It’s meta time! The instructions ask for an eight-letter phrase. The grid itself appears to be themeless. There are a handful of nine-letter answers (SPIN CLASS, GET AN IDEA, BOW WOW WOW, LASER BEAM, NAVY YARDS, NARROW WIN, TOLERATED, and PIECEMEAL), but there are typically some longer answers in a 21x21 puzzle that would stand out more clearly as theme answers.

This is one of those metas where all you need is a single insight and the whole thing comes to light. The title hints at it — maybe it helps if you’ve ever played the playground game foursquare — but you’ll find the answer in the parts of the grid where the same letter appears in quadrants:

  • Four T’s in the upper-left corner, with BRETT at 18A, SCOTT at 22A, I.T. TEAM at 4D, and ATTUNE at 5D.
  • Four W’s with WWI at 35A, BOW WOW WOW at 40A, I KNOW WHY at 9D, and AWW at 29D. Technically, there are five W’s in BOW WOW WOW, but only two of them are directly involved in the meta.
  • Four O’s with BOO at 44A, LOO at 48A, MESS ROOM at 16D, and TOOT at 38D.
  • Four B’s with EBB TIDE at 59A, ABBESS at 69A, TEXAS BBQ at 33D, and ABBA at 56D.
  • Four Y’s with CY YOUNG at 78A, NAVY YARDS at 81A, SKYY at 64D, and HEY YA at 65D.
  • Four T’s with ITT at 97A, ATTAIN at 104A, MATTHIAS at 84D, and PETTIEST at 85D.
  • Four W’s with NARROW WIN at 98A, EWW at 106A, HOW WAS IT at 88D, and WWE at 99D.
  • Four O’s with TOOLS at 126A, SOOTY at 130A, TATTOO at 103D, and ROO at 120D.

The letters in those quadrants, in order, spell out TWO-BY-TWO.

This might qualify as one of my stranger metas in that the reality of the two-by-two letter constraints forced some unusual answers like GET AN IDEA and TEXAS BBQ and I KNOW WHY. There’s also BDSM at 57D: [Erotic role-playing letters] which, admittedly, wasn’t my first choice in that spot, but it fit better than the alternatives.

I have to give a shout-out to the puzzlers Nate Cardin, Heron Greenesmith, and Anna Gundlach for helping me to finesse the clue for TRANS MAN at 87D: [Guy protected against employment discrimination, per a landmark SCOTUS decision in June 2020]. I’d hoped the answer would give some visibility to an underrepresented group in puzzles, while hopefully also being clued currently and sensitively.

What did you think?