To Infinity and Beyond

To Infinity and Beyond

Creative complexity in cryptic crosswords by a clever constructor


Kevin Wald is probably the most prolific American constructor of variety cryptic crosswords, by far. Unfortunately, he is not as well known as some others, because his output is not shared widely. On occasion, you will find his puzzles in The Enigma, the publication of the National Puzzlers’ League (NPL). In the NPL, he is known as Ucaoimhu (pronounced “Oo-kuh-voo”), and universally admired for his creativity. Most of his puzzles are available on his website. In an e-mail conversation, he answered some of our questions about his work.

Your puzzles’ complexity is legendary. You combine layer upon layer of structure, in a way that is thematically coherent and entertaining for the solver. The resulting constraints must be quite a challenge. How do you meet it?

Generally, the constraints on the grid are separate from the constraints in the clues. So I typically start by just gridding, completely ignoring the “each clue contains…” stuff; I only have to worry about putting in a certain number of words with a specific property, or putting specific letters in specific squares, and so on. At that point, I find constraints very helpful, since they vastly reduce the number of possibilities I have to try. Of course, sometimes the constraints I’ve chosen make things impossible—but then I just loosen the constraints (or in extreme cases toss the whole idea out and try something else), and I don’t tell anyone about the original concept that I had to scrap.

After that comes clueing. In fact, the constraints on the clues might not even be fully decided until after the grid is finished. Say, if I know I want to put a message in but the puzzle idea doesn’t hinge on exactly how it’s phrased, I might settle on the phrasing, and even the technique used to hide it, after the grid is completed and I see how many clues I have to work with. Or if I wasn’t planning to do anything special with a subset of the clues, but then I get an idea later, I might just add that on.

Anyway, the clueing is generally the easier part for me; I can pretty much guarantee that any answer can be given a clue with one specific letter in one specific place, or with one specific letter substituted for one other specific letter, for example. Even more exotic constraints (writing one ambiguous clue that might clue two different specific words, say) will generally work out given enough time to try different possibilities. (And I can work on clues in my head while walking or waiting on line or watching a movie, which is not the case for gridding.)

It seems like you bring one or more topical cryptic to almost any event you attend. How do you manage to not run out of ideas?

Most of my puzzles are written “reactively”; there is some upcoming event, say, and that event itself inspires the puzzle. If it’s a party, does that party have a theme? If it’s a National Puzzlers’ League convention, what city is it in? If it’s a movie, what’s it about?

Once I’ve got a starting point, I can start following twisty paths from there (Vancouver -> Canada -> bilingual -> ancient inscriptions -> cuneiform), but it’s the starting point that’s the key to generating new ideas. When I was writing cryptics for, say, Roger Wolfe’s Cryptic All Stars, which doesn’t have a unifying theme except “variety cryptics,” I had to cast about looking for starting points, like “what objects do I see around me right now” (which is how I ended up writing a cell-phone-themed puzzle, for example).

Your themes seem to originate in almost any area of human knowledge, from linguistics, to geography, to current events. Among the puzzles you have constructed, do you have any favorites?

I have some, though they’re not necessarily my best puzzles from the solver’s point of view (after all, I never had to solve them):
The Village: This was written for the 2001 NPL Convention in New York. The grid is a map of Greenwich Village, a decidely non-gridlike section of Manhattan. Among other things, the solvers end up spelling out messages on the map using letters written on the line segments (streets) between “squares” (blocks).
The World’s Tallest Cryptic: This was one of the puzzles I wrote for the 2008 MIT Mystery Hunt. It’s an infinitely tall cryptic, with a repeating grid pattern; solvers have to solve the clues, figure out (from crossings) how the answers go into the grid all the way up, and then from all of that extract a single short answer (which is used elsewhere in the Hunt).
Variety Triptych: This was written for a “salon” a friend held at which guests were invited to contibute artwork and performances. It was originally accompanied by a “triptych” consisting of the letters A, R, and T in large squares. Solving the puzzle affects the triptych, which affects the puzzle, and so on.
• My cryptic group Semolina Pilchard, Climbing Up The Eiffel Tower, Elementary 14 Across and Singing Hare Krishna: This was my first-ever connected cryptic extravaganza, in which a mystery is solved, and sense is made of “I Am the Walrus.” It is a series of three cryptic crosswords (one bar-grid, one non-standard grid and one block-grid), plus one final small cryptic puzzle, which I brought to the 2009 NPL Convention in Baltimore. The titles are all from a verse in the Beatles song “I Am the Walrus, and each crossword involves the questioning of one suspect in a certain “crime.” The final puzzle reveals the real culprit.
In a Century of Letters…: This is a puzzle I wrote in honor of the 100th anniversary (on December 21, 2013) of the first crossword puzzle. I can’t say much more about it without spoilers, but it was inspired by a rather startling discovery I made that relates to that anniversary.

A puzzle 100 years in the making! It blew us away. Finally, can you mention some favorite clues of yours?

Written by me, or seen elsewhere? For the former, it would be difficult to go through seventeen years of clues, but I’m generally really stoked when I come up with an &lit. (which is, in part, why I still use an exclamation mark for them). So, for example, these particularly appeal to me:
   MISADD  Put down “1000 = 1 + 500 + 500”! (6)
   YETI  …it’s but imaginary! (4)
   FOOTSIE  Reveling of toes involving a bit of innuendo! (7)

As for clues seen elsewhere, one that I saw years ago in Games magazine stuck with me:
   Controls cattle (6)
That’s because I wrote in one valid answer (BOSSES), discovered from a crossing that it was wrong, changed to another answer that also worked (LOWERS), discovered from another crossing that that was wrong, and finally got the intended answer (STEERS). (For LOWERS = controls, see definition 2c of the verb “control” in Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary.)

Thank you! We look forward to your next creation.

This week’s clueing challenge: SPICE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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