For years I’ve harboured ambitions of becoming one of those old men in the park, playing chess on a stone table, or maybe draughts, or sitting beside the log fire in a pub, playing backgammon. I find human existence and the constant encroaching sensation of riding the knife edge of history through space as entropy sucks the life out of everything I love and care about rather exhausting, and playing boardgames reduces the fidelity of existence down to something blocky and manageable. There’s nothing more comforting in this way, except maybe a nice spot of crack, nothing more indicative of games’ ability to offer company without intimacy and gentle, meditative pleasure, than the two-player game.
So wup-wup motherfuckers. Here is the definitive list of The 7 Best 2-Player Games. Notice I didn’t write ‘my definitive list’. This is the list. You’re free to disagree, but you will be wrong. So wrong that the gods themselves will move against you, to show you your hubris and correct the error of your thinking. I’ve restricted myself to games that only seat two, rather than strong multiplayer games that work with two players. Those games of course exist, but this ain’t that list.
Seriously, if you like the focused, fiendish, uniquely pure yet utterly non-erotic form of communion that is two-player games, I have the good shit. Long-form, short-form, light, crunchy. Something to suit all tastes and experience levels. Fill your gaming boots. Then put them on. Ugh! They’re full of games!
1. AGRICOLA: ALL CREATURES BIG & SMALL BIG BOX
Rather than tease my all-time favourite let’s just drop trou and get comfortable round one another. Agricola: All Creatures Big & Small (or Baby Agric as we call it) is a simplified 2-player version of legendary designer Uwe Rosenberg’s quaint, occasionally brutal arable farming simulator Agricola. In All Creatures Big & Small you play farmers, laying down fences across your empty land to form little pastures, going to market to buy cows and pigs and horses and sheep, and then once a season watching those animals mash their genitals together and squirt out miniature replicas of one another. It’s so cosy and cute.
You also get to collect wood and stone and reeds which you can use to construct barns and feeding troughs or even renovate your little cottage into something plush that will make you the envy of farmers for acres around. Each turn you’ve got three little wooden discs representing your workers, you take it in turns to place them on the spaces representing the things you want to do, and at the end of 8 turns you count up how many animals you have and points for special buildings and whoever has the most is the winner.
And that’s it. There are no baffling layers of conditional rules or multiple phases with different mechanics. You place your worker, you do the thing written on the space. It’s deceptively easy.
Because here’s the thing. Animals convert directly to points, and as soon as you’ve got two of any one type, they start multiplying. And if you get over a certain number of any type of animal, you start getting bonus points on top of what you’re already earning. So you want to grab animals as soon as possible, so they can have turn after turn of making whoopee and scoring you points. But, unless you’ve got fences or barns to house those animals, the moment they hit your farm they just run away, like naughty schoolchildren made of meat. But before you can build fences and barns you’ve got to have wood and stone and maybe reeds to thatch the roof.
But then! Wheels within wheels! Each turn, if the goodies on a space aren’t claimed, like, say nobody heads to the quarry and takes the two stone just sitting there, aching to be hewn into the next chunk of your farming empire, well, next turn two more stone get added to the pile. Now there’s four stone, beckoning provocatively to whoever wants it. So, if you just hold back, you can get double or even triple the reward for the same action. Suddenly the market space isn’t just offering a cow, but a cow and 3 sheep.
But of course your opponent – ah, how could you forget about them – knows this too, and they want all those juicy resources for their own burgeoning agribusiness. So maybe you should just nick in early and grab it while it’s still there? How early can you swipe those pigs and still able to house them come piglet season? If you head out to the woods to grab some lumber can you be sure your opponent isn’t going to take that spot you want to use for buying new land to expand your farm?
But it’s complicated like gravity is complicated. Which is to say there are a million tiny calculations that go into it, but mostly you don’t notice any of that. It just grabs you and doesn’t let go. Each game you get a grand total of 24 moves. That’s 24 choices – do I want this, or do I want this? You place your worker, you get a reward. And slowly, slowly, you construct your own little rural paradise, so by the end of those 8 rounds – and there’s no reason why the game should take more than half an hour – you’ve made something. Something covered in cute little wooden sheep. It’s lovely.
I’ve played this game with hardcore gamers and with people like my wife, who pretty much hates games, and it’s gone down well every time. It’s simple enough that anyone over the age of 10 can pick it up, but since there are no dice or cards to draw your fate and the fate of your farm are completely in your hands, which makes it really satisfying for experienced players.
Now, the base game comes with 4 special buildings that give you bonuses if you build them, and it’s fun and simple, but. Once you’ve played it a bunch of times, it does become a bit familiar. Which is where the two expansions come in. More Buildings Big & Small and Even More Buildings Big & Small add a further 27 buildings EACH to the base game. It suggests that you pick out 4 from each at random, so if you’re playing with both sets you’ll end up with a unique tableau of 12 special buildings to choose from each time you play. And they’re so cool and well-designed – there’s an Insemination Station that lets you breed animals you’ve only got one of. There’s a lovely Duck Pond that doesn’t do anything but gives you a bunch of reeds. Some buildings give you points but then give you restrictions on how you build after that, for example preventing you from buying new land or requiring that all future buildings are built adjacent to previous ones. They’re just so cool and it means the start of each game is a lovely little sushi conveyor belt of oohs and ahhs as the tiles are dealt, and then you’re rewarded for pursuing different strategies than you might have done with a different set of buildings, so the game feels fresh and interesting.
And the art’s great and if you don’t like games where you have to stab each other in the back then it’s really gentle but also you’re constantly getting in each other’s ways so if you’re really passive-aggressive you’ll love it too. Every time I’ve played the scores have been really tight. It’s a game that rewards strategy and efficiency but crucially it’s not one that punishes mistakes. Every turn there’s something you can do, a space you can go to that will earn you something, build you a wall or plop a horse in your garden.
And the reason I’m so excited is that Z-Man games have just rereleased this amazing, criminally-underplayed game as a Big Box containing both expansions in it. I looked and at the time of writing it’s available in the UK for the frankly incomprehensible price of £23. It’s easily worth twice that, a price tag which would still put it below the average quality boardgame and well below the eye-watering £65-plus you’re likely to pay for its – admittedly wonderful – multiplayer big sibling Caverna.
Just writing about this is making me pine to play it again. I love it.
Santorini is a beautiful three-dimensional Draughts-esque experience where you take the roles of gods and heroes from the Classical Greek pantheon, staging a contest of wits and, uh, civic planning on the beautiful Mediterranean caldera town of Santorini.
Players move pairs of little builders round the squares of the board, each turn constructing a new layer of house in one of the squares adjacent to your own. The first player to climb one of their builders all the way up to the top of a house three storeys high wins. That’s it.
Except it’s not. Your builders can only climb one level at a time and only build after they’ve moved which means you have to construct a staircase for yourself and stop your opponent from hopping onto it before you can reach the top. And if you see one of those prized three storey buildings ready for them to scramble onto the summit of next turn like a chiselled Grecian King Kong, you can build one of Santorini’s famous blue domes, capping the tower and stopping either of you using it for victory. So the game becomes like this epic tennis rally where you’re trying to make these shots then your opponent is forced to defend then you make another and they have to move to defend that, little by little forcing them wider and wider until you find your opening and smash, settle the point. Only of course you might be so focused on victory that you make a mistake and whoops, they’ve lobbed you and now you’re running to return their shots. It’s wonderfully simple.
Except it’s not. That’s even not the half of it. That’s just the square of cardboard on which this epic divine dance-off takes place. At the beginning of each game both of you are going to get dealt two cards and pick which god you want to be. And every god has their own special power which breaks the game. So suddenly you might be able to build twice, or directly underneath your builder (meaning you only have to step up to the second storey to win because you can immediately boost yourself one level), or maybe you’ve got three builders or all your builders are invisible and you track their movement on a secret board behind a screen. Maybe your builders kill your opponent’s builders if you touch them. Maybe you’ve got a whole extra win condition, like building a certain number of domes or having your two builders meet in the centre of the board.
Sounds swingy and silly but it plays like this fiendishly tactical, balanced puzzle, with plenty of back-and-forth but absolutely no meanness at all. Every move you make feels like a question posed, a challenge inviting your opponent to show off their skill. It’s less a screwdriver fight in a carpark and more a dance. The gods cards make every game feel different, even though you’ll often get to the end of a game and immediately want to try the same combination again, or switch gods to get a sense of the other one’s power.
Very easy to pick up, brimming with theme, quick to play, and full of depth for hardcore gamers. What a game.
3. COCONUTS DUO
None of the ancient arhats and bodhisattvas, in all their sublime wisdom, could have foreseen that the migration of Buddhism from India to China would one day result in a surreal two-player dexterity game where you play monkeys flinging coconuts into cups to become king of the mountain. But I bet they would have been really into this. It’s irresistible!
Yet resist it I did for some time, concluding that it looked too silly for a serious thinky chessmaster deep strategy grown-up gamer like me. But it’s SO FUN, you guys.
Both of you get toy monkeys with springloaded hands, into which you place tiny rubber coconuts that you’re taking it in turns to try to catapult into cups in the middle of the table. If you manage to land a coconut in one of the cups – MUCH harder than it looks – you get to take it and add it to your stack. Be the first to stack six cups, and you win.
This would be delightful enough – and really, you have to take my word for it, shooting little bouncy coconuts via monkey catapults is as fun exactly as it sounds – but of course there are twists. Some of the cups are red, and if you land your coconut in one of them, you get to go again. But wait. Cups in your opponent’s stack are still play, so if you can steal them. And then you get some one-shot power cards which you can play at any time, which do stuff like allowing you to blow to try to send your opponent’s shot off course, or they have to take their shot with their eyes closed, or you can place the card over one of your cups to defend it against your opponent’s coconuts going in.
It’s REALLY cool. Now yes, there is a version called COCONUTS which plays up to four, and indeed if you combine the two you’ve got yourself a sweet little 6 player party game. But I love the purity of this two-player version so much. It plays quick, it takes no time at all to explain the minimal rules, and it’s actual fun and satisfying and you feel like you have some genuine control. It’s not just a novelty but it has all the delight of your favourite toy. Suitable for anyone old enough to not attempt to swallow the delicious-looking Malteser-sized coconuts. (which excludes my wife)
4. PIXEL TACTICS
On the other end of the spectrum, this is a 2-player vs card game for folks who know their way around timing windows and parsing card text. It’s crunchy, complex and gorgeously laid out with pixel art that evokes your favourite 16 and 8-bit games.
In the standard game, both players receive an identical deck of 25 cards. Each card has a different hero on it, and when turned upside-down, has an equivalent ‘leader’. You draw 5, pick your leader from one of them, who will have special powers such as an action they can take, or something that affects everyone on your team. So they might be able to cast a spell that damages your opponent’s heroes, or draws cards for you, or their presence might simply make all your heroes tougher. Who you pick and who you face will massively influence your strategy. The winner is the first person to knock out the other leader.
For the rest of the game, you’ll be recruiting heroes into one of eight slots forming a grid around your leader, and the game progresses in waves with your front, middle and rear heroes attacking or healing or moving as their wave comes around. And the secret sauce that turns this game from a dry roadside burger into a moist, zingy party in a bap is the way in which each hero’s powers change depending on where you place them in that grid.
So some heroes, when you put them up front, block ranged shots so your opponent can’t shoot the heroes behind. But that same hero, when you put them at the back, might have a power that just lets you bump off an enemy hero who’s got a bit of damage on them. But wait! If you put them in the flank suddenly they make the hero in front of them stronger and your hero takes 1 less damage from attacks. What? Oh no. Where do you put them? All of those are great.
But that’s not even it, because on top of that you can just play them as a one-shot power. This super-powerful move that maybe lets you clear away all the corpses clogging up your grid or deals a great tsunami of damage to the other side or… maybe it’s not a one-shot power at all, maybe it’s a trap that you leave at the back of your grid and when your opponent does the thing that triggers it, it goes off and does something nasty to them instead. Or maybe instead it’s an ongoing effect that stays in play for several rounds, giving your whole team immunity to something or special healing or extra powers.
But then if you use a hero for their one-off power, they’re gone. You don’t get to recruit them and have them soak up and dish out damage. So the whole game becomes about building and managing this kind of hero ecosystem where you’re pulling people out your deck and finding them a slot in your team and looking for ways to make their powers link up, so like one hero absorbs all the damage from the rest of your team, then another one heals her, or maybe you stick this hero right in front of your leader who does 3 damage whenever anyone attacks him, or whatever. With 5 different powers on each card there are a mind-boggling number of combinations you can have.
And you don’t have to buy this huge cardpool, you just pick up one of about 9 different sets, and each one’s got it’s own feel, and you just sit down, break them out and play.
Now look, if you want to get really hardcore the game has rules for drafting cards, where you build your own decks – special tournament rules even where you have special buildings that give you bonuses, even league rules where you start off with weaker cards and you can slowly buy better ones over a season. I’ve not tried playing with asymmetric decks. I know some of the cards are quite powerful, and a central mitigating factor that stops it from feeling unfair is knowing you have the same identical deck, so if they just pulled that shit on you, sooner or later you can do the same damn thing, and I’m guessing some deck combinations would be absolutely devastating. I have no doubt crazy recursive loops are possible that might make a game last hours.
But those are just the depths you could swim out into if you wanted. You don’t need any of that to have an absolute blast. And for all the ‘I hit you for X damage’ aggressiveness you’d expect it to have, it actually plays at quite a sedate, chilled-out pace. Did I mention the card art is beautiful? It really is. There are even 3 Megaman-themed decks, though I found the theme came through less well with these. It’s quite hard to figure out how ‘Bubble Man’ transposes onto card mechanics. Still, they’re nice, and more moderately-powered than the original Pixel Tactics decks, which produces a slightly less wild, more balanced play experience.
If you like your games intense and textured and retro games are your jam, Pixel Tactics hits a sweet spot without requiring you buy and memorise a card pool 1000+ big (believe me, I’ve been there) and seek out others who have done the same. One box has all you need.
5. TWILIGHT STRUGGLE
A uncontroversial choice, for sure, because it’s ace. This mostly po-faced simulation of the Cold War sees you playing as the US and USSR, battling via various proxy wars to control the globe. You’re going to do that by drawing a hand of cards each round, and either triggering the special event on each one, related to some historical incident, or discarding it to gain the number of ‘opps’ points in the corner, which can then be used to spread your influence into new territories, or trigger coups.
And the cards you play won’t necessarily be beneficial to you. They’re split into blue (US) and red (USSR) and although you can junk 1 card to fuel your efforts in the Space Race, at some stage you’re going to have to play cards that help the other side out. The question is when to do it to give them the least advantage.
Fraught, agonising dilemmas are pretty much the game’s meat and potatoes. You’re constantly weighing up your options, anticipating horrible opposition events and trying to get the upper hand while responding to the other side’s advances. Scoring gets done region by region, via special scoring cards. Being in control of an area when the card gets played is half the strategy of the game, so you’re constantly watching to see if your opponent suddenly throws all their resources into Asia, because then you can be pretty sure they’re winding up to play the scoring card for that region.
But gaining the most points isn’t the only way you can win. Or rather, having the fewest isn’t the only way you can lose. The Cold War is much higher stakes than that.
Every time a coup breaks out, or some major event sparks off global unrest, the DEFCON level is going to drop. If it hits 1, both sides launch their nukes and you trigger Armageddon. But the higher the DEFCON level is, the laxer global security and the easier it is for your opponent to breeze into a region and kick off a coup. So both of you want to kick off coups that destabilise a region so much that DEFCON drops, the region comes under military control and your opponent can’t coup it back. Which creates this horrible logic where the world is safest teetering at DEFCON 2, both sides terrified of triggering the event that sparks nuclear war. In Twilight Struggle, if you’re the one who kicks off mutually-assured destruction, you lose, though it must be said the victory for the other side is rather pyrrhic.
This game is rich in theme – you really learn a great deal about the conflict and the time. And it’s wonderfully asymmetric – both sides have regions they’re strongest in, the USSR are stronger early game, the US gain strength later on. The point marker goes back and forth and if you push it far enough, that’s an instant win – so the USSR are definitely pushing for a win before the game reaches the Late War phase. They can win by taking Europe, which is very hard but I’ve managed to be on the receiving end of!
I just like this game a lot. It’s not for everyone, takes a while to play and can be a bit intense, and new players will almost certainly get steamrollered. But it’s also rewarding, educational and immersive. Occasionally the dice can go against you – cards like Quagmire and Beartrap can potentially rob you of several turns, and the only way you get out of them is by rolling the right number. That doesn’t feel very strategic and I think both sides feel a bit robbed when one of those cards knocks the opponent out. Similarly, coups can go badly if you roll badly. These are relatively small niggles but it’s worth managing expectations beforehand. Strategy plays a big part, but this is war, and sometimes bad luck stymies your best plans.
I really like this game, and writing about it has made me want to play again. You tell a great story, and there’s something epic and terrifying about the history you’re reliving.
In this card came you play rival merchants competing to win the favour of the Sultan by trading leather, spices, silk, silver, gold and rubies. You take it in turns to pick cards from a central row, or sell sets of goods to earn money. When the deck empties or three of the six goods have all been sold, the round is over. Whoever made the most money, wins the round. First to two wins, wins the game.
Jaipur is a simple set-collection game with mechanics that will feel familiar to anyone who’s played Rummy, or Rummikub. The main differences are how intensely aware, after a couple of games, you are of your opponent’s choices – if they take a ruby, you’re like, oh god, they’re going for rubies. I’d better sell mine before there’s none left. Because that’s the other thing: the money you get for goods decreases as more get sold and the market floods. BUT you get bonus cash if you sell goods in a big set, say four, five or six in one go. So there’s this constant tension between selling early to grab the best prices, or holding back and gambling that you’ll be able to get a set bonus as well.
As well as your main hand, you also have – I want to say a fleet of – camels, which are valueless on their own but which you can swap out for any goods on display in the market. Jaipur has this lovely, beguiling rhythm that’s hard to explain, and the camels are part of it. They’re like your raw buying power, allowing you to ferry huge caravans of silks and leather across the burning sands. New camels turn up in the central row, you can take as many as you like instead of buying or selling things, and they don’t count towards your maximum hand size. They allow you to do these big loot grabs, and because you swap them for whatever goods you take, your opponent is left with nothing to take except camels. But now of course they’ve got the mighty caravan, and your hand is full so you have to sell some goods to make room, and in the meantime they get the pick of the market.
Whenever you take camels from the market, new things are going to flood in from the deck to fill the gaps and your opponent is going to have a bunch of new goodies to choose from on their turn. Everything you do has a big affect on the tides of the market economy, and you start to develop this intuitive sense of when to buy, when to sell, and how to manage your stock so you can build up to these big powerhouse turns.
There are of course plenty of two-player card games with central rows you can buy new cards from: Star Realms, things like Dominion and Ascension. But I think Jaipur’s theme is less daunting to a lot of casual players than big spaceships and orbital colonies or psychic monks and demons. And a few plays in it reveals a surprising sophistication – there’s a nice back-and-forth but enough uncertainty that no one is going to be sitting there for hours with an abacus figuring out their optimal next move.
It plays quick, too! Three rounds in half an hour, easy. Small box, takes up very little space while playing – I’ve had games in coffee shops, airports. Works as a travel game but feels satisfying.
You may have seen this around – it’s sold in a lot of bookshops and has found a reasonably wide audience. I was leery to begin with but having played it, I get the appeal. The game’s all about laying and moving these satisfyingly-chunky hexagonal tiles with different insects on. The first player to surround their opponent’s queen bee on all six sides wins.
Like in chess, your different pieces have different rules governing their movement: spiders move exactly three spaces, grasshoppers can hop over other pieces, ants move round the outside of the hive you’ve built, and beetles can crawl on top of other pieces, pinning them in place. Expansions introduce the mosquito, which can copy an adjacent insect’s movement rules, ladybirds and pillbugs.
Hive is a simple, satisfying game. The rules aren’t too complicated but there’s enough in there to reward repeat plays. It plays quick – maybe 10-15 minutes a game unless you’re going full grandmaster chin-scratchy bigthink. You rapidly figure out tactical mistakes – letting your queen get trapped by a beetle, or between the hive and an isolated insect – and watch for your opponent’s slipping up in a similar way.
We took this to a festival this summer and had a great time playing out on a picnic table in the sunshine. If that makes you think I’m terribly boring, you’re probably right. I’m boring and happy.
BONUS – KUNE & LAKIA: A TALE OF LUPINE DIVORCE FORETOLD
So this one is, admittedly, a bit of a wildcard choice. But it’s got one of the weirdest, most original themes of any game I’ve ever played. And when I played it, we laughed so much.
The two of you play Prince Kune and Lakia, his bride, both anthropomorphised rabbits who, after a spell of marital bliss, fell to arguing and ultimately have decided to split. You’re now in the process of divorcing, and the aim of the game is to turn your mutual friends and family against one another while getting the bulk of your shared possessions as you divide them up.
I’m not convinced this game offers deep tactical play, and on the other hand it’s not a simple, intuitive system either. It’s a lot of pulling the right cards, dropping gotchas on your opponent, and this inherently mean push-pull gameplay. But the weird thing is, because of the theme, it feels a lot less mean than games I’ve played where you’re mostly minding your own business but then every now and then you can drop in to mess your opponent up. Here, you’re in character as two furious royal rabbits, so it’s funny when you’re Prince Kune, and you go to the King, your soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law, and start turning him against his own daughter. Or when you’re Lakia and you go to Kune’s childhood friend to get him onside. It’s funny when you contrive to get the dog in the divorce. And the royal and rabbit themes stop it from ever feeling too heavy, too redolent of an actual messy breakup.
Without even thinking about it we found ourselves roleplaying as our characters, explaining what manipulative nonsense we were telling the village witch as we went to visit her, the flattery, the spin. Were we offering promotion in the royal court? Presenting ourselves as naïve victims? Sewing the first seeds of seduction?
It’s really good fun, you guys. It’s dumb and niche for sure, but it’s not quite like anything else out there, so if you want to surprise a gamer friend of yours and have a real laugh, I thoroughly recommend it.
Enjoyed this? You could always say thanks by shouting me a coffee! www.ko-fi.com/timclare
Or if you’re feeling particularly saucy you could pre-order my forthcoming novel, THE ICE HOUSE: https://wordery.com/the-ice-house-tim-clare-9781786894816