Monday, 2 March 2009

Never a cross word

Does anyone else remember Crosswits with Tom O’Connor?  Or am I showing my age?

Anyway, this Saturday’s Prize Crossword in The Guardian was compiled by Enigmatist who I have to say is one of my least favourite compilers.

The Guardian, unlike some other UK papers, including The Times, gives credit to the compiler of a particular puzzle by name, and the editorial policy on crosswords allows each compiler to have an individual style.  Papers such as The Times run the crosswords through the central editorial machine and try to ensure consistency across every day.

In a way, that makes The Guardian more interesting a challenge but also makes it more varied an experience.

Enigmatist produces relatively few puzzles compared with other compilers – Araucaria producing almost as many as the other compilers put together it seems! – but when he goes, my heart sinks.   It’s not that the clues are hard – they are, by the way – it’s that there is no variation in the difficulty of the clues.

A crossword should not be an attempt by the compiler to outwit the solver forever.  It should be an attempt to keep the solver occupied for some time whilst posing some difficult challenges on the way.

An Enigmatist crossword doesn’t have the easier clues to give you a foothold on the solution that some other compilers give.  Araucaria is a master at making some clues simple to solve (but still clever in their construction) whilst writing some other which keep you puzzling much longer.  And in that lies the greatness of a crossword compiler.

Araucaria is rather too keen on themed crosswords, though.  Whilst it is no doubt a feat of ingenuity to fit that many capital cities into the grid when designing the puzzle, it renders it somewhat uninteresting for the solver to simply run through a list of the capital cities they can think of and pattern match them to the clues.

Several weeks ago in The Guardian, there was a puzzle themed around “Famous Belgians” which I found particularly unsatisfying.  Once the theme had been attained, it was simply a case of thinking of famous people from Belgium and fitting them into the grid and then retro-fitting the clue to the answer.

A really good crossword should have clever (but fair) clues which engage the brain for a short period of time, but ultimately the odds must eventually be stacked in favour of the solver.

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