Sunday, December 1, 2019

Indie puzzle highlights: November 2019

November 4: 9x9 Mini #2 (Trent H. Evans, Grid Therapy)

I have to admit I hadn't been keeping up with Trent's puzzles until a few days ago - I don't think they're indexed on Crossword Butler, so I'd forgotten he was still updating. So it's entirely possible I've missed some great stuff in the last couple months! Anyway, I went back and solved the puzzles from November, and this mini was my favorite; it manages to fit six lively 9s in a 9x9 grid (BEAST MODE, BABY SHARK, WORE A WIRE, ACAI BERRY, KATE SPADE, and LOOK ALIVE) without putting strain on the short fill - HAW is the only less-than-ideal entry.

November 13: Year 2 Puzzle 46 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

Andrew rarely uses sizes other than 15x15 for his themelesses, but this time we've got a 17x15 grid to fit the marquee clue/answer pair: [Theory of relativity?] cluing LIKE FATHER LIKE SON. Lots of other clever clues in this one, including:

- [Score sheet?] for RUBRIC
- [Storm center] for KEYARENA, where the Seattle Storm play, at least when it's not being renovated
- [Band originally from New York] for ONEIDA
- [Food label advocate, maybe] for ROOMMATE
- [Ended for a while] for LONG GONE
[Lit before] for ERE
- [Theater box?] for NERDS

November 18: Breaking Barriers (Andy Kravis and Anna Gundlach, Outside the Box)

This contest puzzle is a "going too far" puzzle, in which many of the entries have too many letters, with the extra letters being placed in the black (or gray, in this case) squares. And this one's a meta, where the letters in the black squares spell out a question: Whose middle initial stood for "Pay it no mind"? The answer is the barrier-breaking activist Marsha P. Johnson, who literally broke barriers by shattering a cop car's windshield with a brick at Stonewall. (Her last name, incidentally, comes from the Howard Johnson's chain of restaurants, of all places.) A clever use of the "going too far" gimmick, with the topical long answers GAYBORHOOD and TRANSGENDER thrown in for good measure.

November 18: Nautical (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

A beautiful example of a simple theme where there are very few possible theme answers, and they're all in the grid. Chris adds the suffix -naut to phrases to get various countries' words for space explorers; we've got American ASTRONAUT POPS, Russian COSMONAUT KRAMER, and Chinese TAIKONAUT DRUM. Some nice highlights in the fill, too, including IMPRESS ME, SIT STILL, BIG AND TALL, and US VS THEM.

November 23: Freestyle 116 (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

Yep, Chris was on a roll this month. This one's a 23x17 freestyle with tons of lively entries. This is an example of one where your mileage might vary considerably. As Chris's puzzles often do, this one relies heavily on pop cultural names, which could be a trivia slog if you're not on his wavelength. Fortunately, I very much am on his wavelength, so I enjoyed entries like ERASERHEAD, the Jedi HIGH COUNCIL, DANA SCULLY, WILL TOLEDO, CTHULHU, LIL ROMEO, the PHOENIX SUNS, and STEELY DAN. But it's not all proper names: there's good stuff like BANJOLELE, PSEUDOCODE, FLUMMOX, and ERIN GO BRAGH too.

November 26: Year 5 Rows Garden 13 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

As I've said here many times before, Joon always does good work, but this one had the highest proportion of lively fill this month, I think: topical TURKEY DAY, BATTERING RAM, BARE MINIMUM, PRETTIFIES, EGGNOG LATTE, PIECEMEAL, HUNG BY A THREAD... A couple of nice clues in [Green light collector?] for SOLAR PANEL and [Places where people barely get their feet wet?] for NUDE BEACHES, too.

November 27: Untitled (Caleb Madison, The Atlantic)

This little 7x7 themeless has a beautiful 2x2 square of Z's created by the crossing of PALAZZO, LIZZO, JAZZ AGE, and DAZZLE. I find that Caleb sometimes sacrifices short fill quality in these minis for the sake of the long entries, but as with Trent's puzzle above, the short fill's pretty clean here.

And that's it! The themeless-to-themed ratio seems especially high this month, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was always pretty high; I'm pretty picky with themed puzzles, because both the theme and the fill have to impress me, and I solved a lot of puzzles this month where I really liked one but not the other.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Puzzle #109: Crossword of Now

Fair warning: this puzzle (pdf, pdf solution) is extremely inside-baseball. (Also, because the theme type is one that causes problems with Across Lite, there's no puz file, but as always you can solve it in the applet below.) Enjoy!

Friday, November 1, 2019

Indie puzzle highlights: October 2019

Heads up: there will be spoilers for some Queer Qrosswords 2 puzzles in this post, so if you haven't solved them yet, be warned! (There will, of course, also be spoilers for all sorts of other puzzles, as usual.)

October 2: Year 2 Puzzle 40 (Caitlin Reid, Aries Freestyle)

Aries Freestyle brings us a guest puzzle by Caitlin Reid, very much in the Andrew Ries mode, with clever cluing ([Disappearing ink?] for FAKE TATTOOS and [Coat of arms?] for LONG SLEEVES, which could appropriately also be tattoo-related) and fresh fill (LIKE LIKE, TAKE A HIKE, SWOLE, CORKER). But what really sets this grid apart is the squeaky clean fill - there's nary an even mildly objectionable entry in the entire grid, which is quite a feat.

October 8: Year 5 Rows Garden 6 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

Like many of Joon's Rows Gardens, this one's anchored by a nice clue/answer combo in the first row: SQUIRT GUN clued as [Water heater?], which is one of my favorite clues in a long while. As usual, there's plenty of fun fill in the rest of the grid, including SILHOUETTE, CORD-CUTTER, CANTALOUPES, and PUNCHING BAG.

October 11: Ride Sharing (Claire Rimkus and Andrew Kingsley, Queer Qrosswords 2)

Queer Qrosswords 2 was, unsurprisingly, a generally excellent set of crosswords, and there are probably a dozen puzzles that I was considering including in the write-up. But I managed to limit myself to three. This first one has quite an elegant theme inspired by Autostraddle; in the grid, the five-letter names of autos straddle two entries, with the first two letters taken from the end of one entry and the last two letters taken from the beginning of the next entry, with the third letter connecting them on the row above. So for instance, ACURA uses the AC of PAC and the RA of RACHEL MADDOW, connected by a U in the row above. An elegant touches: all the theme entries are all given clues with queer resonance (aside from the two mentioned already, we've got ORLANDO and GENDERS connecting DODGE, NANETTE and LAVERNE connecting TESLA, and AUTOSTRADDLE and USA connecting LEXUS). And the fact that the revealer, AUTOSTRADDLE, is itself part of the theme is especially elegant.

October 11: LGBTQIA+ (Zach D'Angelo and Christopher Adams, Queer Qrosswords 2)

Another theme concept elevated by an extra layer of elegance. In this case, the letters L, G, B, T, Q, I, and A are added to phrases with wacky results, but impressively all the theme entries have queer resonance, much like with Ride Sharing. The results are sometimes awkward but always delightfully weird: we've got MALE GLAZE, WEB GHOSTING, COMPUTER STIMULATION, SEX QED CLASSES, AGE DEIFYING, and GAGA ORDER. In the bonus fill department, there's OH NO SHE DIDN'T, the GOLDEN GLOBES, GQ STYLE, and BEEFARONI; the only bit of fill that really made me wince was the plural EEKS.

October 11: 100% That Stitch (Rachel Fabi and Finn Vigeland, Queer Qrosswords 2)

We've got a pattern here - apparently all my favorite QQ puzzles were collaborations (I also quite liked the themeless by Jenna LaFleur and Andy Kravis). This one's a trivia-based theme, but an interesting and impressively theme-dense one. It's about the sewing circle, a name for a group of lesbian and bisexual actresses from Hollywood's golden age; the grid's got Barbara STANWYCK, Joan CRAWFORD, Katharine HEPBURN, Greta GARBO, Marlene DIETRICH, Tallulah BANKHEAD, and Alla NAZIMOVA (much more obscure than the others, but she's the coiner of the term "sewing circle"). On top of that, we have both SEWING/CIRCLE as a revealer and a visual representation of the sewing circle with the six letters of the word SEWING arranged in a circle in the center of the grid. A lot going on!

October 17: Cryptic 19 (Andrew Ries, Aries Puzzles)

What really impressed me about this cryptic is the number of clues with really smooth surface sense. For example:

- [Left a musical group, admitting "I'm finished"] for ABANDONED
- [Shortage in matches leads to times of darkness] for BLACKOUTS
- [Drug laws in English] for CODEINE
- [Devastating U.S. Open defeats] for ONE-UPS
- [Protest's goal] for OBJECT

October 18: Freestyle 459 (Tim Croce, club72)

All sorts of good stuff in this grid, including SLIDE IT OVER, WELTSCHMERZ, I'LL SHUT UP, MMR VACCINE (a good reminder to get your flu shot if you haven't already!), and NOT DEAD YET. Also a couple of my favorite clues from Tim in a while: [It doesn't change when it's fixed] for RATE and [Voice that sounds like money?] for TENOR.

October 21: Some Assembly Required (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

Yep, another Joon puzzle on the list. The Some Assembly Required format lets the constructor include some extra-long entries, since they snake around the grid. PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE is the highlight here, joined by ATHLEISURE, GOLDEN OLDIE, UNAMERICAN, STYLE ICON, and LET'S ROCK.

October 24: Themeless (Sid Sivakumar, Sid's Grids)

A super-sized 21x21 themeless from Sid, featuring some brutal cluing and some fun long fill (SHAM MARRIAGES, OPEN MIC NIGHTS, RIB SPREADER, LOOSE TOOTH, PEEPING TOM). I solved it downs-only so I missed the across clues, but I'm told PRIMES was beautifully clued as [Odd bunch, with one exception]. Minor ding for duplicating MIC in OPEN MIC NIGHTS and HOT MIC, but otherwise a really smooth puzzle.

October 28: Themeless 4 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

I liked the cluing in this one especially. We've got [Cuban home] for DELI (not CASA, though I fell into that trap), [Shout that stops the action?] for SAFE WORD, and [Bit of online validation] for E-SIGNATURE. (Despite my disdain for E-MAG, I'm not one of those folks who hates seeing any e-prefixed word in the grid; E-SIGNATURE is perfectly cromulent.) I also enjoyed learning that "ghost fart" was Brian's childhood name for a FOAM PEANUT, and seeing MENA clued as Mena Massoud, who played Aladdin in the 2019 film, instead of crossword staple Mena Suvari.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Puzzle #108: Freestyle 9

Inspired by Sid Sivakumar's recent 21x21 themeless toughie (itself inspired by an earlier Erik Agard doozie), I've whipped up a Sunday-sized themeless challenge (pdf, puz, pdf solution). It's a toughie too, though I suspect a bit easier than Sid and Erik's. And like Sid, I've provided a downs-only version (pdf, puz) for people who want an extra challenge.

In other puzzly news, Matt Jackson, who you may know from his stellar run on Jeopardy!, and who I know because I've lost to him many times at Quizbowl, has a new website where he'll be posting puzzles. Check it out!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Puzzle #107: Freestyle 8

New freestyle for y'all this week (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Normally with a triple-stacked grid like this one, I'd have the stacked 15s running horizontally... but most of my favorite clues are down clues, so I've flipped the grid in case there are any downs-only solvers out there.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Indie puzzle highlights: September 2019

We've got a lot of great puzzles to cover this month, starting with a throwback to August, because the at-home solving deadline for Lollapuzzoola was in September, so I didn't want to spoil the puzzles before then. Appropriate, since the theme for this year's Lollapuzzoola was time travel!

August 17: Saving Face (Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson, Lollapuzzoola)

This one had a tricky theme which is a little hard to describe: the words WATCH, SUNDIAL, and CLOCK need to be squeezed in between columns of the grid in order to GATHER THE PIECES and COMPLETE THE TIMELINE; making things even trickier, the letters in those words have to be removed from some of the clues in order for them to make sense. A really hard puzzle with a satisfying aha, though I definitely don't envy the solvers in the downs-only division.

August 17: Tense Situation (C. C. Burnikel, Lollapuzzoola)

This is a C. C. joint, so it's unsurprisingly much easier than Saving Face, and unsurprisingly really well constructed. The theme involves changing the tense of verbs and reinterpreting them, with wacky results: TURKEY SHOT, STAGE DOVE, NANCY DRAW, LIE LADY LIE, GOOGLE DROVE, and LOSING GRIND. The theme layout is intricate, with intersecting themers, but C. C. still managed to fit in the nice long down entries STONE COLD and BYZANTINE.

On to September!

September 2: Silent Night (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

Ross represents the phrase LOST SLEEP with three theme entries with silent Z's: LAISSEZ-FAIRE, RENDEZVOUS POINT, and SZECHUAN LAMB. A simple but elegant theme, leaving room for lots of fun fill like TEARS OF JOY, BEAST MODE, BJORK, JDATE, CHALKY, and DR. CLAW.

September 2: On the Clock (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

This one's got an aesthetically beautiful, minimalist grid pattern: an 8x17 rectangle where the only black squares are four L shapes near the center. It's nearly themeless, but also has a simple yet elegant theme, progressing from LABOR DAY to WORK WEEK to MAN MONTH.

September 4: Year 2 Puzzle 36 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

Usually the real attraction for me in Andrew's themelesses is the cluing, and there are some great clues in this one, including [They treat people badly] for QUACKS and [Gala producer] for APPLE TREE. But the fun long fill, including DOG SWEATER, UNDERBELLY, MEAT MARKET, and COAT POCKET, is what made this my favorite Aries Freestyle of the month.

September 5: JKL M 'n' O (Jesse Lansner & Ken Stern, ft. Laura Braunstein, JKL Crosswords)

Honestly, this one could have made my list just based on the title alone. But it's also a great encapsulation of the indie spirit: check out the story behind the theme on Jesse's site. The theme involves the sound MO being added to phrases: CONSUMMATE PROMO, VENMO DIAGRAM, COMO PARENTING, CHEWING GUMMO, and EMO PLURIBUS UNUM (that last one's a little nonsensical, but wacky enough that I'll give it a pass). In the fill, I really liked MCELROY, LACROIX, Youssou N'DOUR, and PLONK.

September 6: Untitled (Caleb Madison, The Atlantic)

Caleb manages to pack a ton of good stuff into this 9x9 themeless, including JOJO SIWA, KINKAJOUS, SKELETOR, SHARK WEEK, and KILLJOY.

September 8: Themeless 1 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

Brian gets off to a good start with the first puzzle on his new site. There are two clues that I absolutely loved: [Draft dodgers?] for TEETOTALERS, and the devious [Make a comic book?] for BOO OFF STAGE. Loved seeing GWEN STEFANI's full name in the grid, too.

September 17: Themeless 45 (Stella Zawistowski and Andy Kravis, Cruciverbalist at Law)

A surprise offering on Andy's site, which hadn't updated in a very long time. If you didn't know that Stella is into fashion, you might be able to guess from GLAMAZON, BALL GOWN, and VERA WANG; she also works her classical music fandom into the grid with OPERA BOX. A smooth themeless that really shows off the personality of the constructors, with bonus fill like DON'T I KNOW YOU, BLAH BLAH BLAH, BUY A VOWEL, and AMY MARCH.

September 19: Wait for It (Sid Sivakumar, Sid's Grids)

Sid's been a prolific poster so far, and there are several of his puzzles I could have chosen. Many of theme are bite-sized mini or midis, though, and this one's larger, allowing the fill to shine more. The theme visualizes THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM by having four storms (DERECHO, TYPHOON, CYCLONE, and TORNADO) preceded by blank spaces; the highlights from the fill include ZODIAC, REAL MCCOY, ZIPLOC, and GHOST FOREST (a term I didn't know, but an extremely inferrable one). Plus, a delightfully specific clue for ONE: [Average number of times a sloth poops per week].

September 23: Vwllss Crsswrd (Peter Broda, Outside the Box)

Much like Rows Gardens, but even more so, vowelless crosswords offer the opportunity for a grid that's full of long, colorful phrases and free of short crosswordese. Case in point: LET ME DO THE TALKING, IT'S ALL COMING BACK TO ME NOW, CHILDLIKE WONDER, SURGICAL PRECISION, PIGEON DROPPINGS, TASTEFUL NUDES, KILLER CLOWN, ARMCHAIR GENERALS, CROOKED COP, and RECORD SCRATCH are just some of the delightful entries in this offering from Peter, who's also got a collection of vowelless crosswords you can buy here.

September 24: [untitled goose crossword] (Paolo Pasco)

Another memetic crossword that Paolo just dropped on Twitter, this one's inspired by Untitled Goose Game, a video game in which you play as a goose whose mission is to annoy people. I haven't played the game, since I live in Canada and I can experience goose annoyance in real life just by going for a walk, but you don't have to have played it to appreciate the theme, which involves the word HONK, reparsed as H ON K, in various squares. The affected across answers have two clues, one for H and one for K - for example, one of the entries is either SHIMMER or SKIMMER. The affected down entries have the string HK in them - for example, the H/K in SHIMMER/SKIMMER crosses OSHKOSH.

September 26: Puzzle No. 3511 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

Clever gimmick to this cryptic; fourteen of the answers in the grid are IRONCLAD, meaning that you have to surround them with FE before entering them for the wordplay portion of the clue to make sense. For instance, [Wild, wild rice] clues FIERCE, though the [wild rice] portion of the clue indicates just IERC. Similarly, [Rip off HarperCollins' chief] clues FLEECE, because LEEC is Harper LEE plus the first letter of Collins.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Puzzle #106: Back in Black

I promise one of these days I'll post another full-size puzzle, but in the meantime here's a mini (pdf, puz, pdf solution) to tide you over.

In other news, two new puzzle sites popped up this week: Sid Sivakumar created Sid's Grids and has already posted 5(!) puzzles in 5 days, and Brian Thomas created Puzzles That Need a Home, where he's posted a really fun themeless. Check them out!