That Puzzle Guy's Blog Striving to end the War on Fill

1Feb/13Off

Fixing the Mystery Hunt

At long last, my traditionally late MIT Mystery Hunt wrap-up is here. Continue after the jump for triumphs, failures, and frustrations. Sadly, there were far more of the latter this year, and I wasn't alone.

30May/12Off

Qualifying statements

A few weeks ago, Team Snout staged qualifying for their upcoming WarTron game. Held in Portland at the beginning of August, WarTron is another overnight puzzle hunt, or, as it's simply known around Stanford, The Game. Previous incarnations have included WHO, Ghost Patrol, and Doctor When. Though I playtested that last one, I didn't get to play any of these in earnest for various reasons, so I was eager to get a chance here. My usual team decided not to do this one, but I was fortunate enough to be asked to join Do Not Bounce, a team based in Portland and Seattle. We all were at the ready at noon on May 20th, hoping to tear through the qualifying puzzles and gain a spot in the game.

Things were going very well for a while. I got a nice charge out of discovering a message hidden in a quiz using Braille. We were feeling confident as we progressed to a simple WarGames-like interface. We probed around the system, trying to interpret the responses to our various commands. Then disaster struck.

Suddenly, the system was responding very slowly to our input, and then not at all. Game Control had suffered a massive server crash as a result of all the demand. It wasn't as simple as a quick restart; the website was down for hours. GC had no choice but to revert to an alternative system that was far less efficient: answering teams' input through email. This was frustrating, to say the least. We'd been told that qualification should last about three hours; it was now going to be much longer. This was a problem for me in particular, as I had plans at 4 PM. I wasn't willing to be a bad friend by breaking those plans, so I had to abandon my team.

By the time I got back (a bus breakdown delayed me further; thanks, SF Muni!), a scant few of the twenty spots remained. I wasn't clear on what my team was doing, but I got fed a cryptogram, which I solved virtually immediately by plugging a promising-looking word into a grep search and using my Excel/VBA-based cryptogram editing tool to finish it quickly. From that, we learned we had to use an application to read hidden text in some pictures. Since I didn't know what was going on, I waited anxiously while my teammates performed the last task.

We were too late. We finished 22nd. I was, er, not happy. I truly felt we'd been hosed. Yes, the server situation affected everyone similarly, but how many teams were a man short as a result of the lengthened event? I could have saved my team a half-hour if that cryptogram had come up when it should have. Plus, the non-automated email system certainly led to some unpredictability in terms of when teams got their replies and were able to proceed, and we didn't miss the top twenty by much. I wasn't mad at GC; though they perhaps should have tested their system with far more rigor, they did their best in a tough situation. I just found it hard not to be extremely annoyed at our misfortune.

Thankfully, the story has a happy ending, at least for our team. Because the limiting factor in WarTron attendance is number of people and not number of teams, Team Snout was able to admit the first few groups off the waiting list. I do feel for the remaining teams even though their times were a few hours behind the rest of us; I don't know what would have happened if there hadn't been technical frustrations.

It got me thinking about the best way to admit teams to The Game. Even ignoring the technical issues, is a live, timed puzzle hunt the best way to decide who gets in? I can think of a couple flaws. For one, teams who are free on the weekend of the real game but unavailable on the day of the qualification might feel slighted. For another, rewarding only puzzle-solving ability leads to the strongest squads getting in at the expense of less experienced ones, creating a sort of "the rich get richer" situation. Then again, admitting the best puzzle solvers gives you more license to make your game more innovative and difficult.

An alternative, which was used for Ghost Patrol, is a creative challenge that teams must submit by a certain date, and the owners of the best entries are invited to play. This removes the pressure of having to be present for a live qualifying event, but has its own problems. Chief among these is the subjectivity involved; it can be hard or impossible to elucidate why one submission was judged to be more worthy than another. A rejected team might disagree with Game Control's assessment and feel they were excluded for personal reasons, be they game-related or otherwise. That's not a very healthy situation.

Then, there's simply opening sign-ups at a certain time, and players get in on a first-come-first-served basis. In a game with high demand, though, this has an even more extreme version of the problem with the live qualifying. Plus, it's not a satisfying experience for either GC or the players; there's no whetting of the appetite.

Personally, I favor a hybrid. Give teams a short "pre-game" that's puzzle-based and can be completed at any time before the due date. While the bulk of this would have a defined final answer, there could also be a creative challenge used as a sort of tiebreaker. If a team running the game doesn't want that subjectivity, maybe they could include an optimization puzzle, which has many solutions along with a scoring mechanism that makes some answers better than others.

All of these plans, though, make an assumption: Why should the number of teams be limited? Can't a game's organizers resolve to accommodate all the teams who wish to play? It's very easy to feel this way, particularly while feeling the sting of being excluded from a game. It's certainly how I felt when my team wasn't chosen for Ghost Patrol. In an ideal world, of course, every group running a game would welcome everyone. But in a long game with high production values, not putting a cap on the number of participants is asking for trouble. Having to run the game multiple times would likely force sacrifices in it.

What do you think? What's the best way to decide who gets to play in a game with limited room?

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20Apr/12Off

The War on Fill

We're coming up on the hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle, and it's amazing how it's changed in that time. These changes are largely seen as positive steps towards enhancing the enjoyment of crosswords in modern times. If two-letter words hadn't been banned, we'd likely be sick to death of closed-off corners and many, many bigrams that would appear therein. Rotational symmetry lends a welcome aesthetic quality to the puzzle. The list goes on. To an extent, we should expect this evolution to continue. However, I've noticed a trend in some of today's puzzles that I believe is detrimental to the fun of crosswords and the art of their construction. In keeping with the manufactured outrage displayed on 24-hour news channels, I've dubbed it the War on Fill.

The "fill" simply refers to the words in the grid, typically excluding theme answers unless it's one of those themes that applies to the entire puzzle. Because it's at least the vast majority of the answers in a crossword, the bulk of the solving time is spent on them. Without the fill, simply put, you don't have a crossword.

I understand that a theme is the most memorable part of a puzzle and frequently provides the biggest aha moment. I agree that it needs to be good to consider the puzzle good. But the fill, being a more pervasive element, can impact your solving experience a lot more. You can mentally shove aside a weak theme and focus on everything else, but there's no getting around writing in all those shorter answers.

Thus, I hold that the fill is the most important part of a quality crossword. So I must ask: Why does good fill seem to be decreasingly prioritized in today's puzzles?

All regular solvers have seen their share of unsavory fill. The cheap partials (OF IT, IN NO, etc.), the abbreviations nobody ever uses in real life, the tired crosswordese, the boring obscurities. Some are merely little warts that can actually be very easy to figure out, while others can frustratingly keep the solver from full success. Naturally, some of these poorer entries are inevitable; the rules of American-style crossword construction are challenging and sometimes require concessions. (This is another reason some prefer cryptic crosswords, in which only about half of the letters need be crossed.) Plus, one's mileage may vary with so-called obscurities. ("How can it be obscure? I know it!") Even taking these factors into account, the fill in some recent puzzles has been, in my view, lackluster.

I don't mean to suggest that every puzzle I've ever made has been resplendent, nor that fill standards are gone completely, but I do think they've eroded quite a bit. It's possible that I, as an inveterate solver and occasional constructor, have become overly sensitive to this matter. I find it hard to believe, however, that the solver wouldn't enjoy the experience more if some of the junk were replaced, even if it were with ordinary, everyday words that aren't particularly peppy. You can always bring the liveliness in the clues.

Is it laziness? It does feel that way sometimes; on occasion, a corner seems so blatantly refillable with superior entries that one has to wonder why the constructor settled for his/her version. Even so, I don't think indolence is a fair charge to throw around; there's no real evidence to suggest it. (If you ARE a lazy constructor, though: Stop it. Stop it right now. Try harder.)

I believe the War on Fill is, at least in part, the result of how the crossword-solving community has evolved. Nowadays, several puzzles a day are available with just a few mouse clicks, and, through the blogosphere, solvers and constructors alike are deluged with opinions about all of them. All this content drives up the pressure on puzzlemakers to create something innovative. When you've seen your hundredth add-a-letter theme, it feels, and very likely is, less desirable for constructors to make and for editors to accept. Plus, it's natural to want to knock a tough crowd's socks off with something new.

As I implied above, people don't really remember a puzzle solely based on its fill words. The fill might be appreciated and enjoyed, but it's not what gets Puzzle of the Year nominations. An ingenious theme gets far more attention, and it's the starting point for making a crossword, so trying to make that stand out makes sense. I certainly sympathize; struggling to come up with good themes is a big reason why I haven't been constructing too much lately. The catch with themes, however, is that they still have to be molded to fit the crossword, and it can be very difficult to let go of a good one, no matter how it resists a smooth execution. This can lead to some strained shoehorning in the form of weaker fill.

It was a highly regarded member of the crossword community who said, "It used to be that if a theme didn't work, you wouldn't do it." It is very easy to slacken one's grid standards if one feels the theme is worth it. In my view, though, it usually isn't worth it. I've seen some themes that are, make no mistake, utterly brilliant, but the concessions made in the fill kept me from enjoying the puzzle. You might disagree and suggest that this is my problem, and I see your point. Obviously, I'm stating my opinion here. In the end, though, we're solving the crossword because we enjoy crosswords, and thoughts like "That's a thing?" and "Well, I guess that's right" lessen the joy of solving, no matter what genius lies in the theme.

I have even stronger opinions when it comes to themeless puzzles, in which innovation comes in the form of stacking fifteen-letter answers or using as few black squares as possible or what have you. I'll be blunt here: If I never see a quadruple-stack of fifteens again, it'll be too soon. Sure, it's eye-popping, but it's no fun at all to muddle through the inevitable handful of weak answers crossing the stack. My favorite American-style crossword is one that's tough as nails, well-filled, and fair. That's it. I don't need or want the grid to show off. I'll take a solidly filled 66- or 68-word puzzle over a sub-60-worder every single time with no hesitation.

So that's my take, for whatever piddling amount it's worth. I know I'll continue to put a lot of effort into turning out the best grids I can, and I hope my fellow constructors do likewise. Viva fill!

28Jun/11Off

On criticism

I don't know about my fellow solvers and constructors, but I consider crossword puzzles to be a balance of art and science. I find a well-filled grid or an elegantly executed theme to be aesthetically pleasing, and on the other side of the coin, there are rules and principles that should be observed in making a good puzzle. The interpretation of those guidelines, though, can vary, and personal tastes vary even more. A puzzle's quality is often questioned, sometimes leading to agreement and other times to hot debate.

I've certainly jumped into the fray, as my #badpuzzles tweets will attest. Most of the time, these posts target mediocrities and flaws in the USA Today and Universal crosswords. I don't talk about everything I dislike about them because many of my objections are tedious and/or repetitive to bring up, such as cluing a transitive verb intransitively. (That's another topic, but ever since my eyes were opened to this mistake, I can't stop noticing it.) Other times, though, something will be worthy of a mini-rant. For example, a recent USA Today puzzle clued BANGUPJOB as "Good, as a job by a demolitionist?" Not only does this clue break the cardinal rule of echoing part of its answer, but it suggests an adjective while the solution is a noun. These mistakes simply wouldn't appear in crosswords I hold in higher esteem, and I can't resist calling them out.

By the way, if you haven't read my solving Q&A and are wondering why I waste my time on poor puzzles: It's because I can; I'm a pathological completist/weirdo. The subtitle of this blog ain't hay. Plus, there are at least a few seasoned puzzlemakers who would be excellent editors and don't have the opportunity. I'd like to be on record in wishing that a mediocre crossword with high exposure would be replaced by the acclaimed work of one of these people.

Though I believe that there are objective qualities that a good crossword should have, I also recognize that there is a gray area, that puzzle enjoyment is a subjective matter to a large extent. Work that is lauded by some might well be loathed by others; check out the comment thread on just about any Rex Parker blog post if you don't believe me. While I'm confident that most USA Today solvers would prefer the New York Times or Los Angeles Times puzzle given the opportunity to do it regularly, that doesn't change the fact that my viewpoint of these puzzles is a mere opinion.

It also should be noted that, taking into account the spectrum of crossword quality, the puzzles I criticize are much closer to the positive end than you might suspect. With rare exceptions (which, assuredly, are always met with #badpuzzles tweets), the USA Today and Universal puzzles obey the standard rules of crossword construction. They are symmetrical, every letter is part of two answers, there is a reasonable number of black squares, the word count is sufficiently low, and every entry has at least three letters. The clues are frequently flawed, but usually passable. The themes are similarly erratic, but do exist. Most, though certainly not all, of the answers are familiar. In other words, these puzzles are at least recognizable as examples of the conventional American crossword.

Sadly, that's more than I can say for the stuff out there that's laughably horrible, jaw-dropping hackery that I don't think even I could bring myself to tackle on a regular basis. Take this example of The Press Crossword, which my friend Alex Boisvert has been rightly savaging on his Twitter feed lately. In case the ridiculous black-square count and two-letter answers aren't enough to put you off, here's a taste of the awfulness Alex points out in this puzzle:

  • Clues include "Alicante's 7th largest city", "Squash bug genus", and "Longest river in Ayrshire". I'm all for learning new things from puzzles, but they should be at least slightly interesting.
  • Abbreviations are clued simply by their meanings, such as "Kilometers per hour" for KPH. And apparently SLD is a short form for "Sealed". When's the last time you saw that? That's what I thought.
  • I've saved the worst for last: "Given with gold & muhr" = FRANKENCENSE. I don't even know where to start.

Again, disliking puzzles is a matter of taste, but I think we can agree that misspelling both an answer and its clue is pretty terrible. I find myself wondering about the motive of the puzzlemakers who turn out this dreck. My suspicion and my hope is that they don't care about the quality; they're just trying to fill space. The lack of a byline on that puzzle seems to corroborate this idea. However, the other mediocre puzzles I've mentioned do have bylines, and I think those constructors do take pride in their work. Unfortunately, this has no bearing on my opinion of that work.

Nonetheless, this is an important point to keep in mind, as it's easy to go overboard with one's criticism, a lesson I've learned the hard way over the years. On the old incarnation of my blog, on at least one occasion I savaged a constructor's work as well as the constructor herself. My opinions about the puzzles were valid, I feel, but I regret how I treated the latter. If one doesn't like a puzzle and has reason to believe that the compiler tried to make a good one, there's simply no place for attacking that person's motives or work ethic. You'll notice that neither this entry nor my #badpuzzles tweets mention the names of the constructors or editors; this is intentional. However sarcastic or irritated my points sound, I want them to be about the puzzles and not their creators. Certainly, there are those whom I consistently dislike, and I make no apologies for that, but no good comes of pillorying them routinely. When I advocate installing a new crossword editor somewhere, it's because I believe they'd put out better puzzles than the current ones, and I want to see better puzzles. That's all.

As crossword solvers, we're spoiled for choice; there are a lot of puzzles out there vying for our solving hours. We can poke fun at the ones we don't like, fawn over the ones we love, and debate the quality of the rest, but in the end, the most important thing to remember is that this is a diversion. Enjoy the solving!