If you are lucky enough to have a partner who likes gaming, or if you are unlucky enough to have only one friend (hey! it’s quality that counts, not quantity) then you are going to be especially interested in two player games.
For the purposes of this chapter, I am going to split these into two separate categories: games that can be played with two or more players, and games that require exactly two players.
Games for two or more players
Most of the games I have discussed previously in this book, claim, usually on the box, to be suitable for two players or more. Often though, they do not play nearly as well with exactly two players, as they do with a group. For example, I personally find it very dissatisfying if the rules say you have to play with a dummy player, or if both players have to control two colours each instead of one.
Some games, however, do play very well with two – arguably, better. By removing all but one opponent, their complexity and randomness are reduced, and it becomes possible to focus more on that opponent, in a one-on-one battle of wits. Some of the gateways I mentioned in earlier chapters are fantastic two player games: Carcassonne, Dominion, Photosynthesis, Splendor, Takenoko, …
I am not going to go through every single game to give my opinion on whether they work well with two players or not. However, because I know that some of you do want to know, I will mention a few of my favourite Eurogames that, in my view, do work very well. They are Castles of Burgundy, Istanbul, Fresco, Keyflower, K2, Village, Orleans, Viticulture, and Imperial Settlers.
Co-operative games, like Pandemic or Flash Point: Fire Rescue, can be nice to play with a partner. Also, a lot of puzzle games are nice with two, such as escape room games, and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.
Games for Exactly Two Players
I actually need to apply a small caveat here too, because there are some games that are clearly designed for two players, but the designers snuck in a rules variation at the last moment to allow for more than two.
I am going to start with one such game, Memoir ’44. This is a two player game, which has a variation allowing two teams to play each other. The game re-enacts battles from the Normandy Landings, D-Day 1944, our greatest ever victory on sand, even greater than the long jump gold medal of the 2012 Olympics. The game is surprisingly historically accurate and there are expansions available too that cover other battles. It brings history alive in a way unlike anything else I have ever experienced. The components are great too, as they are with all games from that publisher (Days of Wonder). There is a slight downside though – one of you will find yourself in a position where you are rooting for the Nazis.
Another two player game with a multiplayer variant, is Tash Kalar. This is a strategy game where you draw cards to see what moves you are allowed to choose from. Tash Kalar’s theme of dueling wizards comes through, even though players are really just filling a grid with pieces.
Also most of the CCGs and LCGs such as Magic: the Gathering and Arkham Horror: The Card Game are primarily (but not always exclusively) for two players.
There are some games that are exclusively for two-players though, such as Hive. This is an intense perfect-information (i.e. there is nothing random or hidden) strategy game that stimulates the same pleasure centres in the brain (or maybe pain centres?) as chess. Each player begins with a small collection of hexagonal tiles, representing various insects (well, okay, insects, arachnids, and whatever the hell a pillbug is) each of which move differently. The object is to completely surround the opponent’s queen bee. If you like intense mind battles, and so long as you do not have an irrational fear of creepy crawlies, I do recommend that you give this a try.
There are many other games that make excellent alternatives to chess and draughts. Khet is a chess-like game, but with lasers. Yes, lasers. The Duke is another variation on the theme, but it uses cards to determine tile placement.
Also, there is a series of games called the GIPF Project, which are all pure old-school strategy, moving and placing pieces on a board. There are eight of these games in the series, with strange capitalised names like LYNGK and DVONN, all different but reassuringly familiar. My favourite of the series is YINSH.
If Backgammon is more your thing than chess or draughts, you might want to check out Tatsu, from the creator of Hive. In this, players move Chinese dragons around a circle, trying to land on their opponent’s pieces without leaving themselves vulnerable to attack.
Moving away from the abstract and from variations on the classic strategy games, there are plenty of two-player games that are heavy with theme, and playing them feels more like a game night than a chess club meeting.
Targi is a light worker-placement game for two. It is easy to learn, and fun. If you want a heavier two-player worker placement experience though, I recommend the magnificent Fields of Arle, another great farming game from the creator of Agricola .
Patchwork is a little bit Tetris, a little bit economic simulator, and a little bit How to make an American Quilt.
Sun Tzu is a bidding and bluffing game set in medieval China.
Jaipur is a card game where players trade in the Pink City.
Twilight Struggle has nothing to do with dreamy vampires but is a cold war themed historical epic.
There are also several two-player variations on some of the most popular multiplayer Eurogames, such as Rivals for Catan, Caverna: Cave vs Cave, Le Havre: The Inland Port, 7 Wonders Duel, and (my personal favourite) Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small.