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“Freemium” games, as they’re now collectively referred to, are a plague in app stores of all kinds, whether it’s Apple’s iTunes, Google Play, or even the Windows Store.

Lampooned in the South Park episode “Freemium Isn’t Free”, games like Simpsons: Tapped Out were put on blast for actively and knowingly creating Skinner box scenarios wherein players could play a game for “free”, only to find that their ability to level up or add new items was locked under a paywall for in-game currencies.

So with no gimmicks or tricks, which games can you actually play from back to front without spending a dime? Here’s a few of our favorites.

Freemium Isn’t Free

To start, it helps to know what to look out for when we talk about ‘freemium’ gaming.

Sometime around the end of 2013, games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush were coaxing struggling developers into thinking that a good app didn’t need to be so complicated to succeed, or even all that fun to begin with; it just needed to be addictive. The key indicator of a freemium game is any kind of in-app purchase that gives players the option to either skip a self-imposed waiting period, or buy some kind of advantage that would allow them to get a leg up on the rest of the competition. Freemium titles attempt to hook players with the promise of free gameplay, only to take it away once they find out that the fun they’re having at one point or another will eventually come at a cost.

With that distinction out of the way, it’s important to bear in mind while reading our list that while technically some of the games do have in-app purchases, the items in their shops are either purely cosmetic and have no bearing on how the game is played, or are an option to remove the ads that display to support the company who put it out. 

Words With Friends

Known as “that version of online Scrabble that everybody cheats at”, Words With Friends is a fun, addictive clone of the popular board game that pits you against players on your Facebook friends list or random opponents from all around the world.

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As long as you’re not too sensitive about the possibility of other players using online tools to get the best score on each turn, Words With Friends is a relaxing, turn-based way to wind down that you can play between commercials or while you’re sitting around on the train during the morning commute. Best yet, because turns generally take anywhere from 1-10 minutes to complete each time, you can even swap between WWF and another title on this list to keep the entertainment value of your phone consistent throughout the day.

Words With Friends for iOS is ad-supported, and if you’d like to purchase the full version without any interruptions it will set you back $9.99.

Dumb Ways to Die

It’s always nice when one the best mobile gaming distractions also happens to be one of the funniest.

In “Dumb Ways to Die”, you play as a hapless group of amorphous characters who have gotten themselves into a series of sticky situations that you need to save them from. Based on a series of popular YouTube videos, the game plays out in a collection of 18 mini-games that encompass everything from flicking deadly piranhas away in the ocean to swatting wasps off your character’s face.

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Unfortunately like every other mobile developer on the planet, the programmers behind Dumb Ways to Die structured their follow up game (Dumb Ways to Die 2) under the freemium model, giving players the option to buy a “sack o gems” that let them play longer or advance to the next level without actually beating it. The original is still as pure and ‘dumb’ as ever though, so head on over to the iOS App Store to pick up your copy today.

2048

Like an evolution between a fast puzzler and Sudoku, 2048 emerged from the den of web-based Flash games to take the mobile market by storm. With its simple premise, yet endlessly-deep amount of strategy, 2048 is great for amateurs or mathematical professionals alike, tasking players with stacking numerical blocks on top of each other to eventually hit a total score of “2048”.

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Personally, I love that even after years of being available online, you still won’t find any two people who agree on how to play it best. Some people think that always swiping left will warrant an automatic win, while other high-score chasers say the edges are where the true tile stacking pros find their best combos.

No matter how you think the best path to a score of 2048 plays out, you can grab a download of the app free on the iTunes App Store by following the link here.

Crossy Bird Tappy

Oh, another Flappy Bird clone you say? I’ve got about two dozen of them right here, take your pick!

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If you’ve ever taken a visit to the Android or iOS app stores, you know firsthand just how much of a problem Flappy Bird clones were when the game first rose to popularity. Due to the creator’s unwillingness to cash in on the $50,000-a-day paycheck when he removed the title from the App Store, a clutch of other developers rushed to plop out their own pile of confusing, poorly-designed imitations. 

Crossy Bird is easily the best of this bunch, with tight controls, intuitive play modes, and unforgiving physics that take months to fully master. It’s not Flappy Bird, but it’s just about the closest thing you’re going to find.

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Like several other offerings here, Crossy Bird Tappy makes its money through 15-30 second ads that pop up each time a round ends. Admittedly it can be a bit tedious to sit through these time and time again, but that’s the price you pay for the option to enjoy the game without shelling out any cash upfront or through in-app purchases on the backend.

Solitaire

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Oh Solitaire, if the history we have together could only talk. It’s a game that everybody gets right out of the gate – likely because we’ve all owned a computer with Windows on it at one point in our lives – yet never disappoints with its simple rules and familiar play structure. 

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Despite their best efforts, not even the craftiest developers at mobile monoliths like Zynga have figured out a way to break up the gameplay of Solitaire into individually purchasable bite-sized pieces. Solitaire is what it is, and there’s no way that creating some arbitrary form of gem-based currency is going to enhance the game beyond what it offers at its core.

Solitaire is the purest form of a game being free for the sake of being free, and you won’t find us complaining that there’s anything wrong with that. Download it now on the iOS App Store.


In writing this article, I found it nearly impossible to come up with a list of five titles that don’t feature one kind of freemium component or another. The monetary gains made by developers like Rovio and Zynga seems to have been too much for the mobile gaming industry to ignore, and as such, almost every single title that’s “free” on the iOS App Store these days also comes tacked with some kind of in-app purchase scheme designed to get you in the door and start charging for extra features as soon as it closes behind you.

Luckily though, there are still some diamonds left in the rough. Whether it’s a hardcore puzzler like 2048 or a little time-waster like Dumb Ways to Die, gaming on your iPhone doesn’t always need to include the company of your credit card to have a little fun.

All images courtesy of Apple’s iTunes App Store, Comedy Central/South Park Studios