Click the links above to see these puzzles organized by constructor, or to try solving them.
★ I appreciate a Thursday theme worth working to uncover. At first, I thought maybe BEETHOVEN had TEN symphonies – note TEN in BEETHOVEN! – and someone forgot to circle those letters?
But what a great idea, the solver having to COUNT THE SQUARES of the entry to arrive at the number asked for in the clues. BEETHOVEN = nine letters = nine symphonies. I vaguely remember seeing something like this before, but it felt far enough in the recesses of my mind to not lessen my delight.
ARACHNID = eight letters = eight legs. MARK SPITZ = nine letters = nine gold medals. Very cool!
MISSOURI isn't as specific since you could pick any state and find some piece of numerical trivial to fit. But the number of other states a state borders is a common enough piece of info.
Strong gridwork, too, Todd coming a long way in the past few years. Some of his earlier puzzles were kind of rough and gluey, but not this one. I appreciated all the long bonuses, CROUPIER, ULULATES, SNEETCHES. AE HOUSMAN was only vaguely familiar, but looking him up jogged "A Shropshire Lad" quickly back into mind.
It's unusual to weave a couple of long downs in the center of the puzzle – much easier to break those up. So HAUGHTY and SUITORS were even more welcome in my eyes.
A theme with a twist, strong long bonuses, and just a bit of ALEE, LTCOL, UNIV? Easy POW! choice. Very well done, Todd!
★ My POW! pick might come as a surprise to some. I enjoyed this one as a constructor, but surprisingly as a solver, too.
I had low expectations once I saw the huge OPEN floor PLAN of the grid, knowing that I'd have to slog through some glue or weirdness. Pleasantly surprised at how much fun I had! It's unusual to get snazzy entries in a grid like this, so DRUM ROLL, ACQUIRED / TASTES, and GAZELLES all in a single quadrant made me smile right off the bat.
DIVE BAR too? And HARANGUE? IV DRIP, MPEG FILE, even Ronda ROUSEY, CUSSER, WEASELED = fun stuff. That's way more pizzazz than I expected. A lot of entertainment and sizzle helped balance out the necessary evils.
I would restart a grid if I had to use BSTARS (or any other _STARS entry), but for one like this, that price seemed reasonable. UNNAILED was the only other one that stuck out as contrived, one of the UN- or RE- or -ER type entries I see all the time in ultra-low-word-count puzzles.
GREAVE was an oddball. But to get only one of these esoteric trivia answers was great.
This type of ultra-low-word-count is not my favorite themeless genre. But I think this one is close to best in class, and that warrants recognition.
★ Man, did I ever think Weird Al's songs (and name) were funny when I was a kid.
Heck, I still think they're hilarious and awesome! I'm jealous of Eric for getting the chance to work with the legend.
And what a fun concept they came up with, playing on "cheesy" movies, in an aptly Weird Al-esque way. Cheesy-related movie puns was a winner for me — big praise for someone tone-deaf when it comes to puns!
A FEW GOUDA MEN made me smile. Even more so when I thought of little yellow army men made of Gouda. FETA ATTRACTION … ever hear of the term "food porn"?
And imagining a movie where anthropomorphic blocks of Muenster tried to scare kids made me laugh too. Good stuff all around.
Extra fun in the cluing, too, a bunch of stuff that seemed as wacky as Weird Al himself. John CLEESE doing his "silly walks." (Much to my wife's chagrin, I still do them.) A TOUPEE = a rug you don't walk on. PEEL something you might slip on. It's a bit Weird Al, a bit Fozzie Bear, and a whole lot amusing.
A bit too much crossword glue for my taste, notably OSO feeling oh so globby, but some AFTS SRS AGRI REG isn't bad for a mid-week puzzle.
Overall, a satiric delight. I kind of wish Weird Al would write a crossword parody song and debut it IN A CROSSWORD the day before he released it. I call dibs on working with him if he takes on that idea!
★ OMG so frustrating for a good solid 10 minutes! I could not figure out what was going on. I had things like HURRICANE ___, and knew it had to be some sort of rebus. But what? And was I really supposed to remember the names of various hurricanes, for goodness sakes?
Wow, did everything flip for me when I *finally* got it. HURRICANE SANDY got reimagined as HURRICANE S and Y, the crossing answer using just the SY to complete NOT AS EA(SY). Mind-bendingly clever! Sam does make some PANDA puzzles – P and A for Puns and Anagrams — so that should have nudged me toward the puzzle theme much earlier. D'oh!
Jim once mentioned that he loved themes that were necessary to understand to solve the puzzle. I sort of got what he meant, but that notion fully clicked for me today, unable to figure out SANDY until I grokked the theme. Very cool.
I would have thought that the very limiting constraint of "word must follow the X AND Y pattern" would have produced some boring themers. Not so! LANDO CALRISSIAN, PANDA EXPRESS, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY made me a KID IN A CANDY STORE. Wonderful job of uncovering so many great phrases while adhering to a tough constraint.
A couple of minor dings here and there, most notably the GMEN / YEAH MAN dupe (crossing each other, oof), but I didn't mind at all because I was so delighted by the innovative theme. (Sorry Sam, I'm with Will and Joel on the iffiness of RIGHT FIT.) Along with super solid execution – some nice COMO ESTA, LEMME SEE, GO STEADY, AVE MARIA bonuses, with a pretty small amount of ignorable TGI, ECTO, DECI gluey bits – it was a big winner for me. POW!
★ Will has said that he's taking fewer "turning" puzzles these days (puzzles where theme entries take 90 degree turns) because they've become overdone. I appreciate that constant drive to cut out stale theme concepts. I even more appreciate the willingness to accept a few here and there, when they stand out as something a little different. I had to spend some time forming my opinion on this one, but ultimately, I thought it was really good.
What's going on with weird entries like MEGATS at 26-Across? It's actually MEGAT(SUN)AMI, with the entry turning at SUN, thus FOLLOWING THE SUN.
I scratched my head at why the answer wouldn't just keep on going down, though – why turn back to its original direction after running through SUN?
A-ha! Maybe it's like plants that follow the sun when the SUN goes behind a cloud (we have a few of those here in Seattle). Therefore, the answer SHOULD keep going in its original direction after running through the available SUN?
I think that makes sense. No?
And why do the themers on the right-hand side go up? That felt bizarre to me … until I realized that Finn was representing the SUN rising in the east (right side of puzzle) and setting in the west (left side)! Clever, made perfect sense and gave me a neat a-ha moment indeed.
Why three suns on each side? It must have been … the "three-body problem"? (A famous, intractable math/physics problem speaking to the effects of initial conditions.)
Sure, why not.
Slight theme reservations aside, such a pleasurable grid to run through. SO much great bonus fill, I almost appreciated it more as a themeless than a themed puzzle. All the ones Finn mentioned, plus more? (Some may not know the SUNK COST dilemma in economics, but it's fascinating.) Yes, yes, yes!
Even though I had initial reservations about the concept, I enjoyed that "rising in the east, setting in the west" a-ha moment so much. Along with such a delightful grid replete with fantastic fill, this puzzle ended up being a SUNny delight.
★ Robyn is quickly becoming one of my new favorite themeless constructors. I've loved her voice in the past, what with glorious seed entries such as MADE YOU LOOK, MIRACLE MAX, TRACTOR BEAM, RON WEASLEY. Sometimes you feel like you're right on the constructor's wavelength, and Robyn knows how to tickle my fancy.
Sure was the case today with LIVING DEAD, KING ARTHUR clued to "Monty Python," and that delightful WINEMAKER clue, [Port authority?]. Beautiful stuff!
Better yet, Robyn's been honing her work, continually perfecting her craft. I'd found some of her prior themelesses lacking in grid flow (choke points cutting off sections of the grid from each other), or using too much crossword glue. Not the case today! There's an ESTE and AMAN, but I'd happily take those for all the goodies she worked in.
And the goodies! Starting off with 16 long (8+ letters) slots is a tough ask — most constructors will manage to convert maybe only 10 of those into sizzling entries. Robyn used hers to the (miracle) max, SOUND BITES, FLOORS IT, I SMELL A RAT, etc. No THERE THERE needed, because everywhere I turned, more great stuff.
Perhaps NATTERED was more neutral than an asset? But even that is a pretty fun word. JEREMIAH may be dull for some, but what a great nickname in "The Weeping Prophet"!
And the cluing! WINEMAKER's clue was the highlight for me, but such an innocent [Full of ups and downs] for HILLY. [Make a (GARDEN) bed?]. A TUNER gets you from station to station (not a train). [School card] wasn't a report card, but a card, as in a joker; a CLASS CLOWN. So entertaining!
Loved this one. As much as I like variety in themeless constructors, Robyn is one of the few people whose byline I'd like to see perhaps once a month. Maybe more.
★ I'm a sucker for innovative patterns in themelesses. I still greatly enjoy standard themeless layouts, as long as the fill is sparkly, but there's something so thrilling about seeing something new. Big swaths of white, swirling from SW to NE! More swirliness in the other corners! All done with pretty good grid flow, and a ton of long entries? Color me intrigued. Nervous, too – it's so difficult to fill a grid like this well – but intrigued.
Such a pleasure to get a snazzy triplet in the middle, FIXED ASSETS / HIGH AND AWAY / BARBARA EDEN. Okay, at least one of these could bore most anyone – finance haters, baseball haters, old sitcom haters. But I like the variety.
Personally, I like finance and baseball (at least the fun slang), but I did do some head-scratching at BARBARA EDEN. When I looked her up on Wikipedia … man oh man, that theme song! Though I never watched the show, I love that jingle.
Then, GEAR TRAINS and ICE CAPADES worked through the middle stack! As a gearhead, I love GEAR TRAINS. And [Arrangements of teeth?] obfuscating it made it even better.
And there was more — nice stacks in each of the four corners! Loved loved loved PIERCED EAR / ONE MAN ARMY / ISLAND HOPS. Such juicy answers!
Well, let's reduce that to two loves. Agreed with Ryan, BEERYS is one of the worst pluralized names I've seen in memory. Ick! I'd have preferred the black square at the S as Ryan described, but who knows what it would have done in the NW.
I personally would have never let BEERYS through. But if it enables such a great triplet of long entries, why wouldn't you? Woudja look at that, after all these years, I'm still adapting my thinking.
(Okay, I still probably would have fought like heck to get rid of BEERYS.)
Overall, great usage of his long slots, and I love the innovation and solid execution using a challenging grid pattern. Very impressive work from a relatively new constructor.
★ I love BJ NOVAK. He's an absolute genius! From writing for (and acting in) "The Office," to a book of short stories, to the most hilarious (non-picture) picture book ever, this guy is brilliant.
Probably didn't do much for you if you didn't know him, though.
And Lovecraft's "The Call of CTHULHU"! Another masterpiece, this inducing terrors so horrifying that I can't begin to describe it without creeping myself out.
Again though, if you didn't know that, it wouldn't do much for you. Even worse, that bizarre letter sequence – something starting with CTHU, really? – might be aggravating. Annoying, even.
For me, this was a fantastic, A-1 themeless puzzle. Well crafted, with SUCH great use of mid-length slots – LUDDITE, GO GREEN, SWAGGER, MACH ONE, DAD JOKE, DNA LABS, ROSE CUT, XS AND OS, RISOTTO. Themeless constructors, take note!
THIS IS THE WAY YOU SHOULD BE USING MID-LENGTH SLOTS!
Don't just be satisfied with having neutral filler in those precious seven-letter slots. Strive to use great material like this.
And CUE CARD is not just a excellent entry in its own right, but what a brilliant clue. At first (and at second and at third) glance, I had no idea what was going on. [Stage holdup?] didn't have anything to do with Old West robbers? No? A stage of a play? But how is a CUE CARD like a robbery?
It's literally held up (for actors' benefit) on stage.
For me, POW! The gridsmanship is beautiful. But I can see how it wouldn't be POW! material for others. For that reason, I hesitated. I'd guess that as NYT themelesses go, it might not be good — heck, it might even be bad, as it could turn off too many chunks of the solving population. Probably not a lot of intersection in the Venn diagram of BJ NOVAK and CTHULHU fans.
But hey, this is my award to give out, and I really enjoyed this puzzle. So there.
★ Now, these are the kinds of "hidden word" finds I like! It seems a little miraculous that something as long as DISCOVER could span two words of a normal phrase. AMEX is shorter and thus easier to work with, but that X ratchets up the difficulty. And even VISA's VI or VIS is no joke. Three great discoveries made for a great theme, CARDHOLDER a perfect revealer. Delightful!
Made me wonder what other possible themers were out there. VIS A VIS is the obvious one, but that doesn't hold a candle to the awesome ELVIS AND ME. There's NOVI SAD, the Serbian city, but that seems hardly crossworthy — not novice friendly, in any case.
And such a wealth of rare letters in the fill, (mostly) worked in so smoothly! Two Js, three Xs, two Zs, that's way more than a usual puzzle contains. ITEN was a price to pay for the two Zs in OZZY, but I was okay with that trade-off.
The only hesitation I had before giving this the POW! … two crossings that I worried might trip up newer solvers:
So the J in AJAX is the one rare letter that I didn't think was worth it, leading to a tough crossing that might trip up newer solvers.
But overall, I loved the theme DISCOVERies (I did wonder about MASTERCARD to get the full set, but what are you gonna do?) and 95% of the grid execution.
★ Loved it! I'm always nervous when I see a triple-stack — way too much crossword glue usually needed, destroying elegance — but this one was a delight. I mean, ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE! I admit that "28 Days Later" scared the bejeezus out of me, and let's not even mention "World War Z," but ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE is a feature entry I would have loved to debut.
Plus LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, the guy behind "Hamilton"? IN ALL PROBABILITY, this might be one of my favorite triple-stacks of all time. Especially considering Finn pulled it off with just an INO and the DTS.
Okay, I admit I didn't know Miranda until people made fun of me for that at the ACPT a few years ago. But now I know him! Prolific writer, even hosting SNL. Amazing guy.
And Finn kept the rest of the grid wide open, running the awesome MLB DRAFT, GOLDEN PEN (didn't know it, but what a great award name!), LIBATIONS, THESSALY through the stack. Such flowing grid design, never bottlenecking.
Heck, even the NW and SE corners have some sizzle, especially that SE with SWIFFER, SOLO CUP, and D LIST. The NW didn't have much sparkle, but the clue for ORGAN was awesome — [Player in a baseball stadium] is so innocently misdirectional.
The one sticking point I had was LATE APRIL. We recently had MID MARCH, and I didn't like the arbitrary feel of that either. But if LATE APRIL (or APRIL SECOND or END OF APRIL or THIRD WEEK OF APRIL) was required to make the flowing grid keep flowing, I think it's an okay price to pay.
This is one of my favorite themelesses in recent memory. Elegant to solve, visually stunning, and a technical marvel from a construction standpoint. I give it a Miranda-worthy Standing O.
★ For early-week puzzles, I like to play the "guess the theme" game. If I can guess it within one or two themers, I usually feel like it's too simple. After uncovering just AF/RAME, I rolled my eyes and said SPLIT LEVEL HOUSE. What a great surprise to have the much more fun HOUSEBROKEN!
Nice to get a humbling Jeff-is-wrong moment once in a while.
(There are a lot of them.)
Something so pretty about those circled letters. Often, circles in puzzles tend to distract me, but I liked these.
Not a lot of sizzling themers, but RAMEN NOODLE and LEXICON were both strong. (READ UP and OLAF aren't going to win any awards. EPOCHAL … huh. It's dictionary supported.)
If Emily had only broken CHALET into CHA/LET, making way for something more interesting, like CAPTCHA … or I GOTCHA!
Speaking of I GOTCHA, I thought Emily shined in her gridwork. URBAN SPRAWL and PENNANT RACE were both fantastic, as were I GOTCHA and SHERMAN, especially working in his "WAR is hell" quote. I even dug THRACE, a throwback to my favorite world history classes.
And then there was the short fill. Great attention to detail! Emily did have a great deal of flexibility, the ___RAN, CH___ patterns having a ton of possibilities, for example. But with so many of them to fill around, many constructors would have ended up with a lot more crossword glue.
Finally, loved that WELSH clue. What a crazy awesome WELSH name, Llwynywermod.
All in all, an excellent Tuesday puzzle, one I'd be happy to recommend to newer solvers. Nothing flashy, but very solid.
★ Love this theme! Alex interprets ISLAND HOPPING as "skip the island embedded in the phrase/word, resulting in a new word." S(CUBA) TANK to STANK was particularly nice, as was BAL(TIMOR)E to BALE. Beautiful finds.
CON(CRETE)S to CONS wasn't as awesome, as it was odd to get CONCRETES in the plural. VER(BALI)SE to VERSE too — if only we were in Britain! Or VERZE had been a real word. It really should be.
Great execution on the grid. Working with five themers, the middle one sort of cutting the grid in half, is rarely easy. Beautiful results in the big NE corner, EVIL TWIN particularly nice (I'm an identical twin, and clearly the evil one).
The SW corner did contain the awkward pluralised (not -ized, to keep with the Britishising today) KEVINS, but how great are IN DENIAL and SOUR NOTE? Well worth the price of KEVINS.
And two standout clues were the cherries on top:
Speaking of that, SCRIPTS, TS ELIOT, OH SNAP, MONOCLE, TEFLON — fantastic use of the mid-length slots.
Fun, tricksy theme, excellent execution. I paused slightly before giving this the POW! due to the two themers that made me hitch, but overall, this is very close to my Thursday puzzle ideal.
My favorite type of creativity is the ability to merge different ideas from multiple disciplines into something new. David excels at that today, using FOUR LETTER WORDS from English and "four-letter" words from cryptology / frequency analysis to produce a perfect Tuesday theme.
Still haven't figured it out? SASSAFRAS is made up just of A + F + R + S, SENESCENCE = C + E + N + S, etc. As someone who loves trivia and oddities about words, this one was right up my alley. I've heard all sorts of factoids about longest words that can be a different word when read backward, longest words of one syllable, etc. but this was new to me.
I wondered why OMOO would show up in a Steinberg puzzle — he's usually more careful about his short fill ... oh! Seven (!) theme answers is the reason. That'll strain your grid but good.
But! Hardly any other crossword glue. Plus the fun shorties David mentioned, along with Casey STENGEL's awesome nickname, "The Old Perfessor," TETRIS. Now that's the way to make your short fill stand out!
Innovative, entertaining theme + standout execution = POW!
★ I'll admit, I had no idea what was going on until well after I uncovered the OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE revealer. Okay, I'll admit it was well past filling in the last square-- and re-reading the clue for OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE several times — before I finally figured it out.
Check out row 3 — ABE FORTAS is hiding in there, "obstructed" in two spots by black squares! Same in row 7, with EARL WARREN similarly "obstructed." So cool to see long, full names hidden throughout the grid. ELENA KAGAN within TO HELEN / AKA / GANYMEDE is beautiful.
So although it took some work and an embarrassingly long time to grok, what a neat a-ha moment when I finally cottoned to the idea. I highlighted the six names below, in case you haven't found them yet.
How awesome would it have been to get all the nine current Supreme Court justices? I spent some time wondering if that would have been possible … not really. Not only is it extremely tough to work in 10 themers (nine justices + OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE), but how are you going to hide JOHN ROBERTS? Stupid -HNR- string of letters! And good luck with RUTH BADER GINSBURG.
Still, a guy can wish.*
Grid played out like a solid themeless for me, loving the WANNABE, SABOTEUR, GO DARK, NEW WAVE, TAJ MAHAL, THE BOSS kind of fill (although I didn't care for the THE dupe, THE BOSS crossing THE PEARL). I enjoyed the solve even without understanding what was going on — so many good bonuses, with just a bit of OLA, NEBS, ANSONIA (how else are you going to hide SONIA, I guess), etc. Felt like an elegant, well-constructed grid.
If Joel could have figured out a way to make it work with all nine current justices, this would have been an easy POY! (year) choice. As is though, a fun, smooth solve, with a beautiful moment of clarity for this constitutional law lover = POW!
*I'm lucky enough to count Will as one of my daily readers. He recently wrote me with some feedback, that some of my wish-list ideas come across as too audacious or even impossible, and therefore aren't that useful. I agree that many of my dreamy notions are impossible, like the one today. Ridiculously impossible! But I'm hoping that these lofty ideas spur on constructors, both veteran and novice, to go on to create bigger and better puzzles. Think big!
★ A triple of MAJOR LABELS / DARE TO DREAM (love it!) / LITTERBOXES with a funny "kitty corner" clue makes for a great centerpiece. Getting DART GUN, EGO TRIP, EASY RIDER, and THE BEEB (nickname for BBC) running through it makes it outstanding.
Stairstacks like this depend on the NW / SE corners to give extra sizzle, and Peter delivers on both counts. VOODOO DOLL was my favorite entry, and the awesome "sticking point" clue made it even better. POWER LEVEL was a fun one for this huge "Clash Royale" player (giant + night witch is my deck of choice).
Not as wild about TAKE AIM AT in the other corner — felt more neutral than an asset, given that added preposition — but ONE AT A TIME makes me imagine some poor bureaucrat imploring people to wait. And BRAKE FLUID is pretty good.
Stairstack puzzles can finally eke out a bit more juice in the SW / NE corners, but this is a tough task, given that these corners are already constrained by that middle stair stack. CAPITAL M was good, especially since it misdirects to the ENVELOPE in the Gmail logo — sneaky that both are eight letters! — but DIGICAMS and LOAN OUT didn't do much for me.
I normally love THE FEDS as an entry, but the minor dupe with THE BEEB nearby felt inelegant.
Such a smooth puzzle, maybe just INCANT a bit of an odd duck. So few constructors can get so much snazz packed into a 68-word grid without relying on any short crossword glue as a crutch.
Overall, another beaut from one of my favorite themeless constructors.
★ What a nice Christmas present, opening up another Lempelian delight. Like Lynn mentioned, I'd seen this theme a few times before — disguised synonyms for HIT — but I still got an a-ha moment because she did such a great job obfuscating CLOCK, BELT, BEAN (as in a beanball in baseball), PELT, and PASTE. Why had this huge "Peanuts" fan never thought of how apt LUCY VAN PELT's last name is?!
Great themer choices, too, colorful selections in SHOT CLOCK, SUN BELT, HIT PARADE, etc. Almost all of them I'd happily incorporate into a themeless.
Interesting choice to use the "windmill" layout of themers. That often allows for smoother fill because it spaces themers out to the max. Today, it lets Lynn squeeze two shorties — SUN BELT and WAX BEAN — into the center. A more traditional layout of "all themers in the across direction" would likely have resulted in more difficulty in filling, as putting six themers in the traditional way is no joke.
Neat that Lynn still managed to work in some beauties in the fill: CELSIUS, FAUX PAS, even MOXIE. The "windmill" layout's drawback is often a dearth of bonus fill, so good work here.
A bit more crossword glue that I'm used to in a Lempel, though: OTT, CSA (Confederate States of America), RAH, ILIE, RUSSE, VETOER. And a tough section for novices, CILIA / ILIE / SMELT. Given the simplicity of the theme, I would have preferred a stricter adherence to newbie-friendliness.
But overall, another gem of a puzzle from the early-week master, still at the top of my list of favorite Monday bylines. Such a pleasurable solving experience.
Speaking of pleasurable, heartfelt thanks to all our readers and site users out there. Jim and I know that you all have many URLs that attract your attention, so to continually get your eyeballs and feedback is a blessing to us. Happy holidays!
★ Sam had me at THE LEGION OF DOOM. Even if you don't know this one, what an incredibly catchy name! So catchy that the Seahawks nicknamed their Super Bowl defense "The Legion of Boom." That would also make a great feature entry in a themeless!
And it didn't stop there. Love the audacity of such a huge swath of white space in the middle of the puzzle. Stair-stacking five long entries atop each other is such a tough task. Often, an arrangement like this results in a ton of crossword glue and/or subpar long entries, but not today. AIRLINE FOOD is the butt of many jokes. GALLIVANTED is so entertaining to say. TECH SCHOOL felt slightly off at first (I was thinking "vocational school), but indeed, it's an accepted term. And a FISH STORY running through it all? Yes, please!
Now, HAVE A isn't great, and TALLAHASSEE is on the dry side, but what a great save on TALLAHASSEE — made me wonder what other cities have three sets of double letters.
Along with NERF ROCKET and SNAKE EYES, Sam hit my wavelength right on. It's an incredible amount of snazzy material to pack into a low-word-count (64) grid.
I didn't know what the GIRL CODE was. An equivalent to the "guy code"? The clue confused me even more, "sisterhood" making me think it was about nuns? It's tough to use this type of misdirection on an entry that might not be that well-known. (I'm told there was an MTV series called GIRL CODE?)
There was some ARIE, AGFA (no longer in business), DEBTEE kind of stuff I didn't care for, but the overwhelming amount of great material crushed those uglies down (with THE LEGION OF DOOM's death ray). Such a fun solving experience.
★ Tim wants us to BURY THE / HATCHET, embedding four AXs below the grid. Neat idea! It's been long enough since we've had a letters-outside-the-grid puzzle that this one made a strong impact for me. Thanks for spacing them out, Will!
One of the best aspects of these types of puzzles is that as a solver, I get phrases I've never (or seldom) seen in crosswords, since they're longer than the usual 15 letters. NONE OF YOUR BEESW(AX) is beautiful. Although SIT BACK AND REL(AX) is 15 letters, it's still fun. I also liked PERSONAL INCOME T(AX) and STELLAR PARALL(AX), although I'm used to seeing the latter as simply PARALLAX.
What made this puzzle a standout for me was Tim's execution. It's hard enough to work with four long themers and even harder to throw in a 7/7 revealer. The theme density means that there'll have to be heavy overlap somewhere and that usually results in crossword glue or wonky-sounding entries. Tim did end up with the odd BURL in the SW corner, but check out how smooth those bottom corners turned out. STELLAR work there.
The south region often suffers in a layout like this, because so many across entries have their start and end fixed into place. But it's so smooth. Such pro work down there.
Toss in a couple extras like TAMALES, ARMORY, OBOISTS, LAB MICE, and I'm an even happier solver.
Interesting theme + high theme density + overall smoothness = POW!
★ Great theme around actors, BIT PARTS hinting at "rebusized body parts." I never noticed this property about DENZEL WA(SHIN)GTON and DON C(HEAD)LE, even though they're some of my favorite actors. And what an apt title, FULL-BODY CAST!
I've become very picky about rebuses over the years. They used to be so novel; even rebusizing IN or ER was ground-breaking. These days, it takes a lot for me to consider a rebus worth solving:
I think Erik and Laura did all three very well. Where many constructors fall down is the second part of criterion #2. For example, it's not so interesting to have SHIN worked into PU(SH IN), but shorter down entries do make the grid much easier to construct. Thankfully, PU(SH IN) was more the exception than the rule today, as the down entries containing the body parts were so snazzy.
I mean, T(HE AD)VOCATE! I H(EAR) YOU! HE(LI P)ORTS! And my favorite, ROOKI(E YE)AR! Check out how much real estate those long down "themers" take up. That presents all sorts of gridding challenges, reducing flexibility a ton.
Now, the puzzle wasn't perfect. Considering the high strain put on the grid by all those long across AND down themers, it wasn't a surprise to get a good amount of crossword glue. Most of it was ignorable, but one thing that stood out for me was the abundance of partials — A WALK, T AIME, I ATE. Better to spread out your crossword glue — having so many of a single type makes them more noticeable.
But overall, such an entertaining theme, well executed with just a few issues here and there. Plus, a ton of bonus fill, including some stuff you don't usually see in the NYT: NARUTO and PORK ADOBO. I like that kind of diversity. It might not play well to mass audiences, but I like it when constructors (and editors!) take chances like this.
★ I must admit, when I got to UTURN, I shrugged. Answers making UTURNs (and other turns) have been done a ton. Will has mentioned that he's not taking as many of them these days because they've become overdone.
Man, was I glad to think about the puzzle some more! They aren't just UTURNS. They're U-TURNS!
Okay, that was clear as mud.
The U-turning answers are Us … and (U)niversities, as in Clemson U! Great double-interpretation of those UTURNS. This is one of my favorite types of a-ha moments, when you see two disparate ideas pulled together in a surprising way.
And the execution. If there's not an emoji for *kissing the tips of your fingers like at an Italian restaurant* there ought to be. A grid like this is so tough to make. Not only do you have short, bendy themers, constraining the grid in all sorts of inconvenient places, but you have to work in long fill that sparkles enough, to give solvers some wow.
AND you have to keep your crossword glue to a minimum? Level of difficulty = through the roof, at least if you're aiming to make your puzzle sing. And wow, did it sing. EVIDENCE BAG. PARIS METRO. TRADE ROUTES. ADULTERANT. Adulterant? Wha?
Well, three for four in the long slots ain't bad at all. This sort of construction is usually hard enough to pull off with resorting to ADULTERANT-ish neutral fill. To get such nice longies without compromising elsewhere, c'est Magnifique!
Only a bit of ISS, ESE, MIO, that's pretty good for a normal puzzle. To achieve such a low level of crossword glue on a much tougher than normal construction … just goes to show how good Andrew is.
Okay, GOTYE / COMEY / HESSE will be tougher for some newer solvers. But given the news these days, you gotta know COMEY. (sadly enough)
Enjoyed the unexpected a-ha moment, and loved it when studied under a constructor's lens.
★ Love this concept, two-word phrases that sound like ALLITERATION but don't start with the same letter. I've looked at the phrase PHOTO FINISH so many times in my life, but I've never realized that those two words are alliterative! Same with CAESAR SALAD. Very cool finds.
GENTLEMAN JOHNNY wasn't as much an everyday phrase, but it's such a great nickname.
KELLYANNE CONWAY didn't do it as much for me. Nice to have someone current and topical, but oof, does she bring up some ickiness for me. More importantly, I can imagine some solvers wondering how on earth Kelly, Anne, and Conway could be a triplet of alliteration. Felt like there might have been better options for a fourth themer.
I'm usually not that impressed by themer interlock, but I like what Peter did today. Something so elegant about the themers running through that ALLITERATION backbone. It does give away the game very quickly, as most solvers will read the ALLITERATION clue shortly after starting. But that was okay with me since even after reading it, I didn't understand the concept until solving two or three themers.
I enjoyed the theme so much that I gave this the POW! ... even though I think the grid is not right for a Monday. Not at all novice friendly. As a mechanical engineer, the first time I ever ran across MHO was through crosswords. DCV is pretty ugly (Peter and I have very different perspectives on random Roman numerals, though). The HEEP / LOGE crossing might prevent some newer solvers from a clean finish. And I can imagine novices bringing up the "you have to know weird esoteric stuff in order to do crosswords" argument with ANAPEST and TETCHY.
The theme is meaty enough, with hardish themers that felt more mid-weekish too. A real shame it was run on a Monday, where it might scare off newer solvers.
Not sure what the right answer is. It could have been Monday-ified by breaking up ANAPEST / STEERED into two words apiece, or losing some of the great bonuses, like IVORY TOWER and AB NEGATIVE. But I enjoyed those last two a lot.
Overall though, the idea was memorable, and that's hard to come by. POW!
★ Aside from colorfulness and smoothness, you know what makes a themeless stand out in my eyes? It makes me feel smart. I'm not ashamed to say I like having my ego stroked every once in a while, and when a Saturday puzzle tosses me a perfect alley-oop so I can reverse windmill jam for a SportsCenter highlight? That's what I'm talking about!
Okay, maybe plunking in GOTTA CATCH EM ALL without any crossing letters, or OTTER PUP off just the P in PAO isn't *quite* the equivalent of a spectacular dunk. But it felt like it.
(I can touch the rim, honest! Okay, on a 9-foot hoop. Fine.)
Overall, there were so many entries on my wavelength — classic TABULA RASA, MS DEGREE (of which I have two, neither of which I'm using now, huh), BETA TESTER with its brilliant non-question marked clue about a "bug catcher" (code bugs, that is), EATS CROW (which I often do, considering how many typos and errors readers point out!) … great stuff all around!
See that black square between HARE and BILES? I appreciated that Sam left it in. So many constructors would have taken it out to create triple-stacks in the NE / SW (instead of the doubles Sam has). Usually, I applaud those sorts of efforts to work extra sizzle into a grid. But with the central GOTTA CATCH EM ALL spanning the grid, I think Sam made the right decision.
Curious, huh? GOTTA CATCH EM ALL constrains the NE / SW to a surprising degree. Probably doesn't look like much — who cares about a little ALL fixed into place, you might ask? By itself, that is no big deal; easy to build a triple-stack around. But that's not the only constraint the corner faces. Look at how much flexibility you lose with that long BYGONE DAYS, and even the SHANDY ARM BAR arm-barring the stack from above. I'm all in favor of Sam's decision here.
A couple of blips here and there; RETAG is iffy, and EL ROPO feels esoteric. But such great craftsmanship overall.
A Saturday constructor's job is to create a tough challenge that the solver can ultimately struggle through to achieve a meaty, satisfying completion. I say YEAH DUDE! to Sam for this one.
★ Loved this theme. I've seen a lot of reparsing ideas, but to get MARKINGS changed to M A R KINGS, clued as [Midas, Agamemnon, Richard]? Brilliant! PASSPORTS into P A S SPORTS and HUSBANDS into H U S BANDS were also delightful changes in meaning. DIATRIBES into D I A TRIBES and APOSTATES into A P O states brought the total to five fantastic examples. Loved, loved, loved the concept; wish I had thought of it.
And what a beautifully executed grid. A ton of bonuses — almost too much. Big corners chock full of DAD ROCK (hand bashfully raised here), ENTROPY (why hasn't anyone written a crossword about one of my favorite physics concepts yet?!), DRINKER, PAROLEE / GRENDEL.
I admit, I didn't actually read "Beowulf" when I was supposed to. But I like feeling smart that I recognize the name GRENDEL!
Big corners with juicy material were just the start, too. Some longer bonuses in LPGA TOUR and CLEAR SKY, as well as ARS NOVA, a COP CAR lurking, YOU BET! Man, that's a ton of extras.
My only complaint was that I forgot about DIATRIBES and APOSTATES when I was admiring the themers. I was all set to ding the puzzle for only having three themers in MARKINGS, PASSPORTS, HUSBANDS. A more traditional layout would have had DIATRIBES and APOSTATES going horizontally, perhaps roughly where LPGA TOUR and CLEAR SKY. This would have helped themers stand out on their own, as solvers have gotten used to the convention of "longest across entries are themers."
That's not to say flouting convention is bad. There is something pretty neat about DIATRIBES and APOSTATES interlocking PASSPORTS. That's tough to do, and only can happen when the crossword gods smile down upon you. But in this case, I felt like the wow factor of that interlock didn't make up for the fact that the theme and bonuses got muddled up for me. Especially since LPGA TOUR kinda sorta looks like it ought to fit with this theme. If you squint.
But that's a minor point I bring up just for the sake of balanced analysis. Great theme, marvelous execution overall, and such little crossword glue that I couldn't find any to point out (maybe GROSZ, but the finance guy in me likes that).
★ ANIMAL CRACKERS all broken up at the bottom of the box … "cracked," you might even say! Clever interpretation of CRACKERS, meaning that some black squares crack, or divide, an ANIMAL in two (see below, highlighted).
Even better was that Herre stuck to long-ish animals typically seen in boxes of ANIMAL CRACKERS! Would have been easy to pick short animals like HEN or FROG or ELK, but that would have felt odd. Speaking of odd, not sure why it's unappetizing to eat a hen-shaped cracker vs. a ZEBRA or an ELEPHANT. I call fowl! Er, foul.
Well, it's not that difficult to split up semi-long words so that half ends an entry, and the other half starts another. Even a long guy like GORILLA gives multiple possibilities for *GOR and ILLA*. The latter not so much, but still, with I'll ask, ill-advised, ill at ease, etc., that's a good amount of flexibility.
BUT! Even with that flexibility, it's no joke to work around five pairs of themers. PHANT* doesn't give many possibilities, and when you must obey crossword symmetry, things can get hairy. I thought Herre did extremely well in the top half of the grid, working in some beautiful OH COME ON, NO GO AREA, I HOPE NOT bonus fill — all without crossword glue! Some might complain about LON Chaney, but he was a famous actor. Fine by me.
The bottom half didn't come out as nice, what with AMO, RCMP, AJOKE, LSTS, SYS — that's almost too much for one puzzle, and certainly too much for half of a puzzle. It's a much more difficult section to fill since CRACKERS is fixed into place, whereas the top had much more flexibility (MCGREGOR could have been dozens of other things). Along with the fact that Herre had to spend many of his black squares in the middle of the puzzle, sometimes you just have to accept that there will be compromises like this.
Herre could have gone down to just four pairs of themers, but only three animals would have felt light. Although the SE wasn't very elegant, I think it was a reasonable trade-off to get the higher theme density.
Given how well the theme was obscured, my solving experience played out like a pretty smooth themeless, and then the a-ha at the end was delightful — so much so, that I was able to overlook the gluey SE. Such a fun experience overall!
★ I'm a sucker for math and physics puzzles done well, and this one was right on my wavelength. I've seen this concept before — POINT, LINE, PLANE, SPACE forming a sequence, but it still eluded me during my solve, giving me a solid a-ha moment. Great job of picking theme phrases that were both snazzy and helped obfuscate the concept — PICKUP LINE and SNAKES ON A PLANE were such fun entries, plus they both hid the math meaning of LINE and PLANE. And what a perfect revealer in ANOTHER DIMENSION!
Damon went wide, with a 16x15 grid, to accommodate the revealer. Wide grids can get tricky, as you don't want to risk losing solvers' attention with the bigger, potentially sloggier grid, so it's even more important than usual to incorporate strong, colorful entries.
Damon started off well, with THAT'S NOT THE POINT a great theme phrase, not often seen in crosswords due to its 16-letter length. Then he tossed in some WIND POWER, PAPAL BULL, IP ADDRESS, even AKRON OHIO as LBJ's birthplace. That's a lot of great material to enjoy, even for (you poor pitiable) non-math types.
A couple of compromises to make it all work, in the form of IRR, STET, OONA, ERE, AERO. Given how much I enjoyed the theme and the bonus fill, I didn't mind all that … with the exception of AERO. Usually AERO wouldn't bother me much, but crossing it with LOG ON, where AERI / LOG IN work (almost) as well = no bueno! I hate finishing a crossword with an error if it feels like the error wasn't 100% my fault. Such a feeling of dissatisfaction.
But overall, solid math theme + juicy themers + a lot of bonus fill + not much crossword glue = one delighted solver.