Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: March 2020

This was a fabulous month for indie puzzles, maybe the best since I started doing this thing. Constructors showed up in droves to provide social distancing entertainment, and there were a lot of gems among the bunch.

March 2: Dropping Bombs (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

This is a standard P-to-F letter-change theme, but it has a delightful raison d'etre, which is that Pac-Man was originally called PUCK MAN, but the name was changed for English markets so people wouldn't change the P to an F on the arcade machines. A perfect encapsulation of Ricky's pop cultural sensibility, also on display in many of the themers: A LINK TO THE PAST, DISNEY FLUS, FICKLE RICK, TRIVIAL FURSUIT, FEZ DISPENSER, and FRANK CHANNEL. I hesitated about including this one because there's more iffy fill than I like (EILE, I TEN, ONE HR, MEDUSAN, IT'S SO), but ultimately the entertainment factor of the theme won me over. There's also some fun stuff in the fill, like JOHN CENA and PANIC BUTTON, plus ALT TABS trickily clued as [Switches to another program].

March 2: Spell Weaving (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

I've never constructed a Spell Weaving puzzle, so I don't know how hard it is, but I've gotta assume it's not easy to include a bunch of long words and phrases when all the entries interweave with each other. Joon makes it look easy, though, with GREEN NEW DEAL, ED SULLIVAN, MOSEY ALONG, I CAN AND I WILL, DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD, and GRADUATING CLASS.

March 7: Skylight (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

Chris brings us a Schrodinger puzzle based on the fact that both MORNING STAR and EVENING STAR refer to the same object, VENUS. The central across entry doubles as both "morning star" and "evening star," with the down entries MATING/EATING, SHOOED/SHOVED, and PAYER/PAYEE doing double duty. I think this is a great theme, but in the interests of full disclosure, I once ran a puzzle with the same theme, so I may be biased. But that means I do know from experience how hard it is to come up with Schrodinger entries where one letter is a consonant and the other letter is a vowel, and Chris managed to find three smooth pairs. Highlights in the fill include OENOPHILES, POWER OUTAGE, and RONDA ROUSEY.

March 8: Themeless 13 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

A beautiful pinwheel of long entries anchors the center of this themeless, which features sparkly entries like SITZKRIEG, SLEAZEBALL, DOCUDRAMA, Courtney BARNETT, COCOTAXIS, RIOT GRRRL, and the second appearance in two days of the word OENOPHILE. And nary a scowl-inducer in the grid!

March 10: Year 5 Rows Garden 27 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

Joon does it again, somehow managing to pack HERE'S THE DEAL, YABBA DABBA DOO, GENDER NEUTRAL, I GOT THIS, ROLLER COASTER, GIVE ME ONE REASON, and MAGIC NUMBER into a single Rows Garden grid.

March 10: Not All Saints (Sid Sivakumar, Brooke Husic, and Evan Kalish, Sid's Grids)

One of the great things about indie puzzledom is the quick turnaround it allows. Sid, Brooke, and Evan put together this response to the March 10 NYT puzzle in less than a day. The NYT puzzle featured people who share their names with saints in California city names, like FRANCISCO FRANCO (San Francisco) and DIEGO RIVERA (San Diego). But it noticeably lacked any of California's many Santa ___ cities, so all the themers were dudes. This puzzle makes up for it by featuring ROSA PARKS, BARBARA WALTERS, MONICA LEWINSKY, and ANITA HILL. Not only that, the fill and clues are jam-packed with dozens more women's names, all without sacrificing solvability.

March 13: Puzzle Twenty Four (Max Carpenter, Donkey Puzzle Tree)

Max released a bunch of new puzzles on his website in March, of which this themeless is my favorite. It's got an absolutely bonkers grid pattern, and immediately after test-solving it, I decided to try filling the same grid pattern myself - but I quickly gave up. Max manages to fill it with lively entries like CAMEO BROOCH, ITALIAN STALLION, and CLEAN AS A WHISTLE, plus off-the-wall cluing like [Marx brothers?] for PROLETARIAT, [Quintessential father-son hand-me-down] for Y CHROMOSOME, and [Hips don't lie far from it] for GROIN.

March 21: Shameless Plugs (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

This puzzle is based on the well-known phenomenon that it always seems to take more than two tries to put a USB in the right way. We've got four phrases with the string USB or BSU, but somehow, it's going in the wrong direction every time! So instead of CITRUS BOWL we have CITRBSUOWL, instead of TWO THUMBS UP we have TWOTHUMUSBP, instead of SIRIUS BLACK we have SIRIBSULACK, and instead of WEB SURFERS we have WEUSBRFERS. A hilarious theme based on something that few people other than Paolo would even think to turn into a puzzle. (Also, see Sid's Grids for a cheeky response puzzle.)

March 21: Naysayers Only (Finn Vigeland, Crossword Tournament from Your Couch)

In the most amazing puzzle event of the month(/year/decade), Finn and Kevin Der created an online crossword tournament to replace the postponed ACPT, going from conception to completion in a span of about a week, including a web interface that automatically tracked people's scores, put together by Kevin. Not only that, the puzzles were excellent too. My favorite was the one written by co-organizer Finn, and I won't spoil the theme for those who haven't gotten to the puzzles. Since I was speed-solving, I didn't pay much attention to the theme entries until after I finished, but suffice it to say that at least one of the theme entries made me laugh out loud once I figured it out. The fill's great too!

March 22: Black Tie Affair (Chris King and Christopher Adams, Chris Words)

The two Chrises team up for a puzzle about penguins, and who doesn't like penguins. A simple enough concept - phrases starting with types of penguin - but the themers are long and they intersect each other in complicated ways, and we've got an oversized grid to accommodate them all (MAGELLANIC CLOUDS, KING JAMES VERSION, JACKASS THE MOVIE, MACARONI AND CHEESE, EMPEROR CONCERTO, HUMBOLDT CURRENT, CHINSTRAP BEARD, ROYAL TREATMENT, plus the month-appropriate revealer MARCH OF THE PENGUINS).

March 25: Themeless 8 (Stella Zawistowski, Tough As Nails)

As advertised, Stella's themelesses are indeed tough as nails, and it's great to have another source of brain-bending themelesses. (This one took me around twice as long as a typical themeless does.) Some of the previous puzzles on her site have relied on relative obscurities like LUCULLAN BANQUET (obscure, though a fun phrase to learn). This one doesn't as much, but it's still clearly a Stella puzzle, with classical music (TESSITURA) and fashion (DRESS RACK, trickily clued as [Gap fixture]). But it primarily gets its difficulty from crunchy cluing, which makes it a very satisfying solve; even the central across entry, STATE OF THE STATE, is very inferrable, even if you happen not to know that rather delightful phrase. My favorite of the eight themelesses so far.

March 26: Puzzle No. 3529 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

A sad day, as this is the very last cryptic from The Nation. This puzzle is their typical solid work (my favorite clue is [Taken is given a little more than three stars?] for PIRATED), but I'm really including it for the heartfelt sendoff that Joshua and Henri give to their solvers, with the entries SEE YOU LATER, ARRIVEDERCI, AUF WIEDERSEHEN, HASTA LA VISTA, AU REVOIR, and KEEP IN TOUCH. And you can indeed keep in touch, by signing up for their upcoming weekly cryptics.

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