It’s Puzzle Magic!

[Crossword constructor and magician David Kwong wows an audience.]

There is a certain sense of wonder that accompanies a well-constructed puzzle. The skill and artistry it takes to craft a quality crossword or brain teaser, weaving together words and leaving a finished puzzle in your wake, rather than a bundle of crosswordese and obscurities is truly something remarkable.

But that’s not the sort of puzzle magic we’re discussing today. No, instead, we’re returning to the CW summer series Penn and Teller: Fool Us to observe the magic of another puzzly entertainer at work.

For the uninitiated, Fool Us is a show where magicians and performers from all around the world present their best tricks, illusions, and bits of magical wizardry to try and stump the famous duo.

And on a recent episode, magician John Michael Hinton performed two acts of magical trickery involving a Rubik’s Cube.

Check out this video where he dazzles Penn and Teller:

That final reveal was a thing of beauty!

You can check out more of John Michael Hinton’s magic on his YouTube page! And let me know if you’ve seen any other acts of puzzle magic! I’d love to check them out!


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The Tetris Effect: Unleashed!

When alarmists talk about the negative effects of video games on players, they’re usually referring to first-person shooters, like Call of Duty, or games that encourage immoral acts, like Grand Theft Auto.

They’re not usually talking about Tetris.

But as it turns out, playing Tetris can have curious side effects. Some folks who play for prolonged periods of time report seeing the iconic tetromino shapes falling as they drift off to sleep, or when they close their eyes. (This has also been reported by jigsaw puzzle solvers, who see curved lines, and Rubik’s Cube solvers, who continue to see the constantly shifting colors of the cube.)

There are additional anecdotal stories of people viewing the world in a Tetris-y way after solving, fixating on how shapes could fit together.

It’s common enough, in fact, that it has its own term: The Tetris Effect.

It has also inspired a Tetris game of the same name, which is releasing later this year for the Playstation 4. Tetris Effect enhances the Tetris experience by tying musical themes and imagery to the traditional gameplay.

One player describes the play experience in an article for Kotaku:

I played the game in VR, though that is optional. The first time I landed a Tetris, the screen exploded in a beautiful display of particle effects, sea life swam around me, the controller vibrated and the music swelled in a way that sent chills down my spine — I’ve done this a million times before but not like this.

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

The game also boasts a new solving trick — the Zone mechanic — which allows you to stop time and place several blocks at one time, meaning you could line up multiple pieces to drop at once and clear more lines. The previous limit was four lines, but now, with the Zone mechanic, it’s possible to clear out up to sixteen lines at once! (Naturally, there’s a term for that as well. It’s a decahexatris.)

This is an excitingly immersive evolution of the classic puzzle game, and I can’t wait to check it out.


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Computer Program Teaches Itself to Solve Rubik’s Cubes!

I tried to warn you, fellow puzzlers.

I wrote posts about computer programs that play chess, Scrabble, Go, Atari games, and Jeopardy! I wrote posts about programs that solve crosswords. I even wrote posts about robots that solve Rubik’s Cubes in a fraction of a second.

And they’re getting smarter.

Say hello to DeepCube, an AI program that is now the equal of any master Rubik’s Cube solver in the world at solving 3x3x3 cubes.

And unlike other AI programs that have learned to play games like chess and Go through reinforcement learning — determining if particular moves are bad or good — DeepCube taught itself to play by analyzing each move, comparing it to a completed cube, and reverse-engineering how to get to that move.

It’s labor-intensive, yes, but it also requires no human intervention and no previous information. Chess-playing programs like Deep Blue work by analyzing thousands of previously played games. But DeepCube had no previous history to build on.

It started from scratch. By itself.

And became a Rubik’s Cube master.

In only 44 hours.

Compare that to the 10,000 hours it supposedly takes for a human to become an expert in anything, and that’s a mind-blowing accomplishment.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

From the Gizmodo article on DeepCube:

The system discovered “a notable amount of Rubik’s Cube knowledge during its training process,” write the researchers, including a strategy used by advanced speedcubers, namely a technique in which the corner and edge cubelets are matched together before they’re placed into their correct location.

Yes, the program even independently recreated techniques designed by human speed-solvers to crack the cubes faster.

The next goal for the DeepCube program is to pit it against 4x4x4 cubes, which are obviously more complex. But supposedly, deposing human puzzle solvers as the top dogs on the planet isn’t the finish line.

No, this sort of three-dimensional puzzle-solving is only an intermediate goal, with the ultimate endgame of predicting protein shapes, analyzing DNA, building better robots, and other advanced projects.

But first, they’re coming for our puzzles.


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Turn Your Smartphone Into a Rubik-Solving Sidekick?

I just can’t resist a bit of Rubik’s Cube news.

We’ve covered Rubik’s Cubes a lot on this blog. We’ve seen them solved underwater, while being juggled, during a skydive, and one move at a time by strangers on a world tour. And yes, we’ve seen them solved in increasing faster times, both by humans and machines.

The human record hovers around the five-second mark, while the machine record stands at .38 seconds, which is brain-meltingly fast.

Now there’s a new tool on the market to up your Rubik-solving game like never before. It’s called GoCube, and it’s on Kickstarter right now.

GoCube is a Rubik’s-inspired twisty puzzle that is Bluetooth-enabled in order to interact with a phone or tablet. It offers real-time updates on your solving progress — which corresponds to areas of the physical cube that light up — as well as carrying a whole host of other features.

You can use it as a training tool to teach you the tricks of the solving trade, whether you’re just learning how to solve a twisty puzzle or you have aspirations of being a speed-solver.

GoCube’s connectivity even allows you to compete in head-to-head solves with other users. Plus you can use the cube as a controller for mini-games, in dexterity challenges, and more.

This seems like an impressive step forward for twisty puzzles. Although the price tag is pretty hefty — the basic Kickstarter package starts at $69 (although the creators claim it will retail for $119) — the campaign has already blown past its initial goal of $25,000. It currently sits at over $400,000 in Kickstarter-backed funds with over a month to go.

Puzzles continue to grow and adapt to the modern technological revolution in unexpected and fascinating ways. I can’t wait to see what tech-savvy puzzlers cook up next.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: IcoSoKu

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

Most puzzles — whether we’re talking about puzzle boxes, jigsaw puzzles, physical brain teasers, or mechanical puzzles — operate under a simple premise: the puzzle arrives in one configuration, and it’s up to you to solve it and put it into a different configuration.

With puzzle boxes, you’re opening them. With jigsaws, you’re assembling the pieces. With physical brain teasers and mechanical puzzles, you’re separating them, freeing a given piece, or accomplishing a particular task. But in each case, they’ve arrived that way. You have been pitted against the designer.

Project Genius‘s IcoSoKu is something different. IcoSoKu challenges you to create your own puzzle, and then solve it.

The setup is elegant in its simplicity. It’s a puzzle ball consisting of a twenty-sided icosahedron base, twelve numbered pegs, and twenty triangular tiles with different combinations of pips at the corners.

To start, remove all of the tiles and all of the pegs from the icosahedron. Place the numbered pegs wherever you wish on the puzzle ball.

Then, you must figure out how to arrange the triangular tiles on the puzzle ball.

This is tougher than it seems. Each triangular tile has a different combination of pips in its corners. Some corners have none, while others have one, two, or three pips. And each corner neighbors a different numbered peg. Each numbered peg is surrounded by five corners, and the pips on each corner, when added together, should total the number on the peg.

And with numbers ranging from 1 to 12, you have to be both clever and careful in your tile placement. That peg labeled “1” can only have a single pip neighboring it, meaning that the other four tiles surrounding that peg should have empty corners.

[Three different looks at the same solved puzzle ball.]

IcoSoKu combines the deduction of placement puzzles like Minesweeper or Blackout! with the mathematical puzzling of a magic square or a Sudoku puzzle. And by making the puzzle three-dimensional, it places a healthy demand on your puzzly faculties. You’re constantly tipping and turning the puzzle ball, because you can never see the whole puzzle at once, making it much harder to manage your tiles and maintain a good sense of just how many of those valuable little pips you’ve already used.

And as soon as you’ve placed the final tile and searched the puzzle ball all over, confirming a successful solution… all you want to do is strip away all of the tiles and pegs to test your wits again.

Assigning pegs randomly creates a completely different solving experience from bundling all the large numbers together on one side and all the small numbers together on the other side of the ball. Although you will begin to spot certain patterns and techniques that will come in handy as you solve each successive permutation of the puzzle, you’ll still find IcoSoKu to be an engaging and satisfying challenge.

Plus there are other ways you can enjoy the puzzle after cracking it yourself. I challenged a fellow puzzler to a timed IcoSoKu solve-off! First, I arranged the pegs and timed how long it took her to solve the puzzle ball I’d devised. Then, she arranged the pegs and timed how long it took me to unravel the puzzle ball she’d created. It added a fun touch of competition and uncertainty to the solving experience, one that my patient solo-solving didn’t capture.

But whether you’re tackling IcoSoKu yourself or with a puzzly rival, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. It’s a DIY puzzle, masterfully put together and waiting for you to execute.

IcoSoKu is available from Project Genius and other participating retailers, appropriate for solvers 9 and up!


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What Can YOU Solve In Under a Second?

Oh yes, it’s Rubik’s Cube time once again.

Every time I think I’ve seen everything someone can do with a Rubik’s Cube, a month or two later, another amazing video appears on the Internet, proving me wrong.

We’ve covered Rubik’s Cubes a lot on this blog. We’ve seen them solved underwater, while being juggled, during a skydive, and yes, we’ve seen them solved in increasing faster times.

As of last year, the record for a robot solving a Rubik’s Cube was .637 seconds. That robot, Sub1, has been the Guinness World Record holder ever since.

Until now, it seems.

That’s a right, a pair of engineers — Ben Katz and Jared Di Carlo — have nearly halved that world record with what they call their “Rubik’s Contraption.” This cube-solving bot posts a solving speed of .38 seconds.

Their machine is so fast that they had to program it to only allow one motor to move at a time. You see, in previous runs, more than one motor would try to move, and the cube would be RIPPED APART.

This lightning-fast robot is still waiting review by the team from Guinness, so, for now, Sub1’s record stands.

But for how long?


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