Monday, November 13, 2023

Puzzle #218: Quick on the Pickup (with Brooke Husic) + puzzle suite!

I'm back with another collab with the great Brooke Husic (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! I told Brooke that I was making a puzzle suite inspired by one of my favorite things, and she came up with this theme idea as an announcement for the suite. Details about the suite below (spoilers for the revealer, so don't look until after you've solved the puzzle!).

Brooke says: "i know nothing about the topic of this puzzle except that it might make a good revealer. i'm glad will agreed and was down to include me in the promo for his pack!"


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Thanks to the good folks at A24, I recently got to see my favorite movie ever (Stop Making Sense) in IMAX, and it was everything I dreamed of and more. It inspired me to write a suite of 16 puzzles, one puzzle inspired by each song performed in the movie. (The puzzles are written just by me, with no Brooke involvement, so they're not as good as the above one, but I think they're still pretty good.) The puzzles should be enjoyable even if you've never heard a Talking Heads song (but if you haven't, you should rectify that immediately, maybe even while solving the suite).

The suite is available as a zip file here, including .puz and PDF files for each puzzle, plus a PDF file with liner notes I wrote about why I like the film so much. Thanks to the inimitable Kelsey Dixon for test-solving all of them!

Monday, October 23, 2023

Puzzle #217: The Theme of This Crossword is Phrases That End with "Act"

Yet again, it's been almost a month since my last puzzle. But here's a new puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) whose theme, as you might have surmised from the title, is phrases that end with "act."

Monday, September 25, 2023

Puzzle #216: A Perfect Place to Cry

It's been almost a month since my last post! I've been working on a puzzle suite, hence my relative radio silence. But here's a new puzzle to tide you over (pdf, puz, pdf solution).

Monday, August 28, 2023

Puzzle #215: The Immaculate Grid

Another puzzle with no .puz option, because of all the pictures - it's getting to be a habit with me (pdf, pdf solution). Happy solving!

Monday, July 31, 2023

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Two for the Price of One: (spoiler-filled) behind-the-scenes

For a long time, I assumed that it would be impossible to make a 15x15 crossword with two equally good solutions to the same set of clues - it was a sort of Holy Grail, as I imagine it has been for many constructors. But as it turns out, someone had already written such a crossword, and not even a professional constructor!

OK, not at the 15x15 scale, but the philosopher Dan Dennett, in an appendix to his book Breaking the Spell*, includes a 4x4 crossword with two distinct solutions as a way of illustrating the indeterminacy of radical interpretation. Building on W. V. O. Quine's idea of the indeterminacy of radical translation (in principle, there could be two equally good ways of translating from one language to another, with no possible evidence that would adjudicate between the two), he proposes the indeterminacy of radical interpretation - imagining that two people could observe Kim Philby extremely closely but come to totally different conclusions based on the same evidence (one concluding that Philby is a loyal Brit, the other that Philby is a loyal Soviet). As a simple illustration, he provides this mini crossword:


He doesn't give the solutions, but I take it that they're SLOP/LOVE/EVEN/DERN and SMUT/HOPE/IRON/PENN. It's far from perfect (the first one duplicates LOVE, which is a complete no-no, and clues as vague as [Movie actor] certainly aren't in vogue), but it got me (hubristically) thinking. Sure, Dennett is a guy who thinks for a living so he's probably pretty smart, but he's also probably never constructed another crossword in his life. If he can do it in a 4x4 grid, surely I, a professional crossword constructor, can do it in a 15x15 grid?

Naturally, I started with a 4x4 corner, the top left. I wanted to pick a 1-Across pair that would have two clear answers, so that solvers would have an obvious starting point and they'd know which answer to put in which grid if I told them that they were ordered alphabetically. So I settled on CALC and TRIG, which I liked because 3-Down in grid 2 could be IDLE, leaving three synonymous options for grid 1 (LOLL, LOAF, LAZE). My optimism quickly started to fade - after toiling away for a while, I found that I had to add some helper squares to get a corner that seemed remotely workable. I couldn't even manage a measly 4x4! But when I did manage to pull off the corner, it seemed like a promising proof of concept - there were plenty of pairs that had very specific, uncontrived clues, like [Starchy Indian food] and ["Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" voice actor].


(At the above point in construction, I didn't have the full grid pattern yet, but I'm including it in the image for simplicity's sake.)

Now an obvious problem arose. There are very few entries that start with EE, and I needed to find one that could be paired with one of the same length starting with FE. I found EERIE/FERAL, which then immediately confronted me with the same problem at 30/35-Down, but this time with IR and AR as the starts. Again, it didn't take me long to find those crossword stalwarts, IRA and ARI, but if every pair I made immediately forced another toughie, it was going to be rough going. But of course, this was only the beginning. In a stairstep area like that, things are relatively easy - once I got backed into a corner or otherwise blocked-off section, I'd have nowhere to hide. I traveled down the staircase starting from FERAL/EERIE and soon found myself at the first blocked-off section, where 80/81/82-Down are. I was confident that if I could finish that section, I could manage the whole grid. 


Already, though, I was unhappy about having to use ESTOP (which I wouldn't normally put in a grid), especially crossing PURLIEU (a word that I like and definitely would put in a grid, but which is pretty tricky). But the fact that NEA/PTA was a natural pair for 72/76-Down, giving promising beginnings for the intersecting acrosses, was very encouraging. Despite the promising beginnings, this section involved a lot of false starts and do-overs.

The usual way things went with these blocked-off sections was that I'd find a fill where close to half of the pairs had very natural cluing options - but that still left at least three or four pairs where I had to pull a workable clue out of my ass. And sometimes, I'd be able to do it for all but one or two of those pairs, which would be tantalizing, but not good enough. Sometimes I'd spent ages trying to get those last two pairs work, knowing that I'd probably have to settle for some stretchy stuff. For the below fill, EGOT/TO_O was the sticking point. Grid 2 could have TOTO/ANT or TOGO/ANG in addition to TO-DO/ANT. ANT is a much more promising partner for LOO than AND is, because they're both nouns, but TOTO/EGOT seemed impossible. (I attempted a lot of absurd connections - "Well, Quincy Jones has an EGOT, even though it includes a non-competitive Oscar, and he worked on The Wiz, which is based on The Wizard of Oz, which features TOTO, so maybe there's something there" - that went nowhere.) Both TOGO and ANG spelled trouble, since they're proper nouns without a ton of variety in cluing angles. So it had to be EGOT/TO-DO - I eventually came up with a clue I liked for that pair, so I really wanted LOO/AND to work. I really didn't want to have to settle for clues like [Word found in "floor sander"], which would be an exceedingly cheap solution, but I was comforted to know that option was in my back pocket. While it's not ideal, a clue that's only a hidden-word clue for one of the two solutions, like [Andy Murray's head?] for LOO/AND, is a godsend in desperate circumstances.


As I mentioned, once I finished that section, I was very confident that I could finish the job. But this is the point at which I started to run into another difficulty: the two solutions combined have 180 words, including 60 three-letter words. It's hard enough to avoid dupes in a Sunday grid, which has around 140 words. I knew that the 3s would become increasingly hard to wrangle as the possibilities diminished. In the top-right corner, where I headed next, I ended up with A LA - already, the ALI option was foreclosed to me. Soon after, in the middle left, I'd find myself experimenting with fills that had AL_ at 70/74-Down, needing a vowel in the third slot - ALE and ALO were the only possibilities I hadn't already used, and neither of those panned out.



The top-right section had one of the most satisfying breakthrough moments of the whole process. ALA/ORO was the last clue to fill, and I nearly despaired of it being possible. I very much didn't want to use something like [Palindromic foreign term often used in crosswords]. I'm fine with [Palindromic name] at 6/17-Down, because at least that's a clue that you might see in a regular crossword, even though it would ideally be more specific. But for ALA/ORO, that would have really felt like a cheat. So I was incredibly happy when I realized that both could be tied to "Au" (the masculine form of A LA in French, and the chemical symbol for ORO in Spanish). Clues that work very straightforwardly for both solutions in the same way (like TOME/SAGA or ORG/NET) are great in their own way, but clues that work in radically different ways in the two solutions feel more special.

The other most satisfying breakthrough came in the next section I did, the middle left. I had ABACI/AMISH locked in place pretty early, because once I stuck PURLIEU/REACHES in, I wanted to make sure there would be a viable pair at 97/102-Across, given the paucity of A___I and A___H entries. This really constrained the 89/92-Across slot because the nearby 69/73-Across spot also had very limited options due to the I at the end of 73-Across. The particular difficulty of 69/73-Across is that one of the ending letters was a consonant and the other was a vowel - it's much easier when the corresponding entries have similar vowel-consonant patterns, because that means that, broadly speaking, they're going to be similar types of entries that might be amenable to cluing identically. So I actually came up with a couple of basically workable fills for the middle left section that floundered just because I couldn't manage to connect them to the lower section via 89/92-Across. So once I found a pair that seemed at least potentially doable, I stuck with it. That pair was DECAF/IONIC, which I noticed early on could be both clued as "orders." The problem was that those orders otherwise have seemingly nothing in common. I did know there was a famous McDonald's location with Greek architecture, but alas, it turned out to have Doric columns, so that was off the table. I spent all weekend turning it over in my brain. (The nice/horrible thing about this puzzle was that much of the work didn't require me to be looking at the grid, since it was all about just dreaming up connections between seemingly unrelated entries. Besides, I'd spent so much time with it that the grid was seared into my brain and I could even work on the fill in my head.) Finally, I reached a level of similarity that was so abstract (and yet still oddly specific) that it could link the two entries: [Order for when you want something to top things off, but you still want to be sensible].

The bottom-left corner was the next real sticking point - compared to it, the last two sections were a breeze. There just aren't a lot of options for __I/__F, which narrows the options right off the bat. I went through a lot of fill combinations for this corner, and the one I ended up with was the only one that came close to working. But I really struggled with cluing GIRDLE/LITTER. In principle, it shouldn't be that hard, since they're both nouns with a couple of different meanings and many different cluing angles. But I just wasn't getting anything I was happy with, so I left it and did the last couple of sections before circling back.


Fun side note: much like Dennett's puzzle, the last corner I finished here has EVEN clued as "(to) make smooth," though paired with EASE instead of IRON. This was a total coincidence: by the time I had gotten to this point in construction, I'd totally forgotten the specifics of Dennett's puzzle.

When I circled back to GIRDLE/LITTER, the most promising angle seemed to be that both are the names of products that conceal things. I ended up with something like [Product for concealing what goes on in the lower torso area], which technically works but is kind of a stretch, and landed with a thud for the testers. I mentioned to Kelsey another option that I'd been considering, which was an audio clue that could double as [Waist concealer] and [Waste concealer]. She was super into the idea, which helped convince me. I'd been on the fence about it because it's clearly a cheat, but on the other hand, it's a much better clue, and definitely improves the solver experience, which is the most important thing. (Plus, at the end of the day, I knew that I had come up with a functional text-based clue too, so it didn't diminish the accomplishment in my mind.)

Another big improvement to the puzzle came from another tester, Jake. For DELTA/MUSIC, I'd considered doing something like [Mouth output], which I didn't like because music doesn't always come from a mouth. [Word with "blues"] was another option, but again a bit unsatisfying. I ended up with [Alt-J output], which is wonderfully precise - the band Alt-J is named after a keyboard shortcut that produces the delta symbol. But it does rely on very specific trivia, which isn't ideal for this kind of puzzle. Jake almost immediately came up with [It carries through the air], which I love.

And then I had a complete puzzle! It took me about a month, dedicating some time to it every day. I'm glad I did it, and I will never, ever do it again.


*I should mention that I haven't actually read this book! I flipped through it at the library once and the crossword grid, naturally, caught my eye.


Monday, July 17, 2023

Puzzle #212: Two for the Price of One

Yes, that's right - you get two whole puzzles for the price of one! Well, there's only one set of clues, but it leads to two distinct solutions (i.e. no answers are the same in the two grids, though some individual letters will be the same). No .puz or .pdf options this time, because of one particular clue. It might be easier to solve it full-screen rather than embedded in the blog - here's a link for that.

For answer-checking purposes, the grids are in alphabetical order by the 1-Across answer. Good luck!

Thanks to Kelsey, Jake, Brooke and an anonymous Discord user for the tests!

Monday, July 3, 2023

Puzzle #211: Almost Too Funny

What do I do when I can only come up with two theme entries plus a revealer? Stack 'em all together in the middle (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! Unlike last week's, this one is on the easier side - in fact, it has two of the easiest clues I've ever written.


Monday, June 26, 2023

Monday, June 5, 2023

Puzzle #209: I Think You Should Leave S3

Don't worry, there are no spoilers for season 3 of I Think You Should Leave in this puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) - I haven't seen it yet. But as the title suggests, it's a pretty niche theme (based on the show's first two seasons). It should still be a fun time if you haven't seen any of the show (but if you haven't, I highly recommend checking out at least this sketch after you solve).

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Indie puzzle lowlights: May 2023

Actually, there's just one lowlight, which is that I won't be doing any more indie puzzle highlights roundups for the foreseeable future. I've just got too much going on, and trying to keep up has started to feel like a chore. It's been a pleasure!

Monday, May 29, 2023

Puzzle #208: Composition with Red Blue and Yellow

It feels like a while since I've posted a straight themeless here. This one's (pdf, jpz, pdf solution) got a gimmick - the grid is based on Piet Mondrian's painting Composition with Red Blue and Yellow and I didn't allow myself to use the letter R outside of the red section, B outside of the blue section, or Y outside of the yellow section - but otherwise it's a regular old themeless.

Also! If you're befuddled by Puzzle #207 from two weeks ago, check below the grid here for the answer.

 
Puzzle #207 solution: The puzzle asked for the theme entry in a hypothetical "TV shows without any writers" crossword that could already be found in the posted grid, which had no letters or clues. The intended answer is the number 15, which is the TV show PEN15 without its "pen." But one solver suggested "writer's block," in reference to the black square in the middle of the grid, which I think works just as well!

Monday, May 15, 2023

Puzzle #207: Disappearing Ink

I came up with a "TV shows without any writers" theme, but in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America strike, I didn't write any fill or clues for it. But I'd only thought of one decent theme entry anyway, and conveniently, it's already in the grid! Maybe you can spot it?



Monday, May 8, 2023

Puzzle #206: Southern Comforters

Another new themed puzzle this week (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! Also, I had yesterday's NYT puzzle - check that out if you haven't had a chance yet.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Indie puzzle highlights: April 2023

I was sick for most of April and fell behind on solving/jotting down which puzzles I wanted to feature, so I've got an extra short roundup this month. (Also, a new charity crossword pack was very rudely released at the end of the month so I haven't had time to solve it yet.)

April 11: Translation for Abuelita (Nancy Serrano-Wu, Lil AVC X)

April 17: Talking in Circles (Brandon Koppy, See 17-Across)

April 27: themeless xxxiii ("soup or salad?") (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

April 29: Untitled (Juliana Pache, Black Crossword)

April 30: Schoolmates (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

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Translation for Abuelita (Nancy Serrano-Wu)

Richard Blanco's poem "Translation for Mamรก" inspired this puzzle, a tribute to Nancy's grandmother, who used wordsearch puzzles to learn English. It's a lovely bilingual puzzle (with English entries clued in English and Spanish entries clued in Spanish), expertly crafted so that there are no pairs of intersecting Spanish entries and the puzzle can be solved by a monolingual English speaker. (But for those who do know Spanish, there are some nice clues, including [Palabra que se encuentra en "casaron," apropiadamente] for ARO.

Talking in Circles (Brandon Koppy)

A really tight theme - O's are added to either side of words and phrases with wacky results (O GOD, SPEEDO, OLIVE CAMO, OPINE SOLO, and OMEGA LITHO), justified by the revealer LOVE HANDLES. I also appreciate that both the title and revealer are perfect encapsulations of the theme - oftentimes, it's one or the other, but not both. Lots of lovely fill, too, including BIGWIG, PREREQ, QUAHOG, REBEL REBEL, TOSTADAS, and ZIPLINE.

themeless xxxiii ("soup or salad?") (Brooke Husic)

As usual, there are lots of long assets with ingenious clues - [Squeaky toys] for BALLOON ANIMALS, [Going out plan] for SLEEP SCHEDULE, [Wife guy?] for BRIDESMAN, [Come with us!] for VIBRATORS. But for the experimental puzzles, Brooke also goes the extra mile with innovative clues for common short entries - [Bonus level?] for CEO, [Name that's always part of the nice list] for ELI, [Be in the lead, say] for ACT, [Tribute opener] for DIS, [PRNG initiator] for SEED, etc.

Untitled (Juliana Pache)

A smooth grid and cluing that's approachable for any solver but especially likely to resonate with Black solvers, the main reason being the clue [Card game that you may be teased over if you don't know how to play it] for SPADES. As a non-Black person, that clue would be totally over my head if I didn't happen to have read Hanif Abdurraqib's A Little Devil in America, which has a (delightful) chapter on spades.

Schoolmates (Ross Trudeau)

A characteristically ambitious theme from Ross, complete with a two-part stacked revealer in the middle (THERE ARE PLENTY/OF FISH IN THE SEA) and some dense grid art (four C-shaped regions of black squares in the grid, each of which has two hidden fish names - TUNA, for example, is hidden in O FORTUNA). Impressive and entertaining in equal parts. (The SEA/C pun also reminds me of Brooke Husic's excellent Modern Crossword joint from the same weekend, which reinterpreted NOTHING TO SEE HERE as an instruction to replace O's with C's in the theme entries.)

Puzzle #205: Half-Time Show

It's been a few weeks since my last puzzle, but I'm back with a new one (pdf, puz, pdf solution) - happy solving!

Monday, April 10, 2023

Puzzle #204: It's All Greek to Me

Like #202, this one's a 66-worder (pdf, puz, pdf solution), but where #202 was lightly themed, this is the most heavily-themed one I've done in a while. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Indie puzzle highlights: March 2023

March 1: What Do You Say? (Ada Nicolle, Xtra)

March 4: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Frisco17 and Pixlate, Good Clues For People Who Love Bad Clues)

March 10: themeless no. 22 (crosstina aquafina, crosstina aquafina)

March 10: Untitled (Paolo Pasco, The Atlantic)

March 17: Puzzle with a Twist (Brandon Koppy, See 17-Across)

March 20: Jolly Good Show (meatdaddy69420, Lil AVC X)

March 20: Untitled (Rafa Musa, Boswords)

March 28: Double Back (Chandi Deitmer, These Puzzl3s Fund Abortion)

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What Do You Say? (Ada Nicolle)

Ada's been writing these queer-content-heavy themelesses for Xtra magazine, and it's amazing just how much of that content she manages to squeeze in. In this grid, X GENDER MARKER runs down the middle, crossing two fully thematic stacks at the top (LESBIAN/INTERSEX/DRAG KINGS) and bottom (METAMOURS/ROMANCES/NAUGHTY), plus the symmetrically-placed NIBLINGS, TRANS RIGHTS, and ON GRINDR in the middle section. Mind-boggling!

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Frisco17 and Pixlate)

The title refers to the fact that there are three different clue sets: easy, super hard, and Et Tu Etui-style. I didn't dare to check out the latter two, but the easy set was great fun, and I'm guessing the other sets were too, because the grid itself is one of the most well-crafted themeless grids I've seen in a while. Lots of great long stuff (JUST JOSHING, MEMEOLOGIST, Anthony Fantano's RED FLANNEL, CHAOTIC EVIL), but what I especially appreciate is the effort to fill the mid-length slots with colorful and interesting entries (ZEDONK, QUINOA, UNTUCK, WEEABOO, NOT A TOY, BT DUBS).

themeless no. 22 (crosstina aquafina)

Crosstina is always finding new and surprising ways to write hilarious clues. My favorite in this puzzle is a standard hidden word clue that's been spiced up: [extinct bird hiding in venmo account? it's more likely than you think] for MOA. I also have to shout out the clue for TSK, which is so long that I'm not going to type it out here - but it's truly unhinged, in the best way. Fantastic grid, too, with stuff like VIRGO'S GROOVE, ANTICIPOINTMENT, MAKE IT MAKE SENSE, TIKI DRINK, PLETHORA, and READ RECEIPTS.

Untitled (Paolo Pasco)

From the weird grid pattern and the fact that it's 10x10 (when the Atlantic minis usually only go up to 9x9), I figured something was up, but I still was totally taken by surprise by the Schrodinger here - I filled in EVERYWHERE and only realized that EVERYTHING would also work when I was told that I had some letters wrong. Very clever, implying the title Everything Everywhere All at Once with a single 10-letter entry. And the Schrodinger clues are beautiful, too; my favorite is [Enjoying a good bash?] for REVELING and REVILING. But there's more! The Sunday puzzle revealed that all of the year's Best Picture Oscar nominees had been hidden in the week's minis, two per day. Quiara's got a good rundown of all of them here.

Puzzle with a Twist (Brandon Koppy)

I love a puzzle with two different theme mechanisms, especially when it's justified naturally by the revealer, as it is here. The two-part revealer is LEFTY/LOOSEY and RIGHTY/TIGHTY, and the left edge of the puzzle features three things that can be "loose" (TOOTH, ENDS, and TEA) which have been loosened so they stretch two squares across, while the right edge features things that are often tight (MIDDLE SEAT, SARDINES, and CORSET) that have been tightened so they have two letters per square. Beautifully conceived, and it's extremely impressive that Brandon fit four entries in the middle of the grid as revealers, given how much real estate is taken up by theme content on the edges of the grid.

Jolly Good Show (meatdaddy69420)

As a longtime fan of meatdaddy's blog, I'm delighted to see their official debut in the Lil AVC X. The linguist in me was hooked from the start by WUGS at 1-Across, but the entire puzzle is filled with zingy clues, including the pitch-perfect ["Wait, have I not told you this yet? Well..."] for OK SO, [House of Gucci?] for CASA, and educational clues like [Former WWE star who is now *checks clipboard* the Republican Mayor of Knox County, Tennessee] for KANE and [One of the ingredients in pilk (the other being Pepsi)] for MILK. Also, I just so happened to finish the puzzle on NICELY DONE, clued as [My congratulatory words to you, dear solver, after you've completed this puzzle].

Untitled (Rafa Musa)

Rafa is one of the very best themeless constructors out there, but I rarely if ever feature him here because he publishes so much in mainstream venues. So I'm happy to get the chance to highlight his stellar Boswords grid. In his Twitch interview, he noted that he put care into making sure the midlength entries were fun, and it shows here with 8s like DEEP CUTS, FAST BUCK, DON'T PLAY, and LINE COOK, in addition to all the good longer stuff (QUIET QUITTING, WHAT A TRIP, PRANK CALL, GETS FRISKY, ASK ME ANYTHING, DATA MINING, etc.). Truly a masterclass.

Double Back (Chandi Deitmer)

The theme here reveals itself from the very first theme entry, SAY IT AIN'T SO-SO. But I still got a genuine aha moment and laugh out of the revealer, REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS, cleverly suggesting that the rightmost words in the theme entries get duplicated. The other themers are PEEK A BOO-BOO, YES WE CANCAN, and COUNTRY POP-POP. The revealer is the icing on the cake, but the theme entries themselves are also just really fun to say. The puzzle is filled with fun long fill, too, including GALUMPHS, THE TITS, IS IT ME OR, IMPULSE BUY, PLEASE GO ON, BEER BASHES, and AND TOTO TOO.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Puzzle #203: A Leaf Falls (After E. E. Cummings)

I have to admit, I would have preferred the falling leaves in this puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) to be precisely symmetrical. But after all, the Cummings poem that inspired it isn't quite symmetrical either, and if a slight asymmetry is good enough for Cummings, it's good enough for me.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Puzzle #202: I'll Get to It Eventually

Here's a lightly themed 66-worder (pdf, puz, pdf solution) - if you don't get around to it right away, I hope you get around to it eventually!


Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Indie puzzle highlights: February 2023

February 12: All I Want for Christmas Is You (Brendan Emmett Quigley, The Hub)

February 17: Extra Sauce (Brandon Koppy, See 17 Across)

February 19: Secular Constitution (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

February 20: Untitled (Juliana Pache, Black Crossword)

February 24: Pets and Poker (Carly Schuna, AVCX+)

February 25: Themeless 32 (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)

February 25: 7 by 7 (Mikey G, Crosshare)

February 26: To Infinity and Beyond (Elise Corbin, Cruciverbology)

February 28: mommy don't know (themeless) (Ada Nicolle, Luckystreak+)

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All I Want for Christmas Is You (Brendan Emmett Quigley)

OK, given the theme, this presumably first ran in print back in December, but it landed in my inbox in February, so I'm counting it. Despite the fact that the theme is entirely predictable based on the title, I still found it delightfully specific; the theme entries are all Christmas-related phrases with a U added, with results that are wacky in a characteristically BEQ way: MIDNIGHT UMASS, TOYS FOR TOUTS, HARK THE HERALD/ANGELS SUING, THE LITTLE/DRUMMER BUOY, DURESS AS SANTA, PAUPER CHAINS, and VIRGIN MOUTHER (that last one clued as [One who's never lip-synced before?]). I don't know if it's intentional, but I also like that SAVIOUR is in the fill: a Christmas-adjacent word that has a U in there because it's the British spelling.

Extra Sauce (Brandon Koppy)

Some really nice cluing in this themeless. Granted, [French toast] for A VOTRE SANTE is a bit of a chestnut, and I've definitely seen the misdirect in [DC paper of note] for DAILY PLANET before, but that's just scratching the surface: we've also got [Gets darker during the day] for SUNTANS, [Fun-gicide?] for PARTY POOPER, [Meal served with extra sauce] for BOOZY BRUNCH, [One picking up speed] for RADAR GUN, [Slips between the covers?] for ERRATA PAGES, and more. And it's all anchored by a pair of intersecting stagger stacks, which is always tough to pull off but is done here with aplomb.

Secular Constitution (Ross Trudeau)

"Separation of church and state" is one of those phrases that just feels like it should be a revealer, but it's one thing to notice that and another thing entirely to come up with an elegantly crafted execution, as Ross routinely does. In this case, we have the names of three churches (ANGLO-CATHOLIC, EASTERN ORTHODOX, and UNITED METHODIST) from which a state abbreviation (CA, OR, and ME, respectively) has been separated by moving up or down a row in the grid. I'm no theist but it seems like a miracle that Ross found a set that works symmetrically.

Untitled (Juliana Pache)

These minis are so consistent that I could've picked practically any of them for this roundup - they're all squeaky-clean grids packed with Black content without seeming to break a sweat. It helps that the grids are generally free of crosswordese and filled with entries that can be clued in all sorts of ways - here, for example, we've got RED clued with a Malcolm X reference, PAINT clued with an "Ice Cream Paint Job" reference, TRIED clued as part of a song by The Internet, and more.

Pets and Poker (Carly Schuna)

A really zingy, prototypically indie themeless, with lots of fresh stuff that wasn't on my wordlist but should have been: MOSHABLE, WHAT IS TIME, THICK THIRTY, CAPTION THIS. The 1-Across clue, [Catrick Swayze and Winnie the Poodle, for two] for PUNS, sets the tone for the rest of the puzzle, which is lightly fun throughout.

Themeless 32 (Paolo Pasco)

If there's any constructor who can commit to the bit, it's Paolo. Here, he completes a bit that he started exactly five years ago with a puzzle based on the Rocky Horror quote "I see you shiver with antici... pation." The original puzzle never completed the quote, but this puzzle finally brings it home with [DOT][DOT][DOT]PATION in the central Across slot. Admirable restraint - I would've waited maybe a month, if it were me. If you never saw that puzzle (in which case you should really start solving Paolo's back catalog), this one is also just great fun as a themeless.

7 by 7 (Mikey G)

This one's an ongoing meta contest so I won't spoil anything. All I'll say is that it's very elegantly conceived, in a subtle way!

To Infinity and Beyond (Elise Corbin)

Props to Elise for being one of the very few indie constructors who regularly goes all out, themewise. You can usually expect something pretty high-concept, and this is as high-concept as it gets. There are two grids that can interlock to form an infinite loop - you can place one inside the other, making legit words in each slot where the grids overlap, and you can then further place the second grid inside the first, still making legit words, ad infinitum. Whoa.

mommy don't know (themeless) (Ada Nicolle)

This puzzle gets really weird and creative in its fill: the ape onomatopoeia OOH OOH AH AH, the "men writing women" classic BREASTED BOOBILY, the textspeak OH NVM... I can't say I expected to see any of those when I opened the puzzle. The more standard stuff, like EUROVISION, THIS OLD THING, and VOICE LESSONS, is also great, but what I love about Ada's themelesses is that you never know quite what you're going to find.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Puzzle #201: In Search of Lost Time (plus Themeless meta answer)

Here's a puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) inspired by Proust's magnum opus. I failed to really appreciate it when I read it so many years ago but it's continually risen in my estimation the more I've thought about it (which is a sign I should probably reread, but on the other hand, life is short). Oh, and I lied last week when I said the puzzle was just a plain old themeless - the solution to the meta is below today's puz.


If you solved last week's "Themeless," you might have noticed a couple of odd clues. One, ["Nine Lives" by Aerosmith] is a weirdly specific way to clue SONG. Two, [Boxes may be carried out from here] is kind of an awkward phrasing for a RESTAURANT clue. And you might further have noticed that both SONG and RESTAURANT become legit phrases if you add THEME to the beginning. In fact there were a total of three THEME-less phrases in the grid: SONG, PARK, and RESTAURANT. Taking the first words of their clues in grid order gives you "nine central boxes," and if you look in the nine central boxes of the grid, you'll see the string TAANSWER around the central black square. TA ANSWER, of course, is a THEME-less version of THE META ANSWER, so that's the location of the meta answer. (A couple of eagle-eyed solvers noticed the TA ANSWER string without even needing the first part of the mechanism, which works too!) Congratulations to the prize winner, Casey Callaghan, chosen randomly from the correct answers.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Puzzle #200: Themeless

I was planning on doing something cool and special for puzzle #200, since it's quite a milestone. Maybe a meta puzzle where you could figure out the location of the meta answer and email it to me by the end of Sunday to be in the running for a sweet prize. But I just wasn't feeling inspired! So here's a plain old themeless puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution).

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Indie puzzle highlights: January 2023

January 1: Proofreading (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

January 7: Mother Country (Andrew Ries, Vox)

January 15: Themeless 5 (Amanda Rafkin, The Modern Crossword)

January 27: themeless xxx ("thirty, flirty, and thriving") (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

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Proofreading (Ross Trudeau)

This puzzle takes an exceptionally common, basic theme type (hidden words) and elevates it not by adding any extra wrinkles to the construction but by using a creative revealer that provides a great aha moment. The theme entries have mysterious clues like [Tradition that describes itself as "Protestant, yet Catholic" (5/15, 33.3%) and [Whiteboard go-with (3/14, 21.4%), and the mystery is solved by the revealer ALCOHOL BY VOLUME, which indicates that the theme entries (E(PISCO)PALIANISM, D(RY E)RASE MARKER, JET EN(GIN)E, STEEL D(RUM), and ST(ABS IN THE) BACK) have liquors hidden in them and the parenthetical numbers indicate the just how much of the theme entries consist of alcohol. A simple but satisfying twist.

Mother Country (Andrew Ries)

A delightful original theme, of a type that we rarely see. As the title hints, the theme entries all contain the word MA followed by the name of a country: MANNY (MACHAD)O, EX (MACHINA), THO(MAS PAIN)E, CA(MACHILE), and (MAIN DIA)GONAL. Andrew's also a cryptic setter, and I wonder if that's what inspired the theme - it's easy to imagine cryptic clues with the phrase "mother country" in them for these entries. In any case, it works great as a non-cryptic theme too, and leads to some impressively long hidden strings.

Themeless 5 (Amanda Rafkin)

A delightful themeless with some fun spanners like MAKE IT MAKE SENSE and THE REVIEWS ARE IN, but the real attraction is the irreverent clues, including [Person who sort of has your back?] for BUTT DOUBLE, [Seemingly the only synonym not in the title "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day"] for LOUSY, [www.stuffonmycat.com, for one] for URL, and [Bread that very nicely holds everything inside so the entire contents of your sandwich don't fall out the back] for PITA. It's great to see a mainstream-ish venue that encourages this kind of cluing voice!

themeless xxx ("thirty, flirty, and thriving") (Brooke Husic)

This one's somewhat gentle, as experimental puzzles go - it's even got a few gimme clues that provide footholds. But it's no less delightful than a typical experimental puzzle; in fact, I think it's got more top-notch clues than the average one. [Three to get ready] for PHONE WALLET KEYS, [Members-only jacket?] for CONDOM, and [Like a trail blazer?] for GORPCORE - and that's before we even get out of the NW corner. Also just a lot of stuff that I personally love to see, including ROSALIA, NLP, and clues referencing The Waste Land and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Puzzle #199: Shoddy Work (variety cryptic)

Today's puzzle is a variety cryptic (pdf, puz, pdf solution)! I think it's a fairly gentle one, with a good number of straightforward clues (relatively, anyway - variety cryptics are rarely easy), so if you're intimidated by tough VCs, why not give this one a try? Many thanks to Hayley and Steve for testing.

Instructions:

It turns out hiring unlicensed contractors to build this grid for me was a mistake. At a number of intersections, they chose Across and Down entries that have incompatible letters, and instead of fixing them, they just left the pesky squares blank. Luckily, they left the discarded Across letters lying around, so once you've finished solving the puzzle, you can place those same letters in the blank spaces in a different order so that the resulting Across and Down entries are all ordinary English words. In the original grid order, those Across letters will spell out a description of the contractors' work, and in the new grid order, they will spell out a description of your work.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Puzzle #198: We're Everywhere

I went with left-right symmetry for today's puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) so I could wrangle a tricky theme. I love left-right symmetry because the grids always look a bit wacky! This one looks kind of like a robot to me.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Indie puzzle highlights: December 2022

December 2: puzzle #106.5 is a mood (themeless) (Ada Nicolle, luckystreak+)

December 8: We're Not Going Anywhere (Jeff Chen, Crucinova)

December 10: Making the Cut (Paolo Pasco, Taylor Made Crosswords)

December 10: The Full Spectrum (Elise Corbin, Cruciverbology)

December 19: Sounds About Right (Andy Kravis, The New Yorker)

December 21: themeless no. 20 (crosstina aquafina, crosstina aquafina)

December 30: America's Finest Crossword (Will Eisenberg and Alex Boisvert, Half-Baked Puzzles)

December 31: Themeless #80 (can't touch this) (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

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puzzle #106.5 is a mood (themeless) (Ada Nicolle)

Yet another Ada puzzle where creative goodness lurks around every corner. At the top we have the excellent stack of TRIVIA GAMES/CHOSEN FAMILY/HAPPY BELATED, mirrored by IGPAY ATINLAY/TESTIMONIALS/HRTIVERSARY (which looks rather zany in the grid) at the bottom. That would be enough for most constructors, but Ada packs in all sorts of original stuff in the mid-length fill, including DJ Khaled's Father of ASAHD, TITTY skittles, and EATALY.

We're Not Going Anywhere (Jeff Chen)

A star-shaped grid whose 12 outermost entries (such as LADY GODI and MPIRE BAT) are all missing the implied letters VA, which is justified by the revealer NOVA. A simple concept, but extremely well executed, with plenty of creative clues - [Blank space?] for OUTER, [Woman on an historic streak] for the aforementioned LADY GODIVA, [Short work by a Longfellow] for SONNET,  But what I most appreciate about this puzzle is how it illustrates the power of a good title; Quiara's editor's notes point out that it's a bilingual pun referencing the urban legend that the Chevy Nova sold poorly in Spanish-speaking countries because no va means "it doesn't go" in Spanish. And of course, while the VAs have disappeared from the grid, they're not really going anywhere, since they're needed for the clues to make sense.

Making the Cut (Paolo Pasco)

A type of theme that I've long dreamed of making but never had the guts to try: one where a legitimate grid can be rearranged in some way to create another legitimate grid. Here, Paolo plays on the "sawing a woman in half" trick (hinted at by the revealers SAW THINGS and LADY PARTS): the right half of the grid has been shifted down two squares so that the words ASTOR, LIBERTY, and GAGA are split in half, always forming real crossword entries. For example, the LIB from liberty gets joined with the ATION from NATION to form LIBATION, while the ERTY joins the PROP from PROPANE to form PROPERTY. I can only imagine how hard this must have been to construct, given that every square in the central section of the grid is triple-checked. Of course, this being a Paolo puzzle, its main virtue is its entertainingness for the solver and not its impressiveness as a construction; there are all sorts of delightful clues, starting at 1-Across with [Parts that Henry Cavill "reloads, in a memetic "Mission: Impossible" fight scene].

The Full Spectrum (Elise Corbin)

I appreciate Elise's site because the puzzles are mostly science-themed, which is pretty rare, and because almost all of them are pretty high-concept; I always like a puzzle that swings for the fences. This puzzle has a gimmick entirely unlike anything I've seen before. The theme entries are types of electromagnetic radiation (GAMMA, X-RAY, VISIBLEMICROWAVE, RADIO), and they're positioned in the grid roughly in order of increasing wavelength and decreasing frequency. The kicker is that the distribution of answer lengths mirrors the electromagnetic spectrum, with many short answers and abbreviations at the topic, and fewer but longer answers at the bottom. The correspondence with the positioning of the theme entries can't be perfect due to the constraints of the gimmick, but the overall effect is nonetheless very striking.

Sounds About Right (Andy Kravis)

True, the New Yorker is about as un-indie as you can get, but since this puzzle was part of the special Cartoons & Puzzles issue, not reviewed on Crossword Fiend, it technically counts. And it's a doozy, with a gimmick that's plainly spelling out by the revealer, RHYME WITH ITS CLUE, clued as [What every answer in this puzzle will do]. It's remarkable that this is possible at all, let alone possible to do so smoothly that I got through at least a quarter of the puzzle before even noticing the gimmick. [Cheek swab, for example] for DNA SAMPLE and [N.B.A. legend O'Neal] for SHAQUILLE, for instance, are no different from clues you'd find in a regular puzzle. Naturally, there are a few stretches (both semantic and prosodic), but this is quite an achievement.

themeless no. 20 (crosstina aquafina)

Look, pretty much any crosstina puzzle is entertaining enough to make these roundups, but this one is a lock because it has the clue that made laugh more than any other clue this year, and for the entry TSK, of all things: [sound of disapproval from my test-solver when i originally clued this as 'teaspork (abbr.)']. Oh, and the rest of it is great too, with fill highlights like UNSTANNED, MAKE IT MAKE SENSE, and KOMPROMAT, and the usual smattering of hilarious clues.

America's Finest Crossword (Will Eisenberg and Alex Boisvert)

It's hard for me to get excited about a puzzle whose premise is just "I noticed that some pre-existing funny thing happens to break into a pair of answers that I can place symmetrically in a crossword." I mean, I enjoy being reminded of funny things, but there's not much to appreciate in terms of crossword-specific ingenuity, you know? But this puzzle, whose theme entries are WHOOOOOO BEARS and AAAAAGGH BEARS (the opposing columns in a classic Point-Counterpoint article in The Onion), is an exception for some reason. Maybe it's because it's such a delightfully wacky coincidence that the headlines, which could have been extended to arbitrary length, just happen to both be 13 letters long - and because most constructors wouldn't even bother to count. So in itself, the theme makes for a puzzle that really tickles my funny bone - but on top of that, every single other entry is clued as a fill-in-the-blank Onion headline, which kicks the enjoyment level up several notches.

Themeless #80 (can't touch this) (Brian Thomas)

It's really hard to make a Sunday-sized themeless that can sustain the solver's interest all the way through, but Brian cannily uses diagonal symmetry here to squeeze as much fun out of the long slots as possible. In the bottom left, NANA NANA BOO BOO/DEDICATED LANE/LEATHER DADDY crosses MAKES THE LEAP/ORAL TRADITION/ABSOLUTE MAD LAD. That kind of quality would be nigh impossible to maintain in the opposite corner in a grid with standard symmetry, but Brian keeps the hits going through the rest of the grid here: THAT WASN'T SO BAD, BUNCH OF HOOEY, NO-TELL MOTEL, PR NIGHTMARE, MOAN AND GROAN, and much more.