Our favorite free iPad RTS and turn-based strategy games, board games, and card games.
First Strike (opens in new tab) is part strategy game, part warning. You direct a nuclear power in a cross between Risk and Missile Command, grabbing territory, wiping out rivals by lobbing missiles at them, and defending yourself against ordnance sent your way.
Further strategy comes from technology upgrade paths. Different powers start with unique set-ups and eventually have access to certain beneficial technology. But whoever you choose to play as, the result will be a level of worldwide destruction.
This is an engrossing game, best played on the iPad’s large display. It requires time – campaigns can take an hour or more. And along with being compelling, it’s chilling, not least when the game shows sobering stats about a city’s population wiped out in a missile strike, or you end up at the business end of a terrifying first strike.
Impossible Isles (opens in new tab) takes place on isles populated by ducks and bunnies – and they’re not pals. As you lay down tiles, you must keep the two tribes separated – and lay down supporting tiles in a way that nets you bonus points. For example, ducks like being next to water and bunnies like fields.
Complications arrive from an imp who each turn moves somewhere new and temporarily freezes surrounding tiles, and a one-off ogre tile that obliterates everything around it. When you start running low on space, it’s also tricky to not place tiles next to unhappy neighbors, which eats into your score.
Tiles are always drawn in the same order and there are bonuses to discover, both of which can help you climb a worldwide leaderboard. Every day, the draw resets, keeping fresh what’s already a wonderful freebie.
Builderment (opens in new tab) investigates what might happen in the future when the Earth is dry of resources, but humankind has the technical savvy to send automated factories into space. We’ll of course drain other planets dry, too. Doing so in Builderment, though, requires serious path-building skills.
The aim is to mine raw materials and ferry them to a factory that can use its AI to research more complex items. You then have to figure out how to split conveyor belts and en-route construction areas into increasingly elaborate networks of redirected parts, to keep your momentum up to the point you can send extracted resources back to Earth.
On a phone, this would be nightmarish; but on iPad, you get space to plan and play. The result is a thoughtful, intriguing, challenging and yet meditative experience.
The Battle of Polytopia
The Battle of Polytopia (opens in new tab) is a turn-based strategy title where you rule a tribe that aims to conquer an isometric map. It resembles a stripped-back Civilization, retaining much of that game’s fun, depth and requirement for tactical thinking, but adding a dose of speed.
This is evident in Perfection mode, which limits you to 30 moves, and has a technology tree that cuts off progress before anyone invents guns and planes. However, with version two, Polytopia optionally makes things a touch more epic, in allowing endless matches on colossal maps with up to 14 opponents (either AI or real people).
With its balance of immediacy and efficiency, Polytopia remains an ideal on-the-go strategy title, but version two’s improvements make it a much better bet for long-term iPad play.
Void Tyrant (opens in new tab) is a card battler that mashes up role-playing, deck-building, and a stripped-back take on blackjack.
Missions involve a string of battles on various planets. You’ll face off against terrifying skull beasts in the desert and deranged robots on a spaceship. In all cases, you’re aiming to beat their totals in each round, and not go bust. Whoever loses gets a bloody nose – or worse.
If that was the entire game, it would be fun but throwaway – and a mite too random. So Void Tyrant wisely adds a slew of bonus cards you can strategically play to boost your chances, further damage your enemy, or protect yourself from harm.
With bold visuals, a smartly designed upgrade cycle, and an optional reasonably priced premium tier, this is an excellent free iPad game that’s far deeper than it initially appears.
Chessplode (opens in new tab) is a free iPad game that up-ends the rules of chess by adding explosions. Capture a piece and any others in its row or column are obliterated – including your own. The exception is when a king is in said row/column, in which case you get a standard chess capture.
To lead you gently into this oddball take, you get beginner setups designed to let you win easily. Beyond that, you’ll find yourself immersed in levels that look simple from the outset but that are anything but once some pieces have been taken, eradicating most of what’s on the board.
When you’re done with the game’s built-in levels, you can make your own in an editor – although it’s only possible to share them once you confirm they can be beaten. You can also pit your skills against online opponents, while mulling that standard chess will never feel quite the same again.
Pocket Cowboys (opens in new tab) is an online slice of multiplayer strategy that smartly marries immediacy and depth. It features gunslingers fighting it out on battlefields comprising hexagonal grids. Turns are taken simultaneously, with each player choosing between moving, shooting, or reloading.
The result is a bit like rock/paper/scissors, but with a tactical injection: sometimes you can second-guess what an opponent is going to do, and line up your shot accordingly. Further strategy and curveballs come from your upgradable gang (each gunslinger having their own unique abilities), and environmental hazards like dust storms and horses.
On iPad, the game works really well. The visuals look superb, and when making a move there’s much less chance of you prodding the wrong spot on the larger display.
Hexonia (opens in new tab) is a turn-based strategy game that comes across like a simplified, fast-paced take on Civilization. You start out surrounded by mist, and with a single city. You must carefully balance resources, research new technologies, conquer villages and stomp about the place, obliterating enemies.
This isn’t the most nuanced take on this particular genre. Even for a mobile game, your enemies are rather on the violent side, prone to stabbing first and not bothering to ask questions later. This means games can be a rush to more powerful weapons, not least each tribe’s distinctive, unique super unit.
Still, if you’re not fussed about being quickly pushed into combat, there’s a lot to like here. Hexonia looks and sounds superb, and scratches the turn-based strategy itch with aplomb.
King Crusher (opens in new tab) is a bite-sized, semi-randomized turn-based strategy game played in fast-forward. You and your merry band head out on adventures, most of which are scraps that take place on tiny grids. You swipe your team about, to get them in the best position to dish out some damage, but also to avoid getting shot, blasted, squashed or eaten.
Clearly, this is a game that was designed for iPhone, quickly flicking characters about in idle moments, but it works surprisingly well on the bigger screen of the iPad. The pixel art shines, and the extra space results in fewer erroneous swipes.
Also, despite the stripped-back nature of the game, there’s enough depth and longevity to keep you engrossed for lengthier sessions as you set out to obliterate your enemies in the name of the king.
Look, Your Loot!
Look, Your Loot! (opens in new tab) is a free-roaming RPG reworked as a sliding puzzler. It’s an odd combination, but it works brilliantly, mixing Threes!-style tile-shifting, scraps with monsters, and accumulating bling and skills.
You play as a mouse in a dungeon, surrounded by murdery foes. Flick and you move to an adjacent tile. The tiles behind follow, and something new appears at the other end of the grid. Attack an enemy and you win if your energy level’s high enough. Otherwise: bye bye, mouse.
The game feels more premium than freebie, and as you get better at planning your routes, you’ll survive to see dangers that force new approaches. One boss, Jack (as in O’ Lantern), unhelpfully turns nearby tiles into death-dealing pumpkins. In short, then, top stuff for RPG fans of all stripes.
Flipflop Solitaire (opens in new tab) is another of designer Zach Gage’s attempts at subverting a classic game. This time, spider solitaire caught his eye, and has been revolutionized by way of a couple of tweaks.
Like the original table-based card game, Flipflop Solitaire still has you arrange columns of cards in descending order. But now you can send cards to foundation piles, and also stack them in either order. (So a 4 or a 6 can be placed below a 5.)
These may seem like small changes, but they prove transformative. Every hand is possible to complete, if you can find the right combination of moves. This turns Flipflop Solitaire into a fascinating and surprisingly fresh puzzler, with you utilizing endless undos to untangle your web of cards.
With a name that sounds like something an angry railway employee would yell before slapping you, Conduct THIS! (opens in new tab) actually starts out as a fairly sedate railway management game. Little trains amble along, picking up passengers you have to direct to stations that match their color.
The controls are extremely simple: tap a train and it halts until you tap it again; and switches can be triggered to send a train the most optimum way at a junction.
However, the layouts you face very quickly become anything but simple, with multiple trains to control and vehicles to avoid – both of which sometimes unhelpfully disappear into tunnels.
This is a smart, colorful mix of arcade smarts and puzzling – even if it does have the capacity to drive you loco(motive).