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.