CTS #26: The Experimental Crossword, And The Future

Puzzles in general are thriving, and new types emerge almost more quickly than we can classify them. Sudoku have exploded in popularity since their introduction to Britain and America in 2004, and it’s inspired enough varieties to headline an essay series of its own. Puzzle games from Tetris to Myst to Portal are some of the most popular video games on the market. And in an age where television “seasons” can be 12 episodes long or less, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy remain two of the most popular shows in syndication.

But when it comes to new types of crossword, we have to look out a little further.

Playing Lollapuzzola this year turned me on to a sort of wraparound crossword. I can’t share the one at the tournament, but this Sporcle crossword by one “apeminkie” follows similar rules. It uses Pac-Man geometry– whenever a word passes off the edge of the screen, it returns to the screen on the opposite side, moving in the same direction as before. So the answers in this grid, despite appearances to the contrary, are TRACT, ETUDE, ONYX, TEASE, SCALP, TIMID, DOLED, EGOS, NOPES, SONIC, ELMO, ECRU, ADO, PILES, SCENT, DEG., DO NOT, YES, EXACT, SON, PITT and SAID.

Like the odd geometries of the Vector Three and the acrostic, this sort of thing is much easier once you get used to it. Just as you can train your brain to follow the spatial clues of the traditional crossword, eventually your brain can piece together the words straddling opposite ends of an edge. Despite initial appearances, this grid does have all-over interlock, too! Think it through.

This particular example doesn’t have any special “aha moment,” and it’s pretty easy (meant to be solved in three minutes). The Lollapuzzoola puzzle (also timed) had a special additional instruction: solvers crossed out most of the completed entries and read the remaining letters in traditional left-to-right fashion to get the complete solution. Most of the existing genres of crossword are capable of functioning with the wraparound’s little spatial twist, so we may see it go mainstream sometime.

Brendan Emmett Quigley’s “From A to Z” is, for lack of a better term, a double initial pangram. Quigley credits Will Shortz with the rules for this experiment:

This crossword variety has 26 clues, each of which begins with a different letter of the alphabet. These letters have been removed and replaced by blanks. Transfer these letters into the correspondingly numbered squares in the grid which will help you know where to place the answers. Note that each of the 26 answers begins with a different letter of the alphabet, and it’s never the same letter as the initial letter of its clue.

In other words, all the “1.” in this list of clues tells you is that the clue pertains to one of the answers other than 1 Across– and that its first letter is the same as the actual answer in the clue. With a couple of exceptions (“__-rated” and “__ake better”) the initial letters in the clues are pretty obvious, but solving them and filling in their corresponding blanks in the grid lets you get up a good head of steam to solve the rest.

The rules of this puzzle demand a design not only of 26 numbered clues, but 26 numbered initial slots. These requirements more or less demand that the double initial pangram use the unchecked squares of a cryptic-crossword-style grid. If that sounds confusing, remember that most crossword grids have more clues than numbers, with (for example) two clues for 1-Across and 1-Down.

And here’s the trouble with unchecked squares: if there’s a word you don’t know, then there’s no way to get it. Amy Reynaldo, when solving this puzzle, balked at the use of CHAKRAM, “Xena’s weapon.” Though I managed CHAKRAM when I solved (thanks, junky TV!), I needed Google to find the “‘On Language” columnist Ben” ZIMMER. And I could certainly see others being flustered by GQ TYPE, lovely as it is.

One way around this is to keep the vocabulary simple. But as usual with pangrams, the least common letters are the biggest “choke points:” there are only so many alternatives to ZIMMER and “Xena” that mesh well with everything else. An alternative is to merge the double initial pangram with the cryptic crossword, which might have the side effect of making the latter form more solvable.

Finally, we have to come to the experiment I’m most familiar with, since I’m the one who made it.

Earlier this year, with artist Jason Waltrip, I composed a story for my long-running comics series, Fans. I declared the result, “Crossover,” a “cruciverbacomic,” not because it was all about crosswords, but because its grid of panels corresponded tightly to a finished, standard crossword grid. Each panel’s dialogue began with the letter contained by a corresponding crossword square, except for the silent, heavily bordered panels, which corresponded to the black squares. Furthermore, each word in the puzzle was placed somewhere in a panel that corresponded to one of its containing squares. Besides simply telling a comics story, these were the constraints.

It was very, very helpful to be able to rely on traditional comic-strip nonverbalisms like “AAAA!” and “Hhhh,” as well as a home-grown list of science-fiction-related words that would sound natural in the mouths of these science-fiction-obsessed characters. And I didn’t even try to do a pangram or to go “Scrabbly.” Aside from a couple of Ks, and I’m not even sure Ks count, the only “high-scoring” letter in the grid is an X at the very bottom, and it’s only there because I knew what would be in the last panel before I wrote the rest of the story.

There’s an important issue that keeps the cruciverbacomic from becoming a crossword genre… it’s not really, actually, a puzzle.

However, it’s nearly there, and just needs a little nudge. Firstly, you’d have to conceal the “source grid” instead of putting it into the story itself as we did. The panels of the cruciverbacomic could be chopped up and presented out of order for the solver to sort. The full words of the grid and the initial letter of each panel could be removed from the dialogue and left for the solver to fill in. Or one could change the above rules slightly, so that instead of the initial letter in the square, the contents of each square in the crossword grid correspond to the contents of each comic panel in some other, predefined way.

I was inspired in part by my friendly acquaintance Scott McCloud (NAME DROP!). Scott has experimented with large-scale comics online, and invented the term “infinite canvas” for them. He’s founded other creative exercises as well, most notably the 24-hour comic, whose practitioners construct a 24-page comic within a 24-hour period. Many cartoonists have been moved to try 24-hour comics: it’s even become a holiday of sorts. I confess I’ve entertained notions that the cruciverbacomic might reach a similar status, but it’s possible that crosswording and cartooning will be too narrow a Venn overlap to really catch on.

Currently, I’m planning to make a 24-hour cruciverbacomic for 24 Hour Comics Day this year– a 12×12 grid is 144 squares, or 24 pages of 6-panel comics. We’ll see how I do, and see if any follow me. I’m hopeful, but I’m not staking the future of crosswording on it.

But the idea of a “cruciverbalist’s challenge,” of a day set aside for cruciverbalists to do something special with their craft– a 24-Hour Crossword Day, so to speak– seems like an idea worth pursuing.

If not cruciverbacomics, what should the challenge be? And what time of year would be best for such a thing? I could think of an idea or three… (political strips for two Saturdays before the election! Christmas gift strips for the second weekend in December! Or do it on Will Shortz’s birthday, or the anniversary of the publication of “Spectral Analysis!” Set out to add a new word to the crossword lexicon! Do a 21×21 in an afternoon! Invent something new!)

…but I’d love to see your own suggestions in the comments.

As any puzzlemaker will tell you, make puzzles long enough, and you start to see how almost everything can be made into puzzles. And that clarity of vision, as much as anything else, is what will keep genres forking ever outward, and the crossword form ever evolving. As in biology, we can understand it better by detailing its forms, but it keeps changing shape all around us. And if we’re lucky, it never stops being a source of wonder.

All done.

The squares have all been called. The blueprints of crosswords as we know them, and as we will know them, are now in your hands and mine.

Now it’s time to build.

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7 Responses to CTS #26: The Experimental Crossword, And The Future

  1. T Campbell says:

    A few acknowledgments:

    To Amy, who granted me permission to begin this series and see it through. To the many commenters who’ve improved the entire series in various ways, but especially Adam Rosenfield, whose quick response to my call to action was a highlight of the writing experience. To the people whose research I’ve cited above, especially Kevin McCann and Jim Horne, whose Cruciverb.com and XWord Info are truly indispensable resources for the student of crosswording. To the makers of crosswords, for inspiring my interest as both commentator and constructor, but especially the rebellious, aggressively contemporary types who let me feel that there was a place for my own sensibility in the field.

    I’ll continue to contribute a few odds and ends to this blog on occasion… including a brief “How I Did It” article once the C-Spot is completed. But there’s a few other things on the crossword front that’ll demand most of my cruciverbal attentions for a while (see next paragraph)…

    So while I’m at it, a special thank-you to those who’ve promoted and invested in my newest project, the 120×120 Ubercross C-Spot, which officially achieved its funding goal on August 12. Some of said investors will also be getting Crossworlds, a collection of science-fiction-themed crosswords, and an edited, revised and expanded version of this very series. Thanks, guys… I’m already getting busy!

  2. Matt Gaffney says:

    Enjoyed this series greatly, T. Thanks for doing it.

  3. Howard B says:

    Very nice. Interesting reads. Always appreciate those people who break new ground, strive for originality, and bend the rules a bit to test the limits of their craft(s).

    Good luck with the C-Spot project, looking forward to it as well.

  4. Todd G says:


    Thanks much for this series. Having spent some time looking at early cross-word puzzles, I can tell you that innovation and ingenuity have been part of construction from the beginning. For example, here’s a link to a different sort of puzzle based on the cross-word that was published in the LA Times in 1925:


    [Please note the permission at the bottom. I hope I don’t get sued for this.]

    It was your series that got me interested in the Anything Goes puzzle, and getting me to try my hand it, with mixed results. As far as challenges go, I’d really like to see a group of constructors create a bunch of these Anything Goes puzzles. They can all be published on the same day, as with McCloud’s Comics Day. Lots of people seem to like them, yet only Trip seems to be making them, and only 1 or 2 per year. Why should Trip have all the fun?

    For newbies like me, it makes us learn how to fill a grid without a word list, which is an eye-opening experience. And for the old-timers, it’s a great way to show off your chops. I’m sure Merl Reagle and Matt Gaffney could come up with some wicked awesome AG puzzles if they put their minds to it.

    Anyone else with me?


    P.S.: Just in case you want to see my first AG attempt, here it is:


  5. T Campbell says:

    Hey, you directed us to the original reproduction– that’s what linking is– you’re good there.

    I’m a little swamped today, but I’ll check out the AG later on. And yeah, I think the “Anything Goes Day” could be a fantastic idea.

    I made one for the Crossworlds collection (actually two, but I eventually discarded one), and *did* use a word list. I started with a super wide-open grid like those in the examples, added a few entries, then added lots of bars to the grid for the sake of computer-assisted fill, removing them when I was done. (Using Crossword Compiler, naturally.)

    I had to make sure that the words on both sides of the bars always made an offbeat kind of sense when put together, but this technique made things a lot easier, especially since I was trying to get in as many words from a theme list as possible.

  6. Todd G says:

    Actually, the link is to an electronic reproduction of the original source material that I got from ProQuest (through my local library). So yeah, I’ve reproduced the image without permission. The copy is on my personal web site.

    And I believe you’ve seen my AG puzzle before. But maybe you’ll like it better the second time. :-)

    Using bars is an interesting idea, but I think I’ll stick to hand-rolling the grid. For one thing, I wouldn’t really know where to put the bars. Second, too much crud in my word list (APERS|OOX|ETUI anyone?) and it’s not well ranked, so I’d be spending a lot of time winnowing chaff.

  7. T Campbell says:

    I find the “bars” trick only works when you have two major words in an entry. JAMESON|IMITATOR, SIMULATE|AN|ETUI. Even then, there’s a lot of chaff-weeding, but I like the feeling of discovery I get from computer-supplied options.

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