Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Gift That Keeps Giving - The Ottawa Cube

The Ottawa Cube by Ken Irvine
Several years ago, the hosts of the 35th International Puzzle Party indicated that they liked my 4x4x4 interlocking puzzles and asked if I would be interested in designing the Committee gift for IPP35.  This gift is given to each of the hard-working committee volunteers that make the event run smoothly.  Of course, I was honored and immediately said yes.

The development of the IPP35 puzzle was a collaborative effort between several people including the IPP35 hosts, Brett Kuehner and Rob Stegmann, who provided design criteria, reviewed proposed designs, and provided feedback; myself as the designer; world-renowned craftsman Brian Menold from Wood Wonders to make them; and Rob Jones providing support.  The result of this team effort was the Ottawa Cube.

What prompted me to finally write about the Ottawa Cube this week, is the listing of an Ottawa Cube on the Cubicdissection Marketplace.  Only 30 were made and you don’t see them very often.  This particular copy is an unopened spare from IPP35 that has been added to the puzzle auction to support a charity: Community Food Bank of New Jersey.  The winner will not only support those in need but end up with a rare puzzle as well.

Since it would be awkward to describe how wonderfully awesome this puzzle is, I decided to share some of the highlights of the design process:

Round 1 - Something New

The IPP35 hosts approached me 1½ years before the event to design the puzzle.  They were looking for something similar to my 4x4x4 designs and offered the following criteria:

  • It should be a new, unproduced design.
  • It should not be too expensive to make.
  • It should be challenging but not too difficult to solve.

The Reject Series Puzzles
With that guidance, I set about creating 3 new designs and I brought prototypes to IPP34 and the following Rochester Puzzle Picnic (RPP) for the hosts to review.  Each of the designs consisted of a 4x4x4 puzzle built around an initial concept.  These concepts were:

  • An entire 2x2 face pushed in for the first move.
  • A friction move required for the first move.
  • A puzzle consisting of all U-shaped pieces.

After a thorough review by the hosts, they said that’s nice, … , but it’s not what we’re looking for.  They were looking for something more theme related to IPP35 in Ottawa, Canada.

I dubbed the 3 designs - The Reject Series, and they are now even rarer than the Ottawa Cube.  There are only 3 complete sets and I have one of them.

Round 2 - Something Themed

The Ottawa Cube in BurrTools
Armed with a pocket full of rejection, I thought about how I would approach a themed puzzle.  I pretty quickly decided on a cube with letters on the side with the following criteria:

  • The cube would have to be 5x5x5.  A 4x4x4 cube was just too small and anything larger would be too expensive.
  • All the characters used would be on the face of the puzzle and not hidden inside.
  • It would be done in two colors with red for the foreground and white for the background to match the Canadian flag.
  • Each piece would be a single color and not a combination of the two colors.  Yes, sometimes I like to make things unnecessarily complex for myself.  However, without this restriction, you could take any 5x5x5 puzzle and make it look the way you want and I felt that it would lose the quality of what makes it unique if that was done.

I worked up an initial prototype using live cubes and sent pictures to the hosts for an initial assessment to verify that I was on the right track.  I was glad to get a response back that it looked worth pursuing.

Round 3 - Something More Complex

The Ottawa Cube Pieces
Unfortunately, there was no way to lay out the letters on the face where the adjacent edges matched color.  To solve this dilemma, I had to up my game and cut the corner cubes at a 45-degree angle to get a different color on each face.  Of course, this was no longer a cubic dissection and I realized that I had probably just shot the expense criteria to hell.  

Did I mention that I imposed a restriction where each of these different color cube halves can’t be part of the same piece?  Needless to say, it was a challenge to develop an interlocking puzzle with purely colored pieces.

I created a BurrTools file of the new design where each cube in the puzzle was represented by a 3x3x3 set of cubes to allow me to cut them in half at an angle.  BurrTools was able to successfully solve the puzzle, which is always welcome feedback.

With a bit of trepidation, I sent the BurrTools file out to the team for review.  I was particularly worried about what Brian would have to say about all those 45-degree angle cuts.  As an amateur wood dabbler, it looked insurmountable to me.  

Round 4 - Final Product

The Ottawa Cube Backside
With the design process complete, Brian Menold took over the development of the Ottawa Cube. Aside from some recommended changes to improve the structural reliability of the pieces from Brett and Rob’s review of an initial prototype, it was good to go.  Rob also suggested the name: The Ottawa Cube.

The final product is a gorgeous cube with the letters for IPP35 on 5 of the 6 faces.  It’s made with Redheart and Maple to represent the red and white colors of the Canadian flag.  It’s also fairly big and heavy at slightly over 3” per side.

When I first saw the Ottawa Cube at IPP35, I was amazed on how beautiful they looked and how smoothly they moved.  Brian did an amazing job with the 45-degree angled pieces and I was impressed on how well everything came together.

I’m sure that Brian has his own story to tell about unrealistic designers and constraints.  After everything was done and I chatted with Brian about the project, I thought I heard him mumble something under his breath like “neber eggen”.

I’m glad to have been part of The Ottawa Cube team and thoroughly enjoyed working with the team.  I hope that others will be interested in acquiring a copy and helping support the Community Food Bank of New Jersey by bidding generously on the Cubicdissection Marketplace Ottawa Cube listing this week.

The Ottawa Cube Box Label

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Hiding Money in Puzzles - Unsafe Deposit

Unsafe Deposit by Alan Lunsford

It’s difficult to chastise my wife for “saving money” by buying things on sale when I’m “investing” in puzzles that come with money inside.  In my defense, Alan Lunsford specifically adds the amount of the coin to be released to the price of his puzzles to highlight the fact that you are explicitly paying for that coin.  The price of the puzzle is in the dollar’s field and the value of the coin to be released is easily identified in the cent’s field.  Unfortunately, this puzzle was only released in the US due to issues with mailing US currency to other countries.  I’m assuming that future puzzles will utilize some form of decorative non-currency token.

Quarter Trapped in Unsafe Deposit
Unsafe Deposit is Alan Lunsford’s latest coin release puzzle available on his layerbylayerpuzzles Etsy Shop.  Unlike the prior Cop Out puzzles, Unsafe Deposit is a cube with openings on 5 of the sides.  On the front, you can see George Washington’s head on a quarter through a square window.  On the left, there is a quarter sized slot that looks like it may be the exit point, but it is blocked on the inside.  There are also different sized slots on the top, front, back and right side.  Only the bottom of the puzzle is untouched.  Through the slots, you can also see that there are other objects within the cube.  The one visible from the top is blocked by an internal hex head socket screw bolt - or simply for this context, a screw with grabbable head.

Unsafe Deposit Card
The goal is to remove the quarter.  Given the name, Unsafe Deposit, you immediately assume that it is possible to remove the quarter that Alan has deposited in the puzzle.  Included with the puzzle is a card with the following rules:

  • The use of external tools is not permitted.  You should avoid the temptation to use your hammer.  Unless, of course, you have already solved it and want to see how the internal mechanisms work.  In that case, you may want to buy a spare.
  • No excessive force should be used in solving the puzzle.
  • The internal mechanisms are delicate so don’t hit it hard.  To be honest, you don’t need to hit it at all.  Hopefully your mail service doesn’t drop kick your package to the door.
  • Store below 40C/100F.  I’m not sure at what temperature puzzles made from PLA start to warp, but I’m assuming that it’s best not to store them in your car or garage in the summer.
  • Contains magnetic components.  Yes, the puzzle is attractive.
  • Have fun!  This reminder was added for those that get stuck and circle back to check the rules again for a clue.

The first thing you’re going to do is try the moves that you used for the Cop Out puzzles, but that’s not going to help you.  Of course, you’re going to do it anyway even though I just told you that it’s not going to work, but that’s OK - I would too.  Forget everything you learned with the Cop Outs.  Unsafe Deposit is a different kind of animal.  I knew that I was in for something different but I didn’t quite realize how much change to expect.  It is more of a sequential discovery puzzle than a coin release puzzle even though the ultimate goal is to release a coin.  Along the way, you will discover other tools that you will need to continue the journey.

Unsafe Deposit Solved
The solving sequence of Unsafe Deposit used very clever mechanisms but I found it very simple overall.  I solved it quicker than any of the Cop Out puzzles.  However, it makes an excellent introduction to sequential discovery puzzles.  What really impressed me was the construction of the puzzle.  The box looks like it has been seamlessly printed as a single object and not assembled from separate pieces.  This would require the printer to be paused while internal pieces such as magnets and sliding panels are added.  And of course, the filament needs to be changed to add the name of the puzzle in a contrasting color on the top of the box.  It really is very well made and I was immediately impressed when I unboxed it.  If anyone does take a hammer to theirs, please send me a photo so I can see what the internal structure looks like.  What is needed now is an Almost Safe Deposit follow-on.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Puzzle Candy - ThreeTIC, TriadTIC, TripleTIC, NeuroTIC, TriumviraTIC


Puzzle Candy
There is something nostalgic and completely satisfying about a dish full of colorful treats in an assortment of pretty colors.  Delicious!  However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to replace sugar with plastic.  Thanks to Andrew Crowell’s new Turning Interlocking Cube (TIC) designs, I can continue to feed this habit.

Andrew has been developing several TIC designs that consist of only 3 pieces, which I refer to as puzzle candy.  Not a meaty solve that you can sink your teeth into, but something refreshing that you can experience in short burst of time.  It may only take you a couple of minutes, but will surely leave you with a smile.  And the best part, there are no filler pieces.  All 3 pieces are integrally involved in the solution.  These 3-piece wonders also don’t have externally visible voids.

With only 3 pieces each, it is not difficult to determine where the pieces go.  The entire effort is in discovering the moves and rotations required to entangle those pieces and cajole them into looking like cubes.

I have done 5 of them and recommend them all.   Each was made with a white piece, a gray piece (light or dark), and a unique color to make that puzzle stand out from the others.  A veritable rainbow of colors enticing you to grab one to enjoy.  Each puzzle requires an amazing number of moves and rotations that you can marvel at.

ThreeTIC by Andrew Crowell

White/Light Gray/Light Blue.  Level 7.9 (Although the 9 is mostly rotational moves, which are difficult to enumerate).  After figuring out how the first 2 pieces are aligned, you’ll need to determine the sequence of rotational moves to get them in place.  Keep in mind that most of the 9 moves are rotations.  If you’ve done several of these types of puzzles, this won’t be a problem.  If it’s your first, I suggest holding them both up next to each other in their final respective orientation and imagine that they are together while moving and rotating one of them until you have an imaginary separation.  Now reverse the process and assemble them for real.  The final step is to imagine the third piece in the assembly to figure out how that would be removed/added.  This puzzle is the easiest of the bunch and can be solved exactly as you would expect.

TriadTIC by Andrew Crowell

White/Dark Gray/Light Green.  Level 12.5.  After solving ThreeTIC, you may think that the solving process would be the same for all of these puzzles - but you would be wrong.  TriadTIC has a very different ordering of assembly for the pieces making it slightly more difficult than ThreeTIC.  Of course, you will discover this the hard way when solving it.  This puzzle requires a lot of moves to complete like the others, but has the least number of rotations in the solution.  Only 2 simple rotations are required to solve TriadTIC.  With the explosive growth in TIC designs in the last 2 years, these 2 rotations can be considered on the easy end of the TIC spectrum.  If you are unsure whether you would like rotational moves or not, this one is for you to get a taste of what it’s all about.


TripleTIC by Andrew Crowell

White/Dark Gray/Dark Blue.  Level 14.3.  TipleTIC is reminiscent of TriadTIC and although it has its own sequence of moves, it will seem familiar.  I think it is the same level of difficulty as TriadTIC or maybe ever so slightly harder since it’s 2 rotations are paired together in a sequence.  Of course you should get them both, but if you decide to get only one, I’d recommend this one for the slightly more interesting rotations.


NeuroTIC by Andrew Crowell

White/Dark Gray/Orange.  Level 13.3.  Like TriadTIC and TripleTIC, NeuroTIC only requires 2 simple rotations.  However, one of these simple rotations is rather sneaky and I found this one to be more difficult than the prior 3.  It looks so easy now, but it did take me a while to figure out that rotation.  Yes, I know that his one doesn’t start with a “T” and makes it stand out like the ugly duckling.  But just like the ugly duckling, this one turns out to be awesome!


TriumviraTIC by Andrew Crowell

White/Light Gray/Purple.  Level 16.2.  This puzzle is the hardest in the set and requires all pieces to be rotated at some point.  All 3 pieces are equals in the TriumviraTIC and they are all required to start working together from the beginning.  The rotations were more difficult to discover for this puzzle and it was a lot fun determining how to accomplish them.  TriumviraTIC was my favorite of the puzzle candy set.


If you have never solved a TIC, this is the place to start.  If you are an experience TIC solver, you will find these to be enjoyable little excursions.  My recommendation would be to get them all and have them delivered with all the pieces mixed up together in a Sadleresque puzzle pile - so named after that master puzzle blogger who has his friends mix up his puzzle pieces for him.  If you were worried in the past about receiving puzzles unassembled, this is your opportunity to give it a try.  You can acquire your own copies on Andrew’s arcWoodPuzzles Etsy shop.

Puzzle Candy Pieces

This is the 11th post of the monthly Andrew Crowell Rotations and Obstructions Series - Turning Interlocking Cubes (ACROSTIC).  You can find the prior posts of the series here:

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Not Your Elegant Hoffman Packing Puzzle - Inelegant Fake


Inelegant Fake by Haym Hirsh
What happens when you dump a Hoffman Packing Puzzle into a mixing bowl, add some glue, and stir vigorously, losing some pieces in the process.  Well, you’d end up with glued bits that would certainly be less elegant than a Hoffman cube.  Even if it looked like a Hoffman Packing puzzle, it wouldn’t be genuine without all the pieces.  This, I suspect, was the genesis of the Inelegant Fake name.  However, it really is a misnomer since there is nothing inelegant about it.  It looks like a lot of care went into the design and construction beyond a mixing bowl.  I also doubt that anyone besides myself makes puzzles using a mixing bowl.

Inelegant Fake is the sixth puzzle in Haym Hirsh’s Inelegant Series, aka: Let’s Abuse The Hoffman Packing Puzzle Line.  Prior puzzles in the series include Inelegant Soma, Inelegant Box, Inelegant Cube, Inelegant Snakes, and Hoffman JR.  Before you get all worked up about the name of that last one, it was originally named Inelegant 5x5 before the marketing department got ahold of it.  I have it on good authority that the puzzle design reviewer insisted that his initials be added to the end of the name to memorialize his contribution.  {Of course, if you know enough to recognize who this is, you also know it couldn’t be further from the truth.}

Inelegant Fake was one of the many beautiful puzzles available in the last Wood Wonders release from Brian Menold.  The pieces are made from a variety of exotic woods and a frame is included to display the solved puzzle.  The frame is also very handy for holding the cubes as you assemble the puzzle.

Inelegant Fake Pieces
Each of the pieces is made by joining 3 or 4 smaller bits together.  You’ll notice that there is not a single 2-bit piece in the bunch.  Adhering to the Hoffman Packing Puzzle design, each of those bits is an identically sized cuboid where the length, width, and height are all different.  

In complete opposition to the Soma cube, Inelegant Fake has 6 pieces with 3 bits and 1 with 4 bits.  Doing some extraordinary complex math and rounding off wherever possible, I deduced that the puzzle consisted of 21.3 22 bits.  Since the Hoffman Packing Puzzle consists of 27 bits, roughly 5 bits escaped the mixing bowl.  So, this raises quite a few questions of how those missing bits are being utilized to frustrate the puzzler.  In fact, so many questions were raised that I started to call it the IF puzzle.  If I assume that the missing bits were here, I could…  If the 4-bit piece were located there, I could …  If the designer were as evil as Kevin claims I am, he would have …

It turns out that Haym is not that evil.  The missing bits were exactly where I initially assumed they would be and so was the 4-bit piece.  Armed with prior Hoffman Packing experience and the fact that my initial assumptions were correct, I was able to produce a nice inelegant fake cube for display within the stand.  Now, the only question is, what other 3x3x3 construction should become an inelegant puzzle?