You snooze your way through the Saturday New York Times crossword. You find Games Magazine‘s “World’s Most Ornery Crossword” to be rather agreeable. You are, in short, a crossword geek. What challenges are left?
Fortunately, the internet has become a fertile breeding ground for fantastic, novel American-style crosswords that can skip the newspaper and come straight to you. Within these independent puzzles, you’ll find clues, grids, and answers that simply wouldn’t fly in newspapers with a large number of subscribers. Six months or more into my various indie subscriptions, I’ve seen ANITA clued with the very up-to-date “games critic Sarkeesian,” a crossword that was also a “prison break” in which you sketched a phrase through white and black squares to effect your escape, and more than a few coarse words for human anatomy.
Here’s my quick guide to some great weekly crosswords that will take your puzzle-solving fun to new heights.
These crosswords are made by a range of constructors and then fine-tuned by the editors, much like regular newspaper puzzles.
What do you do when your print publication cuts funding for the popular puzzle you edit? Run a crowdfunding campaign to go independent, of course! At least that’s what Ben Tausig did when The Onion canceled its well-regarded AV Club puzzle.
The community response for American Values exceeded Tausig’s greatest expectations, which gave him the means to, among other things, make a constructor-friendly business model with high pay and generous rights–as he himself wrote in 2012–which attracts the country’s top constructors.
A notable feature of the puzzles is Tausig’s humor; a recent clue read, “Slender spear of the Bantu-speaking people: Var. (editor here: the answer is ASSAGAI. Just fill it in and we’ll pretend like this never happened.)” But he’s also willing to publish adult-themed clues you’d never find in a newspaper (“Only when it’s funny or fresh,” he says. “No juvenilia for its own sake.”) and, more importantly, grids you’d never find in a newspaper. “We do a lot more than when we were in print,” he says.
While the publication usually offers standard crosswords, the unusual grids stick in my memory the most. One fantastic grid from last year required you to only insert the Is and Os from every clue’s answer: PINOTNOIR became IOOI. The grid then spelled out a message in binary.
Subscriptions are $18 per year or $30 for two years for a weekly puzzle and a few bonus puzzles throughout the year. You can also buy individual puzzles for one dollar each.
Andrew Ries, mentioned below, describes his puzzles as “easy to hard, but not Fireball hard.” So it should be no surprise that Peter Gordon, Fireball‘s editor and publisher, describes his subscribers as “the top solvers in the nation” and pushes more challenging themes and clues as a result. At their hardest, they’re the puzzle I squeak through last in the week.
While the modern independent crossword publisher can look to Kickstarter for funds, Gordon had to be more creative when he started up in 2010. “It’s the oldest online-only pay-to-play crossword,” he says. “I had been the crossword editor for the New York Sun from its beginning, in April 2002, to its end, in September 2008. Since I worked far ahead, I had about five months of puzzles in the pipeline. So I got people to subscribe online for those, publicizing it through the blogs. Those leftover puzzles ended in February 2009. But I then had email addresses of people willing to pay to get puzzles by email, and I asked them all if they would subscribe if I launched a new puzzle.” They said yes, and Fireball has seen subscription growth ever since.
Gordon attracts constructors by paying more than other publications. And he sounds like a great editor for a constructor to work with. “I … work with writers at every stage,” he says. “You don’t have to submit a full puzzle. First I look at just the theme. Once that’s accepted, then the grid. And only then do I ask the writer to write the clues. I also show them the edited puzzle long before it runs so they can tell me if they don’t like a change I made.”
In addition to the weekly Fireball subscription, he offers a new crossword that is centered around current events and news topics. At $6 for 20 crosswords, it’s one of the best values around.
Fireball subscriptions are $25.80 for the calendar year. If you subscribe, you’ll get the puzzles from earlier in the year as well.
These publications feature a single constructor writing his or her own crosswords.
When a Matt Gaffney grid shows up in my inbox, filling it in is usually pretty straightforward; it’s solving the real puzzle that I rarely manage. Gaffney’s crosswords always yield a meta answer that you must deduce. For instance, a recent puzzle wanted “a word often found in crosswords” and featured answers in which you had to write OVA all in one square.
That’s an easy one. The difficulty cycles through four stages, with the hardest ones being seemingly impossible even though they’re fairly clued. For instance, one recent grid contained answers that would lead you to read the eleventh syllables of haikus formed by consecutive clues for the crossword grid. It sounds boggling, but when I read the answer, I thought “Oh, of course!” and not “That’s unfair!”
Subscribers who correctly guess the meta-answer can fill out a form and be eligible for a weekly prize of any of Gaffney’s books. Subscribers who get all the puzzles in a month are also eligible to win a pen, pencil, and notepad set. Subscribers who manage to solve all the metas in a year are eligible to win yet one more prize, which varies from year to year.
Subscriptions are $26/year.
Andrew Ries is a name you’ll see in other puzzle bylines, including The New York Times, which makes the weekly publication of his own puzzle even more amazing. And that’s before you learn that he also produces frequent Rows Garden puzzles.
Aries came about after Ries did some one-off crosswords for the publisher of the crossword app CRUX, who eventually asked if he would do a weekly puzzle. I’ve had mixed success solving his puzzles–the Harder classification is usually a real struggle–but I’ve always enjoyed them.
He describes his style as “fresh themes with clean fill,” though he also describes his themes as “pretty traditional, especially in the Easier and Medium difficulty levels. From the start I wanted to appeal to beginning solvers as well as veterans.” He also usually steers clear of the saltier aspects and fourth-wall-breaking clues of other indies. “My philosophy is, you’re going to have to include some crap every now and then. When you do–make the clue quick, painless, and unmemorable.”
He also does occasional meta suites, where a sequence of puzzles ties together into a larger puzzle.
Subscriptions are $12 for one year or $20 for two years. The Rows Garden subscription is $19.99 per year.