Despite the inherent difficulties of making games for so compact and rigid a platform, gaming is slowly blossoming on the Apple Watch. And no wonder; with millions of them on the wrists of technophiles, the urge to get the most out of the wearable is attracting a lot of attention.
While you won't find deep, engaging hardcore games on the Apple Watch, what you will find is a lot of weird, different, neat bite-sized experiences to check out on your wrist. And many of them are free or very cheap.
Games essentially come in two factors: those that can be played entirely on the Apple Watch and those that either augment an iPhone game or offer a glimpse into your mobile gaming experience.
I've worked my way through an awful lot of games to find the ones that I think are worth trying out. As a little bonus, I also whipped up a list of some of the other apps worth loading onto your Watch. You can find that down at the bottom of this breakdown.
If you're into smartwatches and games, definitely check out my opus on the topic for more.
The small screen and rather limited control options of the Apple Watch mean that a lot of developers are falling back on narratively driven adventure games for their Apple Watch titles. Most fall into one of two categories: clicker games, which have you fighting an endless stream of enemies by tapping on the watch face in an effort to level up and deck out your character; and choose-your-own adventure games driven by choices made in texts sent to your watch face. Both are a lot more fun then they sound. Here are some of my favorites.
Evolution: Heroes of Utopia: You'll find many RPG clicker games on the Apple Watch, but this is one of the best. This game has you tapping your Apple Watch screen (or iPhone) to deal damage to one of an assortment of colorful baddies you face. The more you kill, the more you earn. That loot can then be used to hire an array of characters, who will fight even when you're not around. The game includes 20 characters, a detailed leveling system, a variety of technology and cooperative play.
Lifeline: Played as a series of messages sent to your Apple Watch and influenced by the choices you make while reading, Lifeline is the modern day take on those old pick-a-path adventures. The best part is that you can play and replay it until you've discovered all of the paths. Then you can move on to Lifeline 2 and Lifeline: Silent Night.
Mafia Watch: Developers N3twork calls it a massively multiplayer social RPG, but that's really just a fancy way of saying that Mafia Watch is an amped up take on Drug Wars. Players use their Apple Watches to call in hits, hide from enemies, upgrade their weapons and characters and even send voice messages to their Apple Watch-owning friends.
Runeblade: This role-playing game has a lot going for it, from a fully invested community and developer, to a solid art style, to its Infinity-Blade-like approach to generational leveling. Like other RPG-clicker games, the gameplay itself might seem a little mundane: You tap on your watch to attack enemies. The real fun is in accruing the loot to upgrade and customize your warrior priestess and digging into the lore of the game. It also helps that developer Everywear Games is supporting the title through full story-driven "seasons." Season one just wrapped up in 2015 with a massive "Forgotten Halls" update which added new monsters, levels, features and an epic boss battle.
Spy_Watch: Part text adventure and interactive story, part role-playing game, Spy_Watch puts you in the shoes of your deceased father. It turns out, unbeknownst to you, that he was the head of a spy organization. Its last remaining member needs your help to find out what happened, rebuild the group and seek out revenge. This boils down to making decisions about how to spend your resources (which, in this case, includes actual time). The James Bond-like watch face, complete with world maps, target names and a countdown timer, is a neat added touch.
The Apple Watch is a device made for burst gaming: quick-to-load short games that give you a moment of joy before you're done. Brain teasers happen to be a great fit for that.
Letterpad: This is a fun little game that has you using a jumble of letters to solve clues, sort of like a high-tech, single-person game of hangman. The game provides you with a selection of letters, a clue (like "clear skies") and dashes to show the number of letters in the word.
Peak Brain Training: There are quite a few brain training games for the Apple Watch. My current favorite offers an array of free and paid neuroscience workout sessions on the iPhone and three little free gems on your Apple Watch.
Rules!: In 2014, Apple named this clever puzzle game one of the top iPhone apps of the year. This year, the game was crowned by Apple again, this time for the best Apple Watch game of the year. The iPhone game has you following a simple rule to clear a board of pictures. Then, you do it again with a new rule, followed by the old rule. It keeps adding rules until you forget one or lose your mind. The Apple Watch version is a mini-version of this that follows the same basic ... rules. This time, though, if you mess up, you lose instantly. Each day challenges you to hit a predetermined score.
As with any new gaming platform, there's a flood of classic games like checkers, chess, card games and the like for the Apple Watch. The simple rules of those games blended with the Apple Watch's innovative interface sparked some enjoyable little creations.
Blackjack Anywhere: There are a LOT of Blackjack games for the Apple Watch, and most of them run the range from bad to really bad. Blackjack Anywhere isn't one of those. It offers solid graphics, the ability to control your bets with chips, and basic essentials like doubling down and splitting. You can even adjust the number of decks being played with, or if the dealer hits on a soft 17. While it's not a free game, it also doesn't require any sort of buy-in or wait time for more chips once you run out.
Chess Watch!: I sort of suck at playing chess, mostly because I hate memorizing openings ... and end games ... and using strategy. But I know the rules! This neat app lets you play a full game of chess against online opponents using your ... wait for it ... voice! So now you can stare intently at your watch for a minute and then press a button and call out the move — bishop to E6 — like you're some sort of savant playing chess in your head.
Trivia Crack: This has been my favorite trivia game since its release. Now that the full game is playable on my wrist, the urge to show off my often trivial knowledge has only grown. The Apple Watch version fits perfect on the screen, allowing you to spin the wheel for a topic and then select your answer from the choices. It's such a great design that it may leave you feeling like the iPhone is too big for this game.
Yatzy World: Not to be confused with Yahtzee (which is basically the same game, but branded and with slightly different rules), Yatzy is a popular public domain poker dice game. Yatzy World delivers a fantastic adaptation of that game to your watch, allowing you to play matches against folks online.
I happen to be a little watch-crazy and a lot game-crazy. That means, by default, I'm also super Game Watch crazy. I love all those dinky games dating back to the '70s that used to be the only answer to portable gaming. Fortunately for me, some developers seem to love those retro, limited games as well. Here's a few callbacks to the days of LCD and dot matrix gaming.
Alien Invasion: One of my first experiences with portable gaming was Nintendo Game & Watch (which was not a watch and perhaps, arguably, not a game, really, either). Those classic games lit up LCD symbols or images to create the sense of gaming, and that's exactly what Alien Invasion does. This game has you using the digital crown to move a ship back and forth to catch aliens flying off the face of a planet. There's even Game A and Game B modes.
Tamagotchi Classic: Remember back when Bandai's digital pet Tamagotchi was basically the biggest thing in the whole, entire world? The little keychain game taught more than 80 million people why they should never get a real pet, have a baby or grow too attached to anything living, even a digital creation. And now it's officially back and completely playable on your Apple Watch. It even lets you know when it needs attention (every five seconds).
Monkey Business: Like Alien Invasion, the only real reason to buy Monkey Business is straight up nostalgia. This particular game looks more like the old Nelsonic watch games than a Nintendo Game & Watch title. It even has a neat frame that makes over your watch while playing it. The object is to use the two digital buttons to move your monkey back and forth between three vines as he collects money and avoids falling objects.
The Apple Watch is a terrific device for tracking your health. It can remind you to take meds and drink water. It can help you watch your diet and workout. It can track your runs and walks. Joining that with gaming means you can have fun while getting into shape.
Sonic Dash 2: Sonic Boom: This endless runner for the mobile phones doesn't really have a game component for the Apple Watch, but it does offer a neat addition. The app includes a Sonic-themed pedometer that uses the Apple Watch's fitness tracking to see how far you've walked. Walk enough and you'll unlock neat extras in the full Sonic Dash 2 game, like rings and sidekick Sprites.
Zombies, Run!: I've long been a big fan of the Zombies, Run! iPhone app. The game is an audio story that puts you in a world packed with zombies and survivors. You have to run in the real world to survive and help build up your base in-game. That used to mean that, on occasion, you'd have to fumble with your phone during a run to pause or check on your distance. But this new Apple Watch add-on gives you all of that information right at your wrist.
I know this is a best games piece, but I'm sort of obsessed with smartwatches. That means I spend WAY too much time looking through the near constant flow of new apps hitting the App Store and trying to find the essential apps for making my life easier ... or cooler. Here's what I recommend you load onto your watch.
Dark Sky: There are roughly one zillion weather apps for the Apple Watch, and most of them are really good. I actually have two or three that I really, really like. But my current favorite is Dark Sky, a hyperlocal app that can give you minute-by-minute weather predictions for your street. The Apple Watch bit of the app includes a glance, hourly and weekly forecast. Most importantly, you can load it as a "complication" on your watch face.
1Password: First, you need to get this app and have it create massive randomly generated strings of alpha text for all of your passwords. Then, load it onto your Apple Watch for quick access not to the passwords, but all of those two-factor authentication codes you set up on your iPhone. (YOU ARE USING TWO-FACTOR, RIGHT?!)
XE Currency: It's a must-have for those of you who do much international travel. The app quickly converts currency and tracks changes over time. The Watch app is just about as robust as what you get on your iPhone.
CNN: I'll be honest, I'm not completely won over by any one news app for the Apple Watch. It's important to me for the app to deliver the entire story, not just a headline, and to be from a solid source while including a complication for headlines on my watch face. Right now none of them do that. The closest currently is CNN. I also have Breaking News + and AP Mobile on the watch, but I'm a news junkie.
WatchUp: OK, I lied. I don't have three news apps on my watch, I actually have four. But in my defense, WatchUp is super cool in a way those other news apps aren't. Instead of just delivering written news to you, this app takes local, national and international TV news, blurbs it and shoots it to your iPhone and Apple Watch. That's right: You can watch free TV news on your Apple Watch.
Just press record: The iPhone has a solid voice recorder built into and, thanks to this app, so does your Apple Watch. Instead of starting up your phone recorder, this app uses the Watch itself to record and save your conversations at the push of a button. You can later sync it to your phone.
Fantastical 2: This is hands down the best calendar app for the iPhone, and now it has a powerful little app for the Watch, too. The app lets you zip through the day's appointments and create new ones by voice. It also has both small single-appointment and large double-appointment complications.
Tweetbot 4: I'm partial to this particular Twitter app because it lets you look at responses to your Twitter account, as well as letting you check out profiles and dictate new tweets.
I could go on and on and on, as I bet you could guess, but the best part about owning an Apple Watch is the apps you use to personalize it to your own needs. I will say that among the most useful in my personal array that I haven't mentioned are Slack, Trello, Todoist, Runkeeper and Glancify. Check 'em out.