We constructors talk about "seed ideas" (for themed puzzles) or "seed entries" (for themelesses). Why not actual seeds — or S E E Ds? It seemed like a natural way to seed a puzzle based on ornamental POTs made of black squares. Easy peasy!
Over two hundred e-mails back and forth later …
As a constructor, I try to steer clear of long "bonus fill" across entries that aren't part of the theme. These muddy up what is thematic and what is not. To our dismay, this grid layout — largely fixed by the four POT placements — required a long across at the bottom of the puzzle. Bah! No matter how hard we tried, we couldn't break it into pieces.
Wait. How about making it thematic? Of course! A perfect solution, let's just do that!
Several thousand searches on our Finder and onelook.com later …
We wanted to have each herb break across multiple words of a theme entry, but we eventually had to make a compromise. GROWTH POTENTIAL was a strong enough bottom revealer that we figured we could let MESSAGE BOARD slide by.
Many thanks to Will Shortz and the team for sticking with Matt and me as we struggled our way through this one!
Third day in a row where a bit of the constructor shines through! Matt is a professor, so I smiled, seeing the god of wisdom ERUDITE (rhymes with Aphrodite).
Ha, ha, of course, it's pronounced like "bite," as in a "crudite" platter, containing little food bites. Duh!
This is why I should never use the word ERUDITE in one of my puzzles. Seems appropriate that it crosses (the fantastic) I RUE THE DAY.
Brilliant clue for ESCAPE ROOM. The term has been in many crosswords by now, but playing on "outgoing people" is sheer erudité.
I enjoy themelesses that feature most of the flashy answers going in the across direction. That's not easy to accomplish — most themelesses have about half their feature entries across and half down, for ease of construction — but it makes them so much more pleasant to read as a solver. Getting HELLION, GREEN LIGHT, NON FACTORS, HETERONYMS, and PIEROGI all horizontally, made the puzzle feel more jam-packed with goodness than usual.
I got a little worried when uncovering GDR / OED / ACA right off the bat. These are decent entries, but having three initialisms bunched together isn't elegant. GDR, in particular, is a toughie — my sad geography knowledge had me wondering … Great … Democratic … Republic?
HA I GOT THE LAST TWO WORDS RIGHT, SUCKA!
Okay, maybe GDR (German Democratic Republic, another name for East Germany), isn't such a decent entry. Will Shortz is particular about initialisms that aren't universally known (think USA), since if you don't know them, there's no way to figure it out without the crosses.
Nor is OSA, a bit of crosswordese Will is trying to stamp out. These little 4x3 chunks (from OSA to the right) seem like they should be the easiest part of a triple-stack to fill, but they're often the most problematic. If one of them had been expanded into a 4-letter word, that would have given a lot more flexibility.
Overall, though, a lot to love in this one. I appreciate when constructors use difficult grid patterns in an attempt to make the solving experience more pleasurable.
I've heard from many people that they expect "tricks" on Thursdays (I'm solidly in that camp). A question I constantly struggle with: what makes for a great trick? The best ones are clever. Unique. They fill you with awe-induced shivers, perhaps even a lightning strike a-ha.
Perhaps most importantly, though: solvers have to get it.
A few months ago, I was talking crosswords with a couple of strong solvers at my climbing gym. They brought up a previous parsing puzzle, and one guy said it was so stupid, it made no sense, and he was super annoyed after finishing. I waited for one of the other guys to correct him, but all of them just nodded along.
There was some "oh, that's cool!" after I explained the trick. But how many solvers didn't have a friend to spell things out in detail?
My reaction to today's puzzle was that it wasn't tricky enough. I get where Will is coming from, though — erring on the side of "at least people will get it" is a conservative and safer approach.
I did like some of the finds, SOME LIKE I.T. HOT funny. And the consistency was mostly nice, every time a two-letter word changed into an initialism. (You could achieve better consistency by having all the two-letter words in the same place of the phrase --the ending, say — but more important is that the phrases be fun/funny.)
Some great bonuses, JAZZ CLUB made even better by this jazz-lover and cat-lover's appreciation for the [Where cats play?] clue. Toss in IRIS SCAN, ELEMENTS that are B and C but not A, even some ANUBIS, ATM FEE, and VISHNU, and it made for a colorful and enjoyable solve. There were a couple of blips in the awkward-looking APT NO, plus minor ARR SYS TOI, but all in all, solid gridwork.
LOST DOGs, their owners listed as theme answers, and the DOGs hidden. Well, "hidden," since the clues for the owners points out exactly where to find them.
Loved the DOROTHY GALE / TOTO pairing, and a solid finding of TOTO within GO TO TOWN. Both the owner and dog easily recognizable. (I didn't know DOROTHY's last name was GALE, but it's so appropriate!)
I was a big "Garfield" fan as a kid — OKAY FINE I STILL AM! — so ODIE and JON ARBUCKLE came easily. I can see how ODIE would be esoteric for some solvers.
(BTW, if you haven't read "Garfield Minus Garfield," it's a surprisingly deep commentary on JON ARBUCKLE's life.)
Speaking of esoteric, NANA? THE DARLINGS? Apparently they're the family from ... "The Andy Griffith Show"? I pride myself on old-time sitcom knowledge (I know, sad), but NANA wasn't something I knew (even sadder).
Wait! Wikipedia, why dost thou lead me astray! Apparently the children in "Peter Pan" were also "The Darlings."
They had a dog?
ASTA was familiar since it's one of those common bits of crossword glue. As a theme answer, though … it might do more for an older generation of solvers, fans of NICK AND NORA and "The Thin Man."
XS AND YS? Have I ever heard XS AND YS in any math class … maybe? Something like YEARS AND YEARS might have been better.
With so much theme material, not a surprise to need some crossword glue to hold the puzzle together. I didn't mind most of it, the minor MIS, PEI, ORD stuff.
But not so good to have SSR and UKR — with UKR clued using USSR! Yikes.
I hate hate hate finishing with an error — BANNS (?) crossing NEAR YOU ... I couldn't force myself to believe that BANNS was a thing, so BANDS it was. DEAR YOU could be a song title, right?
I do crosswords for that elation of eventually beating the puzzle. So disappointing to fail like this.
Overall, a fun idea. But I wish there had been more familiar dogs — maybe open it up to cats too, to help with that? — and smoother execution.
Wordplay on "torch songs" today. Given my severe deficiencies in pop culture, I was thrilled to have recognized Jon Bon Jovi! But BLAZE OF GLORY? Maybe that was some witty reference to his … horse named Glory? BURNING LOVE ... maybe Elvis burned … Valentine's Day hearts? You know ... showing his disdain for the holiday?
Okay, maybe you don't know.
For those who haven't already snorted their way out of reading the rest of this post, these are all famous songs involving some sort of fire, thus making them a "torch song."
Putting aside my deficiencies, I imagine this could be a perfect Monday puzzle for pop music fans. Nice and consistent, each song title relating to fire somehow. And each of the songs Matt chose seem famous enough to be crossworthy.
I would have pegged it for a Wednesday puzzle, though, especially given a couple aspects of the fill:
I did like some of the bonuses, PIQUANT, BELEAGUERED, ICE CAVE, PT BOAT, FAT CAT helping keep my interest through the solve. I'm okay with the trade-offs, paying all the aforementioned prices for all these lovely entries … in a later-week puzzle. Not as much for a Monday.
Nice idea, good wordplay riffing on the term "torch song." Didn't resonate with me, but I think a certain segment of solvers will love it.
Seriously, how could anyone make Pierce Brosnan a SEXIEST MAN ALIVE when Daniel Craig doesn't get the nod? Wrong, I say, WRONG!
Great feature entry (and clue!), along with STUDIO EXECUTIVE and the delightful MUSTACHE WAX running through them both.
Oh right, CHANCE THE RAPPER and ITALIAN AMERICAN (and INDUCTEES) were also featured. At least CHANCE and THE and RAPPER are all words for those of us who aren't up on our musicians. I wasn't enamored with ITALIAN AMERICAN either — not that I didn't like it, but it wasn't as colorful as SEXIEST MAN ALIVE.
Pretty sure People Magazine is just waiting until I get into my Sean Connery years to give me my due ...
Themelesses featuring so many long entries — four grid-spanning ones — are so tough to pack with other great material, while keeping the fill smooth. Matt does well to work in MT EVEREST; what a great nickname in "goddess mother of the world"! But what else? BUTTERNUT is okay. TREE SAP gets an interesting clue, who knew that it's a big part of a marmoset's diet?
If the long feature entries are sizzling, they can make a puzzle no matter what. Only two of four being awesome to me, though (plus MUSTACHE WAX), I wanted more from the grid.
And when you fix a skeleton of long entries through the grid, it's tough to avoid a slew of REL ESS ATEST RST DAR to hold everything together. Didn't feel as smooth as I like.
Those are pretty minor, maybe even passable. But there's a clump of esoterica in AINU, STADT, ARNO, SATRAPS … it's unfortunate that they all felt like they were bunched together in the "tough foreign words" category, making them all stand out.
Some great feature entries, but too many prices to pay for all those grid-spanners locked together.
I'm usually wary of themelesses heavy on seven-letter entries — those mid-lengthers often end up more neutral than snazzy. There aren't as many juicy phrases that are seven letters, compared to eight+ letters.
So what a nice surprise in the upper right, with LEAR JET, STEPMOM, NBA JAM … and the lower left, with KISS CAM, IM ALIVE, and COME NOW! Juicy stuff squeezed out of those slots.
INTONED and EYELESS, not so much.
USURPED and BARRAGE … I could go either way on those. They're more everyday, workmanlike terms, but they might be ripe for great wordplay clues? Not today, unfortunately, both getting tough dictionary definitions.
And ALCAZAR, a Moorish castle built during Muslim rule. Good to learn a thing or two from a crossword ... but the random-seeming string of letters made me wonder if I had an error somewhere. Satisfying to add to my vocabulary, but not satisfying during those head-scratching moments of my solve.
MANBUN is such a fun entry. But so cringeworthy in real life. It was so cool to see Jeremy Lin earn the starting PG spot for the New Jersey Nets … and so embarrassing to see him sport a MAN BUN. Sigh.
A couple of great long entries, ENGAGEMENT PARTY anchoring the middle. This is the type of entry that shines for me — not only is it jazzy in its own right, but it's ripe for clever cluing. [Its honorees plan to become one] made me think, "… plan to become one what?" But it's just "become one," as in "wed." Great stuff.
CRUSHING IT also crushed it. I normally am so-so on add-a-short-word phrases, but there's something fresh about this one. Crushed it! Rocked it! Nailed it! (Younger people roll their eyes at me when I use any of these phrases.)
Along with STREAMLINE, ANY SECOND (although I so badly wanted NOW after that), LAST CHANCE, some nice feature entries. A couple of liabilities did detract from the overall experience, notably NOL (esoteric legal term), and also the more minor ETO / WAC, ARR, STS.
Overall, I would have liked a few more assets in the puzzle, especially given the moderate number of liabilities, but some strong work in those mid-length slots.
Matt! I love this guy. We've only worked on a few puzzles together, but I've enjoyed his sense of humor and his work ethic. Always striving to improve fill, even if the improvements are just incremental.
Really fun to brainstorm better examples of friends, Romans, and countrymen. Took a lot of research to turn up good options for "Romans" and "countrymen" especially, and we debated mightily the pros and cons of PRAETORIAN GUARD vs. VESTAL VIRGINS. We ended up proposing a set with each.
Then Matt and I went back and forth on grid design, taking roughly 30 variations/revisions to finish. It's not easy to work with 14-letter entries as the first and last themers — they mess up grid spacing — so this can make it very tough to weave in long bonus fill.
But it's important to me to incorporate as many strong extras as possible, as these fun entries can help to keep solvers' attention. So we kept on trying different themer placements and black square layouts, always testing to make sure the entire grid could be filled smoothly. Hopefully, the final product has a little something for everyone, things like ST PETER for joke fans, WENT YARD for baseball fans, OPEN BARS for--
(running off to the OPEN BAR)
I love me some fantasy basketball, so getting a BLOCK to REBOUND to PASS to DRIBBLE to SHOOT to TAKING OFF FROM THE FREE THROW LINE, LEAPING OVER THREE GUYS AND WINDMILL DUNKING TO SMASH THE BACKBOARD was a great FAST BREAK.
That's how it went in my mind, at least.
I loved DRIBBLE GLASS and SHOOT EM UPS as phrases. The former is especially good, since it's not only a hilarious product (that's my middle-grade sense of humor speaking), but it hides the basketball meaning of DRIBBLE. SHOOT EM UPS does that to a lesser extent, but the term "sharpshooters" is used in bball all the time.
BLOCK HEEL … it does appear to be a real thing, but it didn't do much for me. (Not surprising, given my disinterest in fashion.) REBOUND GUY also didn't hit my ear very well. I suppose I can imagine someone being called that. But it felt off. What other REBOUND phrase is there, though?
I did wonder why there was a REBOUND in the sequence at all, but some research shows that whoever collects the BLOCKed shot does get credit for the rebound. So it does belong in the story after all.
One of the reasons I enjoy working with Matt is his relentless drive to make his fill as colorful and smooth as possible. Six longish themers is rarely easy to work around, but Matt still managed to incorporate PALOOKAS, SIDE ORDER, ANECDOTAL, CABARETS, etc. Considering some puzzles with much less theme only have a single pair of bonus entries, this is a great achievement. I enjoyed hitting all these bonuses during my solve.
There were some ESE, NEG, RELET, ELD, RAHS kinds of crossword glue, but they were all minor for me. I thought the trade-off was well worth it, as I like how much those long bonus entries add to the quality of a solve.
I'm six months out from my Achilles tear from playing bball, so watch out for my FAST BREAK! (Not referring to the Achilles, hopefully.)
ROLLING IN THE AISLES literally interpreted as HA rebuses sitting in places that have aisles … with a space put in to represent the aisle! Fun visual.
I knew something was going on when ED HARRIS wouldn't fit (I just watched "The Right Stuff" recently), so I had a slight deflation, thinking this would be just another rebus puzzle. But what could fill in MOVIE HA___? Neat realization that something else was going on and a nice a-HA to finally figure out that the "aisle" in each of these places (each of which notably contains aisles) was represented by a blank space.
The grid below explains it better.
I've greatly enjoyed working with Matt on a few puzzles/ideas now, so seeing his byline in a Sunday debut was a pleasure. Sunday 140-worders are so tough, and Matt does pretty well in his execution. I only noticed a handful of crossword glue dabs needed to hold everything together — plural name ANDYS, esoteric TRENTE, some MME, ETES, ETD, BANC, RTE, ENE, etc. Nothing really offense; not too shabby.
It would have been nice to get a little more bonus material — AVALANCHE, ARCHWAY, PIRANHA were the only standouts for me (maybe YODELED and ARIGATO too) — but Matt did have to work with crossing pairs of themers, which took up more real estate than a usual Sunday puzzle.
There were a few entries that felt inelegant, like PRESALE and NOT NEAR, but well, what are you gonna do. Building a Sunday 140-word puzzle is a tough task.
I got a little tired of the concept once I had uncovered three or four of the themers, since they were all "things with literal aisles" except for the US SENATE, which has a metaphorical aisle separating parties. So I think this might have been better as a Thursday 15x puzzle. (Curious to see what Matt originally made!) The theme might have felt stronger as a whole without the awkward AIRLINER (only themer that's one word, and AIRPLANE is so much more common).
That said, it's a fun idea and a nice Sunday debut.
ROCKET J SQUIRREL! Just like in Matt's debut puzzle, a single entry (in that case, CALVINBALL) can generate such a connection for me. As a latchkey kid, I watched every single "Rocky and Bullwinkle" at least five times. It's a wonder I ever learned anything — besides Rocky's full name, that is.
SCRAMBLE THE JETS is vivid and fun, too, hinting at the circled letters.
A friend recently asked me about an anagramming idea, where he was going to put five randomly-ordered letters in the middle of phrases. I told him I wasn't a huge fan, since so much anagramming has been done that you really have to do something special in order to stand out. His task seemed way too easy.
Anagramming JETS is definitely a challenge — Js are so inflexible to work with, and having just one vowel adds another level of difficulty. ROCKET J SQUIRREL is such a beautiful way to hide the J E T S letters. COURT JESTER is another excellent one, although it does stand out as the only themer where you could have the J E T S letters in two places (using the first or second T). I only barely recognized JULES ET JIM, but what a neat way to work ino those four letters.
METS JERSEY was the only one that felt slightly off to me. It is a real thing, no doubt. But it did feel somewhat arbitrary, opening a Pandora's box for METS CAP or METS JACKET or METS GAME, etc. Hmm.
I liked the long entries, PERORATE a fun word to learn. ("Bloviate" is another one I like to describe windbaggery.) A treat to get LARKSPUR, CALLER ID and ON DEMAND, along with some fun mid-length ROOMIE, ANKLET, HEXAPOD.
Not such a treat to get the assortment of OJO, LEK, AS IM, SSR, IS TOO, etc. — quite A DRAG. It's the trade-off constructors face so often: perfectly smooth with not much zing, or a ton of color with a proportional amount of crossword glue?
Still, ROCKET J. SQUIRREL hiding an anagram of JETS, which he constantly does! I'll remember the puzzle for that alone.
I came so close to giving this the POW. It reminded me of a friend's tweet to the effect of "I would be so into fantasy football if I could draft a dragon." There's something so entertaining about the imagination and creativity involved there. And CALVINBALL fits that to a tee, what with its crazy rules, constantly being added / changed / subtracted. Brilliant!
POOHSTICKS is fun too — I didn't recognize it even as a Milne fan, but the name made me want to look it up. Quaint game, dropping sticks into a river and "racing" them. QUIDDITCH also amused me, but it's not nearly as whimsical as the first two.
Those three Star Wars movies were so abysmal. POD RACING in particular felt like a marketing team pushing Lucas to come up with something they could use to sell toys to kids. Sigh. Man oh man, I hated POD RACING.
My personal icky feelings around POD RACING aside, a nice debut grid. I've had the pleasure of working with Matt on a grid that was recently accepted, and I loved seeing some of his style come out in CONTRETEMPTS (what a great word!), SOUNDTRACKS, KICK ME / EDISON. Always fun to see what constructors select for their puzzles, especially what they pick for long bonus fill — that's where a person's voice often really comes through.
It's a tough construction, what with FANTASY SPORTS in the middle of the puzzle, and four more themers spread around. That QUIDDITCH / POOHSTICKS overlap is unsurprisingly the crunchiest area, with ILO / UNCAS / ROSEN. They're all fair game for a Wednesday, but it did feel like a pile-up of toughies. Even after all this time, ILO and ILA are hard for me to distinguish, so it'd be tough to be a non-baseball fan today to figure out if RASEN or ROSEN seemed more reasonable.
ADDED NOTE: as reader David Glasser points out, the clue for ILO makes it more fair; an anagram of OIL. But interesting that David's trouble spot was the ROSEN / UNCAS crossing!
But a few gluey spots (TV TAPE is a thing? KGS is usually KG.) is par for the course on a construction like this. Glad to see Matt make his debut with a really fun theme idea and some colorful bonus fill.