Favorite Clues from CTFYC!

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Last week I sang the praises of the Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event, and rightfully so. The entire enterprise was delightful, and the puzzles were tricky and engaging in equal measure.

But I neglected to give the cluing their proper due, as many of the clever themes in CTFYC were bolstered by great cluing (and, occasionally, truly diabolical cluing).

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at a clue from the third tournament puzzle, Patrick Blindauer’s “Look Up.” This puzzle featured a clue that had numerous solvers asking for help upon returning to the livestream chat after solving.

The clue? “Response to teens, perhaps?”

The answer? BRR.

I confess, this one had me flummoxed as well. My initial answer was BRO, but that just didn’t seem to work with the crossings in that lower-left corner. Trusting the down entries more than this one, I left BRR in without getting the clue.

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Of course, once I no longer had a timer lurking in my forebrain and a few seconds to think, I got the wordplay for “teens” — think temperature and not age — and the clue made total sense.

But given the response of some of the other solvers, I suspect this was the slipperiest clue of the entire tournament.

Which should come as no surprise given Blindauer’s pedigree as a constructor. That puzzle alone had a few more clever clues, including “Caught stealing, e.g.” for OUT and the much saltier “Smothers brother who isn’t a dick” for TOM.

As you can tell, I love a clue with some misdirection to it.

Robyn Weintraub’s warm-up puzzle “Get the Pillows Ready” had some notable examples. If you saw “Took the wrong way?” would you come up with STOLE? She clued TEETH with “Location of some crowns” and spruced up a classic crossword entry, NTH, with the clue “Advanced degree for a mathematician?”

Great stuff all around.

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But it’s not just tricky clues that pique my interest. The other warm-up puzzle, “Put Your Feet Up,” constructed by Rachel Fabi, had a few different styles of clue that caught my eye.

For instance, you can offer multiple clues or multiple examples for the same clue, which can lead to enjoyable wordplay. The clue “Hot thing to drink or spill” for TEA mixes a classic clue with a more updated, slangy use, making for a more interesting clue overall.

I’m also a sucker for a really wordy clue with personality, and Rachel didn’t disappoint. “Joke type that becomes a cellist if you repeat its first two letters instead of its last two” is an incredibly wordy (and very funny) way to clue the unusual entry YO MAMA.

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The clues for OUT, NTH, and TEA are particularly great because those words appear in crosswords ALL THE TIME, and so at some point, you inevitably feel like you’ve seen every possible clue a dozen times over. So when somebody can find a new wrinkle or breathe new life into a tired entry, you rejoice.

Joel Fagliano’s clue “Thing that nobody ever wins” for TIE and “Manual’s intended reader” for USER from Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner’s tournament puzzle also fit the bill. I don’t think I’ve encountered either clue before.

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[Wait, not that sort of clue…]

And here’s one more before I wrap this post up. Naturally, I’m returning to my favorite cluing style, misdirection, this time courtesy of Byron Walden from the CTFYC finals.

The clue: “Wanders around LAX?”

The answer: TSA

I read the clue three times before I got it, the perfect a-ha moment sort of clue.

What are some of your favorite clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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How Far Crosswords Have Come (and How Much Farther They Have to Go)

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The battle to decrease gender inequality and increase representation in crosswords is ongoing. More people than ever are speaking up on behalf of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ constructors, and non-binary individuals when it comes to who is constructing the puzzles (and being properly credited), as well as how members of those groups are represented by current grid entries and cluing.

Natan Last is one of many people standing up to make crosswords better, more inclusive, and more emblematic of a richer melting pot of solvers and constructors. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Last neatly encapsulates both the movement for a more inclusive crossword publishing community and the many obstacles that stand in its way.

He starts with a single example — a debut puzzle by a female constructor, Sally Hoelscher — and the conversation that ensued when one puzzle aficionado asked about the ratio of women’s names to men’s names in the puzzle.

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[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

Originally there were no men’s names. One entry was edited in. And a discussion about parity in puzzles followed.

Last uses this example as a springboard into the greater argument about how modern crossword editing (and editors) discriminate through gatekeeping under the guise of what’s “familiar” or “obscure.”

From the article:

Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

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[Image courtesy of CNBC.]

But what is kept out is only part of the problem, of course. Last goes on to mention many of the same insensitive and offensive clues and entries we (and other outlets) have cited in the past.

He caps off this part of the article by highlighting Will Shortz’s responses to these troubling questions:

But when prodded about insensitive edits, he denied them, adding: “If a puzzlemaker is unhappy with our style of editing, then they should send their work elsewhere (or publish it themselves to keep complete control).”

A pretty damning statement, to be sure.

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Turning away from the problems represented by the most famous daily crossword in the world, Last pivots, turning a spotlight on those who are helping turn the tide in terms of representation and inclusivity.

He shouts-out well-respected and innovative editors like Erik Agard (of USA Today‘s crossword), David Steinberg (of Andrew McMeel Universal’s Puzzles and Games division), and Liz Maynes-Aminzade (of The New Yorker crossword), heaping praise on a fresh constructor-editor partnership that encourages new voices and greater diversity of content.

Last also mentions worthy projects like the Inkubator, Women of Letters, and Queer Qrosswords, as well as the Women’s March crossword movement inspired by the work of Rebecca Falcon.

Across the entire article, Last highlights a system problem in crosswords, challenges those responsible to do better, and praises those who are working for the greater good. And he does so in about a dozen paragraphs. That’s all. It’s efficiency and flow worthy of a top-notch constructor.

You should read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.


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Crossword Competitions: Cancelled!

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Originally, today’s post was going to be about the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition happening this weekend.

I was going to wish the participants good luck and talk about crossword tournament protocol and advice.

But that’s all been rendered moot, as the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition has been cancelled due to concerns surrounding gatherings of people during the ongoing Coronavirus situation.

And unfortunately, it’s not the only upcoming puzzly event that has been scuppered by preventative health measures.

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Alas, the 43rd edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has also been cancelled for health-related reasons.

Although Will Shortz is in discussion with the hotel and event organizers regarding potentially moving the tournament to later in the year, for now, ACPT won’t be happening.

I’m disappointed, of course, but I’m not at all surprised. With schools and libraries closing their doors for the time being, not to mention sporting events potentially being held in empty arenas, all sorts of gatherings are being cancelled or rethought in order to keep folks safe.

We here at PuzzleNation hope you and your loved ones are happy, healthy, and taking steps to stay that way.

Be well, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. (And in the meantime, now you’ve got more time to practice your puzzly skills for the tournament’s talent show.)


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A Women’s March for Crosswords

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For years now, we’ve been discussing the gender gap in crossword construction and representation of women in published outlets. Heck, in 2018, we even shared detailed statistics on the percentage of women published by major outlets, thanks to the research of Patti Varol and Erik Agard.

Since then, we’ve seen projects like The Inkubator and Women of Letters highlighting female constructors, and there’s been a concentrated effort in the puzzle community (if not the major outlets) to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

And this month in particular has seen three different projects dedicated to female constructors come to fruition. Although many voices have been involved in these efforts, a huge chunk of the credit definitely belongs to constructor Rebecca Falcon, who pushed for outlets to publish only female constructors for an entire month.

The goal? A Women’s March.

The Wall Street Journal sought to meet Falcon’s request, but they didn’t have enough submitted puzzles to do so. They did do a week of female-constructed puzzles, though, including the traditional Friday contest puzzle with a meta solution, constructed by Joanne Sullivan.

Users of The New York Times Crossword app can also enjoy the fruits of these creative labors, as a Women’s History Month pack of 20 puzzles is available through both the App Store and Google Play as an in-app purchase! This project, accomplished in partnership with The Inkubator, features puzzles by Rebecca Falcon, Joanne Sullivan, Stella Zawistowski, Wendy L. Brandes, Rachel Fabi, Juliana Tringali, Annemarie Brethauer, Martha Jones, Wyna Liu, and Mary Lou Guizzo.

And it should come as no surprise that the ambitious and well-connected David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, succeeded in amassing the talent necessary for a full Women’s March.

As David said in the FB post announcing the project:

Each of the 36 Universal Crosswords this month has been constructed by a different woman or pair of women, and—to my knowledge—10 of the puzzles will be their constructors’ world debuts! Some of the puzzles’ themes are easy, some are a bit tricky, and a few are unlike anything I’ve seen in all my years of editing. One thing I noticed across all the March puzzles, though, was a refreshing woman-centric voice, both in the clues and grids.

Women’s March will continue into April for a few days, since so many women submitted excellent puzzles that the original 36 slots I’d allocated weren’t enough. As I see it, this event is not so much a Women’s March as the beginning of a Universal Crossword Women’s Movement, and I hope the puzzles this month inspire more women to construct for Universal as well as for other markets.

Andrew McMeels Universal put together a graphic celebrating all of the women involved in the project:

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It’s so cool to see so many deserving constructors represented, not to mention all of the newcomers to the puzzle community! Here’s hoping that Women’s March is the start of equal puzzle representation across the board. That would be something truly special.

Are you aware of any other crossword outlets participating in Women’s March, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section! We’d love to hear from you AND spread the word!


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Intuitive vs. Non-Intuitive Puzzles

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[Image courtesy of The Spruce Crafts.]

Sometimes, when you look at a puzzle, you know immediately what to do and how to solve. In my opinion, a great deal of Sudoku’s success is due to its intuitive nature. You see the grid, the numbers, and you know how to proceed.

Crosswords are similarly straightforward, with numbered clues and grid squares to guide new solvers. (The “across” and “down” directions also help immensely.)

That’s not to say that these puzzles can’t be off-putting to new solvers, despite their intuitive nature. I know plenty of people who are put off by crosswords simply by reputation, while others avoid Sudoku because they’re accustomed to avoiding ANY puzzle that involves numbers, assuming that some math is involved. (I suspect that KenKen, despite its successes, failed to replicate the wild popularity of Sudoku for similar reasons.)

But plenty of other puzzles require some explanation before you can dive in. A Marching Bands or Rows Garden puzzle, for instance, isn’t immediately obvious, even if the puzzle makes plenty of sense once you’ve read the instructions or solved one yourself.

The lion’s share of pen-and-paper puzzles fall into this category. No matter how eye-catching the grid or familiar the solving style, a solver can’t simply leap right into solving.

Thankfully, this won’t deter most solvers, who gleefully accept new challenges as they come, so long as they are fair and make sense after a minute or so of thought. Cryptic crossword-style cluing is a terrific example of this. At first glance, the clues might appear to be gibberish. But within each clue lurks the necessary tools to unlock it and find the answer word.

Brain teasers often function the same way. You’re presented with a problem — a light bulb you can’t see and three possible switches for it, for instance — and you need to figure out a way to solve it. It might involve deduction, wordplay, or some clever outside-the-box thinking, but once you find the answer, it rarely feels unfair or unreasonable.

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[Image courtesy of Deposit Photos.]

But, then again, there are also puzzles that can baffle you even once you’ve read the instructions and stared at the layout for a few minutes. Either the rules are complex or the solving style so unfamiliar or alien that the solver simply can’t find a way in.

In short, puzzles as a whole operate on a spectrum that spans from intuitive to non-intuitive.

Want an example of baffling or non-intuitive? You got it.

GAMES Magazine once ran a puzzle entitled “Escape from the Dungeon,” where the solver had to locate a weapon in a D&D-style dungeon. A very small crossword puzzle was found in one room on a paper scroll.

But the solution had nothing to do with solving the crossword.

The actual solution was to take the crossword to a magician who removed letters from the fronts of words. Removing the C-R-O-S left you with a sword, completing the overall puzzle.

That sort of thinking is so outside the box that it might as well be in a different store entirely. Video games, particularly ones from the point-and-click era, have more than their fair share of non-intuitive puzzles like this. You can check out these lists for numerous examples.

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And as escape rooms grow in popularity, more of them seem to be succumbing to less intuitive puzzling as a result of trying to challenge solvers.

For example, in one escape room I tried, various fellow participants uncovered two stars, a picture of the three blind mice, and four different items that represented the seasons. Amidst all the locks to open, puzzles to unravel, and secrets to find, it never occurred to any of us that these three unconnected numbers would have to be assembled as a combination to a lock. By asking for a hint, we were able to figure out to put them together and open the lock, but it’s not a terribly intuitive puzzle.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a puzzle constructor — be it a pen-and-paper puzzle, an escape room scenario, or a puzzle hunt dilemma — is not creating a dynamite, unique puzzle, but ensuring that finding the solution is fair, even if it’s difficult or mind-boggling.

This sort of thinking informs not only my work as a puzzlesmith, but the designs for my roleplaying games as well. If my players encounter a gap, there’s some way across. If there’s a locked door, there’s a way through it. Oftentimes, there’s more than one, because my players frequently come up with a solution that eluded me.

In the end, that’s the point. All puzzles, no matter how difficult, exist for one reason: to be solved. To provide that rush, that a-ha moment, that satisfaction that comes with overcoming the clever, devious creation of another sharp mind.

And non-intuitive puzzles are tantamount to rigging the game.


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A PuzzleNation First Look: Setka

Making a new puzzle is challenging. You have to strike a balance between established solving styles (those that are familiar and effective) and innovative twists, mechanics, and variations, all without making the puzzle too convoluted, too tedious, too easy, or too hard.

In the world of crosswords, some variant success stories include Double Trouble, cryptic crosswords, Brick by Brick, and diagramless. With Sudoku, there are variants like Extreme Sudoku (aka X-Sudoku or Diagonal Sudoku), Samurai Sudoku, and Word Sudoku.

I’m always on the lookout for new puzzles and variations to try out, so when the folks behind Setka contacted me, I was more than happy to try out their puzzle brand and explore their signature attempt to combine Sudoku and clued-puzzle elements.

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In short, Setka puzzles start with a single word. The consonants of that word not only form the answers to the clues, but also provide the letters to place in the accompanying grid.

For example, if the starting word was INFORM, the key letters would be N, F, R, and M. Every clue answer would feature one or more of those letters. The answer words, like the starting word, ignore the vowels. So you could have answers like NeaR, MoRoN, or MaiNFRaMe. (In the case of duplicate letters, like ReRaN, any duplicates are dropped, so the key letters here would be RN.)

And since there are four letters, there would be an accompanying 4×4 grid for you to fill in, where no letter is repeated in any row or column, Sudoku-style.

To place the letters, the clues are numbered, and the relevant cells in the grid are numbered to match. So, for NeaR (let’s say it’s clue 2), there would be two neighboring cells in the grid with a number 2 in them, and you could place the letters as RN or NR. Words that are three letters or above can read backward, forward, or in an L-shape in the grid.

This mechanic separates Setka from other clued or letter-placement puzzles, because you need both the clue answer AND the Sudoku no-repeats rule in order to complete a grid. Without the clue answers, there can be alternate solves where grid letters swap. And without the Sudoku-style placement, it would be virtually impossible to actually place the answer letters into the grid, because there’s more than one way to do so.

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The cluing style alternates between standard crossword-style clues (but usually longer and a little more conversational or trivia-based) and fill-in-the-blank clues. The clues also fit the theme established by the starting word. For instance, the clues above all have to do with kids, which fits the puzzle’s theme word, CHILD.

It takes time to get used to seeking out answer words from the given consonants (since you have to supply any vowels or duplicate consonants missing in order to come up with the correct answer word), but once you’re a few puzzles in, it becomes second nature and a fun component to the solving experience.

Setka puzzles range in size from 4×4 to 7×7, with its signature size being 5×5. Honestly, 5×5 is really where it becomes a proper puzzle. With a 4×4 grid, once you have a few letters placed, it becomes an elementary logic puzzle and you don’t really need the clues.

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[A selection of Setka sizes and themes.]

The puzzle itself is reminiscent of another puzzle we tried late last year — Cluedoku — but Setka’s letter-based theme and smaller grids make for a far more sustainable puzzle going forward, and the mechanic of placing the words in the grid (rather than just individual letters/numbers) adds an intriguing wrinkle to the solve.

All in all, I enjoyed trying out Setka — I solved a half-dozen or so puzzles to get a feel for different sizes and difficulties — and I think they’ve forged an engaging and clever combination of crossword-style cluing and Sudoku-style solving.

You can try Setka for yourself on their website, either playing interactive versions of Setka on the site or printing and solving PDF copies of Setka puzzles. They also offer a subscription where you can receive a Setka puzzle each week along with news and updates.

What do you think of Setka, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.


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