Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Five Indie Puzzles That Made My 2020 Slightly Less Terrible

What a year, am I right? One day you're making jokes about Joaquin Phoenix's bonkers Oscars speech and the incoming plastic bag tax, and the next you're in a forty-minute line at a Key Food where the bread aisle is completely devoid of product, and the next you're out of a job. And in between those days, you're obsessively checking social media to see which of your friends under 30 is gonna die today. Just terrible all around.

On the other hand, when God closes a door, he opens a window (to air out the smell of 100,000 corpses). Would I have taken the plunge into "crossworld" had the pandemic not happened? Maybe. But suffice it to say, the indie crossword scene saw a huge boom due to COVID, and if there is a pandemic "class" of indie constructors, I am probably one of the names at its forefront. But in fact, there are quite a few talented constructors who put out A+ work during this year.

I intended to post this Monday in lieu of a mini, but real life got in the way. This is not a comprehensive list, obviously - for starters, there already exists a completely objective and comprehensive chronological list of the best 100 puzzles of 2020. And besides, there are too many brilliant puzzles being made these days, some of which aren't by Brooke Husic, to list 'em all. So this list is just a set of recommendations for puzzles that fell through the cracks for whatever reason. If any of these don't look familiar, just click the link - I've kept spoilers to a minimum in the mini write-ups but you should definitely go into these blind if possible.

Without further ado, the "Top Five" ...

Brendan Emmett Quigley - "Themeless Monday #555" (February 10)

I know, I know, recommending BEQ to someone trying to dig deeper into crossworld is like suggesting someone check out this super cool band called "Radiohead." Well, imperfect analogy, because Radiohead have sucked massive ass since 2001 (that's being generous) while the Biz Quig has been pumping out two bitchin' puzzles a week every day for decades without ever letting up in terms of quality. And yet, despite being the godfather of indie puzzles, I feel like his star has faded in crossworld a little, partially because his themelesses are infamously rather difficult. (I have a similar problem getting into Club 72, even though Tim Croce is similarly badass.)

Well, this beautiful puzzle, which is both puzzle #1,234 and his five-hundred-and-fifty-fifth themeless, is a good re-introduction to Quigley's genius. This puzzle is the definition of "all killer no filler" - zero cruft, and fill so sparkly it can be seen from space, with some truly devious cluing throughout... and yet there are juuust enough gimmes, particularly in the SW "petal," that I never felt asea. Somehow it didn't even register until I did this writeup that the puzzle is a 58-worder!!! It doesn't get better than this, folks - easily my favorite themeless of 2020 in any outlet, indie or mainstream.

Paolo Pasco - "Chain Links" (March 21)

Paolo's puzzles have the distinct vibe of prodigious talent being put to prodigal ends. Which sounds like an insult, but it really isn't: any clod can make a puzzle out of a good theme idea, but it takes a true genius to divine gold from a flaming turd. Case in point: this beautiful dumpster fire of a puzzle, which pays tribute to the second greatest novelty rap ode to Queens cuisine. (The greatest is "Christmas in Hollis," but you knew that.) The rest of the fill is fun too, especially given the truly wack constraints given some of the themers.

(Oh, and if you prefer your Pasco less shitposty, I also loved his Spyscape puzzle from September 25, "Straight from the Top" - a puzzle with a sick pinwheel arrangement of themers which coincidentally is more zeitgeisty as of a week or two ago than it was back in September. Do not miss.)

Will Nediger - "Going Out with a Bang!" (August 24)

This puzzle got overlooked for a couple reasons. One is that Will Nediger is usually the one doing the cataloguing of awesome puzzles. Two is that this was for a subscription service (Joon Pahk's Outside the Box) which made it hard to share. And three is that it's (shock, horror) a cryptic, and a hard cryptic at that.

But it's an awesome puzzle. So, here's the idea. You know how sometimes in a cryptic you'll run into a clue/entry combo which would also work in an American-style crossword, like [Terribly angered!] for ENRAGED? Typically there's only one or two of these "&lit" clues per cryptic, because they're notoriously difficult to pull off. Will's puzzle has thirty-six clues, and all thirty-six of them are &lits. It's phenomenal stuff. Curiously, despite this conceit, the puzzle has a good mix of wordy clues and elegant finds like [Style guard!] and [Made with needle points!]

While I can't link to the puzzle directly, Cracking the Cryptic did a nice video on it, which explains all the clues for you one by one while still giving you ample time to solve the puzzle before the kindly Briton does.

Chris Piuma - "Right Now" (October 11)

About a month before this puzzle came out, I thought to myself, "gee, this Japanese conceptual artist whose work I saw at the MoMA that one time would be really fun fill - might be a little obscure, though." Then Chris went and one-upped me by creating a whole damn puzzle themed around the dude. What a guy. Even more gratuitously/geniusly, this puzzle has, by my count, something like two dozen non-themers playing into the "time" theme.

Max Puzzles - "Puzzle 56" (also October 11 - what are the odds)

If you asked me "who is putting out the best puzzles in crossworld right now relative to their notoriety?" then Max of Max Puzzles is that someone. Puzzle 56 on his site is hands down one of the most memorable themelesses of the year. It's hard, but clued pretty fairly, and it taps into a very wide cultural knowledge base - Big Data naysayers stare down Southern hip hoppers; there's food, there's geography, there's sports, there's punny foreign language clues... and hell, it's not a perfect puzzle, but even the occasional dips in cluing syntax here feel organic, adding to the charm of a very charming puzzle. Don't sleep on this one.

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