Both Johnna and I enjoy playing games of all kinds, and for a while now we’ve been playing board/card games regularly. In the course of this, we’ve tried a bunch of new games, and have a list of others that we plan to try next. Recently I was talking to my friend Zook after a softball game, and the subject of good two-player games arose. I told her I’d send her a list, but I decided to turn it into this blog post instead, so that hopefully it will be helpful to others as well. Up front I want to state that I owe a big debt to Keith Law, since one of my major starting points in my game search has been his 2012 top board games list (and I see that he JUST posted an updated list for 2013!).
I’m going to make three lists:
- Games we’ve enjoyed that are specifically designed for only 2 players
- Games we’ve enjoyed playing just the two of us, but which permit more players
- Games on our list to try with two players
I’ll provide links to buy the games on Amazon and, where applicable, I will try to note any available expansions.
- Battle Line - My current favorite
- Jaipur - One of the first we tried, and still one we both like
- Lost Cities - By the same guy who made Battle Line
Fun With Two Players
- Carcassonne - It has lots of expansions. If you buy the base game via the first link, it includes The River expansion. Alternately, you can buy the Carcassonne Big Box, which includes a bunch of expansions (but oddly omits The River). Johnna and I have only tried the main game and The River. I’ve heard good things about the Traders & Builders expansion, and plan to try that one next.
- Forbidden Island - A cooperative game — the players are not in competition.
- Gloom - More of a silly game than a strategy game. Each player controls a family of people. The goal is to make your family as miserable as possible before they die, while making your opponents’ families as happy as possible. There are four expansions: Unfortunate Expeditions, Unhappy Homes, Unquiet Dead, and Unwelcome Guests. There is also a Cthulhu-themed Gloom game, which is a standalone game. It has its own expansion, Unpleasant Dreams. Johnna and I have only played the main game and the Cthulhu base game, and have not yet tried the expansions. This quickly became one of Johnna’s favorite games.
- Guillotine - Another game heavy on the silly. You play rival executioners, competing to execute the most valuable nobles during the French revolution.
- Pandemic - Another cooperative game, like Forbidden Island, but slightly more complex. It has two expansions (which Johnna and I have not yet tried, but plan to): On The Brink and In The Lab. NOTE: Pandemic has two different versions — 1st edition and 2nd edition. They are the same game, but the cards look different. If you don’t yet own Pandemic, buy the 2nd edition. If you already own Pandemic, when buying expansions, make sure they are for your version of Pandemic (otherwise the cards won’t match, which will give you a clue about which card you are about to draw).
- Pente - The only “traditional” board game I’ve included on the list. You take turns placing tiles on a grid. The winner is the first player to capture 5 pairs of opponents’ tiles or getting 5 tiles in a row. Very simple to learn, but there is a lot of strategy to it.
- Ticket To Ride - This game has a lot of expansions, several of which are actually standalone games (including Europe, Nordic Countries, and Marklin). Some of the expansions I’ve heard good things about are India & Switzerland (include new maps and cards, but require the game pieces from the base game), 1910 (an expansion to the base USA game), and 1912 (an expansion to the base Europe game). All of these are not just new maps, but also include new rules. Johnna and I have only played the base game, but plan to try these others. There is also a good version of this on Steam, Google Play, and iTunes. For the latter two, I recommend only using it on devices with displays at least 5″ in size (preferably larger). Sadly, it currently only supports live games — no ability to play a game at your own pace over an extended period of time.
Next To Try
(Jan 9 2014)
Since posting this, Johnna and I have played a few more games which were good for two players. Specifically…
- Jambo – This game is a two-player game in which the players are competing traders in Africa. In some ways it’s a more complicated version of Jaipur (although still not especially complicated). It is fun, although based on limited playing it does seem like luck plays a relatively big factor. Depending on your preferences, this may or may not be a bad thing.
- Small World – A very fun game for 2-5 players (soon to be 6 players, with an upcoming expansion). Over the course of the game, each player will control one or more races, each of which is paired with a special power. The fun of the game is in the various combinations of races and powers (since they are shuffled and dealt randomly for each game). The game has a number of expansions, but the ones I can personally recommend at this point are Be Not Afraid, Cursed, and Grand Dames. Each of these adds more powers and races to the game. Johnna and I recently purchased Tales and Legends, but have not yet had the chance to try it. Finally, they recently released an excellent implementation of this game (called Small World 2 for some reason, even though it’s the same game) on Steam, Google Play, and iTunes. For the latter two, I believe it is only supported for tablets, not phones. Or anyway, it wouldn’t let me use it on my Galaxy S4.
- Terra Mystica – This game is 2-5 players, and is probably the most complicated board game I’ve yet learned. If you learn it from someone who already knows how to play, I suspect it wouldn’t be too bad, but it took Johnna and I several hours to read through the rules and figure it all out. That said, it has rapidly become one of our favorite games. The players control competing factions, each of which has different special abilities. The goal is to get the most victory points, which are granted for various things during and after the game — founding cities, building structures, terraforming terrain, controlling the most contiguous territory, having advanced knowledge of different cults, etc. It sounds overwhelming until you learn it, but then it all fits together very nicely and makes sense. Johnna and I have only played 2 player, and we’ve really enjoyed it. We’re looking forward to trying it with more people, though, as we’ve heard good things.
- Tobago – This game may be out of print (or anyway, an online search does not turn up a place to buy new copies of it). Amazon has it listed, but right now the only copies available are from third party sellers. Johnna and I have played both 2 player and 4 player, and both were great. The players are all treasure hunters on an island. The thing which is unique about this game is that the players play clue cards which narrow down where the treasure can be located (for example, “the treasure is in the largest jungle” or “the treasure is within 1 space of a hut” or “the treasure is not on the coast”). Eventually, the clues combine to reveal the exact location of a treasure, at which point it may be excavated. The player who does the excavation gets a bonus for having done so, but players are rewarded based on how many clues they contributed toward that particular treasure. Also, some of the treasures are cursed, but there is a way to defend yourself against that. The game is pretty simple and fun. If you are able to find a copy, I recommend picking it up.
And also, if you are looking for more cooperative games and/or enjoyed either Forbidden Island or Pandemic, I just learned that a sequel to Forbidden Island was released not too long ago. It’s called Forbidden Desert (every time I type it, I want to type Forbidden Dessert, because that sounds much more delicious). I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds like it’s kind of a hybrid of Forbidden Island and Pandemic — the mechanics and theme are more like Forbidden Island, but the complexity and difficulty are more like Pandemic. Based on reviews I’ve read, it also introduces some new things which make it different from either predecessor.