The Boswords Themeless League Returns Soon (Plus Some Puzzle Activism!)

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The Boswords summer crossword tournament has been a highlight of the puzzly calendar for years now, but during the pandemic, they also made a splash with their Fall and Spring Themeless Leagues.

And registration is now open for the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League!

If you’re unfamiliar, the Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

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Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers register to participate, they’ll choose the difficulty level that suits them best.)

Sign up, and you get two months of puzzly fun running through October and November!

Plus, they’ve already announced a dynamite lineup of constructors for this season’s puzzles. Here’s the full list: Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, Mollie Cowger, Debbie Ellerin, Leslie Rogers, Quiara Vasquez, Byron Walden, Nam Jin Yoon, and the team of Angela Olson Halsted and Doug Peterson.

There’s a terrific mix of established names and up-and-coming constructors there, and I expect the season to be a terrific exploration of the best of themeless crosswords.

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The project is once again being spearheaded by the dynamic duo of John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber will be the puzzle editor.

It’s only $30 to enter as an individual participant ($40 for Pairs), but there’s also a student/discount level for participants who may find the $30 price tag too steep. (There are also puzzle packets from the previous Themeless Leagues available for $10 apiece.)

The Boswords Seasonal Themeless League events have not only opened my eyes to the creativity and skill required for themeless crosswords, but they’ve become some of my favorite parts of the puzzly calendar.

Be sure to click this link for more information, sample puzzles, instructional videos, and more.

And you can check out our thoughts on both the 2020 Fall Themeless League and the 2021 Spring Themeless League for more info as well!


Puzzling and charitable acts often intersect. This is true of the Boswords team with their wonderful discounted option for participants, as well as their donation to Boston-based charities from the proceeds of their summer tournament

And while we’re discussing the intersection of puzzling and doing good, it’s worth mentioning that there are numerous examples of crossword projects working hand-in-hand with social activism for the greater good.

Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and the charity puzzle packets organized by our friends at Lone Shark Games are only a few examples. All of them provide puzzle bundles for you to enjoy if you show them that you’ve donated to worthwhile charities and other helpful groups and causes.

But there’s another one you might not have heard about: These Puzzles Fund Abortion.

This puzzle packet, originally created to raise funds for the Baltimore Abortion Fund, contains the work of over a dozen constructors, and serves as a marvelous incentive to donate to abortion funds all over the country.

Please click this link hosted by Just Gridding for more information. It’s a terrific way to do some good.


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Where to Look for Crossword Reviews/Commentary?

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Occasionally, we’ll get a message from a PuzzleNationer who wonders why we don’t review the daily New York Times crossword or some of the other prominent daily newspaper crosswords.

It makes sense to ask. After all, we try to cover all things puzzles and games here — great clues, trivia, brain teasers, puzzles in pop culture, interviews, game reviews, how to’s, puzzle history, the Crossword Mysteries — so why not the top crossword outlets?

Well, to be honest, there are already several crossword blogs doing a dynamite job of covering those. So today, I want to discuss some top-notch blogs that discuss and review the daily crosswords!

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For the New York Times crossword alone, there’s Wordplay, XWord Info, and Rex Parker.

Wordplay is the official New York Times crossword blog, and not only do you get great analysis from knowledgeable minds, but you get live solve-alongs, insight from constructors, and more.

XWord Info is my go-to for details on construction and a fair, informative review. People occasionally accuse XWord Info of being too favorable to the puzzles/constructors, but I think they call it right down the middle, and there have been times where reviewers and constructors leveled stern criticism at a puzzle’s editorial process OR how it was discussed on XWord Info itself.

Rex Parker’s blog can be more critical of Times puzzles — as we’ve said before, he borders on the curmudgeonly — but he has terrific advice about grid construction, theme entries, and more that several constructors have told me proved to be invaluable in their early days learning to construct.

His blog is probably not for everybody, but he remains one of the most influential voices in crossword reviewing today.

Oh, and if you’re looking for some terrific reviews of the NYT Mini Crossword, check out this great Instagram account!

Of course, the NYT crossword isn’t the only game in town.

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If you’re a fan of the Los Angeles Times Crossword, there’s the terrific L.A. Times Crossword Corner blog to keep you up to date on that puzzle, breaking every puzzle down clue by clue. (There’s also LAX Crossword, which offers answers and clue explanations.)

If you enjoy the USA Today crossword, Sally Hoelscher offers Sally’s Take on the USA Today Crossword daily, offering up theme explanations, things she learned from the puzzle, and sharing terrific opinions and thoughts that would absolutely be beneficial to newer solvers.

And although it’s not a blog per se, the XWord Muggles Forum offers an interactive space to discuss and break down the Wall Street Journal weekly crossword contest, as well as other meta crossword puzzles.

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But, if you’re looking for more of a one-stop-shop experience, then you should check out Diary of a Crossword Fiend.

Crossword Fiend covers NYT, LA Times, WSJ, Universal, USA Today, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Newsday, The Inkubator, AVCX, and more! Not only that, but you’ll get reviews of puzzles from independent constructors like Elizabeth Gorski’s Crossword Nation, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords, and others.

They post their solving times, analyze the puzzles, and spread the word about other puzzly projects and crossword news. It’s a fantastic site.

And before I wrap up this recommendation post, I do want to shout out the community on Reddit’s r/crossword subreddit. It’s a forum for discussing puzzle opinions, sharing works from aspiring and developing constructors, and yes, reviewing and sharing thoughts on the major outlets (mostly the NYT).

Most of the posters and commenters are genuinely good folks who love crosswords and enjoy discussing them, and it’s a pretty pleasant place to visit if you’re a crossword fan.

Do you have any favorite Crossword Review Blogs that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Indie 500 Puzzle edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

June 4 marked the second annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Andy Kravis, and Angela Olsen Halsted. And instead of last year’s racing theme, this year was prom-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and after a few weeks, I had the opportunity to sit down and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, after a few weeks’ reflection, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


[Image courtesy of Teen Vogue.]

Puzzle 1: Canned Music by Peter Broda and Lena Webb

The opening puzzle got solvers off to a playful start with three themed song titles tied together by the phrase “That’s my jam,” highlighting the love of wordplay that typifies the Indie 500 puzzles.

Broda and Webb’s partnership was a fruitful one, giving us a nicely constructed grid with very little crosswordese (and a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference to boot!).

Interesting grid entries included PHONES IT IN, BUPKIS, WATERWORN, and BIKER BAR, and my favorite clue was either “Server error?” for LET or “Cans of Prince Albert, for short?” for WCS.

[Image courtesy of TheChive.com.]

Puzzle 2: A Modest Promposal by Andy Kravis and Neville Fogarty

Five prom-themed puns awaited solvers in this 17x effort, making it quite a bit easier than last year’s Puzzle #2 (which involved shared boxes and some diabolical letter swaps), but remained a very fun and engaging solve. The punny entries were colorful, definitely bringing back memories of forgotten prom tropes from my own high school days.

I was surprised to see a little grid repetition with the word OUT in two different entries, but given the tight construction and fun vocabulary overall, that’s easy to overlook.

Interesting grid entries included EDWARD V, HOTWIRE, and R.L. STINE, and my favorite clues were “Wilson that Tom Hanks talks to a lot” for RITA, “Coastal retreat?” for EBB, and “Bird that’s a real head-turner?” for OWL.

Puzzle 3: I Now Pronounce You… by Sam Trabucco

Last year, Puzzle 3 was guest constructor Finn Vigeland’s time to shine, and this year, guest constructor Sam Trabucco ably stepped up to join the topnotch puzzlers that organized this year’s event. Sam’s puzzle interrupted the prom theme and centered around a bad cell phone connection, allowing tongue-in-cheek misheard words to populate his grid (like CORPSE for “Military subdivision”).

Interesting grid entries included DO THE MATH, SKYPE DATE, and HOT SECOND, and my favorite clues were “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA and “Apostrophe, in emoticons” for TEAR. (And points for effort should definitely go to the clue “El numero de Fibonacci despues de cinco” for OCHO. It’s not often that Spanish and math cross over in a clue like that.)

[Image courtesy of Freeway Dance Studios.]

Puzzle 4: Do I Hear a Waltz? by Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan

Without a doubt my favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament, Puzzle 4 hid its theme in its cluing rather than a series of themed entries. (One entry in the center hinted at the clever cluing construction). Instead, the words ONE, TWO, and THREE were missing from sequential clues, providing a hidden one-two-three count for the puzzle’s titular waltz.

For instance, 36-Across clued TRUMP as “Up,” 37-Across clued BIKINI as “Piece, say,” and 38-Across clued TITLES as “Peat makeup.” As you’d expect, those clues make much more sense when you add the hidden one-two-three: One-up = TRUMP; Two-piece, say = BIKINI; Threepeat makeup = TITLES.

None of the clues feel forced at all, and the fun fill of the grid allowed for a lot of interesting grid entries, like OH C’MON, TRUST ME, ART THIEF, T-REX, and FEMINIST.

My favorite clues were “Cafeteria trays, sometimes” for SLEDS, “Had a few spare moments, perhaps?” for BOWLED, and “High point on a mattress?” for CLIMAX (especially when “Low point on a mattress” for SAG was the previous clue).

[Image courtesy of Celebrity Radio DJs.com.]

Puzzle 5: Group Dance by the Indie 500 Team

For the penultimate puzzle, all of the organizers collaborated on a puzzle that utilized all of the previous themes, as well as having its own twist: two different hidden links. (The circled letters in the theme entries all spell out words that can follow the word WATER, as in WATERLOO or WATERSPOUT, while the shaded words can all follow the phrase LET IT, as in LET IT GO or LET IT RIDE.)

It’s an impressive way to tie all of the puzzles together and include the voices of all of the collaborators. (The clues themselves are even credited to different speakers.)

With interesting grid entries like PIT STAINS, EWOK, and NEAR YOU (along with some odd ones, like TEA BARS and SALARY LIMIT), the puzzle was challenging without being daunting or unfair.

My favorite clues were “Gatorade showers?” for ADS and “Really, really, really not look forward to” for DREAD.

[Say, since we’re talking crosswords, have you checked out the Penny Dell
Crosswords App for both iOS and Android devices? /shameless plug.]

Puzzle 6: The Dance-Off by Angela Olsen Halsted and Kameron Austin Collins

The closing puzzle of the tournament was offered in two difficulty levels: the Inside Track (designated for solvers who finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years) and the Outside Track (designated for everyone else). I opted for the Inside Track, then looked over the cluing for the Outside Track.

This themeless closer was the toughest puzzle of the day, as you might expect, with tough, conversational entries like OH COME NOW and IT’S SO EASY all over. But, despite the many long entries and tight construction, there was very little crosswordese or obscurity to throw you off-track. It’s a great grid with some brutal cluing.

My favorite grid entry was easily MWAHAHAHA, though SILENT A and HOT DAMN were close runners-up, and my favorite clue was “Person who tunes in on Sundays and sees a bunch of spoilers” for NASCAR FAN. Great stuff.


Overall, I thought this year’s Indie 500 was more accessible than last year’s, an engaging and worthy series of puzzles to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure. The prom theme was brilliantly executed, and the cluing surpassed last year in both cleverness and style.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!


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