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Guide to Gaming: Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd: Good Games for Two (and More)

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This is a gaming blog. I don’t think I need to sell you on the pleasures of gaming. We all know this simple truth: life is hard sometimes, and a good game with good friends is good medicine.Of course, finding friends to play games isn’t always the easiest. There are the occasional (or even weekly) game nights, but the friends most readily at hand are likely found in the home. The friend I play games with the most (and also my favorite gaming partner) is my wife, but finding a good two-player game can be difficult, especially if you want to maximize your gaming dollar. I don’t often buy games that don’t have a two-player mode (unless they are obvious group games, like The Resistance), and a good two-player mode is often what keeps games hitting the table and off my BGG trade list. Since I’ve had some false starts and some successes, I thought I’d put together a brief guide for others who might be in the same boat.What follows is a list (with some commentary) of good multiplayer games that are fun with two to help you get the most out of your gaming dollar. (I’ve also added a brief list without commentary of some two-player-only games that are worth your time.)

GAMES MADE FOR MORE

Agricola: This is the “main” player in Uwe Rosengerg’s harvest trilogy. It’s a lot of fun with two as it can be a tense back and forth. However, the game is also a little intense because it feels like starvation is always waiting in the wings, ready to devour your family. This is probably the meatiest game on this list, but it’s fun. (I’ve not played it, but Andrew recommends the two-player-only version, All Creatures Big and Small.)
Supports: 1-5 players
Differences for two: Fewer cards available at the start and throughout the game.

At the Gates of Loyang: This is another game in Uwe Rosenberg’s harvest trilogy. This game feels a little like a puzzle and can seem solitairish, but it’s fun to see how the other person will solve their puzzle. There’s also (usually) very little ill will if a player loses. I like all the trading and conversion in this game. (I also really like this game solo.)
Supports: 1-4 players
Differences for two: Cards are distributed a little differently.

Canasta: Canasta is an excellent rummy-style game. I’d say it’s best played in partnerships, but the two-player mode is also a lot of fun, though it removes some of the hand-management aspect of the game. Still, we’ve played this game a ton with just two players and keep coming back to it.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: Players must have two completed canastas to go out; players draw two cards when drawing from the deck at the end of their turn.

Can’t Stop: Can’t Stop is an excellent press-your-luck game. It’s a bit silly but always fun. It’s also revelatory: just how far will the person across the table press their luck? Recommended for first dates. You can discover a lot about a person with this game…
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: None.

Carcassonne: This was the first hobby game my wife and I really enjoyed playing together. It’s very easy to learn and can be as nice or as nasty as you want it to be. It’s fun to create the map, and while I like the game better with more players, it works very well if you have only two. The expansions really add mileage to this one, especially Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders.
Supports: 2-5 players
Differences for two: None.

Crokinole: I almost didn’t add this game to the list because it is so dang expensive, but really, this game is excellent with two. It’s also great in partnerships, but with two, your range of the board is limited. It forces you to take more risks and make more crazy shots. I love it both ways.
Supports: 2 or 4 players
Differences for two: Each player gets all the discs of one color.

Dominion: This is probably my favorite two-player game. Some criticize Dominion as multiplayer solitaire, but I don’t see that. Especially in two-player games, you have to watch what the other person is doing very closely. If they’re using the same strategy you are, how can you do it faster? If they’re using a different one, is there a way to counteract it? It’s easier to track which victory cards have been purchased, and the game flows very quickly. I highly recommend this one.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: Each victory pile has eight instead of twelve cards.

Drop Site: This is a game of savvy cardplay and bluffing. My wife enjoys it quite a bit. I think it’s interesting, but there’s usually something I’d rather play. Still, it is enjoyable, simple to learn, and clever.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: Fewer drop sites trigger the end of a round.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple: Escape is an exciting ten-minute game of trying to escape a cursed temple. It’s played in real time and cooperatively. It can be a lot of fun with two, though keep in mind that it’s also incredibly easy with that number. Thankfully, expansion modules can ramp up the difficulty as you get better at the game.
Supports: 1-5 players
Differences for two: Fewer gems, the exit tile is placed in the middle of the stack.

Innovation: This is one of the more interactive (and punky) games on this list. It’s very similar to Glory to Rome in that it’s a somewhat chaotic game of supercharged variable player powers, but this one plays better with two than Glory to Rome. (I prefer Glory to Rome if there are more than two players, though Innovation is still fun with three and four.) Many people on BGG say that two players is the ideal player count for Innovation.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: The game is over when a player collects five achievements.

Pandemic: I’ve heard a lot of people say that Pandemic is an excellent two-player game. I’m including it here because of their voices, not my own experience. My wife and I found this game to be bland with two, but your mileage may (and most likely will) vary, given the many, many people who think this is two-player perfection.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: Your starting hand is larger.

Prolix: My wife and I love word games, but many of them are specific skill based. Boggle rewards people who are good at word searches. Scrabble rewards players who know lots of smaller words. Prolix is an excellent two-player (and party) word game because any word is fair game. The words that use the letters on the tableau score more points, but you can use any letter at all. The two-player version is a kind of word duel that has a nice catch-up mechanism to prevent runaway leaders. This helps even out any disparity in skill. We really enjoy this one.
Supports: 1-5 players
Differences for two: Different mode entirely.

Race for the Galaxy: This can be a bit challenging to learn, but it’s a lot of fun to play with two. Race for the Galaxy is often accused of being multiplayer solitaire, a sentiment I mostly agree with. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, or that playing by yourself is the same as having an opponent (it’s not: you will do better if you can anticipate the other’s moves). This is a good tableau building game that goes quickly once you know how to play.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: Each player chooses two roles at the start of a round.

Saint Petersburg: St. Pete’s (as I affectionately call it) is kind of soulless (even for me), but it’s an enjoyable engine/tableau building game that forces players to manage resources carefully. The game is fun with more, but it’s also very good with two since it moves quickly.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: None.

Stone Age: This is probably my go-to worker placement game for two. It’s not quite as tight as Agricola (which is also excellent for two), but it moves a little more leisurely. Also, feeding your tribe is more forgiving in Stone Age than Agricola, which allows players to converse outside of the game.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: Only two of the special spaces may be claimed per round; only one player may place workers in the non-food resource areas.

Through the Desert: Through the Desert is a great abstract game, whether for two or more players. The rules are so simple: add two camels to the board in such a way that they connect with your caravan leaders. But there is plenty of opportunity to block your opponent and make clever plays. I love this one (my wife tolerates it).
Supports: 2-5 players
Differences for two: Fewer camels in the supply.

Ticket to Ride: Many people don’t like Ticket to Ride with two players, but this is my wife’s favorite. It’s true that the game is not quite as intense, but certain maps (like Switzerland) can change this. This game really shines with four players, but the two-player mode is one of the most popular in my household.
Supports: 2-5 players
Differences for two: Players may only claim one side of double tracks.

Tournay: Tournay is a tableau-building game of combos. It’s a little rules/icons heavy, but if you get over the initial learning hurdle, this game is a lot of fun–and it’s a lot of fun with two. There’s less to keep track of, and when you hire another player’s worker, it can be more strategic.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: None

Yspahan: Camels and dice! Yspahan uses a novel dice mechanism. Rather than dice determining outcomes, they determine which options are open and attractive to players in a round. Players take turns selecting actions and removing dice in order to collect the most points. The two-player mode is a variant not included in some older printings of the game, but it works very well.
Supports: 2-4 players
Differences for two: The start player for the round rolls eight (instead of nine) dice; building a structure is not a free action; the start player takes another action after the second player takes an action.

GOOD TWO PLAYER EXCLUSIVES

GAMES TO AVOID AT ALL COSTS

  • Zero-sum games. Games like Monopoly and Risk, where the winner takes all, are best avoided with two. Trust me: I learned this very early in my marriage.
  • Phantom-player games. I don’t like games that have a ghost player who affects the game. If I see a ghost player, I’d usually rather play the game with more players. 7 Wonders has a two-player variant like this, as does Fresco and several others. No thanks.
  • Disparate skill games. Trivial Pursuit when one person doesn’t know anything is not fun. Try to avoid games that play to one player’s strengths at the expense of the other’s.
  • Area control games. Okay, you don’t have to avoid these at all costs, but this genre particularly benefits from having lots of people at the table. You lose a lot of tension with two.
  • Auction games. This isn’t always the case, but these are generally better with more players as well.

What about you? What are your favorite two-player games, scalable or otherwise?

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion10 Comments

  1. The 2-player variant for Homesteaders is actually very good. It does use a “ghost” player, but the ghost player doesn’t really factor into the game. It merely sets the minimum bid on one of the auctions (wherever the first player doesn’t bid). It works, and the game plays really well with any of 2-4 players.

    • I’m just getting into Android: Netrunner myself. It’s definitely a great 2-player game, but it also requires a lot more commitment to get the most out of it.

      No one in either mine or Lenny’s gaming groups have played Twilight Struggle, but I’ve heard so many good things about it it might be worth a look into.

  2. Pandemic is fun with 2 if you step up the challenge. Base game, use all the epidemic cards. Get the On the Brink expansion and add the mutation variant is especially enjoyable with 2, and you can add the virulent strain cards to increase the challenge further. Plus the On the Brink roles add variety and new strategies.

  3. Agree with:
    Lost Cities
    Scrabble
    Ticket to Ride
    Pandemic
    Jaipur
    Through the Desert

    Would add:
    What’s My Word for word games.
    Die Pyramiden des Jaguar for a number card game.
    Mr. Jack for a deduction game.
    Survive Escape from Atlantis for a light strategy game.
    Quinamid or Pentago for an abstract game.
    Gin Rummy or Rumikub for other Rummy type games.
    Although I am not “into them as much any more” the classics:
    Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, Reversi/Othello and Go are all 2 player games.

  4. My wife and I are very new to true gaming (beyond Monopoly and Sorry) and fin our first game, Ticket To Ride to be amazing – even with two players. We’ve owned it for three days now and already on our 8th round.

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