Neil's Puzzle Building Blog
15Jul/145

Reproducing a puzzle

It's been a little while since I sat down and wrote anything, and it's not for lack of puzzles to write about, but really because I've been so busy in my own shop making puzzles. With IPP looming, I had set myself some lofty goals of designing and producing my first exchange puzzle. That in itself was a lot of work, but I didn't stop there. I went on to make copies of Iwahiro's ODD Puzzle, then a small run of puzzles to give away to new IPP attendees, and then I took on my most ambitious project to date. I remade a Stickman box.

The finished box

The finished box

If you're a regular reader, you'll remember that some time back I won a Stickman Domino Box at auction, which needed a little work to turn it into a fully working Domino Box. Having made the Dominoes, and learned a lot about the box along the way, I had the insane idea that I should make a few copies of the box for other puzzlers. There were only 25 originals made by the Stickman Puzzle Box Company, and it's such a fun design, it really should be played with by more puzzlers. So with insanity on my shoulder, and time slipping away beneath me, I embarked on the most challenging project to date.

A new batch of Dominoes

A new batch of Dominoes

First off, I needed a new set of dominoes, so looking around the growing stockpile of exotic woods that I've purchased, I selected a number of boards, and set about the same process as before, and made a bunch of dominoes. I'll not go into the details, as I've covered them elsewhere, but in total I made up 11 sets of dominoes.


Puzzle Piece Bevel Jig

Puzzle Piece Bevel Jig

The last time I'd made the dominoes, I created the bevel on each edge using the router table, with a 45 degree bit. In fact that's how I've done all the bevels for every project so far. I've never been too happy with that as a process though. The pieces I tend to work with are a little small, and with a high speed rotating blade, it wouldn't take much for a piece to slip, and things to go wrong quickly. So taking some advice from fellow puzzle maker Eric Fuller, I created a new jig. As you can see, it's a 45 degree cradle, where the saw blade pokes out through the centre. This allows me to run the piece to be beveled over the blade pretty quickly, and the amount of the blade sticking out is so small, that it's almost impossible to stick a finger in the blade. Safety first!

A wider shot of the beveling jig

A wider shot of the beveling jig

As you can see from the wider shot, the jig is clamped to my fence, and also clamped to the table, so it won't move anywhere, making this a pretty safe jig. It's also fast. Since I don't need to put a push block onto the piece, and then guide it over the spinning router bit, the whole thing takes much less time.


Drilling Domino pips

Drilling Domino pips

Much like the last time I made dominoes, I had the jig and templates to cut the dots or 'pips' for the dominoes. With 11 sets, or 308 dominoes, or 1848 pips depending on how you want to look at it, there was a lot more work this time round. I'd learned from the last attempt when I ended up with blisters from where the drill rubbed against my fingers, and taped up my fingers at the appropriate points to save any further blistering. Sadly, not everything went to plan.

Disaster

Disaster

Around ¾ of the way through the process I hit a snag. My template drill bit exploded! The bit works by having a collar which is held onto the main body with an angled internal neck. So the collar can't come past that neck as it increases in diameter. The spring pushes it back to the point where the drill bit is covered, and when you push won inside the template the bit is exposed, allowing it to create a pip. Well it seems that since this drill bit made all the original sets of dominoes, it was just rather worn out, and the neck had work to the point where it no longer held the collar in place. With this, it was impossible to finish the dominoes, and I had to scramble to fins a replacement. Fortunately, Rockler sells the kits, and replacement bits ... so by mid week I had a replacement and could finish the pips. Dominoes complete, it was time to turn my attention to the puzzle carcass.

Basic pieces for the carcass

Basic pieces for the carcass

Before starting on making the boxes, I'd been studying the design of the joinery, and how the box had been made for weeks. I'll freely admit that I really didn't understand why Stickman had done things the way he had, but I had a good idea of what I was doing, and having taken lots of measurements, I proceeded to start making sawdust. Having surfaced and thicknessed the boards, I cut the basic side panels, the top and bottom, as well as the corner posts, and top/bottom frames. The wood choice was Katalox for the body and Cocobolo for the frame. The Katalox will darken over time to a dark black almost ebony like colour, but starts off as a warm rich chocolate brown. The contrast with the Cocobolo should be quite striking.

Initial test fit with rubber bands to hold things together

Initial test fit with rubber bands to hold things together

After an afternoon's work, I had all the various grooves cut to both support the panels, and allow the top and front to slide respectively when the box is opened. At this point, I came in from the shop, and announced to my wife that Stickman is a genius. Having not truly understood why the box was created the way it is, and the reasons behind design choices, previously, I now fully understood why each piece existed, and exactly how it interacted. Not only is the construction a work of art, it also requires the minimal number of cuts, and pieces to make everything work perfectly. There is an elegance to the design that I hadn't appreciated. Having spoken with Stickman about it, he agreed. It's only once you've tried to repair someone else's work, or remake it, that you truly appreciate the process they went through to make the final design. And yes, I'm lucky to be able to talk to the original designer, and get his input and feedback as I worked through this project!

Yes, that piece is still attached

Yes, that piece is still attached

With the main body cut and fitting perfectly, I turned my attention to the 'decorative' elements of the puzzle, namely the corner pillars. I'd cut the pieces to the right dimensions but needed to cut out the centre to create corner sections. My first pass on the saw left a rather fun little piece, but after a small adjustment, things were spot on. The joy of working with jigs is that you can make a small adjustment, re-cut, adjust until you're good, then just cut lots of exact replicas of a piece quickly and accurately.


Cocobolo matchsticks

Cocobolo matchsticks

When cutting the corners, I was left with a lot of cocobolo matchsticks. As with any exotics in the shop, these all end up in a scrap bin, and will eventually be used for something else. Nothing gets wasted!


Initial circular holes in the side plates

Initial circular holes in the side plates

The original puzzle is peppered with holes and gaps. They're not just because Stickman wanted to make the puzzle lighter (although in my case, working with Katalox which is a dense, heavy wood it's not a bad thing) but they're integral to solving the puzzle. You need to be able to see what's going on inside, and be able to poke your fingers through the sides to manipulate the dominoes. Stickman did all this work on a CNC machine, where effectively, he clamped the wood down, and let a computer controlling a router bit do all the hard work. I don't have a CNC machine, but I did need to replicate all the holes, and they had to be pretty close to the originals since larger holes would let dominoes escape.

To create the ovals in the sides, I started at the drill press with a Forstner bit and drilled the centres out. I had planned to then take the pieces to the scroll saw, and carefully cut out the ovals. Having tried this, on the first piece, I was entirely unimpressed with the result, and decided not to proceed with that method. Instead I went back to the drill press, and drilled an additional hole either side of the initial central hole, creating something close to an oval. Then I spent several hours with a Dremel to clean up the inside of the hole, and make the ovals smooth and consistent over all the panels. It might seem like a lot of work, but in the end it was a lot less work than my original idea would have been!

Time for a game of \

Time for a game of "Join the Dots"

While I was drilling 'ovals' for the side plates, I also drilled a lot of small holes in the top and bottom to allow me to create the stepped holes I needed. There's no clever way for me to do this without the CNC machines, and I had to do this by hand. Drilling holes at the corners allowed me to insert the blade of the scroll saw, and cutout the holes I needed. By having a hole at each corner, I can easily turn the blade, and get square corners. Before I could start working at the scroll saw though, I needed to have a template to follow, so after a game of "Join the Dots" I had reference lines I could follow.

Inserting the blade through the holes

Inserting the blade through the holes

This shows how the blade is inserted into the middle of the piece, and lets me cut out the hole without having to cut through the sides of the board. It might seem obvious, but there are very few tools in the shop that allow you to make such a cut, and the Scroll Saw is the only one that is close to safe, and accurate enough. The blade I was using cuts a saw kerf that is just 0.01" thick and leaves a very smooth finish, meaning that there was little additional work after cutting. Of course, I still had to take my time, and each plate took around 45 minutes to cut.

Forgive my Scottish knees

Forgive my Scottish knees

With one panel fully cut, there were only 13 more to cut. Over the course of the next couple of days, I slowly worked my way through them (and a good number of fresh blades ... Katalox is dense and dulls blades quickly) before sticking some sand paper to a lollypop stick, and sanding the edges of the holes to soften them, making the piece much nicer to hold.


My first dry fit

My first dry fit

With all the components cut, I could put the pieces together for the first time, and get a feeling for how the final puzzle would look. There was still a lot of work to be done before I could start gluing up the pieces, but this gave me a good feeling for the fit and the look of the finished puzzle.


Pre-finished front and top panels

Pre-finished front and top panels

Given that I would have to glue the puzzle together with the front and top panel in place, I went ahead and pre-finished those pieces. Once they were in place and the corner posts were added, there would be no way to remove them or access the insides to be able to apply finish. The other benefit to pre-finishing the pieces is that the lacquer and wax would help prevent the glue sticking to them, so if there was any glue squeeze-out, it wouldn't lock the puzzle solid. After all the work to get to this stage, that's the last thing I wanted!


Piles of puzzle box pieces

Piles of puzzle box pieces

With the boxes mostly taken care of, the dominoes made, there is one additional element needed. There are five additional pieces in various shapes that go into the box to make things more troublesome for the solver. I decided to make these from Redheart and Purpleheart. Each piece is a solid section of wood, and I cut the notches out of the piece. This gives me a nice continuous grain, and a stronger piece. Not to mention that there's less work for me to cut out a piece than having to cut twice as many pieces, and then re-glue them later. As with the dominoes, these pieces are passed over the bevel jig, to soften the edges, however there is a small problem. Given the internal edges it's not possible to get the blade into them. This meant that each internal bevel is cut by hand with a chisel. So lots of extra work from my side, but I end up with a clean consistent bevel around the pieces.


Internal blocks glued in place, ready for the final glueup.

Internal blocks glued in place, ready for the final glueup.

On the front panel, there are two blocks which are glued to the inside which are the final part of the locking mechanism. A gap needs to be freed below these blocks to allow the front panel to slide, and then the top to slide. Each piece needs to be added at the right time, or you end up being unable to glue the piece in place, and end up with firewood rather than a puzzle.

By this point it seemed like I'd spent weeks and still had nothing more than a pile of pieces to show for my work. The glueup for the box is rather complicated. Unlike most other projects I'd tackled, the box can't be glued up, then assembled. The glueup is the assembly. The way things work is that the front panel, and top panel both have 'wings' which travel in the grooves of the side panels. In each panel, a section of the wings are removed to allow them to pass the pillars on the corners and the trim on the bottom. So when I mentioned earlier that Stickman is a genius, this is why. Those pieces which look like trim and decoration are actually integral parts of the mechanism. What is means is that for the glueup, the top and front are inserted, then the pillars are glued in place. This prevents the top panel from being removed again, so I had to make sure that everything was in the right place.

Seven Domino Boxes Standing in a row

Seven Domino Boxes Standing in a row

So with the blocks in place, the pillars glued on, and a check that everything still moved, I could glue the top and bottom frames in place, finishing the glueup, and being the moment of truth as to whether I had a puzzle box reproduction, or some very expensive (and frustrating) firewood.

While the glue on the frames was drying, I clamped several boxes together back to back and clamped them together. This meant that each box was providing a gluing jig for the one next to it, giving me good clamping pressure across the entire joint, and ensuring that all the boxes were identical.

This is probably the most challenging assembly I've attempted, and I'm pleased to say that it all went very well. I've clearly learned a lot over the last couple of years, and having three times as many clamps today as I had when I started certainly doesn't hurt. It really is true, you never can have enough clamps!


The difference is marked after applying lacquer

The difference is marked after applying lacquer

The following night, once the glue was dry, I could finally test the mechanism on each box, and confirm that it worked as intended. You have no idea how much of a relief it was that each box slid smoothly and opened as expected... until the last box. The lid didn't come out past the front pillars! Fortunately, I have some sharp chisels, and I took a few thousands off the top of each of the front pillars, and the lid slid past. The amount I had to remove was so small, it's unlikely that even I could find the box I had to shave, but it was enough to stop things working. Fortunately, it wasn't a difficult fix.

The last steps were to finish the puzzles. As you can see the boxes at the back where the first coat of lacquer has been applied really show the true colours of the wood, unlike the boxes at the front which look drab and liefeless without the finish.

Sets of dominoes all finished

Sets of dominoes all finished

The final steps are to triple buff the puzzles and dominoes, to really make them shine.

Stickman was kind enough to send me the original files for the puzzle booklet, so with a couple of updates, I have been able to create a new booklet which matches the reproduced puzzles. (Ed: Have I mentioned before how nice a guy he is?)


Stickboy

Stickboy

While I was working on the puzzle, I was posting images of the work in progress. Seems that a few of my puzzling friends have suggested that I could be "Stickboy". I might have taken that idea and run with it. Stickman seemed to like the idea, and agreed to let me use the moniker and a modified version of his logo. I also took his own logo, and created a much higher resolution version for use on Stickman's next project. After all, I was cleaning things up for my own use. Seemed silly not to let Stickman benefit from my work.


The finished box

The finished box

After that, it's a simple case of putting the dominoes inside the carcass, mixing things up and passing them to a new owner. It's been an interesting project, and one I'm glad that I tackled. The question is which box do I tackle next?



30Jan/142

Stickman #16 – Domino Box

In my last post, I started creating the dominoes to complete the copy of Stickman #16, the Domino Box I had recently acquired. In this post, I'll finish making the dominoes and review this very tricky Stickman Puzzle Box.

Stickman #16 - The Domino Box

Stickman #16 - The Domino Box

Once the box is filled with dominoes, plus a couple of additional pieces that Stickman created to fill the space, the previous solver can shuffle the dominoes, effectively creating the starting point for the next solver. But before I get to the review itself, I still have to finish making the dominoes. If you're only interested in the review, then jump here.

The Jig to cut the centre line in the domino

The Jig to cut the centre line in the domino

I spent most of my Sunday morning putting together a new jig just to put the centre line in the dominoes. As you probably remember from the last post, I finished up having cut the spots, but still had the challenge of creating that centre line split that all dominoes have. I needed to be able to do this quickly and accurately, and also had to take into account that tearout was possible when cutting across the grain of the wood. Had I been sensible, I'd have cut the centre line before creating the bevel, making tearout a much lesser issue, since the bevel would cleanup any possible tearout.

Given that I didn't do that (live and learn!) I had to create a crosscut sled, with the blade angled at 45 degrees to the table. This allowed me to cut using the corner of the blade, and create the desired effect. Although it may look like the blade is inside the jig in the picture above, it's actually 1/64" above the plane of the jig. Just enough to cut the shallow groove I need.

Adjusting the stop to get a perfect cut

Adjusting the stop to get a perfect cut

The first attempt, I had my stop block slightly off, so the cut was fractionally too wide and left a hill in the centre of the domino. A quick adjustment of the stop block, and the test domino looked good. The benefit of having the stop and this jig is that the cuts are repeatable, and very quick to make. It takes less than 10 seconds per domino.

The finished Ebony Dominoes

The finished Ebony Dominoes

Half an hour later, I had two full sets of dominoes finished. Now of course there's some final sanding and finish to be applied, but the dominoes themselves are complete, and could be used in the puzzle at this point. It took two days over two weekends to make the two sets of dominoes and was time well spent in my mind. There's another Stickman puzzle (two in fact) which are now complete and will hopefully allow these excellent puzzles to be enjoyed by many more people.

Stickman #16 - The Domino Box, complete and ready to puzzle

Stickman #16 - The Domino Box, complete and ready to puzzle

So with all the work I put in to completing this puzzle, was it worth it, and is the puzzle any good?

The puzzle measures 6" x 6" x 2", and has enough space to store a regular set of 6 spot dominoes (that's 28 if you weren't sure), as well as a few additional shapes just to make things interesting. Made from Walnut and Monticello it's a sturdy box, which with all the ornate work on the top and bottom makes it a great looking puzzle.

The Base of the box

The Base of the box

With the Stickman logo on the top, the Domino and Devost on the bottom to signify that the dominoes were made by John Devost, this stands out on the puzzle shelves. Of course in my case, the dominoes were made by me, and this is the only set of dominoes in the run of boxes to be made from Ebony. I was very lucky to get the Ebony blocks from John through Stickman, so this is the wood which was intended to be with this box. I'm incredibly happy that some of the Ebony has the amazing red tint to it. Sadly, over time this will oxidse into the dark rich black that is normally associated with Ebony, but for now I'm going to enjoy this wonderful hue.

I think this probably qualifies as one of the simplest mechanisms in a Stickman Puzzle that I've come across. If we break it down to the bare minimum, it's a box, with a sliding lid, and two blocks glued to the inside. Don't read that the wrong way, the craftsmanship in this puzzle is everything you'd expect from a master craftsman like Stickman, and given the CNC work, it's one of the more ornate puzzles he's produced.

It's up to the puzzler to insert the dominoes into the box, in any orientation he desires along with the additional pieces, close the lid, and then shift a few of the dominoes around to lock the puzzle. The challenge is then to return the dominoes to their original position which leaves a small gap at each corner on the front of the puzzle, allowing it to be opened.

Front of the box showing the solved state, and the open mechanism

Front of the box showing the solved state, and the open mechanism

The Upper image shows the gaps which have to be created. Looking through the two outer holes in the box, there's a gap in the middle layer of tiles. The top two reddish bricks at the top are the two which are glued to the frame and make the locking mechanism. Once those spaces are clear, the front can be slid down, allowing the top to slide part way out, allowing access to the dominoes.

The opened box, allowing access to the dominoes

The opened box, allowing access to the dominoes

In terms of the difficulty, this is a very challenging puzzle. Those holes which are all around the box look huge until you try to move a domino inside the box, and realise that the gaps are not as large or as helpful as you might like. I found myself often tapping the side of the box against my palm to cause a domino to slide where I needed it. Moving dominoes between layers is especially tricky, and it's not had to create a state inside the box that will take a lot of time to solve. Even Stickman himself admits that he found himself locked out of the box for hours.

The opened box, allowing access to the dominoes

The opened box, allowing access to the dominoes

I really like this puzzle box, and it doesn't hurt that once you solve it, you can go ahead and make use of the dominoes inside. I'm very pleased to have been able to turn this into a working puzzle and I hope this will give more puzzle enthusiasts a chance to play with another Stickman design.



21Jan/144

Bringing another puzzle into the world

Every now and then an opportunity arises to take a puzzle in potentia, finish it, and bring another puzzle into the world. I recently had that opportunity with one of Stickman's puzzles. At a recent auction, I was bidding on a copy of Stickman's Domino Box, and given that I'm friends with the man himself, I was talking to him about it. He happened to mention that he had a carcass of the puzzle that just needed the dominoes made for it. He even had the blocks of Ebony to make them.

The Domino Box was a joint venture between Stickman and John Devost. Stickman made the housing for the dominoes, and the extra 'bits' that for the mechanism of the puzzle, and John Devost made all the sets of Dominoes.

Turns out neither he nor John Devost had the time, or motivation to make the dominoes, so Robert offered me the chance to take that copy instead of the one I had won at auction. I'll not go into the details, but both myself, and the person I was bidding against got a great deal on the puzzle, so it was a win-win situation.

The Stickman Domino Box 'kit'

The Stickman Domino Box 'kit'

What arrived from Stickman was everything needed to make the puzzle functional. As you can see in the photo above, I received four blocks of Ebony, the carcass for the puzzle, a bag of domino templates, the special drill bit to cut the spots, and a jig to help in cutting the spots. There were also some original dominoes cut by John Devost for sizing, the interesting shaped pieces which are part of the mechanism, and the original puzzle booklet. It's quite the collection of pieces, however it was going to need some work to make it into a Stickman.

Originally, this was to be a special edition, with the Ebony Dominoes however as often happens with a run of puzzles, toward the end the last couple never quite get completed. Having everything I needed, and not having the drain of completing 25 copies of a puzzle, the motivation was there to make up the dominoes. This post will show you the process of making up the set of dominoes to turn this into a functional puzzle, and add a unique copy of the Domino Box to my collection.

Not long after I received the kit, I heard from another puzzling friend, over in the land of Oz who had heard through the puzzle grapevine that I had all the necessary 'bits' to make up a set of dominoes. He asked if it would be possible to create a set for him while I was making my own as he also had a carcass that needed the dominoes. Making two sets, isn't a lot more work than making one, so of course I agreed.

From the Ebony blocks, I had to figure out how to get the 28 domino blanks I needed from the blocks. Unlike the second set where I had a full eight foot board to work with, here I had just enough to make the dominoes. (Ed: I didn't realise just how close it was until much later)

Some fairly deep checking

Some fairly deep checking

I also had to be very careful when cutting the blocks to size, as there was some significant checking running through the entire block in two out of the four wood blanks, which would ruin a domino if the checking came through the piece. Fortunately, the block was thick enough that I could cut it and avoid the checking, to get just enough stock.

The Stock milled to thickness

The Stock milled to thickness

With the stock milled to the correct thickness (10mm) for the dominoes I had a set of boards, which as you can see are wider than needed for the final domino blanks. The lighter stock is Ambrosia Maple. I had picked up a beautiful board at a recent trip to the lumber store, and despite not knowing what I'd use it for at the time, I couldn't pass up such a stunning board. When I was asked to make the second set of Dominoes, this seemed like the perfect use for some of that board.

Cut to width, ready to create domino blanks

Cut to width, ready to create domino blanks

Having used the original dominoes Stickman had provided, I cut the long strips of wood to the correct width, ready for making into the domino blanks.

Setting the jig to cut dominoes to length

Setting the jig to cut dominoes to length

With my crosscut sled, I took the original domino and used that to set my stop block to allow me to quickly and accurately cut the blanks to length.

Sticks cut to perfect length

Sticks cut to perfect length

Each long stick has its end trimmed on the sled to make sure that it is absolutely 90 degrees to the long edge, and makes sure it will be parallel to the other end when cut to size. After that, it's a simple process of placing the stick against the stop block, and pushing the sled across the blade. Each domino blank is perfectly sized, with very little work needed.

Two full sets of domino blanks cut

Two fulls sets of domino blanks cut

Before long I had a couple of stacks of domino blanks. There was enough wood to get exactly 28 blanks from the Ebony. I had a little more of the maple stock, so I cut a number of spare dominoes just so that I had extras to test out each additional step in the process. After all, I had no room to screw up with the Ebony stock.

In the back left of the image are all the offcuts from the stock. I'll certainly not be throwing all that Ebony away. I'm sure it will make its way into another project at some point.

All the blanks chamfered, ready for their spots

All the blanks chamfered, ready for their spots

Leaving the blanks with their sharp edges after cutting on the saw means they're not particularly nice to handle. The sharp edges, especially on the Ebony which takes such a good edge mean that the pieces are not particularly tactile, and need a little softening. Putting a small chamfer on the edges takes the harshness from the pieces. Initially I was planning to put a roundover on the pieces, however the roundover bit I have didn't give me a pleasing result, so I decided against it. The benefit of having the spare dominoes meant I could experiment without worrying about something not working.

28 templates including the double blank

28 templates including the double blank

With the chamfers finished, it was time to make these domino blanks into dominoes. The bag of spot cutting templates I received contained all 28 blanks needed, including a double zero tile. I assume that whichever company was making the templates had issues that someone out there forgot to make a double blank, so they had to include it. I took the time to separate the templates into their groups, just to make sure I had everything I needed before starting.

Ready to cut test spots

Ready to cut test spots

First attempt at cutting spots

First attempt at cutting spots

Using one of the spare domino blanks I'd cut earlier, I tested the template and spot cutting drill bit to see how they worked together, and get a feeling for how to cut the spots. I added a couple of shims to make sure the blank was positioned correctly under the drill bit template. The drill bit itself is rather clever. There's a collar on the end of the bit, which drops into the hole in the template, and when you push the drill down, the rounded cutting head protrudes below the template to make the cut. The jig holds both the domino and the template in the same fixed location allowing for consistent spot placement, and no chance of spots becoming oval shaped.

The results look good, time to cut them for real

The results look good, time to cut them for real

The end result is well placed, consistently positioned spots which are all the same depth, with virtually no thought or skill required from the operator. I'll count that as a good thing, as it would be all to easy to ruin hours of work without the template and special bit.

Two full sets cut, but not finished yet

Two full sets cut, but not finished yet

After a couple of hours work with the drill, I had 56 dominoes cut. The two full sets look great, but sadly I'm not finished yet. The central divider needs to be added to each domino, and I need to make a new crosscut sled where the blade is at 45 degrees to the table in order to add that detail. I then also have the difficult choice of whether to ink the spots or not. As you can see from the original dominoes I have, the spots are accented by adding the black ink to really make them stand out. Before I make a final decision I'll test out a couple of options and see what works best.

The observant among you may have been wondering why some of the Ebony dominoes are red. When I started working the Ebony blocks, one of them had the red tint to the wood. Personally I love the red tint, and wish I had more of this wood. It will eventually oxidize back to the dark black that you can see from the outside of the original block, but I'm going to enjoy the red tint while I can!

In the next post, I'll finish up the dominoes before putting them into the puzzle, and enjoy solving it for the first time.



10Dec/120

Mirrorkal – “You and Mona Lisa”

Several months back, I received a copy of "You and Mona Lisa", a Mirrorkal puzzle, designed by Ivan Moskovich and produced by Recent Toys. So why has it taken me so long to write about it? Well truth be told it's taken me this long to solve it!

Mirrorkal - "You and Mona Lisa" Solved

Mirrorkal - "You and Mona Lisa" Solved

The puzzle is an interesting variation on the 15 puzzle, with this version having 9 tiles, plus the space needed to move the tiles which is conveniently placed off to the side of the puzzle. What makes the puzzle unique and quite so challenging is that the image you see when looking at the puzzle is being reflected by an angled mirror from an adjacent piece. The goal, as with any other 15 puzzle is to scramble the tiles, and then restore the original order so you can see the picture of the Mona Lisa.

Mirrorkal Escher

Mirrorkal Escher

The earlier version of the Mirrorkal Puzzle was a removable block version where the nine puzzle pieces were stored in a frame. In that version you are able to remove the cubes and inspect each side, allowing you to match the correct side with the corresponding mirror to make up the solution. With the sliding tile version, things are much more challenging. Since the cubes can't be removed, you will have to either position the side of the cube you want to see with the empty space adjacent to it, or place it in the centre and surround it with mirrors pointing at the cube, to allow all sides to be seen. Having done this you'll need to remember what picture is where, and then position each tile in the correct location to make the final image. Oh and if that's not enough of a challenge, remember that since you're dealing with mirrors, the images are upside down on the sides of the cubes!

If you'd like more information on the Mirrorkal Escher, Brian and Gabriel have both written about it.

Mona Lisa Scrambled

Mona Lisa Scrambled

As you can see, once the puzzle pieces are scrambled, in most cases they no longer show parts of the Mona Lisa image, making the challenge even more difficult. Something else which you need to take into account is that there may be more that one cube with the same a part of the final image on it, so not only do you need to find the parts of the image, and place them in the correct spot to be reflected by the adjacent mirror, but the piece you've identified may not even be the correct one. This happened to me where I was trying to place the last two cubes, and they were swapped from where they needed to be. It turned out that I needed the other piece with the same angled mirror, which I'd already placed in the opposite corner.

Mirrorkal - "You and Einstein"

Mirrorkal - "You and Einstein"

As an interesting note, the 15 style version of the puzzle originally used an image of Einstein, but was later changed to the Mona Lisa. The workings of the puzzle is still the same, just the images which were swapped. In fact if you look at the frame of the puzzle, it still reads "You and Einstein". Puzzle Master still has copies of the puzzle with the original Einstein image if you'd like that version.

Whether you're looking for the slightly harder challenge of the sliding tile version or a simpler puzzle with the framed cubes, both versions of the puzzle are well worth picking up and I can highly recommend them. These would make great stocking fillers, although you may need fairly big stockings!

For some more thoughts on the Mirrorkal - "You and Mona Lisa" puzzle, Gabriel's Review has some more thoughts.

Note: Sorry about the poor images in the review. Given the mirrors in the puzzle, it's not easy to photograph.



29May/121

Moeraki Games 4

The series of Moeraki games are produced by Kasimir Landowski, and are a series of sliding tile puzzles, where the object is to scramble the pieces then return them to their unscrambled state. The Moeraki 3 and 4 puzzles can be purchased from Casland Games along with versions 1-5 in electronic format.

In an interesting story, Ivan Moscovich created the same puzzles and patented their design in the US in 1985 (US patent No.4,509,756) and were licensed to Meffert Novelties in 1983. The digital versions were licensed to Sony-Online. Shortly after posting my review I was contaced by Ivan requesting that I consider removing my review as a result of the dispute over the puzzle. Since the original review I did for Moeraki 4, and re-posting this today, Ivan and Kasimir have reached an agreement around the puzzles sale and distribution, and I'm pleased to be able to once again restore the review with full consent of both Mr Moscovich and Mr Landowski!

Moeraki Games 4 (hard version)

Moeraki Games 4 (hard version)

So why Moeraki? The designer happened to stumble across a website on the Moeraki Boulders: round rocks found in New Zealand, near the village of Moeraki on the east coast of the country's South Island. The rocks are not formed from erosion but were naturally created like pearls and Kasimir thought it suited his puzzle and hence the name.

I ordered both Moeraki 3 and 4, as I like my physical puzzles, however they both come with a PC version of the game included on a CD, so you get both when buying the physical puzzle. Personally I think there's a lot to be said for being able to physically push the pieces yourself, however it's a nice bonus, and certainly helps in learning how the pieces interact before messing up such a nice looking arrangement.

Unfortunately, the electronic version is Windows PC only, so if like me you're a Mac owner you're out of luck. Fortunately, there is iOS versions available for iPhone/iPad/iPod, including standalone versions of 3 and 4 for $.99 each, and a pack including all 5 for $2.99 which I think is a great deal.

The puzzle itself measures 5.5" x 5.5" x 0.75" and is certainly a well made and solid puzzle. It comes in a clear plastic box wrapped in a cardboard sleeve (entirely in German) which holds both the puzzle, and the CD with the PC version. Sadly mine suffered some rough handling on its way to me and most of the plastic pegs inside the box which hold the puzzle in place had snapped leaving the puzzle free to bounce around inside the box. Fortunately that didn't damage the puzzle at all, so isn't a big issue.

The plastic coloured beads have a glass like quality to them and really reflect the light, giving a lot of depth to the rings. The movement of the pieces is incredibly smooth, and each ring is easily turned by pushing lightly on any one bead. The board itself has coloured inner segments which are a guide for returning the puzzle to its solved state once scrambled. Interestingly, there's no real reason why you should have to do this, as any colour could be placed at any outer section of the rings, and it certainly adds an additional challenge trying to swap the colours to a different starting position.

The playing board consists of three interlinked circles of coloured beads, which intersect at six points, meaning that moving the beads in one circle affects those in one of the other circles. Given the six points of intersection in the three rings, the interaction between rings in this version is higher which adds to the difficulty level. This is even more true when you look at the version I have where the beads in the centre are not all the same colour!

If you have a look on the website, then you'll see that the version of Moeraki 4 which is available has only four colours instead of the seven seen in my version. That's thanks to Kasimir sending me a unique hard version rather than the regular version! It is available as an option on the electronic version as a possible combination to play, but clearly Kasimir has read my blog, and knows I like a challenge! Having played around with the puzzle for a while, solving it by ignoring the colours in the centre isn't too hard, and I can normally solve it from a well shuffled board in around 8 minutes. Solving for all seven colours however is much harder and takes me around double that time. So I'd rate this as a challenging puzzle, but it's one that you will be able to solve (unlike me and the Rubiks cube).

From playing the electronic version, there are a number of different possible patterns which can be made from the same basic board, including a version where there are only two colours, and each adjacent bead is an alternating colour, and the version on the website where all centre beads are clear, rather than the three extra colours in my version. The board in the puzzle has a plug which has been glued in place during assembly to prevent the beads being removed, however it would be easy enough to make additional beads available when ordering to make these configurations possible, and be able to configure the game board for some of these options. Maybe that option could be available in future versions.

Overall, I think Moeraki 4 is an excellent puzzle, very well made, and a lot of fun to play with. Now I just need to work on improving my time to solve it. I highly recommend picking up a copy from Casland Games or if you're more of a mobile puzzler, consider the iPad/iPhone/iPad version which is great value, and every bit as challenging. For €20, which includes the PC version, that's a great price.

I'll be reviewing the Moeraki 3 soon, but feel free to look at Gabriel's review until I do.



24Apr/120

Tom’s Square Dance

In the most recent round of puzzles from Eric Fuller, he offered a few copies of Tom's Square Dance. Sadly I was too slow this time and didn't manage to get a copy myself. Fortunately my good friend Derek did get a copy, and he happily lent me the puzzle to play with! As the name hints, this is another great puzzle design from Tom Jolly.

Tom's Square Dance in Paduak and Holly

Tom's Square Dance in Paduak and Holly

The Puzzle measures 3.3" x 3.3" x 0.75" with the 'cubes' being 0.75". The goal of the puzzle is to remove the pieces from the frame and then return them back to their original positions. One of the corner blocks is held in place with a small magnet, and once removed the rest of the blocks can be slid around inside the frame. While it may sound like there's not much to this puzzle, you soon realise that there's more to it than it first looks.

First piece signed by Eric

First piece signed by Eric

The blocks are not simple pieces, and have various bits sticking out of them so that they both slide against each other, and interact with each other allowing and preventing various pieces from moving. To make things more interesting, hidden around the frame are various blocks which also prevent the inner blocks from moving around!

Closeup of the pieces showing solid construction

Closeup of the pieces showing solid construction

Eric really went all out in making this puzzle. Offered in two different frame options, Bubinga and Paduak, with Holly pieces, the contrast looks great. Over time, the Paduak frame will change from the bright red/orange it is now to a very dark brown. The beauty of this will be that the inner frame which is hidden from the light will remain bright orange, so on solving; it will make for a very pretty reveal.

The thing that really makes this special is that the puzzle pieces are all milled from solid pieces of holly, and not layered pieces glued together. As such the pieces are very strong, and the time to create these pieces is much more labor intensive than gluing the blocks together. Eric has created the pieces such that the tabs are several thousands of an inch thinner than the grooves they run in. The precision of the pieces is really stunning, and shows the quality of Eric's work. What it leaves you with is some really beautiful pieces, where the grain flows through the entire piece, something that could only be achieved with the time Eric put into the making of the puzzle.

The Second piece removed (oh, and the pic won't help you solve it!)

The Second piece removed (oh, and the pic won't help you solve it!)

To solve the puzzle, after removing the first block, it takes 8 more moves to remove the second piece, and as Allard and Oli have already commented in their reviews, the first piece comes out in a rather unexpected manner. It's not too difficult to remove the first piece, and the second follows not too long after that. I think the reason is that the obstructions as well as hindering also mean that there's a fairly linear path to follow to removing the pieces.

All the pieces removed

All the pieces removed

Putting the pieces back into the frame once you've taken them out and jumbled them up is a far greater challenge. It took me around 5 minutes to take the pieces out, but a couple of hours to get them all back in. It's not impossible, but certainly a good challenge.

It total, the solution is listed as a 1.8.5.3.4(.2.2.3.3). The part in brackets really doesn't count as there's so much space at that point, that things just fall out! To my mind there is really only one solution however, if you plug the pieces into burr tools once you've solved it, you'll find that it reports a second solution, with a different move count 1.8.5.3.2(.3.2.3.3). Now this alternate solution is actually identical to the original, the only change is that the two identical pieces in the puzzle are placed in the puzzle in a different order. Talking to Andreas about this, he notes that the tool will try to find a short path from the current point to removing the next piece. Depending on the state of the puzzle, this may be different, really only the count to remove the first piece is accurate.

I have to admit, I really enjoyed this puzzle. I think it's around the right level between frustration, difficulty and solvability. Eric's copy is superbly made, and while I'm a little sad I didn't manage to get a copy of my own, I'm very happy to have been able to play with it thanks to the kindness of my puzzling friends.