Listen With Others

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Listener No 4586, Square Deal?: A Setter’s Blog by Tiburon

Posted by Listen With Others on 12 Jan 2020

I find the toughest part about compiling to be coming up with a suitable theme. I envy those who tell me they have long lists of potential puzzle ideas and not enough time to implement them. Perhaps having more time on my hands will help the creative juices to flow…

I had long had the idea for a puzzle based on the standard Tangram pieces. A search of the Crossword Database (thanks to our host!) confirmed my suspicion that this ancient Chinese game had not featured in the Listener (the one previous outing had been a Pieman puzzle in Magpie in 2005). I liked the idea of requiring solvers to dissect the grid and rearrange it into something thematically appropriate. I can’t really remember when the idea of a Christmas tree finale came to me, but I felt it would be nice to aim for a festively themed puzzle (at the time, I had not yet tested Pointer’s puzzle!) for a change. I found a suitable Tangram tree online and set to designing the puzzle.

My first problem was how to give solvers the necessary instructions to cut up the grid and to reassemble it correctly. I thought of presenting dots at the intersections of the Tangram shapes in the blank grid, but that felt like a cop out. Maybe I could devise some gimmick to lead solvers to place such dots, but that felt quite convoluted. I then noticed that most of the ‘cuts’ would be diagonal and thought of using two-letter cells to be divided by appropriately oriented diagonal lines to give solvers guides to the lines to be cut, but I suspected that would end up with a very complex grid fill and the cut between the parallelogram and the small triangle could not be indicated this way as it ran along gridlines. This is when I came up with the idea of matching letters to enable the reassembly and having those letters identified by being omitted from wordplay. The pesky ‘trunk’/‘pot’ didn’t align perfectly with the rest of the tree, which forced the slight exception to the instructions. I found that judicious placement of these ‘key’ letters provided very little optionality with the cuts, so I could now proceed to producing a grid.

I had already decided to give hints to the final submission by delivering TANGRAM from the clues. I then thought of the carol O Christmas Tree (possibly a subliminal nudge from the Pointer puzzle?) and decided to deliver the original German title O Tannenbaum for further slight misdirection. I then decided to give a seasonal message in the assembled ‘tree’ as a final flourish. The slightly less British MERRY was forced by giving easier letters than HAPPY to accommodate in the grid.

The grid fill was still quite tricky, given the constraints I had set myself (particularly the fully checked two-letter cells), but after half a dozen or so attempts, I was satisfied with a grid that had some interesting words to clue. I tried hard, but was unable to remove the slight flaw of two entries each needing to contain two unindicated letters.

The really enjoyable part was cluing the puzzle. The clue gimmicks I had decided upon left four normal clues, so I decided to use them to ‘bracket’ each of the three words delivered by misprints. Over the course of about two weeks (I was still working) I completed my first draft set of clues. I was delighted to spot some serendipitous misprints such as “finally accepted” and “food like savarin”, but struggled with others (eg, OCTET and AULIC). I spent a further week trying to polish these before having the puzzle test-solved. Then it was off to Roger after a few more tweaks and he agreed to publishing two festive puzzles in the run-up to Christmas. I also have him to thank for the title and the solution artwork.

I did have qualms about how fiddly the task would be for some and the difficulties it might pose for our inimitable checker John Green. In the end I hoped that the final pay-off would outweigh the inconvenience. Feedback I have received suggests it just about did.


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