What makes a great two-player game?

Looking back on my gameplay statistics from 2016, I was surprised to see the variety of people I played with. I played games on two continents, with several different play groups, and with player counts ranging from one to eight. But my most frequent player count by far was two. And my most frequent opponent? My wife. So whenever I see a game that I’m interested in, my first thought is always “How does it play with two?”

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Having now played many games with only two players, I’m starting to see patterns in how designers make a game work well as a one-on-one experience. Even if they’re primarily designed with three or four—or more—in mind. These are a few of the things I’ve noticed (plus a two-player-only game that I’m hooked on).

Encouraging close contact

To illustrate this point, I’m actually going to bring up a game that I think doesn’t do two-player all that well. It’s one of my favorites, but I’m willing to admit that it has its weaknesses: Scythe. With four or five players, tension builds as everyone maneuvers toward the center of the board, eventually resulting in combat. Some minor skirmishes usually take place early on, making everyone think very carefully about how aggressive their neighbors might be.

But in a two-player game, there’s a ton of open space, and both players can easily spread out without threatening each other (it’s this threat, much more than the actual combat, that makes the game interesting). The game can certainly be played with two, and it’s still interesting, but it really shines with four or five players.

Jamey Stegmaier took a different tack with Viticulture, another favorite in my house. It’s a light worker placement game, but each action has up to three available spaces for workers. In a two-player game, only a single space is available. In a three- or four-player game, each action has two spaces. And in a five- or six-player game, all three are opened up. This keeps resources feeling restricted no matter how many people are playing.

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Blood Rage similarly restricts the available play area based on the number of players. In every game, territories are destroyed at the end of a round, but with two or three players, a few are destroyed before the game even starts. This leaves less room to maneuver, forcing the players to stay in close contact, much like would be the case in a higher-player-count game.

One of the most interesting methods for keeping players in close contact that I’ve come across lately shows up in Forged in Steel. Adjacency rules mean that most buildings need to be built next to something that’s already on the board. No matter how many people are playing, they need to focus their attention in areas where other players are. It makes for a surprisingly great two-player game without making a three- or four-player game feel overcrowded.

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Redistributing gameplay

Some games just wouldn’t work well without having a certain number of characters on the board. So what do you do if less than the ideal number of players is playing? Have one person take control of two characters!

The only game I’ve actually played with this mechanism is Cryptic Explorers, where I controlled two squads of three explorers. This ensures that the odds are still balanced in the way the designers intended. With less than six, I’d have stood no chance.

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Obviously, the disadvantage of this method is that one player now has a great deal more thinking to do than the designer may have planned. This can lead to analysis paralysis or bad decision-making, but it does still allow the game to be played. (I have to say that Cryptic Explorers handles this very well, with each squad’s turn going very quickly.)

I know a few other games that have two-player options like this, including Fury of Dracula and Pandemic Legacy. Not having played these yet, I can’t comment on how well they work with two, but I’ve generally heard good things. People have varying opinions on how this strategy works with other games, with some people praising Fury as a great two-player experience and others saying it’s not so great.

If you’ve played games like this, I’d love to hear what you thought about it.

Designing for two

Of course, some games are designed with two players in mind. Quite a few, in fact, only allow two players—JaipurPatchwork, Twilight StruggleHands in the Sea, and Lost Cities spring to mind. Some, like The Rivals for Catan, channel the feeling of a game that only works well with more than two players. My favorite, though, is 7 Wonders Duel. It’s a favorite at our house, and we play it all the time.

7 Wonders is a great game, but its two-player rules aren’t great, and it excels with four or more. Duel condenses the mechanics into a smaller game that keeps just enough of the same flavor and mechanics to run it under the same name.

Instead of a standard draft, players draft cards from a pyramid on the table, gradually exposing new cards. The things you can do with that card are the same as in 7 Wonders: play it (sometimes requiring a certain number of resources or a previously played card), sell it, or use it to build a wonder. Instead of a single wonder with three levels, though, each player has four smaller wonders that they can build (though, true to the name of the game, once a player has built all four, the other player can only build three).

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Military is handled differently, with players moving a military marker back and forth along a track; if one player manages to get the marker all the way to the end of the track, they win. Science cards also allow for an instant win; if a player collects six of the seven different icons, they secure victory. Matching two science icons lets you grab a process token, which gives you various types of bonuses, from making it easier to build wonders to gaining bonus points for chaining related cards.

If neither player nabs a military or science victory, points are compared at the end of the game to determine the winner. The game plays very quickly, especially once you’ve played a few times and have a good idea of how the different cards work together; we can run through a game in 20 minutes without much trouble.

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And despite its short play time and limited card deck, 7 Wonders Duel packs a pleasing amount of strategy. Do you prioritize your Wonders, or fend off your opponent’s military advances? Do you go for science and risk your opponent getting too far ahead, or try to build up a lot of cards with point values?

The game’s short play time and at times limited decision space seem like they would significantly dampen the strategic depth of the game, but my wife and I have found that as we’ve played more, we’ve gained an appreciation for the subtle maneuverings that are possible. For a 20–30 minute game, it perfectly matches our preferences for strategy and conflict (which is generally limited, but occasionally very direct).

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Whether you’ve played 7 Wonders or not, Duel is a great option for a two-player-only game that perfectly combines a short play time with strategic decision-making. The two-player design balances very well the “do your own thing” flavor of euros with a small amount of conflict that keeps you paying attention.

The fact that it’s only $27 on Amazon just tops it off. This is definitely a required purchase if you regularly play with two. And though I haven’t yet played it, the Pantheon expansion is also only $25, and is supposed to be pretty great.

Scaling difficulty

This is a method you don’t see as often in board games as in video games, but I think it’s worth mentioning. Some games have a non-player entity that gets involved; you might be battling it together, or you might be racing to be the first to defeat it, or some other sort of arrangement, but the number of players often affects how difficult it is to meet that goal.

Take the Arkham Horror LCG for example: in the scenario I played, we had to defeat the Ghoul Priest, a very formidable early-game foe. His health scales based on the number of players (it’s a simple scale, just being five times the number of players). This makes sure he’s always tough to take down, no matter how many investigators are facing off against him.

(Another quick reminder that if you’re interested in this game, you should grab a copy immediately, before too many expansion sets make it prohibitively expensive to get into.)

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In Pax Porfiriana, which is quickly becoming one of my favorites, players are racing to topple Porfirio Diaz, the president of Mexico. Depending on the current regime, players compare their Loyalty, Command, Outrage, or Revolution points to Diaz’s baseline plus the scores of their opponents. Exactly how that works depends on the number of players: in a two-player game, Diaz has a baseline of three. In a three-player game, his base score decreases as the game goes on. And in a four-player game, you need to beat out the two opponents with the lowest scores that correspond to the current regime.

Again, I’m sure there are plenty more games like this, so if you have a good example, I’d love to hear about it.

Your favorite two-player games

Making a good two-player game isn’t easy, especially if it’s also playable by more than two. That fact, combined with the fact that my most common gaming group has exactly two players, makes me very highly value great games that are good with two.

So what are your favorite two-player games? I’m always interested in hearing what people enjoy playing with a single other player, whether it’s meant for two or can handle many more. Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter!

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5 comments

  1. Great post. 🙂 We have several favourite two player games, but we usually have the opposite problem that the amount of people we usually play with makes us a group of seven. You will be surprised how many games don’t cater to that number, and results with one of us playing as a two. Games that can be played with just two players that we enjoy playing includes Belle of the ball, Tsuro, Marrying Mr Darcy, Forbidden Dessert, Noir and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. 🙂

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    • Yeah, seven is a tough number! I recently played For Sale with eight, so if you want something quick that can be played with a lot, that’s definitely an option. And I’m strongly opposed to Forbidden Dessert. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this post – came here from Wil Wheaton’s blog. The issue that me and my board-gaming fellow have is that I’m just not great at terribly complex games – I can’t easily wrap my head around them, and if the rules take more than 15 minutes to explain, my head goes, “No more!” (Why I can’t get board games but can do complex music analysis and play drums with four different limbs separately, yet synchronized, I have no idea.)

    We have played things like Clank!, Pandemic, Manhattan Project, Castle Panic, and the Pathfinder card game with success. We even played A Feast for Odin this weekend, and it wasn’t too bad. I’m going to look into Jaipur, Patchwork, and 7 Wonders Duel… do you think a non-gamer muggle type like me could handle them? My husband would love it if I’d play more games with him. (You’d be helping out my marriage – no kidding!)

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    • If you’ve played A Feast for Odin, you’ll have absolutely no problem with any of those other games. 🙂 I’ve played Clank! and Pandemic, but not the others. As far as I understand, Jaipur and Patchwork are quite simple rules-wise, and 7 Wonders Duel certainly isn’t a mega-complex game. There are quite a few strategic decisions to make, but getting the basics of the game down doesn’t take too much. Other games we play often with two here are Innovation, Carcassonne, and Viticulture (that’s better with three or four, but it’s still pretty good with two).

      Also, give yourself more credit! You’re not a non-gamer. If you play games, you’re a gamer. 🙂 You might be a muggle, but if you weren’t born with magical powers, there’s just nothing you can do about that . . .

      And keep me updated on what you find! I’d love to hear what you think about those games.

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