This past year I’ve spent a lot of time playing iOS apps but not so much time writing about them. (Again, I blame the new baby—I figure that excuse is only going to work for a little longer so I better make the most of it.) Well, if you’ve got some iTunes gift cards burning a hole in your pocket and you’re looking for something fun to play, here are a few of my latest favorites. I won’t claim that they’re the Best Apps of 2013—there are so many I haven’t even gotten to—but these are the ones that have eaten up a lot of my time.
Okay, Carcassonne isn’t new. In fact, it’s one of the older board game apps I have, but it’s still probably my top-played app, and for good reason. The interface is excellent and intuitive, there’s in-game chat to allow table talk, and their online multiplayer works seamlessly, unlike some other games that require multiple menu taps to get to the game every time it’s your turn. There are a few expansions available as in-app purchases (the latest, The Princess and the Dragon, isn’t one of my favorites, but Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders are both excellent). Yes, it’s a bit pricier than many apps, but well worth it.
I managed to grab Badland during a sale earlier in the year, and was glad I did. The black silhouettes (and gruesome deaths) may remind you a little of Limbo, but it’s a little less creepy, and the sound effects are fantastic. The one-touch controls work like Jetpack Joyride (tap to go up, let go to drop) but the levels are intricate puzzles that require both thinking and quick reflexes. The multiplayer mode lets up to four players race on a single iPad. I noticed recently that Badland is the App Store’s iPad Game of the Year—give it a try!
Kingdom Rush Frontiers
Tower defense games are a guilty pleasure—there are a lot of similarities between them, but some just look and feel better than others. Kingdom Rush Frontiers is a sequel to one of the best, and playing through it ate up hours of my time. You can pick from a couple different heroes (or pay extra to unlock others): in addition to building and upgrading towers, you can directly control your hero to help battle the enemies.
Angry Birds Star Wars
Yep, I’m addicted to Angry Birds, like everyone else. I didn’t know when I first reviewed the first one a few years ago that it would become such a huge phenomenon. I haven’t kept up with all of the various versions, but Angry Birds Star Wars (first released last winter) is a lot of fun. Some of it is similar to Angry Birds Space (the various types of gravity, for instance) but the Star Wars characters have some of their own abilities, too. Good news: Angry Birds Star Wars II is out now as well, so if you’ve already three-starred everything in the first one, you’ve got a whole new set of levels to tackle (including levels where you get to play as the pigs!).
Lords of Waterdeep
One of the best worker-placement board games of the past couple years is Lords of Waterdeep. Whether you’re familiar with the original D&D setting or not (I wasn’t), the game is pretty easy to learn while still allowing for strategic decisions. Send out your Agents to collect fighters, rogues, clerics, and wizards (represented by colored cubes) and then use those various cubes to fulfill missions for points. The app version by Playdek can be a little tricky if you’re new to the game, but is a nice way to play with faraway friends (or solo against the computer).
I backed Republique on Kickstarter, and although the release was delayed, I’ve really enjoyed it. You’re helping Hope, a young woman caught by a totalitarian regime called the Republique—but in a twist on the Big Brother theme, you take control of the video cameras, watching out for guards and unlocking doors. The hiding-in-shadows gameplay reminds me a little of Splinter Cell, though Hope isn’t heavily armed so you have to rely on stealth. The $4.99 price gets you the first episode, with the rest expected to release throughout 2014. A season pass will set you back another $15, so the total package isn’t cheap. And be forewarned: if you’re just charging through to get to the end of the level rather than picking up all the stuff along the way, the first episode is only a couple hours of gameplay. However, I really enjoyed the gameplay and am planning to go back to find a few things I missed along the way.
Dead Man’s Draw
Sadly, the physical version of the Dead Man’s Draw card game fell just a bit shy of its Kickstarter funding goal earlier this year, but the app version is excellent, too. It’s a press-your-luck pirate game—flip as many cards as you want, but if you draw two of the same suit you bust and get nothing. Each suit gives you an ability, too, and your opponents will have their own special powers. A free print-and-play PDF is available if you want to make your own set, but the app is nicely done and an easy way to learn the game.
Colossatron: Massive World Threat
Halfbrick’s newest release is kind of bizarre—you are Colossatron, a giant robot snake from outer space that is destroying various cities around the world. General Moustache will attempt to stop you with tanks, drones, helicopters, and dynamite trucks, but if you use your upgrades cleverly, you will prevail! You don’t actually control Colossatron so much as figure out where to put upgrade segments—primary colors can combine into different weapons, and three of the same color in a row will combine into a stronger version. The entire game is framed as a news update, voiced by a chipper anchorman, which adds to the anime-like feel.
The Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths
When I was a kid, I really loved the cartoon The Mysterious Cities of Gold, though not much has stuck me aside from the giant golden condor and the theme song. But when I saw that Ynnis Interactive was bringing it back as a puzzle adventure game, I had to back it on Kickstarter. It was released recently, and my kids and I have been playing through it. Control Esteban, Zia, and Tau, each with their own special abilities, to push buttons, flip levers, and sneak past enemies. The cartoon cutscenes (from the newly revived series) are heavily abridged, but now I’m tempted to get the DVDs of the original series to watch again with my kids. The first five levels are free to try, but the full game is $10.99 if you want all 30 levels. Not cheap, but can you put a price on nostalgia?
Infinity Blade, the endless sword-slashing monster-slaying game, is in its third iteration. I’d played the first, and then caught up on 2 and 3 this year. You find out more about Radriar the God-King, the titular Infinity Blade, and the Worker who forged the blade. But mostly you hack and slash your way through bigger, badder enemies, including an enormous dragon that takes multiple battles to defeat. If you enjoyed the others, you’ll want to continue the journey here.
Tiny Death Star
Tiny Death Star, like its predecessor Tiny Tower, is a terrible, terrible thing, akin to Farmville in its incessant desire for your attention. But if you (like me) have an inexplicable urge to accumulate, build, and manage a teeny building populated by pixel-art versions of Star Wars characters, here’s your chance. Like the original, you collect money by building new floors, stocking various businesses, and delivering people to their destinations in the ever-so-slow elevator. But you can also build down, creating Imperial levels like blast doors and interrogation chambers to collect Rebel secrets and further the aims of the Empire. It’d be creepy if it weren’t so darn cute.
Dumb Ways to Die
The Metro Trains in Melbourne, Australia, came up with a catchy little music video to teach people about safety around trains which quickly went viral. Dumb Ways to Die depicts several cheerful little characters dying in horrible (and, yes, dumb) ways, from setting your hair on fire to taking your helmet off in outer space. The app version, released earlier this year, is a series of mini-games featuring each of the characters, and you try to save each one as it does its dumb thing. My kids have gotten a lot of mileage out of this one. The best part? It’s free!
It’s not often you see a point-and-click game that tries to tackle the problem of theodicy—the old question of “why do bad things happen to good people?” In Shivah, you play as Russell Stone, the rabbi of a synagogue that has seen better times. As the game begins, you discover that a murder victim has left you a significant amount of money in his will: but is it a blessing or a curse? This game, originally a PC game from 2006 from Wadjet Eye Games, is now an app. It’s a curious mix of Jewish culture and detective noir, finding clues and solving puzzles. One fun feature: if you choose “rabbinical response” during a dialogue, Stone will always respond with a question. Your choices throughout the game will lead to different endings—as they should. I also enjoyed Wadjet Eye Games’ Gemini Rue, a sci-fi detective story of sorts.
I love “making of” books and behind-the-scenes trivia, and the Disney Animated app is chock-full of it. The main portion of the app is divided into sections like character design, color, animation, backgrounds, and visual effects—each section then dives into that part of Disney movie-making, with plenty of video, sketches, and final artwork, covering the entire Disney timeline from Snow White to Frozen. You even get to play around with some simplified versions of the tools used in some of the newer CGI movies, like adjusting facial expressions or setting parameters for Elsa’s snow magic. The app was created with Touch Press, who also did amazing work with The Elements, and it’s easy to see why it was selected as Apple’s iPad App of the Year for 2013. A must-have for fans of Disney cartoons.