There are more than two directions in the world, you know. The Vector Three has already reminded us of that. But while Vector Threes link letters find unusual connections among letters that are still organized in a traditional configuration, metamorphic crosswords change the configuration of every word in the puzzle.
Such puzzles generally must contain clear instructions about which directions answers may travel in. And the number of shapes that a crossword matrix can take is nearly infinite. Still, it’s worth dwelling a bit on the most popular forms. These are all really the territory of the aficionado at present, but you never know. One of them might rise up to challenge the square one day. One of them, which might surprise you by its presence in this section, definitely has a following all its own.
Rows Garden. Some answers read across the rows of letters, with no clear demarcation between answers. Other six-letter answers read in either clockwise or counterclockwise fashion, beginning at any point within each of the colored hexagons that compose the grid, one answer to a hexagon. This example, by Andrew J. Ries (who does them fairly regularly on his site) should illustrate the point. Note that the hexagons’ contents were given clues that were assigned a color value, but not a specific number:
My sole published puzzle in Games Magazine used a genre called the “beehive,” which used a similar hexagonal grid, but featuring only six-letter words in any possible hexagonal configuration. Each hexagon overlapped at least two others, and the interior ones overlapped six. Also unlike the rows garden, but like the traditional crossword, the beehive’s clues were numbered rather than classified by shade (with the numbers placed in the center point where each set of six pieces met). I also remember titling the puzzle “O, Beehive” because every clue started with the letter O, and thinking that this was more clever than the entirety of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I don’t think I’ve actually changed that much.
Snake Charmer. Answers are laid end to end in a chain that works its way clockwise around the outline of an S-shape. Beginnings of answers are clearly marked. The “crossing” comes from the fact that the chain overlaps its own path, making two laps in that clockwise direction before finishing up.
Check out this example from Patrick Berry and Mike Shenk, which I’ve solved for you just because I needed an extra paragraph to keep this layout even.
1. RODIN 2. CASH AND CARRY 3. DERVISH 4. NUPRIN 5. TRUNCATE 6. RINGTONE 7. O’CONNOR 8. MALI 9. ZEALANDERS 10. HOWITZER 11. GOSLINGS 12. HOT ROD 13. INCAS 14. HANDCAR 15. RYDER 16. VISHNU 17. PRINT RUN 18. CATERING TO 19. NEOCON 20. NORMALIZE 21. ALAN DERSHOWITZ 22. ERGO 23. SLINGSHOT[ROD]
Spiral. The letters are arranged in a concentric spiral, with answers reading on an inward and outward path and no clear demarcation between answers in either direction. Our example of this one comes from Will Shortz himself. Admit it, once or twice you entertained the thought that he was just a guy who hid behind lots of other talented guys, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Don’t worry. We all did.
MAD, STOPPAGE, DARTMOOR, DUMDUM, A LA MODE, PROTRACT, ALFRED NOBEL, LIVRE, MOSLEM, MARTYR, LEVERAGED, OBESE, NAVAJOS, TUNDRA, WALES… SELA WARD, NUTSO, JAVANESE, BODEGA, REVELRY, TRAMMEL, SOMERVILLE, BONDER, FLAT CAR, TORPEDO, MALAMUD, MUD ROOM, TRADE GAP, POTSDAM.
Marching Bands. Some answers read across the rows of letters, others read clockwise from the top left of the concentric “bands” that compose the grid. There is no clear demarcation between answers in either direction. Here, have a Brendan Emmett Quigley:
PATELLA / P B AND J, SENTRA / PRESIDE, MELANIN / ACCRUE, ANSWER / NERDIER, JARED / IMPLODES, CLEMSON / CEPEDA, IPHONE / ESPRIT, FATHER / OMELETS, FEATHER / EVER SO, ASMARA / DARRELL, RUSSA / MAGNOLIA, TANK CAR / TEENER, DEMANDED / DUBAI — PATEL, LAP BAND, JEERS AT, SOLARIA, BUDDED, NAMED, TRAFFIC JAMS / ENTRAP, RESIDUE, EDITS, LIENEE, TRACK, NAUSEA, PLANE / LA NINA, C C RIDER, ERELONG, AMASS, MATHERS / WERNER, DOPPLER RADAR, AT HOME / DIMPLE, SEVERE, HENS / ONCE MORE
Circular crosswords have been around in some form since 1924 (see comments), but they haven’t gained enough traction for a firm set of rules to be built around them. Answers could go clockwise, counterclockwise, toward the radius, away from the radius… any two of those directions. They could include uncrossed squares or none, and arc-sections toward the center of the crossword could represent part of more than one word, or not.
Petal pushers, on the other hand, have a clear clockwise-counterclockwise relationship. This handsome bloomer, another Will Shortz creation, includes the words TINY TIM, TOPIARY, CAPTORS, PARFAIT, CANVASS, SOLVENT, CAUSING, CAREENS, MESSIAS, TANGIER, CONCHES, CIRCLED, PANTHER, MUSCLES, HURTFUL and HOT IRON clockwise, and TORCHES, TITTLED, CONIFER, PAPYRUS, CAPITOL, SARTAIN, CONFORM, CAVALRY, MAUVAIS, TERSEST, CASEINS, CONSENT, PINGING, MARCIAS, HUNCHES and HUSTLER counterclockwise.
There’s also the stacked grid. Multiple grids are “stacked,” adding a z-axis to the x-axis of “Across” and the y-axis of “Down.” Only a few labeled “columns” within the stacked grids are read along the z-axis. Recently, Tribune Media published a “3D Crossword” edited by Ben Tausig, with select z-axis clues and answers connecting three two-dimensional grids. (However, it doesn’t seem to be listed among their current repertoire of puzzles, and may not have caught on.)
Occasionally I’ve seen an attempt at a cubic crossword, with the grid either an actual cube or a two-dimensional rendition of a cube, with three visible “sides.” The latter type is much easier to construct and solve. In both cases, the answers read across the cube’s surface, whereas in stacked crosswords they travel through its body.
Any shape you can think of, really, so long as every letter is part of at least two words. But the most complex “shape” you can think of often isn’t considered in geometric terms at all. It’s the acrostic.
The first part of an acrostic is a set of lettered clues, each of which has numbered blanks representing all the letters of the answer. The second part is a long series of numbered blanks and spaces, representing a quotation or other text, into which the answers for the clues fit. Sometimes an acrostic’s clues will spell out the name of the quote’s author and/or the work it’s taken from, Moriarty-fashion, but you can’t count on that or anything.
If you’re a constructor, you also can’t count on a lot of help putting these varieties of puzzle together. Tausig’s stacked crosswords are relatively easy to make with Crossword Compiler (you just have to pre-build the “through” clues). And Quigley has cited an acrostic-making app made by Mike Shenk, but it doesn’t seem to be available to the general public. And cubics, spirals, snake charmers, beehives, rows gardens and marching bands? None of those types seem to have any programs designed for them.
(If I’m wrong about this, ambitious programmers– or hey, even their devoted fans– may correct me in the comments as usual. I love finding out about tools to aid construction! It lets me do more things! And Mr. Shenk, this includes you and the fine folks at Puzzability… sorry for not inquiring personally before putting out this article, but I didn’t think about it until the deadline was knocking on my door.)
Metamorphic configurations, like the standard crossword grid, seem like they were designed by aliens until you get used to them, and then everything is fine, and you’re ready to welcome your new snake master overlords. Still, with the possible exception of the acrostic, these more unfamiliar forms inspire their constructors to use longer words on average, the better to encourage smooth, easy matching. Constructors also tend not to get too scrabbly with the fill, perhaps compensating for the more unfamiliar territory. In all the examples above, only one puzzle features any Zs, only one has any Js, and none have any Qs or Xs.
Still, as puzzling moves to a more digital, more game-centered, more visual model, the metamorphic’s future looks to be bright in the coming years. Assuming this “Internet” thing sticks around. And assuming the Mayapocalypse doesn’t get us.
Next week: What your fifth-grader knows about crosswords that you don’t.