This is only the second year I’m listing my Games of the Year, and 2016 was an incredibly strong one for iOS games. It was hard getting this list down to just ten or fifteen games, so I also have some runners-up. There were just too many great games this year! So, without further ado, I represent my GOTY 2016 list! Any reviews I wrote are linked to the name of each game.
Snakebird – If you’ve been paying close attention this year, you probably aren’t too surprised to hear that Noumenon Games’ Snakebird is my Game of the Year. It’s because it turned everything I thought I knew about puzzle games on its head. Here is a game that’s hardcore, yet as relaxed as you possibly can get. No handholding, no tutorial, no slow gradual introduction of mechanics. It has about fifty levels but zero filler. And it’s probably the fairest puzzle game I’ve played. It has unlimited undos, but that’s not enough — it automatically rewinds any deaths. There’s no punishment here for failing. Simply undo a few moves and try another route. It’s very much about trial-and-error and feels perfect on a touchscreen, even a small iPhone. I can’t help but compare every new level-based puzzler I play to Snakebird, because everything about it shows the developers respect their players’ time and intelligence. And to top it all off, it has adorable and charming animations that are easy on the eyes for all that time you’ll spend staring at the screen. The game is so tricky that I still haven’t completed the last few levels. But it’s such a satisfying game to solve that I refuse to get even the slightest hint. Instead, I take it out every once in a while to give it another shot. And until I solve every last level, I’ll always have some of this magnificent puzzler to look forward to. If you like relaxed puzzlers, I can’t recommend Snakebird highly enough. It’s also free to download, so there’s nothing to lose by trying it out. And if you’re a developer designing a puzzle game, please ask yourself, “what would Snakebird do?” Because as far as I’m concerned, the world needs more games like this that don’t talk down to their players or unnecessarily punish them with time-wasting aspects. The world needs more Snakebird.
Samorost 3 – Amanita Design’s breathtaking Samorost 3 is a very close second. Although I got off to a rocky start due to poor signage, I fell madly in love once I understood the game better. It’s a truly magical experience that’s a must-have for any point-and-click adventure fans. Personally, I like the dialogue-free minimalistic take, as it gives me more hands-on time instead of worrying about absorbing lots of information. Samorost 3 also features one of my favorite puzzles ever, a card game in which you’re given no instructions, but you figure out the goal through trial-and-error. It’s delightful, so I don’t want to spoil any of the fun for you. But trust me — it’s pure magic. On top of all the puzzles, the game is like a big toy that you just poke and prod at. One of my favorite parts was playing with all the different creatures around this universe and finding all the hidden achievements. The creatures all make sounds when you tap them. You might even be rewarded with a light show or some bonus music for your efforts. There’s just so much packed into this gorgeous game. I loved it so much that I finally picked up the developer’s earlier game, Botanicula, which I couldn’t play when it first released. I ended up playing that from morning to night until I finished, and it reminded me why I love Amanita’s games so much. In short, just buy Samorost 3 (and Botanicula!). Even if you have to cheat on some puzzles, it’s a must-have experience in every way.
Twisted Lines – Magagon Industries’ Twisted Lines is my favorite one-handed puzzler of the year. It’s another game that doesn’t hold your hand, although the difficulty curve is much more gradual than Snakebird’s and there are some easier “filler” levels. But the whole game tells a story in a very mature and minimalistic way that I didn’t even mind the easier puzzles. They felt part of a bigger picture, a vision the developers had and wanted to share. I go into the mechanics in my review, so I don’t think it’s necessary to repeat them here. But the game is designed for touch screens, since you use your finger to drag a square around the board, making loop-de-loops to change its color as needed. As with Snakebird, it’s a relaxed game with no timers or move counters. You just go at your own pace. It also has unlimited undos, and I love the way they’re implemented here. You can either trace back over the path you made or you can tap the “undo” button. But what’s really nice is that if you hold down on the undo button, it will continue rewinding all the way back to reset the board. This means less clutter on the screen. Another aspect I really appreciated is that the hint button is hidden inside the pause menu, so you’re never once pressured to use a hint. Once again, I felt the game respected my time and my intelligence, and that’s all on top of it just being a really solid puzzler. Twisted Lines wins a lot of points from me for both substance and presentation. It might not grab your eye as easily as Snakebird does, but it’s just as worthy of your attention.
Telepaint – Acid Nerve’s charming and colorful platform puzzler, Telepaint, released early in the year, but it left its mark on me. There are very few traditional platformers that I’ve enjoyed enough to play through to the end. But luckily, Telepaint is not a traditional platformer. It’s designed specifically around touch screens and is more like a puzzler with auto-running mechanics. Each level takes place on one screen and the goal is to join the walking paint bucket with the static paintbrush. The way you do this is by tapping on portals to warp the bucket around the room. It starts off simple, but as new mechanics are added, things get quite tricky. But the bite-sized levels kept me working at it and never giving up until I completed the game. The catchy soundtrack and splashing paint didn’t hurt, either! I did have a few minor quibbles that might frustrate some players, such as being restricted to three unlocked levels at a time. But the game is super casual-friendly, as you can pause the action at any point and still tap the portals while it’s paused. This makes the game more of a brainy puzzler than a reflex-based platformer. Overall, it was a really positive experience that stayed with me long after finishing it. I would love to see more Telepaint in the future.
Tormentum – Ohnoo Studio’s disturbing yet gorgeous point-and-click adventure, Tormentum, first released on PC, and I waited patiently for it to arrive on iOS. Like most P&Cs, it translated beautifully to touch screens. While not a very challenging game, there is both a good and bad ending and your choices matter. But the main attraction is the H. R. Giger-inspired artwork. Each screen is a twisted masterpiece full of tortured souls. If there was any game to respond with to the age-old question, “are games art?,” this would be it. Now, if you see the screenshots and they don’t do anything for you, it’s probably not the game for you. But if they grab your attention, it’s a pretty safe bet that you won’t be disappointed. It’s a relaxed, atmospheric journey through a twisted world and I’m so glad it made its way to iOS.
YANKAI’S TRIANGLE – Kenny Sun’s bizarre puzzler, YANKAI’S TRIANGLE, will be more enjoyable if you think of it as a toy, something like Metamorphabet, only seemingly endless. The basic premise is that you tap to rotate triangles, matching up the colors of their edges to each other. There’s something hypnotic about it, not least due to its constantly changing visuals and vast soundtrack that consists primarily of atmospheric background noises. New puzzle elements are added as you play, but unlike most puzzle games, the difficulty curve is all over the place. This would normally bother me, but I find the game so compelling that I really don’t care. I’m just glad that I have this toy with unlimited content to play with whenever the mood strikes. I’ve already played over 500 levels, so that should give you an idea of just how much I love this game. It’s hard to even put my finger on what’s so great about it. But everything just comes together to make for an app I can’t see ever deleting from my device. It’s great for when you just need something to fidget with but don’t want to think too much. Since there are no in-app purchases or currencies, there’s nothing standing in your way of playing for a few minutes or a few hours at a time.
Rusty Lake Roots – Rusty Lake Roots is the latest in a whole series of games that take place in the bizarre Cube Escape world. This one is the most ambitious of the series, and I found it to be the most cohesive, story-wise. The games are all very surreal, where dreams merge with reality, crows talk, and you might have to enter someone’s head through their eye socket, to fetch their brain. By the end of each game you might or might not have some idea of what actually happened. But the puzzles are usually interesting and the unusual settings make for a compelling series. What sets Rusty Lake Roots apart from the others is that it’s broken up into more than thirty chapters which all make up a family tree, starting with James Vanderboom and continuing on with his children and grandchildren. We experience all their births and deaths, some more disturbing than others. The story is easier to follow along and there’s plenty of surprises up its sleeves. A delightfully creepy villain is also introduced, making it a perfect game for Halloween, which is when it was released. I found most of the puzzles to be more straightforward than in the other games, but I didn’t mind because the story and characters held my attention until the very end. If you haven’t played any of the Cube Escape games, you might want to play them in order, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Either way, I’d recommend Roots to anyone who isn’t squeamish around the macabre.
Puzzlepops! & Puzzlepops! Trick or Treat – Layton Hawkes released two separate Puzzlepops! games this year, together adding up to over two hundred challenging one-handed puzzles. The games might not look like much at first glance, but the different mechanics make for some really interesting solutions. In the original game, you slide candies along tracks to their goals. Two of the same candy merge together to make a bigger one, but different candies just knock against each other. Things like candy-crushing jawbreakers, fire, ice and, later, gummy snakes, keep the game from getting stale even at level 150. And just when you think there might be nothing left to add to the formula, out comes Puzzlepops! Trick or Treat, featuring Halloween-themed candies like candy corn, bats, and vampire lips. The Halloween candies change things so much, that there’s very little repetition even in the beginning. There were few puzzle games that held my attention this year quite like Puzzlepops! My one wish might have been for unlimited undos instead of the game only saving your previous five moves. But it’s a small complaint in the overall picture, as the limited undo button at least alleviates any frustration from mis-swiping. In any case, the Halloween game is free to try, so give it a whirl and if you like it make sure to unlock the rest and buy the original for a total of 225 candy-swiping levels.
Reigns – I didn’t review Reigns, the Tinder-like kingdom management sim, but I did interview the developer, Francois Alliot. On its surface, the game is a high-score chaser in which you are a king who must manage a kingdom through a series of binary choices. A card appears, usually of some character — a doctor, a witch, a jester, or perhaps your son trying to kill you and steal the throne. You swipe left or right to make your decision and another card appears. But at the top of the screen, you have all your resources — the church, the population, the army, and your wealth. The key to staying alive longest (and getting a high score) is keep all these resources balanced somewhere in the middle. If any of them get to 100% or 0%, you’ll die a ghoulish death and be replaced by your successor. It’s also fun to unlock all the different deaths (and cards), so you have goals besides just chasing scores. On its own, this would already make for a highly compelling game. But below the surface, there are clues to find and puzzles to solve in order to get the good ending. You don’t have to do this, and the game is perfectly enjoyable without it, but the fact that so much is hidden under the core gameplay makes it hard to resist and easy to recommend.
Guild of Dungeoneering – Once I started playing Gambrinous’ Guild of Dungeoneering, I couldn’t stop until I ran out of content. It could use a few improvements to make it easier to see on an iPhone, or at least iCloud syncing to switch to iPad when at home. But none of these issues are enough to keep me from recommending this gem of a game. From the music, to the art style, to the humor, it’s just oozing character. The way the game works is you run a guild of dungeoneers. You hire them to run into dangerous dungeons to fight monsters and bring back loot for you. But the trick is that you build each dungeon from a deck of cards, and the dungeoneer makes a path to monsters and loot. You then use cards to fight said monsters. If your hero dies, no big deal, because you can just hire a new one to replace them. You then use the gold they looted to buy upgrades and the ability to hire new classes. Each class has different cards and abilities, and that includes both perks and disabilities. It’s a lot of fun to try out different classes and strategies to find the ones that work best for you. My favorite for most of the game was the Barbarian, but it took a bit of time to get a handle on his skills. Once I mastered them, I got the longest running streaks with him over any other class. There’s so much depth to the game, even though luck of the draw plays a huge part. I just wish there was more to do once you play through the campaign, perhaps some way for enemies and dungeons to scale with you. But they are working on more content, so I’m eagerly awaiting that. In any case, it’s a turn-based game, so it’s relatively stress-free and easy to play anywhere, even on a train. It’s definitely one of the better games I played this year, and makes for an easy recommendation.
Swapperoo – I didn’t review Fallen Tree Games’ match-three puzzler, Swapperoo, back when it released because it felt a little lacking as far as the genre goes. It was level-based with the high-score chasing being broken up into each level. I really wanted an endless mode and, without it, it didn’t hold my attention for long. But both an endless mode and gauntlet mode were added that make it currently my number one go-to for my match-three fix. What makes it so different from others is that the pieces come in three different shapes — triangle, square, and circle. The triangle is an arrow and when you tap on it, it switches places with the piece it’s pointing at. The circle just disappears when you tap it, and the square can’t be controlled directly — it can only be manipulated by moving other pieces around. Then there are goals, such as matching a certain number of a shape, as well as skull pieces that explode and end the game after a certain number of moves if you don’t remove them from the board in time. This means a lot of strategy is required to keep bad luck from biting you in the ass. If you like match-three games but want one that shakes things up a bit, I highly recommend picking up Swapperoo. Best of all, it’s a rare premium match-three that costs just one price with no currencies or power-ups. It’s as pure a high-score chaser as you can get.
A Short Tale – It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Glitch Games’ first-person adventure games, and their venture into room escape this year with A Short Tale was no different. Although it’s much brighter and less ominous than their Forever Lost series, it’s chock full of puzzles. Seriously. The room is full to the brim with toys, each of them part of a puzzle. It makes sense since you’re in a child’s room, and the puzzles are made more interesting by the fact that you’ve been shrunken down in size, so you need to climb on top of things just to get around. There are some seriously devious puzzles here and tons and tons of puns, because what would we all do without that Glitch humour? Some players might lament the lack of multiple locations and being stuck in one room the whole game, but believe me that there is so much here to keep you occupied. And there are some truly evil puzzles, as one would expect from these developers. If you’re a fan of their games, I suspect you’ve already played it. If not, fix that problem right now.
Able Black – Scott Leach’s Able Black is another game I didn’t have time to review, but it was one of my favorite text-based games of the year. It tells the story of an “emotionally intelligent android” woken up (or activated) in order to help preserve humanity during an extinction event. Able Black starts to question a lot of things, including his own worth. It might even make you question your own humanity. I found the story well-written, and it held my attention the whole way through, wanting to know how it ends. The story bits are broken up with puzzles and, for the most part, they work well with it, as they’re meant to be part of a citizenship exam. The game is not long, but that also means it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I found the length to be just right to keep a good pace so I never got bored with it. I really enjoyed Scott Leach’s writing and can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. I recommend picking up Able Black and spending a night or two curled up with it.
Gemini – A Journey of Two Stars – Echostone Games’ Gemini has a unique control scheme which works well with the theme of the game. You control a big star by tapping the left or right side of the screen to move it in that direction. But the goal of the game is usually to fly high into the sky, and you can’t do this unless you’re close to the smaller star, which you don’t control. It’s a bit weird at first, but it helps tell the wordless story of two stars working together to complete their journey. It’s beautiful audio-visually, as well as thematically. It’s another short game, but something I highly recommend experiencing. It also has a more challenging co-op mode for couples once you complete the single-player mode.
Replica: A Little Temporary Safety – My experience with Zero Rock Entertainment’s Replica was not without its frustrations. I actually got angry at it a few times, first because it didn’t have a save system. But I gave it a chance and ended up loving it. Although at least one puzzle felt completely unintuitive and perhaps even unfair, there were enough clues to decrypt and puzzles to solve that I was able to forgive it its shortcomings. I also think a save system was added after a number of people complained. In any case, I’m always open to a good game that mimics a smartphone, and I loved how this one revealed small bits of information with each puzzle and ending I unlocked. For those of you out there who are puzzle fans, you should appreciate that the game begins with one, as you have to figure out how to unlock the phone. Replica does not hold your hand, but it’s incredibly rewarding when something clicks and you unlock another ending. It got some inspiration from games like Papers, Please and Please, Don’t Touch Anything, but does enough of its own to be worth playing.
And that’s it for my Games of the Year. However, this was such a strong year that there were a bunch of games I wanted to give honorable mentions to, as I enjoyed them all immensely. So below are some more games I recommend picking up.
Note: The embedded videos are weighing this page down a bit, so I split the Honorable Mentions onto another page to try and speed things up. Click here to see them.