# Posts Tagged ‘crossed sticks’

## Varying lengths in crossed stick puzzles

April 9th, 2016

So far, the crossed stick puzzles that I’ve looked at all have pieces of the same length, with slots in congruent positions. The puzzle aspect comes from the need to match slots by depth and direction. However, there is another possibility: can we come up with a puzzle where the lengths and positions of the slots are what vary? If the puzzle configuration is on a grid, we can use pieces with lengths and slot positions at unit multiples. The three slot pieces up to length seven with these properties have slot positions as shown:

If we take the focus of the puzzle away from slot types, it would be nice if slots always match. The simplest way to do this is to have slots that all point the same direction. As we’ve seen previously, this forces us into a bipartite puzzle configuration, where half of the pieces have slots pointing up, and the other half have slots pointing down. Conveniently, we have two twelve-piece bipartite puzzle configurations in the triangular grid:

Are there solutions? Joe DeVincentis found that there are no solutions to the first and exactly one solution (!) to the second:

As cool as it is to have a puzzle with a unique solution, with a set of this size, it would be rather difficult to find it manually. I’m still looking for a good set for manual solving. I tried using two copies of the pieces up to length 5. I eventually found this solution manually:

I don’t know if there are others, but it’s a little disappointing to have the identical pieces next to each other and parallel like this; finding the solution feels like cheating.

I have been mostly disregarding crossed stick configurations on the square grid to this point, because the possibilities are pretty boring when all of the pieces have the same length. But if we move away from pieces of the same length, new configurations become possible. One easy, almost trivial puzzle, would be to assemble a figure with two copies of the three shortest pieces. There are three ways to do so:

On the other hand, if you ask the solver to find all three, with no hints about what the assembled puzzle should look like, maybe it wouldn’t be completely trivial.

Finally, I hadn’t previously even considered the idea of two-slot puzzles, but with varied lengths, the notion might not be completely ridiculous. Suppose we allow length √2 pieces in addition to length 1 pieces, and allow slots to be either wide, to accommodate 45°/135° angles, or narrow, to accommodate 90° angles. There are then three different pieces possible of each length. With two copies of this set of six pieces, we may attempt to make a closed loop. Here is a solution with alternating pieces from each copy of the set:

Note that even though I had the square grid in mind when I was considering these pieces, it would be entirely possible to jump off the grid, by using short pieces as diagonals or long pieces in horizontal or vertical positions.

## Magic figures from crossed stick configurations

July 1st, 2015

When I was working on finding configurations to use in crossed stick puzzles, it occurred to me that the same configurations would make good bases for magic figures. Since each piece is a line segment with the same number of intersections, you could put numbers at intersection sites, trying to arrange them so that the numbers on each segment add up to the same magic sum. Since I had already figured out how to use Numberjack to solve magic figure problems in the context of magic dice, it was simple enough to adapt the code to solve other magic figures.

The puzzle that I’m selling as Grand Hex can form two different figures. Since they each have 24 intersection points, it seemed reasonable that one could use the numbers from 1 to 24 on the intersections, and get a magic figure with a magic sum of 50. And here’s one for each configuration:

The gold lines aren’t part of the original puzzle configurations, but they were the obvious places to add a few constraints, since the solver otherwise finds a very large number of solutions for the figures with just the black lines.

## Crossed Sticks: Compatability Variations

August 19th, 2013

So far, the crossed stick puzzles I’ve designed have been limited by the two-dimensional nature of designing for lasercut materials. But 3D printing presents another option for puzzles that can’t be formed from flat pieces.

One new area to explore is connector compatibility variations. In most of the puzzles we’ve looked at thus far, there are two types of connectors or slots, ups and downs, or deeps and shallows, and each type matches the opposite. Suppose instead we wanted two types of connectors where each matches itself rather than the other type. It can’t be done (as far as I can tell) with lasercut slots, but it can be done! My first 3D printed puzzle prototypes are shown below:

Consider connectors made of pairs of studs and holes as in the the puzzle on the left side of the image above. When we flip and rotate a piece with this type of connector in order to join it at right angles with another such piece, the studs on each piece match the holes on the other. But this only works when the two connectors have the same orientation. When a connector with a vertical stud pair is matched with a connector with a horizontal stud pair, both pairs of studs end up at the same position, so the connectors can’t join. We can call this connection scheme the same-match scheme, as opposed to the other-match scheme.

With diagonal pairs of studs and holes, (as on the right side above) flipping the piece swaps the positions of the studs and holes instead of keeping them in place. This means that the resulting puzzle will use the standard compatibility matrix. Initially, this may seem disappointing: after all, this is just the puzzle we could get without using stud and hole blocks. But in fact this setup allows us to use both compatibility schemes! If we place both layers of pieces so that the studs face the same direction, we have a puzzle using the same-match scheme.

It should be pretty clear that these two schemes are the only viable connection schemes for two connection types. When we move to three connection types, things get a little more complicated. It will help to represent a connection scheme as a graph, where the vertices represent connection types, and compatible types are connected by an edge. Since self-compatibility is possible, the graphs may contain loops from one vertex to itself. Here are the graphs for the two binary connection schemes:

One example of a ternary connection scheme can realized with lasercut slots. Let the three slot types be deep, middle, and shallow, where middle depth slots match themselves, and deep and shallow match each other. Here’s the graph for that scheme:

The advantage of working from graph representations of connection schemes is that we can come up with the graphs first, and then worry about how we will physically realize a puzzle using that scheme later. So let’s just doodle some promising three-vertex graphs:

Some constraints become apparent at this point. First, there can’t be a vertex with no edges, because that would represent a connection type that can’t connect to anything, and its presence would immediately render a puzzle unsolvable. Vertices that connect to everything (including themselves) are also problematic. Such a connection type doesn’t add to the challenge of a puzzle, and if all vertices had this property, the puzzle wouldn’t be a puzzle at all. I’m inclined to remove graphs with this kind of vertex from consideration for the time being, allowing that I may be wrong, and interesting puzzles using this kind of vertex may indeed be possible.

Another problem that can occur is that vertices may be indistinguishable. For example, consider this graph:

Both the rightmost and the leftmost vertex in this graph are connected only to the center point. What this means in practice is that it doesn’t matter whether a connector has the leftmost vertex type or the rightmost vertex type; the connectors will behave exactly the same. But if this is so, there is effectively no difference between this connection scheme and the other-match binary scheme. For the connector types in a scheme to be distinguishable, each must have a different neighbor set.

A quality of a connection scheme that may be desirable is balance. Consider the following graph:

The rightmost vertex only connects to one vertex, while the others both connect to two. Now imagine a puzzle that uses equal numbers of all three connector types, as we have typically done so far. Since we need all rightmost type connectors to match something, we have to use up all of the middle type connectors for this purpose. This means that the leftmost type connectors must all match themselves. Since no leftmost type connectors can match middle connectors, we find ourselves effectively using the three-height slot scheme. This doesn’t mean that this scheme is entirely unviable, but our piece sets are going to have to look a little weird to make it work. For the moment we will mainly concern ourselves with balanced schemes, where each vertex has the same degree. (That is, they are connected to the same numbers of vertices.)

Another consideration that will be important is the density of the graphs. This quantity is the ratio of the degree of the vertices (or the average if the scheme is unbalanced) to the total number of vertices. The density will have an effect on the difficulty of the puzzle and the number of solutions, since a high density means that if we randomly distribute connections, each connection has a high likelihood of being valid.

The following are the “good” ternary connection schemes under the above constraints.

The schemes in the top row have density ⅓, and those in the bottom row have density ⅔.

I could keep going about how we could realize some of these schemes in 3D printed puzzles, and I could get into quaternary schemes, but longpost is already long, so I’ll save this for later.

## A Ten Piece Triangular Grid Puzzle Configuration

June 24th, 2013

Here’s a configuration that I found while doodling a few weeks ago:

At the time, I was thinking of the 12 piece puzzles I found using the triangular grid; this configuration could be an easier challenge for that puzzle set that wouldn’t use all of the pieces.

But it could also make a good puzzle in its own right. We can use exactly the same slot scheme here as in the decagram puzzle. That puzzle used deep/shallow slots, (pointing the same direction) at the inner slot positions, and up/down slots at the outer positions. There are ten such pieces, which can be flipped horizontally but not vertically. Outer slots always connect with outers, and inners with inners, and the inner connections are bipartite, so it ought to work.

## Ups and Downs (and Deeps and Shallows) revisited

June 21st, 2013

I would like to be able to report that I have produced a successful prototype of the crossed stick puzzle I described in a previous post. But I cannot. This photo is a lie. There are two configurations for this puzzle, for which I intended to use two copies of each of the six possible pieces with up/down binary slots:

I say “intended to” because the puzzle appears to not be possible to solve. Specifically, the `0110` piece is rather intransigent for the configuration on the left, and it doesn’t seem possible to fit two of them in without changing the piece set. Which is indeed what I did to put together the solution shown at top. For the configuration on the right, `0101` is the problem piece.

Problem #41: Are there sets of pieces that can be assembled into both of the above figures? It would be ideal if all 6 possible pieces are present in at least one copy. (I’d have explored this manually, but for the other reason this prototype was a failure: the material was too thick for the width of holes I used, and a number of pieces snapped in the process of trying to assemble the above. So I am not able to test out whether I can make two different configurations with any piece set without running out of intact pieces.)

In crossed stick puzzles, we like for solutions to be “assemblable,” meaning that there is no cycle of pieces where each has a downward facing slot connected to the next piece and an upward facing slot connected to the previous piece. (If there were, there would be no piece you could place last.) The assemblability condition implies the existence of a partial ordering among the pieces, where the pieces are ordered according to which ones are “on top” of other pieces. It follows that that there must be at least one piece with all slots pointing up and one piece with all slots pointing down.

It turns out that the Star of David puzzle using a single set of these pieces, which I proved was unsolvable due to a clever parity argument, is also unsolvable because it has only one `0000` piece. (Likewise, the dual Star of David puzzle using two sets of pieces, which I proposed in order to get around the parity problem, is also unsolvable, because that would require four `0000` pieces.)

An alternative to the up and down slot scheme is the deep and shallow slot scheme, where all slots point the same direction on each piece. This scheme bypasses assemblability issues entirely, but it has another problem: because upward and downward pointing pieces may only connect to each other, the configuration they form must be bipartite. It turns out that a lot of interesting configurations aren’t! Here are the configurations possible on a triangular grid with 12 pieces with three equally spaced slots:

(Did I miss any?)

Only two of these configurations are bipartite. They can be made with a double set of 6 pieces with a deep/shallow slot scheme. Here are a couple of prototype lasercut puzzles in these configurations:

But what about the rest? Is there some way we can change our piece set to be able to make them? If we allow the middle slot to take all four possible combinations of up/down and deep/shallow, while the outer slots are deep/shallow and, as before, point the same direction, the resulting set should be more flexible in the configurations that can solve. (Conveniently, there are twelve such pieces.) Any subconfiguration with a cycle formed by an odd number of pieces that is connected only by outer slots is still impossible to solve. Therefore the configuration with the triangle shown in brown is still impossible. But the others should still be solvable.

(As I was finishing off this post, another set of pieces to use with these configurations occurred to me. We can make a set of pieces where each piece has exactly one deep, one middle, and one shallow shot, and the slots can occur in either direction and any order. As before, there are twelve such pieces. Can they be assembled into all of the above configurations?)

## Three More Crossed Stick Puzzles

March 28th, 2013

Since I last posted about crossed stick puzzles, I’ve come up with three new ones. Here’s one of them:

This one nicely fills one of the spots in the binary word table. There are eight pieces with three slots apiece; if we use binary shallow/deep slots, there are exactly eight possible pieces, because the pieces won’t be flippable vertically or horizontally within the puzzle.

The principle behind this piece configuration can be used to make other configurations. You can take any line segment, together with a center point, reflect the segment across an axis passing through the center, and create images of the original and reflected segments over successive rotations around the center to make configurations with rotational (indeed, dihedral) symmetry. However, because the pieces wouldn’t generally be horizontally flippable, (are there exceptions?) this only produces puzzles with combinatorially complete piece sets when the number of pieces is a power of two, and only 8 and 16 make reasonable numbers of puzzle pieces. In fact, I’d argue that the ideal range of numbers of pieces for a puzzle of this type is between 8 and 12, with a penumbra extending to about 6 and 16 in which puzzles will still be interesting to some solvers, but not as many. This necessarily constrains the quantity of viable puzzle configurations to a number that is finite, and may indeed be quite small.

But if the math keeps the number of possible puzzles down, inventing new ways to skirt the constraints we’ve set for ourselves can create new possibilities. Witness the following configuration:

Here the slots are ternary: intersection points can have slots that are ⅔ of the width of the piece (pointing up or down) or they can have two slots ⅓ of the width of the piece, pointing both up and down. Where three pieces intersect, one of each of these three slot types must be present. Three piece intersections are harder to work with than regular intersections. I’m pretty sure there is no finite configuration on the triangular grid containing all pieces of the same size with all intersections being three piece intersections.

So we have to fudge. This configuration looks like it has two kinds of three slot pieces, because three of the three slot pieces intersect at a two piece intersection. The trick is that the slot on the two slot pieces at the two slot intersection has a special, single ⅓ width slot, so that it can match the regular slots on the three slot pieces. Nicely, there are exactly three possible two slot pieces with one slot of this type and one regular slot.

In this scheme there are ten three slot ternary pieces, when both horizontal and vertical flipping is allowed. Since there are only nine three slot pieces in the configuration, one piece must be excluded. In fact, our hand is forced: the excluded piece must be the one that has all three slots of the double ⅓ width type. This is because the total number of double ⅓ width slots must equal the number of three piece intersections, which is nine. Before excluding that piece, there is one double ⅓ width slot in the two slot pieces, and 11 such slots in the three slot pieces. Well, if we can’t have a combinatiorially complete set of pieces, the next best thing is a combinatorially complete set minus the most exceptional member, which we could argue that this piece is, on account of it being the only piece with both horizontal and vertical reflection symmetry.

Finally, two configurations for the same piece set:

The configuration on the left was one that I implied in this post. If we use shallow/deep binary slots, we have pieces that can be flipped horizontally but not vertically. There are six of these and twelve pieces in the configuration, so we can use a double set of these as our piece set. As an extra bit of good fortune, there is a second configuration that uses these pieces.

I’m currently getting prototypes of the last two of these lasercut, so I hope to be able to show off the results soon. (I came up with the first one after I put in the order, so it will be a while before I get around to making a prototype of it.)

## Symmetry Variations on Binary Words

December 18th, 2012

In exploring the space of crossed stick puzzles, I’ve gone on a tangent into the world of binary words and their symmetries. A binary word is just a string where the “letters” can be one of two symbols; for convenience we’ll use 0 and 1. (The distinction between a “word” and a number in binary is that a word can have any number of leading 0’s, and these are significant.)

The usefulness of binary words in crossed stick puzzle design comes from our ability to encode them in the types of slots used in a piece of a puzzle. For example, my decagram puzzle uses pieces with outer slots that could point down or up, and inner slots that always point up, but could be deep or shallow. We can assign 0 to down and 1 to up for the outer slots, and 0 to deep and 1 to shallow for the outer slots. Then, reading across the slots, we get a binary word corresponding to a given piece. For example, down-shallow-deep-up is `0101`.

One benefit of using binary words is that we can enumerate the possible pieces in a puzzle by counting the binary words of a given length, (in this case four). But there is a snag: The piece we called `0101` can be flipped horizontally, after which it would read as `1010`. It seems that rather than plain binary words, what we want are the equivalence classes of binary words formed by some symmetry action, in this case, reversing the word. Examining these gives us four symmetrical words that map to themselves upon flipping, and six pairs of words that flip to each other, for a total of ten classes of length four.

Instead of horizontal flipping, we could, if our slots are only using an up vs. down slot scheme, flip them vertically. In terms of the effect on the pieces, this will invert all of the 0’s to 1 and vice versa. This gives us eight pairs of words that flip to each other. We could also allow both horizontal and vertical flipping. In this case there are six classes of words of length four.

At this point, you might want a table with the number of binary words of each type. That way, when you come up with a crossed stick puzzle idea you can look at the table on the row with the number of slots in the pieces, and see if there’s an entry that gives you the number of pieces you’d like. Or you could go the other direction, and look at an entry in the table and try to come up with a good puzzle for that entry. (This is how I designed my Decagram puzzle.)

 Length Fixed Invertible Reversible Inv. & Rev. 1 2 1 2 1 2 4 2 3 2 3 8 4 6 3 4 16 8 10 6 5 32 16 20 10 6 64 32 36 20 7 128 64 72 36

Let’s give it a try using the piece configuration from my last post:

Applying the table to this, there are 12 pieces with 4 intersections (and thus, slots) in that configuration. There are no entries of 12 in that row, so we’re going to have to get creative. There’s a 6 in the Inv. & Rev. column; we can make our (well, my) puzzle have two copies of each piece corresponding to one of those. The intersection points are conveniently symmetrical, which gives us reversibility, and if we use up/down slots, we get invertibility. So now we have a puzzle design.

Of course, there’s one step left, which is making sure that the puzzle can be solved. (Ideally, by a human being of reasonable intelligence devoting no more than a reasonable amount of time.) It is quite possible to develop a design for a puzzle of this type that can’t be solved.

For example, this star of David puzzle, using one set of the invertible & reversible 4 slot pieces, is unsolvable. To see why, look at the relevant binary words, and consider the first and last digits, corresponding to the slots at the six points of the star.

```0000 0001 0010 0011 0101 0110```

There are three 1’s in the external slots. Inverting a word may change that number by two, or keep it the same. Reversing a word will not change the number of 1’s. Therefore, the number of 1’s must always be odd. But since each intersection in a solved puzzle must have one up and one down slot, there must be exactly six 1’s in external slots in a solved puzzle. Thus, the puzzle is unsolvable. (However, if we had two copies of each piece, we could possibly make two stars of David by swapping pieces between the sets. This gives us a second challenge for the set above. It’s starting to look like a keeper!)

Stepping away from crossed stick puzzles, it turns out that all of the fun things that you can do with binary words can be done with these symmetry variants. And when I think of fun things you can do with binary words, I think of de Bruijn sequences and Gray Codes! But this post has gotten long enough already; that will have to wait for another post.

## Crossed Stick Addendum

December 9th, 2012

Here’s another configuration of segments that could work in a crossed stick puzzle:

Conveniently, all of the pieces meet at 60° angles, so if I make a puzzle using this, I won’t need to use a slot design that admits multiple angles as in the one in the previous post.

A related configuration with three intersections per piece can be formed by clipping the outer points of this configuration. Are there any more crossed stick configurations that I’ve missed?

## Crossed Stick Variations

December 6th, 2012

In a (somewhat) recent post, I discussed my decagram puzzle that I used for the gift exchange at Gathering for Gardner 10. Of course, I wondered what other puzzles of this type are out there waiting to be found. I’m particularly interested in mathematically elegant puzzles, which for me means ones that use combinatorially complete sets of pieces, that is, sets of pieces where every possible piece for a given scheme is actually present. Rob Stegmann has a page with a listing of similar puzzles, which he calls crossed stick puzzles.

In a crossed stick puzzle like my decagram puzzle, each piece has a number of slots, which are at the same position on every piece, and each slot can be one of a number (typically two) of types. This means that you can assign a code to every piece, which will be a binary string if there are two slot types.

Stegmann’s page also notes the possibility of different slot compatibility schemes: instead of 1 and 0 being compatible with each other and not with themselves, the opposite is possible, although it seems harder to realize physically. (Perhaps magnets might lend themselves to such a scheme.) With three or more slot types, more compatibility schemes become possible.

Thus there are essentially four attributes that describe a puzzle of this type. These are the configuration of pieces in the completed puzzle, the allowable actions that can be performed upon a piece in a given position, (rotation, flipping) the compatibility scheme, and the piece codes that are present.

What viable piece configurations exist? For our purposes, a legal puzzle configuration consists of a number of congruent pieces, which can be represented as line segments marked at their intersection points. Exactly two pieces must meet at each intersection point. (Relaxing that requirement may bear fruit, but it also complicates the physical design of slots in a puzzle.) If there are two intersection points per piece, the situation is not terribly interesting: the pieces must topologically form a loop, and there are an infinite number of ways they can do this. So I’ll restrict myself to configurations where the number of intersections per piece is three or greater.

As my decagram puzzle might suggest, one class of puzzle configurations consists of star polygons. Oskar van Deventer designed a heptagram puzzle, which uses flexible foam pieces to get around the assemblability problem I mentioned in the previous post. It not have a combinatorially complete set of pieces; making up for this, the flexible material does allow the pieces to form a number of different patterns.

Another class of crossed stick puzzle configuration consists of square grid patterns; most of the examples on Stegmann’s page are of this type. Few of them use complete sets of pieces, although “The Fence”, designed by Jean Claude Constantin, has a complete set from which the 1111 and 0000 piece have been removed.

In addition to grids and stars, we can make “broken stars”, where small segments are excised from the center of each of the pieces in a star configuration. Are other puzzle configurations possible?

As you can see, at least one is. In this configuration there are eight pieces. Taking a note from “The Fence”, I used all of the possible pieces except the two where all of the slots are of the same type. (As in the decagram puzzle, the pieces can be flipped horizontally, which means that there are ten different piece types possible before we exclude those two.)

A complicating aspect of this configuration is that intersections may occur at different angles depending on whether the piece is part of the outer square or the inner square. The slot shape I used allows the same slot position to work for both 45° and 90° angles. An unintended consequence of the design of this puzzle is that the pieces can also form an octagram.

I’d certainly be interested in hearing about other piece configurations that could be used in a crossed stick puzzle, if you can come up with any.

## Binary System, Decimal Star

April 19th, 2012

If you participated in the gift exchange at the 10th Gathering for Gardner, which was held recently in Atlanta, you would have received one of these in your bag of exchange gifts:

It is common, (but by no means required) for participants to use the number of the conference as a theme in their exchange gift in some way. I considered a ten pointed star with pieces that slot together as a promising shape for a puzzle, and I recalled that there were ten distinct reversible binary sequences of length four. (In this scheme 0011 and 1100, for example, are considered equivalent because they reverse to each other.) This meant that with four slots at intersection points, if there were two possible positions for each slot, (like up and down) there would be exactly ten possible pieces, which would make an elegant puzzle set if I used one of each. Conveniently, the pieces could be flipped horizontally to physically realize the reversal of the string. Inconveniently, the pieces could also be flipped vertically, which would invert the 1’s and 0’s, and lower the number of distinct piece shapes to six. Another problem is that some configurations of pieces could not be physically assembled. If there was a triangle of pieces where each had an up slot followed by a down going around the triangle, there would be no way to fit the third piece in, because it would simultaneously need to be slotted in from above and below.

I solved both of these problems at once by changing the inner slots to all face the same direction, and to have shallow vs. deep as their two possible states instead of up and down. Now the ten pieces can be divided into two pentagonal configurations that are connected by their outer slots, and connect to each other by the inner slots. Because every triangle in the star contains the two inner slots of a piece, the triangles are all assemblable. The pentagons must also be assemblable, because there are only four pieces with up and down outer slots, so one side of the pentagon must have two slots pointing the same direction, and that side may be placed last. And because the direction of the inner slots is forced, only horizontal flipping is allowable. Here’s a photo of an assembled puzzle, along with an unassembled set of pieces:

Mathematical niftiness aside, is this a good puzzle? I think so. It has a fair number of solutions, but neither so many that you can easily stumble upon one without applying any strategy to solving the puzzle, nor so few that you have to spend a lot of time engaged in trial and error. Let me know if you have one of these and need hints for solving it.

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss some variations on this type of puzzle.