Monday, September 27, 2021

Puzzle #153: Theme and Variations

I've often heard people say they don't like most Sunday-size puzzles because once they figure out the theme, there are no more aha moments but there's still a lot of grid left to fill in. Well, whatever else you might say about this week's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution), you can't say that there's only one aha moment!

Monday, September 20, 2021

Puzzle #152: No Lies Detected (freestyle by Richard D. Allen and Kate Chin Park)

This week's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is a guest freestyle by Richard D. Allen and Kate Chin Park, who you may know from their own excellent sites, Lexicon Devil and crosswords schmosswords. It's a fun one - happy solving!

Monday, September 13, 2021

Puzzle #151: Freeform Freestyle 11

To wrap up the freeform freestyle series, we've got a big 21x21 grid (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Fear not - to make up for the extra size, I've pitched the cluing easier than the 15x15 freeform freestyles. By the way, I haven't been mentioning this in every post, but Brooke tested this one, as she's tested every puzzle in this series, and her feedback has been invaluable. Happy solving!

Monday, September 6, 2021

Puzzle #150: Every Which Way

This puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is sort of a spiritual sequel to the last themed puzzle I posted, I suppose. (This one's also themed, though it doesn't look like it at first glance.) Thanks to Norah and Frisco for test-solving!

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: August 2021

August 1: Getting Medieval (Enrique Henestroza Anguiano, Datalexic)

August 6: Just the Grid #2 (C. L. Rimkus + R. E. Fabi + 30 crowdsourced clue authors, Just Gridding)

August 10: Left Out (Juliana Tringali Golden, Vox)

August 11: Idiot Box (Kate Leiserson and Rebecca Goldstein, Crosswords Schmosswords)

August 13: You Might Drop Dead (Quiara Vasquez, club72)

August 15: Themeless 31 (Paolo Pasco and Erik Agard, Grids These Days)

August 16: Fireworks (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

August 21: Get the Message (Sid Sivakumar, Lollapuzzoola)

August 21: Connecting... (Brooke Husic, Lollapuzzoola)









Getting Medieval (Enrique Henestroza Anguiano)

I haven't highlighted them much here, but I'm always a fan of Enrique's themes. They often use a basic theme type, but with an extra touch of elegance that takes them over the top. This one is a perfect example, and the theme is best explained by just giving the themers: [Actress who jousts at Medieval Times?] is KEIRA KNIGHTLEY, [Actor who pronounces edicts at Medieval Times?] is BEN KINGSLEY, and [Actor who gives blessings at Medieval Times?] is JASON PRIESTLEY. An exceptionally tight set, all ending in -LEY - one of those theme sets that's so elegant it seems like it must have emerged from the constructor's head fully-formed.

Just the Grid #2 (C. L. Rimkus + R. E. Fabi + 30 crowdsourced clue authors)

On Just Gridding, Claire and Rachel occasionally run an experiment where they provide an unclued grid and then solicit clues from anyone who wants to submit them. It's a fun way to change things up; it's the sort of experiment where the results might be a weird, Frankensteinesque pastiche, but this one turned out really well. In part, that's because of Claire's beautiful grid, which stacks 15s while still managing a super-clean fill and some fun long bonuses. But it's also, of course, because of the crowdsources clues. There's great stuff like ["I need some space"] for SCOOT OVER, [Passing remark?] for I'M NOT INTERESTED, [Showstopper?] for COMMERCIAL BREAK, and [Ring around the nose-y?] for PIERCING. Even AM SO, probably the only real weak point in the fill, is spiced up with a fun clue: ["I ___ smart, S-M-R-T... I mean S-M-A-R-T" - Homer Simpson].

Left Out (Juliana Tringali Golden)

I almost always include mini-themes in my 9x9s for Vox, but they're usually just a pair of entries that sound similar or have some other basic connection. Juliana very often goes for outside-the-box mini-themes of the sort that you more commonly seen in larger puzzles, which adds a welcome layer of creativity. In this one, there's an L-shaped block of black squares on the left, and you have to pretend that the black squares are filled with L's for the clues to make sense. For example, 1-Down is STILL LIFE, with the three L's forming the backbone of the chunk of black squares. Also not to be missed in Juliana's puzzle from August 17, in which the word ROLLERCOASTER snakes through the grid like a rollercoaster.

Idiot Box (Kate Leiserson and Rebecca Goldstein)

Yet another example of Rebecca's skill with gridding tough themes, and of Kate's cluing chops. This one has the revealer CIRCLE JERK, clued pointedly as [All-male closed rotation, like the constructor roster for the WSJ's puzzles, or a description of something depicted four times in this puzzle], and the themers have circled rebus squares that contain synonyms for "jerk": PIMIEN(TO OL)IVE crossing (TOO L)EGIT TO QUIT, OU(T WIT)H IT crossing EXPER(T WIT)NESS, D(O A F)AVOR crossing G(O AF)TER, and JON(AS S)ALK crossing SMOOTH (AS S)ILK. Lots of colorful phrases, and the jerks are elegantly split across multiple words in every case. Despite all the theme real estate, the grid is beautiful filled, with bonuses like FOOT TRAFFIC, GOTTA JET, and SKELETOR. Toss in some fun cluing (including the equally pointed pair of [.puz alternative] for PDF and [.puz alternative, per the NYT] for APP), and you've got a great puzzle.

You Might Drop Dead (Quiara Vasquez)

Quiara Vasquez takes the third guest spot on Tim Croce's club72 with a crossword that skillfully emulates Tim's vibe, while injecting it with her own style. Like most of Tim's puzzles, it's filled with unusual seed entries, including in the relatively short fill (MAN PAIN, BRUJX - the latter of which is clued with the absolutely incredible wordplay find [Modern-day witch that's pronounced like two witch-y verbs]). And it's really tough, tougher for me than most of Tim's recent puzzles. Some of the clue highlights are [Enter the matrix?] for PRINT, [March leader?] for ONE SEED, the zany [Madder and madder] for REDS, and [It'll make you say "oh"] for both AHA MOMENT and the intersecting OMICRON.

Themeless 31 (Paolo Pasco and Erik Agard)

Paolo and Erik together make for an all-star byline, especially in the cluing department, and this collaboration doesn't disappoint. [Movable type] for ITINERANT, [Soccer goal] for CUP, [You complete me!] for TASK, [They can be folded and ripped] for ARMS, ["Bus pass"? People at these sure hope it doesn't] for STOPS, [Get dark outside?] for SEAR, [Translated for] for PARA, [White woman, perhaps?] for WINE MOM, and [Apse stores???] for BASILICAS are good examples of Erik's concisely brilliant misdirects and Paolo's wacky humor. (Though I could be wrong about who wrote which clues! Well, except [Newsom in a lot of music news-om! Before you get mad just remember this clue could've been written by Erik. You're really gonna get mad at a possible Erik clue?] for JOANNA. Pretty sure that was Paolo's.)

Fireworks (Christopher Adams)

This one's a mostly-themeless joint seeded with an absolutely brilliant pair of clues/entries: KATY PERRY clued as ["Baby, you're a firework" singer], and GENDER REVEAL PARTY clued as ["Baby, you're a firework!" singer?]. That alone would be enough, but it also features one of my favorite recent clues. As a nod to Brooke Husic's recent clue for ANAGRAM, [Anemone, to name one], Chris repurposes the very same clue for his entry POLYP, sort of a double fakeout for solvers who are now familiar with the genre of tricky clues for ANAGRAM and expecting that clue to fall into that genre.

Get the Message (Sid Sivakumar)

Lollapuzzoola competitors were thoroughly warned that there might be a rebus puzzle in the tournament, and indeed there was. This one has texting abbreviations in the rebus squares, with the clues for the theme entries appropriately incorporating fake CHATBOXes. For instance, TTYL is rebused in KI(TTY L)ITTER and NA(TTY L)IGHT, the latter of which is clued as [Cheap brewski yeeted (are_you_gridding_463: cya!) into the stratosphere in 2011]. The other theme entries are just as colorful: I DON'(T MI)ND and BA(T MI)TZVAH, ZER(O TO H)ERO and G(O TO H)ELL, DEM(I MO)ORE and SCI-F(I MO)VIE, and LABO(R OF L)OVE and HYD(ROFL)ASK. The choice of theme entries necessitates left-right symmetry, which is always challenging to pull off, but Sid makes it look easy, with squeaky-clean fill and plenty of fun entries.

Connecting... (Brooke Husic)

This puzzle is one for the ages - I doubt I'll solve a better crossword all year. Filling the traditionally difficult Puzzle 4 slot at Lollapuzzoola, this one's got a brilliant conceit. Most of the down clues just consist of a gif of three dots, as if the clues are loading, but in fact what's going on is that all the down clues for a given column have been concatenated together in the slot for the bottom-most clue in that column. For example, the middle column has the entries OPTIMAL and PORTION, clued as [The best part], since [The best] is a clue for OPTIMAL and [Part] is a clue for PORTION. What makes this especially devious is that all of the resulting clues are grammatical, and many of them read just like normal, single clues - [Hold still] for HUG plus STATIONARY, for example, or [A+ hosts] for ALPHA plus AND plus MCS. It's a genius concept, but it's also a tour-de-force of construction, since the conceit means that pretty much none of the down entries can be proper names, partial phrases, abbreviations, or anything else with limited, specific cluing options. Truly remarkable work.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Puzzle #149: Freeform Freestyle 10

It's the last 15x15 entry in the freeform freestyle series (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! Coming up next: a bonus 21x21 freeform freestyle which is probably my favorite of all of them.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Puzzle #148: Flight Interruption

It's been a while since I've done stacked theme entries, so: here's a puzzle with stacked theme entries (pdf, puz, pdf solution). I'm quite proud of the theme's multiple levels. Important note: if you're solving the .puz or in the applet, the letter X is your friend.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Puzzle #147: Freeform Freestyle 9

I'd planned to post a themed puzzle this week, but I haven't had time to clue it yet. So it's time for another freeform freestyle (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! This one's a 65-worder which started out with the big 8x5 chunk in the northwest. Happy solving!

Monday, August 9, 2021

Puzzle #146: Freeform Freestyle 8

A new asymmetrical themeless (pdf, puz, pdf solution) this week, featuring stacked 13s and some chunky black square patterns. Enjoy!

Monday, August 2, 2021

Puzzle #145: Sorry, Wrong Number

We've got a themed puzzle this week (pdf, puz, pdf solution). The PDF has a little visual bonus, but it doesn't impact the solve at all, so it'll work just as well in the applet or the .puz file. Happy solving!

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: July 2021

July 4: A Day at the Races (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

July 5: Themeless 12 (Mollie Cowger, Crosswords from Outer Space)

July 16: X Games (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

July 19: presented with great enthusiasm (themeless) (Adam Nicolle, luckystreak+)

July 20: A Challenging Segue - Themeless #3 (Lyle Broughton, Jack of All Squares)

July 22: Quadripoint (Michael Buerke, Crucinova)

July 22: Untitled (Paolo Pasco, The Atlantic)

July 25: Art Heist (Chandi Deitmer, Boswords)

July 28: Themeless #56 (Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic, Puzzles That Need a Home)









A Day at the Races (Ross Trudeau)

I love a highly constrained theme that forces the constructor to break out some new tricks, and this is a prime example. It's also a really original theme concept: near the right side of the grid, running vertically, is THE FINISH LINE, which is intersected by four horizontal theme entries. Those theme entries (DOG AND PONY SHOWS, HORSESHOE PITS, BRONCO STADIUM, and ITALIAN STALLION) all contain words for horses, and the kicker is that exactly one of the horses (the STALLION) is crossing the finish line, making it the winner of the race. Ross notes that he had practically no leeway in the construction of this theme: since the grid's symmetrical, THE FINISH LINE has to have a counterpart which also crosses four theme entries on the left side of the grid. Nonetheless, he managed to fill the grid with a minimum of glue, which feels like wizardry.

Themeless 12 (Mollie Cowger)

Just impossibly good cluing from Mollie on this one. I mean, look at this list:

[Material for building a table]: RAW DATA
[Galaxies outshine them, per some modern sources]: IPHONES
[Disguise on the cover of many a mystery novel]: PEN NAME
[Hardly digging in one's heels]: ON TIPTOE
[Left hanging, say]: WET
[Sign of possession in "Jennifer's Body"]: APOSTROPHE
[Place for horsing around?]: CAROUSEL
[Prone to slow eating?]: EROSIVE
[House of representatives?]: EMBASSY
[Leaves on the skin, say]: TATS
[Traffic-stoppers]: BRAKES
[Body shots?]: STEROIDS
[Where to find some stone cold studs]: SNOW TIRES

X Games (Ricky Cruz)

With this meta contest puzzle, Ricky once again proves he's one of the most inventive constructors out there. There have been other tic-tac-toe-based metas (I did one myself once, but way less interestingly than this), but this one's really elegantly and creatively conceived. I won't explain the theme here, since Ricky's got his own thorough explanation, complete with diagrams, in this post.

presented with great enthusiasm (themeless) (Adam Nicolle)

A classic Adam Nicolle grid, in that it's anchored with a stagger-stack of three colorful and modern long entries in the center - in this case, GENDER EUPHORIA, SEASON PREMIERE, and Z-LIST CELEBRITY, which is quite possible my favorite of Adam's stacks so far. Nobody does these stacks like Adam; they always have three bangers, and the rest of the grid is always constructed beautifully and cleanly around them - and this one is no exception.

A Challenging Segue - Themeless #3 (Lyle Broughton)

This puzzle was constructed around two absolutely god-tier clues: [Two-factor authentication?] for PRIMALITY TEST and [Relief sculpture?] for MANNEKEN PIS. Those alone would be worth the price of admission, but the rest of the grid is smooth as silk, with lots of fun entries like FRENEMIES, HAVING A MOMENT, and WE HAD A DEAL. Beautiful work!

Quadripoint (Michael Buerke)

This one really takes advantage of the freedom offered by Crucinova. I've seen at least one Four Corners-themed puzzle before, but the constraints of a typical newspaper crossword really limit the extent to which you can represent the Four Corners in a grid. Here, Michael breaks out of those constraints in spectacular fashion, presenting us with four adjoining sections, each with the approximate shape of one of the Four Corners states. Not only that, each state has a flag attached to a flagpole made out of bars, at the approximate location of the state's capital - and the positioning of the flags creates four unclued two-letter entries, which are the postal abbreviations for the four states. To top it all off, the word FOUR appears at the intersection of the four states, tying everything together. It's a tricky construction, because there are no black squares and no bars inside the states other than the ones that make up the flagpoles, so there are some wide-open chunks, but it's filled impressively well given the constraints.

Untitled (Paolo Pasco)

It's easy to phone it in on a mini/midi grid, but Paolo never does - his grids are always sparkling and smooth. This one's got a whopping eight 8-letter entries (THE FORCE, HUMANOID, I LIKE YOU, BID ADIEU, IRONED ON, NEWSDESK, FAKE FANS, ONE-SIDED), but all the short fill is still clean, and there's even a fun clue for the old staple IRE ([This is madness!]). Also, the first words of the 1-Across entries in the five mini puzzles from this week spell out a message.

Art Heist (Chandi Deitmer)

On the same day that her fantastically ambitious NYT debut came out, Chandi was featured as the constructor of the challenging Puzzle 4 from Boswords. The names of artists have been "stolen" from the theme entries, so that the letters from their names have to be ignored when solving the downs. This is always a tough theme type to construct, but Chandi's unfazed, working in some long artist names in colorful theme entries like HOR(MONE T)HERAPY, HOO(KAH LO)UNGE, and BO(DEGA S)ANDWICH, and even making room for fun long fill like BOARD SHORTS and STUNT DRIVER.

Themeless #56 (Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic)

This isn't the first time that Brian and Brooke have used this general grid pattern, and it seems to be a successful formula. Those stairsteps of 5s in the middle allow for really smooth fill without sacrificing flow between the sections of the grid, and there are very few 3s and 4s, so we get a clean puzzle without many short repeaters. The cluing is, unsurprisingly, great: [Spit takes?] for DNA TESTS, [They might grind on each other all night] for MOLARS, [Wet blanket at Thanksgiving dinner?] for GRAVY, and [Tries to pull a fast one?] for SPEEDRUNS are among the highlights.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Puzzle #144: That's So Random (Aleatory Freestyle)

Trying something a little different with this week's freestyle (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Starting with a blank grid, I used a random number generator to choose five squares which had to be black squares, then also randomly chose five white squares and randomly chose letters which had to go in those squares - then I built a freestyle around those preselected squares, following the normal rules of crosswords. The result was a 60-worder with a weird pattern that I never would have come up with on my own. (In the applet below, the preselected black squares are in gray, and the preselected letters are in green.) A fun exercise, which I encourage other constructors to try out!


Sunday, July 25, 2021

Puzzle #143: Baby's All Grown Up

I know it's not Monday yet, but I just thought of this theme and I need to post the puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) before the joke, uh, gets old, so I whipped up a 10x11 midi in between puzzles at Boswords. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Puzzle #142: themeless: block party by Malaika Handa

I'm very excited to present a guest themeless (pdf, puz, pdf solution) from Malaika Handa, who you probably know as the brains behind the very cool 7xwords project. In addition to running 7xwords, she publishes her own puzzles at this site. She also has a crossword in the next Boswords tournament, mere days from now, and registration is open here.

Malaika reached out to me to post her puzzle here because she says "ridiculous themeless grid" is something she associates with this site. An association I'm very happy to have! And indeed, this one's got an extremely zany and eye-popping 62-word pattern.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Puzzle #141: Freeform Freestyle 7

This week's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is another asymmetrical themeless - enjoy!

In other news, a puzzle of mine was published last week on Crucinova, an experimental venue that dropped its first puzzle at the beginning of this month. If you're not subscribed, I recommend it - it promises to be well worth your money!

Monday, July 5, 2021

Puzzle #140: Reversible Linings

In the unlikely scenario that you're friends with me on Facebook and remember a specific post that I made back in 2018, then the theme of today's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) will already be familiar to you. But it should be a fun solve even if it is!

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: June 2021

June 2: themeless twenty-eight (Adam Nicolle, luckystreak xwords)

June 6: Themeless 26 (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

June 9: Untitled (Adam Nicolle, 7xwords)

June 9: What Are Thoooooose? (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

June 10: Pride 2021 (Chris Piuma, Wordgarbler)

June 14: Flag Day (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

June 15: Pat Response (Jeffrey Harris, Jeffrey's Jottings)

June 18: I Could Go Either Way (Rebecca Goldstein, Just Gridding)

June 21: Themeless 11 (Mollie Cowger, Crosswords from Outer Space)

June 27: themeless xi (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

June 28: πŸ†πŸ†πŸ†πŸ†πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘ (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

June 30: Final (Wyna Liu, Indie 500)









themeless twenty-eight (Adam Nicolle)

I've given Adam short shrift in these roundups, I think. The curse of consistency - he puts out a high-quality subscriber puzzle every week, and when they're always good, the individual ones stand out less. So there are multiple puzzles I could have chosen to highlight here, but I'm going with this free blog puzzle, which has a different grid layout from the central stack-based ones Adam normally uses. It enables him to include a bunch of interlaced fresh entries, including PANROMANTIC, TONE TAG, NINETIES KID, WIFED UP, and PULL OUT GAME WEAK.

Themeless 26 (Paolo Pasco)

Quite a striking-looking grid with left-right symmetry for this themeless, accommodating the fantastic central stack of SUPER MARIO MAKER, ENEMIES TO LOVERS, and SEE YA WHEN I SEE YA (with a bonus 15, TIME LAPSE VIDEOS, a few rows down). As usual with Paolo, even the less flashy entries are spiced up with clever and/or evocative clues: [What creepy twins speak in] for UNISON, ["I know you're still preaching, but I really agree with that point!"] for AMEN, [One aiming to start a relationship?] for AMOR, [One of two ending an "awkward sibling hug," per "Gravity Falls"] for PAT, etc etc etc.

Untitled (Adam Nicolle)

Which 7xwords grid runs on which date is determined in advance, so it's a practically miraculous confluence of events that this puzzle worked out. Adam stacks three 7-letter theme entries: LOL NICE ([Reaction to realizing today's date is 6/9, maybe]), NICOLLE ([Constructor of this puzzle Adam]), and, sandwiched in between, ANAGRAM. We're blessed that Adam claimed the date early and managed to squeeze an absolute perfect theme into a predetermined set.

What Are Thoooooose? (Christopher Adams)

Inspired by Adam Aaronson's "Grid Charlemagne" series of Steely Dan-based puzzles, Christopher used the Steely Dan song BAD SNEAKERS as a revealer, hinting that the word SNEAKERS is anagrammed in the theme entries (WATER SNAKES, DARKNESSES, PREAKNESS, and LAKE NASSER). It's practically designed to delight me specifically, since it features three themers stacked in the middle, and not one, but two Joanna Newsom references in the clues. There's a lot that SPARKS JOY in the fill, including GRINDR, FANFIC, SUFjan Stevens, and a reference to the Jeopardy! spoof video that repeatedly uses the word JEFF.

Pride 2021 (Chris Piuma)

A gloriously raunchy pride puzzle, packed to the gills with R-rated content: BUTT STUFF stacked on IN THE REAR (crossing ASSES), GLOBAL SEED VAULT clued as [Nickname for a jetsetting power bottom?], and so much more. Everywhere you turn, there's a spicy entry - or, sometimes, a clue that tricks you into thinking there'll be a spicy entry, like [Clean up (when someone is finished)] for BUS. Chris likes to do gestalt-based themes, where instead of a set of symmetrically placed theme entries, there's lots of topical content scattered throughout the grid, and this puzzle is a masterful example of that.

Flag Day (Joon Pahk)

A remarkable variety puzzle shaped like the American flag. The rules are simple: each row and column consists of a series of entries that are clued in order. But Joon uses those entries to depicts the colors of the flag: each row contains an entry that's missing either the word RED or WHITE from the beginning, corresponding with the positions of the stripes. (For example, the top row includes REDRUM, which is entered in the grid as just RUM.) Even more impressively, the 8x6 section in the top left includes eight down entries that are missing the word BLUE, all stacked beside each other. Not only that, seven those eight entries intersect the horizontal entry SEE STARS, suggesting that the solver should use their imagination and see stars in the blue section of the grid. A remarkable feat of construction!

Pat Response (Jeffrey Harris)

First, a little preface: You might have noticed a lack of cryptics and variety puzzles in these writeups lately. I used to include Joon Pahk's Rows Gardens and Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto's cryptics regularly, for example, but it's been a while since I've highlighted either. Of course, that's not because they don't continue to put out good stuff - it's just that there are so many American-style indie crosswords to keep up with now that I have less time and attention to give to cryptics and variety puzzles. And, relatedly, it's hard for me to judge the relative quality of regular block cryptics and standard variety puzzles like Rows Gardens without taking significant extra post-solve time. So on the occasions when I do include them, there will be a bias towards puzzles from venues that also post American-style crosswords (like Jeffrey's Jottings and Square Pursuit), since those are part of my regular rotation.

Anyway, onto the puzzle! This has one of the best aha moments in recent variety cryptic memory. The instruction tell you (quite insistently) that there are five unclued answers, and the remaining clues are listed in alphabetical order by answer, with 13 of those clued including single misprints which must be corrected. The corrected letters, arranged in grid order, spell the name of a character who said the line formed by the unclued entries. Because of the various shenanigans going on, the puzzle itself is a real challenge, but a satisfying one. Once you crack it, you'll discover that there are actually only four unclued entries, which spell out the line THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS, spoken by Jean-Luc Picard on the TNG episode "Chain of Command." In that episode, Picard is interrogated by a Cardassian who tries to break him psychologically by showing him four lights and demanding that he say that there are five. And this puzzle does the exact same thing by insisting that there are four unclued answers - in British cryptic lingo, a "light" is a grid entry. A wonderful solve with lots of layers. 

I Could Go Either Way (Rebecca Goldstein)

A guest joint on Just Gridding with an excellent theme - the revealer is SWITCH, indicating that there are several squares in the puzzle that have the rebus TOP going across and BOTTOM going down. We've got TOMATO PASTE/BOTTOMLESS PIT, POTATO PANCAKE/GLASS BOTTOM BOAT, HONEST OPINION/BELL BOTTOM PANTS, and ON AUTOPILOT/HIT ROCK BOTTOM. First off, crossing your theme entries, especially long ones, makes the grid a real challenge to fill (and one of the theme entries even crosses the revealer!), but Rebecca's filled this grid cleanly and with aplomb. Second, the choice of theme entries is elegant. Of course, it would have been impossible to hide the word BOTTOM in unrelated words, so all of the down themers use the word BOTTOM as-is, but all of the across themers hide the word TOP in between words or morphemes in the phrases. Absolutely perfect execution.

Themeless 11 (Mollie Cowger)

One reason that these writeups tend to be themeless-heavy is that there's a sense in which it's "easier" to make a great themeless than a great themed puzzle: there are so many constraints on a themed puzzle and so many potential failure points. But that doesn't mean it's easy to make a great themeless, and we shouldn't be deceived by the fact that Mollie makes it look easy. She's one of a small handful of indie constructors where every one of her themelesses could be on my list: they're always smoothly and thoughtfully filled and packed with excellent clues. Naturally, as a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fan, I was won over by the D-DAY clue, but there's so much great stuff here: [Hardy purity rings?] for BOOTY CALLS, [Wheel/pendulum hybrid] for TIRE SWING, [Purchases made for future mates?] for CHESS SETS, [Adults-only zone] for EMPTY NEST, and so on.

themeless xi (Brooke Husic)

Like Mollie, Brooke published her 11th blog themeless this month, and like Mollie, every themeless she puts out is great. But they're consistent in very different ways: you always know more or less what to expect from a Mollie puzzle, whereas (at least with the experimental clues) every Brooke puzzle is a journey where you're never quite sure what awaits you. She often pushes the boundaries with foreign languages in cool ways (e.g. using the gender-neutral Spanish POBRECITE), puts in uncommon but interesting 3-letter fill (ENM, ROK, CBT), or even throws in some meta content (TWENTY-SEVENTH, clued as [Date with a lady?] because she published on the 27th of every month). This puzzle also features some truly inspired clues, including [Clipped hedge?] for THO and [Shower head?] for RAIN GOD.

πŸ†πŸ†πŸ†πŸ†πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘ (Brian Thomas)

This puzzle is a distant second in the list of horniest puzzle in this month's lineup, but it's still great. The revealer is HORNY ON MAIN, indicating that literally horny animals are perched on top of synonyms for "main": RHINO on MAJOR LEAGUE, IBEX on TOOK THE LEAD, and UNICORN on CENTRAL BANK. It's a fun theme, one that would only fly in the indie sphere, and on top of that it's one that's a real challenge to construct (especially in the middle, where UNICORN is sandwiched between two long themers). Nonetheless, Brian fills it cleanly, and even throws in some excellent non-theme 10s, including OPEN SEASON and INNER CHILD.

Final (Wyna Liu)

For the final puzzle from this year's non-competitive Indie 500, Wyna has concocted a beautiful grid with tons of conversational answers (NOTHING PERSONAL, WHO'S WE, DON'T WAIT UP, LET'S SEE NOW, etc.). But what really elevates it (at least in the Inside Track version, the one I solved) is the devious cluing: [Still matter] for MOONSHINE is an all-timer, and [An appropriate statement, considering] for I'LL THINK ABOUT IT is one of these clues that takes a while to understand but has a great aha moment when the penny drops. [The End is near it] for DELETE KEY and [It isn't working] for LEISURE are also delightful.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Puzzle #139: Freeform Freestyle 6 (plus Humans Only meta solution)

This week's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is another freeform freestyle, and I think it's a pretty tough one. Enjoy! Below the applet is the solution and explanation to last week's metapuzzle, Humans Only.

Humans Only solution

Last week's meta asked you to identify a famous model. At 72 words, the grid could have easily been a themeless - so where is the theme content hidden? Well, the title suggests that you should pay attention to the central entry, RECAPTCHA, clued as [3x3 grid with the instruction "select all images with cars," e.g.], since a ReCAPTCHA is a test designed to weed out bots and allow only human users.

The "3x3" in the clue is awfully specific, which suggests that you should try dividing the grid into a 3x3 lattice. If you do that, you might notice that the string CAR appears in exactly five of the nine sections. If you select all of those sections, they form the shape of a T (as seen in the picture below), so the answer is Model T - rendering the title ironic, since the answer is a machine model, not, as you might have initially assumed, a human model.

Congrats to everyone who submitted the correct answer! The winner, chosen at random from the correct entries, is Dan Bowden.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Puzzle #138: Humans Only (meta)

This week's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is a meta contest. The meta answer is a famous model. You can submit your answers to the email address in the sidebar - next Monday, the 28th, I'll randomly choose one of the correct entrants, who'll win a 1-year crossword-related subscription of their choice. Good luck!

Monday, June 14, 2021

Puzzle #137: Freeform Freestyle 5

This week's freeform freestyle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is fifth one I'm posting, but actually the first one I made. So I think the previous ones take better advantage of the lack of symmetry than this one does, but I'm still quite happy with this one.

Also, we're halfway through the freeform freestyle series! There'll be a total of 10 regular freeform freestyles in the series, followed by a special bonus puzzle at the end.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Puzzle #136: A Puzzle for the Knowing Ones

This week's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) comes with an appendix, but there are spoilers so don't look at it until you've finished solving! Many thanks to Norah Sharpe and Dob Olino for giving this one a test solve.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: May 2021

May 9: Themeless 10 (Michael, Southern Crosswords)

May 10: Inject It Into My Veins! (Themeless) (Adam Aaronson and Paolo Pasco, Aaronson)

May 16: Let It Burn (Yacob Yonas and Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

May 17: Chasm No. 3 (Ryan McCarty, McGrids)

May 17: It's a Stretch! (Themeless) (C. L. Rimkus, Just Gridding)

May 18: Freestyle 614 (Tim Croce, club72)

May 21: Voiced by Keith David (Quin Abarr, Puzzles By Quin)

May 22: Easy Peasy (Norah Sharpe and David Ritterskamp, Norah's Puzzles)

May 24: I Am an American (Hoang-Kim Vu and Erica Hsiung Wojcik, USA Today)

May 27: themeless x (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)









Themeless 10 (Michael)

In the New Yorker lately, Elizabeth Gorski has been doing occasional puzzles with 3(!) sets of triple-stacked 15s, and Michael has taken a page out of her book here. With this kind of grid, it's a real challenge to keep the fill clean while still having interesting 15s, and Michael does a stellar job - highlights among the 15s include HETERONORMATIVE, AUSTRALIAN RULES (clued as [What Chicken Smallhorn played]), and WHATCHAMACALLIT. Sure, there are some that are there because of their convenient letters - but even SATELLITE STATES has a clever clue, [Bloc parties?]. There's also good diversity in the short fill, with plenty of women and people of color represented.

Inject It Into My Veins! (Adam Aaronson and Paolo Pasco)

As delightful as you'd expect from this duo. It's anchored by a stagger-stack with FAUCI OUCHIE atop EEVEELUTION and underneath SQUARESPACE - a cornucopia of unlikely letter combinations. Some genius clues, too, including [One in a college dorm bathroom, often] for PLY and [They get shot down] for FEET PICS.

Let It Burn (Yacob Yonas and Ross Trudeau)

This May was probably my favorite month in Rosswords history, and not just because he posted a stacked-theme puzzle inspired by some of my recent work. All of Ross's puzzles this month were creative and fun, but I'm choosing to highlight this collab with Yacob Yonas. The revealer is WHERE THERE'S/SMOKE, THERE'S FIRE, indicating that three squares in the grid can be filled either with the word SMOKE or the word FIRE to create valid entries. Rebus themes are hard enough to pull off well, but a double rebus is much trickier, and indeed Yacob and Ross reported that they left practically zero other possibilities on the cutting room floor. The themers are: SMOKE EATER/SMOKE HOUSE or FIRE EATER/FIREHOUSE, SMOKESCREEN/SMOKE BREAK or FIRE SCREEN/FIREBREAK, and SMOKEHOLE/SMOKE WEED or FIREHOLE/FIREWEED. All those, plus a two-part stacked revealer, without even putting much of a strain on the fill.

Chasm No. 3 (Ryan McCarty)

Ryan does it again - a stack of five 9s going across (CRANBERRY, THE REAL ME, WHADJA SAY, DIET COKES, SILK SONIC) intersecting a stack of five 9s going down (LIVE CHATS, SACRED COD, STAR JONES, SNEAK INTO, BASE COATS), and not a bad one in the bunch. In turn, the corners of that center chasm lead into other wide-open sections with plenty of 9s, including THE KRAKEN, OTAMATONE, VUVUZELAS, and DIGITALIS. A stunning feat!

It's a Stretch! (C. L. Rimkus)

Claire Rimkus and Rachel Fabi have teamed up on a new site, and the first puzzle is a real humdinger. It's absolutely packed with colorful entries (GIVE ME A MINUTE, ONSCREEN ROMANCE, MAYBE DON'T, READ THE ROOM, SPELLS IT OUT, etc.) and brilliant clues ([Getting off without a hitch?] for PREMARITAL SEX, [It's a pain in the neck sometimes] for HALTER TOP). I especially love the clue for NBA, [Org. that should technically have an "M" at the beginning], which is absolutely mystifying at first glance but comes with a great aha moment.

Freestyle 614 (Tim Croce)

I wonder if it's a coincidence that my favorite of Tim's recent themelesses also happens to be the first puzzle that defies the title of his site and goes above 72 words (it's a 16x15 grid with 73 words). Tim has a massive seed list filled with rarely- or never-used entries, and the central stack in this one features three entries from that list: MOMMY MAKEOVER, AS GOOD A TIME AS ANY, and SHAGGY DEFENSE. Outside of the stack, there's lots of other fresh stuff, including VENMO ME, DOGE TOKENS, I'M DYIN' HERE, GAMER TAG, and LIE LIKE A RUG.

Voiced by Keith David (Quin Abarr)

A lovely little 10x9 grid with a clever gimmick: the left half of the grid (shaded in blue) is made entirely with letters typed with the left hand, and the right half (shaded in red) is made entirely with letters typed with the right hand. Since a lot of the most useful letters (including A, E, R, S, and T) are on the left side of the keyboard, the right half of this puzzle must have been particularly hard to pull off. Quin's notes about the inspiration behind the puzzle are worth a read too.

Easy Peasy (Norah Sharpe and David Ritterskamp)

An absolutely wild gimmick: every entry in the grid is duped in the clue for a different entry. They range from straightforward, like [Tree with thorny leaves] for PINE (duplicating THORNY), to zany, like the clue for THORNY itself ([Like a stenocactus], duplicating the entry STENOS). Norah mentions that she and David went through many, many iterations to make it work, and I'm not surprised. It's all anchored by a perfect two-part revealer, too: SUPER clued as [What this puzzle hopes to be...], next to DUPER clued as [...and what it really is]. Incidentally, Norah's a great supporter of indie constructors, particularly newer ones, and she also published two other excellent collaborations in May, with Steve Barrios and Kate Leiserson

I Am an American (Hoang-Kim Vu and Erica Hsiung Wojcik)

A lovely celebration of API Heritage Month, featuring the people at the center of three seminal Supreme Court cases: WONG KIM ARK ([Person in an 1898 case affirming birthright citizenship]), FRED KOREMATSU ([Person in a 1944 case contesting the internment of Japanese Americans]), and BHAGAT/SINGH THIND ([Person in a 1923 case challenging citizenship eligibility]). We also get a bonus shoutout to EMMA Gee, who co-founded the organization that popularized the term "Asian American," in the fill. Unusually for the USAT, all the theme entries are proper names, but (as always for the USAT) the puzzle is crafted to be accessible for any solver.

themeless x (Brooke Husic)

At least in the experimental version, this was one of the hardest Brooke themelesses yet, at least for me. But hard in a really satisfying way, with lots of great aha moments (particularly realizing that [Not quite straight] was KINSEY TWO. Some stellar clues, including [Black and white drawing] for STALEMATE and [Corrupt drive?] for VICE. Unsurprisingly, there's some cool poetry content, including SAEED Jones and a fresh Issa Kobayashi angle for ISSA.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Puzzle #135: Freeform Freestyle 4

It's another asymmetrical themeless (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! Thanks as always to Brooke Husic for giving it a test ride.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Monday, May 10, 2021

Puzzle #133: Freeform Freestyle 3

It's the third puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) in my series of asymmetrical themelesses: like normal themelesses, but not as symmetrical!

Monday, May 3, 2021

Puzzle #132: Tight Five

This one's technically a themed puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution), but it does have kind of a themeless vibe: 66 words, with the theme entries all stacked together in the middle.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: April 2021

Lots more themed puzzles in the roundup this month than usual, which is a development I welcome! Though of course, excellent indie themelesses are still being published at an astonishing rate.

April 1: [post title here] DO NOT PUBLISH EARLY (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

April 9: Think Twice (Sid Sivakumar, The Juggernaut)

April 10: #Repeal (Finn Vigeland, These Puzzles Fund Abortion)

April 15: The Cruellest Month (Chris Piuma, Wordgarbler)

April 15: Stuck in Traffic (Sara Cantor, Crosshare)

April 21: Untitled (Quiara Vasquez, The Atlantic)

April 22: Knock Knock! (Adam Aaronson, Aaronson)

April 24: Well, Whaddya Say? (Kevin G. Der, American Crossword Puzzle Tournament)

April 26: Untitled (Brooke Husic, Boswords)

April 26: Themeless 7 (Mollie Cowger, Crosswords from Outer Space)









[post title here] DO NOT PUBLISH EARLY (Paolo Pasco)

Probably the single funniest puzzle published this year that's not by Et Tu Etui (who is, of course, a real person and not a pseudonym for a prominent indie constructor). The theme is FIRST DRAFTS, where words for wind have been moved from the end to the beginning of common phrases: SELF-DISGUST becomes GUSTSELFDIS, SPARKLING ALE becomes GALESPARKLIN, and BE KIND REWIND becomes WINDBEKINDRE. But the real fun is in the clues, which are written as if they're a first draft which was decidedly not meant to be published yet. There are lots of indie constructors who are very skilled at the technical aspects of construction, but few who can hold a candle to Paolo when it comes to the pure entertainment factor.

Think Twice (Sid Sivakumar)

Sid hasn't posted much on his famous blog recently, but he's been busy: he's the editor of the new crossword for The Juggernaut, focused on South Asian culture. Sid performs a pretty impressive feat here - the wordplay mechanism of the theme (a progression from quarter to half to full to double) has nothing to with South Asia, but all the theme entries have a South Asian tie-in. We've got the cricket term QUARTER CENTURY, HALF SARI, FULL MOON, and DOUBLE KA MEETHA. Not only that, the four long down entries in the fill (SESAME OIL, COWHERDS, ROSE MILK, and SCIENTIST) all have relevant clues, too. The puzzle has a ton of resonance for South Asians, but it's still solvable by anybody, which is not an easy task.

#Repeal (Finn Vigeland)

Every puzzle in the These Puzzles Fund Abortion pack is good, but my favorite is Finn's, with a theme about repealing the Hyde Amendment. Words and phrases with the string HYDE (HYDERABAD, PHILOSOPHY/DEPARTMENT, and PACHYDERM) have the string "repealed," so that the down clues only make sense if you ignore those letters (but are legitimate crossword entries either way). I especially like the wackiness of splitting the HYDE in PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT across two entries. (And yes, I realize I've highlighted a lot of puzzles with this type of theme gimmick in these roundups! I guess if you're angling for a spot in one of my writeups, you know what type of theme to go for.)

The Cruellest Month (Chris Piuma)

In honor of National Poetry Month, Chris has created a puzzle absolutely packed with poetry - both in the fill and in the clues, many of which are written in a poetic style instead of straight prose. Admittedly, as someone who's a fan of many of the poets featured in the grid, including HARRYETTE MULLEN and BERNADETTE MAYER, I was predisposed to like this one, but I also just love when constructors write puzzles that really dive deeply into subjects they're passionate about. If you're not into poetry, you'll find this one difficult, but still very much worth your while.

Stuck in Traffic (Sara Cantor)

This puzzle has three unchecked, unclued squares - how are we supposed to be figure out what goes in them? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that there in a pattern of black squares that looks like a traffic light. But still, that doesn't narrow it down to one possibility - there are a few sets of words you could use to describe the three segments of a traffic light. There's a beautiful aha moment, though - the squares aren't really unchecked, since the words that you have to enter combine with the words to their left and right to make legitimate entries. For example, the top square is between GOB and PER, and entering STOP gives you GOBSTOPPER; similarly, SLOW goes between CAN'T and DOWN to make CAN'T SLOW DOWN, and GO turns CAR and BAY into CARGO BAY. One of the most original mechanisms I've seen in ages.

Untitled (Quiara Vasquez)

Usually The Atlantic only does 15x15 puzzles on Sundays, but this Wednesday puzzle is a special Earth Day-themed offering from Quiara. The theme is simple enough - our revealer, GREEN NEW DEAL, hints that the theme entries contain anagrams of GREEN - but there's an extra layer of elegance here, as all the theme entries are given ecological clues. ENERGY SECTOR is [Target of carbon taxes], RENEGOTIATE is [Talk new terms, as with the Paris Agreement], and GENERATION Z is [Greta Thunberg, et al.]. I love it when a constructor takes a theme idea with many, many possible themers and adds an extra constraint to narrow it down.

Knock Knock! (Adam Aaronson)

An elegant theme based on the memetic phrase FBI, OPEN UP. In the theme entries, the letters FBI "open up" - first they're consecutive (in DATE OF BIRTH), then separated by a single square (SOFT-BOILED), then two squares (FLY-BY-NIGHT), and finally three squares (FREEBOOTING). As an extra nice touch, there are no other occurrences of F, B, or I in the theme entries.

Well, Whaddya Say? (Kevin G. Der)

A devious theme for the notorious Puzzle 5 at the ACPT. Pairs of consecutive across answers have to be phonetically reparsed to make sense. For example, [Friend of Harry Potter] and [Mexican state bordering Texas] clue RON and CHIHUAHUA, but those don't fit in the grid - instead, you have to enter RAUNCHY and WAWA. Similarly, MANIC + INFERS = MANNEQUIN + FIRS, SCENT + ORCHESTRAL = CENTAUR + KESTREL, ZEE + BOOMERANGS = ZEBU + MERINGUES, and OWE + CRUSTACEAN = OKRA + STATION. Beautifully tric    ky, and Kevin managed to find some beautiful pairings, all of which have significant spelling changes.

Untitled (Brooke Husic)

This puzzle is a perfect encapsulation of what makes Brooke's themelesses so great. We've got a broad range of cultural and demographic references (HIAWATHA BELT, CODE RED clued as ["I need a tampon" euphemism]), fresh cluing angles even for the common short fill ([Dancer's pivoting aid, for short] for ACL, ["So ___!" ("Delish!" at some luaus] for ONO), and diagonal symmetry that allows for intersecting great long entries (SHE/HER PRONOUNS, I SHOULD HOPE NOT, VINTAGE STORE) without compromising the short fill.

Themeless 7 (Mollie Cowger)

I've liked every themeless that Mollie's posted on her site so far - they're always clean, full of fun fill, and packed with clever clues. This one accomplishes all that with just 64 words, including stacked seed entries of CERTIORARI and SAOIRSE RONAN, plus stuff like CHIWEENIES and SPACE TOURIST. The cluing might be this puzzle's strongest point - coming up with a clever and original clue for something like RAS isn't easy, but [They're generally given singles] fits the bill. Ditto [Chart-toppers?] for CEOS (think org charts). But my favorite clue is surely [Thumb between two fingers, allegedly], which made me take my fingers of the keyboard briefly to figure out that the answer was NOSE.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Puzzle #131: Freeform Freestyle 2

Here's the second puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) in my series of asymmetrical themelesses. As before, thanks to Brooke Husic for test-solving (and she test-solved the upcoming puzzles in the series too, so proactive thanks for those!).

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Puzzle #130: Incognito

A themed puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) this week! There are a mere two theme entries plus a revealer in this puzzle, so I gave myself a challenge by stacking them all in the middle.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Puzzle #129: Freestyle 15 (with Brooke Husic)

This week's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is yet another collab with the great Brooke Husic! Brooke has an excellent puzzle in Rachel Fabi's Baltimore Abortion Fund puzzle pack, which you should definitely get if you've been on the fence about it.


Monday, April 5, 2021

Puzzle #128: Bombs Away! (by Carly Schuna)

Today's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is by guest constructor Carly Schuna! Participants in the Boswords Fall Themeless League might recognize her as one of the featured solvers (in the pairs division). If you watched the Twitch stream, then you got to see her wildly impressive German wheel routine. I hope you enjoy her puzzle as much as I did!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: March 2021

Tons of creative stuff this month - let's dive in!

March 5: I Fold (Malaika Handa, 7xwords)

March 8: Puzzle 118 (Max, Max Puzzles)

March 10: Tail Mix (Zhouqin Burnikel, USA Today)

March 17: Chasm No. 1 (Ryan McCarty, McGrids)

March 19: Tracking System (Patrick Berry, A-Frame Games) - no specific spoilers in writeup

March 24: Freestyle 4.12 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

March 25: Theft! (Chris Piuma, Wordgarbler)

March 27: Digital Release (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

March 28: Themeless #10 (Michael, Southern Crosswords)









I Fold (Malaika Handa)

It's been a long time since we've seen a meta that leads the solver on such a long and wonderful journey as Erik Agard's "Clip Show," which inspired Malaika to make this gem. Following in the footsteps of Chris King, she created a puzzle in the form of a paper fortune teller, which includes a word search, an unclued online crossword puzzle, some decryption, and more. A tour de force of imagination.

Puzzle 118 (Max)

I'm not sure what the smallest pangrammatic crossword is, but this one's gotta be close - it squeezes all 26 letters into a 7x7 grid without too much strain, which is a remarkable achievement.

Tail Mix (Zhouqin Burnikel)

It's always a good time for a periodic reminder of Zhouqin's mastery. Like many USA Today puzzles, this one only has three theme entries (HARD TO BEATSTILL IN BETA, AID AND ABET), which allows for squeaky-clean fill; this one has a pair of delightful stacks of long downs (RUTABAGA/ARUGULA/SIDEBAR and CHARADE/LINES UP/SALT MINE) that sparkle without compromising the fill at all.

Chasm No. 1 (Ryan McCarty)

An astonishingly wide open themeless from Ryan's new site. It's called a "chasm" because of the cavernous center, which has 3 stagger-stacked 11s crossing 5 stagger-stacked 9s. The crossings are all smooth, somehow, and Ryan even manages to squeeze in fun bonuses (BADASSERY, SMASH CAKE, EDGELORD) in the corners.

Tracking System (Patrick Berry)

In case people are still working their way through Patrick's new variety puzzle pack, I won't spoil any details. Suffice it to say, the last puzzle in the pack uses the meta answers from the previous puzzles and incorporates them all into the grid in such a way that an astoundingly large percentage of the squares are actually triple-checked. But, this being Patrick Berry, you'd never guess it from the fill, which is pristine throughout.

Freestyle 4.12 (Andrew Ries)

A really remarkable piece of construction, anchored by triple-stacked 15s (CRITICAL DARLING/AUTOMATIC FEEDER/BETTER YOU THAN ME). Quite often, running stacked 15s across the center leads to an abundance of short fill to the exclusion of interesting long fill, but these 15s are judiciously chosen, and there are all sorts of interesting long entries in the rest of the grid: OUT MAGAZINE, I HAVE NO CLUE, KATY JURADO, NO YOU DIDN'T, HIT THE ROOF, PANTOMIMED, etc.

Theft! (Chris Piuma)

The grid for this puzzle has been used for two other indies recently, and Chris decided to steal it and do something new with it. Since the black squares in the grid are all arranged in T shapes, the fill in this puzzle obeys a tricky constraint: there are no T's whatsoever. The clues, on the other hand, have exactly two T's each, though they're so smoothly worded that when I test-solved this puzzle I didn't even notice the constraint. Lovely and subtle work.

Digital Release (Ricky Cruz)

The theme itself is pretty ordinary - the theme entries are phrases (CLAIR DE LUNE, CHAIR WARMER, AU CONTRAIRE, SCIENCE FAIR) where the string AIR has been replaced by CO2. But the grid is presented in a murky grayscale, so that the contents of many of the squares aren't even visible unless you're highlighting the word - simulating the experience of trying to navigate through a thick smog. A brilliant way to exploit the possibilities of the PuzzleMe applet, drawing attention to the disastrous ecological impact of NFTs.

Themeless #10 (Michael)

I think this is the first of Michael's puzzles that I've featured here, though he's been posting for a while and I always enjoy his work. This one was just particularly packed with excellent clues: [What edgeplay might be] for PIG LATIN, [Cook's gadgets] for IDEVICES, [Bong hit?] for PARASITE (not the first time I've seen that one, but still fantastic), and so on. And the central across entry, CAN I GET AN AMEN, is also excellent.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Puzzle #127: Freeform Freestyle 1

 A few constructors (including Andrew Ries and Ryan McCarty) have been publishing asymmetrical themelesses lately, and as it happens, I've been stockpiling some of them for a few months now, so I thought I'd join in on the fun. Today's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is the first in a series of freeform freestyles. Many thanks to Brooke for test-solving!

Monday, March 1, 2021

Puzzle #126: Demi Themeless (with Brooke Husic)

 Back with another challenging collaboration with Brooke Husic (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! Many thanks to Mollie Cowger and Steve Mossberg for the test-solves.

Indie puzzle highlights: February 2021

A short post for a short month! 

February 8: Meta Shed (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

February 17: Freestyle 4.7 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

February 21: Themeless 23 (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

February 21: R2D2-Like (Monday Mini #7) (Quiara Vasquez, QVXWordz)

February 27: themeless vi ("real hot girl shit") (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

February 28: Round and Round (Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, The Hub)









Meta Shed (Brian Thomas)

Technically, this was posted in January, but the solution wasn't posted until February, and I had no hope of solving this meta suite. So I didn't know just how intricate it was until February. I won't lay out the theme(s) here, because it's so multi-layered that it would take too long, but Brian has posted the solution here. Given the conceptual complexity of this one, I'd love to see more meta suites from him!

Freestyle 4.7 (Andrew Ries)

Andrew has ramped up the difficulty of his freestyles recently, which is a welcome change given the recent decrease in difficulty of the Newsday Saturday. As I've mentioned before, he excels at pithy wordplay clues, and there are plenty of great ones in this puzzle: [Yearly collections] for ANNUAL FEES, [Dark rock variety] for DOOM METAL, [Showing character] for REALTOR, [Set amount] for REPS, and [One way to give someone credit] for INSTALLMENT PLAN are highlights. All in all, a satisfyingly hard but still smoothly filled challenge.

Themeless 23 (Paolo Pasco)

ARMPIT FART! SHORT KINGS! HYPE BEASTS! This puzzle just OOZES CHARM. Aside from the fill, it's (of course) full of Paolo's trademark fun, conversational cluing. A delight through and through.

R2D2-Like (Monday Mini #7) (Quiara Vasquez)

A lovely pair of intersecting seeds, MIU MIU and XIU XIU (with a clue referencing their great Twin Peaks cover album), anchor this mini. I also appreciate how, even in a mini with lots of common fill, Quiara always injects a lot of personality into the clues. I've mentioned my anti-mini bias, but Quiara's minis manage to be consistently engaging.

themeless vi ("real hot girl shit")

A relatively (emphasis on the relatively) easy outing from Brooke. But there's still as much creativity and care in the cluing as there is with her uber-hard themelesses. Even the cross-reference clues, which I generally am not a big fan of, feel very purposeful here. In the fill, I particularly like the matrix of interesting long answers IT HAS POCKETS, SHINKANSEN, THE THING IS, and SOUL-CRUSHING.

Round and Round (Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon)

A lovely and eye-catching visual theme, where the grid looks like an eddy/ripple pattern, and all the 9-letter across entries are related to things that go round and round: DERVISHES, CLOCKWISE, PROPELLER, PIROUETTE, CARTWHEEL, ELECTRONS, HURRICANE, MAELSTROM, and TURNSTILE. The 9-letter downs aren't part of the theme, but I did amuse myself thinking about planets as CELESTIAL/MEATBALLS.

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

[ (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 BeyoncΓ©?!] 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)


[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)









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.