Teams receive a series of four crossword puzzles — labeled “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Dinner,” and “Dessert” — over a span of 25 minutes. Each crossword has a loosely interlocked grid of 6-8 entries and cryptic clues in random order. Teams score points for solving puzzle entries and earn bonus points for perfect solutions and for discovering themes that connect the entries in a puzzle. Teams may get help by asking for grid entries that correspond to certain clues or the letters that go in certain squares; each instance of help incurs a deduction in the solving score. When 25 minutes elapse teams stop solving and calculate scores.
Cryptic Cafe was an adaptions of The Cross-Wits, a game show I watched in my youth. I planned to present it at a minicon in LA and decided to collaborate with Ron Sweet and use cryptic clues rather than the Merl Reagle-style pun clues associated with the television series. I devised the themes and Ron wrote the clues. During the game Ron did most of the talking while I handed out puzzles; he was the maître d’ and I was head chef. We devised the scores and time limit to encourage players to ask for hints and complete the puzzles perfectly. Most teams were averse to the optimization mechanic and preferred to solve without hints even if they only achieved a partial solution.