The Orcas continue today with the award for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, the top honor for crosswords 21×21 and larger. (We thought about calling it the Best 21x Crossword, but we figure lay people would think it honors an extremely obscene puzzle.)
If you’re just joining us, we’re spreading the Orcas out over a one-week period according to this schedule:
- Sunday, March 1: Best Easy Crossword (won by Lynn Lempel)
- Monday, March 2: Best Sunday-Sized Crossword
- Tuesday, March 3: Best Freestyle Crossword
- Wednesday, March 4: Best Meta/Contest Crossword
- Thursday, March 5: Best Gimmick Crossword
- Friday, March 6: Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue and Margaret Farrar Constructor of the Year Award
- Saturday, March 7: Best Crossword
Today’s award comes after the jump.
From a constructor’s standpoint, Sunday-sized crosswords are both a blessing and a curse. The larger grid allows more room for visual gimmicks and grid entries that venture off in unusual ways. But with around 140-144 answers, nearly double the number of answers in the typical 15×15 daily puzzle, the vigilance required to maintain superior fill and create original, engaging clues can be exhausting. This year’s nominees are terrific examples of how the devotion to the craft pays off with puzzles that entertain, divert, and amuse us.
Here are the nominees for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, in order of publication date:
- The Dark Side, by Merl Reagle (Merl Reagle Syndicated Crossword, February 2). Apropos of its release on Groundhog Day, this puzzle uses 18(!) of the black squares to disguise the word SHADOW. The only hints given to the solver are the puzzle’s subtitle (“The groundhog made me do it”) and its central entry, SHADOW-BOXES, clued as [Trains, in a way, and the key to 18 of this puzzle’s black squares. (Ones that begin with the keyword are asterisked. The others are for you to discover.)] You wouldn’t think there are 18 interesting terms containing the word “shadow,” but somehow Merl find them and integrates them into the grid. Theme entries included THE SHADOW KNOWS (which looks like THE▪KNOWS in the grid), SHADOW CONSPIRACY, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, SHADOWS AND FOG, and SHADOW CABINETS. Granted, the conversion of SHADOW to a black square makes for shorter theme entries, but still there are 18 of them in the grid! And yet the non-thematic fill betrays little of the stress and strain placed on the grid from its thematic density.
- A Little R&R, by Mike Shenk (aka Colin Gale) (Wall Street Journal, June 6). Letter-addition themes are hardly innovative, but this gem from the Wall Street Journal proves that simple themes are a delight when well-executed. As the title implies, R gets added to each word in a familiar two-word phrase to produce theme entries like EYRE CONTRACT ([Agreement between Charlotte Bronte and her publisher?]), PRETTY CRASH ([Highway pileup that’s attractively arranged?]), MORON SHRINE [(Monument to a meathead?)], and BRAND RAIDS [(Hostile attempts to acquire competing products?]). The grid has ten(!) theme entries, all 10-12 letters long. While there is little in the way of long non-thematic fill, it’s all smooth and balanced. The clues are entertaining, too–see the twice-repeated [“Doggone it!”] for DARN, DRAT, and NUTS, as well as [Albert or George] for LAKE.
- All-Encompassing, by Tracy Gray and Jeff Chen (New York Times, September 7). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the theme. The grid has a compass in the center. There are four unchecked squares in each of the cardinal directions stemming out from the center. Sure enough, the unchecked square in the arm extending north is N, there’s a W in the arm extending west, an E in the arm extending to the right, and an S in the arm heading to the bottom. So yeah, it’s a directional theme. But the pièces de résistance are the eight circled squares appearing in the cardinal and intermediate spots around the grid: there’s a compass inside of each circle! Specifically, the Across answer reads W-E from left to right and the Down answer reads N-S from top to bottom. That’s how, for example, ORSON WELLES can cross ACORN SQUASH, and BOLL WEEVILS can cross COMMON SENSE. The fill included goodies like PALEO DIET, ASK AROUND, and BEFUDDLES. It’s an elegant construction that makes it all look easy.
- Cross-Hatching, by Peter Broda (Fireball Crosswords, September 11). Sometimes even a 21×21 grid doesn’t yield enough play space. This 21×22 puzzle boasts 11(!) theme entries, better described as theme crossings. At each crossing, there’s a rebus square that in the Across position uses EGG. Thus, for instance, the EGG in VEGGIE BURGER is smushed into a single square. In the Down position, that square is the first letter of a bird name (in this case, it was FINCH). So you have eleven birds “hatching” from the EGG squares. If that was all there was to the puzzle, it would be pretty cool. But there are two more “layers” to the puzzle. First, all of the bird words are clued in a non-avian way. FINCH, for instance, is clued as [Peck part], a reference to Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. Second, if you read the letters in the EGG squares row by row and from left to right, the letters spell FREE AS A BIRD. Mind = blown.
- Colorful Characters, by Tom McCoy (New York Times, November 9). Jim Horne called it his Puzzle of the Year for 2014. Over on xwordinfo, Will Shortz said the puzzle was “definitely a wow.” And perhaps most amazingly, it was constructed by someone whose debut appeared only about 18 months earlier. True to its title, this puzzle illustrated the concepts of BLUE JAY, BLACK EYE, YELLOW SEA, and GREEN TEA in a “colorful” way. For instance, in the southeast corner you have “blueberry,” “blue ribbon,” and “blue moon” as the answers to three clues, but in the grid there’s just BERRY, RIBBON, and MOON, respectively. But if you imagine those answers as written in BLUE ink, you’ll notice that the three words form a J-shape in the grid–hence your BLUE JAY. Each corner has its own colorful expression, and the grid even includes FORM LETTERS as a hint (clued as [Impersonal notes … or what four groups of this puzzle’s answers do (totaling 11 words)]). This puzzle has you mutli-tasking: you’re solving clues, you’re coloring, and you’re making letters. Little wonder 32 readers gave this one a coveted five-star rating.
And the 2014 Orca for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword goes to…
Cross-Hatching, by Peter Broda (Fireball Crosswords, September 11)! This puzzle garnered 23 five-star ratings out of 26 total votes from our readers, a stunning 4.92 average. With all of the aforementioned layers, it’s not surprising.
Look at those theme entries! MEG GRIFFIN, PEGGY LEE, PREGGERS, and the double-duty LEGGO MY EGGO! Notice the symmetrical placement of the theme entries. The left-right symmetry employed in this construction even contains the suggestion of a hatched egg through the placement of black squares in the middle. There’s lots of great non-thematic fill. No awkward short stuff. Eleven birds disguised to look not like birds. There’s almost too much to admire about this puzzle.
This was a contest puzzle, too, so we had to wait a few days before we could talk about it. (FREE AS A BIRD, the message spelled out in the EGG squares, was the contest answer.) Once we could, the comments were uniformly favorable. Howard Barkin called it “insanely fun and cool.” John Farmer admired “the creativity of the construction.” And Amy called it “really neat.” (She’s always nicely concise.)
Congratulations to Peter Broda and to all the nominees! Tomorrow we present the Best Freestyle Crossword Orca, so check back in after you read Joon’s review of Matt Gaffney’s latest crossword contest.