A Puzzle Design Competition Hosted by a Secretive Puzzly Society?

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[Image courtesy of Activist Post.]

What if I told you that there’s a secret cabal of puzzle enthusiasts lurking in the shadows of the global puzzle community? A group that meets once a year in different locations, rotating between the United States, Europe, and Japan. An invite-only assortment of puzzle collectors and innovators who bring mechanical puzzles to challenge and delight their fellow attendees.

Yes, we’re talking about a clandestine event where puzzle collectors discuss, show off, and trade mechanical puzzles and brain teasers they’ve designed or crafted themselves.

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[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

No commercially available puzzles can be brought as gifts, since you might duplicate a puzzle that’s already in someone’s collection.

But swapping and selling puzzles isn’t all that happens at one of these International Puzzle Party events. No, they’re also home to the Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition, an annual award centered around mechanical puzzles. More specifically, the winners of the competition are announced at the IPP.

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[One of Yoshigahara’s most famous puzzles. Image courtesy of Mr. Puzzle.]

Named after the prolific and innovative puzzle designer Nob Yoshigahara, the competition was founded in 2001, and named after Yoshigahara in 2005.

The entries for this year’s competition have until June 15th, 2020, to submit their puzzle for consideration. (This year’s competition was announced back in November of last year.)

Usually, only 5-7 puzzles out of all those submitted will be selected by one of that year’s judges for consideration. Each puzzle is graded on how innovative the concept is, how well the puzzle is physically designed (both aesthetically and mechanically), and how enjoyable the solving experience is.

[The 2017 competition winner, Kakoi.]

Anyone may submit his or her own mechanical puzzle design, independent of Puzzle Party affiliation.

There is a Puzzlers’ Award for the top design as well as Jury Prizes for other submissions (a grand prize, 1st prize, and honorable mention).

You can check out a listing of the 2018 competition submissions here to see the incredible variety and creativity represented in a single year’s pool of submissions. (Including links for purchase if any of them catch your eye!)

Personally, I’m a sucker for secret societies, invite-only activities, and so on, so I love the concept of a puzzle competition created for and judged by fellow puzzlers.

Oh, wait. Before I go. You may be asking yourself why all the secrecy? Well, apparently, there were several attempts by companies to infiltrate the event and bootleg puzzle ideas for market. It’s simultaneously insane and totally believable for spycraft like this to be taking place at a puzzle event.

In any case, I wish the best of luck to everyone submitting their puzzles to this year’s competition!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Pocket Brainteasers

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[Note: I received a free copy of each brain teaser in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

Whether it’s composed of two simple pieces of twisted metal or a elaborate arrangement of parts, a mechanical brain teaser are great fun. It’s a plaything, a curiosity to be fiddled with, tinkered with, and explored, twisted and turned every which way until you feel like you’ve got a handle on all the different ways you can manipulate it.

And then, suddenly, BAM. Inspiration strikes! The a-ha moment happens, and you unravel its secrets.

ThinkFun, purveyors of deduction and logic puzzle games galore, have returned to the field recently, and in today’s product review, we look at a collection of brain teasers that each offer their own unique a-ha moment, if you’re willing to work at it.

ThinkFun’s Pocket Brainteasers range in difficulty from one to four (one being the easiest/least challenging), and you’ll find your puzzle skills tested in several ways as you tackle each. Although intended for solvers 8 and up, older solvers will still enjoy the puzzly tricks awaiting them in ThinkFun’s latest line of puzzle products.


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4-Piece Jigsaw

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? A four-piece jigsaw puzzle. Better yet, it’s already assembled for you! All you have to do is take it apart.

This level 1 brainteaser is obviously more than meets the eye, as the puzzle pieces shift back and forth but never quite seem to separate the way you’d expect.

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The large plastic pieces are perfect for younger solvers to play around with, solid and resistant to the sometimes harsh manipulations of younger hands.

It’s not much of a challenge for an experienced solver, but it was genuine fun to suss out how the pieces worked together and how to finally separate them.

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4-T Puzzle

This level 2 brainteaser followed the same basic formula as 4-Piece Jigsaw — four pieces to assemble — but in this case, their interactions were constrained by the small tray included with the puzzle.

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As you can see, the solution offered on one side simply won’t work on the other because the tray is smaller, so solvers will have to be extra crafty to place all four T-blocks into the available space.

The T-shaped pieces made for curious solving — since they don’t fit flush with the corners the way traditional tangrams or Tetrominoes would — but patience and cleverness will be rewarded. It’s amazing how a relatively simple set-up — shapes and a tray — can result in a satisfying puzzly experience.

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The Fifth Chair

This time around, there’s no tray or framework to negotiate. Instead, you’ve got four L-pieces (or “chairs”) and your goal is to make a larger L-shaped chair by combining the four you already have.

Like a three-dimensional version of tangrams, The Fifth Chair is an enjoyable solve, requiring you to maneuver the chairs in all sorts of combinations, seeing different relationships between them all as you try to figure out how to bring the fifth chair to life.

Despite being the level 3 puzzle in the set, I actually found this to be the most challenging of the quartet, as I was briefly overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available to me.

Of course, as soon as I figured out the solution, it felt obvious, and I breathed a sigh of puzzly relief as I conquered the third of four brainteasers for the evening.

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Rec-Tangle

Designed to resemble the service bars of a cellphone or an internet connection, the “bars” are cut diagonally into halves, leaving the solver with 8 pieces to arrange.

This level 4 puzzle solves quite similarly to 4-T Puzzle. You have an array of pieces to place into a smaller space on the backside of the puzzle tray.

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The unusual pieces — long and thin, with an angled edge on one side and a flat end on the other — offered all sorts of possibilities when it comes to placement in the tray, so I found myself discarding quite a few theories and ideas before alighting on the correct solution.

Nonetheless, I would still consider this puzzle easier than The Fifth Chair, though still harder than 4-T Puzzle or 4-Piece Jigsaw.


Tackling this tetrad of brainteasers was a treat, especially as it felt like I was exercising plenty of puzzly skills that aren’t used nearly as often as pen-and-paper puzzles usually demand.

The combination of spacial awareness, physical manipulation of puzzle pieces, and the strategy involved in cracking each made for a feast of puzzly experiences. Any one of the four would be fun, so getting to try all four was a delight.

Whether intended as stocking stuffers or affordable little puzzly surprises for the solver in your life, I suspect these pocket-sized puzzles will have the younger solvers you know puzzling away for a while to come.

Pocket Brainteasers are available from ThinkFun and select online retailers, only $6.99 each for 4-Piece Jigsaw, 4-T Puzzle, The Fifth Chair, and Rec-Tangle!


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Intuitive vs. Non-Intuitive Puzzles

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[Image courtesy of The Spruce Crafts.]

Sometimes, when you look at a puzzle, you know immediately what to do and how to solve. In my opinion, a great deal of Sudoku’s success is due to its intuitive nature. You see the grid, the numbers, and you know how to proceed.

Crosswords are similarly straightforward, with numbered clues and grid squares to guide new solvers. (The “across” and “down” directions also help immensely.)

That’s not to say that these puzzles can’t be off-putting to new solvers, despite their intuitive nature. I know plenty of people who are put off by crosswords simply by reputation, while others avoid Sudoku because they’re accustomed to avoiding ANY puzzle that involves numbers, assuming that some math is involved. (I suspect that KenKen, despite its successes, failed to replicate the wild popularity of Sudoku for similar reasons.)

But plenty of other puzzles require some explanation before you can dive in. A Marching Bands or Rows Garden puzzle, for instance, isn’t immediately obvious, even if the puzzle makes plenty of sense once you’ve read the instructions or solved one yourself.

The lion’s share of pen-and-paper puzzles fall into this category. No matter how eye-catching the grid or familiar the solving style, a solver can’t simply leap right into solving.

Thankfully, this won’t deter most solvers, who gleefully accept new challenges as they come, so long as they are fair and make sense after a minute or so of thought. Cryptic crossword-style cluing is a terrific example of this. At first glance, the clues might appear to be gibberish. But within each clue lurks the necessary tools to unlock it and find the answer word.

Brain teasers often function the same way. You’re presented with a problem — a light bulb you can’t see and three possible switches for it, for instance — and you need to figure out a way to solve it. It might involve deduction, wordplay, or some clever outside-the-box thinking, but once you find the answer, it rarely feels unfair or unreasonable.

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[Image courtesy of Deposit Photos.]

But, then again, there are also puzzles that can baffle you even once you’ve read the instructions and stared at the layout for a few minutes. Either the rules are complex or the solving style so unfamiliar or alien that the solver simply can’t find a way in.

In short, puzzles as a whole operate on a spectrum that spans from intuitive to non-intuitive.

Want an example of baffling or non-intuitive? You got it.

GAMES Magazine once ran a puzzle entitled “Escape from the Dungeon,” where the solver had to locate a weapon in a D&D-style dungeon. A very small crossword puzzle was found in one room on a paper scroll.

But the solution had nothing to do with solving the crossword.

The actual solution was to take the crossword to a magician who removed letters from the fronts of words. Removing the C-R-O-S left you with a sword, completing the overall puzzle.

That sort of thinking is so outside the box that it might as well be in a different store entirely. Video games, particularly ones from the point-and-click era, have more than their fair share of non-intuitive puzzles like this. You can check out these lists for numerous examples.

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And as escape rooms grow in popularity, more of them seem to be succumbing to less intuitive puzzling as a result of trying to challenge solvers.

For example, in one escape room I tried, various fellow participants uncovered two stars, a picture of the three blind mice, and four different items that represented the seasons. Amidst all the locks to open, puzzles to unravel, and secrets to find, it never occurred to any of us that these three unconnected numbers would have to be assembled as a combination to a lock. By asking for a hint, we were able to figure out to put them together and open the lock, but it’s not a terribly intuitive puzzle.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a puzzle constructor — be it a pen-and-paper puzzle, an escape room scenario, or a puzzle hunt dilemma — is not creating a dynamite, unique puzzle, but ensuring that finding the solution is fair, even if it’s difficult or mind-boggling.

This sort of thinking informs not only my work as a puzzlesmith, but the designs for my roleplaying games as well. If my players encounter a gap, there’s some way across. If there’s a locked door, there’s a way through it. Oftentimes, there’s more than one, because my players frequently come up with a solution that eluded me.

In the end, that’s the point. All puzzles, no matter how difficult, exist for one reason: to be solved. To provide that rush, that a-ha moment, that satisfaction that comes with overcoming the clever, devious creation of another sharp mind.

And non-intuitive puzzles are tantamount to rigging the game.


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Puzzly Ideas Just in Time for Valentine’s Day!

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Valentine’s Day looms large, and sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect way to express your love for that certain someone… particularly if that certain someone is the puzzly type.

But we’ve got a few suggestions…

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Jigsaw puzzles are the perfect metaphor for relationships, as they require separate pieces working together to complete the picture.

There are necklaces and other pieces of jigsaw-themed jewelry, as well as do-it-yourself jigsaw patterns you can utilize. You could depict anything from a favorite photo to a specific Valentine’s message in the completed image.

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Now, you can always start with something simple, like a subscription to a puzzle service like The Crosswords ClubThe American Values Club Crossword, or The Inkubator. New puzzles every week or every month are a great gift. (Especially the Valentine’s Deluxe Sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords app! *wink*)

If they’re more into mechanical puzzles, our friends at Tavern Puzzles offer several brain teasers that incorporate a heart shape.

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But if you’re looking for something more personalized, why not make a crossword for them yourself?

(Yes, you can also commission a top puzzler to do one for you, but you’d usually want to get the ball rolling on something like that well before Valentine’s Day.)

Now, to be fair, crosswords can be tough and time-intensive to make, so if that feels a little daunting, why not try a Framework puzzle or a crisscross instead? They incorporate the same crossing style, but don’t require you to use every letter.

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It allows you to maintain a terrific word list all about you and your significant other without all the effort of filling in every square crossword-style.

Or you could write the object of your affection a coded love letter! All throughout history, people have employed different tricks and techniques to keep their private messages away from prying eyes, and you could do the same!

Whether it’s a simple letter-shifting cipher or something more complex, make sure your message is worth reading. =)

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Plus you could learn a bit of letterlocking to some flair — and a sense of puzzly secrecy and personalization — to your message.

Even if you don’t go the encryption route, the unique presentation of a letter-locked message makes a simple card or a heartfelt note feel more precious.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Have you considered a puzzle bouquet? You could grab some newspaper crosswords and origami them into flower shapes for a fun puzzle-fueled spin on a holiday classic.

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Or you could hide jigsaw pieces around the house that, when put together, spell out a Valentine’s message or a picture of the two of you.

Put your own spin on the idea. A little bit of effort can go a long way, plus it doesn’t cost anything.

With a little more effort, you could whip up a scavenger hunt! You could leave clues around leading to a gift, or a romantic dinner, or some other grand finale. Maybe offer a rose with each clue.

Show off how much you know about him or her. You could make each clue or destination about your relationship or about your partner, allowing you to show off how well you know them… where you first met, favorite meals, favorite movie…

If you don’t want to leave things around where anyone could nab them, keep a few small tokens on you, giving one for each destination reached or clue solved. Heck, you could enlist a friend to text clues to your special someone once they’ve reached a particular destination!

Or for something less formal, you could make a game of your romantic wanderings and play Valentine’s Day Bingo.

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[I found this blank template on Makoodle.com.]

Maybe go for a walk or take your loved one out to dinner, and see if they can get bingo by observing different things. A couple holding hands as they walk, a Valentine’s Day proposal, outrageously priced flowers…

The possibilities are endless when you put your mind to it.


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Forget 3-D Chess and Try 4-Directional Tetris!

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

Tetris is the ultimate puzzle game. If you somehow haven’t played it, you’ve at least heard of it. The brainchild of Alexey Pajitnov conquered the world, not only making Nintendo’s Game Boy a bestselling video game platform, but turning millions of puzzlers into gamers and gamers into puzzlers as well.

Those iconic little Tetromino shapes are instantly recognizable, and the music can still induce panic and nervousness in players decades after the first time they heard those infamous notes.

And it serves as a brilliant template for ambitious game designers and puzzlers to add their own twists to the Tetris formula.

The basic concept is simple: try to arrange the constantly falling Tetromino blocks so that they make complete lines in the play area. If they do, that line disappears.

Of course, just because the concept is simple, that doesn’t mean the game is. As your play area fills up with Tetrominos, the music speeds up, amping up the tension. And as you progress through different levels, the pieces fall faster and faster. You need quick reflexes and ice in your veins to handle the higher difficulty levels.

Thankfully, you only need to worry about the blocks falling from one direction.

But a new variation on Tetris quadruples the gameplay area in a very devious way.

Say hello to Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Stephen Lavelle’s take on Tetris. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Tetromino blocks appear in the center of the play area, and you control where the piece is placed in each of the four directions.

No, the blocks do not fall automatically, nor is there a time limit that forces you to place the blocks quickly. Yes, you can spin each piece before placing it.

But each block goes into all four play areas simultaneously, and in the same position on the opposing sides.

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As you can see, the straight piece lands flat in the east and west grid spaces, but standing upright in the north and south grid spaces. You have to work along each axis to find the best case scenario for all four of your play areas.

Yes, you’re trying to complete lines in four different directions at the same time. The T-shaped Tetromino will land in four different arrangements (flat, on one side of the T-bar, on the other side of the T-bar, and on the long end of the T-bar) with a single keystroke.

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It’s mind-blowing how challenging this makes the game, but it’s challenging in a good way.

I mean, in a regular game of Tetris, you need several dozen completed lines to conclude a level and feel like a champion. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, you feel like a genius if you can get two completed lines in each of the four play areas before the game is over!

Just as addictive as the original, yet offering a totally new twist on the familiar style of puzzling, I foresee a lot of office hours being lost to this engaging four-directional experiment in space efficiency.

You can try Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät for yourself here, and check out all of Stephen’s games here. (He also has a YouTube channel featuring some of his creations.)

After 35 years, it’s cool to see there are still new ways to make Tetris feel fresh again.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Waiter’s Tray, The Curated Collection, and Ghost Cube

Whether it’s a puzzle box, two joined pieces of twisted metal, or an elaborate wooden network of interconnected pieces, a mechanical brain teaser offers a physical dimension to puzzling that is often lacking in pen-and-paper puzzles and other traditional puzzle forms.

And in today’s product review, we’ve got three different varieties of brain teaser to test out, all courtesy of the creative minds at Project Genius.

So without further ado, let’s get solving!


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The goal in Waiter’s Tray is simple: maneuver the tray out from under the wine bottles. You can only lift one wine bottle at a time, though. Oh, and some of the bottles are locked in by marbles, so those have to be moved before the wine bottles can be lifted.

Okay, so maybe it’s not so simple.

Waiter’s Tray is a devious mechanical brain teaser that requires patience and a knack for planning in order to shift the wine bottles enough to free the tray.

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The peculiar shape of the tray both helps and hinders you, since you can lower one wine bottle with the dip in the tray, but the higher lip of the left-hand side of the tray often prevents you from moving forward and manipulating the other wine bottles.

But once you get into the rhythm of the solve, it’s a pretty satisfying feeling to see the tray slide closer and closer to escape.

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Yeah, I’m posting this one to prove I solved it. =)


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The five traditional brain teasers that compose The Curated Collection each represent a different culture and time period, adding a touch of historical context and beauty to some tricky and portable puzzles.

Each is ranked in difficulty from one to five stars — the Roman Keys are considered the easiest (2 stars) while Chinese Tea and Aztec Passion Flower top out at 5 stars — but the goal of each is the same: separate the pieces of each puzzle.

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Some of these brain teasers will look familiar, since puzzles like Chinese Tea and Egyptian Pi have been around forever, but there’s a good chance at least one of these puzzlers will be unfamiliar to solvers, offering multiple chances to keep you from cracking all five mysteries too quickly.

Personally, I found the star-rating system misleading, but your mileage may vary. (Also, some of the wooden puzzle pieces stuck together a bit, so more than once, I almost felt like I was breaking the puzzle, not solving it.)

That being said, getting to test my puzzly abilities in five curious ways at once was a real treat.


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With enough practice, the secrets of the Rubik’s Cube can be revealed. Those six colors, 3 rows, and 3 columns can be conquered. But what if the colors were gone and the rows and columns replaced with angles and unexpected twists?

Ghost Cube offers an engaging variation on the classic twisty puzzle by making all the pieces spin and shift on an angle. Whereas the usual Rubik’s Cube is a riot of colors, the Ghost Cube is a maddening pointy shape instead.

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Yet I find solving the Ghost Cube much more fun and satisfying than solving a Rubik’s Cube. (And trust me, I am not exactly a proficient Rubik solver.)

There’s just something about a tactile solve — rather than a color-based one — that makes manipulating the cube more engaging. I found myself prolonging the solving experience simply because I enjoyed working the Ghost Cube back and forth. It’s immersive in a way I didn’t expect.


Waiter’s Tray, The Curated Collection, and Ghost Cube are all available through Project Genius as well as certain online retailers.

Whether you’re looking for a deduction puzzle, a disassembly puzzle, or a twisty puzzle, one of these impressive brain teasers from Project Genius is sure to hit the spot. And all three are part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, so check it out!

[Note: I received a free copy of each brain teaser in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]


Thank you for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!