The Art of Play
To the ears of a gamer like me, Art of Play sounds much like paradise. It's the online home, brand, and retail outlet of twins Dan and Dave Buck, and is self-described as follows: "A curated collection of the world's finest curiosities featuring playing cards, games and puzzles. Their mission statement best sums up what they're all about: "We travel the world in search of objects designed to dazzle the eyes and fascinate the mind. From luxurious playing cards to ingenious puzzles and stimulating amusements— each beautiful item in our collection holds a whisper of mystery, brimming with potential for surprise and delight."
Doesn't that sound like a paradise of sorts? For sure, and that's why they promise this: "Epiphanies await the curious mind. We embrace a spirit of wonder to inspire joy and foster a community of playful sophistication."
At the Art of Play website you can expect to find four main products that will help you develop your art of play:
● Playing Cards: Stunning collections of art featuring the world's absolute finest playing cards.
● Puzzles: Clever conundrums with brilliant solutions cloaked in elegance.
● Amusements: Stimulating diversions to inspire creativity, curiosity, and joy.
● Games: Luxurious versions of classic tabletop contests and bar-room recreations.
Dan and Dave Buck
So who is behind this online paradise? The answer is Dan and Dave Buck, who are twins who first made a name for themselves as magicians. They subsequently branched out into the world of cardistry, and are widely regarded as the leading pioneers in this relatively new and rapidly growing art-form. Cardistry, or card flourishing, can best be described as juggling with playing cards, and the Buck twins are two of the biggest names in the business. They enjoy a huge respect for their innovation and impact in shaping this trendy new way of using playing cards, having played a major role in the growth and development of this young discipline, which is increasing in popularity worldwide at an incredible rate, and they have been and continue to be a massive influence in cardistry circles around the world.
But Dan and Dave's expertise with and interest in the world of playing cards goes beyond playing with cards themselves, because it also led to the establishment of Art of Play as their own brand and online retail outlet. Here's how they recount their own history: "Founded in 2013 by twin brothers Dan and Dave Buck after becoming wildly successful producers of designer playing cards. Their interest in cards began at an early age when they practiced card tricks, and pioneered the art of cardistry. With a background in sleight of hand, magic and illusion, Art of Play's expansion into puzzles and games was a natural leap forward. Today, Art of Play curates a collection of curiosities from around the globe. From the finest playing cards in the world, innovative puzzles and games, and magical amusements for the home, we collaborate with artists to create remarkable products unlike anything else."
Since 2013 they have been selling a range of high quality playing cards that includes hundreds of different decks. But besides carrying a large inventory of luxury playing cards, the Buck twins have also been contributing to the custom playing card industry themselves by producing decks under their own Art of Play label. Over the last few years alone, they have been producing well over a dozen different decks of custom playing cards on an annual basis, with many wonderful and popular designs. If you're looking for a quality deck of playing cards, or something classy and sophisticated for your poker night, Art of Play has you covered with their one-stop-shop that contains all these treasures and more.
Games and Puzzles
But Art of Play is about much more than just playing cards, because they also carry unique games and puzzles, and that will sound like music to the ears of most readers. I've covered some of their beautiful decks of custom playing cards in other articles, but in this particular review I want to take a look at some of the puzzles and other amusements from their carefully curated collection.
Let me warn you in advance: expect some gushing enthusiasm. That won't shock regular readers of my reviews, because you'll already know that I'm naturally a pretty enthusiastic person, and I tend only to review things that I can be very positive about. I'm not going to waste my time with something that I think is merely mediocre, and let me assure you that I don't feel in the least luke-warm about the curiosities from Art of Play, but rather I'm red hot with enthusiasm about them.
Like me, you're probably glad to make a discovery like this at this time of the year, with the holiday season coming up in just a couple of months time. After all, this is when we're starting to think about the kinds of gifts to buy our friends and family, and to write wish lists of our own to help them out. And what can be a better gift than a unique item from a carefully curated collection of games and puzzles of the finest quality like this?
So welcome to Paradise, and welcome to Art of Play. Here we won't just find some of the very best playing cards in the world, but other games and puzzles that are among the very best and finest that you'll find anywhere.
Mechanical puzzles typically consist of mechanically interlinked pieces, and the challenge is usually about disassembling and reassembling them, or perhaps some other related activity. They have a long history, and Art of Play carries some of the finest and best, like the superb examples showcased below.
NEWS Pocket Puzzle
Art of Play sources their puzzles, amusements, and toys from around the world, and the NEWS Pocket Puzzle comes from Japan. It has been designed by legendary creator Nob Yashigahara, for Japanese toy company Hanayama, best known for their series of cast zinc disassembly puzzles.
The packaging introduces us to the challenge, which sounds easy enough: "Can you take it apart? Now try and put it back together." It may sound rather straight-forward, but the back of the box in which this comes also gives us a hint to the level of difficulty. These Hanayama cast puzzles have six different levels available, from 1 (Easy) to 6 (Very Difficult), and this is a Level 6! Art of Play also offers us this warning: "Be forewarned, this is one of the most challenging mechanical puzzles in our collection and this compass does not come with directions. Solving it will take patience and creativity."
The puzzle comes packaged in a nicely presented box, and is a solid brass compass (hence the name NEWS, which is an acronym of the directions North, East, West, and South). It feels chunky, and also looks very classy and sophisticated. The aim is relatively simple and easy to explain: separate the two interlocked pieces, and then put them together again. Solving it, however, is another matter. It doesn't require a complicated algorithm or memorizing a series of moves; rather, you need to think outside the box, and then suddenly you'll have it. So either you'll make no progress at all and get totally frustrated, or you'll suddenly have a flash of inspiration, and within five seconds have both pieces separate.
No solution is provided with this product, although the box does give an email address you can write to if you do get stuck. I'm glad they don't make life too easy for us to take short cuts, however, because it's no fun to cheat - especially if you've solved it and others in your household haven't! Our family didn't find it too impossible, and most of us were able to figure out the solution eventually - but it is devious and clever. In fact, of all the Art of Play puzzles we've tried, this was one of our favourites, even though it is one of the cheaper products in their line-up.
The NEWS Pocket Puzzle is one of our top recommendations: it's relatively inexpensive, looks very simple and in the end does have an easy solution, and yet some people will it fiendishly difficult, so it's the ideal challenge for everyone. It is also beautifully made and gives the immediate impression of being a high quality product. And the good news is that if you enjoyed this, you can check out the rest of the Hanayama range of puzzles that Art of Play has available!
Brass Jack Desktop Puzzle
From the relatively inexpensive NEWS Pocket Puzzle, next we check out one of the more pricey puzzles that Art of Play has available, which is the Brass Jack Desktop Puzzle.
This has the immediate feel of quality, packaged in a thick cube-shaped box, that has a real heft to it: it weighs one pound! What is it exactly? Call it what you like, and use it how you want - as a desk object, a paperweight, or a true distraction. One thing we can all agree on is that it is interlocking puzzle made of brass, and is very solid. Did I mention yet that it is solid? It totally looks it, and totally feels it! So besides solving the puzzle, you can totally use it for the previously mentioned alternate purposes; it really is perfect as a desk paperweight, and it invites curious souls to pick it up and explore it.
The Brass Jack Desktop Puzzle was created for Craighill, a company that produces unique and useful objects for your person and home. Their design studio is in New York, and this particular puzzle has been milled on a lathe by a skilled machinist. It consists of six brass bars, which have been carefully created with different notches in them. What this means is that there is only one way they can be interlocked together to create a single shape, and so the challenge is first to disassemble it, and then reassemble it.
This is a fine example of what is traditionally called a burr puzzle, which is an interlocking puzzle that consists of notched sticks combined to create a single three-dimensional unit, which in this case is a symmetrical "jack" shape. It's quite challenging to remove the pieces, and perhaps even more so to reassemble it, since everything needs to be held together just right.
This puzzle does not come cheap, but it looks terrific on a desk or shelf, and is an ideal gift for that person who has almost everything!
Domino Puzzle Maze
The Domino Puzzle Maze is a game of Dominoes - kind of. But this is Art of Play remember, and they won't be putting anything bland or average into their collection of treasures!
Sure enough, although we do get 28 wooden domino tiles with the usual domino spots on one side, what we find on the reverse is something quite different and intriguing. On the back of each tile is what seems to be an abstract pattern, with different rectangular shapes in two colours. But wait ... could those be pathways? Yes indeed, and now we've discovered the second puzzle hidden in this box: the challenge is to puzzle the pieces together, making a complete maze. Actually this proved to be one of the hardest challenges of the lot - fortunately a solution is provided, and we found it almost essential to at least get a tip about what the entrance and exit tiles of the maze were.
Of course once the maze-building puzzle is complete, the next challenge immediately awaits us: can we solve the maze? Clever! No wonder the Domino Puzzle Maze is billed as being "three games in one" with the aim of enjoying "all three nested layers of this deceptively minimalist gaming set."
The Domino Puzzle Maze comes packaged in a very classy wooden box with a clear plexi-glass cover, so that we can admire the domino tiles inside. These have a very clean and modern design, and were part of the reason that they caught Dan and Dave's eye when they first saw this in Europe. Maurizio Capannesi, the creator, hails from Italy, and the Buck twins were able to make a special arrangement with him to make an exclusive production run of this finely crafted domino set so that it could be brought to audiences in North America and around the world through Art of Play.
While you certainly could use this for your every-day games of dominoes, this beautiful product is best enjoyed by the causal gamer and puzzle enthusiast who wants to stretch themselves beyond the traditional game, and is happy to play around with the extra secrets inside this box. It's certainly an ideal and unique gift for the toy collector or discerning gamer that appreciates fine craftsmanship and ingenuity, and is looking for something out of the ordinary.
The Matchbox Puzzles are among my favourite Art of Play products, given the sheer variety these contain, and the many hours of amusement they hold inside.
There are 15 different mini-puzzles altogether, and they are packaged together in sets of three. You can purchase just one set of three, or save 20% by buying all five sets of three together, and have the complete set. I'm glad we have the entire set, because it was well worthwhile.
Each matchbox features a delightful retro graphic design that looks like a vintage matchbox. No expense has been spared to dress these with style and with love, and great attention has even been given to the detail of the boxes themselves. As an added bonus, each box has some riddles written on it, so you'll be challenged by much more than what you find inside the box.
Inside each box, which is opened just the way you'd open a traditional matchbox, is a unique miniature puzzle. There's quite a variety of styles, and also in levels of difficulty - you'll find that you can solve some quite quickly, but others may leave you baffled for an hour or more! The range includes disentanglement puzzles with ropes and knots, wooden pieces that need to be compiled into a single image or pyramid, impossibly connected metal shapes that need to be cleverly pulled apart, and small burr puzzles where the aim is to disassemble and reassemble the pieces.
Considering the amount of fun to be had, these Matchbox Puzzles are very good value, because the cost per unit is quite low. They are quite small - they are miniature puzzles after all - but are still big on fun, and would also make great gifts, either individually or as a set.
Red Goose Puzzle
The Red Goose Puzzle is a clever disentanglement puzzle, where the aim is to help the goose escape the noose. This puzzle is quite a classic, and has been around for a while. But this version is easily one of the nicest productions of it you'll find anywhere, with attractive laser-cut wood and a quality cord.
The puzzle is made up of rectangular shaped alder wood, which has been laser engraved to depict a goose with a twisted and knotted neck. Four holes have been strategically placed in the wood, and through these holes is a black nylon cord, twisted through the holes and around itself. Attached to the end of the cord is a red wooden bead, which is larger than the size of the holes.
The aim? Get the cord off the wood and help free the goose! To do this, you'll have to employ some lateral thinking, combined with some trial-and-error. When you pull parts of the cord through the holes, you can start pushing other things through or around - but that's for you to figure out!
How difficult is it? Fortunately it's not too impossible. It does require some thinking and fiddling to be able to solve, although some are able to solve it fairly quickly, while others will get frustrated that it proved harder than they thought. It really is a neat little puzzle that has just the right amount of complexity, and most people should be able to solve it within 10-15 minutes or so.
This is a great little puzzle that is small enough to easily fit in your pocket, so you can take it with you and challenge your friends and family to solve it. Alternatively, you can leave it sitting on your coffee table as a curiosity or conversation piece, and for visitors to try. Considering that it sells at a reasonable price, the Red Goose Puzzle is a very attractive and well-made puzzle that looks elegant and nice, offering a good challenge without being too difficult, and is a great and unique gift idea as well.
The items in this category aren't strictly puzzles as such, in the sense that there is nothing really to solve, and everything works more or less automatically. But when people see them, they will be completely amazed and find it hard to believe their eyes. They can even give these amusements a try for themselves, and they'll be able to perform the visual miracles just as easily as you.
Magical Origami Cloth
I first saw the Magical Origami Cloth in an episode of The Carbonaro Effect (video clip link), a hidden camera magic TV show, where it is presented as part of a trick about a fake "Instant Origami Spray", that can magically turn a tissue into a folded paper crane.
There is no such thing as an instant origami spray, of course, but the magical origami cloth is definitely real, and it's quite mind-blowing to see in action! As you might have guessed, this curiosity comes from Japan.
It's a special microfiber cloth that comes pre-folded and packaged flat in a plastic bag, and you can also store it that way. What you need to do is stretch out the entire cloth flat - which you can do under the cover of cleaning your glasses or phone if you want to present it as real magic. Then you simply bounce the cloth from hand to hand, and it will magically transform into a bird shape, just like a folded paper crane.
Don't ask me how it works - but it does, and it is truly amazing to see! It folds quite rapidly, and while it will occasionally get a little stuck on some of the folds where there are sharp points, this is easily corrected with a quick little tweak using your fingers while bouncing the cloth. There's genuinely no skill or sleight of hand involved - it's all in the magic of the cloth, which somehow has a memory of its folds, and returns automatically back to the shape of a paper crane.
The instructions that come with it call it Peti peto and describe it as follows: "Peti peto is a pocket sized cleaning cloth made of polyester material for the purpose of removing dust off glass lens, LCD screens and precision instruments. By using the characteristics of the polyester material, it provides shape-memory for the Origami-like cloth which was produced so that it will reform to its previous origami shape, even after tt's opened and used. Peti peto refers to the Latin word of "Peti" or small and "Peto" or animal. We are sure that this neatly folded cloth cleaner will become as familiar to you as your pet and that you would always feel like bringing it along when you travel to various places."
This is truly a magical item that would make a great gift, and certainly will inspire wonder and amazement for everyone who sees it. You can even let your family and friends try it for themselves, and they'll be even more impressed when they see the magic happen in their own hands!
The Toroflux arrives in a rather non-descript looking package: a black cloth draw-string bag. It has the feel of something metal inside, and yet is completely flat - but what can it be? The packaging itself gives some clue: "The original Toroflux: Interactive, Tactile, Decorative, Fun!" The reverse side has instructions on how to use it.
So let's pull it out of the bag and show you what you get. The ad copy describes it as follows: "This mesmerizing metal flow toy can be manipulated in beautiful and surprising ways." Created by flowtoys, a Californian company that produces quality flow arts and juggling props, the Toroflux is a stack of 5" metal rings.
But all is not what it seems - you simply need to give these flat metal rings a tap, or jiggle them in the right way, and they pop open almost magically into a "three dimensional kinetic sculpture"!
Now the fun really begins! You can do all kinds of things with this Toroflux. The simplest move is to stick your arm through it, and with the help of gravity let it crawl and spin down your arm, and from one arm to another. You can even make it roll down a broomstick, extension cord, or a rope, to create what the ad copy describes as "the illusion of a metal soap bubble".
I prefer another description from the creators, where they describe it as a kinetic spring toy much like a 4th dimensional slinky. Remember those springs that would crawl down stairs and off chairs? This is like that, but with an extra dimension, and once you start playing with it, it's hard to put down! But when you are ready to give it a rest, you just pack it flat and put it back into the bag for convenient and safe storage.
The Toroflux is created from stainless steel, and consists of a single metal band that is perfectly shaped for its intended purpose, so it does need careful looking after, so that you don't bend or damage the individual rings. Thankfully the cloth bag provided with it goes a long way to keep it portable and safe. This is another great eye-catching "toy" that seems too amazing to be true, and anyone who loves the old slinky springs will find this a real hit.
Unlike the two previous items, the Pop-Up Penguin isn't something that you can use right out of the package, because you need to assemble it yourself. In fact, that's part of the point and the challenge. Once you've built it though, your cheerful adelie penguin can do something magical: "When you drop it on a table, it transforms itself into a penguin!" Yes really - one moment it's a completely flat package of thin card, but when it hits the table it springs up into a well designed 3D penguin that is 6.5″ x 6″ x 4.5″ in size!
The Pop-Up Penguin can best be described as superb piece of "paper engineering", and is part of a series of products called Kamikara. The package describes it as follows: "KAMIKARA is an action paper craft kit series designed by Japanese paper engineer Haruki Nakamura. Each kit is intuitively designed and easy to build with minimal use of tools. Enjoy the next generation of paper crafts!"
What you get is a flat package the size of a large envelope, which comes with an instruction sheet, two rubber bands, and three specially prepared pieces of thin card. You need to pop out various pieces from the paper sheets, and then fold and insert various flaps together. It's recommended for ages 12 and up, which sounds about right, because it is somewhat of a fiddly exercise of precision, and it took us around about 30 minutes to put together.
But the instructions are super clear, and everything is very well designed and pre-folded, so if you follow the instructions you really can't go wrong. You can check out an online instruction video from the Japanese creators on Youtube (link) - start at 13:55 to see the Penguin Bomb in action. A better video of how the assembled penguin works can be found under the "Video" tab on the Art of Play product page. It really is ingenious, and has been incredibly well designed, because once it's put together it works very well indeed, and is a small miracle of clever engineering.
Half the fun of the Pop-Up Penguin is building it, which is an exercise in patience and precision. But once it's been assembled, the fun doesn't stop, because you can leave it lying around as a flat package, and surprise people with a moment of magic by dropping it onto a table, and seeing it pop up to life. It's great for people who like putting things together, or like the idea of what it can do once it's been assembled. We have a major penguin fan in our family, so this was always going to be a huge hit!
Now it's time to take a look at an optical illusion that isn't just a treat for the eyes, but has a practical use at the same time. Introducing the Lessmore Bowls, which is a set of two ceramic bowls that have a surprising secret.
These come in a lovely presentation with an elegant white cardboard box touched with silver foil, and boasting: "An incredible optical illusion that also holds your snacks. Serve up something more or less impossible!" Inside we find two dishwasher/microwave-safe porcelain bowls with a white gloss finish, ideal for holding your favourite snacks.
The two bowls are identical - or are they? Wait a minute, if you place them alongside each other, one definitely seems longer than the other. But when we switch them around, now the other one is the one that seems the longer of the two! As the ad copy on the box says: "these unique ceramic bowls appear to grow and shrink before your eyes."
This is a classic example of the Jastrow Illusion, a famous optical illusion that is also known under different names such as the Boomerang Illusion, and perhaps most commonly recognized from something most of us have probably seen in real life - two identical sized toy railway tracks placed alongside each other where the lower one appears surprisingly larger, as shown in this animated image.
The back of the box sums it up well: "This set of porcelain bowls is a magical way to serve our favorite foods or add a decorative touch of wonder to any tabletop. A unique three-dimensional optical illusion perfect for anyone with an appetite for curiosity." The Lessmore Bowls are typical of what Art of Play is about, something magical and unique, and yet something that can find a useful place in your home, or the home of a loved one.
I've always been fascinated by spinning tops, and as a kid I used to take apart old clocks to pull out the metal cogs, which were often perfect for spinning. The inner child never leaves, so I knew right from the start that I was going to love the Mystery Top.
I'm sure that I'm not the only one with such a fascination - as the ad copy says, "The gravity-defying ballet of spinning tops has fascinated curious minds since ancient times. "
But because this is the carefully curated collection from Art of Play, even a traditional toy like a spinning top isn't exactly traditional. Designed by craftsman Takeichi Sasahara, these have have been sourced from Japan, where they have been turned by hand from indigenous woods on the island of Hokkaido.
They are called Mystery Tops because there are ten different varieties/shapes of tops, and you don't know in advance which one you will get. Even the box impresses, with a textured and embossed thick paper stock with a vintage style graphic design, which just underlines that this is a quality hand-made product. After opening the box, the surprise is not yet over, because the top is packaged inside a small white cloth drawstring bag. No detail has been spared in bringing us something that is completely unique and special.
The ten different types of mystery tops shown on the Art of Play website reflect different artistic traditions and styles. I have two of the ten different ones, and I particularly like the tops which have a loose band of wood around them. This wood band hasn't been glued together, nor can it be removed, because it has been carved from a single piece of wood along with the rest of the top, in an apparently impossible manner.
These tops are a great talking point, an exquisite and unique hand-covered treasure, and they are also fun to play with, and are sure to offer amusement and joy to young and old alike!
Art of Play also has a wide range of other high quality puzzles, amusements, and games, which should especially appeal to people who enjoy games and brainteasers.
You can browse their site to see the large selection that they have on offer - here's a composite image showing just a few of the curiosities that they have available.
What do I think?
So are the puzzles from Art of Play something for you? I imagine that my reviews above and the accompanying pictures already speak volumes, because I make no secret of my appreciation for and amazement at the remarkable puzzles that Art of Play has on offer.
Variety: Not only do they have an amazing variety of very impressive decks of playing cards, many of which are of their own creation, but the amusements and puzzles that they carry are truly of the highest calibre, both in terms of craftsmanship, innovation, and all round quality. There's a very wide range of very different products available, so there is definitely something for everyone - you just need to look!
Exclusivity: Many of the products you'll find here you won't find anywhere else. They have sometimes been sourced from exotic locations and faraway countries. You certainly won't be able to pick them up at Walmart or Target.
Quality: The craftsmanship of these puzzles and amusements is outstanding. The metal puzzles are extremely solid and durable, while those with wooden pieces fit together snugly and are well constructed. Even the packaging has small details like embossing and texture that adds to a sense of luxury and quality. It's obvious that the Buck twins have high standards, and only the very best items make it into their catalogue.
Creativity: I find myself blown away by the creativity of some of these items, as well as the quality. Besides the ones I've tried personally, there are countless other curiosities, just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. What you'll find here is not something that for the most part you've seen before, but expect to find things you've never seen before, never considered, and never imagined. Creative puzzles like these really can kindle that sense of childlike wonder and amazement.
Luxury: Even the lower end products listed in the Art of Play catalogue are luxurious. Words like elegance and classy often come to mind, and that's because their product line really does fit this description well. Clearly Dan and Dave don't settle for second best, but only want to carry the most outstanding and high quality products. Now obviously this comes as a cost, and these things don't come cheap, because if you are going to get luxury, it won't be at dollar store prices. But the "discerning buyer" is almost certain to find something to his liking here.
So is Art of Play something you need to check out? If you are in the market for something creative, unique, unusual, memorable, and difficult to find or to duplicate, it's hard to think of a better place to look. Whether you're hunting for that one-of-a-kind high-end deck of playing cards for your own enjoyment or as a gift for another gamer, or if you're searching for that unique something to give to that person who has everything and is hard to please, Art of Play has something that will suit.
But even if you're not a prospective buyer, you'll enjoy just browsing through their image galleries, exploring some of the amazing products they have available, and checking out some of the pictures that showcase their remarkable range. What I've shown you in this review is only scratching the surface of what they have available at Art of Play, and it only reflects the the items that I own myself and have first-hand experience with - there are countless more things that are equally as impressive!
Whether your interest is in playing card games, or puzzles, or just enjoying amusing curiosities, you're almost certain to find some treasures in Art of Play's growing collection. For anyone who enjoys quality playing cards, puzzles, amusements, or games, this site is definitely a paradise that I highly recommend you check out!
Want to learn more? Check out Art of Play:
Official website: Playing Cards, Puzzles, Amusements, Games
Social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest
Direct links for items featured in this review:
Perplexing Puzzles: NEWS Pocket Puzzle, Brass Jack Desktop Puzzle, Domino Puzzle Maze, Matchbox Puzzles, Red Goose Puzzle
Amazing Amusements: Magical Origami Cloth, Toroflux, Pop-Up Penguin, Lessmore Bowls, Mystery Top