Lex: On Timers and the Importance Thereof

LexI rarely download word-based mobile games any more. Honestly, they’re usually such a disappointment that I just figure why bother buying yet another Scrabble or Boggle clone? Do I REALLY need to play some new version of what’s already been done to death? Turns out, yes, I really do.

Lex isn’t really the same as Scrabble or word-finds or crosswords, even though I’m sure it’s a copy of some game or other that’s out there (see my article on 2048 vs Threes). Instead of giving you the chance to mull over your words like Scrabble does, it forces you to play before each letter’s individual timer runs out. Instead of giving you a set of letters to choose from like Boggle does, it constantly replaces the letters that you make words out of, showing only nine letters in an unchangeable order at one time.

The basic idea of the game is to make words with the letters you’re shown. The twist is that letters are assigned a timer (they slowly “fill up” with red). When the timer runs out on one letter, you lose. Of course, more common letters are given a shorter timer to make things a bit more balanced.

“Play it for a bit and see how much you can handle the timer mechanic.”

One of the things I had to come to terms with in Lex was that I probably wasn’t engaging with any kind  of new idea here. Each element of the game I could tell was lifted from some other game, whether it was the timers, the way you have to make words from a limited set of letters, even the scoring was reminiscent of most other word games. So what is it that makes this one stand out?

First, there’s the visual design. As much as the popularity of low-budget indie games has made that unpolished look popular again, there’s still something to be said for a game that you can tell has had time pumped into making it look clean as hell. The psychedelic backgrounds are one thing but even the design of the letters themselves and the way everything seems to move seamlessly around the screen.

If the look of it isn’t enough to woo you over, play it for a bit and see how much you can handle the timer mechanic. I won’t lie, when I first lost because an E or an O ran out of time, I was pissed. Maybe if it was an X or a Q I could forgive myself but who doesn’t know like a million words with E in them? I put the game down for a while, annoyed but not enough to delete the game.


When I came back to Lex, I tried to have more of an open mind about it, seeing as taking my time and having patience is what finally let me appreciate roguelikes so much. I started to realize that the timers really were the saving grace of this game, despite the frustration they were causing me (I might just suck, actually, since my wife doubled my high score on her third try).

Of course, the game would be complete garbage without the timers. It would be like a practice mode with no payoff or consequences for missteps. Some puzzle games really do feel like the timer is tacked on, whether it’s so long that it’s completely irrelevant or it was just thrown in as a difficulty booster when the game was already hard enough as it is (I still don’t get how chess players can play with timers…).

There are a few examples of timers not necessarily being integral but still helping to move the game forward. Think of the Mario platformers for example. Even the most recent ones have timers on the levels (not so much the open world games like Sunshine and Galaxy, just the regular level-based ones like New Super Mario Bros).

 “The tension that the timer creates is used to just the right degree, not making the level artificially hard but refusing to allow you to over-think.”

The reason Mario timers work so well–even if you almost never hear that dreaded “almost out of time” noise and hear the music speed up–is because it pushes the game forward and creates tension. Even though platformers are rarely games that you can sit back and analyze for twenty minutes before making one move (Scrabble players, I’m looking at you), over-cautious play is something the game just won’t let you do. Take too long to check out a bottomless pit or dance around a tricky enemy and the timer ends and you lose. The tension that the timer creates is used to just the right degree, not making the level artificially hard but refusing to allow you to over-think instead of using your reflexes to progress.

I could go on for hours about the importance of using timers properly in games (and maybe I will at some point), but what I’m really trying to say is that Lex is worth a try, despite how hard it might seem at first or how much of a betrayal it is to lose because an A ran out of time. If anything, it might help you better appreciate how what might seem like a handicap at first is actually the whole reason for the game.

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