Free and fun
We routinely pour hours into free-to-play games, but thanks to freemium annoyances and sometimes limited or simplistic gameplay cycles, they may not qualify as the best games we’ve played all year. But we still love ‘em, and best of all, they’re free—so while we also have a best overall games list that a couple of these games are on, this list is all about gratis gaming.
All 15 of these 2017 picks can be downloaded and played without spending a cent, and offer entertainment and amusement in strong chunks without feeling overly hampered by a business model. From live competitive trivia to card-based combat, frantic puzzling, and super-powered fighting, these are the iPhone and iPad freebies you shouldn’t miss from this year.
HQ - Live Trivia Game
It’s the buzziest game of all year and it can win you real money too: HQ is a live, real-time trivia game that pits you against potentially hundreds of thousands of opponents in rapid-fire competition. You’ll get a notification a couple minutes before it starts, and then the live-streaming host greets you before delivering a speedy succession of multiple-choice questions.
It’s like pub trivia for the smartphone era, with questions ranging from pop culture nuggets to other oddball tidbits, and you only have 10 seconds to choose an answer. If you pick the wrong response, you’re out—and once the 12 questions are done, the remaining players split the cash, which can be several thousands of dollars. It’s been buggy and sometimes overloaded due to demand, but HQ is still a must-play.
Push & Pop
Push & Pop looks so simple, and like a lot of great puzzlers, it really is: it’s all about making and clearing lines of blocks. But the way it all comes together makes Push & Pop feel really distinct, not to mention super compelling. You’ll play as a little cube guy on a 5-by-5 grid, and as you move from space to space, you’ll nudge the blocks around if there’s space for them to shift.
It’s very much like the wonderful number puzzler Threes! in that regard, plus blocks are regularly added to the board as you shift around. That makes the game feel intensely claustrophobic, and forces you to constantly clear lines just to have space to move. It works beautifully, while the shifting colors and pulsing soundtrack add some welcome flair.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp
Nintendo’s latest mobile sensation is incredibly mindless, true, and it requires a lot less precision or focused attention than Super Mario Run. Yet there’s something truly compelling about Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, an ultra-adorable game about appeasing creatures and building up a compelling campground for them to enjoy themselves in.
You’ll wander from area to area collecting bugs and fruit, fishing, and completing chores for new animal pals, all of which helps you buy and build more stuff for your camp. The core loop here can be repetitive, but the sights and sounds are charming, the characters are amusing, and we just keep coming back to it. Here’s to more content in 2018!
On consoles and the PC, Respawn’s Titanfall series is all about enormous mechs and comparatively tiny humans battling it out for supremacy. That’s essentially the same in Titanfall: Assault, too, but instead of actively blasting opponents from a first-person perspective, you’ll now drop squads and mechs onto a map using a deck of unit cards.
Yes, that’s a bit of a change—but in a very Clash Royale-esque sort of way, it totally works. Assault’s skirmishes are all about territory control, as you fight against another player’s forces to take over strategic points and destroy the base on the other end. It’s like a real-time strategy game, but your tactical maneuvering happens both in deck-building and making the most of in-game timing and placement.
Angry Birds has crashed and burned with inane spinoffs and free-to-play frustrations, but Rovio bounced back this year with a very different kind of game: Battle Bay. It’s a five-on-five brawler in which each teammate commands his or her own little boat, and you’ll cruise around the choppy waves to deliver rocket blasts in the hopes of sinking the other team before they return the favor.
It’s pretty straightforward fun: the matches only last a couple of minutes, typically, and there’s not much more to it than making the most of your arsenal, picking your fights, and using the waves and environments to your advantage. There’s a whole freemium system that can be annoying, but if you don’t pay that part much mind, you can still have a lot of fun here.
We’d hesitate to call it legendary, but we still got a kick out of Flipping Legend this year. Noodlecake’s game has something of a Crossy Road-like look to it, but rather than hop straight ahead through hazards, you’ll flip diagonally ahead as you enter new lands, pick up helpful items, and bash zombie and skeleton attacks. And you’ll have to be quick about it, too!
Learning to perceive threats and hazards at an angle requires a bit of trial and error, but before long, you might be a flipping legend yourself as you zip across fields filled with spike-laden holes and weird fantasy foes. It’s a bit thin on content and may not be the longest-lasting endless hopping diversion, but Flipping Legend still entertains.
Fire Emblem Heroes
Unlike most of Nintendo’s trademark games, Fire Emblem Heroes isn’t ultra-accessible or built for the whole family. It’s a tactical combat game, in which you’ll move a team of heroes around a grid-based battlefield, and it’s all about slaying your competition in intense skirmishes.
But it still has that spark seen in Nintendo’s finest adventures, and you may find plenty of reason to keep pushing ahead as you unlock new warriors and take on tougher missions. Fire Emblem Heroes has been streamlined significantly from the popular entries on Nintendo’s own devices, but the transition to mobile (and free-to-play) hasn’t zapped the fun, thankfully. It’s a fun on-the-go version for existing fans, but also a solid strategy affair for newcomers.
Star Wars: Force Arena
If you’re hyped about Star Wars: The Last Jedi right now and want something to play on your phone, then 2017 brought a couple of fun options. Star Wars: Puzzle Droids is fun, but it’s essentially just a Star Wars-skinned Candy Crush—which is fine! But Star Wars: Force Arena has a bit more depth, and much more of a competitive spirit to keep you coming back for more.
It’s like a scaled-down multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, or a tweaked take on Clash Royale. You’ll bring a deck of characters into each fight and toss them down into the fray to try and topple the enemy base, plus you can command legends like Princess Leia and Darth Vader. The freemium stuff isn’t great, but you can still enjoy Force Arena without spending.
Stranger Things: The Game
Stranger Things: The Game is one of the rare games on this list that isn’t free-to-play—it’s completely free, without any in-app purchases on offer. That’s great in and of itself, but Netflix’s gratis tie-in to it spooky, supernatural series is also a pretty entertaining little game, and a must-play for devoted fans.
With the series set in the 1980s and riddled with pop culture references of the era, it makes sense to build Stranger Things: The Game in the mold of a classic 8-bit adventure. You’ll wander the town of Hawkins and see familiar locations, all while controlling little pixel versions of the show’s characters. It’s a bit of action and a bit of puzzle-solving; nothing too original or engrossing, but a welcome surprise all the same.
Card games are pretty common on the App Store, but Zach Gage doesn’t make common card games—they always come with a clever twist or reimagined elements that make them feel fresh and new. That was the case with Sage Solitaire, one of our favorite free iOS games of 2015, and it’s true again with Flipflop Solitaire.
Flipflop lets you stack cards counting both up and down, and you can even do it both ways in a single stack. But the catch is that you can only move stacks of a single suit, which means you’re limited if you stack all willy-nilly. You can play with between one and five suits, and the core game is free, although you can add on extra modes for just $3 if you really dig it.
The original Injustice: Gods Among Us enjoyed a long life on the App Store with steady updates and a fervent fan base, but Injustice 2 is even better. As before, this mobile fighter—from NetherRealm, the makers of Mortal Kombat—pits DC Comics superheroes and villains against each other in slick, frenetic team battles.
It’s pared down from the console experience, but between taps, swipes, and special attack buttons, you still feel like you’re in control as you lash out assaults from the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman, The Joker, and Harley Quinn. It even has a story mode with impressive cinematics between matches. The freemium component is heavy, but you can still enjoy this one in small chunks without spending anything.
C.A.T.S.: Crash Arena Turbo Stars
That title might be nearly nonsensical (must… have… acronym…), but at least C.A.T.S.: Crash Arena Turbo Stars itself is soundly entertaining. It’s like a cartoonish version of BattleBots, where you’ll build the best killer robot you can and set it loose on an opposing ‘bot. However, in this case, you don’t have any active control over your fighter once the match starts.
As such, you’ll have to build a ‘bot that can handle all types of comers, whether they attack from afar, bludgeon at close range, or try to tip you over and beat upon your helpless undercarriage. Coming up with different combinations of bodies, weapons, and parts is the most entertaining element of the game, and yes, C.A.T.S. really does star robot-battling cats. Nailed it!
Data Wing is a racing game, but it’s not quite like any racing game you’ve likely played before. Rather than command a car, a boat, or something else visibly vehicular, you’ll take the role of a tiny computer courier who must race through a CPU at incredible speeds to deliver information—and try not to upset the malicious A.I. overlord in the story-driven quest.
That little courier is represented as a tiny triangle racing through simply-drawn paths, but the cool color-changing backdrops and super-great soundtrack add some panache. And the racing itself feels distinctive, as your rocket-boosted ride can go faster by propelling off of the walls, making positioning absolutely critical as you try to beat rival racers.
Noodlecake’s Bouncy Hoops is kind of like the basketball equivalent of the great Flappy Golf, but you don’t need to know that game to have a lot of fun here. While your basketball here doesn’t have wings, you still have to tap the screen to make it “flap” towards the basket, which pops up on the left or right of the screen in different positions. And you have mere seconds to sink a shot.
You’ll try to score and score until time runs out, and the frantic back and forth makes this a perfect, relatively brainless game for speedy play sessions. There are plenty of different ball variants to unlock, plus there are extra modes—like an endless climbing game above a rising pool of lava—to keep you steadily hooping.
Clash Royale was already mentioned a couple of times on this list, and its influence has been strongly felt in the mobile space this year. Stormbound is another game that feels like it owes some small debt to Supercell’s smash, but this super-beautiful game swaps to a turn-based approach instead, which makes the action feel a bit more like chess than a frantic battle.
Here, you’ll use cards to drop warriors onto the map and unleash special attacks, but then you’ll gradually move up the battlefield towards the enemy base. The slower pace adds more of a tactical edge, while the Monument Valley-esque art style is a total stunner. Stormbound is a hybrid that thankfully doesn’t feel like a lazy copy of previous games.
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