Saturday, 30 July 2016

Any excuse!

…for a puzzle party…
A couple of months ago I became aware that my Irish puzzling mate, Jim Kerley, was going to be over in the UK for a week or so, and he was going to be based in a village less than an hour from my place – so I made the traditional South African offer of “come around for some burnt meat and some puzzling”. (OK, one of those probably isn’t a traditional South African offer…) 

We duly agreed on a suitable Saturday and invited a few other puzzlists around for the same – so last Saturday we had 10 for a braai and some puzzles, with Jim and Karen’s visit serving as a brilliant excuse! 

Shane arrived first, arm in a sling because he was (“allegedly”) catching a Pokemon with his phone when he tripped over something on a building site, having expected traffic and there wasn’t much at all. We’d just about caught up when Joe arrived from Wales-shire, shortly followed by Chris, so we settled down with a coffee and put the world to rights before a car-load arrived from London – Ali, Steve and Michael – so the serious puzzling could begin… and it did, until Jim and Karen arrived and there were introductions a-plenty.

Steve was quick to bring out some 3D-printed wares, including a lovely multi-coloured copy of Coffin’s 12-Piece Separation – neatly assembled – which he duly gave me … and then I did something VERY STUPID INDEED – I suggested that he take it apart and give me the pieces… he grimaced a little (having assembled the darn thing for me in the first place!) and proceeded to reduce it to a pile of similar looking sticks – mainly double-ended crochet-hooks in fact… watching him struggle to take it apart left me reconsidering my rashness – except that by then it was too late… the bag of pieces was duly passed around to several puzzlers with Chris spending quite a long time on it after I’d singularly failed to reassemble it. Chris, knowing that he could solve it, as he has a couple of copies at home, spent ages putting together several almost assemblies and eventually left me with a 10-Piece Separation and a couple of spare pieces. (It took me a good few hours on Sunday before it was finally fully back together again!)  

Steve had also brought along his copy of Brian Young’s latest sequential discovery odyssey, the SMS Box. My copy was also floating around and I watched in agony as both Chris and Ali duly made as much progress respectively as I have in the past month in less than an hour of playing around with them… which just goes to show quite how slow I am at solving these things! They had the good grace not to admit to any further progress beyond that stage at least… 

Jim had brought along several copies of his recent exchange puzzles as well as a number of other tray-packing puzzles produced on his trusty laser cutter. They were soon being passed around and enjoyed – even solved in some cases – before Jim announced that they were gifts for the good puzzlers who’d come along to make it a puzzle party – cue much thanks and even happier puzzlers!
At some point during the afternoon Gill pointed out that everyone was getting hungry so we fired up the Weber and began burning random cuts of meat, while Gill brought out several rounds of garlic bread to sustain folks while the braai-master did his thing. While the ritual burning was going on Adin and Sophie popped in on their way to a better/former (delete as appropriate) offer. We managed to keep them just long enough for a cuppa, but they were heading off to Oxford for another BBQ so we couldn’t tempt them to stay with offers of burnt meat… 

 With all the meat suitably cooked, we sat down to a pretty darn good lunch (even if I say so myself) under the shade of the gazebo on the deck (not often we get to say that in Blighty!) – and it was good. 

With the plates cleared from the table, the puzzles all miraculously reappeared and the puzzling restarted. 

With the return of the anti-social puzzling silence, the girls decided to wander up to the woods with the hound in tow and made the most of the lovely weather with a walk in the woods – muchly enjoyed by Ben of course!

Shane and Joe worked their way through my little Corian collection, with everyone in the know having great fun with Shane while he solved my copy of Hajek’s Matchbox – with plenty of “Oooh”s and “I can’t believe he would do that to someone else’s puzzle!” at the appropriate moments. 

Chris had brought along his copy of Cubloc and Ali spent a while getting it even further away from a solved position… until I explained how much “fun” I’d had with mine – firstly getting it apart (a major slog! From memory it’s about 49 moves for the first piece out!) and then trying to get it back together again – using BurrTools! This puzzle has a lot of pieces and I tried several unsuccessful strategies at finding a solution in BurrTools before I finally managed to come up with a cunning enough plan that my favourite software didn’t think was going to take months (or more!) to get through. Even then, the physical assembly is an absolute beast! Be warned…

When the girls got back from their walk we laid on some strawberries and ice cream with choccy sauce (brain food!) to top up the flagging energy levels – followed a while later with coffee and delicious cake from Mike… we did not go hungry! 

Michael kept us entertained with some wonderful Robert Reid stories (mental note: must pick up a copy of their book!) and he and Jim spent ages chatting about tilings and dissections. Somehow the conversation turned to laser-cutting and the noxious fumes that can be generated before Chris and Jim set about comparing sizes – Chris won hands-down, although, in fairness to Jim, he was competing with an entire university lab!  Things took a very surreal turn when Mike announced that igniting an acetone-drenched hand would leave you largely unharmed (or was it ether? – one of them was OK…), we didn’t feel the need to prove this, but it did provide a great excuse to trot out the story of Steve and the Austin Magic Pistol once more. 

It was late-afternoon before Jim and Karen had to leave to visit some nearby family connections – and early evening by the time the (relative) locals decided they needed to head homewards… a good day’s puzzling (&) banter!

Monday, 25 July 2016

Hales’ Turn the Plug

This one first showed up at an MPP quite a while ago and it amused many puzzlers that day… unfortunately one of them behaved in a totally inappropriate manner(!) and discovered a cooked solution that pretty much by-passed all of the cleverness… so Shane took it away and came up with an improved version, and duly presented me with a copy to add to my collection… Thanks!

Turn the Plug falls into Shane’s category of “Interval Puzzles” (like the “Wire cutter”) – which by his own description aren’t big and complicated enough to be included in his main puzzle series and are typically used to experiment with a particular idea or feature – although in my humble opinion (and that of several other puzzlers I know!) they’re plenty good enough as stand-alone puzzles!

Ostensibly Turn the Plug is a door lock mounted on a big old chunk of wood with a handy base so it stand upright. On the right hand side there’s a handy key … or at least it would have been handy if “someone” hadn’t screwed it firmly into said chunk of wood – and not provided any visible means of unscrewing it!

The rear of the puzzle reveals the aim, with a little indicator dial currently pointing to “Locked” with the puzzler being goaded into getting it to somehow point to “Open”.

Now it might not look like it, and Shane’s insistence on calling it an “interval” puzzle might lead you to believe otherwise, but this is a great little sequential discovery puzzle with a delightful discovery element to be, err, discovered.

Having discovered said thingy, finding how to use it effectively is 90% of the puzzle – let’s just say that Shane’s experience at locksmith mastery hasn’t gone to waste.

I love the fact that it all looks so simple and honest… when it’s anything but!

Nice job that man!

Friday, 15 July 2016


[Let’s see what sort of weird traffic Google sends to my site this time!]
Several of my puzzling mates have been talking about Radek Micopulos’ hedgehog shop and I’d been meaning to get off my backside and put in an order for a while, and then a few weeks ago Oli brought around a couple of examples of Radek’s work and a few days later I’d put in my order – they look really good in the flesh!

Radek’s website has a bunch of interesting information about hedgehog puzzles in general, and if you speech Czech, it has a great little shop – now Google Translate will help you understand what’s in there and get a feel for the prices, but when you try placing an order, there’s no way to give it an address outside of the Czech Republic – which is a bit of blow if you happen to live in a village in England… a short email to Radek introducing myself and asking about the ordering process soon had me agreeing an order and sending across some PayPal… which of course arrived just as Radek was about to head out on a two-week holiday – but just over two weeks later, a delightful little package arrived in the Midlands countryside.

The Hedgehog Shop (not its real name, but I can’t resist, even if only to broaden the puzzles’ appeal to animal rights activists!!) has some wonderful variations on the theme – all of them really enticing and I ended up getting a few representative samples of the different sorts on offer, and I’m really glad I did… because when I say they’re variations on a theme – that probably puts them in too narrow a categorisation… :-) 

Spikeroller / Torpedo 

First up is probably widely known as a torpedo hedgehog although Radek's name of Spikeroller is probably more descriptive (you don’t often find torpedoes with spikey bits sticking out at odd angles, do you… do you?).

It’s a pretty well-known design that has been produced by stacks of other puzzle makers over the years… there is a standard solution that requires some careful observation and some wonderful manipulation in three dimensions – very satisfying stuff!

Original Hedgehog

As you might expect, Radek’s site has several variations on the standard spikey-ball-in-a-cage puzzle – I chose the fancy aluminium version that appears to have the cage spun from single piece of aluminium (very nice work) and a spikey-ball with a little secret inside it.  

This version similarly relies on observation and manipulation, albeit with an added little surprise that when you extract the spikey-ball, you’ll find it unscrews and hides a copy of a set of plans for a flying bicycle… why? I haven’t the foggiest, but it’s a lovely little whimsical surprise… and it’s all very beautifully made! UPDATE - SEE BELOW!

Oh and the special versions come snugly in a velvet drawstring bag inside a neat, branded protective can. Nice touch!

Gen Hedgehog

Now this one’s a little different...

The first clue is in the spiral bars on the cage – then you’ll spot an interesting slot in one of the ends of the cage… and then notice that the end is double-layered and the inner layer has a number of oddly spaced slots in it as well… 
Oh, and the ball has fewer spikes than you might be expecting…

Walk in the park?

Eh, no.

This one requires some thought and planning, and then a bunch of careful manipulation before you’re rewarded with a ball in one hand and a cage in t’other.

Lovely little sequence of moves in there…

Axis Hedgehog

If the Gen was a little different, this one’s from another (rather heavy-duty!) planet. Not only is the cage a much heavier affair, but each of the ends has an embedded (swivelling!) ball bearing race in it… giving it a brilliantly industrial look and feel – as well as a few extra little things to play with.

This one took me easily the longest to solve – I spent quite a while playing around with all the usual suspects on a puzzle like this and (enjoyably) got absolutely nowhere! The ball is clearly(!) too wide to get between the bars on the cage, and the spikes are too long to permit any sort of passage through or around the bearing races… so I decided that it was probably impossible – if only it weren't for that gnawing memory of a pic of Oli’s  with the ball perched on top of the cage…

Having decided it was impossible, oddly, released me to imagine exactly how it could be solved – et voila!

Definitely a puzzler’s puzzle!

Addendum: That Flying Bicycle?? - Thanks to Brett Rothstein for pointing me at the IPP28 Sounvenir Book where Peter Hajek explains everything! The hedghog puzzles made a virtual appearance in a kids' magazine ("Young Announcer") where a group of lads ("Fast Arrows") solve various mysteries and crimes - one episode has them tracking down the top secret designs of a flying bicycle which have been cunningly hidden inside a puzzle - a hedgehog puzzle! All of which makes Radek's nod back to the start of it all even more brilliant!

Saturday, 9 July 2016


Two of ‘em!

From Jakub!


I’d been a bit remiss in ordering things from Jakub at the new Pelikan Workshop for a while and decided to remedy that a few weeks ago, and part of that order was a couple of balls…

First up was the Slideways Ball – beautifully presented on a golf tee perched on a little green (nice touch!) wooden base, complete with brass name plaque. Essentially it’s Ray Stanton’s Slideways cube that’s been Pelikan-ised, turning (!) it into a ball.

Having played with my copy of the cube, I understood the importance of getting the grip just right (or you’re pushing against yourself and going absolutely nowhere!). And it took me a long time to get the cube apart – in fact I had to rope in my Dutch super-solver at one point because it was so stiff that I thought it had got itself gummed up somehow – it had, a bit. Or at least that’s my story…

  So when I started playing with the ball I was very careful about how I held it and which way I pushed / slid things… and that helped as I managed to stumble upon the correct grip a few times – but once it’s all back together again, there is literally no clue to where the seams will emerge – beautifully made!

Next we have the multi-coloured Mochalov Ball – this puzzle started out life as the standard Mochalov cube #8 – which is an interesting assembly of 8 identical pieces that form a solid cube. The design’s been altered a little to make assembly and disassembly a bit more “interesting” – and forcing a sequential assembly where the original cube allowed you to pretty much start almost anywhere. 

Again, there’s the Pelikan-ising to produce a beautiful ball in mixed hardwoods. Looks lovely!

I spent ages poking and prodding and tugging at various bits of the ball until I finally found the key-piece and pulled it free… you really do need to tip your hat to the brilliant craftsmanship that produces a perfectly round puzzle with virtually no clues to where the first piece will come free. 

Once the first piece is out, you can deduce which pieces should be able to move next and progress sensibly until you’re left with a pile of interesting variations on the same basic piece-shape… which will force you to retrace your steps and reassemble everything in the same order, pretty much… stunning craftsmanship being sold at ridiculously good prices… well worth adding to your collection if you haven’t already got them!