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)









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?

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