Today we look at a puzzle invented by Alan Schoen that he calls Roto-Tiler. He explained this to me a few years ago, and when I showed him notes I made for a class, he denied that this is the puzzle he described. I insist it is, and it is quite certainly not mine.

Things happen on a hexagonal board like the one above (it can but doesn’t need to be regular), tiled by hexagonal rhombi of equal size. The acute angles are marked by 1/3-circles, which occasionally happen to close up when three acute angles meet. In that case, a move consists of rotating the three involved rhombi by 120º either way.

Above you can see the possible four moves from the central position. At this point it is not clear at all that a move is always possible. The puzzle consists of transforming one given tiling by rhombi to another given tiling of the same hexagon. For instance, a simple example asks to find the smallest number of moves that takes the left tiling to the right tiling.

The clue to solve this puzzle is to view the hexagons as the parallel projection of a box subdivided into smaller cubes, and the rhombi as the projections of the faces of the smaller cubes. This becomes visually more intuitive if we color the rhombi by their orientation so that parallel cube faces have the same color:

Then the hexagon above becomes the projection of a box partially filled with cubes, and a move consists of adding or removing a frontmost cube. This step into the third dimension explains everything: We see that we can solve every Roto-Tiler puzzle by emptying and filling boxes with cubes. Last week’s first example was a 1-dimensional version of this, next week we will try to grasp a 3-dimensional version and practice our 4-dimensional intuition.