Fireball Contest June 19, 2024

Grid: untimed; Meta: got a nudge 


Patrick Berry’s’s contest, “By the Numbers” — Conrad’s writeup

This month we are asked, What symbol that might appear above a number is hinted at by this puzzle? There were four long theme entries. I found step one quickly: each entry was 15 letters long, exclusively comprised of words 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 letters long (in varying order):

  • 15: [Coming out of the gate strong]: OFF TO A GOOD START -> 3,2,1,4,5
  • 23: [Hastily satisfies one’s hunger]: GRABS A BITE TO EAT -> 5,1,4,2,3
  • 42: [Is essential to]: PLAYS A KEY ROLE IN -> 5,1,3,4,2
  • 54: [Watch closely]: KEEP A SHARP EYE ON -> 4,1,5,3,2

Then I got stuck. I often get a nervous twinge when I encounter a number-based meta. Seems like a simple idea, but the underlying meta mechanism can vary wildly. The most common type have numbers in the clue, usually in parentheses. This one was a twist on that idea: the numbers were implied by the entry word lengths. I eventually asked a friend for a nudge.

He pointed out the “cheater squares:” Cheater squares are black squares that can be removed without affecting the overall word count of the grid. Constructors often try to avoid these, but some are often inevitable and many great puzzles have plenty of cheaters. Peter is known for his clean grids, so it’s unlikely that he’d use cheater squares as a crutch: they had to be part of the meta mechanism. It hadn’t occurred to me that cheater squares can also be used to control the numbers of the grid entries, which is exactly what Peter did here. Look above at the numbers of the entries: notice anything?

FB Contest Solution – 06.23.2024

FB Contest Solution – 06.23.2024

They’re all numbered with letters one through five: 15, 23, 42, and 54. The rest fell quickly once I noticed that: take the first letter of  each word with a matching length. For example: 1,5 -> OFF TO A GOOD START. A is one letter long and START is five letters long. forming AS:

  • 1,5: OFF TO A GOOD START -> [A] [S]TART
  • 2,3: GRABS A BITE TO EAT -> [T]O [E]AT
  • 4,2: PLAYS A KEY ROLE IN -> [R]OLE [I]N

That forms our contest solution ASTERISK, which is above the number 8 on a keyboard. Beautiful meta by Patrick. In hindsight: I could have easily spotted step two by checking my notes and noticing the clue numbers. Maybe next time. Solvers: please share your thoughts.

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