Trying to get a big game into an Apple Watch is like trying to cram an elephant into a fridge: it might be possible, but it’s a complete waste of time. The Watch isn’t a phone, let alone a handheld gaming device. It’s smaller, simpler, and that means its games need to be too.
As we’ll discover, the very best Apple Watch games don’t just try to shovel big games into its little screen. They think different. They don’t see its lack of features as limitations, but as new possibilities. They look at the Digital Crown and see a safe’s lock.
They look at the screen and remember the LCD games of the 1980s. They look at Apple’s wrist-based communicator and imagine talking to astronauts or AIs. Or they just imagine the best way to entertain somebody who’s sitting bored on a bus. In some cases they work alongside companion apps, but in most they’re designed as stand-alone experiences.
In this round-up we’ll look at five key categories: puzzle games, adventure games, games of skill, games of words and trivia, and action games. From instant gratification to total immersion, these are the games we think you’ll love to wear.
Box Pop is from the people behind SongPop, the addictive iPhone music quiz, and like SongPop it’s a freemium app with in-app purchases. This game’s based on puzzles, not musical knowledge, and it’s based on the movement of a knight in chess. All you need to do is move your knight in L-shaped patterns to pop all the boxes.
Easy, right? Ha ha ha, no. While the Watch game is simpler than the iPhone one those L-shaped moves are still awfully tricky, and if you think you’re hot stuff after playing on your wrist there are dozens of increasingly difficult levels to torture you on your iPhone. It’s very well pitched: difficult enough to challenge you but not so difficult you’ll rage-quit and smash your device with a hammer. It’s worth noting that the in-app purchases aren’t of the grasping kind: it’s $1.99/£1.99 to remove the ads and $1.99/£1.99 to add an undo so you can correct your last move.
Rules! regularly appears in lists of the very best Apple Watch games, with good reason: while it’s been around for ages – Apple gave it a best-of award back in 2015 – it hasn’t aged because its core mechanic is so effective and addictive.
Rules! is a memory matching game, and that matching has to be done according to the titular rules. So for example you might have to match numbers in descending order, or match cartoons of a particular color.
It’s all done while a timer counts down, and as the rules become increasingly challenging the game becomes more difficult. It’s not one to play anywhere you’re likely to be interrupted: lose your train of thought and you’ll lose track of the rules you’re trying to follow. The Watch games are simpler than the ones on the main iPhone app but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any easier.
As a game, Lifeline is an impressive achievement. As a game you can play on your Watch, it’s extraordinary. Lifeline is an interactive story created by acclaimed writer Dave Justus in which you play as the sole person able to communicate with Taylor, who is stranded on the moon after a crash landing. Taylor communicates with you in real time (although you don’t have to respond immediately: you can leave the notifications to accumulate and deal with them when you’re ready) and your choices will help guide him as he tries to survive.
It works brilliantly and taps directly into the trope of smartwatches as Dick Tracy-style communicators: using your Watch to communicate with Taylor adds an element of immersion and realism that gets you emotionally involved in the (excellent) story. When you consider that it’s just $1.99/£1.99/AU$2.99 and free from adverts and in-app purchases, it’s also a bargain.
Here’s another brilliant story game. This time you’re not talking with a person. You’re talking with a Soviet Artificial Intelligence from 1985 that doesn’t know the Cold War is over, and which has been silently training for the last thirty-odd years. Oh, and it may be connected to a great big pile of nuclear missiles. In some games, making a mistake isn’t the end of the world. In Komrad it may well be.
Like Lifeline, Komrad is a work of interactive fiction. Its creator is the former Chief Design Officer of IBM’s Watson AI, and the game is based on real chatbots and artificial intelligence agents. There’s a wry sense of humor among the impending doom, and the most recent update promises that the ominous background music on iPhone is now 28.946% quieter. The iPhone version is fine (the iPad less so: the game feels too big on that enormous screen) but we prefer it on the Watch, where it feels more real.
The problem with many Apple Watch games is fingers: with such a small screen, any time you need to tap or press or slide you’re covering up most of the game. That’s often inevitable, but by trying to avoid it you can end up with some interesting game ideas. That’s definitely true for Twisty Color, which uses the Digital Crown as your controller.
Like many of the most addictive and challenging games, Twisty Color sounds simple and easy. You control the Twister, which has differently colored bits, and your job is to catch the balls being fired at you. All you need to do is have the right colored bit in the right place at the right time. Miss, and you lose one of your three lives. But even when you’ve got the hang of movement – the digital crown movement is quicker than you might expect – it soon becomes fiendishly difficult.
Here’s another bit of inspired thinking: the Digital Crown is a turny thing, and the lock on an old-school safe is also a turny thing. Why not combine the two and enable the wearer to be a safe-cracker? That’s exactly what Pocket Bandit does.
You’re the bandit, and your mission is to find the game’s treasures. To do that you need to move the lock to find the right numbers, and when you get close you’ll feel haptic feedback as your Watch vibrates. Tap the screen and if it’s the right number, the safe will open and you can claim your reward. Naturally the police aren’t too keen on your career, so if you get it wrong or take too long you’ll lose.
As with Twisty Color this is the kind of game that works very well on the Watch: it’s something you can turn to to brighten up a dull moment and it offers instant gratification with the minimum of fuss.
Trivia and word games
$2.99/£2.99/AU$4.49 (in-app purchases)
You don’t find many games using the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor, but Letter Zap’s heartbeat mode does: not only do you need to find the words before the timer runs out, but you need to do so while keeping your own heartbeat under control. That’s the kind of lateral thinking we admire.
The concept here is simple: you have thirty seconds to unscramble the letters to find as many words as you can, although if you fancy a less frantic experience there’s also a zen mode to remove the timers. That costs extra money through in-app purchases, and like many other apps in this genre there are various other in-app purchases to add in-game coins to aide your progress.
This is the kind of experience the Apple Watch is made for: short, intense bursts that you can play whenever you have a dull moment. Our only niggle is the typeface, which is horrible.
Trivia Crack isn’t just a game. It’s a phenomenon. By the time it reached the UK in 2015 the cross-platform game had already been downloaded 100 million times. It’s a trivia quiz with similarities to the world-conquering Trivial Pursuit as well as the Draw Something game: because you can compete head to head with other players it’s a lot more exciting than any stand-alone title.
The Watch version does a really good job of bringing the Trivia Crack experience to your wrist: while it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of the companion iPhone app it manages to deliver bite-sized chunks of trivia in a friendly, entertaining manner alongside a timer that adds a sense of urgency.
The app is localized too, so you needn’t worry that you’ll be quizzed on sports teams from countries you’ve never heard of. The only real negative is that the app’s freemium approach means some quite pricey in-app purchases, so parents might want to ensure their kids can’t buy them without permission.
Tiny Armies is a great example of how you can use the Apple Watch’s relative lack of features to deliver something really addictive by focusing on the core gameplay instead of bells and whistles.
As the name suggests, the game features two rival armies who battle one another on your wrist: one played by you, and the other played by the app. Controls are simple: swipe to move your units and they move simultaneously, no matter what’s in their way. Your rival does the same, and the winner is the one with the last unit standing. You don’t just need to worry about the other side: there are obstacles such as mountains, lakes and forests too.
The main iPhone app offers bigger battlefields and the ability to battle your friends, but while the Watch app’s battlefields are smaller the action is no less intense. It’s simple, fast and enormous fun.
LCD Games: Alien Invasion
Oh, this takes us back. If you were growing up during the eighties you’ll remember the LCD games of the era, our equivalent of the Nintendo 3DS: while today’s handhelds are capable of incredible things we were pretty impressed by seeing a moving mono sprite in a Game & Watch. With LCD Games: Alien Invasion, developers Light Pillar Software have managed to capture the essence of such games and stick them on your wrist.
It’s as simple and as maddening as the games we wasted so much time on back in the day. You have an alien ship, crewed by the excellently named Commander Snafu, and you’ve messed up your invasion of Earth. Your soldiers are fleeing for safety and if you don’t catch them in time, they explode. This is all done with the Digital Crown at an increasingly frantic pace.
The game itself plays on your Watch but there’s a good tutorial in the companion iPhone app, from which you can also view scoreboards and taunt your friends.