Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: June 2020

June 1: 6/1 (Rachel Fabi, USA Today)

A meta from the USA Today! That's a first, I think. And it's a doozy: the grid contains six of the Seven Dwarfs (all except for Happy) and six of the seven deadly sins (all except for pride). So the secret message is HAPPY PRIDE, an appropriate start to Pride Month. It's quite remarkable that Rachel fit twelve theme entries into the grid without any strain on the fill. And the title's perfect too, doing double duty as the date of the first day of Pride Month and a hint to the meta mechanism.

June 2: Themeless (Matthew Stock)

At the beginning of the month, Paolo Pasco offered a bonus 17x themeless to anyone who contributed to a BLM donation drive, and several other constructors chipped in puzzles. One of those puzzles was a 15x Matthew Stock themeless chock full of lively answers: WAKANDA FOREVER, AND THAT'S NOT ALL, CANDYGRAM, RECAPTCHA, RAVE REVIEW, KLAXONS, CORNDOGS, and ROCK ON. A lot of great stuff for a 15x grid, and the grid pattern itself is very aesthetically pleasing, with all of the black squares arranged in L-shaped blocks.

June 4: Untitled (Christopher Adams)

This puzzle, which Christopher posted to Twitter, is definitely my favorite puzzle of the month, and it's only a 5x3 grid! One of those perfect minimalist concepts that can really only be done in one way, and it just so happens that it can be done using legit crossword entries.

June 5: Breakfast (Brooke Husic, USA Today)

To awkwardly paraphrase Tolstoy, bad crosswords can be bad in many different ways, but good crosswords are mostly pretty similar: tight themes, fresh fill, func luing. So I find myself writing similar stuff over and over again in these writeups, and it's rare for a puzzle to impress me in a unique way. But this puzzle is a game-changer. It's a simple enough theme (the word FAST is "broken" in the entries FALL HARVEST, FLABBERGAST, FAMILY CREST, and FRENCH TOAST), but Brooke gives it a twist by using diagonal symmetry instead of the standard rotational symmetry. Brooke's surely not the first person to use diagonal symmetry, but this is a real coup; in a theme like this, where a word is split across the beginning and end of the theme entries, diagonal symmetry is a perfect fit, because you often have letters (like the A's in FLABBERGAST and FRENCH TOAST) that are in the same position in different theme entries, so they can intersect in intricate ways. A beautiful pairing of form and content, and I hope to see more diagonal innovation from Brooke and others in the future. (Also, I'd be remiss not to mention the fun long fill, including LAST CALL, SCI-FI MOVIE, BACHATA, and CATHOLIC.)

June 16: Year 5 Rows Garden 41 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

A real rarity: a themed Rows Garden. June 16 is Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses takes place, so to celebrate Joon puts the names of four flowers (DAHLIA, AZALEA, ZINNIA, VIOLET) in the bloom entries. Fitting those four entries plus BLOOMSDAY in the grid is a daunting task (there's a reason Rows Gardens are so rarely themed), but Joon pulls it off cleanly.

June 20: Both Sides Now (Christopher Adams, George Barany, and Noam Elkies)

This puzzle was originally going to run in the sorely missed Chronicle of Higher Education, but Chris has put it up on his blog instead. It's yet another diagonally symmetric puzzle, this time necessitated by the theme! There are four squares in the grid which can be filled with either PRO or CON and still fit both the across and down clues, for a total of eight pairs of PRO/CON entries. For example, the clue [They often go by (and are enjoyed by people in) stands] can clue either PROCESSIONS or CONCESSIONS. We've also got PRO/CONGRESS, PRO/CONTESTS, PRO/CONVOCATION, PRO/CONFESS, PRO/CONTRACTED, PRO/CONDUCTIVE, and PRO/CONFITS. A truly complex marvel of construction.

June 21: Themeless (Erik Agard, Brain Candy)

Erik brings a guest themeless on Amanda Rafkin's site, Brain Candy. It's typical Agardian goodness; he's been highlighting Native American vocabulary a lot recently, and this puzzle's got ANISHINAABE in its central stagger-stack. Other great stuff includes KUMQUATS, LAVERNE COX, MICROINFLUENCER, QUALMS, SEPHORA, and HEADBANG.

June 24: Themeless Sixteen (Adam Nicolle, luckystreak xwords)

Right at 1-Across, Adam won over my Canadian heart with JAGMEET Singh, recently in the news because he was kicked out of Parliament for calling out an MP's racism. Adam makes good use of the long slots, featuring fresh entries like chicken TENDIES HE DON'T MISS and SIDE HUSTLE. There's an excellent clue for BANNER ADS, too: [Top spots, often?].

June 28: Recess! (Paolo Pasco and Ria Dhull, Grids These Days)

A delightful theme inspired by TOM NOOK from the Animal Crossing games. It's a rebus puzzle, with the word TOM appearing four times in its own little nook, connected to the rest of the grid only by the entry in which it appears (TOMFOOLERY, TOMATILLOS, FOLK CUSTOM, and ROCK BOTTOM). Some complicated intersections going on in the theme design, but Paolo still finds room for bonus fill like JUNETEENTH and PERMAFROST, clued as [Cause of cold feet?]. Paolo's girlfriend Ria collaborated on the clues, and I don't know who did what clues, but they're uniformly excellent; highlights include [Redding known for blues-ing] for OTIS and [Nanotechnology?] for IPOD.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Puzzle #120: Freestyle 10 (with Brooke Husic)

First up: I'm very excited to present a new puzzle suite: Escape the Grid. It's an escape room in the form of a puzzle suite, it's a whole lotta fun, and the price is pay what you want!

I'm also excited to present this themeless (pdf, puz, pdf solution) collaboration with Brooke Husic. Brooke reached out to me recently to collaborate on a themeless for submission, and we had so much fun that we made another one! Brooke has been experimenting with diagonal-symmetry grids recently (spoiler alert: you'll see at least one of them in my roundup of my favorite puzzles from this month), and I've been wanting to construct one, so that's what we did. Brooke writes:

Working with Will was the best; it felt like we were on the same wavelength throughout the entire creation process. I'm honored that he's featuring our collaboration on his site and so thrilled to share it with all of you.

Right back at ya!

Monday, June 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: May 2020

First order of business: If you send Erik Agard a screenshot of your donation to One Struggle KC, he'll send you some unreleased crosswords. I just donated, so I haven't solved the puzzles yet, but they're by Erik so they're probably pretty good.

May 1: The Five W's (Brooke Husic, USA Today)

This is simply one of the most perfect theme sets I've ever seen: FIRST WATCH, SECOND WIND, THIRD WAVE, FOURTH WALL, FIFTH WHEEL. Five ordinal numbers (in order in the grid), five words that start with W, and five fun, in-the-language phrases. All that, plus a perfect title.

May 3: Untitled (Adam Nicolle, The Atlantic)

One of those themes where the theme entries have seemingly nothing in common, until all is revealed by, well, the revealer. Our themers are YO ADRIAN, DELAY PEDAL, and HE WHO MUST/NOT BE NAMED. What's the connection? As the revealer, YODELING, tells us, if you string together the beginnings of the theme entries, you get the sound of a yodel: "Yodelay-hee-hoo!" A hilarious aha moment.

May 11: Themeless Fourteen (Adam Nicolle and Sid Sivakumar, luckystreak xwords)

Of course, when Grimes and Elon Musk announced the name of their child, someone had to put Æ A-12 MUSK in a puzzle, and Adam and Sid did just that. Lots of fun clues in the rest of the puzzle, including [Floor reps?] for KEGELS, [It might be found under the Christmas tree] for PINE SAP, [SO sobriquet] for PET NAME, and [We had '99 problems but this glitch ain't one] for Y2K.

May 13: Power Up! (Steve Mossberg, Square Pursuit)

An inventive Mario Kart-related theme: the power-ups from the game are represented by question marks going across (since they come in question-marked boxes in the game), and the names of the items going down. So, for example, HOW'S THE FAM? crosses ROCK STAR at the "?" and "STAR." Similarly, WHATCHA GOT? crosses FLOWER STEM at the "FLOWER," and ¿COMO ESTA USTED? does double duty, crossing BITCOIN at the "COIN" and MUSHROOM TEA at the "MUSHROOM." The potential issue with this theme is that the crossings are essentially entire unchecked words, and if (like me) you haven't played a lot of Mario Kart, you might not know all the power-up items. But Steve's cluing ensures that all the theme entries are easily gettable, and the intricate gridwork allows for the inclusion of MARIO and YOSHI in the grid despite the other themers taking up a ton of real estate.

May 18: Themeless 19 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

This themeless is anchored by the colorful stagger-stack of TOILET SEATS, FLEXITARIAN, and LAUGHING GAS, crossed by the topical MOUNT ST HELENS, but it really shines in the midlength fill, which includes 'MURICA, WHO DAT, WENT POOF, UPTIGHT, HAIKU, COBWEB, BODY ART, and E-BIKES, all included without any significant compromises in the fill.

May 20: Themeless (Sid Sivakumar, Sid's Grids)

Sid's quickly become one of my very favorite constructors, and this themeless is unsurprisingly filled with sparkling stuff, including QUARANTINE BEARD, TALK DIRTY clued as [Turn on with one's voice], PUB TRIVIA clued as [Rounds over rounds?], DROP A BEAT, INNER NERD, and Futurama's HYPNOTOAD.

May 22: Themeless (Matthew Stock, Happy Little Puzzles)

If you haven't noticed from my previous writeups: yeah, I'm pretty biased towards themelesses. But there were a lot of great ones this month; this one's a bit different from the others I've highlighted, in that it's not quite as heavy on colorful entries, but the grid pattern is a challenging tour-de-force, with stacks of 10s and 8s intersecting in the NW and SE corners. Nonetheless, the fill is impressively clean, with highlights like IS THAT A THING, UNCRUSTABLES, and FANCASTS, plus the clever clue [Film class?] for GENRE.

May 24: Split Screen (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

An unusual grid pattern, with five 3x3 squares that are completely isolated from the rest of the grid. But fear not: the theme entries symbolically connect them to the rest of the grid by cutting through the bottom wall of the 3x3 squares. The theme entries (LIZ LEMON, WAYNE CAMPBELL, BUGS BUNNY, FERRIS BUELLER, and DEADPOOL) are all screen characters who break the fourth wall, which is why the break the walls of those mini-squares. A clever idea, and difficult to execute, forcing a lot of wide-open spaces in the grid, but Ross pulls it off very nicely.

May 24: Cozy Up (Amanda Rafkin, Brain Candy)

Amanda mostly posts minis and midis, and I generally find it hard to get super-excited about those, but she has posted a couple of full-size puzzles, including this excellent and uplifting one. A tight theme set (SNUG AS A BUG IN A RUG, HAPPY AS A CLAM, and LIKE A PIG IN SLOP), with the perfect revealer, CREATURE COMFORTS. The arrangement of the theme entries makes the grid pattern quite difficult to fill - for example, it's got two 10s (the very nice VISUAL PUNS and UPSET ABOUT) that intersect three themers - but it's executed very well.

May 27: wordsearch (Ricky Cruz, via Twitter)

OK, it's not a crossword, but it's by a crossword constructor, and it's too delightful not to include. I really don't want to spoil it here (and it can in fact be spoiled - despite the basic gimmick being easy to see, there is one answer that adds an extra surprise), so if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

May 28: Out of Left Field #9 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field)

It's common for Joshua and Henri to include clues that cross-reference each other, but this puzzle has a particularly impressive pair: two 14-letter entries that are anagrams of each other (INSTANT MESSAGE and SEAT ASSIGNMENT). Other great stuff:

- [Like some entertainment, like some symphonies, and like some operas]: IN-FLIGHT
- [Joe sounds a little sick?]: COFFEE
- [Better greeting: "Into leather? Kinky!"]: HEALTHIER
- [People soon getting high]: INHABIT

Monday, May 25, 2020

Monday, May 18, 2020

Puzzle #118: Disobedience

I don't often post midi-sized puzzles, but I do have a lot of midi-sized puzzle ideas lying around, and they seem to be all the rage these days. So here's one to tide you over until the next full-sized puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution)!

Friday, May 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: April 2020

Perhaps not as great as March, but another great month!

April 4: Join the Navy (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

I'm immediately won over by the fact that the title is a Simpsons reference, but the puzzle itself is fantastic too. The revealer is BACKMASKING, with the theme entries hiding Satanic terms backwards, just like that devilish rock and roll music does. So PIANO SONATAS hides a reversed SATAN, NANOMEDICINE hides a reversed DEMON, and ANNE HEGERTY hides a reversed GEHENNA, which is an amazing find. Lots of spice in the fill, too, including FRENEMY, EUROBEAT, CLOWN CAR, KNUCKLE, VAPORIZED, ZINNIA, and DAMAGED (clued as [Tattoo on the forehead of Jared Leto's Joker]).

April 8: Themeless 9 (Stella Zawistowski, Tough As Nails)

Really smooth work from Stella in this themeless, whose highlight is the stack of CHEONGSAM, BOX CAMERA, and SOPHISTRY. We've also got the topical ZOOM BOMBING, and fun clues for SHAKESPEARE ([Source of many an epic burn]) and FANNY PACK ([What Gucci calls a "belt bag" and wants $1290 for, LOL]).

April 10: Themeless (Brooke Husic, Sid's Grids)

I'm a sucker for a themeless with a weird, striking grid pattern, and this puzzle has what Brooke accurately calls a "quirky Celtic knot-esque grid." The layout means that aside from the four intersecting 15s, most of the fill is short for a themeless. But the 15s (PERSONALITY TEST, THE CHOCOLATE WAR, CHRISTMAS MARKET, and UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS) are fun, and there's some fresh stuff in the short fill too, including ENBY, ASMR, and XOXO.

April 11: Changing Places (Tom McCoy)

Incredibly niche, but a puzzle that's basically designed precisely for me. The gimmick is that the answers are written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, with one phoneme per square, which must have been incredibly hard to construct. The instructions tell you that the theme answers are puns created by a particular phonological process; from the title, I assumed that process would be metathesis, in which two sounds switch places, but it's considerably more elegant than that. Instead, they're formed by nasal place assimilation, in which a nasal consonant (like m or n) at the end of a syllable adopts the place of articulation (where in the mouth it's pronounced) of the first sound of the next syllable. So we have ROAMING GOD (where the n becomes a ng), SCREAM PLAY, DOOM BUGGIES, and PING CUSHION. The theme, in other words, is a simple letter-change theme - but only if the entries are written in the IPA! A truly ingenious use of a gimmick.

April 12: Themeless (Amanda Rafkin, Rossword Puzzles)

Another guest themeless I really liked. Chock full of modern stuff like BODY POSITIVITY, WON THE INTERNET, and TXT SLANG, and the NOSEDIVE/TAILSPIN pairing is very nice. A few excellent clues, too, including [Invasive plant?] for ENEMY SPY and [One dealing with a lot of bull] for TOREADOR.

April 14: Year 7 Puzzle 15 (Andrew Ries, Aries Rows Gardens)

I think this is the first Aries Rows Garden I've featured - his RGs are consistently good, but it's hard to compete with Joon. This one's just jam-packed with fun row entries, though - the highlights are THINGAMAJIG, TENNIS SHOES, POODLE SKIRT, STRAPLESS BRA, CAR TROUBLE, STARTER KIT, TEAM PICTURE, and UMBRELLA STAND.

April 14: On Your Marks (Sid Sivakumar, Sid's Grids)

Sid's Grids was popping this month, and there are probably like half a dozen puzzles from the site that I could have included - he's both prolific and consistently impressive. Don't want it to get to his head, though, you know? So I'll limit myself to Brooke's themeless and this one. The theme is about VIBE CHECKs, with synonyms for "vibe" (MOOD, FEELING, and ATMOSPHERE) forming checkmark shapes in the grid. Having made puzzles with similar themes before, I know how hard they are to pull off, since all the theme letters appear in three different words, not just two. Sid does it cleanly, though, and even sneaks in some colorful bonus fill, like MOUSSAKA, GOD YES, and COCOA PUFF.

April 16: Snakeheads/Belted Up (Erik Agard and Aaron Shoemaker, USA Today)

The USA Today crosswords under Erik's editorship are predictable (in a good way) - it's generally going to be a very basic theme type, with squeaky clean fill and easy cluing. But I appreciate that there's the occasional puzzle with a wrinkle, like a slightly out-there theme or an unusual grid pattern. This one's unusual in that, as the title suggests, the theme works in two different ways. The theme entries (GREEN ACRES, CORN TORTILLA, GARTER STITCH, BLACK POWER) all start with words that can precede "snake" - but those words can also all predece "belt," so they do double duty. Not sure I've ever seen anything quite like it before.

April 25: Sub Division (Evan Kalish, USA Today)

On the other hand, this puzzle is completely standard. The theme involves phrases with HERO hidden in them: USHER OUT, RAISE THE ROOF, MOTHER OF PEARL, BEACH EROSION, and EITHER/OR. This one stands out because of the eight-letter theme entries which partially overlap the 12s, when the three longer theme entries would've been plenty, and also because the extra theme entries don't compromise the fill at all. In fact, there are lots of solid mid-length entries, including UNFURL, CURATOR, WASHED UP, TRAFFIC, and SHTETL, as well as Rihanna's nickname RIH, which I see in puzzles very rarely, though RIRI seems to be relatively common.

April 29: Year 3 Puzzle 17 (Andy Kravis, Aries Puzzles)

Yet another guest themeless! To this one, all I can say is CHEF'S KISS. Among the fill, I'm a fan of AQUEMINI, KAREN O, STUNT KITE, and INDOOR CAT clued as [Domestic flight risk?]. But I'm most impressed by the fresh clues for staple bits of short fill, including SIS, NED, ESS, and AFRO.

April 30: Out of Left Field #5 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field)

They're no longer at The Nation, but their work is as good as ever. Favorite clues:

- [Old film is strangely semi-violent] for SILENT MOVIE
- [Glass rim with Greek letter in front] for PHILIP
- [Spangle beginning to scare bobtail horse] for SEQUIN
- [Schmear spread out a bit at a time!] for SCHMEAR
- [German city renowned for its iron and tin, by the sound of it?] for ESSEN
- [Northern California: place for West Coast rapper] for TUPAC

Monday, April 27, 2020

Puzzle #117: Picture Books (with Sara Sligar)

I'm very excited to present a collaboration (pdf, puz, pdf solution) with the up-and-coming constructor Sara Sligar. Sara, as it happens, is also an up-and-coming author, whose debut novel, Take Me Apart, drops tomorrow. It's gotten a lot of buzz, and you can pre-order it here (or just order it, I suppose, if you're reading this after the day it's posted).

This puzzle, appropriately, has a literary theme; you can see a couple other literature-inspired puzzles by Sara at her website, Enjoy!