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Listener No 4452, Bobs: A Setter’s Blog by Nud[d]

Posted by Listen With Others on 18 June 2017

Well I was asked by Shirley to write a blog on this puzzle, and was more than happy to agree – but now I come to tackle it, there’s not much to say really.

It’s actually a puzzle I created about four years ago in the days when I was a bit more productive. I obviously had more time on my hands in those days too as the idea came from one of those occasions when I sat idly flipping through my Chambers and happened across a word I had not encountered before. As soon as I saw it, it stood out as a potential subject for a simple and traditional puzzle with no need for internet trawls, secret messages, encoding etc. so I thought it might just make a nice change.

So much for the idea – putting it into a grid was a little trickier. Once I’d chosen where to place the word itself to kick things off (that act causing constraints from the outset), everything else had to be a modified entry. That meant essentially no real words, so no opportunity for using any kind of grid-filling software to do some of the donkey work. I did start things off by compiling a longish list of modified candidates and let Crossword Compiler (“other packages are available”) come up with a few suggestions for partial grid-fills using those, but never got particularly close using that method. And the really tricky bit was always going to be finding ‘words’ to fill the remaining gaps.

I picked at it for quite some time, getting very close but not quite there with a pretty enough grid. In the end I decided to ask for a leg-up, and sent copies of my closest efforts to Chalicea and Shark both of whom had a go and came up with suggestions for getting round the odd stumbling block. I ended up incorporating a tweak or two from each of them and was then able, with a bit more faffing, to come up with a completed grid which worked. My thanks to both of them – and to Artix for the test solve.

It was nice to be able to clue a puzzle without needing to think about a clue gimmick, and I came up with what I thought was a good set. What I had failed to anticipate was the space problem I had created: Whilst the average answer length was a healthy 6.5 letters, the omissions left a much shorter entry length of about 5.3 which of course resulted in a larger than ideal number of grid entries. The consequence was a first pass overhaul from Roger to shorten a number of clues, accompanied by a request that I continue the process to keep as many clues as possible to single line entities. All that accomplished, the resultant set of clues was much punchier than my original version, and probably none the worse for the abridgement.

That’s about it really – except to offer the usual thank you to Shane & Roger for accepting my offering and of course to John Green for his sterling work. I always feel guilty for including non-words in a grid as it must make the checking so much more demanding, so this time around please accept my extra profuse apology John. Anyway, having just received the bundle of comments from the aforementioned, I’m pleased to hear that there seems to have been something in the puzzle to suit just about everyone.

As a little extra, I know Shirley will be off unearthing a couple of hares in the grid – I wonder if she also spotted the setter’s name nestling at the foot of that central column? Now there’s an idea for future Curran commentaries!

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Listener No 4451, Numerical Playfair: A Setter’s Blog by Zag

Posted by Listen With Others on 11 June 2017

I enjoy solving both ordinary and numerical puzzles but tend to focus on numerical setting. Sometimes the devices employed in normal crosswords suggest a parallel numerical treatment and I’ll earmark that for a future puzzle. The Playfair puzzle idea arose from my earlier addiction to AZED. When his Playfair puzzles appeared I always approached them with a certain amount of trepidation but I did recognise the numerical potential of the idea. For a long time I never took it any further, possibly because of my mixed feelings about the format. I then had a spell when I produced a series of puzzles involving different aspects of coding and decided that the time had come to overcome my doubts and tackle a Playfair based challenge.

As those of you who are familiar with my puzzles know, I like small grids, using number palettes that are readily available in tables and requiring only a calculator to achieve the solution. Sometimes the theme may force a departure from the ideal, but that is always the aim. The compactness means there are only a limited number of clues and so the challenge is to find a suitable start that supports the theme without being too obvious.

AZED’s application of Playfair usually limited it to the 6-letter entries present in the grid (it only works with an even number of letters to encode). The natural numerical equivalent would be 2-digit or 4-digit numerical entries and with my desire to avoid larger numbers I chose to use 2-digit entries. With 10 digits, the equivalent to the 5×5 Playfair letter square is a 3×3 Playfair code square which could then operate in exactly the same way. Whereas I/J are often used to do double duty in a normal Playfair there is no obvious double digit combination. The simplest option, which I adopted, is using the digits 1-9.

A traditional approach would have been to create a grid fill establishing some of the 2-digit entries. Then, comparing these entries with the corresponding clue answers, the code square could be derived and any outstanding 2-digit entries encoded. That was my original plan until, when considering a starting logic for the puzzle, I came up with the idea of using a 2-digit Playfair code number as one of the entries. The nature of the code square means that the encoded entry corresponding to its 2-digit code number can only end in 1, 2 or 3. With a crosschecking clue requiring that digit to be the last digit of a square it could only be 1 and the puzzle was underway. Always gratifying to find a neat way of starting a puzzle.

Another intriguing possibility was to use some aspects of the code square as part of the puzzle. I thought it would enhance the Playfair theme, complementing the use of the code number starting point; hence the appearance of a row and a column of the code square in the grid. There was a danger such additional content could prematurely reveal too much about the code square so it was crucial to be careful how much information I gave away at each stage in the solution path.

With so much of the code square targeted for the grid, I felt the puzzle was best served by only having a small amount of additional structure. I aimed for a compact grid, one with possibly no more than 25 squares. I wanted a balance of about a quarter to a third of the entries being 2-digit and the rest 3-digit. The starting logic provided an L shaped section which naturally could occupy the bottom right part of the grid and, through symmetry, the top left. Experimenting produced the final grid.

The code square row and column that were to be present in the grid should not be discovered too early, nor should they interlink as that gives away too much information. This dictated that the left side of the puzzle should include these two elements since the right hand side provided the logical starting point for entries and progress would be made from there. The finish would be the top left hand corner and to keep options open to the end probably meant that 1d was not the best location for the code row or column. That left 4a&8a as the locations for these entries.

From there, it was a case of playing around with the armoury of numerical tools to allow a gradual development of the solution and progressive determination of the code square. From the start I had hoped this puzzle would be suitable for the Listener and so aimed for an appropriate level of difficulty, hopefully about the average for a numerical whilst offering satisfaction to the solver. Hopefully the challenge will have demonstrated that a Playfair puzzle need not be as intimidating as I and many others had found them to be in the past.

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Listener No 4449, Whoppers: A Setter’s Blog by Nutmeg

Posted by Listen With Others on 28 May 2017

As usual I have no clear recollection of where the idea for this puzzle came from. Possibly it was some mention of the expression ‘the one that got away’ that suggested this treatment of a fishy theme. The first step was to produce a list of possible grid entries from which a fish could be removed to leave a real word. Unfortunately this turned out to be fairly limited, given no duplication of fish. However, I ended up with a list of alternatives that looked quite promising, so the next stage was the grid. Ximenes in his Art of the Crossword covers this and makes it sound easy, but it isn’t — at least to me — so I usually try to tweak a grid I’ve used before, as was the case this time.

Grid filling was relatively straightforward, then it was a question of cluing, which thematically had to be ‘the one that got away’, ie. a letter to be removed before solving. This is a doctoring method that I don’t find easy, but ever since the late lamented Radix commented (on someone else’s puzzle) that the cluing method should, whenever possible, relate to the theme I’ve tried to stick to it, as it seems eminently sensible and adds to the thematic element of the puzzle.

Then to finding a suitable quotation to provide the user with a clue to the theme. I know it’s common to use a quote that’s considerably shorter than the number of clues and simply say ‘some clues contain an extra letter…’ but to me as a setter that’s unsatisfactory – it has to be all clues, or there needs to be some reason for the selection of doctored clues, or at least some balance or equality between different clue types. (I’d like to be clear that this is a rule I set for myself, I’m not expecting others to agree, and I know some solvers like the added fun of spotting the doctored clues). That left me with two possibilities, of which a shorter quote, leaving clues for short grid entries undoctored, was preferable. I had some slight wriggle room, as RAID, which I’d have preferred to clue as is, could also be thematic, as RA + ID if necessary – which it was. ODQ was unhelpful, so I resorted to Google and eventually came up with the one I used, which though unknown to me seemed to fit very nicely once I realised that I could omit the final word FISH and get away with it, thus reaching the required number of letters.

That left the title, and it took some time to find one that didn’t immediately give the game away, such as ‘The one that got away’ which I’d been using. I was quite pleased to hit on Whoppers, the whopper being both the lie and the usual description of the elusive fish.


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Listener No 4448, Get Me Out of Here!: A Setter’s Blog by Nemo

Posted by Listen With Others on 24 May 2017

A few years ago, I was thinking about setting a Hallowe’en puzzle, and I suspect that Aramis’ excellent (and difficult!) Tetris puzzle (No 4297) was in the back of my mind. I came up with the idea of a tribute to The Cask of Amontillado in the form of a brick wall. I had not read the story in ages and could only remember the general plot. Upon revisiting the work, I was delighted to find that the main characters, Montresor and Fortunato, had the same number of letters in their names (symmetry!). The quotations immediately leapt out, as well, but I couldn’t get them to work, unless…. Once it occurred to me that removing NEMO could lead to an intersection of MONTRESOR and ME in the NW corner, the title became a no-brainer. I could also attach IN PACE REQUIESCAT to FORTUNATO in the SE corner, and the overall structure fell into place. I knew that I needed rows, as well as paths, to provide the solver with some sort of reliable foothold. I would note that, as in the story, the grid/wall is eleven rows high (mostly as a result of name lengths and luck, but for which I’ll take full credit as a stickler for detail).

I reckoned that, in addition to the characters’ names, quotations and structure, including both the title and the author in some form would make for a thematically comprehensive puzzle. Setting EDGAR ALLAN POE across the centre of the grid was easy enough. The first serious obstacle was placing the title. I knew that I wanted it to run from NW to SE (there wasn’t enough room for it to work vertically, and I thought that any sort of horizontal placement would give away the game too quickly) – it was long, but not quite long enough to wind elegantly along a reasonably straight, diagonal line from corner to corner. Plus, there was the problem of finding a suitable point to cross Poe’s name. Further, anticipating that the grid fill would be meandering and a bit of a mess anyway, I didn’t want the title’s appearance to be too clumsy; it needed to have some sort of reasonable flow. Since, without bars, the construction was largely fluid at that point, I ultimately decided to end the title in cell 6 and work my way to the top from there. The idea of “working up” was important to me, to give the sense of building the wall like Montresor did, and I numbered and lettered the clues accordingly. Again, to avoid the appearance of a haphazard structure, I arranged the starting points for the “path” entries to be generally symmetrical around a central, vertical axis.

One final point on structure: I initially had in mind that there would be a single, central brick to be filled in, to suggest Montresor’s final sealing of Fortunato’s fate. So, in the initial draft, E A POE would appear across the centre, absent the central P. My test-solver (to whom I am very grateful) suggested that I make better and fuller use of the grid and block out alternating letters of the entire name. I took his advice, of course, but, in doing so, my original web of interweaving words fell apart and I was left with a mostly vacant grid, with some thematic guideposts. Not having the strength to recompose the entire puzzle at that time, I put it aside for about a year.

When I picked up the puzzle again, my test-solver’s sage advice had stuck with me – I should try to enhance the grid as much as I could, perhaps not as a prerequisite for a correct solution, but in case anyone might be paying attention. So, in keeping with the story, I decided to make Row A about the bones (CRANIA and SCAPULAE) scattered along the floor of the crypt. I also saw in ROMAN A CLEF an opportunity to attach a “manacle” to Fortunato (technically, he was chained around the waist, but the story had already been so cooperative with my design that I took a liberty).

I next decided to be even more ambitious and include a number of thematic clues and answers. I started with a list of words that I considered essential (I wish I could have worked in “flambeaux” or “carnival”), and others occurred to me as I constructed the grid. Several of the answers are directly mentioned in or related to the story (ROQUELAURE (spelled “roquelaire” by Poe), RALE, LEAGUER (a type of cask, though not clued that way), MOTLEY, SMOTHERS, IMMURE and CRYPT) and others are thematically suggestive (CRIANT (motley), ICER (murderer), CRUET (a wine container), CELLA and NAOS (both inner chambers), PARIETAL (see further below), and A QUATT’ROCCHI (an Italian tete-a-tete and a gift of a word for this puzzle). Three clues (B1, 11 and 13) are directly suggestive of the story, and several others are related to alcohol or drinking (3, 7, 22, 32 and 33).

(A quick aside: based on feedback from the internet discussion groups, clue 33 (PARIETAL) seems to have been somewhat controversial; for the record, I consider it to be essential – a clue based on a definition of “wally” was my first idea once the structure was settled, and clue 33 was one of few clues to have been included in each draft of the puzzle (with a few tweaks during the vetting stage).)

With these various self-imposed constraints, I now had to go through the (somewhat painful) process of setting my thematic words and otherwise filling in the gaps. I was ever mindful of providing ample checking and avoiding any possibility of an ambiguous solution. (I don’t remember the exact number, but after completing the grid and taking into account the title, quotations, etc., there are remarkably few unchecked cells.) I tackled the grid in clusters – ROQUELAURE/A QUATT’ROCCHI had to be built around each other, as did IMMURE/GUMSHOE and CRYPT/PYRETHRUM. Navigating the central barred-off cells was particularly tricky. In order to meet word length and space constraints, I needed to maximize the “work” that each clue and entry could provide; words like COAL-PORTER, MOONSCAPES, PYRETHRUM and ODALIQUE were particularly useful.

I appreciate the comments of certain solvers who found the method of entry to be a bit of a slog; I am not sure that I could reasonably have expected otherwise, given the occasional tedium of setting the puzzle. The dots (which were not my original idea) were meant to be helpful.

My ultimate goal was to prompt interested solvers to (re)visit the original work and, in so doing, perhaps recognize and enjoy some of the “Easter eggs” scattered throughout the puzzle and clues. Based on the solvers’ blogs and other internet feedback, it appears that several solvers took the journey and found the results not too unpleasant, which pleases me immensely and for which I am grateful.


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Listener No 4445, Strange Requests: A Setter’s Blog by eXternal

Posted by Listen With Others on 30 April 2017

I first heard about Fool’s Errands about ten years ago. Most of my jobs have been within manufacturing companies and I am used to working with engineers and storemen. I was having a bit of banter with one of the guys in the workshop who was reminiscing about his previous foreman sending a greenhorn off to the stores to ask for a ‘long weight’. I didn’t really see anything odd in this, as I thought there must be weights that are long. But he then told me that the storeman told the apprentice to sit down while he fetched it. Of course, he just went and read the paper and came back about ten minutes later to send the apprentice back empty-handed. That’s when I got the joke and I found it quite heartwarming to be able to share an enjoyment of what is effectively wordplay with a potty-mouthed bloke from the Isle of Sheppey. Fortunately, I was never sent on any such errands, I am sure I would naively have fallen for them. I think it’s a bit of harmless fun, but I guess you might get in trouble for doing something like that in some companies nowadays.

I hadn’t even contemplated setting crosswords at that time, so it never occurred to me that it would be a good idea for a thematic puzzle. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I was fondly remembering that job that it suddenly dawned on me to use the idea. I remembered being told about a few other items to be retrieved and did an internet search to see if I could find a list. There was quite a lot of information, once I had found out that the prank is called a Fool’s Errand.

Most of the items are made of two parts, usually an adjective used with an engineering item. It seemed a nice idea to clue one part and have the other part for entry. In this way, I could probably incorporate quite a few examples into the puzzle. It was also good that we have so many words for fool in the language. I looked up fool in Bradford’s and the Companion and realised that many of the words could be used in longer words. I used QAT to check whether any could be taken from longer words and still leave real words, as I liked the idea of the fools being sent off to retrieve the items and thought this would be a good way to represent it. There were a good many I could use, so I picked some nice looking ones such as fiSHMOnger and CLOThears. I decided to use some of the more obvious items such as stripy/tartan paint and long weight, as some solvers might recognise them. Brewer’s describes the prank under the entry for elbow grease, so that was also going to be in the grid as one way for solvers to check the theme.

I think many people get irritated by grid-staring and word searches, so I determined to make the endgame quite easy by using the lead diagonal to hide an item to be highlighted. Making a grid was fairly simple, as this wasn’t a particularly complex puzzle. I found I could fit in 6 words with fools disappearing and 6 items, which seemed a good number to explore the theme. I was a little worried that the puzzle could be solved without understanding the theme, although test-solvers assured me that was unlikely. Some people commented that I might have written the puzzle with April Fool’s Day in mind. However,  I submitted it in June 2015, not realising that April 1 2017 was to be on a Saturday.

By the time of the Listener bash in Gateshead this year, the puzzle had been scheduled for 8th April. I had wondered why it wasn’t given the April 1st slot, but a conversation in the pub before the dinner with barred puzzle guru, database custodian and blogger, Dave Hennings, set things straight. He told me that puzzle 4444 was coming up on April 1st and he would be willing to bet good money on Kea being in that slot with a special puzzle. Of course, it turns out he was totally wrong and that I should have relieved him of his money.

The notes and letters from solvers passed on by John Green were mainly positive. I had a few people recounting tales of similar pranks that they had witnessed or been part of, which was quite amusing. I do accept the criticism from one solver that the 3-letter entries were effectively underchecked and I could have made them into 4-letter entries. Thanks to everyone for their comments.

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