I don’t like playing Lumicon. It’s too good at creating a frantic experience. Many games provide a protracted period of more deliberate play which eventually devolves into a brief, frantic struggle which pretty much means you’ve already lost. Lumicon manages to make that period last much longer and matter more, because it is actually possible both to score substantial points during it, and to pull yourself back from the edge and get a modicum of control again. I know lots of people like such experiences, and this one happens to do something which always impresses: use a very simple, approachable ruleset to create opportunities for players to explore a wide variety of strategies tailored to their particular play style.
Nial Giacomelli and Glynn Smith’s Lumicon is pretty simple and solidly fits into a genre with many familiar entries. Letters slide into a row, or gutter, on the bottom of the screen, and you may tap any letter to select it, then tap again to place it into one of the seven rows above it where you’ll attempt to make words. The gutter can only hold seven letters; if an eighth would be placed, you lose. The destination rows are shorter, but wider, holding up to twelve letters. If they fill up and a word isn’t present at the end of the row, that row locks up. When all seven destination rows lock, you lose. Letters can only be added at the leftmost unoccupied spot in their row, and the game will only accept words which end with the rightmost letter present, so you can screw yourself by adding an extra letter.
Happily, the game helpfully highlights three-letter or longer words you’ve made which it accepts (helping avoid some of the frustration which can come with the imperfect dictionaries endemic to the genre). You can tap any such word to make it disappear and score points. Tap multiple words in quick succession to get a score multiplier, and three or more to get a power-up such as “clear gutter” or “add a consonant” which you may later tap to activate. The only other wrinkle is that occasional letters will show up in the gutter which must be placed before their timer runs out or they permanently occupy a precious space in the gutter.
Like popular competitor Spelltower, Lumicon’s graphic design does a surprisingly good job of staying out of the way. I appreciate the ease of the black background on the eyes, and timed events are clearly conveyed even to peripheral vision with bars which move along the relevant area (either the gutter or the timed letters). Sound is similarly unassuming, its electronic tones suiting the visuals. Resolution is sadly iPhone size only, but it’s still quite playable on the iPad.
What I find enthralling about Lumicon is the opportunity for strategic play involved. The seven destination rows aren’t differentiated in any way by the game, but it’s possible and very much desirable to use them differently, and to deliberately develop habits about how to use them. The simplest case would be to have one row be a garbage dump for J, Q, X, or whatever letters you find particularly irksome. This would allow you to clear up gutter space for more useful letters. I also tried having a Q row, and getting used to keeping an eye out for a U to make that into my primary focus. That’s the kind of strategy which takes a while to develop and refine to the point where it really helps (or turns out not to), so each game can be an exercise in a larger project of developing not only a static kind of skill, but also a strategy very specific to your own tendencies.
The game needs something like that, because with nothing but score to keep you playing, it would have the potential to get stale very quickly. Two issues would speed such a slide to deletion: first, the destination rows are slightly too short for my fat fingers, and the rare mistake can be very costly. Second, the power-up system is difficult to use well. The power-ups require a tap to activate, but that tap has to be at the top of the screen. It’s very far from the gutter, and moving one’s hand there obscures the rest of the game. Since the power-ups are of only situational utility, there’s some mental overhead involved in keeping them in mind, especially since each new power-up earned replaces the last. It’s a lot of distraction from the central gameplay for a system of boosts which usually have limited impact; I suspect the game would be more enjoyable with power-ups that were universally beneficial and automatically engaged when earned, or else with the entire power-up system scrapped.
I have a marked preference for turned-based or slow-paced games which afford deliberation over one’s choices. But for that, I’d be extremely pleased with Lumicon. Even though I find the experience of playing uncomfortable, I was very impressed with the design and expect that most of those who enjoy word games like Scrabble or Spelltower will derive great joy from this addition to the genre.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.