Every so often, a friend asks me for iOS game recommendations. I scramble around to see what I currently have installed on my phone, and invariably end up neglecting to mention one of my favorite games. This has been happening more and more often, which made me realize I should be writing my thoughts down.
I thus give you the definitive list of iOS games that I think are worth playing.
(Checking multiple boxes means you'll see games that match any of the filters)
An interactive fiction adaptation of "Around the World in Eighty Days", but that's selling it short. Phenomentally crafted, and so expansive and freeform it's possible to have multiple playthroughs without reading the same thing twice.
The most elegant roguelike I've ever played. Every single move you take is the difference between winning and losing; the stakes are always sky-high. It's unapproachable and unwelcoming, but well worth your time.
Set in a vague dystopian future, Blackbar tells the story of a resistance movement fighting censorship, by means of solving censorship puzzles. It's short, sweet, and strikes the right balance of story and puzzle.
A fiendishly clever (and brutally difficult) puzzle game that requires you do to weird things with your phone, taking advantage of just about every sensor it has inside it.
A classic Roguelike known for its relatively gentle difficulty curve and beautiful ASCII graphics. Brogue's official iPad port is the only traditional desktop roguelike I've seen really work on iOS without an external keyboard.
Real-time strategy meets MOBA meets collectible card game in this fast-pased game from the Clash of Clans folks. There's a lot of aggressive F2P trappings, but at its core is a fantastic competitive game.
A MOBA that only takes five minutes to play. The best true adaptation of MOBA-style gameplay to a mobile form that I've seen.
A Sokoban-style block puzzle whose rules quickly start to collapse in on themselves. I've never played a puzzle game that so successfully managed to convey meaning through pure mechanics. Sheer brilliance.
A punk-y minimalist distillation of Angry Birds-style controls into a golf game. You'll find no achievements or leaderboards or fancy graphics here, just a focused, distilled, addictive version of golf that seems to go on forever.
An adventure game that's equal parts Alice in Wonderland and The Prisoner. Even though it's largely text-based, it takes advantage of the iOS form factor better than most games. Some of the puzzles are a bit obtuse.
Downwell is a minimalist roguelike platformer about descending a well, armed only with a pair of trusty gunboots. Comparisons are often drawn to the masterpiece Spelunky, and they're not undeserved. Easily the best action game I've played on iOS.
Dream Quest is a roguelike deck-building game. If you can look past its embarassingly-amateurish graphics, you'll find a game with stunning depth and brutal difficulty. Be sure to check out the strategy guide written by the creator.
An iOS classic, Drop 7 is an addictive numbers-based puzzle game that feels like it's existed forever.
Dungeon Raid was one of the earliest examples of the iOS trend of layering roguelike mechanics on top of a Match-3 game. A deep levelling system, a cool combo mechanic, and a clever system for unlocks give it longevity.
A puzzle game that seems fairly straight forward at first, if a bit tricky, it eventually folds in on itself in a series of mind-blowingly fantastic moments. One of the most interesting puzzle games you'll ever play.
FTL is a truly fantastic space-themed roguelike. Pilot a ship through the depths of space, micromanaging each of your crew members as you combat enemy ship after enemy ship. Originally built for PC, but it works far better on iPad.
A small game wrapping a stock trading theme around a Tinder-like swipe interaction. It does a great job of slowly giving you more to do until you're managing dozens of different rules in your head under time pressure.
One part deviously-hard Sokoban-style puzzler, one part adorable game where you get to hug snowmen.
A sequel of sorts to Blackbar, Grayout continues its predecessor's trend of being a lovely hybrid puzzle/story game with a uniquely tight connection between mechanic and story.
A phenomenal FMV game where you explore the circumstances surrounding a murder by searching and viewing old police interview footage. I don't want to give anything away; if you're at all interested in narrative games, Her Story is more than worth playing.
Blizzard's F2P deck-building card game. It's heavily inspired by Magic, but far simpler to grasp. A great example of doing F2P right, and a fantastic iOS port. It needs an Internet connection to play, even just against the AI.
A fantastic twitchy action game by Michael Brough. Its touch controls – you're trying to draw loops around enemies to kill them – works effortly in ways that most games don't.
A unique puzzle game combining a pretty cool lighting/shadow mechanic with a slick Victorian-horror aesthetic. It hasn't been updated for 4-inch screens, but it's worth playing even with letterboxing.
A pared-down hex-based turn-based strategy game with roguelike mechanics layered on top. It's chess-like in the way that simple movement patterns elegantly combine to form higher-level strategies.
A smart take on programming games. It essentially teaches you the concepts of assembly programming, but in a way that works effortlessly on a touch screen.
The perfect combination of reflex-based gameplay and strategy: although the game demands precise finger dexterity, you can deliberate a long time before acting. It also works great as a collaborative multiplayer game on iPad!
Yet another minimalist roguelike from Michael Brough. Brutally difficult, but equally rewarding.
A clever pinball-based puzzle game that has you using the pinball table as a canvas for spattering beautiful paint.
By Daisuke Amaya (of "Cave Story" fame), Kero Blaster is a jump-and-gun platformer with fantastic touch-based controls. It's also completely adorable.
In this civilization sim, you're in charge of a primitive tribe in a fantasy world. Every action you take has severe consequences on what happens next; the sheer depth of the text-based simulation is impressive.
A clever turn-based puzzle game based on the Tomb Raider series. Wonderful puzzle design, and an absolutely lovely aesthetic.
A quirky RPG/adventure game that has you climbing on the backs of mystical spirits to collect flowers. There are some F2P mechanics, which is frustrating for a paid game, but it's otherwise absolutely charming.
If you've ever played Advance Wars or Fire Emblem, you'll be right at home in this Wild West take on it. The difficulty is unforgiving, but the gameplay solid.
A charming point-and-click adventure game made entirely from papercraft models. Puzzles lean more towards standalone logic puzzles than traditional object hunts.
A super-chill sim game where you manage a public transit system. A perfect example of how to distill a complex real-world system into a focused minimalist strategy game.
A gorgeous Escher-inspired puzzle game. It's one of those games that isn't particularly challenging, but the act of playing it is an immensely serene and enjoyable experience.
The most relaxing game you'll ever play. Put out food and cat toys, come back later, and watch adorable cats play with them. Use the presents they give you to buy more toys. Rinse, repeat, and enjoy. In Japanese, but easy to figure out.
An atmospheric dive into a bizarre world. Oquonie is a text-free adventure game that has you navigate a confusing labyrinth, solving puzzles you only barely understand.
The ultimate chill-out game. As a single-celled organism, your goal is to eat smaller organisms than you and avoid being eaten. This is a slow, meditative game that's perfect for a lazy afternoon. Be sure to wear headphones.
A super-atmospheric roguelike about traversing the emptiness of space in search of salvation. Much slower-paced than, say, FTL.
A brilliant high-speed modern take on Pac-Man. After playing Pac-Man CE, the original game (or even newer Pac-Man games like Pac-Man 256) feel boring and antiquated. Its swipe controls are easily as playable as the console version.
A truly unique audio-only horror game that has you traversing the Land of the Dead. You navigate the game world using binaural sound to sense your surroundings. There's also a sequel.
A game about being an immigration agent in a fictional Eastern Bloc state. It manages to somehow make the monotony of bureaucracy fun, while also layering in really interesting levels of narrative choice and social commentary.
A bite-sized Civilization-style strategy game. Build up a tribe and conquer all the enemy tribes before they conquer you! Does a great job of shrinking down classic 4X gameplay into a compact mobile game.
A relaxing, meditative puzzle game about pruning a tree as it grows, a la a bonsai tree.
Chess, but with a randomized arrangement of pieces. It's a simple concept, but one that works phenomentally well, even for people (like me!) who didn't think they liked chess.
A civilization sim game cleverly wrapped in Tinder swipe mechanics, sort of like an uber-minimalist (and funny!) version of King of Dragon Pass.
Road Not Taken is one part roguelike, one part Minecraft-style crafting game, one part movement puzzle, wrapped up in a gorgeous aesthetic. It takes a long time to really start to get it, but it's worth it.
An oldie but a goodie. Rolando is an adorable platformer that has you using (pitch-perfect) tilt controls to help cute little balls get home.
A super-polished puzzle game that has you pushing and pulling at 3D objects to figure out their secrets. It has a fantastic otherworldly air of mystery that evokes Myst. Also check out its two sequels.
A Flash-style escape room game with a delightfully macabre story. The puzzle design is clever, if not too difficult, but it's the charmingly dark atmosphere that totally sells it.
A minimalist take on tower defense and real-time strategy games. Both the visuals and the mechanics themselves have been pared down to the bare minimum to create a stunning experience.
A fantastic, original solitaire variant from Zach Gage. Incredibly simple, incredibly deep, and incredibly addictive.
Imagine Nintendo's Animal Crossing, but with the aesthetic of Zelda: Wind Waker and about three times as many things to do. Absolutely charming, so long as you can put up with minimally-aggressive F2P mechanics.
[the Sequence] is a puzzle game that has you arranging a set of components on a physical grid in order to create a specific reaction. It feels like a minimalist version of Spacechem, which is a really cool (and difficult!) thing to pull off.
Fans of games like Advance Wars and Fire Emblem will find themselves right at home with this turn-based strategy wargame. Perfect touch controls, great strategic depth, and a narrative that oozes personality.
A brutally difficult puzzle game. Don't let the cutesy graphics fool you; the game's Sokobon-esque grid movement puzzles will break your brain.
Sorcery! is a remake of an old choose-your-own-adventure book. From the campy paper cut-out art to the many branching paths, it diverges quickly. It has two sequels, each of which is more expansive and innovative than the last.
A trippy, psychedelic take on the classic arcade game. It feels like halfway between a rhythm game and a classic shmup.
Strategery is essentially an abstract version of Risk. Between a randomized game board and a wealth of customizable settings, it's very difficult to get bored with Strategery. Lots of multiplayer options as well.
Super Hexagon is a game about getting lost in a state of flow. I love it for its hypnotic visuals and sound, perfectly-responsive controls, and sheer ball-busting difficulty. It's insanely difficult, but never cheap.
A delightful little puzzle game. Adorable graphics and sound are the cherry on top of an already addictive puzzler. If you've played 2048, it was based on Threes (and isn't nearly as good).
A casual take on a point-and-click adventure game with stealth elements. It's divided up into self-contained puzzles, making it great for short play sessions. The earlier levels are a bit too easy, but if you stick it out it gets better.
A riveting physics-based game all about getting into a good flying flow as a bird.
A moderately fun stream-based puzzle game wrapped in a pitch-perfect framing narrative. TouchTone tells an NSA-like story of government surveillance, contextualizing your puzzles as helping enact wiretaps.
The epitome of "simple to learn, difficult to master" puzzle games. Triple Town is essentially a match-3 puzzler, but joining three like pieces together causes them to combine into a single upgraded piece.
A fantastic free-to-play mobile MOBA. It's far simpler and more approachable than LoL or DOTA, making it a great introduction to the genre for folks looking for a strategic team-based multiplayer action.
A great Advance Wars-style strategy game. The game is remarkably similar to Advane Wars, even down to the overall theming, but it's unbelievably polished and has lots of character.
Unlike most match-three puzzle games, YMBAB is real-time, which gives it a wild and frenetic energy. A very compelling framing mechanic and a great aesthetic make this hard to put down.
A great turn-based strategy game. The balance between teams is great, there's a lot of depth in strategy if you're looking for it, and the presentation is pitch-perfect.
A genius game by Loren Brichter (aka "the guy who invented pull-to-refresh"). It's ostensibly a "word game", but it's really a territory control game that just happens to use a Boggle-esque word finding mechanic.
A Diplomacy-esque game of naval warfare about negotiating with and strategizing against your friends. Notably, ships move in real-time; a full game takes seven days to complete.
It's Scrabble, on your phone. You've probably heard of it, but if you haven't, check it out. The board, point values, and letter distributions are tweaked from Scrabble to make games more exciting and higher-scoring.
(Full disclosure: I used to work on the Facebook version of WWF.)
A game of complete madness requiring everyone to madly tap on your iPad screen at the same time. This is pretty similar to Chicanery, which I enjoy a bit more, but Bloop is still worth your time.
An absolutely beautiful collaborative dancing game. Two players, holding the same phone, will have to contort themselves in ways that create a wonderful abstract modern dance.
Each player must hold an on-screen button. If you let go of your button, you lose. You can do whatever you want to get your opponents to move their fingers off the screen (although preferably without any serious bodily harm).
These two games are very similar, so I'm grouping them together. They both task you with solving puzzles by moving your fingers around the screen, inevitably getting them tangled up in the process.
A 2-player head-to-head tank-battle game. Each time you use an action, its control is randomly replaced with another one. Add in other mechanics that complicate things, and it's easy to get overwhelmed in a good way.
OLO is a 2-player game similar to shuffleboard or crokinole. You and your opponent take turns flicking pucks across the screen. The physics feel as effortlessly natural as playing a physical game.
Recurse is an iPad game that feels like it belongs on the Kinect. It uses the front-facing camera to use your body as input, tasking you with challenges that essentially force you to look silly in front of your friends.
Spaceteam is ultimately a game about shouting at your friends. It's an absolutely phenomenal party game for gamers and non-gamers alike. It also happens to be free.
Worked your way through everything I've mentioned and still want more? I try to keep the main list relatively trim, but here are some other games I've really enjoyed.