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)!

Friday, May 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: April 2020

Perhaps not as great as March, but another great month!

April 4: Join the Navy (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

I'm immediately won over by the fact that the title is a Simpsons reference, but the puzzle itself is fantastic too. The revealer is BACKMASKING, with the theme entries hiding Satanic terms backwards, just like that devilish rock and roll music does. So PIANO SONATAS hides a reversed SATAN, NANOMEDICINE hides a reversed DEMON, and ANNE HEGERTY hides a reversed GEHENNA, which is an amazing find. Lots of spice in the fill, too, including FRENEMY, EUROBEAT, CLOWN CAR, KNUCKLE, VAPORIZED, ZINNIA, and DAMAGED (clued as [Tattoo on the forehead of Jared Leto's Joker]).

April 8: Themeless 9 (Stella Zawistowski, Tough As Nails)

Really smooth work from Stella in this themeless, whose highlight is the stack of CHEONGSAM, BOX CAMERA, and SOPHISTRY. We've also got the topical ZOOM BOMBING, and fun clues for SHAKESPEARE ([Source of many an epic burn]) and FANNY PACK ([What Gucci calls a "belt bag" and wants $1290 for, LOL]).

April 10: Themeless (Brooke Husic, Sid's Grids)

I'm a sucker for a themeless with a weird, striking grid pattern, and this puzzle has what Brooke accurately calls a "quirky Celtic knot-esque grid." The layout means that aside from the four intersecting 15s, most of the fill is short for a themeless. But the 15s (PERSONALITY TEST, THE CHOCOLATE WAR, CHRISTMAS MARKET, and UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS) are fun, and there's some fresh stuff in the short fill too, including ENBY, ASMR, and XOXO.

April 11: Changing Places (Tom McCoy)

Incredibly niche, but a puzzle that's basically designed precisely for me. The gimmick is that the answers are written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, with one phoneme per square, which must have been incredibly hard to construct. The instructions tell you that the theme answers are puns created by a particular phonological process; from the title, I assumed that process would be metathesis, in which two sounds switch places, but it's considerably more elegant than that. Instead, they're formed by nasal place assimilation, in which a nasal consonant (like m or n) at the end of a syllable adopts the place of articulation (where in the mouth it's pronounced) of the first sound of the next syllable. So we have ROAMING GOD (where the n becomes a ng), SCREAM PLAY, DOOM BUGGIES, and PING CUSHION. The theme, in other words, is a simple letter-change theme - but only if the entries are written in the IPA! A truly ingenious use of a gimmick.

April 12: Themeless (Amanda Rafkin, Rossword Puzzles)

Another guest themeless I really liked. Chock full of modern stuff like BODY POSITIVITY, WON THE INTERNET, and TXT SLANG, and the NOSEDIVE/TAILSPIN pairing is very nice. A few excellent clues, too, including [Invasive plant?] for ENEMY SPY and [One dealing with a lot of bull] for TOREADOR.

April 14: Year 7 Puzzle 15 (Andrew Ries, Aries Rows Gardens)

I think this is the first Aries Rows Garden I've featured - his RGs are consistently good, but it's hard to compete with Joon. This one's just jam-packed with fun row entries, though - the highlights are THINGAMAJIG, TENNIS SHOES, POODLE SKIRT, STRAPLESS BRA, CAR TROUBLE, STARTER KIT, TEAM PICTURE, and UMBRELLA STAND.

April 14: On Your Marks (Sid Sivakumar, Sid's Grids)

Sid's Grids was popping this month, and there are probably like half a dozen puzzles from the site that I could have included - he's both prolific and consistently impressive. Don't want it to get to his head, though, you know? So I'll limit myself to Brooke's themeless and this one. The theme is about VIBE CHECKs, with synonyms for "vibe" (MOOD, FEELING, and ATMOSPHERE) forming checkmark shapes in the grid. Having made puzzles with similar themes before, I know how hard they are to pull off, since all the theme letters appear in three different words, not just two. Sid does it cleanly, though, and even sneaks in some colorful bonus fill, like MOUSSAKA, GOD YES, and COCOA PUFF.

April 16: Snakeheads/Belted Up (Erik Agard and Aaron Shoemaker, USA Today)

The USA Today crosswords under Erik's editorship are predictable (in a good way) - it's generally going to be a very basic theme type, with squeaky clean fill and easy cluing. But I appreciate that there's the occasional puzzle with a wrinkle, like a slightly out-there theme or an unusual grid pattern. This one's unusual in that, as the title suggests, the theme works in two different ways. The theme entries (GREEN ACRES, CORN TORTILLA, GARTER STITCH, BLACK POWER) all start with words that can precede "snake" - but those words can also all predece "belt," so they do double duty. Not sure I've ever seen anything quite like it before.

April 25: Sub Division (Evan Kalish, USA Today)

On the other hand, this puzzle is completely standard. The theme involves phrases with HERO hidden in them: USHER OUT, RAISE THE ROOF, MOTHER OF PEARL, BEACH EROSION, and EITHER/OR. This one stands out because of the eight-letter theme entries which partially overlap the 12s, when the three longer theme entries would've been plenty, and also because the extra theme entries don't compromise the fill at all. In fact, there are lots of solid mid-length entries, including UNFURL, CURATOR, WASHED UP, TRAFFIC, and SHTETL, as well as Rihanna's nickname RIH, which I see in puzzles very rarely, though RIRI seems to be relatively common.

April 29: Year 3 Puzzle 17 (Andy Kravis, Aries Puzzles)

Yet another guest themeless! To this one, all I can say is CHEF'S KISS. Among the fill, I'm a fan of AQUEMINI, KAREN O, STUNT KITE, and INDOOR CAT clued as [Domestic flight risk?]. But I'm most impressed by the fresh clues for staple bits of short fill, including SIS, NED, ESS, and AFRO.

April 30: Out of Left Field #5 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field)

They're no longer at The Nation, but their work is as good as ever. Favorite clues:

- [Old film is strangely semi-violent] for SILENT MOVIE
- [Glass rim with Greek letter in front] for PHILIP
- [Spangle beginning to scare bobtail horse] for SEQUIN
- [Schmear spread out a bit at a time!] for SCHMEAR
- [German city renowned for its iron and tin, by the sound of it?] for ESSEN
- [Northern California: place for West Coast rapper] for TUPAC

Monday, April 27, 2020

Puzzle #117: Picture Books (with Sara Sligar)

I'm very excited to present a collaboration (pdf, puz, pdf solution) with the up-and-coming constructor Sara Sligar. Sara, as it happens, is also an up-and-coming author, whose debut novel, Take Me Apart, drops tomorrow. It's gotten a lot of buzz, and you can pre-order it here (or just order it, I suppose, if you're reading this after the day it's posted).

This puzzle, appropriately, has a literary theme; you can see a couple other literature-inspired puzzles by Sara at her website, Enjoy!

Monday, April 13, 2020

Rows Garden Meta solution

Last week's meta (solution grid) asked you to identify a minor literary character whose full name is hinted at by one of the entries in the grid. There was one crucial entry: D6, LOLITA, whose clue told you that the answer was a character in Lolita. If, like many solvers, you looked up a list of characters in that novel, one of them probably jumped out at you: Vivian Darkbloom (whose name, incidentally, is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov!). And indeed, one of the dark bloom answers in the grid was VIVIAN, so that's your answer.

A whole bunch of solvers submitted the correct answer, and there were no incorrect guesses. Congrats to everyone who figured it out! I quite enjoyed my first attempt at constructing a Rows Garden, but it certainly wasn't easy - it's probably a form I'll return to occasionally when I'm in the mood for a challenge.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Puzzle #116: Rows Garden Meta

This puzzle is a first for me: a Rows Garden! For anyone who's not familiar, a Rows Garden is a format invented by Patrick Berry; the grid consists of 11 rows with one or two entries in each row, whose letters are also grouped into a set of flower-shaped "blooms" of six letters each. The row answers are entered normally, from left to right. The six-letter bloom answers can start in any of the six petals of the bloom, and can be entered either clockwise or counterclockwise.

This puzzle can be downloaded as a .jpz file, which you can solve online at the Crossword Nexus Solver, or as a PDF. (Thanks to Rows Garden constructor extraordinaire Joon Pahk for creating the .jpz file.) In the PDF, the "blooms" clues for each color (light, medium, and dark) are given in the order they appear in the grid (from left to right and top to bottom).

The puzzle is also a meta! The meta answer is a minor literary character whose full name is hinted at by one of the entries in the grid. And when I say minor, I do mean minor - googling is totally allowed, and indeed expected, for the meta. Hit me up at the email on the right sidebar for hints or to submit a guess; I'll post the answer next Monday. Happy solving!