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Listener No 4459, Shock Treatment: A Setter’s Blog by Serpent

Posted by Listen With Others on 7 August 2017

Off the top of my head, I can no longer remember what inspired me to set a puzzle about baldness. I’m a lazy solver and set puzzles I’d like to solve, so I tend to use themes that don’t require much recourse to reference books (including dictionaries). The basic ideas for Shock Therapy – having some letters leave the grid, having those letters spell out the condition ANDROGENIC ALOPECIA, and replacing the resulting gaps with synonyms of WIG – came pretty much simultaneously. It was convenient that the combined lengths of three obvious wig synonyms was equal to that of the condition.

I decided to use a circular grid with the centre containing the condition and the synonyms, the idea being that the central region would represent a bald spot. Each radial element of the grid would contain two entries, with the outer entry providing an extra letter with which to build the wig synonyms and the inner entry losing the last letter to form the condition. (My original working title was Hub Caps, with the wig synonyms being “caps” for the central hub. I changed the title to Shock Therapy following feedback from my wonderful test-solvers David Thomas and Norman Lusted, who have each solved every barred puzzle I’ve compiled.)

The main obstacle was finding a grid-fill so that (i) replacing the condition with the synonyms would leave real words in the grid, and (ii) the grid didn’t contain too many obscurities. Not surprisingly, given the constraints, even the excellent Qxw software failed to find a grid-fill, and this even after I had relaxed condition (ii) and opted to use the ukacd.txt dictionary instead of my usual custom (and limited) dictionary.

It was at this point that I decided to use jumbles for the answers in each inner radial entry and revert to my usual dictionary. (I convinced myself that using jumbles was reasonable thematically, perhaps indicating “damaged” hair from which bits were breaking off; I leave it for the reader to decide whether I was deluding myself!) I also redesigned the grid to increase the amount of cross-checking (given the additional difficulties the jumbles would cause the solver). Despite the substantial amount of cross-checking, Qxw was able to find a grid-fill easily and it was now a matter of iteratively improving the selection of entries. The solution grid I submitted to the editors is shown on the left.

In time, Roger wrote to me saying he’d solved the puzzle and the idea was fine. However, and it was a big however, the circular grid was a non-starter: unlike many circular grids, the inner rings didn’t share cells with two or more of the radial elements, thus making the cells in the inner rings impossibly small for many solvers to work with. Moreover, the cells in the outer rings were excessively large (and thus wasted precious “real estate”).

Roger made the brilliant suggestion of “unwrapping” the grid, to form a rectangular grid, and inverting it, with the inner and outer radial entries becoming the upper and lower column entries, respectively. This had the effect of the letters of the condition being lost from the “head” of the grid, which was entirely consistent with the theme. Even so, the clues, all 54 of them, needed some judicious trimming in order to fit the puzzle into the space available. Roger’s help and experience was again invaluable.


2 Responses to “Listener No 4459, Shock Treatment: A Setter’s Blog by Serpent”

  1. Gail Busza said

    Thank you for this setter’s blog Serpent. It explains why the across entries overflowed round the grid which had puzzled us!

  2. Encota said

    Crikey Serpent, all becomes much clearer now! Thank you.

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