The fourteenth edition of Lollapuzzoola, as is tradition, arrived on a Saturday in August, but for the second year in a row, it was hosted online to allow tournament solving from home.
I was not in virtual attendance, but I did sign up for the Next Day Division puzzle packet. Last weekend, I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at this year’s tournament puzzles, and I was not disappointed. Lollapuzzoola continues to push the envelope with inventive themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life.
This year’s theme was “This Time, It’s Virtual… Again.” Every puzzle had something to do with social media, social distancing, or some other aspect of virtual life that emerged during the pandemic, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.
Two rehearsal puzzles served as a warm-up for this year’s tournament crosswords. The first was constructed by Brooke Husic and Sid Sivakumar and entitled “Hit Me Up!” This puzzle immediately reminded solvers that anything could happen at Lollapuzzoola.
Not only were the theme entries reading down — which isn’t that weird, but it’s fairly uncommon — but there were animated GIFs as clues for three of the answers. The theme was fairly accessible: phrases that started off with a method of communication like ZOOM or TEXT, confirmed by the revealer CONTACT HIGH (since the method of contact was the highest part of the down entry). All in all, a puzzle with a solid hook, complimented by good grid fill. Exactly what you want from a warm-up.
The second rehearsal puzzle was constructed by the same duo (but with Sid leading off the byline this time) and entitled “Box Score.”
This was a strong follow-up, featuring the word WIN as a rebus-style single-box entry, which allowed for some devious crossings (like ENTWINE crossing RAW INGREDIENTS). The fill was smooth and I learned that KOREA is the home of the Baekdu-daegan mountains. Neat!
Puzzle 1: Extremely Casual Friday by Robyn Weintraub
The tournament puzzles kicked off with this enjoyable opener, a 15x grid with clean fill and quite the appropriate theme for a virtual tournament.
Each theme entry was a phrase starting with a type of pants — SWEAT, PAJAMA, YOGA, and hilariously, NO — tied together with the answer word PANTS in the bottom-right corner.
Well constructed, humorous, and a great solve… it’s the recipe for an ideal Lollapuzzoola puzzle #1.
Interesting grid entries included REPLY ALL, SLOPPY JOES, and BEST BET, and my favorite clue was “This puzzle was constructed by Brooke Husic, e.g.” for LIE.
[Here, Deb Amlen (blue checkmark and all) demonstrates Twitter tagging.]
Puzzle 2: Tag! by Amanda Rafkin
This 17x puzzle embraced the social media theme by embedding @ symbols in the grid as starters for the theme entries (where @ represented AT, like in @ASTANDSTILL), allowing for some fun crossings.
The theme was encouraged further by the revealer TWITTER MENTIONS, as well as a blue checkmark next to Amanda’s byline. (For the uninitiated, the blue checkmark, aka the blue tick, is used on Twitter to indicate someone is a verified user. It’s often a source of some small social media clout as well.)
With strong fill and some signature Rafkin flare — it’s very Amanda to have a Sondheim reference — this was a great confidence-building solve with a heap of style. I quite enjoyed this puzzle.
Interesting grid entries included AW NUTS, EYE DOC, and STAYED INSIDE, and my favorite clue was “Sound that might drown out some $%!#ing bad words” for BLEEP.
Puzzle 3: Get the Message by Sid Sivakumar
This 19x grid with vertical symmetry was a definite step-up in difficulty after the first two puzzles, but it’s also a strong puzzle with a great design.
The theme for this one involved chat/texting slang like TTYL and ROFL, and like the second rehearsal puzzle, it had a rebus element where those abbreviations were contained in a single box, used by two crossing entries. This was supported not only by the cluing — which included a fake username and comment to indicate some chat or textspeak was involved — but the revealer CHATBOX in the middle of the grid.
I probably wouldn’t have realized as quickly that there was a rebus involved if I hadn’t had rebuses on the brain after solving the rehearsal puzzles. But even without all hints, this was a fairly tight grid that made the most of its theme. (I wasn’t a huge fan of IN appearing three times in the grid, but that might be seen as a nitpick.)
Interesting grid entries included PRESS KIT, SASHAY AWAY, SIERRA MIST, and EVIL ONE, and my favorite clue was “Bar, barn, or barrel” for UNIT.
Puzzle 4: Connecting… by Brooke Husic
Okay, here we go.
Puzzle 4 was a 15x grid with one doozy of a gimmick. Most of the down clues were replaced with an animated GIF of three dots moving (like the one above), the instantly-recognizable image of a message either being typed or incoming, but that hasn’t arrived yet. (For Next Day Division solvers, there was no animation, just three dots, but the message was still clear.)
All the across clues were still there, and SOME of the down clues as well. The remaining down clues were long, and almost felt like the clues from a cryptic or British-style crossword, because they didn’t seem to quite fit the answers in the grid.
I can only imagine the baffled terror I would have felt in the moment during the tournament if I tackled this puzzle live. I imagine it would have been similar to this poor soul’s experience:
Thankfully, I finally realized what was going on. The down clues weren’t just for their particular coordinate, they were for all of the words in that column. For instance, 55-Down was clued “A+ hosts,” and the answer to 55-Down was MCS. That could fit. But only “hosts” applied to 55-Down. “A” and “+” were the clues for the two down entries above 55-Down: 1-Down ALPHA and 32-Down AND.
Across-only solvers probably got farther than most with this one at the start, and I can imagine the grid would feel almost impenetrable if you didn’t figure out the gimmick.
But man, this is clever as hell and a solving experience nobody is going to forget anytime soon.
Interesting grid entries included HIGGS, OPEN SECRET, and SVELTE, and my favorite clue was either “A+ hosts,” as listed above, or “Get the picture SO much” because “SO” clued BOO and I thought the misdirect was very clever.
Puzzle 5: You’re Muted by Patti Varol
After a brain-melter like Puzzle 4, Puzzle 5 was clearly designed as a cool-down puzzle before the tournament final. And I’m sure it served that purpose amiably for many solvers.
But for some reason, this theme took me the longest to get, and I felt so dumb when I realized how obvious it was.
This 21x grid featured theme entries where part of the phrase that sounded like “You’re” had been removed. For instance, JUNIOR EXECUTIVES became JUNE EXECUTIVES, and VEGETABLE PUREE became VEGETABLE PAY.
For some reason, the sound aspect of it just blew past me several times on the way to the forum, and I was done with the grid for MINUTES before it finally dawned on me. Patti is going to be so disappointed with me.
The theme is terrific and the grid fill is solid. This was a great capper for the tournament proper, helping bring (most) solvers back down to earth after the whirlwind that was Puzzle 4.
Interesting grid entries included SNIVEL, SINEWED, MOONSTRUCK, PHOTOBOMB, and ALL TIME LOW, and my favorite clues were “Dirt pie ingredient” for OREO and “Notable Ford of the 1970s” for GERALD.
[The tournament finals, live on Twitch!]
Puzzle 6: Finals by Wyna Liu
As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. No matter which clues you were working with, you were in for a terrific tournament finale.
This themeless 15x was tough but engaging, featuring lots of long entries and unusual phrases crossing, making for a satisfyingly challenge finale and a suitable final boss for the top contenders. The entry NHL MVP tripped me up more than once, what a brutal combination of letters, but the tight grid and strong cluing for both the Local and Express solvers made this an excellent wrap-up to a great day of puzzling
Interesting grid entries included CRAFT VODKA, THE ROYAL WE, “I’M NOT A CAT” (referencing that amazing online legal proceeding debacle), ACID ROCK, Y-AXES, and LEO X. Both the Local and Express sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:
- “Saved butt” for ROACH
- “Ah, this is the life (to Mario and Luigi)!” for ONE-UP
- “Ones for the books?” for SCHOLARS
- “Moving parts of a painting on ‘Scooby-Doo'” for EYES
- “What might require a blunt instrument?” for ROACH
- “Congress, after adjourning?” for BREAKUPSEX
- “Video game life form?” for ONE-UP
- “Cabs, e.g.” for REDS
- “Whence a popular countdown in Times Sq.” for TRL
There was also a tiebreaker themeless mini by Nam Jin Yoon. The mini was a quick and satisfying solve, anchored around the grid-spanning entries GATECRASHER and READ THE ROOM. Loaded with great vocabulary, this puzzle offered a nice wind-down after a strong tournament and several really engaging puzzles.
Interesting grid entries included RAHRAH and TOO SOON, and my favorite clue from the mini was “Some fishy characters?” for MERMEN.
[There was also a meta-puzzle suite AND a collection of ten mini-crosswords dubbed the Mid-Day Mini Meta which was constructed by a small army of strong up-and-coming constructors, both of which are absolutely worth your time.]
The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were neatly constructed, there was little crosswordese, and the creative themes, grid designs, clues, and puzzle mechanics ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the puzzles would linger in your memory. Especially Puzzle 4.
The puzzles were varied and engaging, and the Next Day Division solving experience is always a treat. Congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen, especially in a virtual format with so many additional solvers. (Click here to check out the Twitch feed of the entire tournament!)
Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year, and it’s just awesome to watch it grow and evolve.
I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!
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