Saturday, August 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: July 2020

There's a new puzzle site called Et Tu, Etui, and it's like some sort of crossword performance art, so I don't know if I can actually judge the quality of the crosswords... but I recommend it (I think).

July 1: Themeless 12 (Erik Agard and Claire Rimkus, Grids for Good)

If you haven't yet bought Grids for Good, you should get on that; you get to solve grids and do good! There are plenty of fun puzzles in this set of more than 40(!) crosswords, but my favorite was this themeless, which has lovely representation (QUVENZHANE Wallis, WHEN THEY SEE US, BLACK PANTHER) and some devilish clues ([Taken control] for PLACEBO, [Something made to scale in a treehouse] for ROPE LADDER).

It's come to my attention that there's a Patrick Berry variety puzzle in Grids for Good! I think I missed it because I solved the puz files, not the PDFs, but it's Patrick Berry so I'll recommend it sight unseen.

July 2: Freestyle 159 (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

An eye-popping grid shape anchored by two pairs of stacked entries that roll of the tongue: SAX AND VIOLINS paired with SEX AND VIOLENCE, and LOOSELEAF PAPER paired with LOSE SLEEP OVER. That puts a lot of constraint on the fill, but Chris nevertheless fits lots of other good stuff in there, including BANH MI and SENSE OF PURPOSE. Highlights in the clues are ["Truly Madly Deeply" trio] for ADVERBS and [One doing a vibe check?] for PARTY POOPER.

July 5: And the Last Shall Be First (Matt Gaffney, New York Magazine)

Not the theme I was expecting given the title (I was expecting last-to-first shifts like ASQUITH HAS QUIT or something), but a fun theme, in which the first letters of words are replaced with Z, the last letter of the alphabet. A simple enough theme, but loads of fun, not least because Z is just an inherently funny letter: we've got BABY ZOOMERS, JACK THE ZIPPER, ZILLOW FIGHT, WHO WANTS TO BE A/ZILLIONAIRE, ZEALOUS MUCH, and ZERO WORSHIP, all delightful.

July 8: Great to Hear! (Themeless) (Adam Aaronson)

Lots of modern goodies in this grid, including I LOVE THAT FOR YOU, THE SQUAD, and NONAPOLOGY. Other highlights include PIKACHU, clued as [The chosen one], KITESURF, PREREQS, and the clue [My kingdom for a horse!] that brilliantly spices up the otherwise dry answer ANIMALIA.

July 8: Capture the Flag (Steve Mossberg, Square Pursuit)

Similar to the Paolo Pasco/Ria Dhull TOM NOOK puzzle from last month, this puzzle has an eye-catching grid where six countries, clued with respect to their flags, are "captured" by nook-shaped sections of the grid. The theme entries are all only seven letters long, so the rest plays like a themeless, with a bunch of good fill entries longer than the theme entries themselves: EXTREME BEER, DULCET TONES, NUDE PAINTING, SPEED READER, and TATTOO PARLOR.

July 14: Ink In (Brooke Husic and Evan Kalish, USA Today)

More diagonal-symmetry wizardy from Brooke, this time joined by Evan Kalish. We've got the intersecting theme entries MARGARET ATWOOD, ONE DAY AT A TIME, GRETA THUNBERG, and UPSTATE NEW YORK, all of which hide the word TAT (which, unusually for the USA Today, is in the grid as a revealer, nestled ingeniously between the theme entries). On top of that, the bottom right corner has two bonus themers, DICTATE and STATUTE.

July 16: Centerpiece (Neville Fogarty)

I've highlighted some of Neville's cryptics before; he writes lovely cryptics that are accessible for beginners. This one is small and easy enough that I just solved it in my head, but it's got a simple, yet delightful and elegant, payoff.

July 25: Saturday Midi (Amanda Rafkin, Brain Candy)

Even though I've made plenty of midis myself, I admit to having a bit of a sizeist bias when it comes to crosswords; I usually find little to get excited about in minis or midis, unless they have an elegant minitheme. So it's hard for a themeless midi to impress me enough to earn a shoutout, but I really admire this one. It's got four fun intersecting 11s (CONE OF SHAME, JEWISH GUILT, SHANIA TWAIN, MACARONI ART), and there's absolutely nothing questionable in the short fill - which is much harder to pull off than you might think!

July 25: Something Different (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

Few things are more delightful than a Something Different puzzle, where the answers are made up and the points don't matter. You can include entries like BIG MAN ON KRAMPUS and ACDC BBC BCC and BARE-LEGGIN' and nobody bats an eye. Paolo's got a knack for conjuring up hilarious images with his clues, which he does here with clues like ["Congratulations, you just birthed 100 lawmakers!"] for IT'S A SENATE and [What you might cry after dropping your collection of growing fungi] for MY SPORES. I think I'd pay good money for a weekly Something Different from Paolo. On the other hand, maybe the joy of Something Differents would wear off if I was solving them all the time... but on the third hand, no, these are just a blast.

July 29: Nom Nom Nom (Matt Gaffney, Daily Beast)

Matt's got his fingers in a lot of cruciverbal pies, so it's no surprise that I'm featuring puzzles of his from two different venues this month. This one reminds me of Peter Gordon's annual Oscar nominees puzzle; Matt celebrates the just-released Emmy nominations by fitting a whole bunch of them (Tracee Ellis ROSS, ALAN Arkin, ANDRE Braugher, KILLING EVE, SUCCESSION, OZARK, OLIVIA Colman, SNL, ANGELA Bassett, Cecily and Jeremy STRONG, and UZO Aduba) in an 11x11 grid. An amazing feat of construction.

July 30: Out of Left Field 18 (Jeffrey Harris, Out of Left Field)

Instead of Kosman and Picciotto, we get a guest cryptic by Jeffrey Harris this week. It has some truly elegant clues, including ["Community" character lying low] for ABED NADIR, [$0.01 deposited in bank not long ago] for RECENTLY (which cleverly repurposes the word "bank"), and [Formal agreement for Elmer Fudd, a Looney Tunes character] for TWEETY. My favorite is [Professional boxer's child support?] for PROP UP, which ingeniously splits the PUP definition ("boxer's child") between two perfectly idiomatic phrases.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Puzzle #121: Freestyle 11

Tough themeless for y'all this week (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Just realized it's been a bit since I've posted a themed puzzle here, but stay tuned for some soon!


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: June 2020

June 1: 6/1 (Rachel Fabi, USA Today)

A meta from the USA Today! That's a first, I think. And it's a doozy: the grid contains six of the Seven Dwarfs (all except for Happy) and six of the seven deadly sins (all except for pride). So the secret message is HAPPY PRIDE, an appropriate start to Pride Month. It's quite remarkable that Rachel fit twelve theme entries into the grid without any strain on the fill. And the title's perfect too, doing double duty as the date of the first day of Pride Month and a hint to the meta mechanism.

June 2: Themeless (Matthew Stock)

At the beginning of the month, Paolo Pasco offered a bonus 17x themeless to anyone who contributed to a BLM donation drive, and several other constructors chipped in puzzles. One of those puzzles was a 15x Matthew Stock themeless chock full of lively answers: WAKANDA FOREVER, AND THAT'S NOT ALL, CANDYGRAM, RECAPTCHA, RAVE REVIEW, KLAXONS, CORNDOGS, and ROCK ON. A lot of great stuff for a 15x grid, and the grid pattern itself is very aesthetically pleasing, with all of the black squares arranged in L-shaped blocks.

June 4: Untitled (Christopher Adams)

This puzzle, which Christopher posted to Twitter, is definitely my favorite puzzle of the month, and it's only a 5x3 grid! One of those perfect minimalist concepts that can really only be done in one way, and it just so happens that it can be done using legit crossword entries.

June 5: Breakfast (Brooke Husic, USA Today)

To awkwardly paraphrase Tolstoy, bad crosswords can be bad in many different ways, but good crosswords are mostly pretty similar: tight themes, fresh fill, func luing. So I find myself writing similar stuff over and over again in these writeups, and it's rare for a puzzle to impress me in a unique way. But this puzzle is a game-changer. It's a simple enough theme (the word FAST is "broken" in the entries FALL HARVEST, FLABBERGAST, FAMILY CREST, and FRENCH TOAST), but Brooke gives it a twist by using diagonal symmetry instead of the standard rotational symmetry. Brooke's surely not the first person to use diagonal symmetry, but this is a real coup; in a theme like this, where a word is split across the beginning and end of the theme entries, diagonal symmetry is a perfect fit, because you often have letters (like the A's in FLABBERGAST and FRENCH TOAST) that are in the same position in different theme entries, so they can intersect in intricate ways. A beautiful pairing of form and content, and I hope to see more diagonal innovation from Brooke and others in the future. (Also, I'd be remiss not to mention the fun long fill, including LAST CALL, SCI-FI MOVIE, BACHATA, and CATHOLIC.)

June 16: Year 5 Rows Garden 41 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

A real rarity: a themed Rows Garden. June 16 is Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses takes place, so to celebrate Joon puts the names of four flowers (DAHLIA, AZALEA, ZINNIA, VIOLET) in the bloom entries. Fitting those four entries plus BLOOMSDAY in the grid is a daunting task (there's a reason Rows Gardens are so rarely themed), but Joon pulls it off cleanly.

June 20: Both Sides Now (Christopher Adams, George Barany, and Noam Elkies)

This puzzle was originally going to run in the sorely missed Chronicle of Higher Education, but Chris has put it up on his blog instead. It's yet another diagonally symmetric puzzle, this time necessitated by the theme! There are four squares in the grid which can be filled with either PRO or CON and still fit both the across and down clues, for a total of eight pairs of PRO/CON entries. For example, the clue [They often go by (and are enjoyed by people in) stands] can clue either PROCESSIONS or CONCESSIONS. We've also got PRO/CONGRESS, PRO/CONTESTS, PRO/CONVOCATION, PRO/CONFESS, PRO/CONTRACTED, PRO/CONDUCTIVE, and PRO/CONFITS. A truly complex marvel of construction.

June 21: Themeless (Erik Agard, Brain Candy)

Erik brings a guest themeless on Amanda Rafkin's site, Brain Candy. It's typical Agardian goodness; he's been highlighting Native American vocabulary a lot recently, and this puzzle's got ANISHINAABE in its central stagger-stack. Other great stuff includes KUMQUATS, LAVERNE COX, MICROINFLUENCER, QUALMS, SEPHORA, and HEADBANG.

June 24: Themeless Sixteen (Adam Nicolle, luckystreak xwords)

Right at 1-Across, Adam won over my Canadian heart with JAGMEET Singh, recently in the news because he was kicked out of Parliament for calling out an MP's racism. Adam makes good use of the long slots, featuring fresh entries like chicken TENDIES HE DON'T MISS and SIDE HUSTLE. There's an excellent clue for BANNER ADS, too: [Top spots, often?].

June 28: Recess! (Paolo Pasco and Ria Dhull, Grids These Days)

A delightful theme inspired by TOM NOOK from the Animal Crossing games. It's a rebus puzzle, with the word TOM appearing four times in its own little nook, connected to the rest of the grid only by the entry in which it appears (TOMFOOLERY, TOMATILLOS, FOLK CUSTOM, and ROCK BOTTOM). Some complicated intersections going on in the theme design, but Paolo still finds room for bonus fill like JUNETEENTH and PERMAFROST, clued as [Cause of cold feet?]. Paolo's girlfriend Ria collaborated on the clues, and I don't know who did what clues, but they're uniformly excellent; highlights include [Redding known for blues-ing] for OTIS and [Nanotechnology?] for IPOD.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Puzzle #120: Freestyle 10 (with Brooke Husic)

First up: I'm very excited to present a new puzzle suite: Escape the Grid. It's an escape room in the form of a puzzle suite, it's a whole lotta fun, and the price is pay what you want!

I'm also excited to present this themeless (pdf, puz, pdf solution) collaboration with Brooke Husic. Brooke reached out to me recently to collaborate on a themeless for submission, and we had so much fun that we made another one! Brooke has been experimenting with diagonal-symmetry grids recently (spoiler alert: you'll see at least one of them in my roundup of my favorite puzzles from this month), and I've been wanting to construct one, so that's what we did. Brooke writes:

Working with Will was the best; it felt like we were on the same wavelength throughout the entire creation process. I'm honored that he's featuring our collaboration on his site and so thrilled to share it with all of you.

Right back at ya!

Monday, June 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: May 2020

First order of business: If you send Erik Agard a screenshot of your donation to One Struggle KC, he'll send you some unreleased crosswords. I just donated, so I haven't solved the puzzles yet, but they're by Erik so they're probably pretty good.

May 1: The Five W's (Brooke Husic, USA Today)

This is simply one of the most perfect theme sets I've ever seen: FIRST WATCH, SECOND WIND, THIRD WAVE, FOURTH WALL, FIFTH WHEEL. Five ordinal numbers (in order in the grid), five words that start with W, and five fun, in-the-language phrases. All that, plus a perfect title.

May 3: Untitled (Adam Nicolle, The Atlantic)

One of those themes where the theme entries have seemingly nothing in common, until all is revealed by, well, the revealer. Our themers are YO ADRIAN, DELAY PEDAL, and HE WHO MUST/NOT BE NAMED. What's the connection? As the revealer, YODELING, tells us, if you string together the beginnings of the theme entries, you get the sound of a yodel: "Yodelay-hee-hoo!" A hilarious aha moment.

May 11: Themeless Fourteen (Adam Nicolle and Sid Sivakumar, luckystreak xwords)

Of course, when Grimes and Elon Musk announced the name of their child, someone had to put Æ A-12 MUSK in a puzzle, and Adam and Sid did just that. Lots of fun clues in the rest of the puzzle, including [Floor reps?] for KEGELS, [It might be found under the Christmas tree] for PINE SAP, [SO sobriquet] for PET NAME, and [We had '99 problems but this glitch ain't one] for Y2K.

May 13: Power Up! (Steve Mossberg, Square Pursuit)

An inventive Mario Kart-related theme: the power-ups from the game are represented by question marks going across (since they come in question-marked boxes in the game), and the names of the items going down. So, for example, HOW'S THE FAM? crosses ROCK STAR at the "?" and "STAR." Similarly, WHATCHA GOT? crosses FLOWER STEM at the "FLOWER," and ¿COMO ESTA USTED? does double duty, crossing BITCOIN at the "COIN" and MUSHROOM TEA at the "MUSHROOM." The potential issue with this theme is that the crossings are essentially entire unchecked words, and if (like me) you haven't played a lot of Mario Kart, you might not know all the power-up items. But Steve's cluing ensures that all the theme entries are easily gettable, and the intricate gridwork allows for the inclusion of MARIO and YOSHI in the grid despite the other themers taking up a ton of real estate.

May 18: Themeless 19 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

This themeless is anchored by the colorful stagger-stack of TOILET SEATS, FLEXITARIAN, and LAUGHING GAS, crossed by the topical MOUNT ST HELENS, but it really shines in the midlength fill, which includes 'MURICA, WHO DAT, WENT POOF, UPTIGHT, HAIKU, COBWEB, BODY ART, and E-BIKES, all included without any significant compromises in the fill.

May 20: Themeless (Sid Sivakumar, Sid's Grids)

Sid's quickly become one of my very favorite constructors, and this themeless is unsurprisingly filled with sparkling stuff, including QUARANTINE BEARD, TALK DIRTY clued as [Turn on with one's voice], PUB TRIVIA clued as [Rounds over rounds?], DROP A BEAT, INNER NERD, and Futurama's HYPNOTOAD.

May 22: Themeless (Matthew Stock, Happy Little Puzzles)

If you haven't noticed from my previous writeups: yeah, I'm pretty biased towards themelesses. But there were a lot of great ones this month; this one's a bit different from the others I've highlighted, in that it's not quite as heavy on colorful entries, but the grid pattern is a challenging tour-de-force, with stacks of 10s and 8s intersecting in the NW and SE corners. Nonetheless, the fill is impressively clean, with highlights like IS THAT A THING, UNCRUSTABLES, and FANCASTS, plus the clever clue [Film class?] for GENRE.

May 24: Split Screen (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

An unusual grid pattern, with five 3x3 squares that are completely isolated from the rest of the grid. But fear not: the theme entries symbolically connect them to the rest of the grid by cutting through the bottom wall of the 3x3 squares. The theme entries (LIZ LEMON, WAYNE CAMPBELL, BUGS BUNNY, FERRIS BUELLER, and DEADPOOL) are all screen characters who break the fourth wall, which is why the break the walls of those mini-squares. A clever idea, and difficult to execute, forcing a lot of wide-open spaces in the grid, but Ross pulls it off very nicely.

May 24: Cozy Up (Amanda Rafkin, Brain Candy)

Amanda mostly posts minis and midis, and I generally find it hard to get super-excited about those, but she has posted a couple of full-size puzzles, including this excellent and uplifting one. A tight theme set (SNUG AS A BUG IN A RUG, HAPPY AS A CLAM, and LIKE A PIG IN SLOP), with the perfect revealer, CREATURE COMFORTS. The arrangement of the theme entries makes the grid pattern quite difficult to fill - for example, it's got two 10s (the very nice VISUAL PUNS and UPSET ABOUT) that intersect three themers - but it's executed very well.

May 27: wordsearch (Ricky Cruz, via Twitter)

OK, it's not a crossword, but it's by a crossword constructor, and it's too delightful not to include. I really don't want to spoil it here (and it can in fact be spoiled - despite the basic gimmick being easy to see, there is one answer that adds an extra surprise), so if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

May 28: Out of Left Field #9 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field)

It's common for Joshua and Henri to include clues that cross-reference each other, but this puzzle has a particularly impressive pair: two 14-letter entries that are anagrams of each other (INSTANT MESSAGE and SEAT ASSIGNMENT). Other great stuff:

- [Like some entertainment, like some symphonies, and like some operas]: IN-FLIGHT
- [Joe sounds a little sick?]: COFFEE
- [Better greeting: "Into leather? Kinky!"]: HEALTHIER
- [People soon getting high]: INHABIT







Monday, May 25, 2020

Monday, May 18, 2020

Puzzle #118: Disobedience

I don't often post midi-sized puzzles, but I do have a lot of midi-sized puzzle ideas lying around, and they seem to be all the rage these days. So here's one to tide you over until the next full-sized puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution)!