Are the recent free Star Wars games worth your time (and money)?

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Until recently, the top Star Wars game available on the App Store was the cute and undeniably charming Tiny Death Star, an official spinoff of the immensely popular Tiny Tower that made a building management simulation feel light and breezy. But Disney suddenly pulled the game in October, leaving a potential void for Star Wars fans seeking a worthwhile free-to-play iPhone or iPad experience.

But a couple of contenders have emerged of late, and both tackle different kinds of familiar mobile strategy genres. Disney's own Star Wars: Commander uses Clash of Clans as a template to explore bit-by-bit base building and asynchronous online combat, while the newly released Star Wars: Galactic Defense from DeNA is a pretty straightforward tower defense experience set in the sci-fi universe. 

Both offer light and dark side options that alter the gameplay to some extent, and both are loaded with content. And unsurprisingly, both offer ample opportunities to spend money to either speed things along or ease the challenge. But do these attractive affairs really warrant playing over a long span of time, let alone pumping real cash into? I dug into both to find out.

You're the boss

We spent some time with Star Wars: Commander when it first launched in late August and came away impressed. It's easy to see why: this is a well-produced take on the Clash of Clans-style combat formula that's sweeping the App Store, and while not terribly original, it doesn't come off as a throwaway freebie. It's a simple, straightforward experience, but the license feels well integrated and everything looks and sounds like you'd expect—nay, demand—as a Star Wars fan. 

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One full day to wait for this base upgrade, or a couple bucks worth of crystals instead? Not an easy choice if you're hooked by Commander.

After a few quick introductory segments to teach you fundamentals, Commander gives you one big choice that affects the rest of your experience: will you align with the scrappy Rebels, or embrace the evil power of the Empire? While both sides rely on the same core game mechanics, that decision changes the narrative, scenery, and units you'll use in battle, so it's not one to be made hastily. Choose wisely. Or just pick the one that seems more fun, really.

One committed, the game settles into the familiar routine. You'll slowly build out your base with refineries and credit markets—to generate alloy and money, respectively—and then barracks and unit transports for manpower, as well as turrets and walls for defense, among other structures. From there, it's a process of expanding and enhancing as you spend resources to improve the stability of your fortress and amp up your attacking power, all while completing simple missions (destroy this base! build this thing!) and even attacking online players' bases.

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The online battles set you loose on another random player's base, letting you reap rewards by destroying buildings. But don't forget: other players can do the same to yours.

I'm not typically too swayed by this particular freemium formula, but I found myself checking Commander regularly throughout my days, tapping buildings to amass resources, generate soldiers, and fortify my defenses. It really is dead simple, and to a fault in spots: irritatingly, your automated troops know nothing of self-preservation. But it's strangely satisfying in three-minute spurts throughout the day. 

Anyone eager to play in a more dedicated fashion will feel the brunt of the roadblocks more than others. Everything takes time to complete, but everything also takes resources to build. And you'll suddenly be seriously underpowered for a certain mission, or you'll need a specific level building to push ahead. At those points, you'll wait for hours and maybe days to slowly amass enough currency to complete a simple task—and then probably wait longer for something to build.

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It seems like there's always something to do in Commander, whether it's story missions (with more being added regularly), online battles, or entering in tournaments.

Or you can spend money on premium crystals and use those to speed processes up, or convert them to other currencies and buy what you need. Those roadblocks are frustrating, but they come with the territory. And I don't think Commander is interesting or involved enough to want to play in large chunks—or spend much money on. But for a few minutes at a time, here or there, it's a very solid diversion, and a decent use of the Star Wars brand. 

Diminished defense

DeNA's Star Wars: Galactic Defense launched a couple weeks back, and on the surface, there's plenty to like—emphasis on plenty. You'll find three current worlds, each with several different stages, plus they all have multiple scenarios so you can replay them for fun or additional credits. Add to that the ability to play missions as either the Light Side or Dark Side, and 37 total iconic champions (like Han Solo and Boba Fett) to unlock and wield in battle, and Galactic Defense has the quantity side of the equation locked down. 

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Enemies come hard and fast in Galactic Defense, but it doesn't feel like you're provided the tools to deal with the mayhem without the power-up cards.

Quality, on the other hand, is less of a certainty. Galactic Defense has the fundamental elements of a great tower defense game pretty well intact, largely because they're lifted from genre leader Kingdom Rush. Stage layouts and tower upgrade progression paths here feel incredibly familiar as a fan of that series, but credit to DeNA for at least picking great source material to base its game upon.

The objective in Galactic Defense, as expected, is to ward off invaders approaching your base by building an array of offensive towers in specific plots around the paths. How you place and upgrade the towers is often key to your success, as you need to consider how each affects different enemies, how their attacks can combine to best weaken the invaders, and most importantly, how best to use your limited resources to deal with the challenge at hand.

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If free access to ample content is your main concern, Galactic Defense delivers in that regard. It currently has dozens of stages, each with multiple scenarios, and much more is promised.

But tower defense games are uniquely devastated by freemium shenanigans, which is why all the best iOS entries are paid, premium experiences. It's a genre that relies on pitch-perfect balance to feel rewarding despite the oft-immense challenge, and that's where Galactic Defense loses its footing. Namely, the game feels designed to require the various power-ups that you can buy with in-game currency—accrued very slowly, no doubt to push you towards buying more with real money. 

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I spent $5 to buy enough crystals to convert into credits to then exchange for a random champion pod, which gave me Lando to use in battle. Without money, I'd probably have to play a hundred games to earn enough credits. No, thanks.

You're given very limited building spots and minimal money, and Galactic Defense likes to suddenly dash your best intentions by dumping a load of enemies onto the screen—sometimes in the very first wave. What are you to do besides frantically tap one of those power-ups? It's sort of a helpless feeling, but acceptance comes quickly: this is how freemium tower defense games operate, complete with convoluted currency swaps and a grinding progression, and that's exactly why they rarely warrant more than casual, sporadic play.

Which is the most I'd recommend here. It doesn't help that Galactic Defense feels like it's simply a Star Wars skin—attractive as it may be—applied to a common tower defense genre mold instead of something that feels unique to the franchise. Also, the unlockable champions are wildly expensive, meaning many players will never access their favorite franchise heroes without spending a solid bit of cash to speed along the process. Like many licensed freemium games, Galactic Defense is free and adequate entertainment that's totally outclassed by the genre's best.

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