Ugly duckling -
You know the feeling when your favourite director, composer, author or band releases a new 'thing' and sometimes you just know that it is going to be good before seeing or hearing it? Well, most puzzle collectors know Eric Fuller and his team at Cubic Dissection (CD) for their impeccable craftsmanship and execution. I'm only a 6-month-old drooling infant in the mechanical puzzling world, but I already know to trust Eric and his team with all my dollars for puzzles. 'Pennytentiary' is Eric's first ever coin release style puzzle, with sequential discovery (SD) elements as a bonus. And before I saw the images emerge of this puzzle, the only Eric/CD puzzle I had owned was 'Paradox Box 2022'. Paradox Box was all the proof I needed to know that this new Pennytentiary puzzle would be an instant buy.
Puzzle type: Coin release
Maker/Designer: Eric Fuller of Cubic Dissection
Next release: 29th August, 2022 Cubic Dissection
This is my first coin release puzzle, so whatever handicap offset should apply to my exuberance in this review, I'll leave up to you. Are all coin release puzzles this mysterious and thrilling? I have no idea but wow this one was a ride.
The images for Penny were released and my genuine reaction was "WHAT? Oh no...That thing is HIDEOUS? No no nooooo". There were four brass pins staring back at you from a square face of harsh woodgrain, and a weirdly shaped hole. It's the kind of piece where if it sat on my coffee table guests wouldn't say "Ooooh that is lovely!" but instead 'What the hell is that thing?' as they lean away from it like it's some weird alien device. It is far from causing the oohs and ahhs that a traditional Karakuri Group gorgeous 'pretty pretty' box would immediately get. But Five Sinatras had given Pennytentiary a glowing early release review, and I knew that Eric wouldn't put out a puzzle that he wasn't sure of. I had to just pluck out my eyeballs, throw them in the bin and trust Eric and his team. And I am SO glad that I did!
CD puzzle releases are often timed monthly 'drops'. With puzzles selling out in actual minutes. Being in Australia I had to wakeup at 4:55am to have any chance of snagging a copy, and with a racing heart and panicked mouse finger my order went through and I snagged one before they all sold out in under two minutes. The day it arrived I unboxed it and showed my partner and she said 'What?! That's it? It's so ugly!'. And I still agreed.
But! Photos do not do Pennytentiary justice! The craftsmanship and polish is what CD is known for and I never expected laser cut wood could look this good. This thing is so well crafted. It has a good heft to it, not too light and not too heavy. The stacking of acrylic and wood give an almost holographic light-catching look within its layers. The four metal pins slip and slide with satisfying clicks within their little home, as they sit over the copper penny inside on full display almost wanting to jump out, yet it doesn't budge. The combination of all of these uncommon features started to build the mystery of this little monster and you can't help but want to immediately dive in.
Pennytentiary has this visual sub layer of nano sized details on all sides, giving you vague hints of parts that you wonder might eventually move, trigger, push, shift or slide. I'm not saying any of those actions actually happen or don't, but your eyes will take note of these detail 'zones' as you try and make sense of what might happen there steps later. Nothing here is accidental. If you see something unique, it's there for a reason.
The journey of solving Pennytentiary is anything but straight-forward. I tried my first 'Oooh I bet this is gonna be it!' step immediately and it didn't work. Nothing. WHAT! I scoured and tested every tiny area of the puzzle and 30 minutes later tried my original idea again and this time it worked?! It was then that I realised the miniscule precision of this puzzle is something I didn't expect. There were variables in play that I hadn’t even considered. We're talking partial millimetres of tolerances here, and I hadn't been performing my idea juuust right. I love this.
This precision of moves and steps became the bones of Pennytentiary. The finest of featherlight touches, slight angles and gentle rotations. None of it is inconsequential. Eric will have you flipping, turning and testing this puzzle on all orientations to discover the mechanisms' secrets within.
The mechanisms! Wow. I can see that Eric spent a probable near endless amount of hours designing and fitting them all together in an intertwined and staged journey. I still cannot believe he was able to jam pack what he did into the small confines of the puzzle. You will be rewarded for close inspection, for trial and error, but also for executing specific ideas that have suddenly leapt to your mind.
If precision be the bones of Pennytentiary then surprise is the personality. Countless times during solving it I would say out loud "Huh? What? That's not working anymore? I don't get it?!" or "Why did that just do that? I am SO happy but I have no clue what I did?!!". It felt like Pennytentiary was somehow guiding me to do things with inputs I hadn't realised I was giving. New mysteries and questions came on their own. It was a blast. There is one particular moment which had me gasp and then throw my head backwards laughing SO loudly. Eric you are brilliant for putting this in. And I am jealous that you Pennytentiary noobs get to enjoy this for the first time argh!
If you like trying to understand mechanisms you can't see, mysteries you have concrete cues for but can't yet piece together, and spending time with a puzzle to truly understand it, then you will love Penny. I spent 10+ hours with the 'tentch, and half of that was attaining its 'goal'. I would sit for an hour at a time making no progress, but still learning until suddenly something new would happen (thanks or no thanks to my skills).
Bonus round -
I achieved the puzzle's goal and it was a treat. But to my susprise, I realised that the true joy of the puzzle was still yet to come. The other half of those 10 hours was spent resetting Pennytentiary. And this is where Penny shows you it's true beauty. Learning and being able to reliably cause things to happen gave me a rushing sense of true achievement that I didn't think was possible with a puzzle. I remember late one night in bed with my side lamp on, trying to understand the one final mechanism that I simply couldn't work out. Suddenly it clicked, I tested and re-tested my idea and it worked every time! I laughed and yelled 'Oh my gosh YESSSS!!! No way!!!! That's the final part!!' and fell face down onto the pillow with a faintingly happy feeling of achievement.
I feel that this second 'half' journey being the resetting of Pennytentiary was even more enjoyable than the first half. REALLY. And it was after I had truly understood everything built into it's small package that I realised something special. At no point did I feel 'tricked' by this puzzle. There were no things that made me think 'Well geez that was dumb... I never would have done that'. It was intelligent, directed and I know that feeling was on purpose. It made me feel smarter, creative in my thinking, and with a profound sense of achievement. This resetting stage also shows you that Eric had a plan all along. Some things only occur when others have occurred previously. But you had no idea they were linked until you enter the resetting stage. Holistic planning and design deserved of even more accolades than the puzzle parts themselves.
Pennytentiary is proudly on display at my home, and I still think it's an ugmo. But now I know the tiny world crammed with twists and turns it has pressed within it's layers and it is now beautiful for it's mysteries and internal intricacies. It's the epitome of that saying 'Greater than the sum of its parts'. Stunning work Eric and CD!