Best puzzle game for iPhone and iPad: Threes! Freeplay
In Threes! Freeplay, you move cards around a four-by-four board, merging pairs, which then double in value. The snag? Every time you slide your finger, all cards on the board move in that direction, assuming they’re not blocked. The other snag: after every move, a new card shows up in a random empty spot on the board edge you dragged from.
Threes! Freeplay therefore becomes a delicate balancing act: you have to think several moves ahead, because your game’s done when no more moves are available.
Cloned like crazy shortly after release, Threes! nonetheless shone compared to the countless cheap rip-offs, through its breezy personality and tighter rules. This free version is identical to the paid release, bar having to watch video ads to get extra goes. And, yes, you can queue up a load if you’re going to be offline for a while.
Striving for a level of minimalism even Marie Kondo would think a bit much, Empty. has you remove items from rooms until nothing remains. This is achieved by rotating each room so that objects merge into surfaces of the same colour, whereupon they vanish.
It’s a meditative experience. The gentle soundtrack engages and aids focus. There are no timers and no ads. It’s all about immersing yourself in tactile, hand-crafted levels.
There are 19 in all, which won’t take that long to beat, even if savoured at a relaxing pace. But like a favourite jigsaw puzzle, Empty. is always worth returning to when you need to unwind.
Bart Bonte has form in the colour-based puzzle game department, having already released yellow, red, black, blue and green. You might think that’s enough. Nope: pink is another superb slice of brain-smashing logic puzzling.
The idea in each stage is to flood the screen with pink. How you do this rapidly becomes head-scratchingly tricky as the devious nature of the game’s creator becomes clear. Despite the confined single-screen set-up of these puzzles and the simple visuals, there’s plenty of creativity on display throughout pink’s 50 levels.
Naturally, there’s a help system (powered by adverts), but you’ll feel like a failure if you venture into that. When you need a break, instead restart the app and bob your head to the funky intro music and cool-as title screen flamingos.
Friday the 13th: Killer Puzzle
You don’t usually associate sliding puzzles with lashings of gore, but then only slightly unhinged developers reason Soko-Ban should be smashed into Friday the 13th with a baseball bat.
Oddly, it all works brilliantly, with you sliding Jason about a tiled board to bludgeon his next victim, splattering your screen with cartoon gore. All the while, the levitating decapitated head of Jason’s mother offers sagely advice.
Naturally, it won’t be for everyone. But if you can stomach loads of South Park-style violence, the actual puzzles (of which you get 100 for free) are suitably brain-smashing in an entirely different manner.
Match and rhythm games
Best free match game for iPhone and iPad: Sticky Terms
Plenty of mobile games have you fashion words from random stacks of letter tiles. Sticky Terms instead hacks the letters to bits and leaves you to it. Each level therefore starts out resembling minimalist modern art. You need to figure out which bits go where and drag the pieces into place.
Everything about Sticky Terms is a joy, from the delightfully tactile interface to the subtle sound effects. And in a nice twist, the words you’re trying to create are broadly impossible to translate into other languages; so on completing a puzzle you’re given the word’s origin and definition. See – games can be educational and great!
Match games are best when they bin trying to rip off Bejeweled and instead do something different. And Casual Metaphysics is certainly different. The aim is to match similar shapes, which then evolve. Chain enough together in one sweep and you amass huge points. Dawdle and your existing score drops.
The other snag is you’re playing against opposition – either a human in single-device mode, or a freaky glowing computer-controlled hand ‘inside’ the screen. Early days are simple enough, against boneheaded AI and with few shapes. A few levels in, though, there’s not much ‘casual’ in Casual Metaphysics as you desperately try to find from within a sea of various forms a winning chain that’ll keep your lead intact.
Little Alchemy 2
This logic puzzler starts you off with a few items, the aim being to combine them into new things. Imagine a lazy universe-building god with an iPad and you’re there.
Sometimes, the combinations are obvious – a couple of ponds becomes a lake. But many are humorous (meat from a livestock and a sword – ouch), or require lateral thinking (merging a car and bird to make a plane).
In droughts between discoveries, there’s the temptation to tediously ‘drop all the things on all the other things’, but it’s always a blast when you find something new.
Strategy and word games
Best free strategy game for iPhone and iPad: The Battle of Polytopia
Civilization’s a great game, but there are two tiny snags on mobile: first, Civ games take forever, which isn’t good when playing on an iPhone; secondly, mobile Civs are rubbish. Enter: The Battle of Polytopia, which takes the basics of classic Civ, but speeds things along nicely.
In this distilled, compelling and surprisingly tense take on becoming a world-conquering despot, there’s a real sense of focus: you’re by default up against a moves limit, and the maps are tightly packed. Yet it’s not reductive: you still get tech trees, cities to found and expand, and a range of enemies to administer a jolly good thrashing to.
There’s a nod to old-school Metal Gear Solid outings in this retro-oriented stealth ’em up. You sneak through rooms peppered with cameras, guards with itchy trigger fingers, laser grids, and sometimes poisonous air. All you have on your side are your wits, an ability to clonk someone over the head, and the good fortune that your enemies are stupid to the point they can’t see anyone beyond their torch beams.
So you zig-zag along, inching your way to victory in the form of a waiting chopper. It’s nerve-wracking stuff, even if death is not the end – you’re just sent back to the most recent restart point. And the missions themselves are also never-ending for your dinky spy – there’s rather generously a new one every day.