Mechanical puzzles are usually self-contained objects, consisting of one or more parts. These puzzles present the player with a problem that can be solved by manipulating the pieces and using logic, insight, luck, dexterity, or reasoning. There are numerous types of mechanical puzzles, including two-dimensional assembly puzzles, complex modern three-dimensional interlocking puzzles, ancient tangrams, simple wire puzzles, and mysterious secret boxes. There are secret puzzle pitchers dating back to the 19th century, and even more ancient sequential movement puzzles, too.
One of the most common types of mechanical puzzles are assembly puzzles or put together puzzles. Usually, the player needs to find the right way to assemble or fit all the pieces correctly into a type of a box or to create an object or figure shape. There are numerous examples of these puzzles, which have existed for hundreds of years. Perhaps the oldest of these assembly puzzles is the Tangram puzzle, which was developed in China around 1800. Piet Hein invented the Soma Cube in 1933, another type of assembly puzzle. And, in 1953, Solomon Golomb developed the Pentomino. There are many other unique dissection puzzles consist of geometric shapes with the goal of being reassembled into a new shape, Like the T puzzle and K Puzzle.
Around 1800, this seven-piece assembly puzzle reached mainstream popularity in China. Due to its popularity in its native country, it spread quickly to other regions, reaching the United States and Europe. It still enjoys great popularity today!
Tangrams are actually a subset of assembly puzzles, termed dissection puzzles. That is, they are one particular type of assembly puzzles. In a tangram, an intact flat figure is cut into seven different pieces. Each piece is referred to as a tan. Each tan is a simple geometric shape. Traditionally, a tangram puzzle consists of seven geometric pieces. These include 5 triangles (two large, two small, and one medium), one H shape and one square.
The fun thing about tangram puzzles is the challenge of creating different shapes in creative ways using these extremely simple pieces. It requires both creative talent and geometrically inclined logic to create these shapes. A game might consist of an outline of a shape of an animal or human figure, which the player creates using all seven pieces. The player must figure out how to use the pieces in order to create this unique silhouette.
Other well know Tangram puzzles like the Circular Tangram (5 pieces), Circle Tangram (10 pieces), Heart Tangram (9 pieces), Egg Tangram (9 pieces) still provide hours of challenging fun for new players.
Soma Cube Puzzle
Piet Hein’s Soma Cube puzzle consists of seven different pieces, each shaped like a small cube. The goal is to put the cubes together in a certain order to create a larger cube or other shapes. There are 240 different solutions to the Soma Cube puzzle, the seven Soma pieces can also be assembled to create hundred’s of different 3D shapes.
Pentominoes are another type of puzzle that requires the player to think about shapes in unique ways. Each pentomino piece consists of five squares that connect end to end to create a variety of different pieces. The Pentomino Puzzle usually contains 12 different pentominoes shape pieces. These 12 Pentominoes pieces can be used to create a variety of different shapes figure and geometric shapes in 2D and 3D. Creating the pentominoes shapes requires creative and critical thinking, which makes them a great educational tool.
T Puzzles require the player to create the letter T out of four geometric shape pieces. As with the Tangram Puzzle, there are varieties of challenging shapes you can create with those four pieces.
Other unique assembly puzzles like Instant Insanity also know as “broke Rubik’s and the “Traffic Light Puzzle” was developed in the 80s by a computer program. The puzzle contains four cubes where each side of the cube is colored with one of four different colors. The goal is to line up the four cubes in a straight line, and have each side of the resulting shape a single color.
Take Apart Puzzles
While assembly puzzles are based on putting together pieces to create something new, take apart or disassembly puzzles are based on taking apart a shape to obtain one or more separate pieces.
This includes puzzles with secret opening mechanisms, secret boxes, puzzle boxes, and tricky lock puzzles. Like the X Factor puzzle, for example! The X Factor seems to appear easy to take apart at the beginning, but in reality, many people cannot solve this puzzle. The problem here lies in the shape of the interlocking pieces – the mating surfaces are tapered with a super cool lock mechanism, which is simple to unlock if you know the answer.
Puzzle boxes are cleverly constructed hollow boxes in a variety of different shapes, which had a “prize” inside. In the late 1900s that “prize” might include something like a ring, snuff, matches, etc. Some other types of secret opening puzzles might have the goal of removing a steel ball, marble, or ring from a tower.
The Japanese also devised their own style of puzzle boxes, which made it to the West by the beginning of the twentieth century. Essentially, the Japanese Puzzle Box consists of a number of different secret sliding panels. To effectively open the box, the player must determine the order (and direction) in which the panels must slide. These boxes can be more or less complex, requiring one or more “phases” of sliding in order to unlock different panels before the inside of the box can be accessed.
Interlocking puzzles are presented to the player as a single piece. Rather than the solution is to remove a single piece, or access the inside of a puzzle box, the goal is to completely dismantle the puzzle. Typically, success rests on identifying the piece known as the “key.” Once the key is shifted or removed, the other pieces can be dismantled. These puzzles are commonly known as Burr puzzles because they often resemble a burr (a type of seed). However, they go by other names as well, including the Chinese Cross, Tuefelsknoten, and Devil’s Knot. These usually refer to the traditional shape of the puzzle.
However, as these solid interlocking puzzles grew in popularity, particularly in Germany, they took on different shapes. Diamond, barrel, bread, ball, cylinder, and many more cool shapes emerged on the puzzling scene in the 19th century. The genre became so popular, it spread to Asia. In Japan, the variety of shapes took off once again, spurring the invention of interlocking puzzles in the shapes of animals, cars, trucks, and even weapons. Those interlocking puzzles designed known as the “Kumiki” puzzles, which means, “to join wood together” in Japanese. Interlocking puzzles are also quite popular in mini versions, often marketed as keychain puzzles.
Sequential Movement Puzzles
Sequential movement puzzles require the player to follow a set of rules while making a number of “moves” or “steps” to reach a predetermined conclusion. Puzzles in this category include Peg Solitaire puzzles, Sliding Block puzzles, rotating cube puzzles, maze and route puzzles
Peg Solitaire puzzles come in many different patterns, which some require hundreds of move to solve. For example, a player may have a number of pegs in a board, with only one empty space. They must “hop” with one peg over another until only one peg remains. Other well-known versions are the Triangle Peg Game also known as Cracker Barrel Game, Peg Board Puzzle, Tricky Triangle Skill Game, and Golf Tee Board Game.
The Magic Square was developed by the ancient Chinese. Today the Magic Square also is known as Slide 15 or the Puzzle of Fifteen. The square is made of fifteen sliding square pieces in a 4 x 4 square, each sliding square piece is numbered and the goal is to put the numbers in order that all columns, rows, and diagonals will add up to 34. There are many other Magic Squares types, in different sizes and number of sliding square pieces.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the Rubik’s cube, developed by Emo Rubik. It was invented in Hungary in 1974. It was not, however, the first puzzle of its type (although perhaps the most popular!). An American named Larry Nichols, fascinated with the sliding block puzzles described above, extended the concept to create a similar cube like the puzzle. However, it did not have the clever turning mechanism of the Rubik’s Cube, so it didn’t catch on.
Another popular rotating cube puzzle is the snake cube. The puzzle is made of a chain of 27 cubelets, connected by an elastic band. The cubelets can rotate freely in some directions. The aim of the puzzle is to arrange the chain in such a way that they will form 3 x 3 x 3 cube. There is also a much harder version consisting of 64 cubelets.
Mazes are another type of sequential movement puzzle. Like all sequential puzzles, the player must make a variety of “correct” motions to reach the solution, in this case, the exit of the maze. They are “descended” from labyrinths, which usually were 3D environments that the player had to navigate through trial and error, without seeing the entire “map” of the puzzle.
With mazes, however, whether you are navigating it on paper, or moving a steel ball through a Circular Maze, the player generally can see the full puzzle map and make decisions based on what they can see and determine their next move.
Disentanglement puzzles deal with the problem of freeing (or attaching) a part of the puzzle, usually a ring or a handle. These are sometimes known as string puzzles.
They are often made of wires and metal rings, which seem inextricably connected. The goal of the puzzle is to figure out how to take these pieces apart using logic, rather than force. There is a famous version of this puzzle known as the Chinese Ring Puzzle, which has long been viewed as a game of wisdom and considered a wonderful tool for teaching and the development of critical thinking.
There are many types of mechanical puzzles, and they are helpful for training an equal array of skills and talents. For most people, their first encounters with a mechanical puzzle consist of trial and error, but that’s part of the fun. The more the players apply themselves, the deeper the understanding of the puzzle becomes. This learning process strengthens the mind and is part of what makes these special puzzles so enjoyable. They come in varying degrees of difficulty, so players of all ages can find a whole slew of mechanical puzzles to enjoy.
Jerry Slocum, from his book “Puzzles Old & New”
Pieter Van Delft & Jack Botermans, from their book "Creative Puzzles Of The World"