About the Inventor
About Rush Hour's inventor, Nob Yoshigahara
By ThinkFun CEO Bill Ricthie
Nob Yoshigahara was a prolific Japanese inventor and designer of puzzles, one of the most creative puzzle masters the world has ever known. Nob called himself a “metagrobologist”, which means that he was a puzzle guru. Nob designed six puzzles for ThinkFun, he was a dear friend as well as a professional colleague.
Follow the three links below to learn more about Nob and his life. Also… at the time of his death in 2004, I was asked by the puzzle community to write a memorial essay for Nob, which is displayed below. Reading this will give you a great sense of the man, and of our relationship together.
This one is worth taking a look at, there is a long section about Nob, very interesting:
Memorial Tribute to Nob Yoshigahara in ‘Tribute to a Mathemagician’.
Scans of an article from Puzzle World Magazine:
By Bill Ritchie. July, 2004
I’ve been privileged to know Nob, and to collaborate with him, for the past ten years. As head of Binary Arts (now ThinkFun), I’ve worked with Nob to bring six extraordinary and highly successful puzzles to market, as well as a good selection of extra challenges and extension products for the most popular of these.
I’d met Nob several times before, but he first visited our offices in 1995, along with Harry Nelson who represented him in the United States. Nob was cautious that visit, but he had decided he wanted to do more in the US market and Tom Rodgers and Harry had told him that he could trust that we wouldn’t rip him off.
Nob had two puzzles to show me that visit. The first, which I believe was called Log Jam, had a nautical theme and sort of looked like it was constructed of Lincoln Logs. The second, called Tokyo Parking Lot, was made of wooden blocks which had LetraSet racing car decals pressed onto the surface. Nob wanted to show me both puzzles. However, by the time he reached us he had already licensed Log Jam to Bits and Pieces. Though I was more intrigued with the boat puzzle, the only choice I had was the car block puzzle or nothing.
Luckily, we decided to license the Parking Lot puzzle. It took nearly a year to figure out what to do with it, but in the Fall of 1996 we introduced it to the market as Rush Hour. Since that time, we have sold nearly 3 million units of Rush Hour, and since its introduction this has been our top selling product every year except one.
In this article, I want to take the opportunity to reflect on our collaborations with Nob and his team, and to talk about Nob as a puzzle inventor and as a person. I’m quite sure that his work with Binary Arts/ThinkFun represented only a small fraction of his overall puzzling energy, but through products like Rush Hour and Stormy Seas and Lunar Lockout, I do believe that Nob gained more exposure to an international puzzle audience than through any other of his many outlets.
Rush Hour turned out to be a perfect first project for us to develop. It had all the characteristics that a great puzzle needs to have. The objective – free your car from the traffic jam – was not only easy to understand, it is compelling, something a player would naturally want to do. The rules are simple to understand. It gives the appearance that it should be easy to solve, muting the intimidation factor that turns many people away from most puzzles. And finally, it turns out to be extremely challenging as well as a great deal of fun to play.
But the version Nob first showed us… which was being sold as an actual commercial product in Japan… was quite raw. The base had no tracks, so the blocks tended to twist out of alignment and kink; and most of the challenges that Nob and his collaborators had developed were as difficult as could be.
The job for our design team was to create a puzzle that was friendly and engaging and that would work smoothly. Under the direction of Steve Wagner, we did a very nice job of this.
Even more important was the development of the actual challenges. Working with Nob and Harry, we formulated the concept for our multi-challenge “Beginner to Expert” system, in which tokens are arranged in different ways on a common platform to create a puzzle series of gradually escalating difficulty. We hadn’t imagined doing this before, and I don’t think Nob had either. Fortunately for us, Nob understood the challenge intuitively, and he and his collaborators developed what is just a beautiful set of puzzle problems.
The following year Nob proposed a second set of Rush Hour challenges, with a twist; for this set, some of the challenges would include a second escape car, and both vehicles would have to exit. We published this in 1997, and that same year Nob and his team developed a third set of challenges, this set containing an escape vehicle that was 1x3 in length rather than 1x2. In 2000 Nob created a fourth set of 40 challenges, at the end of which he declared that all good challenges were used up for that particular platform. (In 2000 we did also produce Rush Hour Jr., with simple but engaging challenges for a younger audience.)
I’ll pause a moment here to reference Nob’s puzzle team. Nob was a great collaborator as well as a great individual genius. I myself only worked with Nob and Harry Nelson, but Nob often talked about his “Nobrain Corps”, which consisted of fellow puzzle collaborators including Kozy Kitajima, Hiroshi Yamamoto, and Osho Ewase, among others in Japan and with Harry in the USA. My understanding is that they worked together on most of the puzzle challenges, and Hiroshi Yamamoto was the original inventor of several of the puzzles that Nob then helped to perfect.
Back to puzzling. All told, five of the six products we produced with Nob were of the “Adjustable tokens on common platform, Multi-Challenge Beginner to Expert” variety. While there are other designers who have warmed to this concept and are now creating excellent puzzles for us, during the late 1990’s when Nob was our lead inventor, it is his work that arguably defined the category, and he was certainly the best designer in the world in this niche.
When Nob and Harry first showed the puzzle that would become Lunar Lockout to me, it was based on a 9x9 platform. “That’s too big”, I said. “For casual puzzlers to get their minds around this, it needs to be 7x7.” “Very difficult”, was Nob’s initial response. Lunar Lockout was created by Hiroshi Yamamoto, and there had been discussion about expanding its size to 11x11 to fit all the ideas that the Nobrainers had developed.
Next time I saw Nob, he was eager to meet to discuss this puzzle. We sat down, and he announced… “Every trick with this puzzle, we have discovered how to do with a 5x5 board. Every one! Cray-zy!”. Then he sat back and beamed. It really was crazy that Nob and his team could have compressed the challenges in this way. Lunar Lockout was an extremely sophisticated concept; it was so good, in fact, that Lunar Lockout challenges made up one entire section of the World Puzzle Championships in 2000, and another L.L. challenge was included among the 10 final puzzles in the individual championships. It was not a great commercial success, but it was our fourth best selling product in 2000, the year we introduced it.
I had been smitten by the Log Jam puzzle Nob showed on his initial visit. As it turned out, Bits and Pieces carried it for only a short time, and Nob offered the rights to us as Rush Hour was being introduced. The lure of this puzzle – which also had been created by Hiroshi Yamamoto – was that the platform could shift and move, as could the tokens. The problem was that there were only a handful of good challenges that could be designed. This wouldn’t work with our budding “40 Challenge, Beginner to Expert” formula. Nob asked the Nobrain Corps to work on the problem. The solution, which was found by Harry Nelson, was to redesign each of the eight sliding sections of the base to be two-sided, and to shorten the end sections so that boats could move between the main channels and the side channels. This substantially increased the number of different playing surface configurations, in turn allowing for more challenge design possibilities. The team also designed pockets along the side of the board where certain boats could be turned sideways or have their orientation reversed, and built a full set of challenges that incorporated these moves in their solution.
We introduced this puzzle, called Stormy Seas, in 1998. It was a slightly more complicated puzzle idea than Rush Hour, and didn’t rise to Rush Hour’s heights. Nonetheless, it was our second best selling puzzle of 1998, and it remains one of the top ten best selling products in our history.
In addition to his creative genius Nob had a genuine flair for marketing. Our second puzzle of Nob’s was Shape by Shape, which we introduced in 1997. Nob pitched this to us as his alternative to Tangrams. Shape by Shape was a silhouette puzzle, with a set of 6 foreground pieces highlighted by 8 background pieces; with each challenge, all 14 pieces should fit neatly within a square holding frame. The geometry was different than the classic Tangram but the challenges were at about the same level, fairly stiff but approachable by a casual puzzler and quite satisfying to solve.
At the time, Tangoes, a tangram product by Rex Games, was still strong in the market, and Nob could see that Shape by Shape could fit in well with our Brick by Brick and Block by Block geometrical polyform puzzles. I’m pretty sure that this puzzle was one that Nob had worked on for some time, and simply presented to us because he thought we could do a good job with it. He was right; Shape by Shape was our second best seller in 1997, and remained in our top five for the next two years.
Many of Nob’s marketing ideas we didn’t take to heart, which is perhaps our loss. With Rush Hour, Nob wanted us to organize New York taxi drivers and create a huge media event to launch the product. I’ve heard it rumored, though I don’t know for sure, that he actually did organize such an event in Tokyo. Later, once Nob was working with Hanayama in Japan in a big way, they produced a video loop of Nob pitching their line of disentanglement puzzles, which played in toy and game stores across the country and was very successful. Several times he strongly encouraged me to do the same in America. “One thousand Nobs, working around the clock, all across Japan, selling these puzzles”, he told me. “One thousand Nobs!”
Interestingly, we were contacted by MTV in 2001, and in the Spring of 2002 they devoted a whole program of their “Real World vs. Road Rules” show around contestants competing in a life sized version of Rush Hour, played with Saturn cars on the beach in Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.
Hoppers was another product that balanced Nob’s puzzle design genius with his understanding of what would be popular. Hoppers is a peg solitaire game, a classic (and popular) puzzle form. Nob identified an elegant board design from a game version first developed in 1913, and recognized that he could create a series of challenges on this board, ranging from beginner to quite difficult. He and Harry presented it to us as “Marsh Madness”, and voila… we introduced it as Hoppers in the Fall of 1999, one of the most successful product introductions in Binary Arts history.
The year 1999 was about at the height of the dot-com boom, and I had an amusing idea to produce a special version of Hoppers, with an oversized Bill Gates token who would jump, and swallow, all the other technology executives and government regulators on the board. Nob resisted this idea for a time, for he was of the opinion that this would make the challenges too easy. (The following year, during the crash, we did produce a version called “Downsize”, but in this all the business executive tokens were identical. It didn’t do particularly well.)
After a year or two, though, Nob came back very excited. “With a computer model, Survivor Hoppers (his name for the version where a specifically identified token must remain) has fewer possible moves, so it looks easier. But when you look at the psychology of play, Survivor Hoppers is much more difficult!” As Nob explained, this is because players have a tendency to not want to move the survivor token until the end game, and so will tend to avoid the necessary winning moves for a number of the challenges.
We introduced “Red Frog Hoppers” in early 2003, just as sales of regular Hoppers were starting a serious decline. It’s rare to be able to modify an existing product and have sales turn around – the market is always looking for new things – but the new Hoppers has made a turnaround, as as of mid-year 2004 it is our #10 product for the year.
In 2000, the American specialty toy and game market took a serious turn for the worse, reflecting both the general economic downturn and also a changing dynamic in consumer buying patterns. From the end of 1999 through 2001, wonderful stores like LearningSmith, Store of Knowledge, Natural Wonders, World of Science, Noodle Kidoodle, EToys, all went out of business. With regard to brainteaser puzzles, my own semi-humorous explanation is that when we switched out President Clinton for President Bush, the mood of the whole country swung away from an interest in clever, outside the box thinking. For two or three years, it was a tough time for the toy industry.
For different reasons, it was a tough time for Nob as well. Those of you who know Nob know that some 10 years ago, he battled stomach cancer and won, but lost his stomach in the process. Since that time he’s been able to eat little else but pureed foods. Nob was a heavy drinker of alcohol, and until recently a heavy smoker, all of which must have taken a toll on his body. I suspect that he was in chronic pain for the last years of his life, though he continued to work through this, puzzling and figuring and inventing through all hours of the night.
One time several years ago, Nob developed a severe infection, I think it was in his trachea. Under severe doctor’s orders, he had to give up drinking while the infection was dealt with. Nob described his problem, which was that without alcohol, he lay awake deep into the night with his mind spinning too fast and becoming too exhausted. Medication the doctors gave him to sedate him, had the effect of dulling his brain so he couldn’t metagrobolize… for him, it was an extremely frustrating time for him. For me, it brought home the fact that Nob was an amazing person, really a force of nature.
Earlier this year, when Nob was hospitalized for pneumonia and being given intravenous feeding, he insisted that only veins in his left arm be used, so he could continue to type on his computer with the right arm.
The final product we’ve done to date with Nob is FlipIt, which we introduced in 2001. FlipIt was an “Othello-like” puzzle, very clever with some wonderful puzzle ideas. However, we designed it with a juvenile, cartoony theme, the market was off, and FlipIt didn’t manage to break through the way all of Nob’s other puzzles had done. I wonder if Nob hadn’t been battling the stresses in his life, whether he would have allowed FlipIt to come to market. Probably he would have – the puzzle itself was very good.
Nob’s ideas still resonate deeply with our customers, sophisticated players as well as kids just coming to puzzling for the first time. Our design team is at work now redesigning the appearance of Lunar Lockout. And just two weeks before he died, Nob sent me a nearly-compete set of “Beginner to Expert” challenges for a new, more sophisticated peg solitaire game, also with a “survivor” theme. Our plan for each of these, is to design the puzzles to have a sophisticated, adult look, which we’re hoping will fit well with today’s market trends.
And very fortunately, Nob and Harry spent a substantial amount of time together in Nob’s final days, making decisions and putting final touches on several new puzzles that they had been working on for years. Thanks to a final burst of energy from Nob, we’re hoping to keep his legacy alive by introducing his newest puzzles over the next several years.
As I reflect on Nob and my relationship with him, I am of course in awe of his abilities and deeply appreciative that I have been able to work with him as I have. But more than this, I’m appreciative of his humanity. For a tiny little man who seemed to run practically on fumes, Nob lived an outsized, even outrageous life. He drank, he smoked, he caroused. He was kind and sympathetic, he had friends all over the world, and he traveled extensively. There were times when you couldn’t tell whether he’d be laid out by jet lag, his intestinal problems, drinking, or all of them simultaneously, and then he’d rally and his brain would be whirring again. And of course, he was very, very funny, in a way that only Nob could be. “Bad boy!” will stay with me, and with many of us, forever.
Bad boy, Nob! Rest in peace.