Thursday, January 16, 2014

What makes a puzzle hard–II (Puzzle No. 3,310)

Link to puzzle

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

Hozom’s comment: “A Conversation with Fraser Simpson” in which Hot and Trazom introduce us to Canada’s foremost constructor.  Simpson has been setting the weekly cryptic in the Toronto Globe and Mail for two decades (I’m not aware of any regular blogging of that puzzle; I’ll have to ask Falcon if he knows anyone), and he pretty much has licence to define the Canadian style of cryptics.

Themework (no spoiler here): obvious cross-referencing to 10a

As I was saying last week, there are several dimensions of difficulty in a cryptic crossword.  I think though that most people will say “that one was hard” or “that one was easy” based on how much effort it took to finish filling in the grid.  You have three ways to get an answer in a cryptic: the wordplay, the definition, and the intersecting letters.  To get stumped, you have have to go 0 for 3.  So even if the wordplay is unconventional (such as a rebus clue from Hot and Trazom or a Brit clue that doesn’t quite follow Ximenean rules), there’s the other two to fall back on.

So I find puzzles hard if there are obscure words in the fill or if strange definitions(*) are being used.  That’s why it’s easier for constructors to make hard cryptics than to make easy ones, and why it takes good constructors like Hex to make a ‘smooth’ puzzle of easy to medium difficulty.  When the constructor gets down to the last few pieces of a puzzle to fit together, often he or she resorts to an obscure word or to crosswordese to get the job done (I’m looking at you, New York Times...)

Cryptic definitions don‘t have to be as precise as those of straight crosswords, since we’ve got another way to check them.  A constructor who wants to make a fair but difficult puzzle can take advantage of this by leaving enough uncertainty in the definition to make you parse out the wordplay to confirm you have the right answer.  That can be pretty rewarding from the solver’s perspective, since you’ve had to exercise both parts of the clue to get done.

Test solvers can help constructors by making note of which of the three elements they used to get a puzzle solved.  If you make people use two or even three at a time, constructors, you’re doing well.  If people can get nearly all the answers on wordplay, you need to obfuscate your wordplay better.  If people can get nearly all the answers on definition, you need more complicated fill.  And if everyone is getting hung up on the same answer, then you need to change that part.

Part III next week: why variety cryptics are harder than straight cryptics.  And join us this weekend for a new Harper’s and more for Sunday brunch!

*--secondary definitions are another story.  They’re not hard, they’re just not obvious.  You get the word from the crossing letters or after you’ve looked at the puzzle a third or fourth time, and you slap your forehead for being dumb and missing it.

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