Saturday, 22 July 2017

Sliced Puzzle Ball

The Sliced Puzzle Ball (SPB) designed by Vesa Timonen is probably one of the smallest interlocking puzzles around and certainly the smallest in my collection. 

I had met Vesa the first time during IPP33 in Tokyo, Japan and he was really very kind to gift his SPB (his Exchange Puzzle) to me. Measuring only a micro 16mm in diameter, it consist of 6 flat "board burr" pieces with curved edges and when joined together becomes a perfectly round ball. The SPB comes with its own nice little felt-lined gift box.

Sliced Puzzle Ball next to Cast Loop
In case you don't know who Vesa Timonen is, he is a well-known designer of a number of Hanayama Cast Series puzzles including the Infinity and the famous Loop. I also have one of his less common (but unusual) puzzle called the Onion.

My copy is made by Shapeways out of white and pink dyed nylon. The SPB is currently also available (at a much larger size of about 3+cm) for sale together with some of Vesa's other puzzles listed.

When I first played with it back in 2014, I struggled with the solution and couldn't figure how to disassemble it without breaking seemed so fragile! Needless to say, the handling of such a tiny puzzle was extremely fiddly and I kept dropping it out of my fingers.  I emailed him for a solution but Vesa didn't have a step by step one instead he directed me to his Shapeways listing which showed the 6 pieces separate in an exploded view. He also indicated that some force may be necessary for the initial move. Even with that, somehow things appeared to be stuck and I couldn't take the ball apart. 

Fast forward 3 years later and this second time round, I gave the SPB another go. I finally managed to take it apart, albeit with some force... the nylon is surprisingly resilient! Thankfully nothing broke. Putting it back together was unexpectedly much easier and strangely it didn't require any force...the pieces "just slid together" back into the shape of a ball, once the pieces were in their correct orientations and positions.

I tried to configure the puzzle using Burr Tools but the programme didn't come up with any solution. Again, not sure if I got the specs correct into Burr Tools. Maybe that's why the need for some force!

Friday, 14 July 2017


Two years ago, I received a copy of Tetro-Billes, courtesy of its designer and my good friend Frederic Boucher. Billes in French means "small balls"....

Tetro-Billes was entered in the IPP35 Puzzle Design Competition by Frederic and is classified as a 1.1 2-Dimensional assembly puzzle. In common puzzle terms, I would consider it as one from the pattern matching category of puzzles. 

Frederic, who lives in Japan, is a pretty prolific designer and does not just design a particular genre of puzzles but his scope is quite varied (and interesting), ranging from exotic wooden 3D packing puzzles like the Marble Cake and Artefacts to Impossible Objects like Smiley In A Bottle and stuff in between such as his dexterity puzzles like Pyramida and Manholes 55 and a couple of burrs here and there.

Now back to the puzzle. I had kept it away for about two years since 2015, forgot about it and only recently re-discovered it and decided to give it a go. The puzzle consists of five wooden pieces (made of Japanese Beech) each containing blue and yellow marbles held in holes drilled into the wood. Quality of construction is very good and the marbles all fit tightly without fear of falling loose (although Frederic indicates that they can be removed and changed about for other sorts of challenges...which I didn't try for fear of damage)

The object of the puzzle is assemble the pieces so that the marbles form five different tetromino shapes - three in blue and two in yellow, with two solutions. Sounds rather simple doesn't it? considering its just 5 pieces to move around on a flat surface. Well I couldn't be more wrong. I spent several sessions over a few days before I discovered what I thought was the solution and happily shot an email to Frederic (which I usually do when I solve his puzzles or when I need help). Or at least I thought I did. Frederic reverted to say that while I have 5 tetraminos, two of them are identical (the yellow marbles). The photo below shows a solution, but its not THE intended solution.

I then spent another good several sessions over two days trying to figure this one out...but thus far have been unsuccessful. The time I allotted myself for this puzzle had exceeded so I decided to throw in the towel and look at the accompanied solution. Sigh...I was close but not quite there.

For anyone wanting something different to challenge your wits or if you are interested in any of Frederic's puzzles mentioned above (and mind you he may even have new ones that I am unaware of), PM me and I will link you up him. Perhaps he might just have a copy or two lying around available for sale.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Hanayama Dice Box

This weekend I played with the plastic version of a very famous Akio Kamei designed puzzle, the Dice Box. The original wooden versions hail from the Karakuri Creation Group of Japan, of which Kamei is a member and are handcrafted from exotic hardwoods. The copy that I have is a reproduction made of plastic and comes from Hanayama.

There are already several reviews of the Dice Box by puzzle collectors/bloggers Oliver Sovary-Soos and Brian Pletcher, so you can read their experiences with the original wooden version. There's even a video uploaded by PuzzleboxWorld.

While not in wood nor crafted by Kamei himself, the plastic version by Hanayama is no less of a nice puzzle. While I have not played with the wooden version, I am confident that Hanayama, as a reputable Japanese manufacturer of puzzles would have faithfully followed the design of Kamei in coming up with an inexpensive version of what is a collector's (and very expensive) copy of the Dice Box. 

My copy measures a smaller size of 5.6cm cube all round, about a third of the size of its wooden cousins. As far as quality is concerned, no issues here. The plastic feels solid and the sliding panel that opens the box slides smoothly with little free play. The inside bottom of the box is even lined with a piece of red felt, such attention to detail. Obviously for a plastic version which is significantly cheaper than the original, the pips (or dots) here are printed on the six surfaces as opposed to the wooden version which has recessed holes and contrasting woods. 

What is strange is that unlike the wooden original, the Hanayama version comes already solved, ie with the lid open. I would think the wooden version is harder, since it comes closed and being a Kamei creation, finding the panel that slides would already be a challenge in itself. As John Rausch said

"The Die is one of Kamei's most famous secret opening boxes. Familiarity with the spots on a normal die will help you discover the first clue to opening it. The objective is find a way into the secret compartment that is shown in the 2nd photograph. The mechanism is outstanding. Perhaps the best of any Kamei box"

The object of my copy is to close the lid, give it a good shake, turn it around in all directions (to activate the locking mechanism) and then try to open the lid again. I did precisely these and found the lid shut tight. Sounds of moving parts can be heard inside the puzzle and the trick is to figure how to solve the mechanism which unlatches the sliding top. As you can't see what goes on inside (nor the mechanism) even when the lid is opened, there is little clue offered as to how to go about solving the Dice Box once shut. 

So the initial stages of play consisted of random tilting and and turning of the box and even some light tapping (from the Japanese instructions on the box, I could not tell if there was something to indicate "no tapping/banging"). I have some experience with hidden mechanism puzzle boxes and I tried a couple of methods to see if these did the trick. After several minutes of play, suddenly the lid slid open by itself! I am not exactly sure what I had done correctly, but I had a rough idea of the moves needed to repeat the result. The next several attempts resulted in easy solves. I knew what needed to be done, but only had a vague idea of how the mechanism inside worked. I was able to repeat solve most of time using the sequence of moves which I assume to be correct. 

The plastic Dice Box (in several colour variations) is available from Amazon and Ebay from between $14/- to $40/- while the Kamei-made wooden ones, in excess of $150/- are available from PuzzleboxWorld and Art Of Play

Thursday, 29 June 2017


Stewart Coffin puzzles, especially those hand-crafted, exotic wood and multi-piece interlocking ones are not typically readily available for sale most of the time. And when they do become available, and even tho' they're pretty pricey, they get snapped up in a jiffy. 

So when I chanced upon the Hexsticks in a hotel souvenir store in Hokkaido, Japan last year, I bought a copy, even though I am not a die-hard fan of such puzzles...but what the was at a rather reasonable price of 2,900 Yen, or about US$25/-.

The Hexsticks is Coffin design #25A, which was based upon his earlier #25, the Hectix. My version came from a Japanese company called Woody Craft and there doesn't appear to be any website link for this brand. My copy, being made in Japan is a quality product and very well constructed. Not sure what sort of wood, probably local but the fit and finish is very good with no sloppiness or movement of the pieces in the assembled state.

The Hexsticks consist of 12 pieces, 9 of which are identical, cut in a certain way with notches and the remaining 3 also identical, but their notches cut differently. All the pieces have a hexagon cross section and the notches are all cut diagonally at a specific angle. Apparently there are three solution shapes that can be formed from the 12 pieces. This puzzle (and its variants) has been crafted and produced by a number of well-known puzzle makers.

The puzzle came un-assembled and thankfully, there were instructions on how to put the pieces together (for one of the solutions). Honestly, not being good at these sort of puzzles, I would not have been able to solve it without help. Even if the sticks were quad-coloured and I had completed puzzle photo to follow, it may still have eluded me.The instructions are in Japanese but the accompanying photos were clear enough for me to follow without resorting to trying to figure out the text.

I found that after the first solve and re-doing it second time, I could repeatedly solve it without the instructions after some practice. With 9 identical pieces to start with at the beginning, it is not too difficult to memorize where each piece goes where after a few tries. Completed, it displays very well and truly looks the part as a very serious and complicated puzzle indeed!

Both Brian Pletcher and  Kevin Sadler have solved their respective Hexsticks and Hectix Revisited copies and you can read about their experiences here and here. These guys are super-solvers, so it wasn't too difficult for them.

For those interested, there are several places where the Hexsticks is sold, one is a Japanese online retailer while the other is a US based home accessories store called Monolier, the latter which incidentally sells the same puzzle I have here but at nearly twice the price! And of course Amazon and Ebay as well, just do a search for "Hectix". And for those hard-core puzzle fans that like to know even more about burrs and polyhedral puzzles, read Stewart Coffin's very interesting and informative book here.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Hanayama Cast Shift

One of Hanayama's latest Cast Series puzzles, the Shift was released in February 2017 with their updated and contemporary packaging bearing the name "HUZZLE", a combo of the words Hanayama and Puzzle. I was very fortunate and had the great pleasure of receiving the Shift (and Box Dice puzzle) over a nice Japanese dinner from the management folks of Hanayama, namely Kunihiro Kobayashi and Takeshi Onishi, the President and Sales Manager respectively, when both gentlemen were in Singapore for a business trip early this week. 

Measuring 4cm all round, the Shift at first glance looks somewhat like a 4-piece interlocking board burr made of metal; and there are a couple of other such similar looking wooden designs such as the Lattice and Four Frames designed by Andrey Ustjuzhanin. The Shift is cut from sheet metal (thanks to fellow puzzler/collector Michel van Ipenburg who pointed this out) and chrome plated to a glossy shiny surface. The 4 pieces consist of two congruent pairs with slots and corner triangles cut into them. If it's any help, let me say the triangles are cosmetic only and doesn't affect the solve. For better grip perhaps. 

The Shift was designed by Russian designer Kirill Grebnev who, together with Dmitry Pevnitskiy, was also behind the Cast Harmony puzzle. Apart from physical appearance, there is no other similarity between the Shift and the type of wooden board burrs named above. Certainly not the solving! Quality wise it's up to the usual Hanayama standards which is very good. Takeshi-san, the Sales Manager was telling me that Hanayama has a stringent quality control programme particularly for their puzzles that are manufactured outside of Japan. I don't own many Cast Puzzles but for those that I do, rarely have I encountered any real quality issues. The tolerances for the Shift is just nice and the pieces slide and move smoothly. 

Kunihiro Kobayashi (right), President of Hanayama Toys, Japan with Sales Manager Takeshi Onishi (left)

The Shift is rated 3 stars for difficulty, meaning it is of average difficulty. Give the Shift to an experienced puzzler and the difficulty quotient would probably be, well, average. But to a pure novice, it could mean "damn difficult" or impossible. IMHO, I think the rating here is about right. It's not too difficult, but certainly provides a fair measure of challenge. It took me a good 10-15 minutes before I figured out how the pieces interacted to unravel them. Oh, Burr Tools won't work here for sure, cos you can't solve it the normal burr way.

Once the prices came apart, to put them back together again was just the reverse procedure. Just make sure the right pieces are slotted against each other or you'll find yourself getting a bit stuck. With practice, the puzzle can be easily repeatedly solved. Like most of the Cast Series puzzles rated 3-star for their difficulty, the Shift is good for both the casual and experienced puzzler alike. For me personally, I like the Shift because I can see all the pieces and nothing is hidden from view, and the solution is pretty elegant. A fun solve no less.

And for the very reasonable price of the Cast Series puzzles, typically around US$11.50 to US$12 each, you would be hard pressed to get better value elsewhere, both in terms of overall quality and puzzle experience.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Chequered Cube

I have known Neil Hutchison for the last several years and also met him on a couple of occasions during past IPPs. Chequered Cube was Neil's IPP34 Exchange Puzzle in London in 2014 and the first puzzle design from him in my collection. Neil, also know as "The Juggler" in the puzzle community, is an excellent woodworker and also has his own blog site, where he posts puzzle stuff now and again, but unfortunately not often enough!

Chequered Cube came in a smallish nice fitting cardboard box and when I first opened the lid, I thought it was some kind of burr or interlocking puzzle made out of at most half a dozen or so pieces squeezed into a 5cm-sized package.

Little did I know that as I spilled out the contents, the burr was not actually a burr but a diminutive 3D cube packing puzzle comprising a staggering 13 separate parts made of various dark (walnut) and light (maple) pieces glued together.

The pieces are all precisely cut with sharp edges, and fit together incredibly well and the quality of the workmanship is astounding. I am truly impressed how Neil was able to produce the minimum 100 copies needed for the Exchange.

The object of the puzzle is take apart the cube and re-assemble it into a 2x2 checkerboard cube. According to the instructions, there are four ways to put together the cube but only one solution for the checkerboard pattern on the sides.

While this was a beautifully made puzzle and all those 13 pieces were lovely to touch, the difficulty quotient was totally out of my league. Even just trying to put the pieces back together to form a cube (without checkerboard pattern) proved to be too difficult for me. I simply could not handle that many pieces, the shape they are in, with all their notches and grooves made me want to faint with confusion. But lets get real here...any puzzle with over a dozen pieces (and designed by an experienced puzzler) would unlikely ever be a walk in the park, would it?

Solved State
After much effort and time, I decided to find the solution via Burr Tools. For those of you puzzlers out there who have problems with this sort of puzzles or interlocking/burrs etc, trust me, its still fun, thrilling (and challenging) just to configure the puzzle in Burr Tools to find a solution. Yes....a bit of a lame consolation! Using Burr Tools with the relevant colour constraints, the programme came up with the solution on how to form the Chequered Cube with a checkerboard pattern on all six sides and I was able to put the cube back together in no time.

Chequered Cube is a fine work of art for a puzzle with great attention to detail. For those of you who are die-hard fans of 3D packing puzzles, well, this is one you should try to get from Neil. Not sure if he has any left but he can certainly be contacted via his blog site. I just wished that he had also made a matching wooden box to house the this would have been so cool!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Coke Bottle #4 - With Padlock And Chain

The last time I played with a Wil Strijbos designed bottle puzzle was his very "burlesque" looking Limited Edition Dita Von Teese Perrier Bottle. And that was nearly two years ago. Dita Von Teese was a very fun solve in more ways than one! and certainly much easier than this Coke Bottle #4 (the latter according to fellow puzzle blogger Allard Walker's naming classification).

I have had the Coke Bottle #4 for quite a while now, I would say more than several years and just this evening decided to take it out to have a play (I still have about 4 more unsolved bottles including a opaque Coke Bottle, another of Wil's designs).

Coke Bottle #4 consist of a regular Coke bottle with a plastic cap, attached to it is a thick chain with a small padlock secured on the end. The padlock is inside the bottle and is restrained inside the bottle by a single chain link over the shackle (see photo). The chain link prevents the padlock from coming out of the mouth and the object is to unlock the padlock and take everything out.

Like most of Wil's bottle designs (and others), they look like impossible objects but we all know that its physically solvable of course; just that it may take a lot of effort and usually for impossible bottle puzzles, a fair (or even great) amount of dexterity. As you can see from the photo, you need the keys to unlock the padlock. I might add at this point that no external tools are allowed as well and you must work with only what you have been given with the puzzle. 

I did my usual bit of analysis to try to figure out the best way to unlock and remove the padlock. For a while I was getting no where and I was wondering if I am allowed to remove the set of keys from the chain. I had figured out what to do but couldn't solve the damn thing for a while with the keys still attached. I was rather impatient to get on with the puzzle so I emailed Wil Strijbos, Kevin Sadler and Allard (there's a time difference of about 7 hours between Europe and Singapore). I wasn't sure if either Allard or Kevin had solved the Coke Bottle #4 but figured at least one of them would be able to respond. Surprisingly I got a reply from all three gents within minutes of each other and all confirmed that the keys can be removed from the chain for the solve. Once I did this, I was able to unlock and remove the padlock within minutes; not too difficult I might add. Quite satisfied with my achievement I decided to leave the reassembly until the next evening. 

The difficult part came the next evening when I tried to reassemble everything back into the bottle. Like what I gathered from Allard and Kevin, the locking of the padlock back into the bottle was a real pain and caused many puzzlers untold amounts of frustration. 

Remember you can't use any "external" implements or tools, just what is provided with the puzzle. I had a fair idea how to re-lock the padlock and went about testing my theory. The re-assembly I must admit is very finicky and requires a great amount of dexterity, but its not something that is excruciatingly difficult to do. Not the kind of difficulty like when you can't solve a high level burr but the type where you know exactly what needs to be done, but you just can't seem to do it physically, given that you can only use what you have that comes with the puzzle. Nonetheless all ended well and I managed to lock the padlock again inside the bottle. Whew! 
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