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 (Ada Nicolle, luckystreak xwords)

Right at 1-Across, Ada 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. Ada 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.

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