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.

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