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  • Writer's pictureLyle Broughton

Litter Boxes

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

Back again with a themed puzzle! This puzzle was created for the Secret Snowflake puzzle exchange on Crosscord, which took place last month for the holidays. It was a really fun idea, thanks so much to Rose and David for organizing it and making it all work behind the scenes! If you want to solve the puzzle that Brian Thomas made for me, you can find it here, and you can find all the other Secret Snowflake puzzles that people made here.

My recipient was Sally Hoelscher (aka Doctor Mom on Discord) of Sally's Take fame, and this puzzle was inspired by one thing in particular that Sally listed as an "Interest" in the sign-up form. If you're a regular reader of her blog, you might even be able to guess from the title of this puzzle...

The puzzle went together pretty smoothly, but still took a few revisions to get something I was happy with. The clues, however, needed to be churned out much faster than I am accustomed to. Can't spend months sitting on an unclued grid when it's a gift that has to be delivered! I have lots more to say about this puzzle, but nothing else that's spoiler-free, so check out the rest of the write-up underneath the applet. Now go enjoy the puzzle!

Litter Boxes
Download PDF • 159KB


I knew as soon as I read Sally's Secret Snowflake preferences that I wanted to make a themed puzzle about cats, since that seemed like a theme that could have tons of different executions. Of course, the challenge with that was finding a theme that hadn't been done before. One of my first thoughts was something playing on KITTY CORNER until I was reminded of this puzzle by Brooke Husic & Mollie Cowger, which obviously Sally had already seen.

Another idea was playing on ALLEY CATS and having unchecked squares sandwiched between two blocks, each with a {CAT} rebus, as shown in the screenshot to the right. Sadly, I discarded this concept for some reason that I can't even remember anymore.

Maybe I just got distracted looking at fill options that have CAT hidden in them, and wanted to try making a regular rebus puzzle out of them? Maybe the rebus idea got me thinking about other revealers that could work, and when I thought of HERDING CATS, it was too exciting not to pursue? Honestly this ALLEY CATS concept is a pretty cool idea, maybe I'll come back to this and make a different puzzle out of it...

In any case, I ended up pursuing the idea of HERDING CATS, a straightforward rebus puzzle with CAT disguised within longer words. After a brief check of XWordInfo, I was shocked to find that not only has this theme never being done, HERDING CATS has never even been a grid entry. (Of course, the New York Times isn't the only puzzle out there, but it's the only one I know how to check. Maybe someone can teach me how to search the archives of other publications.)

As always, the first step is to just sketch. The first thing I tried was to hide CAT in the four longest Across answers, in the typical themer arrangement.

Before even trying to fill this, I thought I would try a different approach: hiding the {CAT} rebuses in the four quadrants instead of four long entries, and putting the revealer in the center. Aesthetically, I liked this grid a lot more, and decided to continue trying to get this arrangement to work. Before long, I had a decent Version 1:

I almost considered it good enough, but it felt like despite its good parts (EMBLAZONS crossing ZITHER, fun bonuses like AVALANCHE and MIXED BAG), there were still things to be improved. S{CAT}HE and S{CAT}TING felt like pretty bland ways to hide CAT, and OR{CA T}ANKS was a bit of a stretch. So I started from scratch, but with the benefit of the knowledge gained from the first version. I started by keeping the parts I liked - STAC{CAT}O, DE{CAT}HLON(s), (fair/good/nice){CAT}CH - and found some even better words with hidden CATs - DAY{CAT}ION(s), MER{CAT}OR.

The other thing you'll notice about Version 1 is that there were only four rebus squares, as opposed to the six in the final puzzle. That was originally the plan going into Version 2 as well! It was only when Crossfire suggested the fill CARI{CAT}URE crossing HERDING CATS that I even considered the possibility of adding two more rebuses in the north and south regions. Inspired by the suggestion, I was somewhat shocked to discover that the south could be filled pretty cleanly with the addition of CARI{CAT}URE, which left only finding something equally clean for the north. Luckily, I made no commitments to symmetrical rebus placement (I think the fun of a rebus puzzle is largely in figuring out where the rebuses even go), so I did have some freedom in the placement of {CAT} in the north. Eventually, after fighting with it for a bit, I found a fill I was happy with, and decided that the six-rebus version was in fact an improvement over the four-rebus version. I hope you agree!


1 Comment

Sally Hoelscher
Sally Hoelscher
Jan 10, 2023

A CAT-themed puzzle was perfect for me! Thank you!!

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