Brain-Tapping: The iPhone’s Best Turn-Based Games

Do you own an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or iBrainEnhancementDevice? Wow, me too!

Do you want to use your iOS device as a gaming device? Why, how statistically improbable: same here!

Do you despise any iOS game that isn’t turn-based because attempting to do anything that requires timing or precision on the touch screen is like trying to fist a cat with a decomposing rhino leg? Dude, same problem!

Do you have an active and healthy social life that prevents you from having enough free time to sift through the thousands of games in the app store trying to find the one diamond amongst the crap? Well, my happy friend, that is where you and I differ. Whilst you are out dancing or being high on drugs and utilising the interlocking nature of your genitalia, I am probably sitting in my shed in a puddle of my own effluence, wrapped in a tarpaulin sheet for warmth, downloading an endless stream of free, trial, lite iPod games and wishing everything was different. Luckily for you I’m also willing the share the fruits of my labour, even if you aren’t prepared to do the same.

Here’s a quick rundown of some iOS games you can start up even when you might have to get off the bus, like, any second now.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Defenders

This is also available on XBLA or WiiWare. The WiiWare version is the best but I can’t play it on the bus, in bed, at work or in the pub, so although I own all three versions (I love it a bit too much), the iPhone version has ultimately given me the most joy. Thousands of hours of joy across a two-year period of almost non-stop playing, to be exact.

Crystal Defenders is a tower defence title based on the same core mechanics as the more popular 7 Cities, albeit with less of everything except depth. You have very few units, which once placed can’t be sold or moved. You can level them up or enhance them by placing power crystals nearby. That’s about it. Yet despite having a manual that could fit on the insides of your eyelids (which would be quite useful) there is a huge range of strategic possibility, and taking on the high level challenges requires deep thought, much experience with the game, at the very least a C at Maths GCSE and liberal, regular use of the ‘restart wave’ glitch – unless you’re a masochist or own a real-life Bernard’s Watch.

I’ve repeatedly invented my own targets within the game in order to give me new goals to keep working toward. I’m currently going for ‘15,000 points on every level’. If you know Crystal Defenders you may think that this is just silly, but trust me it’s possible, and what’s more I can bloody do it. It may be my greatest gaming mountain, and it may take years,  but I can do it. Then, once I’ve accomplished that, I’m going to go for ‘Good Samaritan on every level’. By the time I’ve done that I’ll be dead or too old to play anymore. Great success.

Game Dev Story

This is probably the most high-profile game on this list and deservingly so. Crystal Defenders is better but everyone who likes it is mad, so this game gets more love. It’s a simplistic business management sim in which you play as the head of a games development company, starting in the ’80s and leading up to the present day. It’s occasionally frustrating but always addictive, traditionally for about two weeks and then you’re done. But those two weeks are worth every penny.

I see!

It suffers a bit in translation from its native Japanese, but in a mostly endearing way.  Sometimes, though, it all feels a bit pointless: for example, most of its genres don’t exist, or just aren’t genres at all like “Animal” or “Poncho”.  It will also often tell you that genre combinations are rubbish (“FPS” + “Pirate” = rubbish? Whatever, that would rock) but I can’t complain too much.  I just sold a million copies of my porn-game-parody Redhead Redemption 2, which is apparently in the ‘miniskirt dating sim’ genre.  Pro-tip for those trying to crack the miniskirt-dating market: set the Realism of the game to 0, apparently a realistic dating sim is not that hot of a concept.

Song Summoner: Encore

Another Square Enix offering, but hands-down the best JRPG in the app store at the moment. Don’t be fooled by Chaos Rings: it looks lovely but it’s a directionless and unsatisfying grind. Song Summoner is where it’s at. Ignore all this funny business about your units levelling up every time you play the song they’re associated with: the devs did. It’s a gimmick to help sell the game, but it doesn’t take over the gameplay – this is a game which could exist almost unchanged without that selling point. At heart it’s just a combat gallery with a smart and strategic battle system and no story to bog it down. Personally I like that in my portable gaming; your mileage may vary.

The starring mechanic of Song Summoner is that your main character will level up consistently and permanently, but his team-mates only stick around for three battles. After that you either have to pay an increasingly steep fee to keep them in the game or lose them forever and replace them with a new level 1 character. This keeps the challenge up as you rarely become overpowered (and if you do it’s a temporary pleasure before another inevitable fall, as keeping high-level characters around for long is unsustainably draining on your resources). It’s also essential because it forces you to play around with the vast array of different character job roles. This keeps things fresh and challenging throughout, and as you keep your items, weapons, armour etcetera, you never feel like your hard work has been taken away from you when a character retires. I’m still hopeful Squeenix will bring this mechanic to one of their full-sized titles in one way or another; it has a pronounced, long-term and thoroughly positive effect on the game and is directly and indirectly responsible for Song Summoner’s ‘hidden gem’ status.

There's a weird musician-inspired look to all the normal combatty type units


Steambirds is a WWII-based aerial combat strategy sim, and it is truly awesome. Like Crystal Defenders there’s a lot of depth hiding behind a very simple interface, in which you do little more than move your units around a battlefield, make careful weapon and unit selections, and occasionally bust out a special move or two. Placement and direction is key and, though you are punished severely for simple mistakes, missions are short and sweet so retrying is not a problem. Most importantly it always feels fair. Even when you are being shot down for the fifth time in a row, you always know that this happened because you didn’t think it through enough. Often mistakes don’t reveal themselves until two or three turns later, so sometimes learning from your mistakes is hard as you know you did something wrong but you’re not sure exactly what. However, the game is satisfying and moreish to play so you will be up for trying again, and eventually you will get the hang of the basic strategies.

iOS games change price every few minutes but this is currently £1.50 in the app store, making it an absolute bargain in no uncertain terms.

There is no shame in YouTubing the solution to this level


Lux Touch (Free Version or Over-Expensive Deluxe Version)

£8 for the deluxe? Nah, that’s OK, the free version is great as it is. Lux Touch is basically Risk: simplified, streamlined Risk, so that entire games are over in about 15 minutes. Despite this it retains a lot of the strategy of the board game and is perfect for a quick blast of brain exercise. I do like murder represented by colours and numbers: it’s brutal, yet clean.

Lux Touch won’t have you salivating or obsessed like the other entries on this list, but it’s genuinely the only good free turn-based game I’ve found. Oh, OK, Rogue Planet too, but that’s confusing for simpletons like me – if you like ’em easy to learn but hard to master, and you’re not turned off by games that look like geography homework, Lux Touch should tick all your boxes.


2 responses to “Brain-Tapping: The iPhone’s Best Turn-Based Games”

  1. oddvorbis Avatar

    I wish half those game where on Android yet :/

    1. Spann87 Avatar

      I was just thinking EXACTLY the same thing.