Observed

This year’s theme? Tranquility, with the occasional interruption from sharks, berserk machines, and goblins. But mainly tranquility. Sit back, take a break, light a candle, and then play something like…

Dorfromantik

City-building games can be stressful and hyper-capitalist, full of angry residents, tax issues, and alien invasions. Not so for Dorfromantik – this light strategy game is all about winding rivers, responsible city grids, and accessible nature.

Raft

This charming problem-solver is all about the joys of oceanic survival. You start out on a plank (with somebody else, optionally) and collect scraps from the ocean to get supplies and build your raft. As the raft gets bigger and more elaborate, the world gets bigger and more elaborate too.

Wordle

Of course … winter phenom Wordle. It’s impossibly popular for a simple “guess the word” game, but with good reason. The lo-fi time investment and charming backstory are a reminder that it’s ok (necessary, even) to have more games that do simple things quite smartly.

Letterpress

This modern classic is worth revisiting on your phone. Create long words, show how clever you are, AND steal letters from your opponent. Win/win/win.

Sable

Sable showed up on a lot of “Best of 2021” lists so we gave it a shot. Undeniably beautiful, deeply cinematic, a little buggy … but it’s rare when a game does exploration and identity this well. Mid-game you feel like you’re in an episode of something late, late at night during the golden era of Adult Swim.

Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Sometimes there’s so much wit and inventiveness in Chicory you wonder how it all fits in there. It’s a tale as old as time: you’re a dog janitor who finds a magic paintbrush that helps you solve puzzles and illuminate the world. How can so much depth and timeliness about burnout and doubt mix so well with such light gameplay? Find out!

Pokémon Unite

The blockbuster franchise’s recent entry is eminently playable (though it takes time to navigate around the play-to-win leanings of the game). No matter, it’s addictive and fun, the action moves fast, and the casual style makes it a great family game.

Astroneer

Yes, it is a survival game that depends on your supply of oxygen. But as deadly survival scenarios go, this is pretty low-key (and very pretty to wander through). Astroneer is a vivid world-builder (it pops!) and just an all-around nice hang if you’re in the mood to explore and terraform a brave new world.

Kingdom Rush: Vengeance

Great to play in an uber or on the bus, this Goblin-centric tower defense game is downright jaunty, with deeply fun comic flourishes (KAPOW!) punctuating your melees. Big energy, big color, and a wonderful sense of humor.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Ok, the world has been taken over by machines (again) but this game is like playing a movie, super engaging. Fair warning: the story is so good it takes a while for completionists to make their way to the end. Also, beware the invisible tiger things.

Crashlands+

How could one argue with the App Store description? “Craft, battle, and quest your way through Crashlands, an outlandish, story-driven Crafting RPG overflowing with sass!” You play galactic trucker Flux Dabes, who has to find a bunch of missing packages while uncovering ancient secrets. Just like apartment living in Brooklyn.

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