The 2018 Orca Awards

Live from the Orcas Red Carpet!

Welcome to the 2018 Orca Awards! If you’re new, the Orcas is our annual celebration of outstanding achievement in crossword construction and editing. Awards include Best Crossword of 2018, 2018 Constructor of the Year, and Best Gimmick Crossword of 2018. On this, our eighth year, we’re introducing a new category, Best Variety Crossword. That brings the total number of Orcas awarded to an even ten. Alas, that means you’re in for a post that’s about 11 percent longer than usual.

Festivities start below the jump. First, though, the fine print. Finalists for each award are selected based on a combination of the star ratings awarded by readers of this site, the independent assessment of puzzles by the Selection Committee (a formal term for “me”), and consideration of puzzles not reviewed on this site. As in past years, no one constructor was nominated more than twice in any one category. Given these constraints and general human fallibility, some good puzzles worthy of recognition are sure to slip through the cracks. If one of your favorites is not feted here, feel free to give it some love in the Comments.

Let’s get the party started with the award for Best Easy Crossword of 2018!

BEST EASY CROSSWORD OF 2018: Untitled, by Jennifer Nutt (NYT, Oct 3)

BEST EASY CROSSWORD OF 2018: Untitled, by Jennifer Nutt, NYT (October 3). It was the second homage to constellations in 2018 from the NYT (Jeff Stillman had a puzzle featuring the Big Dipper on May 22), but this one is a construction tour de force. Rather than using an alphabetic string to connect the stars like the prior puzzle, this tribute to and visual depiction of CASSIOPEIA uses Xs, a more apt representation of a star in the first place. But that means Jennifer had to contend with five Xs that are relatively close together in the grid. One expects the constraints to warp the fill, but that’s not the case here, as everything around the Xs is so smooth that it’s easy to overlook their nearness.
Jennifer uses THE NEREIDS (to whom Cassiopeia favorably compared herself) to balance out the revealer, adding even more thematic material to the grid. But wait, there’s more! Even POSEIDON, the dude that banished Cassiopeia to the sky, appears in the grid, opposite ETHIOPIA, where Cassiopeia ruled! That’s 36 theme squares PLUS the visual depiction of the constellation through the use of Xs. All these constraints and everything remains accessible and smooth? That’s some magic there. The best word to describe this puzzle? Stellar. (Thank you, I’m here all week.)

There were many contenders for this award. Here are the Honorable Mentions for Best Easy Crossword, in order of publication:

  • “Bees Do It,” by Freddie Cheng, WSJ (March 21). BUZZWORDS is [Snazzy jargon, and a hint to the starts of the starred answers], namely KILL ME NOW, SAW THAT COMING, CUT IT OUT ALREADY, and OFF TO THE RACES. The old “this word can precede the first words in the long Acrosses” gimmick hardly feels stale when the long Acrosses are juicy ones like these. Despite 59 squares devoted to thematic material, the surrounding fill is beautifully smooth and fresh. Highlights include NO BIG DEAL, STYROFOAM, and GETS IT. A common thematic approach, yes, but one that’s deftly executed in this expert offering.
  • Untitled, by Michael Hawkins, NYT (July 11). This puzzle re-interprets RADIO SILENCE, BUZZ KILL, and SOUND OFF as terms that describe what happens when you hit the SNOOZE BUTTON on your alarm. (That’s the second nominated puzzle with BUZZ in it. Apparently BUZZ is Orca bait.) Plus there’s all the snazzy fill like GHOSTED, NEW TAKE, UNICORN, HOT YOGA, ONE-TIME, LASH OUT, STARGAZING, BUSH SR, and WORD LENGTH. Little wonder this puzzle got Puzzle of the Week over on xwordinfo. Even Rex Parker raved: “Clean fill, interesting fill, very acceptable theme. I’ll take it.” (That counts as a rave from Rex.)
  • Untitled, by Patrick Blindauer and Tony Orbach, NYT (October 17). This was the triple-stack of flapjacks, where PANCAKE appeared three times in the grid’s center, each time clued in a different way (once as food, once as a verb, once as makeup). The puzzle is remarkable not just for its use of a repeated word theme but also for its left-right symmetry and the presence of two syrups, AUNT JEMIMA and HUNGRY JACK, running along the sides. The non-thematic fill included SHE’S A LADY, C’EST LA VIE, IN TROUBLE, PENNY LANE, and CLAP-TRAP. I’d say more about this puzzle, but I’m gonna stop here and have some breakfast. I’m hungry.
  • Untitled, by Kathy Bloomer, NYT (November 12). Few debuts land Orca nods, but this Monday puzzle was nearly Lempelian in its elegance. STICK A FORK IN IT, GAG ME WITH A SPOON, and GO UNDER THE KNIFE, all unified by the plea to COME TO THE TABLE. That’s a quintessential Monday theme–tight, straightforward, interesting. Then there’s the fill like KEELS OVER, PUT ON AIRS, T-BALL, WHO KNEW, and DON’T ASK. Some readers just couldn’t get over IGLU, but whatevs.
  • Untitled, by Ed Sessa, LAT (November 14). This puzzle featured five stacked LAYER CAKES. SHORT was atop POUND, ALMOND was above SPONGE, CHEESE sat atop CARROT, PAN was above HOE, and RUM sat atop TEA. For an extra touch of elegance, even the LAYER / CAKES revealer was stacked. Stacked theme entries, even when short, limit a constructor’s options. To have six of them (including the revealer) in the same 15×15 grid? Amazing. Yes, the puzzle has 40 black squares, and yes, each of the four corners is pretty isolated. But the fill is remarkably smooth and chock full o’ fun fill like SO CLOSE, AC DELCO, THE HELP, BONE UP, and BEWITCH. 35-Across accurately labels the nits as a NON-ISSUE.

Geez, two puzzles about food and a third about silverware. The way to a solver’s heart is through the stomach. This seems like a good time to super-size our analysis and award the Best Sunday-Sized Crossword Orca.

BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Back to Square One,” by Evan Birnholz (WaPo, May 20)

BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Back to Square One,” by Evan Birnholz, WP (May 20). The judges on “Top Chef” (food again!) always remind chef-testants that simple dishes can be stunning when executed perfectly. This puzzle is proof that the same applies to crossword construction. The concept for this puzzle is simple enough: move the last letter to the front and delight as wackiness ensues. In this gimmick, MORE OR LESS becomes SMORE OR LES, clued as [Choice between a campfire treat and guitar legend Paul?]. Then ENRICHMENT turns to TEN RICH MEN, a [Description of the players on the court during the NBA All-Star Game, in terms of their wealth?]. There are ten total theme entries (my favorites being ACH ACH ACH, the [Repetitive series of German grunts?], and EAT ANY RAT), so the theme density is certainly there. Just as you start too worry that the theme is a little too loose because there could be any number of theme entries, 123-Across explains that the letters moved in the ten theme entries, read from top to bottom, spell the apt revealer, STARTS ANEW. Nice! It’s that extra attention to detail that takes an amusing and well-made Sunday puzzle over the top.

Here are the Honorable Mentions for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, in order of publication:

  • “See 68-Across,” by Elizabeth A. Long, NYT (February 18). The 68-Across in the puzzle’s title is NAME-DROPPER, which explains the gimmick at work. There are six crossings in the grid where a first name meets a goofy phrase. For example, 55-Across, SLUMBER PAY, clued as [Mattress tester’s compensation?] meets 59-Down, ART, at the A. But ART is not clued as a name; instead, it’s clued as [With 55-Across, big sleepover]. So if you substitute ART for the A back into the answer at 55-Across, you get SLUMBER PARTY. Fun! The best one had SPEAKS FRANKLY change to SPEAKS FLY when FRANK fell to the Down position, and the clue for SPEAKS FLY, [Is able to translate what was heard on the wall?] works so well. The surrounding fill included good stuff like EXTRA VIRGIN, LOTUS EATERS, and LIT A FIRE. We hope Elizabeth drops her name on some more crossword bylines in the near future!
  • “The Missing Link,” by Evan Birnholz, WP (April 1). Always pay attention to the publication date! Solvers should expect shenanigans on April Fools Day, and Evan did not disappoint. Instructions accompanying the puzzle said “META CONTEST: The answer to 94 Across is missing. Some things are missing from the answers to the starred clues, too, but they can help you find the answer to 94 Across. When you have found the missing link, go there and enter your name and email address for a chance to win a special prize.” Six clues in the puzzle said their answers were part of a link. Highlighted in mustard yellow on the nearby screenshot, those answers were DEVIL CROSS DOT COM SLASH ????? So what was supposed to go in the empty boxes at 94-Across? Turns out the answers to the five starred clues were famous men usually referred to with their middle initials, except that the middle initials were left out of the grid. You can see their names highlighted in green. In order, the missing middle initials spelled S-O-L-V-E. Put that at the end of the link referred to in the grid and you go to And there you see Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Huh? Let’s let Evan explain it from his post-puzzle writeup: Yup, that video pretty much was the special prize. I lied. There was no special contest. But I left you two additional notes about the puzzle. The first note says that the first letters of the 11 thematic Across clues, in clue order — meaning, the link clues and the starred clues — spell out what just happened. [They spell RICKROLLING.] And the second note reads, ‘There’s a familiar two-word phrase hidden diagonally in the puzzle that explains why I did it.’ If you scan the grid, you’ll find it hiding in the top-left corner:” APRIL FOOLS. What a wonderfully intricate prank!
  • “Opposites Attract,” by Jeff Chen and John-Clark Levin, WSJ (November 10). The revealer tells us that DOING BACKFLIPS is “a hint to seven words ‘attracted’ to their opposites in this puzzle.” The seven theme entries are fictional two-word phrases where the first word is the opposite of the second word spelled backward. One answer that explains the gimmick well is BORROWED DIAPER (DIAPER backwards is REPAID, the oppoiste of BORROWED), cleverly clued as [Bum wrap from a neighbor?]. The best were perhaps CAREFREE DESSERTS, the [Puddings that are chilling out?], and STUPID TRAMS, [Streetcars with no onboard artificial intelligence?].

Back to the normal-sized grids now, as we turn to the award for Best Freestyle Crossword. Loverboy taught us everybody’s working for the weekend. Crossword fans look forward to the weekends because that’s when we get to sink our teeth into some themeless fun. And there was much of it to be had in 2018.

BEST FREESTYLE CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Themeless 82,” by Erik Agard (Glutton for Pun, March 12)

BEST FREESTYLE CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Themeless 82” by Erik Agard (Glutton for Pun, March 12). You’ll see this one mentioned again when we get to the Best Clue Orca. But darned if it isn’t also deserving of this Orca too. Just look at these seven clues: (1) [‘Round-house kicks?] for SLIPPERS; (2) [Fisher’s favorite instrument?] for CASTANET; (3) [J.D. power?] for ATTORNEY; (4) [Job description?] for BIBLICAL; (5) [Takes the wrong way?] for BLOOPERS; (6) [Delayed reaction] for I’M LATE; (7) [Transferred to the top?] for IRONED ON. Day-yum! Most freestyles would aspire to have one or two clues that good. Yet here’s the kicker–none of these is even the best clue in this puzzle! So you have eight fantastic clues (plus about another half-dozen or so really, really nice ones) in a 66-word puzzle. That’s just an amazing percentage. And if you’re looking for fresh fill, look no further than the northwest quad-stack of WHAT OF IT, HATERADE, IRONED ON, and MIND MELD. You’ll also find a PRE-LIT TREE, WAX FANGS, MILLER BEER, BLOW OFF, HARIBO (mmm…gummy bears), and FLAG CODE. We all know Erik has constructing chops, but this one flat out sets a new standard.

Here’s the full menu of Honorable Mentions for Best Freestyle Crossword, in order of publication (warning–there’s a lot of them this year–so much greatness and, unlike Sophie, we’re not put to hard choices):

  • Untitled, by Andy Kravis, LAT (January 27). Such a lovely 70-worder that feels much more open than the typical 70-worder. The northwest stack of ABC SPORTS, NERD ALERT, and DRESSED UP is uber-swanky, but that’s just the start. You’ll also find TROJAN HORSE, UTNE READER, the GREEN HORNET, OOZE CHARM, and the XYZ AFFAIR. As you might expect from ABC SPORTS in the top corner and XYZ AFFAIR in bottom corner, the grid is pangrammatic. Unlike many pangrammatic grids, though, this one shows no signs of force. There are terrific clues to boot, notably [Double shot?] for STUNT and [They’re matched by foundations] for SKIN TONES.
  • Untitled, by Finn Vigeland, NYT (February 10). Triple-15s feel a little 2000-and-late, but Finn brings us a fresh triple stack of LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, IN ALL PROBABILITY, and ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. More impressively, though, Finn has some great entries crossing the stack, including MLB DRAFT, GOLDEN PEN, PRE-OPS, LIBATIONS, and LATE APRIL (constructors quickly added up to 36 more entries in their word lists, as EARLY-, MID-, and LATE-month words are now apparently legit). Plus there’s WHAT A TRIP, EAT AT HOME, AS IF TO SAY, and, a personal favorite, a SOLO CUP, the [Beer pong receptacle]. The cutest clue was probably for 20-Across, [<– / 40] for ONE-HALF (if you don’t get it, keep in mind that the NYT doesn’t add periods after clue numbers, and the clue number is that to which the arrow points).
  • Untitled, by Rachel Maddow and Joe DiPietro, NYT (March 2). It looks like the roughly-monthly “Celebrity Crossword” feature in the NYT has ended. (I guess I can stop trying to recruit the Sam Donaldson of ABC News into collaborating.) It was an interesting experiment pairing famous musicians, actors, scientists, politicians, and others with veteran constructors. For the most part, the puzzles were solid and entertaining. This puzzle from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and grid pro Joe DiPietro was the only freestyle Celebrity Crossword, but it’s not on this list because a celebrity co-constructed it. It’s here because it’s a great puzzle. Sure, there’s some winking from Maddow here with its political journalism flavor: [Seam Hannity and Chris Hayes] as the clue for TV HOSTS, a FOIA REQUEST, AL GORE, and a COUGH BUTTON (with its awesome clue, [What might help a hacker go undetected?]). But the puzzle also smacks of Joe, a bar owner, with a SAZERAC. Beyond the snazzy, near pangrammatic fill (hello, BITE ME, BE HONEST, IPCRESS FILE, IF YOU CAN, CRITIQUE, TIDIED UP), there are terrific clues like [Those who’ve seen both Europe and Asia, say] for ROCK FANS, [Political leader?] for FRONT RUNNER, and [Big mean on campus] for GPA.
  • Untitled, by Sam Trabucco, NYT (March 30). Gosh this one is packed to the gills with cool fill. The stars are the intersecting 15s, WELCOME TO MY LIFE and DON’T WAIT UP FOR ME. But there’s also MAMA BIRD, SURF SHOPS, MEGA-DEAL, TIGER MOM, ENEMY SPY, LANDLADY, PLEASE STOP, and two bits of poker jargon, I CHECK and ALL IN. And how awesome is it that this puzzle gives you all the vocabulary you need to describe it? I don’t mean to HARP ON (21-Down) this like some FAT-HEADED (20-Across) ASS (41-Across), but, WELL DAMN (17-Across), Sam NEVER FAILS (12-Down) to make awesome puzzles. I’M A FAN (6-Down).
  • Untitled, Joe Krozel, NYT (April 13). Joe is known for his stunt puzzles. Make no mistake, this too is a stunt puzzle. A pangrammatic 56-worder whose entries all have at least five letters (and there’s only four of those!) is undisputedly a stunt puzzle. But unlike most puzzles with word counts that low, this one doesn’t feel nearly as forced or compromised. Joe didn’t just “make this work,” he made a really nice low word-count crossword, and that’s pretty darn remarkable. Is the fill flashy and contemporary? Not especially, though HAVE A SIP, DIVE BAR, HOW SO, I’M SAD, TAKE MORE, EARN IT, and HOPE NOT add a nice, conversational feel. But what’s the weakest entry in this puzzle? Those UN-s? (UNTAPE, UNMIXED, and the highlighted UNNAILED.) Sure, you don’t exactly see DENETURE, GREEVE, SEA RAVEN, or BOREAL in many modern crosswords, but what’s so wrong about learning some new words from time to time? You can question the point of imposing so many artificial constraints to the construction, but you can still admire its execution here. 
  • Untitled, by Peter Wentz, NYT (May 26). It would almost feel incomplete if Pete didn’t have a Best Freestyle nominee. He’s among the best at the craft right now, as shown in this mid-year offering. If Maddow and DiPietro’s puzzle had a political bent to it, this one goes a step further, with I VOTED and PATAKI included with a vertically-stacked trio of DOT GOV, WHO WON, and DEM. But that’s just part of the fun. There’s the stair-stacked set of 12s: CROWD PLEASER, PLAY THE PONIES, and THE LEGO MOVIE. There’s the tech-thick stack in the southeast with WHATS APP and SNAPCHAT. Oh, and don’t forget the odd-but-amusing vertical stack of THE CURE, PHONE SEX, and LEMON TEA in the southwest corner. Throw in POP A PILL, STARBASE, BEDTIMES, ENDGAME, TESTS FOR, AMAZONIA, NERTS, IN LOVE, and IT’S ODD and you have another gem of a freestyle puzzle. 
  • “Aries Freestyle #15,” by Andrew J. Ries, Aries Puzzles (July 25). Sorry there’s no scanned grid shot to share. But trust us, this puzzle kept amusing and amazing at every turn. Andrew used top-bottom symmetry to accommodate what might well be the best triple stack of the year: FIVE-SECOND RULE atop TELL ME ABOUT IT atop IT’S YOUR FUNERAL. As if that’s not enough, here were some of the entries crossing that stack: WITH A LITTLE LUCK, LIVE SET, STEELY DAN, and MANBUNS. Such craftspersonship! And Andrew terrifically saves his best clue-answer pair for the bottom of the grid: [Produce numbers] for SELL-BY DATE. Lots of other great stuff (POWDER ROOM, STEROID ERA, PIANO SOLOS) serve as gravy on what was a simply scrummy puzzle.
  • Untitled, by Robyn Weintraub, NYT (October 5). Here’s another byline that guarantees a good time. AND WE’RE OFF at 1-Across sets the tone perfectly, and how great that it’s paired with PERIWINKLE and STALE BREAD to form an amusing stack in the northwest corner. The test of a great stack, though, is in the crossings. If you see some abbreviations or partials, or RE-verbs, or similar junk to make the stack work, well, the stack doesn’t work. But the crossings in this stack are solid: APSE, NETS, DRAM, WILE, EWE, RIBCAGE, ENRAGE, OKED, FLASH MOB, and FED–not even a remotely weak one in the whole set. This is very representative of Robyn’s puzzles–fun fill with no dreck. Check out the vertical stacking of SET A RECORD next to I TOLD YOU SO along with other lively stuff like WORKER BEES, WITCH TRIAL, IN THE WINGS, the fully-named GENERAL TSO, and GOLD COIN. Another day at the office for Robyn, maybe, but a great day of solving for us.
  • “AVCX Themeless #32,” by Byron Walden, American Values Club Crossword (November 21). The grid has four relatively isolated corners that feed a wide-open center featuring four crossing 12s sandwiching four 7s that meet in the middle. That’s a long way of saying it’s an interesting and pretty grid. But once filled it’s even better. The crossing 12s are FOR PETE’S SAKE, PRETTY IN PINK, NOVELTY CHECK, and COMMON SAYING, the latter clued only as [Saw] to up the difficulty level to typical Walden-esque heights. But you’ll also find IN TANDEM, PC POLICE, SIT-REPS, POOH-POOH, ONCE MORE, SO NICE, FRATTY, SPY RING, ALL WET, SITS DOWN, and PJ SOLES. The clues were chewy–[Post marks?] for LIKES and [Big bucks?] for NOVELTY CHECKS give you a sense of what solvers faced.
  • Untitled, by Robyn Weintraub, NYT (December 29). What a superb close to such a strong year of freestyle puzzles! It had one of the Best Clue nominees and a host of other goodness, like the double-stacked GARBAGE BAG and IT’S A LIVING, the symmetrically opposite pairing of DOUBLE-WIDE atop JUNIOR PROM, and engaging fill like RUBY SLIPPERS, GIVE ME A HAND, BALCONY SEATS, TIME MACHINE, POPPYCOCK, PETERS OUT, and LIT UP. The only problem with this puzzle is that it was just 15×15–something this good should have been 21×21 or larger to make the fun last longer!

Yeah, there were a lot of good freestyle puzzles last year. Hopefully that bodes well for 2019 and beyond. Time now for the new Orca category, the one recognizing variety crosswords. And do we have a great one for the inaugural award!

BEST VARIETY CROSSWORD OF 2018: “The Maze Ruiner,” by Francis Heaney (AVCX, July 11)

BEST VARIETY CROSSWORD OF 2018: “The Maze Ruiner,” by Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword (July 11). If you think we introduced this category just to fawn over this puzzle, you’re not wrong. It might best be described as a labyrinth/contest hybrid with a twist. Like a traditional labyrinth puzzle, solvers use row and labyrinth clues to fill in the grid. But there’s a second path in the grid, this one taken by the “Maze Ruiner,” that also starts in the upper left and ends in the lower right. Solvers are given another set of clues to find this shortcut, with the instruction that the Maze Ruiner’s shortcut passes through the walls of the labyrinth, “leaving some obvious evidence behind.” That is, every time the Maze Ruiner’s path hits a wall, a letter gets left behind that otherwise does not appear in the grid. The completed path, with the left behind letters in parentheses, looks like this: HUS(H) MON(E)Y, A(D)A(G)E, RE(E)L O(F)F, T(U)NES I(N)TO, I(D)LE. The left behind letters, in order, spell HEDGE FUND, the contest answer. You just can’t find a more thorough or (okay, I’ll say it) amazing execution of a “maze” gimmick than this. The grid contains two separate pathways, and the contest answer is a clever play on what will be needed to “repair” the damaged maze (if you think of the labyrinth as a hedge maze a la the Triwizard Tournament). A masterpiece of construction.

There were some other standout variety puzzles from 2018. Let’s recap the Honorable Mentions for Best Variety Crossword, in order of publication:
  • “Jack-in-the-Boxes,” by Patrick Berry, WSJ (April 14). This was a “Packing Crates” puzzle in which clues come in Rows and Boxes. Answers to Rows clues, logically enough, appear in order from left to right in each numbered row. Answers to Boxes clues form squares or rectangles, in which the letters are packed from left to right and from top to bottom. Boxes clues are in random order, though, so solvers have to use Rows answers to figure out where each completed Box belongs. The 21 Boxes almost fill the grid; the remaining letters spell out “what jack-in-the-boxes play:” POP MUSIC. That’s about as cute and clever as a final answer can get, but the really amazing part is how Patrick can make such interesting long Boxes answers (DIVIDE AND CONQUER, ORVILLE REDENBACHER, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, EVEN THE SCORE, ROPE LADDER, and more) fit so snugly in a 15×15 grid without resorting to any junky (or even three-letter) Rows answers. We’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: solving a Patrick Berry puzzle is like touching a pencil to God.
  • “Year 3 Rows Garden #48,” by Joon Pahk, Outside the Box Crosswords (August 7). A themed Rows Garden puzzle! Joon offered four “double features” in the grid, with THIRTY-TWO CANDLES as the [John Hughes double feature?], THE TWENTY COMMANDMENTS as the [Charlton Heston double feature?], EIGHTEEN TO TEN as the [Dolly Parton double feature?], and SEVENTEEN as the [Federico Fellini double feature?]. Joon even includes a little self-deprecation, cluing the bloom THEMED as [Unlike rows garden puzzles, unless the constructor has really jumped the shark]. Looks like Joon would be too modest to tell you how superb this construction really is. Rows Garden grids are harder to fill than standard crossword grids, as the absence of black squares makes it so everything has to mesh very snugly. Adding a theme element to the challenge proves just how much Joon has mastered this variety puzzle format.
  • “Spell It Out: A Meta Hunt from A to Z,” by Evan Birnholz, Washington Post (August 12). Solvers had to fill out four separate criss-cross crosswords, each of which contained 25 answers, each of which started with a different letter. Not only that, each of the clues to a puzzle also started with a different letter, and those letters were missing from the clues. Solvers used these initial letters–once they figured them out–to help them place the answers within each grid. The instructions then explained that the “unused starting letters will spell a word that completes a set. That set hides a two-word device used in spelling out some words.” The unused starting letters spelled ZULU. What “set” does ZULU complete? Why it’s the NATO phonetic alphabet. And at that point solvers might see that all four grids contain the other 25 words from that alphabet. Not only that, but each of those phonetic words crosses at least one other phonetic word. And not only that, the intersections of those words, when read from top to bottom within each puzzle, spell out RADIO RECEIVER, the two-word device referred to in the instructions. What an ambitious and inventive construction! This one easily deserved all 36 of the five-star ratings it received from readers.

That’s a strong group of variety crosswords! Let’s move now to one of the most competitive and popular Orca categories, Best Contest Crossword. Readers on this site love them some metas, as contest puzzles dominate the star rating leaderboards. This year’s crop of contest puzzles netted many stars from solvers, for good reason–as you will now see.

BEST CONTEST CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Solve by Numbers,” by Matt Gaffney (WSJ, August 3)

BEST CONTEST CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Solve by Numbers,” by Matt Gaffney, WSJ (August 3). The instructions asked for “a word for what seven of the clues are.” There was also this hint in the bottom left corner of the grid: “CLUE numbers (important parts of a crossword).” The trick was to notice that in seven clues, the clue number could be used with the existing clue text to form a new clue, the answer to which was also in the grid. For example, [Horse place, perhaps] works as a clue for FARM, but if you add the clue number it becomes [1 Horse place, perhaps], which works for TOWN, an answer located at 9-Across in the grid. Then there was [Day ___], which works for SPA. Add the clue number, et voila, there’s [6 Day ___] for WAR, found in the grid at 24-Down. This goes on five more times (including my two personal faves, [Rock star of note] for Brian ENO becoming [30 Rock star of note] for Tina FEY, and [“ER”‘s in-state rival] for CHICAGO HOPE becoming [49 “ER”‘s in-state rival] for the RAMS). Take the first letters from the new answers in ascending order and you get TWO-FERS, a seven-letter description of seven of the clues! How elegant that the final answer includes a number too. Even for Matt, this contest puzzle is simply amazing. Matt had to find word pairings where he could accomplish this gimmick without having to give the whole thing away immediately. And that CHICAGO HOPE / RAMS pair is an instant classic. This is the quintessential contest crossword with its simple but well-hidden conceit and its very satisfying “aha moment.” Matt has won this Orca in the past, and happily for us he’s not resting on his laurels.

As always, there were many other great puzzles considered for this Orca. Take a look at the Honorable Mentions for Best Contest Crossword, in order of publication:
  • “Rainbow Connection,” by Marie Kelly (Mike Shenk), WSJ (June 29). Not every great contest crossword has to be especially hard. The clue for HUES was [What the letters in the rainbow mnemonic ROY G BIV represent (they may point you to the answer)]. Go figure, there is exactly one of each of those seven letters in the completed puzzle. If you start with the R and draw a line to the O, then to the Y, then to the G, and so on, you’ll have a picture of a great big arrow pointing to the northeast corner of the grid–just like the screen shot shows. Starting at the tip of the arrow and continuing in the arrow’s direction, the letters spell TEAL, the contest answer.
  • “Make It Brief,” by Will Nediger, Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest #526 (June 29). Geez, was June 29 a banner day for contest crosswords! In this triumph from guest constructor Will Nediger, six answers can have the letters of a three-letter answer located elsewhere in the grid removed and still fit the clue. You can take out the letters from SIA in CHARISMA, for example, and have CHARM left over. The initials of the six three-letter answers, from top to bottom, spell out SCULPT. But the contest instructions ask for a three-letter word. No worries, just remove LPS (another answer in the grid) from SCULPT and you get the final answer, CUT. You know it’s the right answer because you had to “cut” letters out of the longer entries as part of the solving process. An elusive but very logical and satisfying progression.
  • “Lost and Found,” by Matt Gaffney, Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest #533 (August 17). The five theme entries were all portmanteaux (cool plural!). Solvers had to take the letters that were “lost” in the creation of each portmanteau (like how the ISH from SPANISH and the EN from ENGLISH are lost in the creation of SPANGLISH), and then “find” the anagrams of those lost letters elsewhere in the grid (ISHEN anagrams to SHINE). Take the first letter from each of those five “found” answers in the order of the portmanteaux and you have SPORK, the contest answer (and, aptly, another portmanteau!). This was another contest crossword on the easier side to solve (there were over 400 correct entries) but no less masterful in its construction.
  • “Piano Pieces,” by Pete Muller, Muller Monthly Music Meta (December). Of all the puzzles reviewed on this site that garnered at least 15 star ratings, this puzzle had the highest overall average–not counting the highest and lowest ratings–with an impressive 4.97 average star rating. There’s good reason for that. Solvers were on the hunt for “a famous jazz piece.” Turns out there were five piano brands whose names could be split to form two standalone answers. Each standalone answer was placed in the grid in close proximity to its match. If you take the letters connecting the two pieces of each piano, they spell out, in grid order, the contest answer: TAKE FIVE, the Dave Brubeck classic. Maybe not the best explanation, but the screen shot shows the gimmick well. Finding five well-known piano brands whose names could split precisely into legitimate separate answers is inspired. Then having the connecting letters spell out a well known song is just, well, what adjective have we not employed at this stage? Let’s go with brilliant.

Now comes another highly competitive category, the award for Best Gimmick Crossword. If you find “gimmick” a bit pejorative, think of it as the award for Best Thursday Crossword, except that some venues run their Thursday-like puzzles on different days of the week. We are looking for puzzles where the wordplay and the edginess is on steroids. In a good way. You’ll see what we mean as we talk about the winner and the others that were considered.

BEST GIMMICK CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Workarounds,” by Alex Eaton-Salners (Fireball, January 3)

BEST GIMMICK CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Workarounds,” by Alex Eaton-Salners, Fireball (January 3). It didn’t take Alex long to make his mark on 2018 with this stunner. The four theme clues all feature the word “doubly” but appear to be nonsense in the grid. PLTABLEED is [Doubly drunk?]? EXCETOPVE is [Doubly immoderate?]? Huh? But then it clicks: the answers are doing double duty! PLTABLEED is PLASTERED running “under the TABLE” (the answer beneath, TOASTER, uses the A-S-T-E-R sequence). Likewise, EXCETOPVE is EXCESSIVE going “over the TOP,” with the missing S-S-I sequence found immediately above in ASSIST. Two other theme entries represent double use of “under the gun” and “over the moon.” Just when you think there can’t be any more creative puzzles where answers twist and turn in the grid, this one reminds you not to be so dismissive. This one set the bar very high on only the third day of the year. It faced stiff competition but held on to its top spot.

Once again this category proved the hardest from which to pick a winner. So many great choices! Here were the Honorable Mentions for Best Gimmick Crossword, in order of publication:
  • Untitled, by Daniel Mauer, NYT (January 4). I call this the Jeopardy! puzzle even though it has nothing to do with the game show. Just as Jeopardy! reversed the classic question-and-answer format by giving contestants answers and asking them for questions, four answers in this puzzle’s grid contain the clue numbers and their clues contain the answers! For example, the putative clue for 1-Across is [Ten cents] and the answer is 12DOWN. Looks pretty messed up until you read the clue for 12-Down: [Answer found elsewhere]. That’s because the answer to 12-Down is TEN CENTS, the clue from 1-Across! Daniel uses the numbers as homophones in the crossings, so the 1 from 12DOWN crosses 1SIES (onesies) and 2TORED (tutored). That limited his number choices to numbers with homophones (1, 2, 4, and 8, unless you mispronounce “3” as “free” like I did until age four), but that’s not a real constraint since the four “reversed” answers can be anywhere in the grid. None of that lessens the terrific “aha” moment from this great puzzle.
  • “Dude, Where’s Your Karma?” by Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword (March 28). A Francis Heaney puzzle is near-impossible to describe succinctly, but here goes: Four answers yield some very strange answers to reincarnation questions, with WEEVIL being [What a cad may come back as], GNAT being [What a jerk may come back as], MITE bring [What an ass may come back as], and MILLIPEDE being [What a heel may come back as]. The trick is that all the reincarnation happens in the grid, as four phrases containing CAD, JERK, ASS, and HEEL are replaced with the reversed letters from their associated answers. Replace the CAD from BROCADE with LIVEEW (weevil “coming back”) and you get BROLIVEEWES, parsed as BRO, LIVE EWES, clued as [“Check it out, dude–actual female sheep!]. Sub the ASS from MASSE SHOTS with ETIM (mite “coming back”) for METIMESHOTS, read as ME-TIME SHOTS, [Selfies taken when relaxing alone?]. Do this two more times and you get the ri-donk-u-lous TANGY DEHYDRATORS and SPINS SWEDE PILL IMS. Yeah, your mind leaves a little more mushy than it was before you started, but conquering the gimmick was satisfying.
  • Untitled, by Kevin G. Der, NYT (March 31). This was the Thursday puzzle where answers in the even-numbered rows ran from left to right and the answers in the odd-numbered rows ran from right to left. ACPT contestants might have recalled a similar gimmick from a tournament puzzle by Patrick Merrell, but Kevin kicked it up a notch by employing the same trick with the Downs! Answers in the even-numbered columns read from top to bottom, while answers in the odd-numbered columns read from bottom to top! Gwen Stefani said it best: “This sh!t is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S!” Four answers were intended to serve as hints to the puzzle’s gimmick: ONE-WAY STREETS, GOING IN ALL / DIRECTIONS, and TOTAL GRIDLOCK, but since you had to figure out the gimmick to get those hints, they came too late. Still, this was an interesting and fun workout. Speed solvers may have been despondent watching their average solve times increase by a few seconds, as this one required careful attention in switching directions. But there’s no denying the intricate engineering behind its construction, a talent that oozes from Kevin.
  • “Property Lines,” by Alex Eaton-Salners, WSJ (April 19). The solver’s eye is drawn immediately to the big capital T formed by the black squares in the center of the grid. And the two 15-letter answers (PLASTIC GOLF TEES and CAFFEINATED TEAS) suggest there’s some purpose to the central T. There sure is: all of the crossing Across and Down answers use that big T as either the first or last letter! For those who keep count, there are 14 such crossing entries. Talk about theme density! The nice thing about this gimmick is that there are many, many choices for answers that start or end with T, so it’s not like Alex was left with few choices or awkward combinations. Indeed, the fill is smooth throughout. This would be harder to do with an X or a C, say. Luckily Alex stuck with a letter that allowed him to display his creativity without compromise. And yet he was only getting warmed up with this puzzle (see below).
  • Untitled, by Grant Thackray, NYT (August 30). 64-Across says AD BLOCKER is a [Popular browser extension … or a literal description of four black squares in this puzzle]. Sure enough, solvers have to reinterpret four black squares as having the letters AD in order for answers to make sense. DRESS doesn’t answer to [Speak to], but (AD)DRESS does. And HOTHE makes no sense as an [Easily angered sort] but HOT HE(AD) works. Look, this is not an especially innovative idea. Reading black squares as covering one or more letters has been done more than a few times. But what makes this puzzle truly special are the fantastic theme answers. When do you last recall seeing a puzzle with a theme set as fresh as MANSPREAD, ADULTING, UNDEAD, ADOPT-A-ROAD (using two black squares!), BUTTLOAD, and ADORKABLE? The nonthematic fill is just as solid, with the triple-stacked MEGAMAN, ON A DATE, and WEBINAR in the northwest corner and assorted goodies like BRASS HATS, LESS IS MORE, AT ONE’S PEAK, SEE ‘N’ SAY, LET UP, and NERDS ROPE. So what the puzzle lacks in innovation it more than makes up for in execution, elegance, and entertainment.
  • Untitled, by Jeff Chen, NYT (September 6). 62-Across says the TIP OF THE ICEBERG is a [Hidden trouble indicator…or what you’ll need to finish this crossword?] That’s because you need the letters from ICEBERG to stick out from the top of the grid in order for seven of the Downs to match their clues. SLAM doesn’t match [It’s symbolized by a star and crescent], but the clue works for (I)SLAM. It’s a Jeff Chen puzzle, so you know extra attention was paid to the engineering. Exhibit A: In each case an ordinary answer is made into another answer through the letter addition: (C)OVERCHARGES, (E)MERGES, (B)ARES, (E)ASTERN, (R)ENUNCIATION, and (G)UNIT. Exhibit B: Jeff employs left-right symmetry so that the seven theme answers appear symmetrically in the grid. Exhibit C: The black squares in the center resemble an iceberg sticking out of the water. I rest my case. And yet those unconcerned with grid construction are cared for too, as the puzzle has a number of fun entries like GO SEE, NO IDEA, NOT AGAIN, STRETCHY, I MEAN, SAW FIT, and WICCANS. Oh and of course there’s some other oceanic terms swimming in the fill, like SEA RACE and, our favorite, ORCAS. One can’t help but think of Bob Klahn’s classic GROUNDHOG DAY puzzle where the G stood outside the grid, peeking its head out of the grid for a look around. This puzzle pays homage by elevating the gimmick to a new (sea) level.
  • “Keep It Copacetic,” by Benjamin Kramer, WSJ (November 1). The revealer is OK BY ME, which, as the clue indicates, is illustrated eight(!) times in the grid. Every ME bigram in the puzzle has the OK bigram either immediately above or below, including in the revealer. The gimmick is especially impressive in its stacking, like where AMELIA appears above the start of POKER GAMES, which in turns sits above the top of SMOKED MEAT (the MEAT is covered by OKRA). The other dual-bigram entries, COOKED UP A SCHEME and CHROMEBOOK, are likewise impressive. Toss in some gems like SMOOTH MOVE and NOSE JOBS and you have a really nice puzzle that does not betray its thematic density.
  • “Equally Clear,” by Jeff Chen, American Values Club Crossword (October 10). Simple concept, brilliant execution. The letters in five shaded boxes, read from top to bottom, spell SLATE. And if you “clear the SLATE” by ignoring those letters, the clues still work for the crossings! Consider the S–the crossing answers are DASH and SCRUNCHING. But their clues, [Long Morse Code character] and [Squeezing (together)] work just as well if you erase the S and read them as DAH and CRUNCHING. The same happens for MEW(L)/SNIFF(L)ED, (A)ROSE/C(A)TSCAN, ISLE(T)/ROUS(T)ED, and (E)SPY/(E)MIGRATE. Don’t you love how Jeff uses common crossword terms where, say, you know the answer is either MEW or MEWL depending on how many letters there are? Same with DAH/DASH and especially ISLE/ISLET. The nonthematic fill is not exactly the EDGIEST (9-Down), but given you have ten very precise theme entries at work in a 15×15 grid, it’s impressive enough that the fill is so smooth.
  • “Casting Call,” by Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword (November 6). On election night, Francis gave us a puzzle depicting a BLUE / WAVE, [what we’ll see if enough votes look like the ones in this puzzle]. Eight of the grid’s squares contained smaller squares, and each of those squares was to the left of a shaded square. In the completed grid, the shaded squares are either D or R, and in each case, an X appears in the square next to the D and the box next to the R is left blank. The puzzle thus looks like a completed ballot that votes down the party line for Democrats, resulting in the promised BLUE WAVE. Political affiliations aside, this is such a creative concept for a puzzle commemorating Election Day. With compelling fill like TAX DODGE, SEX DRIVE, UP NEXT, RATED R, and I’M LEAVIN’, together with funny clues like [Website to send your relatives to after they email you plainly false memes] for SNOPES and [How soldiers may be dressed?] for DRABLY, Francis gave us some fun while we waited in line to exercise the franchise.
  • Untitled, by Herre Schouwerwou, NYT (November 29). What’s going on with this grid? White arrows inside of black squares? A great big white circle inside of a 3×3 block of black squares in the middle? There’s a hint buried counterclockwise in the squares surrounding the 3×3 block–four answers are to be written IN A ROUNDABOUT WAY. That is, we are to pretend the big circle in the center is a roundabout and that the four answers each take a right turn when they reach the roundabout. The white arrows are there to give you a hint as to where these answers start and finish. But even with that hint solvers found it tricky to navigate even after grokking the theme. The four turning entries–RALLYING CRY, POWER OUTAGE, I NEED A BREAK, and SPROUT WINGS–don’t seem to have a unifying theme, but all of them pass through the squares that spell the IN A ROUNDABOUT WAY hint, so that’s a nice touch. A very original idea, and any puzzle that includes LACKWIT, a [Blockhead], is bound to be received favorably.

Time now for the Best Clue Orca. We already announced via a special crossword the finalists for the Best Clue Orca a couple of weeks ago. To the seven of you that downloaded the puzzle, I hope you found it fun. There were so many great contenders for this year’s Orca, but the winning clue was first-ballot-Hall-of-Fame worthy.

BEST CLUE OF 2018: [Pool noodles] for MIND MELD: “Themeless 82” by Erik Agard, Glutton for Pun Crosswords (March 12). Talk about a clue riddled with misdirection. You’re thinking initially of those macaroni-shaped Styrofoam thingies used primarily as faux light sabers at swimming pools, but that gets you nowhere. To conquer this you have to interpret “pool” as a verb and “noodles” as brains. And a good Star Trek fan will tell you that to combine brains is to MIND MELD, to perform the Vulcan “technique for sharing thoughts, experiences, memories, and knowledge with another individual, essentially a limited form of telepathy” (thanks, Wikipedia!). The clue requires the solver to think through both words and then apply some sci-fi knowledge to divine the right answer. A great payoff when the answer finally falls!
Here were the other Best Clue nominees, in order of publication:
  • [Smart communication device] for SHOE PHONE: “Themeless 112” by Peter Gordon, Fireball Crosswords (January 24)
  • [Going off line] for THAT DOES IT, “Aries Freestyle #3,” by Andrew J Ries, Aries Puzzles (January 24) (a good day for clues!)
  • [Closer to mother and child?] for HOOD: “Themeless” by Tracy Bennett, in “Women of Letters” (ed. Patti Varol and Amy Reynaldo) (April 25)
  • [Single dose?] for DAT: Untitled, by Greg Johnson, Los Angeles Times (ed. Rich Norris) (May 12)
  • [Prized part of a beef?] for THE LAST WORD: “The Weekly Crossword: Monday, June 18, 2018” by Patrick Berry, The New Yorker (June 18)
  • [What may blossom from buds?] for BROMANCE: Untitled, crossword by Neville Fogarty, New York Times (clue from Will Shortz) (October 25)
  • [Cabbage for canning?] for SEVERANCE: Untitled, by Byron Walden, New York Times (ed. Will Shortz) (October 27)
  • [Cry over spilled milk, perhaps] for MOM: Untitled, by Robyn Weintraub, New York Times (ed. Will Shortz) (December 29)

Up next is the Orca for Best Tournament Crossword. Sorry that we don’t have scans of this (or any of the tournament grids). You’ll just have to use your imagination. Better yet, you should attend these tournaments! Seriously. Tournaments aren’t just about watching everyone else in a room fill in squares with correct letters faster than you can fill them in with the letter X. Crossword tournaments are chances for members of our chosen tribe to convene and enjoy a few hours together over what is often an isolated activity that few of our other friends and family appreciate. If there’s a tournament near you or one that sounds like fun even if it’s not so close, go. Really! Go!

Why have an Orca for Best Tournament Crossword you (didn’t) ask? Tournament crosswords are just like regular ones. Indeed, many tournaments feature puzzles that run later in the NYT or other outlets. But some tournaments commission their own puzzles, and the offerings here are so good that a few years ago we added the Best Tournament Crossword Orca to recognize some of the outstanding work available only to tournament solvers. That brings us to this year’s Orca winner.

BEST TOURNAMENT CROSSWORD OF 2018: “Morels,” by Patrick Berry, American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.This was the Sunday morning 21x finale of the ACPT for all but nine competitors. Patrick elevated the simple “add a sound to common phrases” gimmick by adding *two* “el” sounds to each theme entry, insisting on only the funniest and most sparkly theme entries, and surrounding it all with typical Patrick Berry smoothy goodness. FLORIST FLYERS, SLIDE SHOW BLOB, IT GLOWS WITHOUT SLAYING, CLAPTON CLERK–they’re all just too good. Highlights in the non-thematic fill included HALF-DEAD and PILING ON. There were also clever clues, like [Believe that anemone is an enemy?] for MISHEAR and [Balloon from a sock] for SWELL UP. All in all, a delightful Sunday offering that capped off another thrilling tournament.

Happily there other great puzzles from tournaments across the country. Some of the best are in the Honorable Mentions for Best Tournament Crossword:
  • “Unmentionables,” by Anna Gundlach, Indie 500. The puzzles at the 2018 Indie 500 Tournament were themed around fashion. The grid from this standout offering featured four Across entries that were unnumbered. It may have looked like a major slip (see what I did there?), but it wasn’t. 64-Across told solvers that [What the unnumbered answers are … and where to find them] was UNDERWEAR. Sure enough, beneath all four Across entries containing the consecutive sequence W-E-A-R there was an undergarment. BRIEFS were beneath HERE WE ARE, there’s a BRA below WORLD-WEARY, a TEDDY underneath SWEAR WORDS, and even a THONG below the UNDERWEAR revealer! Cleverly executed, and with the perfect title to boot!
  • “Deep Thoughts,” by Joon Pahk and Lena Webb, Boswords. All of the Boswords puzzles were solid (the championship themeless by David Quarfoot reminded us all that David Quarfoot needs to make more puzzles!), but “Deep Thoughts” was remarkable for pushing the envelope, er, grid. Three entries containing the letter sequence I-D-E-A appeared in the grid without those letters. Thus, for instance, EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY appeared in the grid as EUCLN GEOMETRY. What’s the big idea? More accurately, where’s the big IDEA? Turns out the three IDEAs fell “deep” down beneath the grid, providing the final letters to all of the Down entries that touch the southern border. It’s nice to see a drop-a-letter theme where the dropped letters come back at a location appropriate to the puzzle’s title.
  • “Going Off” by Erik Agard and Yacob Yonas, Lollapuzzoola. Lollapuzzoola celebrated its 11th year with a “Back to School” theme for all of its puzzles. As usual, the Lolla puzzles were all whimsical and creative. Two really stood out, though. The first was this offering from the dynamic duo of Agard and Yonas. Here the last letter from four common phrases was replaced by RING. Thus, LUNCH BUFFET became LUNCH BUFFERING, and THAT’S MY CUE changed to THAT’S MY CURING. The curious solver would note that the deleted letter spelled TEST. Note, then, that the grid has a TEST that gets interrupted four times by a RING. As the revealer indicates, the grid portrays a student being SAVED BY THE BELL. Cute!
  • “Roll Call,” by Jeff Chen, Lollapuzzoola. This is the other standout Lolla puzzle. In a cool twist on the “added-letters” gimmick, a different set of letters is added for each answer, and reading from top to bottom they spell MAT/THEW/BRO/DER/ICK, the actor who played Ferris Bueller in a notable 80s movie about skipping school. It’s surprising more puzzles don’t use this idea for add-a-letter themes. The grid had lots of lively entries, too, like I’M IN FOR IT and LIVED LARGE and LIP RINGS. It’s like this guy has a big word list or something.
  • “U-Turns,” by Anna Gundlach and Erik Agard, Crosswords LA. Hey, haven’t we seen these names before in this category? Whatevs, this puzzle rocked. As the title suggests, four Across answers change direction at the U, shifting up or down a row and then reversing course. Thus, PICKED UP SPEED looks like PICKED U in the grid because the rest of the answer appears backward in the row below, forming the first few letters of DEEP SPACE NINE! (“P SPEED” backwards is “DEEP SP,” you see.) So clever and so elegant! Plus, this puzzle had one of the best tournament clues this year: [Cub scout’s home?] for CHICAGO. Genius! This was a tough one to crack but it sure elicited smiles and a satisfactory “aha” when it fell.

Only two Orcas left–hang in there! We start with Constructor of the Year and then head to Best Crossword.

CONSTRUCTOR OF THE YEAR: Alex Eaton-Salners. We’ve been keeping an eye on Alex since his debut just a few short years ago. He has grown from a prolific talent to an established figure in crossword construction. His puzzles are consistently groundbreaking, and his constructions continue to dazzle. He won this year’s Orca for Best Gimmick Crossword and had another Honorable Mention in the same category. You’ll soon see he has two different nominees for Best Crossword. That, friends and fiends, is a helluva year. May it be just the start.
Here were the other constructors who, in various drafts of this post, all won Constructor of the Year at some point, listed alphabetically by surname.
  • Erik Agard. This was Erik’s world in 2018, and we were lucky enough to be living in it. Let’s see, he won the ACPT as a solver. Not bad. He published a ton of great puzzles, many of which you have read about in this post. Pretty decent. He again co-hosted the Indie 500 tournament. He launched the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory on Facebook to encourage construction by women, people of color, and those from other groups underrepresented in the puzzle world. Oh, and outside of puzzledom he had a successful multi-day stint on Jeopardy!. Yeah, not a bad year. Can’t wait to see what he does for an encore!
  • Patrick Berry. Yes, it’s easy to include Patrick’s name in this category. He’d be on everyone’s short list for “greatest of all time.” But it’s noteworthy that 2018 was another strong year for Patrick. He snagged two Orcas again this year–you’ve only read about one of them so far–and he was nominated in another category. If a mere mortal had that kind of year, said mortal would likely retire. Happily for us, this was “just another year” for Patrick. He has won Constructor of the Year before, and it would surprise no one if he wins it many more times to come.
  • Evan Birnholz. He only had the Best Sunday-Sized Crossword and one of the Honorable Mentions for the inaugural Best Variety Crossword Orca. Evan cranks out quality 21×21 constructions every week, and he’s unafraid to take chances, evidenced by his April Fools puzzle and the aforementioned variety offering. It would be easy to play it safe with a weekly construction gig and just deliver solid if conventional puzzles. But Evan continues to explore new ways to entertain within the medium. We get the feeling we haven’t even seen his best work yet, and that’s a happy feeling.
  • Zhouqin (“CC”) Burnikel. How many times a week do we see a Burnikel byline? Two? Three? Four? She’s one of the most prolific in the business right now, and her puzzles are always rock solid. Never a questionable entry, never a loose or incomplete theme. She delivers every time, all the time. For quality and volume, there’s no better in the business.
  • Francis Heaney. Of course Francis is on this list. When a Heaney puzzle drops, you stop what you’re doing and solve it. Even when he changes the form into something with which you’re not entirely familiar–look again at that Best Variety Crossword gem–you trust that he will deliver a quality solve that will amuse and amaze. We’re solving puzzles from one of the all-time greats at the peak of his art. It’s a good time to be a solver.
  • Robyn Weintraub. There probably isn’t a better themeless constructor alive today. She had seven NYT themeless puzzles in 2018, three of which were selected as “Puzzle of the Week” by Jeff Chen over on xwordinfo. She had another themeless in the LAT that was likewise highly regarded by solvers. While she may not be as prolific as others in this list, her puzzles are uniformly excellent. Like the work of Francis Heaney, Robyn’s puzzles are must-solve events. Here’s hoping her Inkubator puzzle that dropped earlier today is a sign that we will see more of her work in 2019 and beyond!

Okay, time for the final award, that for Best Crossword. We’re running over our word limit as it is, so let’s get right to it.

BEST CROSSWORD OF 2018: “And/Or,” by Patrick Berry (Fireball Crosswords, November 14)

BEST CROSSWORD: “And/Or,” by Patrick Berry, Fireball Crosswords (November 14). The theme entries are six phrases, three in the form of “X and Y” where X and Y are of equal length, and three in the form of “X or Y,” again where X and Y are of equal length. The problem is figuring out how to put the answers into the grid. One of the theme answers, for example, is HANSEL AND GRETEL, but there are only six squares. Eventually solvers discover they need to put two letters in each square: H and G in the first square, A and R in the second, and so on. You don’t write the conjunction AND or OR into the grid, but that doesn’t mean it goes unused. Quite the contrary! If the base phrase is in the form “X and Y,” you have to use both letters in the corresponding Down answer, but if the base phrase appears as “X or Y,” you can use either letter in the square and the clue works no matter which letter you use! The H/T square from HEADS OR TAILS, for instance, crosses [Characterized by longing], which works for either WISHFUL or WISTFUL. In the next square, [Homophone of a letter that doesn’t contain that letter] works for either SEE or SEA. So for the “and” phrases you’re using both letters and for the “or” phrases you’re using either letter.

I mean, wow. What do you call this puzzle? A rebus? A Schrodinger puzzle (a term used for puzzles that deliberately have multiple answers)? Some hybrid of the two–a Schrobus? I’ll tell you what we can call it–awesome. Oh, and we can also call it the Best Crossword of 2018. Readers agreed, with 44 five-star ratings and a 4.71 average star rating. Commenter Matt M. said simply, “The Fireball puzzle should be in a crossword museum.” Indeed it should. And now I want to see someone open a crossword museum. If it ever happens, there should be a Patrick Berry wing.
Here are the Honorable Mentions for Best Crossword, in order of publication:
  • “Cases of Scurvy,” by Alex Eaton-Salners, Fireball Crosswords (June 20). It helps to parse the first word in that title as “S-curvy,” as every answer containing an S makes a 90-degree turn at the letter S. Importantly, all of the S’s in the grid trigger the gimmick. (And it’s not like S is an easy letter to leave to the side as you fill in the rest of the grid.) But the best part? All of the theme entries keep the “scurvy” theme going by having a nautical bent: LOST AT SEA (with two turns!), CAPSIZED, DOES THE WAVE, ABANDON SHIP, NOAH’S ARK, and the battleship WISCONSIN (also with two turns)! Bonus points for the fun NOAH’S ARK clue, [Couples cruise vessel?]. The elegance does not stop there–all of the S’s appear symmetrically in the grid! I’m not sure you can milk any more from an “S-curvy” gimmick. If you don’t see how extraordinary this puzzle is, you’re missing the boat.
  • “The Maze Ruiner,” by Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword (July 11). This was the Best Variety Crossword winner explained above. It’s worth mentioning here that this puzzle received 53 five-star ratings from readers on this site, tied for the most of any puzzle from 2018. Commenter dbardolph observed, “Loved it – that was good in all the ways a puzzle can be. Clever idea, excellent construction, and a very loud click when all the pieces came together. Great puzzle.”
  • “Solve by Numbers,” by Matt Gaffney, WSJ (August 3). This winner of Best Contest Crossword was the other puzzle to snag 53 five-star ratings on this site. Both reviewer Laura and commenter Paul Coulter, constructors themselves, called it their favorite Matt Gaffney meta puzzle ever. They weren’t alone in their high praise. Joon called it “stupendous.” Amanda rightly called it a “beautiful and fun meta,” concluding, “Matt, you’re a wonder!” Truth.
  • “Check Your Glasses,” by Alex Eaton-Salners, WSJ (November 21). Remember the “Property Lines” puzzle that was an Honorable Mention for Best Gimmick Crossword? Looks like that puzzle was the prelude to this masterpiece. Instead of a capital T, solvers see what looks to be a wine glass made of back squares sitting in the center of the grid. The four long Down answers name four people who see the glass differently. PAUL NEWMAN [may see a silver chalice in this grid] (Newman starred in “The Silver Chalice”), while MONTY PYTHON [may see a holy grail], HARRY POTTER [may see a goblet] of fire, and a tarot CARD READER [may see an ace of cups]. That the theme entries run adjacent to each other (and the glass!) is amazing. But what’s most impressive is all the flashy fill crossing the theme entries–SO DOPE, GOT REAL, I WANT TO, BLUE HEN, NO WISER, SISTER ACT, HAS ON HAND. This guy makes it all look too easy.
  • “Groupthink,” by Paolo Pasco, Fireball Crosswords (December 5). Other puzzles have played on the names given to various animal groups, but this one adds a rebus element that really makes it shine. One of the theme entries is supposed to be PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But instead of writing PRIDE, solvers have to put LION into each of the first three squares. (I know it’s obvious, but just in case: a group of lions is a pride, so the puzzle makes you write in three LIONS to represent the pride.) The crossing words are SCAL(LION), PAVI(LION), and A MIL(LION). In the same way, MURDER BY DEATH appears in the grid as CROW/CROW/CROW BY DEATH, with crossings of ES(CROW), MI(CROW)ATT, and IN(CROW)D. Finally, PRIVATE SCHOOL appears as PRIVATE FISH/FISH/FISH, with crossings of ISLA (FISH)ER, SNIF(FISH)LY, and SEL(FISH). Paolo uses left-right symmetry here so that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE can sit atop the other two theme entries and still give him room to let the grid breathe. That allows him to work in goodies like LOAF PAN, AT WORST, SAN REMO, QATARIS, SINE CURVE, AU NATUREL, and SARA SMILE.

That’s a wrap for the 2018 Orca Awards. As always, many thanks to Dave Sullivan for making it easy to track to the star ratings on this site, and to Amy for providing this forum. Most importantly, thank you for reading and solving and rating and commenting!

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8 Responses to The 2018 Orca Awards

  1. Jeff says:

    Kudos to all – and that is some write-up! (Don’t forget the PAT and the PLATE in the PANCAKE puzzle!) :)

  2. Will Nediger says:

    Thanks as always for the write-up! I’m always awed anew at the talent out there when the Orcas roll around.

  3. e.a. says:

    thank you committee!! i’ve always wanted to be able to say i out-freestyled rachel maddow

  4. BarbaraK says:

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Lots of great puzzles out there.

  5. joon says:

    yeah, this writeup is great as usual. thanks, sam! and thanks to all the terrific constructors. these puzzles were awesome and it’s a treat to relive them.

  6. Congrats to all the winners and nominees! Such an amazing collection of constructors and puzzles.

  7. bananarchy says:

    For anyone interested, Anna Gundlach’s Indie 500 grid can be viewed here: (though it unfortunately lacks grid numbers)

Comments are closed.