more room for manoeuvring. This version of Triple 4 is made with a Mahogany box and Ipe pieces. It's quite lovely!

This one has a giant big entry hole so should be pretty easy! Maybe for you it is but for me...oh boy! The pieces are relatively complex placing real constraints on the ability to insert them and the diagonal cuts for the hole is a significant restriction to movement. With only a single voxel clear at the opposite side, this made using it to make room rather more complex than expected. Making a cube shape outside of the box was remarkably easy - too easy in fact! I found loads and loads of cubes and many of them met the criteria to fill the holes in the box (after solving it, I put the shape with restrictions into burrtools and there are 26 possible cubes). This approach was going to have to be modified. Maybe I should start with looking at the restrictions for the entry method? Yes, that might just help. After about 4 hours whilst watching TV with Mrs S, I had a major breakthrough and it was solved! Yesssss! Brilliant design!

That is quite a challenge!

Pentaring by Osanori Yamamoto

This simply stunning puzzle from the fevered brain of Osanori-san is made with a Zebrano box and some very vibrant Padauk pieces. Here there are only three pieces to be fitted inside but they are fairly complex and there are 2 rather large holes diagonally opposite each other to be filled at the same time. That single diagonal wall on the entries will prove very important. 

Initially I could find several ways to make the 3x3x3 cube but I couldn't for the life of me find an assembly that would end up with the opposite corners filled. It took me a couple of hours to find a potential assembly only to be stymied by the realisation that one of the pieces was oriented in such a way that it could not be inserted inside the box at all. Back to the drawing board.

This morning I was starting to worry that I would not have anything to write about today - I didn't want to split the post about these up as that's not fair on you and I had nothing else ready. In a frenzy after breakfast this morning, I tried this one again and again and again! I had missed an alternative cube assembly - this was easily done because the positioning of the pieces was particularly unintuitive. Having found a new shape, I had to find out whether there was a sequence that could fit it into the cube frame. Again, I struggled but just in the "nick of time" I solved it so I can reveal them to you. There is a very minor spoiler in the next picture so I have hidden it from you behind a show/hide button:

This is a wonderful challenge with a fantastic Aha! moment.

All of these should be released by Jakub and Jaroslav on the Pelikan Puzzle store within the next week or so. I suggest that you tell your significant others to buy them for you for Xmas or better yet, you do what I do and buy them yourself and let them know that your present is sorted! If you miss out on the selection from them then I am sure that they will also soon be available from PuzzleMaster amongst their enormous Pelikan selection.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends - enjoy your celebrations and time off. Take care everyone! Be safe out there. It takes no effort to put on a mask and it will help prevent this blasted virus spreading further.