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August 05, 2009

Anansi's Maze

As I write this, I'm helping to host the first Microsoft Non-Intern Puzzleday, a re-run of the puzzles from this year's regular Intern Puzzleday, just to give the actual Microsoft employees a whack at them. I'm sitting outside a room in which I've set up six "solving stations" for the multi-stage mechanical puzzle I contributed this year, Anansi's Maze. (The Intern Puzzleday actually has a budget, so I could afford to give each team a copy of the puzzle; for the non-interns, they have to timeshare.)

This year, I wanted to play with transparency, as you could probably guess from the picture. I started out with a much more complex puzzle idea, but whittled it down, stage by stage, to get something that was a more appropriate level of difficulty and that hung together more completely. The result, I think, is my best multi-stage puzzle yet, so I decided to also use it for my 2009 Exchange puzzle at the International Puzzle Party in San Francisco.

Anansi the Spider is the trickster spirit of Caribbean and Western African myth and legend, known for his creative mischief making. This puzzle will tease you with its ambiguities and lead you on a merry chase to find its hidden meaning.

Here is a maze, Anansi tells us, but there are no walls, no paths to follow, let alone any dead ends or cycles. Our treasured ‘right-hand rule’ is useless in these uncharted territories.

Anansi’s Maze is a multi-stage solving experience: finding the solution to one stage leads to a new puzzle, and that one to another! Where does this pathless path lead? Can you see through all of Anansi’s tricks and find the answer he’s left for you at the end of your journey?

Crystal Ball

Last year, my puzzle-design mind kept drifting to polyhedra, specifically to ways for pieces representing the faces of polyhedra to connect and interact with one another at each edge. My Octamaze and Gamesters of Triskelion puzzles came out of this realm, and for my IPP 2008 Exchange puzzle, I wanted to move up from the octahedron to my favorite of the Platonic solids, the dodecahedron. My experience with the tab-and-slot mechanism of the earlier puzzles, though, had made me very dubious that such an approach would continue to work for the rather larger dihedral angle of the dodecahedron: the tab would be coming into the slot at such a shallow angle that the slot would have to be quite wide, and the piece deformation needed to insert the last face probably wouldn't work at all, let alone elegantly.

I also wanted to use a prettier material than the opaque black high-impact polystyrene I'd used before, and that ruled out pretty much any piece deformation at all. (I'd tried making Octamaze out of acrylic, since it takes etching much better than polystyrene does, but after having my acrylic prototype shatter in my hands during disassembly, I gave up and went with the much more robust and pliant polystyrene.)

I decided that the pieces would rotate into position, using some kind of interlocking, hook-shaped protrusions on the edges of each face; that would still entail fairly wide (deep?) hooks, due to the shallow angle, but avoid any piece deformation during assembly. I realized that I might run into a mechanical problem with the corners of the faces hanging up on one another as each face was rotated into position, so I started considering various piece shapes that were missing the face corners. I started playing around with actual shapes on paper, instead of just thinking about all of it, and all of this came together in a kind of practical lesson in geometric duality: the hooks would be on the ends of arms, and the puzzle would look like stars with interacting points rather than the regular polygonal faces I'd originally imagined.

The resulting puzzle is probably the prettiest one I've ever designed, once assembled: it would make a great Christmas ornament, or an attractive object to dangle from the rear-view mirror of your car, let alone just sitting on your desk at work. It's also quite a difficult puzzle, so keep that in mind if you buy a copy. Like all of my puzzles, it comes with the solution, though, so nobody need know if you decide to short-circuit the solving and jump to the pretty bit.

[Update 8/27/2011: I've renamed this puzzle to "Crystal Ball", which I think describes it better than the old name, not to mention avoiding potential trademark issues... :-)]

Gamesters of Triskelion

My orignal plan, when designing the Octamaze puzzle, was that it would serve double duty, being both my gift to everyone at Gathering for Gardner 8 and something to torture the interns with at the 2008 Microsoft Intern Puzzleday. Sadly, though, it became quite clear during initial playtesting that Octamaze would be too difficult for the intern event. (I was willing to make the mathematicians, puzzlers, and magicians at G4G8 work harder...)

Still, I thought I could at least reuse the primary mechanical idea of Octamaze, and so I started from there when designing the Gamesters of Triskelion puzzle; I did, though, make that part a bit easier. The 2008 Puzzleday theme, for those of you who didn't recognize it immediately from the title, was Space, including many science-fiction references. I was put in mind of the Gamesters of Triskelion episode from the original Star Trek series by the triangular shape of the pieces from Octamaze, and somehow it occurred to me to check whether or not "triskelion" was actually a normal English word. As it happens, it is: a triskelion is a (sometimes quite literally) three-legged motif from heraldry and graphic design. I particularly liked some of the more modern interpretations of the motif, so I incorporated one into the etching on the pieces.

Gamesters of Triskelion is the third in my series of multi-stage puzzles, where solving one stage of the puzzle creates another puzzle for you to solve, on through some number of stages until you reach a single-word or short-phrase final answer. I'm having a lot of fun designing such puzzles, so you can expect the series to continue for quite a while.

Unlike most of my puzzles, this one comes with some "flavor text", not essential to solving the puzzle, but perhaps helpful:

Captain's log, stardate 3211.9: We are leaving starsystem M-24 Alpha, having convinced the three disembodied Providers, the one-time Gamesters of Triskelion, to help their former gladiators to form a new, free civilization. This should end the deadly gambling in their obsessively triangular fighting arena.

As we left orbit, the Providers transported a small octahedron onto the bridge, along with an engraved tablet (three sided, of course) in what appears to be their language. During transport, the faces of the octahedron detached from one another, so now we have eight triangular pieces.

Spock believes it will be straightforward to reassemble them since, he says, they can only fit together in one way. He is more puzzled about the meaning of the etchings on the faces, and how they might relate to the tablet, but assumes that this will become clear once the octahedron is back together.

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