CTS #11: The Camouflage Crossword

Back in the mid-Nineties, my roommate had one of those “Magic Eye” posters. You know the ones, right? You stare at them– and in some cases, stare and stare– until the pattern reveals itself. Only for me, it never did. Still doesn’t. The only flash of insight I got from that poster was what it must be like to watch Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers while fully color blind.

Thank goodness the patterns hidden in a camouflage crossword are a bit easier.

But before we get into that, a software update!

The call for algebraic-aiding software was a roaring success, resulting in this Python-based gem from Adam Rosenfield, this phonetic alternative from Eric Price, and a simple solution using Mathematica from Dan Chall. Anyone who likes to make algebraic puzzles would be well-advised to look into these alternatives.

The camouflage doesn’t call for such ingenious solutions. OneLook.com, or any other big database of words with wildcard pattern matching, is all the help a constructor needs. As you may have already guessed, camouflage crosswords are all about “camouflaging” designated strings by hiding them within larger entries.

Region capture 24Like the algebraic, camouflages can be mono-string or multi-string, mono-position or multi-position. If a camouflage is mono-string, that one string had better be uncommon enough to be remarkable… and usually it should have some significance of its own, at least when coupled with a puzzle title. This Brendan Emmett Quigley composition fits the bill: STFU hides within BLAST FURNACE, ALMOST FULL, TRUST FUNDS, and EXHAUST FUMES. (Ahhh, the early days of BEQ.com, when swears hadn’t lost their novelty.)

Virtually no words in the language end with the string STF or begin with TFU. There are a FISTFUL of words that contain the entire STFU string within them, but nearly all the well-known ones either end with -FUL or are awkward constructions beginning with POST- or including some form of the F-word. Given these options, Quigley was wise to go for a fixed mono-position. The general feeling about such choices is that a puzzle should be either purely homogenous or purely heteregenous. A string that breaks evenly between two words in all four entries is good. A string that breaks three different ways in three different entries is good. A string that breaks the same way in every entry but one is… what’s a good word for “less good?” “Meh,” that’s it.

Multi-string camouflages can be fact-themed, a bit like the fact-finders. Gail Grabowski’s “Family Comes First” hints at a mono-position family theme, with “SIS,” “BRO,” “DAD” and “MOM” all “coming first” in SISTINE CHAPEL, BRONZE STAR, DADE COUNTY and MOMENT OF TRUTH.

We haven’t yet shown any separate-word examples, here or in the algebraics section. We’ve stuck to the mixed-in variety. Generally, separate-word strings are considered to make things too easy in most algebraics and mono-string camouflages. Not so, multi-string camouflages (and the occasional multi-string additive). They’re challenging on enough other levels that separating out the relevant strings is sometimes necessary to get them down to the ideal level of difficulty… and up to the right level of show-offiness. Though many constructors put too much emphasis on it, show-offiness does have a place in the factors of quality construction. Just as long as the constructor makes the solver feel that the solver shares in that cleverness.

Region capture 15See this Mark Bickham, a synonym-themed puzzle featuring AD INFINITUM, COMMERCIAL PAPER and SPOT REMOVER. It’s not hard to imagine a trickier threesome– say, COMMERCIALIZING, DESPOTISM and MIDDLE OF THE ROAD. But I’d be concerned whether SPOT and AD would jump out enough to stand and be recognized. Maybe if they were longer words instead, like PROMOTION and RELEASE? Ah, but see, those words don’t have longer strings they can hide in as non-separate words. A mixed-in mono-position version might be solvable enough. But would it sparkle?

WE SHALL OVERCOME, WII FITNESS GAMES, WEE WILLIE WINKIE and OUI, MADEMOISELLE make Sarah Keller’s “The Four of Us” a [deep breath] separate-word homophone-themed mono-position multi-word camouflage. There’s a Brendan Emmett Quigley that matches its every parameter and theme almost exactly: “WHAT DO YOU MEAN, ‘WE?'”, NINTENDO WII and MICHELLE WIE. (The BEQ version uses its three “whees” to suggest THIS LITTLE PIGGY as its final, defining theme entry.)

Why does neither puzzle use mixed-in homophones like WIENERSCHNITZEL, WHEELS AND DEALS, or WEEKLY HOROSCOPE? They’re certainly fun entries– but the results just lack the zazz of discovering three or four separate-word homophones, you know? I mean, look at that “WII.” It’s begging to be played with.

Still, for more uncommon strings, a mixed-in set is necessary and acceptable. Consider this mixed-in anagram-themed camouflage by Randall J. Hartman, with its TEA LEAVES, LEATHER NECK, TALE OF TWO CITIES, ALTERCATION and the defining entry LATE SHIFT. Mixing in the string makes a more satisfying experience in this case, and in anagram themes it’s a more common practice. The only single-word anagram for LATE that it misses is TEAL, which doesn’t combine with much. Look, I’m sorry, Teal Wicks, but being Broadway famous isn’t enough to make you crossword famous.

Region capture 10On the other hand, Amy Reynaldo celebrates the ingenuity of Liz Gorski’s 8/4/10 separate-word anagram-themed camouflage, with its MENTAL NOTES, SETON HALL, THE ONSET, STENO PAD, FALL TONES, and defining entry TURN TO STONE. Note that unlike the last example, it’s a multi-position puzzle. Making it separate-word means Gorski can get away with more. Not that she lets the freedom go to her head or anything.

At some point, one has to give up and label the remaining kinds of wordplay in a camouflage “miscellaneous.” But I’ve found a few other recurring themes worth discussing briefly here: the rhythmic, the accompanier and the piecemeal.

The rhythmic is hiding a pattern within itself, as seen in the two examples below. In the Matt Gaffney at left, ONORIO MARINARI, JOHN RINGLING, LISA WHELCHEL and SAMUEL PICKWICK are all names that end with a 12345234 pattern. In the Mangesh Ghogre at right, the rhythmic string is one letter and a hyphen long: A-LISTER, B-SCHOOL, C-SECTION, D-DAYS, E-TRADING, F-NUMBER, G-STRING.

mgwcc93Region capture 18

The Ghogre puzzle’s alphabetic progression (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) means it might also be considered a piecemeal camouflage puzzle. In piecemeals, the sequence of the key strings is important: they should be presented in one particular order. To my mind, this should mean particular constraints on the construction: theme entries should be either all across or all down, to clarify the intended sequence. Sometimes this is because they’re part of a longer progression, like (A, B, C, D, E, F, G…) or (ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR).

Region capture 9Other times, it’s because they assemble into a complete form by themselves. Take this puzzle, written by Rich Norris, in drag as “Lila Cherry” to dodge the petty politics that always result when a newspaper crossword editor has to fill a hole in the schedule, and everyone assumes it’s a gigantic power play, because yes, that’s what motivates people to become crossword editors, the ability to reject your puzzle and instead run their own, because they hate you and your creative endeavors.

Right, anyway, the puzzle. Needs sequence to work. PEANUT GALLERIES + BUTTERBALL + AND SIGN + JELLY SHOES + SANDWICH ISLANDS = PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH. SANDWICH JELLY AND BUTTER PEANUT? Bleah. Worst cooking-show instructions ever.

Region capture 4Finally, the accompanier is all about what’s missing. It relies on a consistent “negative space” between the theme entries. HEAD HONCHO, HOUSE OF CARDS, BALL OF CONFUSION and PARTY ANIMALS all start with words that can make phrases if “BEACH” is added to their front. Hence the defining theme entry, BEACHFRONT, with the clear, straightforward clue: “Valuable shore property, and a hint to what the first words of 17-, 23-, 37- and 45-Across have in common.” Accompaniers are usually improved by such a defining entry that sheds light on the theme, and often a blatant clue like this is a good idea, too. You need to hit that ideal level of difficulty, remember? And it’s always toughest for solvers to see what isn’t there at all. Gotta get it gettable.

Next week: the two as-yet unexplored dimensions of camouflages… and algebraics, for that matter.

…Look, I said we might not get a comprehensive view of the camouflage this time out. What, did you think I was joking?

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1 Response to CTS #11: The Camouflage Crossword

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