Wrap-up: The Making Of A Puzzling Easter Egg Hunt
This is not a solution to the puzzle, but provides notes from its poser. This type of answer has been approved by the community.
Caution: This post may contain spoilers.
Cryptic crosswords are not everybody's friend... Around ten years ago they were the kind of puzzle I would skip over in a newspaper or puzzle book, in favour of the regular crosswords and logic puzzles. But then one year I made a New Year's resolution to learn how to solve them and soon became a cryptic crossword convert...
In November 2019 I decided to try and take this a step further and create my own cryptic crossword (this ended up being instalment #09 in my 'Twelve Labours' series of puzzles). For a first attempt I don't think it was all that terrible, although it generated plenty of helpful feedback from the regular cryptic solvers on the site (for which I was very grateful)! It was only after this that I learned about the Cryptic Clue Chat Chain (CCCC) - a game that takes place in The Sphinx's Lair, the main chatroom on this site, which I found immediately appealing.
In the CCCC, PSE users take turns to set cryptic crossword style clues, with the first person to crack the clue becoming the next person to set one. There is only ever one clue active at a time, and people with a few minutes spare often tend to drop by just to take a look at the current CCCC clue to see if they can crack it - it's a very casual, laid-back approach to playing with (and learning about) cryptic clues (even though the conventions behind cryptic clue-making are neither casual nor laid-back!). On 9 October 2020 I took part in the game for the first time, playing a long word for kicks - at which point a thought struck me: Could I conceal a puzzle as an 'Easter Egg' within the CCCC?
I looked around to see if this had been done before and stumbled upon a post on Puzzling Meta which showed that, indeed, another user (Sp3000) had already done something like this (impressively, too), albeit way back in 2017. While many users had embarked on runs of themed clues in the meantime I couldn't spot any further hidden puzzles, so I figured the time was right to create my own...!
The cryptic clues:
So what kind of puzzle could I hide in the CCCC? One thing that sprang immediately to mind was a connect-wall - one of my favourite puzzle types. This meant I needed to create 16 cryptic clues whose answers could be divided into 4 groups of 4 based on a shared characteristic, with each of those 4 groups themselves sharing one final connection, in order to generate a single-word answer to the whole puzzle. Having already clued GASTROINTESTINAL with my first CCCC contribution I had already limited my options somewhat (four words connected to REFLUX, anyone?!) but SYSTEM fitted quite nicely.
With that in mind, I decided that the final hidden word should be STAR, which had additional relevance to the CCCC game, since all clues are 'starred' by a room owner so that they appear on the board of pinned messages to the side of the chat, ensuring the latest clue is always displayed for interested players. I then drew up a list of the 16 words (including 'GASTROINTESTINAL') to be hidden within the game and looked for opportunities to solve others' clues in order to lay the next one of my own.
All of my clues were written ad-hoc, only once I had solved the active cryptic clue, just in case I could make use of any trends currently circulating in the thread. As time went on I began to participate more actively in the CCCC, and it dawned on me that I might just be able to get this done in time for Easter, in which case an 'Easter Egg' themed puzzle would be very appropriate!
The end puzzle:
I initially debated just reproducing the 16 clues in a post and mentioning that I'd been hiding these in the chatroom for a few months as a point of novelty. But I really didn't want this to come across as an "Aren't I smart that I hoodwinked you all?" type of post - that wasn't the vibe I was going for, as it wasn't the reason I'd done it in the first place (really, I just love hiding Easter Eggs in puzzles - almost all of my others on this site contain at least one!), plus how likely was it that somebody would notice the words that I specifically had been cluing when so many others were taking part as well?? Instead - and to tie in with the Easter timing - how about making this an 'Easter Egg hunt', setting a puzzle which once fully solved would lead people to these concealed clues, thereby adding an extra dimension to the experience and hopefully adding to the payoff once finally fully solved?
So how would I lead people to the clues? Timestamps seemed the obvious possibility, since all messages in chat have one. However, I would also need a way to indicate where these timestamps should be looked up - after all, a bunch of timestamps with no further guidance helping to narrow down the vast search space that is THE INTERNET doesn't tend to make for an interesting puzzle experience. Equally, I didn't want people to realise immediately that they were timestamps - I wanted that fact to be hidden, in turn.
It was becoming more and more obvious to me that I needed to create a bigger puzzle with multiple interrelated sections, all of which would result in piecing together the various parts of a timestamp to create the date/times that would uniquely pinpoint my messages in the chatroom. This suggested to my mind another connecting wall, where words sharing a connection could be paired with a number and arranged alphabetically in order to reconstruct a timestamp. However, I didn't want people to realise immediately that this was a connecting wall - I wanted that fact to be hidden as well!
In other words, I wanted a hidden connecting wall to help find hidden timestamps to help find hidden cryptic clues! So what did I do next? I decided to hide the words to the hidden connecting wall!
The creative process then went something like this:
Needing 16 groups of 5 connected items to pair with the 5 component parts of a timestamp (month, day, year, hour, minute) I considered common groups of items that could be linked together easily (e.g. countries, capitals, Periodic Table elements, UK Prime Ministers, US Presidents, etc.).
I scoured these groups for potential members whose names could be anagrammed to other real words to further disguise them. Selecting 5 for each group, I arranged these alphabetically in a 16x5 table, hoping that (as it turned out to be so) a user might spot these as words having other anagrams before going on to spot that many of them were inter-connected.
Wanting to preserve the chronological order of the timestamps in the next step of the solution, I then sought a way to hint at a suggested order. I proceeded to seek out celebrities whose first or second names could belong to one of these categories (e.g. CHAD Kroeger for African countries, Freddie MERCURY for Periodic Table elements...). I made sure to choose 8 of each (first vs last name) for a pleasant symmetry, and constructed a 4x4 grid of their images (as a hint to the typical format of a connecting wall), in alternating lines of first/last name keys, adding a '1' or '2' to the side as a hint for how to proceed. With my categories now ordered, I assigned the relevant timestamp fragments to the anagram-words within each group.
I did not want the puzzle to be too obscure to break into or for users to be entirely stumped by my many layers of obfuscation (I did want this puzzle solved, after all!), so I hid further 'Easter Egg' type messages within both the grid of images and the table of anagrams, using letter indices and lower-case letters respectively. Decrypting these as "FIVE OF EACH STRAIN" and "ONCE RESOLVED, SORT SETS ALPHABETICALLY" provided instructions to the user.
Still needing a way to indicate The Sphinx's Lair chatroom as the place to look up the timestamps, I wrote a short poem containing a hidden message that revealed this intention. For additional Easter Eggs (i) I wrote the whole poem as describing the process of playing the CCCC, crafting its surface to read much more generally, while (ii) the poem explains quite literally what I had been up to ("It's taken time to plan for you | A scheme of sorts, a trail of clues. | Something hidden in plain 'sight'..."); (iii) 'sight' appeared in inverted commas to suggest a homophone of 'site', implying the answer was hidden within PSE itself, (iv) the next line ("Come: Hear my tale, and see the light") was a shrouded reference to the ultimate answer itself, a STAR being a source of light, (v) and all while concealing the hidden message in the letters following each line's single occurrence of the two-letter sequence 'ME' ('TO THE SPHINXS LAIR'). Never have I written a poem so short with so many constraints, I can tell you!
The key resource to this puzzle was, of course, The Sphinx's Lair chatroom, in which I planted my cryptic clues whenever it was my turn to write the next CCCC clue.
That aside, the post itself was quite straightforward to create, from a technical point of view. All celebrity images were sourced from Wikipedia and stitched together into a single image in Microsoft Excel, using text boxes for the overlaid numbers.
I tend to make puzzles because I enjoy making them and watching them get solved. This one was extra enjoyable to make, thanks to the thrill of hiding these clues in my CCCC contributions undetected!
So much so, in fact, that I did it again! So here's the takeaway for you...
Between 3 June and 29 August 2021 I contributed 26 clues to the CCCC (some better than others). Nobody noticed (or at least nobody said that they'd noticed) that there was a pattern to them:
|Jun 3 9:53 AM
||CCCC: Top Russian team has head start (6)
||ZENIT + H(-ead)
|Jun 3 12:37 PM
||CCCC: You antiquated, second-class, disreputable chicken(!) (6)
||YE + _L_ + LOW
|Jun 10 10:09 PM
||CCCC: Gift given by revolutionary Greek character during short flight from Egypt? (6)
||(MU + IN + EX)<
|Jun 20 5:39 PM
||CCCC: Disney character from Greece trapped within wood (6)
|Jun 22 12:23 PM
||CCCC: Eddy Merckx's last victory: looked triumphant at ten seconds ahead (6)
||V + _O_ _R_ _T _E_ + (-merck)X
|Jun 22 1:40 PM
||CCCC: Paradise found in uncut opiates (6)
|Jun 28 10:38 AM
||CCCC: Condiment in Thai cooking (6)
|Jun 28 11:16 AM
||CCCC: Conflict in South Asia to end with onset of Jaipur independence? (6)
||S(WAR)A + J(-aipur) &lit!
|Jul 8 12:06 PM
||CCCC: Antelope alright after downing alcoholic beverage (6)
||BEER< + OK
|Jul 8 1:36 PM
||CCCC: Mineral water lacking a registered trademark
|won't fizz when caps are removed (6) |QUARTZ
||(a)QUA + RT + (-fiz)Z
|Jul 9 6:55 AM
||CCCC: Interpret Celsius as unit of length? (6)
||PARSE + C
|Jul 9 11:58 AM
||CCCC: Renowned university turns down doctor of unknown origin (6)
||(DR + OF + X + O)<
|Jul 20 9:46 PM
||CCCC: New UK supermarket added to every stock exchange (6)
||N + ASDA + Q
|Jul 31 6:05 PM
||CCCC: Repulsive railway man conceals girl's head and two fingers (6)
||MA(G(-irl))LE + V
|Aug 1 8:23 PM
||CCCC: Sordid expression of pain embraced by the French (6)
|Aug 1 10:15 PM
||CCCC: Herd surrounds last member of band seen with Yoko's mouth organ (6)
||KI((-ban)D)NE + Y(-oko)
|Aug 4 7:24 AM
||CCCC: Raise a large, wild dog (6)
||JACK + A + L
|Aug 5 8:49 AM
||CCCC: Onset of ache in one leg for mythological figure (6)
||I + C(A(-che))RUS
|Aug 6 8:42 AM
||CCCC: Particle identified in hydrogen-radon mixture (6)
||H + RADON*
|Aug 6 9:45 AM
||CCCC: Drive south and drink a little something from the grapevine? (6)
||GO + S + SIP
|Aug 15 10:37 PM
||CCCC: Nothing vulgar entertains me prior to premiere of Shakespeare company farce (6)
||F(I)A + S(-hakespeare) + CO
|Aug 25 2:07 PM
||CCCC: Flood exposed by surprise ending (finale of Jonathan Creek) (6)
||(-surpris)E + (-jonatha)N + GULF
|Aug 27 8:14 AM
||CCCC: A quartz floor discovered in archaeological excavation of old, European city (6)
||D(AN + (-quart)Z)IG
|Aug 27 11:22 AM
||CCCC: European city (southern Eire) beside river - one of great beauty (6)
||CORK + (-eir)E + R
|Aug 28 8:11 AM
||CCCC: African city named twice over, like in America (6)
||BI + U(AS)S<
|Aug 29 1:09 PM
||CCCC: Suck in stomach muscles and go about showing it off! (6)
||ABS + ORB(-it)
This was a personal challenge to myself to try and create a series of cryptic clues under 3 specific constraints. One of these is immediately obvious just from looking at the enumeration of each clue:
1. All answers are 6 letters long.
Another governed the order in which I posted the clues:
2. The 26 answers each begin with a different letter of the alphabet, ordered in reverse, from Z to A.
My homework question for you is: Can you identify the third constraint? Answers in comments below!
Thanks for reading :)