Sunday, July 19, 2015

Indie Puzzle Round-Up #2

I got some good feedback regarding the first Indie Round-Up, so here we are for round two.

- I was mostly emboldened to write this review based on my solve of Patrick Berry's variety cryptic "Middle of the Road," which he wrote for the annual NPL convention. It took me over two hours to complete, so it's very difficult, and I know there are some who are turned off by cryptics, but...all I have to say is it's tough for me to think of a better puzzle I've solved in the last, say, five years. It's for sure a Top 5 All-Timer. I will not go into details on the puzzle because to spoil it would be blasphemous. I'll just say there was about three huge "a-ha's," to the point where I audibly commented "Oh my god." To borrow from Dave Eggers, it's truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

In regards to cryptics, it took me forever to really take to them. Even when I knew the basic rules, it was still very difficult to understand the cluing styles, especially when liberties are taken by some authors. If you struggle with cryptics like I once did (and still do, to an extent), do yourself a favor and not check out British cryptics, unless you'd like to go slowly insane. For beginners, stick to block cryptics and do many of them. I found Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon's block cryptics to be my primary entry to learning the ropes. I pored the New York Times Sunday variety archives (when I still subscribed to the NYT puzzles) and did most of Cox and Rathvon's work there.

Then I discovered variety cryptics and my appreciation of the art form really took off there. I did a lot of variety cryptics around 2012 because I was preparing to write one for my "Print Media Isn't Dead" meta suite that year. I find it similar to very tough themeless puzzles in that at first glance the task seems impossible to solve one of these. But chip away and chip away, and I find that once you hit the tipping point of a variety (once you grasp the gimmick and have enough letters in the grid to help you with the others), it becomes much easier to complete.

With "Middle of the Road," the primary mechanism of the puzzle entailed not disclosing word lengths, which increased the difficulty exponentially, and also involved unannounced blank squares in the grid, which certainly didn't ease things up any more either. So after the first hour, I may have had 90% of the grid empty  - though I had made headway with nearly a half of the clues, I still didn't know how to accurately enter them into the grid. So it became partially a logic puzzle as well as a cryptic. Once I had made inroads with a few of the columns, though, the puzzle unfolded much more quickly after that. The last few mechanisms of the puzzle just blew the mind away. I still can't quite believe how Patrick pulled it all off so well and made it appear so effortless. It truly gives me hope for the human race.

- Not an indie, but a relevant thought related to the above: I solved the Harper's variety cryptic when I was visiting my brother's on Friday. Terrible. Don't solve that puzzle if you want to get into cryptics. Richard Maltby, I assume, likes to put garbage obscurities in his grids (because he does it about five times in every puzzle), and he's waaaay too stretchy in his clues. I mean, some of them are clever, but he has no respect for surface senses and he includes too many irrelevant clue words (in particular the bridge words from the literal to the wordplay clues). Berry's worst puzzle is at least ten times better than Maltby's best. Ugh.

- Back to business: I enjoyed Andy Kravis' "Overlapping Universes" that he posted on July 8th. It's a small puzzle (11x11) whose theme is pop-culture-based, so some may not appreciate it based on cultural unfamiliarity. But I got a nice "a-ha" from it, both from a trivia standpoint and then from a crossword constructor's standpoint. Very nice.

- Chris King's site Chris Words was a welcome addition to indie-land last year. Chris is a budding constructor whose skills have noticeably approved over the last few months. He has a set rotation offering themed, themeless, and meta puzzles. I thought his latest, "Themeless Eight," was a smooth solve with some clever clues. I especially liked the northwest corner, with the topical entry at 1-Across. Keep up the good work, Chris!

That's it for this week. I'll be on vacation all of next week and then I'm doing Lollapuzzoola the following week, so I'm not sure when the next Round-Up will be. Maybe a post-Lolla write-up? That's probably what I'll do. Talk to you then!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Indie Puzzle Round-Up

I'd like to start a semi-regular feature for the site: a recap of some of the stellar work going on in the world of indie puzzle-making. I'm not sure how often I'll do this (I realize I'm too frequently late with posting RG solutions), but I'm thinking every couple weeks. And I won't be able to touch on all of the impressive indie puzzle sites every week - it's a burgeoning venture, and at times I lag behind. But I want to give some benediction to some puzzle authors that may not get the pub that they deserve. Expect these recaps to be more stream-of-consciousness than anything, and I want to avoid puzzle spoilers (I want you to try these puzzles yourself!), so I'll try to be vague enough in my summaries while still being intriguing.

Here goes:

--Big news for themeless fans: Peter Gordon is attempting to get the band back together for the Post Puzzler. The themeless challenges that appeared every Sunday in the Washington Post for 5 years were often the solving highlight of the week for me. Now Peter's going independent, launching a Kickstarter campaign. It's got a lofty funding goal, and time is ticking, so I urge themeless fans to back this project. Only 50 cents a puzzle!

--Brendan Emmett Quigley's got a boss site that he updates twice a week, but in addition to that he's started a Marching Bands subscription service that features a new puzzle every two weeks. So far, the series has been great - though I would say the difficulty has been a little on the easy side. This isn't a negative criticism, just an observation. I do love the Band entries that turn multiple corners, as they do in his latest puzzle (#5). For only $10 a year, it's a steal of a deal.

-Todd McClary continues to kick ass and take names at his site, Life As a Puzzle. His latest offering in his Unthemely series featured some spectacular clues and entries, especially at 26-D and 54-A (which I fell into a humorous yet off-color trap that I'm not sure was intentional). Another reason to back the Postmodern Puzzler is that Todd is a member of Peter's constructing cadre. Extremely high quality stuff, and for word list buffs, he regularly posts blog entries that recap his latest additions to his lists. Check it out.

-Erik Agard continues to have RIES in his word list, clearly. It showed up again in his Themeless #35; I think I've been an entry in his puzzles three times. Matt Gaffney has done it a few times too; I've told Matt that I actually think it's pretty crappy as fill goes. Erik's themelesses are always a treat, and he really is a cluing master. Congrats on his making the American Values Club constructor roster; his meta "Have a Blast" a few weeks ago was terrific on multiple levels. I especially liked it because I actually solved the meta - I seriously don't think I've ever gotten a meta when he posts them on his site. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

-I think it's safe to say that the hardest themelesses in indie puzzle land are found at Tim Croce's site, Club 72. He jam-packs a ton of fresh entries in each offering. It's a rarity for me to solve one in less than ten minutes. Much of the difficulty is because of the vibe that Tim is channeling, and it's just not in my wheelhouse. Internet memes are frequent fodder for entries in his puzzles - a bit risky, in my opinion, because they are a bit on the ephemeral side. But that's a benefit of indie puzzling - they don't need to sit around for a year or more waiting in an editor's queue. It's not uncommon for Tim to put entries in his puzzles that are based on news less than 24 hours old - like his Freestyle #38, for instance. If Caleb Madison (the new puzzle editor at Buzzfeed) wants themelesses, I think Tim would be all over that. But so far Tim's going strong, and he's prolific - he's doing two puzzles a week, with variety formats taking a major part in the fun too.

That's it for this round-up; I did five nuggets, so maybe that's what I'll do from now on. Join the discussion! Feel free to drop a comment below.