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01 July 2011 @ 12:19 am
Friday Puzzle #108 - Star Search  
This is part 2 of a "Better Know the USPC" preview series. The United States Puzzle Championship is scheduled for August 27th, 1PM EDT.

Type: Word Search

USPC History: Appeared every year from 1999 to 2010, except for 2009. Will Shortz is credited for the first three, Nancy Schuster for the next seven, and Michael Rios for 2010.

Notation tips/strategies: Most of you are probably asking why I'd even offer strategies here. This is a word search! I learned how to do this when I was 4! If you think there aren't ways to squeeze a little more time out of these "easy" points, please skip the next paragraphs.

It should come as no surprise that circling the words is inefficient. Drawing a straight line through them is much better. But you'll find that this puts marks over the letters themselves which can make them harder to read. My optimized compromise is to solve the word search in a light colored pencil. Most USPC word searches involve filling in blank cells. I will never extend my lines over the spots the letters go, just so I do not mess up a letter in the answer entry. For letters like D and P and O I will often try to be extra careful with penmanship. Here is my solved copy from the 2010 test, which was worth over 3 points per minute for me. See how you compare.

The standard strategy is to look for "rare" letters in a given word on the word list, find instances of that letter in the grid, and then find if any word uses that one. I'll extend this approach so that I have at least two different words in my head that both use the same rare letter. I find it's actually sometimes much better to try to spot "rare" pairs of letters when you hit low scrabble scoring words so practice this too. Double letters are great, as are three letter palindromes. "Significant" would be most easily found by looking for "IF" in the grid, with the second I of IFI confirming it instantly 99% of the time. Because many letters are missing from the typical USPC word search at the start, you want to avoid the trap of searching for a word for too long. I have a mental clock that makes me switch to two new words about every 10 seconds. When I get near the end of the puzzle, I will use "white space" as a clue for where missing words might be as a well formed word search will exploit most of the space.

Comments: I expect very few defenders besides me of this puzzle type appearing, either here or on the USPC. Most commenters will probably say "I pass" and "meh" while accepting the points after solving. I can understand this general sentiment, but I do not agree with it. Just as I wouldn't want a test without arithmetic puzzles, or loop puzzles, or mazes, I wouldn't want a test that minimizes observational puzzle types. There are some logical types (like sudoku and hitori) that have a very high observation component. They are some of my better puzzles because I have a brain that can connect visual information to deductive steps faster than I can, say, add 5, 172, and 86. And I've been guilty of using word searches to keep fresh during sudoku championships without spending too much energy. While you may not be "thinking" in the same way when solving a word search, you are using parts of your brain and its connection to the physical senses to achieve a task that most everyone in the world views as a common puzzle. And common puzzles - puzzles regular people recognize, not just puzzle people - should appear in our championships.

I recently managed to unearth the "approved rules of variety and fairness" for WPF events. These percentages (except for mechanical puzzles, which cannot appear on an online test very often, except for a few cases where the USPC had a puzzle you had to cut things out and reorient) are pretty much what Nick Baxter tries to achieve every year. Observation and Pattern Recognition is recommended at 15-25%, including observation puzzles involving words or language (provided those puzzles obey the fairness standards given on the other page, which do not exclude the Roman alphabet but do exclude benefits for cultural knowledge; common names of stars from multiple languages, as I use below, would not qualify as unfair).

I don't solve word searches much of the time, but I don't solve sudoku much more frequently by choice either. The best sources of word searches for USPC practice come with small twists that require more than just straight observation. Dave Tuller's two books are my favorite to use (and they have a lot of empty middle puzzles like the most common USPC ones as well as much more creative ideas).

About this puzzle: This week I figured I'd bite the bullet and make a word search which can't be skipped in a USPC preview series when it is present basically every year. I originally thought I'd write towards the general sentiment and make a "No More Word Search" theme where I'd cross a Hitori-like puzzle with a Word Search where you had to shade a certain number of squares black so that none of the listed words appeared in the grid in any direction. This didn't coalesce to anything fun enough. I then thought I could mutate that idea of shading over things into a Star Battle. This became a "Star Search" puzzle with names of stars. And then it morphed one last time. There are few WPC/USPC puzzles that challenge the "miscellaneous" category but instructionless puzzles fit in there well. Sometimes you must be smart enough to see what is going on. So that's what this puzzle became. It's a word search but there are four different kinds of twists to how things are hidden. It has two parts, and if I wrote this for the USPC I would give 5 points for completing the first part and 15 more for completing the second. Try to enjoy it!

A) In the first part of this puzzle, the names of 8 different stars are hidden in the grid, each associated with a star symbol. However, none of the names appear exactly as you'd expect for a word search. There are four types of stars and each has a slight twist in how the name is hidden in the grid. Figure out the rules for locating each kind of star, and identify which of 1/2/3/4 is blue/red/green/yellow for 5 points.

B) The names of 12 different stars are hidden in the second grid, with exactly three stars obeying each of the four different rules used in the first part. However the star symbols are not labeled this time and their locations must be discovered. Replace 12 of the letters in the grid with stars so that the rules used in the first part can be followed to find all of the hidden stars. The 12 letters replaced by stars, in order from left to right and top to bottom, will spell a phrase that is the answer to part two for 15 more points.

(Screened comment)
cyrebjrcyrebjr on July 1st, 2011 06:41 am (UTC)
Um, okay, so "span" didn't work for some reason. Sorry.
motrismotris on July 1st, 2011 06:45 am (UTC)
You've grabbed the early TSPC lead! I screened your post with the answers so others wouldn't necessarily see it.
(Anonymous) on July 1st, 2011 08:39 am (UTC)
I did enjoy this, thanks!

(Anonymous) on July 1st, 2011 10:50 am (UTC)
Are we supposed to do these fast? Somehow my "leisurely solving mode" triggers on whenever I see word search puzzles, damn :D Nice puzzles btw...

motrismotris on July 1st, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC)
Just like all of my Friday puzzles I expect many solvers are engaging "leisurely solving mode". But for the best USPC practice (if you are actually concerned about your score on that), you can try to go fast. If you just like solving puzzles, please don't rush.
David ScherzingerDavid Scherzinger on July 2nd, 2011 06:11 am (UTC)
The answer just made my day. Seriously. You have good taste :D
motrismotris on July 2nd, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC)
I had a few reasons to choose that answer. First, like you, I must have good taste. Second, it somewhat fits the puzzle theme. Third, the first two words are a common name for a word search variation; this was the last bit of glue needed to make me like the choice.
(Anonymous) on July 3rd, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC)
The answer to the second puzzle sounds like a song title... but I can't remember the group that did it.
(Anonymous) on July 4th, 2011 02:42 pm (UTC)
Soundgarden ;)

Nice 15 minute mental gymnastics exercise. Like the 2-part construction
Mike Selinkerselinker on July 4th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
Easily one of the best word searches I've ever solved. More, please.

Also, you will find at least one defender of word searches: me.

Edited at 2011-07-04 03:55 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous) on July 7th, 2011 05:56 am (UTC)
word searches
The USPC word searches have been a lot of fun, especially when they're not just the "missing 5x5 box" variety. The "missing letter" technique was good.

When I'm trying to describe why I like puzzling in general and the USPC in particular, I often mention that one from a few years ago where you had the four rectangles of letters and had to permute and slide them so that you could find all but one of the words in the list. I think that gives a lot of the feel of the logic in a way that a wider audience can understand. Actually cutting things out and moving them around makes it even more engaging.

So count me in as an advocate for having at least one word search in there.