Thursday, January 9, 2014

What makes a puzzle hard (Puzzle No. 3,309)

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): fairly hard

Hozom’s comment: “Response to a Solver” in which Hot and Trazom elevate their dialog with “Bent Franklin,” a regular commenter over at Word Salad.  Comment over there and you too can be the focus of Hot and Trazom’s attention.  Bent thinks the indicators for letter banks and rebus clues are too hard, and the indicators for anagrams are too obvious.  Hot and Trazom make a splendid parry/riposte by noting that if you don’t need indicators to pick out anagram clues, then Puns and Anagrams crosswords are made for you.  As for the letter banks, I side with Hot and Trazom: the reason they seem hard to recognize is that few other constructors have made much use of them.  They’re something of a signature creation.  So consider the Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto byline your indicator for letter banks and heteronym clues.

In the world of cryptic crosswords, “hard” comes in several dimensions.  Mostly, we think about how long it takes and how much anguish we go through in getting the grid filled correctly, but for cryptics, there’s also the degree of difficulty in understanding the clues and wordplay.

My regular Thursday posts linking the puzzle usually come after I have finished solving it, so I can report to you whether it is easier or harder than usual.  New York Times solvers usually report/brag about the puzzle’s difficulty by reporting the time it takes to solve, but since I usually do most of the The Nation puzzle on a mid-morning walk across campus (for mental and physical refreshment after digging in to the day’s work), it would probably be a bad idea to solve for time—I’d probably bump into too many people.

If the puzzle is easy, I’ll find myself stopping every few steps to fill in answers.  Actually, if it’s that easy, I won’t stop every few steps, but instead stop in the middle of the block to fill in two or three answers, and then another two or three at the corner.  If I get to the coffee shop and the puzzle is less than half-done, it’s probably a hard one.  (That doesn’t mean I usually finish the puzzle by the end of the walk; if I can’t make inroads into one section immediately, I move on to another.)

Doing the puzzle on a walk also gives me a good feel for how consistently hard or easy the puzzle is. You’ll hear me refer to a “smooth solve” sometimes.  If the degree of difficulty is consistent, there’s a rhythm of solving which can make you feel pretty good about your solving ability.  It also reflects well on the constructors, since a smooth solve means they haven’t had to resort to something obscure to finish putting the grid together.

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