Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: March 2020

This was a fabulous month for indie puzzles, maybe the best since I started doing this thing. Constructors showed up in droves to provide social distancing entertainment, and there were a lot of gems among the bunch.

March 2: Dropping Bombs (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

This is a standard P-to-F letter-change theme, but it has a delightful raison d'etre, which is that Pac-Man was originally called PUCK MAN, but the name was changed for English markets so people wouldn't change the P to an F on the arcade machines. A perfect encapsulation of Ricky's pop cultural sensibility, also on display in many of the themers: A LINK TO THE PAST, DISNEY FLUS, FICKLE RICK, TRIVIAL FURSUIT, FEZ DISPENSER, and FRANK CHANNEL. I hesitated about including this one because there's more iffy fill than I like (EILE, I TEN, ONE HR, MEDUSAN, IT'S SO), but ultimately the entertainment factor of the theme won me over. There's also some fun stuff in the fill, like JOHN CENA and PANIC BUTTON, plus ALT TABS trickily clued as [Switches to another program].

March 2: Spell Weaving (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

I've never constructed a Spell Weaving puzzle, so I don't know how hard it is, but I've gotta assume it's not easy to include a bunch of long words and phrases when all the entries interweave with each other. Joon makes it look easy, though, with GREEN NEW DEAL, ED SULLIVAN, MOSEY ALONG, I CAN AND I WILL, DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD, and GRADUATING CLASS.

March 7: Skylight (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

Chris brings us a Schrodinger puzzle based on the fact that both MORNING STAR and EVENING STAR refer to the same object, VENUS. The central across entry doubles as both "morning star" and "evening star," with the down entries MATING/EATING, SHOOED/SHOVED, and PAYER/PAYEE doing double duty. I think this is a great theme, but in the interests of full disclosure, I once ran a puzzle with the same theme, so I may be biased. But that means I do know from experience how hard it is to come up with Schrodinger entries where one letter is a consonant and the other letter is a vowel, and Chris managed to find three smooth pairs. Highlights in the fill include OENOPHILES, POWER OUTAGE, and RONDA ROUSEY.

March 8: Themeless 13 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

A beautiful pinwheel of long entries anchors the center of this themeless, which features sparkly entries like SITZKRIEG, SLEAZEBALL, DOCUDRAMA, Courtney BARNETT, COCOTAXIS, RIOT GRRRL, and the second appearance in two days of the word OENOPHILE. And nary a scowl-inducer in the grid!

March 10: Year 5 Rows Garden 27 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

Joon does it again, somehow managing to pack HERE'S THE DEAL, YABBA DABBA DOO, GENDER NEUTRAL, I GOT THIS, ROLLER COASTER, GIVE ME ONE REASON, and MAGIC NUMBER into a single Rows Garden grid.

March 10: Not All Saints (Sid Sivakumar, Brooke Husic, and Evan Kalish, Sid's Grids)

One of the great things about indie puzzledom is the quick turnaround it allows. Sid, Brooke, and Evan put together this response to the March 10 NYT puzzle in less than a day. The NYT puzzle featured people who share their names with saints in California city names, like FRANCISCO FRANCO (San Francisco) and DIEGO RIVERA (San Diego). But it noticeably lacked any of California's many Santa ___ cities, so all the themers were dudes. This puzzle makes up for it by featuring ROSA PARKS, BARBARA WALTERS, MONICA LEWINSKY, and ANITA HILL. Not only that, the fill and clues are jam-packed with dozens more women's names, all without sacrificing solvability.

March 13: Puzzle Twenty Four (Max Carpenter, Donkey Puzzle Tree)

Max released a bunch of new puzzles on his website in March, of which this themeless is my favorite. It's got an absolutely bonkers grid pattern, and immediately after test-solving it, I decided to try filling the same grid pattern myself - but I quickly gave up. Max manages to fill it with lively entries like CAMEO BROOCH, ITALIAN STALLION, and CLEAN AS A WHISTLE, plus off-the-wall cluing like [Marx brothers?] for PROLETARIAT, [Quintessential father-son hand-me-down] for Y CHROMOSOME, and [Hips don't lie far from it] for GROIN.

March 21: Shameless Plugs (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

This puzzle is based on the well-known phenomenon that it always seems to take more than two tries to put a USB in the right way. We've got four phrases with the string USB or BSU, but somehow, it's going in the wrong direction every time! So instead of CITRUS BOWL we have CITRBSUOWL, instead of TWO THUMBS UP we have TWOTHUMUSBP, instead of SIRIUS BLACK we have SIRIBSULACK, and instead of WEB SURFERS we have WEUSBRFERS. A hilarious theme based on something that few people other than Paolo would even think to turn into a puzzle. (Also, see Sid's Grids for a cheeky response puzzle.)

March 21: Naysayers Only (Finn Vigeland, Crossword Tournament from Your Couch)

In the most amazing puzzle event of the month(/year/decade), Finn and Kevin Der created an online crossword tournament to replace the postponed ACPT, going from conception to completion in a span of about a week, including a web interface that automatically tracked people's scores, put together by Kevin. Not only that, the puzzles were excellent too. My favorite was the one written by co-organizer Finn, and I won't spoil the theme for those who haven't gotten to the puzzles. Since I was speed-solving, I didn't pay much attention to the theme entries until after I finished, but suffice it to say that at least one of the theme entries made me laugh out loud once I figured it out. The fill's great too!

March 22: Black Tie Affair (Chris King and Christopher Adams, Chris Words)

The two Chrises team up for a puzzle about penguins, and who doesn't like penguins. A simple enough concept - phrases starting with types of penguin - but the themers are long and they intersect each other in complicated ways, and we've got an oversized grid to accommodate them all (MAGELLANIC CLOUDS, KING JAMES VERSION, JACKASS THE MOVIE, MACARONI AND CHEESE, EMPEROR CONCERTO, HUMBOLDT CURRENT, CHINSTRAP BEARD, ROYAL TREATMENT, plus the month-appropriate revealer MARCH OF THE PENGUINS).

March 25: Themeless 8 (Stella Zawistowski, Tough As Nails)

As advertised, Stella's themelesses are indeed tough as nails, and it's great to have another source of brain-bending themelesses. (This one took me around twice as long as a typical themeless does.) Some of the previous puzzles on her site have relied on relative obscurities like LUCULLAN BANQUET (obscure, though a fun phrase to learn). This one doesn't as much, but it's still clearly a Stella puzzle, with classical music (TESSITURA) and fashion (DRESS RACK, trickily clued as [Gap fixture]). But it primarily gets its difficulty from crunchy cluing, which makes it a very satisfying solve; even the central across entry, STATE OF THE STATE, is very inferrable, even if you happen not to know that rather delightful phrase. My favorite of the eight themelesses so far.

March 26: Puzzle No. 3529 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

A sad day, as this is the very last cryptic from The Nation. This puzzle is their typical solid work (my favorite clue is [Taken is given a little more than three stars?] for PIRATED), but I'm really including it for the heartfelt sendoff that Joshua and Henri give to their solvers, with the entries SEE YOU LATER, ARRIVEDERCI, AUF WIEDERSEHEN, HASTA LA VISTA, AU REVOIR, and KEEP IN TOUCH. And you can indeed keep in touch, by signing up for their upcoming weekly cryptics.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Puzzle #115: Eating Right

I had a blast at the Crossword Tournament from Your Couch this weekend - thanks so much to everyone who helped put it on! And hopefully it's not the last tournament of its kind. I'll have more to say about it in my month-end writeup, but in the meantime, here's a new puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Enjoy!

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: February 2020

It was an extra-long February this year, and an extra-good one for crosswords, I'd say!

February 4: Toymaking (Karl Ni, USA Today)

The USA Today puzzles are all solidly made, but since they're pitched to be Monday/Tuesday-level, it's rare to see a theme that really surprises me. But this one did just that! The themers are DRAWING PAD, RING DING, and SHORT TON, which seem to have nothing in common until they're tied together by the revealer, BUILD-A-BEAR - the last words of the themers combine to make PADDINGTON. A genuine aha moment.

February 8: Demilitarization (David Alfred Bywaters, New Crosswords / Old Novels)

David specializes in a particular sort of wordplay theme, where the revealer suggests some change that's made to each theme entry. Usually that's all there is to it, but this theme is fun because there's a real conceptual motivation for the changes. In this case, the revealer is DISARMS, and the theme entries are phrases with weapons in them which have been demilitarized by replacing the weapons with harmless homophones: PISTIL WHIP, BAUM SHELTERS, CRUISE MISSAL, and CANON BALLS. A nice corrective to all the NRA appearances in grids (though ironically, as I write this, I've just solved David's latest puzzle, which has NRA in the fill).

February 11: Parasite (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

Paolo hasn't been publishing much lately, but when he does post a new puzzle, it's invariably fire. Here we've got a puzzle inspired by Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning Parasite, in which animals in the theme entries are infested by parasites. so DOG in DOG AND PONY SHOW is interrupted by a FLEA (in a rebus square as part of the entry OFF-LEASH), HUMAN in TO ERR IS HUMAN is interrupted by a MITE (in TERMITES), and DEER in DEERSTALKER is interrupted by a TICK (in CHEESE STICK). An ingenious visualization of parasite infestation, plus one of the best clues I've seen in a while: [B.A. program?] for THE A-TEAM.

Speaking of Parasite, Christopher Adams's mini-themeless Picture Perfect also featured one of the best clues I've seen in a while: [Bong hit].

February 20?: Sweet 16 (Patrick Berry, A-Frame Games)

The question mark's because I don't know exactly when Patrick posted this variety puzzle suite. His puzzles tend to get dropped on his site without fanfare and then news spreads quickly by word of mouth. I'm not going to spoil any content because many of you might not have solved these yet, but luckily "variety puzzles by Patrick Berry" is a strong enough endorsement by itself.

February 22: Fairy-Tale Endings (Gabrielle Friedman, USA Today)

Again, since the USA Today puzzles are pitched easy, it's rare for me to be surprised by any of the fill. Incredibly, this puzzle had no fewer than three colorful in-the-language fill entries that weren't even in my wordlist: HECKA, M'KAY, and ZOINKS. And the rest of the fill was clean and smooth too, of course. As the title suggests, the theme involved phrases ending in hidden fairy-tale characters: WEEKNIGHT, LIGHT SWITCH, TAG YOURSELF (another addition to my wordlist!), and SWEET ROLL.

February 27: Puzzle No. 3526 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

An amazing amount of theme content in this cryptic, with eight across entries with the initials T.P.: TOOK PITY, TEST PILOT, TARGET PRACTICE, TEAM PLAYER, TITO PUENTE, TRADE PAPERBACK, TITLE PAGE, and TEA PARTY. And yet, there was no shortage of smooth clues:

JETE: [Jump from plane, using parachute at the end]
TRAPEZE: [Capture effortlessness when announcing circus routine]
CEREBRAL: [Life, for instance, overwhelms extremely bitter intellectual]
BASMATI: [Crashed Saab with Tim Rice]
PINOCHLE: [Redesign help icon for game]

Sadly, this is one of Joshua and Henri's last puzzles (maybe their last?) for The Nation, since the crossword is ending in March. But they'll be continuing their collaboration via Patreon, where you can sign up to get a weekly cryptic by the duo by email.

February 29: Field Testing (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

We've got a rebus puzzle inspired by the NFL COMBINE, with the theme entries RUN-FLAT TIRES (beautifully clued as [Holey rollers?]), IAN FLEMING, SELF-INFLECTED, COINFLIPS, DESIGN FLAW, PAN FLUTE, SUNFLOWERS, AEON FLUX, and EVENFLOW. To go with the theme, there's lots of sports in the fill - not my personal cup of tea, but it's all cleanly done, and there are some nice bonuses like FLEABAG and GO FLY A KITE.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Puzzle #114: Internet Outage (guest puzzle by Matthew Stock)

I'm very pleased to present a guest puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) by Matthew Stock. Matthew's a 23-year-old constructor in St. Louis, MO, where he teaches 9th-grade algebra through an Americorps-affiliated fellowship. He writes: "I've been constructing for about a year and a half now and am always looking to talk shop and collaborate with other puzzle folks!" Keep an eye out for his Universal debut this Wednesday. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: January 2020

January 3: Singsong Syllables (Rachel Fabi, USA Today)

A remarkably tight theme, with a perfect title: each theme entry is of the form _ING _ONG _______, where all the words alliterate. We've got PING PONG PADDLES, DING DONG DITCH, and KING KONG COSTUME (which I'd definitely give some side-eye as a themeless answer, but as part of a theme like this, it works great). As always with the USA Today, the fill's clean, and we've got some nice bonuses in the fill in the form of TIGHT-KNIT and Phoebe Waller-Bridge's FLEABAG.

January 5: Relatively Speaking (Matt Gaffney, New York Magazine)

This one's got an EXTENDED FAMILY theme, where -KIN is added to the end of phrases, with wacky results. The themers are really cute, I think because -KIN is an inherently cute ending. I mean, just look at them: NEEDED A PUSHKIN, PAY AT THE PUMPKIN, SIAMESE CATKIN, THE BAY OF PIGSKIN, BABY BUMPKIN, and POWER NAPKIN. Good fill, too; as is sometimes the case with Matt's puzzles, there are more partials than I like to see, but entries like TIKTOK and ZOO ANIMAL make up for it.

January 7: Year 5 Rows Garden 18 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

Joon rings in the new decade with the seed entry ROARING TWENTIES, and makes room for colorful entries like SWASHBUCKLER, OFFICE ROMANCE (clued as [Working relationship?]), SINGULAR THEY (the American Dialect Society's word of the decade), and ROSEMARY'S BABY.

January 9: Puzzle No. 3520 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

This cryptic's got a mini-theme, where the five W's are hidden phonetically in some of the across entries (Y-INTERCEPT, HOOVER DAM, WEDNESDAY, UNDERWEAR, and ANGKOR WAT), but the real attraction, of course, is in the cluing. The highlights:

- UNICORN: [Mythical creature's simple garment, worn without the front bits]
- DEEP: [Went back into the sea]
- ANGKOR WAT: [Lee faces a choice of initial letters for radio stations at religious site]
- REVISIT: [Consider once again what may happen when playing tag with a member of the clergy]
- CYANIDE: [Candy (i.e. disguised poison)]
- PURCHASE: [Buy tea, mostly in a bag]

January 12: Whose Side Are You On? (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

This one has been officially declared #notacrossword by the Not a Crossword Twitter account, because it breaks a cardinal rule of crosswords: all-over interlock. But with good reason! The grid is divided in two by a column of black squares in the middle, but worry not - there are several doors passing through the column, hidden in the entries TANDOORI, IT'S DO OR DIE, and THE DOORS. That last one serves as the revealer, and as the icing on the cake, references the band's song "Break On Through (To the Other Side). Quite an elegant, layered theme.

January 16: Aries Cryptic 22 (Andrew Ries, Aries Puzzles)

Probably my favorite Aries Cryptic yet, in large part thanks to two clues that cleverly reinterpret in-the-language phrases. TOM BRADY is clued as [Grave-yard shift for long-tenured driver at Gillette Stadium], efficiently reparsing "grave-yard shift." And FLUFFY is clued as [Superficial target of some shots at the beginning of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"], reinterpreting "extremely loud" as FF and "incredibly close" as the close of the word "incredibly," Y. Genius! Other great clues:

- ADMIT IT: [Playing timid at frustrated interrogator's demand]
- PANTS: [Article of clothing doesn't breathe well]
- DISMAL: [IDs lost prior to returning flight is no fun at all]
- FANTASIZE: [Imagine NAFTA jolted economy, for instance]
- OUTLINE: [Heads of organizations underreporting their losses in net earnings summary]

January 24: Photo Finish (Claire Rimkus, USA Today)

The theme here is, unsurprisingly, phrases that end in synonyms for "photo." Each of the theme entries (WHISKEY STILL, COLD SNAP, SLAPSHOT, and PAISLEY PRINT) uses a different meaning of the synonym, which is a nice touch. But the main reason I'm highlighting this puzzle is that it shows that sparkly fill isn't all about the long answers (the TENTPOLES, if you will). The sparkly short fill in this one includes BAO (which I've seen in surprisingly few puzzles), the TV show POSE, KESHA (whose new album, High Road, came out yesterday), UP TOP, and the Los Angeles SPARKS.