Over the past couple of years, we've had the pleasure of watching new constructors take the big step of putting their first puzzles out into the world, or even just share their first clue on a Discord server or Twitch chat where novices mix it up with published pros. And that's made us nostalgic for earlier pleasures, when those new constructors were us.
It wasn't Discord, it was the New York Times Cryptic Crossword Forum, a.k.a. The Cru, moderated by William I. Johnston with NYT cryptic setters Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, known by the cryptonym Hex, as artists in residence. The forums have been totally memory holed, alas, but it was a terrific salon where greenhorn and vet alike traded, discussed, and sharpened clues.
And not just clues, but puzzles: Every so often, there was a new Cru Cryptic. In all, 230 were published, which took the group from 1999 until the NYT shut down forums in 2007. Your humble authors arrived at its midlife — contemporary setters like Foggy Brume and Tom Toce had already come and gone by the time we joined the scrum and offered up our first clues.
Which led to our first variety cryptic together: Cru Cryptic #196, from March 2004. (A jigsaw! We're sure you're shocked.) Here on The Rackenfracker we give each puzzle an incremental index number, and so we wanted to put this one out as RF014 because (a) 196 is 14 squared and (b) we're squares.
In keeping with today's theme, we'll note that for one clue, we had a wordplay concept that we couldn't quite execute, so ... we asked Hex for help, and they said hmm, and then nailed it in their first volley back. In other words: There's a Hex clue in this puzzle — see if you can spot it.
Here in 2022, we did a very light polish on a few clues — these are all the same parses that we used back then, but we housekept a little on surfaces, working in a 2020s cultural reference for the heck of it and reducing the number of sign-tapping constructions to one — again, see if you can spot it.
The original, and indeed the whole Cru Cryptic archive, is still out there — "Ma, The New York Times
published shared hosted has not yet deleted one of our puzzles!" — with most of the puzzles in .puz format for online solving at, for instance, Crossword Nexus. One of the reasons we wanted to update this puzzle was that jigsaws were beyond the capabilities of 2004-era .puz files, so this is the first time it can be solved in-browser. (Fair warning if you go archive-diving — we may revisit some of that work again in the Rackenfracking future.)
Our collaborator on this puzzle was John Sams, whose name you'll recognize as a stalwart test solver, and who we'll toast in a dedicated post later this month. But in keeping with the rough-edged premise of sharing our earliest work, we haven't put this one out to test solvers since the Cru itself 18 years ago, so it's offered to you with an extra grain of salt.