Monday, January 18, 2021

Puzzle #125: Freestyle 14 (with Brooke Husic)

It's been almost two months since the last puzzle I posted here, but I'm back with another themeless co-constructed with the inimitable Brooke Husic (pdf, puz, pdf solution). This one's a real toughie! Many thanks to Steve Mossberg and Rachel Fabi for test-solving.


Friday, January 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: December 2020

I mentioned on Twitter earlier that I was thinking about doing some voting-based awards for the best indie puzzles of 2020. I've decided not to do that, mainly because I don't see any way around some biases that I'd like to avoid - for example, relatively under-the-radar venues and constructors would probably get fewer votes even for equally good puzzles, just because fewer voters will have solved the puzzles before.

But I am going to do a similar thing with clues, which should be much more manageable! I've set up a Google Form where people can self-nominate their favorite clues that they had published this year (in any venue that isn't reviewed on Crossword Fiend, to use my 100% arbitrary definition of "indie"). There are two categories: one for wordplay-based clues, and one for everything else (maybe you like it because it has a fun trivia fact, maybe it's a new angle on a well-trodden answer, maybe it's just zany, whatever). I'm using self-nominations because I want every constructor to be in the running, including ones that might have flown under the radar - I encourage all constructors to fill out the form! I'll leave nominations open until January 15, then I'll send out another form listing all of the clues (anonymized) so that people can vote for their favorites. Once the results are in, I'll do a little write-up of the clues getting the most votes, and probably shout out some of my other favorites too.

Anyway, it's another themeless-heavy month - what can I say, I know what I like! Partly, I think it's just harder to come up with a theme that will really surprise and impress me, and partly it's that indie constructors are putting out a ton of quality themelesses these days (which makes sense, since the opportunities for publishing themelesses in mainstream venues are pretty limited).

December 8: Vibes and Stuff (Themeless) (Adam Aaronson, Aaronson)

December 8: Untitled (Juliana Tringali Golden, Vox)

December 11: Like Trying to Solve a Crossword and Realizing... (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

December 11: Themeless (Rachel Fabi and Brooke Husic, Happy Little Puzzles)

December 16: Themeless 22 (Steve Mossberg, Square Pursuit)

December 24: Weekly Ego Check (Themeless #3) (Quiara Vasquez, QVXwordz)

December 27: Themeless IV (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

December 27: Christmas Spirit (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

December 31: 2020 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

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Vibes and Stuff (Themeless) (Adam Aaronson)

We've got a pair of really solid stacks of 8s (MINISODE/I'M STOKED/CAKE BOSS and ALFRESCO/DE LA SOUL/DIET COKE), but what's really impressive is the wide array of fun entries all over the grid: THE LOW END THEORY, DO ME A SOLID, MOOD BOARD, THROW DOWN, FREE PERIOD, and ESCAPE POD clued nicely as [Getaway vehicle?].

Untitled (Juliana Tringali Golden)

Full disclosure, I'm also on the Vox constructing team - but I didn't construct this one, so I see no issue with highlighting it here! In fact, I coincidentally tried to construct a puzzle with the very same grid pattern (3-2-1 stairsteps in the corners of a 9x9 grid, leaving triple-stacks of 9s going both across and down through the center) the very same week, but ended up adding a black square in the middle because I wasn't having any luck coming up with a fill I liked. But Juliana makes it look easy, with nothing bad in the fill and some great 9s, including the stack of JUST RELAX/IN THE PINK/FAIR SHAKE.

Like Trying to Solve a Crossword and Realizing... (Paolo Pasco)

One of those "huh, why didn't I think of doing that?" themes. Released on the same day as Taylor Swift's new album Evermore, it uses the overlap with her previous 2020 album, Folklore, as the basis for a Schrodinger theme. And yeah, E MINOR/F MINOR may not be the hardest Schrodinger square to pull off, but the rest of the pairs (SHOVED/SHOOED, TILES/TILLS, PEER/PEEK, MICE/LICE) are all done elegantly too. A+ idea and execution.

Themeless (Rachel Fabi and Brooke Husic)

Brooke, the Theo van Doesburg of crosswords, teams up with Rachel for this excellent diagonally symmetric themeless. Highlights include the conversational TODAY YEARS OLD and IN THIS ECONOMY, plus SYNESTHESIA and names like WANGARI and ELLIOT PAGE. And while I'm not sure who's responsible for this particular entry, one thing I appreciate about Brooke is that she uses even small corners as an opportunity to introduce new fill: in this case, Yvonne ORJI is snuck into the top-right corner, which could have been filled in any number of run-of-the-mill ways.

Themeless 22 (Steve Mossberg)

On the flipside, I also appreciate a smooth grid even if it doesn't break new ground. This themeless has plenty of fresh stuff in it, like CHANUKIAH, TAMALE PIE, and TOONAMI, but it makes my roundup because of its exceptionally smooth fill (which isn't easy to pull off with 7x4 corners like the ones at the bottom of this grid).

Weekly Ego Check (Themeless #3) (Quiara Vasquez)

Another scrabbly seed entry from Quiara (whose blog name, incidentally, would be a very Quiara-esque seed) - this time, it's the much-mocked PUZZLELUX. Not content with two Z's and an X, she also adds QUAALUDE and HUZZAH in the same corner, crossing colorful entries like SCHLIMAZEL and FLASHMOBBED. Scrabbliness may be out of style, but this puzzle is a good reminder that it can be a real asset to a puzzle when done well, without compromising fill quality.

Themeless IV (Brooke Husic)

The delightful seed entry KWAKWAKAWAKW alone might be enough to make the list, but the rest is typically great work from Brooke. Among the long fill, I especially like HOROSCOPE APP, WHAT HAVE YOU, and TOOK TO HEART clued as [Sat with, maybe]. Brooke has been using her blog puzzles as attempts to push some boundaries and play with conventions in a controlled way. Here, she clues HAY as [There is] with no indication in the clue that it's Spanish, and she includes the Arabic-language vocab HABIBI - both of these are intriguing changes of pace from the way foreign-language terms are usually treated in crosswords.

Christmas Spirit (Ross Trudeau)

I know I said it's hard to really impress me with a theme, but Ross consistently does so. For me, the prototypical Ross theme is one that has a perfect revealer, which is cleverly reinterpreted to describe the themers - but then, as if that wasn't enough, also a perfect title that does the same thing. In this case, JACK SKELLINGTON, CLARENCE Odbody, and MARLEY'S GHOST are all described by the revealer DEAD OF WINTER - and the title is icing on the cake. We also have a prototypical Ross grid pattern with left-right symmetry, where the themers are flanked by long fill like DON'T LOOK AT ME.

2020 (Brian Thomas)

It's a grid shaped like the poop emoji, what more can I say?

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: November 2020

November 2: First Place / Top Dog (Brooke Husic and Paolo Pasco, USA Today)

November 14: @quizletstan420 (Sara Cantor, Crosshare)

November 20: Themeless (Mollie Cowger, Happy Little Puzzles)

November 25: Year 3 Freestyle 47 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

November 25: Natural Progression (Adam Aaronson and Sid Sivakumar, Adam Aaronson)

November 26: Themeless 2 (The Boy Is Mine) (Quiara Vasquez, QVXwordz)

plus a general spoiler-free shoutout to the Boswords Fall Themeless League

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First Place / Top Dog (Brooke Husic and Paolo Pasco)

Brooke and Paolo pull off something that I don't think I've ever seen before (but please let me know in the comments if it's been done) - a puzzle with two different themes, one going across and one going down. That's an idea I've been toying with for a while, but I never got around to doing it; the combination of diagonal symmetry and the basic theme types that the USA Today tends to run allows for Brooke and Paolo to do it really smoothly. In the "First Place" theme, we have phrases starting with words that can precede "place" (GOOD AND READY, WORK OF ART, HAPPY TO HELP), and in the "Top Dog" theme, we have phrases starting with dog breeds (POODLE SKIRTS, LAB REPORT, BOXER BRIEFS). A remarkable accomplishment to add to the long list of groundbreaking work done by these two constructors.

@quizletstan420 (Sara Cantor)

I think this is the first Crosshare puzzle I've highlighted here, though various constructors have been using it to share their puzzles without having to have their own sites. Sara in particular is a prolific contributor, often of minis and midis; this puzzle is a full-sized one with a delightful theme. The revealer, YOU SHALL NOT PASS, describes what might happen if you're not prepared for the scenarios in the theme entries (OBSTACLE COURSES, BRIDGE TROLLS, MIDTERM EXAMS). I love the pop-cultural sensibility in the fill, both when it overlaps with my knowledge (KIF from Futurama, PACHA from the best Disney movie, The Emperor's New Groove) and when it doesn't (Junji ITO, BIRDO).

Themeless (Mollie Cowger)

This guest puzzle on Matthew Stock's site is a themeless with really clean fill, plenty of long highlights (OH STOP IT, BE MY GUEST, K-POP STAN, PIZZA RAT) and inclusive cluing (Octavia Butler's Parable of the TALENTS, ALICIA Garza). I also love the paired clues [Protector of the crown?] for ENAMEL and [Protector of the king] for BISHOP. Everything I want to see in a themeless, basically.

Year 3 Freestyle 47 (Andrew Ries)

A classic Andrew freestyle: a smooth grid, and challenging, clever cluing. There's an art to writing misdirecting clues that are pithy and don't stand out as obviously being tricky clues, which Andrew excels at, and this puzzle has plenty of good examples: [Orange slice] for PUMPKIN PIE, [Power outage?] for OUSTER, [Studio contract] for LEASE, [For what it's worth] for AT PAR, and [Volume unit] for PAGE are my faves.

Natural Progression (Adam Aaronson and Sid Sivakumar)

An ingenious music-nerd theme, where each theme entry STRIKES A CHORD. We have a C MAJOR chord (from bottom to top, C-E-G) in ACADEMIC MAJOR, which appears in the grid as ACADEMIGEC; an A MINOR chord (A-C-E) in EL CAMINO REAL, which appears as ELCECAEAL (surely one of the weirdest-looking theme entries of all time); and a G7 chord (G-B-D-F) in G7 SUMMIT, which appears as FDBGSUMMIT. I'm musically illiterate - I can identify a C major chord and that's about it - so I had to take the theme on faith, but the grid is smooth enough that that presents no obstacle to solving. Lots of fun cluing angles, too, including the GEESE that Sully's plane ran into, a blobfish's FINS, and NATTY Light.

Themeless 2 (The Boy Is Mine) (Quiara Vasquez)

The subtitle refers to an episode of VERZUZ TV (the puzzle's seed entry, which looks wild in a grid) featuring Brandy and Monica, the singers of "The Boy Is Mine." This themeless from Quiara's new site is a stunner, with some of the most devious cluing I've seen recently. [Frantically type?] for ADVERB and [Getting any calls?] for PHONE SEX are the trickiest, but there are also a lot of clues that are more accessible and still loads of fun, including [Store with E.L.F. on the shelf] for ULTA, [If you're on Reddit, you don't wanna geddit] for DOWNVOTE, and the tongue-twisting [Oft-bit Bic bit] for PEN CAP.

I totally neglected to include any puzzles from the Boswords Fall Themeless League in last month's post, even though the puzzles have been consistently excellent, so I'll just include a general shoutout to the league: a fantastic lineup of themelesses, edited by Brad Wilber, with top-notch and tough (in the Stormy division) cluing. Sid Sivakumar's 62-word tour de force from the finals was my favorite, but they're all very good.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Puzzle #124: Freestyle 13 (with Sid Sivakumar)

 It's been a while since I posted a new puzzle here, but I'm back with a crunchy themeless (pdf, puz, pdf solution) co-constructed with the one and only Sid Sivakumar. Many thanks to Brooke Husic and Matthew Stock for their test-solving feedback.


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: October 2020

October 7:  Themeless (Sid Sivakumar, Sid's Grids)

October 11: Tag Yourself! (David Gold, Amanda Rafkin, and Finn Vigeland, Avid Puzzler)

October 12: No Dupes (Themeless) (Adam Nicolle, luckystreak+)

October 16: Neighsayers (Sophia Maymudes, Happy Little Puzzles)

October 21: Pardon Our French (Robin Stears, Crosswords Club)

October 25: A Little Bit Extra (Amanda Rafkin and Ross Trudeau, Brain Candy)

October 27: Times-Worthy (Et Tu, Etui?)

October 28: Themeless Twenty-Eight (Adam Nicolle, luckystreak xwords)

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Themeless (Sid Sivakumar)

Achieves the rare feat of having a clue that makes me happy to see the entry ELS: [Football quarter?]. Aside from that, typically fun stuff from Sid, with long highlights like THIS IS A WENDY'S, BIG BLUE MARBLE, ANYONE ELSE, and CHROMATICA, and a Sivakumarian dose of Indian food with KESARI.

Tag Yourself! (David Gold, Amanda Rafkin, and Finn Vigeland)

One of the most original concepts for a variety cryptic I've ever seen: the grid is an alignment chart where the Down entries are categorized as gay, bi, or lesbian; gay entries "walk fast," meaning one of their letters is moved ahead one spot in the alphabet, bi entries "tuck their shirts in," meaning their first letter moves to a later position, and lesbian entries "call a U-haul," meaning they either gain or lose a U. The columns are correspondingly colored, which means the grid looks beautiful, too. The clues are as fresh as the theme, with my favorite being ["u kidding???? @DeltaKap"] for FRAT.

No Dupes (Themeless) (Adam Nicolle)

Adam's new themeless subscription service has been predictably great so far, but this puzzle was definitely my favourite [Canadian spelling in honour of Adam] of the month. The title "No Dupes" refers to the bottom stack, featuring CLOSE SECOND, LOS ESPOOKYS, and LOSES STEAM, which all share the string "loses." It's a zany-looking stack, and pairs nicely with the assonance of HASAN MINHAJ and ANISHINAABE on the opposite side of the grid. As usual with Adam's grids, there's fresh stuff even in the very short fill, including XAN and PSP.

Neighsayers (Sophia Maymudes)

A really tight theme featuring three HORSE GIRLS: ALEX MORGAN, FRIEDA PINTO, and MEGAN THEE STALLION. Sophia makes really clever use of diagonal symmetry to make the theme work: even though the symmetry is diagonal, all the theme entries go across, which allows for fun down entries like LOLLYGAG, SIMPATICO, and JEAN JACKETS. An architectural tour de force.

Pardon Our French (Robin Stears)

A simple theme, and one that I initially wanted to ding for a slight inconsistency. The theme is French puns: we've got WITHOUT FURTHER ADIEU, THAT IS QUITE UN OEUF, EAU FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, FRIEND OR FAUX, SHORT ON CACHE, RIGHT CLIQUE, and SUITE DREAMS. The slight inconsistency is that some of the puns use actual French words and some use English words borrowed from French, with their English meanings (e.g. cache, in the computer sense). But what matters much more is that the theme entries are consistently funny, which is hard to pull off over a 21x21 grid; like a Merl Reagle puzzle, it puts an emphasis on entertainment. Just as impressive is the grid layout, which features heavy interlock of theme entries but still has a grid design with lots of stairsteps that allows for clean fill. A grid that's very much worth studying if you ever construct 21x21s.

A Little Bit Extra (Amanda Rafkin and Ross Trudeau)

Ross is a theme machine, and this is a classic Amanda/Ross puzzle in that it's got a tightly defined theme with a perfect revealer. In this case, the revealer is FIFTH WHEELS, indicating that the theme entries are phrases that normally have four O's, with a fifth O added with wacky results: GO TO TOWN ONO, TOOTH OF WOOLF, TOOK POT SHOOTS, and NOON GMO FOODS. It's amazing that they managed to find four phrases that fit the theme, and that proliferation of O's (and complete lack of other vowels) gives the themers a fun mouthfeel.

Times Worthy (Et Tu, Etui?)

Et Tu, Etui? continues pumping out incredibly weird puzzles at an incredible rate. I have to say, sometimes they're more fun as ideas than as puzzles to actually solve, but just as often they're brilliant high-concept puzzles that are also fun. This one fell into the latter camp for me. It's a sort of chimera where the top half is a British-style cryptic puzzle and the bottom half is an American-style puzzle. Two really elegant touches: 

- The cryptic clues are actually written in British style (including answers like FAVOURITE and TYRE) and the straight clues really lay on the Americanness.
- In the row that transitions from a cryptic-style grid to an American-style grid, the unchecked letters spell out THE POND - and the Down entries that straddle the two halves are &lit clues, so that they work both as cryptic and straight clues.

Themeless Twenty-Eight (Adam Nicolle)

Yep, two themelesses by Adam Nicolle make the list this month. This one's got a beautifully smooth triple-stack of 21s in the center (A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, HEADS I WIN TAILS YOU LOSE, and HORSE LOOSE IN A HOSPITAL). I don't know off the top of my head if that's ever been done before, but in any case, it can't be easy, and the results here are sparkling. The rest of the grid's not bad, either: a lot of fresh mid-length fill, including NANDO'S, STONKS, and RACE YA.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: September 2020

 Puzzles featured this month (with spoiler-filled discussion below):

September 4: Themeless Twenty-Seven (Adam Nicolle and Paolo Pasco, luckystreak xwords)

September 5: Cryptic #2 (Steve Mossberg, Square Pursuit)

September 6: Wakanda Forever! (Soleil St Cyr and Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

September 17: Character Study (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

September 27: Election Tampering (Elise Corbin, SeaOtterNY)

September 27: Themeless I (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

September 28: Guest Cryptic #1 (Nate Cardin, Tough as Nails)

September 29: Year 6 Rows Garden 5 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

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Themeless Twenty-Seven (Adam Nicolle and Paolo Pasco)

I keep a spreadsheet with puzzles that I plan to highlight, and I usually jot down my favorite clues, entries, etc. I started listing my favorite clues from this themeless, but I give up because there were just too many! Adam and Paolo, of course, lean into the irreverent and modern vibe in their cluing, and their brains combined make for an unstoppable cluing force.

Cryptic #2 (Steve Mossberg)

Steve has recently got into the cryptic game, and I've greatly enjoyed his first two offerings. Some delightful clues in this cryptic (which has an arcade mini-theme):

- [Ice cream topping? Cold. Brownie center. Hot.] for COOL WHIP
- [Blaring sound from Alessia (some popular music)] for CAR ALARM
- [Update on the Spanish exam] for LATEST
- [Video game woman, a woman with no losses] for GALAGA
- [Second character in first release] for BETA
- [Video game guy wearing hat backwards] for PAC-MAN

Wakanda Forever! (Soleil St Cyr and Ross Trudeau)

A tribute to CHADWICK BOSEMAN, accompanied by the theme entries THE BLACK PANTHER and REST IN POWER. Ingeniously, the black squares in the center of the grid form a heart (like the heart-shaped herb consumed by the Black Panther), creating three unchecked squares that spell out RIP. Soleil and Ross packed the fill and clues with tributes to other important Black figures: KAP, JOHN COLTRANE, the PILOT Bessie Coleman, the ENGINEER Mae Jemison, ESTELLE, GPS inventor Gladys West, MAYA Angelou, OTIS Redding, Kendrick Lamar, Jesse Owens, Denzel Washington, Jean-Michel Basquiat... and maybe even others that I missed!

Character Study (Paolo Pasco)

Like Steve, Paolo is also new to cryptics and is already producing hits. This one's a variety barred cryptic, in which the solver has determine where the bars go, and also has to remove a letter from an entry in each row before entering it in the grid. The bars in the center of the grids form a staircase pattern, and are topped by the letters of the word JOKER, referencing an iconic scene from the 2019 movie. (I have to admit, I was expecting it to be about Cats, but I'm glad Paolo is branching out.) The letters removed from each row spell out the apt phrase I'M JOAQUIN HERE. A really elegant concept.

Election Tampering (Elise Corbin)

I'm not sure I've ever seen a mechanism quite like this one before. It consists of two grids with the same fill, but with the black square pattern slightly different in each one, a change that represents gerrymandering. Each grid has an entry clued [The party that's going to win this year's election]. In grid 1, it's DEMOCRATIC, which has been split up by black squares in grid 2, resulting in the entries DEMO and RAT, plus the C at the beginning of the next entry. Similar, REPUBLICAN in grid 2 has been split up by black squares in grid 1, resulting in PUB, ICAN, and the R at the beginning of the previous entry. Remarkably high-concept! There's some wobbly short fill in there, but I'll happily forgive it in service of such a brilliant and hard-to-pull-off idea.

Themeless I (Brooke Husic)

(Full disclosure: I test-solved this one.) Brooke's brand-new site is inaugurated with one of her trademark diagonally symmetric constructions. This one has an extra technical challenge, because it has six interlocking 15-letter entries, three across and three down. I've seen a few puzzles like that before, but they almost always have some compromise in either the 15s or in the short fill that serves as scaffolding - this one's really smooth, though, and all the 15s (CAPRICORN RISING, GENDER DIVERSITY, CLEAR FOR TAKEOFF with the excellent clue [Let fly], OPPORTUNE MOMENT, FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, and RAISED FIST EMOJI) are good. This puzzle also reinforces my opinion that Brooke's the most thoughtful cluer in the game right now. Even common short entries like NAM and ACE have fresh and interesting cluing angles.

Guest Cryptic #1 (Nate Cardin)

I guess this was the month of people getting into cryptics! Nate doesn't have his own site and doesn't publish much, but on the rare occasions when he does publish, his puzzles almost always seem to find their way into these roundups because of his fun cluing style. This one's no exception:

- [Comeback modeled around Queen B's feature (to be penciled in)] for EYEBROW
- [Fame left me a wild maneater] for FEMME FATALE
- [Top came undone] for ACME
- ["Temptation Island" bird gets head transplant] for CARROT
- [The Barrel: a naughty, niche gay club] for LEATHER BAR

These clues all tell colorful stories, and they're all clever from a technical standpoint too: I especially like the re-parsing involved in the CARROT and EYEBROW clues.

Year 6 Rows Garden 5 (Joon Pahk)

It feels like it's been a while since I featured one of Joon's Rows Gardens, but of course he's still been pumping out good ones every week. This one is my favorite recent one, because of the two long topical entries (RUTH BADER GINSBURG and SCHITT'S CREEK), a plethora of other fun entries (HEAD HONCHO, STRIKE A POSE, PRIVATE PARTS, BANANA PEEL), and the delightful clue [Score in a game where people don't keep score] for YES-NO QUESTIONS.



Monday, September 7, 2020

Puzzle #123: Freestyle 12 (with Brooke Husic)

I'm delighted to present another themeless collaboration with the brilliant Brooke Husic (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Unlike our last one, this one has regular ol' rotational symmetry, but like our last one, it was a blast to construct. Fingers crossed that you'll be seeing some collaborations from us in print in the near future!

For more from Brooke, follow her on Twitter at @xandraladee for crossword stuff and @brookehus for non-crossword stuff.