Boredom (and anxiety) both have a knack for making people stare at their phones and other screens. If you’re tired of scrolling through Instagram or getting antsy looking at Twitter, might I suggest passing time with a mobile game? They’re an interactive and fun way to embrace and accept smartphones and tablets as a persistent part of life, especially now, when many other activities and distractions are off-limits. Plenty of mobile games are fulfilling, artistic, cooperative, and intelligent. Plus, most of them are simple yet clever enough to be enjoyed by players of all skill levels.
Finding a fun mobile game to play by yourself or share with friends and family could be overwhelming, considering there are thousands to choose from. So we’ve compiled a sampling of games we recommend checking out. All of them are well-suited for new and veteran players alike.
The games below are playable on both Android- and iOS-compatible smart devices, although most are optimized for smartphones as opposed to tablets. Nearly all of them are free to play, with purchase costs noted; almost all of them also offer premium options to remove ads, unlock upgrades, or gain access to additional modes, among other things.
Brain-twisting puzzle games
Dots is the definition of simple. The screen features 36 dots of different colors, laid out in rows to form a six-by-six square. The goal is to literally “connect the dots” by drawing a line between dots of the same color; doing so earns you points and clears those dots off the screen. You can connect dots up, down, and sideways, but not diagonally; the more dots you connect in one continuous swipe, the more points you get. As you clear out chains of dots, more dots drop down into the grid from the top. (Meanwhile, connecting four or more dots to form a square will clear all the dots of that color from the board.) The game continues to add more colors and roadblocks until you run out of possible moves.
It’s a fun, maze-like exercise that allows you to use some strategy while scratching the matching puzzle game itch.
Have you ever heard of 2048? It’s a popular mobile puzzle game that requires you to maneuver cards around a four-by-four board, with each card displaying a multiple of two. The idea is to push cards into each other to add their numerical values together. By swiping the cards in the four cardinal directions around the board and adding up their values, you aim to ultimately hit the goal total, 2,048.
But true mobile puzzle game fans consider 2048 a lesser derivative of the best number-combining puzzle game: Threes, which launched in app stores in February 2014 and predated the release of 2048 by only a month. Threes won critical acclaim for its beautifully minimalist design, ease of play, and well-scaled difficulty, but 2048 soon exceeded its popularity due to its price point of “free”; Threes, now free itself, originally cost $1.99.
Threes fans insist that 2048 players are missing out. The way Threes works is similar to 2048 but with a much more charming board to play on and a more difficult goal. New cards often appear in empty spaces on the board with a value of 1 or 2, and you must combine to make a 3. The rest of the gameplay involves combining cards with the same number value, all of which display multiples of 3 — i.e., you can combine two 3s to make a 6, two 6s to make a 12, two 12s to make a 24, and so on, but you can’t combine a 12 and a 24 to make a 36. The game ends when there are no more ways to slide the cards around and reach the end goal value of 6,144.
Making intelligent moves in Threes is more challenging than in 2048, which is more about simple multiplication; Threes is more about treating each move like it could be your last one to achieve the highest possible point total — something few people have ever done. It’s the rare math-meets-puzzle game that is infinitely fun and just the right level of challenging.
Disney Emoji Blitz
Matching objects of the same color can provide pure, simplistic joy — see the aforementioned Dots. But a lot of people love variations on match-three games like Candy Crush and Puyo Puyo — staples of the “match three or more like colors together” formula — because they add a layer of personality. Disney Emoji Blitz is a popular choice, especially among Disney fans who geek out over stacking emojis based on favorite characters.
There are hundreds of truly adorable takes on Disney and Pixar characters filling up Disney Emoji Blitz, begging to be stacked into groups of three or more to help clear off the game board. (These emoji-style characters can then be “collected” to build an emoji keyboard you can actually use while texting, if that’s something you’re also into.) And like any good match-three game, Disney Emoji Blitz allows players to challenge each other to beat their top scores. It’s an especially cute variation on a classic format.
You likely recall Words With Friends, which was hugely popular throughout the 2010s. The Scrabble-like multiplayer game invites two players to use letter tiles, each assigned a point value, to spell words on a board. After someone takes their turn, the game pings their friend to send a word back.
What we’re saying is, Words With Friends (which is actually still popular on Facebook and elsewhere, even if it’s not as huge a phenomenon as it used to be) is literally Scrabble. But now Scrabble itself is available as an authentic, official mobile game. Scrabble Go launched at the beginning of March 2020, so forgive it if you encounter any early-version glitches. The concept is classic and easy to pick up: Ask a friend if they’d like to play a game, then take turns playing a word on the board. Scrabble Go also offers more intense modes of play, including ones that allow for advanced moves like swapping tiles with your competitor. And if you don’t want to play with anyone — sometimes we want to challenge ourselves instead! — there’s a single-player mode, too.
Speaking of single-player experiences, solitaire may be the most quintessential of them all. Card game fans may already have a simple version of solitaire installed on their devices, which is great! But for a twist on the concept, Flipflop Solitaire is a fantastic choice.
This game is designed by mobile game maven Zach Gage, who always brings a unique aesthetic to his work. But Flipflop Solitaire’s friendly veneer of smiling card faces belies its quirks. The goal is the same as that of any old solitaire game, which is to achieve full stacks of cards of the same suit. But Flipflop Solitaire allows you to arrange cards of descending and ascending values on top of each other, with no regard to the colors of the cards. (For example: Instead of having to place a five of hearts on top of a six of clubs, you can go ahead and reverse the chain — put a seven of clubs on top of that six of clubs and move in the opposite direction.) You can also move entire arrays of cards to an empty space no matter what the bottom card is; it doesn’t have to be a king.
These small changes create a more expansive challenge, one that encourages repeat play. The result is one of those excellent, engrossing games you finally tear yourself away from and realize you’ve been playing for two hours straight.
Life — and pet — simulators
BitLife — Life Simulator
BitLife is perfect for anyone who used to love playing with dolls, or fortune-telling games like M.A.S.H., or dress-up. It’s like a more adult version of those childhood pleasures, a simple app that randomizes a character for you and gives you the tools to guide them from birth until death.
What really sells BitLife is how detailed it can be. A character that it generates for you might be of a very specific ethnicity, from a city in a country you’ve never even considered traveling to. They may be born into wealth, or grow up in extreme poverty. It’s up to you to make the right choices when presented with a wide array of circumstances, no matter how serious or mundane: Should your character stay in school or leave early to help their sickly mother take care of the family? Should your character come out to their parents now or later? Is buying a used 2007 Honda Accord really a worthwhile purchase when you already pay too much in rent?
The game can also take place in the past or future, and offers fun little “news updates” as your character moves through their life, year by year. It’s especially endearing to read a news update proclaiming that we’ve achieved, say, world peace in the year 2060. Especially when real-life headlines are mostly full of horror.
Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector
Neko Atsume is, frankly, a perfect video game. It is somehow both easy to obsess over and the most low-stakes, passive mobile game available. You maintain a yard where adorable stray cats sometimes appear, begging for food and staying a while to play. When you see a cat for the first time, you can take a photo of it and give it a nickname. You can buy toys for the cats, and you can give them simple or expensive food.
There are plenty of cats to effectively “collect,” but other than providing for them, there’s not much else you can actually do. The effect is that logging in to see which cats have dropped by and are waiting for you to feed them always feels like a pleasant visit from a kindly neighbor. These feline friends don’t yowl incessantly or expectantly paw at the door until their bowls are refilled, nor will they be in any peril if you don’t come back for hours, days, or even longer. Taking care of Neko Atsume kitties is low-effort and high-reward. The game is patient, pleasant, and peaceful. And it’s even therapeutic in those ways, enticing players with the small guaranteed joy of smiling, appreciative, and very cute cats showing up to say hello.
More-elaborate games for more-experienced players
Plague, Inc. might feel a little too realistic for some aspiring mobile game-players right now, but fans of the game continue to praise it as an excellent choice. I’d like to cede the floor on this one to my Vox Media colleague Ross Miller, network director of Polygon and The Verge. He’s recommended Plague to me more than anyone I know:
Plague Inc. is at once the best and worst game to play right now. A simple yet brilliantly complex design, Plague Inc. has you play as a pathogen; the idea is to help it evolve and spread across the world, with the goal of infecting and ultimately killing all life. It’s a lot more challenging than it sounds, especially in later stages, and there’s a surprising bit of levity baked into its scrolling list of headlines plucked from an alternate universe with a wink and nod to our own. I’ve enjoyed it off and on for the last five years. If nothing else, it really makes me consider moving to Iceland. Trust me.
Monument Valley is one of the prettiest puzzle games in existence — and one of the prettiest games available in any genre, really. It’s gorgeously crafted, with remarkable art and sound design. And while you’re falling in love with the game’s visuals, it will surprise you with mounting difficulty that keeps you just the right level of frustrated while motivating you to keep going until you solve it.
To play Monument Valley, you assume the role of an adorable, faceless little princess, who travels through M.C. Escher-style optical illusions to move from map to map. You manipulate each environment to create bridges and stairs, in search of the hidden exit that will move you to the next environment. As you move through the game, the environments become progressively more difficult to discover and interact with. There are only 10 total, but each one is intricately designed and takes a substantial amount of time to figure out. Prepare to be awed and enthralled by the visuals and gameplay, as well as slightly exhausted by how much you’ll need to hone your maze-running skills.
(There’s also a sequel, Monument Valley 2, which is currently free on both Google Play and the iOS App Store as of publication time. That’s worth checking out as well, but I’d suggest starting with the first game to get the hang of how it works.)
Florence is one of my favorite games of all time — a truly gorgeous, one-of-a-kind game perfectly optimized for a mobile platform. It uses music and a varied set of simple, story-motivated minigames to unfold the story of Florence and Krish, two characters who fall in love seemingly as quickly as they fall out of it.
I reviewed Florence for Polygon upon its Valentine’s Day 2018 release, in which I implored anyone with a heart to spend 40 minutes playing this story-based, beautifully scored, puzzle-like game from start to finish.
Developers of emotionally complex, story-based games can tend to prioritize telling those stories, sometimes at the expense of gameplay. Mountains [the studio behind Florence] has figured out how to create a cohesive package, however, with each part of Florence and Krish’s relationship conveyed through touch-based minigames.
A scene set at Florence’s computer actually lets us do her accounting, selecting pairs of numbers to make sure everything balances out. Tapping on music notes guides Florence to Krish in the scene where they first meet; with each tap, the music gets louder, until the pair are facing each other. Conversations between the two work as a series of jigsaw puzzles. The more in love they are, the fewer pieces there are to put together.
The game is short, it’s story-heavy, and the minigames play out the same way each time, which may seem of limited appeal to some. Florence is worth returning to, however, to hear its triumphant score again and watch its splendid animation propel an affecting story forward. Perhaps it will inspire you to write a hopeful love story of your own, for a video game or otherwise.
Mobile games can be soothing or challenging — and sometimes both. That’s what makes them perfect ways to pass the time.
If you already have a smartphone or tablet, you can play a mobile game. It’s easy to get started, especially because so many of them are free and immediately intuitive. They’re the perfect thing to turn to when you’re bored of opening the same apps over and over, and they can provide a much more fun and engaging way to use your phone. Whether you want to relax or rile yourself up trying to finish a particularly difficult puzzle, there’s a game out there for you.
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