These complicated puzzles promise to frustrate and infuriate but are guaranteed to make you feel like a genius – once you solve them!

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Sadism is not a word you would associate with puzzles but for Stave Puzzles, inflicting suffering is the very basis of its appeal. And we mean that in the most positive sense – after all, consider how its customer list is littered with names of corporate bigwigs heading Fortune 500 companies. It must be doing something pretty unique for esteemed names such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and even Queen Elizabeth II to be ardent fans.

Stave, located in Norwich, Vermont, is one of a few companies that still produces wooden jigsaw puzzles; each cherry-backed piece is cut by hand. And, since its start in 1974, it has been devising puzzles with devious tricks at varying levels of difficulty.

Consider the Olivia octopus puzzle. With pieces that fit in more than one place, there are 10,000 ways to assemble it – of which only one is correct. Throughout its stable of works, Stave mischievously weaves in challenges such as the absence of straight-edged pieces or embedding them into the body of a puzzle to mislead a fan. It also creates pieces that are similar in shape and colour to confuse, and even makes puzzles that fit snugly at the borders – but with voids in the interior to befuddle.

That’s not all. Its limited-edition creations – think multi-part mystery puzzles with storylines, and multi-layered ones with riddles and interchangeable pieces – take the game notches higher.

Yet, despite all the talk about mental torture, Stave puzzles are fun. The creations are handcrafted, so pieces can be customised to form names and dates, and even special shapes called silhouettes. So far, the priciest has been a sold-out hand-painted Limited Edition, comprising five puzzles that fit together to make a village, at US$20,000 (S$29,000).

Says Stave fan Julian Yap, a US-based Singaporean and the co-founder and president of Serial Box, of the puzzles: “It’s so difficult that every time you put two pieces together, you feel like a genius, which keeps you working at it.”

Sounds like the perfect stay home incentive for the current Covid-19 pandemic situation.
My Reading Room


The above is one of five puzzles making up the sold-out Dollhouse Village set priced at $29,000. A unique feature of Stave puzzles is that pieces can be cut to form names or special shapes based on request, ensuring that no two puzzles are alike.
My Reading Room


French company NKD Puzzle produces enigma boxes, whose works are a combination of engineering mechanisms wrapped in an uber-cool aesthetic.

Something must be said about the allure of cracking puzzles for people in general and more so for those in the public eye. NKD counts South Korean actors among its clientele, but is not at liberty to reveal their names. We reckon people turn to them as a stress-reliever or way to escape the real world.

Founders Christophe Laronde and Julien Vigouroux share a passion for fantasy. Take the Scriptum Cube (picture, above right), for instance. A mesmerising puzzle box inspired by the Iliad and the Odyssey – Homer’s epic poems in Greek – it alludes to the myth that Daedalus (mentioned in the Iliad) built a labyrinth to house the raging Minotaur, and puzzle solvers have to “reach the labyrinth” – meaning open the box – in 18 movements.

Ancient Greek text is laser engraved on the surface of this poplar wood box with beech wood marquetry. Although less than a year old, the level of precision and skill of NKD’s craft is evident and that’s because Laronde and Vigouroux have been doing this in a personal capacity for 10 years.

Its most expensive enigma box to date is the Mecanigma (picture, above left), a stunning steampunk-inspired puzzle covered with knobs, levers and gears. Featuring articulated mechanisms, it opens in 15 steps and features a combination lock. Solving it is guaranteed to give you a rush. The price: 3,000 euros (S$4,700).

NKD is currently working on Architecto – a puzzle that pays homage to Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher. We can’t wait.

More: names pieces