***IMPORTANT NOTE #1*** The following blog post contains spoilers to pretty much the entirety of Patrick Berry’s variety meta suite, Vicious Circle. Please do not read it unless you have already solved the puzzles, or if you don’t intend to solve them.

***IMPORTANT NOTE #2*** Although the contest portion for the puzzle has ended, Vicious Circle is still available for purchase. For those of you who haven’t solved it yet and still would like to solve the puzzles, you can purchase yourself a copy here. Do it — supporting independent puzzles is good karma.


A couple of months ago, Patrick Berry announced on his website the release of Vicious Circle, his mini-ganza featuring several variety puzzles with their own mini-meta challenge that would eventually lead to a final meta answer. Patrick is well-known for creating some of the finest crosswords out there, so of course I jumped on the chance to tackle the suite. And just as in his regular crosswords, he didn’t disappoint. The mini-puzzles and the final solution are really a remarkable piece of construction well worth the price of admission. When I finished it and sent in the final answer, I asked Patrick if I could publish a full review of the suite here. He agreed, and so, here we are. The review is quite long, but I wanted to give each puzzle in the suite its due.

A few editorial notes: first, though I solve regular crosswords by myself 99.99% of the time, I co-solved about half of these puzzles with my wife Vicki. It’s a variety suite, so I figured, why not? It’ll be a fun team challenge. Second, we co-solved these puzzles more than a month ago, so my memory is a bit fuzzy on how we approached them during the solve; that’s why same-day blogging is always better. But I’ll try to piece together what I can remember.

Last, just one more time in case you skipped the big SPOILER ALERT above: the post below reveals the answers to the whole suite.


The overall theme of the mini-ganza is that some extremist group called the Vicious Circle thinks puzzles have gotten too square. They want to indoctrinate you, the solver, into the circle, and have you join the revolution. Alrighty. A group of Terrorist Nerds are on the loose, and you’re gonna help ’em with the power of WORDS!

Puzzle 1: Head (Start)
(co-solved with Vicki

So we kick things off with a Some Assembly Required puzzle. This is a tricky variety of puzzle where you enter answers in both Rows and Pieces, and the Pieces fit into the grid like a jigsaw. Only by filling in the Rows answers will you get a sense of where the Pieces are supposed to go in the grid, though at least you’re given enough information to know how many words are in a particular answer. Patrick says that the Vicious Circle has deprogrammed your head to get it out of its square-centric ways, but there may be missing Pieces to your head even after you’ve assembled it. This grid is roughly circular shaped, and both the top two and bottom two Rows have just one answer each, where in a typical SAR grid, every Row has two answers.

Head-Start-solution-(shaded)This played out as a normal SAR puzzle: tough, with several moments where you have no idea what to fill in, but then you plod along, get a Piece or Row answer here and there, and then the words just pop into the grid. The puzzle also has its own twist that’s tough to see while solving, but once you’ve finished filling in the grid, it makes determining the meta answer really simple. You’ll notice that there are several letters that are isolated from the rest of the Pieces (highlighted in green in the answer key). Read from top-to-bottom, left-to-right, the letters spell SECTION EIGHT. And if you take a look in the clues for the Pieces, you’ll see that there is no clue for Piece 8 at all — just one of those small details you might miss while working on the puzzle since you’re often not solving each clue in listed order, but skipping around until you find things you can figure out. So SECTION EIGHT is our first meta answer.

It’s very impressively done. The directions said there’d be missing Pieces to the head, and there it is (well, it’s really just one Piece, in pieces….if that makes sense). And because this is Patrick Berry, the grid is smooth and junk-free. At the time I didn’t know what SECTION EIGHT had to do with starting a revolution with a group of word nerd terrorists, but whatever. That would reveal itself later and it’s still a good puzzle besides.

Notable clues:

  • Piece 3: [Dramatic policy change (Hyph.)] is U-TURN. This kinda confused me. Are we talking about political or administrative policy? I feel like I don’t see U-TURN very often as a description for this kind of change. Policy REVERSAL, maybe …. I may have seen the term “doing a ONE-EIGHTY” in a similar context, which makes U-TURN more understandable. I can get that maybe Patrick didn’t want to make every clue straightforward, but I think a driving angle might have been better here. Of course, he already has MOTOR for Piece 10 [Auto engine], but I don’t think a second auto-related clue would hurt.
  • HidalgoPiece 13: [Title of Spanish nobility] is HIDALGO. I sorta wish this referred to the 2004 Viggo Mortensen horse-racing movie, but no big deal.
  • Piece 14: [Places of learning] is ACADEMIES. I think this was the first Piece we locked into the grid. The clue for Row C, answer 2 was a plural; the clue for Row E, answer 2 referred to a past-tense verb; and I knew that [Author Jaffe who wrote “Five Women”] at Row F, answer 2 was RONA. That gave us a potential __ADE___S for the Piece, which turned out to be right.
  • Row C, answer 1: [Stock fare?] clues the answer FODDER. Nice.
  • Row C, answer 2: [Sticks for sharks] is CUES. When we got stuck, Vicki would start doodling in the margins or writing funny comments next to the clues. She wrote “useless” next to this clue. I mean, it’s technically true; a mako or a hammerhead shark would have no use for a stick. But this clue referred to pool sharks.
  • Row G, answer 2: [Strong finish?] is SHELLAC. It’s weird; my go-to definition for this word is usually a verb meaning “to beat decisively” or something like that, but it also refers to a varnish ingredient, which is what the clue is pointing to here. The clue itself is good. It’s just that the first thing that pops into my head every time I hear SHELLAC is the verb rather than the noun, which is why it gave me trouble. See also the clue for MASSACRED [Beaten 50 to 0, say]. It was probably a good idea to avoid an especially violent angle here, plus it now makes sense why Patrick didn’t opt for a similar clue for SHELLAC.Deer Mouse
  • Row H, answer 2: [White-footed rodents (2 wds.)] is DEER MICE. I don’t think I’ve heard of them, but they look like regular, non-deer mice to me. Cute little bastards, aren’t they?
  • Row I: [Law low? / Only female resident of the Hundred Acre Wood] is INTER/KANGA. The combo of those two words sounds like some futuristic character in an edgy, sci-fi version of the Pooh books. INTERKANGA!
  • Row J, answer 1: [Gear in a steering mechanism] is PINION. I first thought this would be TIEROD.

Constructor’s note: I created one of these Some Assembly Required puzzles once last summer, and managed to sell it to WordPlay Magazine for publication later this year (see update below). I then swiftly vowed never to make one again. They’re hard as hell to construct. You not only have to worry about keeping your Rows to two words each, but the Pieces can snake in all sorts of directions. Working with longer, interesting answers becomes very tough when they can be read up, down, and backwards, and when you have to get them to fit with crossing Rows entries. There’s just no good constructing software to help you with that — unless all of your Pieces are completely horizontal, read left-to-right, with no change in direction at all, and that would be boring and stupid. I dunno, maybe some Secret Geniuses have made a program for making this kind of puzzle ….. in which case, please e-mail me, Secret Geniuses. The point is, Patrick has made many of these puzzles, and he makes it look easy.

(Update, 5/1/15 @ 3:50 pm ET: Sadly, that Some Assembly Required Puzzle will not be published, as I’ve just learned that WordPlay is being discontinued.)


Puzzle 2: Game Clocks
(solved individually)

This puzzle turned out to be deceptively hard to solve, although the meta revealed itself while I was solving — and that’s partly because it seemed easy to predict how you would figure it out once you were finished (I’ll come back to this). You’re looking at a series of circular mini-puzzles with 12 spaces that illustrate the hours on a clock face. Each clock has four clues: the answer to two of the clues read clockwise while the other two read counterclockwise, and the answer to the first listed clue begins at the 12 o’clock position and reads clockwise.

Here are the answers to each clock, in their presented order:


The reason I say that this puzzle was deceptively hard is because it seems simple to solve the clocks — just 12 spaces, only four clues in each one….couldn’t be that tough, right? The problem is that there’s not much information to help you out. Patrick said the first listed clue for each clock would read clockwise beginning at 12 o’clock, but the remaining three clues were listed in random order, they could refer to answers that started at any position, and they could be read in either direction. If you could not figure out the answer to the first clue, it quickly became very tough to fill in the rest of it. And if the other clues were especially tough…..then good luck.

Take for example the tenth clock, with the hour hand at 9. None of the four clues there were especially friendly. The first clue was [Like Cook’s explorations]. First, you have to know who the clue is referring to: Captain Cook, the British explorer who sailed to Australia and the Hawaiian Islands? Nope, it’s instead Frederick Cook, the American explorer who sailed to the North Pole; and naturally, I came up blank on this at first. Two other clues were [Classic jukebox brand (Hyph.)] — no idea — and [“Mineraloid” birthstone], which I thought might be OPAL, but other crossword-friendly gemstones like RUBY or PEARL or even PERIDOT seemed plausible. The only reason I got this was because the clue [“My Darling Clementine” setting (2 wds.)] saved me. I knew that one instantly — it’s the OK CORRAL. I’ve never seen the movie, but I once used that exact clue for the same answer in a puzzle of my own. If I didn’t know that piece of trivia, I would never have solved this clock at all. The -LAR of OK CORRAL helped me remember that the aforementioned Cook was a POLAR explorer, and the PO- of POLAR suggested the beginning of OPAL, reading backwards. That finally gave me ROCKOLA for the jukebox brand, and I just shrugged and said, “Okay, I guess that’s right.”

So each clock can range from easy-ish to very tough, but they are all solvable with patience. Now, onto the meta. You’ll see that the hour hands of the clocks point to different numbers. I predicted from the start that their positions would be important, and they were. Rearranging the clocks from earliest to latest:


The hour hands point to a series of letters that, when read in numerical order, spell BACKGAMMON. That’s the game you’re looking for in the Game Clocks, and is our second meta answer. You could be forgiven if, like me, you also initially tried to spell something with the letters indicated by the minute hands, but they give you APHWLRARPA, which is nonsense.

Once again, it’s a solid and well-crafted puzzle. It’s cool to see how each pair of words can overlap with a pair of different words but reading in the opposite direction. It’s a tad strange that there were no clocks with the hour hands pointing to 11 or 12 — I thought it might be nice to get the full revolution in a meta suite about circles — but that’s a very, very tiny nit. I will say that this puzzle was probably more frustrating for me than the others just because I felt like a lot hinged on your ability to crack the answer to the first clue for each clock, although in some cases I was able to solve the clock by getting the other answers. Plus, in fairness, I was able to solve the whole thing eventually, and you could always use Google in some places if you get stuck.

With that said, I have a confession: I wasn’t able to solve every clock last month. I left two of them (the ones with the hour hands at 8 and 5) mostly blank. It was only after I came back to retry them this past Saturday that I finally finished them. It didn’t matter, though, because once I gathered that the hour hands were spelling out the relevant word, I mostly had the right meta answer with only five or six clocks correctly filled in (I had something like B_CK__M_ON, and it was game over at that point). So I guess one downside is that you could solve the meta before completing all of the clocks, but the meta’s the most important thing, so no major harm done.

Notable clues:

  • Clock with the hour hand at 2: [Player on the bench?] is PIANIST. Fun clue.
  • Clock with the hour hand at 3: [Explorer for whom America was named] is Amerigo VESPUCCI. That was a nice gimme for me, as that helped me see that the letter string -PUCCI forms the final five letters of the answer to the first clue [Drunk’s sound], HICCUP, when read backwards.
  • Kate-Moss-heroin-chicClock with the hour hand at 4: [Model associated with “heroin chic” (2 wds.)] is KATE MOSS. I did not know this.
  • Clock with the hour hand at 5: [1977 comedy boycotted by several religious groups (2 wds.)] is OH GOD. This was part of one clock that I couldn’t figure out last month. The whole time I wanted the answer to be LIFE OF BRIAN, but that’s far too long (and also a 1979 movie….and also not 2 words).
  • Clock with the hour hand at 7: [The “A” of A&M Records] is ALPERT. Didn’t know this trivia either, but it’s the named after the “Spanish Flea” musician Herb Alpert, who I did know. The “M” stands for MOSS (not KATE MOSS).
  • Clock with the hour hand at 8: [Deplaning announcement?] is GERONIMO. I love this clue. This was part of the other clock that I couldn’t solve last month, though in retrospect it feels like it should have been easier. The first clue was [Government in power], and another clue was [Patrick’s “Ghost” co-star], which I knew was DEMI. Why my brain couldn’t come up with REGIME for the former, I don’t know.


Puzzle 3: Logic Circuits
(co-solved with Vicki)

This puzzle had both a visual and a wordplay element that, like the Game Clocks puzzle, turned out to be much harder than I originally expected. The first step was to identify all 24 of the following pictures, labeled with the index letters A through X, using one word for each:


For the most part that’s pretty easy, although some pictures don’t have a clear-cut answer, like the one for picture O. Is it SATAN, or DEVIL? It turned out to be DEVIL. Same situation with C. Is it CHINCHILLA? Is it FUR? No, it turns out to be STOLE. In each of these cases, you know what the picture is, but until you can figure out the next part of the puzzle, it’s hard to solidify the right word for it. I actually really struggled with picture K. I thought it was a TREE, and wouldn’t let that thought go until I showed Vicki the picture and she said, “Oh, it’s COTTON.” I didn’t know that picture was similar to the logo for Cotton Incorporated, but she did, thankfully — and in my defense, if the rest of the pictures weren’t in black-and-white and shades of gray, I might have seen that it was a picture of cotton too. Anyhow, Patrick enlisted puzzlemaker Todd McClary to do some sweet artwork here, and there are some parts of the design that, while seemingly trivial, actually make it easier to identify the pictures. For example, if that bag isn’t in the design for picture S, you might not know it was a MARBLE, since it could otherwise look like just a random ball or sphere. This is probably why playing a game like Pictionary can be tough — it’s not always easy to create a picture that unambiguously hints at the right word, especially if you suck at drawing like I do.

Those small struggles aside, the second part of the puzzle was where the real challenge came in. You had to group all of those one-word picture answers into categories of three and place their index letters in the appropriate sections of overlapping Venn diagrams. The problem was, each of the 12 categories had several missing letters and you had to fill them in, based on logic and the clues given in the pictures. Some of the categories came easily to me. I saw that P___-T____ V____ would be PAST-TENSE VERBS, and that made ROSE, STOLE, and SAW my three pictures for that category. F___ THAT’S Y_____ was FOOD THAT’S YELLOW, which made perfect sense given the pictures of BANANAS, BUTTER, and CORN. Other categories, however, were very tough to figure out, like F___  ____. What? That could be anything. The second word in that example was meant to be a real fill-in-the-blank, where the picture words themselves could substitute in that spot, but what on earth could the first word be? FLAT? FISH? FACE?

This was kind of like that classic MENSA quiz where you’re given clues like 24 H. in a D., in which you’re supposed to figure out that the H and the D are the first initials of “Hour” and “Day,” although that didn’t have any pictures to help you out. Patrick does give you a little bit of additional help from the fact that the adjacent categories overlapped, so some of the picture words would be pulling double duty. Take the category N__ W____ WHEN R___ B_______, which was next to PAST-TENSE VERBS. If you could figure out that the category was NEW WORDS WHEN READ BACKWARDS, you could get a lot of information about the commonalities between seemingly disparate pictures words. The three picture words that spell different words when you read them backward are SAW, DEVIL, and NUTS — which took care of that previously mentioned problem of “Is it SATAN or DEVIL,” since NATAS isn’t a thing. You’ll also see that SAW is now in two categories, so you would place the index letter for the SAW picture (J) in the space where both categories overlap.

Here is the complete diagram after filling in all of the necessary blanks and putting all 24 of the pictures’ index letters in the right Venn diagram sections:


The 12 index letters that did not overlap between categories, when read clockwise beginning from the top of the diagram, spells out COMPUTER DISK. So that’s our third meta answer, and it has a decent tie-in with the concept of circuits. There doesn’t seem to be any apparent pattern between SECTION EIGHT, BACKGAMMON, and COMPUTER DISK, but of course we can just trust that it will make sense in the end.

There are a few things that I think makes this particular mini-meta pretty remarkable and well-executed. First and foremost, every picture word clearly fits into its category — no iffiness about any of them. I mean, maybe I wish there were something a little more interesting to grouping TOUPEE, CABOOSE, and HOUSE together other than the fact that they have more vowels than consonants, but who cares? Second, Patrick had to make sure that his overlapping picture words intersected exactly two categories, and nothing else. I feel like this is where a lot could have gone wrong. For instance, ROSE can be a past-tense verb and a college bowl game ….. but if it were also a new word when read backward, or the name of a card game, then that would destroy the elegance of the puzzle, since the solver probably wouldn’t know where to put the correct words. Finally, all of Patrick’s chosen picture words needed to be things that Todd McClary could reasonably draw! If the only way he could form the circuit forced him to use some bizarre noun or abstract concept that you can’t really draw in a simple picture — like PROGNOSTICATION — then the puzzle would be impossible (I suppose in that case he could have ditched the concept of pictures altogether and used word clues, but the pictures add a fun touch to the suite; basically, thumbs up for pictures).

Rose-BowlOther solving notes: while I was able to figure out most of the categories on my own, Vicki took out the final two where I really struggled. She reasoned that the second word of the ____ C___ category was CHIP, and then she got the last category which should have absolutely been in my wheelhouse but, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t see it. She solved C______ B___ G____ as COLLEGE BOWL GAMES. It wasn’t enough that I already knew by then that COTTON was one of the three answers, and that ROSE and ORANGE were distinct possibilities for the other two. I’m the one in this marriage who watches sports and follows sports all the time, where she doesn’t much care for them! You know what they say: “Opposites attract.” You know what they also say? “Give Vicki all of the sports clues because you just don’t know what you’re doing with them, Evan.”


Puzzle 4: Shooting Hoops
(co-solved with Vicki)

For me, the Shooting Hoops mini-meta was by far the hardest of all the mini-meta puzzles to complete. Vicki and I stalled out on this one at several points, and had to put the puzzle down and come back to it at least once. But like in the previous puzzles, the meta turns out to be pretty easy once you’ve filled in the grid. That seems to be the prevailing pattern of the Vicious Circle, at least for most of the mini-metas: very hard variety puzzles, but if you can persevere through them, the meta elements are simple after that.

The grid itself is large and you’re only given a small amount of information for getting started. It’s a bit difficult to put the instructions into clearer language than what Patrick already said, so I’m just gonna let Patrick explain it:

“Each ring of the grid contains a series of words placed end to end, reading either clockwise or counterclockwise; all the words in a given ring will read in the same direction. Ring 1 (the outer ring) contains eight answers that read clockwise; the starting spaces are numbered in the grid. Clues for the answers in the remaining rings are given in order, but their starting points and direction are left for you to determine. The grid’s sections (separated by the heavy lines radiating from the center) will help you place the inner rings: In a given section, each ring segment contains all but one of the letters in the next segment outward. In other words, a section’s outermost segment contains eight letters; the next segment inward contains seven of those eight letters in some order; and so on, until only one of the original eight letters in each section remains.”

Got all that? Okay. There appear to be two additional circles, one white and one black, at the top and bottom of the grid. Hmmm.


As far as I can tell, since you don’t know where the answers in the inner rings start or which direction they run, the best strategy for beginning the puzzle is to get cracking on the outermost ring. If you can get those answers, you can at least get a sense of what letters will likely appear in the rings below. I had a couple of early gimmes in Ring 1: the eight-letter answer to the clue [Geto Boys or Wu-Tang Clan, e.g. (2 wds.)] was RAP GROUP, and the next clue [Unlikely parolee] produced LIFER. Vicki then got CHIQUITA for the clue [Big name in bananas], and we thought that Q could prove valuable for getting an answer in Ring 2 — although there was always the chance that Patrick just dropped it right away.

Eventually we had most of the outer ring figured out, except we couldn’t remember how to spell the answer to the clue [Tiny Tim’s surname in “A Christmas Carol”]: CRATCHIT? or CRATCHET? It may not seem like a big deal, but when you’re trying to determine if one of those letters can be dropped in the next ring down, that little spelling confusion could make things pretty tough (CRATCHIT is the correct spelling). I also had an early mistake in Ring 1 which took quite a while to undo: I had STRANDED for the clue [Discarded as useless]. The correct answer was SCRAPPED.

Now, even though we had most of the outermost ring correct, we still couldn’t get much traction in the next ring. This is where the innermost ring helps a lot. The clue in Ring 8 was [Siam, nowadays]. That’s THAILAND. Based on all the information we had about the outermost ring — in particular the fact that there appeared to be amazingly just one L in Ring 1 — we found we could enter all of the letters in THAILAND in the correct counterclockwise direction in Ring 8. From there, we basically solved the rest of the grid from the center and moving outward. Because there are fewer clues in the innermost rings, it just becomes easier to work out individual “pie slice” sections with fewer possible letters to deal with.

When the grid is complete, you’re given a single clue at the bottom of the puzzle:


That black circle provides the key to figuring out the meta: take the letters that have been dropped in each successive ring in the top and bottom “pie slices” of the grid. The dropped letters in the top section, in order, are TARGETP. The dropped letters in the bottom section, in order, are RACTICE. Put them together, and you get TARGET PRACTICE, the answer to the fourth meta.


Despite the sheer difficulty in completing the puzzle, I think it was very satisfying. The meta answer was appropriate and, once again, there’s basically no crap in the grid at all, so it was a tough but completely fair solve. If I had one criticism, it would probably be that it would have been nice if the meta answer had the same number of letters in each word, so that you’re not left with left with fragments like TARGETP and RACTICE. But really, that’s the minor-est of minor nitpicks that you have to stretch to find. Considering how hard it must have been to get the eight rings to cooperate with all of the dropped letters in all eight pie slice sections and keep the fill smooth AND get the meta to click, I really don’t mind that issue one bit. It’s worth noting that Patrick made the puzzle harder by not telling you from the start which directions the answers in Rings 2-8 must be entered. If you look at the finished grid, all odd-numbered rings have clockwise answers, where the even-numbered rings have counterclockwise answers. Having that information at the start might have made the solve a bit easier, but still very tough overall.

Notable clues:

  • Ring 2: [Wasteful with one’s money] is PROFLIGATE. No matter how many times I hear or read this word, I never, ever remember what it means. Here’s hoping that blogging about it makes it stick.
  • George-McFlyRing 3: [“Back to the Future” actor Glover] is CRISPIN, who played Marty McFly’s dad George. I have to say it blew my mind when I found out that Michael J. Fox is older than Glover in real life, so……George McFly was younger than his son? I mean, the movie was about time travel, and all, but…..
  • Ring 3: [Become the focal point (3 wds.)] is TAKE CENTER STAGE. So, I have no idea how to go about making one of these puzzles, but I have a feeling this could have been one of the first answers in the grid after the meta letters. It’s the longest grid entry by far, but all those Scrabble-friendly letters probably make it easier to find words in the adjacent rings with similar letters.
  • Ring 4: [Grammatical “dangler”] is PARTICIPLE. This was another danger zone for us, as we kept trying to convince ourselves it was MODIFIER.
  • Ring 5: [“An animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground”: H.L. Mencken] is POLITICIAN. Nice clue.
  • Ring 7: [Chocolate/vanilla/strawberry ice cream combo] is a NEAPOLITAN. We were originally confusing this with a NAPOLEON, which is a non-ice cream-based dessert.


Puzzle 5: Balls
(solved individually)

The final mini-meta puzzle is a word search: a word search about Balls. And because it’s a word search, it was probably the easiest of the mini-metas to complete. It did, however, give Patrick the opportunity to drop his raciest bit in the puzzle’s intro:

“There’s one more thing a successful revolutionary needs, and that’s …. the ability to solve word finds. (Why, what did you think I was going to say?)”

Tee-hee. The adolescent in me both titters and approves.

Balls-solution-(unshaded)So this word search has an interesting little twist: the 25 gray spheres in the grid should be understood as either a single letter or the word BALL, depending on the circumstances. Patrick managed to squeeze 32 words and phrases with the letter sequence B-A-L-L in them into the grid, with some lively entries like FANTASY FOOTBALL, BALL AND CHAIN, PAINTBALL, HAD A BALL, MASKED BALL, and others. Sometimes it could be a bit tricky to find the right ones, given that the spheres could mean one of two different things. On the far left side of the grid, the sequence (Sphere)-P-I-(Sphere) signified the answer BALL PIT — the first sphere was a BALL and the second sphere was acting as the letter T. It’s not easy to see that at first since the balls take up half of that answer in the grid and the sequence -PI- doesn’t exactly jump off the page at you, but it’s not too tough to find all of the answers in relatively short time. The only thing to keep track of is that you need to record the instance of the single letter in the balls as you solve — it’s necessary for the meta.

When I finished, my first thought was that the instances where an answer contained BALL could be replaced by a single later when it was part of a different answer, and you would just match up the replacement letter with the corresponding entry. For instance, you’ll find the answer BALL AND CHAIN reading left-to-right in the third row; that initial BALL becomes an A in the crossing diagonal answer FASTBALL, so you would then write an A next to BALL AND CHAIN in the word list. I thought maybe the changed letters for all of the words in the list would spell out a message if you wrote them in order. So it’s A for BALL AND CHAIN, O for BALL CAP, M for BALL PIT ….. AOM-? No, this clearly wasn’t going anywhere.

Fortunately I remembered the age-old word search trick of looking at all of the leftover uncircled letters. Read in order from top-to-bottom, right-to-left, they spell REMOVE MOTHBALLS. Then it became apparent what you needed to do: cross out all of the balls with the letters M, O, T, and H.


Now look at the remaining balls, read in order: they spell FANCY DRESS, which is our fifth meta answer. Neat, huh? A fancy dress is something you’d wear to a ball, and the dress wouldn’t be fancy if it had mothballs in it.

Even though I found this to be a simpler challenge than the previous puzzles, it’s still impressive how Patrick managed to hide the meta. First he had to find enough BALL phrases that could fit together in a way such that the BALLs could be replaced with the appropriate single letters, but he still had to leave just enough space for solvers to find the hidden message REMOVE MOTHBALLS. Look at how much he jam-packed in the grid. I’ve never made a word search before, but it strikes me as a pretty difficult constructing challenge to basically make every single letter in a grid as relevant to a meta, whether as a regular circled letter, a sphere pulling double duty as two different things, or as an uncircled letter in a key hint.

Now, having said that, I do have a couple of quibbles. You’ll notice that in some cases, the letter sequence B-A-L-L is hidden inside a longer word that really has nothing to do with the concept of balls, like in BALLERINA, the golfer Seve BALLESTEROS, BALLOON, CABALLERO, GLOBALLY, SECRET BALLOT, and SUBALLIANCE. I probably would have preferred it if all 32 words had been directly related to balls — some omissions from the grid include BASKETBALL, CUE BALL, GOLF BALL, PINBALL, and BALL OF WAX. This didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the solve, but it’s something I noticed. In addition, it seems Patrick had to use some BALL terms that didn’t feel particularly common to my ear, such as:

  • PushballBALL TEAM — it sounds like an outdated term for a baseball team. It doesn’t Google particularly well and I’ve never heard of a team being described that way.
  • BALL MOSS — a roughly spheroid-shaped flowering plant.
  • PUSHBALL — this is an old game where two teams try to literally push a giant ball under or over a bar in the goal area. I haven’t heard of it. It might also describe the large ball that kids in gym class use to play games like crab soccer (that was a game I played in elementary school, anyhow), but I’m not sure; I think that’s typically called a CAGE BALL.
  • OBJECT BALLS — this is a billiards term referring to the ball that the player intends to strike first with the cue ball.

Of those four, I’d say BALL MOSS and OBJECT BALLS are fine though I hadn’t heard of them, where BALL TEAM and PUSHBALL feel a little too outdated and obscure for my taste — but maybe people still play pushball and I’m just unaware. Still, owing to the constraints of the meta and the grid itself, I can certainly understand needing a few minor concessions. It’s still a solid word search regardless.


Puzzle 6: Squaring the Circle
(solved individually)

Alright, the final challenge! Patrick says that we’ve joined the Vicious Circle and must now do our part for the cause (of word nerd terrorism), so we’re ready to put those first five meta answers together and get the final solution to the whole meta suite. Where the previous puzzles were quite tough to solve (with the exception of the Balls puzzle), the meta aspects seemed pretty easy once you had a finished grid. But for the final puzzle, the meta was much more challenging.

The first step is to list the five meta answers (SECTION EIGHT, BACKGAMMON, COMPUTER DISK, TARGET PRACTICE, and FANCY DRESS) in the numbered spaces, like so:


Squaring-the-Circle-step-2Notice these three-letter groups shaded in gray? They’re instructions for entering letters into the final grid like in a coordinate plane. In the first shaded group of SECTION EIGHT, the (x,y) coordinates are (O,N), and the E is the letter you enter in the box where the O column and M row intersect. Rinse and repeat for the other coordinates. When you enter all ten of the letters into the grid, they spell the word HEADPIECES when read in order.

Wait, what? HEADPIECES? Is that the final answer? That didn’t seem particularly satisfying. It doesn’t really have much to do with circles or revolutions as far as I could tell, and there’s the rest of the grid too: why would Patrick leave it empty? It just didn’t make sense, and yet according to Patrick, apparently many solvers thought HEADPIECES was the final solution. I had considered submitting it as well, but because it didn’t sit well with me, I put the puzzle down and left it for the next day.

It turns out that there was indeed another step, and that’s where the first major a-ha moment clicked. HEADPIECES is actually a hint towards the first puzzle, Head (Start), where you had to reassemble the grid like a jigsaw using both Rows and…..Pieces. When I looked back at the final grid, I saw the H/D pattern in the northwest corner and noticed that the HIDALGO piece from the Head (Start) puzzle had the same starting formation; and that the SAYS HELLO piece could fit nicely right beneath it; and that there was only one P in the entire Head (Start) puzzle, in the CHIP IN piece…..and here’s what it looked like when I started putting the pieces together:


And that’s when I figured, “Oh, this HAS to be it.” And so with a bit of logic and trial and error, all of the Pieces from the Head (Start) puzzle eventually fit perfectly in the grid, even though the rows were pretty much random strings of letters:


Now all that was left was to make sense of this jumble. After a few minutes, I saw it staring right back at me, and that was not just an a-ha moment, but a jaw-meet-floor moment.

Wait for it……

Wait for it……


RINGLEADER! What a perfect, elegant solution — it gives you the idea that you’ve not only joined the Vicious Circle but become its leader, and has the apt circular “ring” tie-in. That is indeed the final answer to the Vicious Circle mini-ganza. As I told Patrick afterward, the solution spoke to me as it was the title of a meta puzzle I wrote last year — except that was just a single meta and didn’t have anywhere near the complexity and coherence that this did.


You might remember four years ago when the New York Times published Patrick’s six-puzzle meta “Cross” Word contest, and when you got the final answer, it left people wondering, “Wow, how did he do that?” That was very much my reaction this time. Of course he probably started with an empty-ish grid but with the RINGLEADER letters in place when he was first putting the suite together — you have to make sure your endgame works before you can really begin. But how did he manage to take the pieces of the Head (Start) puzzle — minus the SECTION EIGHT meta answer letters — and reassemble them into a perfect 10×10 jigsaw like this without changing their shapes? And then still have five mini-metas that were a) clever, b) really well-executed, and c) tied together by the final puzzle? I’d ask him, but a good magician probably won’t reveal his tricks.

Thanks for reading this (loooooong) full puzzle review. I can’t say enough about how good the Vicious Circle suite turned out to be. Here’s hoping Patrick makes another mini-ganza, but I don’t know if he can top this one (and yes, Patrick, that’s a direct challenge!).