Friday, October 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: September 2021

It's been a particularly excellent month for indies, it seems, and the main reason that the list isn't particularly long is that I've had a very hectic week! Rest assured that if your puzzle doesn't appear on the list, it doesn't mean that I didn't love it (true every month, in fact, but especially true this month.)

September 3: Themeless (Erik Agard and Brooke Husic, Just Gridding)

September 4: You Are Reading This Puzzle's Title (Franci Dimitrovska, cross worms)

September 8: True Colors (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

September 13: This May Get Ugly (Themeless) (C. L. Rimkus, Just Gridding)

September 15: CONTROVERSY at the NEW YORK TIMES (Chris Piuma, Norah's Puzzles)

September 21: Phistomefel Ring (Christopher Adams feat. Ricky Cruz)

September 27: themeless xiv ("real hot girl shit" (reprise)) (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

September 27: What Are You Waiting For? (Themeless) (Ada Nicolle, luckystreak+)









Themeless (Erik Agard and Brooke Husic)

As you'd expect from the byline, a stunningly gridded and clued puzzle. The corners are very chunky but the fill doesn't suffer for it, and there's an incredible density of subtly great clues: [Present at a video conference?] for ONLINE, [Fantasy roster?] for MONSTERS, [Part of a low-stakes game?] for HORSESHOE, [Less money up front?] for ECONO, [Point taken?] for DEMERIT, etc. It's a perfect example of something that both Brooke and Erik excel at, which is making a themeless interesting not (purely) via flashy fill, but with well-thought-out cluing for even not obviously inspiring entries like ECONO.

You Are Reading This Puzzle's Title (Franci Dimitrovska)

Franci breaks in her brand-new blog with a hilarious puzzle. The revealer is 4TH WALL BREAKER, clued as [Violator of typical theatrical convention, or the next in a sequence hinted by 20, 34, and 42-Across]. Those across entries are SULTAN MEHMED II (the conqueror who broke through the walls of Constantine), the KOOL-AID MAN (who advertising mascot who smashes through walls), and Gunter SCHABOWSKI (the politician who accidentally declared the Berlin Wall open too early during a press conference). So the next entry in the sequence would indeed be a fourth wall-breaker. It's a really funny theme with a delightful variety of theme answers, and the revealer is a clever nod to the fact that revealers often break the fourth wall, in a way, by explicitly referring to the fact that they're part of a crossword. There's plenty of fun stuff in the fill, too, including LASER SHOW, GNOMEO and Juliet, BROSTEP, and a LIME TWIST.

True Colors (Brian Thomas)

Intriguingly, the applet version of this puzzle is available in both Dark Mode and Light Mode. Given that, plus the title, I should have cottoned onto the theme, but I didn't get it until the solve was done. The puzzle is inspired by THE DRESS, that viral image that some people saw as black and blue, and some people saw as white and gold. Naturally, the central theme entry is a Schrodinger, which can be either BLACK AND BLUE or WHITE AND GOLD. (Aptly, I happened to solve the Light Mode version, and I'm on team #whiteandgold, but ironically I ended up with BLACK AND BLUE in the grid.) Schrodinger themes are never easy to pull off, and this one's got an awful lot of Schrodinger squares, but Brian does an excellent job of it; I especially love [Eastern ___] for BLOC/BLOT and [They shouldn't be making high pitched squeals] for AUTOS/ALTOS.

This May Get Ugly (Themeless) (C. L. Rimkus)

This 16x14 themeless is anchored by six spanners, of lengths that you don't usually see, thanks to the slightly unusual size. All the spanners are good, and most of them are spiced up by excellent clues: [Long-running cable features?] for EXTENSION CORDS, [Equipment that measures different strokes for different folks] for ROWING MACHINES, [It's really shitty work] for DIAPER CHANGING, etc. Both architecturally impressive and fun!


The title of this themeless refers to the delightful central spanner, BADONKADONKGATE, clued as [Ongoing controversy that Sam Ezersky could resolve today by adding one very legitimate word to the NYT Spelling Bee word list]. But what really makes this puzzle stand out is Chris's conversational cluing voice, which is one of the most recognizable in the game. The most specifically Piumian clue here is [Usually I get this plain or with garlic, but I recently had it with sesame, and it was kinda brilliant?] for NAAN, but others include [Feel like a sicky poo] for AIL, [Make Muffles less itchy] for DEFLEA, [Charming town in Newfoundland and/or sex toy] for DILDO, [Does a little of this, a little of that...] for DABBLES, [NSFW clam] for GEODUCK, and [Award for the best British person pretending to be a British person] for BAFTA.

Phistomefel Ring (Christopher Adams feat. Ricky Cruz)

It's so rare to see a crossword concept that's 100% original, but I think this one qualifies. The title refers to an advanced Sudoku strategy: in a Sudoku grid, the 2x2 chunks in the four corners collectively contain the same set of numbers as the middle ring of 16 squares. In this crossword analogue, the middle ring is highlighted, and the entries that contain some of those corner squares are left unclued. So you have to use the Phistomefel ring to figure out what letters go in the corners, armed with the knowledge that all the unclued entries are ordinary, uncapitalized English words. An ingenious crossword/Sudoku blend, and really satisfying to solve.

themeless xiv ("real hot girl shit" (reprise)) (Brooke Husic)

Brooke celebrates her blog's first birthday with one of my favorites of her grids so far. Just chock full of interesting/fun stuff, including THEY SAID YES, PREHAB, YARNBOMB, SAMOSA CHAAT, and the central seed, the absolutely zany-looking BODY-ODY-ODY-ODY. The cluing is great as usual; [Mutual love] for ZERO-ZERO is one of my favorite clues of the year.

what are you waiting for? (themeless) (Ada Nicolle)

A 25x25 themeless sounds like a slog, but it's a tribute to Ada's skill that this one is fun throughout. It's anchored by a stagger-stack of GENDER-NEUTRAL PRONOUN, YOU MUST BE FUN AT PARTIES, and NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT, but there are highlights in every section of the grid, including NO SKIP, STARDEW VALLEY, SNAPSTERPIECE, and PROTOGALAXY. But the key to making a puzzle this huge consistently fun is to put care into the clues for the short fill, too, which Ada always does; my favorites include [BBC and chill, say] for SNOG and [There's a lot to unpack here!] for U-HAUL.

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