Decrypting the Cryptic: Resources!

I get asked a lot on Twitter and elsewhere to recommend what a beginning cryptic solver can do to get started. I’ve been meaning to blog about it for some time and now I finally find myself with a bit of spare time to do it, so here goes!

The rules: By far the biggest barrier to cryptic solving is finding a clear definition of how clues work. I’ve done some of this in my Decrypting the Cryptic series from 2020, and Francis Heaney’s guide at AVCX is also very good.

Working your way up to a puzzle: If you read this blog, you probably already know about #crypticclueaday on Twitter. I’m not the only one posting clues under that hashtag — Indian setter Sowmya Ramkumar (who goes by the pseudonym Hypatia when she constructs) does clues too, so now there are twice as many opportunities to practice as when I started the hashtag. Sowmya gives explanations for each clue the following day, whereas I do all of mine on #explanationfriday.

Mini cryptics are a great next step if you’re still feeling too intimidated to try a full-size 15×15 cryptic. I did a mini on the first of the month every month in 2022, and I think at ACPT I might have been talked into starting that back up again. The Browser also has a set of 13 5×7-sized puzzles, and AVCX+ sporadically puts them out as well. Next in size are the New Yorker‘s cryptics, which are 8×10 barred grids. (Thanks to the commenter who noted my inexcusable omission of TNY. Bad Stella. No biscuit!) If you’ve never solved a barred-grid puzzle, fear not; it looks different from a standard block cryptic, but the mechanics of solving are the same.

Where are the easiest full-sized puzzles?

I am deeply saddened by the decision of Canada’s National Post newspaper to discontinue publishing cryptics as of October 2022. The puzzles were made by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, and for my money they were the gentlest and easiest intro for a (North) American new to cryptics. Fortunately, the National Post Cryptic Crossword Forum blog remains up, and you can find many of Cox and Rathvon’s puzzles from the paper available to print out. (No online solving option, I’m afraid, but I find solving a cryptic on paper to be far more satisfying — give it a try, young ‘uns!)

It is also extremely bullshit that the New York Times took their entire variety puzzle archive offline. NYT runs only a few cryptics a year, but they are quite easy. If you have a paid subscription at Xwordinfo, you can still get a very few of the cryptics as PDFs. I would not buy a subscription just to get the cryptic puzzles, but if you already have one because you like the construction tools, having access to the variety puzzles is a nice benefit.

Next easiest are those from The Browser. Yes, please do pay for a subscription — the puzzles are awesome! (And I don’t say that just because I’m one of the people who make them.) AVCX+ are also accessible for the most part, although every so often we like to throw a tough variety cryptic in there to keep you on your toes. Out of Left Field is I would say on par with AVCX+ and a little harder than The Browser.

At some not-yet-determined point I’ll write a post on resources for constructors!

9 thoughts on “Decrypting the Cryptic: Resources!

  1. Nice resources and thoughts as I’ve definitely been getting into cryptics more wholeheartedly lately and had to format all the minis on site out on into a PDF (lots of blank space!). Another one trying is the Cryptic Classroom Series at Games World of Puzzles in which Part 9 is a full sized puzzle.

    For puzzles to do, also, check BEQ’s website for cryptics as he’s posted a few over the years and as of late has been getting quick cryptics published in the London Times, both of which he has linked to on the blog. For my scant experience, both (so far) have been good experiences and I’ll probably be solving those regularly when I get more comfortable. (My main problem right now is finding sources for cryptics…)

    I will say the difficulty of cryptics are very often dependent on the specific setter, which differs along with the solver’s perception of it. Course that’s much like American crosswords too, so one’s “too easy” can easily be someone else’s “exceedingly hard”.

    The only other thing that would be worthy of speaking about for tips on doing Variety Cryptics, which you invariably encounter once a month over on the Wall Street Journal as written by the before mentioned Cox and Rathvon. Someone helpfully catalogs those here. Part 9 on the link above will be a variety cryptic but a rather soft-leveled one, but will catch one flat unaware if you don’t know about it.

    My shot at it: Variety cryptics are regular cryptics with some added element that constitutes a thing much like a theme. You can discover this theme by reading the description accompanying the puzzle *very* carefully. It will result in something happening much like theme entries in American crosswords. You might have letter deletions or additions, the entry going in the grid backwards, rebus squares, or a whole host of other things which should reveal themselves in that description. Regardless, it puts a little more pressure on the solver to be able to work out the clues in and of themselves as opposed to trying to lean on the grid.


  2. Thanks for this, Stella! You are the personification of the It’s-not-my-secret-recipe school of spreading the (cross)word

    On Sat, Apr 15, 2023 at 3:45 PM Crosswords and Trivia by Stella Zawistowski


    1. I’m not naturally good at anagrams (which is why I’ve never gotten Queen Bee in Spelling Bee and I’m way less good at Scrabble than people expect me to be). So when I solve a cryptic, once I figure out that an anagram is happening, if it’s not obvious to me what it is, I’ll often just put it into an anagram finder (I use Internet Anagram Server). The fun part to me is figuring out the mechanics of the clue, not actually doing the anagram.


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