Last September I saw photos of a recent creation by Austrian designer Stephan Baumegger: a small rectangular box containing a hidden maze. A two-pronged stick protrudes from an opening in the top creating two cavities, one of which holds a wooden marble with a plexiglass covering to prevent it from falling out.
Stephan often chooses descriptive names for his puzzles, sometimes reflecting the unusual shape, other times reflecting the nature of the puzzle itself. This maze puzzle, called Quo vadis?, fits into this second category. This Latin phrase, meaning “To what place are you going?”, might seem obvious for this puzzle: to the end of the maze. But the question focuses your attention towards the fact that there is no start or end to this maze. Stephan never specifies which side of the puzzle the ball starts on, it merely has to move to the other side, a nice non-linear touch.
There is, for me at least, a sort of quiet mystery to this puzzle. In most puzzles the mechanism can be seen after it has been solved or opened, but in Quo Vadis? the internal maze always remains hidden. The success of attempts to navigate its pathways give a good indication of how it looks, but it resists the puzzlers’ desire for understanding through total disassembly.
In late 2013, Stephan shared some insights on the design and background of this puzzle.
Saul Symonds: Hidden mazes are not the sort of puzzle you usually design. You are better known for your boxed burrs and wooden take-apart puzzles. Why did you decide to make a maze puzzle?
Stephan Baumegger: That is true. It is still my only maze puzzle and it has a very special meaning for me. I was playing with the idea for some weeks, but I had no idea of how to handle the ball, so that it cannot get lost and that there is a clear purpose. There had to be a way to influence the path of the ball. I wanted to increase the handicap, so that you have to imagine the path the ball takes while you are playing with it. At this time I knew better what I did not want than what I wanted.
SS: So how did the idea for this puzzle develop?
SB: The idea became clear to me at a decisive point in my life, as a loved person in our family died of cancer. The maze was the first puzzle I designed after that big loss. So Quo Vadis? became for me more and more symbolic: “There is a unknown way to go, a transition from one to the other side, nobody knows the way, you can’t see it and you have to go that way on your own.”
This was it, what I put in this maze, and that is why it has a very special place in my life.
SS: Hidden mazes require the user to physically twist and turn the puzzle to move a ball through the maze inside, but here you’ve added a second element that needs to be manipulated: a wooden stick that changes the pathways of the maze by moving up and down. How did the idea for this unusual addition develop?
SB: I know of some mazes with a ball in them, but I wanted to design one that you cannot solve only by shaking. So there must be something else. And I did not want to drill a path through which the ball has to find its way. So the idea came to work with a moving stick, which has free spaces. And it is necessary to move the stick a few times.
In Quo Vadis? the ball could also be a cube, a little bit less than 10mm across and it would work too. The danger of using a cube is that it can easily jam up. In the photo you can see how it is designed inside.
SS: Can you tell me about the design of the maze?
SB: Most puzzles I design with the Burr Tools program. In this case, the program could not really help me, because I could not define the problem so that the program knew what I wanted. So I picked up pencil and paper and started drawing. But I was not sure, if it would really work like I thought, so I built a prototype. I still had the problem that the ball can get lost. At this moment I remembered the Plexiglas I used for a marble run I built for my boys. That gave me the idea to catch the ball in the maze. I just had to cut out the space for the moving piece, which I had to make just a bit longer. And that was it.
SS: Your puzzles often have whimsical elements yet they are difficult puzzles. What is the balance you try to strike between playful and challenging?
SB: High-level puzzles have an attraction for me. And I like to design them, even when it takes a long time to create a high level. I know that there are not a lot people who can solve them, so I will always make a very small series.
On the other hand I am often asked to make easier puzzles that everybody can play with. I have some, like The Owl, Tilt in Cage or Cubito. In some ways it is harder to design an easy puzzle that is still demanding.
SS: You often choose very descriptive names for your puzzles, (e.g. Excalibur, Rumpelstilzchen, Odin) and I sometimes wonder if the concept comes from the name or the name comes from the finished design?
SB: I am fascinated by puzzles with a high recognition value and puzzles that tell a story. That is why I design puzzles like Menorah, Excalibur or Thor’s Hammer. Most of the time the name comes during the designing work. Lighthouse first looked like a rolling pin, so it takes time to figure out what is possible and what is hidden for me to find.
For the high-level burrs sometimes the moves of the pieces inspire me to find a name like Abrazo, Milonga or Rumpelstilzchen.
One of the next I will post on Puzzleisure is a level 122, caged 12-piece burr. The working name is Hook Cage, but maybe I will find a better name like Havarie or something else. So it still is fun and exciting for me too.
Quo vadis? can be purchased directly from Stephan who can be contacted through his Facebook page Puzzleisure
All photos courtesy Stephan Baumegger