Slightly later this weekend, but yesterday here in the Hutt Valley was so unexpectedly summery that a lot of stuff was put on hold till today – a national holiday to mark Anzac Day (which fell on Saturday). We were able to take our bubble for a walk, spend some time in the garden and even dine alfresco, which is pretty remarkable for so late in autumn. Today is fairly overcast (it would be a stretch to say what sun there is forms ‘intervals’) and there’s an intermittent mild gale.
Tomorrow sees a slight lifting of our lockdown, though there won’t be an immediate effect in our case. I’ll still be working from home, but we can now order takeaways. And we can resume having the house painted – we’ve had one wall exposed to the elements for a month, which is another reason to be grateful for the stretch of benign weather.
I shall continue to try to put up a weekly puzzle for a while. The new one this week comes from the Inquisitor series just before Christmas 2014. It is within the fifteensquared period so there’s a blog there, but, as always, please have a go at the puzzle first!
At the same time, I’m going to pre-empt the reading of the blog to note that Find the Word was considered quite hard. That’s also been the case with my most recent Inquisitor Transfer of Power and also my current Magpie puzzle Spectacular. This last is still current but it carries a Magpie D grade so I think I can safely note it has been marked already as hard, whatever further anecdotal comment has reached me.
I don’t try to make puzzles hard, but some of them turn out that way. The two puzzles of April 2020 were finished at different times and then passed through different editorial processes, which means that they didn’t both originate in a period when I was thinking I should be tougher than usual.
But I rather like the idea that a solver cannot be 100% certain of the ride they’re going to have when they see one of my puzzles. That seems somehow to be more a part of the game between setter and solver – you can imagine solvers saying “Oh, it’s only X – too easy/hard for me to engage with”. Whereas the fact that you don’t know what sort of puzzle you’re going to get from a particular setter might be an inducement to get stuck in.
What makes a puzzle hard? One clear point is a Carte Blanche element. The 2014 puzzle presents itself as a Carte Blanche with the clues not in the right order, but with a twist that still allows you to make some progress, amid a lot of cold solving. Spectacular has some grid bars, but remains effectively a Carte Blanche, and the preamble carefully avoids the S word. Anything, therefore, that requires solvers to solve a lot of clues without grid feedback is going to be on the tough side. I don’t always like that sort of content, but sometimes you look at an idea and something like that has to be adopted. (See the forthcoming blog on Spectacular, probably next weekend.)
Removing word lengths is another indicator of added difficulty – something is going on, and you’re being kept in the dark. (A similar practice is that of retaining answer lengths showing a discrepancy with the entries in the grid – and not telling the solver! I’ve fallen foul of that often enough to – mostly- remember to do a spot check of bracketed numbers,)
A particularly difficult gimmick may see one word clued and a companion word entered: clue HANSEL, enter GRETEL; clue WISE, enter MORECAMBE. That can rapidly make a puzzle very difficult indeed if the gimmick covers too many entries as there is an extra step between clue and entry.
In the clues, a simple way to increase difficulty is to forgo anagrams – they’re often quite easy to spot, and they offer an easy way in. It’s generally considered poor form to have an excessive number of anagrams in a puzzle, and many editors set a limit. My practice of writing many clues in longhand, and in smallish batches of half-a-dozen clues from a given puzzle at a time, means that I frequently do not have an overview of the total numbers, and thus I tend to shy away from them as a way of ensuring I don’t go beyond the limit and have a few spare to use to make any editorial amendments if requested. I imagine if I was the sort of setter to sit down and work straight through a puzzle I might take a different view – but I tend to advance several puzzles at once.
However difficult it may be the puzzle coming up this week stands in solitary splendour on May Day in the Independent.