Crossword thoughts: “Difficulty difficulties”

January 8, 2008

I should apologise in advance for the specificity of this article: unless you’re particularly interested in British-style crosswords, and in particular the Guardian’s, you’re likely to get little from it.

In Sandy Balfour’s monthly round-up of the world as it meets the Guardian crossword desk, he raises an interesting question about themed puzzles. In Araucaria’s Christmas puzzle, a reader writes, as soon as you worked out the theme (Thomas Hardy novels), you could simply use the given number of letters to figure out the remainder without even looking at the clues.

I should, before I go any further, declare my bias: I am a big fan of themed puzzles. The first proper crossword I remember working on was an Araucaria special my dad (Ken) was attacking. According to the rubric, “(one clue) of the (other clue)” was one of the themed answers; (one clue) was “Support” and (other clue) “to come”, and I suggested “Back to the Future” – and my dad said something like “Oh! That’s it done. Spielberg movies” and we went on to complete it.

The first crossword I ever compiled was a themed one too. My then-current obsession was the Beatles, and I managed to cram four or five titles into a grid I created myself. The only clues I remember are “Before the Beatles came a Sprout (6)*” and something about condiments in the regiment.

But certainly, themed crosswords can be annoying. Bunthorne was always one of the worst culprits for setting a crossword based on a single quote comprising a substantial proportion of the puzzle, a fifty-letter anagram or (worse yet) a convoluted clue that required an entire weekend’s thought to get anything at all out of.  Araucaria and Paul, of the Guardian setters, are also guilty of this kind of devilment, but take far less delight in willful obscurity.

As for the reader’s objection to themed puzzles such as Araucaria’s Hardy effort, I have to confess that that’s exactly how I solved it, and exactly how I get moving on many themed puzzles. Others, though, require the solution of several – possibly nearly all – of the themed clues before the theme becomes apparent – one I remember fondly involved the hierarchy of angels, some of which were listed as synonyms. And I think that’s the way it should be – the solver should have to work to get the solutions, but not too hard. As with many elements of crossword-solving, there’s a delicate balance to strike between difficult enough to divert and straightforward enough to be solved.

* PREFAB

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