Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Gateway Games Roundup - Great Two-Player Games

I love playing games with a group.  The social experience is part of the fun of board games.  But often I find that I don't have a group to play with.  Many times I can't even get together a small group of three or four.  That's when two-player games really shine.  Sometimes I'm playing with my wife, sometimes with one of my sons, and sometimes with a friend.  But I play games in two-player settings about as often as I play multiplayer games.  I find that two-player games fall into two very broad categories; strictly two-player games and multiplayer games that play well with just two.  The former group is pretty easy to find stuff for, but the latter group is sometimes difficult to figure out.  There are a lot of games that say they work with two players, but really fall short (I'm looking at you, Love Letter).  This entry in my Gateway Games Roundup will cover both types of two-player games.

Strictly Two-Player Games
These are a few of my family's favorite two-player games.  These games, although they may have multiplayer variants, are primarily two-player games.

Have I mentioned how much I like Rise! yet?
It's the only game I've done a video review of.
Rise! - abstract strategy, action selection, area control - Rise!, also mentioned as an alternative to Chess or Checkers, is one of my favorite abstract strategy games.  In Rise! two players try to out maneuver each other and position workers on a growing playing area so that they can build three towers, while at the same time capturing opponent workers and preventing them from building their own towers.  The game is quick to learn and plays fairly quickly (usually, although sometimes you can get into a game that lasts quite a while).  Rise! will appeal to anyone who likes games where two players are really matching wits.  Be sure to check out my full review of Rise! and Video Guest Review here. (Get it while you can, I'm not sure if it's going to be reprinted or not.)

Epic - combat, hand management, take that - I also mentioned Epic in my last installment as an alternative to Magic the Gathering.  Epic is a great two-player dueling card game.  Although it can also play with more players, it was designed for two.  The general gameplay is very similar to MtG, except there is no need to build up lands in order to use the cards in your hand.  Each turn players have 1 gold coin to spend to play cards and all the cards cost either 1 or 0 gold coins to use.  The concept is simple, keeps the game balanced, but allows for powerful cards to be played right from the start, making the games epicly fun!

Quick playing, action packed, what's not
to love about Star Realms!
Star Realms - deck building, combat, symbiotic abilities - Star Realms is another family favorite game by the same creators of Epic.  Star Realms pits two players against each other in a grand space battle.  Four different factions of ships all have different abilities and can trigger additional ally abilities when played with other ships of the same faction.  Bases add to defense capabilities, and battles can be fierce.  The game plays quickly, is very easy to learn, and can be addictively fun.  Check out my full review of Star Realms here.

Tides of Time - drafting, set collection - Tides of Time has quickly become one of my favorite two player card games.  It is a drafting game that only uses 18 cards and a few tokens (and if you follow my game designs you know how much I love 18 card games) and only costs $12.  Over the course of three rounds, two players draft cards from hands of 5 each (i.e. choose one card from your hand to keep and pass the rest to your opponent, who also passes you the remainder of his hand, then repeat until you've chosen all the cards).  At the end of the round both players score points for the cards they drafted based on rules specified on each card, usually for collecting sets of cards with various suits on them.  Then each player chooses one card of their five to keep, one to discard from the game, and then draws two more cards to add to the remaining three to bring their hand back up to five cards.  Then a new rounds starts and the player will end up with six cards (five from the drafting, plus the one he kept).  The third round progresses the same, but this time the player will end up with seven cards (five from drafting and two kept from the previous two rounds).  Then the final scores are tallied to determine a winner.  It's a very quick game that is easy to learn, but takes a few plays to get familiar with the strategy and card interactions.

Hive - abstract strategy, tile placement, grid movement - Hive is a beautiful abstract strategy game that has an attention grabbing theme.  Each player has a set of white or black hexagonal tiles; big, bulky bakelite tiles that look and feel impressive (the pocket edition still has great tiles, just smaller).  Each tile has an engraved and painted image of a different insect on it.  Each insect has its own movement rules and the goal of each player is to surround her opponent's queen bee tile.  The visual aesthetic, mixed with the simple, quick, yet deep gameplay will make this a favorite among chess players, casual gamers, and hard core gamers alike.  Plus, the tiles are water proof, so the game can go with you anywhere!  I take it on Scout camping trips and it is always a hit.

Yengo - abstract strategy, memory, tile laying, bluffing, pattern matching - Yengo is, in my opinion, deserving of much more attention than it receives.  The game combines strategic tile placement with memory in a quick playing, two-player battle of wits.  A number of tiles are placed face-down near the playing area (or can be left in the bag to be drawn as needed).  Tiles can have one, two, or three leaves on them in one of two colors.  Four face down tiles form an initial grid.  On each player's turn they turn two tiles face-up and then place three tiles face-down.  If a player happens to turn over a tile that creates a line of three (or more) tiles with the same number and color of leaf symbols on them they collect the tile they just flipped, earning them the number of points equal to the number of leaves.  The first to six points loses.  The mechanics are simple, but this turns into a game of not only trying to remember where you placed tiles that are safe to flip, but also in bluffing by placing safe tiles where they may appear to form a line.  The solid, weatherproof tiles also make this a great game to take camping, on picnics, or to the beach.

Three custom maps I made for Coin Age - Oz,
Thimhallan, and Chicago & Suburbs.
Coin Age - area control, micro game, action allocation - Coin Age is a micro game that is small enough to carry in your wallet.  All it needs is a credit card sized map and $1.56 worth of change and you've got a quick, fairly strategic two-player game you can take with you anywhere.  There's a bit of luck involved since it requires flipping coins to determine what actions you get to take each turn, but making the most of those actions is highly strategic.  One game of Coin Age lasts about five minutes, ten tops, so it's perfect to pull out while waiting for food at a restaurant, or while waiting for others to show up for game night.  I carry my copy with me in my wallet everywhere I go.  The only downside to Coin Age is that you can't buy a copy any more.  But the files are available on Board Game Geek so you can make your own print-and-play copy of the game.  Laminated and everything it'll cost you about $0.31.  You can download all the files necessary, including custom fan-made maps (some created by me) here:

Multiplayer Games that Play Well As Well or Better With Two
There are a lot of games that play just as well with two as they do with more players, but these are a few of my family's favorites.  These play exceptionally well with two, and in some cases maybe even better.

With two, Five Tribes becomes
even more puzzling, in a good way.
Five Tribes – puzzle solving, action selection, bidding – Five Tribes is a family favorite that is a little on the complex side, but still very accessible.  Five Tribes lets players move pieces around the playing grid to select actions that will give them points, abilities, resources, or more.  The theme is fun and, while the mechanics appear a bit daunting at first, they are really simple once they are understood. As a three or four player game, Five Tribes is a game where planning ahead is pretty difficult, and the game is really about making the most of what you have on your turn.  But with two, Five Tribes becomes a lot more strategic.  Each player gets two turns per round instead of only one in a multiplayer game.  This means it becomes possible to set yourself up for huge plays.  Either way, Five Tribes is a great game, and plays totally different with just two players.

Bullfrogs - abstract strategy, area control - Also mentioned as an alternative to Chess or Checkers, Bullfrogs plays equally well with 2, 3, or 4 players and takes about 10 minutes per player.  I really like Bullfrogs for two players because it plays very quickly and has a good amount of strategy.  A game can be knocked out in 15-20 minutes.  Bullfrogs is simple to learn and teach and great for families, yet has a depth to the strategy that can appeal even to the thinkiest of gamers.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is a favorite for my wife
and I to just spend an evening together trying to solve a mystery.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective - role playing, logic, critical thinking, storytelling - Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is more about the experience and story that is told than it is about winning.  The game is, ideally, a cooperative experience for 1-6 (or more) players, but my wife and I love to play it with just the two of us.  Its a perfect date night puzzle and story and the scoring rules are really secondary to the mystery you'll solve with your partner.

Dominion - deck building - I've mentioned Dominion several times already in this series (Modern Classics, Alternatives to Traditional Games) and for good reason.  Dominion is incredibly accessible to new gamers, yet provides an incredible amount of depth with the multitude of card combinations available in the many expansions.  And Dominion is a great game for two players, too.  It is quick, strategic, and different every time.
I love Carcassonne with any player count!

Carcassonne – tile laying, area control, worker placement, end game scoring – Carcassonne, another a modern classic game that is a great introduction to modern board games. Players lie tiles into a shared grid and then claim different areas to score points. As the areas grow the points scored increase. There are lots of expansions to Carcassonne that add lots of variety to the game after you have grown accustomed to the base game. Carcassonne works just as great with two as it does with more, and plays just as quickly since the game time is based on the number of tiles in the game, not the number of players.

Splendor - engine building, resource management, drafting - Splendor topped the list of my top games of 2015 and it's appeared in this series several times.  And it plays just as great with two players as it does with more.  The game has a bit more of a take-that feel with two, but at the same time it also means you really have to pay attention to what your rival is doing.  Splendor is great for all player counts!

Two Players with Variants
There are a few games that aren't recommended for two players, but can still be a ton of fun with either official variants, or fan-made variants.

(Settlers of) Catan - area control, resource management, trade - The box for the modern classic that kindled the board game revolution in the '90s, Catan (formerly called Settlers of Catan, but now just called Catan), says it is for only 3-4 players, but unfortunately I didn't notice that until after I bought the game several years ago.  I had been intending on playing it mostly with just my wife.  Fortunately I found out that there are a slew of two-player variants available online, even an official variant.  I was afraid that these would feel like they were lacking something, but I was quite impressed by the opposite.  My wife and I spent several weeks trying out a bunch of two-player variants and I compiled a list of our favorite versions, some of which I like better than the official variant and even better than a game with a full complement of players.  You can download my collection of Two-Player Variants for Catan here.

7 Wonders - drafting, tech tree, set collection - 7 Wonders is a great introduction to drafting that I've mentioned in Modern Classics, and it plays great with 3-7 players using the standard rules.  It's a bit intimidating and a little confusing at first, but after one or two turns most people have it figured out.  But there's a depth of strategy that keeps the game interesting as your experience with it grows.  As the player counts increase the game becomes more tactical since you'll see fewer cards more than once.  In a three player game you'll see the cards in each hand (at least the ones that aren't selected by your opponents) twice.  In a six or seven player game you'll only see each set of cards once.  So, how does a two player game work?  7 Wonders comes with an official variant for two players, including a few components for the game right in the box (namely an extra card).  Basically the game has a third ghost player that each player adds cards to cooperatively.  This creates an interesting dynamic where you're not only trying to out maneuver your opponent, but also trying to deduce what cards your opponent has, or will add to the ghost player's sets.  The game still works great with two players, but has a very different feel and dynamic.  If playing with a ghost player isn't really your thing though, check out 7 Wonders Duel, a new version of the game that is specifically designed for two players.  I haven't tried it yet, but I've heard pretty good things about it.

Even with only two players, Nuns on the Run
is a blast to play.
Nuns on the Run - hidden movement, competitive play, hidden goals - In Nuns on the Run one player takes on the role of the Abbess and Prioress in a monastery while the other players take on the role of novice nuns that are sneaking around the monastery at night when they are supposed to be sleeping.  If the novices can complete their goals without getting caught they'll win, but if the player controlling the Abbess and Prioress catch the novices enough they'll win.  This is a great game for 4-8 players, but at two (and even three) players the game falls a little flat because there is just so much room on the board that it is very easy for the novices to avoid the Abbess and Prioress.  The solution is for the novice player to control multiple novices (we recommend at least three novices).  It's a bit more challenging for the novice player, but it works and Nuns on the Run is a family favorite that my wife and I have had a ton of fun playing with just the two of us (even though I'm always controlling the Abbess and Prioress and have never won).

Well, there it is, a list of great two-player games.  There are a ton more out there (Jaipur, Morels, etc.), but these are the ones in my collection that my family and I love to play.  I do have to mention a few others though.  A few of my own game designs play great with two players.  You can purchase them now from Drive Thru Cards and The Game Crafter, or you can print and play your own copies.  If you're looking for fun, two player games, please check out Snowball Fight, ChromaWerks, and Les Petits Pirates (plays 1-3).

Happy gaming!

Gateway Game Roundup
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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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