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An entry in Fortnightly Topic Challenge #51: Non-rectangular grids. For the avoidance of doubt, while the puzzle set-up is based on a real quiz show, the exact scenario described here is entirely fictional!


Blockbusters grid

The quiz show Blockbusters enjoyed a long run on our televisions back in the 1980's and 90's. The concept was fairly straightforward: A team of two contestants (blue) competed in a quiz against a single individual (white). The playing grid consisted of 20 hexagons, each containing a different letter of the alphabet. A contestant would choose a thus-far-unused letter, and the host would then ask a general knowledge question whose answer began with the chosen letter. When answered correctly, the colour of the corresponding hexagon would change to match that of the successful team. The aim of the game was to give enough correct answers to trace a continuous coloured path of adjacent hexagons between two opposite sides of the grid - top-to-bottom if playing alone as white, or the slightly longer left-to-right if playing together as blue - at which point the round was ended and the winner declared.

I remember one particular episode when an incredible coincidence occurred. The contestants were a woman called Carol from Manila, and a married couple called Eamonn and Monica, from Montreal. Unusually, on this occasion all twenty of the questions were answered before one side emerged victorious.

While this was rare in itself, I also happened to notice an extraordinary pattern among each team's correct answers. It was only afterwards that a police investigation discovered that the entire show had been rigged by a betting syndicate in a far-off country (goodness knows why). Both teams had been in on the ruse, reading signals in the answers that told them which of them should buzz in, and everything had gone to the criminals' plan for the first nineteen questions... but then, hilariously, on the final question things went awry for the syndicate, and the wrong team won the show! As a result, they lost an awful lot of money!

TASK: Given the pictured playing grid and the question list below – and the fact that both teams answered 10 questions correctly – can you show me the coloured state of the board at the end of play and explain the patterns in the two team’s answers? Moreover, can you identify which question was the last one to be asked, and why it caused problems for the syndicate?

Questions (in column order):

  • What 'L' is a rescue craft used to attend emergency situations at sea?
  • What 'C' is a flowering evergreen tree, native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, whose edible pods are commonly used as a chocolate substitute?
  • What 'B' is the capital city of The Gambia?
  • What 'T' is a ceremonial chair for a monarch?
  • What 'N' is another name for mother of pearl?
  • What 'Y' is the smallest official SI prefix used in measurement systems?
  • What 'P' is a ground spice made from dried red fruits of the plant Capsicum annuum?
  • What 'S' is the location where – according to the famous tongue-twister – “She sells seashells”?
  • What 'J' is the second part of the small intestine?
  • What 'D' can precede 'nought', 'locks' and 'fully' to make other valid English words?
  • What 'H' is the Olympian queen of the gods in Greek mythology?
  • What 'Z' is a music genre originating in southwest Louisiana, with roots in French, African American and Afro-Caribbean styles?
  • What 'F' completes the title of Enya's 1988 UK Number One single: Orinoco ____ ?
  • What 'M' completes the name of Looney Tunes character, Marvin the _______ ?
  • What 'W' is the surname of the author of Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited?
  • What 'A' won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011, represented by Ell & Nikki?
  • What 'O' is an immature egg cell which matures in the ovaries to become an ovum?
  • What 'G' is a waxy substance used as make-up by actors?
  • What 'R' is a thin strip of material used on the mouthpiece of a clarinet to produce sound?
  • What 'E' is the name of Anna’s sister in Disney's Frozen?
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    $\begingroup$ To anyone who thinks the "What 'X'..." question style feels grammatically incorrect throughout... I FEEL YOUR PAIN. This is the format that Blockbusters used for all of their questions, even when "Which 'X'..." made much more grammatical sense! Breathe in... and out... and in... and out... Okay, I'll sit quietly in the corner now... $\endgroup$ – Stiv Mar 10 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, and to anyone wondering about the title - for audience and players alike, this was one of the most eagerly awaited letter requests in any episode (think about it...). I can't find a good-quality version of one of the original UK shows hosted by Bob Holness, but here's a clip from a 2018 reboot fronted by Dara O'Briain in which the immortal line was uttered... $\endgroup$ – Stiv Mar 10 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ Where's Sergeant Sequence when you need him? (Cool puzzle, BTW!) $\endgroup$ – HTM Mar 10 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Having seen some of the answers, I spot a pattern that I was going to use for a future puzzle (but I don't think I will be using now). I don't want to give too much away but one of the words I would have used in this puzzle was going to be lifeboat (which is really nice, I think) and another was going to be innovation. $\endgroup$ – hexomino Mar 11 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ @hexomino That happens to me so regularly! 'Lifeboat' was my favourite. I considered 'Innovation' but found it hard to clue succinctly and accurately here. If S had been available I'd have gone 'Supernova', but I loved 'Seashore' too much! $\endgroup$ – Stiv Mar 11 at 6:45
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The cues that were being used:

For Eamonn and Monica, from Montreal,

they all have "MON" as a three-letter substring -- and each of their answers has a three-letter substring that is an abbreviation for a month.

For Carol, from Manila:

"Carol" and "Manila" anagram to CORAL and ANIMAL -- and each of her answers is also an animal anagram.

The answers:

Lifeboat
Carob [COBRA]
Banjul
Throne [HORNET]
Nacre [CRANE]
Yocto
Paprika
Seashore [SEAHORSE]
Jejunum
Dread [ADDER]
Hera [HARE]
Zydeco
Flow [WOLF]
Martian
Waugh
Azerbaijan
Oocyte [COYOTE]
Greasepaint
Reed [DEER]
Elsa [SEAL]

The final board state:

enter image description here

And finally, the mistake:

The last question was M, with the answer MARTIAN -- this was supposed to be Carol's clue, because it anagrams to TAMARIN. But it also has a three-letter month abbreviation, so the pair picked it up instead.

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