ENTER PLAYER TWO!
With Valentine’s Day coming up, it seems like the perfect time to tell you all about some of my absolute favorite tabletop games for two players— especially because I have mostly been playing two-player lately, so a lot of these are fresh in my mind.
If you don’t have a big gaming group, you have probably noticed that two-player board games are hard to find, and really great ones that are just as great for two players are even more rare. I’ve wracked my memory (and pestered my friends) to come up with a bunch of games that are a blast for two— not just technically playable without more.
Tastes and preferences vary, so this isn’t “The Top Best Ten Two-Player Games,” and the list isn’t in ranked order. I can’t say which one you will love the most, but I am pretty darn sure you will find at least one game on this list that you will both love.
Strap yourself (and your co-pilot) in for some rapid-fire reviews of board games you can play with just one friend— or someone even more special!
MONARCH BY RESONYM
I discovered Monarch recently, when I met one of the creators at one of my local board game nights. The game originates from the Tiltfactor lab, and is published by Resonym, and it’s a great example of their brilliant understanding of gameplay.
In Monarch, each player is a princess, vying to build the most magnificent (and well-matched) court, while stymying her sisters’ attempts to do the same. The game has a frankly gorgeous dark but storybook atmosphere, thanks to beautiful artwork.
It’s a set-collecting game driven by gathering resources from upgradeable map tiles, which allows you to buy cards in a rotating market, to in turn build sets to make up the most magnificent court.
Your choices impact other players by changing the cards available, resource production, the value of certain sets, or by directly sending them penalties. It’s easy to learn, quick to play, and competitive without needing to be completely cut-throat to be fun.
The art and design make the game both beautiful and easy to understand. The quality of production is satisfying, and helps make the game a perfect gift.
I have only played Monarch as a two-player game so far. There are some minor rules changes to balance two-player gameplay, but it doesn’t feel like anything is missing.
From my ‘Shelf of Shame’ Review of Monarch:
4/5, Fond Favorite: A simply beautiful game—
Easy and elegant play, high quality package and components, and
gorgeous artwork combine for a dark fairytale atmosphere.
HARRY POTTER: HOGWARTS BATTLE BY USAOPOLY
My sweetheart and I had a chance to play my upgraded Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (Game Night Ready)™ edition on a recent frigid, snowy weekend. We planned to play one or two games (chapters) into the campaign before switching to the next game. Instead, we ended-up playing the first six in a single day, saving the final climactic battle for the next morning!
There are simply not enough games that are great for two people, not enough games where you can play through an extended campaign, and nowhere near enough great co-op games for my liking. Harry Potter: Hogwarts battle shines in all of these areas, and the combination is almost ideal for two players.
I’ve heard that some people find that this game isn’t hard enough for hardcore players, and opinions differ on how many times you can play through the campaign and enjoy it— but with different characters to play as, multiple episodes to the campaign, each adding new mechanics and complexity, and an expansion that adds more of all of the above, I’d recommend this for any couple (or pair) of players— especially if you’re fans of the books or movies.
From my (Game Night ReadY)™ Review of Harry Potter: Hogwarts battle
4/5, Fond Favorite: Absolutely the most fun I have had playing a deck-builder.
Playing cooperatively with friends, and progressing through the campaign
are both (groan) game-changers for the format.
Title: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle
Publisher: USAopoly (USA)
Players: 2 to 4 players (+1 with expansion)
Play Time: 30-80 minutes per “book
Gameplay: Cooperative Campaign Deckbuilding (with Expansions)
Complexity: 3/5 (Standard)
Rating: 4/5 (Fond Favorite)
CONSENTACLE BY NAOMI CLARK
There’s no other way to say it— The next game on our list couldn’t be much different from a family-friendly Harry Potter game. To be clear, this one is wonderful for couples, but it is a bit explicit and not safe for work. (We won’t get into those details too much in this quick review, but the next few paragraphs do mention sexual themes.) Consentacle bills itself as a game about the nuances of intimacy and consent between a human and an alien. The basic gameplay centers around two players deciding how to combine the cards in each of their hands to maximize trust, turn it into satisfaction, and resolve how much everyone ends up with. Those mechanics are pretty simple, clever implementations of set-based card and resource play— what really makes the game interesting is that difficulty levels determine how (and how much) players can communicate about game play. That makes it a wonderful analogue and learning tool to learn how to communicate with each other, how to build intimacy, and the importance of enthusiastic and ongoing consent. I’m not sure whether this cult-classic Kickstarter game was intended to be sexy, educational, silly, or bizarre— but it succeeds across the board. A couple of caveats or clarifications, especially for couples interested in playing: First, it’s not a “sexy game” that will facilitate an intimate experience directly, like, uh… those dice. Second, the game does require great communication, empathy, and understanding of consent, so it’s best to go into it understanding that a bad play experience could be uncomfortable. I recommend taking your time reading through the entire booklet together, and getting on the same page, then starting with the easiest difficulty level. That said, a good play experience will absolutely help you improve the intimacy between you. It’s a shame this game is so hard to find now, but if you can track it down, you’ll really enjoy it!
Publisher: Naomi Clark (Self-published)
Players: 2 players (Only)
Play Time: 10-30 minutes
Ages: 18+ (Sexual Themes)
Type: Co-op Card & Communication
Complexity: 2/5 (Basic)
Rating: 3/5 (Good Game)
VAST BY LEDER GAMES
Vast, by the publisher of the more recent indie hit Root, is one of my absolute favorite games. It was the first title I knew I absolutely had to include in my (Game Night Ready)™ line of upgraded and protected versions of games I love. Vast is the absolute archetype of an asymmetric game— not only do the different characters all have different victory conditions, they all come with an almost-completely unique set of game mechanics. For a couple of years after it first came out, I heard people describing asymmetric games as “Vastlikes”. In the original game, Vast: The Crystal Caverns, you can play as the plucky Knight, the cursed Thief, the slowly-awakening Dragon, the teeming tribes of Goblins, or even as the Cave itself. Playing each of these is like playing a totally new game, but be warned that means it also requires you to learn a totally new game as well. The expansion, Vast: The Fearsome Foes, introduces three (really six) entirely new roles, each with two variations— The Ghoul and Vile Ghoul, the Ghost and Ghost Cave, and the Shadow Unicorn and Nightmare Unicorn. Just as the Cave can either be played by a player or automated, the Unicorns are a player-controlled character and an automated adversary. Not only is each character a new play experience, but each combination of them— with multiple options at each number of players from one to seven— is a new game experience. If you know how to play the Knight, picking her up again will be easy— but the different strategies to defeat just the Cave, the Dragon and Goblins, the Nightmare Unicorn alone, or the Ghoul and Nightmare Unicorn, mean a new learning curve each time. All of that makes Vast fantastic for two players looking for a complex game that can be replayed over and over, with a new experience each time. You’ll enjoy the game even with your first play, but every time you play you can choose a familiar configuration, or a completely new one.
Title: Vast (Series)
Publisher: Leder Games
Players: 1-5 players (+2 with expansion)
Play Time: 75-120 minutes
Ages: 10+ (Best for 12+)
Type: Asymmetric (Expandable)
Complexity: 4/5 (Complex)
Rating: 5/5 (New Legend)
PANDEMIC BY Z-MAN GAMES
The only reason Pandemic is tucked away lower down this list is that I suspect you’re probably already familiar with it. The modern classic that spawned so many variants and expansions still stands on it’s own as one of the best board games ever. For those who aren’t familiar, Pandemic is a cooperative (or co-petetive) game where players take the roles of researchers trying to stop multiple global epidemics from becoming pandemics and wiping out the human race. Pandemic is just difficult and complex enough that players don’t just benefit a bit from cooperation, they need to communicate well and strategize together, or they will likely be doomed. That makes Pandemic a great game for couples and pairs— If it goes well, you’ll learn to communicate and work together, and experience the thrill of victory. If it doesn’t go well… Well, I’m sure the human race will understand that you tried.
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Players: 2-4 players
Play Time: 30-60 minutes
Ages: 8+ (Best for 12+)
Type: Co-op Strategy
Complexity: 3/5 (Standard)
Rating: 4/5 (Classic)
SCYTHE BY STONEMAIER GAMES
Based on the box art and the great miniatures you’ll see when you open the game, you could be forgiven for thinking of alternate-history game Scythe as a war-game focusing on giant mechs. That is part of the game-play, but Scythe is just as much a worker-placement game, a heroic exploration game, and above all a “pick your strategy” game with multiple options, meaning you can only win by focusing. Scythe has a one-player “Automata” mode that diverges a bit more from the standard gameplay, but the standard mode supports two players without much change. One great thing about Scythe for two-player play is that there are multiple roles (a faction and a focus) that make for fairly unique play each time, and the many possible victory conditions include more that are competitive than outright combative. In other words, you and your Player Two can compete against each other, but not necessary need to spend the entire game attacking each other. (That may backfire if you misread how they want to play, and are the first to march your mechs into one of their hexes, or vice versa.) I played this for the first time lately with my sweetheart, and I look forward to playing a lot more!
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Players: 1-5 players Play
Time: 90-120 minutes
Type: Worker-placement Map Strategy (Expandable)
Complexity: 4/5 (Complex)
Rating: 4/5 (New Classic)
MORE GREAT GAMES FOR TWO
This article is made up of my personal favorite board games for two players, but it’s far from exhaustive. Below are some other games— including ones that I love, but haven’t played as two-player myself, and ones that come highly recommended, but that I haven’t played myself. Think of this as my personal ‘Shelf of Shame’ (and wishlist) for two-player games.
Codenames: Pictures is one of my most popular games, and I know the whole series is great for a wide range of player counts, but I’ve never tried it with two people.
I love Forbidden Island, and can happily recommend it for your board game night, but I haven’t had a chance to play with two players.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is on my personal wishlist, and I just found out it’s great for two players!
Tak is a new classic abstract game, inspired by one of my favorite series of books, but I’m sad to say it’s still on my Shelf of Shame for now.
Gloom is a fantastic series, with a unique transparent card-stacking mechanic— but while I have played it quite a bit, I’ve only played with three to five players.