Listen With Others

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Listener No. 4368, The Name of the Game: A Setter’s Blog by Harribobs

Posted by Listen With Others on 9 November 2015

I first came across the Game of Life (devised by mathematician John Horton Conway) way back in the 1970s and was intrigued by how a simple set of rules could result in such complex evolving patterns. Since the game plays out on a grid, I thought it might make a good subject for my first crossword.

I was originally hoping to construct a scenario which would exhibit the evolutionary nature of the game, but soon decided that the working-out of successive generations would be too laborious for the solver without access to simulation software (although the vetters later informed me that another setter had achieved it on a crossword website a few years ago). So, I settled on simply using the game’s rules to create the word LIFE after one generation. The block letters fitted nicely in the grid and looked well, having no diagonals or curves.

Finding a set of cells which would create LIFE after one generation proved a little troublesome. It’s straightforward to compute the next generation of cells, but trickier to go back a generation. I tried several formations, using a simulator to move them forward, but for a long time the results were just a fraction out — a tweak to fill a gap in one place and an extraneous cell would pop up somewhere else. It took a few days to get the desired layout.

To fill the grid, I concentrated first on the words that were to contain the letters L,I,F,E, splitting some of the bigger blocks with a bar. The initial grid had lots of smaller words, and I moved and deleted bars until word lengths were more acceptable. A word list stripped of L,I,F,E was used to automatically fill some of the lower part of the grid, although it was handy to allow the odd solitary E and I which would be killed off according to the game’s rules. Despite all efforts, the final grid still had three 5-letter words with two unchecked letters, but the vetters generously let them through.

Clues were a bit of a disaster! Since the wordplay results included an extra letter, nearly two thirds of clues were initially rejected because of a Listener house rule — “If the results of wordplay and definition don’t match exactly then link words implying equivalence are not allowed”. So, no “from”, “in”, “becomes”, “makes”, “is”, “gets”, etc. In most cases, the link word couldn’t simply be deleted and the clue had to be rewritten, which took a while. (It would be helpful to us beginners to have any house rules included on the Notes for Setters page!)

The inclusion of the rules of the game in the preamble is an immediate giveaway to anyone already familiar with the Game of Life, and it might have been better to leave solvers to look up the rules themselves, having spotted the creator’s name in the grid. In the end it was considered safer to include them because the Listener’s standard works reference neither the game nor the author, and there might still be one or two solvers in the sticks without access to the internet.

Although the puzzle doesn’t show off the surprising ‘living’ forms which can evolve in the Game of Life, I hope it prompts solvers to investigate the game for themselves.

Peter Harrison

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