The puzzles take the form of several smaller puzzle, each a take on the theme (usually a holiday or event, such as the United Nations Day Puzzle, Country Club). The answers to these smaller puzzles are then used as entries in the last puzzle which answers a question posed by the writers at the beginning of the puzzle. For example, in Patriot Games, the question asked is: "our vote for the best way to spend Fourth of July holiday weekend". The answer for this puzzle (I hope it's not too much of a spoiler) is "Join a Party" which, as many word puzzles tend to be, is a pun on the word party as both a festivity and a political group.
This led me to think about the nature of these puzzle's construction and whether the creators themselves saw themselves working in a journalistic or editorial capacity. Moreover, how did these puzzle even come about in the New York Times and why did they take the form of "Op-Ed" Puzzles?
I'd like to once again thank Amy Goldstein and the other members of Puzzability for politely answering my questions regarding these puzzle and both the formal and ideological processes behind their construction.
Below my interview with Amy Goldstein of Puzzability:
David Shipley was the editor of the Op-Ed page in 2003, when we were first approached. He was subsequently promoted to Deputy Editorial Page Editor (a masthead position), and is still editor of the Op-Ed page. It was Shipley's idea to put puzzles on the Op-Ed page, I believe as part of his plan to lighten and broaden the page in general. When he had the idea, he naturally consulted with Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword. Because of Times
ethical standards about separation of editorial from other aspects of the paper, Will was not eligible to be involved with the new Op-Ed puzzles. Will recommended us, as he often does when he gets inquiries about puzzle jobs that are not right for him. (No one else does quite
what we do in the puzzle business.) All three of us at Puzzability worked with WIll at Games magazine in the 1980s and 1990s.
What is the process by which an Op-Ed puzzle is constructed. What sorts of puzzles are they based on/influenced by?
We start by choosing the overall theme, which must be approved by Shipley. We did a number of holiday themes at first--Independence Day, Christmas, Halloween, New Year's--but have moved at Shipley's request to quirkier "holidays" or tie-ins, like Tax Day and the recent Fashion Week. We do two puzzle sets a year, which means we have done 12 so far.
We start at the end, with a theme-based riddle that has a clever, punny answer--the "punchline" to the whole set of puzzles. This is often the hardest part of the process. Once the riddle is approved by Shipley, we continue to work backward, constructing the final puzzle that will give solvers the riddle's answer after they plug in all the answers from the main puzzles on the page. We try to use as many theme-related words in that final puzzle as possible--the words that will be answers to the six main puzzles. (We have used six main puzzles plus the one final puzzle on the page for quite some time now. We used to do more puzzles, but the 6+1 size has worked best for the Times.)
Once we have a good list of answer words for the final puzzle, we construct the rest of the puzzles, each of which uses one of those answer words as its final answer. Each of the puzzles must have some relation to the page's theme, and we also make sure that there is a good variety of puzzle types--one or two picture puzzles; one light, funny text puzzle; a couple of variety grid puzzles.
The basic idea of these puzzle pages is, in a sense, adapted from live team-solving puzzle competitions, which similarly intertwine a variety of puzzles based on some theme. We are most familiar with the competitions that take place annually at the National Puzzlers' League convention and with similar competitions that used to take place at the annual crossword tournament that Will Shortz runs (now in Brooklyn, formerly in Stamford). There are other puzzle competitions, and there have been other puzzle sets like ours published in Games magazine over the years. The idea is certainly not original with us.
In making the puzzles, we are influenced by all the puzzles we have solved and written over the years. We always strive for freshness and originality, and at the same time we draw on our broad knowledge of good work that's already been done.
Crossword constructors are fiercely apolitical in their solution and clue construction, why is that?
Puzzles are strictly entertainment, and light entertainment at that. They are meant to be fun for anyone who enjoys solving puzzles, and alienating any solver serves no purpose. (The puzzle audience isn't that big in the first place--no need to make it smaller.) When it comes to the use of a politician's name, say, we are only interested in whether that person is well-enough known for the name to be recognized by the average solver. We might avoid extreme examples, like Hitler, as being distasteful, but beyond that, our interest is more in the wordplay potential of the names. We recently ran a Common Knowledge puzzle on our website that played off the fact that Sarah Palin's children all have names that are essentially words with other meanings. This was by no means a political endorsement, nor would any solver take it as one. And you know from the recent silliness about "Obama" and "McCain" in the Times crossword that puzzle constructors must concern themselves much more with letter patterns than equal time.
How was the decision to call them Op-Ed Puzzles reached? Since the Puzzles are placed in the Op-Ed puzzle, has there been an inclination to give them the sort of underlying message that an opinion piece may have?
There was no decision about an overall title--"Op-Ed Puzzles" isn't a formal title, it's just a description. They are simply the puzzles that appear on the Op-Ed page. And as I've pretty much said above, there's no underlying opinion in the puzzles at all. We weren't asked to include one, and it would never occur to us to do so.
Do you consider yourself acting as journalists when creating the Op-Ed Puzzles? Or is the role exclusively that of the puzzle constructor?
We are strictly puzzle constructors, not journalists. We do not adhere to journalistic standards, nor are we especially familiar with them. The puzzles are reviewed very carefully by the Times Op-Ed page staff, whose comments are always about small matters of copyediting style.