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21 Smartphone Games Perfect for Your Commute

Jake Swearingen

Commutes: We all have them, except for those lucky enough to work from home (and even then, sometimes you have to walk to the fridge). So how to pass the time? Sure, you could read a book — but you don’t always want to tackle the newest Jonathan Safran Foer treatise on why we should only eat seeds. Sometimes, you just wanna play a game on your phone. So we set out to find the best ones for your subway commute. Our criteria was simple:

1. It needs to be good enough to keep your attention, but not so demanding of your brainpower that you can’t listen to a good podcast while playing it. It also has to be interesting enough that it’ll keep you occupied while a sick passenger holds everything up — but not so engrossing that you end up missing your stop altogether.

2. Ideally, you need to be able to play one-handed — if you’re slammed into a C car at rush hour, the game is no good if you need both hands in order to play and can’t at least grab onto a strap. That said, there are some games on here that you’ll probably need two hands in order to play in landscape mode. Sorry!

3. No internet connection required. Yes, the MTA has made major steps in getting Wi-Fi connectivity into most stops, and even into a lot of the tunnels. No, you will not be able to keep a steady connection to that game of Hearthstone while traveling underneath the East River.

4. Ideally, the game shouldn’t make you pay money to win. We’re fine with paying money for a game up front, and a few in-game purchases are okay, too (hey, it’s your cash). But if the game requires you to pay on a regular basis just to move forward, or gates your progress until you pony up more cash, that game can go get bent.

All that said, after polling the New York Magazine office, and a few other smartphone-game addicts, here is our list of games, in no particular order, that can make a crowded L train seem positively idyllic — or at least make it disappear for a while.

Take Solitaire and add some RPG mechanics like enemies, spells, and magic potions, and you start getting close to Solitairica. The basic idea is still the same as Solitaire (add cards that are next in a sequence), but throws in just enough variety to make things fascinating — you have the ability to stun your opponent into submission for a round or two, or save up for a few rounds and wipe out an entire column of pesky cards. It’s a simple game with a surprising amount of strategic and tactical depth, and a very fun (and funny) art style as well.

What better place to plan out your own metro system than while riding the subway? Mini Metro starts calm, with you building a simple system to get people around minimalist versions of real-life cities like London and Shanghai. But problems quickly start to mount. That loop you set up to take people to the outskirts of town? No one’s using it. Meanwhile, your central corridor is getting overcrowded. You desperately add more trains, more tracks, and more tunnels, but inevitably it all comes crashing down. Just like the MTA itself, you suffer some catastrophic system failure, and leave a station full of people stranded. Game over. The only solution? Start over — but build it better this time.

Perhaps the most beautiful game I’ve played on my phone, Alto’s Adventure has a rough story behind it: You’re Alto, a Peruvian snowboarder who lets a few llamas escape. So you hop on your board and head down the mountain in search of them. But all of that is really incidental. Alto can build up speed by pulling off tricks, whether that’s doing a backflip, jumping a gorge, or grinding along a rooftop. He’ll need that speed, too, because eventually an elder will notice Alto racing through the valley and give chase. Each play session has simple goals (e.g., “do two backflips over a rock”). Complete enough of those goals, and eventually Alto will be joined by other characters. The game has a beautiful day-and-night cycle, and weather, too — occasionally, you’ll be chasing after llamas while lightning lights up the valley, or shooting stars streak across the night sky. For those who just want the pure bliss of heading down the mountain, there’s even Zen mode, where your game is never over, and you’re free to carve your way through the valley to your heart’s content. (Bonus fun fact: A sequel to Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey, it hitting smartphones everywhere this summer. This time, you’ll be surfing sand dunes.)

Like a lot of the games of this list, you can pick up the gist of Drop 7 while waiting for your express train. An old man in the world of smartphone games (it’s been available since 2009), Drop 7 gives you a seven-by-seven grid and asks you to line up different colored balls, matching the number of other balls in a column or row. It’s got a hint of Sudoku in there, a little bit of later puzzle games like Threes! or 2048, but it’s mainly its own, shockingly addictive thing. If you’re reading this list and haven’t given Drop 7 a shot, close this article immediately and go download it. You won’t regret it.

The follow up to the (also very fun!) game Dots, Two Dots still has the same basic mechanics: draw a line between dots of the same color to see them disappear. Each stage will have a set number of dots to erase, and a set number of moves to do it in. The secret comes early, when you realize that if you can draw a square using the same colored dots, you can clear the board of everything of that color, producing one of the few truly satisfying vibrations in mobile gaming. Levels ramp up in difficulty without ever becoming nosebleed difficult, while the art has a paper-cutout, storybook charm to it. It’s like Candy Crush Saga, if Candy Crush Saga wasn’t an evil Skinner box.

Board games, as a general rule, are hard to translate over to smartphones. Partly, this is because most board games are — despite the fact that it can take 47 hours to explain a board game to a group of friends — mechanically simplistic. But it’s mainly that board games are meant to be played at, well, a table; they’re more an excuse to chat and listen to music and eat vegetable dip than for just pure ludic pleasure. Carcassonne, a game about placing tiles to build your own medieval kingdom, is still tremendously fun on the smartphone, mainly because without the dithering of other humans, games can be tremendously fast-paced, but the basic tile-placing mechanics still hold up, even without craft beer and kettle chips. I was able to knock out three solid games during a 40-minute ride to work. Not a bad early morning.

Nearly every game is a Skinner box of some sort. It’s a machine designed to get us lab rats sucked into a ludic loop, pressing that lever to get that food pellet — whether it’s leveling up, unlocking a new character, or conquering a new village. Desert Golfing is the anti-game. In it, you have one goal: Get the ball in the hole, using the drag-and-shoot mechanics familiar to anyone who’s played Angry Birds. There are no rewards, except another hole of Desert Golfing to play. When you reach 18 holes, you simply move on to the 19th. When you reach the 99th hole, you go on to the 100th. The scenery changes a little, and some holes are more difficult than others, but there’s no par — no real high score you’re chasing after. There’s not even a golfer onscreen, just an Atari 2600 landscape, a golf ball, a hole, and you. It’s the Shaker Loops or Music for 18 Musicians of smartphones games — so beautifully minimalist that adding anything else would ruin the work as a whole.

A diabolically hard roguelike (a genre of game in which players get essentially one life and one chance to make it through a series of increasingly hard levels), Hoplite is far more fun than it deserves to be. You play a single Greek soldier, who is sent down into the dungeons, armed with just a spear, a shield, and the ability to hop over enemies, should things get rough. But strip away all the combat and lava and evil wizards, and what you really have is a puzzle game: If I jump here, then this archer will miss there, but I’ll need to be able to bat away the bomb thrown at my feet the next turn — in which case I may end up getting peppered with arrows, regardless. So you stare at the screen and try to figure out the optimal solution yet again. I found this game still works as a commute game — it didn’t make me miss any subway stops — but it was addicting enough that I had to put my phone in a drawer, lest I pull it out for just one more game.

The graphics of Sproggiwood are a soothing blend of bright colors and simple shapes, almost as if Fisher-Price toys had come to life. Do not let this fool you. This game is harder than the GMATs and LSATs combined. It’s another roguelike, but includes a few upgrade mechanics to help you along the way — as you clear out stages, you can build up a small village that will sell you potions and upgrades to make each run into the evil dungeon a bit easier. You start as a simple farmer, but eventually branch out into other characters like Warrior, Archer, and, uh, Vampire. The game moves one turn at a time, meaning if you need to put your phone down for a second, nothing is lost, but, again, this game is hard. I’ve had various versions of it on my phone for nearly three years now. I’ve never come close to beating it. But it’s still one of my go-to games to fire up, if I’m about to settle in for a long subway ride.

Enough with dungeons, weapons, and vampires! What if you just want to learn a little something? Luckily, the Merriam-Webster dictionary app has a surprising number of games to play, in addition to the ability to look up whether it’s “fuck off” or “fuck-off” (it’s the former, apparently, unless I’m using it as a compound adjective). The best of them is the simple vocab quiz, which starts out easy (e.g., eccentric), but quickly gets into plumbing just how deep your vocab goes (e.g., plangent). I like to think my vocabulary is pretty dang decent, and this had me stumped enough to expose my nescience. Good for anyone who ever kinda misses taking standardized tests and being one of the first kids to turn in their Scantron sheet.

There are only two good subjects of conversation if you don’t know someone at a certain type of New York City party. One is whether they have any drugs, and the other is how far into the week they can make it in the New York Times Crossword. Luckily, there’s the NYT crossword app, which, thankfully, lets dummies like me stick to Tuesday- and Wednesday-level puzzles, if I don’t feel like expending too much brainpower. The app is $7 a month, which isn’t cheap (though you get seven days for free to see if you’re interested). But I don’t know. Maybe it’s the age of Trump, maybe I just need to drink less coffee in the morning, but there’s something deeply soothing about filling out those little crossword grids. This was one of my most-used apps last month. I can feel my first turtleneck and corduroy-blazer purchase coming up right around the corner.

This genre of game — in which you essentially run endlessly along three different tracks, switching as needed to avoid obstacles and collect coins — was invented by Temple Run back in 2011, but I’d argue that Subway Surfers gets about as close to perfecting the form as we’ve seen. Bright primary colors pop, even in that early morning blur before the coffee kicks in; the controls are tight; and the challenge ramps up in a way that keeps you engaged without slamming you into a wall (and its attempts to suck some extra cash out of you are nicely circumspect). It’s one of those perfect zone-out games, where I usually play better when thinking about something else in the back of my head, whether that’s a grocery list or an article I’m writing.

Threes! hit the scene in 2014 like a bombshell, briefly taking over subway cars in the same way Candy Crush did in 2013. The goal of the game is deceptively simply. Slide tiles with 1 or 2 on them together to make them form a 3 tile. Slide two 3 tiles together to form a 6 tile. Slide two 6 tiles to form a 12 tile. And so on. But like any good puzzle game, while the basic concept is easy enough, actually accomplishing your goal is so, so hard. The deep despair you can feel when you realize you have two 512 tiles so close to each other, but you’ll be unable to get them to meet — this is what it’s like when doves cry. You can also, frankly, just get screwed by the randomness of the game — get a string of tiles you can’t combine come in from the sides, and it’s game over, no matter how well you’ve played up until then. Still, it’s highly fun art style (tiles with higher value numbers become fun little characters, the music and sound effects are so well done, you may end up keeping them on) makes this a pure winner.

If Threes! is doing the cryptogram in the paper — interesting but difficult — 2048 is doing the Word Jumble with those weird little pun cartoons. An unabashed ripoff of Threes!, 2048’s real advantage is that it removes some of the randomness (and thus some of the long-term thinking) required by Threes!, making for a game that’s significantly less taxing on the ol’ noggin. And if it’s 7:30 a.m. and I’m running on five hours of sleep, sometimes I just wanna play the Jumble, you know?

Reigns is, at heart, Tinder for ruling a kingdom — with the clear understanding that you’re gonna die. Cursed by the devil to live forever, you do your best to watch over your kingdom as best you can. Each turn, you’re faced with a card and someone asking you to do something. Swipe left to say no, swipe right to say yes. Do you let the church burn those witches, or let the witches go free? Raise taxes on the peasants and make sure the treasury stays full, or let the poor bastards keep a little grain this year? No matter what you do, eventually you’ll die (often by the hand of your own heir) — but the devil resurrects you and your reign just continues, endless onward. Bonus for those who may have burned through this game when it was first released last fall: A recent update added 100 new cards, a few new ways to die, and an elephant!

Perfect for anyone who finds themselves flipping through those paint-sampler cards for fun, Blendoku (and its various sequels) asks you to simply arrange colors in certain patterns, usually from light to dark, but sometimes from, say, red to blue or green to gray. Scientists say the human eye can distinguish between 7 million different colors, and while early levels may make you think about giving up your current line of work to find the proper color swaths for rich people’s apartments, later levels start introducing complicated patterns and fine-enough color gradations that you’ll start to believe that line from scientists about 7 million colors to be a goddamn lie. Bonus: It includes a color-blind mode that’s still just as fun.

Anybody who’s ever played the classic arcade-game Tempest may get some flashbacks from Super Hexagon, one of the most challenging games I’ve ever played on my phone. You play as a small triangle attempting to escape out of a series of hexagons, with walls closing in all around you. Sounds simple, but the game moves fast — really fast. Your first game will probably last about two seconds. In your second game, you may get to three or four seconds. After a bit, you’ll start to anticipate changes, stop overthinking it too much, and get up to 14 or even 15 seconds. Every once in a while, something will click, and you’ll find yourself on some ungodly run where you simply can’t miss (my record: 57.34 seconds, after which I had to lie down and smoke a cigarette). It’s not the most relaxing game on this list, but for those who enjoy twitch reflexes and the thrill of slowly improving at something very hard, this is the game to get.

Adult Swim has had a shockingly strong run of games, particularly on mobile, but Castle Doombad is probably the best of the bunch. It’s a side-scrolling game in which you, an evil villain, have kidnapped a princess. Off to rescue her are a bunch of remarkably dimwitted knights — but first, they have to get through your castle, which is stuffed to the gills with traps of all sorts. In most games in this genre — commonly called tower-defense games — you’re wrecking evil goblins, orcs, and/or nasty trolls. There’s something refreshing in forcing an idiot knight to spend two minutes bashing down a door, only to have him impale himself on a bed of spikes, and then take an arrow to the face. Not everyone gets to be the hero, bud.

Ridiculous Fishing is a three-stage game. First, you cast your hook into the water, trying to avoid fish on the way down, so you can sink your hook as deep into the ocean as possible. Then, you yank up and start hauling in fish, now trying to hook as many underwater creatures as possible. Then, in the third stage, you hurl all the fish into the air, where you blast away at them with pistols, machines guns, and rocket launchers. All in a day at sea. There’s also a heartwarming story behind the game. Dutch developers Vlambeer created the basic idea for Ridiculous Fishing as a Flash game in 2010, but retained rights to develop it for iOS. But in the free-for-all world of mobile gaming, developer Gamenauts stole the idea and released it for iOS as Ninja Fishing, quickly hitting the top of the charts before Vlambeer could release its own version. But Vlambeer ultimately produced a better game — it was named Apple’s iOS Game of the Year in 2013, and Ridiculous Fishing is still a top seller, while Ninja Fishing has sunk to the bottom.

Games don’t get much more perfect for the subway than this. In One More Line, you essentially grapple from point to point, tapping your phone. All you need is one thumb free, and away you go. Power-ups dot the way, which is helpful because you’ll quickly find yourself needing to swing from grapple point to grapple point in a matter of microseconds. You see, it’s not grappling onto the next point that’s hard — it’s determining the perfect moment to let go and send yourself shooting off in just the right direction. With a beautiful minimalist look, One More Line keeps you coming back, sure that this is the time you won’t mess it up at the last second (it won’t be).

I don’t want to give too much away about Monument Valley. It’s a puzzle game, first and foremost, where the main way you solve puzzles is through shifting your perspective, creating M.C. Escher–esque moments where you realize that what looked like a wall is now a staircase. You play as Ida, who seems to be on a quest of some sort — but it’s the slow reveal of what that quest is, and how and what you’ll need to do to complete it, that makes Monument Valley special. The puzzles themselves are ingenious, always playing just on that edge of being impossible to figure out — until you make one more little move, and suddenly everything becomes obvious and clear.

Did we miss any of your favorites? Email me at jake.swearingen@nymag.com — I hate being alone with my thoughts and am always looking for a good, new smartphone game. We’ll add the real gems to the list.

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