(P&A 72 was released yesterday, which means the answers are now online for P&A 71; so here’s my spoiler-laden recap of our experience solving the last issue, “Taking A Powder.”)
For the last issue, I mentioned that it was a fairly straightforward issue for us since we polished off the meta in about two hours. This month we managed to get the final answer with 9 our of 12 answers at 1:45pm, shaving even more time off. It seems that P&A, like the Mystery Hunt, is getting shorter and shorter (for the leaders) in terms of duration; I don’t think either is due to a reduction in quality, but rather I think top solvers are being exposed to more puzzle concepts as time goes by, and instructors are running out of new ideas they can apply without being unfair.
The title of this issue was Taking A Powder, and given the wintry timing, it was sure to be ski-themed. In the hours before the release, I imagined a skiing meta would probably involve slalom and came up with a few ideas for how such a meta would work. As it turns out, the metapuzzle WAS themed around the slalom event, although the way it actually worked was different from any of the ideas I’d brainstormed. All times below are Eastern, so we started printing at noon.
While printing I saw Extreme Altitude looked like a logic puzzle, so I offered it to Jackie who cheerfully accepted (especially after seeing it was Skyscrapers, which I hadn’t even noticed). I saw a Spiral (Death Spiral) and thought that might be one of the easier puzzles… boy, was I wrong, as it wasn’t hard to figure out how the double threads worked, but filling the grid was a bookkeeping slog. With less than half of the grid filled in, I checked the stats page and switched to the most-often-solved-at-that-point Unexpected Flyer. I filled three sets of blanks with progressive deletions, and I just noticed that there was a third deletion to a vegetable when Jackie solved Extreme Altitude, at 12:19 (pretty late for a first solve for us, as we didn’t latch on to low-hanging fruit early).
I asked her to look at Unexpected Flyer with me, and I’d just worked out the extraction and had J????A?L. I looked up MACRON at the same time that she figured out ACRONYM and ACORN for the same entry, giving us J???MA?L, enough to get the answer at 12:21 (I just got the reference to the answer in the title now, and it’s cute).
Jackie started on Hit It and Quit It, and I picked up Slow & Steady, which could have been called Fast & Straightforward… I finished it at 12:28. Then I worked on Death Spiral, making some more progress but not getting to the extraction, and since Snow Leopard was getting solved a lot, I identified the faces (getting a bit more than half the names from memory, and getting all but one of the rest by text search, since I didn’t feel like going back to the PDF to do image search). Some time during that period I also filled the answers into an 8xN grid, convinced that the meta answer was going to slalom through the grid on two parallel diagonals. (The letters on this path looked good for the moment. They did not look as good later.)
I then looked over at Jackie’s grid, which appeared to be yielding AB…I…A…, with probably no more than one letter between the B and I. Some strategic Onelooking led to the answer, allowing us to skip the second half of the grid, at 12:48. I then asked Jackie to look at the names we had for Snow Leopard. The clues looked like they wanted to refer to animals (such as the horse in the flavortext) and even though I’ve seen about eight times as many episodes of Bojack Horseman as she has, Jackie has an encyclopedic knowledge of Mara Wilson (who, to be fair, is awesome) and when she mentioned that, I instantly remembered Keith Olbermann’s appearance as a newscaster reading Beyonce lyrics. She left me to do the research step, and the answer popped out of that puzzle at 12:54. (This issue, by the way, may have set a record for answer phrases that begin with ANSWER or ANSWER IS; whenever this is the case, we inevitably break in on the ANSWER bits before the useful bits, which is probably intended.)
After this, Jackie made steady progress on ???????, while I worked on finishing Death Spiral. I needed the whole grid to get the answer to that at 1:07. Then I took a look over Jackie’s shoulder at her almost completed grids (though we were confused about some enumeration errors). When we started focusing on the branch points, I anagrammed CLUBS, and Jackie spotted the other two suits, giving us our answer at 1:15.
Dancing Star was another puzzle everyone seemed to be solving more quickly than we were, but I’d looked at in passing a few times and hadn’t seen more than CHOREOGRAPHY. I thought it would be exclusively about Dancing With The Stars and asked Jackie to see if she could spot any names… as I did so, I noticed BOMBAY DREAMS and started Googling to see if anyone had danced to a song from Bombay Dreams on DWTS. As the internet said no to this question, Jackie noticed TONY in the other corner, and we confirmed that BOMBAY DREAMS lost that Tony to WONDERFUL TOWN. We quickly polished this off, with me on the award nominees list and Jackie on the grid, getting the clue phrase from all but three answers. When looking up the answer, we were briefly terrified we were being led to generally horrible person Hope Solo, but thankfully there was another eight-letter contestant that year. Correct answer submitted at 1:24.
I started working on Drunk Yodeler while Jackie stared at the meta trying to find a better way to pull letters, since our weaving path (and any other slalomy path we tried) was giving gibberish. She noted that the flavor text implied we wanted to look between flags, so she was looking for matching pairs of letters to look between. I finished Drunk Yodeler at 1:40, and a few minutes later Jackie called out that she’d had a meta breakthrough. Her correct extraction gave the entire first word, and together we figured out the second word (which I only vaguely recognized as a word), taking first place by a margin of at least half an hour at around 1:45.
Going for the complete (knowing one bigram that should appear in each answer), Jackie worked on the grid for Snow Fort, and I noticed a couple of anagrammed planets on Popular Choice. I also noticed that the percentages didn’t add up to 100%. I also noticed a NEPTUNE that was short an E, and so I stated assembling quartets with one extra letter. These also didn’t add up to 100%, but they were close enough to provide an ordering. Knowing the answer was of the form O?????E? and contained a TV, there were two natural choices for a thematic answer. I luckily guessed the right one at 1:57.
The breakthrough on Big Air was SUGAR DADDY being the most clearly identifiable picture, and “Sandler Film” jumping out as cluing BIG DADDY. The enumeration on BANG helped elucidate where we should be indexing. I worked back and forth, again with no desire to resort to image search unless absolutely necessary, and after misassigning BIG BEAR at least twice (and I don’t know what that BEAR picture is anyway, because I’ve now learned that BJ AND THE BEAR isn’t actually about a bear), I managed to read the clue phrase from 15 out of 20 letters and submit the answer at 2:21.
Jackie was almost done with the Snow Fort grid (after some multitasking) and I helped her finish it, but we had no idea how to extract an answer, apart from assuming it would involve the “snowball stacks” which were unchecked. We both looked at this a long time with no leads, and eventually I noticed the letters in each stack were alphabetized (well, they were once we changed NAES to NOES). This suggested we might be pulling letters from each stack, and hey, there’s one more ANSWER IS! We submitted the answer at 2:40, and as I write this an hour later, I still don’t know how you’re supposed to know which letter to take from each triplet. But I’m still trying to figure it out.
Update from five minutes later: Got it. Decided something must be reading down (otherwise this would be four disconnected grids) and found PLOW, which led to seven more SNOW____ words. Loose ends resolved!