Monday, May 10, 2021

Puzzle #133: Freeform Freestyle 3

It's the third puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) in my series of asymmetrical themelesses: like normal themelesses, but not as symmetrical!

Monday, May 3, 2021

Puzzle #132: Tight Five

This one's technically a themed puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution), but it does have kind of a themeless vibe: 66 words, with the theme entries all stacked together in the middle.


Saturday, May 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: April 2021

Lots more themed puzzles in the roundup this month than usual, which is a development I welcome! Though of course, excellent indie themelesses are still being published at an astonishing rate.

April 1: [post title here] DO NOT PUBLISH EARLY (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

April 9: Think Twice (Sid Sivakumar, The Juggernaut)

April 10: #Repeal (Finn Vigeland, These Puzzles Fund Abortion)

April 15: The Cruellest Month (Chris Piuma, Wordgarbler)

April 15: Stuck in Traffic (Sara Cantor, Crosshare)

April 21: Untitled (Quiara Vasquez, The Atlantic)

April 22: Knock Knock! (Adam Aaronson, Aaronson)

April 24: Well, Whaddya Say? (Kevin G. Der, American Crossword Puzzle Tournament)

April 26: Untitled (Brooke Husic, Boswords)

April 26: Themeless 7 (Mollie Cowger, Crosswords from Outer Space)

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[post title here] DO NOT PUBLISH EARLY (Paolo Pasco)

Probably the single funniest puzzle published this year that's not by Et Tu Etui (who is, of course, a real person and not a pseudonym for a prominent indie constructor). The theme is FIRST DRAFTS, where words for wind have been moved from the end to the beginning of common phrases: SELF-DISGUST becomes GUSTSELFDIS, SPARKLING ALE becomes GALESPARKLIN, and BE KIND REWIND becomes WINDBEKINDRE. But the real fun is in the clues, which are written as if they're a first draft which was decidedly not meant to be published yet. There are lots of indie constructors who are very skilled at the technical aspects of construction, but few who can hold a candle to Paolo when it comes to the pure entertainment factor.

Think Twice (Sid Sivakumar)

Sid hasn't posted much on his famous blog recently, but he's been busy: he's the editor of the new crossword for The Juggernaut, focused on South Asian culture. Sid performs a pretty impressive feat here - the wordplay mechanism of the theme (a progression from quarter to half to full to double) has nothing to with South Asia, but all the theme entries have a South Asian tie-in. We've got the cricket term QUARTER CENTURY, HALF SARI, FULL MOON, and DOUBLE KA MEETHA. Not only that, the four long down entries in the fill (SESAME OIL, COWHERDS, ROSE MILK, and SCIENTIST) all have relevant clues, too. The puzzle has a ton of resonance for South Asians, but it's still solvable by anybody, which is not an easy task.

#Repeal (Finn Vigeland)

Every puzzle in the These Puzzles Fund Abortion pack is good, but my favorite is Finn's, with a theme about repealing the Hyde Amendment. Words and phrases with the string HYDE (HYDERABAD, PHILOSOPHY/DEPARTMENT, and PACHYDERM) have the string "repealed," so that the down clues only make sense if you ignore those letters (but are legitimate crossword entries either way). I especially like the wackiness of splitting the HYDE in PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT across two entries. (And yes, I realize I've highlighted a lot of puzzles with this type of theme gimmick in these roundups! I guess if you're angling for a spot in one of my writeups, you know what type of theme to go for.)

The Cruellest Month (Chris Piuma)

In honor of National Poetry Month, Chris has created a puzzle absolutely packed with poetry - both in the fill and in the clues, many of which are written in a poetic style instead of straight prose. Admittedly, as someone who's a fan of many of the poets featured in the grid, including HARRYETTE MULLEN and BERNADETTE MAYER, I was predisposed to like this one, but I also just love when constructors write puzzles that really dive deeply into subjects they're passionate about. If you're not into poetry, you'll find this one difficult, but still very much worth your while.

Stuck in Traffic (Sara Cantor)

This puzzle has three unchecked, unclued squares - how are we supposed to be figure out what goes in them? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that there in a pattern of black squares that looks like a traffic light. But still, that doesn't narrow it down to one possibility - there are a few sets of words you could use to describe the three segments of a traffic light. There's a beautiful aha moment, though - the squares aren't really unchecked, since the words that you have to enter combine with the words to their left and right to make legitimate entries. For example, the top square is between GOB and PER, and entering STOP gives you GOBSTOPPER; similarly, SLOW goes between CAN'T and DOWN to make CAN'T SLOW DOWN, and GO turns CAR and BAY into CARGO BAY. One of the most original mechanisms I've seen in ages.

Untitled (Quiara Vasquez)

Usually The Atlantic only does 15x15 puzzles on Sundays, but this Wednesday puzzle is a special Earth Day-themed offering from Quiara. The theme is simple enough - our revealer, GREEN NEW DEAL, hints that the theme entries contain anagrams of GREEN - but there's an extra layer of elegance here, as all the theme entries are given ecological clues. ENERGY SECTOR is [Target of carbon taxes], RENEGOTIATE is [Talk new terms, as with the Paris Agreement], and GENERATION Z is [Greta Thunberg, et al.]. I love it when a constructor takes a theme idea with many, many possible themers and adds an extra constraint to narrow it down.

Knock Knock! (Adam Aaronson)

An elegant theme based on the memetic phrase FBI, OPEN UP. In the theme entries, the letters FBI "open up" - first they're consecutive (in DATE OF BIRTH), then separated by a single square (SOFT-BOILED), then two squares (FLY-BY-NIGHT), and finally three squares (FREEBOOTING). As an extra nice touch, there are no other occurrences of F, B, or I in the theme entries.

Well, Whaddya Say? (Kevin G. Der)

A devious theme for the notorious Puzzle 5 at the ACPT. Pairs of consecutive across answers have to be phonetically reparsed to make sense. For example, [Friend of Harry Potter] and [Mexican state bordering Texas] clue RON and CHIHUAHUA, but those don't fit in the grid - instead, you have to enter RAUNCHY and WAWA. Similarly, MANIC + INFERS = MANNEQUIN + FIRS, SCENT + ORCHESTRAL = CENTAUR + KESTREL, ZEE + BOOMERANGS = ZEBU + MERINGUES, and OWE + CRUSTACEAN = OKRA + STATION. Beautifully tric    ky, and Kevin managed to find some beautiful pairings, all of which have significant spelling changes.

Untitled (Brooke Husic)

This puzzle is a perfect encapsulation of what makes Brooke's themelesses so great. We've got a broad range of cultural and demographic references (HIAWATHA BELT, CODE RED clued as ["I need a tampon" euphemism]), fresh cluing angles even for the common short fill ([Dancer's pivoting aid, for short] for ACL, ["So ___!" ("Delish!" at some luaus] for ONO), and diagonal symmetry that allows for intersecting great long entries (SHE/HER PRONOUNS, I SHOULD HOPE NOT, VINTAGE STORE) without compromising the short fill.

Themeless 7 (Mollie Cowger)

I've liked every themeless that Mollie's posted on her site so far - they're always clean, full of fun fill, and packed with clever clues. This one accomplishes all that with just 64 words, including stacked seed entries of CERTIORARI and SAOIRSE RONAN, plus stuff like CHIWEENIES and SPACE TOURIST. The cluing might be this puzzle's strongest point - coming up with a clever and original clue for something like RAS isn't easy, but [They're generally given singles] fits the bill. Ditto [Chart-toppers?] for CEOS (think org charts). But my favorite clue is surely [Thumb between two fingers, allegedly], which made me take my fingers of the keyboard briefly to figure out that the answer was NOSE.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Puzzle #131: Freeform Freestyle 2

Here's the second puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) in my series of asymmetrical themelesses. As before, thanks to Brooke Husic for test-solving (and she test-solved the upcoming puzzles in the series too, so proactive thanks for those!).


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Puzzle #130: Incognito

A themed puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) this week! There are a mere two theme entries plus a revealer in this puzzle, so I gave myself a challenge by stacking them all in the middle.


Monday, April 12, 2021

Puzzle #129: Freestyle 15 (with Brooke Husic)

This week's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is yet another collab with the great Brooke Husic! Brooke has an excellent puzzle in Rachel Fabi's Baltimore Abortion Fund puzzle pack, which you should definitely get if you've been on the fence about it.

 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Puzzle #128: Bombs Away! (by Carly Schuna)

Today's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is by guest constructor Carly Schuna! Participants in the Boswords Fall Themeless League might recognize her as one of the featured solvers (in the pairs division). If you watched the Twitch stream, then you got to see her wildly impressive German wheel routine. I hope you enjoy her puzzle as much as I did!


Thursday, April 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: March 2021

Tons of creative stuff this month - let's dive in!

March 5: I Fold (Malaika Handa, 7xwords)

March 8: Puzzle 118 (Max, Max Puzzles)

March 10: Tail Mix (Zhouqin Burnikel, USA Today)

March 17: Chasm No. 1 (Ryan McCarty, McGrids)

March 19: Tracking System (Patrick Berry, A-Frame Games) - no specific spoilers in writeup

March 24: Freestyle 4.12 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

March 25: Theft! (Chris Piuma, Wordgarbler)

March 27: Digital Release (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

March 28: Themeless #10 (Michael, Southern Crosswords)

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I Fold (Malaika Handa)

It's been a long time since we've seen a meta that leads the solver on such a long and wonderful journey as Erik Agard's "Clip Show," which inspired Malaika to make this gem. Following in the footsteps of Chris King, she created a puzzle in the form of a paper fortune teller, which includes a word search, an unclued online crossword puzzle, some decryption, and more. A tour de force of imagination.

Puzzle 118 (Max)

I'm not sure what the smallest pangrammatic crossword is, but this one's gotta be close - it squeezes all 26 letters into a 7x7 grid without too much strain, which is a remarkable achievement.

Tail Mix (Zhouqin Burnikel)

It's always a good time for a periodic reminder of Zhouqin's mastery. Like many USA Today puzzles, this one only has three theme entries (HARD TO BEATSTILL IN BETA, AID AND ABET), which allows for squeaky-clean fill; this one has a pair of delightful stacks of long downs (RUTABAGA/ARUGULA/SIDEBAR and CHARADE/LINES UP/SALT MINE) that sparkle without compromising the fill at all.

Chasm No. 1 (Ryan McCarty)

An astonishingly wide open themeless from Ryan's new site. It's called a "chasm" because of the cavernous center, which has 3 stagger-stacked 11s crossing 5 stagger-stacked 9s. The crossings are all smooth, somehow, and Ryan even manages to squeeze in fun bonuses (BADASSERY, SMASH CAKE, EDGELORD) in the corners.

Tracking System (Patrick Berry)

In case people are still working their way through Patrick's new variety puzzle pack, I won't spoil any details. Suffice it to say, the last puzzle in the pack uses the meta answers from the previous puzzles and incorporates them all into the grid in such a way that an astoundingly large percentage of the squares are actually triple-checked. But, this being Patrick Berry, you'd never guess it from the fill, which is pristine throughout.

Freestyle 4.12 (Andrew Ries)

A really remarkable piece of construction, anchored by triple-stacked 15s (CRITICAL DARLING/AUTOMATIC FEEDER/BETTER YOU THAN ME). Quite often, running stacked 15s across the center leads to an abundance of short fill to the exclusion of interesting long fill, but these 15s are judiciously chosen, and there are all sorts of interesting long entries in the rest of the grid: OUT MAGAZINE, I HAVE NO CLUE, KATY JURADO, NO YOU DIDN'T, HIT THE ROOF, PANTOMIMED, etc.

Theft! (Chris Piuma)

The grid for this puzzle has been used for two other indies recently, and Chris decided to steal it and do something new with it. Since the black squares in the grid are all arranged in T shapes, the fill in this puzzle obeys a tricky constraint: there are no T's whatsoever. The clues, on the other hand, have exactly two T's each, though they're so smoothly worded that when I test-solved this puzzle I didn't even notice the constraint. Lovely and subtle work.

Digital Release (Ricky Cruz)

The theme itself is pretty ordinary - the theme entries are phrases (CLAIR DE LUNE, CHAIR WARMER, AU CONTRAIRE, SCIENCE FAIR) where the string AIR has been replaced by CO2. But the grid is presented in a murky grayscale, so that the contents of many of the squares aren't even visible unless you're highlighting the word - simulating the experience of trying to navigate through a thick smog. A brilliant way to exploit the possibilities of the PuzzleMe applet, drawing attention to the disastrous ecological impact of NFTs.

Themeless #10 (Michael)

I think this is the first of Michael's puzzles that I've featured here, though he's been posting for a while and I always enjoy his work. This one was just particularly packed with excellent clues: [What edgeplay might be] for PIG LATIN, [Cook's gadgets] for IDEVICES, [Bong hit?] for PARASITE (not the first time I've seen that one, but still fantastic), and so on. And the central across entry, CAN I GET AN AMEN, is also excellent.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Puzzle #127: Freeform Freestyle 1

 A few constructors (including Andrew Ries and Ryan McCarty) have been publishing asymmetrical themelesses lately, and as it happens, I've been stockpiling some of them for a few months now, so I thought I'd join in on the fun. Today's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) is the first in a series of freeform freestyles. Many thanks to Brooke for test-solving!



Monday, March 1, 2021

Puzzle #126: Demi Themeless (with Brooke Husic)

 Back with another challenging collaboration with Brooke Husic (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! Many thanks to Mollie Cowger and Steve Mossberg for the test-solves.


Indie puzzle highlights: February 2021

A short post for a short month! 

February 8: Meta Shed (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

February 17: Freestyle 4.7 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

February 21: Themeless 23 (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

February 21: R2D2-Like (Monday Mini #7) (Quiara Vasquez, QVXWordz)

February 27: themeless vi ("real hot girl shit") (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

February 28: Round and Round (Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, The Hub)

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Meta Shed (Brian Thomas)

Technically, this was posted in January, but the solution wasn't posted until February, and I had no hope of solving this meta suite. So I didn't know just how intricate it was until February. I won't lay out the theme(s) here, because it's so multi-layered that it would take too long, but Brian has posted the solution here. Given the conceptual complexity of this one, I'd love to see more meta suites from him!

Freestyle 4.7 (Andrew Ries)

Andrew has ramped up the difficulty of his freestyles recently, which is a welcome change given the recent decrease in difficulty of the Newsday Saturday. As I've mentioned before, he excels at pithy wordplay clues, and there are plenty of great ones in this puzzle: [Yearly collections] for ANNUAL FEES, [Dark rock variety] for DOOM METAL, [Showing character] for REALTOR, [Set amount] for REPS, and [One way to give someone credit] for INSTALLMENT PLAN are highlights. All in all, a satisfyingly hard but still smoothly filled challenge.

Themeless 23 (Paolo Pasco)

ARMPIT FART! SHORT KINGS! HYPE BEASTS! This puzzle just OOZES CHARM. Aside from the fill, it's (of course) full of Paolo's trademark fun, conversational cluing. A delight through and through.

R2D2-Like (Monday Mini #7) (Quiara Vasquez)

A lovely pair of intersecting seeds, MIU MIU and XIU XIU (with a clue referencing their great Twin Peaks cover album), anchor this mini. I also appreciate how, even in a mini with lots of common fill, Quiara always injects a lot of personality into the clues. I've mentioned my anti-mini bias, but Quiara's minis manage to be consistently engaging.

themeless vi ("real hot girl shit")

A relatively (emphasis on the relatively) easy outing from Brooke. But there's still as much creativity and care in the cluing as there is with her uber-hard themelesses. Even the cross-reference clues, which I generally am not a big fan of, feel very purposeful here. In the fill, I particularly like the matrix of interesting long answers IT HAS POCKETS, SHINKANSEN, THE THING IS, and SOUL-CRUSHING.

Round and Round (Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon)

A lovely and eye-catching visual theme, where the grid looks like an eddy/ripple pattern, and all the 9-letter across entries are related to things that go round and round: DERVISHES, CLOCKWISE, PROPELLER, PIROUETTE, CARTWHEEL, ELECTRONS, HURRICANE, MAELSTROM, and TURNSTILE. The 9-letter downs aren't part of the theme, but I did amuse myself thinking about planets as CELESTIAL/MEATBALLS.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Clue of the Year 2020 roundup + indie puzzle highlights: January 2021

January's highlights are at the bottom of the post, but first: clues of the year! As a reminder, constructors could nominate their own clues in two categories (wordplay and non-wordplay), and then anyone could vote for up to five of their faves. Many thanks to both the constructors and the voters! Below, I've got a rundown of all of the clues, including the top vote-getters.

Wordplay clues

#5: [Party crashers] for JENGA TOWERS (Brooke Husic). I love these two-word clues that elegantly repurpose a common idiomatic phrase (and evidently, so do the voters - see also #2 and #1 below).

#4: [10 Downing Street], in a puzzle where 10-Down is SKI, for PICABO (Will Nediger). Not gonna say anything about this one because I wrote it!

#3: [Ancients, for instance] for ANAGRAM (Will Eisenberg). Clues of the form "___ for ___," where "for" trickily indicates a wordplay relationship between the words in the two blanks, are not uncommon, but this one's especially devious because "for instance" is such a common clue tag.

#2: [Stimulus check?] for REFLEX TEST (Joon Pahk). Topical and also beautiful, especially because it reinterprets both of the words in the clue.

#1: [Top gun?] for T-SHIRT CANNON (Trent Evans). This one may only reinterpret one of the two words, but it's still a perfect clue, and it doesn't hurt that T-SHIRT CANNON is a fun answer even without a clever clue. More than half of the 109 voters chose this as one of their top 5 wordplay clues!

Those were the top 5 vote-getters, but there was a stacked lineup of nominations. We also had:

[Period, to feminists?] for WAVE (Max). Really nice misdirect, and it uses a sense of "wave" that's not often clued.

[How are you making out?] for WITH TONGUE (Adam Nicolle). Fabulous seed and a hilarious clue for it (but how does Adam know how his solvers are making out??).

[Ask about a function in math class, maybe?] for PROMPOSE (Paolo Pasco). I knew the term "promposal" but I'm too much of an old to have realized that there was a verb equivalent too. Nonetheless, it's totally inferrable and has an excellent play on the double meaning of "function."

[My kingdom for a horse!] for ANIMALIA (Adam Aaronson). Sure, the wording might be a bit of a stretch, but I doubt I'd even think of trying to come up with a clue like this for a technical term like ANIMALIA, never mind actually succeeding to come up with something laugh-out-loud funny.

[It means nothing to Venus, ironically] for LOVE (Quiara Vasquez). One of those "wish I'd thought of it!" wordplay observations.

[Super bowl add] for ACAI (Amanda Rafkin). I tend to give extra points for fresh clues for answers that we see all the time; there's a pretty narrow range of standard cluing angles for ACAI and this one's a clever twist.

["Pick a side..."] for SOUP OR SALAD (Kate Hawkins). If I'm remembering correctly, there were a bunch of clues I really liked in this puzzle (a themeless collab with Matthew Stock), but this was my fave.

[Bit part on Mr. Ed] for REIN (Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim). [Bit part] alone would have worked for this clue, but the Mr. Ed tie-in is a really elegant touch.

[Bias of articles in Canada] for LEAN (Neville Fogarty). This one's a cryptic clue, which makes it pretty hard to compare with the rest of the clues (sorry, voters!). If I do this again next year, I'll make a separate category for cryptics. Anyway, it's a beautifully concise example - since Canada is bilingual, it uses articles like LE and AN, which combine to make a synonym for "bias."

[State of war?] for SPARTA (Malaika Handa). Good wordplay clues for proper nouns are few and far between, but this is a fabulous example.

[It makes you feel worse about your problem areas?] for LOCAL ANESTHESIA (Max Carpenter). This is one of my personal favorites, because it has three different reinterpretations going on ("feel worse," "about," and "problem areas"). Very intricate!

[They may have cold nuts] for SUNDAES (Dave Murchie). I don't want to give short shrift to clues on the less intricate side of the spectrum, though. Sometimes you just need a good dick joke!

[Frank admission that sounds like A, E, I, O, or U?] for AVOWAL (Bryant White). A different strategy than most of the other nominated clues - not trying to mislead the solver, necessarily, but using a neat wordplay observation to provide an aha moment.

[Beach body?] for SEA (Juliana Tringali Golden). Paradoxically, because there are so many potential cluing angles for an entry like SEA, it can be hard to come up with a good wordplay angle. But this one succeeds completely!

[Hot Gaul summer?] for ETE (Christopher Adams). Another great example of a clue that rescues a bit of overcommon fill - and this time, in French!

[Test with a clear answer] for EYE EXAM (Jess Goldstein).

[Contempt of court?] for TRASH TALK (Brian Thomas).

[Swimwear worn while out looking for an anonymous gay hookup?] for CRUISING SPEEDO (Nate Cardin). Unlike the rest of the nominations, this one's a theme entry - but after all, I didn't give any guidance on what counts as a "wordplay" clue, and this certainly counts. Plus, it's a perfect example of Nate's hilarious cluing style.

[Fish frequently found inside Mahi-Mahi?] for AHI (Rachel Fabi). Lately, we've been seeing a lot of quasi-cryptic clues of this sort, and I have mixed feelings about them, but this one I love - especially the use of "frequently" (two times is, after all, a lot of times for one word to be hidden in another!).

[For example, flight or invincibility] for ICEBREAKER (Ryan Fitzgerald). It took me a while to grok this clue because the wordplay aspect is extremely subtle. You would normally interpret the clue to be asking for something exemplified by "flight" or "invisibility," but it's actually asking for something exemplified by "flight or invisibility." As a clue whose misdirection relies on the relative scope of two operators, it warms the heart of this former linguist.

[If you leave it around the house, someone might trip on it] for LSD TAB (Richard D. Allen). This one really tells a story! Don't leave your LSD tabs around the house, folks.

[Low setting] for LEA (Barbara Olson). "Low" puns in MOO clues are extremely common, and you can spot them a mile away if you're an experienced solver, but this one's for a completely different word, and it also has a perfectly natural non-wordplay reading, so it's much more devious.

[Part of an open-faced club] for ANTIMASKER (Tim Croce). As anyone who solves his puzzles knows, Tim is preternaturally good at coming up with tough clues, and this is a prime example.

[God with fur, feathers, and scales?] for ANUBIS (Andrew Esten). For some reason, I like this clue way better than if it had just been [God with fur and scales?]. Something about the rule of three, maybe, but whatever the reason, I'm a fan.

[Man who made a Pooh] for MILNE (Jesse Lansner and Laura Braunstein). What I said before about dick jokes, but this time with poop jokes.

[Like some ravers] for ON E (Chris Piuma). The entry ONE is usually one word, but ironically, this time it's two! A nice angle that you definitely don't see a lot.

[They come down mid flight] for TRAYS (Steve Mossberg). Beautiful misdirect here - I'm sure most solvers had birds on the brain when they first read this.

[Future date, maybe?] for SEED (Sara Cantor). The rare clue that makes me say "I wish I'd thought of that" and also makes me hungry.

[Hip hop products, briefly] for IPAS (Sid Sivakumar). It feels like I've written approximately a million clues for IPA(S) and I've never once thought of this approach. So good!

Non-wordplay clues

#5: [Former Lifelock CEO Todd Davis's is 457-55-5462] for SSN (Brian Thomas). I love a clue that inspires you to head to Wikipedia and learn an interesting story.

#4: ["The answer to this clue is TIP," e.g.] for LIE (Paolo Pasco). Probably my favorite misdirection of the bunch, just because I could totally see Paolo using this as a clue for TIP.

#3: [One who might pull up a chair to a booth] for FIFTH WHEEL (Brooke Husic). It's a straightforward clue, but it really paints a picture - just one of those perfectly apt, concise clues.

#2: [Weirdly enough, not a nickname for Eastern Michigan University athletes] for EMUS (Rachel Fabi). Honestly, it'd be way better than the Eagles. Who do we talk to about getting that changed?

#1: [Visa, vis-a-vis Avis] for ANAGRAM (Andrew Esten). Try saying that five times fast! Such a fun clue.

"Non-wordplay" is, of course, a multifarious category, and I appreciated all of the different kinds of cool clues people submitted. This post is already long enough, so I won't shout out each of them individually, but I loved them all. I'm going to list them in categories based on what I particularly appreciated about them, though many of them could be slotted in multiple categories:

Educational clues/fun facts

[Film inspired by a "Long Pause" in Polynesian colonization] for MOANA (Will Eisenberg)
[Musical instrument that Margo uses to scary away a leopard in "The Leopard Man"] for CASTANETS (Max Carpenter)
[Jam ___-poly (British pudding also known as "dead man's arm")] for ROLY (Bryant White)
[Island where garbage trucks play music] for TAIWAN (Jess Goldstein)

Intriguing mysteries to investigate

[___.jodi.org (art site)] for WWWWWWWWW (Max)
[She's normal and carries an egg] for CHANSEY (Chris Piuma) (ok, if you know stuff about Pokemon, this is presumably not a mystery at all, but if, like me, you don't, then it's delightfully inscrutable)

Just funny-sounding entries

[Quaint contraction with four apostrophes] for Y'ALL'D'NT'VE (Adam Nicolle)

Fresh angles for ordinary words

[___ Princess (singer of the queer anthem "1950")] for KING (Amanda Rafkin)
[Appliance hue big in the '70s] for AVOCADO (Barbara Olson)

Pointed commentary

[How tabloid media might describe two women who are dating] for GAL PALS (Malaika Handa)
[Sick of staying in (but not actually sick, so that's good)] for STIR CRAZY

Observational comedy

[Streaming button (that often disappears just as you're about to click it!)] for SKIP INTRO (Dave Murchie)
[2020 film that's (basically) a remake of "Clueless"] for EMMA (Jesse Lansner and Laura Braunstein)

References to fun/funny stuff

[Company whose Airblade hand dryer appears in a meme with the caption "worst urinal ever"] for DYSON (Richard D. Allen)
[Garten who said "During a crisis, you know, cocktail hour can be almost any hour" while making herself a pitcher of cosmopolitans at nine in the morning] for INA (Christopher Adams)
[Dangerous pair of urban legend] for POP ROCKS AND COKE (Steve Mossberg)

Clues that I just find funny

[Likely response to the question, "Will you cancel our German final?"] for NEIN (Neville Fogarty)
[The hit musical "Come from Away" is actually not about them, surprisingly enough] for ETS (Tim Croce)
[Is that BeyoncĂ©?!] for SASHA FIERCE (Nate Cardin)

That's so meta

[Rapper featured on the 2020 remix of Lil ___ X's "Rodeo"] for NAS (Adam Aaronson)
[Word often exempted from the "no duplications" crossword rule] for THE (Sid Sivakumar)

Schrodinger!

[Like movies marketed to teens, often] for PIRATED/PG RATED (Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim)

Whew! If you made it this far, I'd love to hear from you about what you thought worked and didn't work about the nominations/voting/writeup, so I can improve things if I do this again next year.

Onto the monthly roundup!

January 1: Expiration Date (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

January 5: Themeless (Max, Max Puzzles)

January 8: Untitled (Alina Abidi, 7xwords)

January 12: Themeless 88 (Erik Agard, Glutton for Pun)

January 13: Untitled (Malaika Handa, 7xwords)

January 18: 404 Page Not Found (Mollie Cowger, Crosswords from Outer Space)

January 23: The A-A Team (Evan Kalish, USA Today)

January 27: Et Tu 3D (Et Tu Etui)

January 28: Themeless #42 (Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic, Puzzles That Need a Home)

January 30: Demi Themeless Five (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

January 30: Entry-Level Stuff (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

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Expiration Date (Ricky Cruz)

A timely puzzled themed around Flash Player's obsolescence, which is official as of 1/1/2021. The theme entries (FLASH GORDON, FLASHBACKS, FLASHLIGHT, and FLASH PLAYER) all contain the word FLASH, which has to be ignored when solving the down entries. We've seen plenty of examples of this type of theme, but it's always hard to pull off well, because the down entries have to form a valid word either with or without the ignored letters. In this case, a whopping 20 down entries are affected, and there are some elegant long examples, like READDING/REDDING, LINEAR/IN-EAR, and IT'S-A ME/IT'S ME.

Themeless (Max)

I love a wide-open, clean grid, and all the more so when there are excellent highlights like ELAINE DE KOONING, AUTODIDACTIC, CHILI OIL, and GLOWORMS in the fill. Also, SCATTERED ACROSS, perversely as one of the down entries, is a fun touch.

Untitled (Alina Abidi)

7xwords, Malaika Handa's massively collaborative project to publish a puzzle using every legal 7x7 grid pattern in 2021, is already the best thing in crossworld this year. The Oulipian constraint encourages creativity, and we've already seen lots of different approaches to the 7x7 grid (straight themeless, mini-theme, circled letters, etc.). This one's a themeless but you could say the theme is "stuff that's fun to say" - SKIPPY HAPPY HIPPOS KAZOOS KAZUO is an incredibly delightful run of fill.

Themeless 88 (Erik Agard)

Erik's back with (unsurprisingly) a beautifully filled and clued wide-open themeless. Love to see the great throat singer TANYA TAGAQ in the grid, but the highlights for me are a string of really creative, clever clues: [Internal memo?] for NOTE TO SELF, [Folding machines?] for DEFEATISTS, [Someone who might do a touchdown celebration] for FLIER, and [Bit of sheet music?] for SNORE.

Untitled (Malaika Handa)

If you construct custom crosswords, then there's a good chance that you've gotten a request for a puzzle where every grid entry is thematic, and you've had to patiently explain that that's impossible. Well, pretty much impossible. In this 7x7 grid, Malaika achieves the remarkable feat of filling a grid with only words that appear in Taylor Swift lyrics. They're all clued as fill in the blanks, and the beautiful thing is that it's solvable even if you're not a T-Swift fan, since you can logic out the answers.

404 Page Not Found (Mollie Cowger)

On the first day of her new blog, Mollie flexed by dropping not one but two excellent puzzles. I could've picked either, but I'm going with the themed one to counteract the usual glut of themelesses in these roundups. This one has a theme type we've seen many times before: the revealer, BROKEN LINK, indicates that the word LINK is split up across pairs of entries (HOWL/INK-STAINED, E. COLI/N. K. JEMISIN, WENT ALL IN/KUDOS). But it's perfectly executed, with the word split differently every time, and with fill that's smooth and easy while still including some creative touches (especially TAJIN, which I've seen in grids very rarely).

The A-A Team (Evan Kalish)

I tend to give the USA Today puzzles short shrift in these writeups - they're so consistently smooth that it's easy to take their high quality standards for granted. But Evan's puzzles tend to be smooth even by USA Today standards; the fill is sparkling enough and the cluing is easy enough that I can usually do them downs-only in about 1:40. This one is no exception, even with the two J's in the theme entries (JESSICA ALBA, JACINDA ARDERN, and MAYA ANGELOU).

Et Tu 3D (???)

Et Tu, Etui is back! I have to keep taking a break from trying to write this post because every time I look at the "in clues" from this 3D puzzle I can't stop laughing. This site could easily have become a one-note joke, but the attention to comic detail is truly outstanding.

Themeless #42 (Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic)

This puzzle's got an aesthetically pleasing wide-open grid (64 words), but the fill doesn't suffer at all. Highlights include BUBBLE OVER, COPYPASTA, Z SNAPS, CUTESY-POO, DON'T PLAY, AYURVEDA and BEER BATTER. The cluing's predictably great too, including an extreme rarity: an actually entertaining clue for ALERO ([Car in a saleroom?]).

Demi Themeless Five (Brooke Husic)

Two Brooke puzzles in a row! But I couldn't resist including this one, which has an early contender for clue of the year: [Dump over text] for POOP EMOJI. The rest of the puzzle (including PULLOUT GAME clued as [Ability to withdraw]) is also fantastic, but that clue alone would earn it a place on the list.

Entry-Level Stuff (Paolo Pasco)

One of the loveliest surprises in a crossword I've seen lately: a second crossword! Solving the puzzle gives you a code ("pipe down") which, if you enter it, makes another crossword appear. The first grid includes a chunk of black squares shaped like one of the pipes from the Mario games, and the second grid has an upside-down version of the same chunk. Corresponding entries in the grids combine to form legitimate phrases (PRESS/URE, DELE/GATORS, WAR/PZONE, CATT/LEHIDE, and DRYER/ASE), as if you're warping into the pipe from the first grid, into the second grid. Beautiful, high-concept stuff.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Puzzle #125: Freestyle 14 (with Brooke Husic)

It's been almost two months since the last puzzle I posted here, but I'm back with another themeless co-constructed with the inimitable Brooke Husic (pdf, puz, pdf solution). This one's a real toughie! Many thanks to Steve Mossberg and Rachel Fabi for test-solving.


Friday, January 1, 2021

Indie puzzle highlights: December 2020

I mentioned on Twitter earlier that I was thinking about doing some voting-based awards for the best indie puzzles of 2020. I've decided not to do that, mainly because I don't see any way around some biases that I'd like to avoid - for example, relatively under-the-radar venues and constructors would probably get fewer votes even for equally good puzzles, just because fewer voters will have solved the puzzles before.

But I am going to do a similar thing with clues, which should be much more manageable! I've set up a Google Form where people can self-nominate their favorite clues that they had published this year (in any venue that isn't reviewed on Crossword Fiend, to use my 100% arbitrary definition of "indie"). There are two categories: one for wordplay-based clues, and one for everything else (maybe you like it because it has a fun trivia fact, maybe it's a new angle on a well-trodden answer, maybe it's just zany, whatever). I'm using self-nominations because I want every constructor to be in the running, including ones that might have flown under the radar - I encourage all constructors to fill out the form! I'll leave nominations open until January 15, then I'll send out another form listing all of the clues (anonymized) so that people can vote for their favorites. Once the results are in, I'll do a little write-up of the clues getting the most votes, and probably shout out some of my other favorites too.

Anyway, it's another themeless-heavy month - what can I say, I know what I like! Partly, I think it's just harder to come up with a theme that will really surprise and impress me, and partly it's that indie constructors are putting out a ton of quality themelesses these days (which makes sense, since the opportunities for publishing themelesses in mainstream venues are pretty limited).

December 8: Vibes and Stuff (Themeless) (Adam Aaronson, Aaronson)

December 8: Untitled (Juliana Tringali Golden, Vox)

December 11: Like Trying to Solve a Crossword and Realizing... (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

December 11: Themeless (Rachel Fabi and Brooke Husic, Happy Little Puzzles)

December 16: Themeless 22 (Steve Mossberg, Square Pursuit)

December 24: Weekly Ego Check (Themeless #3) (Quiara Vasquez, QVXwordz)

December 27: Themeless IV (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

December 27: Christmas Spirit (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

December 31: 2020 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

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Vibes and Stuff (Themeless) (Adam Aaronson)

We've got a pair of really solid stacks of 8s (MINISODE/I'M STOKED/CAKE BOSS and ALFRESCO/DE LA SOUL/DIET COKE), but what's really impressive is the wide array of fun entries all over the grid: THE LOW END THEORY, DO ME A SOLID, MOOD BOARD, THROW DOWN, FREE PERIOD, and ESCAPE POD clued nicely as [Getaway vehicle?].

Untitled (Juliana Tringali Golden)

Full disclosure, I'm also on the Vox constructing team - but I didn't construct this one, so I see no issue with highlighting it here! In fact, I coincidentally tried to construct a puzzle with the very same grid pattern (3-2-1 stairsteps in the corners of a 9x9 grid, leaving triple-stacks of 9s going both across and down through the center) the very same week, but ended up adding a black square in the middle because I wasn't having any luck coming up with a fill I liked. But Juliana makes it look easy, with nothing bad in the fill and some great 9s, including the stack of JUST RELAX/IN THE PINK/FAIR SHAKE.

Like Trying to Solve a Crossword and Realizing... (Paolo Pasco)

One of those "huh, why didn't I think of doing that?" themes. Released on the same day as Taylor Swift's new album Evermore, it uses the overlap with her previous 2020 album, Folklore, as the basis for a Schrodinger theme. And yeah, E MINOR/F MINOR may not be the hardest Schrodinger square to pull off, but the rest of the pairs (SHOVED/SHOOED, TILES/TILLS, PEER/PEEK, MICE/LICE) are all done elegantly too. A+ idea and execution.

Themeless (Rachel Fabi and Brooke Husic)

Brooke, the Theo van Doesburg of crosswords, teams up with Rachel for this excellent diagonally symmetric themeless. Highlights include the conversational TODAY YEARS OLD and IN THIS ECONOMY, plus SYNESTHESIA and names like WANGARI and ELLIOT PAGE. And while I'm not sure who's responsible for this particular entry, one thing I appreciate about Brooke is that she uses even small corners as an opportunity to introduce new fill: in this case, Yvonne ORJI is snuck into the top-right corner, which could have been filled in any number of run-of-the-mill ways.

Themeless 22 (Steve Mossberg)

On the flipside, I also appreciate a smooth grid even if it doesn't break new ground. This themeless has plenty of fresh stuff in it, like CHANUKIAH, TAMALE PIE, and TOONAMI, but it makes my roundup because of its exceptionally smooth fill (which isn't easy to pull off with 7x4 corners like the ones at the bottom of this grid).

Weekly Ego Check (Themeless #3) (Quiara Vasquez)

Another scrabbly seed entry from Quiara (whose blog name, incidentally, would be a very Quiara-esque seed) - this time, it's the much-mocked PUZZLELUX. Not content with two Z's and an X, she also adds QUAALUDE and HUZZAH in the same corner, crossing colorful entries like SCHLIMAZEL and FLASHMOBBED. Scrabbliness may be out of style, but this puzzle is a good reminder that it can be a real asset to a puzzle when done well, without compromising fill quality.

Themeless IV (Brooke Husic)

The delightful seed entry KWAKWAKAWAKW alone might be enough to make the list, but the rest is typically great work from Brooke. Among the long fill, I especially like HOROSCOPE APP, WHAT HAVE YOU, and TOOK TO HEART clued as [Sat with, maybe]. Brooke has been using her blog puzzles as attempts to push some boundaries and play with conventions in a controlled way. Here, she clues HAY as [There is] with no indication in the clue that it's Spanish, and she includes the Arabic-language vocab HABIBI - both of these are intriguing changes of pace from the way foreign-language terms are usually treated in crosswords.

Christmas Spirit (Ross Trudeau)

I know I said it's hard to really impress me with a theme, but Ross consistently does so. For me, the prototypical Ross theme is one that has a perfect revealer, which is cleverly reinterpreted to describe the themers - but then, as if that wasn't enough, also a perfect title that does the same thing. In this case, JACK SKELLINGTON, CLARENCE Odbody, and MARLEY'S GHOST are all described by the revealer DEAD OF WINTER - and the title is icing on the cake. We also have a prototypical Ross grid pattern with left-right symmetry, where the themers are flanked by long fill like DON'T LOOK AT ME.

2020 (Brian Thomas)

It's a grid shaped like the poop emoji, what more can I say?