When I first started gaming, I sought out a lot of recommendations for two player games. At the time I was gaming almost solely with my husband so if it didn’t play well with two, it wasn’t worth my hard earned money. I received many great ideas but, well, a lot of the games were pretty dry in the theme department. Some were pretty great games regardless, but they just didn’t scratch that itch that I have for a great theme.
Obviously what constitutes a great, or even good, theme is subjective. Some people will find anything space-themed or medieval farm-themed off-putting, while others think that the minimal theme of a game like Lost Cities or Jaipur is sufficient. For me, a great theme immerses me in a story or transports me to another world for a while. It doesn’t have to use miniatures; some games can craft a great story simply with cards or dice. So to compile this list, I looked for games that are great with two players (some may play more than two) and which involve players in the narrative. I’ve also tried to include a variety of themes here so that everyone can hopefully find something that fits their preferences. If you’ve got any more great ideas, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Claustrophobia. This is the grandaddy of two-player-only themed awesomeness. It’s a human vs. demon, asymmetrical, dungeon crawling battle that is simple to learn and plays in less than an hour. The miniatures are even pre-painted.
Letters from Whitechapel. This one has you taking on the role of either Jack the Ripper or the cops who are trying to stop his killing spree. While the components aren’t overly lush, it’s the mental battle and the deduction element that builds the theme here. You’re trying to outwit your opponent(s) so that you either get away with your crimes, or put Ripper in jail. Although you can play with more than two, pitting just two players against each other gives the better experience, in my opinion.
Robinson Crusoe. Just like in the story, in this game you are a shipwreck survivor who must build a shelter, find food, fight wild animals, and survive the weather. It’s a cooperative game, so you and your fellow survivors must work together so you don’t all die.
Pandemic or Flash Point: Fire Rescue. These are both cooperative games that play similarly. The primary difference comes down to which theme you prefer. Do you want to be the doctors and researchers who are trying to prevent a global disease outbreak, or do you want to be firemen who save people from burning buildings. Aw, heck. Get both.
Mage Knight. In any conversation about themed games on BGG, you will find mention of Mage Knight. This cooperative game combines elements of deckbuilding and RPG’s with tile laying and card drafting. It’s got a lot going on and it is not for the inexperienced gamer. But if you want to take on the role of a Mage Knight and cast spells, build an army, and explore caves and dungeons in an attempt to conquer your piece of the world, this one may be for you.
Summoner Wars. While this one is strictly card based (no cool minis here), it does a wonderful job of creating the feeling of two powerful Summoners from different factions battling it out with magic, tactics, and power to win victory for their faction. While this one will play with four players, I’ve always thought of it as a strictly two player game because that count perfectly mimics two mages facing off across the battlefield. It’s easy to learn and the only drawback is that you will soon want to own every faction.
Memoir ’44. If World War II is among your interests, Memoir ’44 is a two-player-only game that lets you recreate some of the most famous battles from that war. It’s an entry level war game that non-gamers can understand, but which will challenge experienced gamers. With tons of expansions available, you can add even more battles and scenarios.
Dungeon Petz. You are the leader of an imp family that has decided to start a business breeding and selling pets for dungeon lords. These are not your average cats and dogs, though. They’re monsters and they have special care requirements that you must meet to raise the best pets and make the most money. Like any pet, they get sick and they poop (oh, the poop jokes in this one are legendary) and they can be hugely inconvenient and annoying. This worker placement game is a bit heavy for beginners, but those with some exposure to hobby gaming should be able to learn it.
Pastiche. Pastiche is a simple set collection game that has you mixing colors to recreate the paintings of the Masters. The artwork features “real” paintings from the old Masters and also includes background information about each painting. The newest edition even includes miniature easels so you can display your paintings like a true artist.
Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures. If you ever wanted to stage those space battles from the Star Wars movies, this is your chance. This head to head game has you pitting your army of ships against your opponent’s. Beware: This one is a money sink because you will want to collect each and every ship in order to make your battles even more epic.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Much like Letters From Whitechapel, this game derives its theme not from glossy components, but from the mental effort involved in solving cases. Just like Sherlock, you’re going to have to sift through casebooks, newspapers, and maps to solve the case. There are going to be periods where you sit in silence and think or where you reread a news story for the tenth time, but that’s exactly what Sherlock Holmes would do.
Android Netrunner. This game is almost a cross between Claustrophobia and Summoner wars in that it is a two-player-only asymmetrical battle conducted entirely with cards. It takes place in the Android universe and has one player taking on the role of a massive corporation trying to protect its secrets and the other playing the lone runner who is trying to hack into the corporation’s servers in an attempt to steal those secrets or at least trash projects. This is a LCG and while you can play for quite a while with just the base set, you will eventually want to spend (a lot of) money on more cards.
Seasons. Seasons is a tactical game of cards and dice which has you taking on the role of a sorcerer in the kingdom of Xidit who is attempting to win the tournament of the 12 seasons. You will summon your familiars, cast your spells, and equip yourself with magical items. If you win, you will be the new archmage. The card art is gorgeous and evocative and the gameplay really feels like a back and forth magic battle.
XCOM: The Board Game. XCOM is one of the new breed of board games that uses an app to manage various parts of the game. Some people enjoy this, others think that app technology has no place in analog board gaming. Regardless, this game has you and your fellow players working together as part of the elite XCOM organization to save humanity from the alien invasion.
Twilight Struggle. This is another two-player-only game in which the components are not particularly lush, but the theme comes from the mental battle between two super-powers, the USA and the USSR, attempting to win the Cold War. The play is primarily card based and if you’re a fan of this period of history, it does a good job of staying true to the period while giving both players a chance to turn the tide in their favor.
The next time you’re looking for a solid two-player game that sports more theme than Battle Line, give some of these a try.
I wouldn’t necessarily call Seasons a thematic game. If anything, I felt it was a bit dry with respect to theme.
Still, I totally agree with the rest — great write up for couples looking for a thematic fix 🙂
Question about Summoner Wars – I played the Starter box a while back, and the decks felt sorely unbalanced in 2 player. Are the decks in the Master box balanced well in your opinion?
Might I ask which starter box you purchased? In my experience the Phoenix Elves/Tundra Orcs box was very well-balanced.
I found the Master Set to be a bit unbalanced – e.g., the Jungle Elves seem a bit weak to me. But I’m not an expert on the game by any means. I’ve played about 20-30 games of Summoner Wars in total.
I see you recommended XCOM for 2 players, my understanding has been it’s far superior with 3-4 players. I have avoided it for this reason so I’d be interested in hearing how it works for you as 2P.
XCom is, fundamentally, the same game with any number of players–even one. There are four player roles in the game, each of which is responsible for a certain aspect of global defense. Those roles are always distributed, even if there are fewer than four players, so its possible for a single player to have multiple roles.
While this sounds a bit like a dummy player on paper, it’s not quite the same. Each role defends the world in an entirely different way. Rather than just “controlling two people worth of stuff,” you actually expand your scope of influence on the game. This can require a bit more mental bandwidth, but it can also make the game more engaging and challenging.
A first-time player might not want to jump right in to controlling all four roles in a solo game, but after a few sessions, it’s not an overly difficult exercise to play alone.
Hope that helped 🙂
Thanks for your response, that helps knowing how the game handles lower player counts.
How about Star Realms and Race for the Galaxy? They are not story-oriented, but they have a fairly deep scifi setting and are good for two players.
As for a more story-oriented theme game, I like Lord of the Rings: Confrontation. It’s quick with simple rules and yet manages to tie in many aspects of the book.
I enjoy MageKnight, but it always takes my wife and I a long time to play (we get analysis paralysis) and she ends up fading around the third hour. We also find that for MageKnight you can become so concentrated on what you will do next turn that you kinda ignore the other player.
I would also strongly recommend BattleLore (2nd edition). Like Memoir ’44, it’s a two-player miniature-based skirmish game. But it has a rich fantasy theme instead of a WW2 theme. If that’s up your alley, then I think you will love this game.