iMore’s authoritative guide to the very best, absolutely free games for your iPad 4 and iPad mini
Looking for the very best free games for your new iPad 4 or iPad mini? Whether it's strategy, shooter, sports, casual, physics, action, role-playing, racing, word, sims, or puzzle, iMore has carefully collected all of our favorite free iPad App Store games and listed them below for your playing pleasure.
It's been awhile since we've looked at the landscape of best free iPad games, and with the iPad mini and iPad 4 launching today, it seems like a chance to see what's hot and new. Of course, all of these are just as good on any other iPad (and even iPhone), provided your iOS device is compatible. Some of the titles will be familiar, while others will be new since our last post. Buckle up cheapskate gamers, there's a lot of great stuff out there for you.
Before we get started, there are a few things that are worth highlighting. First off, many of the best free games will have in-app purchases of some kind. This can lead to poor scaling the further into a game you get (i.e. you might have a rough time getting anywhere without biting the bullet on an IAP), though that's entirely a case-by-case scenario. Second, I've avoided "lite" versions of premium games; two free levels aren't going to do much of anybody good. Finally, there are lots of premium games that are regularly offered for free on a promotional basis, so be sure to keep an eye out for them. We'll be omitting any that are limited-time offers, just so we don't get the hopes up of anyone getting to this list late.
For more free apps, check out our complete free iPad apps article, and for iPhone and iPod touch users, check out our free iPhone apps and free iPhone games listings. Without further ado, here are our favorite free games for iPad.
- Best free strategy games for iPad
- Best free shooter games for iPad
- Best free sports games for iPad
- Best free action games for iPad
- Best free role-playing games for iPad
- Best free racing games for iPad
- Best free board games for iPad
- Best free word games for iPad
- Best free simulation games for iPad
- Best free puzzle games for iPad
Spice Bandits is probably the best tower defense game I've ever played. You take on the role of an adorable little space pirate who plunders various locations on Earth to gather up as much spice as possible. Of course, pesky humans aren't interested in letting you get away with that, and attack your various strongholds in waves while you defend with all sorts of upgradeable alien towers. Maps have a variety of themes and terrain qualities, making every round a new experience.
Over time, you gather spice which can be spent on new kinds of turrets (provided you're a high enough level and have the prerequisite turrets purchased). Spice can also be used to deck out your alien avatar in some swanky threads viewable by friends in competitive and co-operative missions through Game Center. As you level up, you get upgrade points (which can also be bought with spice) to customize your play style as you see fit - cheaper turrets, faster rate of fire or more mesmerizing disco music are just a few options. You can reset your upgrades at any time, allowing you to experiement with a wide array of different options.
Spice Bandits lets you buy spice through in-app purchases, which also eliminates ads between levels. On the iPad, Spice Bandits makes excellent use of the bigger screen, and the devs have made a lot of user interface changes so you can see more of the action. Spice Bandits also lets your port over your game progress from the iPhone version easily through their Crystal network and cloud saving; it's universal too, so there's only one download to manage across devices.
Clash of Clans
Clash of Clans is mix of resource-gathering sim with a dash of real-time strategy. Players take control of a mock-Scot clan, produce a mysterious purple Elixir, mine gold, win coins by reaching achievements, and use them all to build up an impressive camp. Players have to regularly check in to claim and use resources however, as each one has a limited capacity, depending on how far along you've upgraded your structures. You must also build up defenses, as other players online can raid your settlement for whatever gold and elixir they can find. Likewise, you can embark on your own raiding missions with friends through Game Center.
The gems players earn through achievements can also be bought through in-app purchases, and spent on speeding up the completion of certain tasks, or traded in for gold and exlixirs. The graphics are exagerrated and colorful, animation is smooth, and sound effects appropriately bubbly. There are a lot of other similar games along this vein, including another one of my favorites, Battle Nations. I've switched over to Clash of Clans because the storyline is a bit more linear, and the resource structure isn't quite as cluttered. Battle Nations still has great writing, and if you're looking for something with a bit more complexity, check it out.
Hero Academy is a turn-based, multiplayer-only tactical combat game that pits cartoony armies against one another. Each side gets five actions points every turn to move their troops, kit them out with gear, cast spells and otherwise attack opposing units on the board. Each online player (either random or a designated buddy) has one or more crystals they must defend while trying to destroy the other side's. You can also win by running your opponent out of reinforcements, as each side only gets so many of each type every game. Hero Academy includes The Council army (humans) for free, but charges for the others, such as Dwarves, Dark Elves and The Tribe (orcs). You can also pay for fancy army-themed avatars. After winning a match, players earn taunts, which can be spent at the end of a turn to make your soldiers jeer at the enemy.
On the iPad, Hero Academy supports cloud saving, Game Center, and is universal. Robot Entertainment has their own registration process, so when you log in on other iOS devices, your purchases and current games are loaded in. Not much has changed looks-wise from the iPhone version, so some of the elements feel slightly oversized, but overall, the gameplay is solid as ever. Another free asynchronous tactical combat game that I'm looking forward to is Battle Buddies, but it's still in closed beta. Until it gets released, RAD Soldiers is doing a great job of covering the same bases.
PewPew is a retro dual-stick shooter similar to Geometry Wars on other platforms. Players have to navigate a constantly-moving, tightly-packed arena full of foes while unloading pixelly projectiles on anything in the way. There are five game modes and three ships, which unlockable by reaching certain high scores. Online leaderboards let you compete internationally, but the real joy is simply lasting as long as you can. Despite PewPew's simple shapes, the lighting effects and smooth animation make the whole thing a sight to behold. Previously I had Gun Bros on the list, but PewPew pares away all of the in-app purchasing, advertising, and fancy graphics, leaving an unmolested, high-octane, polished shooting experience in its wake. If you're looking for more, PewPew 2 is available for $2.99, or you can check out Darksider if you want to keep the freeness, but want some more impressive 3D graphics.
Dead Trigger is the pre-eminent free first-person shooter for iOS. For all of its tacky, tongue-in-cheek zombie apocalypse dialog, the graphics are excellent, complete with water effects and richly-detailed models. Players gun through various campaign missions, take a stab at daily challenges, weather endless waves of zombies in arena mode, and unlock new weapons as they rank up. Cash is the main reward, but every once in awhile you'll earn the premium gold currency, which is used to buy the really fancy artillery. There's also a wide array of equipment to help keep you alive through your undead-infested ordeals, and once it's all over, you can use casino chip rewards to play the slots and win big prizes. If you're willing to spend a few bucks, Modern Combat 3 is the best paid first-person shooter you'll find on iOS right now.
Contract Killer 2
Contract Killer 2 is a cover-based third-person shooter. Players take on the role an international assassin picking up contracts from a mysterious source with a hidden agenda. You have to evade line of sight of enemies by timing when you move from cover, take down goons silently with melee attacks, and take out your targets to get paid. Mission types vary from simple elimination, stealth-centric Ghost missions, and survival missions where you just have to get to an extraction point alive. Completing contracts award cash and occasionally the premium currency, credits. Those currencies can be spent on new guns, weapon upgrades, and various consumables. Players earn achievements as they play, get experience, go up ranks, earn credits, and unlock new weapons for purchase. Glu has a habit of pushing in-app purchases pretty agressively, but the gameplay is still solid. I used to have Frontline Commando in this spot, but the cover system and mission types are much more varied in Contract Killer 2, plus there are some cool cinematic sequences. If you're will to dish out $0.99, Epoch is another duck-and-cover shooter with some awesome robot-themed graphics.
Baseball Superstars 2012
Baseball Superstars 2012 is a whimsically exaggerated baseball game with Japanese-style characters and dialog. While the game keeps tabs on minute details, such as batting averages, running speed, stamina, and confidence levels, there are some more cartoony encounters with "super players" that wear outlandish costumes and wield the unlikeliest of powers. As a batter, you can control where you swing by tilting the iPad, but don't worry, you won't actually have to swing it like a bat - just tap the screen at the right moment.
Pitching is done through a series of swipes within a target box. You'll encounter plenty of challenges, including injuries which require recuperation in a hospital, managing your team roster, and playing against friends online. Personally, I found this game impossibly hard when set on normal difficulty, but I'm positive baseball fans will appreciate the amount of detail in this game. After putting some time into Homerun Battle 2 Free, it's clear that Baseball Superstars 2012 is the top free baseball game on the iPad, but for more baseball-themed apps, check out our ballgame roundup over here.
Through in-app purchases, you can get G points, which are spent on character items, training sessions to improve your stats, or even buy whole levels for your batter or pitcher. The pixelation inherent in the game's old-school graphics are really apparent on the iPad's larger display, but the animation remains high-quality. Game Center integration doesn't extend beyond achievement tracking, and while cloud saving is available, you have to make sure you have a Gamevil account active and manually upload game data to and from your iPhone.
NFL Pro 2013
NFL Pro 2013 is a full-fledged football game complete with leagues, playbooks, and extensive rosters based on real players and teams. Your players gain experience and level up as you go, letting you improve their stats in a number of areas, like run blocking, catching, awareness, and agility. Every down, you pick a play available (either offensive or defensive), and while you manually control one player, the AI handles the rest. New from the 2012 version of the game is a pre-snap notepad, which allows you to tweak plays at the last second. There's also a great first-person view when making throws Controls during play are dead simple, but most of your time will be spent flipping through and picking plays. On the downside, your selection is really limited to start, plus quarter lengths are limited to 2 minutes without digging into in-app purchases.
Every game you play uses up energy, which replenishes over time or through in-app purchases. Team points to level up your players can also be bought, along with credits to buy new playbooks, stadiums, gain access to new teams, divisions, and conferences. Unfortunately, there's no cloud saving or Game Center support, though NFL Pro 2012 is a universal app. There's also Madden 13 Social if you're looking for some asynchronous back-and-forth football gaming with buddies.
Real Soccer 2013
Real Soccer 2013 offers a wide variety of gameplay types in a fast-paced, realstic package. The core controls are laid out with a standard virtual joystick and sprint, pass and shoot buttons, with a few fancier manoevers executed through taps and gestures on the playing area. Outside of the stadium, there's a lot of gameplay, too. Players have to build up a team roster, upgrade facilities and staff, increase revenue with merchandising and sponsorships, and make sure their team is well-rested and healthy.
Playing Real Soccer 2013 matches earns you coins which can be used to purchase many of those upgrades. Over the course of play, your team has to advance through various cups and leagues, earning rewards and experience no matter the outcome. "Cash" is Real Soccer 2012's premium currency, which can be traded in for the completion of certain roster tasks (which otherwise take a fair bit of real-world time). Real Soccer 2013 is in a tight race with Pro Evo Soccer 2012, which, though "lite" and saving most of its leagues and progression for paying customers, has a really great Flick Soccer-style penalty kick drill. There's also Real Soccer 2012, which has a few noticeable differences, though keeps the same core gameplay and graphics.
Agent Dash is a spy-themed endless runner where players have to dodge various obstacles while charging forward at breakneck speeds. Swipe motions make Agent Dash switch lanes, leap over obstacles, or duck as necessary. Over the course of a stage, players, collect diamonds which can be used to activate certain extras throughout each level, such as jetpacks, gem-attracting magnets, and more valuable types of diamonds. Gems can also be spent on one-shot power-ups to make individual runs a bit more successful. Agent Dash draws obvious inspiration from the pre-eminent Temple Run, but even though there are fewer unlockables available, Agent Dash's graphics are a bit more fresh, and the new theme is a great change of pace. Warp Rush is another high-quality endless runner along this vein, though it relies on tilt-based controls.
Jetpack Joyride is a side-scrolling evasion game with simple one-button controls and a great sense of style. You play as a rebellious bureaucrat named Barry who's tired of the work at his top-secret military lab, and decides to snag the company's experimental jetpack for a jaunt through the facilities. Holding your finger on the screen puts the gas on the jetpack, letting you elevate over obstacles such as laser security systems and incoming missiles. Along the way, you'll also be able to snag other experimental vehicles, including the Crazy Freaking Teleporter, and the Profit Bird which is powered by pure concentrated sarcasm.
You're rewarded coins based on how far you make it through before wiping out, but can also pick up loose coins throughout the level. You even earn more through completing missions, like high-fiving the scrambling scientists on the ground floor. Those coins (which are also available through in-app purchases) are spent on new jetpacks, outfits, and a wide variety of gadgets. Jetpack Joyride will be sharp as a pin on the iPad 4 thanks to Retina-optimized graphics, plus there's Game Center support for leaderboards and achievements. It's a universal app, but I've had mixed results with cloud sync; it managed to get my rank and cash from my iPhone game, but didn't register some of my previous gadget purchases. There are lots of other free platform-style endless runners out there that are great and just about on par with Jetpack Joyride, such as Whale Trail, Punch Quest, Mega Run, and Wind-up Knight.
Death Dome is basically a free version of Infinity Blade, except it's placed in a post-apocalytic wasteland. Players fight one-on-one with grotesque monsters with all manner of ramshackle melee weaponry with swipe gestures, and earn rewards as they play. The main character, Phoenix, also develops superhuman abilities thanks to biological pathogen that has trapped the populace of the city in a forced quarantine and spawned the horrors that now ravage survivors. Combat involves a delicate dance of blocking, dodging, and precisely-timed swipes, though combat is interspersed with scavenging mini-games, where players have to quickly tap targets before the baddies show up. Players earn rewards for playing daily and completing individual challenges against opponents (such as executing a certain number of blocks). Skull-branded coins are the primary currency, while death diamonds are the premium currency used for some exclusive items. There are also revives which can be used to bring you back in the middle of a fight or used to purchase the top-shelf weaponry and armor.
The graphics are really excellent, and among the best I've seen in a free game so far. Cloud syncing and Game Center achievements are in effect, which are both appreciated. If you'd like something a bit more classical, Glu also has Blood and Glory 2, which is set in ancient Roman gladitorial arenas. I'm also a big fan of Juggernaut: Revenge of the Sovering for its original take on the swipe-based melee combat idea and additional RPG elements.
Six-Guns is an open-world multiplayer western. You embark on missions for beleaguered commonfolk, handling the likes of bandits and supernatural nasties to bring some iotum of peace to the wild west. Combat is straightforward third-person revolver shooting with a virtual joystick and a few buttons. You're rewarded for your deeds, of course, and can use the coin you earn to equip new weapons, fresh threads, and buy new horses to expedite your trips between towns.
In addition to being able to buy in-game currency through in-app purchases, you can also get Sheriff Stars, which access high-end gear and auto-complete missions, though you can also earn them through watching ads. You're even able to buy experience points and health boosts, if you're having trouble getting through a particular quest. Six-Guns is optimized for the iPad 4's Retina display, and since you're logging in through Gameloft's service, there's no problem picking up where you left off on any iOS device.
Sci-Fi Heroes is a drag-and-release tactical combat RPG similar to its paid spiritual predecessor, Battleheart. Gameplay mostly involves quickly picking targets, tactical repositioning, juggling aggro, and healing. Players embark on missions across four planets spanning over 40 missions, earn coins, level up, unlock skills, and acquire all manner of futuristic equipment. Premium credits are earned occasionally, which can be used to buy The Good Stuff. Players also have fuel rods, which regenerate over time, but can limit how many new missions they go on in quick succession.
Asynchronous multiplayer raids allow friends to find and fight with one another thanks to Facebook connection. Gaming fans will immediately recognize the voice of Yahtzee Croshaw, of Zero Punctuation fame, in the launch trailer, and his humor is plastered liberally throughout the game. The graphics are cute and polished, and the writing will give you at least a few chuckles. If you're looking for something more fantasy-themed, check out Heroes vs Monsters.
Dungeon Hunter 3
Short of running Splashtop or some other desktop virtualization app, Dungeon Hunter 3 is the closest thing to Diablo on an iPad that you're going to get. This action-RPG puts players into encapsulated, real-time combat encounters where they have to hack and slash through waves of enemies and complete mission objectives, all the while amassing enough gold to upgrade their gear. There are four classes to explore, each with their own playstyle and special abilities, as well as four different worlds with four difficulty levels each.
Besides the gold you earn from enemy kills, there are also gems which can be spent on a bunch of different items. Keys which are earned regularly to open random prizes at the end of each level. New skills aren't acquired in the usual way (i.e. pick one every time you level up). Rather, they're unlocked through books, which players buy in the same way as new equipment. The Retina-optimized graphics are really great, and the boss fights can be partciularly challenging, even if you've got the backup of some buddies through online multiplayer.
Forever Drive is a sharp, polygonal top-down racing game with a cool abstract art style. The controls are simple and fluid, with options for tilt, tap, or d-pad. You're scored based on how many stars you pick up and how tightly you hug highlighted shoulders, but don't get too wild; you have a limited amount of time to get through as many tracks as possible. That means you need to drive smart and avoid the civilian traffic that explode in a Tron-esque display if you so much as nudge them. One of the core elements of Forever Drive is the track builder.
It's pretty simple - you draw a line from one end of a square to the other, pepper some scenery along the sides, and the highlighted turns, stars, and extra traffic are added in automatically. You then have the option to share these tracks online, which then randomly compose the arcade mode of other players. When you play, you get fed a series of user-built tracks one after another, which you can rate up or down after you're done driving them. There are also weekly leagues where you have a chance to win in-game currency, with which you can buy a few unlocks, but the vast majority of car bodies, model variations, and paint jobs are earned by gaining experience points throughout gameplay. If you're impatient, you can always buy credits through in-app purchases. Forever Drive is a universal app with cloud saving, so no worries about saving your progress on the iPhone version. Game Center leaderboards are also supported.
GT Racing: Motor Academy Free+ HD
Motor Academy Free is a more down-to-earth, mostly-realistic racing game. Starting off, you earn various licenses by learning how to drive different classes of cars. After that, you're off to the races, winning tours, special invitation events, and completing contracts. The coins you earn there let you buy a variety of recognized brand-name cars, like Bugatti, BMW, Bentley, Jaguar, Ford, Chevrolet, and Audi. They even kindly give you the option to rent cars for a round if you don't have enough to buy it outright.
Even this racing game has some RPG mechanics in it, including quests and leveling up to unlock new cars and courses. Coins are earned through regular gameplay, while in-game cash is mostly bought through in-app purchases. Cash be traded in for new cars or select upgrades to parts like brakes and suspension.There are no Game Center hooks, but Gameloft still does a decent job of handling online multiplayer on their own.
Smash Cops Heat
Smash Cops Heat is a cops-and-robbers racer, where players have to navigate through a city while trying to take down perps fleeing from the scene. Other mission types have players attempting to rush to their fellow officers for back-up, or navigating challenging obstacle courses. The core controls are dead-simple, involving dragging your finger behind the car, and tilting it around to navigate corners. A few taps are required to use special abilities. You can also tweak the controls to use a virtual joystick instead, if you prefer.
There are a handful of in-app purchases available, such as consumable Super Cops, which temporarily turn your vehicle into an impossibly fast and tough cruiser, InstaRams that give players a sudden (and often needed) burst of speed, and a bunch of paint jobs based on international police forces. Over the course of gameplay, new vehicles are unlocked, including SWAT-style vans, several other cruisers, and even a Semi further down the line, though you can't acquire them through IAPs (perhaps rightly so).
If you're looking for extended gameplay, the original Smash Cops is still available for $2.99.
Poker by Zynga
Poker by Zynga is a simple but polished Texas Hold 'em game for iPad and plays cross-platform with folks on Facebook. The game has been out for a long time, so boasts a full feature set - you can add friends, find tables within your comfort range, and even give other players gifts for display, like drinks, or a box of tissues if they're having a particularly rough run.
The one downside to Poker by Zynga is that you'll have to have a Wi-Fi connection active in order to play, and as fun as it is playing with real people, they can just as often be aggravating. Though you're given a stack of chips to start, and can earn more through various ads and daily giveaways, you'll have to shell out real cash for chips when you run out, just like a real casino. The iPad version of Poker by Zynga doesn't use Game Center since it relies on its well-established Facebook users to keep playing, and there's no mention of Retina iPad support, but it's not particularly needed to enjoy the game. Keeping up with games across iPad and iPhone was easy as pie since they're both connected through your Facebook account.
Shadow Era is an unabashed homage to Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy tradeable card game where two heroes command armies and arcane powers to slay their opponents. Every turn, you're given the option to discard a card, which adds to your resource pile. The more resources you have, the more allies you can summon and spells you can cast from your hand. Creatures under your control have power and health values which can be influenced with enchantments, but the real fight is between each side's individual hero cards.
Each one has 20 health, and whoever dies first loses. Shadow Era sells booster packs and whole decks of cards through in-app purchases, which you can mix and match as you like to create a deck best suited to your play style. You can also earn the premium in-game currency just by playing and leveling up. On the iPad, there's a ton of screen real estate which allows you to see the whole board at once with minimal camera angle switching. The card graphics have been fully optimized for the iPad 4's Retina display, plus on top of standard Game Center support, Shadow Era has its own cross-platform multiplayer network so you can play with your cards no matter which device you happen to be using. If you'd rather play the real thing, there's a proper Magic: The Gathering game that you can play a little bit for free before needing to make in-app purchases.
Draw Mania HD Free
Draw Mania HD Free is another take on Pictionary where you try to draw something after picking one of a small group of words, and your partner online has to guess what it is. Both players are rewarded points for how quickly they answer, and can even lose points if it takes too long. Players are given hangman-style hints as the clock counts down. Stars are showcased in your profile, which are given by other players that are particularly impressed with your playstyle. Draw Mania HD Free is a really nice alternative to Draw Something, and in my opinion, the better option for a number of reasons. For one, Draw Mania HD Free replays are viewable online, which allows you to share them on Facebook or wherever else you like. Secondly, Draw Mania HD Free doesn't try to nickel-and-dime you for individual colors; once you upgrade from the free version, not only do you get a full pallette, but also a bunch of different brushes, letting you get really creative. Finally, there are lots of great game modes, including live public rooms where anyone who's online can jump in and guess what's being drawn, private games with your personal friends, and the standard drawn-out turn-based matches.
Besides having the usual "lite" version trappings of holding features back, you'll also have to deal with the occasional pop-up ad. At least they don't harass you with a boatload of microtransactions. The full version is a tad highly-priced at $2.99. Game Center is ripe with achievements for this one, and as you plow through them, you go up ranks (which don't seem to do much of anything other than look pretty in your profile). Draw Mania HD Free supports the iPad 4's Retina display, so your fine artistry and that of others will really pop on the big screen. It's not universal, but I don't think this is the kind of game you really want to be playing on your iPhone anyway. You may also want to pick up a stylus if you're going to be playing this a lot.
Words with Friends HD Free
Words with Friends pits you against friends on Facebook and elsewhere to a friendly word scramble game where you're given a set of tiles with letters (each with a corresponding score), and players have to arrange them on a board to make the best word they can. The board is peppred with bonus squares which can multiply the value of letters or whole words. Each side goes back and forth planting words and picking up new tiles until the whole board is full or there are no more new tiles to draw.
Even if you're losing, odds are good you will learn all sorts of new obscure words - just don't expect the round's outcome as any kind of reflection of skill, since most folks just keep jamming letters together until the submission is accepted. Words with Friends HD is monetized through ads and two kinds of in-game purchases: the Word-O-Meter, which helps you find better words, and the Tile Pile, which can let you know which letters are still left to pick up. Of course, they'll also kindly remind you to upgrade to the ad-free pro version for $2.99. It's great being able to see the whole board on the iPad version since on the iPhone you're continually zooming in and out. There's no Game Center here, but Words with Friends HD Free is cross-platform with Facebook, which opens up your pool of opponents considerably. Despite not being universal, a common log-in system means you can pick up your matches across devices and stay in sync.
Letterpress is an asynchronous online word game with really great, simple, pared-down style. Players share a five-by-five grid of letters from which they can assemble words. Each side takes turns making words, and once submitted, those letters are claimed by that player. When the other player's turn comes along, however, those tiles (and the points earned by them) can be stolen back. The points from tiles can be strategically protected from this kind of theft by claiming tiles on all sides of that letter. As you can imagine, scores rise and fall dramatically every turn.
The game is wrapped up after every tile has been claimed. For an extra $0.99, you can play more than two games at once, and enjoy a few different themes, but even in its free format, Letterpress is excellent so long as you have at least one friend who you can count on moving regularly and frequently. Plus the sharp, stylish graphics don't need much tweaking in their current state.
GodFinger All-Stars is a fun little world control game where you tend to a little planet full of villagers. By spinning around a cross-section view, you make sure they're happy and productive, and check in on them time to time to collect the gold they generate. That gold goes to upgrading their homes which can house more people, who then, in turn, produce more money. Of course, you have to tend to their needs, like providing rain and sun for the farms, as well as altars to worship you from. To accomplish all of this, you execute gesture-based miracles with long presses and swipes. These miracles burn up Awe points, which regenerate over time, or can be bought through the app store.
GodFinger All-Stars includes a fun little endless climber side-game where you can earn some additional gold by hurling one of your followers through the heavens. Over time, you complete missions, gain experience points, and expand the surface area of your planet. You can have a lot of fun around your world by raising and lowering the ground, decorating the area, and flinging your hapless devotees beyond the horizon. Godfinger All-Stars isn't universal, but it saves all of your log-in information on their own network, and lets you visit the planets made by your friends, even without Game Center support.
The Sims FreePlay
The Sims FreePlay is a classic life simulation game where you tend to a collection of virtual people, each with a variety of needs and colorful spectrum of personality quirks. You do everything from steering their conversations with other Sims, decorating their home, getting them to work, and making sure they bathe regularly. A recent update even added the ability to play as and care for child Sims. As you guide your Sim to accomplish daily tasks, you gain experience points, level up, and unlock new items.
Unlike the old Sims games that had a handy fast-forward button, activities in The Sims FreePlay all happen in real-time, so when you put your little people to sleep, they're gone for 8 real hours. As you play, you earn Lifestyle Points, which can be used to immediately satisfy your Sim's needs and quickly complete tasks. Those can be bought through in-app purchases, alongside the game's currency, Simoleans, which your Sims earn through various kinds of work. The UI is scaled very nicely to the iPad, though syncing to the cloud is manual, if you're thinking of playing on the iPhone too.
Order Up!! To Go
Order Up!! To Go is a great restaurant simulation game. Players pick their menus, prepare meals, and earn tips depending on how well they're made. If you've ever played Cooking Mama on the Wii, a lot of the gameplay will be familiar. Various types of gestures translate to preparing ingredients, but cooking times must be precise, and that can be a real challenge when juggling multiple orders that have to stay hot by the time they're served up.
The art style is cartoony, with plenty of goofy references to real-world food brands. As players progress, they gain access to new, swankier restaurants, fancier dishes, and bigger paydays. Just be sure to properly stock up on enough ingredients for different kinds of dishes, otherwise customers will have to pick stuff they don't like, and reduce your restautant's review rating on Yarp. If things get a little too hectic, you can always invest in new equipment or hire helpers to take care of certain jobs. Order Up!! To Go is a colorful, hectic, multifaceted game that is sure to scratch your itch for a business sim. You might also want to check out Pocket Planes or Tiny Tower, though I find they're both better formatted for the iPhone.
Trainyard Express is a routing puzzle game where you simply have to draw down tracks to get trains from point A to point B. Things get tricky once you have to start merging trains, combining their colors to get to the right end-point, and deal with overlapping tracks switching at the right time. Trainyard Express is one of the few "lite" titles on the list, meaning there's a full version available for $2.99. Even though the 60 stages in the free game might not seem like they have a lot of replay value once you solve them, there's an expert mode unlocked once you beat the game that keeps tabs on how many tracks you lay down and how long it takes for the trains to get to their destination.
Trainyard Express has a great, simple art style with assets that are optimized for the iPad 4's Retina display, plus there's Game Center support, and there are no ads to boot. One of the cooler features is that you can share your unique puzzle solutions at Trainyard's website as well as on Facebook. There's also the option to switch players locally if someone else wants to solve the puzzles without seeing your solutions on the same iPad. If you're looking for sheer volume of puzzles along the same vein, check out Flow Free. It has 600 stages for free, though the graphics and mechanics aren't quite as interesting.
Bejeweled Blitz is a lightweight version of PopCap's famous gem-matching puzzle game. You're served up a board of colored jewels, and you can swap the position of any two that are next to each other with a tap or a swipe, but only if it lines up three or more of the same type. Matching sets then explode in glitter, serve up points, and more fall in from the top to fill in the gap. The catch is that every round only lasts a minute, so the pressure is on to match up as many jewels as possible.
PopCap keeps you coming back for more with a shot at a daily giveaway, the value of which increases by how many consecutive days you've played. You earn coins through gameplay (which can also be bought through in-app purchases), which are spent on various pre-game power-ups and the occasional rare gem which can supercharge your next game in a number of flashy ways. Of course, if Bejewled Blitz isn't enough for you, there's the full version available for $3.99 with a bunch more game modes. Bejeweled Blitz has graphics that are optimized for the iPad 4's Retina display, is universal, and ties in very closely with its Facebook counterpart to sync up progress across devices.
To-Fu 2 is a great puzzler where you have to figure out how to get an adorable anthropomorphic cube of tofu to a bright pink fortune cookie at the end of a treacherous maze. You do this by stretching the little guy out, then releasing, and slingshotting him towards a specific target. Simply getting to the end in one glutinous piece isn't the only objective, though.
Players can earn extra bragging rights by collecting all of the orbs scattered throughout a level, or by completing it in a certain number of flicks. This offers a solid amount of replay value and will have true puzzle fans something to chew on for a long time. The 180-odd levels all have unique features and threats, including portals, spikes, flipping platforms, laser beams, and lots more. In-app purchases are extremely sensible and unobtrusive. You can get a variety of costumes and themes, or unlock access to all of the levels that you'd otherwise have to play through. If you just can't get enough of this game, there's also the original To-Fu, which plays pretty much identically and has its own sets of challenges.
Your favorite free iPad games?
Of course, there's an insane number of free iPad games out there, and we're always looking for more. Feel free to leave a comment with your favorites, as we'll be updating this list regularly.
*Rene Ritchie and Leanna Lofte contributed photos for this post*