Listen With Others

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Listener No 4576, Striving: A Setter’s Blog by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 3 Nov 2019

I always enjoy it when the Listener grid somehow becomes something else in the endgame, and there have been some lovely examples of it turning into a game board – in particular, I remember Serpent’s “Child’s Play”, which was snakes & ladders, and Rasputin’s “Russian Roulette”, which was chess. With these in mind, I considered other possibilities for games and struck upon Connect Four as being doable. A quick google indicated that it hadn’t been done before.

Initially I thought I might have a central 7×6 group of cells where the game would take place, perhaps with a border around those cells giving instructions as to the game, but relatively soon I realised I could use a full 14×12 grid for the game to take place. I tend to be over-ambitious with these things, so I also had an idea about the four winning discs containing letters spelling out CAPTAIN’S MISTRESS (a new phrase to me, but I liked it), given that there would be 16 letters in both – and, in fact, according to some old notes I’ve unearthed today, I was even thinking about using prime numbers at some stage – an idea that was fortunately jettisoned early on (or perhaps kept for another puzzle with fewer other things happening).

As the plan became clearer, I realised that I wanted to communicate a lot of information to the solver: that this was a game of Connect Four, which columns the discs should be placed in, that solvers had to draw all disc outlines, and that the winning discs should be shaded. I then tried to make a virtue of necessity by thinking up unusual ways for that information to be conveyed, ideally with as little as possible in the preamble (because I didn’t want to give the game away, literally). Having additional words in clues is very common (I’ve done it, one way or another, in all three of my published Listeners to date), but gave an opportunity to use their last letters as well as the first; putting a message spaced out in the grid felt fun and re-emphasised the 42 squares; the gambit of overlapping clues was something I don’t remember seeing before and – even if not particularly thematic – seemed like a nice challenge. In fact, I didn’t have any intention of overlapping them at first, simply planning to use two side-by-side clues, but when I spotted the possibilities of CAPTAIN’S / OVERSEE[r] I thought it was too good a chance to miss. Some were easier than others, and I had all sorts of difficulties getting DISCS / GUNGE to work, but I was pleased with WINNING / ZENNIST. Did I grin slightly at the thought of how this puritanical clue would go down on this site? Possibly… and, as a teetotaller, I was glad to be able to emphasise the beauty of tea in a later clue.

For the actual moves in the game of Captain’s Mistress I started by playing a game against myself, making placements that I genuinely would – albeit with a bit more emphasis on creating rows of three that would then be stopped by the “opponent” – and, while I had to change this around a bit in order to get some clues to work, I’m pleased that I didn’t have to alter too much, meaning that the game itself ended up being fairly realistic – as well as ending on the final possible move. Finishing on column B meant hiding a number of extra words ending in B towards the end, and while this wasn’t too tricky, I did spend some time trying to think up an appropriate word beginning with I and ending with B: eventually, after exhausting what Chambers had to offer, I remembered iMDB (the Internet Movie Database) and incorporated it into what turned out to be one of my favourite clues.

Thanks as always to Roger & Shane for their sterling work in the editing process, which – as always with mine, it seems – involved a lot of shortening clues for space. The most egregious offender might be 23a, a 13-word clue for a 4-letter word, but in my defence it was so I could sneak in a name-check for my twin brother Simon. The other major editing change was the addition of the hint about CMSFWD, which was fair given that I’d not given any hint there at all, and the puzzle was already pretty tough without requiring any full-on cold-solving. I was also glad that the editing team were happy for me to use ‘spare’ instead of the usual ‘extra’ to describe additional words, which was necessary because I couldn’t get EXTRA to work in the grid. Perhaps surprisingly, though, given that a message took up a quarter of the cells in the puzzle, this was the easiest grid-creation I’ve done for any of my Listener submissions (published and unpublished).

Thanks also to Apt, who test-solved the puzzle for me and gave invaluable feedback. As well as helpful points about a number of clues, he noted two of the weaker aspects of the puzzle – a final twist where PIUM was changed to FOUR to intersect with SQUARE (from SQUAME), which he correctly identified as being unnecessary and a bit of a damp squib; and the puzzle’s title, which at the time was Spares & Squares. I must admit that was partially a ruse on my part to back-up my use of ‘spare’ in the preamble, and not really needed. After a while I came up with Striving – IV in STRING, or Four in a Row – which I was much happier with.

Final thanks to John Green, who I’m sure (having had a fascinating conversation with him at the last Listener dinner) won’t mind marking a lot of puzzles with circles drawn over them.


3 Responses to “Listener No 4576, Striving: A Setter’s Blog by Twin”

  1. Steve Tregidgo said

    This was a terrific puzzle, Twin; I was in awe of the construction.

    Can I ask how strict the marking is (assuming you provide the advice to John Green)? I got carried away colouring my discs in yellow and red to mimic Connect-4, which means I’ve shaded them all, not just the winners (which I have highlighted with further shading in the square around each disc). My outlines are at least visible (so it can be inferred I saw that instruction) and my winning discs are shaded… I mean, nothing says not to shade the others, right?

    Hoping you can either put my mind at ease, or put me out of my misery (within some margin of error) so I’m not thinking about it until stats come out in the Spring. (Silly the things that prey on one’s mind…)

    Thanks again. Wonderful puzzle.

  2. Colin Thomas said

    Thanks, Steve, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    I don’t really have any say on the strictness of the marking – I just submitted my expected solution, and I don’t get involved or consulted on any leeway or interpretation. So I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to give you a definitive answer – my guess would be that what you’ve done is OK, given that all outlines are there and the winning discs are clearly identified.
    Colin (Twin)

  3. Steve Tregidgo said

    Thanks for the reply!

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