Two-player games remain to be the brass ring in many relationships. Folks want a fun experience that fits into their busy schedule. A great many games which list ‘2-4’ players will feel as if a competitive element is missing with only two participants. Other games will even use a facsimile third player to shoehorn the game into working for just two.
Let us start by compiling a list of my favorite options for two-players for all levels of skill and interest.
Battleline—learn it in 10 minutes/30 minutes to play. Similar to Reiner Knizia’s Lost Cities, Battleline is a tactical bluffing game that uses a poker-like scoring system. It plays in just thirty minutes, and is easy to learn. Players will battle to break through either five of the flags between them, or three flags in a row. Each turn they will play a card in front of a flag, and then draw a card. There are two stacks to draw from. One deck is full of troops. Each troop is a unique number from 1-10 in six colors. The other deck is a tactics deck. Players may play a tactic on any battle to change one value or rule in that flag. Players may never play more tactics than the other player. Once a flag has three troops, that battle is locked until either player can prove a decisive win. Battleline can also be carried around in a small deck box, meaning i can throw it in a normal-sized purse!
Hive–ten minutes to learn/20-30 minutes to play– An intuitive chess-like abstract. A game of Hive lasts only thirty minutes. Players make an interconnected hive of bug pieces. Each bug has its own kind of movement. The goal is to trap your opponent’s queen bee by surrounding it with pieces. The expansions for Hive are definitely the way to go, as it makes for a quicker pace in-game. I like that playing with the same partner over many games stays really fresh, as both players find new traps and tricks.
Dominion–20 minutes to learn/ 60 minutes to play– Dominion is a deck-
building game where players build their decks as they go. Great low-interaction game for those who don’t like as much competition. Each side begins with a dinky 10-card deck. Each turn they’ll have an opportunity to purchase new cards to build up the strength of their deck.
The player with the most point cards in their deck at the end will win. The same point cards have no effect during the game, so a balance must be found. Players may especially like Dominion if they’ve played many combo-based card games like Magic: the Gathering. Dominion is all about trying to combine effects of cards and eeking out free actions
Netrunner–one play-through to learn/ 70 minutes to play– This game is an asymmetrical card game. One player is a corporation attempting to further their own agendas. The other is the hacker, trying to expose the corporation’s secrets.
The runner plays the aggro deck, jumping out in the beginning of the game, putting pressure on the corp, and trying to pick up a few easy points. Slowly the corp will build up a defense. Everything the corp does though, is hidden until later it can be activated. The cat and mouse nature of this is why Netrunner is addictive and greatly varied. Fantasy Flight Games also puts out a non-randomized pack of cards monthly to edit the decks and keep the format fresh.
Carcassonne–learn in 15 minutes/60 minutes to play– Carcassonne is a tile-laying game with a tricky system of timing. Players take turns building out a map and placing their pieces along the roads, cities and farms hoping to score big points as the map is completed. The interaction in this game can be very mean as the easiest way to maximize your points is by discounting your opponents’ work with a couple well-placed blocks. Criticism for this game should mainly be given to the scoring mechanic at the end being a little clumsy.
Word on the Street learn it in 3 minutes/plays in 45 minutes: This is a fun word tug of war. Players have thirty seconds to think of a word for the category drawn. Once their word is declared, they’ll pull the letters in that word one step toward themselves on the mat. The goal of the game is to pull eight letter tiles completely off the mat on your side. As the letters start dropping off, players have to best use the letters left over to keep earning tiles!
Catacombs-learn it in 5 minutes/play for 60+ minutes– Part RPG, part crossfire. Catacombs pits the overseer of a dungeon against four brave heroes. The combat and movement in this game is done by flicking disks representing your character toward the minions of the Overseer. Combat can be done melee or ranged. Each hero has a special ability, adding to it’s power, financing or range.
The game’s outcome is very much skewed toward the overseer; The overseer gets to attack the heroes room after room before facing them himself. This game can be a lot of fun when you’re done with your thinking for the day and would like to have a good chuckle.
Innovation–10 minutes to learn/60 minutes to play– This is a quirky civilization builder with a lot of interaction. As your society moves through the different ages, they will pit themselves against fellow civilizations, marking their achievements and possibly stealing their technologies.
Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War–one play-through to learn/ 90 minutes to play– Part puzzle, part Stratego— all awesome. Players must direct their spies to gather a briefcase from the center of the board and sneak it across enemy lines. Players do not know how their own pieces move, instead deducing each unique movement with a series of questions posed to the other side. Fun, if not a little confusing to learn.
Cribbage–15 minutes to learn/25 minutes to play– An oldie, but still a favorite with me and mine. A card game of estimated guesses and quick math. Cribbage makes for some great fun, with just enough luck of the draw to keep it interesting.
protip: those looking for new games: most games which encourage players to competitively bid, control territory or trade among each other will waffle a little at the two-player level. These are simply not mechanics which work well without a group.