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.