It’s Hump(back) Day of Orcas Week, our look back at some exceptional crosswords from 2014. Today we honor the “meta” or “contest” crossword, the “puzzle within a puzzle” that has become very popular in the past few years.
Remember that we’ve already given out three Orcas and will award four more later this week. Here, again, is the complete awards schedule:
- Sunday, March 1: Best Easy Crossword (won by Lynn Lempel)
- Monday, March 2: Best Sunday-Sized Crossword (won by Peter Broda)
- Tuesday, March 3: Best Freestyle Crossword (won by Patrick Berry)
- 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
It’s enough to make you leap out of the water.
Solvers facing a meta or contest crossword have two tasks. First, solve the crossword. Second, use the completed grid (and/or the clues, the puzzle’s title, the internet, maybe even a wild guess) to figure out a “bonus” answer for which there is usually very little guidance. Some solvers (hello, Jangler and Joon) have a gift for this second step. Others (hello, me) hit a wall early and then marvel at the prowess of those with the gift. But no matter whether you have the gift, you can appreciate the innovation and intricate construction behind a well-executed meta puzzle.
The typical meta puzzle reviewed on this site receives a much higher average star rating than the everyday crossword. We have debated the bias toward meta puzzles before without reaching any firm consensus as to why it happens. But it’s safe to say that solvers enjoy the thrill of pursuing those “aha moments,” even when they can’t always have them.
Here are the nominees for Best Meta/Contest Crossword, in order of publication date:
Flight Path, by Francis Heaney (American Values Club Crossword, April 16). You need two grid-shots to appreciate the full effect of this one. First, the empty grid. One’s first reaction is, “What the what? What happened to ‘all-over interlock?’ Those two corners are completely shut off from the rest of the puzzle. Ugh. Too many black squares!” But solvers were instructed that the grid “represents a prison, from which you must escape. Your escape route will travel through horizontally and vertically adjacent cells, and you’ll have to hollow out some walls as you go. Two clues (including enumerations) will help you find your way.” Those clues read as follows: “Full route: Method you’ll be using to escape this prison (7 1 6 6 2 7); Hollowed-out walls: Like a prison that’s possible to escape from (8).”
The puzzle solves like an ordinary crossword–no answers seem to “break through” any of the black squares to create an escape. So what gives? Ultimately, solvers had to realize that one could spell out the message to the full route by writing letters in eight of the black squares. As the solution grid indicates, you can make left and right turns to spell out DIGGING A SECRET TUNNEL TO FREEDOM, the answer to the “full route” hint. Then, when you read the eight letters inserted into the black squares, from top to bottom, you get INSECURE, the answer to the “hollowed-out walls” hint!
Beyond the two-part meta, this puzzle had all kinds of goodies. There were lots of prison and law enforcement references in the clues, a GUARD / TOWER watching over things in the grid, and even a prison CELL in the top left corner that, via the secret tunnel, leads to a GATE in the lower right corner. Metas just don’t come more thoughtfully executed than that (hmm, perhaps “executed” is a poor choice of words for this puzzle).
Chain Reaction, by Matt Gaffney (Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest #321, July 25). Remember the old “pick a number from one to ten” game? Solvers of this Matt Gaffney contest crossword had to come up with a whole number between one and nine (inclusive). Already I like my chances–usually the odds of my getting a meta are more than 9:1 against me. But with no overt theme entries in this grid, what’s a solver to do?
Well, it helps to find the ten-part word chain in the grid: PRINCESS – BRIDE – GROOMS – MEN – FOLK – ROCK – SLIDE – DOWN – SOUTH – PACIFIC (leading back to Pacific Princess). If you circle the first letter from each of the words in the chain as they appear in the grid (as Joon did in this screenshot), you will notice that each circled letter appears in a numbered square that is a multiple of six, making six the correct answer.
Joon correctly labeled this a “rather staggering” feat of construction. Not only are there ten words from a word chain worked into very precise positions in the grid (sometimes even crossing!), but the clues for those ten words work both for the word and for the compound word used in the chain. Thus, [“The Love Boat” setting, with “the”] describes both PACIFIC (the word in the grid) and PACIFIC PRINCESS (from the word chain). Likewise, [Drop precipitously] works for both SLIDE and SLIDE DOWN. Like the “Flight Path” puzzle, this meta crossword merits special recognition because of its attention to detail on all levels. It’s a technical masterpiece with just the right number of hints. With 36 five-star ratings and a 4.93 overall average, it’s apparent solvers appreciated this one just as much.
A Different World, by Matt Gaffney (Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest #325, August 22). Ooh! A meta based on TV spin-offs! Well, no it wasn’t–but this one’s even better. The instructions tell solvers that the meta answer is “what I’ll hope you do with this meta.” There were five theme entries, but it was up to solvers to realize that each theme entry started with a word that, in another language (or “a different world”), is a number: SEIZE THE DAY (“seize” is French for 16), VENTI LATTE (“venti” is Italian for 20), ELF ON THE SHELF (“elf” is German for 11), PENTE BOARD (“pente” is Greek for 5), and QUINCE JELLY (“quince” is Spanish for 15). If you circle the grid letters corresponding to those five numbers, as Joon again did in the screenshot, it spells DIGIT, a fitting word given all the number-play happening here. But hey, wait–it also spells DIG IT, the answer to the meta!
C’mon, how hard could this have been to construct? There are tons of English words that translate into foreign numbers. So pfft, it’s a breeze to then come up with five lively theme answers that fit symmetrically in the grid without giving away the meta. From there, I’m telling you, it’s a snap to have the five squares corresponding to the numbers in the theme entries spell out something that is both apropos of numbers and a two-word expression containing the ultimate goal of the meta.
Bazinga. This must have been a beast. But Matt, as is his wont, makes this look easy. Joon said it well in this review (capitalization preserved): “there is a lovely little aha in realizing that these (mostly) english words are false cognates for numbers in other languages, and then another one in figuring out how to extract the answer from those numbers, and then yet a third in the aptness of the two-way reading of the 5-letter answer. everything held together perfectly. so yes, matt, i dig it. i dig it very much!” So did readers, as shown by the 18 five-star ratings and the impressive 4.69 overall average.
Repeat Offenders, by Francis Heaney (Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest #330, September 26). September was Guest Constructor Month on Matt’s contest website, and the last slot was given to Francis Heaney. He did not disappoint. The goal was to find a “ten-letter word.” The grid seemed a bit peculiar–a couple of 10s and 9s that didn’t seem to have much of a connection. The only overt hint came in the clues to the three Across answers in the middle row: [Lattice (or where a word in the clues should not appear, per crossword custom)] for GRID, [Hints (or where a word in the grid should not appear, per crossword custom)] for CLUES, and [Sucker (or word that appears more than once in a crossword)] for DUPE. That told solvers to look for “dupes” between the grid and the clues. At first blush, there appeared to be none. But then a careful parsing of the clues revealed that grid answers were hidden inside the clues. For instance, [Parts of a patriotic design], the clue for STARS, hides the word RIOT, a word found in the grid.
Now here’s where it gets really good. RIOT is not just in the grid–it crosses the word STARS, the answer to the hidden “riot” clue. That’s amazing.
And here’s where it gets simply unbelievable. The clue for RIOT, [Activity that may involve civil unrest, arson, looting, and the like], returns the favor and hides the word STARS! So the hidden clue duplication works for both words that cross! This happens nine more times–ten total–in the puzzle. That’s so beyond cool you can’t even see it on the spectrum.
Wait, did I say ten times total? The meta asks for a ten-letter word. Hmm. If we circle the crossing for each of the ten answer pairs (as Joon did yet again–thanks, man!), the circled letters spell RECIDIVISM, a habit of “repeat offenders.” There’s your meta answer. So what you have here is a meta puzzle with twenty theme entries that intersect at precise spots to spell a fitting ten-letter word, all using clever clues to disguise hidden words. No wonder Joon and readers used words like “stunning,” “exceptional,” “brilliant,” and “jaw-dropping.” Here too, Joon put it best: “there are some puzzles that are so brilliant that i say to myself as a sometime constructor, “i wish i’d thought of that!” and then there are francis heaney puzzles, which are so far beyond anything i could have thought of (let alone executed) that i’m just glad there’s a francis heaney and i get to solve his puzzles.”
Road Trips, by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, December 1). As you can see from the lovely screenshot (taken from Pete Muller’s site), the grid included the titles of ten hit songs from various artists. The clues for these entries revealed that each was a part of one of three “trips.” Pete’s screenshot helpfully arranges the songs for each trip by color. The key was realizing that each song either mentions or specifically relates to a particular place in the United States. Let’s use the blue songs as an example. LULLABY, which specifically mentions Hollywood Hills, was labelled in the clue as Song #1. Song #2 was CHAINS, which mentions Seattle. Song #3 was TAKE IT EASY, which mentions a corner in Winslow, Arizona. And song #4 was BIG CITY, which mentions Montana.
If you imagine those four places as part of a road trip, draw out that trip on a map, and then repeat the same process for each of the other two road trips, you’d have a map that looks like this (a resized version of a map prepared by Pete). Whaddya know, the map lines look like the logo for the band Nine Inch Nails, the answer to the meta!
There’s so much to admire from this puzzle–where does one start? Despite ten(!) symmetrically placed theme entries, you have smooth fill. You get to play with a map. You get to draw. You literally see the “aha moment” as you are drawing the lines. Metas don’t get more satisfying. Maybe that’s why only this puzzle, of the 1,039 crosswords from 2014 that got at least ten star ratings from readers, scored a perfect 5.0 average. Our readers loved it, but my favorite comment came from someone who posted on Pete’s website, someone named Sheep 1234: “That was amazing. By far, the best meta-solving rush I have gotten in a while. The whole thing is just mind-blowing in its elegance.” Amen.
And the 2014 Orca for Best Meta/Contest Crossword goes to…
Flight Path, by Francis Heaney (American Values Club Crossword, April 16)! It was nearly impossible to pull one puzzle from this slate and label it “best.” You can make a powerful case for any of the nominees to claim the prize. Ultimately, though, all of the layers to this puzzle helped it rise to the top for this particular award. You had a secret word within a secret message, both of which were apt with the prison theme. You had to find a path through the grid. You had lots of prison references in the grid and throughout the clues. Everything just worked with this one.
Since it was a contest puzzle, the blog did not contain a review of the puzzle. That means there wasn’t a forum for readers to share their thoughts about this puzzle. Luckily, though, the readers spoke through the star rating tool: this puzzle scored an impressive 4.96 average rating from 13 readers.
Congratulations, Francis – with this Orca we grant you parole subject to the condition that you keep cranking out creative and entertaining puzzles. Hearty thanks too to all the nominees and others who made the selection of nominees for this particular Orca especially challenging. Tune in tomorrow for another category in which there easily could have been a dozen nominees, the Best Gimmick Crossword.