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iMore’s authoritative guide to the very best, absolutely free games for your iPad
We’re continuing our trip down the bargain aisle to find the very best free iOS games for the iPad. We’ve already nailed down our current top free iPhone apps and favorite free iPhone games. You’ll find the whole gamut of genres here, including the best free strategy games, free shooter games, free sports games, free casual games, free physics games, free action games, free role-playing games, free racing games, free word games, and free simulation games for the iPad!
You’ll see a lot of repeats from the iPhone and iPod touch list, as they’re still awesome and amply optimized for the iPad. Others that are new to the list are better suited to the big screen, or simply unavailable on iPhone. Just like the iPhone list, you can expect this feature to be updated regularly as new games come out of the woodwork and we expand our coverage of categories. We’ll also be drilling down into individual categories in future stand-alone spotlights, so be sure to stick around for that.
Although all of the games here are free, most of them are built on in-app purchases. You can absolutely play them for free, but you may get annoyed by “freemium” up-sells. Others are “lite” versions with limited content, and while they’re also completely free, you’ll be limited in what you can do. Still, they’re a great way to test the waters and have some fun before deciding to buy and unlock full versions.
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 casual games for iPad
- Best free physics 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
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 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. 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 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. An update which partially optimizes the graphics for the new iPad’s Retina display is on the way.
Battle Nations is a great mix of real-time strategy with lots of resource gathering and turn-based military combat. The goofy graphic style and hilarious dialog keep things fresh between firefights, and since resources are produced over the hours between sessions, you’ll be checking in on your camp often. Battle Nations hosts player-versus-player combat with the online community at large as well as with paired up Facebook and Twitter friends, staged as “live fire excerises”. You’ll probably want to sink a reasonable amount of time into the single player campaign first so you can level up and unlock advanced structures and units.
Battle Nations is monetized with Nanopods, which you can buy through in-app purchases, earn through gameplay, or be rewarded with after watching a video ad. These are used to hurry up production on particular tasks, like healing troops at the hospital or training new units. Nanopods are also used to to construct unique buildings, which are often just super-charged versions of standard ones.
There’s no Retina Display support for the iPad just yet, but when zoomed out all the way, I find the graphics are still very sharp. There’s supposed to be Game Center support for sharing achievements and whatnot, but it doesn’t seem to be working right now. It would be handy to have that enabled for finding friends to play against, but I’m sure it’s coming in due time. There’s a wide world of player-versus-player combat, in any case. Finally, Battle Nations is universal, and syncs up gameplay across iOS devices thanks to the developer’s own registration and cloud saving service.
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 player (online, 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 as well as taunts to make your soldiers jeer after a turn.
On the iPad, Hero Academy supports cloud saving, Game Center, and is universal. Unfortunately, they haven’t fully optimized the graphics for the new iPad’s Retina display due to the ton of extra effort required to recreate their assets. 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.
Gun Bros is a dual-stick shoot-em-up where you and your brother-in-arms (either AI or through online multiplayer) blast through waves of incoming enemies across a variety of themed planets. Each level you earn coins to spend on guns and gear to change your damage output, speed, health, and other characteristics. You also gather up a mineral called Xplodium, which can be refined into coins; higher grades of refineries can provide a higher coin output. A recent update added the ability to turn on your bro and go head-to-head in deathmatch mode if you’re feeling less than friendly.
Warbucks are a separate type of currency used to buy particularly high-end gear. You can earn them through in-app purchases, watching video ads, or converting a ton of the regular coins at the bank.
Even though Gun Bros isn’t full optimized for the new iPad’s Retina display, Game Center integration is great. If you’ve got friends that play, it’s really easy to jump in with them for a few rounds, and you’re actually offered greater mission rewards for playing with more friends. Gun Bros supports cloud saving and is universal to boot, which makes playing on both iPhone and iPad a breeze.
MetalStorm: Wingman is a flight combat game with full multiplayer support, AirPlay compatibility and accelerometer and swipe controls. As you play through the campaign mode, head-to-head multiplayer dogfight mode, or endless survival mode, you earn credits which can be used to buy various types of missiles, cannons, and new jets focusing on defense, agility, or firepower. Don’t get too trigger-happy, since your ammunition is limited. If you’re not into shooting down your buddies, you can also invite Game Center wingmen to play through the campaign levels co-operatively.
A lot of the hardware upgrades require you to use premium coins, which are sold in batches for $0.99 and up or earned through regular gameplay.
MetalStorm: Wingman has full support for the new iPad’s Retina display, which is a welcome sight on this list. The co-op nature of the game also gets its hooks into Game Center for matchmaking, though I found cloud saving functions were inconsistent – be warned if you’re prone to hopping between your iPad and iPhone a bunch.
Frontline Commando is an on-rails third-person shooter about a gung-ho military man left behind enemy lines. You dodge behind cover with single taps, and pop out to take aim and eliminate nonspecific middle eastern insurgents. Don’t get too attached to that wall you’re hiding behind though, since it can be destroyed as a firefight drags on, and grenades can quickly flush you out into the open. When you level up, new weapons are unlocked for purchase, plus you get a few bars of gold, which can be used to buy premium items. Weapon upgrades span assault weapons, sniper rifles, shotguns, and grenade launchers, each with their own set of damage, clip size, reload speed, and accuracy attributes.
You can also increase survivability with medkit purchases and body armor upgrades. When things get too hot, you can buy airstrikes to clear out the immediate area. Both “war cash” and gold can be bought through in-app purchases.
Frontline Commando performs great on the new iPad with full support for Game Center, cloud saving to keep your game synced up with your iPhone campaign, and they’ve just recently updated with Retina-optimized graphics, a new map, and fresh power-ups.
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 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 slightly pixelated 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. Cloud saving is available, but you have to make sure you have a Gamevil account active and manually upload game data to and from your iPhone.
NFL Pro 2012
NFL Pro 2012 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. Controls during play are dead simple, but most of your time will be spent flipping through and picking plays. Unfortunately, your selection is really limited to start, and it takes an obscene number of premium credits to permanently keep playbooks.
Every game you play uses up energy, which you can replenish or time or through in-app purchases. Experience 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, and extend quarter lengths.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s any cloud saving, though it is a universal app. It doesn’t seem like there’s any update to Retina graphics, which are likely headed to EA’s premium titles first. There isn’t even any Game Center support, which makes me think NFL Pro 2012 is due for a big update soon.
Real Soccer 2012
Real Soccer 2012 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, but progresses in complexity with fancy gesture-based maneuvers. You can unlock a variety of different cups, starting with International, and working your way to Asian, African, American, and European cups, plus there’s regional league play unlocked as you play and level up. Just remember that you’re limited by how many matches you can play by a stamina rating, which recovers over time. Loading screens have bits of trivia, and occasionally test your own football, err, soccer knowledge with a multiple choice quiz.
Playing Real Soccer 2012 earns you coins which can be used to purchase new soccer balls that provide a variety of different bonuses, like extra XP per match. “Cash” is Real Soccer 2012’s premium currency, which can be traded in for international teams, additional stamina, team stat boosts, access a few select stadiums, and even the ability to clear all yellow cards.
On the iPad, Real Soccer 2012 boasts universal status, but no love with cloud saving, Game Center, or Retina iPad optimization. Real Soccer 2012 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.
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 as the the gems above drop down into place, more fall in from the top. The catch is that every round only lasts a minute, so the pressure is on to match up as many jewels as possible.
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. 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.
Bejeweled Blitz has graphics that are optimized for the new iPad’s Retina display, is universal, and though there’s no Game Center support, the game ties in very closely with its Facebook counterpart and lets you sync up your progress across devices that way.
Trainyard Express is a simple 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 new iPad’s Retina display, and there are no ads to boot. There’s no Game Center support unfortunately, but 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.
Temple Run is a dead-simple platform game where you sprint through ancient ruins while being chased by displeased spirits. You turn corners, duck under obstacles, and leap over pits with swipe gestures while collecting coins along the way. There’s a bit of accelerometer control, so you can snag coins in the middle or to the left or right side of corridors by tilting the iPad, but for the most part, you’re just relying on twitch reflex swiping. Gameplay can be extremely bite-sized, but still amply rewarding.
The coins you collect while temple-running (or in-app purchasing) can earn you power-ups like speed boosts, new unlockable characters, and even exclusive wallpapers.
On the iPad, Temple Run fares reasonably well, offering the same fast-paced gameplay complete with Game Center leaderboards and achievements. The game’s universal, and though my upgrade purchases transferred over, the game didn’t seem to recognize the achievements I had earned in Game Center. There’s no word on whether the graphics have been updated for the new iPad’s Retina display, but Temple Run still holds up extremely well in the looks department for casual gameplay.
Cut the Rope Free HD
Cut the Rope is a popular game that involves dropping a piece of candy into a hungry green creature’s mouth by slicing rope with swipe gestures. While the candy’s dangling and swinging, you use nearby tools such as magic hats and air puffers to avoid obstacles, like candy-devouring spiders and destructive spikes. If you can get the candy to pass through any of the three stars on the level, you gain bonus points and bragging rights, but they’re strictly optional.
Though you only get 18 levels in the free version, the full game with 250 levels is only $1.99. You’ll have to deal with banner ads along the bottom with the free version, but they aren’t overly obtrusive.
Cut the Rope on the iPad supports iCloud sync and Game Center, which might not be particularly useful for such a short game, but at least it’s there if you end up shelling out for the full version. It doesn’t seem like there are graphics optimized for large-screen Retina displays, but for a simple game like this, they aren’t likely to make a huge difference.
Fruit Ninja HD Lite
Fruit Ninja is a well-known slice-and-dice game where you swipe through various kinds of fruit as they sail through the air. You get bonus points for chopping through four or more fruit at once, but you have to make sure to avoid the bombs that get tossed in every now and then. Different kinds of bonus fruit can really help out, such as the freeze banana, which slows the movement of everything the screen, making for easy targets.
In the free version, you get Classic mode in which you only get to let three fruit hit the ground. The paid version, available for $2.99, includes a Zen mode where you cut up as much fruit as you can within a limited time frame, split-screen multiplayer, and a few other bonuses.
The Fruit Ninja experience really excels on the big screen, despite not being a universal app (and thus no cloud sync) and graphics that haven’t been updated for the new iPad. The core gameplay is there, and so is Game Center support, which is all you really need to show fruit who’s boss.
Angry Birds Free
Angry Birds is the quintessential physics game for iOS, wherein a group a birds suicidally fling themselves into rickety buildings so that the pigs inside that stole their eggs can suffer a terrible, terrible demise. Every level you get a selection of birds that you slingshot towards structures at varying angles and velocities. The birds available each level can have different properties – for example, the yellow one dive-bombs when you tap the screen while it’s in mid-flight, while the blue one splits into three. You’re scored based on how few birds you use to clear the level, as well as how much destruction you cause in the process. The only thing that really matters is that all of the pigs in each level get eliminated.
The free version of Angry Birds gives you a total of 24 levels, but you’ll need to drop $2.99 in order to get tons more. Keep mind that there are a lot of different free versions of Angry Birds available, including a seasonal one and one based on the Disney movie Rio. Try ’em both if you’re looking for variety. Keep in mind that you’ll have to put up with some pretty obnoxious banner ads while you play the free versions.
Angry Birds is a lot easier to play on the iPad since you’ve got more room to adjust angle and the strength of your slingshot. So far, it looks like only Angry Birds Space is optimized for the Retina iPad, unfortunately. Rovio is particularly bad about charging extra for the “HD” versions of their titles, so don’t expect a universal version any time soon.
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.
On top of being able to buy them through in-app purchases, 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 are spent on new jetpacks, outfits, and recently gadgets, all available through in-app purchases stored in The Stash.
Jetpack Joyride will be sharp as a pin on the new iPad 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.
Wind-up Knight is a whimsical running game where you’re on a gallant quest to save the princess, as is often the case. The hero continually moves forward, while you’re in charge of slaying evil chickens, protecting your little toy head from falling debris with a shield, leaping over yawning chasms, and rolling under treacherous traps. You have to make sure to be speedy too, since the knight is only wound up so much, and he’ll run out of steam if you dally or don’t pick up fresh cranks.
Gathering all of the coins in a level and finding a hidden cards rewards you with notes which can be spent on items like new helmets and swords. Though you’re welcome to buy later levels through in-app purchases (and they push a 30%-off bundle deal pretty aggressively in your first play-through), you can unlock them if you absolutely master every chapter in each book. This is really challenging though, which will be a turn-off for casual players that aren’t willing to pay for the other books, but a great incentive for hardcore gamers.
Wind-up Knight enjoys seamless iCloud sync and is a Universal app, so you can keep playing on your iPhone while away from the iPad. Game Center is around for the sake of achievements, but there’s nothing in the way of multiplayer, which is too bad, because I’d love to see how my friends kit out their knight and their top scores on each level as I’m playing it.
Despite its kid-friendly graphics (which are polished and gorgeous, though only partially optimized for iPad-sized Retina displays), Wind-up Knight has some great grown-up humor; even if you’re pretty sure you won’t buy the later books, it’s worth giving a try just for the GeoCastles gag.
Cordy Sky is a jumping game where you’re an adorable little robot trying to get from the ground of an alien planet to a docked spaceship so you can continue on your intergalactic mission. Small bouncy platforms aid your ascension, but be careful, otherwise you drop down to the earth and have to start all over again. Luckily, you have a fellow robot called Volt that can grab you if you drop too far, but only if you’ve collected the appropriate token while climbing skyward. Your trip is split up into five sections, the end of each being marked by a fuel cell you need to get the spaceship running again. Controls are are either through virtual buttons, tilt, or swiping. I prefer to use tap controls on the iPad version rather than tilt, but the option’s all yours.
As you go, you collect gears, which can buy one-time boosts, permanent power-ups, or vanity costumes. Of course, you can always just buy gears through in-app purchases, but you can get by perfectly well on your own. Don’t let the adorable little robot fool you, though – this game has plenty of challenge to it.
Cordy Sky on the iPad is universal, and I managed to get some of my saved data from the iPhone game synced up, but lost game data on my iPhone in the midst of trying to get more iCloud storage freed up. A stray forum mention said that the game was updated to optimize the graphics for the new iPad, but I haven’t been able to find any official confirmation.
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.
On the iPad, Six-Guns is optimized for the new iPad’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.
Heroes vs Monsters
Heroes versus Monsters is a party-based hack-and-slash fantasy role playing game with simple controls, a cute style, and tons of customizability. You command a party of four heroes with an intuitive drag-and-release control scheme. All of your standard classes are there, like warriors to soak up the damage, clerics to keep them alive, and various kinds of damage-dealers ranging from archers to fire mages. Scouring the world, you find new monsters to slay, more loot to plunder, more heroes to recruit, and along the way you gain experience, level up, and unlock powers best-suited to your playstyle.
The coins you earn through gameplay let you buy phat new equipment for your party, but you can also buy your gold pieces through in-app purchases. All of the gear you equip is nicely represented on your heroes. The only real downside I’ve seen so far are that you’ll also have to deal with an ad along the bottom which so far as been for the same app time and again. It’s also worth noting that Heroes vs Monsters is pretty much a complete clone of a premium title called Battleheart; if you’re willing to shell out three bucks, you might rather it go to the those who cooked up the original idea.
There’s also a significant border around the outside, which I assume is a relic from the iPhone port, since there’s no support for the high-res Retina display on the new iPad. There’s Game Center support anyhow, and it’s universal, but no cloud syncing, unfortunately.
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, varied elevation, 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 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, variations, and paint jobs are earned by gaining experience points throughout gameplay.
Forever Drive is a universal app with cloud saving, so no worries about saving your progress on the iPhone version. Game Center leaderboards are supported, plus OpenFeint if you’re into that kind of thing. There aren’t big-screen Retina graphics just yet, as the developer just got the new iPad recently, but maybe we’ll see an upgrade soon.
Road Warrior Racing Free
Road Warrior Racing Free is a side-scrolling racing game set in a gritty Mad Max-style future. As you race through arid badlands, you try to make use of your car’s side-mounted miniguns, missile launchers, and other assorted weaponry to take out the competition, while hoping they don’t do the same. You don’t have to worry about acceleration while playing since the game puts the foot the floor for you automatically; all you have to worry about is blowing up anybody who tries to pass you and possibly doing a sweet frontflip while diving off a mesa. You’re offered up a variety of different maps every time you play, each one with a different level of difficulty and special rules, like no weapons.
You earn in-game cash as you play, which can be spent on new weapons, armor upgrades, new chassis, paint jobs, and lots of other items to pimp your ride. Of course, you can also buy the in-game cash to speed up your advancement.
Right now, Game Center support is limited to leaderboards, but the developer is promising live multiplayer soon – it’s already on Android. It doesn’t seem like there’s any cloud saving support, even though it’s a universal app, but that hardly puts a dent in Road Warrior Racing’s badassery.
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 which you complete, 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, which you can trade in for new cars or select upgrades to parts like brakes and suspension.
There’s no cloud syncing here, so get comfortable playing on either your iPad or iPhone for the long haul. There’s also no Game Center hooks, but Gameloft still does a decent job of handling online multiplayer on their own.
Zynga Poker 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 Zynga Poker 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 Zynga Poker 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 magic powers to slay their opponent. 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 new iPad’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.
BoardBox is a highly-polished collection of classic board games, including chess, checkers, go, tic-tac-toe, reversi and backgammon. There are a bunch of interesting variants, including some more exotic games like Chinese chess, and a handful of very nicely rendered boards and pieces to pick from. There’s a handy little sidebar included which lets you save games and look up rules through the Wikipedia article.
On the downside, there’s no AI player for those days that you’re on your own, and when it’s eventually included, it will be an in-app purchase to activate. At least all you really have to put up with are small banner ads at the bottom of the screen, which can be disabled for $5.99 (which seems like a lot to me).
There’s no iPhone version of BoardBox, so you’ll have to take the whole iPad with you to play on the road. Though there’s no Game Center support, online multiplayer is available over e-mail – clunky, but it works.
Charadium II HD Free
Charadium II HD is a simple but polished take on Pictionary where you try to draw something after picking one of a small group of words, and your partner 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, but at least you’re given hangman-style hints as time goes on. Stars are showcased in your profile, which are given by other players that are particularly impressed with you. Charadium II Free is a really nice alternative to Draw Something, and in my opinion, the better option of the two for a number of reasons. For one, Charadium II replays are viewable online, which allows you to share them on Facebook or wherever else you like. Secondly, Charadium II 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 hostage, you’ll also have to deal with the occasional video ad and banner. At least they don’t harass you for microtransactions. The full version isn’t insanely priced, though a tad high 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). Charadium II HD Free supports the new iPad’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.
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 you have to arrange them on a board to make the best word you can. The board is peppred with bonus squares which can multiply the value of letters or whole words if you’re lucky enough to land on them. 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.
Although I understand that Words with Friends is the most popular and polished Scrabble-ish game availbale for iOS, and as a wordy dude, I should be into these kinds of games, I actually hate them with a burning passion. Why? Because people win by jamming letters together for the highest points, and hoping the server accepts whatever they put in. In that way, I definitely prefer real Scrabble, since you’re relying a hell of a lot more on real vocabulary skills, and only occasionally having to put up with friends pulling seemingly made-up words out of thin air; in Words with Friends and all video games like it, that kind of thing is the norm. Regardless, even if you’re losing, odds are good you will learn all sorts of new obscure words when playing the random way; just don’t expect the round’s outcome as any kind of reflection of skill.
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.
In any case, It’s great being able to see the whole board on the iPad version; 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.
Prose with Bros Free
Prose with Bros is best described as online competitive fridge poetry. Two partners, either found through Facebook or a random pairing, are given the same set of 50 words. They have to arrange those words into the most interesting combination possible, and once submitted, other players get to vote over which of the two they prefer more. Random pairs show up for you to judge as soon as you launch the game; you can even have a creepy robot voice read the entries out loud to you. After 12 hours of voting, the winner is decided. Even if you don’t win, you can still earn Kudos from other users, which are shown off in your profile. Previous prose is saved in the cloud for posterity, just in case you need to show it off later. I’m a huge fan of this game, and have seen some pretty hilarious phrases cobbled together.
The best part about Prose with Bros is that there isn’t any catch – no microtransactions, no ads, no nothing, just fun. There used to be a paid and an ad-supported version, but they took out the ads in the last update in April. Why? Maybe they hate money. I’m cool with that.
Prose with Bros is universal and syncs games nicely across devices once you’re registered. There’s no Game Center support to help you hook up with other iOS bros, but finding them through the Facebook integration is easy enough. The graphics aren’t exactly mind-blowing, but you don’t need much for a word game.
GodFinger 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 do these gesture-based miracles like calling down rain or sunshine. These miracles burn up Awe points, which regenerate over time, or can be bought through the app store. GodFinger recently included a fun little endless climber side-game where you can earn some additional gold by hurling one of your followers through the heavans.
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. It doesn’t seem like things are optimized for the new iPad just yet, but these guys put a ton of emphasis on graphics, so I expect an upgrade soon.
The Sims Freeplay
The Sims is a classic life simulation game where you tend to a collection of virtual people, each with a variety of needs and colourful spectrum of personality quirks. You do everything from steering their conversations with other Sims, decorate their home, get them to work, and make sure they bathe regularly. A recent update even added the ability to play and care for child Sims. As you guide your Sim to accomplish daily tasks, you gain experience points, level up, and unlock new items and game options. 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, but unfortunately the graphic elements aren’t optimized for the new iPad yet. Also, I didn’t have any luck getting my saved progress from the iPhone version over to the iPad, so don’t count on any cloud sync here.
Flight Tycoon puts you in charge of buying planes, setting routes to and from your airport, getting fuel at the lowest prices, and build attractions at your city. As you progress, your pilots become experienced in particular planes and gain bonuses when flying them, but before long, you start unlocking new planes that can go farther and carry more passengers. The game is inherently social in that you need to find other players online that are within ideal range for your fleet and have free runways to support an ongoing route. The calculations needed to figure out which planes would be most profitable given how much fuel they use and how much is charged per seat offer a complexity that belie the game’s goofy exterior. The customizations get a little ridiculous once you start building lanes in the tropical jungle section that just so happens to neighbor the arctic glacier.
You buy most of your in-game items with the same cash you acquire through day-to-day operation, but through an in-app purchase you can also buy gold, the game’s premium currency which can get you custom terminals, speciality aircraft, and new expansion areas. Gold is also rewarded as you gain experience points and level up.
Flight Tycoon is universal, and I had no problems fueling up my planes on the iPhone after sending them off on my iPad.
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. We’ll be including some of our top free real-time strategy, rhythm, and location games down the line.
Rene Ritchie and Leanna Lofte contributed photos for this post
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