TUAW Smackdown: iPhone time management games

Time Management games challenge you to run some kind of business operation while balancing your resources against the demands of customers. In the following write-up, I tested five popular time management App Store games to see how well they delivered the fun and strategy of challenging yourself against time. As you'll see, not every game delivered the same level of fun and overall gameplay. Here's how they stacked up.

At $2.99, Sally's Spa is our absolute favorite of the time management games we tested for this write-up. In this game, you run a virtual spa, providing steam baths, massages, manicures, pedicures, and more. You aim to keep your customers happy and radiant (literally) by dragging them from one station to the next, applying spa services, and balancing their needs against your limited resources of time and equipment.

As your salon earns money, you re-invest into improvements such as hiring employees to automate some of the stations and upgraded equipment to provide higher levels of satisfaction. The challenges grow more sophisticated over time (although I could have done without the whole eyebrow tweezing service that appears late in the game), as you attempt to perfect your spa-fu.

The game is addicting, well designed, and the small details have all been very well thought out. It's charming, engaging, and a great deal of fun to play.

Are You Alright is currently on sale for just $1.99 and offers you a near equivalent to Sally's Spa. It offers essentially the same game except not quite as refined or polished. Are You Alright plays out as an earlier version of Sally's, with less editorial oversight because it fails to match the fine detail execution of Sally. Clearly the same development hands programmed both applications.

In Are You Alright, you run a medical clinic instead of a spa. Exams take the place of beauty treatments and you put together skeletons, remove shards of glass, and scan for bacterial infections rather than offer massages and facials. Some of the actions you need to perform in your daily tasks are morbidly hilarious ,and yet AYA is simply not as fun a game to play as Sally's Salon is. It's missing a great deal of refinement.

Polish and attention to details can really make or break an iPhone game app, and Sally's tiny nuances are missing from this near-clone. If you've played Sally's to the end, you might still want to pick up Are You Alright to keep going with the same kind of gameplay, but I think you'll find it a bit of a letdown from the real thing.

Turbo Subs costs just $1.99. In it, you run a sandwich shop, providing subs, sodas, cookies, and chips to your customers. The graphics are acceptable, the music is awful, and the gameplay tends toward the simple side. It's very, very easy to perform extremely well to the point that you can buy up all the improvements for each level long before each level is finished, leaving you with "nothing left to buy" for round after round.

There's really not a lot of planning you can do with Turbo Subs. Each time you empty coffee, you can remember to start a new batch and you can pre-make your cotton candy, but beyond that it's simply a matter of speed to serve each customer, making sure to group all your actions to get the highest number of points. For early levels, just leave all your tips out until you've served all six customers and then collect them at once to earn insanely easy multiplier bonuses.

The thing is, though, that despite the bad music, the cheesy graphics, and the lack of planning, Turbo Subs is pretty darn addictive. Because it doesn't take a lot of brain power, it lends itself well to use on the go as you play a level or three while waiting at the bus stop. Like Sally's, I found myself returning to Turbo Subs quite a lot.

It would be nice if the designers added more interesting interactions to the game and would get rid of that stupid little petty thief (at least let us call the cops), but even as it stands, Turbo Subs is a fun game and a great time waster.

Jane's Hotel arrived with high praise and personal recommendations, so I was so disappointed to find that its game play didn't really live up to the hype. In this game, you run a hotel, and like the other games of this kind, you need to wait on customers. Here, you fetch newspapers and coffee, distribute room keys, and instruct the maid to clean up rooms and water plants.

I found the menus and tutorial text hard to read, with poor font choices that upped the froufrou and decreased legibility. Like Are You Alright, Jane's Hotel could have done with a better UI supervisor to finish tweaking fine details.

Most frustratingly, Jane's Hotel doesn't really provide very good feedback about how well you're doing and how happy your customers are. After a few levels, the goals just get harder and harder and each level soon ends with "YOU LOSE" or something like that. I forget exactly what it said, and I certainly wasn't willing to play yet another tedious round to find out the exact wording for this write-up.

That's because after a while playing this game, I seriously wanted to slap the customers. Jane's Hotel feels a lot less like playing a time management game and a lot more like being a mommy to a bunch of whiny kids. "Where's my TV?" "Where's my Newspaper and Coffee?" "Why haven't you cleaned my room?"

Like other games of this type, you can upgrade equipment after each round but in Jane's you don't really get much of a choice. Not only do you more or less have to buy plants, then you have to start looking after them and watering them or you'll get in trouble with your customers.

To sum it all up Jane's Hotel is dreary, joyless, and a chore to play. It feels poorly tested, and it's missing an elegant GUI as well as captivating gameplay.

Diner Dash was also a big let-down. For $4.99, you can run a virtual restaurant, serving customers as a waitress. You seat them, take their orders, deliver food, and bus the tables after. That's pretty much it. Oh yeah, you can also serve drinks.

There's almost no planning possible in Diner Dash. It's just the same actions, over, and over, and over, with some weird rules about bonuses for seating people in seats that match their clothing colors. (As if any woman alive would pick a seat because it matched her dress? I mean, really?)

There's a lot of down-time in Diner Dash, most of which involves you standing at the manager's podium while insanely long lines of people listen to you explain why this early in the game there are only 4 or 6 tables and that they have to wait for seats. This apparently mollifies them and increases their patience levels and eventual tips.

Diner Dash just doesn't have the kind of thinking element that would make it fun to play. There's no real strategy component and since you are graded on doing the same kind of thing all at once (bonuses for serving each table one after the other, bonuses for then cleaning up those tables one after another), things quickly blur into a kind of tedious sameness that repeats over and over again.

Serving people, waiting for them to eat, and then cleaning up after them over and over again may be your kind of fun, but it wasn't mine. Like Jane's Hotel, Diner Dash was a chore rather than a game.