Wrap-up: The Making Of I got ninety-nine problems - so here's another one!
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 definitely does contain spoilers.
Towards the end of 2021, I happened to notice that my 100th question on Puzzling.SE was coming up fast. I had previously marked my 50th puzzle with a super-sized crossword puzzle - This month's $100 question (not a real prize) - and I thought it would be fun to mark this next major landmark with an even bigger one.
As is often the case with my puzzles, the general idea for a puzzle combining many of my previous contributions arose from an "I wonder if I could..." moment, with the self-imposed challenge of somehow combining every tenth puzzle in my back-catalogue. These puzzles were:
#10 Twelve Labours - #02 Lernaean Hydration
#20 Twelve Labours - #09 House of Hippolyta
#30 A Riley riddle to end the year!
#40 This cipher needs a name!
#50 This month's $100 question (not a real prize)
#60 Chain Puzzle: Tabletop Games #01 - Let's Play
#70 Shipwreck hunting
#80 Introducing "Where?" - a GCHQ word association puzzle
#90 This diagram needs a name!
The most obvious way to achieve this would be by creating a metapuzzle, with each sub-puzzle contributing a keyword so that all nine keywords could then be combined in some way to reveal the final thematic answer I wanted to encode:
CENTURION - this being my 100th puzzle, of course.
In December 2021, by the time I had already had this idea and was beginning to think about developing the puzzle, @Stevo posted a puzzle with this exact same solution word (for his own different thematic purposes), which caused me a little flutter of panic! However, the road to creating my puzzle looked like it was going to be long, so by the time I would finally have it ready this other puzzle would likely have stepped backwards into the shadows of the PSE archive, and no longer be so present in people's minds...
The first step was to decide on the final metapuzzle mechanism - how would it work? What would the nine keywords be? For some time I had been wanting to produce a metapuzzle where the secret to its solution lay in...
...a set of words containing body parts as substrings, arranged in the order they appeared in the human body from top to bottom.
I suspect this may partly have been inspired by a great little puzzle of @JS1's that I had solved back in September 2019, which has lingered in my mind (do check it out).
So I then identified nine words that could be used in this way, whilst satisfying several other constraints:
1. Within these words it would need to be possible to spell out the word 'CENTURION' from top to bottom.
2. The target word to be used in the affix riddle (#30) would need to have a satisfying and clearly delineated prefix, infix and suffix, both for the quality of the riddle and the avoidance of receiving a flood of incorrect 'guesses' (as is often the way with this puzzle type) from passing users. DELI+LIVE+VERY, making DELIVERY, proved to be perfect for this scenario.
3. For aesthetic purposes, the target word to be used in the 'Masternarymind' cipher puzzle (#40) would need to be of a length that was a multiple of 6. This way all colour sets appear the same number of times and form a pleasing rectangular grid without any gaps. BIRDWATCHING (12 letters) swiftly became the prime candidate.
4. The target word to be used in the central crossword-concealing-a-map puzzle (#50) needed to correspond to a location in a well-known city with a street system that could be mapped fairly closely on a rectangle. Knowing the grid-like streets of central Oxford very well, BRASENOSE College gave me exactly what I needed.
5. For the dot-to-dot puzzle (the feature of the rather detailed #70 that I considered easiest to replicate as a simple component of a metapuzzle), I wanted the solution to represent a map in order to retain the spirit of the original - so I needed a keyword that was a place name containing a body part. Scouring a map of the US for suitable cities led me to CHEYENNE, the capital of Wyoming, in a wonderfully replicable straight-line-borders part of the map - bingo!
6. Deciding on the keyword for the 'Where?' puzzle (#80) also needed a little considered thought before the puzzle could be constructed - after all, it couldn't just be any old word; I needed a word that could be paired with another within a recognisable theme. I settled on the use of SEMICOLON within a category of 'symbols sharing a key on a keyboard'. (More on this later...)
All other keywords had far fewer constraints - I settled on PLUNGER for the Labyrinth puzzle (#10) since this had many synonyms that could be listed in a hidden clue, SCALPEL for the QWERTY cryptic crossword (#20) because it was short and wouldn't require the crossword to be too huge, and PHOTOENGRAVED for the visual Braille puzzle (#60) and WHOOSHING for the 'Cartographics' diagram puzzle (#90), since these purely required a word to be enciphered and had very few restrictions (although it took me a while to pick a suitable word for this last one, as there are some common letters of the alphabet - 'E', for example - which do not begin the names of any world capital cities, and there is only one beginning with 'I').
In fact, I did consider many alternative keywords before deciding on 'PHOTOENGRAVED' as the perfect fit since its central 'N' forced the final metapuzzle solution to appear straight down the central column of a grid in which it fitted perfectly across the width - very visually pleasing!
Now to construct each sub-puzzle...
Before creating any sub-puzzles at all, I settled on an appropriate layout. Since this would hinge quite crucially on the size of the elaborate crossword-concealing-a-map puzzle (#50), the very first thing I created was the required Oxford street map, which fitted well into a 13x16 grid of squares.
(Here, Brasenose College is shaded in red, while other Oxford colleges are shaded blue - I had initially considered involving their shapes in the puzzle also, but scrapped this notion as an over-complication...)
With that in place (as a 29x29 square section), I allocated suitable spaces for the other puzzles, trying to retain the chronological order of the original puzzles across and down the layout. Ultimately the final size of the puzzle was dictated by needing a 7x7 space for the Labyrinth puzzle, a minimal 7x29 space for the cryptic crossword, an 18x12 space for the 'Masternarymind' cipher puzzle, and a 13x17 space for the end metapuzzle, with appropriate spaces for the other puzzles drawn up based on aesthetics:
From the outset it was clear that the nine sub-puzzles I needed to create would require differing amounts of time and creative investment. To give myself a mental boost I decided to try and tackle some of the 'easiest' first, rather than proceeding in the chronological order of the originals - this way I would see the puzzle take shape much quicker!
What follows is roughly in the order I set about constructing the sub-puzzles, with a few relevant notes on their construction...
Affix riddle (#30)
Straightforward. With the affixes already decided, all that remained was devising appropriate clues that rhymed.
'Cartographics' diagram puzzle (#90)
This was fairly quick to create, just needing to pick suitable countries for the cipher, then make the visuals using manually positioned text-filled circles in MS Excel. Where possible I tried to use capitals that had not appeared in the original puzzle; however, the fact that Islamabad is the only world capital beginning with 'I' meant that I couldn't quite fully avoid this, so the Pakistan pentagon ended up appearing again.
'Masternarymind' cipher puzzle (#40)
Likewise, as another cipher puzzle, this one was also straightforward to create for the second time. Knowing the ternary numbers I needed to encode, I devised a set of 12 Mastermind puzzles which would lead to these required solutions. In order to avoid directly copying any I had used in the original puzzle, I deliberately ignored it while making this one. The formatting, testing, and creation of the colourblind-accessible version probably took far longer than creating the puzzle itself!
Cryptic crossword (#20)
The first step here was to populate the grid with answers, ensuring letters on the QWERTY keyboard top row appeared only in the squares corresponding to the hidden keyword SCALPEL, whilst maintaining grid symmetry. Additionally, I wanted to ensure that every letter from the top row appeared at least once in the grid (it felt more complete that way). The Qat online tool helped no end here when trying to find words that fitted the gaps (APTERYX, anyone?!).
Then it was a case of setting the cryptic clues, which I did in multiple batches over several evenings, shaping them until I was happy with their surfaces. (I have to say, I personally feel I have learned a lot about cryptic clue-making since creating my original cryptic crossword puzzle back in 2019 - largely due to solving the many excellent cryptic crosswords on Puzzling.SE that have been contributed by @Jafe over the years and taking part more regularly in the Cryptic Clue Chat Chains in The Sphinx's Lair chatroom on this site. I strongly recommend both to anybody interested in introducing themselves to this particular breed of puzzle...)
Dot-to-dot puzzle (#70)
To set this up, I first planned out a grid that fitted within the allocated 11x12 space in the layout which would show sufficient state borders in order to be able to identify the western USA, then worked out how to plot the borders via a dot-to-dot in 24 steps or fewer (since the Greek alphabet contains 24 letters).
After that it was a case of replacing the numbered dots with their corresponding Greek letters, shuffling the last few back down the path in order to fit all 24 into the design, then populating the other cells in the grid with surplus Wingdings. In case the design was still not necessarily recognisable as a map of the western USA, I also added stars to mark each capital city and initial letters of the 'Four Corners' states as additional waymarkers.
Visual Braille puzzle (#60)
In the original puzzle, Braille letters were concealed in an image of six square areas populated by playing pieces from the same board game. Here, I chose instead to use landmarks from the same countries, and chose countries whose initial letters began with one each of the letters A to M, enabling the Braille letters to be sequenced to spell the answer once the countries were put in alphabetical order.
Images were sourced from Wikipedia and various travel-related websites, predominantly the first sites that came up in Google searches for 'landmarks in [country name]' (notably, travel2next.com). Aware that size on-screen and image resolution might be issues, I tried to ensure that spaces containing a greater number of images (e.g. the top-left) predominantly contained the more easy-to-recognise landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower (France), Uluru (Australia) and the Sphinx (Egypt), while other more obscure landmarks in nations like Denmark, Hungary, Libya, and (apologies) Kazakshtan could be displayed at a larger size, aiding identification whether through visual inspection or reverse image search tools.
'Where?' puzzle (#80)
The key to setting this type of puzzle is definitely: testing, testing, testing. With 35 squares in my planned grid requiring 36 connections (6 groups of 6) and having decided that one group - that required by the keyword SEMICOLON - would be 'symbols sharing a key on a keyboard' I first had to choose which other words to include within that group. One consideration to bear in mind here was that keyboards around the world have different layouts. To minimise the trouble this could cause, I opted for keys that were identical across US- and UK-style keyboards.
When planning other groups I aimed to get a good mix of popular culture (The Simpsons minor characters and Pokémon), geography (London Underground stations), science (yes, the Periodic Table!), and language (antonyms), whilst also trying to sow a few red herrings into the mix: for instance 'Agnes' (Skinner, from The Simpsons) is also a substring of the Periodic Table element MAGNESIUM; there are two Gen I Pokémon whose names begin with 'Sand'; both 'East' and 'South' appear in the puzzle but belong to different groups; 'Nine' does not belong to the same group as 'Seven' and 'Eight'...). This reflects one key advantage of a 'Where?' connections puzzle over a typical connect-wall puzzle - red herrings can be more easily disproven because the alphabetical sequence of expected answers is already known, e.g. knowing 'Agnes' comes later than 'Icon' means that they cannot both reflect 'MAGNESIUM' and 'SILICON' and so one must belong to a different group.
After much testing to ensure no items could belong to multiple categories given their alphabetical position - and now sure that the puzzle wasn't so easy as to be trivial, yet not too difficult to resolve eventually (it did turn out to be the last part to fall, as it happens) - I was happy to move on.
One final note, though. It might seem strange (perhaps even careless) to some that I chose to present the hidden body part 'COLON' as part of the question itself - after all, the question was 'Where does 'Colon' fit in the following list?' However, this was a conscious decision, largely as a bit of fun for myself, getting to put part of the solution in plain sight! (I also hid various other words among sub-puzzles as a furtive nod towards other puzzles on the page - for example, 'Oxford' in this one and 'Braille' in the central crossword; these are little Easter Eggs sprinkled about to bring a knowing smile to those who spot them...!)
Crossword-concealing-a-map puzzle (#50)
Describing this puzzle's creation process would take a whole post in itself, so here are just the main bullet-point instructions:
- Knowing the target map, distribute the coloured (red, orange, yellow, green) target street name spaces between the four grids; simultaneously reserve the corresponding square by symmetry in its opposite grid - this will also need to contain a letter.
- Distribute the blue spaces which are needed to form the remainder of the streets between the four grids, again marking other reserved spaces required for symmetry. Try to preserve an even distance (preferably of 4 cells) between mandatory cells wherever possible, as this reduces the number of restrictions for choosing legal words later.
- Create a hint message whose length equals the number of blue squares in the grid. Enter these letters into the blue spaces across and down the puzzle.
- Populate all four grids with words, accommodating the mandatory letters while maintaining rotational symmetry. Ensure words used in the top-right 'quizword' lend themselves to trivia-style clues as much as possible. Try to ensure every letter of the alphabet appears in the bottom-right 'codeword' sub-puzzle. Then write the clues as appropriate. (NB This step takes several days!)
Labyrinth puzzle (#10)
In essence, draw out the finished grid first, writing out the target message. Ensure that some part of the message can be intuitively deduced from the fixed black circles (as it turns out, the solve here worked out exactly as I'd hoped, with the potential phrase 'SEVEN LETTER WORD' being spotted, providing the solver with a focus). Work backwards to find a satisfying starting state about 7 or 8 moves back (any fewer and it's too easy, any more and it's too tedious to solve).
The entire puzzle was prepared and created in Microsoft Excel, using separate tabs for different sub-puzzles, and a final one where they were all brought together as one. With the exception of the visual Braille (images from the web) and 'Cartographics' cipher (manually positioned shapes) sub-puzzles, all content was created just through use of alphanumeric/special characters, font size, cell/font colour, merged cells, text alignment, and margin weights.
Rows and columns were sized so as to create square cells. Special characters used included ● U+25CF (Black circle), ■ U+25A0 (Black square), a variety of Wingdings, and black and white unicode bubble writing easily generated using yaytext.com.
While most testing was carried out on-screen, for the final checks I printed out the puzzle on four sheets of A4, taped them together, and solved the whole thing by hand. (This actually picked up one final error to fix before publish!)
This puzzle consumed me on-and-off for many months, always present at the periphery of my mind. With my contributions to December's 2021 Puzzling Advent Calendar taking me up to 98 questions in total, and one eye on contributing an April Fool's Day puzzle, I deliberately avoided setting any others in the meantime, just in case I was forced to rush preparations for this one in order to get it posted before 1 April.
Before embarking on the project I did consider the potential criticism that puzzles referring to other content on this site (e.g. user names, the wording of users' bios, posts currently appearing in the sidebar...) are usually frowned upon. However, in these cases it is because this content is prone to change - a user changes their name or their profile text, the sidebar is frequently updated automatically; a puzzle reliant on this content is now rendered obsolete and unsolvable based on current information. However, in this instance the puzzles I referenced were not going to change - my tenth puzzle would always be my tenth puzzle; I am not the kind of person to delete my past questions. Part of me still suspects that the 2 downvotes received so far (currently registering at +44/-2) may have been from users who considered the puzzle 'too self-referential' (if not the downvote-all-puzzles brigade), but hey: you just can't please everybody.
My advice to anybody else considering creating a back-catalogue metapuzzle like this? Don't! As I mentioned earlier, this was a personal challenge born out of "I wonder if I could..." curiosity. It is incredibly time-consuming and might even put strain on your real-life relationships. There are plenty of other original ideas waiting for you to discover them, somewhere out there - don't invest your time in rehashing this one: it's been done now!
Thanks for reading :)