Oneth of the Month Mini Cryptic #13

It’s the return of mini cryptics! I decided to stop doing them because there were other outlets for them, but now The Browser has taken a pause on its Sevens puzzles and AVCX is also running them less frequently. At ACPT I was persuaded that we need more gateway drugs, so your dealer is back. This one is inspired by Eurovision!

And although this site is still called Tough as Nails, these minis are easy! If you’re scared of cryptics, minis are a great way to work yourself up to a full-sized puzzle.

Tough as Nails Mini Cryptic #13 – Across Lite

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!

Constructing a Cryptic #5: Thoughts from Nate the Great

This is the last (for now) in my series of posts crystallizing my thoughts on cryptic construction so that new constructors can learn from it. You’ll notice I’m putting this info up here on Tough as Nails, not anywhere affiliated with AVCX: That’s because these are my personal thoughts, not to be taken as editorial standards, and not everything I do will apply to every constructor. YMMV.

Well, except that this post isn’t about what I think, it’s my paraphrasing what the wonderful Nate Cardin, cryptic constructor and now editor, thinks.

I showed my initial thoughts on cryptic puzzlemaking — the material from which the previous posts in this series was built — to Nate. Nate is one of the reasons I’m so glad to evangelize for cryptics; I had a smidge more experience than he did when he got started, and I was able to give him a bit of guidance which he has taken and run with and then some. (If you don’t already have a subscription to The Browser, where he and I are both regulars, what are you waiting for?)

Anyway, I’m paraphrasing some of the responses he had and I want to specifically credit them to him because hell, I want to try some of these techniques now!

Nate’s clue-writing tips:

  • When writing a clue, figure out the definition half first, then build surface sense and clue around that with the wordplay. (Stella note: Interesting! I do not always start with the definition half when clue writing, but I can see how that would be easier much of the time. I’m going to try this!)
  • Make the straight (definition) end of clue fair to the solver, even if it is a bit cheeky or tricky. You can use a larger group to define an example in cryptics in a way that you can’t in vanilla crosswords, but don’t be so vague that the solver can’t feel sure when they have the right answer.
  • Vary wordplay in your clues, but limit how many hidden words, double definitions, and homophones you use (1-2 each max per puzzle). (Stella note: These clue types tend to be noticed by solvers when they’re used in excess, and although I’ve seen some exceptions, this is a good rule of thumb for how much you can get away with with most editors.)
  • Anagramming long entries is tricky. If you anagram an entire entry of 10 or more letters, it’s likely to produce a less-than-natural surface. So, if you have a puzzle with multiple long entries, don’t fully anagram all of them even though that can seem at first like the easiest way to handle them. Can you anagram part of the entry and use a different wordplay technique with the other part(s)?
  • Strive for an average clue length of 6 words, which is what the greats Cox and Rathvon do. Very long clues can be a slog for solvers to figure out. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be variety in clue length (note from Stella: in fact, an editor once told me to “let my clues breathe,” that they on average were too SHORT! so…YMMV), just that you shouldn’t be writing a novel every time.