160: Hylian Knot Puzzle

I have enjoyed mechanical puzzles since I was a kid, but not because I was particularly good at them. Anything more complicated than a vexier or tangram and my success was not guaranteed. I might never have solved a Rubik’s cube, but I’ve always held a bit of awe for the designers of these kinds of puzzles. Engineering some exquisite challenge and then rendering it in smooth finished wood and intricately shaped metal wire just appealed to me on a physical level the way jigsaw puzzles never did.

Eventually I grew up and lost track of all the blocks, wires and other bits and pieces, but I never grew out of that appreciation for the aesthetic of mechanical puzzles. As we’ll find out, I never got any better solving them, either!


I don’t remember exactly when I learned about The Gordian’s Knot, an interlocking burr puzzle by edutainment company ThinkFun, Inc. The company borrowed an existing puzzle design, and despite the lack of any rope or string, they named the puzzle after the Phrygian legend:

The original Gordian Knot is a famous story from the eighth century B.C. Asia Minor. As the story goes, the people had
lost their king and their oracle announced that the next person to
ride into town pulling an oxcart would be the new ruler.
That person was Gordius, who, once crowned, tied up his cart with
an extremely intricate knot. Over time, legend grew that the
person who solved the knot would rule the world. For 400 years
the knot remained a puzzle until Alexander the Great
solved it and went on to rule great kingdoms.

“History of the original Gordian Knot” / Take-Apart Solution Guide

The original puzzle, known as Extreme Torture, and was designed by Frans de Vreugd, a Dutch architect and metagrobologist. It’s constructed of six pieces, and takes 69 steps to assemble/disassemble. I’ve read that Frans leveraged a computer algorithm to determine the most challenging six piece burr puzzle possible, and Extreme Torture was the result. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I’m impressed either way.

The Gordian’s Knot caught my eye despite its aggressively preschool color scheme for two reasons: I love how the six individual pieces interlock in a kind of trapped octothorpe, and I love how the six individual pieces flat, solid, and laser-friendly when disassembled.

That last part brings us to the point, of course. Once I realized it was made of flat pieces, it took on a new life. Its geometry called to me.

“Cut me with lasers, Ryan,” it teased, “Cut me, and then solve me.”


Since I’d be recreating the individual pieces in vector layout software, I had the opportunity to modify the design of each piece. I absolutely didn’t want to modify the puzzle in any way that would affect the solution, and the pieces needed to interlock a certain way, so the only real alteration I could get away with was on the corners.

It was around the time I chamfered the corners that I realized something else about the puzzle shapes. They reminded me of Zelda. With the corners cut and the vaguely pixelated innards, the pieces looked just like squat little Sheikah glyphs. My nerdbrain woke up and all of a sudden I had to find a way to incorporate iconography from one of my favorite game series. What better way to make a project more fun than a video game mashup?

Mashing Extreme Torture and Breath of the Wild concepts together made more sense the longer I looked at it:

  • Six pieces, six Sheikah runes (excepting Amiibo)
  • Remote Bomb looks reminiscent of a pixelated explosion
  • Statis and Camera runes both represent being frozen in time, and their pieces are the only two identical twins of the set
  • Mastercycle’s piece vaguely resembles a steering wheel
  • All colors match materials I had available in 1/16″ acrylic

Finally, I adding the names of each rune in the Sheikah substitution cypher font, to be engraved on the surface. All of these design beats lined right up, so I had to follow through, and the result is the Hylian Knot. It took a few prototypes to get there, though!


My original plan for the Hylian Knot puzzle included cutting each piece out of its own color of fluorescent acrylic. I had colors that came very close to each of the official colors for the Breath of the Wild (BOTW) runes, but only in 1/8″ thick acrylic. Because the thickness of each piece needs to be 1/5 the length, this necessarily informed the final size of the pieces. That size? Tiny.

Too tiny to assemble easily, as it would turn out

I cut one prototype of this very small design and realized very early on that it would not be reasonable to attempt to solve the puzzle at this size. It was difficult to hold the pieces due to the size and the chamfered corners. I knew I wanted to make sure the puzzle could be assembled as designed, so I let go of my goal to solve it myself—let go of it startlingly easily—and hunted down a guide. Even when I followed Z3Cubing’s tutorial video to assemble it, the lack of color made it more difficult to follow and friction wasn’t holding the surfaces together very well at this size.

It’s just too small

Despite all of these problems, I eventually assembled the puzzle successfully. The first Hylian Knot was complete, and it would be the last of its size. I was going to have to use 1/4″ acrylic instead, and I didn’t have multiple colors of that thickness available, so I was stuck with clear cast acrylic. Conveniently enough, I had a whole bunch of markers and I was confident I could match the BOTW rune colors just as closely with those.

One very colorful prototype disassembled

I ran through a few more prototypes at the larger size, trying out various engraving techniques to find out which worked best with the marker ink. On one prototype, I engraved the entire surface sans the rune text, and on both sides, too! It turned out very colorful, but the rune text became entirely unreadable and painting each piece was cumbersome. Coincidentally, I overcompensated for kerf and the pieces didn’t fit together well. It must have been a sign.

Each piece with the rune names colored in

Once I landed on an engraving method I enjoyed, I finalized my lines by reducing the corner chamfer just a bit and lightening the kerf compensation so that the pieces would fit together more easily. The final puzzle was a joy to assemble, but you better believe I followed the video tutorial again.

Assembling the larger Hylian Knot, one step left!

Looking back on the project, I would have liked to make a version out of wood. I resisted that idea in the planning stage because I knew I’d want to sand the burnt edges and that’d be more difficult work than I wanted to deal with. For all of my enthusiasm about the classic aesthetic of mechanical puzzles, the final Hylian Knot doesn’t quite fit; it’s clear acrylic with little splashes of color that get lost in all of the reflected light. I might have to revisit this one when I can settle on a good solution for making a wooden variety. In the meantime, check out Tom Lensch’s beautiful interpretation of the original Dutch design.

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