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.

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, https://www.sarasligar.com/. Enjoy!


Monday, April 13, 2020

Rows Garden Meta solution

Last week's meta (solution grid) asked you to identify a minor literary character whose full name is hinted at by one of the entries in the grid. There was one crucial entry: D6, LOLITA, whose clue told you that the answer was a character in Lolita. If, like many solvers, you looked up a list of characters in that novel, one of them probably jumped out at you: Vivian Darkbloom (whose name, incidentally, is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov!). And indeed, one of the dark bloom answers in the grid was VIVIAN, so that's your answer.

A whole bunch of solvers submitted the correct answer, and there were no incorrect guesses. Congrats to everyone who figured it out! I quite enjoyed my first attempt at constructing a Rows Garden, but it certainly wasn't easy - it's probably a form I'll return to occasionally when I'm in the mood for a challenge.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Puzzle #116: Rows Garden Meta

This puzzle is a first for me: a Rows Garden! For anyone who's not familiar, a Rows Garden is a format invented by Patrick Berry; the grid consists of 11 rows with one or two entries in each row, whose letters are also grouped into a set of flower-shaped "blooms" of six letters each. The row answers are entered normally, from left to right. The six-letter bloom answers can start in any of the six petals of the bloom, and can be entered either clockwise or counterclockwise.

This puzzle can be downloaded as a .jpz file, which you can solve online at the Crossword Nexus Solver, or as a PDF. (Thanks to Rows Garden constructor extraordinaire Joon Pahk for creating the .jpz file.) In the PDF, the "blooms" clues for each color (light, medium, and dark) are given in the order they appear in the grid (from left to right and top to bottom).

The puzzle is also a meta! The meta answer is a minor literary character whose full name is hinted at by one of the entries in the grid. And when I say minor, I do mean minor - googling is totally allowed, and indeed expected, for the meta. Hit me up at the email on the right sidebar for hints or to submit a guess; I'll post the answer next Monday. Happy solving!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: March 2020

This was a fabulous month for indie puzzles, maybe the best since I started doing this thing. Constructors showed up in droves to provide social distancing entertainment, and there were a lot of gems among the bunch.

March 2: Dropping Bombs (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

This is a standard P-to-F letter-change theme, but it has a delightful raison d'etre, which is that Pac-Man was originally called PUCK MAN, but the name was changed for English markets so people wouldn't change the P to an F on the arcade machines. A perfect encapsulation of Ricky's pop cultural sensibility, also on display in many of the themers: A LINK TO THE PAST, DISNEY FLUS, FICKLE RICK, TRIVIAL FURSUIT, FEZ DISPENSER, and FRANK CHANNEL. I hesitated about including this one because there's more iffy fill than I like (EILE, I TEN, ONE HR, MEDUSAN, IT'S SO), but ultimately the entertainment factor of the theme won me over. There's also some fun stuff in the fill, like JOHN CENA and PANIC BUTTON, plus ALT TABS trickily clued as [Switches to another program].

March 2: Spell Weaving (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

I've never constructed a Spell Weaving puzzle, so I don't know how hard it is, but I've gotta assume it's not easy to include a bunch of long words and phrases when all the entries interweave with each other. Joon makes it look easy, though, with GREEN NEW DEAL, ED SULLIVAN, MOSEY ALONG, I CAN AND I WILL, DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD, and GRADUATING CLASS.

March 7: Skylight (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

Chris brings us a Schrodinger puzzle based on the fact that both MORNING STAR and EVENING STAR refer to the same object, VENUS. The central across entry doubles as both "morning star" and "evening star," with the down entries MATING/EATING, SHOOED/SHOVED, and PAYER/PAYEE doing double duty. I think this is a great theme, but in the interests of full disclosure, I once ran a puzzle with the same theme, so I may be biased. But that means I do know from experience how hard it is to come up with Schrodinger entries where one letter is a consonant and the other letter is a vowel, and Chris managed to find three smooth pairs. Highlights in the fill include OENOPHILES, POWER OUTAGE, and RONDA ROUSEY.

March 8: Themeless 13 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

A beautiful pinwheel of long entries anchors the center of this themeless, which features sparkly entries like SITZKRIEG, SLEAZEBALL, DOCUDRAMA, Courtney BARNETT, COCOTAXIS, RIOT GRRRL, and the second appearance in two days of the word OENOPHILE. And nary a scowl-inducer in the grid!

March 10: Year 5 Rows Garden 27 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

Joon does it again, somehow managing to pack HERE'S THE DEAL, YABBA DABBA DOO, GENDER NEUTRAL, I GOT THIS, ROLLER COASTER, GIVE ME ONE REASON, and MAGIC NUMBER into a single Rows Garden grid.

March 10: Not All Saints (Sid Sivakumar, Brooke Husic, and Evan Kalish, Sid's Grids)

One of the great things about indie puzzledom is the quick turnaround it allows. Sid, Brooke, and Evan put together this response to the March 10 NYT puzzle in less than a day. The NYT puzzle featured people who share their names with saints in California city names, like FRANCISCO FRANCO (San Francisco) and DIEGO RIVERA (San Diego). But it noticeably lacked any of California's many Santa ___ cities, so all the themers were dudes. This puzzle makes up for it by featuring ROSA PARKS, BARBARA WALTERS, MONICA LEWINSKY, and ANITA HILL. Not only that, the fill and clues are jam-packed with dozens more women's names, all without sacrificing solvability.

March 13: Puzzle Twenty Four (Max Carpenter, Donkey Puzzle Tree)

Max released a bunch of new puzzles on his website in March, of which this themeless is my favorite. It's got an absolutely bonkers grid pattern, and immediately after test-solving it, I decided to try filling the same grid pattern myself - but I quickly gave up. Max manages to fill it with lively entries like CAMEO BROOCH, ITALIAN STALLION, and CLEAN AS A WHISTLE, plus off-the-wall cluing like [Marx brothers?] for PROLETARIAT, [Quintessential father-son hand-me-down] for Y CHROMOSOME, and [Hips don't lie far from it] for GROIN.

March 21: Shameless Plugs (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

This puzzle is based on the well-known phenomenon that it always seems to take more than two tries to put a USB in the right way. We've got four phrases with the string USB or BSU, but somehow, it's going in the wrong direction every time! So instead of CITRUS BOWL we have CITRBSUOWL, instead of TWO THUMBS UP we have TWOTHUMUSBP, instead of SIRIUS BLACK we have SIRIBSULACK, and instead of WEB SURFERS we have WEUSBRFERS. A hilarious theme based on something that few people other than Paolo would even think to turn into a puzzle. (Also, see Sid's Grids for a cheeky response puzzle.)

March 21: Naysayers Only (Finn Vigeland, Crossword Tournament from Your Couch)

In the most amazing puzzle event of the month(/year/decade), Finn and Kevin Der created an online crossword tournament to replace the postponed ACPT, going from conception to completion in a span of about a week, including a web interface that automatically tracked people's scores, put together by Kevin. Not only that, the puzzles were excellent too. My favorite was the one written by co-organizer Finn, and I won't spoil the theme for those who haven't gotten to the puzzles. Since I was speed-solving, I didn't pay much attention to the theme entries until after I finished, but suffice it to say that at least one of the theme entries made me laugh out loud once I figured it out. The fill's great too!

March 22: Black Tie Affair (Chris King and Christopher Adams, Chris Words)

The two Chrises team up for a puzzle about penguins, and who doesn't like penguins. A simple enough concept - phrases starting with types of penguin - but the themers are long and they intersect each other in complicated ways, and we've got an oversized grid to accommodate them all (MAGELLANIC CLOUDS, KING JAMES VERSION, JACKASS THE MOVIE, MACARONI AND CHEESE, EMPEROR CONCERTO, HUMBOLDT CURRENT, CHINSTRAP BEARD, ROYAL TREATMENT, plus the month-appropriate revealer MARCH OF THE PENGUINS).

March 25: Themeless 8 (Stella Zawistowski, Tough As Nails)

As advertised, Stella's themelesses are indeed tough as nails, and it's great to have another source of brain-bending themelesses. (This one took me around twice as long as a typical themeless does.) Some of the previous puzzles on her site have relied on relative obscurities like LUCULLAN BANQUET (obscure, though a fun phrase to learn). This one doesn't as much, but it's still clearly a Stella puzzle, with classical music (TESSITURA) and fashion (DRESS RACK, trickily clued as [Gap fixture]). But it primarily gets its difficulty from crunchy cluing, which makes it a very satisfying solve; even the central across entry, STATE OF THE STATE, is very inferrable, even if you happen not to know that rather delightful phrase. My favorite of the eight themelesses so far.

March 26: Puzzle No. 3529 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

A sad day, as this is the very last cryptic from The Nation. This puzzle is their typical solid work (my favorite clue is [Taken is given a little more than three stars?] for PIRATED), but I'm really including it for the heartfelt sendoff that Joshua and Henri give to their solvers, with the entries SEE YOU LATER, ARRIVEDERCI, AUF WIEDERSEHEN, HASTA LA VISTA, AU REVOIR, and KEEP IN TOUCH. And you can indeed keep in touch, by signing up for their upcoming weekly cryptics.

















Monday, March 23, 2020

Puzzle #115: Eating Right

I had a blast at the Crossword Tournament from Your Couch this weekend - thanks so much to everyone who helped put it on! And hopefully it's not the last tournament of its kind. I'll have more to say about it in my month-end writeup, but in the meantime, here's a new puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution). Enjoy!


Sunday, March 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: February 2020

It was an extra-long February this year, and an extra-good one for crosswords, I'd say!

February 4: Toymaking (Karl Ni, USA Today)

The USA Today puzzles are all solidly made, but since they're pitched to be Monday/Tuesday-level, it's rare to see a theme that really surprises me. But this one did just that! The themers are DRAWING PAD, RING DING, and SHORT TON, which seem to have nothing in common until they're tied together by the revealer, BUILD-A-BEAR - the last words of the themers combine to make PADDINGTON. A genuine aha moment.

February 8: Demilitarization (David Alfred Bywaters, New Crosswords / Old Novels)

David specializes in a particular sort of wordplay theme, where the revealer suggests some change that's made to each theme entry. Usually that's all there is to it, but this theme is fun because there's a real conceptual motivation for the changes. In this case, the revealer is DISARMS, and the theme entries are phrases with weapons in them which have been demilitarized by replacing the weapons with harmless homophones: PISTIL WHIP, BAUM SHELTERS, CRUISE MISSAL, and CANON BALLS. A nice corrective to all the NRA appearances in grids (though ironically, as I write this, I've just solved David's latest puzzle, which has NRA in the fill).

February 11: Parasite (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

Paolo hasn't been publishing much lately, but when he does post a new puzzle, it's invariably fire. Here we've got a puzzle inspired by Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning Parasite, in which animals in the theme entries are infested by parasites. so DOG in DOG AND PONY SHOW is interrupted by a FLEA (in a rebus square as part of the entry OFF-LEASH), HUMAN in TO ERR IS HUMAN is interrupted by a MITE (in TERMITES), and DEER in DEERSTALKER is interrupted by a TICK (in CHEESE STICK). An ingenious visualization of parasite infestation, plus one of the best clues I've seen in a while: [B.A. program?] for THE A-TEAM.

Speaking of Parasite, Christopher Adams's mini-themeless Picture Perfect also featured one of the best clues I've seen in a while: [Bong hit].

February 20?: Sweet 16 (Patrick Berry, A-Frame Games)

The question mark's because I don't know exactly when Patrick posted this variety puzzle suite. His puzzles tend to get dropped on his site without fanfare and then news spreads quickly by word of mouth. I'm not going to spoil any content because many of you might not have solved these yet, but luckily "variety puzzles by Patrick Berry" is a strong enough endorsement by itself.

February 22: Fairy-Tale Endings (Gabrielle Friedman, USA Today)

Again, since the USA Today puzzles are pitched easy, it's rare for me to be surprised by any of the fill. Incredibly, this puzzle had no fewer than three colorful in-the-language fill entries that weren't even in my wordlist: HECKA, M'KAY, and ZOINKS. And the rest of the fill was clean and smooth too, of course. As the title suggests, the theme involved phrases ending in hidden fairy-tale characters: WEEKNIGHT, LIGHT SWITCH, TAG YOURSELF (another addition to my wordlist!), and SWEET ROLL.

February 27: Puzzle No. 3526 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

An amazing amount of theme content in this cryptic, with eight across entries with the initials T.P.: TOOK PITY, TEST PILOT, TARGET PRACTICE, TEAM PLAYER, TITO PUENTE, TRADE PAPERBACK, TITLE PAGE, and TEA PARTY. And yet, there was no shortage of smooth clues:

JETE: [Jump from plane, using parachute at the end]
TRAPEZE: [Capture effortlessness when announcing circus routine]
CEREBRAL: [Life, for instance, overwhelms extremely bitter intellectual]
BASMATI: [Crashed Saab with Tim Rice]
PINOCHLE: [Redesign help icon for game]

Sadly, this is one of Joshua and Henri's last puzzles (maybe their last?) for The Nation, since the crossword is ending in March. But they'll be continuing their collaboration via Patreon, where you can sign up to get a weekly cryptic by the duo by email.

February 29: Field Testing (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

We've got a rebus puzzle inspired by the NFL COMBINE, with the theme entries RUN-FLAT TIRES (beautifully clued as [Holey rollers?]), IAN FLEMING, SELF-INFLECTED, COINFLIPS, DESIGN FLAW, PAN FLUTE, SUNFLOWERS, AEON FLUX, and EVENFLOW. To go with the theme, there's lots of sports in the fill - not my personal cup of tea, but it's all cleanly done, and there are some nice bonuses like FLEABAG and GO FLY A KITE.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Puzzle #114: Internet Outage (guest puzzle by Matthew Stock)

I'm very pleased to present a guest puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) by Matthew Stock. Matthew's a 23-year-old constructor in St. Louis, MO, where he teaches 9th-grade algebra through an Americorps-affiliated fellowship. He writes: "I've been constructing for about a year and a half now and am always looking to talk shop and collaborate with other puzzle folks!" Keep an eye out for his Universal debut this Wednesday. Enjoy!


Saturday, February 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: January 2020

January 3: Singsong Syllables (Rachel Fabi, USA Today)

A remarkably tight theme, with a perfect title: each theme entry is of the form _ING _ONG _______, where all the words alliterate. We've got PING PONG PADDLES, DING DONG DITCH, and KING KONG COSTUME (which I'd definitely give some side-eye as a themeless answer, but as part of a theme like this, it works great). As always with the USA Today, the fill's clean, and we've got some nice bonuses in the fill in the form of TIGHT-KNIT and Phoebe Waller-Bridge's FLEABAG.

January 5: Relatively Speaking (Matt Gaffney, New York Magazine)

This one's got an EXTENDED FAMILY theme, where -KIN is added to the end of phrases, with wacky results. The themers are really cute, I think because -KIN is an inherently cute ending. I mean, just look at them: NEEDED A PUSHKIN, PAY AT THE PUMPKIN, SIAMESE CATKIN, THE BAY OF PIGSKIN, BABY BUMPKIN, and POWER NAPKIN. Good fill, too; as is sometimes the case with Matt's puzzles, there are more partials than I like to see, but entries like TIKTOK and ZOO ANIMAL make up for it.

January 7: Year 5 Rows Garden 18 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

Joon rings in the new decade with the seed entry ROARING TWENTIES, and makes room for colorful entries like SWASHBUCKLER, OFFICE ROMANCE (clued as [Working relationship?]), SINGULAR THEY (the American Dialect Society's word of the decade), and ROSEMARY'S BABY.

January 9: Puzzle No. 3520 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

This cryptic's got a mini-theme, where the five W's are hidden phonetically in some of the across entries (Y-INTERCEPT, HOOVER DAM, WEDNESDAY, UNDERWEAR, and ANGKOR WAT), but the real attraction, of course, is in the cluing. The highlights:

- UNICORN: [Mythical creature's simple garment, worn without the front bits]
- DEEP: [Went back into the sea]
- ANGKOR WAT: [Lee faces a choice of initial letters for radio stations at religious site]
- REVISIT: [Consider once again what may happen when playing tag with a member of the clergy]
- CYANIDE: [Candy (i.e. disguised poison)]
- PURCHASE: [Buy tea, mostly in a bag]

January 12: Whose Side Are You On? (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

This one has been officially declared #notacrossword by the Not a Crossword Twitter account, because it breaks a cardinal rule of crosswords: all-over interlock. But with good reason! The grid is divided in two by a column of black squares in the middle, but worry not - there are several doors passing through the column, hidden in the entries TANDOORI, IT'S DO OR DIE, and THE DOORS. That last one serves as the revealer, and as the icing on the cake, references the band's song "Break On Through (To the Other Side). Quite an elegant, layered theme.

January 16: Aries Cryptic 22 (Andrew Ries, Aries Puzzles)

Probably my favorite Aries Cryptic yet, in large part thanks to two clues that cleverly reinterpret in-the-language phrases. TOM BRADY is clued as [Grave-yard shift for long-tenured driver at Gillette Stadium], efficiently reparsing "grave-yard shift." And FLUFFY is clued as [Superficial target of some shots at the beginning of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"], reinterpreting "extremely loud" as FF and "incredibly close" as the close of the word "incredibly," Y. Genius! Other great clues:

- ADMIT IT: [Playing timid at frustrated interrogator's demand]
- PANTS: [Article of clothing doesn't breathe well]
- DISMAL: [IDs lost prior to returning flight is no fun at all]
- FANTASIZE: [Imagine NAFTA jolted economy, for instance]
- OUTLINE: [Heads of organizations underreporting their losses in net earnings summary]

January 24: Photo Finish (Claire Rimkus, USA Today)

The theme here is, unsurprisingly, phrases that end in synonyms for "photo." Each of the theme entries (WHISKEY STILL, COLD SNAP, SLAPSHOT, and PAISLEY PRINT) uses a different meaning of the synonym, which is a nice touch. But the main reason I'm highlighting this puzzle is that it shows that sparkly fill isn't all about the long answers (the TENTPOLES, if you will). The sparkly short fill in this one includes BAO (which I've seen in surprisingly few puzzles), the TV show POSE, KESHA (whose new album, High Road, came out yesterday), UP TOP, and the Los Angeles SPARKS.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: December 2019

December 4: Year 2 Puzzle 49 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

This one was a nice birthday present for me. Some devious cluing, including [Speaker of the house?] for AMAZON ECHO, [Steps in a single file] for LINE DANCES, [Pick-up game] for JACKS, and [Childless] for ADULTS ONLY. I also loved the grid-spanning AM I GLAD TO SEE YOU.

December 8: Themeless 7 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

This themeless features one of my favorite clues from recent memory: [Libraries of congress?] for ADULT SITES. A lot of long highlights in the fill, too, including HARPER'S BAZAAR, DOSE OF REALITY, SALMON CANNONS, MEGALOPOLIS, and IN-STORE ONLY.

December 8: Say Hey (Matt Gaffney, New York Magazine)

Fun theme, where the theme entries are phrases starting with (near-)homophones of "Siri," so that if you say them after "hey" you might accidentally summon Siri. We've got SEARING HEAT, SERIOUS DANGER, SYRIAN REFUGEES (not exactly uplifting, though it does remind me of the absolutely wrenching documentary For Sama, which I watched recently), SERIES PREMIERE, SIRIUS XM RADIO, and CEREAL AISLE. Highlights in the fill include OSCAR MAYER, PORTUGUESE, SCHLEP, PORK RIBS, and KLUTZ.

December 13: Got 2 Go (Erik Agard, USA Today)

Erik hasn't been posting much on his site lately, presumably because he's been busy with other gigs. He was writing puzzles for the Arizona Daily Star for a while, which was great news for Arizonans but less so for the rest of us, since they weren't available online. And now he's editing the USA Today crossword, which is great news for everyone! The first bunch were written by Erik himself, but the more recent ones have been written by an assortment of constructors. I could've picked pretty much any of the puzzles so far for this writeup, since they're all exemplary easy puzzles, but this one encapsulates their strengths pretty well.

The theme's simple: two-word phrases where each word starts with GO (GOOD GOLLY, GOLDEN GOPHER, GOBBLE GOBBLE, and GOAT GOUDA). The fill's smooth and accessible (Erik's not afraid to add in a pair of cheater squares even with a relatively unambitious theme, to keep things as clean as possible). And there's all sorts of diverse representation: we've got TRANS and NON-binary people represented, and lots of black culture, with MAYA Angelou, a RAPS clue mentioning Saweetie, and OOP clued with reference to the Jasmine Masters "and I oop" meme (with "alley-oop" in there too, to keep things easy).

December 17: Year 6 Puzzle 51 (Andrew Ries, Aries Rows Garden)

I only just added Andrew's Rows Gardens to my rotation, and I don't regret it. This one has a practically Pahkian quantity of lively fill, including NICKELODEON, WIGGLE ROOM, STREET CRED, TRICK SHOTS, CLEAN ENERGY, WHERE IT'S AT, and GRACE PERIOD.

December 19-22: Chris Words Origin Story (Chris King, Chris Words)

OK, I've gotta admit that I haven't solved this one - it's been a hectic week or so. But I'm pretty sure I get the basic thrust of the meta, and it's a neat one. (I'm writing this on December 31, and the deadline's at midnight, so maybe Chris will have posted the answer by the time you're reading this.)

Chris, who just published a book of 13x13 puzzles, gives us a series of four 13x13s that combine to make a single meta. Elegant touch #1: he posted the puzzles one at a time, and the meta mechanism reveals itself gradually. The titles of the first two puzzles  ("Gridwork" and "Across and Down") aren't terribly helpful unless you're clever and you cotton on to the meaning of "origin" in the overall title, but the third title ("Plane of Existence") gives you more of a nudge, and then ("Coordinated Effort") makes things explicit. We're looking for coordinates in the grids! Each theme entry suggests a pair of letters - for example, in the first grid, LADDER GOLF suggests VW GOLF, LOW RESOLUTION suggests HD RESOLUTION, and WITNESS BOX suggests PO BOX (I think!). Elegant touch #2: putting four 13x13 grids together results in a 26x26 grid, perfect for turning pairs of letters into coordinates. Here's where I got stumped, because the first two ways I tried (putting the grids in order from left to right and top to bottom, and putting them in the order of the quadrants in Cartesian geometry) didn't seem to pan out, unless I just messed something up, which is highly possible. I'm eager to find out the solution, but even without knowing it, I'm confident this is excellent stuff.

December 23: Year 5 Variety Puzzle 8 (Stella Zawistowski, Outside the Box)

Stella's been posting a cryptic clue a day on her Twitter to practice her clue-writing muscles, and judging from this puzzle, it's paid off. This one's got lots of clues with smooth and amusing surface sense, including:

- [Small change purse primarily advertised through fashion magazine] for BAGATELLE
- [Heads of state cry excitedly "Not the nose!"] for SCENT
- [Boss broke down crying] for SOBS
- [It's not to be broken - oh, God, damaged slightly] for GOOD HABIT
- [In street art, a new pattern] for TARTAN
- [Check-up for Jesus' patient] for LEPER
- [I let dad awkwardly spread out] for DILATED

December 30: Down and Out (Chris Adams, arctan(x)words)

We've seen this type of theme before: a word is hidden in some across entries, and you have to skip the letters in that word when solving the downs. This is a particularly elegant version of the theme, because the word being dropped is DROP, and it relates to the apt title, "Down and Out," in its clue, [Word that can precede down and out (and what's down and out in this puzzle's theme entries)]. The acrosses, all colorful, are YURI ANDROPOV, HYDROPONICS, and QUADROPHENIA. Of course, all the down entries are valid with or without the letters of DROP - for example, we've got INS(P)ECT, (R)OMAN(O), and RE(P)ELS. Hard to get excited about I(D)ED and AR(R)S, on the other hand, but I know from experience how hard this type of theme is to construct. Another nice bonus: a fresh clue for RAGU, [Sauce brand mentioned in Lizzo's "Juice"].

December 31: Let's Make a Date! (Claire Rimkus, USA Today)

OK, I highlighted one of Erik's own USA Today puzzles already, but I feel like I should highlight a submission too. Again there are a bunch I could have picked, but I'll go with the last one of the year, a nice and simple New Year's Eve theme with NYE hidden in the theme entries (PONY EXPRESS, SPINY EELS, BUNNY EARS, and LEMON YELLOW). Super clean grid, great representation of women in the clues (activist EMMA Gonzalez, PADMA Lakshmi, Isabel Allende's EVA Luna).

December 31: Looking Ahead (Sid Sivakumar and Matthew Stock, Sid's Grids)

I love a good shaped grid, and this one's a doozy, with the white squares spelling out "2020." It's mostly a themeless, with some New Year's 2020-related entries in there, but the clues sparkle. [They *do* want scrubs, for short] for MDS is just one of the many fun, fresh clues that liven up the many 3-letter entries in this grid.


December 31: Year 2 Puzzle 53 (Neville Fogarty and Doug Peterson, Aries Freestyle)

Man, constructors were really making me work on New Year's Eve. Late on December 31, Neville and Doug dropped a guest puzzle for Aries Freestyle, and it's a beautifully clean 66-worder. Highlights in the fill include INSULT COMIC, DROP THE BALL, CALL ME MAYBE, CALZONE, PLAY GOD, and CENTURY EGGS; there's also a great "acting bug" pun in the clue for MALINGERING.