Casual Monday: Bonza

We know how it is. You worked hard for your 10:1 KDR, but sometimes, you just want to take five, relax, and enjoy a quick game on your phone. Unfortunately, finding good games is anything but quick – most mobile gems end up buried under a mountain of trash. But like we said, we know how it is, so every Monday we shine a spotlight on a great diversion to get you through the work week.

Between your phone’s web browser and Bonza, the newspaper is officially obsolete. If you’ve ever felt like your daily crossword doesn’t induce quite enough compulsion, you should give Minimega’s delightful little puzzle app a try. If, however, you intend to do anything other than stare at your phone during your daily commutes, this game might not be for you.

Bonza is, in essence, a reverse crossword game that combines elements of word-searching and trivia. Instead of starting with a connected grid of spaces in which to place write letters, you’re given all of the letters right off the bat in disjointed chunks. Every word that you can form relates to a single clue at the top of the screen, though not always in ways you’d expect. For instance, “Secret Agent” and “Double Agent” are both valid answers to the clue “…Agent,” but so is “Chemical Agent.” The game is at its best and most challenging when it asks you to make weird connections like that off the top of your head.

When the connections are a little more obvious, the game might obscure the clue. As an example, if the clue is “S—-,” you might quickly discover the words “granny” and “black,” but it could take you a few minutes to figure out that both words can precede “smith.” This clever inversion of the standard Bonza dynamics helps to keep things feeling fresh from puzzle to puzzle, which is good, because there are a LOT of puzzles to get through.

When you first download Bonza (which is free), you’ll have access to a series of 40 puzzles. Completing those packs will get you acquainted with the game’s dynamics and, more importantly, give you a stack of coins with which to purchase more puzzle packs. Every day Minimega releases a single free puzzle – often something topical like “2013 oscar winners” – so if you don’t want to make an investment you’ll still have something to keep you occupied on your morning commute. The packs you can buy with coins all consist of past daily puzzles, organized by month, and it feels a little devious that February costs the same as every other month despite containing less content.Screenshot_2014-12-01-00-48-53

You can also spend coins on hints for tricky puzzles, but additional packs cost 220 coins apiece, and by default you only earn 5-10 per puzzle, so you’ll have to forgo hints entirely if you want to keep playing for free. The game does provide an alternate method of getting help that’s actually quite clever – you can “phone a friend” by sharing a screenshot of your current puzzle on social media, inviting your network to offer suggestions. This is a pretty clever way to advertise the game without making it feel like advertising, but if you’re absolutely against pestering your friends, you can always search for puzzle solutions on google.

In addition to the daily collections, there are special puzzle packs that can only be purchase with real money. These include “classic” puzzles designed by Minimega themselves, as well as special “celebrity designer” packs created by people like indie devs, professional crossword constructors (which is actually a real job!), and even game journalists (also actually a real job! Who knew?). These packs only cost a dollar a piece, but you won’t miss much by skipping them.

The one in-game purchase that does feel necessary is the $2.00 “coin doubler,” which makes it so that you can actually earn enough just by playing 30-day puzzle packs to afford more without waiting for additional daily puzzles. It honestly feels a little sleazy the way the game goads you into paying microtransactions, but developers do have to make money somehow, and if you like the game enough to buy all of the packs you’ll only be out 14 dollars at most. Bonza isn’t really interested in breaking any one person’s bank account, and if you’re absolutely fed up with advertisements, you can even turn off “nagging popups” (their words, not mine) in the options menu.

Instead of exploiting so-called “whales,” Bonza expects the average player to like it enough to pay a little bit for more content, and abides by them if they choose not to. Even if you don’t spend a dime on the app, you’ll still be given something to think about every day of the year. It’s rare to see free to play apps that actually respect player intelligence, and rarer to see ones that challenge it. Bonza fits into both camps quite nicely, and is available for both iOS and Android.