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Listener No 4604, Tour de Force: A Setter’s Blog by Kea

Posted by Listen With Others on 17 May 2020

In 2019 I had an idea for a circular puzzle to celebrate an anniversary. I developed the theme and got as far as a grid I was happy with — then I learnt that someone else had already submitted a puzzle to the Listener pipeline marking the same anniversary, so I had no real option but to abandon mine. However, having got into the circular grid mindset, I felt like doing another one. From somewhere, the idea of a centrifuge spinning the “heavier” letters to the outer rings arrived, and it felt natural for the less common letters to be the “heavy” ones, correlating with their values in Scrabble.

For the sake of elegance, I wanted to construct a “classic” circular grid with 36 radials, in 9 groups of 4. All radial entries and ring numbering would have to go from the centre outwards, to fit the theme. Then an explanatory message would go in one of the three outer unchecked rings. In ring 6 the message’s 1-point letters would force many of the radials to have no “heavy” letters and thus to be entered normally; conversely, any heavy letters in ring 4 would make their radials hard to fill (needing even heavier letters in the outer rings); so ring 5 was the only practical place for the message. I took some time to ensure the 36-letter message was as clear as possible while containing a decent number of letters worth more than one point, as having many one-pointers would make entry of their radials too samey, with just one heavy letter (if any) moved to the outer ring.

Filling the grid took a long time. I decided to have something in the innermost ring, to prevent having too many repeated letters there (as often happens in a circular grid), and to give solvers a bit more help — but it could consist of one-point letters only. With the theme uniquely determining the entry form for each radial answer, I used spreadsheet formulas to make sure I didn’t slip up there. Once I had a complete grid I began worrying that it was too much to ask solvers to have to divine the message in ring 5 when (until the theme was understood) the outer three letters of each radial could be in any order, so I resolved to add some clued ring entries. They couldn’t realistically be in ring 6 (consisting of “heavy” letters only), and they had to be clockwise like the other rings, because the centrifuge should rotate in only one direction. Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to tweak the grid to get some words of reasonable length in ring 4, though sadly they weren’t symmetrically arranged.

Finally, writing the clues without gimmicks was a joy, a relief from the many hours I spend checking and editing other people’s! My working title had been the rather uninspired Forced, but halfway through the clue-writing I thought of Tour de Force, using the French tour = “revolution”, at which point I felt the theme had come together nicely (though I did consider changing the title out of modesty). I sent the finished puzzle to my co-editor Shane, who alerted me to the potential ambiguity of YOELLE or JOELLE in radial 23. I hadn’t bothered to look for YOELLE, as it wasn’t in the Chambers first names appendix, while JOELLE was, but an Internet search confirmed it did exist as another spelling of the same name. I’m grateful to Shane for suggesting mentioning the pangram in the preamble, so that only JOELLE could be right.

Scheduling the puzzle on 25 April was purely coincidental, not a deliberate echo of my Anzac Day puzzle in 1998, Listener 3459.


One Response to “Listener No 4604, Tour de Force: A Setter’s Blog by Kea”

  1. Alan B said

    I was very interested in reading your comments. This is my seventh Listener, at least in modern times (I did a few when the Listener was a magazine), and this one gripped me the most and held my attention the longest. I nearly always get at least as much satisfaction from solving the clues as I do from resolving the theme, and that was true with this one. I noted that Joelle was in the list of first names in Chambers. I failed to solve four clues, but I should have got them, and I particularly appreciated the quality and pitch of the clues throughout.
    I’m glad you were able to control the centrifuge so well that the weighted Scrabble tiles deployed themselves in exactly the order you prescribed! Having the skill to stop it at the right time to catch the lower-value tiles part way on their inexorable, tangential route towards the wall deserves praise!
    I got great satisfaction from manipulating the grid contents and checking my solution against the criteria. I’m glad the idea came to you for such an original concept and design.

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