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Strands, the New York Times’ still-in-beta word search game, is now on its 10th puzzle. The first two or three puzzles were relatively tame, with solvers complaining that the hint gave too much away and the game wasn’t very challenging. But you and I know better, right? As I pointed out last week, the puzzle’s creators have dropped hints that it’s going to get a lot trickier. That’s begun, and hoo boy, people are mad. 

Before you read any further, know that this article includes spoilers and outright answers for the March 13, 2024 game of Strands. Here is the link to play today’s game, so you can suffer along with the rest of us. Then come back and we’ll discuss what you just experienced. (And if you’re catching up later, here’s a fan-created archive where you can play the March 13 game even if you are reading this from the future.) 

Strands #10
“One thousand followers”

Alright, friends. We need to discuss a few things about how the puzzles are constructed, and what expectations and assumptions are built in. This puzzle is new, so it’s okay if you haven’t figured everything out yet! We’re learning together. 

Think of the “theme” like a crossword clue

If you solve crosswords, especially NYT crosswords, you’ll have a huge head start over everyone else when it comes to understanding tricky Strands themes. Remember, in Strands, “today’s theme” is the clue you get when you open the page. I think of it as being the title of the puzzle.

Here’s what you need to know: the theme is a clue for the spangram (the yellow word or phrase). The spangram, in turn, describes what the blue words have in common.

Sometimes the theme is a pretty straightforward clue: for example, 

  • “Mark my words” went with the spangram PUNCTUATION. (Blue words: COMMA, APOSTROPHE…)

  • “She’ll have a ball” went with the spangram CINDERELLA. (Blue words: PUMPKIN, SLIPPER…)

  • “I gotta dip!” went with the spangram GUACAMOLE. (Blue words: AVOCADO, JALAPENO…)

Simple, right? That’s because they’re starting us off easy. There have been some trickier ones: 

  • “To put it mildly” was EUPHEMISMS.

  • “Ruler’s decree” was MEASUREMENTS. (That’s “ruler” as in a yardstick, not a king)

I’m convinced that this is a word search designed for crossword aficionados. Personally, I’m here for it: I love NYT crosswords, especially ones like Thursdays and Sundays that are full of clever themes and wordplay. For example, here are some crossword clues that I’ve chuckled at in the past week: 

This is what’s going on when “One thousand followers” becomes GRAND FINALE, as in the March 13 Strands theme. A grand is one thousand, and a finale is an ending. The puzzle asks us to find endings for the phrase “GRAND ____.”

Expect fill-in-the-blank categories

Now that we’re getting the hang of it, the blue words are sometimes wordplay based on the theme/spangram. Just as in Connections, words aren’t always grouped together for being members of a category or synonyms for each other. We’ve seen all kinds of tricky combinations there, including homophones and anagrams. (Remember ATE, FOR, TOO, WON as homophones of the numbers 8, 4, 2, 1?)

So what kind of wordplay can we expect in Strands? (Fortunately, anagrams won’t really work.) Recall that the NYT hinted we might see “fill-in-the-blanks” someday. That’s happened twice already. Just a few days ago, we had this puzzle: 

  • Theme: “FRAGILE: Handle with care” 

  • Spangram: BREAKABLE


Get it? They all refer to idioms where we “break” something: you can break bread with somebody, or break their heart, or you can sound like a broken record. 

The reason March 13’s puzzle is so tricky is that it uses both a crossword-style clue for the spangram, and Connections-style fill-in-the-blanks for the blue words. I’m going to spoil it all here, since you were already warned: 

  • Theme: “One thousand followers” 

  • Spangram: GRAND FINALE

  • Words: [grand] PRIZE, [grand] JURY, [Grand] CENTRAL, [Grand] CANYON, [grand] SLAM, [Grand] RAPIDS, [grand] PIANO.

Get it? Get it??? I’m sorry, I was tickled by this once I figured it out. It also took me a good long while to get it, because this is a tough puzzle! It takes a few leaps of logic to get those “aha!” moments.

Anyway, people who were expecting a simple word search are mad. Here’s a Reddit thread full of complaints that the spangram doesn’t match the theme, or that “finale” should have been a word on its own. (It could have been, but then you don’t get the cute construction of GRAND + [synonym for ending].) 

Many of the complaints on this and other hard puzzles are from people who aren’t native English speakers, and that’s a totally valid criticism. (Lots of folks were stumped by GADZOOKS the other day—you kind of had to read a certain era of comic books for that to even register as a word.) Hard word puzzles are not always accessible to everyone, which is both a problem and the whole point of the puzzle. If you solve something by reaching into your brain for some obscure knowledge or by connecting two concepts in an outside-the-box kind of way, that’s an amazing feeling, and makes the whole puzzle worth it!

I’m impressed with Strands (and have high hopes for it graduating from beta) because it can run that whole gamut from easy to devilish, depending on how sadistic the constructor is feeling that day. Getting the “aha” moment on a tricky one is the kind of thrill I live for (I don’t live a very exciting life). Bottom line: This is not an easy puzzle. If you know and love the wordplay tricks of both Crosswords and Connections, you’ll be into Strands. Just don’t expect it to be easy.

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