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November 26, 2011

Holiday Discount Puzzle 2011

A Holiday Discount Puzzle

Solve this puzzle for 10% off any order!

I had so much fun with last year's holiday-discount-puzzle promotion that I've decided to do it again! Who knows, maybe it'll turn into an annual tradition around here...

Just like last year, in honor of the holiday season, I've created a puzzle that you can solve to earn a discount on any order here at Pavel's Puzzles. Simply cut out the fourteen strips linked to by the image below, cutting along the heavy lines. Then weave them together into a square with seven strips placed horizontally and seven placed vertically, such that you can see all of the letters. (Ignore the orientations of the letters. I've scrambled them to avoid giving you too much information. Heh.) Finally, read out the message to learn the secret discount code!

Once you know the answer, make any order at Pavel's Puzzles and type the answer into the "Instructions to Seller" space on the PayPal checkout form. When I get the order, I'll issue you a refund for 10% of the cost of your order! (Sales tax and/or shipping excluded.) Even better, you can get the same discount on as many orders as you like between now and the end of this year!

To further spur you into action, I've just released three new puzzle designs:

Edgewise is just a simple little jigsaw puzzle, isn't it? With only a couple dozen pieces or so, how difficult could it be? This was my Exchange puzzle at the International Puzzle Party in Berlin this summer, and it's the latest in my series of multi-stage solving experiences, sure to keep your mind occupied for a little while.

World-renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth conceived of this puzzle a few years ago and I've designed this elegant physical realization of his five progressively more difficult challenges: can you fit the pieces into the tray such that the Tromino Trails form a single continuous loop? Each challenge has a unique solution and helps ‘train’ you to be ready to take on the next one.

This big, icy beauty is perfect for those coming winter nights in front of a fire. Icicle Jam was inspired by the startlingly blue ice of Alaskan glaciers and once you've assembled it you'll have a display piece that will be a striking addition to any room. Of course, first you'll have to survive its jagged interlocking challenge. Dress in layers, and make sure someone knows where you've gone!

Of course, I still offer all of my earlier designs, too. My holiday discount puzzle is a perfect way to satisfy (or frustrate) that puzzling person on your gift list while saving a little cash at the same time. Just imagine the look on their face when they find one of these puzzles in their stocking!

Icicle Jam

One of my best-selling puzzles is the Finnish Cross (formerly known as Six Tabbed Planks), designed by Matti Linkola. That might be simply because it's one of the least expensive puzzles on the website, but I prefer to think that it's because it has a compact elegance about it that makes it fit well on a executive's desk or anywhere else. I have received one or two letters about it, though, from purchasers who were disappointed at its overall size (about two inches cubed).

In its pure form, though, the puzzle has a certain fixed aspect ratio: if I made one twice as large, it would necessarily be made from plastic that was twice as thick (1/2 inch instead of 1/4 inch). It's a slow and tedious process to laser cut such thick acrylic, and some artifacts of the cutting process get magnified as well.

For example, the laser doesn't cut a channel that's at a perfect right angle to the surface; the channel is more V-shaped, wider on the 'entry' side and narrower on the 'exit' side, so the pieces end up being slightly trapezoidal in cross section rather than rectangular. Now, proper laser-cutting technique can significantly mitigate such tendencies, but as you scale up to thicker and thicker materials, the artifacts start to overwhelm the mitigations. For a 3D interlocking puzzle like the Finnish Cross, the result wouldn't be as satisfying as I'd like.

One morning, as I pondered this 'size matters' issue, I idly noted that I had managed to build up a small inventory of fluorescent blue acrylic, originally intended for use on a commission where we ended up going in a different direction. That plastic had always put me in mind of the shockingly blue ice we'd seen on Alaskan glaciers, and now that led me to picture a version of the Finnish Cross that looked like a whole bunch of icicles had been jammed together into a kind of starry, snowflakey shape. The idea really appealed to me, and I immediately sat down with my drawing software. A few hours of design later, I was ready to try cutting out the first prototype for Icicle Jam, and the result was just as striking as I'd imagined.

This jagged, icy beauty is big, about 6-1/2 inches in diameter, and really eye-catching in any setting. The internal interlocking configuration is the same as in the Finnish Cross, but I find it's a little bit tougher to visualize it in this new, more flamboyant form, making for a slightly more difficult solving experience. If you're looking for a satisfying puzzle that will really remind you of its sub-Arctic roots, Icicle Jam may be just the ticket!

Tromino Trails

In the summer of 2009, at the annual International Puzzle Party, we were treated to a talk by the justly renowned computer scientist, mathematician, and author (and all-around Really Nice Guy™) Donald Knuth. He spoke about some of his favorite puzzles and some new puzzle ideas he'd been working on. As part of the presentation, he passed out a sheet of paper with several puzzles on it for us to solve later.

One of the entries on the paper was a description of an interesting set of twelve trominoes (aka triominoes), pieces made up of three unit squares joined in a little 'L' shape. Each piece had a line drawn on it (on both sides, so you could flip the pieces over), and your goal was to arrange them into a six-by-six square such that all of the lines formed a single, unbroken loop The solution, he said, was unique. OK, fun enough, but Don wasn't through, not by a long shot.

Then, he listed four more similar trominoes and said that, if you added those new pieces to the original ones, you could arrange them all into an eight-by-six rectangle, with the lines again forming a single continuous loop, and again the solution was unique. This was sounding even better, but he kept going!

Next, Don showed two more trominoes to add in, now enabling you to build a unique nine-by-six rectangle with the same properties. That was followed by yet two more trominoes, now forming a unique ten-by-six rectangle!

Finally, he showed four more tominoes you could add to everything that had gone before, with the entire set now making a nine-by-eight rectangle, still with the lines forming a single continuous loop, and still with a unique solution!

Five separate, progressively more difficult challenges, all from the same set of simple-seeming pieces, all with unique solutions: this was great, an elegant puzzle construction! There was only one teensy-tiny little problem: Don hadn't actually given us the puzzle! All we had was a description of the puzzle, stuck on this sheet of paper!

I immediately resolved to design a nice physical packaging of Don's puzzle idea, with all five challenges and all twenty-four tromino pieces included, along with a simple way to remember which pieces went with each challenge. The result is Tromino Trails. The initial six-by-six challenge isn't trivial, but also isn't particularly difficult. After that, each challenge poses a progressively tougher problem but also trains you, in a sense, to be ready for the challenge that follows.

My friend Stan Isaacs used this as his Exchange puzzle at this summer's International Puzzle Party in Berlin, and now I can make it available more broadly. I think it provides a very satisfying puzzle experience that's accessible to and enjoyable by both experts and new puzzlers alike.

November 25, 2011


A couple of years ago, I was privileged to be commissioned to produce a unique, custom puzzle for the 2009 Science Foo Camp, a eclectic annual gathering of scientists sponsored by the journal Nature, by Google, and by O'Reilly Media. I ended up producing 300 copies of a special version of my then-new puzzle Anansi's Maze, which they then handed out to all of the attendees that summer. I was also invited to attend the event myself, which was truly wonderful, and they asked me back again the next summer. At the event in 2010, I started discussing with the organizers the possibility of my producing another puzzle for them for the 2011 gathering, this time a puzzle that had been designed from the beginning specifically with that event in mind.

I spent some time brainstorming puzzle themes with Kay Thaney from Nature, and we hit upon what I thought was a great inspiration. Tim O'Reilly, the founder of O'Reilly Media and one of the organizers of the event, has a favorite saying that he brings up at the introductory session of each Foo Camp:

“All of the most interesting stuff happens at the edges.”

When Tim says this, he's referring to the edges between intellectual disciplines, and how Foo Camp is designed to bring together people from different areas and enable a kind of creative friction as the areas butt up against one another.

When we brought up the saying in our puzzle-theme brainstorming, however, it immediately took on an entirely different meaning for me, and my mind began chewing over all sorts of ideas for embodying that meaning in a puzzle design. Edgewise is the result of that chewing. (Hm. That sounded better in my head than it reads here. Oh, well...)

Edgewise consists of about two dozen jigsaw-puzzle pieces, most with large letters etched on them, and some with additional words of potential significance. As this is the latest in my series of multi-stage puzzles, I won't say anything more about the solving experience here, but I can tell you that it should keep you happily busy for a little while as you make your way through it.

In the end, ironically, Edgewise did not wind up being used as a Science Foo Camp gift, but I remain grateful to Tim and Kay for providing the inspiration for this puzzle. We did use it in this summer's Microsoft Intern Puzzleday event, and I also used it for my Exchange puzzle at the International Puzzle Party in Berlin, so I think it's getting the kind of exposure it deserves, particularly because now it's available here on the website for you to try out for yourself!

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