From spades to backgammon, casual online games are among the most popular activities on the Internet.
Tens of thousands of Web surfers simultaneously kill vast amounts of time on simple and for the most part free games. Many have social elements that allow players to chat, helping keep visitors on the site long after the games become monotonous.
We chose sites offering a wide array of casual games that don't require visitors to buy software to play. We did not include sites that emphasize prizes. We judged sites on the variety of their offerings, the quality and uniqueness of their games and the ease with which players can navigate the site. They were also evaluated on their ability to facilitate social interaction among players.
This site focuses more on arcade-style games, though it does have a handful of parlor games such as backgammon and bridge. This is deliberate. The site's parent company, Electronic Arts, also runs Pogo.com, which skews toward classic games.
With little more than 31 games, content is sparse. But what's there is of decent quality.
Signature games on EA.com include PoppaZoppa, a 60-second game that comes with confusing instructions but is actually intuitive once you start playing. Trap Shooter is an excellent, if mindless, game in which players shoot clay pigeons and bottles.
One of the best features of this site is the chat function. Players can choose from several icons to represent themselves online, from a woman wearing a jaunty hat and sunglasses to a man in a polo shirt.
The chat box is integrated at the bottom of the game and lets players choose from a dozen emoticons and sounds that can be used during chat.
Aimed at players who have little or no experience playing computer games, Pogo.com's games are either simple or based on classic games such as chess and bingo.
The site has 44 games. Part of what keeps players on this ad-driven site is the token system. The more you play, the more tokens you get. Tokens are traded for raffle tickets entered into drawings for prizes ranging from $50 to $1,000.
One of the most popular games on this site is Poppit, in which players burst as many similarly colored balloons as possible.
Although Pogo.com is run by the same company that owns EA.com, users still have to re-register for a separate account.
Chatting on this site is fairly basic. One advantage: Chat rooms are divided by age groups, which helps reduce irrelevant chatter.
The site boasts 114 games, but many require players to buy and install CD-ROM games on their computers. Still, there are plenty of free diversions.
Zone.com doesn't have as many annoying pop-up ads, but it does have a number of games sponsored by advertisers, which explains the presence of titles such as Dodge Speedway and RadioShack RC Riot.
A game that sets this site apart is Ants, a three-player strategy game that lets players control a small ant colony. The goal is to gather as much food as possible before time runs out.
Zone.com hosts a number of chat rooms separate from its games. But most of the chat there has nothing to do with games. This is true of all game sites, where inane chitchat about weather is the norm.
Zone.com chat rooms are better monitored than most. Nearly all have moderators who help keep the conversation clean.
Many of this site's arcade games can be played from behind a firewall that's set to maximum paranoia. The site also has a handy "panic" button that furtive players can hit when they see the boss turning the corner. Clicking on the button pulls up a spreadsheet.
The chat function on this site is awkward. While playing some games, users have to open a separate window to chat.
There also were more technical problems here than at other sites.
Operated by Sony Online Entertainment, Station.com offers just 20 games. Sony officials say the site is about to undergo major reconstruction, however, so stay tuned.
But as it stands now, Station.com must rely on a few exclusive games to attract visitors. These include "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," for which Sony has licenses. "Wheel of Fortune" is the most polished.
Like most game sites, Station.com takes frequent "intermissions" to feed players ads. Though they're annoying, the intermissions are brief, generally lasting less than a minute, and players can chat.
Though Yahoo is more of a portal than a game site, it does offer a full array of casual games as a way to keep users from straying.
Yahoo Games covers the basics. It also has so-called fantasy games, in which players pick and join teams that "compete" over seasons that last several months. For those who can commit long-term, there are fantasy auto racing, baseball, golf and soccer games. There are also plenty of quick-hit games, including Naval Command, a digital version of Battleship.
A major drawback of this site is the ability to float in and out of games even while they're in progress. Playing Go Fish, it was impossible to complete a single hand because players left mid-game, forcing the remaining players either to recruit a replacement or end the game and start a new one.
Times staff writer Alex Pham covers the video game industry.
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Offerings: 31, mostly arcade-style games, including free demos of subscription-only games such as Nascar Web Racing and Tiger Woods PGA Tour Web Golf
*The good: Comes close to the stuff you'd actually pay for. Chat options include dozens of silly sounds
*The bad: Hard to find a screen name that hasn't been taken
Bottom line: The best of the bunch
Offerings: 44, games from backgammon to bingo
The good: Simple, straightforward site
The bad: Not much that's original
Bottom line: A good way to mindlessly waste time
Offerings: 114 games, but only half don't require players to purchase CD-ROM games to play
The good: Chats are moderated to keep things clean, good variety of games, lots of players available for pick-up games
The bad: Need more games that don't require purchase
Bottom line: A solid site
Offerings: Complete suite of casual games, from arcade to trivia
The good: Well-rounded list with competent games in each category, nice "panic" button that pulls up a fake spreadsheet in case the boss comes around
The bad: Awkward chat mechanism for some games, technical problems downloading
Bottom line: Forget the chat, just play the games
Offerings: 20 games, including "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"
The good: Games are fresher, not as run-of-the-mill
The bad: Few games
Bottom line: Keep an eye on this site
Offerings: 45 casual games, from gin rummy to canasta
The good: Covers the basics
The bad: Players abandon group games, leaving others at the table in limbo
Bottom line: Not very innovative