Shop Titans is the fantasy shopkeeping simulator I’ve been seeking

For a while now, I’ve been keeping my eye out for a good shopkeeping simulator — you know, a game where instead of being the heroes out in the wilderness, you’re the guy running the shop that supplies them. I’ve played a few titles here and there, but nothing has really filled this desire. Until now.

I have gotten in the habit of downloading interesting-looking free games onto my phone for that mythical moment when I’ll have free time to check them out. On a whim the other day, I booted this one up and — to my delight — found that it was exactly the fantasy shopkeeping sim that I’ve really wanted.

I’ll be up front on this: Shop Titans is a total freemium game. It’s got all the traps of this sort of free-to-play experience: lockboxes and energy timers and SPECIAL DEALS LIMITED TIME ONLY WOWZERS. Yet… yet it’s insanely relaxing and fun. I’m totally serious. I haven’t spent any money on this and have gotten a full week’s worth of satisfying play out of it.

The secret, I think, is that for all of its slightly annoying business model features, Shop Titans is a very well-done game. It has a bright and crisp art style, the UI is really responsive, the gameplay loop is oh so addicting, and the sounds pop. Even with timers, there’s almost always something to do or watch or plan, and it has become my go-to game when I have five minutes here or there.

At the start of Shop Titans, you get a small store and can use the ever-replenishing resources (ore, lumber, leather, herbs) to make goods. Those goods are displayed on racks, and random NPCs wander in and decide whether or not to purchase them. There’s a bit of strategy in this, as you can use energy (which replenishes with time or sales) to bargain customers down or buy items off of wandering vendors for cheap. You can even “small talk” customers as a way to gamble on more energy.

Part of the gameplay loop is equipping and sending out a small band of heroes on quests. They’ll progress through these automatically, and if successful, they’ll bring back rare crafting resources and other goodies to sell and use.

I’ve found that there’s a lot of planning ahead in Shop Titans, especially when you want to pursue more complicated recipes that will require stocking up on rare items and perhaps building intermediary items to use later. The more a good is crafted, it starts to accrue bonuses (more valuable, better chance at getting a quality upgrade, etc) until you max it out and it becomes a great staple to have around.

But really, for me, it’s just the satisfaction of watching customers trickle into my shop, check out my decorations, and pay me for stuff. Did I mention how the animations are pretty terrific too? It’s a small thing, but I’m impressed that when you sell a hero an item, he or she will then equip it right there. It feels less abstract that way. And did I mention that you get to decorate the place — and that decorations also have benefits (when they are admired by NPCs, you get a shot of energy)?

Anyway, I can understand why the freemium side of Shop Titans would earn it a lot of side eye, but I don’t feel that pressured into buying anything. I’m just playing for fun and figuring out what next steps I want to take in growing my store. I haven’t been this excited over an iPhone game in a while, and I thought I’d share.

Apple Arcade: Is renting games worth it?

About a week ago, Apple released iOS 13 for its mobile devices, and with it the vaunted Apple Arcade platform. The idea here is that instead of buying cheap/free (and heavily monetized) titles that are littering up the App Store, Apple Arcade would offer an all-you-can-play buffet of curated, high-quality titles for $5 a month.

And the first month is free. That’s how they get ya.

I checked it out just because I’ll take advantage of almost any trial that’s set in front of my face. So far? I’m kind of impressed. There definitely is a nice initial selection of titles, some of which I recognize from other platforms as moderately priced titles (such as Sayonara Wild Hearts and Overland). And there was a giddy moment when I just downloaded all the ones that I wanted to check out.

Of course, I don’t own these games. I don’t have any right to them. They exist on my phone as long as my subscription does, and when that free month goes poof, so will they.

There’s the trade-off for this kind of model. You get good quality, all you can enjoy, but like most subscriptions, you only can access it as long as you’re paying that monthly fee. And while the fee here is pretty low, I’m more than aware how multiple subscriptions can start to pile up.

Is it worth it? It’s definitely a good value, and I think Apple is going to see strong sales with this service. But its worth is a subjective matter. I’m sure I’d get five bucks of gaming enjoyment each month from it, but I already have so many other games on these devices I haven’t even played and some favorites I play every day that there’s not a huge demand in my lifestyle for a glut of high-quality titles on my phone or tablet.

For me, there’s also that psychological barrier between renting and owning entertainment. Apart from subscription-based MMOs, I don’t usually like to rent my games when I have the option to own them (even if that ownership is purely digital and could theoretically be taken away if the company decides to do such). My Audible subscription, as a point of comparison, doesn’t yank away all of my purchased books once the sub is up. I have that feeling of ownership and permanence that I won’t have with Apple Arcade. I also prefer to purchase TV seasons on DVD or through Amazon Video that I can access any time, sub-free.

It’s a small thing and not really worth getting worked up about, but we’re definitely heading into a future where such subscription services are going to be pushing all-you-can-consume entertainment… as long as you keep paying that monthly fee. I’m not quite on board with that.

10 of my favorite pick-up-and-play mobile games

While I certainly don’t acquire or purchase mobile games as much as I used to, there are several staples that have remained on my phone and tablet far longer than expected to give me brief bits of gaming pleasure when I need it. For today’s short Top 10 list, I’m going to share my go-to games for short sessions — not the longer RPGs or adventure games that I might have played and since deleted. Let’s go!

  1. Bloons 6: Probably my favorite tower defense game to play while on my exercise bike in the morning, as the popping of balloons is cathartic and each session clocks in at around 20-25 minutes. Has a great balance of fun to tricky.
  2. Clash Royale: While I don’t usually go for PvP games, this one has amused me for many years now and I’ve gotten good enough to muscle my way up into the double digit arenas without buying anything from the store. My kids also love this, even if they are far worse at it. C’mon, kids!
  3. Knights of Pen and Paper 1 & 2: Really excellent pocket RPGs with humor, a D&D tabletop theme, and lots of strategy. The first game is probably more simplistic with battles while the second one was awesome before the free-to-play update came along to ruin it.
  4. Dungeon Warfare 1 & 2: An addictive mix of tower defense and Dungeon Keeper-like gameplay. I’ve replayed the first game countless times and am only now starting to get into the sequel.
  5. Polytopia: Civilization stripped down into a sleek, engaging format that can be played in about 15 minutes. I’m so impressed at how this game handles empire building — and in portrait mode, no less!
  6. Tiny Tower: I used to be huge into this game and related sequels and spin-offs, and my wife still plays the Vegas version years later. Something fun about setting up businesses in your own tiny building.
  7. Pixel People: I’m glad to hear that a remake/improved version of this is coming out soon, because I really adored this bizarre city builder – slash – cloning simulator.
  8. Fallout Shelter: I play this one in spurts, but when I’m into it, I’m really into it. One of my favorite Fallout games of all time, actually. Wish they’d develop more for it — or a sequel!
  9. Card Crawl: A really underrated solitaire card game that has you trying to beat a dungeon with a set of cards. I’m still slowly unlocking new ability cards and looking forward to the day I can build my own decks.
  10. Battleheart series: All three of these RPG battlers are excellent, although I like Legacy the most because it’s the easiest to play (no toggling between characters). It’s like popcorn RPG, just fight and loot and level.

What are your go-to mobile games? I’d love to hear about them!

Try It Tuesday: Iron Marines

Even though I’m trying to penny-pinch in anticipation of a vacation next month, I had to loosen my purse strings to buy this game. I’m totally owning that purse strings comment, too. Real men carry around velvet bags of gold doubloons with impunity.

Anyway. This week’s try-it game is Iron Marines, a mobile RTS from the makers of the incredibly awesome Kingdom Rush tower defense trilogy. This studio’s art style and accessible, addictive gameplay made Iron Marines a must-buy sight unseen, and I have no regrets over its purchase.

So instead of being strictly a TD title, Iron Marines is best likened to a slick mobile edition of Starcraft… with a hint of tower defense. It’s basically Terrans vs. Zerg, although obviously named differently. You can pretend it’s Starship Troopers if that helps you get through the day.

You play the part of the human forces landing on a hostile alien world and take part in a campaign to establish a stronghold and yadda yadda yadda. It’s just an excuse to blast bug-things en masse with all of the technology that the human race has to offer.

Even though the Starcraft comparisons are inevitable, it’s not exactly the same game. Everything’s more streamlined, so base-building is merely upgrading your main structure and deciding what defenses to build. You can only have a handful of squads out at a time, too, so no building up an overwhelming force and then getting into fights.

In fact, being outmanned (such as it is) is a big part of the game — the aliens have vastly more numbers on their side, and if you’re not careful you can get overrun quickly. But by being daring and smart, you might be able to push forward, take over their bases, and slowly expand your resource base.

On your side, you have the choice of different types of units, such as squads of snipers or big flamethrower mechs. You also get a tougher hero unit with a pair of useful skills, a mobile tower that can be dropped down for a limited-time assistance every 30 seconds, and whatever defenses you build up around your base. Making the best decisions for the situation is a key part to living or dying.

It’s just a fun game, period. The art is more cheery than Starcraft and keeps the Kingdom Rush-style alive and kicking (I like the little sound clips that the units have, especially the heroes). It’s just enough complexity for a mobile game, with touch-and-drag being a majority of what you end up doing during a game as you maneuver units around the map.

If I had any complaints, one might be that the map is too small and can only be enlarged a little bit — even on a tablet. I wish I could zoom in more to see what’s going on. Also, I’m worried that the 14 missions and 10 spec ops missions might not be that much content overall. I did replay the Kingdom Rush games like crazy, so I’m keeping an eye out for replayability here. Finally, I’m not crazy about the fact that this is a premium-priced game WITH in-app purchases (buffs and additional hero units past the three or four you are allocated).

Anyway, I have a feeling this is going on my regular mobile play rotation and will be there for a while to come. Perfect for vacation travel, even!

Try-It Tuesday: Galaxy of Pen and Paper

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

I am a massive fan of the “Pen and Paper” game series that so far has churned out the two Knights games. My frothy excitement overflowed when I saw that there was a sci-fi installment coming, and this past week, Galaxy of Pen and Paper finally arrived. I’ve been getting very little else done since.

If you’re not familiar with these games, the conceit is that you’re controlling a party of real RPG gamers sitting at a table with a GM who leads you through various missions. It’s part meta and part in-universe and extremely jokey all the way through, and I haven’t seen much else like it. The little conversations your guys have as they go on missions and comment on the various ridiculous RPG tropes are awesome, perhaps more so for the ever-so-slightly off English writing (the team is from Brazil, so maybe that explains it?). There are main campaign missions as well as randomly generated ones, and while combat is the meat-and-potatoes, there’s some actual (albeit brief) role-playing involved.

Galaxy of Pen and Paper doesn’t change up the formula so much as expand and improve upon it. It’s obviously sci-fi instead of fantasy themed this time around, which means a lot of Star Trek, Star Wars, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Doctor Who, Akira, and other references peppered throughout. One big change is that combat takes place on a horizontal field this time instead of the top-and-bottom fighting of its predecessors (probably to allow the game to show off your characters more). There is also a space portion with some ship combat, although it’s not quite as engaging.

I had a hard time getting going at first, since I kept getting dissatisfied with my party and skill choices. Plus, at the start you only get a handful of characters and classes. More classes are unlocked as you play, but it was a little disappointing not to be able to customize the looks of my characters.

Eventually I got into the groove and found that there’s a lot of depth here. Each character can equip four skills total — both active and passive — but can unlock many more. So there’s a lot of choice involved in how you build your party and some obvious synergies between characters.

The pen-and-paper motif and the cheeky humor easily keeps me entertained. It might be fluff, but it’s fluff that elevates these games above the ocean of other RPGs out there. This game, like the others, is ideal for pick-up-and-play quick sessions, although the much more packed screen (forced landscape this time) makes it cramped on an iphone — I ended up playing it on my tablet instead.

Here’s hoping that it remains entertaining, has a good amount of content, and is popular enough to encourage the devs to bring us some updates!

Try-It Tuesday: Love You to Bits

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

Space Boy meets Robot Girl. Robot Girl is a fugitive, but Space Boy doesn’t care. The two fall in love and go on adventures together. One day, Robot Girl is blown up in a starship explosion. Space Boy becomes determined to find and assemble all of her parts, because love will find a way. It might be a strange, challenging adventure, but Space Boy is going to see it through.

I have nothing but high admiration for Alike Studios and their library so far: Tiny Thief and Love You to Bits. Both games offer much of the same experience, being adventure puzzlers with lots of charm and accessibility.

The simple story that drives Love You to Bits — a boy trying to rescue his “princess” — is downright heartwarming and more complex than at first glance. Love You to Bits is a dialogue-free game, preferring to tell stories through simple speechless cutscenes and environmental details. And boy does it work: This game is an absolute masterpiece in its field and a true joy to play.

Each stage of this game takes place on a different planet as the boy tries to secure another one of Nova’s (that’s the robot girl) parts. There are also optional items to grab that can trigger black and white cutscenes that show some of the couple’s past moments together. In fact, getting to know the bond that connects the two as you play the game adds to the motivation to see them restored in the end.

The planets are a bizarre mix of puzzles and settings, each one vastly different than the last. Some play with time, some with seasons, some with gravity, and so on. You never know what you’re going to get, but the process remains more or less the same: Explore, find interactive items and objects, and experiment with unlocking a path to the robot part. One stage had me finding three little critters playing hide-and-go seek and returning them to their alien mother, while another kept allowing me to rewind time in certain areas to show “before” scenes. There was an alien bar that paid homage to Star Wars, a quantum library that only showed rooms that were directly adjacent to you, a comic book-style dungeon romp, and so on.

The challenge level for these stages seems perfect. It’s never tear-your-hair-out frustrating, but you do have to keep poking around and backtracking to try to uncover secrets and figure out what needs to be used where. The boy’s inventory is usually kept small and light, only filling up with one or two items at any given time. I think I might have had three once. The game’s also like a memory challenge, since you have to keep track of what does what when you first fiddle with them, so that you can come back later when you find certain parts or make changes elsewhere. On average, I would clear a screen every 10-15 minutes, and there are several of them (the devs recently finished the game by releasing the final set of levels and completing the story).

More than the puzzles themselves is the art and animation. Again, without dialogue, Love You to Bits conveys so much in every level. The characters can be laugh-out-loud funny and make themselves understood with simple gestures. The fact that you can’t get stuck or die makes exploring and experimenting a relaxing experience. By the end of each stage, I’m usually a little sorry I have to leave, because the locales are so cute and interesting. But then, I want to see what lies ahead.

Anyway, I’m diligently working to complete this game in my spare time, and thought it deserved a mention in this series. Definitely check it out for a polished, intuitive puzzle experience!

Mobile game recommendation: Dungeon Warfare

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced an iPhone game that got me super-excited, but such a title happened this past week and I wanted to share it: Dungeon Warfare.

Dungeon Warfare is a mash-up of a few types of games. First and foremost, it’s a tower defense game (waves of mobs come that you have to kill before they reach your portal). But there’s a bit of Dungeon Keeper in it (since you’re running your own dungeon) and a much different feel to it. Probably the coolest part is that you can set up traps to ping-pong off each other, mousetrap-style, setting of chains of destructive glory that ripple through the oncoming waves.

Everything about this game is spot-on perfect. The pixel art works great and keeps the gore from being more than abstract, the sound effects (traps and screams) lend weight to the gameplay, and the whole interface is a dream to work with. I love how the game super-slows down when you’re placing a trap — although it doesn’t stop entirely.

There’s a lot of strategy with the different stages, especially since you can’t keep plopping down the same one type of trap, as traps become more and more expensive when you’re overusing a single type. You can even handicap yourself on stages (giving yourself only one life or allowing the mobs to regenerate health) in order to get more XP. The leveling mechanic also works well, allowing you to beef up your traps, dungeon bonuses, and consumables.

I think this was a Steam game first, but it just came out on iOS last week and I’ve been rocking it ever since. It’s brutally fun and could well be my new favorite tower defense game. Wiping out waves of heroes never gets old.