One-Hand Wonders

You know you've done it, or you would if you could.

By Valerie Valdes

I was never what you’d call a casual gamer. But when you have a kid, your amount of free time shrinks to a number best expressed using a negative exponent. For some moms, though, there is a peculiar kind of constrained free time that happens every few hours. For between ten minutes and a half hour, we’re just… Sitting. Stuck. We’re not so much moms as we are glorified dairy cows.

Yes, boys, I’m talking about breastfeeding. But don’t wander off; pretend I’m talking about when you have to, ahem, drop the kids off at the pool. You know what I mean. And if you don’t, I mean pooping.

The thing is, considering the mechanics of being a milk tap, there’s usually one hand free. And with one hand, you can play a bunch of different casual games on your smartphone. There’s a whole app store full of free and cheap entertainment for short bursts of einhander fun. What you’re doing with the other hand is your own business.

So what makes for a good casual einhander? First and foremost, the game has to be quick to play. Obvious? Perhaps. But it’s tricky to hit that magic target of just long enough to draw you in, but short enough to finish in one sitting. Or standing, or whatever you’re doing. So however it works, the game needs to be fast, but not the timed kind of fast, because manual dexterity may be an issue depending on which hand is free. Plus, few things are more annoying than having to stop mid-round or mission because your tiny window of time just banged shut on your fingers.

Which leads to point two: it has to be easy to abandon. Not forgettable, or unengaging, but somehow designed so that if you do need to stop, it won’t turn you into some enraged German child going monkey-poo on his keyboard. It needs an auto-save function, or it needs to be low-stakes enough that starting over isn’t a big deal. Turn-based games can also be good in this respect, because there’s a built-in break point whether you’re playing against an AI or, say, an enraged German child. It’s also generally best that such a game not be plot-heavy, so you’re not looking for excuses to lock yourself in the bathroom and play with yourself.

Another criterion for a well-designed one-hand wonder is replayability. If it’s quick enough to play in bursts, it had better be fun enough to keep bringing you back. This can be accomplished in a couple of ways, one being randomization within a rule set. This would be something like Solitaire, where each game’s framework is the same, but the content changes. A game with multiple levels also works in this respect, whether the levels are fixed–the same each time you play them–or randomized and essentially infinite. If there are levels, though, having them increase in difficulty may be a bad plan; the player may gain a certain facility with the game, only to lose it after not playing for a while. That would almost guarantee a restart, which could piss people off.

The last and most debatable criterion is simplicity. This relates to the issue just raised about difficulty; if the game isn’t easy to learn quickly, with readily retainable rules, it can become frustrating. The whole point of a casual game is that it be, well, casual. Having to memorize a bunch of controls or unit stats or arcane commands is likely to lose the audience who only has a few minutes to play, much less relearn how to play every time. Some people would argue that complex games can still meet all the other criteria mentioned, and maybe they can. But I’ve definitely abandoned a bunch of perfectly decent, playable einhanders because the second time I tried to play them, I had no idea what was going on in my saved game, and I didn’t have time to figure it out.

So the next time you’re on a crowded bus, or taking a bio break, or cradling a sleepy baby with one arm, while gaming with your free hand, marvel at the world we live in, which makes such things possible. I can only imagine what ladies back in the day did while they were acting as pre-TV boob tubes. Probably cooked. Me, I’m playing Cooking Mama.

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  • Michael Robinson

    So much einnuendo

  • Vivienne Chan

    Holding on to the rails on the train with one hand is precisely why Bejeweled 2 remains one of the apps I use the most. Also Hero Academy, but sometimes it can get a bit tricky because you have to hold your phone landscape-style.

    • Valerie Valdes

      Hero Academy is just on the cusp of being two complicated for me to play as well as I’d like. Strategy games are awesome, but dealing with the unit variations and stats and such can get a bit cumbersome. Plus, yeah, the landscape thing. Maybe I should have included that, given that it can make a big difference, especially for those of us with tiny hands.