Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: September 2020

 Puzzles featured this month (with spoiler-filled discussion below):

September 4: Themeless Twenty-Seven (Adam Nicolle and Paolo Pasco, luckystreak xwords)

September 5: Cryptic #2 (Steve Mossberg, Square Pursuit)

September 6: Wakanda Forever! (Soleil St Cyr and Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

September 17: Character Study (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

September 27: Election Tampering (Elise Corbin, SeaOtterNY)

September 27: Themeless I (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

September 28: Guest Cryptic #1 (Nate Cardin, Tough as Nails)

September 29: Year 6 Rows Garden 5 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

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Themeless Twenty-Seven (Adam Nicolle and Paolo Pasco)

I keep a spreadsheet with puzzles that I plan to highlight, and I usually jot down my favorite clues, entries, etc. I started listing my favorite clues from this themeless, but I give up because there were just too many! Adam and Paolo, of course, lean into the irreverent and modern vibe in their cluing, and their brains combined make for an unstoppable cluing force.

Cryptic #2 (Steve Mossberg)

Steve has recently got into the cryptic game, and I've greatly enjoyed his first two offerings. Some delightful clues in this cryptic (which has an arcade mini-theme):

- [Ice cream topping? Cold. Brownie center. Hot.] for COOL WHIP
- [Blaring sound from Alessia (some popular music)] for CAR ALARM
- [Update on the Spanish exam] for LATEST
- [Video game woman, a woman with no losses] for GALAGA
- [Second character in first release] for BETA
- [Video game guy wearing hat backwards] for PAC-MAN

Wakanda Forever! (Soleil St Cyr and Ross Trudeau)

A tribute to CHADWICK BOSEMAN, accompanied by the theme entries THE BLACK PANTHER and REST IN POWER. Ingeniously, the black squares in the center of the grid form a heart (like the heart-shaped herb consumed by the Black Panther), creating three unchecked squares that spell out RIP. Soleil and Ross packed the fill and clues with tributes to other important Black figures: KAP, JOHN COLTRANE, the PILOT Bessie Coleman, the ENGINEER Mae Jemison, ESTELLE, GPS inventor Gladys West, MAYA Angelou, OTIS Redding, Kendrick Lamar, Jesse Owens, Denzel Washington, Jean-Michel Basquiat... and maybe even others that I missed!

Character Study (Paolo Pasco)

Like Steve, Paolo is also new to cryptics and is already producing hits. This one's a variety barred cryptic, in which the solver has determine where the bars go, and also has to remove a letter from an entry in each row before entering it in the grid. The bars in the center of the grids form a staircase pattern, and are topped by the letters of the word JOKER, referencing an iconic scene from the 2019 movie. (I have to admit, I was expecting it to be about Cats, but I'm glad Paolo is branching out.) The letters removed from each row spell out the apt phrase I'M JOAQUIN HERE. A really elegant concept.

Election Tampering (Elise Corbin)

I'm not sure I've ever seen a mechanism quite like this one before. It consists of two grids with the same fill, but with the black square pattern slightly different in each one, a change that represents gerrymandering. Each grid has an entry clued [The party that's going to win this year's election]. In grid 1, it's DEMOCRATIC, which has been split up by black squares in grid 2, resulting in the entries DEMO and RAT, plus the C at the beginning of the next entry. Similar, REPUBLICAN in grid 2 has been split up by black squares in grid 1, resulting in PUB, ICAN, and the R at the beginning of the previous entry. Remarkably high-concept! There's some wobbly short fill in there, but I'll happily forgive it in service of such a brilliant and hard-to-pull-off idea.

Themeless I (Brooke Husic)

(Full disclosure: I test-solved this one.) Brooke's brand-new site is inaugurated with one of her trademark diagonally symmetric constructions. This one has an extra technical challenge, because it has six interlocking 15-letter entries, three across and three down. I've seen a few puzzles like that before, but they almost always have some compromise in either the 15s or in the short fill that serves as scaffolding - this one's really smooth, though, and all the 15s (CAPRICORN RISING, GENDER DIVERSITY, CLEAR FOR TAKEOFF with the excellent clue [Let fly], OPPORTUNE MOMENT, FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, and RAISED FIST EMOJI) are good. This puzzle also reinforces my opinion that Brooke's the most thoughtful cluer in the game right now. Even common short entries like NAM and ACE have fresh and interesting cluing angles.

Guest Cryptic #1 (Nate Cardin)

I guess this was the month of people getting into cryptics! Nate doesn't have his own site and doesn't publish much, but on the rare occasions when he does publish, his puzzles almost always seem to find their way into these roundups because of his fun cluing style. This one's no exception:

- [Comeback modeled around Queen B's feature (to be penciled in)] for EYEBROW
- [Fame left me a wild maneater] for FEMME FATALE
- [Top came undone] for ACME
- ["Temptation Island" bird gets head transplant] for CARROT
- [The Barrel: a naughty, niche gay club] for LEATHER BAR

These clues all tell colorful stories, and they're all clever from a technical standpoint too: I especially like the re-parsing involved in the CARROT and EYEBROW clues.

Year 6 Rows Garden 5 (Joon Pahk)

It feels like it's been a while since I featured one of Joon's Rows Gardens, but of course he's still been pumping out good ones every week. This one is my favorite recent one, because of the two long topical entries (RUTH BADER GINSBURG and SCHITT'S CREEK), a plethora of other fun entries (HEAD HONCHO, STRIKE A POSE, PRIVATE PARTS, BANANA PEEL), and the delightful clue [Score in a game where people don't keep score] for YES-NO QUESTIONS.



Monday, September 7, 2020

Puzzle #123: Freestyle 12 (with Brooke Husic)

I'm delighted to present another themeless collaboration with the brilliant Brooke Husic (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Unlike our last one, this one has regular ol' rotational symmetry, but like our last one, it was a blast to construct. Fingers crossed that you'll be seeing some collaborations from us in print in the near future!

For more from Brooke, follow her on Twitter at @xandraladee for crossword stuff and @brookehus for non-crossword stuff.


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: August 2020

I'm changing up the format a bit starting this month, since the current format isn't very useful for people who want to use this to find great puzzles that they might have missed. From now on, the posts will start with a list of the puzzles, and the spoiler-ful recaps will be further down.

The weirdification of indie crosswords continues apace, and we've got some wacky stuff this month! The list feels relatively short this month - not because it wasn't a good month for crosswords, but mostly because I had a busy month and was doing a lot of downs-only speed-solving before Lollapuzzoola. So there are undoubtedly plenty of gems which I didn't take the time to really appreciate.

August 1: In the Wings (Ella Dershowitz)

August 2: Something Different (Et Tu, Etui?)

August 6: Ya Like Jazz? (Adam Aaronson)

August 16: Plish Plash ("Shen Bapiro," Gecxwords)

August 18: Converter Boxes (Chris King, Chris Words)

August 22: Can You Believe This Shift (Ricky Cruz, Et Tu, Etui?)

August 26: Soft boys, intertwined (Chris Piuma, Wordgarbler)

August 28: Name Recognition (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

August 29: Expansion Pack (Paolo Pasco) - no spoilers in writeup


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In the Wings (Ella Dershowitz)

Like most (all?) of Ella's puzzles, this one is theater-based, but still fun for non-theaterheads. The theme is SIDE CHARACTERs - musical characters are pushed off of the sides of the grid in the entries MADAGA[SCAR], [AID A]ND A BET, PAPPARD[ELLE], and [CARRIE]R PIGEON. Not the first time we've seen this sort of theme, of course, but it's beautifully executed. What I particularly appreciate in this crossword is the quality of the medium-length (5-6) fill, which I think is often neglected: often, the medium-length entries just sort of sit there, but these ones pop (including UP TOP, JIGSAW, VR GAME, GIMLET, HEXED, TEABAG, and MEOWED).

Something Different (Et Tu, Etui?)

Et Tu, Etui? hosted several Somethings Different this month, including a couple of guest spots, and I could've picked any of them, but this one just had so much good stuff. ILLICITLY JIGGLE [Have bad vibrations?], LA LAMBDA LAMBADA, SID'S GRIDS DOT COM, HEAVENS TO TSETSE ["I bless the fly down in Africa!"], JURASSIC PERIODT ["And that's THAT," in dinosaur times], LAVA VULVA VOLVOS, and I'M ELDER SCROLLS V ["It's-a me, Skyrim!"] are some of the highlights. Notice how many of the long entries are plays on real phrases - it's easy to just fill a Something Different with totally nonsensical long entries, but this approach requires some more finesse.

Ya Like Jazz? (Adam Aaronson)

I love a good visual representation, and this puzzle's got a niche one that's surely never been done before: a representation of The Lick, that infamous jazz phrase - capturing both the notes and the rhythm. There's not a ton of theme content, which allows the fill to play like a themeless, with fun things like MR PEANUT, MALTESERS, K-POP STAN, HOT TOPIC, ARI ASTER, WHAT OF IT, NO SHADE, and ERIC ANDRE.

Plish Plash ("Shen Bapiro")

What do POOL NOODLES, a PUDDLE JUMPER, and POND SCUM have in common? Playing on Ben Shapiro's comically euphemistic description of the song "WAP," they're all WET-ASS P-WORDs. A delightful conceit for a puzzle, with the sort of wacky cluing I've come to expect from Weird Crossworld (e.g. [List of ___ of lists (Wikipedia article) for LISTS and [I am editing this puzzle and I want to ___] for DIE).

Converter Boxes (Chris King)

The return of Chris Words! Chris hadn't posted a puzzle in a while (too busy writing books or whatever), so this is a reason to celebrate in itself. And though it's a small puzzle with only one theme entry, it's the sort of off-the-wall creative idea that Chris excels at. When you download the ostensible .puz file, you get a .png file instead. Did Chris royally screw up? On the contrary, it turns out that you can open the .png file in Across Lite as a .puz. (As whatever the opposite of a technical wizard is, I have no idea how he did this.) Appropriately, the one theme entry is GAUZES RIVER, where the NG in GANGES RIVER has been converted to UZ (the same change that converts PNG to PUZ).

Can You Believe This Shift (Ricky Cruz)

This one's got a wild gimmick: some number of letters from each entry are shifted from the end to the beginning. So, for example, BAJA BLAST is entered as ABLASTBAJ (though there are seven other possible ways it might have been entered, disregarding the crosses, making this is a real tough solve). Luckily, there's a perfectly elegant raison d'etre for the gimmick: the theme entries feature the names of the four ghosts from Pac-Man undergoing the shift: INKY in INKY CAP MUSHROOM, PINKY in PINKY SWEAR, BLINKY in BLINKY BILL, and CLYDE in CLYDESDALE HORSE. Mirroring, of course, the way that the right and left sides of the screen in Pac-Man are continuous.

Soft boys, intertwined (Chris Piuma)

A quite original variety puzzle type, that comes with an eye-poppingly open grid: 8-by-8 with no black squares. The across entries are normal, while the down entries consist of two intertwined 4-letter words whose clues have been combined. A fun and creative workout!

Name Recognition (Ross Trudeau)

Ross has a knack for coming up with tight theme sets. Usually, there's some colloquial phrase which is cleverly reinterpreted to serve as a revealer. This isn't one of those puzzles, but it's still the sort of theme you wouldn't expect to be doable: all the theme entries include homophones of the last name of SENATOR MARKEY. We've got CINEMA MARQUEE, MARKY MARK, MARQUIS DE/LAFAYETTE, and BIZ MARKIE. Homophone themes are a dime a dozen, of course, but how often do you see a two-syllable homophone theme, let alone one with five themers?

Expansion Pack (Paolo Pasco)

This one's a pack of puzzles of various sizes (3x3, 5x5, 7x7, 9x9, 11x11, 13x13, 15x15, and 17x17). I'm not going to spoil anything at all, but, as you'd expect from Paolo, the puzzles are all individually enjoyable. What makes this really special, though, is the very clever payoff that comes at the end.


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Puzzle #122: Look Out Below!

You heard it here first: the rule against having 2-letter words in crosswords is BI erasure. Here's a puzzle to remedy that (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Enjoy!



Saturday, August 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: July 2020

There's a new puzzle site called Et Tu, Etui, and it's like some sort of crossword performance art, so I don't know if I can actually judge the quality of the crosswords... but I recommend it (I think).

July 1: Themeless 12 (Erik Agard and Claire Rimkus, Grids for Good)

If you haven't yet bought Grids for Good, you should get on that; you get to solve grids and do good! There are plenty of fun puzzles in this set of more than 40(!) crosswords, but my favorite was this themeless, which has lovely representation (QUVENZHANE Wallis, WHEN THEY SEE US, BLACK PANTHER) and some devilish clues ([Taken control] for PLACEBO, [Something made to scale in a treehouse] for ROPE LADDER).

It's come to my attention that there's a Patrick Berry variety puzzle in Grids for Good! I think I missed it because I solved the puz files, not the PDFs, but it's Patrick Berry so I'll recommend it sight unseen.

July 2: Freestyle 159 (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

An eye-popping grid shape anchored by two pairs of stacked entries that roll of the tongue: SAX AND VIOLINS paired with SEX AND VIOLENCE, and LOOSELEAF PAPER paired with LOSE SLEEP OVER. That puts a lot of constraint on the fill, but Chris nevertheless fits lots of other good stuff in there, including BANH MI and SENSE OF PURPOSE. Highlights in the clues are ["Truly Madly Deeply" trio] for ADVERBS and [One doing a vibe check?] for PARTY POOPER.

July 5: And the Last Shall Be First (Matt Gaffney, New York Magazine)

Not the theme I was expecting given the title (I was expecting last-to-first shifts like ASQUITH HAS QUIT or something), but a fun theme, in which the first letters of words are replaced with Z, the last letter of the alphabet. A simple enough theme, but loads of fun, not least because Z is just an inherently funny letter: we've got BABY ZOOMERS, JACK THE ZIPPER, ZILLOW FIGHT, WHO WANTS TO BE A/ZILLIONAIRE, ZEALOUS MUCH, and ZERO WORSHIP, all delightful.

July 8: Great to Hear! (Themeless) (Adam Aaronson)

Lots of modern goodies in this grid, including I LOVE THAT FOR YOU, THE SQUAD, and NONAPOLOGY. Other highlights include PIKACHU, clued as [The chosen one], KITESURF, PREREQS, and the clue [My kingdom for a horse!] that brilliantly spices up the otherwise dry answer ANIMALIA.

July 8: Capture the Flag (Steve Mossberg, Square Pursuit)

Similar to the Paolo Pasco/Ria Dhull TOM NOOK puzzle from last month, this puzzle has an eye-catching grid where six countries, clued with respect to their flags, are "captured" by nook-shaped sections of the grid. The theme entries are all only seven letters long, so the rest plays like a themeless, with a bunch of good fill entries longer than the theme entries themselves: EXTREME BEER, DULCET TONES, NUDE PAINTING, SPEED READER, and TATTOO PARLOR.

July 14: Ink In (Brooke Husic and Evan Kalish, USA Today)

More diagonal-symmetry wizardy from Brooke, this time joined by Evan Kalish. We've got the intersecting theme entries MARGARET ATWOOD, ONE DAY AT A TIME, GRETA THUNBERG, and UPSTATE NEW YORK, all of which hide the word TAT (which, unusually for the USA Today, is in the grid as a revealer, nestled ingeniously between the theme entries). On top of that, the bottom right corner has two bonus themers, DICTATE and STATUTE.

July 16: Centerpiece (Neville Fogarty)

I've highlighted some of Neville's cryptics before; he writes lovely cryptics that are accessible for beginners. This one is small and easy enough that I just solved it in my head, but it's got a simple, yet delightful and elegant, payoff.

July 25: Saturday Midi (Amanda Rafkin, Brain Candy)

Even though I've made plenty of midis myself, I admit to having a bit of a sizeist bias when it comes to crosswords; I usually find little to get excited about in minis or midis, unless they have an elegant minitheme. So it's hard for a themeless midi to impress me enough to earn a shoutout, but I really admire this one. It's got four fun intersecting 11s (CONE OF SHAME, JEWISH GUILT, SHANIA TWAIN, MACARONI ART), and there's absolutely nothing questionable in the short fill - which is much harder to pull off than you might think!

July 25: Something Different (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

Few things are more delightful than a Something Different puzzle, where the answers are made up and the points don't matter. You can include entries like BIG MAN ON KRAMPUS and ACDC BBC BCC and BARE-LEGGIN' and nobody bats an eye. Paolo's got a knack for conjuring up hilarious images with his clues, which he does here with clues like ["Congratulations, you just birthed 100 lawmakers!"] for IT'S A SENATE and [What you might cry after dropping your collection of growing fungi] for MY SPORES. I think I'd pay good money for a weekly Something Different from Paolo. On the other hand, maybe the joy of Something Differents would wear off if I was solving them all the time... but on the third hand, no, these are just a blast.

July 29: Nom Nom Nom (Matt Gaffney, Daily Beast)

Matt's got his fingers in a lot of cruciverbal pies, so it's no surprise that I'm featuring puzzles of his from two different venues this month. This one reminds me of Peter Gordon's annual Oscar nominees puzzle; Matt celebrates the just-released Emmy nominations by fitting a whole bunch of them (Tracee Ellis ROSS, ALAN Arkin, ANDRE Braugher, KILLING EVE, SUCCESSION, OZARK, OLIVIA Colman, SNL, ANGELA Bassett, Cecily and Jeremy STRONG, and UZO Aduba) in an 11x11 grid. An amazing feat of construction.

July 30: Out of Left Field 18 (Jeffrey Harris, Out of Left Field)

Instead of Kosman and Picciotto, we get a guest cryptic by Jeffrey Harris this week. It has some truly elegant clues, including ["Community" character lying low] for ABED NADIR, [$0.01 deposited in bank not long ago] for RECENTLY (which cleverly repurposes the word "bank"), and [Formal agreement for Elmer Fudd, a Looney Tunes character] for TWEETY. My favorite is [Professional boxer's child support?] for PROP UP, which ingeniously splits the PUP definition ("boxer's child") between two perfectly idiomatic phrases.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Puzzle #121: Freestyle 11

Tough themeless for y'all this week (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Just realized it's been a bit since I've posted a themed puzzle here, but stay tuned for some soon!


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.