Is this puzzle of mine a metapuzzle or not?

Star Crossword, and anagrams

Rubio says it is not, but I think it is a metapuzzle.

My considerations are :

  • We need answers from crosswords to answer the anagram.
  • There are 5 anagrams.
  • And the last question needs the anagrams to be solved.

I will remove it from the Fortnightly if this is not a metapuzzle.


2 Answers 2


It's certainly a multi-stage puzzle: solve something, then the result is an essential component of another puzzle.

The boundary between multi-stage puzzles and metapuzzles is not perfectly clear (I think), and this is a thing we need to decide as well as discover. An earlier version of this answer claimed that "metapuzzle" was a term invented here on PSE, but that was wrong; it's used elsewhere too. But I don't think existing usage is enough to nail down a completely unambiguous meaning, and we get to choose exactly how we're going to use it here.

Here are three things that distinguish the "Star crossword, and anagrams" puzzle from some puzzles that everyone agrees are metapuzzles.

  • SCAA is presented here as a single question, rather than asking lots of separate questions and having their answers feed into another one.
  • The sub-puzzles in SCAA take the form of a chain: A -> B -> C. Solve one puzzle, use bits of the answer to solve another puzzle, use bits of the answer to solve another. Compare the metapuzzles linked above, in which several different sub-puzzles' answers are needed to solve the higher-level puzzle.
    • In a typical metapuzzle, the sub-puzzles are of different kinds from one another (as well as being different from the higher-level puzzle their answers feed into). It's not just "solve these five cryptic crosswords and then put the 1across answers together", it's "solve this cryptic crossword and this grid-deduction crossword and this weird enigmatic thing and ...".

And here's something I was slightly surprised not to find.

  • I had somehow acquired the vague notion that in an ideal metapuzzle the solutions to earlier puzzles went to form the puzzle itself rather than merely some of its parameters. I still think this is true, but the actual examples on PSE don't seem to bear it out :-).
    • It may not be clear what I mean by that, so here's an example: suppose there are just two subpuzzles, and the final question ends up being "What do you get when you multiply six by nine"? (The answer is of course 42.) It feels more metapuzzle-y to me if the metapuzzle asks you to solve "What do you get if you [answer A] [answer B]?" and then A yields "multiply" and B "six by nine", than if it asks you to solve "What do you get if you multiply [answer A] by [answer B]?".
    • The distinction between puzzle and parameters is extremely fuzzy, in any case.

The definition we currently have for the "metapuzzle" tag is not very satisfactory; this is widely understood but no one has fixed it yet, not least because there isn't perfect clarity about just what we do want to consider a metapuzzle.

Here for what it's worth are my opinions:

  • The presentational difference (several questions versus one question) feels like it shouldn't really matter, but on reflection I think actually it does. It encourages the sub-puzzles to be substantial, it provides a way for solvers to get credit for solving the sub-puzzles, and it provides a way for setters to get feedback on the sub-puzzles.
  • The use of multiple sub-puzzles is I think essential. The more of them, within reason, the more metapuzzle-y the final puzzle feels.
  • I'm not sure about the different kinds of puzzle. I'm pretty sure a metapuzzle with that feature is better (e.g., because it encourages participation by a wider range of solvers), but I can't figure out whether or not I think it makes a difference to how much of a metapuzzle something is.
  • Likewise for the not-just-parameters condition I mentioned. (There is a downside to it. Often a metapuzzle is solvable even if one of the component puzzles is just too hard, or has an error in it, or simply doesn't appear because Real Life took priority. But if that component puzzle is supplying an essential part of the structure of the final puzzle, its absence may be an insuperable obstacle.)

Oh, one other terminological issue that's relevant here. When you have a bunch of subpuzzles whose answers feed into a final puzzle (or some more complicated structure, of course), is the metapuzzle (1) the final puzzle alone or (2) the whole kaboodle? We often talk as if it's #1, and in some cases (e.g., "Ode to the heroes" which uses already existing and solved puzzles for its subpuzzles) it has to be #1 -- but I think #2 is actually the better answer. Maybe.

So ... Is SCAA a metapuzzle? (Or, if we choose #1 in the paragraph above, is it a metapuzzle together with its component subpuzzles?) It certainly has what I think is the core property of a metapuzzle: you solve it by solving subpuzzles and putting their answers together. But I think its "chain" structure disqualifies it, as does the fact that it's a single question rather than two. (It wouldn't be improved by splitting into two questions, I think, but it would be made more of a metapuzzle.)

Therefore, my answer to the original question is: No, but it's borderline and I won't be surprised if others disagree. I don't think I would suggest that it be detagged or disqualified from the FTC.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think being in separate questions is necessary. You could certainly have a "mini-metapuzzle" where you crammed, say, five small puzzles into one post, plus a metapuzzle afterwards. (And yes, I agree that Ode to the Heroes is not a metapuzzle - it lacks the important quality of using the answers to the other puzzles (which should be English words or phrases).) $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ So should we add a new tag "multi-stage puzzle" ? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Deusovi Ode to the Heroes does use some answers. I don't think I buy the claim that metapuzzle subpuzzle answers must be words or phrases; I bet you could make a decent metapuzzle where they're portions of some kind of diagram, for instance. $\endgroup$
    – Gareth McCaughan Mod
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @JamalSenjaya Possibly. (Probably just call it multi-stage, if so.) $\endgroup$
    – Gareth McCaughan Mod
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 15:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JamalSenjaya I have the sense that there are a lot of puzzles that would end up being categorized that way, and a lot more beyond that would trigger another "Is this really a ...?" conversation. Outside of the goal of, say, being able to (target/avoid) longer format puzzles requiring many steps and thus time to complete, I don't know that such a tag has much value, perhaps not enough value to be worth the trouble of making it populated well enough to be useful. Do we need it? $\endgroup$
    – Rubio Mod
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, I have the same concerns. $\endgroup$
    – Gareth McCaughan Mod
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @GarethMcCaughan: I'm not sure how you'd have an individual portion of a diagram be another puzzle's answer, though. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Deusovi You could do something like a bedroom picture steganography puzzle with answer CLOCK (if this was for a hunt site, that could be the textual answer to enter) but for the purposes of the metapuzzle you take the actual clock from the picture (e.g. the clock is the shape of a US state, take the state abbreviation). I'm sure there's better examples (I wanted to mention the maze pieces from Archer but shortlinks aren't quite the same thing), but that's one method that comes to mind. $\endgroup$
    – Sp3000
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 3:34
  • $\begingroup$ @GarethMcCaughan: I have mixed feelings about this.  (1) On the one hand, I have seen puzzles (questions) on PSE that take up 17 pages, with 42 subparts (OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little), and I generally don’t spend much time with them. I figure that there’s no way that I’m going to be the first to the finish line, if I’m able to get there at all. If such a question were broken up into 43 bite-sized pieces, it (they) would be much more approachable and manageable. (Even I, for one, welcome our new, … (Cont’d) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ (Cont’d) …  which you seem to like, I find tedious and obstructive. IMHO, it’s longer than the ideal length for even a single-layer puzzle, and why doesn’t it link to the puzzles it references?)  (2) On the other hand, you seem to be encouraging people to take their multi-stage questions and separate them into smaller questions just so they can qualify for the [metapuzzle] tag. I believe that the site would not benefit from decomposing questions like What does my girlfriend want me to buy for her? into its constituent parts … (Cont’d) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ (Cont’d) …  (if, indeed, the three sub puzzles are really needed to solve the puzzle as a whole — which we don’t know yet, since the question is unsolved and has been stagnant for over three months).  It seems like too much of a temptation to questioners to crank out small puzzles in order to — am I allowed to use the words “farm” and “rep” in the same sentence?  Let’s just say, it seems like too much of a temptation to crank out many small puzzles for the sake of quantity rather than quality. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ TL;DR: Some puzzles are too big, and should be broken apart, but let’s avoid creating more questions just for the sake of creating more questions. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Deusovi: (1) “… the answers to the other puzzles ([which] should be English words or phrases).”  I believe that that’s overly restrictive.  A well-known periodical has Sudoku puzzles formed with nine distinct letters, where the solution (the filled-in 9×9 grid) is the input to a sort of a word-search puzzle.  (2) “I’m not sure how you’d have an individual portion of a diagram be another puzzle’s answer, though.”  These don’t exactly qualify, but look at Three for the price of one … (Cont’d) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 23:48
  • $\begingroup$ (Cont’d) …  and Ambiguous Grids (both by silenus) for a hint at how one might approach this.  We could even imagine four separate nonograms (presumably augmented by some way of getting multiple colors into the grids) whose solutions fit together to form a puzzle such as your great The Persistence Of Memory.  <SPOILER WARNING> See also A simple nonogram, in which the puzzle is a nonogram whose solution is … another nonogram! </SPOILER WARNING> $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 23:48
  • $\begingroup$ @PeregrineRook: None of those are metapuzzles. Metapuzzles involve multiple other puzzles, not just one - one puzzle that builds off another is a chained puzzle, but it is not a metapuzzle. (I agree that it is possible in theory to have non-word/phrase answers, but I don't see an easy way to go about it.) $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 0:29

TL;DR: No.

Traditionally, a metapuzzle (or "meta") makes use of answers from a number of mostly separate puzzles, each with their own themes and mechanics, to give a final meta answer.

For example, in the 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt, here was the relevant flavourtext from the Crafty Criminal quest:

As night falls, the city becomes even more confusing; in the moonlight, everything looks black and white. You’ll really need an experienced guide if you want to find your way around.

Who can help you locate the criminal mastermind?

And here were the answers to 10 completely different puzzles from within the quest:


The way to answer this meta was:

Treat the collective answers as a Mastermind game. The first word is the guess. The second word consists of letters from BLACK or WHITE, with a letter in BLACK meaning "correct letter, correct position" and a letter in WHITE meaning "correct letter, wrong position".

The metapuzzle above is what some call a "pure meta", since it only depends on the answers. It's possible for metapuzzles to depend on additional components, but the key is that the answers which feed into the metapuzzle come from different sources, and the underlying mechanic tying them together isn't obvious at first.

In your puzzle's case, had the crossword clues been replaced with five separate puzzles that gave each word as an answer, then it could be considered a metapuzzle (albeit one which would be easy to backsolve some answers to). However, as-is the puzzle is more a chain of steps for a single puzzle, which would not be considered a metapuzzle.

To be fair, up until recently the tag read something along the lines of:

A metapuzzle (or meta) is a puzzle composed out of the solutions to other puzzles.

While this description is certainly true of metapuzzles, the wording could unfortunately be interpreted in a number of non-metapuzzle ways, and has since been changed. Even the current tag wiki's phrasing isn't perfect, but I hope that this post makes it a bit more clear what the tag was intended to encapsulate.


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