For those who choose to cultivate it, there’s a real art to killing time on your smart phone. You can watch videos all day, of course, or noodle around on social media. And unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know about Pokemon Go.
But there’s something fundamentally rewarding about puzzle games. Puzzles celebrate time-killing for its own sake, which can be a rather noble cause in a Zen kind of way.
Below are three of the better puzzle games for phones currently in rotation – a grand champion and two runners-up. These are good options for when you’re waiting on the bus, or the kids, or a viable presidential candidate. Note that prices – both upfront and for in-app purchased – can vary from platform to platform, or with limited-time special offers.
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$3.99. (iOS / Android / Windows Phone)
Since its debut in 2014, more than 24 million players have downloaded the beautiful Monument Valley, a mobile game that plays out less like a story than a poem; less like a puzzle than a gradually unfolding work of art. The game is built around the idea of “impossible objects” – those endless staircases and geometric paradoxes popularized by artist M.C. Escher.
Players control a little avatar named Ida, who is on a quest for forgiveness. Like the puzzles themselves, nothing is explicitly stated in the narrative and everything is indirect. The vibe is beautiful, minimalist and shot through with a gentle melancholy.
In terms of the actual gameplay, the goal is simple. In each level, you need to move Ida from Point A to Point B across a series of 10 levels presented as three-dimensional mazes. Platforms, pillars and bridges can be rotated in such a way that perspective is skewed – that diagonal bridge might function as a vertical or a horizontal passage, depending. Concave surfaces become convex, and gravity itself shifts around with different orientations.
Players are given gentle cues by way of color motifs or repeating patterns that indicate which onscreen elements can be shifted or rotated. All of the designs are fundamentally vertical in orientation, but you’ll find yourself spinning your phone sideways or upside-down as the puzzles progress.
In the end, the game isn’t particularly challenging, but I suspect that was never the intention. There’s a hypnotic quality to the game, enhanced by the beautiful musical score and subtle sound design. The visual art, often reminiscent of Japanese prints, is drop-dead gorgeous. You can power through the ten levels in less than an hour, but I recommend using the game like one of those five-minute meditation exercises – just drop in and out when you need to put your head somewhere else entirely.
The add-on expansion Forgotten Shores adds eight more levels, and hopefully more expansions will come this year. If not, you can move on to other games clearly inspired by Monument Valley. Check out last year’s mobile game Lara Croft Go if you want to keep wandering in this direction.
Dots: A Game About Connecting
Free with in-app purchases. (iOS / Android).
Candy Crush fans will recognize the essential appeal of Dots, which is as mindless and addictive as any of those ubiquitous match-three on the app charts. In fact, it’s even simpler. In a six-by-six board of colored dots, you draw your finger across to connect like-colored rows and columns – vertically or horizontally, but not diagonally. Connected dots disappear, making room for new dots to descend from the top of the screen.
The free version of Dots limits you to 60-second timed games. With in-app purchases, you can upgrade to other modes and purchase a handful of power-up tools. The only really worthwhile upgrade, for my $.99 anyway, is the un-timed mode that gets rid of the clock. The flat and stylish design is also a nice break from those frantic candy avalanches.
Free with in-app purchases. (iOS / Android).
Science nerds will appreciate the premise of Atomas, which is structured around the workings of the periodic table of elements. The idea is to combine groups of atoms with lower atomic numbers to create more valuable atoms with higher atomic numbers. You don’t actually need to know anything about elements or atoms to play the game, but it does lend a cerebral gloss to the proceedings.
You start out with a handful of simple elements – hydrogen, helium, lithium – arranged in a circular pattern. New elements appear in the center of the circle, and the goal is to create groups of like simple atoms that later collapse and combine into more complex elements, like gold or platinum.
Atomas takes a bit more time to learn than most puzzle games. You have to kind of intuit the core design, which involves creating symmetries within the circle. But once the game clicks, you’ll find it both addictive and oddly rewarding. You’ll learn a lot of those atomic numbers from middle school science class, at any rate.