I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the Boswords Crossword Tournament. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors — as well as the reliable puzzles featured in the previous three tournaments — I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.
So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!
Warmup 1: On the Move by John Lieb
The first of three unscored opening puzzles did a nice job of loosening up solvers (whether they’re practiced or rusty) and getting them ready to solve. The five related entries all had the letter chain STU in them, and the letter grouping moved diagonally to the left with each successive entry. (This was explained by the clever revealer RV TRIP in the corner, as the letters between R and V made the journey across the grid.)
Although I struggled a bit with the lower-right corner of the grid, I found this 15x puzzle served its purpose nicely, offering an easily grasped theme to warm up solvers.
Interesting grid entries included WINNIPEG, OPEN BARS, RUN DMC, and DEATH STAR, and my favorite clue was “Some ‘The Mandalorian’ characters, for short” for ETS. (Though, since none of the characters are from Earth, I suppose we would consider ALL of them ETs. But I digress.)
Warmup 2: Act I by Andrew Kingsley
I’m not entirely sure if this 15x puzzle was a smoother solve than the previous crossword or if I was just more warmed up. This puzzle’s theme entries all started with an EYE sound, but spelled differently (AY CARAMBA, AYE AYE CAPTAIN). The revealer (EYE OPENER) not only explained this, but referenced the title. Nicely done overall!
This was a fun concept (despite one very obscure theme entry), and playing on pronunciation is a less frequently used gimmick in crosswords, which made it a nice treat.
Interesting grid entries included IMPOUNDS, BAT SIGNAL, and ONCE-A-DAY, and my favorite clue was “Change ‘chagne’ to ‘change,’ say” for EDIT.
[Crossword street art at Heilig-Sacramentstraat 9000 Gent, Belgium]
Warmup 3: Starting From Scratch by John Lieb
Our warmup master Mr. Lieb returns with a well-constructed 15x puzzle that had the best flow of the three. Any solver would feel pumped and ready for the tournament after this one.
The theme entries were all phrases where the first word could be preceded by BANK (as explained by the revealer BANKSY). And I quite enjoyed having RUHROH from Scooby-Doo as the first entry across. It shows off the playfulness you can expect from Boswords tournament puzzles.
Interesting grid entries included AQUA NET, ROXANE, MARLOWE, and HEADBUTTS, and my favorite clue was either “Casino conveniences” for ATMS or “How Boswords 2020 puzzles will *not* be solved” for IN PEN.
Puzzle 1: Gather Round by John Lieb and Andrea Yanes
The tournament proper launched with this great starter, a snappy 15x puzzle with a tightly-constructed great and a plethora of theme entries to hook solvers. All the theme entries were round or circular items — LIFESAVERS, FULL MOONS, BULLSEYE — which fit both the title and the revealer CIRCLE TIME in the grid.
Interesting grid entries included GROVES, VOLDEMORT, ROMCOM, and CHALLAH, and my favorite clue was either “National dance of the Dominican Republic” for MERENGUE or “‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ has over 800,000 of these” for CELS. I love learning things from crosswords!
Puzzle 2: Two Across by Andrea Carla Michaels
Puzzle #2 really stuck the landing in this thoroughly enjoyable solve. A fun, accessible hook — naming two of the characters in famous trios and cluing each theme entry with the third — was made evident by the revealer THREE’S A CROWD, and the trios were well-chosen for maximum pop culture familiarity. (Though I suspect I got the Ron-Harry-Hermione trinity slower than most solvers.)
I found this puzzle right on par difficulty-wise with Puzzle #1, making for a breezy solve and some delightful cluing.
Interesting grid entries included ISHMAEL, CD TOWER, and THE SEA, and my favorite clues were “Nursery purchase” for SEED, “Pronoun containing another pronoun” for SHE, and “K-I-S-S-I-N-G in a tree, for short” for PDA.
Puzzle 3: Mass Mayhem by Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim
Bosword tournaments tend to have jumps in difficulty rather than a gradual increase, and this year was no exception. Puzzle #3 offered a boost in difficulty from the previous two puzzles, though I suspect cryptic solvers might have cottoned onto the theme faster than other puzzlers. Each theme entry was a “villain” whose description was an anagram of a Massachusetts locale (SILVER MOLE for “Graying double agent from Somerville,” GRID BUSTER for “Crossword puzzle vandal from Sturbridge”).
I figured out the entries without the anagrams, but getting the clues last is always the worst feeling. The “from” phrasing probably made the gimmick obvious to others, but I was a little slow on the uptake with this one.
Interesting grid entries included DEVITO, NAIROBI, BRAHMS, and MEMBRANE, and my favorite clue was either “First word spelled out in a lunchmeat jingle” for OSCAR or “Tea at the Boston Tea Party, effectively” for JETSAM.
Puzzle 4: Water Picks by Amanda Rafkin
For the second year in a row, Puzzle #4 featured my favorite gimmick from the tournament. Rafkin concealed different kinds of apples in zigzagging patterns throughout the 17×21 grid, allowing the letters in the entry to bob up and down. This fit the bonus entries HALLOWEEN PARTIES and BOBBING FOR APPLES elsewhere in the grid.
A delightful hook with a clever visual element, really fun cluing, and strong fill? It comes as no surprise that this was my favorite puzzle from the tournament by a long shot, despite being the largest.
Interesting grid entries included FEARSOME, EVAN HANSEN, GALLERIA, LOONIE, and ZORRO, and it was impossible for me to narrow down my favorite clue in this one:
- “Foot work?” for POEM
- “Without pier?” for ASEA
- “Page in a screenplay?” for ELLEN
- “One in a batting lineup?” for EYELASH
- “Vessels that are often blown up” for RAFTS
- “Org. with Sarah McLachlan (AND HER VERY SAD SONG) as a spokesperson” for ASPCA
(Unfortunately, I must also deduct points for referencing Dave Matthews Band in a clue. Sorry, Amanda, them’s the rules.)
[There really ARE stock photos for everything.]
Puzzle 5: The A’s Have It! by Sid Sivakumar
The tournament puzzles concluded with a very satisfying solve from Sivakumar, whose choice of theme must’ve made for some fun constructing. Puzzle #5’s theme entries featured the letter A as every other letter in each entry (BANANARAMA, PANAMA CANAL), tied together with the revealer FIVE-SECOND RULE referencing the cavalcade of A’s in the grid.
All those A’s allowed for some long crossings, and the constructor made the most of them, using a number of 9- and 10-letter entries to tie the grid together nicely.
Interesting grid entries included IXNAY, MOVIE NIGHT, RAMIS, and KODAK, and my favorite clue was either “Chapter in a history textbook, say” for ERA or “Promoter of chess?” for PAWN.
Championship Themeless by Sam Trabucco
After two years of championship puzzles being shepherded by the ambitious grids of David Quarfoot, and Finn Vigeland offering an intimidating themeless championship puzzle of his own last year, Sam Trabucco stepped up to the plate with a suitably challenging finale to the day’s proceedings.
Absolutely packed with 8- and 9-letter entries, this grid was very tightly constructed, but included enough unexpected vocabulary to make solvers truly earn their completed grids. (My only qualm was reusing I in three entries — I TELL YA, I’VE GOT IT, and I’LL TAKE IT — but I’m probably in the minority on that nitpicky point.)
Interesting grid entries included TEXAS TEA, SNAPCHAT, SOYLENT, JANIS IAN, and STAGE MOM. Both the easier and tougher sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:
- “Lamenting some shots, perhaps” for HUNGOVER
- “Like the origins of each day of the week” for PAGAN
- “Like many colorful characters in ‘Reservoir Dogs'” for CODENAMED
- “Paying for a lot of drinks, perhaps” for HUNGOVER
- “Vegan food named for a decidedly non-vegan ‘food'” for SOYLENT
- “Put in charge?” for IONIZE
- “Sounds Jazz fans love to hear?” for SWISHES.
Overall, I was fairly impressed by the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s tournament. There were tricky themes, visual themes, and even an auditory theme, all of which made great use of both the cluing and the grids themselves. Yes, one or two puzzles didn’t resonate with me as strongly as the others, but the tournament puzzles as a whole were challenging and creative in their design without being off-putting or getting too esoteric.
BosWords remains the perfect tournament to introduce solvers to tournament-style puzzling, making up for difficulty with accessibility, playfulness, and straight-up solid grid construction.
It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament, especially with the trying circumstances this year. I heard nothing but good things about the online solving experience, and I credit the hardworking organizers for pulling this all off!
And I can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.
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