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Inside the mind of New York Times Mini maker Joel Fagliano

Joel Fagliano has always thought about puzzles. His father was an avid solver of the famed New York Times Crossword and would photocopy it every weekday for his son to solve on the train to school. When Joel was in 10th grade he started designing his own puzzles, submitting them to the NYT’s crossword editor, Will Shortz. “They were… quite bad,” he jokes. But Shortz offered him feedback and when Joel was 17, he had his first puzzle published in the paper. Later, when Joel was at college, Shortz took him on as a summer intern and the two started working on the crossword together, the master sharing his knowledge on the arcane intricacies of puzzle authorship.

In August 2014, the NYT’s product director Matt Hural started an experiment – a small, five by five word puzzle to go alongside the main crossword on the paper’s new digital platform. Joel was given the job of writing it, and he’s been in charge of the Mini ever since. At first the Mini was controversial with NYT puzzle purists, but under his careful tenure, it has become a huge success on the paper’s app, bringing in millions of solvers a day, attracted by its brevity, topicality and sly misdirections. But how does Joel keep the concept so fresh, and what does it take to make a puzzle a day?

Eurogamer: So you interned with Will Shortz for three summers. What was it like to work with this NYT puzzling legend as a young fan?

Joel Fagliano: It was amazing. It was like being a basketball player and getting to train with Michael Jordan. Pretty quickly you realise he’s just a normal, friendly guy who just happens to have a ridiculous puzzle brain. We sort of edited puzzles side by side, I would act as his sounding board. He would throw out ideas, we’d be pitching things back and forth. And just seeing the process of how he thought through the difficulty level of a clue, how a solver might process a clue, how we might misdirect a solver with a clue – that helped me hone my own style.

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Tell us about your authoring process. Do you work on one puzzle at a time or are you working on multiple Minis at once? How long does each one take?

With the Minis, I can make them a lot more quickly than I can a full-size fifteen-by-fifteen daily crossword, partly because one of the hardest things to think of with the bigger crosswords is the theme of the puzzle – what connects all the longest answers together. The Minis don’t always have that. Sometimes they’re just about getting a smooth interlock of words, all of which will be familiar to my audience. I might also put in a couple of words I can clue in a fresh or interesting way. I’m often just working on one puzzle at a time and I work about one week in advance. That allows me to work things in from the news: if someone wins a Best Picture Oscar or something, that can appear in the puzzle.


In terms of the process of making a Mini: you start with the words and the grid. This is true of all puzzle making. Thinking of the clues first would be a losing proposition just because of how often the words change through the process. So I do the clues last, although I do try to start with one answer that I’m interested in working in.

Recently, I was driving around and I saw a New Jersey licence plate that had “Shore to Please” written on it. I thought OK, that’s a fun little bit of wordplay and it’s cool that the state decided to make a pun on its licence plate. So I filed that away. I have a little notebook where I often just write clues that I’ve thought of or answers that I’d like to work in. Then when I go to make the puzzle, I start with that answer and begin to layer in other answers that are interesting to me. Often what I’m going for most is just the familiarity of the words.

The Mini audience is quite different from the make-up of the rest of our audience who tend to be a little more hardcore; they can handle a lot more misdirection, and a lot more obscure secondary meanings. My audience is people who maybe haven’t done crosswords before and this is the only one they do. And honestly, even the people who can handle the tricks just want to see how fast they can go on the Mini – so, as speed is an element, I’m not trying to throw up too many roadblocks. But you also don’t want the puzzle to be so obvious it’s bland. If it’s just a whole puzzle of “what sound does a cat make” it would be condescending. You need to give people a little something to tickle their brain – but not too much.

We touched on this briefly earlier, but do you like to create themes around the answers or the clues in your puzzles?

Yes, definitely, I want to make themes. It’s hard though. The Mini is… it’s not quite an art form, but if it were, you’d be painting on a tiny pinprick of a canvas. There’s so little space, you can often really only do two answers that are related to each other. I had one that ran recently that had “car”, “van” and “bus”, and they were all parallel with each other. I was so happy with that because it’s rare to get three things in the same grid without completely messing up all the other words.

One that ran on Thursday, 23rd March, had “comet” and “stars”; it was just two that were space related but I clued them in a parallel structure. That’s the sort of little Mini theme that I like, because that spirals out so many constraints around it. I can just start with that and make the best puzzle I can around it. I think with any creative person, guard rails and constraints can often help, as a blank canvas can be daunting. It’s useful to have some sort of structure.

I was going to ask about this. I’m really interested in the constraints you set for yourself and how willing you are to subvert them. In a recent puzzle, your clue was “a quintet of vowels” and the answer was, of course, “AEIOU”. I really liked that, but to me that was quite a subversive thing to do in a crossword! Are you happy doing that?

Very much so! If I can think of an answer that’s never appeared in a puzzle or that strains the boundaries of fairness, I like that because it provides more of a surprise. When the Mini started, the idea was basically: the NYT puzzles are really hard and people might not necessarily come back every day because of that. so we should have something that they can do every day. Since August 2014, I’ve made… three thousand? So yes, new things excite me. I think, ‘oh I’ve never had an answer like that before’. Recently, an answer was “OnVHS” [The clue was “How Americans used to store their media”] and that had a strange pattern of letters to it, and I imagined solvers thinking, ‘ah, there’s a V and an H together so I must have something wrong’.

Yeah, you caught me with that. I’d momentarily got it into my head that the US used Video 2000 format…

Right, so, not to turn this on you, but I’m wondering something from an international reader’s perspective. Sometimes I think the references I make can be very US-centric: the TV shows we’re watching, the sports going on here. Is that a hindrance?

“Eurogamer has a Slack channel dedicated to the Mini: they are convinced they can tell your mood from the clues and answers…”

No, I don’t think so. With sport sometimes, because we don’t really watch a lot of baseball or American football here. But in terms of cultural references, so much of our TV and film comes from the US anyway so they don’t really catch me out. This reminds me though, Eurogamer has a Slack channel dedicated to the Mini: they are convinced they can tell your mood from the clues and answers in any given puzzle…

Oh man.

They will send each other messages saying, “Joel is in a bad mood today”. Is there any truth in that?

You know, sadly there is truth in that. A friend of mine says that I use the Mini as my diary. I’ll put in a White Lotus clue and he’ll be like, “oh I see you just started the new season”. There are definitely seasonal things in there too. If the weather has been bleak here for a week, you might see “rainy” and “dour”. I go to the laptop everyday and I see what’s interesting to me, what’s calling me. I have to start the puzzle somewhere, so my frame of mind is always going to impact them.

Are there particular things you do to jumpstart the thought process? When I’m writing a novel and I’m having trouble describing a character, I’ll often go and work in a cafe, because then I’m surrounded by material. Is that the same for you? Are there places you go or routines you’ve developed to kickstart your inspiration?

Well, I’ve found that over the years of making these puzzles, early morning is a great time. My mind is fresh. Once I start the work day and I’m getting all the Slack messages, the emails, it’s then really hard to hop back into the creative work. I also do a lot of walking, particularly without a device in my hand, and stuff bubbles up. That’s where a lot of themes come from.

When I was working for Will as an intern, I would take the train to his house – he lived about an hour outside of the city – and those train rides were incredibly fruitful because I would just sit and stare out the window and things would just pop into my head as I went. Sometimes I’ll go to the NYT homepage and just scroll. I’ll see things popping up in the news and articles and that’s a good way to find new vocabulary, something new in the zeitgeist. But early mornings and walks are good – I’ll just scribble stuff down.

Will Shortz on How a Crossword Is Made – From New York Times Puzzle Master

This is a blast from the past. It’s Fagliano’s mentor Will Shortz.

You wrote an article for the NYT puzzle newsletter on the importance of seed words, and you joked about how useful the word Obama is. I just wondered, do you have a list of, say, 50 handy words that you can always fall back on to plug gaps in a grid?

It doesn’t always work that way – a lot of times, those crunch words just sort of happen to make puzzles work, particularly words that alternate consonants and vowels. There are a lot of words that operate that way, so if you have a seed word that goes consonant, vowel, consonant, something underneath that alternates the other way, like “Obama” or “olive”, is going to be a good option in that slot.

There are words that I felt like I was using too much: “emoji” was one of them. I always felt like ‘oh, how cool am I? I’m using emoji!’ But it always helped because it has lots of vowels. At a certain point I felt like, ‘oh man, I’m using this once a month, I should probably stop’, so there are some crunch words that I’m definitely conscious of not over-using. But there are other words like “ocean”: it probably appears more often in my Minis than other words, but there are so many different ways to clue it, I feel confident that, even if I used it last month, I can come up with a new way to surprise a solver this month.

And even mislead them away from that familiar word with the clue I guess?

Yeah. What’s your feeling on the misleading clues?

I love them, as long as the clues aren’t all misleading! I just skip them and then go back. I think the great thing about the Mini, like the absolute best puzzle video games, is that sometimes, when you solve it, you feel like you’re the only person who could have solved it that way. I think the use of misdirection, and certain crunch words, and the interplay of vowels across the grid, gives us all different tools, and lets us use different skills… and the way I get to the finish, I just think ‘ah, I don’t think anyone else did it this way’. Is this something you think about? A lot of solvers seem to have almost a parasocial relationship with puzzle makers.

Any good puzzle maker is constantly thinking about their solver. A bad puzzle maker just thinks, ‘what do I want to do, what would I like to solve?’ I think that’s a good recipe for making bad puzzles. I don’t know if I think people are thinking about me, and saying, “oh damn you, Joel!” But I do have a lot of people in my head when I’m making puzzles – like my little brother who is two years younger than me. I know that he and his friends, who are all in their mid-twenties, have a group chat and they do the puzzles everyday. They’re in my head. And then my mother-in-law is French; English is her second language. She does the puzzle everyday and I think of her because I’ve watched her solve, and a lot of times she’s like “well, I don’t know that word”, or “I’ve no idea what he’s on about here”. So she’s there in my head. And my text solver is there – he is a colleague of mine and loves puzzles, and wants to be pushed a little bit. So I’m trying to balance the wants of lots of different solvers, which can sometimes be… paralysing. But I will alternate days. I will think, ‘okay this one is definitely not for my mother-in-law, so it can be for my little brother’. And sometimes vice versa.

Ah that’s interesting because when I interviewed Jonathan Knight, he talked about how the main crossword is designed to get more challenging as the week progresses. Is that not the case with the Mini – are you not trying to ramp up the difficulty each day?

No I’m not, but there is often some sort of cognitive effect going on based on how our other puzzles operate. People think Friday’s Mini is harder than Monday’s. I’ll occasionally do one with no black squares, so it’s all five-letter answers intersecting – I’ll put that on a Friday sometimes. But they float around – you’ll find them on other days too.

The Saturday puzzle is the only one that’s bigger – it’s seven by seven so they take longer. I started that back in 2017, almost as a way of providing myself with a different space to work in, but also: it pushes people. Those are harder just because they function a little bit more like our Friday and Saturday crosswords in the daily NYT, in that they’re big, wide open spaces so it can be a little bit harder to get going. I try to make the clues less tricky on those ones so people can at least finish them.

Do you all play each other’s puzzles at the NYT? Is there a lot of internal QA going on?

Yeah, so Sam has playtested the Mini since he started in 2018. Will was doing it up until a year or two ago, but he just had a lot of work. Before the two of them, I was just putting them out into the world with no testers and that was horrible. It felt like walking on a tightrope with no net beneath me. There are a lot of pedantic people who are just waiting for us to make mistakes!

We’re going to get a few more testers up here in the summer which will be helpful, because Sam and I overlap in a lot of ways, in terms of age and point of view, so it will be helpful to have new people. Sam has a panel of people who test the Spelling Bee; the crossword has a pretty rigorous panel who test it for accuracy and other things. We have a pretty healthy testing system I would say. But yes definitely, we will give each other feedback on say, what should the cadence of difficulty be on the Spelling Bee or “does this word seem like it should be allowed?” That’s the kind of stuff we’re talking about.

Do you play puzzles outside of the NYT? Do you play puzzle video games?

I follow some of the other crosswords that are put out – the New Yorker has a great suite of puzzles. I don’t get the Washington Post Sunday edition, but I have tried that one and I liked solving it. I’m not a big video game person. Back in the day I really liked the Zelda games but I don’t play many now. From the moment I wake up until the end of the day, I’m thinking about puzzles or making puzzles, so in my free time I’d rather just read. I love puzzles but they’re not a big part of my relaxation time.

But when you’re reading a novel, don’t you sometimes think ‘oh that phrase would make a good clue’ or ‘that word would be a good answer’?

Yeah, I can’t turn that off. Every five-letter word, I’m like, “ooh that could be interesting”. Actually, this can be helpful. I was reading The Body by Bill Bryson and it’s loaded with all these facts, and all of a sudden I was like, “I’ve got to put Heart in, I’ve got to put Lungs in!” There were just so many cool facts to include. Books like that are readymade for puzzle trivia.

Are you interested in the UK newspapers and their cryptic approach to crosswords?

I’m interested, but I haven’t dabbled much. Every time I’ve done a cryptic, it’s blown my mind – I’m like, “oh this is proper, this is the way puzzles should be”. But I don’t do them regularly. I feel like that’s the next frontier for me, getting into that.

I just can’t do them. There’s such a meta game to learning the rules. I’ve not been able to grasp them.

Right, and that’s something I really try to avoid. There’s so much of an inside language to crosswords – things that you’re just supposed to know having done enough puzzles. And just having seen so many people over the years who play the Mini who don’t do crosswords and are just baffled bv those conventions, I’ve tried to phase out as many of those as possible and just be accessible and use human language, I guess. Like, how would a human being clue this? Crossword constructors can sometimes forget that because they’re working in this lingo of crossword clueing. I try to eliminate that as best I can.

What do you think about the increasing role of puzzles in the digital era of newspapers? The fact that the Play button is right there on the screen of the NYT app. And it’s a global brand now. Does that heightened exposure become intimidating?

I find it exciting. For a long time, I think our puzzles appealed to a certain niche, a specific type of person who really wanted to challenge themselves with these crazy, tricky puzzles. I like the idea that anyone could be scrolling through their news feed and then click in and play Wordle and then Wordle says, “hey would you like to play the Mini?” and then they could find themselves doing a crossword. That pushes me to make a puzzle that is broader, a little more general, but in a fun way still. Making puzzles that appeal beyond the audience puzzles have always appealed to is an exciting thing. Seeing the amount of people who do the Mini now compared to when it started: it’s really cool.

Lastly, I know obviously your focus is on the Mini, but when I spoke to Jonathan Knight he said a portion of his attention was on new games. Have you got any little prototypes or concepts on the go?

I’m pretty content where I’m at. I work on a lot more than the Mini – really, the bulk of my job is on the bigger daily crossword and managing our team of editors, all of whom are contributing to our whole suite of puzzle products. To me the exciting thing as we move from a print first focus to a digital focus, is how can we take games in that direction? Historically, a lot of our games have been what appeared in the magazine and could be digitised. What excites me going forward is: how can we create a suite of games that feel digital first but that still adhere to our best practices around puzzles – that they should make you feel better and smarter after you’ve accomplished them. I’m excited to keep working on games like that.


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