On checks in crosswords


A nuanced take on the Sunday #nytxw without having read anyone else’s: One of my favorite things to learn about puzzle construction is how important multiple checks are to the solving process. Crossers, spelling rules, and wordplay idioms augment trivia and world knowledge.

Meta puzzle mechanics can be great! xwords have a library of canonical meta mechanics, with canonical expectations. When a puzzle is missing letters, the visible parts are often words on their own, and the missing parts follow a simple pattern (eg always the same).

“A Shot in the Dark” is a missing letters puzzle. The pattern of missing letters is clever enough once solved, but does little to clue another part of the puzzle until you’ve got it. Each missing bit crosses, and plays with “shot,” but otherwise does not repeat.

The remaining parts of the interrupted words are not always words themselves, and the second parts are trick-clued. The meta discovery is late in the game and involves many nearby squares because the trick words cross, making the easy regular words harder.

Non-words on the board can be useful clues! Some of my favorite solving moments have been like, “Hmm, this really should be WXYZ but there’s only room for WXY… ohhhh…” WXY being a dictionary word would be a flourish, but not the source of revelation.

“Shot” is pretty to look at once it’s done! That sounds like a criticism—builders too proud of the solution to think of the solving process—but symmetries and clever re-use of parts help solvers too. I’m not sure I can call this one unfair, just difficult.

There is something to be said for a puzzle feeling unfair during the solve, and that seems like a super blurry line for xwords, not to mention relative to the highly variable skill and interest of a given solver.

If a puzzle doesn’t click for a given solver by the time their own rope runs out, whatever its length, it can feel like a deprivation. I’m a novice solver and am not particularly interested in spending more than an hour on a puzzle. I appreciate the checking tools!

My own experience with “Shot” is probably not interesting, but I did finish the thing in two sessions. I wasn’t able to outrun the meta but I came close! A couple of obnoxious crossers but not a lot of disagreement in the end.

Try for yourself: nytimes.com/crosswords/gam…

(Originally posted to Twitter on May 17, 2021. It received 6 likes.)