Boardgaming is a social hobby, and for that reason most games are intended for several players (4 to 5 seems to be the sweet spot, usually.) However, there are plenty of fine games that are intended for only two players. If you don’t have a group of people handy, or you just want something that you and your significant other can enjoy over a bottle of wine in the evening, here are some games you might consider looking at.
Lost Cities is considered to be the quintessential “girlfriend game” (or wife, or mistress, or friend-with-benefit, or secret crush who is dating that loser Todd and why doesn’t she see that I would be a better boyfriend than him why). Numerous tales abound of significant others (usually of the female gender because, you know, geeks) taking to it instantly. It’s a very simple card game with an exploration theme tacked onto it. The rules are incredibly simple and the game plays very quickly but it is quite addictive (and inexpensive).
Jaipur is a recent release that threatens to overthrow Lost Cities. Like Lost Cities, it’s a two-player card game in which each move has to be carefully considered. Like Lost Cities, it’s easy to learn and plays quickly. Unlike Lost Cities, however, it’s also beautiful to look at, with vibrant images of an Indian marketplace replacing muddy watercolors of abandoned sites.
Both of the above games are perfect for two players who are looking for something a little more interesting than Cribbage or Canasta, but still want to keep things fairly light and breezy.
It’s interesting to note that while Eurogames intended for three or more players usually downplay direct conflict, two player games often revel in it. For example, in the regular version of The Settlers of Catan, things are competitive without usually getting downright confrontational. However, in The Settlers of Catan Card Game, which is only for two players, things can get downright mean. There are cards that flat-out attack the other player, burning down their buildings, killing their knights, or stealing their goods. This, in addition to the mitigation of luck (every die roll produces SOMETHING for both players) and the addition of more strategy and depth, makes this two-player version preferable to many gamers over its venerable ancestor.
While most titles in the extensive Carcassonne series can be played by only two people, one title, Carcassonne: The Castle, is designed solely for two. It plays a little differently with Carcassonne’s tile-laying scheme, and the result is that instead of letting the landscape features do a lot of the heavy lifting in screwing over your opponent, you can get a lot more down-and-dirty with it.
Of course, if you want straight-up conflict, two player games have you well covered, since most wargames are strictly for two players, and a number of them have designs that appeal to Eurogamers as well as veteran chit-pushers.
2 de Mayo is a small two-player wargame that packs a lot of strategy into a small package. It dramatizes the rebellion of Madrid against its French occupants, but if you know nothing about the history you won’t miss out on anything. It’s largely a game of out-thinking and outmaneuvering your opponent. There are only a few cards and they can add some fiddly, weirdo details (for historical accuracy), but for the most part it’s a fairly straightforward game.
At the other extreme is The Battle for Hill 218, a card game that looks like it couldn’t possibly provide much entertainment. It looks absurdly simplistic, and the rules, being rather easy to grasp, don’t do a lot to change that impression. However, it turns out there is a LOT of strategy and fun buried in this unassuming package. With only a few different cards and some simple rules, The Battle For Hill 218 provides ample opportunities for wrestling with your opponent over this damn godforsaken hill that you just can’t seem to hold onto!
Or if that conflict isn’t brutal enough, check out Summoner Wars, in which fantasy armies clash in bloody battle. The appeal of this game is that each race is represented by its own deck of cards (each starter set contains two races, so you can play right away). This provides a lot of opportunities for customization without having to drop tons of cash on similar “collectable” games. The rules are very easy to pick up on and the battles are fast and furious.
But direct conflict doesn’t have to involve the battlefield. There are ways to pit two minds against each other without having to involve cannons or orcs.
One such arena is the campaign trail, and the best depiction of it so far is in 1960: The Making of the President. This game re-enacts the legendary Kennedy-vs.-Nixon showdown in glorious detail, yet is not too overwhelming for most newish players (you probably don’t want to tackle it right away). A single deck of event cards determines a lot of the flow of the game, and as a result the strategy required can change every time. It’s a fantastic design and a rewarding game experience. (Its creators have also made a more stripped down, faster-paced campaign game, Campaign Manager 2008, which I discussed previously.)
You can also take on the conflict of cop-vs-criminal with Mr. Jack, a game based on the lighthearted theme of trying to catch notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. There are eight possible suspects (including Holmes and Watson), one of whom is secretly Jack. The police player must determine Jack’s identity before he can escape from the clutches of the law. The only downside to recommending this game is that it requires a sort of strategy and thought that some players just don’t “get”, and if they don’t, they’ll never win and never have any fun. If you can do it, though, it’s a tense and fun game.
Finally, some of the classic two-player games abandon theme altogether. Chess has a pasted-on theme at best, and Go and Checkers have none whatsoever. If you’re looking for such abstract delights, these final two games should help you out.
Hive is nominally about bugs, but really it’s just a placement and movement game. The pieces (made out of wonderfully clacky Bakelite) have different bugs on them to show how they are allowed to move within the game. The goal is to completely surround your opponent’s queen. This game is especially nice for its small footprint and easy portability; you can bring it camping, play it on the airplane tray table, or bring it to the coffee shop.
A similarly portable two-player abstract is Blokus Duo (also known as Travel Blokus). Like its larger sibling, this is a game in which colorful plastic tiles that look like Tetris pieces are placed on a grid to try and prevent your opponent from being able to play. It’s incredibly easy to learn and can be wickedly nasty. This version of the game is made specifically for two players and works well — in fact, even though the “real” version of the game plays with up to four people, if you’re only intending to play with two, I recommend this one instead.
So that’s several options for playing new and fun games with just you and one other person. All of them are currently in print and available, and none are crazy expensive (for most values of “crazy”).
If you can’t even scrape together one other person, you still have a lot of solo options, but that’s a story for another time.