Puzzle #29: Sweet Surprise

Puzzle #29: “Sweet Surprise”

Difficulty: Medium-Hard

Downloads:     PUZ      PDF     Last Week’s Solution


Good morning, solvers!

I don’t know about you all, but it has been NICE outside these past few days. It’s amazing to see what a 15-degree temperature difference can do to your mood and productivity, to be honest. Like, I know I will be on cloud nine this afternoon, when it’s supposed to be in the 70s (!!!!)…will get a nice run in, if time permits!

Today’s puzzle is one of my favorite puzzles I have made so far in my cruciverbal career. Obviously, I’ll leave it to you all to assess its quality (let me know though, pleeeeeaaassssseeee!), but I just had such a fun time trying to pull this thing off! I have a lot I want to say about it, but very little time on my hands right now…so I’ll be back later today for more of a write-up. For now, enjoy the puzzle, rate it with the widget, comment, email me, etc.; you know the drill!

Oh, and register for the ACPT for the chance to meet some awesome people as well as solve some incredible puzzles…only 11 days away!

Update @ 1:58 PM:

I’m back. First of all, if you haven’t solved the puzzle yet, I’d do it before proceeding. Just in case, I’m providing spoiler space below:

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Alright! Basically, this puzzle was conceived over a year and a half ago, when I built a similar grid around the same theme; my girlfriend at the time was obsessed with Candy Crush Saga, and I thought it’d be a great idea for a crossword. I was also partially inspired by this Mike Nothnagel/Byron Walden NYT gem, which “crushed” the ends of certain entries so that two letters occupied each square.

Hence, I set out brainstorming candies that I thought would provide a nice assortment, but that wouldn’t be too hard to put into rebus form. That being said, I also wanted to challenge myself, so I did set the bar high on entries like MILKY WAY and BABY RUTH; these made for some tough squares (i.e., the YW in MILKY WAY)! As I recall, I didn’t finalize my set of themers before starting grid design, because I felt I could always switch out a theme entry to fit the grid if necessary, like use CRUNCH instead of PAYDAY.

Since the design of my initial product happened awhile ago, I don’t really have much more to say about the development other than present and analyze the completed result:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 11.28.14 AM

Voila. This was what I had come up with on 10/26/13. I liked that I had actually managed to fit six candies into the grid, which was definitely more than I expected…26 rebus squares in a 15×15 grid is a lot! The 26-/51-Across revealer was a nice added touch. Also, at the time, I had clued each candy with a reference to one of its former slogans, which was fun to research. For the most part, the entries near the rebus squares were fine, given the constraints, but I still had a few concerns overall:

  • This took 82 words to pull off. EIGHTY-TWO. That’s four more than are allowed in a standard NYT-caliber grid. I wouldn’t mind that much if I still had a bunch of sparkling non-theme fill, but that wasn’t there due to the short word length of most entries. Sure, BEER HAT was cool, BOARD ROOM was solid, and VELCRO / I’M SUNK / DOUCHE was fun, but those entries were infrequent. And the over-the-word-limit design kept eating at me.
  • CANDY / CRUSH was the revealer, which described the theme perfectly, but the official name of the game was CANDY CRUSH SAGA. Perhaps CANDY CRUSH was colloquial, but it didn’t feel right. On the other hand, the theme of the puzzle isn’t anything “saga,” it’s just “crushing candy”…so that put me in a bit of a dilemma.
  • Some of the fill tradeoffs were so blech. OKE. OTIC. OESTE/STETHO/RE-ECHO. NOT FIT seemed odd. I liked LOTR but it appeared more weird than fun. D MINOR KEY was arbitrary, but I didn’t want to put a cheater square on the first letter. LBO, NAOH, RIC…etc. So it wasn’t the worst fill I’d ever seen, but when combined with the whole 82-word thing, I was underwhelmed.

So that puzzle was there. I liked it. I’d given it to my girlfriend at the time, and she liked it too.

Fast forward to this past week: Here I am now, an indie crossword publisher always looking for cool themes to execute. Well, you can put two and two together: I started thinking about this past puzzle! I mulled over the grid I had saved, pondering whether or not I could publish as is, or try and redesign completely. A part of me thought that it would be nice to output what I’d made way back, since the theme was cool enough. But a larger part of me thought I could do better. So for the first time in a year and a half, it was back to the drawing board!

This I can walk through in more detail:

I decided right off the bat that I wanted CANDY CRUSH SAGA to be the revealer, even though the “saga” part prevented the entry from 100% describing my theme…but I figured it was all in the cluing. Thus, a 16×15 grid was in order, which would also allow me just a tad more space to work with for longer non-theme answers. For the smoothest fill, I started designing the grid so that each candy wouldn’t place too close to another, similar to the previous puzzle, but so that nothing would be too isolated from the rest of the grid. I decided I really liked the stack I’d had with VELCRO and DOUCHE, but I changed I’M SUNK to ABOUND for smoother crossers (LOU/CRUNCH/ODE instead of LSU/CRUNCH/OKE). Luckily, I noticed that if I removed a black square, LOU could extend to the G in SAGA to become LOUNGING–not the most exciting entry, but longer fill is always welcome!

With that start, I began to place other black squares using trial and error, and making sure to keep my number of answers at a minimum–83 or less was my goal for a 16×15 with heavy theme constraints. Whenever there was a letter pattern with very few options, I filled in an entry for it immediately: this included the ATKINS diet for ?TK??? and Black Flag’s MY WAR for ?YW??. Also, I’d had a bottom segment filling nicely, which you’ll see below:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 12.41.41 PM

This had 81 words and some promising spaces for juicy, unconstrained fill. But it looks very different from the final product…so why did I change it so much?

Well, you can thank the top-left corner. I decided I wanted it to be both super smooth and lively; after almost 30 minutes spent on that alone, I came up with what you solved in the final product, with CAT TOY / TIE ROD / ACT UP / not a single “Abbr.” really making it shine. But it required a cheater square, which bumped my total up to six. I was not too keen on that…the grid just didn’t look nearly as pretty anymore. And upon further review, I decided that MY WAR needed to go, which meant that a whole renovation of those middle sections was in order. So I tried switching the places of MILKY WAY and BABY RUTH, along with shifting which row they were in (if I placed MILKY WAY in the second row from the bottom, what entry could I use that ended in “YW?”?).

Once again, through trial and error, I came up with a much better block placement, which should look pretty familiar:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 12.54.28 PM


And luck was on my side, as I plunked in DRY WIT next to ALKIE, stumbled upon SO SAYS I, and narrowly escaped a wicked bottom-middle section without using any horrible entries (RIIS is meh and MIRY is blech, but nothing outrageous, y’know?). Also, the E from ARSE was only a very minor constraint, as there were plenty of entries that could fill the long 9-letter ????H???E at the time. Up in the top-middle, I finished filling in EERIEST, which was the only option for EER????, and then chose TUBAIST over CABARET as its crosser, because it provided better letter patterns for other entries. I was delighted to find that OK BY ME worked nicely next to it, and once again tidied up a decent corner with ESTH as a lone blemish. Upon filling in LIMN, I got a bit concerned about the crossing L?S?Y????, since nothing appeared in my database for it; however, I thought of LOST YARDS, which sounded pretty in-the-language to me, the sports nut that I am. So I considered it a plus.

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 1.04.04 PM


Next, I decided to tackle the open bottom-left. This section was actually very misleading; I felt it best to approach filling it from the bottom, where my rebus squares lay, since those seemed to be my toughest constraints. However, it turned out that the ?????A??? running just below CANDY CRUSH SAGA was super tough to fill! At one point, I came super close, with EMPTY ARMS working nicely, but I could not finish up that small section on the left for the life of me! I tried to get super creative with the A?????I? entry, using AP CREDIT (which I loved) to keep EMPTY ARMS as a lock, but no dice. After trying various combinations in the Onelook online word database, I came across TACO SAUCE, which felt like a thing independent of hot sauce and salsa, so I stuck with it. And that brought ACCREDIT to my attention, which I’d completely overlooked beforehand. A few seconds later and I was done with what would be the toughest section of the grid to fill.

In the top-right, things fell much easier as soon as I moved past trying to do ????HOUSE for the long down entry. ART CARNEY was both colorful and flowed nicely, and the C in that entry left me with a still flexible ???CH???E. MATCH GAME? MARCH HARE? Oh, I’d changed VADIS to VADER by now, and filled in DART GUN crossing it. Anyway, I finally settled on SAY CHEESE; while the SAY was a dupe of SO SAYS I, both entries were too colorful to sacrifice.

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 1.21.04 PM

Oh. I just realized that I totally lied when I said the bottom-left was the toughest to fill. Because this bottom-right section that remained was so deceptively difficult, and I had to think outside the box for anything to work. With ES?? in play, the second letter in D????? was limited to an A, O, or maybe a T, C, or P. The second-to-last letter also had very limited options. All in all, even when I found something for D????? that would fit those constraints, I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything for the 5-letter entry next to it. All I can say is thank God for Morse code, and constructor Mark Diehl! I’d decided to do some advanced database searches with more than 6 letters, so that maybe I could come across an entry used in a longer phrase but not by itself…this is a last resort that sometimes works! Sure enough, in a 2008 NYT puzzle, Mr. Diehl had used the entry DAH DAH DAH, clued as [O, in Morse code]. Well, if three dahs is a thing, then isn’t two dahs as well? *Google searches.* Yep! DAH DAH can work, to be clued as [M, in Morse code]. With that in place, I was able to secure the lovely combo of KESHA / SASSY / FLESHY, and the puzzle was completely filled. I truly groaned at ARECAS (I know some of you must’ve hated that entry), as it is crosswordese of the highest order; but I once again figured that it was a lone blemish, and I tried to save it from being too obscure by hinting at its anagram of CAESAR.

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 1.21.19 PM

In addition to filling this thing, I also had more fun than usual trying to clue this puzzle. As you should recall, the clues for each of the “crushed” candies were no longer referencing slogans, but referencing characters on film and television. I made this switcheroo because some of the slogans I had previously used were outdated and/or more obscure than others. While the Milky Way scene in “This is the End” is definitely more obscure than Bart Simpson’s Butterfinger commercials, I felt that more of a connection could be made to the TV/movies rather than in simple slogans, and that variety could be more appreciated. Originally, I wanted each clue to read [Favorite of (*TV/movie character*)] for each candy, but I could not find anything significant for MILKY WAY and KIT KAT. Hell, KIT KAT was tough to find anything for! This clip from “The Office” was the best I could come up with…though it’s at least funny and notable for fans of the show. Besides, these puzzles I write are indie for a reason!

Anyway, there you have it! Hope this was somewhat informative/fun to read. I really enjoy providing these things with puzzles that have an interesting backstory to them.


The Grid Kid



2 thoughts on “Puzzle #29: Sweet Surprise

  1. This puzzle was a nice addition to a Monday! I also enjoyed the write-up. I got ARECAS from crossings so it wasn’t a factor. The diagonal non-theme section from SW to NE is pretty good stuff. LIMN was a new one for me.

    I can’t decide which theme block is my favorite. Probably NW. But NE is a close second.


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