Two-Player Games

Someone at work asked me for some good two-player games. Since this is a whole topic in itself, I thought I'd write a blog post about it. It's a long one, so get comfortable.

There are three broad categories of games I want to discuss:

Abstract Strategy Games

The term "abstract strategy" defines a class of games that include such well-known classics as Chess, Go, and Checkers. But don't let the word "Chess" scare you. These games are very approachable. They are almost always designed for two players and can be played using generic components, making them much less expensive than modern designer equivalents. They are "abstract" in that there is rarely any theme. There's no fancy artwork or graphic design. It's generally a very simple set of rules, and two brains sit down and fight it out.

I happen to be a huge fan of abstract strategy games. In fact I've maintained a website dedicated to such games for years (Super Duper Games). (On a side note, I'm currently rewriting SDG from scratch.) There are lots and lots of these games out there. I'm going to touch on a few of my favourites, and I'm going to mostly ignore the universally known standards like Backgammon. But first let's talk about what sorts of things you need in a gaming "kit" for playing these sorts of games.

"Universal" Gaming Kit

  • The first thing you need are boards of different types. I happen to have a collection of such boards that I've never published before. Here they are! You can find other similar offerings around the internet.

  • Then you need some pieces:

    • You need a half-dozen or so standard, six-sided dice. (The more the merrier.) If you want to get fancy, grab a couple sets of polyhedral dice. Those usually come in sets of 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20 sided dice.

    • Every gaming kit needs a set of Go stones. They are incredibly versatile.

    • You'll also want some stacking pieces. A single Checkers set will take you far, but it's nice to have some options. So maybe grab a couple.
  • And if you want to get fancy, there are some generic gaming "systems" out there that are marvellous:

    • My personal favourite are Looney Pyramids. They are super versatile. I have now three full sets of each and every colour they've ever produced. These pyramids have gotten so much use over the years! The simplest way to get the whole Looney Pyramids experience is with their Pyramid Arcade box, which I heartily recommend.

    • The other system I've gotten tons of use out of is Piecepack. It's hard to find physical sets nowadays, though. I believe Blue Panther is still making them.

    • Finally is the Decktet card system. There are other "universal" card systems out there, but this one is the most interesting. It has great art. Big fan.

The Games

Now let's talk about some of my favourite modern abstracts, in alphabetical order. I encourage you to explore the Super Duper Games games list to see what other games are there that I'm not listing. There are some real gems there!

  • Abande, Accasta, and Attangle

    This is a trio of stacking games designed by Dieter Stein. They are elgant and engaging.

  • Amazons

    This is a territory control game where you move one of your pieces and then destroy a square that piece can see, rendering it impassable. Keeping doing this until one of the players can no longer move.

  • Andantino

    All you need is some hex paper and pencils of different colours. Take turns filling cells in. The winner is either the first one to get five in a row or to completely surround at least one enemy tile. Sounds simple, right?!

  • Blam

    This Looney Pyramids game is a massive hit with the kids. It's easy to learn but offers interesting strategies to equally paired opponents.

  • Breakthrough

    Your pieces move like pawns in Chess. First person to get a piece to the opposite side of the board wins.

  • Cannon

    I really, really love this game. It's really deep but simple to learn. Pieces can move in phalanxes and destroy opposing pieces from a distance. It's terrific.

  • Epaminondas

    The goal is simple: get one of your pieces to the other side of the board. Movement is done by phalanx. The game is remarkably simple, and lots of fun.

  • Hipbone

    This is an odd one. It's more an engaging conversation than a game per se. I find it fascinating. Here's a collection of Hipbone boards I've found over the years.

  • Homeworlds

    This is a game you play with the Looney Pyramids. You can play with more than two players, but the best version is just two players. You just do away with the concept of "good and evil" and just play last man standing. This game requires no board. You can play on any surface. It's a real brain burner that will give you many years of enjoyment.

  • Lines of Action

    The goal is to connect all your pieces. Not as easy as it sounds.

  • Martian Chess

    Another Looney Pyramid game in which nobody owns any pieces. But you can only move pieces that are on your side of the board. Another real brain burner.

  • Pikemen

    This is a simple Looney Pyramids game. Pyramids are immune from attack when standing but are immobile. Once laying down, then can only move in the direction they're facing until they rotate. Capture the most points worth of pieces to win.

  • Volcano

    Can you tell that I really love Looney Pyramids? This is a fascinating stacking game that really challenges your ability to visualize multiple future states.

  • Waving Hands

    And finally for something completely different. This is a simple game you play with pen and paper. You each make one of eight gestures with each (or both) hands. Sequences of gestures can result in spells of varying effects. Last wizard standing wins. Different from anything else you've played, and tons of fun.

  • Zilch

    A simple push-your-luck dice game with lots of scoring variants. The link here is the most common one.

Nestor Games

And one quick plug for a prolific publisher of beautiful editions of some of these games, Nestor Games. I am so glad this guy exists. Some personal favourites:

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Traditional Card Games

Everybody should have a few decks of cards in their home. So many games you can play! I grew up playing cards with my siblings and later my grandpa. I have such fond memories involving cards. There are tons of great two-player card games.

The database of the rules of pretty much every card game ever known to man is Pagat.com. You can lose yourself for hours here! Let me highlight the two-player games that I play all the time (in alphabetical order):

  • Abstrac

    What could be simpler than a game of perfect information where you deal the cards out in a row and then pick them up one by one? (Or two, or three, as the case may be.) Simple? Yes - but there's more to this Nim-type game than meets the eye.

  • Casino

    I have spent many, many hours playing Casino with my grandpa. How I miss those afternoons! This is a basic fishing game where two people vye for cards from the table. The scoring takes a little time to wrap your head around, but the game play is dead simple. But there's still a lot of strategy involved. I love, love this game.

  • Cribbage

    Everybody should know how to play cribbage. You don't need a board. You can keep score on a piece of paper. This is another game that I spent whole days playing with my grandpa. I am always willing to play Crib.

  • Dracula

    Players build a tableau together. One player counts rows and the other counts columns. The goal is to gather the most points based on the cards played.

  • German Whist

    The rules here are the standard, most strategic version of the game. But there are other variants that I can't find described anywhere. If you're interested, drop me a line and I'll explain the other rules.

  • Gin Rummy

    An oldie but goodie. I can play this for hours.

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Modern Designer Board Games

  • 7 Wonders Duel

    This is the one game on the list I don't actually own, but the reviews I hear are ecstatic. I'll be picking it up eventually, for sure.

  • ...and then, we held hands

    This marvelous little cooperative game is about finding balance. The trick is that players are not allowed to speak to each other. You must pay attention to your partner and consider their situation to know what they intend to do. You win by meeting in the centre of the board, while in a balanced state, and within one turn of each other. Not easy, but rewarding when it happens. A great couples game!

  • Battle Line

    Perhaps my favourite two-player card game. It is a real brain burner. While certainly luck of the draw plays a minor role, good tactical play will still win every time. Terrific game!

  • Bottom of the Ninth

    This is a pretty random game. If you love baseball, then pick this up. Otherwise, you can skip it. I still enjoyed playing it. It's just no

  • Hive

    Perhaps the greatest modern abstract ever. I know I'm raving about most of the games here, but this one really is superlative. It's modern chess with bugs. If you like abstract games at all, you need to own this game. I haven't played with the expansion tiles (pillbug, mosquito, and ladybug). The core game just never gets old.

  • Innovation and its many expansions

    This is a chaotic card game that is ideal with two players. Fewer players keeps the game just a little bit more controlled. There are lots of ways to win, and you have to keep a close eye on what your opponent is doing. There will be frustrating sessions where you feel like you just had no chance. But that's sometimes part of the fun.

  • Jaipur

    This is a great little set collection game for two players. The only issue is that it's really fiddly to reset between games. It's available on mobile devices, so that may be the simplest way to play it (pass and play). But it's a terrific little filler game.

  • Kosmos line

    Kosmos is a prolific German game publisher. Many of their games are available in North America, though. They have a whole "Games for Two" line. They tend to be card heavy, relatively light, and quick to play. I don't have them all, but I have a lot, and here are the ones that have gotten the most play:

    • Blue Moon

      This is an asymmetric card game where two very different factions vye for the attention of the dragons.

    • Caesar & Cleopatra

      This is a simple card playing game where you try to influence Roman officials. There's a fair bit of bluffing, and while fast and light, I always find it enjoyable to play.

    • Hera & Zeus

      Stratego with cards. This is perhaps my favourite. So many gotcha moments.

    • Lost Cities

      Perhaps the most popular of the line. I prefer Battle Line myself, but this is still a terrific addition to a collection.

    • Odin's Ravens

      This is a racing game. It's simple enough that you can play just fine with kids, but even grownups enjoy making life difficult for their opponent. And there's some strategy in building your backup pile.

  • Mage Wars Arena

    OK. This may not be for everyone, but I think it's terrific. Players are mages of wildly divergent types with massive spellbooks. All the spells are available to you from the beginning, giving you huge strategic opportunities. This is a longer game that requires a little bit of time to learn, but it's a superb knock-down-drag-out fight game.

  • Mottainai

    This is a quick but deep game that really makes you think. It will take a little time to learn, but it pays off. The name means "Don't waste," and winning requires you to wring the most out of every card you touch. You can play with more than two players, but it's ideal with two.

  • Pixel Tactics with its many expansions (find the big box version if you can)

    I love this game so much. Every single game is so very, very different. It's a relatively simple card game in which you try to kill the opposing hero. Each turn you summon protectors in one of three rows. Each card has different powers depending on what row it's on. This is the epitome of a tactical game. So much fun.

  • SET

    This is another brain-burner of a pattern recognition game. You can play speed mode, or you can slow it down and play a "fish"-style variant. I can't find the webpage with the rules anymore, but if you're interested, drop me a line and I'll describe the rules.

  • Star Realms

    This is a sci-fi deckbuilding game that I really love. There are a couple of new implementations (Cthulhu theme, fantasy theme), but I haven't played them yet. Star Realms is a great quick head-to-head battle.

  • Stronghold

    Not for everyone, but it's such a superb two-player game. You're essentially playing out the battle at Helm's Deep from Lord of the Rings. One player is the humans in a large keep. Their goal is to survive the night. The other player has goblins, orcs, and trolls and wins simply by breaching the wall. It's rules heavy and takes some time to learn, but it's a really engaging and thematic experience.

  • Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends and its expansions

    This is an pattern building game in which you're summoners in an arena. You place or move pieces on a grid, and when you create certain configurations, you summon creatures with certain powers. What I love about this game is that there are two modes. In one you just beat on each other until the crowds are satisfied. The most fame wins. The other is a more cerebral game where you have to gather a certain number of points' worth of goal cards, still while fending off your opponent's attacks. I get a real kick out of this one.

Cooperative Games

And finally, many big cooperative games work great with two players. It means you may have to control a couple characters each, but you're working together. It can be great fun.

  • Defenders of the Realm

    More than just fantasy Pandemic! I prefer this game to Pandemic. Might be a little hard to find, but I'm never getting rid of mine.

  • Pandemic

    The granddaddy of cooperative games, work together to keep humanity alive.

  • Robinson Crusoe

    This brutally hard game is highly thematic. It's great fun.

More Information

I'm just one guy. I don't own every game, and I certainly don't own all the current games. Be sure to explore Board Game Geek for tons of information.

There's also a great collection of games lists called "What Couples Have Been Playing" that I also recommend.

HAVE FUN! MAKE TIME FOR GAMES!

Profile Photo Aaron Dalton aaron@daltons.ca Aaron Dalton Perlkönig Perlkonig Canada Alberta --05-09 Gamer, programmer, editor, baker