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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 21 of 21

20. Crossword Puzzles

Cultural puzzle

Type: Solitaire word-fill puzzles

Depth: Low to High

Designed by: Arthur Wynne (an earlier version may have been designed by Giuseppe Airoldi)

Luck factor: None

Description: The reigning champion of puzzles. A grid of white and black boxes hides a set of intricately-crossed words. Every box is crossed both horizontally ("Across") and vertically ("Down"), and every word has a clue. But you had better believe there's a lot more to them than that.

Play Summary

Crossword puzzles are one of those types of amusements which it is easy for computer gamers to dismiss. In actuality they are fascinating and complex, a devious challenge that requires sharp reading skills, vocabulary, agility of mind, and in the more advanced cases lateral thinking skills. Some of the smartest people in the world beat their skulls against the New York Times' published puzzles, which start fairly easy on Mondays and get harder throughout the week, culminating in the diabolical Sunday puzzles.

In commercial puzzles, every white space is always checked two ways, Across and Down, giving solvers two separate resources towards figuring out which letter goes in each square. Each line of letters, keyed by small numbers in the corners of some squares, is an answer or fill. In a key to the puzzle are listed a number of clues, one for each answer.

The crossing of the answers is what elevates crosswords from simple quizzes to being puzzles. If a solver cannot figure out one clue, he can work on the crossing words, filling in letters one by one until he has enough letters to spark his memory towards finding the proper fill. Puzzle constructors know this, and so they fill grids with a mix of easy and hard clues. Even really good solvers won't be able to get many of the hard clues right off.

Crossword puzzles can either be solved in a non-linear fashion, filling in what you know then working out, or starting from an enclosed region and spreading from there. As the letter density in a region of the puzzle increases, the solver becomes more sure that his work is correct, since each answer lends support and confidence to those with which it crosses. This lends surety and a great sense of satisfaction when a puzzle is finished.

The basic mechanics of the puzzles are a bit interesting, but far beyond that are the tricks that puzzle constructors have invented over the decades. Learning these tricks is as important as general knowledge. Behind them all is an important principle: there should be a similarity between the clue and the answer.

For example, clues will usually be the same part of speech as the answer, so that they can be used interchangeably in sentences. If the clue is plural you can be reasonably certain the answer will be plural too. If there is an abbreviation, of any kind, in the clue then it is probable that the correct response is also an abbreviation or acronym. If a clue is written in a strange style, such as slang or using archaic phrasing, you can bet the answer will be similar.

Most clues (but not all!) outright state if its fill contains more than one word. Above all beware of clues that end in a question-mark, for that is a sign that the creator has been unusually sly (or shameless) in using wordplay, unexpected homonyms, non-traditional definitions, or outright puns in that clue.

Other tricks are used from time to time as well. You can often figure them out by being alert to unusual usage of words in clues, which is usually a tip-off that the answer will take similar form. It is also (usually) forbidden, in professional puzzles, to reuse a word, even in a different tense or form, in a grid, or to use the answer to a clue in any form in its definition.

(At this point, it should be note that British crosswords, known in the U.S. as cryptics, draw from a much larger variety of tricks than this. They require a larger body of trick knowledge than American puzzles, but once you know them, the gimmicks are not necessarily harder.)

The major innovation in crosswords in recent decades has been theme puzzles, which offer more hints to the clever solver. If the puzzle has a title you can bet it has a relevant theme, and often untitled puzzles will have a theme that is referred to by one or more of its clues. Usually the longest answers in the puzzle, especially if they stretch clear from one edge to the other, relate directly to the theme.

Occasionally other answers will relate too. Crossword puzzles are nearly always symmetrical in grid layouts, and often if one clue relates to the theme, its matching clues across from it will too. Once in a while a puzzle's theme will be something bizarre that breaks the normal rules. I have seen with my own eyes themes that play upon the arrangement of black squares in the puzzle, themes that give the same clue for many different answers, or themes that give the same answer to many different clues.

Probably the most diabolical of commonly-encountered crossword puzzles are rebus puzzles, which may require a number, symbol, or even an entire word be filled into single squares! When rebus puzzles are found, they always relate to the puzzle's theme. They are rare sights, but the would-be crossword puzzle enthusiast must be alert to their existence, for they are bound to come up sooner or later, and usually unheralded.

It may seem unfair at first, but experienced solvers become alert to the possibility of rebus answers by noting when a puzzle seems to contain entries that are impossible to fill normally, or that seem unusually difficult, and I can speak from personal experience that discovering the gimmick of a unexpected rebus puzzle and solving it is an exceptionally satisfying experience.

What can we draw from this game?

The Nintendo DS has no less than three crossword compilations, with puzzles from the New York Times (highly recommended), USA Today (not bad) and original puzzles (fairly crappy). (That original puzzle collection was published by Nintendo, and is oddly below their usual standards in game design.) Yet another crossword program was just made available on the DSi as downloadable software.

But don't think that this means writing a crossword puzzle applet is a path to easy riches; crosswords are remarkably difficult for the layperson to construct. Most professional crosswords you find in the wild are from a surprisingly small number of contributors, and many of them use special software to aid in construction. If you cultivate an appreciation for crosswords, you will doubtless come to recognize certain names, and eventually come to recognize the styles of various constructors.

As in Scrabble, which was heavily inspired by crossword puzzles, knowledge is an essential element of play. Many games have sought to eliminate the role of outside knowledge in their designs.

The legendary computer game Nethack is criticized by some for requiring players to build up a body of game lore to stand a chance of winning. And yet, requiring knowledge of a player is not intrinsically bad. It might be argued that it harms immersion, that sense that the game should be self-contained so a player can lose himself in it. But it certainly hasn't harmed the popularity of crosswords.


Some of these games, especially the "Eurogames" in the middle of the article, have slightly different rules among the different editions and published territories. For all relevant games discussed, the rules supplied in a recent U.S. edition are represented here.

After writing this article I found out about an excellent video series called Board Games With Scott. If you want to know more about Ticket to Ride or Puerto Rico in particular, or board games in general, Scott Nicholson's series is one of the best ways to learn. It provides far more complete information than space allows for here.

And one last time, an excellent place to learn about board games is the premier board game fan site on the internet, BoardGameGeek.

Image Credits



All other images created by the author.

Article Start Previous Page 21 of 21

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