Mobile game of the week: Alphabear

I ended up having a fight—like, very nearly a real fight and not a play-fight—with my boyfriend over the iPad just a few days ago. The reason was Alphabear, a bright, bouncy playful word game where you collect bears.

He had used my bears. So uncool.

Alphabear, by Spry Fox (you know about Triple Town, right)? is a game where you spell the best words you can out of tiles on a screen, where each tile is worth points. If you clear tiles that are next to each other, big, adorable square bears (designed by Brent Kobayashi) appear, and clearing further tiles around the bears' perimiter makes them expand, sometimes into comic oblongs if that's all the space they have.

The bears add a bit of extra consideration to the mechanic of just Scrabble-ing for words—you want to work with their shapes. As you play, you collect more cute bears, each with its own little "power" that you can use during levels—score bonuses, extra points for certain letters, things like that. Furthermore, letters don't hang around forever. If you don't use them when they turn red, they next turn to stone, impossible to clear, and barring further bear expansion.


It's actually a complex and deep enough design that it's not easy to explain but you grok it immediately. You're always balancing several goals in interesting ways: Grow bears, clear red letters, make high-scoring words, make long words, use the right multipliers, keep control of the board space. Before you know it you're completely hooked, collecting panda bears, pirate bears, ghost bears, bears in dog costumes, bears of all kinds. Every day brings different kinds of challenges, some short and timed, others long and leisurely. There's a cute social media component, too, as bears you use will volunteer cute nonsense-tweets based on the words you've spelled (it's funny on its own, but it subtly lets you show off how good your words are). It's also resulted in some funny #Alphabear hashtag confusion on Instagram.


Alphabear is basically free to play, but if you don't buy "honey", one of the game's currencies, you end up having to wait before you can play new levels. You can watch ads to gain honey, or pay $3.99 to never have to worry about that wait again (my verdict is that it's definitely worth a few bucks for how much and how often I've ended up playing). Your special bears need cool-down time too, so you can't just pile on your fanciest bonuses constantly (unless you spend real money on pretend coins, which I haven't felt the need to do).

This payment system is, I think, maybe a little more fricative than is common these days, but isn't prohibitive; it has the pleasant side effect of making each round of Alphabear feel more like a treat, something worth waiting for and looking forward to. The game's main downside is that it's cloud-dependent—in other words, you can't play offline, a real bummer for people who do most of their mobile playing on airplanes and subways. Dan Cook, chief creative officer of Spry Fox, said the team tried to make it work but was unable.

I also wish it allowed for separate player accounts, so, say, two people in a household could do their own progress separately and not use each other's bears. Because that is so uncool. If you're reading this, I hope you wouldn't do that to me anyone.