While you're waiting to find a store that is stocking the hard-to-find Nintendo Wii video game system, thousands of free and cheap games are available online. From Solitaire and other card favorites to action games, you'll find tons of games to play.
Longtime favorite sites such as pogo.com, games.yahoo.com are increasingly finding competition. Winster.com is just one of the latest sites to open with a collection of casual games aimed at people who want to spend a few minutes solving puzzles. Mac users are no longer left out of the fun; greenapplegames.com caters to that crowd.
These sites can eat away minutes as well as hours of your time. Nielsen-NetRatings reports that during a week in April, 3 million gamers spent an average of 1 hour, 39 minutes each at AOL Games at home and at work. A word to the wise: Your employer can tell what sites you're spending time on at work. Better to visit these destinations when you're home.
PLAYING FOR FREE
The sites have ads, so the gaming is free. To avoid the ads, you can pay about $10 to $20 to download a favorite game to your computer.
To play for free online, register at the sites below and click on a game to play. A new screen will pop up on your computer, with instructions on how to play (Often, you'll use your computer keyboard's arrow keys to move your on-screen character). If the game doesn't start, disable pop-up blockers on your computer.
If you just want to play against computer opponents without the small talk, realarcade.com has some sexy titles, including "Trivial Pursuit: Bring on the '90s" that you can jump right into.
A much-loved site for great-looking action games and shoot-'em-ups. It's a popular destination for young boys, but their moms and dads will find puzzle and card games to enjoy. Games such as the mini-golf-inspired "Sky Golf" look as good as anything you'll find on a Wii or Sony PlayStation 2.
Fun games that lack the polish of games at Miniclip. Proving that games can teach, too, "50 States" gives you a map of the United States and challenges you to drag a star to the location of each state's capital. More players are finding AddictingGames.com, with the site reporting 21.3 million unique visitors in March.
A favorite haunt for gamers -- especially women 30 and older -- who like to type computer messages to their opponents while they play. It's a way to play a social game such as backgammon or hearts without leaving your house or buying chips and dip. It's easy to strike up conversations with other players, and competition for prizes raises the stakes a little. The game "Poppit" is taking Pogo by storm, with tens of thousands of players racing the clock to pop groups of same-color balloons to release prizes.
Now Mac owners can join in the fun of wildly popular games such as "Virtual Villagers 2: The Lost Children," in which you create "Sims"-style villagers who eat, work and play even after you've logged off for the night. GreenAppleGames.com also has slick-looking titles for the PC crowd.
If you've heard of "Bejeweled" -- the bewitching game of matching groups of different-color jewels -- you may have heard of PopCap, makers of that popular, addictive game. PopCap has only 23 games you can play online, but you can download a trial version of the company's newest hit, "Peggle."
You'll find competition and companionship galore at games.yahoo.com, games.aol.com and games.msn.com. The games are slick, the opposition is smart and the fun is free. Nearly every night there is a tournament or competition to join, making it easy to meet fellow gamers.