When it comes to word games, I'm not the most strategic player. Give me a game like SpellTower [$1.99] and I end up with long, spindly columns of Qs and Js dragging me down. When I stumbled on Lumicon [Free] it looked like a safe, simple game, a matter of making a few simple words all at once out of a short gutter of letters. Piece of cake, until I dug in and realized how fiendishly clever this little game could be.

Lumicon starts with seven empty rows and a gutter for letters. Every couple seconds a new letter appears in the gutter, and you can choose to place it in any of the rows or leave it to stew for a while. As you build up letters in each of the rows, any words you make that have three or more letters can be cleared away with a tap. You can—and should—have a word going in every row, because if you can clear all seven at once you'll be rolling in points.

Of course, setting that up is crazy dangerous. When you've got three or four empty rows just sitting there, a stray consonant will fit to start any old word. But when you've got something on the go in all seven rows you're much more likely to play yourself into a corner. The gutter can only hold so many letters, and you lose if it overfills. If the letters you need don't show up before that happens the only way out is to throw some useless ones into a row and ruin whatever word you've been working on there.

At first I played Lumicon with my usual lack of tactics, polishing off a few words at a time and occasionally saving one or two for bigger things. That didn't go so well. The only way to make real progress in this game is to clear as much as possible in one quick combo, with each word adding one digit to that combo's multiplier. One word awards points for its letters, two words get double the score. And that scales right up to seven. Clearly, the only way to play is to rock seven rows at a time.

And then there are the power-ups. If you can get a combo of at least three words, the power-up bar will shuffle and you'll have the chance to deploy something that may just help. Some of the power-ups are risky, like the one that adds a random vowel to your gutter, or the one that adds a consonant instead. You'll always be in need of at least one of those, but trusting to luck can be dicey. There are also power-ups that can utterly save the day. Pausing the gutter might help if you need a second to think, but having the ability to clear the gutter at the tap of a button can make a huge difference.

There are two times you might want to clear the gutter. Maybe you fill it up with junk you can't use, like stray K's and X's and Z's. But it's also possible to fill it up with letters you literally can't use because they've gone ahead and died. Every once in a while a letter appears with a timer. If you don't dump that letter into a row before the timer runs out it'll go dark, and you'll have one less space in the gutter to work with.

As the game approaches its maximum speed these frozen letters become absolutely deadly. You might want to save a power-up that can clear the gutter, except that you can't really do that. The power-up changes each time you get a 3x combo or better, and you need to be earning those combos to get a decent score. Use it or lose it, as they say.

By the end of any good run through Lumicon, your board will be cluttered with useless bits of words and awful letters you dropped in a panic. It's a stark contrast from the game's usual elegance, with its lovely minimalistic design and upbeat music. But if your screen isn't littered with the detritus of your failures, you gave up too soon. There's always a chance to save yourself, always a chance to draw things out a little further. And Lumicon is a game that rewards taking those chances.

I may not be skilled at strategizing in word games, but I can recognize a game that deserves a tactically savvy player. This is one of those games, one that requires players be as good at adapting on the fly as they are at planning ahead. Lumicon requires razor-sharp focus and nimble fingers, and there are plenty of strategies to suss out. If you think you and your vocabulary can handle it, you really ought to take a look.

TouchArcade Rating

Lumicon Reviewed by Nissa Campbell on . Rating: 4