Monday, February 1, 2021

Clue of the Year 2020 roundup + indie puzzle highlights: January 2021

January's highlights are at the bottom of the post, but first: clues of the year! As a reminder, constructors could nominate their own clues in two categories (wordplay and non-wordplay), and then anyone could vote for up to five of their faves. Many thanks to both the constructors and the voters! Below, I've got a rundown of all of the clues, including the top vote-getters.

Wordplay clues

#5: [Party crashers] for JENGA TOWERS (Brooke Husic). I love these two-word clues that elegantly repurpose a common idiomatic phrase (and evidently, so do the voters - see also #2 and #1 below).

#4: [10 Downing Street], in a puzzle where 10-Down is SKI, for PICABO (Will Nediger). Not gonna say anything about this one because I wrote it!

#3: [Ancients, for instance] for ANAGRAM (Will Eisenberg). Clues of the form "___ for ___," where "for" trickily indicates a wordplay relationship between the words in the two blanks, are not uncommon, but this one's especially devious because "for instance" is such a common clue tag.

#2: [Stimulus check?] for REFLEX TEST (Joon Pahk). Topical and also beautiful, especially because it reinterprets both of the words in the clue.

#1: [Top gun?] for T-SHIRT CANNON (Trent Evans). This one may only reinterpret one of the two words, but it's still a perfect clue, and it doesn't hurt that T-SHIRT CANNON is a fun answer even without a clever clue. More than half of the 109 voters chose this as one of their top 5 wordplay clues!

Those were the top 5 vote-getters, but there was a stacked lineup of nominations. We also had:

[Period, to feminists?] for WAVE (Max). Really nice misdirect, and it uses a sense of "wave" that's not often clued.

[How are you making out?] for WITH TONGUE (Adam Nicolle). Fabulous seed and a hilarious clue for it (but how does Adam know how his solvers are making out??).

[Ask about a function in math class, maybe?] for PROMPOSE (Paolo Pasco). I knew the term "promposal" but I'm too much of an old to have realized that there was a verb equivalent too. Nonetheless, it's totally inferrable and has an excellent play on the double meaning of "function."

[My kingdom for a horse!] for ANIMALIA (Adam Aaronson). Sure, the wording might be a bit of a stretch, but I doubt I'd even think of trying to come up with a clue like this for a technical term like ANIMALIA, never mind actually succeeding to come up with something laugh-out-loud funny.

[It means nothing to Venus, ironically] for LOVE (Quiara Vasquez). One of those "wish I'd thought of it!" wordplay observations.

[Super bowl add] for ACAI (Amanda Rafkin). I tend to give extra points for fresh clues for answers that we see all the time; there's a pretty narrow range of standard cluing angles for ACAI and this one's a clever twist.

["Pick a side..."] for SOUP OR SALAD (Kate Hawkins). If I'm remembering correctly, there were a bunch of clues I really liked in this puzzle (a themeless collab with Matthew Stock), but this was my fave.

[Bit part on Mr. Ed] for REIN (Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim). [Bit part] alone would have worked for this clue, but the Mr. Ed tie-in is a really elegant touch.

[Bias of articles in Canada] for LEAN (Neville Fogarty). This one's a cryptic clue, which makes it pretty hard to compare with the rest of the clues (sorry, voters!). If I do this again next year, I'll make a separate category for cryptics. Anyway, it's a beautifully concise example - since Canada is bilingual, it uses articles like LE and AN, which combine to make a synonym for "bias."

[State of war?] for SPARTA (Malaika Handa). Good wordplay clues for proper nouns are few and far between, but this is a fabulous example.

[It makes you feel worse about your problem areas?] for LOCAL ANESTHESIA (Max Carpenter). This is one of my personal favorites, because it has three different reinterpretations going on ("feel worse," "about," and "problem areas"). Very intricate!

[They may have cold nuts] for SUNDAES (Dave Murchie). I don't want to give short shrift to clues on the less intricate side of the spectrum, though. Sometimes you just need a good dick joke!

[Frank admission that sounds like A, E, I, O, or U?] for AVOWAL (Bryant White). A different strategy than most of the other nominated clues - not trying to mislead the solver, necessarily, but using a neat wordplay observation to provide an aha moment.

[Beach body?] for SEA (Juliana Tringali Golden). Paradoxically, because there are so many potential cluing angles for an entry like SEA, it can be hard to come up with a good wordplay angle. But this one succeeds completely!

[Hot Gaul summer?] for ETE (Christopher Adams). Another great example of a clue that rescues a bit of overcommon fill - and this time, in French!

[Test with a clear answer] for EYE EXAM (Jess Goldstein).

[Contempt of court?] for TRASH TALK (Brian Thomas).

[Swimwear worn while out looking for an anonymous gay hookup?] for CRUISING SPEEDO (Nate Cardin). Unlike the rest of the nominations, this one's a theme entry - but after all, I didn't give any guidance on what counts as a "wordplay" clue, and this certainly counts. Plus, it's a perfect example of Nate's hilarious cluing style.

[Fish frequently found inside Mahi-Mahi?] for AHI (Rachel Fabi). Lately, we've been seeing a lot of quasi-cryptic clues of this sort, and I have mixed feelings about them, but this one I love - especially the use of "frequently" (two times is, after all, a lot of times for one word to be hidden in another!).

[For example, flight or invincibility] for ICEBREAKER (Ryan Fitzgerald). It took me a while to grok this clue because the wordplay aspect is extremely subtle. You would normally interpret the clue to be asking for something exemplified by "flight" or "invisibility," but it's actually asking for something exemplified by "flight or invisibility." As a clue whose misdirection relies on the relative scope of two operators, it warms the heart of this former linguist.

[If you leave it around the house, someone might trip on it] for LSD TAB (Richard D. Allen). This one really tells a story! Don't leave your LSD tabs around the house, folks.

[Low setting] for LEA (Barbara Olson). "Low" puns in MOO clues are extremely common, and you can spot them a mile away if you're an experienced solver, but this one's for a completely different word, and it also has a perfectly natural non-wordplay reading, so it's much more devious.

[Part of an open-faced club] for ANTIMASKER (Tim Croce). As anyone who solves his puzzles knows, Tim is preternaturally good at coming up with tough clues, and this is a prime example.

[God with fur, feathers, and scales?] for ANUBIS (Andrew Esten). For some reason, I like this clue way better than if it had just been [God with fur and scales?]. Something about the rule of three, maybe, but whatever the reason, I'm a fan.

[Man who made a Pooh] for MILNE (Jesse Lansner and Laura Braunstein). What I said before about dick jokes, but this time with poop jokes.

[Like some ravers] for ON E (Chris Piuma). The entry ONE is usually one word, but ironically, this time it's two! A nice angle that you definitely don't see a lot.

[They come down mid flight] for TRAYS (Steve Mossberg). Beautiful misdirect here - I'm sure most solvers had birds on the brain when they first read this.

[Future date, maybe?] for SEED (Sara Cantor). The rare clue that makes me say "I wish I'd thought of that" and also makes me hungry.

[Hip hop products, briefly] for IPAS (Sid Sivakumar). It feels like I've written approximately a million clues for IPA(S) and I've never once thought of this approach. So good!

Non-wordplay clues

#5: [Former Lifelock CEO Todd Davis's is 457-55-5462] for SSN (Brian Thomas). I love a clue that inspires you to head to Wikipedia and learn an interesting story.

#4: ["The answer to this clue is TIP," e.g.] for LIE (Paolo Pasco). Probably my favorite misdirection of the bunch, just because I could totally see Paolo using this as a clue for TIP.

#3: [One who might pull up a chair to a booth] for FIFTH WHEEL (Brooke Husic). It's a straightforward clue, but it really paints a picture - just one of those perfectly apt, concise clues.

#2: [Weirdly enough, not a nickname for Eastern Michigan University athletes] for EMUS (Rachel Fabi). Honestly, it'd be way better than the Eagles. Who do we talk to about getting that changed?

#1: [Visa, vis-a-vis Avis] for ANAGRAM (Andrew Esten). Try saying that five times fast! Such a fun clue.

"Non-wordplay" is, of course, a multifarious category, and I appreciated all of the different kinds of cool clues people submitted. This post is already long enough, so I won't shout out each of them individually, but I loved them all. I'm going to list them in categories based on what I particularly appreciated about them, though many of them could be slotted in multiple categories:

Educational clues/fun facts

[Film inspired by a "Long Pause" in Polynesian colonization] for MOANA (Will Eisenberg)
[Musical instrument that Margo uses to scary away a leopard in "The Leopard Man"] for CASTANETS (Max Carpenter)
[Jam ___-poly (British pudding also known as "dead man's arm")] for ROLY (Bryant White)
[Island where garbage trucks play music] for TAIWAN (Jess Goldstein)

Intriguing mysteries to investigate

[___.jodi.org (art site)] for WWWWWWWWW (Max)
[She's normal and carries an egg] for CHANSEY (Chris Piuma) (ok, if you know stuff about Pokemon, this is presumably not a mystery at all, but if, like me, you don't, then it's delightfully inscrutable)

Just funny-sounding entries

[Quaint contraction with four apostrophes] for Y'ALL'D'NT'VE (Adam Nicolle)

Fresh angles for ordinary words

[___ Princess (singer of the queer anthem "1950")] for KING (Amanda Rafkin)
[Appliance hue big in the '70s] for AVOCADO (Barbara Olson)

Pointed commentary

[How tabloid media might describe two women who are dating] for GAL PALS (Malaika Handa)
[Sick of staying in (but not actually sick, so that's good)] for STIR CRAZY

Observational comedy

[Streaming button (that often disappears just as you're about to click it!)] for SKIP INTRO (Dave Murchie)
[2020 film that's (basically) a remake of "Clueless"] for EMMA (Jesse Lansner and Laura Braunstein)

References to fun/funny stuff

[Company whose Airblade hand dryer appears in a meme with the caption "worst urinal ever"] for DYSON (Richard D. Allen)
[Garten who said "During a crisis, you know, cocktail hour can be almost any hour" while making herself a pitcher of cosmopolitans at nine in the morning] for INA (Christopher Adams)
[Dangerous pair of urban legend] for POP ROCKS AND COKE (Steve Mossberg)

Clues that I just find funny

[Likely response to the question, "Will you cancel our German final?"] for NEIN (Neville Fogarty)
[The hit musical "Come from Away" is actually not about them, surprisingly enough] for ETS (Tim Croce)
[Is that BeyoncĂ©?!] for SASHA FIERCE (Nate Cardin)

That's so meta

[Rapper featured on the 2020 remix of Lil ___ X's "Rodeo"] for NAS (Adam Aaronson)
[Word often exempted from the "no duplications" crossword rule] for THE (Sid Sivakumar)

Schrodinger!

[Like movies marketed to teens, often] for PIRATED/PG RATED (Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim)

Whew! If you made it this far, I'd love to hear from you about what you thought worked and didn't work about the nominations/voting/writeup, so I can improve things if I do this again next year.

Onto the monthly roundup!

January 1: Expiration Date (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

January 5: Themeless (Max, Max Puzzles)

January 8: Untitled (Alina Abidi, 7xwords)

January 12: Themeless 88 (Erik Agard, Glutton for Pun)

January 13: Untitled (Malaika Handa, 7xwords)

January 18: 404 Page Not Found (Mollie Cowger, Crosswords from Outer Space)

January 23: The A-A Team (Evan Kalish, USA Today)

January 27: Et Tu 3D (Et Tu Etui)

January 28: Themeless #42 (Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic, Puzzles That Need a Home)

January 30: Demi Themeless Five (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

January 30: Entry-Level Stuff (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

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Expiration Date (Ricky Cruz)

A timely puzzled themed around Flash Player's obsolescence, which is official as of 1/1/2021. The theme entries (FLASH GORDON, FLASHBACKS, FLASHLIGHT, and FLASH PLAYER) all contain the word FLASH, which has to be ignored when solving the down entries. We've seen plenty of examples of this type of theme, but it's always hard to pull off well, because the down entries have to form a valid word either with or without the ignored letters. In this case, a whopping 20 down entries are affected, and there are some elegant long examples, like READDING/REDDING, LINEAR/IN-EAR, and IT'S-A ME/IT'S ME.

Themeless (Max)

I love a wide-open, clean grid, and all the more so when there are excellent highlights like ELAINE DE KOONING, AUTODIDACTIC, CHILI OIL, and GLOWORMS in the fill. Also, SCATTERED ACROSS, perversely as one of the down entries, is a fun touch.

Untitled (Alina Abidi)

7xwords, Malaika Handa's massively collaborative project to publish a puzzle using every legal 7x7 grid pattern in 2021, is already the best thing in crossworld this year. The Oulipian constraint encourages creativity, and we've already seen lots of different approaches to the 7x7 grid (straight themeless, mini-theme, circled letters, etc.). This one's a themeless but you could say the theme is "stuff that's fun to say" - SKIPPY HAPPY HIPPOS KAZOOS KAZUO is an incredibly delightful run of fill.

Themeless 88 (Erik Agard)

Erik's back with (unsurprisingly) a beautifully filled and clued wide-open themeless. Love to see the great throat singer TANYA TAGAQ in the grid, but the highlights for me are a string of really creative, clever clues: [Internal memo?] for NOTE TO SELF, [Folding machines?] for DEFEATISTS, [Someone who might do a touchdown celebration] for FLIER, and [Bit of sheet music?] for SNORE.

Untitled (Malaika Handa)

If you construct custom crosswords, then there's a good chance that you've gotten a request for a puzzle where every grid entry is thematic, and you've had to patiently explain that that's impossible. Well, pretty much impossible. In this 7x7 grid, Malaika achieves the remarkable feat of filling a grid with only words that appear in Taylor Swift lyrics. They're all clued as fill in the blanks, and the beautiful thing is that it's solvable even if you're not a T-Swift fan, since you can logic out the answers.

404 Page Not Found (Mollie Cowger)

On the first day of her new blog, Mollie flexed by dropping not one but two excellent puzzles. I could've picked either, but I'm going with the themed one to counteract the usual glut of themelesses in these roundups. This one has a theme type we've seen many times before: the revealer, BROKEN LINK, indicates that the word LINK is split up across pairs of entries (HOWL/INK-STAINED, E. COLI/N. K. JEMISIN, WENT ALL IN/KUDOS). But it's perfectly executed, with the word split differently every time, and with fill that's smooth and easy while still including some creative touches (especially TAJIN, which I've seen in grids very rarely).

The A-A Team (Evan Kalish)

I tend to give the USA Today puzzles short shrift in these writeups - they're so consistently smooth that it's easy to take their high quality standards for granted. But Evan's puzzles tend to be smooth even by USA Today standards; the fill is sparkling enough and the cluing is easy enough that I can usually do them downs-only in about 1:40. This one is no exception, even with the two J's in the theme entries (JESSICA ALBA, JACINDA ARDERN, and MAYA ANGELOU).

Et Tu 3D (???)

Et Tu, Etui is back! I have to keep taking a break from trying to write this post because every time I look at the "in clues" from this 3D puzzle I can't stop laughing. This site could easily have become a one-note joke, but the attention to comic detail is truly outstanding.

Themeless #42 (Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic)

This puzzle's got an aesthetically pleasing wide-open grid (64 words), but the fill doesn't suffer at all. Highlights include BUBBLE OVER, COPYPASTA, Z SNAPS, CUTESY-POO, DON'T PLAY, AYURVEDA and BEER BATTER. The cluing's predictably great too, including an extreme rarity: an actually entertaining clue for ALERO ([Car in a saleroom?]).

Demi Themeless Five (Brooke Husic)

Two Brooke puzzles in a row! But I couldn't resist including this one, which has an early contender for clue of the year: [Dump over text] for POOP EMOJI. The rest of the puzzle (including PULLOUT GAME clued as [Ability to withdraw]) is also fantastic, but that clue alone would earn it a place on the list.

Entry-Level Stuff (Paolo Pasco)

One of the loveliest surprises in a crossword I've seen lately: a second crossword! Solving the puzzle gives you a code ("pipe down") which, if you enter it, makes another crossword appear. The first grid includes a chunk of black squares shaped like one of the pipes from the Mario games, and the second grid has an upside-down version of the same chunk. Corresponding entries in the grids combine to form legitimate phrases (PRESS/URE, DELE/GATORS, WAR/PZONE, CATT/LEHIDE, and DRYER/ASE), as if you're warping into the pipe from the first grid, into the second grid. Beautiful, high-concept stuff.

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.