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Incomplete Wordplay | The Nation

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Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Incomplete Wordplay

About a year ago, while puttering around in our cryptic lab, we stumbled across an idea that we didn’t recall having seen before—at least not in quite the form we ended up adopting. We were working on Puzzle #3260, and we faced a bit of a challenge in clueing the theme entries. All of them were reduplicated phrases—BUDDY-BUDDY, WALLA WALLA, LANG LANG and so on—and although the definitions were perfectly straightforward, the wordplay part was not. How do you handle an entry so clogged with repeated letters? Sure, we could do one as a letter bank—WALLA WALLA, for instance, banks nicely down to LAW—but that would still have left a half-dozen other theme entries that were equally intractable.

The solution was both simple and effective: we included wordplay for half of the answer only. So WALLA WALLA was clued by
   Everything can be found in Washington city (5,5) [W(ALL)A]
and BORA-BORA by
   Island to the west—a steal (4-4) [A ROB rev.]

As we generally do, we included one entry (DOUBLE VISION) to flag the presence of the theme, and to hint at the fact that there was something unusual about some of the clues. The clue for that had standard wordplay, but we packed the definition with enough information to help the solver deduce how the thematic clues worked:
   For the most part, suspect with jeans on, having one perceptual quirk that would
   help solve seven otherwise flawed clues in this puzzle (6,6)

And that might have been the end of it—except that Puzzle #3289 later showed up with a theme that turned out to be conducive to similar treatment. It wasn’t obvious to us right away, and on the first pass we tried to clue the theme entries with standard techniques. But as in the earlier puzzle, they all shared a common element that could be dropped from the wordplay without denying the solver critical information. (The solution is already posted on the Nation website, but we’ll avoid any further spoilers for the time being.)

What this suggests is that there’s a whole new area of theme-based wordplay waiting to be explored. This kind of thing is familiar in variety cryptics, where twists on the wordplay process—for example, having the wordplay lead to the answer plus one extraneous letter—are often done. But in the sort of black-square cryptics that we do for The Nation, leaving some of the wordplay to be supplied by the theme is not common at all.

And it’s especially useful here, because the theme entries are often fairly long—and long entries can be the trickiest to clue. Except in cases that lend themselves to smooth charades or containers, clues for long entries often wind up as massive anagrams or Rube Goldberg contraptions, when a solver would prefer something more straightforward. Incomplete wordplay, with thematic connections picking up the slack, is a fine way to make that happen— and it makes for a fun change of pace as well. You can expect to see this ploy used again in upcoming puzzles.

What is your reaction to incomplete wordplay in themed puzzles? Please share your thoughts here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

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• The current puzzle
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• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.

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