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: 🍆🍆🍆🍆🍑🍑🍑🍑 (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.

🍆🍆🍆🍆🍑🍑🍑🍑 (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.

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