MGWCC #548

crossword 10:23  
meta DNF 


hello and welcome to episode #548 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Shell Game”. for this week 5 puzzle, we have a special guest contribution from xan vongsathorn, involving an elaborate setup about the puzzle sitting in matt’s yard for seven years (perhaps a reference to this nyt puzzle), and something about sweets and rotting eggs. for a final answer, xan asks us to figure out a piece of stolen candy, plus the culprit who stole it. okay. what are the theme answers? there’s one starred clue: {*Make rotten, as eggs} ADDLE. i was not familiar with this definition of ADDLE, but indeed it’s in the dictionary (although listed as outdated). what could it mean, though? well, let’s take a look at the other overt theme clues. seven of them get numbered steps in the grid and some weird capitalization:

  • {BLarE (Step 11!)} DIN.
  • {IndELicate (Step 15!)} LEWD. the L here also goes in a circled square, the only such square in the grid. since 15 is the highest-numbered step, i think this relates to the instructions saying we have to work backwards to find the culprit.
  • {CLEaving (Step 14!)} RIVING.
  • {ImpEL (Step 9!)} URGE.
  • {HEeL (Step 11!)} CAD.
  • {PLanE part (Step 7!)} FLAP.
  • {CLEan (Step 5!)} PURE.

okay, what now? this took me entirely too long to work out, and i probably did it in the wrong order since at first i didn’t even notice the ADDLE clue, but if you remove the capitalized L and E from each of these clues, you’re left with a different clue—and you can change the answer in the grid to fit that clue while still satisfying all of the crossing clues. (at this point i’m starting to think of this gimmick as particularly associated with xan. can we name it after him? i’m going to start calling it a xan.) take a look:

  • {BLarE (Step 11!)} becomes {Bar}, and you can change DIN to PUB in the grid. this turns {Transitory facial feature} from DIMPLE to PIMPLE, {___ shot} from RIM to RUM, and {Hits hard, say} from STUNS to STUBS (as a toe).
  • {IndELicate (Step 15!)} becomes {Indicate}, turning LEWD into READ. {Icon who appeared on Time in the ’90s and “The Simpsons” in the 2010s} jay LENO becomes janet RENO and {Fashion accessory that’s often pink} BOW becomes BOA.
  • {CLEaving (Step 14!)} becomes {Caving}, turning RIVING into GIVING and {Candy often comes in one} BAR into BAG.
  • {ImpEL (Step 9!)} becomes {Imp}, turning URGE into PEST. four downs change: {One revealing a preference?} OUTER becomes OPTER (perhaps explaining why the normal adjective OUTER was clued via this weird -ER noun—although that surface clue was problematic), {Food critic’s business} RATING becomes EATING, {Quirky German auto} VW BUG becomes VW BUS, and {Also-ran’s remark} I LOSE becomes I LOST.
  • {HEeL (Step 11!)} becomes {He}, turning CAD into MAN. this turns {Concern for Elon Musk} CARS into MARS and {Improvising, in a way} DOODLING into NOODLING.
  • {PLanE part (Step 7!)} becomes {Pan part}, turning FLAP into GOAT. (as in the mythological pan.) this changes {Chews through, as a termite colony} INFESTS to INGESTS, {Dripping from Brian Griffin’s tongue, maybe?} DROLL to DROOL, and {Words from one who’s down} I’M HIP to I’M HIT, like on a battlefield.
  • {CLEan (Step 5!)} becomes {Can}, changing the answer from PURE to FIRE. {Basic building block of butter} PAT becomes FAT and {Slack conversational elements} UMS becomes IMS, as in slack the team organizational app. that’s a clever twist.

i’ve put the altered grid in the second screenshot at right. okay, so … what now? that’s where i’m at a loss. i’ve been looking at this for a few days and have made no progress from here in either figuring out the stolen candy or finding the culprit. but i’ve got 15 minutes left, so let’s use them.

what about those instructions? well, let’s see them:

based on this, i think the second screenshot is supposed to be xan’s original grid, with the addLEd entries “making a mess” of the puzzle.

what’s the “single ravaged shell”? this presumably either refers to the *ed ADDLE clue, or the circled letter at 49 containing either L (in the puzzle we got) or R (in xan’s original grid). the italicized parts of the instructions, the culprit is hiding its head and follow directions, seem like they must be important.

what about the step numbers? i have no idea. they go up to 15, but there are only 7 of them, and they’re not even unique (there are two 11s).

welp, i’m out of time and i didn’t get it. let me know what i missed in the comments.

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42 Responses to MGWCC #548

  1. C. Y. Hollander says:

    Read “step” as an imperative (a “direction”).

  2. Daniel says:

    The circled entry is your first egg. The circled letter for the “rotten” entry (clue with LE added) is L. Then we must “follow directions”, so Step 15 squares Left. If we keep following these instructions, we will get a letter in each of the rotten entries with a letter indicating a direction of Left, Up, Down, or Right. Eventually that will lead you to a black square where the head of a creature is hiding. If you place a letter there, you will be able to spell out a critter going Across.

    Now, for the candy. Go back to all the squares where you followed directions. This time, use the non-rotten entry to spell out a 7-letter candy.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      Wow, I missed the layer about the “rotten” letter being L/U/D/R. That’s very impressive, although those “directions” were never necessary, since there was only one possibility at each turn.

      Another layer of this I liked was how “It does damage with a shell” can refer to “shotgun”, “shotgun slug”, “slug” (apparently, a number of slug species have vestigial shells!), or, at a stretch, “the creature damaging the shells of the eggs”.

  3. pgw says:

    I meant 15, not 11, for the first “step x” step

  4. C. Y. Hollander says:

    Wow, I missed the layer about the “rotten” letter being L/U/D/R. That’s very impressive, although those “directions” were never necessary, since there was only one possibility at each turn.

    Another layer of this I liked was how “It does damage with a shell” can refer to “shotgun”, “shotgun slug”, “slug” (apparently they have vestigial shells!”), or, at a stretch, “the creature damaging the shells of the eggs”.

  5. Gideon says:

    Insanely smart work of art. Very easy to overlook the nits mentioned above.

  6. Flinty Steve says:

    So close! I found the ringpop and the hidden S, but tried weasel for the culprit. After all, the weasle’s tale was in all the fouled up clues, so I figured its head was here and there in the grid. Ring and pop both reminded me of the nursery rhyme weasel too. Oh, and apparently weasle is an alternate spelling, so there’s that. This is not special pleading – it is a week 5, after all.

  7. Laura E-D says:

    Well, I feel better knowing I got exactly as far as Joon did. :(

  8. The “Step” in each of those theme clues is an instruction to move that number of spaces in the grid in a specific direction. The answers to the clues in their “addLEd” state give you a letter telling you which direction to go, and the answers in their “un-addLEd” state give you a letter for the piece of candy. Starting at the circle at square 49:

    LENO/RENO –> go left 15 spaces, per the L in Leno.
    Land on square 49, PURE/FIRE –> go up 5 spaces, per the U in PURE.
    Land on square 20, CAD/MAN –> go down 11 spaces, per the D in CAD.

    Follow all “Step” directions, and the letters in those particular Schrödinger squares (using the clues where you remove L/E) will spell out RING POP.

    The second part of the meta is much more confusing. You finish the candy part of the meta on square 29 and it says “Step 11.” The Schrodinger square has a D for DIN, so go down 11 spaces and you land on a black square. From there, you have to notice that an S can go in that black square to make (S)LUG at 93A and (S)LOB at 99D. A slug is a creature that could plausibly steal the candy over a seven-year period and it was hiding its head in the black square. Plus the clues for SHOTGUN and LAZY would also work if you removed the black square and got SHOTGUN SLUG and LAZY SLOB.

    I think the intended answer for the culprit is SLUG, but the issue I have is that I felt SLOB could also be a plausible answer because the instructions say “The culprit has really made a mess of things,” and I could imagine someone describing a slob as a lazy/slow creature. Plus the text messages in the instructions appeared to be just red herrings more than anything, even though they hint at cheese, a garden, and …. a tortoise? I wondered for a while if that meant the creature was a SNAIL because “snail” can follow the words “cheese,” “garden,” and “sea” if you interpret the turtles not surviving the voyage to Europe as a hint towards swimming in the sea.

    I’m torn because I found the first part of the meta to be really clever, but the second part wasn’t as fun trying to decipher what I felt were ambiguous messages in the intro text. I think I might have preferred it if the meta ended with finding the candy, but then, it’s a Schrödinger crossword, so maybe it’s apt to land on both SLUG and SLOB as though they could get the same clue in a puzzle.

    • Todd Dashoff says:

      I got to the same point and was torn between SLUG, SLOB, and LAZY SLOB. The instructions didn’t make any one choice clear, and the seven year period didn’t help since when was the theft supposed to have happened? Seven years ago? Then why is the culprit still around, hiding “its” head? And can a slug even lift a ring pop ?

    • Jon says:

      I got to the same point. Since any of the terms could work, I thought maybe it was just a coincidence. So I took the ending on a black square to mean the regular grid meaning of a black square: the end of a word. So I got Ring Pop. And reading the order of the story/directions in the PDF, it seemed to me that the method of getting the candy and the culprit were probably different. The ‘hiding his head” made me think that the culprit was male, otherwise why put the gendered term there? And on clue 88a, which has the word “head” in it – for RIN TIN TIN, I thought that was the proper clue for the culprit.

      So I submitted “Ring Pop stolen by Rin Tin Tin” & as actually surprised when my name wasn’t on the leader board. If there were many others who also submitted Rin Tin Tin, I’d then request the committee board to rule on accepting “Ring Pop/Rin Tin Tin” as an alternative answer”

    • Lance says:

      I liked the RING POP part, but I ended up asking someone else for a hint (which I have almost never done before!)–or really, just a confirmation, because I had the S in the black square but thought, “So it’s a snake? Or it’s the SLUG there? Or the LAZY SLOB? Or maybe there are more letters hidden in other black squares?”

      The SHOTGUNSLUG / LAZYSLOB thing is clever, but once I found that, it wasn’t clear that I needed to, I guess, step back from that and just go with half of one of those two? That ended up being enough of a distraction, and SLUG enough of a failure to click, that I ended up giving this meta four stars instead of five.

  9. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 109 right answers this week. And thanks to Xan for an intricate masterpiece — can’t imagine how long this took to create.

    • paul coulter says:

      I didn’t get this – paralleled Joon’s process petty much – but I agree this was a wonderfully intricate masterpiece.

    • Jim Schooler says:

      Did you intend this to be a Week 1? I was wondering what it would look like as a Week 1 throughout the solving process.

  10. David says:

    Well, I got just about exactly the half that Joon didn’t, having sussed out the directions, and found the hidden head-square. But I did not even know what to do with that part, as I filled it in, but did not take away from it that it was the head of the “culprit.”

    I tried to change the entries to make answers that fit the un-rotten clues, but was looking for a consistent type of change. RIVING->GIVING made sense, but then I was looking for single letter changes in each word, and even first-letter (head) changes, which obviously wasn’t going to work elsewhere. It’s too bad, if I had looked at them more systematically maybe I’d have seen that I was being too restrictive, as some of the changed letters were ones I’d tried to put in initially anyway: INGESTS, DROOL, FAT, and MARS were all fill-ins I had to write over, and I debated PIMPLE/DIMPLE a while.

    Oh well, I was apparently just off my game this month, looking forward to the December round. Might have been a bit harsh to this one for lack of making the final connection, I dunno.

  11. cdh says:

    And a slug seems to be the only mollusk without a shell.

  12. Les Yonce says:

    Beyond close! Got as far as realizing “Step” had to be an imperative verb.

    And this morning driving into work I even thought about the first challenge in Ready Player One where (spoiler alert) they had to go backward not forward….my spidey sense was flashing red, but I didn’t have enough time to pursue all the variations…

    My fatal flaw was not to count the black squares. I think if that first move to the left had landed on another egg I would’ve gotten there.

    What a great puzzle!

  13. Golem says:

    When a meta is this intricate, an additional danger arises that it becomes hard to know when to apply the brakes. SLUG is the intended culprit, but it’s hard to just stop there. Particularly with SHOTGUN SLUG and LAZY SLOB hinting at further steps.

    Were any alternate culprits accepted?

  14. Gwinns says:

    I thought this was incredibly fun; I was amazed with the construction and had a great time sorting it out.
    My only critique, as others have said, was that the final step was ambiguous, as both the SLUG and the SLOB had their heads buried. I finally went to the instructions and decided that a slug was the more likely culprit to have left a trail in a backyard.
    This puzzle would have been perfect for me if somehow, we could have added an LE to the clue for LUG to get a clue that meant SLUG. But as far as I can tell, the English language does not allow for that, so I suppose it’s acceptable to not have it. :)
    Thank you Xan for an amazing puzzle!

    • Dan Seidman says:

      I figured the reference to the culprit making a mess was so that SLOB could be valid as well, although I agree SLUG is more appropriate.

  15. Matthew G. says:

    Gorgeous! Like joon, I found all of the Schrödingner squares but never sussed out the next step. And so ends my personal-best MGWCC streak after 13 weeks, but what a masterpiece to tussle with. Five stars, Xan!

  16. Thurman8er says:

    I had a ton of fun with this one, even though I got exactly as far as Joon did. I don’t think I ever would have read “Step” as an imperative, so I’m happy that the deadline forced me to stop working.

  17. Jared Dashoff says:

    I also went with SLOB, although Matt gave me credit after confirming I had indeed seen SLUG (and the longer SHOTGUN SLUG and LAZY SLOB) and gone with SLOB instead. My reasoning was that, among other things (the mess referenced in the clue, a slug not really matching the identity of a candy stealer in my head, etc.) that the last Step! fill suggested going down and SLOB continued that path.

    Even with the ambiguity in the last step, the idea behind constructing a hidden message in the fill for changeable clues, findable through the application of a separate piece of fill clued in a specific way, AND fitting that all into a puzzle grid that worked quite well (the only issue I saw was the OUTER/OPTER clue) and gave enough of a hint when certain down clues gave two possible answers that something was amiss, is an awesome feat and I applaud Xan for pulling it off.

  18. Daniel Barkalow says:

    I started by ignoring the messed-up clues and solving the rest, and ended up with a grid where some of the answers to messed-up clues made sense, some worked for the clue without the LE, and some weren’t even words. Didn’t notice the circled letter, and was stuck there, although I noticed that ADD LE described what was done to the messed-up clues.

    On the other hand, I found the answer perfectly obvious from joon’s write-up, even without the step counts. I’d already been looking in the grid for directions, starting with considering whether “ADDLE” might be “down, down, left” in a shell.

    Of course, the reason it took so long to get this puzzle published was that 17A didn’t make any sense in 2011 and it had gotten seriously buried by 2014. (Also 45A didn’t make sense until 2013 or whenever it got messed up.)

  19. Jim S says:

    Well, that explains the difficulty I had even completing the grid – I probably got halfway through, but now that I see the trick I realize that I had an equal portion of pre- and post-Schrodinger answers filled in. For example, I had “EATING”, “VWBUS”, and “ILOST”, leading to “Impel” cluing ?EST… No clue. I’m not a savvy solver, so I was unable to overcome those things (VWBUG and RATING never came to mind, but I’ll admit ILOSE did). Brilliant construction to fit in that many Schrodinger squares that played into the meta, but so far over my head that I spent very little time on it.

  20. john says:

    That is nuts. I am so glad this was on a month of futility already. How do 109 people get that? 2 of 5 for November, turn the page. Oh, and the puzzle was a wonder – 5 stars.

  21. BarbaraK says:

    I really expected to have to “add le” to get the answer, and when there was no apparent way to add them to slob or slug, I kept looking. Just to the right of slug is deter – aha, add le to get deleter; maybe that’s the answer. But there’s really nothing deleted in the meta path, just added and changed. So maybe that’s another instruction? Delete R from something. But what. Stuck a while there on whether to try to go forward or back to slob/slug.

  22. Jon says:

    Anyone else submit Rin Tin Tin as the culprit?

  23. Richard K says:

    I loved the doubled clues/entries, but didn’t get too much farther than that. I saw some of the direction letters, but kept thinking about the steps as parts of a sequence rather than imperatives. Should have paid more attention to the exclamation points. I was certain that the stolen candy had to be a Nestle product, since the special clues seemed to follow the instruction to NEST-LE. I was also tempted by the semi-appearance of MARS and BAR in the grid.

  24. jefe says:

    I forgot that Friday was the 30th, so this was a week 5 and not a week 1, and didn’t give myself enough time for this. I got almost as far as joon did.

  25. Xan Vongsathorn says:

    Thanks for playing, everyone! I have to agree with a lot of the comments here that this puzzle is missing some truly satisfying resolution at the end. When designing it, I really wanted to have a culprit and a stolen item that came together aptly at the end, rather than (random creature) + (random item). I settled on the fanciful notion of a SLUG wearing a RINGPOP as a sort of shell, disguising itself as a snail. You can still see this in the grid, with the letters of RINGPOP over the SLUG. But Matt and test solvers agreed that it didn’t really work, so we cut the whole snail angle. Perhaps because we were all aware of the original intent, we did not anticipate the SLUG/SLOB confusion or we would have reworded the instructions to definitively rule out a non-animal. Although, once you get to the point of considering SLUG vs SLOB, I do think the instructions point pretty strongly to SLUG: “creature,” “it” pronouns, and also “Fortunately, the trail is clear.” After all, slugs do always leave a trail of clear slime :)

    If I did it again, I would either find a better way to pull the SLUG + RINGPOP = SNAIL angle off, or simply explore some other avenue of culprit and candy. As is, this puzzle is not a perfect marriage of mechanism and theme to me anymore.

  26. Xan Vongsathorn says:

    A longer comment for those who wish to get into the weeds on the mechanisms in this puzzle:

    This puzzle combines two interesting and AFAIK novel mechanisms. The idea for the U/D/L/R “follow directions” mechanism come from an actual Easter egg hunt I once designed. The problem with normal Easter egg hunts is you never know when you’re done. But if you number the eggs, draw a paper map of the egg locations, cut the map into puzzle pieces, and distribute the pieces inside the eggs correctly, then you can ensure the hunt is fully solvable. Each egg points to the location of another egg, in a cycle until all eggs are accounted for. (I think everyone should do this! It adds a collaborative phase where hunters pool their puzzle pieces to build up a map of the area and locate the missing eggs, which is nice). Similarly, in the present puzzle, each egg points to another egg. It would have been nicer to have rebuses — e.g. UR, LD — in each egg: Then you can uncover each egg on its own, but “Follow directions” becomes much easier to grok since clearly we just have combinations of U/D/R/L. Once you understand “follow directions”, it helps you to find other eggs and in any case is needed to locate the culprit in the end. But I just couldn’t make the rebuses work with the *other* mechanism which came to dominate this puzzle…

    The other mechanism is the twist on Schrodinger squares which it seems joon is calling a “xan”. I often have wanted to make a puzzle with an initial state, plus some big reveal at the end that transforms it. But with a typical Schrodinger puzzle, there isn’t really an initial vs final state; rather, each Schrodinger square just has two equally valid configurations, and the solver could come up with either. So, I needed some way to make the grid transform. I came up with maybe a dozen ways to do this, and as you can see, decided on a clue transformation: when you drop LE from the clues, it forces the solution to switch. PSA: Think hard before you try this! It turned out to be really, really hard to implement, for a couple reasons.

    Normal Schrodinger double-cluing = finding a single clue that fits two answers. “xanning” (too soon for me to be calling it this?) in this case meant finding a quad of (clue A, clue B, answer C, answer D) where A clues C, B clues D, B is a specific transformation of A, and C and D also have some specific relationship determined by the theme. The first thing that makes this hard is that solutions to the problem, even if they exist, are super insanely sparse due to all the added constraints. The second thing that makes it hard is that our brains are not wired in a way that makes this search for solutions efficient. Personally, I find Schrodinger cluing to be a natural, fun mental exercise: give me two answers that need the same clue, and I can query my brain for ways they are similar, and push on those angles to see if I can tease a common clue out. But take similarity searching off the table and my brain becomes pretty useless. I ended up writing a large amount of code exploring different ways of leveraging Matt Ginsberg’s (clue, answer) database + WordNet, before satisfying myself that there really just aren’t a lot of nice [Cleaving -> Caving] RIVING -> GIVING examples out there. I ultimately had to allow more drastic changes (e.g. URGE -> PEST with all 4 letters changed), which spilled out beyond the eggs and forced a larger puzzle, dramatically harder construction and cluing, lots of short fill, etc.

    This sort of mechanism could perhaps work more smoothly under a different (and greatly relaxed) set of constraints, but here it was a tall order. Worth it though!

    • David Glasser says:

      Interestingly, I thought the URGE/PEST finds were more satisfying to me to solve than the RIVING/GIVING ones (though also more obfuscating of the egg hunt)…

      • Xan Vongsathorn says:

        It’s true those entries are fun. Although if everything was like RIVING/GIVING, the entire grid would be radically different, mostly in a good way. I’m not sure which version solvers would prefer overall, but it also takes a *lot* more constructing time to pull off stuff like URGE/PEST all over the place.

  27. Jim Curran says:


  28. Jessica says:

    I still don’t get what the text messages between Xan and Matt were for on the instructions page. Just for fun? I was searching those to try to get a clue as to how to find the culprit. I found the RINGPOP by “stepping” through the grid the indicated number of spaces, but the instructions seemed to indicate that the candy was found by going “backwards” and that I would need to do something else to find the culprit. I tried going the opposite direction through the grid, but couldn’t make that work.

  29. LuckyGuest says:

    This debut meta construction was an absolute 66D; 5 stars!

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