After getting together to pick our official best games of 2011, we also had our writers take a look back at the last year and compile lists of their personal favorites along with their reasons why.

Free to play hit in an even bigger way in 2011, and personally, I wouldn't mind if the bottom fell out of that whole market in 2012. Here's the thing: we all love the idea of a free game, but the constant micro-level cash exchanges that these titles usually require aren't good for gaming as a whole.

We often pay for free-to-play games to skip the game part of the game. This is disastrous, and it's also bad game design. Instead of focusing on creating sharp and satisfying titles with a beginning, middle, and end, these studios are artfully creating games designed to juice the user. Free to play game design all too often hinges on piling on enough tedium and other garbage to get players reaching for their wallets, and the game only "ends" when the player gets tired of playing (and paying).

The premises of some of these games are compelling and the social hooks are often fun, so people are willing to spend a bit of cash to keep the action going or one-up their friends. This core audience, though, probably doesn't know a thing about good games like, say, Sword & Sworcery or The Blocks Cometh.

My personal favorites list this year is a shout-out to the App Store titles that I have spent the most time with and don't have a single free-to-play mechanic. All five are as balanced as any other great game and boast a wealth of content to interact with and to puzzle out. These are satisfying games that show a tremendous amount of creativity in the space. They're helping to move the medium forward and keep it as popular as it is.

Bumpy Road, $2.99 - [Review] - [Forum Thread] - Virtual control sticks or on-screen UI is endlessly frustrating to me because of games like Bumpy Road. Simogo, now one of my favorite developers, crafted a game in 2011 that not only was grippingly beautiful and artistic, but also endlessly fun to play without a d-pad. Its bread and butter is the direct interaction with the game's environment, which gives you a level of control that rivals what you could do with a controller if it appeared on consoles. Intuitive, simple, and graceful -- you've got to see this one and experience it.

Rebuild, $2.99 - [Review] - [Forum Thread] - Let's get this out of the way, first: Rebuild looks like a flash title, and yeah, it was at one point. But it's also mind-numbingly brilliant as a strategy game. It requires the same kind of skill and crisis management you'd expect in a Civilization and then marries that with the town-building of any other simulation out there. Aside from some of the mechanical novelties, what really makes this a delight is its infinite re-playability and vision. This isn't a game about winning clean; it's about survival at whatever cost.

EPOCH., $0.99 - [Review] - [Forum Thread] - Cover mechanics in most cover-based games are usually boring. They're a means to get into the act of what's actually fun: the shooting. One of the cooler aspects of Epoch is that its cover mechanic is entertaining. Jumping, diving, and slamming into barriers is particularly athletic and requires some thoughtfulness. I also dig the writing; instead of force feeding you a story, Epoch invites you to discover it yourself.

Whale Trail, Free - [Review] - [Forum Thread] - Whale Trail is kinda tragic because of its sillily weak price, but let's put that aside for a second. For me, this was easily the best flyer of the year, as it combines some brilliant one-touch controls to atmospherically insane visuals. I love the production side of this game from head-to-toe, but the game part is smooth, furious, and easily playable in spurts between whatever you're doing.

Machinarium, $4.99 - [Review] - [Forum Thread] - Like Sword & Sworcery, Machinarium is a delightful mash-up of experiential production married to solid point-and-click adventure play. Sure, this leans a lot more on the latter, but it's still delightfully fresh as far as these kinds of games go. It has some awesome puzzles, a beautiful art style, and runs pretty well on iPad 2.

Our game of the year, Sword & Sworcery and our runner-up, Anomaly Warzone Earth, are also two brilliant examples of games that are moving the genre forward while offering everything players could want -- at one price, period.

  • Anonymous

    Those are good picks. I don't understand why Whale Tail's price is a problem, but then again I don't have Brad's large, meaty arms, either.

  • Mark

    I guess I'll never understand what some people think is so great about epoch. Each level feels exactly the same.

  • Spammo Twatbury

    So a games website is *angry* that a game it likes is cheap and therefore accessible to lots of people? The world is messed up.

    • Anonymous

      ...everyone's a critic!

    • Chris Nielsen

      I reckon he just means it's tragic, as in the fact that the could have easily doubled their income and probably put that to use to create more great games.

      ...or something.

  • Jared Nelson

    I think Brad's "problem" with Whale Trail price was intended to mean "holy crap how are they selling a game with this high of production values for just a dollar" rather than an actual negative criticism towards the game itself. At least, that's how I interpreted it.

  • Jaison

    by far my favorite $.99 game has been bike baron. it destroy's whale trails. especially with all the updates and downloadable tracks. some think it's too hard but it's not all the wy through. the easy and mediums are fairly easy.

  • Cassie Goodwin

    So I'm curious... Is Machinarium's warning of "iPad 2 only" more of a suggestion, or can it literally NOT be played on a first generation iPad whatsoever? I'd LOVE to play this, but I have a first gen iPad. If it's at all playable on mine, I can sacrifice slower gameplay or a slight decrease in graphics quality.

  • Anonymous

    Good selection Brad, but I'm amazed you didn't pick Anamoly: Warzone Earth. The only reason I picked it up was your constant praise of it on the podcast. And btw I've really enjoyed it thus far. We're you just picking out different titles to the GOTY and runners up?

    • Eli Hodapp


  • Matt F

    This is a good list, good games there, have all except Machinarium (no iPad 2 🙁 )

  • Deyve Martinez

    Nice list! Nice intro as well. I feel the same way about free to play. "...skip the game part out of the game", right, why would you want to earn coins, or berries or whatever? I most definitely am not out to knock anyone who enjoys the games, I've just never been able to get into one. I did find it infuriating though, when all those parents were suing over the smurf's game. No, I dont have kids but I do know exactly how in app purchases work, as well as restrictions on your iOS device. Not wanting to be bothered with typing in your password on your ios device or itunes account is simple laziness, not the fault of the dev or apple.

    • Chris Nielsen

      While I entirely agree with you about the parents, and I'm also against regulations... something must be done about these developers.  They are getting rich by fleecing people that they have literally seduced to the point of financial apathy.  I've seen a couple presentations, thanks to the whole "gamification" movement, where excited fellas talk animatedly about the millions of metrics they've collected that determine exactly how big a button needs to be, or how what sort of sound effects are more conducive to user spending.'s a dark art. 😉

  • princeff

    Totally agree with you on free to play. Just wonderin if you know any free to play worth playing? Also, if there's one worth speding dollars on? I will never spend a dollar with these things anyway, i dont want these devs to think theyre fooling me. Just askin hehe