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)









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)









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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: August 2020

I'm changing up the format a bit starting this month, since the current format isn't very useful for people who want to use this to find great puzzles that they might have missed. From now on, the posts will start with a list of the puzzles, and the spoiler-ful recaps will be further down.

The weirdification of indie crosswords continues apace, and we've got some wacky stuff this month! The list feels relatively short this month - not because it wasn't a good month for crosswords, but mostly because I had a busy month and was doing a lot of downs-only speed-solving before Lollapuzzoola. So there are undoubtedly plenty of gems which I didn't take the time to really appreciate.

August 1: In the Wings (Ella Dershowitz)

August 2: Something Different (Et Tu, Etui?)

August 6: Ya Like Jazz? (Adam Aaronson)

August 16: Plish Plash ("Shen Bapiro," Gecxwords)

August 18: Converter Boxes (Chris King, Chris Words)

August 22: Can You Believe This Shift (Ricky Cruz, Et Tu, Etui?)

August 26: Soft boys, intertwined (Chris Piuma, Wordgarbler)

August 28: Name Recognition (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

August 29: Expansion Pack (Paolo Pasco) - no spoilers in writeup









In the Wings (Ella Dershowitz)

Like most (all?) of Ella's puzzles, this one is theater-based, but still fun for non-theaterheads. The theme is SIDE CHARACTERs - musical characters are pushed off of the sides of the grid in the entries MADAGA[SCAR], [AID A]ND A BET, PAPPARD[ELLE], and [CARRIE]R PIGEON. Not the first time we've seen this sort of theme, of course, but it's beautifully executed. What I particularly appreciate in this crossword is the quality of the medium-length (5-6) fill, which I think is often neglected: often, the medium-length entries just sort of sit there, but these ones pop (including UP TOP, JIGSAW, VR GAME, GIMLET, HEXED, TEABAG, and MEOWED).

Something Different (Et Tu, Etui?)

Et Tu, Etui? hosted several Somethings Different this month, including a couple of guest spots, and I could've picked any of them, but this one just had so much good stuff. ILLICITLY JIGGLE [Have bad vibrations?], LA LAMBDA LAMBADA, SID'S GRIDS DOT COM, HEAVENS TO TSETSE ["I bless the fly down in Africa!"], JURASSIC PERIODT ["And that's THAT," in dinosaur times], LAVA VULVA VOLVOS, and I'M ELDER SCROLLS V ["It's-a me, Skyrim!"] are some of the highlights. Notice how many of the long entries are plays on real phrases - it's easy to just fill a Something Different with totally nonsensical long entries, but this approach requires some more finesse.

Ya Like Jazz? (Adam Aaronson)

I love a good visual representation, and this puzzle's got a niche one that's surely never been done before: a representation of The Lick, that infamous jazz phrase - capturing both the notes and the rhythm. There's not a ton of theme content, which allows the fill to play like a themeless, with fun things like MR PEANUT, MALTESERS, K-POP STAN, HOT TOPIC, ARI ASTER, WHAT OF IT, NO SHADE, and ERIC ANDRE.

Plish Plash ("Shen Bapiro")

What do POOL NOODLES, a PUDDLE JUMPER, and POND SCUM have in common? Playing on Ben Shapiro's comically euphemistic description of the song "WAP," they're all WET-ASS P-WORDs. A delightful conceit for a puzzle, with the sort of wacky cluing I've come to expect from Weird Crossworld (e.g. [List of ___ of lists (Wikipedia article) for LISTS and [I am editing this puzzle and I want to ___] for DIE).

Converter Boxes (Chris King)

The return of Chris Words! Chris hadn't posted a puzzle in a while (too busy writing books or whatever), so this is a reason to celebrate in itself. And though it's a small puzzle with only one theme entry, it's the sort of off-the-wall creative idea that Chris excels at. When you download the ostensible .puz file, you get a .png file instead. Did Chris royally screw up? On the contrary, it turns out that you can open the .png file in Across Lite as a .puz. (As whatever the opposite of a technical wizard is, I have no idea how he did this.) Appropriately, the one theme entry is GAUZES RIVER, where the NG in GANGES RIVER has been converted to UZ (the same change that converts PNG to PUZ).

Can You Believe This Shift (Ricky Cruz)

This one's got a wild gimmick: some number of letters from each entry are shifted from the end to the beginning. So, for example, BAJA BLAST is entered as ABLASTBAJ (though there are seven other possible ways it might have been entered, disregarding the crosses, making this is a real tough solve). Luckily, there's a perfectly elegant raison d'etre for the gimmick: the theme entries feature the names of the four ghosts from Pac-Man undergoing the shift: INKY in INKY CAP MUSHROOM, PINKY in PINKY SWEAR, BLINKY in BLINKY BILL, and CLYDE in CLYDESDALE HORSE. Mirroring, of course, the way that the right and left sides of the screen in Pac-Man are continuous.

Soft boys, intertwined (Chris Piuma)

A quite original variety puzzle type, that comes with an eye-poppingly open grid: 8-by-8 with no black squares. The across entries are normal, while the down entries consist of two intertwined 4-letter words whose clues have been combined. A fun and creative workout!

Name Recognition (Ross Trudeau)

Ross has a knack for coming up with tight theme sets. Usually, there's some colloquial phrase which is cleverly reinterpreted to serve as a revealer. This isn't one of those puzzles, but it's still the sort of theme you wouldn't expect to be doable: all the theme entries include homophones of the last name of SENATOR MARKEY. We've got CINEMA MARQUEE, MARKY MARK, MARQUIS DE/LAFAYETTE, and BIZ MARKIE. Homophone themes are a dime a dozen, of course, but how often do you see a two-syllable homophone theme, let alone one with five themers?

Expansion Pack (Paolo Pasco)

This one's a pack of puzzles of various sizes (3x3, 5x5, 7x7, 9x9, 11x11, 13x13, 15x15, and 17x17). I'm not going to spoil anything at all, but, as you'd expect from Paolo, the puzzles are all individually enjoyable. What makes this really special, though, is the very clever payoff that comes at the end.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Puzzle #122: Look Out Below!

You heard it here first: the rule against having 2-letter words in crosswords is BI erasure. Here's a puzzle to remedy that (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Enjoy!

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.