WSJ Contest – December 1, 2017

untimed (Evad) 


Marie Kelly’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Toy Box”—Dave Sullivan’s write-up

WSJ Contest – 12/1/17 – “Toy Box”

OK folks, fasten your seat belts–we’re in for a bumpy ride on this one! Let’s start with the meta instructions–we’re looking for a board game. Seems easy enough: although there are apparently over 350 of them, perhaps only 10-20 of them are familiar enough to be a meta solution. (And yes, I include recent meta solution Settlers of Catan among those familiar ones!)

The thematic material in this one is identified by starred clues:

  • 17a. [*Brand that has a Rotten Sneaker Contest], ODOR-EATERS – it didn’t help that at first I thought this was all one word
  • 21a. [*1990 Top 10 Gloria Estefan song], HERE WE ARE
    – let’s take a listen. I believe I heard today she is one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees.
  • 26a. [*Playboy’s crowd], IDLE RICH
  • 40a. [*Head for space], LIFT OFF – I first parsed this clue as beginning with a noun, not a verb
  • 49a. [*View from Drumnadrochit], LOCH NESS
  • 54a. [*Like the National Mall], TREE-LINED
  • 64a. [*Jeep Wrangler], FOUR-BY-FOUR

I first assumed that each of these entries would contribute one letter to the meta solution, and I latched onto the N that was “boxed in” between the CH and ESS of LOCH NESS. Though “chess” isn’t a toy, it is a game, so I thought that close enough. I struggled for others–the E between the W and AR of the second entry (the card game “War”) and perhaps even the stuffed toy FURBY found if you drop an O from FOUR-BY. But this set seemed a bit loose and I couldn’t find others in the remaining theme entries.

Then I my eyes led me to the toy, GLOBE starting at 1-Down and extending to the right at the end. TRAIN was another toy I found in the lower left in a similar configuration, but yet again, I couldn’t find other “hidden toys,” nor could I figure out how these would lead to a meta solution given the starred entries.

Finally, I recalled that I had found the clue for 1-Across a bit unusual:

  • 1a. [Word square form], GRID

So what are “word squares”? There seem to be two types, one type (I believe called “magic squares”) have the same words appearing across and down. Here’s an example:


The other variety have 8 different words in total, 4 across and 4 down. This first clue as well as the last theme entry (and even the “box” mentioned in the title) had me thinking this route would be the most promising to the meta solution.

Noticing that each theme entry began with a 4-letter word (after looking up how ODOR-EATERS was spelled) gave me this first set of 4-letter words:


I was troubled there were only 7 entries (not 8) on this list to make a word square, so I wondered if maybe I should include RICH and NESS and perhaps drop FOUR as that might be there just to provide a hint towards the meta solution (reinforced by its position as the last theme entry).

Try as I might, I couldn’t make one 4×4 word square with those 8 words, nor 2 4×4 “magic” word squares from the list. As I played with the letters, though, I noticed that I could form a word square if I had one additional 4-letter word to complete my original set of 8:


The missing word ended up being CLUE, which is both a board game and a very appropriate answer to a crossword puzzle meta. I found this to be a superb meta, and very appealing to those of us who are always looking out for letter patterns in the grids we solve. Congratulations to everyone who rassled this beast to the ground!

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26 Responses to WSJ Contest – December 1, 2017

  1. Abide says:

    Would have been nice if the actual puzzle would have had a star at the 1-A clue like your write-up showed. Or better yet, maybe put two stars by the FOURBYFOUR clue, since the grid is 4×4. Without any other nudge, the misleading title only sent me on a wild toy chase (including dogs).

    • Agreed, and I don’t see how the “Toy” part of the title fits at all.

      Though to be fair I think it is a neat way of hiding the meta.

      • Abide says:

        Yes the gimmick is VERY clever, but the execution to get there seemed uncharacteristically clumsy to me.

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        It’s a very clever mechanism.

        Insight #1: realize that each theme entry starts with a four-letter word, very unlikely to be irrelevant. Four or five maybe, six maaaaybe, seven no.
        Insight #2: notice that odd clue at 1-A and think of word squares
        Insight #3: realize that with seven four-letter words, you need an eighth to create a word square — and that eighth could be the meta answer.

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          So simple to explain in retrospect, but so difficult to see in the first place. The more I’ve been thinking about this meta over the past day, the more I admire it.

        • I did notice the four-letter words, and figured the FOUR-BY-FOUR was a hint towards something like Boggle, or the six 4×4 segments in the grid.

          But while I did think the 1A clue was a little odd, I don’t think it would have ever registered as important because the phrase “word square” doesn’t mean much to me at all. It’s not on my radar because I don’t believe I’ve ever solved one, much less tried to create one; the only phrase that comes readily to mind with all-interlocking letter grids is “crossword” (well, I guess Boggle, too). Plus, like I said, I don’t see how the “Toy” part of the title makes sense.

          It is a clever meta, but I think it was out of my wheelhouse. Maybe had 1A been given a parenthetical that it was a key, I’d have gotten there. I dunno.

          • To clarify, my (very thin) understanding of “word square” was the first kind that Dave described — same words across and down. The “double word square” that’s listed on the Wiki page (and for this meta) is just a 4×4 crossword, right?

          • Matthew G. says:

            You don’t consider board games to be toys?

            I did not solve this one, but the title doesn’t bother me.

  2. Amanda says:

    I went down the FURBY-CHESS route too. Also found Dora and wanted it to be Dora the Explorer, which isn’t exactly a toy. That’s where I got stuck.

  3. Jim Peredo says:

    Beautiful meta, now that I see it. But so many red herrings.

    Like Dave, I noticed the Furby at first and Chess. War also and Dora. But then that fizzled.

    Like Evan I then looked at the six 4×4 squares in the grid. But trying to connect them to the starred entries and specifically the 4-letter starts to each entry went nowhere.

    I settled on thinking that I had to build a 4×4 grid. Also like Evan, a word square is not something on my radar, so I was never going to find it. What I did find was something else. Knowing I needed 16 letters, I took the starts of the 16 words in the theme answers (yup, there just happens to be 16 of them) and made a grid:
    O E H W
    A I R L
    O L N T
    L F B F
    Then, since the title is Toy Box, I took the outer 12 letters (ignoring the inner ones) and re-arranged them. Lo and behold, I found a board game. I felt I could ignore F B and F since they were more instructional and I did have a leftover W and A, but the rest of the letters can be arranged into OTHELLO which is a game played on a GRID.

    Pretty crazy coincidence, I thought. But it was just not that elegant, so I doubted it, which I was right to do.

  4. Jeremy Smith says:

    I didn’t analyze this one deeply enough. I realized that each of the starred answers began with a four-letter word, and that the final four-letter word was FOUR. Each of these four-letter words connected to the remainder of the answer, so my incorrect submission was CONNECT FOUR.

  5. Rick Heisler says:

    This is the first time the explanation has been more confusing than the puzzle. Maybe there could be more puzzles for us average solvers?

  6. Eric Conrad says:

    I missed it. I found enough of the theme and looked for FOURBYFOUR squares that formed a BOX in the GRID that made sense, etc. Also recognized the four-letter words that started the theme answers.

    I am impressed by the ingenuity of the solution. As a computer science nerd doing metas for a year, I wondered if cryptography-style metas existed, didn’t see much, and stopped looking for them. That would open up a lot of meta options: Caesar cipher, route cipher, etc.

    Then: bam! Here we are.

  7. JohnH says:

    I’m having a little trouble with the explanation, so help me out. (Nope, I didn’t come close to getting it.) Are we saying that, of the seven starred entries, we need to pick out three of them plus CLUE? (I’m not used to making word squares, so I’ll trust you that our hands are forced in discovering CLUE.) So then why are seven starred?

    • Evad says:

      No, you actually use all 7 4-letter words and add 1 more to them to make 8. A 4×4 word square is actually 8 different 4-letter words, 4 in the down direction and 4 in the across direction.

    • GlennG says:

      The first words out of the seven that are starred are words used within the word square, along with clue, the 8th. Look both across and down to find the words in the square. (And don’t worry, I didn’t either. I find with metas that if you don’t get it within the first 5 minutes, you’re going to never get it. They’re the puzzle equivalents of in-jokes.)

      • JohnH says:

        Thanks much. (Glenn, my experience, too.) I remember having heard of word squares, although for the other kind (four words), but it makes sense. Never would have occurred to me, but no matter.

  8. Robin Morrissey says:

    I got the correct answer, but arrived there a little differently. I noticed that the 7 starred answers each started with a 4-letter word (I assumed FOUR-BY-FOUR was a hint). But instead of making a word square, I just wrote them down and crossed out every pair of duplicate letters, ending up with C L U E left over. Pretty impressed with myself for figuring this one out.

  9. Jon says:

    Didn’t get it. I even put the 7 4-letter words in a grid, except in a 4×7 grid. I’ve never heard of word squares so this puzzle is another crossword lesson for me.

    I think the idea of using a word square is genius. Too bad i wasn’t aware of them beforehand. And i think constructors understand the rules to creating clues way better than I. I did think “word square form” was oddly phrased but i couldn’t tell if this was a) correctly phrased & something for me to learn in my meta crossword education, or b) a clue towards the instructions.

    For instance, when i see an abbreviation in a clue, i know the grid entry also contains an abbreviation. But there are some puzzles where the clues are in full word but an abbreviation is in the grid entry. I don’t know yet if that is fair game or the latter puzzle isn’t professional. This is why I still struggle with metas where the clues are in the clues, even after doing metas for the past 3 years.

    But at least now I’m aware of word squares.

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